An Interview with Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie + Ivo Watts Russell
Text by Christopher Ambrose
Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie is the American-born composer behind two decades worth of transcendent ambient projects including Stars of the Lid (SOTL), The Dead Texan and Aix Em Klemm, and collaborations with some of the world’s best-known avant-garde pop artists such as Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips. His latest project, A Winged Victory For the Sullen (AWVFTS), pairs him with LA-based composer Dustin OʼHalloran. The recordings for the new album were created in unusual spaces throughout Europe, from the Grunewald Church in Berlin to secluded studios in Italy, and combine eccentric pianos, strings, horns and guitar into a drifting and dreamy atmosphere that implores you to create within it’s haze.
In reflection of the album release, Adam asked music and label legend Ivo Watts-Russell to join in a conversation about making music, running the company, inspiration, and more. Ivo is of course the man behind the iconic collaborative project This Mortal Coil and founder of 4AD, the legendary label of Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, The Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, Pixies and so many more. We couldn’t have dreamed of a better conversationalist and were thrilled when he agreed to help get the conversation started…
Ivo Watts-Russell: John Lennon once said something about Rock ‘n’ Roll being the first thing to make any sense in his life… He was 15 or 16. When I was 12 I saw Jimi Hendrix perform “Hey Joe” on Top Of The Pops and that was my lightbulb moment that led me to the albums Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Are You Experienced? I had no idea that music could actually do what was explored on those 2 records. Years later, I felt optimistic that 12-year olds hearing My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless for the first time might have a similar moment. Who knows? Anything like that happen for you?
Adam Wiltzie: For my entire youth I was totally consumed with playing tennis. My dream was to win Wimbledon, and Bjorn Borg was my hero. I was quite late to find music as a passion, but I do remember in 1977 going to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I became totally obsessed with the “five-tone” motif that is used throughout the film. The five tones are used by scientists to communicate with the aliens, as well as being incorporated into the film’s signature theme. I had my mom take me to the record store after the film, and it was the first record I ever bought. I always felt, and still do to a certain degree, that live music is disappointing 95% of the time. Although, I can see people’s point that they love the unknown and the imperfection of the live concert, but my musical upbringings were always ingrained with film music, so I guess I kind of fucked myself.
IWR: In an interview with Charlie Rose, film director Steven Soderbergh once suggested that he wasn’t actually sure what the word “collaboration” meant. It has been my experience, in projects like This Mortal Coil or The Hope Blister, that for a collaboration to actually work, an element of, possibly, benign dictatorship is essential. How has your experience of collaborating differed from one project to the next? Would it just be easier to do it all yourself? Do you feel an affinity with your SOTL collaborator Brian McBride’s approach to composition or did you both learn how to make music together?
AW: Well, the dictator has always been me. I was always the de facto producer, and official control freak, so I have always had a hard time letting go in that sense. I had started creating music before Brian, and was further advanced in composition than him at the time of SOTL’s beginnings. Although, using the word “composition” during our half-baked beginnings would be stretching it a bit. He did not play guitar on our records until The Ballasted Orchestra (SOTL, 1997). He was, as I have said many times, “the king of cassette tapes”… But at the same time there were so many things we learned together because we were best friends. He always had an amazing ear for details that I would miss. All collaborations have something you could never do by yourself. Even The Dead Texan. I wrote all the music, but the films that Christina (Vantzou) made were very inspiring to me and the music, so it would have sounded totally different without her. With A Winged Victory for the Sullen I must say that this is the most evenly divided collaboration I have ever worked on. We really got inside each others writing process, because we spent time together in a neutral studio for much of the writing process, and sort of took liberty with each others strong side. Me writing piano parts, him chasing orchestral drones. It was very liberating.
IWR: I’ve been listening to A Winged Victory… followed by Brian’s The Effective Disconnect ever since you sent me the files. It’s hard for me to distinguish between the two of you. Do you feel that way… Or is it obvious to you who does what and how you differ from each other musically?
AW: I’m not sure it’s obvious…? We are getting into that uncomfortable “subjective/objective” world. If you can’t tell a difference between the two, then that is how you feel. For me it sounds totally different, but I reckon I can also hear some similarities, but I am not one to wonder about these things too often.
-A Winged Victory For the Sullen
Chris Ambrose: So how do you two know each other and each other’s work?
IWR: I had bought The Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid (SOTL, 2001), simply because I enjoyed the title, when it first came out but didn’t really listen to it properly until the Summer of 2002 when I moved into the house I had built outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. A very intense love affair began.
AW: My recollection is as follows…. It was around 2006 and I was in the finishing stages of finishing the last SOTL record and I had been talking to Mr. Kranky (of the Kranky record label) about finding a label for just Europe. Mr. Kranky had told me that Ivo had become one of his best mail-order customers, and was particularly fond of The Dead Texan record I put out in 2004. I decided to email him to say hello and see if there was any interest in putting out SOTL on 4AD… This was without realizing that Ivo had sold 4AD to Beggar’s Banquet years ago. He put me in contact with Chris Sharp and Ed Horrax who seemed to be running things at the time. I sent them SOTL’s …Refinement Of The Decline, but they did not seem to like it, and gave me the thumbs down.
AW: Ivo, is there anything you miss about running a record label?
IWR: Yes, absolutely. The whole process of hearing a demo tape, contacting it’s creator, seeing if you get on, discussing what the music could be and who might help get it there is such an interesting process. Being touched by the possibilities suggested by music and seeing it through, post-to-wire, to the finished article is quite a privilege. These days the whole world has access to the same demos. Everyone’s an A&R person. I also really miss having an idea at 3 in the morning and being able to put steps in motion the following day to make idea reality. If I were still there running the label the entire catalogue would still be in print as Japanese paper-sleeve CDs. I’m not though… So all that will be available in that format will be the This Mortal Coil 4CD boxset due this November. And, in the meantime, the physical catalogue is nothing but a ghost, a gorgeous memory.
AW: The general feeling to music lovers is that 4AD went down the tubes after you sold the company back to the Beggars Group and relinquished control as musical director. Any opinion on this subject… Or are you afraid to offend your colleagues?
IWR: 4AD, for better or worse, used to be a label that released music that was a reflection of one person’s taste. The first person I employed was a graphic designer (Vaughan Oliver) to help shape a visual identity that was both original and sympathetic to the music whilst, hopefully, nurturing a following that would come to trust a record with the 4AD logo on it might, at least, be worth a listen. My understanding of the current version is that there are at least 4 different individuals doing A&R and no visual consistency whatsoever. In truth, the company appears to function in exactly the way that Beggars has always functioned but they now call it 4AD. Whether it is a better label or, as you suggest, has gone down the tubes, is not my place to comment on. It certainly is a different label in every sense.
As you pointed out, the Chris and Ed version, which was a good effort at continuity and clarity of direction, turned down SOTL’s …The Refinement Of The Decline. I still consider …The Refinement Of The Decline to be the only masterpiece of the 21st Century and would have given my left pillock to be involved with it… Had I been so fortunate and still running a label!
CA: Adam, how do you define the sound of A Winged Victory…? And press and promotion seems to be almost all by word-of-mouth… Who are your fans?
AW: The sound was something I had been in search of for a long time. There are obvious similarities to my other projects, but with the juxtaposition of this very well recorded piano has added a new timbre that was not there before. I am always changing my guitar sounds, so there is always a new version of my tired old minimal formula. It was really a huge step for me to get out of the home studio environment. I was always afraid of my slowness vs. the expense of the professional recording studio, but I have somehow figured out how to maximize inspiration into compact, minimal amounts of time.
Word of mouth promotion has always been the case for SOTL. It seems that sometimes the cult status and popularity has grown because of the fact that we hardly ever put out music anymore. I have no idea who the fans are, but it mostly seems to be dudes. The only time I ever remember seeing girls at SOTL concerts were the ones there with their boyfriends.
IWR: I once described the music you’ve been involved in (Stars of the Lid, The Dead Texan, A Winged Victory for the Sullen) as being perfect. By that I mean that I never question or critique what is contained in those recordings. I never wish the bass guitar was more treated in one track or that the chorus be repeated in another. I just turn it on and allow it to take me where it will. Where I live it is experienced quite literally in an ambient setting. I tend to walk in, around and through it during the course of a day. It becomes part of my day and part of my environment. Does that idea please or offend you?
AW: It is always lovely to be considered perfect, so thank you for this. But I would say for the first time after finishing the AWVFTS record, I was not sick of the music. Every other record I have ever completed, I was so spent emotionally from working on and hearing the recordings that I never really wanted to hear it again? AWVFTS was one of the most enjoyable recording experiences I ever had. Mainly I reckon because I got out of hermit mode in the home studio. We traveled to exotic locations, found beautiful places to record, ate some amazing food, and drank a lot of great wine & whisky. We really laughed a lot. It was truly a pleasure.
A Winged Victory For The Sullen is out now on Kranky (North America) & Erased Tapes (EU) and the band is on tour this fall throughout North America.
This Mortal Coil Box Set, a 4-CD re-mastered box set of Japanese paper mini-gatefold sleeves is out in November on CD and Audio Blu-Ray.