July 22nd, 2011 | Interviews

Photo by Theo Jemison

Brainfeeder audio-visual artist Strangeloop’s latest Fields is a beautiful and mesmerizing experiment in sound and image. Deeply moving ambient soundscapes build and fold over the course of three acts—the first a movement symbolizing birth and constellation, the second death and dissolution, and the third a transcendental union of both. He celebrates its release with a gallery exhibit of his art at Gus Harper Studios this Saturday, and speaks here about being in a metal band, what the real apocalypse looks like, and the DMT trip that showed him his rhythm. This interview by Lainna Fader.

How did you help your high school found its electronic music department?
When I started going to Malibu High School, there was a big influx of money from some of the rich people—you know, a lot of kids of rich people end up there—and it all went to founding a new electronic music department and a new video editing department. And I helped set up both of them and was interested in both simultaneously. Even though Malibu High is a whatever school, it was a really good time for me to be there cuz they had ProTools and Logic and all that. And I was in there every day after school just experimenting with music and video and stuff for four years. It was amazing! We had great pre-amps, guitars, and synthesizers. It was a dream—it was synchronistic. I was there just at the right time. I’m not even sure if they have that department anymore—it was called Music Exploration. And I was producing other people’s tracks then, too. It was a good collaborative environment because there were a lot of musicians and I was in a metal band—
You were in a metal band?
Yeah, I used to play guitar in a metal band. That was actually my steez before any of this stuff. So we’d record our band in the music room at school—actually, before that we’d take a bunch of drugs and just mess with all these instruments and it was really good.
How did you go from metal to electronic music?
I was kind of making both in tandem, but at a certain point—actually, at the time, I was really into the heaviest possible music and once I just got to Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity, I would listen to it over and over again and was thinking, ‘There’s nothing heavier you can make than this with real instruments. You’d have to like break apart the audio.’ So I got into Venetian Snares and Amon Tobin—some experimental drum & bass-y stuff—and after a while, metal sort of lost its appeal to me. There’s a few bands that I’m still obsessed with—Lightning Bolt, Hella—but more straight death metal stuff wasn’t doing it for me.
How does taking 8 years of classical piano influence the work you make now?
It’s the basis for a lot of things I do. I still play piano every day. I was into classical music, but there was this kind of falling out with my piano teacher. I was playing Mozart—I was rehearsing it for a recital and I was maybe 13, 14 or something—and I liked to play the classical pieces but I’d like to speed them up progressively and play them faster and faster and faster until I find that point where I’d go, ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhh!’ And my piano teacher hated that! But it was what I loved to do so I kept doing it, and at a certain point—he was a very straight-laced guy, always wore a tie, traditional piano teacher—and eventually he just stopped me and yelled at me, ‘DON’T FUCK WITH MOZART!’ He freaked out. So I stopped playing piano for a little bit and sort of abandoned classical musical entirely.
Sounds like a fairly traumatic experience.
Right? Now it’s whatever but as a thirteen-year-old I was kinda freaked out and it put me in a rebellious mindset. ‘Fuck all these traditions—I’m gonna make metal music, jungle, and weird psychotic stuff.’ So in a way it was a really good thing, but it was kind of funny.
Who convinced you to start playing again?
I would dabble in it over the years, but meeting Austin Peralta got me into playing piano more. I saw what he was doing with the instrument and it was inspiring—it made me realize that whatever I was doing on the piano, I was just fucking around. I’m never gonna be on Peralta’s level. It’s just a fun instrument—you can design an entire piece from the piano, it’s just a great compositional tool.
Austin Peralta said he knew you were a like-minded dude when you showed up at the same coffee shop and started ranting about the apocalypse.
I’m on apocalyptic rants a lot of the time. I’m just interested in the downfall of our Western civilization, our global civilization—which I think is happening right now on a certain level, a paradoxical awareness that can occur within this whole collapse. We’re in a really fantastic time and a really terrible time and it’s all happening simultaneously. The etymology of the word ‘apocalypse’ interestingly enough means the ‘unveiling,’ not ‘the end of the world.’ It’s actually a golden age on certain levels. I like Thundercat’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse—that’s what I feel. It’s a golden age and a dissolution of all these things that we thought were relevant and important. Like capitalism—that huge, global beast—the substructure of that thing is not really working for everybody and if we keep on this path—hyper-consumer, society-spectacle trip—then I think we’re basically done as a species. And there isn’t actually that much to refute that at this point. Most great scientific minds of our time say that—basically—that we’re a train going off the tracks.
How much time do you think we have left?
I don’t know, but I think maybe the apocalypse is already happening. It’s a cultural apocalypse. If you go to any spot in America and find a strip mall with Carl’s Jr.—that’s the cultural apocalypse. That’s the homogenization of culture. It’s horrific. I think maybe we’re in some sort of transition. For instance, in the 22nd century, we won’t be human as we’ve known ourselves to be for thousands of years. If we do survive, we’ll be something totally different.
Is that an idea that’s exciting or scary to you?
It’s both. It’s exciting and scary and overwhelming and inspiring. I’m a big student of Terrence McKenna, Kurzweil, and all the Futurist philosophers. And I like discussing these things because I think awareness is important—I think it gives us more say in where we’re going. Otherwise we’re passive recipients of all these future catastrophes that are coming down the pipeline. But on another level, there’s nothing we can do about it. And when Austin and I met, I was ranting about the apocalypse and I guess he could relate.
Where does Fields come from?
I made it when I went up to Portland. I was relaxing up there, taking psychedelics, trying to reconnect with some deeper sense that I felt I had lost after being in the hurricane of all these beats and dubstep works. I actually heard the Fields composition in my head—I smoked some DMT and I had this bizarre experience where I heard this music emanating out of space and I saw it too. I could see the music. And I was gone for twenty minutes, just dissolved into this composition, and I came back and I thought my friend John was playing the music in the room because it was really loud. It was loud but it was also a minimal, textural composition. He wasn’t playing anything. I felt like I downloaded it—I had it in my head. I knew the time signatures, I knew that it’d be in movements—three movements—and we had a studio in the house, so I went to the studio right after and just started trying to make the composition on a couple synthesizers and just start tracking it. It was an unusual process because it doesn’t usually work like that for me. I literally heard the composition before I made it.
You’ve said you ‘wanted to get the kind of vulnerable heart of a lot of what you’ve been trying to do with your life.’ How did you accomplish that with Fields?
It’s more subliminal than many things I’ve done in recent years. It was very personal—and not necessary as derived from what’s around me culturally. That’s all in me, but I wanted to find something deeper. I think for its time and place, it’s exactly how it needed to be. I could’ve gone back and done more mixing and refining but I just said no. It’s fine how it is—it’s raw and it’s fine, whatever it is. It’s exactly how it was when I wrote it and I wrote it in two, three days. When you go from my other stuff, like 2010, this fucked up dystopian piece of madness, you can see a pretty stark contrast with Fields. I did want to make a journey from all this dystopian stuff I’ve been doing the last couple years and explore something utopian. They both coexist, and I wanted to have something that was very positive and uplifting.
Fields is endlessly folding and looping into itself—do you think anything ever has a true end?
That’s how I feel about reality. That’s where I got the name Strangeloop—it’s a technical term for a tangled hierarchy. You can travel from one point to another in a hierarchy and you get back to where you started. Especially from my psychedelic experiences, I wanted a work that felt like it was a full dimension that you could fall into and it would never end. It’s like a fractal, it would always change and have self-similar aspects. There’s a whole mythos in my mind around it, based on this form, this neurological web that I call Nawgu—the Nawgu deity, the God of Psychedelic Media. So I was exploring this god, this thing. And when I started studying my world more and more, that’s all I see. Especially when I take psychedelics, they’re just blooming everywhere, these dendritic, synaptic things. All the imagery that we get from science—the whole universe really looks like that, all these synapse structures and I see it everywhere. If I worship anything, it’s that. And it’s not specific—it’s a pattern that I love, and I give it this deity status even though I’m not religious by any measure. Hopefully with Fields, you go into it, and you feel like that space will always be there, and you can always go back to it if you want to.
Godfrey Reggio said, ‘All of us are refugees driven from our human state.’ How do you bring yourself back to your human state?
I actually was able to meet him and hang out with him for a bit and I got to ask him all these big philosophical questions. A lot of the things he told me—I’m still trying to wrap my head around them. The whole idea of that quote relates to his idea about us being astronauts. We’re literally off the planet on some level. When you think about it, it’s kind of true. We’re not on the planet—we created all these infrastructures that have lifted us a little off the planet. We’ve been driven from our natural state—our feet are not on the ground anymore. But of course, that idea resonates on a whole bunch of levels. I’m not sure that our job is to return to some prior state that we had though. This is a very common idea now—we have to rebalance ourselves with nature and whatnot—and sometimes I’m totally on that boat, but nature really is not balanced in the way that we think it is. It has some fractal order in it but it’s not this stasis we can return to. Massive, crazy, catastrophic events happen out of nowhere—and I think we’re in one of those now—but it’s an evolutionary event. I don’t think the answer is, ‘Let’s try to go back to a tribal society.’ We have to figure out—not even figure out, but let go of this process. I feel that Reggio and his idea that we’re all astronauts is kind of like what Terence McKenna said about cities and modern civilization, that we’re in a sort of transitional phase because we’re trying to become a species that’s intergalactic, as crazy as that sounds. We’re reaching for that and to do that, we’re kind of like a child rebelling against its mother, against the earth, and trying to become independent and self-sufficient. And that’s what a city is, as messy as it is a lot of the time. We’re trying to create a bubble for ourselves, a technological chrysalis that we can develop in and it’s probably part of the natural process. I’m not sure what I’m in the camp that believes that it’s all a mistake. Nature is infinitely intelligent and there’s probably an infinitely intelligent reason for why all these things are unfolding in this certain way. I think that quote from Reggio—and it’s like a page long thing—is one of the most incredible quotes of all time.
Terence McKenna said, “We have to create culture. Don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, and don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow.” How do you—and Brainfeeder—create your own culture? How do you reclaim your mind?
That’s the plan, right? I used to think that I had to rebel against all the things I found troubling in the world. I come from a very political family and that was the modus operandi—rebel against the system. Though I preserve an element of that, you give power to the things you fight against. It’s like in a Go game—if you’re in trouble somewhere, and start reacting against the trouble and try to make your way out, you actually give your opponent more pieces. I play Go with Alfred [Daedelus] and I always do that and I gotta stop! We have to create our own culture. We have to create what we want to see and experience. I think it’s great that there are all these creative communities that have sprung up locally—Brainfeeder, Alpha Pup, dublab—all these communities make life really exciting right now. Whereas if I just watched the news instead and just tripping out on the state of the world—which I do, sometimes—life would kinda suck. There’s these parallel histories right now—the histories of human follies unfolding on epic proportions that we couldn’t even dream of. The most absurd news—you couldn’t have people write that stuff, it’s so ridiculous. And there’s also a totally epic creative renaissance right now. As much as I do in my life, I’m some very tiny little cell—and that’s great! Being part of something that fuels you and inspires you and is much bigger than you, moving all the time regardless if you’re sitting in your house playing video games, you’re always moving forward.
In an interview I read with Philip K. Dick he talks about experiences he had where supernatural beings went into his mind and took hold and explained all of life’s mysteries that had been troubling him for a very long time. Have you had experiences like that?
For whatever reason, in my life there is a plethora of those sort of bizarre experiences. Not always a ‘full secrets of the cosmos’ kind of thing. Maybe not even with drugs—just lucid dreams, or some bizarre experience in daily life. It’s not always epiphanal but it’s always weird. ‘Why is my mind doing this?’ I have a predisposition for these altered states. I don’t think I’m crazy—but I could be! Or I’m sometimes on that borderline. Some of my experiences on psychedelics have been totally traumatizing. This one time I hit my head on psychedelics and I left this world entirely for a very long time. Blacked out. I was basically living with this beautiful woman in the woods for a long time—it felt like an eternity. I came back to this world in a very traumatic way: I was being dragged into this dorm room and didn’t know where I was, thought I had gone kinda crazy, and I had all these geometries flooding out of this gash on my head. Very perturbing experience but when I came back I was obsessively drawing these patterns. I was so traumatized by the experience that I felt like I had to return to it to understand it so a few months later I took psychedelics again and delved deep into it. I came into contact with this alternate version of myself. The archetypal me. This is getting pretty heavy! Basically, in a way—and not just in an intellectual way—it told me what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet. Whether I should believe it or not is almost irrelevant to me. More than anything, it showed me my rhythm, which maybe I had forgotten, being all wrapped up in college at the time. That’s where I can return to all the time, whether I’m doing musical stuff or visual stuff or just living—that was the important thing that experience gave me.
Surprised you found that so traumatic—going off into the woods with a beautiful woman for eternity sounds like a really pleasant experience.
Well, that part was okay. That was fine. It was the exit from this realm into that realm and the return where I thought I had gone mad that was awful. The fear that you’ve gone mad forever—and anyone who’s into psychedelics knows this—is a really deep one. It shook my core pretty intensely. But at the same time, like with all traumatic things in my life, they end up being very defining things that I hold really dear to me. It might be fucked up in the short term, but it always ends up being quintessially important in the long run.