Decompression: An Interview With Ambient Musician, Thom Brennan.

If you've been around since the earlier days of Inside the Rift, you're probably familiar with Seattle based musician Thom Brennan.

Thom's work spans the greater part of three decades and has effectively emblazoned itself on to the framework of the genre. Developing concurrently with artists like Steve Roach, he has been able to contribute a particularly deep brand of ruminative ambient to the genre's expansive catalogue.

One of the most notable influences on Thom's music is his affinity for and connection to nature. Through subsequent listens, it has become fairly easy to recognize how inspirational the natural world is for him. The sheer breadth and functionality of the physical space has always been a valuable resource for many artists and Thom is no exception. 

Frequently spending time away in the lush forests or vast deserts of Washington, he is able to recharge and restructure his mind and output. He stated that:

"For me, going out into nature is a form of therapy. I have lived in or near a city for the last couple of decades but need to regularly get out into the local forests, or the deserts of Eastern Washington. It decompresses me and clears my mind and allows for creative thoughts to have more space.  It reminds me that I’m part of everything that surrounds me."

It is with great pleasure that I present you another interview where he let's us in on his current workflow, discusses some of his travels, and gives us his opinion on the current sociopolitical landscape.

Prox: You’ve been on a bit of hiatus. How have things been going for you since our last interview back in 2015?

Thom: I am still recording music, but I just have not really been inspired to put anything out. All my recordings are live studio performances - so after the recording is done it’s either good or it’s not.  I’ve been working on a couple of album projects. One is all textural ambience, somewhat along the lines of my earlier albums Mist or Strange Paradise. The other is built largely around sequencer patterns and structurally resembles Mid 70s electronica. I simply don’t have an ETA at this point. The music is really going to have to have a stronger personal impact for me to release it. 

Prox: You’ve traveled around quite a bit. How do you think traveling can help or hinder an artist’s abilities? Do you think it’s possible to move around so much that it affects your identity as an artist?

Thom: I’ve traveled a fair amount as a kid growing up, but I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “traveler.” For me, the impact was simply being exposed to dramatically different landscapes which are a source of inspiration in my music. When I say landscapes though, I’m referring to the entire ambience meaning the landscape, climate, smell of the air, and the emotional state of mind. It’s all kind of one experience and the music hopefully sprouts from that. 

I don’t know that it would hurt one’s own identity at all. Traveling widens your perspective. 

Prox: After spending so much time in nature, I’m curious about how this has impacted the way you view and produce music. Do you find it to be easy to be inspired by wilderness and other natural phenomena?

Thom: For me the word nature encompasses a lot....its landscapes, animals, quantum physics, and astronomy. And like how I described landscapes- it includes the impact we allow it to have on our state of mind. Observing and reacting to nature inspired the concept of gods to explain what we were seeing. I can’t help but be mystified by the Northern Lights even though we all fully understand why they exist. 

For me, going out into nature is a form of therapy. I have lived in or near a city for the last couple of decades but need to regularly get out into the local forests, or the deserts of Eastern Washington. It decompresses me and clears my mind and allows for creative thoughts to have more space.  It reminds me that I’m part of everything that surrounds me. 

Prox: Why do you opt to only use hardware? Is there an obvious tonal difference in analog and software synths in your opinion or are you just a creature of habit?

Thom: I think most musicians select the instrument they favor based on its sound and how they interface with it. A violinist likes the sound of the violin, and the method by which they interface or connect with it. I think that’s true for most musicians and why they select a specific instrument.

I simply don’t like the interface on a computer. I don’t associate it as being a musical instrument. It doesn’t feel like one, and it’s certainly not as fast to control 16 or more simultaneous sounds in real time as it is with a synthesizer workstation. It’s just really about the interface. Internally, digital synths are no different than a PC running plug in synths.

My studio currently is built around a synthesizer workstation which is in fact a computer - but disguised as a keyboard. Instead of a mouse and computer keyboard the interface is a large touchscreen and a panel of sliders and knobs. For me, that is a friendlier interface. 

Sound wise I don’t think there is much difference since the electronics in digital synthesizers are basically the same as the electronics inside computers. 

Speaking tech stuff….My primary instrument is a Roland V-synth GT linked with a V-synth XT. This is a digital synthesizer using analog modeling and a simple form of FM synthesis, with multiple pattern sequencers and step modulators in a semi modular structure. Its interface is a panel of switches, sliders, knobs and a color touch screen. So the interaction with it involves constant hands on action…more analog than digital in many respects, which is one reason I use this instrument so much.

Audio recording is done on a Korg Kronos workstation which is basically a computer in disguise and serves as a complete recording studio in a box. Basically a DAW, it records internal and external audio to its internal SSD and runs multiple internal synthesizer engines. Using this set up I can control close to 20 individual instrument timbres and multiple pattern sequencers simultaneously in real time. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it would be much harder and slower to do with a single computer running software synthesizers. 

There is a growing lot of musicians who prefer hardware, judging from the revival and proliferation of analog synths that have become extremely popular in the last few years, including modular hardware systems. I think for some it is also about cost...Software is a lot less expensive than hardware. And you can certainly put together a great digital studio on a computer and make good music with it. ....Again though for me I don’t like that interface. 

Prox: I’m a big fan of your album Beneath Clouds. Could you take us back to when you were putting that one together? Where were you mentally and creatively at the time?

Thom: You are testing my memory with that question. I was living near San Francisco at the time. I can’t really remember at this point where the inspiration came from. I wanted to get a follow-up to my first album out and there was an opportunity to have it released on a European label called Arya. Steve Roach suggested I put an album together for them and he mastered it and then sent it off to Italy for production as a CD on the Arya label. 

It was originally just 2 long tracks (parts one and two) and when I re-released it on my own years later, I cut it into 4 tracks.

I was trying to prep my music for online distribution and download speeds in those days were pretty pathetic so a 30 minute track wasn’t feasible for online. But overall I feel that the Tracks work better in the shorter format...  each of them still fairly lengthy at 15 minutes or more. 

I can’t recall what exactly might have inspired that album. I do remember clearly wanting it to be a mix of ambient drifting, floating, and rhythmic material and like most of my music it evolved out of the synth timbres that I program. On that album I was using a simple form of FM synthesis and was getting these really nice bell timbres and plucking type sounds. Once I have the ensemble of sounds developed, the musical structure tends to evolve out of that. 

Prox: As time progresses, what would you say is the biggest difference you’d noticed in your approach to music now as opposed to your earlier days?

Thom: Probably a lot of that has to do with the advancement in technology from 35 years ago. As someone who uses only synthesizers, the limits of what one could do with sound design and performance has evolved with technology advancements.  What I wanted to do from day one 35 years ago, was be able to control multiple layers of polyphonic synthesizer textures and sequenced patters- in real time from one keyboard. And from that one keyboard be able to apply mixing, effects and record the audio internally. And, I wanted to be able to pick that up instrument under my arm and take it camping if I chose to. 

And as the technology evolves to deliver that, I as the user needed to develop the skill to be able to control it all in real time. Because music creation to me, is most satisfying when it is all done in real time. What first drew me to creating music was something my prior focus (film), could not deliver- instantaneous gratification. Music can provide that with each note sounded. 

Prox: Any new artists, books, music, or movies/shows you’d like to recommend?

Thom: Well I like the new Star Wars. Two independent movies that I saw recently that I really liked the mood and atmosphere- Wildling and The Strange Ones

In music I don’t think I have any major new discoveries since we last talked. I’ve been following the music of Mica Wolf. He records under the name Stray Theories. Also the band Hammock continues to be a favorite. 

I also liked the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049. The original Blade Runner score by Vangelis was perfection, and this new one remains faithful and expands on the original. The movie was really good too. 

Prox: Would you like to share some information on any upcoming releases you have on the horizon?

Thom: I referenced earlier two projects I’ve been working on. But so far the results simply have not inspired me enough to put them out. 

For close to 20 years I have been self-releasing my music and that’s actually a lot of work and really the part of it all that I don’t like doing anymore. I guess I’m a control freak but I’ve been hesitant to allow other labels to release my material even when the opportunity was there. But frankly I’m tired of running that side of things and that’s probably slowing things down as well.

Prox: Final Thoughts?

Thom: My final thoughts might offend some people and has nothing to do with music and more to do with today’s current state of affairs in the world. 

We should live in a world where we respect each other‘s differences and allow each individual to live the life they choose to live and seek out their own pursuit of happiness. 

We should live in a world where wealth does not dictate healthcare and every person has access to affordable quality healthcare. It’s a right. 

We should live in a world where a college education is not exclusively in the realm of the wealthy and everyone with the smarts should be able to attend college. 

We should choose leaders who will insure those simple, civilized concepts are made reality. The universe is a war of competing possibilities. Some possibilities are better than others and collectively we decide which our reality becomes. 

You can purchase Thom’s music here.

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