Re-imaging ambient music for the 21st century

Over the last few years, the outer fringes of electronic music have birthed a new generation of musicians obsessed with vintage Krautrock, Kosmische Musik, proto-New Age atmospherics and old-school synth experimentation. We’re talking intrepid, young sound explorers hell bent on brining the delicious ambient glory of Tangerine Dream, Cluster and Klaus Schulze into the 21st century.

Two of the movement’s most vital artists, Sam Goldberg and Emeralds, hail from the former home of that traitor LeBron James. There, with Cleveland’s sprawling industrial decay as their backdrop, they have crafted some of the most wonderfully hypnotic music of the past decade. Goldberg’s Current LP in particular feels like a real benchmark for this dazzling, new music.

Luckily, Asheville will get to sample Mr. Goldberg’s killer drone-work when his current tour (spotlighting his synth project Radio People) takes him to Harvest Records this Monday, July 19.

I recently talked with Goldberg. We covered a lot of ground, everything from his friendship with Emeralds, to his record label Pizza Night, to his all-time favorite ambient jams.

Check it out…

Farrar: I assume you grew-up cutting your teeth on punk, hardcore and indie rock.

Goldberg: Yes. Punk and indie rock were a staple of my youth, but not hardcore so much. I also grew up listening to The Grateful Dead, The Band and the Beatles, primarily through my folks. Once I got into punk I shunned that stuff, but eventually came back around to the “classics.” The Band and the Beatles have as much influence on my music as synth heavyweights like Klaus Schulze and Michael Stearns.

How did you transition into ambient and drone electronics?

My transition came from the playful psych-zones of indie rock and the Beatles-inspired stuff, which then led to stoner rock, drone and beyond. The last pop band I had sounded similar to Guided by Voices and Gris Gris. But because I was getting into noisier psychedelic music, as well as Krautrock, I wanted to create sounds that were more “out there.”

Did this realization happen over a period of time, or was it a kind of epiphany?

I started listening to Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream around the time I moved back to Cleveland after a short stint in Chicago, where I went to film school — an epic failure. I met Emeralds in the basement of the now-defunct Church [a local performance space]. They turned me on to even more jams. They also egged me on to get off the sidelines and record — I was just booking a lot of noise shows. I decided to use an organ and a delay pedal to make my first tape, which I recorded down in basement of [Emeralds’] Mark McGuire.

For someone familiar only with your recorded output, how does it compare to your live show?

On this tour I’m doing Radio People, which is my synth project. It very much comes from my love of the more proggy sounds of later Krautrock and synth music.

Performing live, however, became a bore for me about a year ago. I burned-out on my guitar and reverb set-up. I love that style, because of its simplicity. Current can be played from beginning to end using that set up. And I did that quite a bit. But I wanted to do “more” rather than the slow dreary stuff that Current embodies. It tends to put crowds that aren’t normally into my kind of music to sleep. I just finished a new album, on which I’m accompanied by sax, drums, clarinet, etc. I would like to bring an ensemble like that on the road. It’s the next logical step beyond Current. But for now I continue to play solo.

What’s your current set-up in terms of equipment and instrumentation?

My Korg Polysix and a Casio organ-and-drum machine combo. It’s connected to my style in Mist, my project with John Elliot of Emeralds. After playing synth in Mist I realized I wanted to continue using synthesizers in my solo performances. My Radio People style came from that.

I do think you share with Emeralds a love for the sublime. Both of you seem willing to move beyond the love of distortion and feedback common in underground noise.

My Sam Goldberg material and Radio People project are two very different things. I do feel that way about my own solo material. It’s based on a certain sound that I hope to expand over time — more about finding the music that is in my head and heart. Though it’s drone based, I’m starting to use more acoustic instruments, rather than blaring-reverb guitar. Radio People is more of a conceptual project. The goal is to create something that is a bit more cinematic. It’s about a picture in my head, rather than a feeling.

Would you say your music is experimental? Or do you approach music more like a composer writing a song?

Songwriting for sure.

You release both limited-edition cassettes and finely packaged vinyl. Do you prefer one to the other, or do both media have distinct advantages and charms?

Vinyl. I want to do more records, of course, but my cassettes serve a different purpose. I enjoy following artists in between their major releases myself, so I like to drop tapes to keep people up on my music. At this point, it’s the only way—other than relatively short run LPs—to do this.

Does the medium ever dictate the music? For example, it seems as if the recordings on Current (Weird Forest Records, 2009) are very much intended for vinyl.

Actually, Side A of Current appeared on tape and wasn’t intended for vinyl. But I realized they were pinnacle tracks from my early work and really embodied that zone for me.

Can you tell me about any upcoming projects and/or releases?

A Radio People self-titled LP is due out next week on Digitalis. Only 300 copies, but I think it will be available online. It’s made up of my favorite tracks from the first 3 tapes that I did with the project. After that, the new Sam Goldberg LP on the Arbor label coming early next year — I’m really excited for that as well.

Now on to the most important question of our interview! What kind of cool tour merch do you plan to unleash on Asheville?

Lots of new Pizza Night releases, a Radio People tour tape and hopefully my record!

Just one more: if you were to run into some little punker-dude who wanted to expose his/her noggin to classic Krautrock, Kosmische Musik and ambient jams, what three albums would you recommend?

La Düsseldorf: Viva
Walter Carlos: Sonic Seasonings
Ashra: New Age of Earth

Those are the three I go back to all the time.

[Justin Farrar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, Rhapsody.com and other publications.]

who: Sam Goldberg (as Radio People), with Caboladies
where: Harvest Records
when: Monday, July 19 (9 p.m. $5. harvest-records.com. AshevilleFM has the word on the simulcast.

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