I first heard the music of Skye Klein as Terminal Sound System via his bleak muscular bass orientated electrics on Melbourne’s Symbiotic Collective compilations on Sensory Projects way back in 2003. Through a couple of releases on Extreme records (Compressor and Constructing Towers) and now German label Denovali (you can read our review of The Endless Sea here), his music has continued to evolve in increasingly fascinating yet frequently incongruous ways that defy easy characterisation. It’s dark but beautiful, music that seems to posses an almost unspoken subliminal violence yet mines more positive areas. What I didn’t know about was Klein’s doom ridden heavy sludge past, as part of Halo (Relapse Records), and the gothic metal shoegazer inflected solo project A Beautiful Machine – that had four releases and a remix EP before pausing for 17 years and returning with this month’s King Tide. With the arrival of the ridiculously epic clip for the title track incongruity reached fever pitch and we just had to know more, so we reached out to a locked down Skye and asked some questions.
Cyclic Defrost: When did King Tide begin and what were you trying to achieve at the time?
Skye Klein: There’s a bit of a back story to this question, which I will elaborate as best I can while protecting the privacy of some important characters.
A couple years ago I received a mysterious email from a distant country asking after physical copies of the four earlier A Beautiful Machine albums, originally released in the early 00s. This project had not played a big part of my life for the better part of two decades, but the sender was very polite and I was intrigued. I searched through boxes of stored stuff eventually uncovering probably the last remaining CDs that I had put aside as personal copies, and duly sent them off to their fate.
I’m leaving out a chunk of this interaction for privacy reasons, but I will summarise by saying that this reaching out, connection between distant people and the subsequent response, and shared love and appreciation brought to me the realisation that, as artists, we do not own these things we create. We labour over them, mould, shape and let them loose into the world where they become their own things, with meaning far beyond what we originally imagined.
A spark of inspiration for A Beautiful Machine that I had not felt for the better part of two decades was lit. I wrote all eight songs that comprise the album in the week before Christmas 2017. They flowed so easily it was almost like they were pre-written. Each evening I sat down in my studio with guitar and drums and a song was there within an hour.
Then began a very long and exhausting mixing and production period that almost resulted in abandonment several times.
As for my intentions or aspirations for the album; apart from this almost effortless initial creation period, I knew that I wanted to honor the original “soul” of this project’s music (which has always been intensely personal and emotional) whilst bringing a sense of vastness and weight that has become a large part of my composition and production style over the last couple of decades.
I wanted to create the most personal record I have ever released, whilst achieving the aural equivalent of an endless ocean wave.
Cyclic Defrost: How has a 17 year break impacted on your approach? And what was it that prompted you to return to it now?
Skye Klein: On a purely practical level, 17 years later I have a lot less time to dedicate to making music. On the other hand, having released almost 30 albums and EPs since the earlier ABM records I’ve become a lot more efficient in using the time that I do have (usually about 2-3 hours per evening, every day).
I’ve spent much of that 17 years focussing on my Terminal Sound System project, which has really tracked my musical interests and production ideas through many different styles and approaches, and I think I brought this learning and development to the making of King Tide. Over the years I’ve become a lot more bold and decisive when dealing with matters of songwriting and audio production, but, as usual, still wracked with doubt.
This probably contributed to the aforementioned exhausting production process – I kind of knew what I wanted to achieve, sonically, but actually making this happen stretched my abilities to the limit. I am extremely stubborn when it comes to matters of DIY – probably to a fault. I will relentlessly bludgeon myself against the brick wall that is a stubborn drum sound until the wall gives and the drums feel “right”. There is no “or”, and no alternative. Of course a week later I might decide that the old mix was better.
I still have a stack of scrawled mix notes that track the evolution of the album through many revisions and failed cul de sacs to its final state. As an example, earlier versions of the songs had different drums – I asked a friend from the early days to provide drum tracks – but I eventually scrapped them and went back to my own drums. Again, bloody-minded, to a fault!
I think I covered my reasons for returning to the project earlier, but I’d like to add that it is no exaggeration to say that had that initial interaction not happened, that long distance friendship not been formed, this album would not have been made.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m having trouble trying to work out what it is. I’ve been thinking maybe gothic shoegaze metal? Do you have any words to help you understand what you are doing?
Skye Klein: Ha! If there is a unifying thread throughout much of the music I have released, this stylistic confusion – even in my own head – is probably it.
In the early ABM days – we’re talking 1999/2000 – I was greatly influenced by the so-called Shoegazer classics – in particular the 90s albums of Ride. (as a side note, ABM was created as a side project of – and distraction from – my then band HALO – a doom/noise/drone bass and drums duo that went on to be signed to Relapse Records for a couple of albums).
So at the time I was recording these sparkling, shoegazy pop songs, but at the same time we were making this bleak, crushing drone doom, and then on other nights I was becoming aware of the electronic underground via parties we were running in our warehouse, and starting to experiment with that. All of which is to say, there’s a lot that went into the melting pot that finally brought me to this exact moment.
I’ve always loved music with a sense of space, both literally and figuratively, and a real physicality to the sound. I think I experience music as a kind of felt sense, somewhere in the middle of aural, physical and emotional, and I really wanted to recreate this feeling for the listener. Trying to create a musical version of the inevitability of an ocean swell, and the simultaneous sadness and elation of love so strong it hurts.
I wanted its feet to be bedded in the weight of the heaviest stuff we created with HALO, but with its head in the stars. As I wrote in the promo sheet (excessively DIY, remember?) simultaneously light as the mist and heavy as a neutron star.
Cyclic Defrost: I was surprised to hear vocals. They’re often quite dreamy and washed out and difficult to understand explicitly what you’re saying – rather they feel like another texture to the sound. So of course the million dollar question is what kind of things are you singing about?
Skye Klein: A Beautiful Machine has always been, essentially, a song-based project, with words and verses and choruses. That said, the words are there, and they are an integral part of the music, but also – they are a component of the songs, not intended to be free standing. It’s a bit of a cliche – particularly in this kind of music – to state that the vocals are “part of the music” but, well, they are.
I intentionally don’t publish lyrics (unless someone emails me and asks very nicely – I recently learnt that in some cultures having the printed words is considered very important, so I’m having to compromise a little there!) I really don’t like to read them out of the context of the music. I’m also, honestly, not particularly confident in my own lyric writing. I am in awe of amazing pop music lyricists like Robert Smith – but for me song words are kind of like guitar tones – I’ll try them out until they click into place in the greater picture of the song. Of course there are also exceptions to this, where the words just came out fully formed and – in my eyes – perfect.
What am I singing about? Overarchingly, love – in all its forms; ecstatic, prosaic, secret, paternal, universal. Also; nostalgic longing for a time passed, redemption, fear (of failure) and self-doubt, and a newfound (for me) connection with nature and the natural world.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m interested too in the ponderous nature of the beats, and the desire for space in the music. Can you tell me a little bit about what you were thinking compositionally?
Skye Klein: I think I mentioned earlier that the drums went through several stages. In the initial whirl of inspiration in which I wrote these songs, the drums were pretty generic to the old-school “shoegazer” style – mostly rock beats with a bit of my own twist on them – a lot more like the earlier ABM albums. As I started to really work on the structure and production of the songs, I began pulling out threads of sound, so to speak, unpicking these layers of guitars I had built up and kind of pulling them further out into this spacious web of textures. As the songs got bigger and more epic feeling, I felt the drums just needed to step back, to become anchors for this wall of sound rather than propelling it forward.
I’ve long had a fascination for music that simultaneously sounds like it’s moving forward, while standing still. Or moving fast and slow at the same time, like some kind of musical equivalent of a kinetic sculpture. It’s rare that I find songs that do that, but I do have a handful of favourites (a couple of songs off The Cure’s Disintegration are prime examples of this), and I wanted to recreate this feeling.
So I replaced the scratch drums with my own, mainly looped out of patterns I played on my MIDI-fied drum kit. My own drumming is very much rooted in some amalgam of Swans and Neurosis, as well as uber- minimal “doom jazz” styles, and I felt the heavy punctuation of this, with minimal filler or time-keeping elements, got me close to my slowly crystalizing vision of the album.
At one point – mired in self-doubt about ever being happy enough with the album to release it – I reached out to an old associate – who is an amazing drummer – in the hope that he could breathe life into songs that at the time I felt were slowly drowning in my own inability to get them into a shape that felt right. The tracks he sent back were great, but eventually – DIY control freak that I am – my original drum tracks just clicked back into place and made perfect sense.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve only really known your work as Terminal Sound System. Do you see any link between the two projects at all?
Skye Klein: There’s definitely a link there. About 10 years ago, when Terminal Sound System signed to the Extreme Music label for two albums, I started getting interested in playing guitar again. I had barely touched the instrument since my early pre-HALO days – HALO wrenched me from playing very Cure-influenced guitar to laying down bleak noise-scapes of bass – apart from playing in a couple of friends’ bands on the side.
The best way I could integrate my guitar into the still quite electronic/beats based TSS was a very ambient shoegaze-inspired tone which mingled really nicely with the synths and other atmospheres – and also just comes naturally to me. I’ve always been an atmospheric player rather than a technical one.
Gradually the guitar became more and more of an integral part of TSS, and I found myself writing parts on the guitar first (rather than synth or drum sampler) – parts that I would have, in the past, written specifically for A Beautiful Machine. I do remember thinking at the time that A Beautiful Machine had been subsumed into Terminal Sound System, and I was fine with that. Guitar became such a part of the then- TSS sound that when I signed to Denovali Records in 2011 and went to tour Europe, I took along two friends to play the guitar and bass parts. (Whilst I’m not adverse to solo laptop performers, the music we were touring had so much guitar on it that it would have essentially been a karaoke show without them).
Later, TSS has become enmeshed in this particular fictional narrative that started a few albums ago. It’s become a really conceptual project with a very distinct sound palette. That guitar style is definitely not a part of it (yet), so it’s like the single organism TSS had become has split back into two different entities again.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s it been like for you during the lockdown? Has it made you think about or re-evaluate aspects of your music or music making?
Skye Klein: King Tide was returned from Mastering about a month ago. I was so burnt out from the exhaustive production and mixing process that I let it sit in my Dropbox for weeks, as slowly this new reality started to become more obvious. I even started to question whether I should release it at all – the aforementioned self doubt and imposter syndrome, coupled with a rising tide of apprehension with every sideways glance at the news.
I know now that that was a fear response, I’ve started paying a lot less attention to every day news, apart from gathering essential information.
When I finally did release it last week, it was a pretty intense emotional release. It was a bit of a pressure valve for me. This anxiety – for my childrens’ immediate future – that I wasn’t really consciously aware of, and the emotional investment I had made in this album; the long-time followers of my music who I feel I have a compact with, whose belief in me I now understand has kept me afloat and believing in my own creative vision. This all came rushing in.
Of course it is a pretty low key release – digital, and some CDs for those who still value such things. But for me, and for those to whom this album is dedicated – namely those same people who have been on this journey with me – a meaningful event.
Everyday life has not changed much for me. I live in a smaller regional city, so there are less people about – less risk of unwanted physical contact, and generally less infectious anxiety and panic. I have my studio here, I work from home and – something which I am currently very grateful for – do not rely on gigs or touring for income. I’m generally a pretty reclusive person anyway, I’ll happily go weeks without seeing anyone but my immediate family. I feel a lot of concern for those who rely more directly on the performing arts industry for money – I’m sure we all know people who are in a very uncertain place right now, both here and worldwide.
If anything, the increased sense of isolation and inwardness has, ironically, increased my sense of connection to the people who listen to my music. Most of them, as far as I can tell, are far away, and yet maybe knowing that everyone is in this together makes me feel like I am closer than I have ever been before.
For now I am pressing onward – I have another Terminal Sound System record due later this year on Denovali, a couple dozen songs for a new solo project based around voice, guitar and loops (4tsea), another half finished album for an as-yet unnamed project that sits somewhere between the new A Beautiful Machine record and the old HALO. Oh, and an in-progress film soundtrack for a Canadian psychological thriller/horror movie, and a whole bunch of digital dub/reggae rhythms that I’m toying with on my nights off, and a minimal techno thing up on Bandcamp that serves as a pressure release from all of the above.
You can find King Tide here.
You can find Terminal Sound System here.