Thursday, January 28, 2016 at 10:00
Cinchel is the moniker and household name of Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist, scientist, concert patriot and every cat's best friend Jason Shanley. In this in-depth interview, Cinchel takes the time to cover the cautious origins of his career as an artist, his ability to create versatile gouache-based artworks, the oscillation between multiplex layers and quiescent silence as well as the best physical format for the right song. Join Cinchel in delineating the innermost nature of his Drone-oriented guitar-crafted Ambient works which, more often than not, are grafted onto the most intruiging barycenter: a luring leeway loop.
Photograph by Lindsey Best — lindseybest.com
AmbientExotica: What is your (non-academic!) definition of Ambient music?
Cinchel: Music to get lost into. Music that reveals its self over repeated listenings. I know that is broad but I think the term ambient is pretty broad. What I aim for when I sit down to record is make something that captures an image I have in my head. I also try to push as many layers of sound as i can into something. So ambient has a narrative but not an overstated one. A narrative that the listener communes with and only when together – listener and music – is the story complete.
What is your musical – and fine arts – background? I know that you are able to treat a guitar and brush right (cue mystery chime here) but have you taken lessons? Do you play other instruments as well?
A couple summers ago I took a short class to learn fiddling. I did it mostly to try and hold a bow and violin somewhat “normally” because I wanted to start adding violin to my recording projects. Besides that I learned a bit of trumpet from about 5th grade (age ~10) to grade 8. I took a music theory for non-majors in college. That is the extent of any “formal” training I’ve had. I started playing guitar around the age of 16, mostly learning my favorite Smashing Pumpkin and Nirvana songs (this was 1993/1994) from guitar tableature books. I had a friend with a four-track tape recorder that let me borrow it for a few weeks in 1995. This was the first time I could record guitar parts over each other. I was kinda hooked but I wouldn’t be able to afford my own four-track until half way through college, at the end of the summer of 1999.
All that to say, mostly self taught on guitar, recording techniques, computer software. While I mostly perform live using guitar I do play a bit of keyboard at home. I have a Fender Rhodes, a melodica, a glockenspiel and the previously mentioned violin.
Is there an initial incident or encounter which made you think “I’m ready to create my own stuff now,” or is all of this a fortuitous coincidence?
Once I got that 4-track in 1999 I began creating stuff constantly. There wasn’t much of an internet structure back then so I would mostly play the tapes I created for friends that would come over. I didn’t perform out at all. In the early 2000’s a website called “15megs of fame” appeared and that was the first time I uploaded music and got feedback from a somewhat global community. It was interesting to get a broader feedback and comment on others' works. That site disappeared, but not long after I discovered MySpace, and this continued to feed my desire to upload and have a community. I actually discovered a lot of my local Chicago music friends this way. But at this point I was still mostly just making these short (6-8-10min…) pieces and uploading them.
Around the fall of 2010 Leonardo Rosado asked me to make an EP for the net label Public Spaces Lab. Paginated Overflow was the first time I set out to release a set of songs that I wanted to have some flow or common thread to them. I enjoyed that experience of collating these tracks and I noticed that people seemed to take to a “release” better then a stream of random one off tracks i would upload to a website. From that point forward I focused my thoughts on this idea of cohesive releases. I still would record a lot and save a lot but then I would go back and decided “oh, these four tracks here and this track there and this other track, they seem to be getting at the same idea: let's make a release from that!”
The first – though not your initial – release that put you on the map was 2012’s Stereo Stasis, a three-track LP enshrined in gouache arabesques and watercolor sleeves, each of them unique and different per copy. Please reminisce about that experience. Were you nervous about the reactions of the press? Did you encounter setbacks when you composed the drone dioramas or did everything run smoothly?
So that release, specifically the idea to make a vinyl pressing, stemmed from some Twitter conversations. A number of friends were discussing this idea that releasing music pressed to vinyl would be a bucket list thing for them. I thought about it for a bit and came to the conclusion “what is stopping me from having a record pressed?” I did a bit of researching and figured out that it isn't that hard to get a record pressed and it's not that expensive. It's not cheap either but I figured out a budget that I thought would work. I guess this is backwards but then I sat down and blocked off time on my calendar.
Over the month of Janurary 2012 I recorded and mixed the three tracks. My first setback came when I finished the mixes and the total runtime of the three pieces would not fit well on two sides of a 45rpm 12 inch and were too short for a 33 1/3 rpm 12 inch! I didn’t have anything more i wanted to record to just fill up the sides; I like the idea of 45rpm because the fidelity is a bit better. After a week of listening and editing I finally sent the tracks to my friend Samuel in Montreal (you may know him as @le_berger on Twitter). He listened and suggested some places to edit. It was a real eureka moment. His edits made so much sense and really made the tracks click together. Also, his edits made it so that I could nicely fit two tracks on side A and the longer track nicely on side B, all at 45rpm.
Sending the tracks off to Taylor Deupree to get mastered was pretty uneventful. He did an excellent job (obviously) and by early March I could send out the tracks to the pressing plant. The only setback came when the first master plates were made. I guess something was wrong with the first A-side master they made and it had to be re-cut. I got the first set of test pressings and they accidentally re-cut side-A at 33 1/3rpm. Not a huge deal. I asked them to make a new plate at the correct desired speed which they did at no charge and really only slowed down production by another two weeks. As I was releasing this myself I didn’t really have a hard deadline I was sticking to and didn’t mind the delay as it meant then that the record would be pressed how I wanted it.
I was kinda nervous about the reaction of the press, mostly because I thought to myself people are going to say "who's this kid?!, thinking he can just up an put out a record on his own. He hasn't earned that!" That didn't happen, thankfully. Overall the response was positive and that gave me the energy to continue. I'm still proud of the record, even if I haven't listened to it at all since I put it out.
I’m a big fan of your live recording Isolation Experiments Vol 1 which was recorded at Chicago’s radio station WNUR-FM in January 2013. To me, this array of tracks encapsulates the whole package: a long-form piece of 28 minutes, followed by some of its elemental constituents and molecules within shorter segues. One can therefore more easily unravel the DNA of your layer-based approach. Is this something you had in mind from the beginning? Is this the blueprint for further volumes to come?
I often go back to saved loops and make new mixes. Friday.Deconstruction was done this way too. The thinking being that with time and no pressure of an audience, what decision would I make? It's a balance as the loops were still reduced with that audience pressure which I think leaves it mark on how I play.
Is this a blueprint for things to come? Kinda. I mean, I do stuff that interests me. What i liked about the WNUR recording was unique because I was totally alone. My wife and a friend were there but I sent them to the control room. It was just me in this studio, facing my amps. Playing really incredibly loud.
Isolation Experiments Vol 1 as well as your subsequent tape Sometimes You See Yourself (Through The Cosmos) contain track titles that transparently refer to a Space Ambient core (for instance Slightly Singing Stars, Roaring Rings, Saturn Waves or even Forever Landing). I perceive your music as being attached to this subgenre for better or worse, even if several titles otherwise hint at earthbound natural surroundings! Is this a remark you are okay with, and are there artists of that field that inspire you?
I spent a lot of time with this question. I can't say that I know or listen to anyone that would be considered “space ambient”. I really have no problem with whatever label a listener wants to place on my music. I kinda find it exciting because in a sense it comes back to me and teaches me a new genre I should look into. I love finding new music to explore and learn.
I think this connection with space is something i’ve been fascinated with since I was a kid. I read a lot of sci-fi and would day dream (like many) of being an astronaut. Being born in 1978 and my grammar school being named after Neil Armstrong (I'm not sure why: I don’t think he has any connection to my city. I believe it's just because the school was built the year of the moon landing, 1969) the dream of space exploration was always there. I learned some basic drawning techniques from a TV program that mostly focused on drawing these really creative alien worlds. My imagination is often about space so its fitting that when I listen to some of my stuff and need to name it, I pull from that well. It's one I’ve spent many mind hours in.
While this is no blog about synthesizer brands or amplifier blueprints, I’ll ask regardless: how important a part is the choice of the right guitar and amplifier setting?
It is important but only up to a point. It's a balance between cost and function. I would love a Vox AC30 or a Sunn Bass Head, but I can't justify that expense. I love my Silver Face Fender Twin. It's a work horse of an amp with a wonderful tube sound. Tubes are important: I did spend a good part of my guitar life playing through smaller solid state amps, and they are just not very forgiving. For this kind of music there needs to be a natural decay, a softness, and regarding solid state amps i was never able to find that comfort zone.
That said: I do often record the guitar straight into the computer, bypassing all that amp/room business. In addition I don’t have a real studio where i can record at concert volume, so equally important has been learning how to mic and mix at a reasonable volume and living with those “weird” room sounds. All these constraints are actually blessings as they force another aspect of creativity that keeps the whole process interesting.
For guitars I only have two and only recently (in the last six months) got the second one. My staple guitar is a 2003 Gibson SG which is a great all around guitar. The two pickups and the fixed bridge give it plenty of room to explore. The other guitar is a ’65 Fender Jazz Master that basically fulfills a long dream I’ve had of owning one. It is also a floating bridge with a whammy bar, thus allowing me some interesting detuning effects I can’t achieve with the SG.
Is post-processing a necessary evil or can it cause delightful epiphanies?
Almost all of my work has post-processing. For me it's just another paint brush I can use on the canvas that is the song. While I have a suitcase full of guitar effects, I try and find how I can use them in combination with the computer effects I have in order to create new sounds. And after all that I also lean heavily on the final mastering to further bring out the levels and nuances of the sounds I’ve layered in a piece.
How big an influence has Chicago on your own productions? It has a bustling Post-Rock community after all!
The support of the community here has meant a lot. Finding people to play shows and bounce ideas off of is wonderful! While Chicago is known for post-rock i feel the community goes even deeper than that, with the great universities here (UofC, Art Institute, UIC) we get people from all over the country joining the community often. They bring ideas from where they came from and they melt with the work going on here, and in the end create something even better.
While it's cold four months out of the year here, there is no place else i would rather be. It's a big city but without the pretense of some place like NYC or LA; there are decent rooms to play and wonderful support all around.
Your three-track EP Diamond In The Rough (2013) shows the first signs – correct me if I’m wrong – of a glittering coruscation amidst your drone washes. These vibraphone-like entities are further carved out and brought to the foreground in your recent releases such as Reign Water and Nature (Part 1). While it’s a much hated term: did this direction materialize in the long run? Am I imagining things yet again?
No, you're not. I definetly am trying to explore both new instruments (outside of just guitar) and with those new instruments, new sounds. I've always wanted to add some percussive-like elements to my music and I've found an easy way for me to get to that using this toy glockenspiel or these small keyboards like the MicroBrute that i just got.
Vinyl, CD, tape, digital-only, you seem to embrace all of these “platforms” equally. Which format suits your visions best? Do you alter compositions once you know which label picks up the gems?
I let the piece decide the format. That said, I don’t think even if I find new works thatI think will work on LP that I'll be making another LP any time soon. The few times that a label has released my work it's been more of a commission basis, i.e. the label says “hey, I want to put out a tape for you,” and I go “oh, I have this thing that I think would work on tape, here have it.” Or for Gavin Catling (Twice Removed Records, The Long Story Recording Company), he emailed me and said “I have these old postcards that I want to use as CD covers, would you like to release something with me for these series?,” and I went to work on music that I thought would fit the images he emailed me of these postcards that he had.
I don’t really have like a ton of labels knocking at my door though, so mostly I release digital with the idea of self releasing something physical once a year, mostly because I like to make paintings, record sleeves, or for A House… the photo zine and velum envelope.
2014’s Reign Water is an eminently plinking release, and once its aural textures start to glisten, it’s because of the darkness that surrounds them. Up to this point, this release is your glitchiest, most cauterized endeavor. The same year saw the release of your epitome A House Once Lived That Never Was which is equally spectral despite its warm benignancy and focus on mellow acoustic guitars. Are these releases contrapuntal artifacts due to their decreased drone structures?
That's a really interesting question! Both releases were done in ways I hadn’t normally worked in up to that point.
Reign Water is all just the MicroBrute synth; it is a monophonic synth, meaning it can only play one note at a time. I'm used to thinking in chords coming from a guitar, so I set out to write all these melody lines that I could layer over each other to get all these weird moving chords.
A House… I set out with the constraint that I wouldn’t use much technology. While I had to record it on a computer – I don’t have a reel-to-reel tape machine… yet – I limited myself to only tape delay and the acoustic guitar. I bowed, strummed, plucked, and tapped it to get the sounds I wanted. I think most of the songs only have six to eight layers at the most, as I wanted to simulate being listed to an 8-track recording console.
In both I wanted to create “drone” music in so much as they could be listened to in a variety of ways and still provide something of interest. each track on A House… is actually meant to loop for as long as the listener wants. That's why it's a digital-only release!
This question may seem dumb and I really try not to mention that hideous movement called Eurodance in here (oops!), but is there a genre or alloy you severely love but would never consider as an inspirational base for the Cinchel moniker?
Brit pop. Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Stone Roses, Super Fury Animals… and even all of those I still find inspiration in the way those records are produced: so much space. Such beautiful guitar sounds.
Really any music I listen to I find inspiration. Will I make a dance track? No, probably not, but I’ll still be wowed and want to try and make a mix that sits as well as those early Chemical Brothers or Daft Punk records.
The last question is about your own upcoming arrangements: in which way is your sound going to differ? You have hinted at an upcoming drum-based – or drum-oriented – release. Do we look back in the near future and divide your works into early Drone, mid Glitch and late Noise sectors?
I'm still trying to figure out how to best use that drum-machine, there's a bit of it on Sometimes I Hear Voices that I just released in Feburary.
Lately I have been focusing on even more density, putting more things in the stew as it were, really challenging my mixing skills. I also want to pull back and try to make something that has more silence. Creating silence is really hard. I want to learn how to do that better.
I'm also going to try and work on more things with others. Long distance or short distance collaborations. We’ll see if anything works out.