Spielberger has returned with a brand new album, and the duo has added guitars and drums to their wash of ambient noise. Where 2011’s Chrissie’s Last Swim existed in a world of droning hiss and white noise, Jazzy features driving rhythms and enthralling guitar showmanship. The product of Miami-based musicians Bert Rodriguez and Ed Matus, the duo’s third album kicks off with a grand statement, as far as the presence of these two new instruments in the Spielberger mix.
“Mistaken, Abandoned and Alone” opens with the roar from a strike to the hot strings of an electric guitar, responded to by the growl of a bass. The instruments sizzle for a couple of seconds in that classic charged reverb only electric guitars can make before the musicians take off, following the thud of a kick drum and clang of a high hat. After a few bars of swelling chords, the rest of the drum kit comes to life and a melody of muddy reverbing guitars tangle and bound along in classic post rock fashion. Almost halfway through the piece, the groove seems to freeze and echo, as the drumming disappears. Throbbing in place for approximately another two minutes, the guitars emit roars and growls that seem impossible to create by the strokes of the strings, recalling shades of the earlier Spielberger. The piece sways and throbs in mid roar, as other sizzling drones grow almost exponentially, spinning off from the array of notes, throbbing, shrieking and pulsing at their own pitches and echoing at various tempos. The drum kit comes alive again with power and zeal, snares, cymbals and all. The shrieks of the ambient drones grow higher until they seem exorcised out of the piece, and the melody returns. After a few bars, the guitar breaks away to slowly start a solo that turns into a frantic pummeling of strings in an aggressive tremolo. As “Mistaken, Abandoned and Alone” grinds to its end, the strings seem to emit little electric speckles of reverb, like the remnants of static hidden in a wool blanket.
The track makes for a thrilling opener to an album firmly in the contemporary world of post-rock, while still reflective of its early roots in minimal ambiance. It marks a positive sign of evolution for the duo. However, as Rodriquez reveals, do not call this a departure. “Actually, the first track, ‘Mistaken, Abandoned and Alone,’ is literally the first song we ever wrote together,” he writes via email from his new home in Los Angeles. “We put it aside because we hadn’t built up other tracks that related to it. The whole album is really the result of several jam sessions we had from before we even released the first EP [“Music for Cruises”]. Almost all of the tracks on this record came from those sessions. I guess we’ve been working on this album from the beginning of our relationship together.”
So guitars do not mark anything that new for the duo, as Rodriguez tells it. “We both play guitar so, whenever we got together, we would plug them in and just write parts until things fit together. We were also constantly experimenting with affecting the guitar sound.”
As described in my earlier profile on this band (Spielberger hold torch proud for ambient music), some moments of Chrissie’s Last Swim, composed mostly through altering sounds on an iPhone app called Mixtikl, sounded like electric guitars. However, the sound of contact between guitar string and pick seemed missing. “We were really obsessed for a while with trying to make the guitars sound as little as a guitar as possible,” Rodriguez states. “I wanted to be able to play guitar but have it sound like a synth.”
Though Spielberger mutated the sound of electric guitars into something original on Chrissie’s Last Swim, it was the first step toward the new album. “That experimentation really helped us find some pretty interesting sounds that you can hear on the record,” Rodriguez says of Jazzy. “In fact, now that I think of it, almost everything on this record, even the two ambient tracks, were created with guitars.”
In a recent phone conversation, Matus says the two recorded the album just as Rodriguez was in the middle of moving to LA, but the mixing took a while longer. Matus notes that it was also important to get the drums sounding realistic, though no real drumming took place. With Jazzy’s rollicking opener, one can practically visualize a drummer raising his arms as high as possible to beat the skins, however, Matus, says, it’s all computer-generated and very carefully produced. Matus had already turned artificial drums into something primal and real-sounding in the past. “Ritual #1,” an instrumental track on the final album by his previous project, the Waterford Landing, In The Heart Of Zombie City, features some nightmarish rhythmic pounding of something akin to an indigenous drum accompanied by tambourine, echoing through what sounds like a giant room inside a derelict building of some wasteland as some alien, mechanical screeching echoes in the background (stream and download the album here). It’s a visceral moment on that final, grand album by the Waterford Landing (also worth checking out is the Bay City Rollers meets chill wave number “Soft Revolution [Blue Flames]”).
Matus says some of the ideas for the pieces off Jazzy came from he and Rodriguez improvising together on guitar. The title track began with the simple, soft pulse of an electronic click track, he says. Matus starts it off with a luscious, grooving but repetitive guitar line and Rodriguez comes in plucking his part out, dropping down the guitar’s neck, like a series of soft, dripping bits of rain on a window’s edge. They wrote the piece as such: two guitars tangling together. They later added bass and rhythm, a move that might seem counter-intuitive to many musicians who piece together music via overdubs while writing or recording. “I don’t think I’ve ever recorded a song like that,” Matus says, “to just plug in our guitars and see what happens.”
Though ambient music pioneer Brian Eno was a major inspiration for the two earlier Spielberger albums, this one features the influence of another pioneer and cohort of Eno’s in the prog rock world: Robert Fripp. When asked about the similarity of “Jazzy” to the work of Fripp with Andy Summers in the early eighties, Rodriguez embraces it as a high compliment. “That was definitely an inspiration, without a doubt,” adds Matus. “A long time ago, when I first heard that stuff, I always thought it was so alien and otherworldly.”
“Jazzy” also found a life outside the album thanks to a famous beer company, and Rodriguez’ higher-profile reputation as a contemporary multi-media artist. Beck’s commissioned Rodriguez for part of its “Artist Series Bottles,” alongside M.I.A., Freegums, Geoff McFetridge, Willy Chyr and Aerosyn-Lex. Rodriguez designed the only text-based label with the loaded statement “Don’t Forget You’re Here Forever” in neon lights. Beck’s created a campaign promoting the artists in this limited edition series and produced a short video documenting Rodriquez’ journey and arrival to LA. The music used in the video is “Jazzy:”
Though the guitar-use is unmistakable, still prevalent in Spielberger’s sound is the creative use of Mixtikl. Though it features some frenetic guitar work, the sound of the guitar in “In the Museum,” sounds like some spasmodic little creature trapped in a gelatinous blob, composed of echoing reverb that washes and wanes over the poor guitar. “Part II – A Boundary Crossed” is a subtle thing of beauty, as the guitar echoes from below the whoosh and calm sparkle of electronics like a ghost. “We just decided to break out the guitars … There are still tracks that are largely Mixtikl-based,” Matus says. “We always wanted it to have that background quality where we wanted it to be floating in the background. Some songs started with a Mixtikl theme.”
Rodriguez sheds further light on the duo’s creative process. “It was never our intention to only use Mixtikl to make music,” he states. “In fact, Ed has hardly used it at all. He likes to use his phone mostly to make beats and use the synth apps that are on there.”
However, Rodriguez appreciates how one cannot completely control the resulting music via the program, as it is just one of many auto-generative applications that can produce its own music via programming. “I’m a little more obsessed with Mixtikl,” Rodriguez confesses. “I think it’s because it ties so much into my art practice. It’s a really unique and non-traditional way to produce compositions. I could use that thing to make music forever really. I really enjoy the fact that you can’t expect 100 percent how the composition will turn out. I like the chance at play there.”
Despite Rodriguez’ relocation, the distance has not stopped the duo from recording and planning follow-up projects to Jazzy. Though this latest album came out only three months ago, the duo is deep into work on follow-ups, including a third full-length album and a physical 7-inch single. “The next album is gonna be called That Championship Season,” Rodriguez says. “My gallery out here offered to produce a limited edition 7-inch so, we’re working on two new ambient tracks for that.”
The 7-inch will mark Spielberger’s first physical release, and will surely become a collectible considering the LA-based art gallery OHWOW would be behind it. As far as other physical media or even working with labels, the duo are happy with their independence. It allows them to release music when they want, no matter how close to their last release date. It also frees up their creativity. “We like a lot of different stuff, we like playing different instruments,” Matus says. “It’s just making music the old fashioned way. It’s the idea that this is us, and we’re going to do what we want. We don’t have anyone to answer to. As long as it comes out honest and real, that’s what matters.”
Spielberger likes to allow the music to speak for itself. Though for sale in cyberspace on sites like iTunes and Amazon (You can support this blog as well as the band by purchasing their album through Amazon links), Matus is fine about giving it away to anyone who might be curious. “It’s there for free if you want to take it,” he says referring to links on the band’s website. “If you want to donate and help us, that’s fine too, and there are people who do that. But the most important thing is for people to have it and listen to it.”
October 19, 2011
So what would it sound and feel like to experience Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws with John Williams’ signature score replaced with the experimental, ambient drone of distorted synthesizers? The duo of Spielberger have imagined it, though it was purely inspired by the chapter titles of the DVD, and they swear they never watched the movie as they came up with the music. Heck, they even admit they did not exactly create the music from scratch, as they used a program available as an iPhone app to “generate” the music. Though both Ed Matus and Bert Rodriguez are musicians who can play a guitar if they wanted to, they chose to explore musicality in quite a different way. The result adds a strange, ethereal sense of gravitas to the movie, in a remote sort of way. If you know the film as well as I do, then just the titles of the tracks, like “Hooper Goes In” or “Town Meeting,” conjure images of the iconic film. The collision of these titles and the haunting drone of the music that seeps forth like the sludge of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch movie, brings an unknown artsy quality to the movie while still capturing the film’s over-all dread.
Already at work on a third collection of music, Spielberger are currently promoting this recently released conceptual ambient album entitled Chrissie’s Last Swim (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It is available at all the expected mp3 download sites for purchase without the album art, as the iTunes store rejected Rodriguez’ design, a play on the famous Jaws poster art (but join their Facebook page, and you can get the album for free, with the original art). Rodriguez is actually best known as an artist. He’s received numerous grants for his work and has exhibited at the esteemed Bass Museum in his Miami neighborhood, at well as Art Basel Miami Beach, but also at New York’s Whitney during the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in London during the Frieze Art Fair. Most recently he was the focus of a feature-length documentary that played at the Miami International Film Festival and screened theatrically at the Miami Beach Cinematheque called Making Sh*t Up.
A conceptual artist who never limits himself to any medium, Rodriguez adores the prankster aesthetic of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. A post-Dada, post-futurist, post-surrealist movement, Fluxus owes a debt to all those movements but is probably best known for its wit. For instance, staging a dramatic play with the curtain lifted a couple of inches to only ever reveal the shoes of the performers. Rodriguez notes one stunt he is famous for that involved him buying up picture frames from retail stores and replacing them for purchase soon after with the sample pictures replaced by photographs of himself. He noted that for the Whitney Biennial, he designed a space…
… with comfy chairs, a tissue box, etc. to give psycho-therapy sessions to anyone who registered for an appointment on the Whitney’s web page, in effect creating a living, breathing example of transference between the artist and the spectator with art object taken out. In some ways he does not take himself too seriously, yet he does. “It’s like if Andy Kaufman were in a gallery,” he sums up.
He and Matus recently dropped by my apartment in the Kendall suburbs of South Florida to casually talk about these mp3s they recently conjured up. Rodriguez sits still in the corner of my couch and always seems to look straight ahead as he talks, looking at the blank TV screen in front of him. “This was a way for us to do something fun and awesome,” he said simply of the collaboration.
Matus, who was once known as the singular artist behind the experimental electronica act H.A.L.O. Vessel and most recently as a member as the eclectro-pop-rock outfit the Waterford Landing, looks for a record to put on and immediately gravitates to my Neu! box set. Rodriquez approves, and Matus selects the Krautrock masters’ 1972 debut. They both marvel at the timelessness of the grooves that inspired everyone from David Bowie to Stereolab and maybe even them, a bit.
Spielberger’s debut EP, Music for Cruises, came from a project Rodriguez had developed as a commission for a cruise line, inspired by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the concept album that paved the way for what Eno would term “ambient music,” an unobtrusive and atmospheric instrumental form of music that was part of the spatial environment where it was played. Though Rodriquez said the client liked the music he generated using the iPhone app called Mixtikl, they went another way. The music did not go to waste, however, and after some treatments by Matus, they released Music for Cruises (the cover art for the EP features the duo with their “instruments”). Matus, who first appeared on the local music scene as a member of the art-rock/hardcore/punk outfit Subliminal Criminal in the early nineties, spent a great part of the later years of that decade experimenting with electronic music (Here’s a story I wrote for the “Miami New Times” about his early forays using keyboards and a bank of effects pedals for instrumentation). “We were discussing that there really isn’t any ambient music,” Matus said. “Nobody’s done a real serious ambient album like Eno in the seventies.”
But, one must wonder, what sort of musicianship does Mixtikl call for? The pair both admit “none.” Rodriguez explained the parameters to create the music requires some vision, however. “It takes a certain level of intention, discipline and comfort with the capabilities and limitations of the tool itself to produce a sophisticated sound that can be guided or coaxed to create a mood or express an idea effectively,” he explains further via email. “Those qualities have very little to do with what is traditionally defined as ‘Musicianship.’ All those qualities I mentioned above are what define creative intellect as opposed to technical skill. Although one is not better than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, the music has to be good and/or interesting regardless of how it was produced, and that can only be decided by a third party.”
Though they are working with a program that comes finely tuned, Matus notes it does call on a musical aptitude to realize some sort of vision. “Bert and I are both trained musicians,” he explains via email, “so there is a bit more clarity when it comes to knowing how to intentionally create a certain mood, as opposed to messing around blindly.”
The program indeed offers an intimidating amount of variety that calls on musical creativity to produce a specific form of music, as demonstrated by the poster art promoting it (click the image below for a larger view of the various screens involved):
Rodriguez had said, in the end, it’s not too different from how Eno designed works like Music for Airports or its predecessor, 1975’s Discreet Music. “It’s just how Eno would have done it. You set up certain parameters, you pick key, scale, whether it’s major, minor, then you pick tempo, and the banks of sound [the program offers].” He also noted that Mixtikl “was created by the same guys who created Koan, which Eno pioneered the use of around ’95, ’96.”
The result of the duo’s first collaboration, Music for Cruises, can be streamed in its entirety right here:
For ambient music, it does offer quite a dynamism, from the rhythmic ebb and flow of the tracks to the variety of pulsing electronic sounds that offer an array of tonal color and textures. It sounds kind of like post-Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd with the guitars, drums and voices stripped away, leaving only the bare, skeletal hum of the backing electronics sighing and groaning on their own.
Spielberger’s latest effort, Chrissie’s Last Swim, already reveals a bit of a departure for the duo. Opening with the white noise of “The Town Meeting,” the album starts with a roar, like a long frozen moment of horror that is the shark attack. “The Expert,” arrives to bring some calm to the proceedings, as a whispering howl ever so slowly fades in for over a minute and then seems to blow and recede, as a soft metallic metronome beat keeps a rhythm for the ghostly sound that only seems to follow the pattern of the wind. “July 4th” opens with a metallic quaver that sounds like it must come from an electric guitar, yet one cannot discern any plucking on it. The noise ebbs and flows for eight minutes to reveal a calm layer of whistling synth noise below the din, which quietly fades away over the course of a minute. Steve Reich would be proud.
From the album title to the individual tracks, all the titles are indeed lifted from the chapter insert found inside the DVD case of Jaws. The album rounds out with the following tracks:
4. Face to Face
5. Hooper Goes In
6. End Titles
Rodriguez explained that Spielberg the director has no direct influence over the music or its theme. “We never really chose Spielberg in favor of any other director or something. Our relationship to him is actually pretty random. It’s just become a starting point for an ongoing joke that started with how the name came up for the group. We never set out to make fun or pay homage to him over any other director or even anyone else at all for that matter. It was a funny exploration that has led to the images I’ve created thus far, which we’ll either move on from or not.”
Rodriguez shared more images that iTunes would probably never allow as future album covers. All are variations of famous posters for even more famous Spielberg movies, while offering a typical example of Rodriguez repurposing existing art as his own. Though he created an array of these images, he and Matus have not committed to future albums designed the same way as Chrissie’s Last Swim, with music named after other chapter titles from other Spielberg DVDs. Rodriguez presents Music For Cruises as an example contrary to such assumptions, which he called “a riff on Eno’s Music For Films .” In that album’s case the titles were inspired by the feminine word for “Sea” in different languages, Rodriguez noted. “There is really no reference to Spielberg in that record at all,” he said.
Matus even noted that to consider Spielberger only a musical project would be unfair. He and Rodriguez did hint that they are trying to conceive a live show out of it sometime before year’s end. “We can reproduce what we do live,” Matus stated. “However, due to the generative nature of the program, things will be different. The mood of the song will be the same, and there’ll be enough for someone to recognize it, but the events will be happening at different times, intervals etc. … We do plan on doing this live. However, we don’t want to define ourselves as just a music project or a band. Spielberger has many facets, which we hope to show during our performance, as well as the follow-up to Chrissie’s Last Swim, which we are working on now. Our intention was to create a vehicle in which anything and everything can happen. We are currently planning a performance in which the generative aspect is a tiny component among many. Hopefully, this will happen in December.
Rodriguez goes into further detail: “… the nature of ‘Generative Music’ is such that once you create and play that composition the first time, any time after that, even if the rules and parameters are exactly the same, it’s never the same exact composition. We can definitely save those parameters and perform a likeness to the original but, it will never be exactly note-for-note to the original. That’s also really liberating and exciting for me because it gives us a chance creatively to think about live performance outside of the traditional way where you sit there and play music while a bunch of people just sit there and watch you do it … That’s why I describe Spielberger as an ‘experimental duo’ formed of… We created Spielberger as a platform for us to be able to explore and execute any idea we had musically or otherwise. This is just the beginning. We’re working on a new record which will sound nothing like the last two records. And we already have ideas for other recordings in the future that are even less like any of those. We have ideas for some videos, even some limited edition projects or releases. We have lots of plans for things that also have nothing to do with music at all. I believe we both enjoy using this program so much and have so much yet to explore within it that we’ll probably continue to release generative compositions like the ones on the first two records in the future. We’ve only really worked together for a few months and have produced a great deal of music in a short time. For our live show, we’re planning on incorporating the music into a much larger context of what a performance can be, from anywhere between Andy Kaufman, Stanley Kubrick and the Pet Shop Boys.”
So, consider these two releases Spielberger’s calling card for something much grander to come… stay tuned.