Features | Interviews

Ian William Craig

By Robin Smith | 3 February 2015

Ian William Craig released one of the Glow’s favourite records last year, and though it was his sixth, it feels like a debut—a record literally crackling with energy, opened up with the operatic equivalent of a morning yawn. Despite their ruinous qualities, A Turn of Breath’s tape-worn drones were a bright light, especially in a year where drone albums seemed to hide in the dark—in a year where Christina Vantzou, Siavash Amini, Mary Lattimore, and Lawrence English sustained grey clouds, Craig used his lo-fi compositions to produce colour and beauty on a constantly renewing landscape. If ever there was a perfect record for train rides, it’s this one: the greens and blues, and the shapes they shade in, get pushed aside. It’s no bad thing that the things we concentrate on the most get interrupted.

Craig has been making ambient since 2012, when he sat at a piano and started recording improvisations. The result was Meaning Turns to Whispers, a record rooted in a gorgeous neo-classical tradition, but totally fucked up by tape manipulations that made it anything but pretty. For Craig, the use of reel-to-reels has become a way of decaying sentimentality: any time his music has come too close to meeting his expectations (like most: express yourself), he’s uprooted it, creating impervious walls or bursts of modest but stupefying noise, anything that might help rewrite the truth.

In choice moments on Meaning, you could hear Craig trying to imagine the lived lives of his inanimate instruments: beyond the notes he played on his piano, there was the sound it made, if only for a few seconds; when you heard him beaming down on the piano, its wooden infrastructure was revealed, and it sounded like it had its own set of motivations. Craig tried once again to make plaintive piano music last year, the result being Theia and the Archive, which has lived through a few years in many different incarnations. Ultimately, he found there to be more beauty in ruining his Eluvium-inspired processions. The sounds that come from outside of him tend to be the ones he believes in.

Though A Turn of Breath feels like a formalisation of very new ideas, it has its roots in A Forgetting Place (2013), a record Craig was finished with and ready to move on from the second it was released. Of course, if you listen to any of his music, you’ll know he never get his own way; his songs take on their own form, spurred on by their commitment to “becoming.” Recital boss and mastering hand Sean McCann convinced Craig to recontextualise many of his old works for his first physical release, and the result is this wonderfully confused record, one with a definitive opening suite and conclusion, but an otherwise constantly shifting mass of melodies and thoughts.

I’ve said enough about Craig’s work at this point; it’s best I shut up and let him articulate. In very generous conversation, he talked about how tape decks are sentient, how music can be too pretty, and why drone power ballads don’t exist, among many other things that are too interesting to pull quote.

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CMG: You’ve been putting out ambient records for about three years. What were your first interactions with ambient music and how did they coincide with you as a vocal artist?

Ian William Craig (IWC): Well, I grew up in, not a small town, but one that was isolated from such things, so I must confess that my taste in music when I was growing up was not completely exemplarity. [Laughs]. I’ve since learned to embrace it, but it was filled with lots of hair metal, lots of Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. That’s what I thought music really was for a long time. I still responded to it and really loved it for what it was, but there was something kind of missing, for lack of a better term.

I’ve been a vocalist for a really long time, so I guess what i was really drawn to at that point was the bombast of it, or just the kind of ridiculousness: the ridiculous vocals; the tradition of just belting it out. My favourite vocalist was Freddie Mercury, which I guess is not dissimilar to the Aerosmiths and Bon Jovis.

And so with ambient music, I guess I discovered that in my late teens—Godspeed and Stars of the Lid were the two that I encountered at first and it was just such a totally different way of organising sound. I had no idea what I was listening to. To try and figure out how that integrated itself into kind of a landscape of hair metal and power chords has been a long process. I fell in love with that sound but there was kind of always an inkling towards, “well yeah, but these really powerful vocals and these really big ballads and power chords,” they were really beautiful. I guess at some point I just realised I was in love with this whole entire spectrum. And when I started making music I was trying to pack so many ideas into recording, because it was coming from all these different angles. So it took me a long time to get something actually down. I have been making and putting out ambient records for three years, but I’ve been toying with the idea for a lot longer than that, probably something closer to ten years—as a kind of way to work out how these different ideas will get along.

Basically the story of my life is a really excited guy, getting really excited in esoteric stuff and trying to connect the dots and figure out how they integrate. I guess that’s my experience with ambient music. It’s a way for me to try and tie disparate facets of my life together. My theory of everything, so to speak. [Laughs].

CMG: I’ve read a lot about you being a trained opera singer, I’m not sure how much truth there is in it. Is it the case?

IWC: Yeah, sort of. I did shorten my vocal training into a sound byte for Sean [McCann, founder of Recital Program] for the purposes of promotion, I guess. But there is truth to it! I was training operatically in my late teens and early twenties. I’ve sung chorally for a really long time. That wouldn’t necessarily be operatic, I suppose, but it is in the classical mode, and it would be drawing on a lot of the same traditions. As far as straight up opera singing is concerned, though, that was more like, fifteen years ago…

CMG: In terms of training for this kind of vocal discipline and then connecting it with ambient music, which I find tends to be more of an individualised discovery, something that people don’t train for—how did those intersect?

IWC: My voice tends to be really pretty, I guess, and sort of subsequently boring. [Laughs].The training gives you this aspect of just being able to hit the notes. I don’t want to say it’s necessarily pragmatic or systematic, or something like that, but a lot of the challenges that I had when I was trying to sing overtop, or integrate the two worlds, was that it just ended up sounding Enya-esque, or New Age-y—with all respect to her, because I think she’s awesome, but that does usually end up being very sentimental. That was one of the challenges: that I ended up singing, and it was just pretty, and people would get impressed by the gymnastics of it, but that wasn’t really what I was trying to get at.

The ambient and textural aspects of it are to me a way of eschewing the ornamentality, the sentimental or the self-conscious. You can’t be pretty at the same time, or at least when you are, it’s kind of smoothed over. The training in some ways has been a hindrance, in the sense that it’s given me a really robust bag of tricks to dive into when I know things aren’t going well. [Laughs]. It’s like, “oh yeah, well, that didn’t sound great but it’s okay, because we can just do a couple of trills and impress people, it’s fine.” And the tape machines and the disintegrating aspect of it is really important, a powerful way for me to get out of my own comfort zones.

CMG: I’ve seen comparisons, and I’ve made them myself, to artists like Julianna Barwick and Enya, and I feel like while there’s that choral element there, it’s like your vocals are being shredded up and punctuated, like denoting imperfection on something that should sound pure and angelic. It’s like it’s attacked.

IWC: Yeah, I think it’s really hard to do stunning and angelic vocals and still keep them authentic, right? I think that’s amazing. I’m flattered to be compared to those two artists, because I do think they do a great job of navigating that more pure vocal sound while still remaining expressive—there’s still a human aspect, rather than just beautiful for the sake of beautiful. But I do think that’s really difficult, because it’s just the voice, that’s it. So maybe I’m confessing that I’m not quite there yet—[to go] unplugged. I have experimented with that, and it’s always an interesting result, but [the pieces] tend to be more like etudes; they don’t have the same sort of response. I’m really interested in where those two worlds collide—the more disintegrating style [and the vocal].

CMG: When you interpose these [tape] disintegrations and noise onto the vocals, do you feel it does anything in particular to that kind of vocal? It seems strange for something that is maybe more revered.

IWC: Yeah. So I have a history in print making—I was a visual artist for quite a number of years, and I teach as a visual artist too. My history with regards to visual art is very print-making based, which is another one of these esoteric, anachronistic artforms. [Laughs]. But it did give me a real love of the tactile and something actually happening, the notion of letting go to the process. Print-making is very process-based: you have a copper plate, you make some marks on it, you put it into the acid, and the acid does whatever the acid is gonna do. You have a notion of what might happen, and an idea of where you want to end up, but ultimately the process is what’s dictating what the final image is gonna be.

To me the tape decks are kind of like that, too—in fact I always tell people that I make very print-makerly music! [Laughs]. So as far as what it’s doing to the vocals, I think the tape decks are kind of my acid bath. It’s a way to keep myself from being too attached to it.

What I really love about the tape decks is that the sound physically exists upon it, and I think my love of that comes from my love of print-making. I get to touch the sound and physically affect it. It’s something that’s actually happening. You can rub the tape, you can blow it out. It’s just got this physical presence which I kind of stand in awe of, and feeding one’s own vocals through that process is really…it’s kind of inspiring.

It’s fun to see that live. You kind of mangle yourself in it, in a way. You’re juggling too many balls at once, and I really enjoy not really knowing what’s going to happen, or being just a little bit out of control and seeing people’s reaction to having this really beautiful voice getting mangled through this corridor of distortion and disintegration.

CMG: That feeds into something I feel about this album, which is that it seems very about its own transience. The lyrics—“connecting,” “shifting,” “changing”—it’s almost like the disintegration states the constancy of change, where the vocals usually would be used for something almost eternal.

IWC: The choral tradition is definitely immured in a sense of transcendence or salvation. There’s that really Judaeo-Christian sense of salvation as something that’s gonna happen over there, that’s really impenetrable. The choral tradition historically has always talked about that. And it’s very reverent, yes, but it’s also very segregational in a way—like you make a piece, and you go and worship, and you exist in this particular space. That’s all very well and fine—it is quite awe-inspiring. But it’s designed to be awe-inspiring. It seems like a barrier, something that’s inaccessible.

The things I’ve found most inspiring in my creative output have always centred around a feeling of orbiting or becoming. It’s been very hard for me to finish things, in fact, because they are always in a state of billowing. I really love the process, and that seems to be a much more fitting metaphor for day to day life—something that is very transient. Drawing on the choral tradition is a way of mining it for the transcendent aspect but presenting it in a way that seems more human. Bringing it down a couple of notches, and suggesting it is all billowing: it’s a moment and another moment and another moment. Which I guess comes back to deconstructing self-consciousness. That aspect of transience is very important to me and something I’ve been trying to understand for a very long time. [Laughs].

CMG: There’s a song on the record where you reference John Cage’s idea of avoiding Either/Or situations and encompassing everything. As you say about performing and having all these areas to be looking out for, that philosophy of Cage’s suggests your album: all these ideas that are turning over, and continuing, and becoming.

IWC: Well, I certainly hope so. I actually took a John Cage class in art school, and…he ruined everything for me! [Laughs]. I hadn’t processed anything like that before. I was so in love with music in a kind of Western compositional way—like, the artist is a genius, goes into an art cave and fashions a work of inescapable beauty, and everyone turns into a ball of perfect energy. And then I took this course and here’s this guy talking about, “well no, actually, everything is just happening and art is everything and everything is art.” I couldn’t look away, right? I really hated him for a long time, because he just ruined stuff. I’d go back and try to sing this beautiful choral stuff and it’d be like, “oh man, this is sentimental crap! I don’t understand!”

It took a long time to integrate that, and I’m really grateful to Cage and his tradition, to have taught me the profundity of silence. That was a big deal. I’d tried to consume as much music as I possibly could and I couldn’t figure out why it was stressing me out so much. This notion of losing control was really a big deal. I have him to thank for it. Now I’m glad you said that, because I’ve often wondered what John Cage would think of music that I make, because it does still have that controlling aspect. I write it off and say, well yeah, but you can’t escape your own tradition. This is the best I can do! This is the most control I can lose! [Laughs].

CMG: I remember reading [those lyrics] and thinking that this album does feel like a constant change and renewal of ideas, but at the same time it’s kind of like you’re postulating that in a closed system. The album has a definitive beginning vocal and crackle, and the final piece feels very definitive too, so there’s a sense you’re trapped in the grandiosity, or the narrative.

IWC: Yes, and I’m not sure what to do about that to be particularly honest. Because I do listen to my output, and I think, well, I’ve basically made the same album over and over again. And I don’t mean that necessarily as a bad thing, but I do have this sense of narrative that I keep coming back to. The sensibility I have makes me put songs together in a particular way, and I can hear it. I always want to have that grandiose ending with a kind of moral-of-the-story, and an opening salvo that sets the stage, that sets things up for a fall from grace. It’s very humbling to see one’s programming rise to the surface in that regard.

CMG: Would you say that you go back to ideas and redraft them? It seems like A Turn of Breath’s pieces are updated versions of the stuff on A Forgetting Place, so I’m wondering if you felt the need to recontextualise those ideas?

IWC: I am glad it came about that way. I had been turning to Sean to get mastering done. He’s a very competent sound engineer, and I had just been going to him as a go-to guy to get things mastered. So I’d sent him A Forgetting Place with the intention to get it mastered, to stick it up on my Bandcamp. But he really liked it and said that he wanted to talk about making a record. And it was interesting to me because I had never done something as quickly [as A Forgetting Place]. My promise to myself was that I wasn’t going to spend more than a couple of months on it, which to me is a drop of the pen. Usually I obsess about things quite a bit, but it was me saying okay, I’m not going to, I’m just going to finish it and whatever I have is what I have. That’s going to be it.

But then Sean heard it and said he’d like to release it, or at least a part of it—“can we re-engage in it?”And I was like “oh shit! Kind of, I guess?”, because I really wanted to release a record but I really wanted to just put this out there and have it finished. That was nice, though, because I have since understood those pieces weren’t finished and I’m grateful for him to push me in that direction and help me take those songs to their final resting place. That sounded quite morbid. [Laughs]. In a way I guess that speaks more to that sense of becoming. It wasn’t a painless process, but Sean was ultimately right!

CMG: It seems like there’s symmetry between the becoming of the music and the exponential way you seem to write lyrics. There are lines that feel built upon piece by piece (like on “Either/Or”: “Admit I / Thought I was / Thought I was the hero”). Do you see it that way at all?

IWC: I’d never thought about that, actually, I just repeat where it feels good to repeat things. Again, I do tend to obsess about things, which has been a nice aspect of going to the tape loops and using that in a generative way. I do confess to having been sensitive boy with a guitar for a long time, and using the tape machine finds out what the salient details of the piece are—doing a song-writing reduction, I guess, putting them through this gauntlet and seeing what comes out the other end.

Some of the songs on A Turn of Breath just ended up as straight-up songs because they could live that way, but with regards to “Either/Or” specifically, that started out as a really long one—there were maybe five or six verses to that song, and those lines were the only ones that survived, so to speak. So it’s interesting to hear you say they’re exponential in the sense they build upon one another, because from my point of view it’s quite the opposite: they’ve been torn away, and that’s what’s left. Which is neat, hearing somebody else’s experience of it—the performative aspect of it is more what you’re describing, but song-writing is much more about destroying the piece, getting rid of what’s still not communicating. Anything else would have been decorative.

CMG: In terms of the two kind of “folk” songs on this record—“Rooms” feels like a folk ballad, as does “A Forgetting Place.” Are there any folk songwriters or sad boy in bedroom writers you turn to in those songs?

IWC: It has been a while since I listened to that kind of music. I really love Joni Mitchell. Iron & Wine was one of my favourites for a long time. The first song I remember going, “oh hey, this is music!” was “Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton. But Iron & Wine was definitely the first one that popped into my head. I think between A Creek Drank the Cradle and the Microphones—that got me into lo-fi recording, the generative aspects of it. Not as an affectation, but a way to construct pieces and compose. I don’t know. You can make me sound cooler. [Laughs].

CMG: Do you find that stuff harder to formalise? You’ve spent a lot of time in this droning framework, do you find that stuff harder to get down?

IWC: The process of writing songs for me is a bit more didactic, I guess. I don’t want to say it’s harder, because what’s gone into my more compositional material is a lot of research into figuring out how tape decks work. The more ambient material includes a lot more things off the top of my head I wouldn’t count as music, per se. That goes into it. I feel a little strange because the construction of those pieces goes a lot quicker, because it’s supposed to be more intuitive—you put a sound down and respond to it, put another sound down and respond to that, and it disintegrates. The thing that takes longest for those pieces is setting them up and deciding what equipment to use; deciding how to make it function or not function.

Writing a song feels like it takes a lot longer, because you’re sitting down with the guitar and trying lyrics out. But it’s just an entirely different process. The ambient sounds are more reductive; the song-written material is more additive. I’ve tried to find ways to integrate one into the other. “A Forgetting Place,” I think I wrote that in about ten minutes on holiday in Iceland. I was there over the Christmas holidays and the flat I was in had a random guitar. I have no idea where that came from. But it was interesting, because [with] “Rooms,” I was trying to write a song that was like “A Forgetting Place,” and I had that notion in my head, and that one took a really, really long time. And it was also verses and verses and verses, and got cut down to the two minute snippet.

I’ve been interested in finding ways for those two worlds to talk to one another, so maybe coming to the tape decks with more of a melodic motif or something written in mind—going to the guitar and being less conscious about what comes out.

CMG: There must be a different kind of framework in how you select those processes, like, taking a verse out of a song compared to taking a segment out of an ambient piece?

IWC: I try and listen back to things with the same kind of ear, but I do think it’s harder to be selective about a song-written song because they mean a bit more to me. You’re using actual words and talking about an actual experience, and generally they will have been written for a particular reason. There is an emotional intent you’re trying to wrap words around. It’s harder to chop them up. But I try to respond to an album like a start-to-finish thing and if you’re working on one specific part of an album, it’s doing things to different parts of it—so if you sand one part back, it shines up something else five minutes later and you can’t really get a sense of how it functions until you listen to the whole thing. If I’m putting all those things together, I try and listen to them as though they’re a bunch of friends at a cocktail party. [Laughs]. Trying to adjust one song’s collar and fix another conversation.

CMG: That’s a fantastic process!

IWC: Well it is a little obsessive! It’s good though. I think one thing I learned from A Turn of Breath was editing. It didn’t dawn on me until I worked with Sean. It was the first time I’d let someone into the creative process that way. He took a lot of the song songs I’d written and threw them out, and I was like, “What!? They’re good songs!” [Laughs]. “A Slight Grip” was actually a twelve minute start-to-finish, in the vein of “I’d Do Anything For Love, But I Won’t Do That.” You know. It was like the ambient “November Rain,” or something, and he took it and chopped five minutes out and took this off, and it ended up being two entirely different pieces that were half the length. At first I was just personally offended somebody could hear it and not hear the grandiose beauty that I had created! [Laughs]. It ended up being that he was totally right.

The stuff I’ve been working on subsequently I’ve been trying to be more ruthless and detached. That editing is really important, saying what is the experience about and how could it be more about it. The other stuff happened, and now it’s away.

CMG: It’s interesting, and as much as I’d love to hear a drone power ballad, most people look at editing as truncating the truth, when a power ballad goes for more and more.

IWC: Yeah, coming from a history of power ballads and that sort of thing, to me more was more. It couldn’t be anything but more. Throwing more crescendos at something— I loved when things just went on and on and on. One of my best friends is a sound engineer and he listened to A Turn of Breath and was like, “wow, everything is below ten minutes. There are some two minute songs on here! How did you process that?” So yeah, I’m really grateful for Sean to have taught me that lesson.

CMG: You released another record last year, Theia and the Archive. The feeling I get from it is that it’s a sort of destructive counterpoint to A Turn of Breath—where there’s a lot of re-growth to that record, it’s like skin just gets shed on this. What differs in making that kind of record for you? Was it a different kind of cathartic experience? It sounds like you’re just trying to blast yourself.

IWC: So I got a masters degree in fine arts years and years ago, and it was one of the most anxious and stressful things I’ve ever put myself through. [Laughs]. It was very formative, in a way, but I was really just finished at the end of it. I had lost my enthusiasm for visual art, to say the least, and having just gone through years of schooling and really having a palpable feeling of not wanting to do this anymore—that was pretty potent. So I locked myself in a room with my sister’s piano, and just made hours and hours of recordings of just me banging away.

At the time I was listening to a lot of Eluvium, and I thought, okay, well Eluvium made this really cool piano album, so I’m gonna make a really cool piano album. But everything that I made ended up sounding like shit, and I couldn’t figure out why—why couldn’t I make the piano the way I wanted it to sound? And of course it was because I was coming off this really intense experience and still didn’t know what I was doing as a composer. And so the recordings sat and they sat and they sat, and I picked them up like three years ago, when I started to discover how to manipulate tape. I thought I would re-engage and I knew at that point it wasn’t very good, so I can revitalise this by putting it through the gauntlet. It was the first time I had discovered that ruining something could be quite beautiful, or reveal a hidden truth.

Theia and the Archive is really fascinating to me because I sat with that one for years. I have my back and forth with that suite of compositions for a really long time. It ended up being released on tape in a format that was twice as long. It still had the same amount of pieces but they dragged on and on and on.

I guess it was a bit self-flagellating, because whenever I heard the material it would bring up some of those old feelings. Banging sense into them was something that was really important to me. Or it seemed important…the whole thing ended up being really unimportant as soon as I released it, and that was really awesome to me. This thing that I obsessed over, and then I took it through the gauntlet and it ended up being half an hour. It was really incredible that you could take this experience of tens of hours in a small room just making sentimental crap on a piano and put it down to half an hour. It was really awesome. To let it go and not care—that was the cathartic aspect.

And actually, it’s funny, because I keep forgetting that happened.

CMG: Is it strange letting those albums go and moving on to the next one?

IWC: I think moving on from something and having it take on its own life is really respectful to a project; it’s just as much an aspect of expression engaging in something as it is creating it in the first place. That’s not something I fully understood until I started releasing music. I confess I didn’t really know I had an ego, but putting music out into the world definitely revealed that aspect of myself, and I got strange about it—it was like, “I want this stuff to be good, and I want people to listen, and I want people to like me. [Laughs]. I want people to like my music and therefore like me as a person!”

It does have a lot to do with what you think the function of music is, and the notion of community and performance. It’s a lot easier for me to put things out into the world with this new sense of detachment. I’m this small part of a much larger process which includes people who are listening to it, and other people who’ve had influence upon the work. I’m not suggesting I’ve come the whole way and that I’m super enlightened about it, but saying I’m in charge of this stuff is really kind of…potentially damaging to the pieces themselves. I listen to Theia and the Archive now, and I really get the sense of someone trying to express something, to say something in a vacuum. I like how tragic an album it is in that sense. [Laughs].

CMG: Is there a sense in which improvisation can be detachment? I’ve been listening to Meaning Turns to Whispers a lot, which is improvised, is there a sense in which you become less important to the project that way?

IWC: It’s been a new development to me to go to a live performance with actual pieces in mind, and it’s been nice, as far as my nerves are concerned, but before when I played shows it was all improvised. I would just get up and thank people and do whatever. Maybe I would rehearse, but I wouldn’t have a piece to play or any melodies in my head. It feels a lot more like the machines that I’m using are actual performers on stage, then. That’s something that’s really important to me—revealing the process as another musician, not just as a conduit. I think I secretly believe that they have a life to them and that they are sentient.

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand them at all and they have such a huge impact on things, but the actual components of what’s making the sound—that’s really important, and you can’t help but be improvisational with those. Even if you are playing a piece, it’s not going to end up the way you think it is. There’s no way you can finagle the tape decks into doing what you want them to do. They’ll feedback, they’ll fail, they’ll disintegrate. To fail in front of an audience is important. It’s harrowing, but it’s vulnerable and kind of awesome at the same time.

CMG: A Turn of Breath as a phrase to me feels like it has a lot of ambiguations that you can unfold—for me I like the idea of you giving all these different intonations of these vocals a turn to exist, but there’s a sense of letting everything go. Do you have a certain perspective on what that phrase means?

IWC: I just fear it’s not going to be half as poetic as your relationship to it is. [Laughs]. It was funny, because a turn had an entirely different meaning, but I can’t remember what it was! I suppose to me it was turning in the aspect of shifting. Turning was more like how food turns, but I guess that makes it sound off.

I’m gonna leave it, I think I’m gonna butcher it. I will say that the “breath” in the phrase was important to me to say, as the fuel of what I do. In the same way that the machinery is given its own place in the spotlight, because it’s very heavily revealed in the album itself, so too did I want to reveal that notion of a singer. The word turn to me I forget—I looked it up in the dictionary and was like, “turn means that? That’s rad, I’m gonna use that.” But it was really important to me to mention breath somewhere as the thing that holds up the music. It’s like the generative silence in John Cage’s writing.