Tim Hecker: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Magmatic chambers of sound
File next to: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brian Eno, plate tectonics
Playing: Wavelength 602 at NXNE, Thursday June 19 at the Great Hall (1:00AM)

Tim Hecker is a one-man genre, taking elements of ambient music, punk rock, contemporary classical, digital experimentation and Zen attitude into a molten sound blender, to create a beautifully ominous sound swell that defies expectations of defying expectations. The Canadian sound artist, hailing from Vancouver but based in Montreal, has released a handful of groundbreaking albums for crucial Chicago drone music label Kranky Records (also home to releases by Stars of the Lid, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Deerhunter, Grouper, Low, etc.), the most recent of which, 2013’s Virgins (out on Paper Bag Records in Canada), has seen his electronically processed sound steer into more acoustically (ahem) pure territory. Having only performed in Toronto churches to date (at St. George the Martyr Church a.k.a. the Music Gallery and most recently St. Anne’s Church for the 2013 Images Festival), Wavelength is proud to present Tim’s secular Toronto debut, at the Great Hall for our North by Northeast showcase this Thursday. Jonny Dovercourt chatted with Tim over the phone about sound pressure, Iceland, and playing woodwinds like a Wookiee.

This is your first time playing Toronto since the release of Virgins last fall. I read that that album was recorded using “live ensembles in performance,” which I believe was also a first for you?

Yes, it’s partly the product of live ensembles in performances — I worked in a bunch of stages, one of which was writing music electronically using sampled instruments. I would go back and forth between treating things digitally and taking some of these transfigured instrumental pieces into a studio, where I would have people work with those under loose instruction. Then I would track that stuff and go back and forth between reality and non-reality — or virtual reality, if you want — and I constructed pieces slowly.

So how did you recruit the people that would play these pieces live in the studio?

It’s a mix of people, I have this keyboardist Kara-Lis Coverdale, who I work with, from Montreal — she’s a native Ontarian — and also in Iceland I have a few different instrumentalists, there’s this woodwind player I worked with, Grímur Helgason, and Valgeir Sigurdsson, who did some of the mixing on the record, and Ben Frost, who helps out a lot with my music – we’ve worked together a lot. Those are a few of the people I work with, and if we’re hanging out at the [Greenhouse] studio in Reykjavik, and if we want to try a different instrument, the good thing is there’s just this huge community of super talented musicians that are all really eager. They might be classically trained, but they’re also interested in really simplistic scores and weird instructions, so it brings a bit of guided improvisation into it.

What were the rehearsals like, were they extensive or were there a lot of things happening on the fly?

No rehearsals at all — we just opened up the tape and we’d just roll everything and I’d start dropping pieces in.  It’d be back and forth, you know, “here’s this motif, it would be nice if you could play along with in a latticework fashion,” or I’d say something like, “okay, that aspect is good but what if you imagined you just drank 8,000 litres of cough syrup and you starting playing saxophone like Chewbacca?”

Nice! So what was it like working with Valgeir?

He’s great, and he’s known as having golden ears. He’s a really talented multi-instrumentalist, when he performed on my record, he basically riffed off this defect of his Jupiter-6 synthesizer, where the filter would cut out and the whole sound would then drop out and played that through a guitar amplifier and it ended up being a serious part of one of the pieces on the last part of the record.

Do you like hanging out at the Greenhouse?

You know, it’s kind of one of my places of solace, for musical refuge. It’s a really fantastic place to leave your routine, where maybe it’s not as easy to focus on writing, because you get inundated by the adminstrata of daily life. And there you just remember why you were there and it kind of channels you into this work mode. It’s also very mystical and beautiful, the air and everything just adds to this mindspace.

Back to the Virgins pieces, have you performed these live in concert with the musicians at all?

The extent I’ve done it is working with a keyboardist on stage a few times. I haven’t worked too much with acoustic performance, because for me it’s not about that. I’m more about the plasticity of digital audio than I am about the serenity of organic instrumentation, so my live approach is really an extension of what I’ve been doing before, so — volume, space, sound pressure and transfiguring sound material. With this new work, half of my live performance is pieces that are in progress right now. I prefer to use playing live to develop pieces and play motifs and riff off them, and see how they build up, and see what works and what doesn’t, almost as a way of informing the writing process.

Having seen you live before, I see that the audience notices motifs more than they hear songs, would you say that’s how you approach it?

For me it doesn’t make sense to play pieces and stop and wait for the applause. I know that that’s fine, but for me I like to plow through and interstice and layer and chop, and confuse the starting points and end points of music. That’s more my style, a bit of confusion and indiscernability, I suppose.

Your albums seem to flow the same way as well, all the pieces tend to blur into one another, what’s the motivation behind that approach?

It’s just an impulse, like any writer has an impulse towards certain decisions or aesthetics. I’m more interested in things that aren’t delineated clearly. It takes away a bit of the imagination, maybe. I guess that would be the answer!

Tim Hecker plays the Great Hall Thursday June 19 at 1:00AM for Wavelength’s NXNE showcase, following sets by Fresh Snow, White Poppy, Twist and Zones, with between-set sounds by HVY WTR DJs.

Photo by: Tracy Van Oosten