Interview with Christopher Willits
by Simon Hampson
Christopher Willits has been crafting processed guitar works since the late nineties, but with the release of Surf Boundaries, his art has reached a new audience. On the phone from his home in San Francisco, Christopher discusses how his unique approach to performance, instrumentation, and production led the San Francisco Bay Guardian to call him, “The center cell of a rather complex indie-rock-avant-garde-electronic-art Venn diagram in the Bay Area.”
I first stumbled across Christopher’ work with his release for the Irish label Fallt. Pollen first hits you with its aesthetic beauty (not an unusual thing for Fallt). Amber colouring and white boxes make up a beautiful exterior for the jewel case, implying a honeycomb formed from the pollen of Willits’ guitar. Looking back now, that aesthetic is getting rarer with MP3 players everywhere. Press play on Pollen and the first stuttering note softly pierces the room. It builds and morphs, combining and growing, to envelope you in Willits’ sound world.
Pollen was the starting point for Christopher Willits’ technique of sampling and “folding’ his guitar parts. He improvises and plays whilst feeding his guitar send through custom sound patches that record the input then skip to different locations in the recordings. Willits expanded on his idea of “folding’ in an interview with Fallt a few years ago: ‘Folding’ well it’s about form generated from other form, a kind of morphogenetic process, emergence, and the interrelation of parts; parts folded into other parts, things being separate yet continuous. The fold is about lines, folded lines weaving together and forming other masses, but lines still; not atomised points. In terms of the music, the folds are creases in a rearranging plane of sound that is being spontaneously generated. The notion of a fold is a really accurate way to describe the way I’m thinking about this particular music and the actual synthesis technique that is being applied; that of indexing continuous flows of live guitar samples.”
I quickly picked up The Folding And The Tea, released on Taylor Deupree’ wonderful label 12k (Willits is a big fan of tea, apparently), after hearing Pollen. It was released before Pollen, but actually sits after it in recording chronology, and mines the same sound pallette. Prior to these releases there had been a few CD-Rs, but it was here that Willits’ sound solidified and more releases started showing up. “In the Folding press release, I really wanted to make the idea of the fold clear, but it still managed to be misinterpreted in many reviews as just a fancy name for a ‘glitch’. The folds are not glitches. On the surface it may sound like a glitch, but it is not generated by any type of malfunction, and it is not some comment on the being-ness of digital audio. I am really not interested in foregrounding the medium of digital audio in such ways. Video and film perhaps, but not so much with audio.”
“So – to set the record straight – ontologically speaking, there are no glitches in this music. I don’t find accentuating the malfunctions or failures in the medium to be incredibly interesting. It’s important to distinguish between these things. The notion of ‘glitch’ has been abstracted and misused to the point of meaninglessness. I think it’s important for us to find new ways to talk about what is happening in the music we make; the processes, the structure of it, and where it is located in a cultural sense. I’m much more in love with the geometry of music and how it emerges. I’m also interested in how all of this relates to other things in the world like biological forms and linguistics, and flowers, insects, eating organic food, and living sustainably.”
Appearances followed on a few compilations, collaborations with artists including Taylor Deupree (most notably 2004′ Mujo on the Japanese label plop), and about this time the Michigan-based label Ghostly International started to take notice. They featured his work on their SMM 12 inch series and have now followed that with his newest full-length, Surf Boundaries, taking Willits’ sound to a new level. The imagery and aesthetic of the record is different (created by college friend Maiko Kuzinishi of Decoylab). There is a new label; everything cried out to me that this might be a different sound. And yet, amongst the addition of vocal harmonies and instrumental arrangements, Willits’ trademark sound is there. And here’ the other thing-the record is just as soothing as his past work. It’s a slab of pop with a twist. The Beach Boys for the 21st Century perhaps?
Christopher elaborates, “It’s kind of interesting looking at the progression of my last stuff. The SMM compilation, which was actually more like a LP, was most related to this work. That’s when I first started playing with vocals on a couple of tracks which I hadn’ done since I was in bands I’d played with years ago. It just felt natural.Then I started making this stuff, and honestly, when I work I don’t ever decide what I’m going to be making before I make it. I just sort of improvise and follow my intuition and before I knew it I was making these sort of more poppy songs! I’ve never been loyal to any specific genre or sound palate. The ability to extend my guitar sound in so many directions in the last five years or so has really added to my compositions.”
Willits originally comes from Kansas City, from a fairly musical family. His grandmother was a band leader in the 1920s and his mother and father supported his creativity as a child. His father even bought him his first guitar at 13. â€œAfter that it was over!â€ Willits says, “I just knew I had to be making music. When I listened to Sonic Youth and Jimi Hendrix it really inspired me to push the instrument into different areas which started integrating into compositions and whatnot. So from that point on I knew that my path in life was to make music and to try to connect and inspire people.”
“I went to art school after that actually, on a painting selection. I decided to bypass the whole music thing from talking to other people. They said it’s going to be hard to keep making art in music school, but you could probably keep doing music if you are in art school. Before I knew it I was doing short films and making the music for them. Then I was making the sound design and kind of forgetting about the film side.”
Willits soon tired of the slow video rendering in the mid nineties and concentrated on his music. “I was really introduced to digital editing through video, so I was always making music but I didn’t start using computers until I started editing video. Then I started to see the creative potential of it all and the non-linear aim of it. I quickly got into Max/MSP software after that. I use it to make plug ins and make full on performance systems with that. Cutting up my guitar in different, non-linear ways that are not possible with a traditional linear chain of stomp boxes.”
After graduating from art school, Willits moved to San Francisco to pursue his Master’ Degree in Electronic Music at Mills College. He studied with Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith and John Bischoff. Some esteemed teachers and support for a burgeoning creativity! However, Willits doesn’ pin his evolution to a precise influence. “I can’t draw a specific tether to that necessarily but I think it’s just related to everything. Everything is affecting the decisions I’m making creatively. Like touring – the first couple of tours I did with Taylor in Japan really opened my eyes to the fact that I even had a fan base outside of America. That was really mind blowing to me and these people were coming out to shows and knew the material. Really inspiring you know? I can’ even have a conversation with that person who’ a fan of mine, but we’re connected on another level at least in terms of the vibrations of the tunes, these sounds and stuff. And how that relates to my plane I’m not exactly sure, but it definitely related to my energy and my creative body of work.”
Surf Boundaries has a sumptuous sound pallet. Willits layers his guitar with horns, bells, vocal harmonies and various other live instrumentation. It was an incredibly personal record to make, created during the rise and fall of an intense relationship. “Everything I was feeling and thinking about at the time really kind of soaked and seeped into these sounds. I didn’ intentionally try and make some kind of emotional record. I’ve never been against that either but my other work has just been about what I’m feeling and just different energy levels. I think they’ve been lumped more into process oriented music, but for me I was never really doing it like that.”
“I think any music is process orientated that I make whether it has words or song structure or whatever – it’s always been building from the bottom up. It’s never been like, “this songs about being getting dumped and feeling good about it!” Willits elaborates, “It’s nothing like that. I think a lot of what I was feeling was coming through and the lyrics as well kind of emerged just though the feelings I was getting from the music. It was growing from the bottom up and I was just making sense with different things I’m feeling but more in an analytical way. It’s hard to describe but it’s like these intuitive sounds emerged without even thinking about anything and then I kind of more analytically recognised that those things were happening and that’s where the words came from.”
Hearing Christopher Willits talk about his composition process sheds light on how natural his music sounds. “I say it’s personal music and what I mean by that is it really emerged from a personal space. But at the same time I didn’t steer it and I didn’t really feel as though I was really making it. I’ve mentioned this before when I am making something, I don’t really feel like my ego’s a part of it. I try and open up the process so much it’s like all of a sudden it’s just like coming through me.”
“It was an amazing cathartic process. In the end it helped me to meditate and pull me through this rough relationship I was going through. It is an ironic thing as I just had to leave it – it was so great and amazing but I had to ask myself, “do I really want to have a family right now?’ It’s was like, no thanks.” With such commitment to his art it is little wonder that Christopher Willits’ sounds are being heard all over the world.
Surf Boundaries is available through Ghostly International/Inertia.