Steve Roach: Midnight Moon Interview

roach.jpg (9k) It is with great pleasure I introduce our newest AmbiEntrance Exclusive Interviewee... Steve Roach has just released his newest ambient excursion, moonbathing in the reverberously droning rays created in his nocturnal explorations of the six-string. Steve tells about covering this new ground, as well as giving insights into some of his many past exploits, as well as a glimpse into the future.

Extra bonus: a few words from his wife, Linda Kohanov.

photo credit: Mark Morgan Photography

AmbiEntrance: So you had really never played a guitar before Midnight Moon? What was your technique in approaching these unfamiliar instruments?

Roach: My approach was really just feeling my way around it with intuition and open intentions. I had nothing to go on but pure feeling and what sounded right to me in my own space. I had no concern about anything beyond that. It was a very personal process, drawing the direct experience of one moment feeding the next.

I would only create these pieces at the precise time when the feeling was ripe and always late at night. It became a ritual for over a year. During this time I was protective of the space, hardly telling anyone in order to keep a lid on the feeling and the idea I was "playing the guitar".

AmbiEntrance: What if someone asked you: "Why should I pay money to listen to guitar music by someone who doesn't even know how to play a guitar?"

Roach: With that kind of question and the person that I imagine would ask it, I would be patient and say that there is more than one way to play an instrument. If you want tunes and nostalgia-fulfilling music, there are plenty of places to find this. I would proceed to say that the music I create on Midnight Moon is like that of a painter, and the guitar in my hands is like putting my fingers directly into the paint and creating an undefined place of pure atmosphere and introspection. If you want this kind place and have an open mind, then maybe it's for you or maybe not.

In this same way, I am not a keyboard player and would say the same thing about my approach to this instrument as well. After a point in one's life as an "artist", the connection to the visceral aspects of what is defined as someone's style or approach can be transmitted through many mediums if it is approached with grace, confidence and humility.

With that said, if I had more time I would explore my expression through painting and photography as well, both of which I have a strong feel for. Some of that is seen for example on the Truth and Beauty, Live Archive and Dream Circle covers. By definition I am not a painter or photographer but that should not stop anyone from doing anything that wells up and needs to find expression.

AmbiEntrance: You also "play" the Ebow and fretless bass here? Are these on their own separate tracks or are all combined, or what? Can you give an example?

Roach: All the tracks except the first and last on Midnight Moon were created live. I would proceed to create real time loops and play live with these. At the same time, I was also constantly carving the sound at subtle level as it was playing back at me. All of this was recorded direct to DAT as it was happening. Each piece was complete as painting or sound sculpture.

The Fretless and Ebow appear as part of the fabric and were layed in during real time.The first and last track were created in this way but with more tracks over time, and then a final mix completed the two.

AmbiEntrance: What can you tell us about the processing and treatments you did afterwards to your original recordings?

Roach: What's more important for me is the "process" of what the music brings up in oneself. Sure I was using reverbs and harmonizers and delays, the basic tools that are available to everyone, but it was this feeling you hear in the music that I was reaching for that created the desire to bring it into form in the first place. Don't take this the wrong way, but what does the music stir up in you? That is the sense of "processing" I am more interested in: looking at the process of emotion and the state of mind it provokes. It seems this is sometimes lost in the mechanics of how it was created. The outcome is more than what chain of effects and treatments were involved. If I am really connecting with the "process," I rarely remember how it all came together in the end to be honest.

When I hear The Magnificent Void for example I hardly remember any aspect of creating this music because of the space I arrive at after weeks and long hours working on the various stages.

As for the gear itself, these various instruments are are all just tools to speak through, and in this case, an unfamiliar instrument combined with some deeper personal passages I was going through were combined to create music that will never be accessed again in this way. The innocence is gone from this place, but the music on Moon captured it as it was in full bloom. I can list out the menu of processing, but to me that's missing the point which in the end is always the music.

AmbiEntrance: "Midnight Moon" is being released on Projekt (as was Body Electric), while Atmospheric Conditions occurred on your own Timeroom Editions, Light Fantastic went out on Fathom, and Stormwarning and Truth and Beauty appear on your Soundquest label... at what point do you know when a particular project will appear on which label, and why the different points of release?

Roach: It's about timing and the momentum of different projects. It's a complex chess board of moves that would be hard to make sense of from the outside and even for me at times. Fathom has their own agenda as does Projekt and of course my own, which is to live in the soundcurrent as a way of life 24-7, a choice I made years ago.

I can't really say one label puts out one aspect of my work and another wants something else. The most important insight I can share on all of this is I don't make music for labels, I make music from what my wife Linda describes as a genetic directive, which means I am possessed and driven to create as I do on a biological level and the various labels I work with get to share in the outcome. The natural process of putting out Atmospheric Conditions, Truth and Beauty, Stormwarning and so on as Timeroom releases grew with the desire to create a direct pipeline between me and those who enjoy what I do. A big part of this was also the frequency of releases could be stepped up and released without getting in the way of each other in the retail world.

One example of how things are in always in flux is I was all set to release Midnight Moon on my Timeroom Editions, especially since it felt so intimate and personal. Sam Rosenthal at Projekt heard it and was taken by it to the point of wanting to release it in hopes it would find a wider audience than as a WEB-only release, and so it goes.

AmbiEntrance: How and when did you and Sam Rosenthal first get together?

Roach: We met through an artist Walter Holland who was responsible for putting out the Dali compilation I was a part of. This was in Los Angeles in around 1988. Sam heard Dreamtime Return and felt a connection that led to his introducing me to the music of O Yuki Conjugate, a group doing tribal ambient music at the time.

Later he invited me to be on a sampler "Across this Gray Land" which is where I first heard Vidna Obmana's music as well. I have a great working relationship with Sam that has evolved since then. The fact that he is a artist as well make it quite different from the other labels I have worked with. Sam deserves a lot of credit for supporting the growth of this music and taking chances that other labels would not consider.

AmbiEntrance: How is your new collab with Vir Unis Blood Machine coming along? How will it be different from your previous co-work, Body Electric?

Roach: We have been on hold with it for a few months until Vir Unis settles into his new home and I have been moving in other directions. In the meantime we are always cooking up our special soundworlds that we know will light each other up when we get together this summer for the final melting of it all.

It's going to be much deeper in terms of peeling back the layers of the sub-stratified collective unconsciousness primordial dreamtime interface we are drawing from. Its still unfolding and these things always are in flux up to the last minute.

AmbiEntrance: You also contributed production and guitar loops to Vir Unis' The Drift Inside; what can you tell us about your involvement with that gorgeous release?

Roach: I was a supportive interface-sounding board that gave encouragement along with the final assembly and sonic enhancement - production at the Timeroom, as well as hooking him up with GreenHouse for the release that started with Convergent Evolution.

AmbiEntrance: Will there be a follow-up to your (and Roger King's) Dust to Dust?

Roach: No plans. Roger has 3 teenage boys and a demanding production business that devours his time. I feel that was passage that will not be looked at any time soon or beyond. We are great friends but that direction really feels like an only child and we are happy to keep it that way. After saying that we just might start on something new within a few weeks.

AmbiEntrance: Wasn't Roger King involved in pretty much "normal" music before you came along? How has he taken to this new more-ambient world you've exposed him to? (Very well, from the sounds of the projects he's mastered for you...)

Roach: He owned one of the 2 main studios in Tucson for a lot of years and as a result wore many hats doing all kinds of music and soundtracks. I am sure a lot of it was far from normal. We were friends for 3 years before doing any music together besides his mastering my CD's.

Once we started to collaborate it was really apparent that his natural talent and open mind exceeded that of most musicians I know. Like I said about the guitar, if it's in your soul and you feel it along with the ability to let it out then so be it, and this is how he approached my world of music.

I remember Roger saying it was when he mastered the Magnificent Void with me that he got the true message of my music. I still remember when the session "shifted" into a different space, he ended up laying on the floor and the room starting to expand and....well it was 10 in the morning and no, we had nothing in our coffee. For me it's refreshing to work with someone outside of the ambient ghetto where a lot of people know of the usual suspects floating around in the tidepool so to speak.

AmbiEntrance: Your music obviously is shaped by your desert surroundings... what might your music sound like if you had been living in, say, a quaint fishing village on the coast of Maine?

Roach: Truly hard to say. I am clearly in my element out here in the desert, but it's not always about creating desert music. The feeling I get at a soulful level from this place gives me the energy and inspiration to explore all kinds of non arid hyper dimensional zones through the music and imagination. This could happen in other environments and might yield similar results. I think it's important to remind those who are new to my music that Desert Solitaire, Western Spaces, Dreamtime Return, Structures from Silence and others were all created while living in the bowels of Los Angeles. The need to create these places in my music were pulling me before I moved directly to the desert.

AmbiEntrance: Speaking of Western Spaces, I've been listening to it lately. I didn't feel that it's aged as well as, say Quiet Music, from the same time period... what do you think?

Roach: I feel music appreciation is totally subjective and as individual as each one of us on the planet. The ebb and flow of what moves someone and how it sounds in your "ears" or mine day to day changes constantly . I can go back to "older" music for example early Tangerine Dream and sometimes it feels that it lost its feeling for me but on another day it hits a nerve in just the right way. The same with Miles Davis and others who have a long recorded history.

The Breathing Stone, In the Heat of Venus - a few pieces off of Western Spaces for example, I would say if they came out tomorrow as pieces never heard before and released in 2000, then would they speak with the same emotion as they did then and hence have no age, or shelf life.

It is about what you bring to the music, the perception of time, expectations, memories, social conditions, if you have had a head cold and so much more that continually influence the way we hear. The beauty of music is that it challenges us to not be fixed in hearing with only one set of ears. Furthermore I feel pieces can can build and hold energy over time and that occurs in the way one brings themselves mentally and spiritually to active experience of "listening."

AmbiEntrance: Do you still keep in contact with Kevin Braheny or Richard Burmer?

Roach: No. those relationships played out along time ago and seemed to have a lot to do with living in Los Angeles.

AmbiEntrance: You're one of the more prolific artists around... do you do anything besides make music? And if so, what?

Roach: As far as being considered prolific, It's just the natural pace for me to operate at. It's not something that's forced or I feel I am working at rigorously. It just feels like I am in the flow. I love being in this soundcurrent and capturing the music as I do. It is a constant feedback circuit. Over the years the momentum builds and the process becomes more rich and fulfilling for me most everyday. It's a way of life for me; not a job or a profession.It's my chosen path, being in the flow of sound and music.

Comparing this to a visual artist or sculptor for example, they usually have a reams of work in various stages. It's no different for me and I have always felt more connected to this process of creativity. Somewhere along the way the record industry among other things set a standard to protect their own investments with an artist or group squeezing out a release every 15 months. That is life on a dead planet as far as I am concerned.

As for "besides" time, I am an avid Mountain Biker. It's a fantastic way to stay fit, and beyond that it's a multileveled experience that brings together many different psychic and mental states. The riding I do is cross country desert riding, extreme terrain and longer distance. I am addicted to the zone that one arrives into after a point of hard riding at a high heart rate and deep breathing. Add all that to the fact that you have brought yourself miles from civilization into a place of pure unspoiled and often savage beauty, and this becomes a moment in time to savor and then do again ASAP. In short, it's pure fun and light years away from the other worlds I travel with the music but still connected at a visceral level.

Also, my wife Linda is a horse trainer and is part of a national program that recognizes and teaches the therapeutic nature of the horse-human connection. It's a direct experience situation where one becomes in tune with these majestic creatures at a level that is pretty amazing to see in action. Horses are arguably the most mindful creatures on the planet, and they respond to the most authentic part of any human being they interact with. At an emotional level, you can't deceive a horse. They are like big mirrors that reflect your most profound strengths and most devastating weaknesses without judgment, pride or shame. I spend some time in this space when I can. Beyond all this, taking time to get slow.

AmbiEntrance: How did you meet your wife, Linda Kohanov? Did she know what she was getting into with you?

Roach: We met while I was flying around promoting Dreamtime Return in 1988. She was a music journalist at the time.We just celebrated our 10-year marriage anniversary and it's never felt better. Our partnership and her unending support towards me to follow my heart with my music can never be acknowledged enough. As for knowing what she was getting into, it could certainly go the other way depending on what slant we are looking at. I will let her answer this now, so this is Linda and her feelings on this:

Linda Kohanov: At a gut level, I knew what I was getting into, and I've never been disappointed. The depth of personal vision and commitment to artistic expression that I first sensed in Steve has proven to be unshakable over the years, despite the pressures of a world that typically does not support such efforts.

We have lived on the edge in many ways—-artistically, culturally, financially—-always pushing the boundaries of what is considered sane or attainable, sharing and often collaborating in an alchemy of sound and silence, word and meaning that continues to seduce us ever further into the unknown. We are perpetually challenging each other to let go of old ways of perceiving and being, and then gritting our teeth and holding onto each other through the limbo that comes before chaos gives birth to the next level of being, that dies in turn as the ritual continues.

It is a dream come true to be part of a relationship where each person can follow his/her heart's desire into the realm of pure, impractical imagination and have his/her partner support that kind of experimentation on every level. It has been a wild ride for both of us, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

AmbiEntrance: Another one for Linda... how do you describe your husband to folks who haven't met him yet?

Linda Kohanov: In casual conversation, it is really quite impossible to explain what Steve does to a person who has no experience with music as a mind expanding agent. Many of the people I meet these days listen to top 40 radio, are stuck constantly reliving their college glory days with hits from the 70s, or have a real fixation on country music.

Most of these people listen to a certain style of music almost religiously and are very resistant to moving outside their comfort zone—-music to them is exclusively a diversion, or even a way to hang onto a fairly mundane sense of reality. Even a lot of the rock that seems extreme sticks to some very common human emotions where people rage against the system without really expanding their sense of reality and exploring other psychological states. To these people, Steve's music is completely alien, and it can be very threatening. Plus, I can't easily categorize what Steve does or even offer one or two CDs to sample because I don't know if Quiet Music, The Leaving Time, Dust to Dust or the Magnificent Void would be best for that person.

Now that I'm working and writing outside the music business, it's amazing how well you can get to know someone and still have no clue as to what they would resonate with musically. If a person really seems interested, I usually refer him or her to Steve's website.

Now I have to say that people I meet who are pushing the boundaries of reality themselves—-usually psychologists, body workers or artists—-are generally very receptive to what Steve does. To them, I describe Steve as a person who uses sound to change the listener's perception of time and space. I tell them he has several dozen albums out that explore altered states which are sometimes gentle and meditative, other times more tribal and even confrontational as the music travels into aspects of the collective and personal unconscious that are rarely mapped in sound.

Still, when such a person asks me which disc they should buy to sample his sound, I can never tell for sure if he or she would rather hear Soma, Artifacts, Dream Circle or Light Fantastic. I've run across some very down to earth people who I thought would only be able to handle a disc with more familiar instruments like guitar and harmonica on `Dust to Dust act as if I was holding out on them when they discovered The Magnificent Void. Then I've had people who say they are deeply into shamanic or mystical studies completely freak out on the Void. You never can tell...

AmbiEntrance: How helpful has your website ( been in opening doors for new listeners? Any predictions of how music and the Internet will correlate in the future?

Roach: It's a vital interface and here is where I praise Cliff Tuel for his incredible support in keeping my Web site together. I receive consistent feedback from new and longtime listeners via the Web site. 

As for the future, this music that has always been a bastard child to the record industry. The Internet is the perfect home to welcome this music that does not fit into clear-cut categories and sales quotas.  I have always felt that the "industry" and popular press has always held the head of the baby underwater with this type of music, never giving it the chance it deserves to become a part of the more mainstream culture current.

Sure, it's not for everyone but I find it amazing how people from all walks of life are still discovering it by word of mouth, radio, sites like this and so on. I feel the potential for people to discover the music is better now than just a few years ago and I am excited about this for the near future. The great thing with music is that all you have to do is hear it and that says it all. As more sites have this feature, MP3 Real Audio and so on then the process becomes as direct as it gets.

AmbiEntrance: According to the discography at your website, your first recordings were as Moebius in 1979... what was that sound like? Any chances of those recordings being re-released?

Roach: Never, if I have anything to do with it! But really I am OK with it. It was not my music or vision, but it was a big learning time having just moved from San Diego to LA to start on the path do do my music. In 1978. I met up with these guys a bit older than me, Doug Lynner and Bryce Robbley that were doing electro pop in the vein of Kraftwerk and Devo. Both were graduates of Cal Arts where lots of Electronic innovators had taught or passed through.

They were a big part of the electronic community in LA in the late 70's and had a magazine Synapse that I was also writing for, one of the first devoted to Electronic Music. So it was an exciting time to be in that embryonic era meeting everyone from Tangerine Dream, to Tom Oberheim, Tomita and Harold Budd. I think they were fascinated by my "possession" and took me under their wing.

I worked with them on the one record, I was working in a big studio and had my hands on all the gear I could only dream about. So that was the big first step in my schooling that was never formal and always about jumping in the deep end and learning to swim later.

AmbiEntrance: Since then you've taken many artists (Biff Johnson, Ma Ja Le, Vir Unis,>etc.) under your wing as well. Do you see yourself as a musical mentor? Are you working with any new proteges/partners in the near future?

Roach: Sure, its been a natural cycle or progression. I have been encouraged by some special people along the way and then to help others I feel are talented, respectful and I have a connection with to find their way and get rolling feels fine.

I do this to help them out and help the genre grow. I only have so much time along with my various projects but all these have their own way of coming into focus. I have a few projects down the pipe with some newcomers, to this style of music anyway.

AmbiEntrance: I'm looking forward to Live Archive... How long have you been involved with Vidna Obmana, and how did that relationship begin?

Roach: We met in Germany in 91 soon after I was exposed to his music through Sam and his CD A Passage in Beauty. We were in no hurry to make music together, exchanging ideas philosophies and getting to know each other was a natural progression. After a second trip to Europe, more meetings and so on the chance for us to work together on his release The Spiritual Bonding in Tucson occurred. This is when we really discovered the potential of our collaboration and friendship that created a foundation for music to follow and for our ongoing adventures together. Live Archive is a melting of the high points from a string of concerts in 1997, and it perfectly captures the feeling of those events for us.

AmbiEntrance: What can you tell us about your upcoming live gigs, particularly your May show with Jorge Reyes?

Roach: With Jorge it's always on the edge. That's were we met and seem the most comfortable. I just can't wait to be their again soon. It's been quite a while since we played live together so that excitement will be thick in the air. Presenting a concert in my home of Tucson is always massive fun. With the support of friends, we pull out all the stops and present the music in way that I rarely am able to do on tour or in festivals.

AmbiEntrance: What other CD projects are approaching the completion phase?

Roach: The new release with Jorge, Vine Bark & Spore will be out mid-May in time for the concert. I have a double CD that is a collaboration with a Percussionist Byron Metcalf on Projekt in Sept. It's called the Serpents Lair. Its focus is pure blooded, intense trance pieces with lots of live percussion and hybrid grooves on disk one. Disk two will have elements of disk one melted into new forms and pieces as "Offerings from the Underworld" We will have a lot of guests on this one. It's been under construction for nearly a year but under wraps till now.

In May a LTD release of 1000 copies titled Circles and Artifacts with Vidna Obmana, photography by Martine Verhoeven and poetry by Linda Kohanov all presented on CD ROM format will be released on Vidna Obmana's label. Beside that the 92 release Solitaire - Ritual Ground will be re-issued by Project Archive this summer. Lots of other irons in the fire as well, please visit my web site for the latest.

AmbiEntrance: I'm pleased and honored to have had this interview with you Steve, thanks! Anything you'd like to add while you're here?

Roach: Thanks for the opportunity to share these thoughts and all the best to your readers and of course listeners.

This interview posted April 29, 2000 | Interview Index

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