Interview by Simon Hampson
Try to pin Tim Hecker down on many aspects of his art and he will resist with a surprising level of frustration. Here is someone who has seen laptop music production mature and come of age. He started in the mid nineties as Jetone, in the incredibly fashionable world of minimal techno, releasing music through Force Inc/Mille Plateaux, amongst others, who were then at the height of cool.
But in 2001 he flipped everything upside down. That year he released his first album under his own name, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again. Issued by the Canadian label Alien8 (through their Substracif imprint), it introduced the world to a new Hecker aesthetic. Here was a clean, ambient soundscape of unimaginable calm, and Hecker was combining chaotic elements to create a feeling of being at the eye of the storm. Flick to five years later and the journey has culminated in Harmony In Ultraviolet, Hecker’s sixth album and his first for top notch Chicago imprint Kranky.
Kranky is a natural home for Tim’s sonic experimentation. “It’s hard thinking about the right label – mostly because I’m not that well-versed in contemporary music, in the sense that I am aware of every label and what they are doing,” Hecker says from his home in Montreal. “But Kranky has been a label that I have been fond of for a while – going back ten to twelve years now. So it’s really cool that worked out and I’m definitely open to that in the future. Alien8 is also a label that I have worked with over the years and it’s nice having a couple of output areas that are supportive. That’s a joy to have for sure.”
“Kranky are really cool and open to doing different kinds of music. They have a sensibility that has been somewhat consistent throughout the years, even though there have been different approaches in terms of form and structure. Like a certain mindspace that a music brings can come through different types of instrumentation arrangements or compositional processes.”
On Harmony In Ultraviolet Hecker drags us deeper into the sonic fog. His sound has evolved and he perfects his great oscillation between destruction and melody. Waves of processed guitar soar through the mix and set your mind swimming on the introductory Rainbow Blood and through Stags, Aircraft, Kings and Secretaries. They fade into the tonal starkness of Palimpsest 1 (a Palimpsest was a manuscript page that had been erased to write on again) which acts as a mediation between the opening tracks and the lumbering, looping tones of Chimeras (perhaps my favourite piece on the album). Dungeoneering sets your heart beating faster; wondering what is to come, and unfolding into a helicopter-like swirl. The second Palimpsest movement ushers in the digital static and processing again. Whereby we move into the extended Harmony In Blue piece (literally the ‘eye of the storm’ here). Radio Spiricom brings us back to the interference and static, until we come full circle with Blood Rainbow – a loop, if you will.
As computer production and digital aesthetics seemingly become more blasé, Tim Hecker continues to innovate and develop a unique sonic palette. “I just like imploding and rebuilding from the fragments of things that have been kind of pummeled. Playing with those ideas in structure, form, content and melody.”
He sits on an interesting line between genres and musical styles. “It’s not so much that I bring unity to them,” Hecker says, “But I just want to challenge these notions and suggest another possible space of composition. I mean, not that I’m bridging some new genre or something, but my interests fall inbetween all these things. And that’s kind of where I like to work and find it fruitful. Why be pigeonholed into a particular ghetto, you know? It’s much more interesting to challenge that and travel with an indie rock band, or do some dance composition, or work with some black metal outfit. It’s what life is all about, or should be, at least for me.”
Harmony In Ultraviolet breaks forth from a litany of sources. “I have a hard drive full of mutated and morphed things that may have come from my own sources like piano and guitar, and other things that may have been pilfered romantic pianists or 1980s rock bands. And a whole other fog of sound samples and sources that I draw on, and constantly change and use all the time.”
“I had a really typical, for what is a North American, suburban childhood. I was exposed to stuff like MTV and I listened to my dad’s Meat Loaf and Fleetwood Mac eight-track tapes and stuff like that, you know. I wasn’t really educated in like John Cage and Xenakis or Stockhausen. Not to say that I wear that like a badge, but that just happened to be my background.”
From this average childhood, Hecker’s curiosity got the better of him. “I guess my music generally came from being turned on by stuff like Autechre and Aphex Twin from Warp records and other labels of the early/mid nineties. And I was also interested in that stuff at the same time as rock music. I’m essentially a product of failed bands, in the sense that I bought a sampler to emulate my drummer who wouldn’t show up to the practice space. So I played drum beats and looped it to continue playing music. And coupled with my growing interest, I hooked that sampler up to a computer and made compositions on 4 track with drum machines and played guitar over that. Before you know it, I was getting into more transformative structures of music, as opposed to traditional rock structures. And now I’m deep in the fog of abstraction!”
“It’s just a question of being curious about the world right. Like you find out something like Aphex Twin, and then look for the guy who influenced him. It’s sort of like reading the breadcrumbs on a trail and gives us a reason to be curious and keep an interest about music. It’s the same for anything – painting, whatever.”
This cross-cultural pollination is evident in Harmony In Ultraviolet. “It was kind of a reference to Matisse’s painting ‘Harmony In Red’. I like that immateriality of ultraviolet in the sense that it is undetectable. It was just something that made sense at the time. A bit of poetic license.” But when pushed further, Hecker’s frustration with any more detail is evident.
“I really have problems with an interpretive narrative. I did it in the beginning to give context to the work – like poetic license. But it isn’t to be taken seriously. It’s not such a singular, conscious thing. It’s more generative and evolves over the process of making work itself. For me.”
“I mean some people really peg down a singular concept and then strive to achieve that. I don’t really work that way. It’s really iterative and keeps evolving over time as the studio practice evolves. Waking up every day and listening back, thinking about things and trying out things and seeing what works, what doesn’t. That’s like the evolution of my aesthetic result. It’s from that probing and just, I don’t know. It sounds really traditional and not mysterious, but I find that it’s really hard work.”
“I’m kind of saying that it’s not that complicated. You know, ‘the magic mountain on some Jamaican island.’” And there it is. This is a guy who just wants life to be simple. “But having said that, there is great joy in explaining a work in a form of poetic license like song titles and artwork. But that is in many ways second to it. It’s also seen as a way to leverage or couple with the power of music.”
Harmony In Ultraviolet is, “really a story of waking up. I got up pretty early this time as opposed to composing stuff at night. Just waking up every day and spending time alone in the study. Editing, processing and working on pieces – moulding, shaping, bending, stretching, reversing, compressing, reverbing. And working every day for two to three months until I had a record I was happy with. And that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”
“I’ve given up my day job now and I’m pursuing studies as my substitute for my day job. Which is a much more palatable combination. Although I am doing more work now outside music than I was with my day job! Because, you know, doing reading and writing is a job that almost never ends. It’s a balance that you just have to make sense of after a while. I mean, everyone has to find a way to make ends meet. The starving artist paradigm doesn’t really interest me much anymore.”
“It’s a better life, I think. It’s funny how easily your brain looses its function if you’re not using it all the time. During a day job I would shut off my mind for hours at a time. Just kind of in the internet haze of like meaningless data. And after 8 hours a day of reading and seminars, and articulation, it is amazing the difference that it has on your mind.”