The music of Sunhaus is warm and undulating, filled with shimmering textures and elongated drones. It’s textural ambient music, where the digital waves wash gently against each other, split and become something new. Strangely it feels like a natural process, like the audio equivalent of how sand is created or something. It’s a place where the microtonal has been elevated, where random electrics can be harnessed into a sweet intoxicating dopamine rush, where notes are less about melody or sequence than texture. It’s feels more like a Japanese garden than an album of composed music. It’s a dense and beautiful world, a gentle bath of glitched out ambience.
It’s a world created by Australian artist Marcus Skinner, who under the names Winterville and Bird Traps released ambient leaning neo classical music that we likened to Rothko and Stars of the Lid and suggested was ‘achingly beautiful.’ (You can read our reviews of 2015’s The Colour Fields here, and 2017’s The Rainbow Body here).
For the last few years Skinner has called Thonglor, Thailand home, where he has continued working as a commercial composer and sound designer for clients including Telstra, ABC, SBS and Kia. He has also developed a micro business, crafting his own unique handmade generative Sunbox synthesizer. During the pandemic when supply chains became a problem he switched to a series of unique Brutalist themed fuzz pedals and primitive electronic devices named in homage to various Thailand districts.
He’s used some of these tools to craft his new album, Formations, his debut under the Sunhaus moniker, which sees him working with abstract glitches, heavy processing and generative music techniques with the Sunbox, piano, sinwaves, and field recordings. We’re pretty astonished by the abstract beauty of this work, and were keen to reconnect with Skinner to find out a little more about Sunhaus and the Sunbox.
Cyclic Defrost: What appeals to you about gentle music? What does it do for you? Have you found yourself more attracted to ambient sounds thanks to the horror show around us?
Marcus Skinner: To me gentle music like drone, ambient and ambient electronic are often like meditations, drifting altered states, sometimes it can be quite hypnotizing, stress reducing, rebalancing and emotive like looking at an old Polaroid photo, or it can be quite focusing and productive at times.
Cyclic Defrost: There are so many tones in your music, its so busy, but feels tranquil somehow, like listening to the gentle trickle of water, where the individual notes/ tones are less important than the whole. Compositionally how did you approach this music?
Marcus Skinner: The album Formations is following my musical explorations with Sunhaus on social media, which evolved from the first hand built Sunbox synthesizer. I used it as a platform to explore my interests in generative music, flexible to my whims and limited by complexity, pairing it with various effects such as lofi microcassette players, glitchy delays even books, and I’d invited non-musical friends to play the Sunbox in videos when I could.
I coined the music videos ‘Sketches of Ambient Minimalism’ or ‘Sketches of Generative Music’, and by giving myself time limitations and sound restrictions it kept the musical output prolific, but undemanding and allowed me the space to explore patch ideas, tunings, compositions, live interactive streams and jam unusual rhythms and textures. The results varied, as the focus still is the curiosity.
By the time I decided to begin working on Formations, it already had foundations from my previous miniature explorations. A manifesto was mapped out. It was a healthy and enjoyable approach which rendered the music sincere and having this footing in generative music theory and pseudo randomness it keeps everything on its toes, manipulating melodies, harmonies and overlapping patterns, or lack of, create a landscape more alive and enduring to me.
Formations grew out of one of those directions, processes and limitations. Themes of multi colours, texture, complex forms, synthetic tapestry and using minimal equipment all built upon ambient hand built Sunbox patches. The music was constructed and then deconstructed, like soft explosions, and then stitched back together into a colourful tapestry of beautiful disorder, somewhat like a Dada or Burroughs cut-up technique.
Cyclic Defrost: What is life like for you in Bangkok? What has changed for you since moving over there?
Marcus Skinner: My relocation to Bangkok a few years ago allowed me uproot and experience more of Asia, and written at the end of 2021, I’m sure the sound of Formations is reflective of my life here and the difficult but enjoyable year. I kept very busy, designing and releasing limited-edition Sunhaus fuzz pedals and primitive solar-powered devices, I began collaborating with POWLAND in Amsterdam, and artists around the world, I was expecting my first child, and Bangkok was experiencing lockdowns and violent street protests. The year was like being shot out of a cannon.
Cyclic Defrost: What does your more commercial work entail – do they let you bring out the Sunbox from time to time?
Marcus Skinner: It is a whole different world, any commercial work is very particular, fast and thought out, and I hold my builds including the Sunbox as little punk rockers, they don’t really fit. I’m open to have them in a soundtrack in the future, but up to now the characters and pseudo randomness of the Sunbox hasn’t worked out.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve found yourself building synthesizers and FX pedals. What prompted this? Was it about creating a sound/ approach to music that you couldn’t find elsewhere or was it more about curiosity and wanting to dive in and see what was under the hood?
Marcus Skinner: I would order effect pedal kits from the USA from time to time when I was younger, not really knowing what I was doing but curious about the electronics and a fun way getting my hands on some vintage fuzz tones. Its not until recently I really began studying schematics and electronics, enjoying the process of how to design, modify and assemble, and being able to customise it to my whims.
Cyclic Defrost: When you speak of the music created via generative techniques, obviously when we hear that we go straight to Eno, but can you tell me what it means for Sunhaus?
Marcus Skinner: I built and designed the Sunbox synthesizer to be a generative music instrument. It runs software, so I arranged the instrument to be a study in patterns and texture, algorithmic compositions with no end, and this in turn produced structure and shapes. Seemingly repetitious I gave the Sunbox a randomness to its choices of space and notes within set boundaries, so it would never repeat phrases. On Formations, I would go further and use cut-up techniques to further rearrange/deconstruct the structure, while trying to keep a stable footing. This was one of my initial rules from earlier music videos, don’t focus on composition, concentrate on its voice and space between notes.
Cyclic Defrost: There’s a certain dichotomy going on here. You release this album of gorgeous gentle music, and create massive fuzz pedals and instruments that can create raw, harsh and at times brutal tones. Is that representative of different parts of your personality?
Marcus Skinner: Texture as an energy, whether it be a high volume noise like Gamnad737, lofi saturation like Amulets or the beautiful synthetic new worlds of Mafmadmaf or AnnAnnie, I’ve always felt comfortable in various fields within Sunhaus, outside in other musical outputs, or just what I enjoy listening to. The use of certain music textures and their energies to provoke nostalgia or other emotional response, and I get bored quite quickly, so I relish in the unpopular and new interesting gear.