dirk serries' microphonics at Roadburn 2013 by Jan Kees Helms 4

Before he coined the term “ambient music,” Brian Eno released an album called Discreet Music. Inside the 1975 album’s liner notes he described listening to a record of harp music at an extremely low level. It was a serendipitous event. “This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience,” he writes.

Dirk Serries happens to be an electric guitarist who shows a profound understanding about this notion. The Belgian-based artist has experimented with ambient music for over 30 years. He released his earliest work behind the pseudonym Vidna Obmana. His latest work is a sort of return to Vidna Obmana but informed with a subtlety that only comes with his growth as a musician who has spent decades exploring his craft.

Some might find this music so spare it may seem undeveloped, but it’s quite realized in its subtle quietness. Serries avoids hooks, and there is little sign of sentimentality in his music. Serries returns ambient music to its discreet origins. This month saw the release of three ambient records by Serries on limited edition 180 gram vinyl. The pieces are unedited, live run-throughs meant to fill up a side of a vinyl record, released on the boutique tonefloat/ikon imprint. Visit this website to stream all six pieces in their entirety and learn about ordering details: tonefloatikon.bandcamp.com.

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The album titles are all “Streams of Consciousness” followed by varying numbers. For instance, the first release is titled Streams of Consciousness 130806. The names of the individual instrumentals, however are more evocative. “The Illusion of Sense” opens the first release. It starts with what feels like an almost orchestral swell for a couple of notes. It almost feels like the notes are prepared to take off in a rhythmic dance. However, the piece reveals itself as something else as the volume slowly rises and something much more minimal comes to light. It is composed of a throbbing whine and a distant response from a slurred, falling note. The pattern repeats at a hypnotic, slow pace until it gradually fades away, at about 20 minutes in. It’s the perfect introduction to the sonic world of Dirk Serries.

Not much changes across his pieces, as Serries seems much more interested in creating atmosphere over melodies. “Harmony is an Effect” takes up the second side of the first release. It is composed of what sounds like a distant horn cutting through the gloom of a fog that gradually morphs into a bright, shimmering piece.

Streams of Consciousness 131006 opens with “A Ghostly Apparition,” which reveals how Serries can play with high-pitched notes yet remain unobtrusive. As soon as the music enters the high range, a series of lower notes drone below. The high note is hardly ever allowed to differ in timbre or duration. It appears with the routine quality of an oscillating fan, melding into the background. The dynamic comes from the varied lower notes, which throb, hum and shimmer like the sparkle of light on the undulating surface of a night-drenched ocean.

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With “An Ideal Opposite” on the second side, a minor key progression is revealed during a very slow fade-in on sighing electric guitar strings, as an undulating chorus of shimmering chords seem to tug at each other, taking turns between silence. They blend closer and closer with each refrain until they overlap into a cozy union of chilly yet luscious harmonies that ebb and flow with a random quality that speaks to the nature Serries reaches to capture in his unique orchestrations.

Streams of Consciousness 131106 starts with “Principle Origin,” which sometimes features a distant trickle of falling or climbing notes that appear with little pattern. It could also be composed of a sustained howl. This is the audio-hallucinogenic effect of Serries’ music. It does not drone. It has a verve of randomness, despite its lulling quality. Finally, “Faith and Reverence” appears as one sustained stroke of the guitar, shifting low and disappearing. It returns again and again, only a tad louder each time.

The hypnotic nature of Serries’ music comes with time and restraining anticipation. It’s all about a delicate touch that never disturbs between sound and silence. Though improvised, it’s carefully crafted work. I was keen to tap into the mind of this musician from Belgium, and I reached out via email with some questions. I was grateful he was game to entertain my queries and also share some images of the vinyls which were just released:

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Hans Morgenstern: So, I was looking into your history, and I see you have been at this for years. Have you made a career of it?

Dirk Serries: I believe the only thing I really succeeded in is to establish myself as a willful artist with a persistence to move forward, explore and expand my own specific sound palette.

Over the years, I met pro and contra and despite some bigger success in the mid ’90s, I never was able to make a career of it. But now with almost 30 years of baggage I’m really proud of what I managed to build up and the music I’m currently focusing on.

From the time you’ve been going, since the mid-80s, how has your approach to this ambient music changed?

I always have been pushing the boundaries on what ambient could be to the disappointment of many followers back then. The world of ambient music is a pretty conservative one, as from the moment you’re exploring new elements criticism was to follow soon. It’s therefore that I deliberately moved away from making ambient music per se. I never shied away though from incorporating harmony, mood and expansion in my music, but it surely was different, and a break with the ambient circuit unavoidable. But with the re-installment of the tonefloat:ikon label, I returned to the harmonic spaces I was known for in the late ’80s, early ’90s. The current experience and maturity made me recapture the ambience with solely an electric guitar and a few pedal-effects, while back in the days, I needed a stack of synthesizers and outboard effects to create those spaces. The fulfillment now is bigger, more intense and rewarding.

What to you is special about droning music? Where do you find the pleasure in performing it versus listening to it?

I don’t know really. I hardly call my music drone music either, as I feel it’s much more. Each piece is a moving canvas where layering timbres, shifting harmonics and subtle dissonances meet each other or not over the course of numerous minutes. It’s just that breathing quality that is so essential in ambient and minimal music. For me, personally, it’s precisely that process that draws me to this kind of music. Focusing on just a few configurations of notes but working towards a maximum effect in atmosphere, emotion and construction.

The music I make now is all about performing real-time and this is exactly where you get so in tune with how the sound moves, modulates and expands. Listening to what comes back, interact [with it] but most of all anticipate without playing those unnecessary notes. It truly heals, guides you to focus and makes you enjoy the effect of each note, no matter how sparse and minimal they are.

dirk serries' microphonics at Trix 2013 by Benjamin Van der Zalm

What ambient/drone music do you enjoy listening to and how do you listen to it? Is it accurate to call it musical wallpaper?

I hardly listen to ambient or drone music, and the ones I’m currently listening to and enjoying, although not sure to use this label, are Duane Pitre’s Feel Free, Cory Allen’s The Great Order and Richard Skelton’s Verse of Birds. I feel it’s absolutely not correct to label ambient or drone musical wallpaper. With good ambient music you actually need to listen closely and attentively to discover its progress and subtle changes, but I can relate to the fact why most of the people call this musical wallpaper. OK, there’s music out there that only serves the purpose of being background music, but the music I perform and listen to demands much more from the listener. Therefore, with the current improvement of vinyl quality, I decided to release this new series of minimal music exclusively on vinyl. The format does demand more involvement of the listener and therefore avoids the risk of having the music being used in the background. It’s sort of re-educating the listener to the point of going back to where listening becomes discovering.

You ask that the music be played at a low volume. What does this do to affect the listening experience?

Simple, because it was made that way. The tonality, the combination of the harmonies and the slow-expanding nature of the sounds is especially made for listening to on lower volumes. The low volume accentuates, to my ears, the movement of details, particular notes and tones that move in and out, appear on the surface and fade out. An experience that would be less effective if played louder. Another option is the headphone, as it’s combination with playing it on lower volume results in discovering the full sonic pallet.

Hans Morgenstern

Visit the following website to stream Serries’ latest sonic experiments and learn about ordering details: tonefloatikon.bandcamp.com. These records are limited to only 99 physical vinyl copies each.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With Spiritualized about to make a big appearance in New York to perform their 1997 masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in its entirety, with a full orchestra and choir, I thought it would be high time to share an interview I conducted with the mastermind behind Spiz, Jason Pierce, a.k.a. J. Spaceman. The– what should be– historic concert is scheduled for Friday, July 30, and thanks to “Spin Magazine”, you can watch it live on-line via Facebook. Accept their RSVP to make sure you do not miss it.

Now, on to my story, which first appeared in edited form in “Goldmine Magazine” in October of 1997*, with a then up-to-date and comprehensive US and UK discography of both the band’s CD and vinyl releases. Those were the days of print pages to spare! Though it was painstaking work to gather those catalog numbers and formats organized in chronological order, I shan’t share those here, unless several fans request it, as it is quite dated information and poses a pain to re-format for the web.

Without further, ado, here is an extended version of the profile I wrote back in the day, revised by yours truly, the author himself. It’s long, so I’m breaking it up into a 2-part series of posts, as I broke up my archival Tony Levin interview, also first published by “Goldmine”…

As the main mind behind the elaborate and haunting music of Spiritualized, Jason Pierce has often had to dodge tags of the tortured artiste and shoot down misconceptions as a perfectionist.  “I like doing it,” Pierce bluntly states from the New York offices of his US label, Arista.  The music of melancholic strings, sighing vocals, shimmering guitars, weightless drums and ambient synthesizers, coupled with lyrics of desire, transcendence, despair and rapture is all in good fun for Pierce, who wants to push music’s boundaries over the edge and find beauty beyond chaos.

The music that the Spiritualized name has come to define, through the 7-year course of four LPs and a multitude of EPs, can sometimes be wonderfully harmonic and other times jarringly dissonant, but, to Pierce, it all reaches its purpose, otherwise he would not bother having it realized.  Pierce’s explorations of the harmonic spectrum have often left fans in tears at performances and critics blabbering superlatives.  Pierce just smiles with interested content that his little trick worked.  “I have a lot of fun doing it,” Pierce affirms.  “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.  People say I took two years out of my life making this record, but that’s not so.  It’s two years in my life.”

The new album, entitled Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, indeed took two years to follow-up the last record, Pure Phase, which, discounting the live, mail-order-only Fucked Up Inside, itself took three years to see the light of day after Spiritualized’s debut, Lazer Guided Melodies.  Pierce composes all of Spiritualized’s music under the moniker J. Spaceman.  His compatriots on the current aural journey that is Ladies and Gentlemen, include a core group of four, which consists of Pierce on vocals, guitars and keyboards, Sean Cook on bass and harmonica, and Damon Reece on drums and percussion.  The fourth regular member of the band, Kate Radley, Pierce’s girlfriend up until the album’s release and organist/back-up vocalist of Spiritualized since 1992, “temporarily” left after the dissolution of her relationship with Pierce.  She has since married Richard Ashcroft of the Verve, but has yet to return to Spiritualized, though Pierce says she is welcome to return when ready.

Adding a special flavor to the mix are a variety of guest artists.  The Russian avant-garde  string quartet lead by Alexander Balanescu returns after making an appearance on Pure Phase.  New Orleans pianist Dr. John adds vocals and lends his keyboard wizardry to several tracks. Not to mention, the London Community Gospel Choir, which fill up the record with a soulful sound. Then there are a variety of horn players adding another dimension to the songs.

Considering this eclectic mix of instrumentation and players, it is no wonder Pierce does not believe he fits the perfectionist label.  “I don’t think I am a perfectionist, and, if I am, it’s definitely not in the recording stage,” he explains, pointing out that the aforementioned mix of elements could never easily be directed to reach a preconceived musical ideal.  “Most of the album is first take stuff.  It’s not labored over.  It’s no like, ‘Hey, that would be better if we changed the fuzzy sound a little.’  A lot of the drums are recorded before we even get the mics set-up to record them well.  The immediate take tends to be the best take, no matter how many times we try and do it better or cleaner or whatever.  We never get there again.  Once we’ve recorded something special on those tapes, then you have to do it justice.”

It is once he has everything on tape when Pierce admits to having some sort of quality that might be understood as perfectionism.  “You can’t mix them in any other way than the right way,” he continues, “and I guess that’s what takes time– trying to retain the original feeling that went into it, which, obviously, gets harder to do the further you get away from that, in time, so, two years later, trying to remember what was exciting about this stuff gets kind of difficult to do, but it’s important to get that back into it, otherwise you end up with a record that sounds like it was recorded two years ago and mixed two years later.  I don’t think this one does.  I don’t think any of our records do.”

Though his mixing can be very exacting**, Pierce explains that his desire to make his music sound transcendent does not fit into the popular definition of perfectionism.  It’s more of an exploration of some hidden truth within the music that even he does not understand.  “I’m very ambitious, musically,” he says.  “I think, if you aim really high, even if you don’t get to the height you aim for, you still get way, way higher than you thought you were able.”  It’s the mystery of the beauty that makes him seek, not what he thinks would be the “perfect” song.

As for the opening title track of the album, Pierce does not care to explain why a subtly placed beep among an electronically muffled violin that melts into the sound of a harmonica can chime along with the quavering sound of a bombastic guitar chord to move someone to empathize with the protagonist’s words of love and devotion, which are presented in four different lines of lyrics, sung by four differently modified voices, layered atop each other and delivered simultaneously.  But, when listening to the title track of Ladies and Gentlemen one realizes the whole thing works.  Even to Pierce, the creator of the above mentioned song, the mixture of elements is a mystery.  “They just work, don’t they?  It’s just integral, isn’t it?  But I don’t think music is anymore important than the lyrics or the other way around.  I don’t really know how that works,” he says.  “It just does.  I guess it has to do with the sort of intangible thing about recording, or writing of a song.”

Sometimes Pierce’s explorations lead him down subconscious familiar roads. The strings on “Broken Heart” seem to recall a relatively obscure track by Brain Eno, “Three variations on the Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel,” which Eno tagged to the end of his 1975 album Discreet Music, an early album of ambient music. Pierce admits that someone else pointed that out to him, though he had not heard it, but had grown interested in obtaining a copy of the album. Though, Pierce admits he goes out of his way to keep his music sounding original.  “If we start to get stuff within our recording that starts to sound like other people’s music, we abandon it,” he says.  “I’m not interested in just saying stuff that’s been said before.  I’m more into the idea of music being evolutionary.  I’m not into music that dilutes the original ideas, which a lot of music, and especially a lot of music in England, tends to be about.  They’re using someone else’s blueprint, whether it’s Nirvana or the Beatles or David Bowie, and then just diluting the source.  I’d rather go back to the source.”

Despite his efforts, Pierce still finds it difficult to completely extinguish his influences from the Spiritualized sound.  “We’ve arrived at places that other people have arrived at, but as a kind of convergence, rather than robbery.  I’ve found, since ‘Electric Mainline,’ that Don Cherry has got a track called ‘Brown Rice,’ and there’s a track on one of the Cluster albums (the album with the kind of yellow rainbow with the stars around it) that sounds just like ‘Electric Mainline,’ but these weren’t starting points for us.  They were just something we arrived at, and, I guess, with everybody using the same musical scales, you’re always going to end up hitting some of the same notes, in the same order.”

Like a lot of the more daring musicians that came before him, like Eno, Pierce uses unusual sources of inspiration that lead him to his finalized songs.  This is how he explains the conception of “200 Bars,” the finale of Lazer Guided Melodies:  “I wanted to get that kind of feeling of when you’re given anesthetics in a hospital, and they do the count down, and, by the time they get to 10 you’re meant to be completely out of it, and I kind of like the idea of making that kind of stuff, within ‘200 Bars,’ anyway, that you could get to 200 and still be with it.”

This brings up the question of the possible role drugs play in Pierce’s music.  Ever since his early days in the seminal eighties space-rock group Spacemen 3, drugs have been a reference point for Pierce.  One sonic concept for Spacemen 3 came from the idea to create the sound one might hear before passing out, similar to “200 Bars.”  Then there are titles like Taking Drugs (To Make Music To Take Drugs To), a compilation of Spacemen 3 demos.  But before the question can be finished about the influence of drugs on Pierce’s musical ideas, he interrupts saying, “No, no.  I don’t think drugs play any role, actually.  The thing I keep saying is, the only way to prove that, is if you do a random control trial where you get 200 non-creative people, and you give a hundred of them drugs and a hundred of them placebos, and see who comes out with the most creative stuff, and I would imagine you’d find no kind of extra creativity in the drug side of the experiment.”

As far as drugs in his personal and recreational life, Pierce feels it would be an irrelevant question.  The truth, or the reality, might destroy a myth, perpetuated by his lyrics, which would, ultimately, weaken the power behind the music.  Take a line from “Come Together”:  “Little Jason/fucked up boy/who dulled the pain/but killed the joy.”  Then, on “I Think I’m In Love,” Pierce sings, “Love in the middle of an afternoon/Just me and my spike in my arm and my spoon.”

Pierce says that knowing more about the personal lives of the musicians that have moved him in his life has not brought any better appreciation of their music to him.  “I think it comes through in those kinds of musics,” he says.  “It comes through whether it’s the Stooges or Stravinsky or Hendrix or Captain Beefheart, or whatever.  It’s all honest to those people, and you don’t need to hear the stories behind the music.  You don’t need to hear about where those people were or what they were doing.  You hear it within their music, anyway.”

The story continues in part 2 here.

*The interview was conducted in August of 1997.

**Pure Phase was actually mixed twice, with the separate mixes laid atop each other, in synchronization, creating the sound of two copies of the album playing simultaneously. Pierce called it a “nightmare” to synch.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)