Interview by Joe McKee
Images by Adarsha Benjamin
“As someone who wanted to be a composer
I never knew what to do,
— William Basinski but then I learned to just experiment” — William Basinski
A classically trained musician and composer from Texas, William Basinski has worked in experimental composition and media for over 30 years, formerly in New York and now in California. Most recognized for his compilation The Disintigration Loops, inspired by and made from sounds of decaying tape loops, Baskinski often works with analog tape loops, found sounds and various outmoded technologies to create ambient music at once melancholy and hypnotic, meditating on temporality and memory. Basinski also produces a range experimental films and installations in collaboration with artist and filmmaker James Elaine. You can find his work here.
Joe McKee is a London born singer-songwriter and composer. He was raised in Western Australia where he began writing music and teaching himself guitar. In 2003 McKee formed the band Snowman which released three albums through Dot Dash Recordings. At 23 McKee relocated to London where he began writing songs for his debut solo album, Burning Boy. Today Joe lives in Los Angeles with his wife Adarsha Benjamin and their daughter, Juniper Lucy Lee. Listen to Burning Boy here.
I first became aware of William Basinski after his seminal collection of The Disintegration Loops was compiled and released via Temporary Residence. Not being familiar with his work at the time, I was patiently waiting for a significant or sudden shift to occur in the music. It never came and I was so relieved. I reached a point, about five or six minutes into the piece, whereby it had become almost entirely subliminal. I’d never encountered music of such disciplined restraint before. It was as if the music and the machines had been allowed to communicate and live completely on their own terms, with no interference from the composer beyond the initial spark—like a wildlife documentary filmmaker allowing nature to run it’s course. As the piece played on, more and more ‘silence’ crept in. It felt like more of an accumulation than a disintegration to me. An inverted kind of entropy. It gathered moss and dust along the way and was eventually absorbed back into the ether. It seemed to be such a concise analogy for the slow, natural decay of life.
The Disintegration Loops was heavily informed by the events of September 11 in New York City. In fact it was finished on that very morning. The music is accompanied by a film piece documenting the Twin Towers burning to the ground. I was curious as to how much particular places and particular times influence his work.
I shared the following conversation with William in his Los Angeles home.
Joe McKee: When did you move to Los Angeles from New York?
William Basinski: Lets see, we left New York in 2008. Jamie [James Elaine] and I had the loft in New York and he had the house out here. The lease was ending in New York, so I moved out here in 2008.
JM: And how do you find the L.A. lifestyle compared to that of New York?
WB: For me it’s much better. As the year of the Earth Dog I need to be surrounded by nature instead of all that stimulus, otherwise I’d become a nervous wreck! So it’s been wonderful. I love having this beautiful garden with humming birds and butterflies… and I can finally hear my work. New York where we were would be just impossible now.
JM: I suppose when you’re living in a place like New York City, creating this kind of meditative music is a way of creating some solace amongst the haste. So how does living in a relatively tranquil place affect your writing? Does it mean you’re leaning towards composing…
“I still crave silence. I don’t really have music
on unless I’m working on something.”
— William Basinski
WB: Noise and dissonance?! (laughing) No, not really. I still crave silence. I don’t really have music on unless I’m working on something.
JM: I know that when I relocate to a different city, as I’ve too often done, I notice that my memory of my former home begins to fade. Perhaps because there are no longer any triggers to remind me. No familiar streets or faces. All of a sudden that foreign place feels a little oneiric. When you’re constantly digging through the archives of the tape loops you’ve made over the years, is there a desire to make some kind of lucid reconnection to a specific place and time?
WB: Y’know, music is a very strong trigger. When you have a favorite song in a particular time in your life, whenever you hear it you’ll perhaps go back to the first time or the happiest time you heard it. Now, for me, certain loops bring me back to my studio on Jay Street in New York and what that evening was like. So they store a lot of memory.
Where are you from, the U.K.?
JM: Yeah, I was born in London and grew up in Western Australia from the age of six. I moved back to London as an adult and experienced the place in a very different way.
WB: Wow, yeah so of course you would feel some kind of displacement. I read something recently that said somehow you are rooted to the place you were born. I was in Houston last year for a show that Jamie and I did for the Contemporary Arts Museum there. Houston was where I was born and the museum district is the neighborhood I was born in. It’s a very beautiful, old neighborhood. Streets lined with these majestic live oak trees. Now it’s the gay neighborhood too, so all the houses are restored. It’s beautiful. It’s a very interesting swampy kind of place.
JM: So, I guess you would have felt some kind of intrinsic connection to that particular neighborhood while you were there?
WB: Yeah, I was eight when I left, then we moved to Florida. Then, when I was fifteen, we moved to Dallas and I went to high school there. My dad worked as a rocket scientist and worked for GE and NASA, so we grew up with the astronauts and went to church with them and grew up with their kids. Then, when I was about eight, he took a job with this company in Florida and they were working on some part of the lunar module there. After the space industry and moon landing kind of finished, he took the job in Dallas. I went to high school there and then went to Denton, Texas for two years at North Texas State University, a jazz music school, which is where I met Jamie, and eventually I moved to San Francisco with him.
JM: And you studied clarinet and saxophone while you were there in Texas, right?
JM: Do you still find yourself playing those instruments?
WB: No, not so much. I’ve done a little bit of work with Antony [Hegarty] but, since I moved here, I don’t have the big loft performance space to play in and the people I used to play with in New York aren’t here. But I did recently get one of my tenors restored, so I’ll begin again.
JM: How do you think those breathy, woodwind timbres have affected the way you create music? Do you think the clarinet has informed your way of playing or composing?
WB: That’s a good idea, maybe so, a little bit. No one’s ever brought that up before. I suppose it has had an effect on it in some way. Especially with the breathing.
JM: Yeah, there’s a natural breath and rhythm with your music and also this airy kind of texture.
WB: Yeah, that’s true. I think there must be something there… yeah.
JM: Tell me about how Melancholia came about musically? It seems to contain some familiar, classical elements.
Founded in 1996 by James deVine and currently based in Brooklyn, NY, Temporary Residence Limited is an independent record company that produces genres of experimental and rock music. You can explore the label here.
WB: Well, these pieces could all be the length of a whole CD. I was archiving these in maybe ’99. I had found this collection of these particular loops. I was making a notebook of these loops for a friend of mine I think, like a compilation, and I ended up really liking it. So, after the success of Disintegration Loops, I had an audience who liked my work. I needed to get out of some debt so I released a few new records. I released Water Music II, Melancholia, and Disintegration Loops II.
People seem to like Melancholia—maybe because the pieces are more like songs. There are recognizable instruments and it’s like a sampler or an introduction to my work. One of my most popular pieces is Melancholia II. And so, last year, my friend Richard Chartier, my collaborator and colleague, helped me redesign the packaging for my catalogue. He’s a great graphic designer. We came up with this beautiful artwork with a painting of Jamie’s for the cover. Then Jeremy from Temporary Residence offered to press some vinyl. He does such a beautiful job of the printing and pressing. So, here it is!
Formally trained as a painter, James Elaine now works primarily in experimental film, often collaborating in installation and multi-media work with William Basinski. During his longtime work as a curator at both the Drawing Center in New York and Hammer Museum in L.A., Elaine has been celebrated for his discovery of many great contemporary artists. He now lives and works in Beijing, China.
JM: I know that you and James Elaine have collaborated on numerous projects. How does that process unfold? Is it discussed around the breakfast table?
Located in Flushing Meadows in the borough of Queens, NY, the Unisphere is a 12-story high, spherical stainless steel representation of the Earth. It was conceived as part of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair to celebrate the beginning of the space age and represent global interconnection.
WB: Well, with films and stuff, it happens in a few different ways. Jamie is amazing with the camera and he sees things that I can’t see, but then I’m really good at editing because I can instantly see rhythm and cut points and I can make decisions. Jamie wants to keep everything but I can choose shots well. So, the first films we made together were just shot and cut in camera. I would create the soundtrack live with synthesizers and things and build it up over a couple of passes. Now in more recent years, since we’ve lived three thousand miles apart, because of his work and my work, sometimes he’ll send me some new footage or something and I’ll just happen to be working on something new and pull up some loops. For example, the short film Melancholia, he sent this footage we shot at the world’s fair in Flushing Meadows with the Unisphere, which just happened to go perfectly with Melancholia II. So the camera follows through the trees, then everything opens up and it follows around the sphere and fades back into the web of branches. Back into this tunnel of trees.
Music in which some element of composition or realization is left to chance.
JM: Was that a purely aleatoric process?
WB: Yeah, although it took a long time to get it right. Jamie wanted to get it again and again and go back every year. But really the process is different every time. I’ll spend weeks and weeks editing to the music. But there are sometimes problems along the way. With “Variations” there have been a few of these. With the second one, I had to work all summer long. That particular film follows people walking down the streets of New York after a ticker tape parade – people rushing back to work through the dirty streets. He just followed people around and shot the people from the back.
JM: Was he filming with your piece in mind?
WB: No, just filming. I was just working on this first album release and he sent me all this footage, and there was a problem with his old Panasonic camera. There was dropout and I had to cut out the dropout and edit the footage in a different way. So, I spent months cutting this story together with all of these people, but I think it turned out really beautifully. It’s amazing how much you can find out about people by just viewing them from the shoulders down. There are all these different characters. There’s the super powerful business men – you can tell by the suit and the shoes – and then you have these old schemer guys shuffling around. Then the ladies out shopping, and this one beautiful older lady, smoking, who senses Jamie behind her and just steps back.
We have a real symbiotic relationship, Jamie and I. Usually I’ll do the edit and then bring it to him, and he’ll know exactly which spot I was having trouble with, without me even saying anything. He’ll go right to it. And I’ll be like, “I know, I was waiting for you to find that.” So, he can sit in on that process with me for, like, an hour and we’ll nail it. Basically, he shoots and I edit and we both look at the final cut.
“We have a real symbiotic relationship, James [Elaine] and I. Usually I’ll do the edit and then bring it to him, and he’ll know exactly
which spot I was having trouble with, without me even saying anything. He’ll go right to it.”
— William Basinski
JM: Compared to New York, has Los Angeles affected the process by which you gather and archive your loops?
Currently residing in New York City, Roger Justice is an abstract artist whose mixed media paintings often combine writing on paper with thick application, visual repetition and collage elements. See his work here.
WB: Actually, my process is different here. Back in New York, in my studio, I had this big control room with synthesizers, mic’s, early midi, and tape decks and all that kind of stuff. Big rooms, small rooms, the works. Now, here in L.A., all of that is in the garage and I haven’t found a studio space that I can afford yet. So, my process has changed. I use computers and I can do so much with this technology. As much as I could do with a whole control room 16 years ago. But, other than that, I still use my little old machines. [Walking over to his table of musical gadgets] These are my little UHERS. German 1970′s models. They both fit into my carry on bags. And these drawings are by my friend Roger Justice. He’s still in New York painting. He just sent these to me.
JM: Wow, these are beautiful. They seem to be all about repetitive motions… [At this point in our conversation, my daughter Juniper, pipes in and steals our attention for a moment or two.] Since having a baby, I’ve really been experiencing the world through her eyes. She’s experiencing the world through these little synesthesia goggles. I guess that’s what I wanted to touch on, seeing these drawings by Roger—how much have visuals effected your composition process? Do you find yourself translating these images into sound? You’ve been surrounded by visual artists, how has this influenced your work?
Home to the University of North Texas College of Music, among other universities, Denton, Texas has a rich local independent music scene supported by its college town atmosphere. It also holds the annual Denton Arts & Jazz festival and is currently and emerging cultural hotspot.
The Castro District
Commonly referenced as The Castro, is a neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States. It remains the largest, and a symbol of activism and gay pride events.
WB: When I was younger, I never knew anything about art or how to look at and appreciate it, but I learned that from Jamie. The whole Denton art scene was a very special scene. They called it Texas funk art. Seeing Jamie and Roger’s artwork early on, [they] were both huge influences on me. The first time I walked to Roger’s house (he lived in The Castro in San Francisco at the time), I was wearing these alligator skin stilettos and they were shooting sparks as I was sliding down the hill. I got to this bar in Castro and had to give my legs a break. So anyway, I walked into Roger’s place, he had no furniture, maybe a kitchen table and a few chairs, and in the living room was all these monochromatic paintings with objects on them. All the same. One painting was giant, orange with these curled up stilettos on it called TV in Africa. It had a TV stuck on it. He had all of these wonderfully evocative paintings and broken toys lying around. It was like an art installation.
Discreet Music is a 1975 album by British musician Brian Eno, marking his shift toward a more ambient aesthetic that would be solidified in his later albums. To create this album, Eno used a method called “Frippertronics” in which an analog delay system, connected to two tape reels playing side by side, routes the tape from each reel into one another with a slight delay, looping previously recorded sound while layering new sounds on top.
“[Roger Justice] had three record players all playing at the same time, scattered
around the room, they were all playing Discreet Music [By Brian Eno] at different parts
of the record.” — William Basinski
Anyway, he had three record players all playing at the same time, scattered around the room, they were all playing Discreet Music at different parts of the record. So you know, we smoked some pot and just listened to this and I was taking all this in, just like your baby. I was a real baby then—20 years old. So it just blew my mind and I just went, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” Jamie had all of these art appreciation books from school and I’d read them and learned to appreciate art and learned that I didn’t necessarily have to like it, I just had to let it talk to me. So, they turned me onto all kinds of great stuff.
JM: Moving to San Francisco seems to have been a major turning point for you…
WB: Oh definitely, yeah. As someone who wanted to be a composer I never knew what to do, but then I learned to just experiment. I saw the back illustration of Discreet Music, of this two-tape deck, Frippertronic feedback loop… so I went to the junk store and started playing around with tapes and feedback loops.
A 1964 Italian film by director Michelangelo Antonini, starring Monica Vitti and Richard Harris, Red Desert (Italian—Il deserto rosso) follows a melancholy woman through a modern industrial and emotional landscape, pitting the smallness of humans against towering machinery. The film renders, through vivid colors and grim backdrops, the atmosphere of alienation, neurosis and existential doubt that plague contemporary life.
JM: And pretty soon after that you all moved over to New York together?
WB: Sort of, Jamie and I moved over first and found this big loft, but we couldn’t afford it, so we called Roger and he joined us little while after. We all moved in together and had our studios in there.
Branching off from punk rock between the late 1970’s and mid-80’s to form its own distinct genre, new wave incorporates experimentation with synthesizers and electronic production as well as influences from mod, disco, and pop music.
JM: Can you describe that time in New York for me, and how it affected your work?
WB: Oh, it was wild! Seeing all of these European films. Red Desert was a particular film that showed this harsh urban landscape and New York was this burned out mess. It was scary but exciting. The subway was just covered in scrawls and tags like hieroglyphics. All over the windows, doors, and then outside there were giant paintings going by all day. This was in downtown Brooklyn. There were a few loft buildings but it was kind of dangerous. The nickel-back store was one block past there. We had a Goodwill and a Salvation Army around the corner, and we’d find great stuff in the garbage.
Annie Philbin entered the New York City art world as a painter, later shifting fields to museum administration. Previously director of the Drawing Center in SoHo, Philbin is now director of the Hammer Museum in L.A and is renowned for her ability to engage the high art world with current politics and grassroots activism.
“The art world [in New York] seemed like
a really lively place of maybe 300 people and we all met each other somehow” — William Basinski
A choreographer, performer and teacher of contemporary dance, Elizabeth Streb is known for her experimental shows and the physical risk incorporated in her choreography, which she calls “POPACTION” for its combination of dance, athletics, and stuntwork. Her dance company STREB/Ringside, established in 1975, is based in New York City.
You know, the art world just seemed like a bunch of kids, like us, coming from other places. New wave and all that stuff was happening. The art world seemed like a really lively place of maybe 300 people and we all met each other somehow. One of the first people we met in the art world was Annie Philbin. She was a waitress then. Marcia Tucker was the founding director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art and had these young collector’s tours and Annie signed up to that, so we got to go to all these shows. Marcia had shown Jamie at a show down in Texas once, so she brought people to Jamie and Roger’s studios on one of those tours. Annie and Jamie hit it off and we all became friends. Her girlfriend at the time was Gretchen Langheld, who was a saxophone player. She had a band that I ended up playing in for ten years. A real wild avant-garde jazz band called the Gretchen Langheld ensemble, then later she changed it to House Afire. Also, another friend we met was Elizabeth Streb, and now she’s huge! So you just met people.
A cellist, composer, singer and musician, Russell’s prolific work spanned genres—classical, disco, experimental, folk and rock. Known for his collaborations with many influential artists, Russell only produces one full length experimental album in his lifetime, World of Echo, but found most of his commercial success in New York’s underground dance and disco scene in the 70’s and 80’s.
JM: I find that really interesting. A lot of artists seemed to be creating music in their own private world within a very small community. Someone like Arthur Russell springs to mind. With all the time that has gone by, there seems to be a rediscovery of the music that was overlooked back then. Your music seems to have lived a life of its own. How did this come about for you?
WB: I don’t know. Maybe it was waiting for the ears to be born to understand it. I just don’t know. Y’know, I tried to get it out back then, but it was a different world and a different time. I did do some really special performances back then in Brooklyn. I had some early supporters of my work. I did two nights at the Anchorage at the Brooklyn Bridge, which was a big deal at the time. It was sold out. All the art world were there and we were all so happy but there was not a mention in the Voice or New York Times or anything like that! I don’t know why it was overlooked. Who knows? Whatever, I always just kept making my work and I played in a bunch of bands and I loved it!
It’s crazy, I think, now with the internet and YouTube and stuff—everyone can share their knowledge so freely. People love to plug in the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, “This is the piece that ties all of these together!” Which is great, because I was one of those missing pieces, and I got plugged in before I died! I’m so happy about that. (Laughing.)