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Western Figments

The musician William Fowler Collins talks about his guitar-fueled solo album, Western Violence & Brief Sensuality.

By Marc Weidenbaum

There are moments on William Fowler Collins’ album Western Violence & Brief Sensuality when the echo gets so deep that the original sound is lost in a well of reverberations, when the effects overcome the raw source material. It’s a remarkable experience to follow the familiar down the rabbit hole, only to come up in a terrain of abstraction and nuance.

Raised in New England, educated in the San Francisco Bay Area and now living in New Mexico, Collins has a penchant for grounding even his most expansive gestures. He never quite loses sight of where he’s coming from. The sound may be a surreal wind chime on the album’s “Evening,” but it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the original guitar within the figment — likewise the harmonica on “Night Watchmen.”

Though Western Violence was released in 2007, after Collins had relocated from San Francisco to Albuquerque, its rural appeal is, according to him, something of a coincidence. Much of the album was recorded before he ever left the West Coast, which seems fitting. All that aural expanse and all that seeming soundscape-as-landscape artistry is, in the end, the result of his imagination.

Collins took time in the early fall of 2007 to talk about the album’s construction, his pursuit of an MFA, and the difference between rock and experimental audiences, among other things.

Marc Weidenbaum: One of the things that strikes me foremost about the album Western Violence & Brief Sensuality is the balance of field recordings and the mesh of instrumentation and effects that you impose on the field recordings. Do you seek out field recordings to serve a sound you already have in your head, or do you take a field recording that intrigues you and then work on it?

William Fowler Collins: I think in actuality I only use field recordings prominently on one piece, “Untitled Dream 1,” but there is a good possibility that there are more buried deeply in the layers throughout the album. But on that piece, and throughout the album, I manipulate and mix the electronics to suggest sounds such as explosions, helicopters, rain, etc. In that sense I have created the illusion of field recordings. In “Untitled Dream 1,” I included a stereo mix of two different urban environments that I had recorded. One was the busy street outside of my apartment in San Francisco; the other was of the bus terminal downtown, where all the buses would pick up and drop off passengers. I believe there is also a recording from rural Ashland, Oregon, where I recorded some evening sounds with my laptop. My purpose in including those in the mix was to give the listener a sense that there were multiple environments within the piece. I was also working on two particular electronic pieces that seemed to mimic the sound of bombs exploding and helicopters flying overhead. So, to answer your question, I do take field recordings that intrigue me and work them into the mixes and I also create sounds that seem as though they might be field recordings.

Weidenbaum: What was it like leaving an area as dense with electronic music activity as the Bay Area for where you live now?

Collins: The Bay Area has an exceptional situation where there are many electronic and experimental musicians and supportive venues and I really appreciated that. But I never experienced too much of an audience when I was there. Here in New Mexico, since there is a much smaller scene, people might be a bit hungrier for that sort of music. I’ve played about five gigs since moving here last summer and the attendance has been anywhere from 30 to 100 people, depending on the venue. I’ve also found myself doing more networking both here in New Mexico — and the greater U.S. — and internationally than I was doing in San Francisco. I think being new to an area where one doesn’t know many people, let alone musicians, there’s more of a sense of urgency to reach out and connect. Actually, since moving here to Albuquerque, my music has probably received more airplay and attention in the Bay Area than it did when I was living there.

Weidenbaum: From the title and sounds on Western Violence & Brief Sensuality, it seems like that record is a reaction to your new environs — is this the case?

Collins: Somewhat, yes. I did much of the original recording while still in San Francisco and then when I moved here to New Mexico I did a bit more recording and also mixed and developed the track sequence. I think the vast, expansive desert landscape here has definitely been an influence on my music. In fact, after almost all of my performances here someone has come up to me and commented that it sounds like I have, in some way, captured the spirit of the surroundings here. Some track titles, such as “Autumn Lights,” “Midday Sunshower,” “Foothill’s Ghost” and “Over the Mountain,” relate specifically to my new high desert environment. The title for “Dawn at McDonald Ranch” was inspired by a trip to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. I don’t know if you’ve spent any time here, but the skies in New Mexico are amazing. I’d be mixing a piece in the afternoon and while the sun was still shining a big rain storm would come through, followed by these double rainbows that seem to come directly out of the mountains — I live in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains — and I’d be forced to stop and just take it all in. I live across the road from Cibola National Forest and when I’m out for a walk I’m constantly stopping and looking out at the skies and over the distant landscape of mesas and volcanoes.

I was actually still living in San Francisco when I chose the title Western Violence & Brief Sensuality. It came from the beginning of the film Once Upon a Time in the West, which I was watching on DVD. There’s a viewer discretion advisory at the beginning, warning people that the film contains scenes of western violence and brief sensuality.

Weidenbaum: That’s a riot about the title to your album — so I have to ask, has Ennio Morricone’s work been something of a touchstone for you?

Collins: It has been inspiring, yes. I think he helped me introduce more melodic elements into my music. I love his scores for the westerns and I also like his horror movie soundtracks. The Dario Argento film he scored, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, has a fantastic soundtrack. He also had an improvisational group that was pretty great.

Weidenbaum: What were your expectations of Mills before you started there — what lead you to want to study there?

Collins: I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I had some good conversations with Maggi Payne when I was going through the application process, and I knew a bit about Fred Frith and his work with John Zorn, Naked City in particular. I was at a point where I definitely needed to take my music to another, higher level. I needed to push my self much further than where I was at. I was eager to learn and to meet other musicians to work with and this seemed like a good fit. And it was. I had an excellent experience there.

Weidenbaum: Please describe what your education at Mills was like — how the course work was structured, what decisions you made about your studies, what you’d recommend to people looking to pursue an MFA in electronic music.

Collins: A sampling of my studies would include a 20th-century music course with David Bernstein that covered a range from Stravinsky to the Velvet Underground, an electronic music course with Chris Brown that taught the text-based audio synthesis software SuperCollider, a recording class with Maggi Payne, and a one-on-one tutorial with Fred Frith. I wanted to learn as much as I could. If I had a recommendation, it would be to make sure that you are pursuing such a degree because you love music madly. And unless you have a trust fund, make sure you already know how to make a decent living because going out and becoming a teacher right after graduating is extremely difficult from what I have witnessed. I had already been working for several years as a web designer during the tech boom in the San Francisco before going back for my MFA, so I was able to have an alternative to going the teaching route when I finished. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t strive to become a teacher; just keep in mind that most of your classmates will be shooting for the same gigs that you will. Not to mention the fact that Mills is basically a one-of-a-kind program. I think most proper music schools require a Ph.D to teach, and most of those are not interested in experimenting very much.

Weidenbaum: That’s wonderful you’ve gotten a solid audience going in New Mexico. When you play live, given the general abstraction and certain “newness” to what you’re up to, do you make an effort to explain your music to your audience?

Collins: We’ll have to see whether anyone comes back to future gigs in the area, but thus far the response has been positive. I haven’t bothered to explain anything, no. For the last few years I have been performing with lap steel and electric guitars. Although I have been incorporating experimental techniques into my sets, such as using a cello bow, an e-bow, micro-cassette recorder, etc., the original voices of the lap steel and electric guitars are still present and thus a point of entry for audiences that aren’t familiar with more experimental musics. I’m creating soundscapes, drones and more abstract elements using the guitars, but I am also infusing raga-inspired melodies and summoning bits of country music with the lap steel. I think that has made it easier to take the listeners into outer limits and then reel them back in a bit with sounds they might be more familiar with. I’ve definitely had people expect me to play traditionally on the lap steel and then when I do my thing, I think they are either surprised, shocked or horrified. I love the sound of the lap steel, which is why I got one in the first place, but I find it completely pointless for me to play traditional tunes on it. I do have a gig coming up at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, New York, where I will be using both my laptop and electric guitar.

Weidenbaum: Earlier this year you played some dates with Brightblack Morning Light. How did that come about and what was it like playing in that setting versus the more underground venues and galleries you’ve been accustomed to?

Collins: It was a lot of fun, actually. I met them in 2005 and had played some shows with them in the Bay Area. They had moved to New Mexico just before I did and they invited to play shows in Denver and Tucson. As I was just explaining, I was playing lap steel and electric guitars on those gigs but because Brightblack Morning Light were supportive of what I do, I felt free to experiment. It is a different setting, for sure. The gigs were in rock venues, so I went on at around 10:30 and played 30-to-40-minute sets. There are bars in these places — Hotel Congress in Tucson and Larimer Lounge in Denver — and so people are more chatty. But that was actually OK by me because then I could just turn up louder and get inside the sound more easily. I wouldn’t say one type of venue was necessarily better than the other, although in the rock venues there was a bigger audience and the pay was significantly higher than in underground venues. I got a good response from the other bands and the audience alike, but I also got a similar response when playing at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco.

Weidenbaum: Please take one track from the album and walk us through it in detail.

Collins: Let’s do “Untitled Dream 1.” It starts with a distant, moody lap steel guitar that blows in from the horizon. Just underneath that is a looped piece of piano layered under the sounds of the busy urban street and bus terminal I mentioned previously. There’s also some electronic grit sprinkled over the top. There’s a brief lull with only the droning of a streetcar cable and then some more moody lap steel, some “explosions” that fade in from the distance, some more street noise. Then a drum machine manipulated to sound a bit like machine gun fire sprays across everything while a piercing tone from a 7 watt amplifier fades in and out. A building, pulsating low frequency sound similar to a helicopter fades in beneath the piercing and intensifying 7 watt feedback, which has returned to the mix. It all ends abruptly after a chaotic, distorted climax.

Weidenbaum: Let’s go in one level deeper. How did you accomplish the looping of the piano, and how did that particularly loop present itself to you? What does the “electronic grit” consist of? How did you accomplish the manipulation of the drum machine to make it sound like a machine gun? In other words, what techniques and technology did you employ?

Collins: The piano comes from an old four-track recording, actually. Years ago I rented a pretty nice electric piano for a few months and I’d record myself on occasion. I split the cost with a friend. Neither of us knew how to play, but it was fun to have around. Anyway, I had a bit of thus recorded piano that I looped using a delay pedal until I had a sound I was happy with. Then I just brought it into my digital setting — Pro Tools — and mixed in from there. The grit is just some static coming from one of the software patches I was using and I liked the additional, subtle bit of texture it adds to the piece. I’ve been using SuperCollider 2 since I discovered it at Mills and I still really enjoy it. I use it mainly to process recordings that I’ve made. With the drum machine recordings I just ran them through one of my SuperCollider patches. They were originally recordings I made using ReBirth, which is software that emulates the 808 and 909 drum machines. To me, the result of increasing the pitch speed made these rapid, percussive sounds that sounded somewhat like an automatic weapon. I liked the sound, but also don’t want it to be too literal. I’d rather the sounds suggest something and remain open to the listener’s interpretation.

The incorporation of war sounds likely comes from Jimi Hendrix. His version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock where he makes his guitar sound like fighter planes and gunfire made a serious impression on me when I first heard it as a young kid. That combined with my dad’s records of drag races were, in retrospect, probably quite influential. I would say the piece was developed through process of discovery. It is one of the reasons I really love the mixing aspect of making an album. One idea leads to another until the piece becomes solidified.

Related links: More on William Fowler Collins at his website, williamfowlercollins.com. There are several free MP3s available of his work, as previously documented in the Disquiet Downstream (disquiet.com, disquiet.com, disquiet.com).

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