This is a small excerpt from a much longer interview for my book, Electronic Music Pioneers, published by ArtistPro, and distributed by Hal Leonard Corporation.

I first met Steve Roach in 1986 when he was a guest on my radio program, “Imaginary Voyage.” He had just completed an east coast US tour promoting his album, Empetus. Since that time, it has been a real joy watching his career expand and flourish.

"Born in 1955, the internationally renowned artist, Steve Roach is constantly searching for new sounds that connect with a timeless source of truth in this ever-changing world.

Roach has earned his position in the international pantheon of major new music artists over the last two decades through his ceaseless creative output, constant innovation, intense live concerts, open-minded collaborations with numerous artists, and the psychological depth of his music.

Inspired early on by the music of Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and the European electronic music of the 70’s, Steve began his musical explorations directly on synthesizers at the age of nineteen. He made his recording debut with the album Now in 1982. Two years later he created one of the most pivotal albums of his early career, Structures from Silence, one of the landmark ambient releases of the 80s, presenting a new sound that lives on today. In fact, the 4th Edition was released in 2001 by Project. This album was comprised of three long tracks featuring reflective intimate timbres and cascading lush harmonic waves. Roach sought to alter the listener’s awareness of their physical surroundings by increasing the space within each of the pieces, and by extending the length between the sections to an expansive level, capturing the slow breath of the silence between the sounds.

Recognized worldwide as one of the leading innovators in contemporary electronic music, he has released over 50 albums since 1981: including the 1997 award-winning live-studio masterpiece, On This Planet, (Fathom); the 1998's critically acclaimed, Magnificent Void (Fathom); the time traveling Early Man (Projekt) and a number of albums that are already considered classics of the genre, most notably the ground-breaking double CD Dreamtime Return (1988). All of Roach's early works have stood the test of time, drawing a new generation of fans who are only beginning to discover the vast territory of sonic innovation this artist has covered over the last two decades.

As one of the few electronic-based artists performing live consistently for over 20 years, Roach's engagements have taken him from concert halls in the United States, Canada, and Europe, to lava caves in the Canary Islands and volcanic craters in Mexico. These exotic settings have helped him further shape his style, a sonic vision that thrives in a sphere of ritualistic intensity beyond categories, national boundaries, cultural barriers, and quite often, time itself.

The Interview:

Ben Kettlewell: Many reviewers and listeners describe your music as a transformational tool, which helps bring the listener into a deeper level of consciousness. Why do you think so many people share that vision in regard to your music?

Steve Roach: The willful intention in all my music is to create an opening, which allows me to step out of everyday time and space, into a place I feel we are born to experience directly. Many of our current social structures and material concerns shut down the opening or build a complex array of ‘plumbing’ to divert a direct experience we all crave in one way or another. In any case, these sound worlds can offer a place where the bondage of western time is removed and the feeling of an expanded state is encouraged. I often refer to the words "visceral," being in the "sound current," or "sound worlds", when describing my work. This is a prime area where I feel the measure of all my work--in the body. So, for me to create these sounds and rhythms, and utilize my own body as the reflecting chamber is my direct way of living in the sound current that occurs naturally when the juices are flowing. From the feedback I receive, this is something I know receptive listeners are feeling as well. Tapping into the creative process at this direct level simply feels like a birthright.

I truly feel the complexity of what makes me a human being and drives me to create this music is something that can never be measured and explained in terms conveniently reduced to a string of words. Starting with the impulses and urges of early man, deep in the collective memory up to now, I feel compelled to make sense of the chaos and beauty around me--to give it meaning, and feel more whole and alive for our time on this planet. As far back as I can remember, the realm of ineffable feelings emerging in everyday life haunted me.

When I discovered the way to express this world through sound, things just fell into place in many ways. It feels like it's enough to just say I have to create my music in the same way I have to breathe. It's not a question of whether it's pleasing or disturbing to other people, or record companies and so on. I do it for myself before anyone else. The fact that I have devoted all of my adult life to creating this music at whatever cost outside the interference of commercial concerns has allowed me to follow some tracks to places that are essential and universal at the core. I get the sense the listeners to the music feel this and respond naturally.

BK: You certainly are a prolific artist. Where do you find the inspiration and time to create such a great body of output, especially in the past four years? What inspires you? What keeps you working at this pace?

SR: It's just the natural pace for me to operate at. It's not forced. I don't feel I'm working at it rigorously. It just feels like I am in the flow. I love being in this sound current and capturing the music as I do. It's a constant feedback circuit. Over the years the momentum builds and the process becomes more rich and fulfilling for me. It's a way of life for me, not a job or a profession. It's my chosen path, being in the flow of sound and music. Looking at the flow of a visual artist or sculptor, for example, these people usually have reams of work in various stages. A constant regeneration occurs where the work helps build the momentum and energy that inspires the actual process. It's no different for me. I've always felt more connected to this process of creativity.

Somewhere along the way, the record industry set a standard to protect their own investments with an artist or group squeezing out a release every fifteen months. That system has never really made sense for the way I work. Now, with the Timeroom Editions, and the outstanding collaborative relationship with Sam Rosenthal, owner of Project Records with whom I release my above ground work, I have found a nice flow and balance.

BK: You, Robert Rich, and Michael Stearns were among the first Americans to delve into this type of music. What was it like back in the 1970s trying to introduce your music to a new audience?

SR: It's been a long, wonderful and strange trip indeed. When I set out to live the creative life as a sound sculptor, it was a different time to say the least. In the mid 70's, this music was still being born, especially in the States.

There were almost no labels, no real radio support, a few underground magazines, like Eurock and Synapse, the latter of which I also wrote for. Compared to today, with the Internet as the hub of all things, it was the dark ages. Imagine trying to hook up with like-minded people or get your music to people beyond your immediate reach. It was also an incredibly exciting time with impending changes in the air.

The frontier of consciousness expanding music was clearly growing, and this impetus was spawning many new instruments and small companies that often came and went as fast as they appeared. I set out to do electronic music against many odds, but my passion to live in the sound current was all that mattered, and this is what drove me through all the highs and lows and beyond the nay-sayers. At that time, only a handful of people around me knew what I was talking about when I would start on these born-again tirades about the "music of the future". There really was a feeling of being a part of something significant, in a historic sense. To witness all these changes and to meet and work with many of the people helping to bring all this together, in such a short time, was nothing short of fantastic.

Just a few years ago, getting your music onto an LP or a cassette run was a major accomplishment. Then there were the tasks of gathering names from underground sources and mailing packages and letters to each and every one. It was a grassroots effort where I felt like every cassette or LP sent out was like a personal connection. I still feel this way but on a larger scale. My first release was Now, in 1982, followed by Structures from Silence on cassette. It was this release that brought me to the attention of Fortuna Records, based in California. This is about the time I met Robert Rich, who was also self-publishing his early work, like Trances and Drones.

It's important for me to say I have never approached my music as a career, a profession, or a way to make a living. My obsession to live in these sound worlds has eventually provided the support to keep me creating. I survived a lot of strange jobs at that time. One of the better ones was eight hours a day in a clean room at a Microbiology lab for a few years. Then straight home to The Timeroom all night, living like a techno monk in a tiny one-bedroom house in Culver City, Ca. I even had a visit from Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream at one point, which for me at the time was pretty much like the Dalai Lama stopping in, at this stucco Gingerbread looking bungalow built in the 30's for the workers in the film studios nearby. Every spare penny went toward supporting the equipment habit I needed to create this music. The fact that I eventually reached the point where the music in turn supported me enough to quit my day job and live in the sound current exclusively is something I don't take for granted.

As a side bar, this is a very brief overview from my perspective of events not long ago--in the pre-internet era. The "commercial" groundswell started to build in the late 80's. The catchall term New Age was adopted for the purpose of retail and marketing. This travesty of a definition started to build momentum and swooped up many forms of unsuspecting genre-less music at the same time. Companies like Windham Hill and Private Music, backed by major label clout and greed, continued to build the fire and find a peak in the early 90's, inspiring dozens of overnight labels to spew out reams of forgettable "product." In my opinion, this glut of "product" helped to poison the well to a certain extent and turned a lot of people off to this music in the end. Still, the momentum from this time had a positive side, and thankfully, like a raging California wildfire, it burned itself out, leaving behind a smoldering, ashen heap, which fueled the natural process of survival of the fittest. The Phoenix rose up. On the 8th day, what's his name created the Internet, the Mecca for all fringe dwellers old and new, including the ones that survived the great "wildfires" of the early 1990s. These events seem like bumps in the long road when even looking back a few years later.

BK: I want to talk about your method of composition? Is there a chain of events, or a memory that conjures up a particular sonic image, or do you go into your studio, and just start exploring ideas?

SR: There are so many levels at work here. Long-term ideas that build up energy often start as spontaneous moments in the studio. Sometimes a title or a word will key me into the deeper storehouse of memories. The ongoing meditation of working on the various sound worlds will often take me to places I could arrive at no other way. I have this biological need to create certain types of zones that have become established in my music. It's something that wells up time after time, and it's a world I'm compelled to keep exploring in various ways.

The biggest influence is living here in the desert. It's a constant generator that feeds my inner life in many ways. I have no formula since every project takes on a different shape and set of harmonic sonic-mythic-rhythmic puzzles to solve and explore. In some settings, the feeling of creating a film is the best way to compare the process. Shooting the film can be compared to capturing improvisations and explorations in the moment, then telling the story by way of editing. Like the texture and grain of the film, the processing can drive it, slow it down, and sweep one away.... whatever. Besides the powerful places right here in the southwest, I get tremendous inspiration from films, along with the visual arts. Since I never really do songs, the long form pieces are created from many different elements that, once woven into the fabric, serve multiple purposes in the big picture.

It is always important to remember the instruments are tools to help me express multi-leveled emotional nuances and states of consciousness. I'm careful not to let the technology take over and turn me into a more rigid, machine-like being.

BK: When you’re working on a composition, molding sound, building things up, how do you sense when the piece is complete?

SR: Gut feeling. Instinct. Creating a flow and balance that just feels right. Sometimes with a piece that occurs spontaneously, it feels finished right on the spot. Other times I can work on a piece over a long period of time before it feels complete. Each piece or final CD had its own story for me on many levels. Sometimes, I put all of myself into the one I am currently engaged in, only moving forward when it feels complete. Sometimes I have several different fires going at once, and they all influence each other, maybe balancing each other as they express opposite feelings or sides of my personality. With that said, I can listen to older releases and hear them from a new perspective. This might trigger a new idea or technique and sometimes remind me of a path I traveled down for a while and want to jump back on that track and keep exploring it further and deeper.

BK: Can you tell me about the Tabula Rasa and how that affects your preparation for creating music?

SR: Tabula Rasa means "clean slate" in Latin. It is for me a state of creative nothingness, a mindset that lets go of all preconceived ideas, habits, social mores, philosophical ideas, obligations, methods and techniques. While some of my work is influenced by the past, by feelings I've already explored and want to go deeper into, a piece created from the Tabula Rasa state has no connection to the past, no connection to time at all really. It seems to rise up from a place of pure, unformed potential that leads you into a new way of working and perceiving. I just create an opening in my mind and my heart and let it happen. Some of my best work has come from this perspective. These pieces have led me down an unexpected path, expanding my style and my scope as an artist.

BK: Your albums, Dreamtime Return and Sound of the Earth, marked quite a pivotal period in your career. Can you tell me about your meeting with David Hudson, and how your trips to Australia brought all this together?

SR: Dreamtime Return was certainly a culmination of my deepest desires and aspirations up to that point. I came into my own as an artist during that project. It was really an initiation for me on many levels, including the connection to my own sound that I was constantly searching out. Most of all, it was a time of intensive personal growth and understanding. I felt that I'd left a lot of the overt European influences behind at that point, integrating them in a more personal way, and my relationship to land where I grew up deepened.

The expansive, breathing, warm harmonic waves of sound reflected the desert landscapes that shaped me when I was young. These sounds, and the sensations that gave rise to them, were already alive within me; I just had to wipe the slate clean of European influences to allow this deeper, personal music to come through. Around this time, the mid-80s, the feeling of a sonic and spiritual bridge between the Southwest and the Australian outback was also awakening.

I spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree, outside L.A. in the desert region. I grew up in the Southern California Deserts, Anza Borrego and others. From the bedrock of this amazing land of extremes, I began to feel a sense of spiritual expansion, which grew out from beyond the desert I grew up in and was inspired by--a much larger, less familiar landscape. This was when the Dreamtime concept started to unfold.

Around this time I also saw the film by Peter Weir, The Last Wave, in which I heard the didgeridoo for the first time. It was a white filmmaker's version of certain mystical aspects of the Dreamtime and Aboriginal culture in it's own obviously diluted way. But still, it was a significant point in my growing fascination with Australia. I had a friend who moved to Australia in the 60's and came back with captivating stories of this faraway place. The mystery of this ancient landscape spiraled through my subconscious for years. In the mid 80's I was starting to work on preliminary pieces for Dreamtime Return, just gathering different impressions with no idea that I would be going to Australia. I really hadn't thought about it much more than just fascination about the different deserts out there that you could travel to in your imagination.

Knowing I was working on this project, the owner of Fortuna Records at the time, Ethan Edgecomb, sent me a book "Archaeology of the Dreamtime", about the time I was starting to get deeper into the project, around 1986. Probably within a month of receiving that book and reading it--which was written from an anthropological point of view of the Australians Aboriginals in the Cape York area of Australia - I received a phone call from a filmmaker who was working on a film called the Art of the Dreamtime. Using that very same book as a reference, he was producing a documentary for PBS and planning an expedition to that very same remote area in Cape York with a film crew from a university. One thing led to another, and I became the musician/composer on that expedition. They took care of everything for me, so I was one of the crewmembers. It was just an unbelievable turn of events. The filmmaker said he first heard my music when he was traveling to Mexico through Texas and Structures from Silence was playing on the radio late at night across the desert. I remember him saying that he felt like he was in a Stanley Kubrick film, and so did I.

The feeling of synchronicity was overwhelming at times. Along with being in those remote Aboriginal sites for weeks, the entire project brought up so much in me that went way beyond music. Being at these sites, sleeping on the same dirt as the ancient people of the land and listening to pieces on headphones that I'd already created back in the Timeroom before I ever imagined I would go to Australia was unforgettable.

This was also when I met Aboriginal Didgeridoo player David Hudson, who I went on to produce three didgeridoo records for. He taught me to play the didg. The entire Australian-Dreamtime Return period was a tremendous opening for me as an artist, and as a person. It taught me to really listen with my ear very closely to the ground, a direct experience of how magical things can happen when you listen with your heart and an open mind. The influences of those events continue to spiral out, unfolding with a natural order. I feel the uninterrupted connection still reverberating from that point--the understanding that I came to during the two years of making Dreamtime Return.

By 1989 I was back in Australia for a second adventure that led to the project, Australia: Sound of the Earth. It was directly after this second trip to Australia that I moved to Tucson and started a new life with my wife Linda Kohanov.

A curious side note is that David Hudson came for a visit here in Tucson in the early 90's with his fiancée Cindy and ended up getting married in the desert behind my house. He was taken with how much Tucson felt like Alice Springs, in central Australia, the place where they met originally. They were inspired by the parallels between the two deserts and how Tucson was able to bring up similar feelings for them. Since they were on an extended holiday, they rose to the moment.

BK: You've combined the use of ancient indigenous instruments with high technology in many of your works. Can you explain the synergy you find by combining ancient and modern musical tools?

SR: I see the didgeridoo and my favorite analog synthesizer, the Oberheim Matrix 12 as both being high points in their own time, created out of a need to hear and create a sound that the consciousness was needing. The didgeridoo was a much earlier form of technology, one that created a rich, continuous drone in the same way as the most current synthesizer and computer setups. In the right hands, the Oberheim Matrix 12 Analog Synth can tap into the same timeless realm as the didg, and elaborate on this feeling with a much more intricate series of multi-layered voices, creating a harmonic atmosphere that blossoms into waves of sound, seemingly spilling forth from some other world. The rich, uninterrupted harmonic drones of the didgeridoo have an almost electronic sound that captivated me the moment I heard it. The sounds embraced each other so well, creating this electro-organic quality. I went on to explore this by extensively fusing all sorts of elemental sounds into the electric stew. The simple act of having an open microphone recording an acoustic track in the midst of a full blown electronic piece adds a since of space, injecting "air" directly into what was once a hermetically sealed world. My recordings Origins and the recent Early Man are prime examples of this synergy.

BK: Do you plan to further explore the DVD format in your future creations?

SR: This medium is a natural extension for the music, which is often quite visual on it’s own. I have had quite a few visual music pieces in the past on video and Laser Disk. The merging of music and images has been a part of my creative process. It appears that DVD is the mode to parallel if not replace the audio CD in future. Also the possibilities of the extended program time and surround mixes will become more available in future music. I am watching closely with sober anticipation.

BK: What are your plans for the future? Where do you see this kind of music going in the next ten years?

SR: I usually have several projects on the burner at once, usually in vast contrast to each other, so I am sharing time between these now. I find they usually feed each other in curious ways during the parallel creative process. As for a ten year projection, it's up to those making the music to meet the challenge of having all the tools anyone could ever ask for while expressing something connected to the bigger picture, something that comes from a genuine place. I have always seen this indefinable sound-art as an outlet for the innately talented--for people, who, not too long ago might never have found a way to express these worlds. This means more and more people, like myself, who didn't fit into the conformity of the academic world, or didn’t give in to the bondage of creativity within the conventional matrix of the music or film business, can express their own unique visions with true independence. I feel the best qualities of this music are evolving in exciting ways, in all the sub-genres. It's a moot point to say the boundaries are dissolving; it's a big boiling pot by now. I say, just keep stirring it, adding new ingredients and trying new recipes while staying connected to the soulful qualities that move one to create in the first place. The good stuff will rise and the rest will fall away like it always has. One thing for sure is there will be more of both extremes.
------------------------------------------------------------------

This is a five page excerpt from a sixteen page interview. The complete interview is featured in Ben Kettlewell's book Electronic Music Pioneers.

For more information on Steve Roach, please visit his website: www.steveroach.com


This site is copyrighted ®© AMP/Alternate Music Press, 1997-2017. All Rights Reserved.
Unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyrighted material violates Federal Law.