Prolific ambient and warm drone artist Celer is American-born Will Long, who’s been residing in Tokyo, Japan for over 10 years. His output is vast, dating back to 2005, with well over 100 releases under the Celer name. Mostly created using tape loops, and often of substantial duration, his work is critically acclaimed, and deservedly so. I’ve been listening to Celer compulsively through Melbourne’s five (to date) lockdowns and beyond, craving the peace his music creates.
Celer’s soundscapes constantly shift while staying static, fearlessly transcending time and space. There’s a warmth and humanity to the drones and waves of harmony that invite you into the world Celer is documenting, while allowing more than enough time to explore them. They’re also technically and sonically inventive, leaving the musician and engineer in me wondering exactly how they are made.
Celer will be releasing the album In Light of Blues on Australian imprint Room40 on August 13, 2021. It’s an album that stands apart in his catalogue. Its 12 tracks each clock in between one and five minutes, which is degrees of magnitude shorter than the average Celer cut. Described by Room40 as ‘a series of vignettes’, there’s still a coherence to the sound-world of the album, with the same sources, tonality and sustained tones throughout. It’s not that far away in feel from the rest of his work, but structurally, it’s made of “loops that don’t loop.”
I spoke to Will via Zoom just as Melbourne was coming out of the anxiety-inducing Lockdown 4.0, and his calm, considered conversational style, seated on the tatami-style flooring of his apartment, is analogous to his music.
Cyclic Defrost: You release a lot of music on different labels around the world. How have you come to release In Light of Blues on Lawrence English’s Room40 here in Australia?
Celer: I’ve known Lawrence for a while. I went to Australia seven or eight years ago, and he helped connect me with some people for shows and organised a show in Brisbane. We hung out for a few days and we’ve kept in touch since. I made In Light of Blues last year and I had no plans as to what to do with it, so I sent it to Room40. I don’t usually send music to labels, but often I send something that I made to friends to get their feelings and feedback about it, especially if it’s something a little bit different from my normal style, which In Light of Blues is.
Cyclic defrost: In Light of Blues does stand out as different in sound, structure, and technique from most of your discography. In the notes accompanying it, you write that you were “tired of loops” and that you wanted to do something else. Instead of sitting down with your reel-to-reel and tape loops, how did you approach creating this album?
Celer: It’s actually a little bit similar to the way that I make loops, which is playing things, then matching and mixing them together, in order to make something that sounds like it would make a good loop. But in this case, I didn’t loop it. I combined different elements that sound similar and made them more singular, only being heard once, or repeated with slight variation after a few minutes. It’s built with blocks of ‘loops’ that don’t repeat.
The idea of being ‘tired of loops’ was symbolic of not wanting want to repeat the same feeling over and over again. I wanted to create a feeling once, and then move on to something else – for example, if you have a bad feeling, you don’t want it to continue forever. A loop can be positive, but it can also be negative, and if it creates a bad feeling, it’s just punching you in the gut over and over again.
Cyclic Defrost: If you weren’t using tape loops as your sound source, what are we hearing on the album?
Celer: A lot of it is me playing a Casio VZ-1. There are also some acoustic sounds and field recordings. I was messing around with trumpet, too. There’s some quite crudely recorded percussive and environmental sounds that, when processed, create a textural layer. There’s a lot of ‘blurring’; sounds like horns or trumpet, sometimes just a small burst, but with lots of feedback, so it sustains for a really long time.
Cyclic Defrost: I read that you have an obsolete Mac that you keep purely for running some music creation software that isn’t supported on newer OS.
Celer: That’s why I have three laptops; three generations of the MacBook. The oldest is a PowerBook G4. There’s some old software on it that’s very useful. I’ve used it on 90% of all the music I’ve ever released. A lot of these programs are unique because they allow you the freedom to use them in ways that weren’t intended.
Cyclic Defrost: Room40 label head Lawrence English talks about his practice with field recordings as the art of getting people to “listen to his listening”. Is that an artistic approach at work with you as well?
Celer: Maybe sometimes. Maybe not. Maybe with the different releases that I’ve done that have more field recordings where you’re hearing a street with no processing. That’s when I’m trying to place the listener in that spot, at that time. The music that comes out of that is supposed to explain what it feels like. The field recordings on In Light of Blues are more abstract. It’s more about creating the feeling of the place where I am, and questioning where that actually is.
Cyclic Defrost: The durations of many of your pieces and the amount of music you create is particularly suited to digital distribution, yet you put out a lot of physical releases. What’s important about the physical release for you?
Celer: Well, I was born in the ’80s, so I have that in-between generational thing where I still like CDs, records and tapes. As I got older, file sharing started, and I started listening to more digital. I still appreciate listening to different formats. I’ll listen to an iPod on trains, CDs in the car, and records at home. Different places have different purposes, and settings for different types of listening. In releasing music, some albums fit one format better than others. Everything fits digital, but as somebody who still buys CDs, records, and tapes, I want to be able to buy something physical because it has more value. Digital is very disposable and easy to lose, and it’s cheap and easy to make. You’re not putting as much effort and energy into it, so it has much less value in that sense.
In trying to be a sustainable artist, producing CDs and records is more, I wouldn’t say profitable, but clear. You invest in something, and then you share something concrete with people that they can actually keep.
Cyclic Defrost: Tokyo is a paradise for finding electronic instruments new and old. Do you find that inspirational, and have you picked up anything you’re enjoying lately?
Celer: I don’t buy stuff very often, but all the music shops in Tokyo are definitely fun to go to. Japanese musicians typically take really good care of their instruments, so even the really old stuff is in great shape. I think everything I have is second hand. The drum machine that I use for my house music productions under my own name I found in the junk section in some shop. It was completely covered in soot and just disgusting. I cleaned it off, polished it up, and it works great. I’ve made three albums with it.
Cyclic Defrost: A lot of your work is mastered by Stephan Mathieu at his Schwebung studio in Germany. How did that relationship come about?
Celer: I’ve been listening to Stephan’s music since I discovered electronic music in the early 2000s. His music was always very inspiring. I shared some of my oldest releases with him through the mail, and we’ve kept in contact for a long time. I started using Stephan for mastering when I was reissuing my old albums and he’s great to work with. For anything that’s going to vinyl or made on analog tape, he does the best mastering jobs. In Light of Blues is more digital, so Lawrence English mastered that, which is appropriate considering it’s for his own label.
Cyclic Defrost: A lot of people (including myself) sometimes ‘use’ ambient music as opposed to properly listening to it. It could be a texture to calm themselves, or a tool to block out noise. As somebody creating that music, do you have any strong feelings about people ‘using’ or listening to your music?
Celer: For everything I make, I have my own idea about how I want to hear it. I try not to think too much about how I want other people to hear it, because I don’t think they’re going to listen to me even if I tell them how I want them to do it. It’s easier to just have my own idea about it and communicate that as best I can without being too forceful. For example, my album Xièxiè, that I made in China, sounds wide and big, and to me, that means you’re supposed to listen to it fairly loud. Still, people tell me all the time they like to listen to it quietly in the background. I don’t want to impose restrictions on people. We all have enough of those already.
In Light of Blues is out on Room40, August 13, 2021. Pre-orders for CD and digital can be made at https://room40.bandcamp.com/album/in-light-of-blues