Furnace Creek Interview with NYC's arc (art revolution culture) zine. Asheville, North Carolina. Scott Rader. David Smallwood.

Furnace Creek Interview: NYC's arc (art revolution culture) Zine

by Greg Matherly


Spring 2017. Used with Permission.


In an alternative backstory to Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick collaborates with Cormac McCarthy to re-imagine a post-global-warming dystopia that replaces the original East Asian/Japanese motif with that of Native American mysticism and reclamation. Furnace Creek would score the soundtrack: dissonant morphing drones, reverberating arpeggios and synth lines, accompanied by irregular pulsing tribal rhythms.

How would you describe your music?

Sonically, probably not even as "music" per se. It seems to be in keeping with the current fashion to say we're more "producers" than musicians, but we prefer to think of it first as performance art -- something that might be lost on some folks these days. Essentially we manipulate audio and video: constructing and deconstructing sounds and imagery. That probably comes off sounding more pretentious than it is meant to be, because humility is important with this undertaking. Neither of us are trained musicians and we certainly don't think of most of what we do as simply "music".


But inasmuch as the sound is integral to our art, the visuals are a big part of our aesthetic and we spend significant time on working with them. This includes lights and video projection. There's possibly a category/genre these days that captures some of what we do with the video installations -- maybe "glitch" or "stitch"? Anyway, somewhere along the line we came up with the phrase "primordial damaged synth ooze" to label what we're doing and that description is also characteristic of the overall motif and visuals we use inasmuch as the sound we're creating.



Listening to your sound, it seems it might fit into the "industrial" genre.

We're not "anti-genre", recognizing that categories are natural to our human need to impose structure and compare things. So yes, we could be categorized as a form of industrial music, or at least that lineage of sound. There are multiple strains of "industrial" aren't there? Ranging from guitar-driven stuff like Godflesh to more dance-oriented sounds like Wumpscut. We really don't fall directly into those camps, though we're influenced by them. Some traditional adjectives to describe us might be "ambient", "experimental", "electronic" -- and we like the older term "electronica" as a catch-all to help articulate a description of the broader spirit of things.


In terms of mood and sentiment, probably we create a strong sense of foreboding and doom as well, and while we both love doom metal per se, there's inadequate guitar in what we're doing for that to be even an approximate fit. So ambient doom? Synth doom? Doom electronica? One of the venues where we played described us by saying "Imagine Nitzer Ebb doing a score for a John Carpenter haunted house." That's really a compliment and serendipitous at the same time -- Nitzer Ebb was my (Scott's) primary gateway into industrial music after being into metal and punk.


How do you describe your creative process?

In a word, spontaneous. A lot of what we do musically is atonal and improvised, but most of the time it has some basic underlying structure or "sketch" that serves as a sonic foundation. That's where tools dictate the process, which in turn dictates the outcome.


Can you explain more of what you mean by "dictate the process"?

When creating, you are always constrained by your tools, whatever they are. Tools and context impose natural boundaries. This includes those tools that claim or appear to allow you to do "anything and everything". In terms of music, I'm thinking DAWs (digital audio workstations) and software environments here. When we aren't jamming together, Scott will work on some rhythmic and low-end phrases, often with samples or loops to embellish. When we're together, we freestyle on top of that or throw everything out all together. David is keen on developing melodic phrases.


The work is mostly down-tempo to mid-tempo, with what seems like psychedelic drone aspects.

Yes, we're quite fine with creating musical ideas around a drone, whether that's a single tone or note, or a single "chord". But often, we'll pick a few notes and play around them. You could say we are in a "key" of sorts but very limited in the number of notes we play. Sometimes only two notes and maybe a third note if we're feeling adventurous. But with mutliple synths going at once, and the sonic range possible even on one synth, you can get a lot of mileage out of even two notes, or a single chord. We are probably ascribing to the Lou Reed approach, where he was once quoted as saying "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." We pretend to know just enough about theory to have it be useful, but we don't know enough to have it interfere or become a burden, haha. Our rhythm or dynamics are probably a lot more varied than our melodic efforts.


So sometimes we'll keep coming back to those few notes or tonal themes or textures, if you will, and revisit a rhythm that seems to match, and come back to all of that together for more than one jam session. In that sense, we're different from the total free-form stuff that a lot of the modular (synth) folks do, or the often completely atonal/anti-music/a-rhythmic approach of the noise artists -- all of which we totally respect and really appreciate by the way.


How do you know when a song is done?

If you think of it as we're creating pieces, or movements, it's probably a more accurate description. If you come to see us perform, or watch what we've done, and you're looking for verse-verse-chorus-verse, you're going to be disappointed. We never play the same thing, or a piece the same way, twice. Maybe what we are doing is conducive to some form of experimental jazz in some way -- maybe a John Zorn kind of way to be bold -- but we'd be careful about saying that. Jazz is loaded with expectations, namely underlying talent, which we don't have, haha. Many times, we'll latch on to something really cool, go with it, swear that it's the best thing we've ever done, then forget how we did it and never get back to it. Hopefully this happens to others in their creative process, so we don't feel so inadequate. But there's a lot of spirit in the spontaneous.



So it sounds like in a way works are never completed.

In a way the ephemerality of our process of composition could be frustrating, but we repeat that experience, even if not the specific piece, often enough that we realize we're doing something we are fond of -- even if we'd be cautious to say it's something "right". We admire Japanese psych rock guru Keiji Haino's assertion of the idea(l) of the ephemeral nature not only of music, but of music performance itself. Just like sound waves themselves are ephemeral, the process of making music can benefit from such transience as well.


How did Furnace Creek get started?

It's a strange history. There are two incarnations of it -- well, actually three.


Originally the notion of "Furnace Creek" was something Scott started considering, and composing little sketches for, in 2003 as a solo effort. It was an out-growth of his old industrial band Insect from the 1990s. Over the years, work continued with different phrases and patterns and riffs, keeping stuff that was interesting, and later bringing everything up to Ableton Live, as it afforded a portable (laptop) solution to composition.


Fast-forward many years. The second, and current setup, is the result of us finally getting together in 2015 after saying for years that we should do so. We're from the same small town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, knew each other even as teenagers, then finally ended up living in the same town again (Asheville) and made it happen. We both have a strong affinity for synthesizers, drum machines, and heavy metal guitar, though we don't really (yet) integrate the latter into our sound in a proper sense. We also share a similar aesthetic ideal in general, although personality-wise we are different in a lot of ways.


As a duo, what is the dynamic between you two?

One great thing we have in common is that we're approaching this project in a laid back, "labor of love", highly collaborative fashion. A lot of that attitude just comes from our age too. Don't get too hung up on things. Where there's a tension, let it resolve creatively. We're here to have fun and we get on very easily with one another. David is in and has been in other bands [Thee Birds ov Paradise, Last of the Red Giants; currently Cadavernous]. They sound quite different from what we're doing, but they're awesome and inspirational.


When we first started working together, David gently pushed the whole project away from the Ableton Live/Push setup. The amputation from that Ableton Live workflow environment was a good thing for sure as it wasn't conducive to playing live , despite the name of the software, or at least the way we were playing live or wanted to play live.


So this started as a "laptop act"?

To some extent, and largely out of convenience since having lots of hardware takes up space, and confines you to not only that space but also place, as a function of not being portable. There seems to be a lot of interest nowadays in moving away from the laptop to a hardware-based production or performance experience -- especially with the popularity of Eurorack. We're ultimately pragmatic and don't consider ourselves "hardware" or "analogue" elitists: tools are tools. But people who have known nothing but laptop production are enjoying all these new realities when they break away from the computer. It doesn't mean sequencing is out of the question.


But it wasn't hard for us to ween off the laptop-based environment because it essentially transported us back to what we were accustomed to from over a decade earlier: a cobbled-together collection of hardware and physical synths -- and in particular a hardware-based sequencer -- all bound together by MIDI, or at least MIDI clock. A good understanding of the inner-workings of synthesis and MIDI is key to this kind of setup, and the way we compose. Over a decade before, we were jamming using [Alesis] MMT-8s to sequence, and have now moved to the [Korg] Electribe thanks to David's cajoling. The laptop is long gone at this point, though it served us well in terms of some creation, if not performance.



What were the early days of working together like?

We just got together in the beginning and as is often the case, we hit it off and clicked as we suspected we would. There were slow starts and beautiful breakthroughs. It's not like we sat and wrote five great songs in one session, which can and does happen in perhaps a more traditional band setup, with the right chemistry. But we muddled through and felt out the process more than anything and boy has it gone through many revisions.


The evolution of our tools -- our gear -- there's a story there in itself, but too much to tell here [Editor's note: see interview with a noise zine in Japan that is a geek-out on gear]. So anyway, we got more and more comfortable with the spontaneity, shifted things around gear-wise, and still retained some of the structures and motifs that Scott had developed over the years, as far back as early 2000s.


And what is the third incarnation of Furnace Creek?

Oh, yeah. There's a group in England called Furnace Creek. They got the Bandcamp web address which is how we found them. We have nothing to do with them. But the funny thing is, they do really great stuff and it even sounds a little like what we're doing. Actually they're probably better, ha. But it's weird how a name -- and the implicit tropes behind that -- can perhaps be a unifying force in a creative sense.


How did you arrive at the name Furnace Creek?

It's actually a place -- a very wonderful place. It's in Death Valley, California and part of the National Parks. Scott visited, but it was a strange circumstance.


[Begin Scott's story on the origin of Furance Creek]: It's a long story, but it has an extremely profound impact on me and my creativity.


I had been living in NYC for years and coincidentally had decided to move on the morning of 9/11 -- leaving just an hour before the planes hit. That coincidence resonated with me. When I finally got home to Tennessee, to decompress, I just threw all my belongings in storage and hit the road, literally driving from one coast to the other and back over the course of a couple of months. I would sometimes camp out, stay in cheap hotels, sleep in my SUV, all the while watching the aftermath of 9/11, the anthrax postal mail scare, all of that craziness. I remember arriving at these little roadside motels often owned by Asian-Indian families and nobody would be staying there. It's easy to forget I suppose, but there was this unfortunate, and of course completely irrational, 9/11 backlash against some Americans who might have looked "Middle Eastern". I believe a Sikh guy got shot in Texas. I think it could have been worse, but it was bad enough.


Anyway, I would talk to these people, these immigrants predominantly, sometimes as their only customer. I actually started going out of my way to visit the places that were owned by "non-Caucasian" Americans -- I guess quite the opposite consumer behavior of the otherwise fervent "America First" patronage. Occasionally I would sit with these immigrant owners and have chai in the dingy little motel lobbies, watching all the anthrax scare and Islamo-phobia unfold on TV. Remember that this was pre-social media "constantly-glued-to-the-news/meme-cycle" America. By and large people were generally staying at home watching the news, and mostly weren't going out to stay in hotels thinking that these people were somehow affiliated with the "terrorists". There was no "immediate broadcast" in the Twitter sense.


At the same time, in between these visits with immigrants, I was frequenting National Parks, that were beautiful, and Native American reservations, which were by and large not so beautiful. It occurred to me that the land "given" to the Native Americans was, mostly, the worst possible land in the United States. Non-arable, desolate, remote, and in many cases abused. It was a juxtaposition emotionally.


Bring all of that together: Here I was out on a Fear-and-Loathing-David Lynch-meets-Paul Bowles "vacation" of sorts -- a surreal introspective American odyssey couched in what seemed like some over-hyped version of post-apocalyptic America. I ended up wandering to Furnace Creek in Death Valley and stayed there for a few days, sleeping in the desert. The whole journey, not to mention the metaphors, had a big impact on me, but particularly that place. It's a couple of hundred feet below sea level. I guess the lowest place you can go in the United States ... maybe that's a metaphor. Though I think we've trumped the old low point. Heh. But it was extremely hot and dry as you can imagine, while at the same time full of life and geological marvels if you looked past the "death".



What are other inspirations for your project?

Certainly not attempting to entertain people or make them feel good [laughs]. But actually that's a key point. We're realistic about what we're doing here and objectives are important, even if they shouldn't be overly constraining. We are not always trying to create an experience that we necessarily think others will "enjoy", from the perspective of getting their "entertainment dollar's worth". That can sound arrogant or flippant, but maybe think of it more as liberating. Many artists operate this way of course. But for us, it's not even simply a matter of saying that we're just making music we personally like either.


We're letting the sound go where it wants to go many times -- and that's not necessarily hard to do with so many synths and samplers and loopers going at once, many of which are clock-synced together but some that deliberately aren't, and all of the machines being capable of fairly elaborate "self sequencing", arpeggiation, and general randomness. It's funny perhaps, but very often when we're playing we have absolutely no idea who (or what device) is creating a particular sound, or where a specific noise is coming from. Frankly, understanding the "truth" of the source in those cases is probably not important. Is it ever, haha? But toward that end, we often end up with something that, as we mentioned earlier, we cannot replicate again.


But when we stop and consciously listen to it as we're creating it, our reaction is certainly one of satisfaction, but not so much wondering if we should change it in order to be more satisfied. A lot of times we end a session or a piece and say "Can you imagine what people would be thinking if they heard that?" and the inquiry is not rhetorical. We're quite encouraged if people have an experience, even if it is not a pleasant or entertaining one.


But we have to wonder if art is supposed to be safe or even revelatory. On the same token, we're not necessarily intentionally setting out to create something annoying or disturbing, be it through our images or sound. Although we could see how some of it might be perceived that way. Maybe we're dancing around the question here. It's a tough one of course. I think we're more postmodern than Cartesian.


What about influential bands or artists?

There is certainly the legacy of music that has strongly influenced either of us individually and both of us together. It's important to pay homage to the shoulders you stand on. There's suspicion when groups or projects say they "defy" categorization. On the other end of the spectrum we're also averse to the idea that a project sets out to be a deliberate blend (usually bland) of specific stimuli.


How many times have we all heard the descriptor "Come listen to this band that combines a funky blend of pop, rock, and contemporary folk, with influences of hip-hop and fill-in-the-blank." What could be more repulsive? Take any band these days, especially around here (Western North Carolina, East Tennesse), throw a banjo in the mix or a stand-up bass, and suddenly you've got cred. This sounds condescending for sure. But hey as long as you are having fun at the end of the day I suppose.


We have both marveled, however, at the bands that suddenly shed their old clothes for completely new and re-emerge as something totally different -- an entirely different genre. There's something to be said for revinvention I suppose. But I believe there's also a generational phenomenon at play here -- bouncing from one "motif" to another, rather rapidly, and at the whim of what's going on in the outside (versus inside) creative world. But this identify complex (crisis?) in of itself is indicative of the postmodern.


But we would be remiss if we didn't point out the enormous influence that certain bands have had on us, both artistically and philosophically. To wit, Einsturzende Neubauten and KMFDM -- very different, but sharing a certain Teutonic, German tonality and aesthetic -- have had significant influence. Skinny Puppy without question. We have always appreciated the integration of processed, distorted guitar, which Skinny Puppy did well, but that emerged more pronounced with some of the relatively more obscure acts like Schnitt Acht, Skrew, Swamp Terrorists, or Skin Chamber.


Another favorite artist without question is Justin Broadrick and all his projects, especially Godflesh/Jesu. Early Ministry of course and neither of us are shy to admit a huge admiration for Nine Inch Nails -- from any era and vis-a-vis any project, including the current stuff. Trent Reznor deserves a lot of credit, despite many in the "scene" who might otherwise criticize him. We both love drum & bass genre -- the likes of Dieselboy and LTJ Bukem, Photek. Oh, and Nitzer Ebb of course, who we've been compared to. Then there's all the metal -- god we love death metal, black metal, doom/stoner metal. Too much to mention.



What about closer to home?

As far as local acts, Scott lived away from East Tennessee for a while, and when he moved back he witnessed the scene in Johnson City [Tennessee] which resulted in total and irrevocable inspiration. Not that there was doubt a scene could exist in a relatively isolated place -- in fact, it is because of these contextual factors that the best stuff emerges from such places -- but seeing what was happening there completely revitalized faith in underground sound.


Here to be found was this very deep, powerful noise and experimental music scene occurring both at public venues and private house shows. We were both blown away by the dedication and amazing creative work of the folks involved. They were and are consistent, evolving, and most of all inclusive and supportive.


In particular we're referring to the Head Destroyer label and associated "Tennessee Trash Electronics" acts: Rural Rot Preservation Society, The Growth/Kaontrol Kantraos, The Sweet Sound of Chaos, The Baby Born with the End of the World, Natural Black Invention, and Revenge Technician/Mannequin Hollowcaust/Unicorn Afterbirth. One of the first exposures to this scene was watching a group called Compulsion Analysis perform in a garage at a house show, where they used multiple video projectors and trashy, lo-fi/no-fi electronics to create this absolutely beautiful and jolting audio-visual cacophony. Along with a bunch of other people packed into this space on a cold night, we just stood there in awe and wonder, totally satisfied by the experience.


We owe this incident and these people a lot for re-invigorating our interest in creating and performing electronic music. Unfortunately, there seems to be more of that action going on in East Tennessee, our old home, and less of it in Asheville where we now live. This is kind of strange, given that Asheville is home to Moog, Make Noise synthesizers, and a whole host of cottage industry effects and instrument makers.


But you could only hope that such a great scene existed in your town, and others like it in Knoxville and Chattanooga, revolving as it does particularly around the groups we mentioned and venues like JJ's Bohemia in Chattanooga or, closer to home for us, The Hideaway in Johnson City, Tennessee. The guy that runs The Hideaway, Tarvo Renaldo, takes a chance on acts that would otherwise be "on the margin" and have no place or outlet for their creativity. Honestly, he is probably as instrumental as anyone else in making sure the scene flourished and continues to do so. More small towns need folks like him.

Contact

beginless@furnacecreek.us

Asheville, North Carolina & Tri-Cities, Tennessee