interview: Eric Hanss
Eric Hanss runs the Field Studies music label. He releases tapes and CD-Rs by New Age electronic and synth-based artists. While visiting for this year's Chaos in Tejas festival, he took some time to tell us about the link between New Age and noise music, 21st-century yogi people, and his solo project, Floating Gardens.
You’re in town for Chaos in Tejas. As the name implies, the bands playing are pretty chaotic—mostly punk and hardcore. But the music you put out on Field Studies is quiet and relaxing. Are these two flip sides of your personality?
EH: [laughing] I struggle with that a lot... I think what I try to aim for is an integration between the two things, because I don’t see them as that different. A lot of the impulse with a lot of New Age music coming out on small cassette labels is that I think people were really, really tired of harsh noise. I’ve heard it described a lot as the “post-No Fun Fest noise era,” and I think that’s the best description of the whole thing, rather than like hypnagogic pop... and I think it gets at the crux of the matter. People have these sort of signifiers from noise that got tired and worn out, and—we were just talking about this a little bit ago, but the same sort of symbols and symbol play of hardcore has become totally stagnant, too. It’s this traditional replaying of past roles and motifs, and it’s old. So that’s where you get the whole “Oh, we’re just copying everything.” And I like this sort of stuff, so I’m not just trying to slag it, but it’s like you have all these bands that, what’s good about that band is how they reference this, that, and the other thing. Like “I’m taking a little bit of Infest, and I’m mixing it with a little bit of Discharge, and then we have this weird Messthetics post-punk recording style and image going on.” I like it when people can do that, so I’m not saying that there’s a huge problem there, with ripping someone off, when your whole band exists to rip off like three other bands. That’s cool.
EH: I mean it. You’re doing some kind of cool work. Not everything has to be 100% original, because playing with ideas and synthesizing different symbols and musical styles together is an interesting new mode of production in our Internet age, or whatever Tumblr garbage that... you know. So, anyhow, I think that a lot of people got sick of the harsh noise, No Fun template of images, the body horror thing, and went looking for a new set of concepts to play with and, in hunts through obscure music, came upon New Age and all the musical ideas that came with it, and have taken those symbols—
EH: You know, like the 3D crystal or the dolphin jumping over the moon—these kinds of New Age chintz.
So is New Age of a piece with seapunk or something?
EH: I don’t know... [laughing] No! No, I’m not going on the record answering that question, because I think somebody will kill me. But I think that people saw this kind of rife field of imagery that hadn’t been used and started to put it into practice. And some people kind of went off the deep end and really became these weird, 21st-century yogi people.
And these are people that grew out of the noise scene?
EH: Yeah, or joined into it after it had lost its noise roots, so it’s a little more approachable. But for the most part I think that it’s people that are taking this... unharvested, untouched, obscure, square music and using those sorts of words and symbols and musical motifs, and it’s kind of like a new, experimental, abstract collage. And they’re incorporating it with things like noise, and of course noise has a fondness for technology. So in No Fun-era noise it’s all this cracked electronics stuff, and then at the tail end of it you get guys like Hive Mind that are starting to use synthesizers. I think a lot of people attribute Hive Mind to be the guy who brought synths back into noise. So you have this fetishization of technology, and how you are creating this sound world is a big part of any kind of harsh noise thing. Like “How did you do it? What gear did you use? Did you make this yourself?” And that sort of fascination with technology has kind of gotten into this—it goes down a different route, with synthesizer fetishization in New Age. And then of course there are these New Age guys that are just using tapes and Casio keyboards, but I don’t see it a lot now. We’ve kind of progressed into full synth studio stuff. A lot of the Casio-driven stuff has kind of dropped off the face of the earth. I mean, James Ferraro is doing something completely different now, so there’s no one to inspire that as much. There are some people that are doing some cool Casio-driven stuff, Monopoly Child Star Searchers is still around—that’s Spencer Clark, he’s the other guy in the Skaters—so I don’t think that’s dropped off the face of the planet. But I accumulate a lot more synths now, and a lot of people are now on the modular kick, where all this stuff is your collection.
Emeralds was really funny. I think Emeralds are the poster child of the post-No Fun movement, and they have a lot of cassettes. I know they have a couple of cassettes on Hanson—their first record’s come out on Hanson, Solar Bridge was on Hanson—and when I saw them in high school, Steve Hauschildt just had a mic and a bunch of pedals, Mark was playing guitar, and John had an MS10 and a couple of pedals, and it was really this kind of earthy, organic noise drone with a little bit of cosmic, outer space stuff, which has become kind of full-blown Tangerine Dream.
I wouldn’t have drawn that connection. There’s certainly a similarity between Emeralds and a lot of stuff you put out, but I didn’t realize it was rooted so much in the same.
EH: Yeah. And I think if you use that as a point of comparison, it’s not so weird that I would be into, you know, heavy music, and stuff that seems kind of balmy and light and... Aquarian, or anything like that. I think I played with the idea for a long time of being this kind of—to at least construct a personality of being a New Age mystic, or something like that. And it’s kind of stupid—Claire’s giving me a bad look, because we live in a house full of cats, surrounded by plants and crystals, and we make our own kombucha—
CB: Yeah, the kombucha jar is a nice touch.
EH: Yeah, and brew our own beer, and all these typical signs of being a heavy hippie, which would lend itself to being a New Age musician. But I don’t necessarily see the conflict between being into these two different things, because I think that, the way I came about it at least, was over this bridge. And that’s why I’ve also started to branch out. I had high concepts for Field Studies when I started out. I set out with an all-white aesthetic. There’s a template for how I design all my art, and I will only use white cassette shells, I will only print everything on white. Everything has a white border; everything’s on a white field. I have a set group of fonts that I use, and I won’t move from that for my design. But I will move musically. I started out and I thought, I’m just going to release New Age synth, and that’s going to be it—
And when was this?
EH: Well, I started out in 2009, and then I didn’t release anything for two years.
EH: Yeah, just ’cause school got in the way. But the most recent batch that I just put out, it didn’t sell very well, because people listen to the sound samples and they’re like, “Whoa!” It’s what would be considered harsher, dark synth. Not dark synth in like a gothy way, but it’s really kind of hard to listen to if all you’ve been weaned on is repetitive stuff, like “I have a looping pedal and a JUNO and I made this tape!” There are a lot of people who like that sort of thing and that’s what they like, they don’t like the whole broad umbrella of things, so I wanted to kind of make a statement that I’m interested in this broader scope of where New Age music or experimental, visionary music is, so I didn’t want to just do airy synth stuff on my label for forever. And that’s why I have Floating Gardens, and then I do this thing with Dan [Wyche], Tholian Web. I can’t do just one thing, I can’t just wear all white all day and talk about inner mind inscapes or you know, design things with dolphins on them. That’s not where my interest is—I mean, you know what I listen to. I don’t just listen to New Age synth. I’m here for a hardcore festival. We went and saw Bolt Thrower last night. I used to write an indie pop zine. I’m into all these different things, but I’m into them specifically because... There’s just these micro things about them that I like teasing apart and putting back together, and I think that’s probably why I got drawn into the whole cassette noise thing, because it’s a good format, it’s a good community to do that in, and I thought that New Age music was especially fertile for that. And I enjoy playing it, and I enjoy listening to it.
Why the name Field Studies?
EH: Oh, I don’t know. [laughing]
It’s very similar to this magazine’s name, fields. I think that maybe there’s some similar etymology going on there.
EH: Well, let’s try to unpack that. I think that, going along with this image-play that you see a lot in cassette, experimental, small-press stuff, is there’s like... In noise, there’s a lot of wordplay. And I can go back to Emeralds again and again and again, because I feel like all of the cues that I’ve ever taken are from these guys. Sorry John, I’m ripping you off constantly! But you already knew that.
EH: The way noise guys deal with words is awesome, which is why I really want to go to that Jaap Blonk show, because there you have a guy that’s just working with the pure, raw form of words, in this most incredibly expressive, performative way. So there’s an impulse in experimental music to take language and play with it, right? In everything, really—you can’t just pin it down to experimental music. But you have all this noise-guy vocabulary, you have these words like “deep zone” or “let me grip a tape”—and I think we’ve moved away from it, which I’m kind of disappointed by—but this kind of fanciful word salad-style of reviewing or talking about certain kinds of tape noise—
And it’s all descriptions of the music you’re making, because there aren’t words in the music usually. A lot of it is wordless.
EH: Yeah, so the platform to use that kind of wordplay is in the name of your band, song titles, cassette titles.
So it takes on an added importance because there’s no language within the music itself?
EH: I don’t know about that. It’s just where you see it, or where it would maybe jump out to you more. But that’s the kind of consideration that went into naming Floating Gardens, or Field Studies, or any of the track titles that I do. I guess it’s inspired by this language play. I can’t say I do it because I’m not good at it—all the Cleveland guys have this amazing way of talking, this amazing vocabulary, and I can’t do that. I’m not going to claim to have those sorts of skills. But when I see something like Field Studies or something like Floating Gardens, it’s not... I didn’t want to do it on a purely descriptive basis. They were words that kind of sounded good when I jammed them together.
Well, there’s definitely an image.
EH: Exactly. It’s imagetic language. That’s why I use it for Floating Gardens, certainly. For Field Studies—I guess I should preface everything with “I had more pretension going into it than I do now.”
EH: Yeah, I was like “I’m gonna do something!” and no, I just run a cassette label, I’m not really doing anything. I don’t like the word “curate,” for instance. I don’t think I’m a curator—I don’t think anybody is. But I guess I also use the name Field Studies because it has that naturalistic thing going on. And, early on, I also wanted to reflect that what I was doing came from an academic background. And I don’t think that’s necessary anymore, but that’s how that got set. And I wanted to use a lot of old fonts, and old—a lot of the photography I do is inspired by old National Geographic stuff.
And you studied geography?
EH: Yeah, I studied geography, I do geography now. So Field Studies, again, was a way to merge a bunch of different interests into one thing.
What do you look for in the artists whose music you release?
EH: I think that changes, or that’s changed; it’s constantly in flux. Like I said, I originally considered all synths, pure New Age music. So a lot of the stuff is like—there’s a vanity aspect. I release my own stuff because I feel like I have the most control over what I can do. And I’m busy with a lot of other things, so I feel bad leaving people on the line when they want to release my stuff.
Do they always come to you? Do you ever go to artists and ask to put out their music?
EH: Yeah, I do both, and when people release my music it goes both ways, too. Shop stuff around; people ask. I feel, personally, that I’m not very good with timelines, because I have other things going on, and Field Studies is more of a natural part of my life. I’m not forcing it to be on a release schedule, I’m not forcing it to be a business, because I have no interest in running it like a business. I make no profit from it. So the artists that I work with, it’s all kind of on a friendly basis. I’ll ask people, people will come to me. I don’t really take unsolicited submissions so much, unless there’s something that really jumps out at me about them. They’re mostly like I have a connection with this person, and we talk about doing a tape. And more and more, the kind of music that I’m interested in releasing is just people I know personally.
But they’re not all out of Chicago.
EH: No, they’re not, but they’re people that I’ve met when I lived in Boston, and there are a lot of people I just know via the Internet. It’s kind of weird getting patched into the noise scene and realizing that it all takes place on Facebook. I mean, you have your canonical weirdoes, and you can only reach them via a P.O. Box in the middle of Michigan, but most people are on Facebook. So you kind of get connected up to all these people. A lot of the international artists that I release are like a friend of a friend on Facebook.
Is that how you got integrated into the New Age scene? How did that first come about? Because last I knew you were into bands like Cause CO-motion and indie pop. And obviously everyone has many different interests, but at what point were you like “I want to do New Age music!” or found yourself integrated into this scene?
EH: In high school.
So it stretches back pretty far.
EH: Yeah. I was doing this kind of free culture music advocacy... It was some kind of organization. It wasn’t a nonprofit, it was a no-profit. It eventually got kind of rolled into the WFMU Free Music archive. We were a student group based out of Harvard and Northeastern that was just generally agitating for Creative Commons for the music world, educating people about it and doing actions on it. Trying to work with different organizations to get them to support this sort of thing and working with librarians and lots of different people. It was great because I was really young, I didn’t know anybody, and here was this thing that I was really passionate about that I could take ownership over. And one of my friends knew Danny Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never, and we ended up in this thing—Antenna Alliance is what the organization was called. We ended up doing an Astronaut three-inch, and Astronaut was Danny and Lee Tindall and Andy Plovnick. It was kind of like an early, Emeralds-esque, all-synth drone unit. And I ended up going to this show that was like Bee Mask, Astronaut, and Emeralds, they all played. Then there was another show after that, and Keith Fullerton Whitman played, and Prurient, and C. Spencer Yeh. So it was everybody kind of on like the same playing field. It was like, this all works fine together, there was no clear distinction between “this is noise” and “this isn’t noise.” Because it was a synth-noise-drone thing, rather than like Iasos— what’s now become acceptable, which is any kind of high production value, super cheesy, MIDI-driven New Age.
Were you referring to yourselves as New Age back then? I imagine that a lot of people, when they hear the term New Age, would think of Enya or something like that.
EH: I don’t think so. I think people joked about it, but no one referred to it as such. So when I moved to Chicago, I knew I wanted to continue hanging out with these groups. I drove Astronaut around on tour at one point, and I played a really bad show with Astronaut where they said I couldn’t play with them anymore. That’s another mortifying experience in my life.
[laughing] What happened?
EH: I had the biggest amp, and I just blew everyone else out of the water with a bunch of white noise. And I couldn’t hear the amp, because I was sitting behind it, I was playing on top—it was a mess. So anyhow, I realized that I wanted to keep doing that, try to redeem myself and keep doing that kind of stuff when I moved to Chicago. And I ended up liking this trio of labels more so than the rest—Arbor, Young Tapes, and Catholic Tapes—and they’re basically doing synth noise and drone. So I kind of fell in with that, and that’s where I wanted to be, and I went to a lot of shows at the Mopery. And... I don’t know, I don’t know how I settled on New Age. It just happened.
How do you conceptualize the music you create? To what extent is it planned—the running water, the nature sounds in, say, “Ecotone I.” Is it like a John Cage composition, or is everything already in your head, to some extent?
EH: Ok, so Floating Gardens... Here’s a picture of my normal working setup: Me trying to work, and my cats jumping in my lap.
So the cats are the secret to the music?
EH: [laughing] Yeah. “Cat’s Paw Op. 1” is still in the works. It’s a secret project I’m working on; I’ll tell you more about it when we’re not recording. But Floating Gardens... That’s changed a lot, in the way I conceive of making music. I played piano for a couple years, and I played drums for much longer, and I studied music theory and jazz theory when I was playing drums, but I couldn’t relate to it and I quickly forgot all about it, so I don’t really have any musical training. So it’s hard for me to set up a pop piece. I don’t think through chord progressions. It’s both good and bad that I can’t remember anything musically, like the notes, necessarily. But I know what scales I’m working in, for the most part. I don’t really understand the changes that I’m going through. It’s really hard for me to memorize what I do for more than three months at a time. I’ll work on a set and I’ll know what I play, and then, inevitably, I’ll feel that I don’t want to do Floating Gardens for a moment, and I’ll step away, and I’ll have completely forgotten everything. The only thing that unites all the pieces is the equipment that I use. All the natural sounds that people usually say are field recordings are not field recordings, they’re like digital patches of bird sounds and water sounds.
So you never actually go out and get authentic recordings?
EH: Not for Floating Gardens. The kind of pure, electronic abstraction is what I want to work with. And I put it on tape machines and run it through delays and stuff like that, so it sounds a bit different than coming straight out of the synth, but they’re not field recordings. So I kind of work with all the machines that I have, and Floating Gardens really is unified by the idea of like a completely abandoned garden idyll floating in the middle of space, and it’s populated by the various pieces. So “Ecotone,” all the “Ecotones” are kind of like little place-based vignettes, and some of the more expansive pieces have to do with wider places or events. I mean, if you look at some of the track titles I have, it’s like “Birds From the Second Level Waystation.” “Vernal Pool Simulation” is the side-spanning track from Generalife, and then there are a lot of different sketches and different places around that kind of abstracted, idealized world. And that’s also why I like New Age stuff, too, because it’s really great at getting at imaginary places, inscapes.
So you start with a visual image that you’re trying to capture in sound?
EH: But it’s not a visual image because it’s not a place that exists at all. It’s all these kinds of different concepts and different pictures. I like the imaginary space of literature, where you don’t have a clear referent. You’re given all this language that’s clearly evocative. I’ll borrow from minimal design, and scientific pictures of plants, and I’ll kind of resynthesize those, but never so clearly. I never have a starting point where it’s like “I’m thinking of this place that I know!” It’s purely exploratory.
Yeah, it’s not a real place. It’s in your mind, and you almost make it more ambiguous, so you don’t give people too clear an idea of what it is.
EH: Yeah, so don’t tell anybody I said all this! No, it’s fine. This whole aspect of secrecy is something that I think I was trying to hold more tightly... two years ago. But, at this point, it doesn’t really matter that much that people know or they don’t know, so I’m happy to talk about it. So yeah, basically that’s the whole Floating Gardens thing. What I’m listening to right now in terms of New Age music is less of the kind of free-floating stuff and more of the kind of pure, three-to-five-minute synthesized pop songs. I really like Suzanne Ciani and Emerald Web, and there are a lot of great Oneohtrix Point Never pieces that are really short—I mean, most of his stuff is really short, he’s really concise. So I’ve delved more into production and multi-track recording because I think you can get these kind of more concise, evocative vignettes. I have a hard time now—I have to put myself in the right space to sit down and listen to a tape where somebody’s kind of just like multi-layering a bunch of looped tracks. I think those are evocative in their own right, but they’re just not what I’m going for with Field Studies.
So you’re moving towards a more pop direction?
EH: Yeah, I might try to throw a vocoder in there and everything, because there are these characters that I’m developing for the floating garden. There’s only one character, and he’s the Architect. So that’s where the tape, Generalife—Generalife is in... Spain, right? Southern Spain? It’s one of the gardens in the palaces of Córdoba. Generalife is Jennat al Arif, or something like that. “Garden of the Architect.” So that’s what Generalife is, and I have a track called “Paean to the Architect.” So the Architect is a figure. I don’t know who he is, if he’s me or if he’s someone else.
Interview by Sean Redmond.