Last year, I wrote a review for Tim Catlin’ Radio Ghosts (you can find it at cyclicdefrost.com); I used words like “purity,’ “balance’ and “stillness’ in an attempt to convey the essence of this Melbourne tabletop guitarist’s work. His almost stately drones and crisp textures possess the unique ability to shift the listener’s perception without them even realising. It’s a purity of tone that draws on spiritual associations for what could ultimately be reduced to experimental music or sound art. Terms that seem somehow misleading or inadequate for this form of music. The pieces were clearly manipulated, it seemed to me, via extensive post production and mixing.
Some 12 months later, curiosity got the better of me. I’m sitting with Catlin in his Brunswick lounge-room in an attempt to coax some answers about how it’s all possible. And it turns out, well, that was wrong, something Catlin whispered quietly to me soon after, in a manner that seemed like he wished he had used post-production purely for my sake. He said he achieved this unique sonic expression via EQing, overdubs and the use of an e-bow. But on acoustic guitar? It still didn’t seem possible.
I asked if he was surprised by my mistaken impressions. “In some ways, no,” he concedes, â€œbecause it’s so different to what a guitar sounds like. I guess I was so close to the project that I know it’s not.”
It’s time to throw out all that baggage you’re carrying around about guitarists because Catlin’ music comes from a very different world.
In fact, so too does his route to this new world, seemingly missing those all too common stages for the experimental musician: the disenfranchisement with the standard 4/4 verse-chorus-verse, or the annoyance with band-mates that pushes them to exploring extended techniques with their instrument. â€œI was not so interested in the riff,â€ says Catlin. â€œI was never in rock bands and I didn’ come from that. I don’ mind listening to examples of that, but I don’ have any interest in doing it myself, because I probably wasn’ very good at it, and there are so many others that do it. It didn’ seem possible to come up with something interesting and reasonably original.
“Many guitarists seem to confine themselves to a narrow range of possibilities,â€ he says. “Pick up any guitar magazine and they are full of articles on how to play like a particular guitarist or obtain a ‘classic’ guitar tone. For such a seemingly simple instrument, there’s an amazing array of sonic possibilities. I’m interested in exploring and extending those possibilities.”
Combine a thirst for exploration with a low boredom threshold and Catlin’ direction became clear.
“When I discovered some of the techniques that I’ve ended up using, it just seemed really worth pursuing. At the time, I didn’t realise there were other people that do this stuff so it all seemed new to me.”
During the late ’80s, while conducting sonic experiments in the safety of his lounge-room, he began investigating others who had developed unique and idiosyncratic perspectives on guitar. People like Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew, and, in particular, German improvisor Hans Reichel who Catlin first heard on a flexi-disc in Guitar Player Magazine (in 1997, the magazine named Reichel amongst the 30 most radical guitarists). “The first time I heard a recording of his, it did not sound in any way like a guitar,” Catlin reminisces. “It had a beautiful sound and I was just intrigued about how he could possibly make that sound. It turns out, he has different bridges on his guitars and he’ in a whole different area really. Aside from being a musician, he makes his own instruments and they’re really beautiful, they’re professional but they don’ look like conventional guitars.”
Despite not finding too much common ground with Slash or Jet, Catlin doesn’ view his approach as all that unique in the world of guitar music. “There’s a whole history of experiment and innovation in popular guitar music that you won’t find in the ‘experimental’ racks of your music store. Les Paul, Link Wray and Neil Young are a few that come to mind. All highly innovative and experimental guitarists, although most people probably aren’t aware of their experiments… Neil Young’s Arc album of feedback and fragmented vocals is pure genius, as was Link Wray’s decision to puncture his amp’s speaker cones to get more distortion.”
In 2003, Catlin released his first album on Dr Jim’, a (sadly defunct) local experimental label that was home to Bucketrider and Tony Buck’ eclectic ensemble with Otomo Yoshihide, Peril. At four tracks, Slow Twitch was filled with gentle buzzes, rattles and crackles. These pure resonating drones, which were an exploration of Catlin’ extended guitar technique, the culmination of his early lounge-room experimentation, using all manner of beaters, fans, motors, magnets, coins, cardboard and pegs. Catlin alternated between electric and acoustic guitar, the acoustic being something that he hadn’ previously heard heavily utilised in experimental music. “I thought they were very rich sounding, because they were acoustic, but they had an abrasive edge I liked,” he says.
Slow Twitch has lots of similarities with Catlin’ more recent Radio Ghosts in approach, technique and execution, though perhaps more importantly, it also signifies the introduction of the “D’ word to our discussion, a word that Catlin initially bristles at, yet comes to begrudgingly accept throughout the interview in lieu of a better description.
“I do like drone music,” he acknowledges carefully. “It’s a pretty wide field. I mean Phil Niblock could be considered drone music. People could listen to his music and think that nothing’ happening because its so subtle, it’s not modulating or changing into something else. A lot of the stuff on Radio Ghosts, certainly the way that it was mixed and my intention was that if you you’re really listening to it, it’s subtly changing and shifting. A lot of drone or pure drone stuff or minimalist music doesn’ really change much at all. But perceptually, if you listen to it enough, you pick up on other details or your perception shifts.”
“I would like to think that the best drone music or abstract field experiments would put you in a state that would alter the chemistry of your brain, though you could probably argue that listening to very loud metal music could also do so, though probably not in the same way.”
“There’s something about being absorbed into it,” he says, “because it’s also about duration, and if we’re still using the “D’ word, you can’ use a drone piece that goes for two minutes. I have done some pieces that are shorter than others, but generally there needs to be a bit of duration for their absorption.”
For Catlin, it begins with process, the exploration of an approach that then informs, yet doesn’ dictate some of the decisions down the track. On Slow Twitch, he had the luxury of regular access to an RMIT studio and with Radio Ghosts his own lounge-room. It’s about trying things, making mistakes and using some of those mistakes to inform a new process. â€œIt’s not like I’m totally anal about the process,â€ he says. “I set up different processes to see how they work, I have ideas but it’s a starting point. The errors or when things start to break down or not work the way they should are often things that I’ll emphasise in the recording. They may be the only interesting part of the track.”
But lets get back to Radio Ghosts, the purity of tone and music that doesn’ sound like it came from guitars. Catlin is adamant that on both albums he didn’ use effects or software processing. In fact, he still uses an old G4 and a digi 001 that restrict him to a maximum of 24 tracks. What he does do to transform the sound so dramatically is refreshingly simple, at times even reminiscent of Eno’ generative music experiments.
“There’ a number of different ways that you can change the sound of an acoustic guitar,” he explains, “depending on where it’s mic’d up. If it’s close to the sound hole, it’s going to be much bassier, and if it’s really close mic-ed, near the strings, its much harsher. The choice of microphones, the type of strings you use, and the methods of preparing the guitar and driving the strings are important.”
“The track ‘Zumbido,’ which means buzzing in Spanish, that’s built up from a lot of multi-tracked prepared guitar tracks, so the strings will rasp and buzz when they’re being played. Yet in more conventional guitar technique, if the strings are buzzing it’s because the action is too low, it’s a bad thing. This was prepared with bits of cardboard and business cards, so I’m finally finding a use for business cards,â€ he laughs. â€œThere was a lot of trial and error in preparing which string and whereabouts on each string, then you build up all these buzzing sounds and it’s a matter of how those sounds work together, EQing them or building a mass. It’s all played with e-bows, totally hands free.”
Whilst he has recently recorded a collaboration with fellow prepared guitarist Dave Brown (of Bucketrider and Candlesnuffer fame), which began with a series of improvised performances encompassing acoustic, processed and electronic sounds with additional post-production and editing from Brown, his solo experiments have thrown up something quite unique and unexpected.
Catlin takes me into his music room, loads up his G4 and plays me the sounds of insects. The incredibly detailed chirping, buzzing and creaking of bugs reach my ears, and the effect is one of wonderment, of being offered a slice of nature that we’re not normally afforded, of inspecting the sounds we often ignore. There’ a vitality and body to the sound, all chirping at their own cadence, their calls intermingling and feeding off each other, creating this vast cacophony of insect sound. Except of course they’re not really insects at all. It’s Catlin’ guitar – this time with processing. I’m listening to faux insects and it’s remarkable. He solos the various tracks, offering me the individual ingredients to this marvelous tapestry of sound. “I should play people these sounds without telling them its guitar,” he says. “I find insects perhaps even musical, there’ movement and rhythms. They’re certainly in the right frequencies. I could push this further and layer it up and it could sound like a whole swarm of insects.”
“I do genuinely love insect sounds,” he says. “Some of my most profound listening experiences have involved insects. I remember in Thailand, what sounded like a giant orchestra of tropical insects, like a great piece of drone music. The more deeply I listened, the more I become attuned to these complex, unfolding layers of sound. I was sitting on a hill overlooking the sea at dusk and the calls of the insects were very loud and dense. Insects were calling at different intensities and frequencies. They seemed to be calling from all directions and heights. I realised it was possible to hear it as one mass of sound or as many layers of timbrally rich, subtly modulating sounds. It was a profound sonic experience that I still remember clearly.”
“If I could make a piece of music that is as compelling as these insects sounds,” he says, “if I was to aspire to something, it would be something as good as that, as opposed to copying some composer or something.”
Bob Baker Fish