Features | Interviews

Tim Hecker

By David Abravanel | 7 February 2009

Describing Tim Hecker’s music is like trying to describe the colour blue—it just is, mostly. Hecker is that rare artist whose music is both easily recognizable and yet difficult to define, and over the past decade he has dropped a succession of albums challenging the conventions of what makes an ambient record, embracing everything from synthesizers to overdriven guitars to Van Halen samples, all distilled into lakes of monocrhome sound. Hecker’s track titles further spice the aural broth, inserting sly references to philosophy and betraying a strong natural influence.

In anticipation of the release of his latest record, An Imaginary Country (Kranky; 2009), Hecker spoke to CMG’s David Abravanel about studio recording and live performance, works of art in the information age, and where those track titles come from.

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Cokemachineglow’s David Abravanel (CMG): Your music tends to inhabit an amorphous cross-section of genres; there’s ambient in there, there’s glitch, minimalism, and even folk, I would say, at various points.

Tim Hecker (TH): Folk?

CMG: Well, how would you classify your work? Do you have difficulty with that? Does it make it difficult for you to find an audience?

TH: I kind of bristle at the idea of needing to classify it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say my music is unclassifiable, but, at the same time, I feel uncomfortable with all those words you’ve mentioned—especially “folk,” as much as I like “folk music” as a general term. I don’t feel like I’m doing ambient music, and I don’t want to make a document that’s the master statement of ambient, or glitch, or whatever else. I’m interested in a hybrid of things, and making new hybrids, and respecting people who’ve done other hybrids. I see hybrids where people usually see static forms, like “ambient,” but I find it limiting as a title.

CMG: There’s a great deal of effects and sample processing in your recorded works. Do you find it hard to translate this into a live setting?

TH: First and foremost, I’m a studio musician. My main skill is making studio artifacts—CDs and other recordings. Having said that, I enjoy playing live, and I do with great interest and intensity. It’s a totally different thing for me than making CDs. I do have enough freedom, in terms of my process, to make interesting and different live shows each time I play, but there are conventions within music samples that you’re bound by.

CMG: What is your usual live setup? Does it change with different tours or different records?

TH: I go through chunks where I work in a certain paradigm, and then shift a little bit. Right now, my live setup is a synthesizer, guitar pedals, computer and mixer. I use them all interrelated, and [they] feedback into each other. Before I used just a computer, and then there was a period I used live radio input as well. It just depends.

CMG: So you were using a shortwave radio on stage?

TH: Yeah. I would use a couple radios, and feed them in, and build things up that were partially built from those samples.

CMG: Speaking of using a computer, what software are you most fond of?

TH: For me, it doesn’t really matter with software. There’s like six or seven different tools that can get you similar results. Right now I use mostly Max/MSP and Reaktor for processing, and conventional multi-track software for finishing and composing tracks.

CMG: I have a hard time telling when a sound in your music is a synthesizer or a processed drone from an acoustic instrument. How prevalent are synthesizers?

TH: More than guitar. The point of my work right now has been to obfuscate that clear distinction of instruments. I enjoy turning them all inside out, and making them slightly play off their original essence, but not really have them bleed through in a clear, tonal way. Having said that, my sounds come from a variety of things. Synthesizers, and also samples of various instruments—mellotron, piano, whatever—and I also sample phrases of piano, for example, from other people’s music, and do the same thing, pummel it into a shape where the origin is no longer a question.

CMG: So, you lean more toward distorting any artifacts of the original sound source in your samples?

TH: Yeah, that’s I’m doing right now.

CMG: You’ve titled a number of tracks after nature—I’m thinking specifically of something like “Music For Tundra,” off Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again (2001). Do you take influence from the natural scenery of Canada’s barren landscapes, perhaps like Richie Hawtin did with the Plastikman album Consumed (1998)?

TH: Richie Hawtin made music about Canada? He hasn’t lived here for a long time; I find that interesting. I would say that my music is different from someone like Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams, who really does a have a link with the land. I don’t—I live in the city [Montreal]. [The track titles] are sort of like poetic interludes. I can’t really say I was meditating on the Tundra in a really profound way, but there’s a certain blankness or spaciousness of the music that made me think of those wide spaces. But I can’t say that naturalism is some over-arching interest of mine at all. You could just as easily make that music that’s coined by the word “Tundra” be about destroyed love, or an environmental garbage dump wasteland apocalypse. You can re-contextualize this music; throw any reference in and after a while it sticks.

CMG: Then why would you title a piece “Music For Tundra” instead of, say, “Music For Jilted Lovers”?

TH: There are the tracks when my psychological states are romantic, or meditating on loss. – As to why did I do that, I can’t give an answer. The act of naming something is a moment of inspiration, and then it disappears. You’re left with a name attached to a song, and you’ve got to live with that. I’ve always put off naming music, since I don’t think about names when I make the music, but it’s also a chance to construct a narrative. But, is that narrative real, does it mean something? Maybe, but also maybe not.

CMG: Speaking of narrative, your most recent release, An Imaginary Country, is bookended by tracks called “100 Years Ago” and “200 Years Ago.” Are you looking toward a narrative of timelessness or antiquity?

TH: “100 Years Ago” is inspired by a painting by Peter Doig, a Canadian painter who lives in Trinidad now [note: Doig grew up in Canada and Trinidad, and currently lives in London]. He painted this longhaired, kind of hippie dude in a canoe. That was an image in my mind when I was making it, this pastel blue inverted seascape of this strange place. And then I thought, why not just make the last track, which is kind of married to the first one, even a hundred years earlier. Again, it’s a kind of narrative intervention or poetic interpretation.

CMG: Where does the title, An Imaginary Country, come from? Are you soundtracking the natural landscapes of a country you’ve imagined? Or is it you imaging real places?

TH: It’s from something I read that was referenced to [composer Claude] Debussy in a recent history of 20th century music. He was talking about how the state of music, from what I recall became quite dire in France, and what was needed was another state. Basically, he was talking about utopian imagination. I thought it was a great idea. The naming of the record, and the way I finished it, was with this kind of utopian idea.

CMG: Another interesting thing that I’ve found on An Imaginary Country is that there are great dynamic shifts between certain tracks. I’m thinking of how “Utropics” leads into “Paragon Point”—the drone for the latter track comes in extremely loud. Is there an effort, on your part, to put in these peaks and valleys?

TH: I’ve always had dynamic variations in records, and I always construct records as long pieces in and of themselves. I’ve been working on [An Imaginary Country] like a normal record, as one long process the whole time. It’s just the way it came together, in this hot, August editing session that I did. I can’t even remember that particular dynamic that you’re talking about, but if it’s one track entering distinctly at a point as opposed to gradually fading in, I probably did that intentionally. It’s an aesthetic decision; every track can’t fade in, because it gets boring and predictable. You build it up with that idea in mind, of constructing a record that works over 40 or 50 minutes.

CMG: Shifting a little bit to talk about some collaboration you’ve done, there’s some great footage of you with the metal band Isis. Do you think there’s an inherent connection between the kind of drone metal that Isis does sometimes, and ambient electronics? Have you considered a recorded collaboration with Isis?

TH: It’s been talked about before, and I know them pretty well, but it hasn’t happened yet. We recorded a bunch of stuff together once, but I haven’t listened to it, to be honest, and I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. Is there an inherent connection with it? There’s a connection with it as much as there is with other sympathetic types of music; of course there is. I think it’s great that a metal band and a guy who does things on the borderline between church music and new age can get together and do that.

CMG: You also worked with Chris Paul Richards of Q And Not U, on his solo album. Looking at ambient and punk, one relies more on length and subtlety, and for the other, the hallmarks are brevity and blunt lyrical messages. Was that a challenge for you? Do you purposefully seek out collaborators from different musical worlds?

TH: These things kind of happen organically, they’re not really thought about. Chris is a friend of mine; we had played together a bunch of times and talked about it on the Internet, and it just made sense. He wanted to come and visit, and he had some songs. It was a good chance for me to try doing something else, recording somebody else and working with pieces for him. It came together really quickly, and wasn’t a conscious effort on my part, it was just this fantastic collision.

CMG: Looking at your recorded work, there are a number of records that fit into a similar mood as I hear them—Haunt Me, Radio Amor (2003), Harmony In Ultraviolet (2006), and now An Imaginary Country—they all have a very cascading, epic, ambient sound to them. And then, sometimes, you’ll have something like Mirages (2004) or My Love Is Rotten To The Core (2002). Do those records represent an interruption in your normal creative process, or were they just for the hell of it?

TH: First, I’d ask you how you see Mirages and My Love Is Rotten To The Core as distinct or different from the other records you listed?

CMG: Well, I’ve noticed that Mirages has a bit more noise, and then My Love Is Rotten To The Core, there’s the Van Halen narrative that distinguishes it.

TH: There’s a period where I kept pushing distortion, so if you look at Haunt Me, which is quite clear, and lush, and undistorted, to Radio Amor, where it became a bit more sepia-toned, to Mirages where my [distortion stomp box pedal] Turbo RAT pedal played more and more of a part. I felt, at that point, like it couldn’t go much farther before it became this monstrous blob, so I pulled back from that and worked on other things. Like, instead of distortion being one of the major motifs, I started using 20-second reverbs, and creating massive seas of sound. I think I did decide on [An Imaginary Country] that I wasn’t going to make a brutal record; I tried to do something a little lighter, though obviously it’s not something whimsical. For me, it felt light at the time. When Imaginary came together, I had more brutal pieces which didn’t make it in during the editing process.

CMG: What did influence you to assemble An Imaginary Country, the way it did come together?

TH: It gets kind of psychological at that point. I can’t say; it’s a bunch of factors—questions of taste. I could give you a glimmer of personal life, but I think that that would oversubscribe to my moods at the time. It’s just like, you get up in the morning, have coffee, and the hands start moving across the keys, like an automatic piano. It’s not conscious thought, it just happens.

CMG: Do you try to keep your personal life separate from your music? Your music can feel very personal, but at the same time, there are no lyrics, and the track titles often hint at much grander things than events in the life of an individual.

TH: I don’t see how my music is distinctly personal. It’s a human being making it with feelings and emotions, and blood circulating through him, who’s affected by the environment at the time. But beyond that, I’m not making overt love songs to my partner, or sad laments about my brother being thousands of miles away. That stuff just bleeds through the music, unconsciously perhaps.

CMG: Another title from Haunt Me, “The Work of Art in the Age of Cultural Overproduction” references Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Do you place a lot of stock in the critical theorists’ post-modern take on 20th century musical evolution? You use samples and digital processing in your music—does that affect the “aura” of the final product?

TH: I don’t think that Benjamin was entirely right about certain aspects of the “aura.” Aura has shifted into things we can copy. He was talking about mechanical reproduction as the original work. Having said that, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to how, at that point, there were a massive number of do-it-yourself record labels that were facilitated, in part, by CD burners being cheap and available, and cutting out the expenses of commercial manufacturing. At the point, it felt like there were a million labels. Now, it’s kind of different—obviously, that cultural outpouring is even greater, and it’s shifted to online forms, like mp3 blogs, or MySpace.

CMG: How do you feel about mechanical reproduction as the main method by which one encounters art these days? You described yourself earlier as a studio artist, so what would you say about someone, say, bootlegging your live show?

TH: I don’t really care about that, personally, but when I find that my album’s being officially released, like this one, in March, and then [it leaks] on the Internet on January 1st, and it’s been rated by a couple hundred people on different websites. It’s kind of strange, and makes me very ambivalent about releasing music. In some ways, I think about just making one copy, pressing it to vinyl, destroying the master, and sending it to a gallery. Why not do that, you know what I mean?

CMG: So that there’s only one copy of that music in existence, then?

TH: Yeah. One copy, nothing online, going back to medieval style. Talk about aura being channeled into object! I’m not saying I’d do that, but, why not?

CMG: Speaking of vinyl, some of the instruments and formats you’ve sampled are analog formats—mellotron, tape—that naturally decay. How do you feel about using those vs. digital media storage, which will, presumably, never decay?

TH: I would take issue with that. CDRs decay. There’s a lot of data that we think will last forever, but who knows? I have CDs that are no good anymore, and they were burned six or seven years ago.

CMG: You’ve previously mentioned that a suburban upbringing had an influence on you getting into shoegaze music. Do you have a positive or negative relationship to suburbia, and has that informed the music you compose? The suburbs can be isolating for people into more eclectic forms of culture.

TH: I only go to suburbia on occasions to visit my family. It’s where I came from, and it’s not utopia, it’s an imperfect world, but I’m a part of it. Part of why I talked about the suburbs was that I didn’t grow up on a palette of Xenakis, and Stockhausen, and sophisticated culture. I grew up in a suburban-media type, MTV world. The way I came across things on my musical journey of expanding my interests was organic. I’m not a product of high culture, but I’m not sure what that means for my music. In terms of being isolating, and that being a link—I wouldn’t say that the music is isolating, particularly, but I know what you’re saying, for sure. I could draw a whole bunch of other experiences and influences that would give the background of [my music] and make sense, just as easily.

CMG: Your track, “Chimeras,” is on the iTunes soundtrack called Alternative Yoga. Do you have any thoughts on that?

TH: Really? Where was this “alternative yoga?”

CMG: It’s a playlist offered on the iTunes store, and it also includes material by William Basinski and Aphex Twin, among others.

TH: Oh yeah? [laughs] What I said before about making albums, I can’t complain—it sucks that so few people are making money. My music got more popular at the same time the Internet was growing, so you can’t take one away from the other, to a certain extent, and that’s fine. It’s also amazing, how it gets out to strange place. The fact that it goes to metal blogs, and to new age people, it’s quite amazing, in and of itself. The fact that black metal geeks would be into it, and it’s also on a yoga playlist, that just blows my mind. In some ways it gives me inspiration to keep going, that I’m doing something right.

CMG: Last question—have you ever confronted Florian Hecker about the fact that he just uses the last name as his moniker? Maybe you two could duel for it, or collaborate under the name Hecker-Hecker?

TH: We’ve met a couple times and joked about it. He’s been working as long, or longer, than me, so he has full use of the last name. I felt like an imposter, at the time [laughs]. There’s a few Heckers in music. Sometimes, you get funny accidents that occur when people mistake one for the other. Maybe it could be a good thing.

CMG: Thank you very much for talking to CMG! I made a goal to make it through the entire interview without mentioning Fennesz.

TH: [laughs] Good work!