Interview to Saul Stokes by David Fabre
Please introduce yourself
My name is Saul Stokes. I am a musician from the Pacific Northwest. I have 3 albums out on Portland Oregons Hypnos label and two self release limited edition CDs packaged in collectors wood cases. I have performed live on both coasts of the US as well as Canada. Most of the sounds behind the music I create come from electronic instruments that I have built over the last 6 or so years.
When, how and why did you begin to interest yourself in electronic music ?
I became interested in electronic music during my early teen years. My father had an Oberheim synthesizer when I was quite young. He was living in downtown Seattle at the time. When visiting him, I would program laser sounds and pretend I was shooting pedestrians walking down the street. My brother was also a big influence. He is 6 years older than me and had a nice collection of electronic albums when we were growing up. When I was 13 years old I was listening to YMO, Telex, Depeche Mode, and Kraftwerk. I began to get serious about making music while living one year in Germany back in 1992. It was there that I had the chance to frequent a few discos and become surrounded by friends interested in electronic music. When I came back from the states I dusted off the keyboards I had and began to record.
You have your own musical style. Please explain us your feeling with music, your process of composition. What are your basis of work ?
Although I studied violin, piano, trumpet, and guitar at one time or another when I was young, I am not a trained musician although sometimes I do wish that my life would have led me down this path. I would say that one of the reasons I write the music I do is because my foundation is not based on typical western tonal theory, but on the beauty of electronic instruments and the world of sound opportunity they possess. I build musical structures on the back of invented sounds that did not exist before I found them. Many of these sounds contain complex harmonics that arent easily found on piano keys. I think that if I was a trained musician I would inevitably create sounds that fit within the guidelines of western tonal theory. Not having this knowledge allows a certain freedom from these musical rules. But, if you were you to ask me if I would give it all up to be a trained composer with 20 years of Piano experience I might just say yes.
How would you describe your music ?
For Hypnos, I usually write slow to medium tempo music with a slight edge towards the percussion side of things. Hypnos is known for putting out incredibly ambient work so I like to keep this in mind while Im writing. The 3 albums I have out on Hypnos are largely influenced by this thinking. However, my Hypnos releases are not ambient and tend to lean quite a bit off the path of what Hypnos normally puts out. One description is that I take experimental sound design and try to create beautifuly listenable music with it. Many people tell me that they enjoy my music because there is a tension between experimentation and sweetness.
Many composers of electronic do experimental-techno/electronica. What do you think about this scene. Do you feel close from some artists of this scene ?
In some ways I feel that music making software has created the persona that techno can be made instantly and by anyone. To prove this point you only need to look at the hundreds and hundreds of "techno artists" on mp3.com right now or look at some of the instant techno machines available by Roland or Yamaha. I feel this continues to feed the stereotypical notion of electronic music being "cold and heartless." Of course this is only the surface of this style of music. Good techno is fantastic and as a wrote earlier, part of my early influences into electronic music. A small portion of techno thinking finds its way into my music. I honestly think that a lot of listeners of electronica/techno would also listen to my music but havent heard of who I am because of the label Im on.
What are your musical influences (artists, musics) ?
When I was growing up I listened to a lot of O.M.D, Depechmode, Bill Nelson, Skinny Puppy, and Severed Heads. I would have to say that Severed Heads album "Come Visit the Big Bigot" is a brilliant album that I still listen to quite a bit. Lately Ive been more and more interested in classic rock and folk music like Credence Clearwater Revival or the band America. Its not really the music that I like but the way it was recorded. Its amazing to find that with todays incredibly wild recording technology music ends up being recorded so blandly. So much recording today is limited to how loud we can get the overall recording and how noiseless we can make it. Nothings better to me than CCRs recording of Suzie-Q or Buffalo Springfields "For What Its Worth." Each and every sound is so crystal clear and alive. The mono hard panning of the different instruments and voices just give it such a perfect simplicity. My next album to come out on Hypnos will most definitely have influences of this.
Is your music the result of several steps of experimentations or pure improvisation ?
Its the result of carefully placed moments of music drawn from experimental sounds and rhythms derived from home made electronic instruments. I dont do a lot of improvisation in the studio. I save this for my live shows.
Your music is always moving. We always feel a dynamic or at least a latent tension. How could you explain this feeling ? Is it done on purpose ?
The older I get the more I feel Im cheating the listener if I have looped portions of a song. That is, with sequencers its easy to let an 8 bar piece of music repeat 2 or 3 times before moving to the next part of the song. This is the easy way out. "Washed in Mercury" has some of this and Zo Pilots has less. Theres very little of this in Outfolding and my next Cd will have even less. You can imagine how different electronic music would be if you just didnt let bars repeat. Right now, this is just a theory I have. It is something I plan on working towards. I am also trying to not quantize anymore. Quantizing is a function that allows an electronic musician to fix the timing of a rhythmic track. Essentially, the computer corrects artist inaccuracies. For the type of music Im trying to make, I consider quantizing a killer of emotion. Of course these things arent negatives in many styles of electronic music. Take techno for instance, quantizing and repetition make the music what it is. As for tension in my music, I mentioned earlier that the tension comes from the mixture of experimentation and sweetness. I would say this is done on purpose yet after 6 years of creating the type of music I have been doing, I find it hard to try to write music without these feelings.
This dynamic touch is in contradiction with the style developped by Hypnos, which is more static or non-rythmic, donít you think so ?
In some ways yes. There were points during the writing of Outfolding where I did not think Mike would want it for a Hypnos release. We talked about the possibility of releasing Outfolding on a separate label that Hypnos would create for more percussion type music. But, if you consider that I now have 3 albums on Hypnos with Washed in Mercury as the first Hypnos release, its also pretty safe to say that my music is an integrated part of what Hypos is. As it stands, I think Hypnos would be a much different label without my music.
Your music is unique and build a very strange world. What are your sources of inspiration and creation ? Fantasy, science-fiction, protection of the environment ?
I dont have a television so I read quite a bit. Mostly sci-fi but Im not a trekkie. I have a large passion for environmental concerns, some of which come from reading sci-fi about our future. But Im also an Industrial Designer by trade and when you add in the physical production of CDs that makes me a producer of waste. I am more and more interested in inspiration coming from my surroundings and less from imagination. The song "Thick Streets" (Outfolding) was influenced by the small humid and crowded streets of Philadelphia. My "Edge of the Forest" (self-released) concept album came about from a walk in a park surrounded by forest which was then surrounded by industrial complexes. I believe this makes the music more interesting to the listener because the title gives them a little hint to apply to the song. For instance if you were to analyze two songs, one titled "Foci3" and one being titled "Thick Streets" you would have some visuals into what Thick Streets is about but probably wouldnt have any clue as to what "Foci3" is about. I enjoy giving a little hint into what influenced the song they are listening to.
How would you describe each album you did on Hypnos ? And what is your evolution, according to you ?
Washed in Mercury is for the most part, an Intelligent Dance Music album with moments of ambience. Zo Pilots is much more abstract with large doses of drones and minimal beats. I would consider Outfolding the most original of the three albums, with a fusion of ambient backdrops and alternate percussion. All three are quite different and definitely show my progress as a musician. The more I write music the less I am interested in creating purely ambient work. There are quite a few artists that do this so well I feel less and less compelled to write music of this nature. I will continue to try and grow rhythmically, with small portions of acoustic sounds blended with highly unusual electronic sounds. I now have a lap guitar which Ive been processing through my homemade equipment. I also recently purchased a dedicated multitrack. Prior to this, all of my music has been written directly to DAT tape without multitracking. I have a feeling my music will change quite a bit because of the multitrack. Im hoping my music will be thicker and fuller with large melodic symphonies of sounds playing in unison while rich unique drumming moves the song in exciting ways.
What do u think about the visuals and musical works of M.Griffin, about the musical line that he defends with the label ? Do you feel satisfied ?
definitely. I get excited about every release Mike puts out because in certain ways I feel like Im personally apart of his label. I was there with him in the beginning and our relationship has continued to grow right along with his output. The greatest part is that growing up I always wished for a movement of electronic music originating from the Pacific Northwest, and not only has Hypnos made this happen but Im apart of it. In fact, I have recently moved to Portland Oregon from Philadelphia to be closer to this scene.
You have signed on an ambient label, Hypnos. How did you meet M.Griffin ? Since, Did you get other propositions from labels ?
Mike contacted me after hearing a song on Future Musics demo Cd back in 95. Its important to note that at this time I heard some of Mikes music but there were no releases on Hypnos yet. Thus, I did sign on to an ambient label but much of the "Hypnos" sound was developed after my first CD "Washed in Mercury". Hypnos was the only label to contact me about releasing music until recently. Lately I have been in contact with some labels about releasing music with them. The problem is that I just dont make lots and lots of music. I can barely finish one Hypos Cd a year. And, to be honest, my Wood Case Collectors series CDs have been bringing in royalties that I would never get from another small label.
What labels do you like? On which would you like to be signed ?
I grew up being a huge fan of Nettwerk in Vancouver B.C. When I was 16, I walked into Nettwork and handed them a demo tape. Im still waiting for them to call me back! Today I enjoy DIN, Greenhouse, The Foundry, FFRR, and of course Hypnos. Im actually a radio freak. My favorite thing to do is to listen to the radio in the middle of the night. Philadelphia had great AM radio stations to listen to. My favorite was a station that played all old 20s and 30s showtunes. There was also a station that played only Frank Sinatra 24 hours a day.
What contacts do you have with the other artists on Hypnos ? Whom do you appreciate and know personally ?
Mike of course. We actually live about a mile apart now. Ive hung out with David Tollefson, and have talked with Vidna Obmana, and Jeff Pierce. Although on Greenhouse, Vir Unis is a great friend who I will be collaborating with early this year.
You seems to be interested in design and graphism. Is there an interaction of creativity between music and design? Do they come from the same motivations and inspiration ?
My schooling is in Industrial Design which taught me a lot about graphic design and the computer programs needed to create it. Like Mike Griffin, I grew up learning about art rather than music. Ive always felt the desire to create the visual elements that would portray my music and I do think theres a lot of inspiration that comes from graphic design. While writing each album I always hang a print of the current album cover on the wall to look at as Im working. This helps me to see finality in what Im doing. Right now, as Im slowly starting to write the music the next Hypnos release, I am considering an overall color range of silvery gold for the graphics of the CD. When I wrote Outfolding, I wanted the CD graphics to have a reddish feel to it. Even though I havent created the graphics for "The Twin Worlds of Abstraction" I know that there will be a symbolic image of a flaming circle spit in half stamped on the front of the wood case.
Is there a whole art-concept behind saul stokes ?
There is one thats forming but I dont know what it is yet.
Despite the large choice of electronic tools, you have decided to build yours. Tell us why ?
For the most part, I got into because it was a cheap way to get your hands on a synthesizer. Its incredibly inexpensive and easy to build your own synthesizer. I did it with no prior knowledge of electronics. It didnt take me long to realize that the instruments I was building sounded radically different that any off the shelf instrument. I think this has something to do with my lack of knowledge on anything electronic. There's almost always close to a real fire going on in my synthesizers from stuff like shoddy wiring and big clumps of drippy solder all over the power supply. However, I have no interest in the electrical engineering aspects of building synthesizers, only in what it allows me to do musically and the enjoyment that comes from designing what it will physically look like.
What do you think about the ambient scene ? Whom artists and projects impressed you the most these last years ?
To be honest, I cant say that I know a lot about the ambient scene. Most of what I know comes from visiting Hypnos website, talking with Mike, or coming across information on the web. Performing live shows has proved one thing to me; that listeners of ambient music are incredible die-hard fans who consider ambient music a form of medication needed in their daily lives. The most inspirational ambient album Ive heard in a while is David Sylvians "Approaching Silence."
Do you think that your music allow you to collaborate with another artist ? Whom artist would you like to work with ?
Its easy as long as you dont bring in too much rhythm because unless you have the same equipment its quite hard to sync up sequencers and recording devices. Of course thats only if youre collaboration long distance. I did a few sessions with Vir Unis when he was living in New York. I will also be working on a side project with Mike. One of these days Im hoping that Jeff Pierce will do some guitar on one of my songs. I would love to work with a fabulous drummer, especially during a live performance.
Please tell us more about your project of limited wooden box CD serie.
What is the idea behind ?
I was offered to perform at Philadelphias Stars End performance for the second time right before the release of Outfolding. This meant that I only had my first to CDs to sell at the show which most of the people coming to the show already had. I have always wanted to release a Cd in special packaging but had never come across any idea that I felt was more professional than a standard Cd package. A few weeks before the show I came across a huge assortment of architectural model wood at the local art supply store. It hit me that I could build a simple case of wood that could store a Cd. Each case is stamped with a special graphic. Inside the case is a ceramic topped high quality signed Cdr. and a little hidden printed graphic page describing the music. So I made 20 or so of them and they sold out at the show. Ive been making them ever since. Its interesting to note that with more and more interest in downloadable music, artists are going to have to become more creative with their "product." Otherwise someone will just find it online and not purchase anything. Also, as far as the music goes on the limited wood case series, releasing music myself allows me a certain freedom to experiment and Ive attempted to make each of these releases quite different from what I do on Hypnos.
You have edited a CD-r, that is a live recording. What do you appreciate in the live works (contrary to the studio creation) ?
Improvisation for sure. In the studio, I am very careful with the sounds produced from my homemade equipment. That is, I try to find sounds that I havent found before. When performing life, I cut loose and turn my instruments into performance tools. The result is radically different from my studio work. During a live show, I perform for the most part on a hand held instrument that is hooked up to my equipment. Its sort of hard to describe but its basically a aluminum tube with knobs and playable buttons. Theres photos of it on my website. This allows me to play my equipment while interacting more with the audience.
What are you next project ?
There will be a third Wood Case Collectors Series CD released in February. It will be titled "The Twin Worlds of Abstraction." I will be collaborating with Vir Unis which will hopefully lead to a release in 2001. And, I have already begun working on my next Hypnos release.
Last word ?
I would be interested in trading a Wood Case Collectors Series CD for two fresh airshipped Croissants from Paris. Email me if interested!