AMULETS is the solo project of Randall Taylor, who produces music via an evolving system of tape loop processing in conjunction with his electric guitar. What began as joke witch house project became more serious once Taylor instrumentalized a TASCAM four-track Portastudio for performance purposes. Taylor has also become known for his social media content, creating detailed videos exploring his set-up and explaining how to make tape loops of your own. For some, tape loops might conjure images of the rarefied experimentation of self-serious aesthetes in lab coats, pretentious chin-stroking critics, and dry academic music many times removed from any real audience. In contrast, Taylor’s videos strike a very different tone, encouraging creativity rather than dogma. There’s not one proper way to do things, but Taylor is happy to share the lessons he’s learned with the world. In a scene in which so many protect their process like a trade secret, AMULETS is distinguished by an attitude of sharing and helping others.
We initially began this interview by email, but during quarantine it became easier to just video chat. When we met over Zoom, Taylor was wearing a Thursday shirt, which immediately prompted a long digression into the music of our teenage years. Taylor was a fan of Goldfinger, and like many of us back then he first cut his teeth playing ska. Quarantine has been an opportunity to reconnect with music we’ve become nostalgic for, and Taylor is happy to point out the continued influence of that scene. “I had this sticker idea that I wanted to do,” he tells me. “It just was like, AMULETS: more Emo than Eno.” There was a time it seemed every rock band opened their album with a droning ambient intro. AMULETS seems to live in that space, exploring the textures and overtones of layers of guitar and effects and tape processing in lieu of bandmates.
This lineage is evident on AMULETS’ most recent LP, Blooming, released on The Flenser earlier this year. Blooming was written and recorded during quarantine, and the guitar is given a renewed place of prominence. While tape loops are still central to the project, the guitar is the default sound source and key point of continuity across all Taylor’s work. And though produced in isolation, Blooming was inspired by the spring bloom Taylor witnessed on his daily walks. Quarantine had its own distorted rhythms which blurred our sense of time, as our usual habits were disrupted by the pandemic. Taylor was inspired by the contrast between social isolation and the larger natural cycles carrying on, enacting a parallel with his creative use of tape loops, and even a kind of return to musical influences of his youth.
Opening track “Blooming” begins with gentle bird song violently interrupted by a big burst of guitar, evoking bloom in the sense of an atomic bomb as much as a flower. Clouds of guitar feedback and distortion accrue, relishing in the noise, a soaring melody slowly emerging out of the haze. But Blooming doesn’t repeat the same trick; over nearly 44 minutes, each of the eight tracks opens into its own unique blossom. The second song, “The New Normal,” adds more rhythmic elements, sampling a music box, but also takes very different shape with the addition of arrangements for what sounds like processed melodica and violin. Subsequent tracks explore various textures, some times more aggressive but often lingering in beautiful tonal washes. “Empty Tribute” even features additional guitars courtesy of Eric Nyffeler (aka Bus Gas, with whom AMULETS released a split double cassette on Spring Break Tapes in 2018). Closer “Whirl” is built around a prominent arpeggio chord progression, again evoking “more Emo than Eno” while splitting the difference in a way that is sure to appeal to a wide variety of music fans.
The imperfect rhythms of the tape loops help evoke a sense of nostalgia, finding beauty in a medium that many have written off as obsolete. Those imperfections can also be generative, as two out-of-synch loops will constantly generate new phase relationships, essentially producing a never-ending composition. AMULETS has released tapes for many great labels, including Beacon Sound, Wounded Knife, and Muzan Editions. A favorite of mine from his catalog is Planned Obsolescence (Dinzu Artefacts, 2017), which is less tonal in favor of exploring more concrete sounds, something that often recurs in the background of AMULETS songs as the rhythmic foundation.
Since moving to Portland, AMULETS has become especially prolific, something Taylor attributes to the supportive community he found there. But ultimately his work ethic is shaped by his commitment to organization and efficiency, which one can find on display in his immaculate work space. In our conversation, we discuss how important being well-organized has been to his work as a musician and an artist, as well as in the production of his how-to videos. The documentary Tape Wizard presents a deeper window into Taylor’s process, as young filmmaker Kilian Vidourek follows his around in the lead up to the release of Between Distant and Remote (2019). Taylor’s experimentation with tape loops have also led to the production of sound art installations, in which cassette tape loops are constructed in a gallery context. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Let’s start with the basics. How did you first get involved with music? Your background was in the DIY punk scene (in the broadest sense) right? Was post-rock the bridge to more experimental set ups for you?
I started playing guitar at 13 and was in a few cover bands with my friends in high school. In college I started getting more into metal, post-rock, and instrumental music which definitely helped bridge my more experimental setups and interests. Also throughout that time I was definitely into house shows and DIY scenes, and even helped start and run a monthly art and music series in my attic.
Pop punk and hardcore, you know, that scene was definitely the point of departure for getting into experimental music and ambient for a lot of people I’ve spoken with for this series.
And I don’t see it like it’s funny. I see that thread clearly in my life and when I talk to other people. It’s nice to hear that too because, you know, I would say when I’m making music, I know I come from way more awake.. Post hardcore like emo I’m world and like when I make my music I like in my head. I think it’s like, way more like an instrumental like slow down emo song, but it is like a, like a super you know ambient track. Even the word Ambient I think it’s like a word that’s over used to describe everything.
And you’re from you’re from the Rochester area or…?
Right on. Yeah, I used to go up there for Hell Fest.
Yeah, Hell Fest was a big deal.
It was, that’s the only time I ever went up to Syracuse. Also for some of the off-season shows, like the like New Year’s Eve show.
Where did you come from?
Westchester, so like just outside the city, New York.
Yeah, so we used to go to Poughkeepsie a lot for shows. Long Island. New Jersey.
New Jersey was on fire, they had so many emo and hardcore bands going out at the time that would like they couldn’t like keep people couldn’t keep up. Like what the fuck’s up with New Jersey. Right?
Yes, seriously. We loved New Brunswick, if we ever were anywhere near there, we would stop for sandwiches [at the grease trucks].
Yeah yeah. You know, it’s good having the honest conversations like where you actually start from, because everyone starts from somewhere, you know? You get into weirder music as you get older and you start making that kind of music or whatever, or appreciating it more, but it’s not like you came out of the womb listening to Music for Airports, you know? I like when people are honest about what they really loved or still feel sentimental towards or whatever. Like, I’m making a new record [Blooming] and there is a guitar sound that’s a clean channel and chorus, very Thursday’s Full Collapse. I’m in a full circle weird moment, and then one of the guitarists from Thursday, Steve [Pedulla], started following me on Instagram. And I asked him about that sound, and he said it’s just the built in chorus in his amp.
That’s cool. Steve always had good taste in music. I think it was a recommendation from him that I got into Spiritualized, and other bands I missed in the ‘90s. And definitely there’s an ambient quality to the intro and outro on Full Collapse, just as a structural thing that kind of stuck with me, makes the whole album a loop, like on Tim Hecker’s An Imaginary Country. Or like, were you into Refused?
Oh yeah. Love it. Yeah.
That record, The Shape of Punk to Come, took me to so many different places, just following all the references.
So ahead of its time. I remember listening to that and being like, I’ve never heard anything arranged like this. It seemed like electronic aspects and weird interludes, talking and audio sketches and stuff like that, the things that were sewn together in a way I was like, what the fuck is this?
Exactly, exactly. Then I got into heavier music, also free jazz, which together was kind of the gateway into noise and weirder music. I think at that time, too, a lot of bands were going back into the kind of garage rock stuff and it was just like everyone’s doing this ‘60s, ‘70s thing. And then in college some people were introducing me to weirder stuff, Albert Ayler and whatever, and sometimes I was like, I don’t know if I’m ready for this! I’d never heard anything like it before and at first I didn’t really like it. And then I was like this is kind of like blowing my mind. And then I got into a lot of like heavier stuff, I was getting stoned a lot and listening to ISIS and stuff. Oceanic was a big moment.
Oceanic. I think that’s one of my favorite albums for sure I just was like, this is changing my brain and from there it goes. It was a lot of like, you know, post rock stuff and that really paved the way for what I do now as far as being like, Whoa, you could do all of this just instrumental. And how does one communicate that kind of like feeling and music without singing or words and like something I still like trying to like figure out today because, I’m not a singer. I have no interest in singing. But building those kind of worlds, especially now without drums to them. How do I do any of this? How do you make something feel impactful or have a breakdown that feels significant without crash cymbals and screaming?
And then it just becomes a productive limitation for you, because obviously you figured it out.
It’s those limitations, I definitely feel the creativity of something like, I’m going to try this and see what I can do with this. So, for instance, not having drums.
Right. Because you played in some post-rock band, right, that kind of thing? So when you’re working without drums, the loop is kind of what gives you that rhythmic structure right away.
For sure, in a way, and like I think it depends on the loop, some of the songs are definitely more based on the loop and some of them are based around the loop. But the loop definitely helps give us a basic pulsating quality to it automatically just based on repetition. But yeah, I mean some of its more free flowing. I’ve also been like working on some new recordings, where I have been experimenting with some more pulsating kind of rhythmic things. I wouldn’t call them drums, but you know, just to experiment more and like I’ve been trying to record like a bass drum on a tape loop and get it time perfectly. How can I push the limitations of tape, too.
So can you talk about your interest in tape? How’d that get started?
Like many kids my earliest memories of using cassettes were taping things off the radio and making mix tapes. In college I got into circuit bending and thrifting lots of weird audio equipment and rekindled my interest in tapes. I remember having several tape players but mostly used them to record lofi rehearsals and as a sort of backing track machine. It was several years later that I got back into tapes as physical medium and began collecting independent releases from small tape labels. My DIY spirit was really intrigued by these small independent tape labels and led me to starting my own small label Graveyard Orbit. That ran for a few years, but ultimately became too time consuming to successfully run by myself. It was at this time I started looking at tape as option for music—heavily inspired by Alessandro Cortini’s use of the 4 track tape recorder. After seeing his YouTube video using the 4 track as an instrument I immediately started to look at all my tape equipment differently and began my deep exploration of cassettes as an instrument and art medium.
One of the tensions Sound Propositions is concerned with is the difference between working as an artist in the studio (producing records and compositions in “fixed,” recorded form) and in performances. How do you approach a live situation in compared to how you work in the studio? Is there a reciprocal relationship in terms of how your style has evolved?
When I first started this project I remember wanting to build a setup (much like modular instrument cases) that I could not only perform with but record all my songs with. All of my early Amulets records were recorded as live improvised takes with tape loops and guitar looping. I would prepare the tape loops and just hit record and see what came out. I did this to ensure that the sounds I made in my studio would be able to be reproduced in a live setting. For me it was about building an instrument that was flexible and would allow me to play live as a solo artist. Since then I have branched out into some more multi-tracking but the 4 track and tape loops are still at the core of my live and recorded music.
How do you approach or conceive of the process of musical composition? Is it primarily a studio-based practice for you? Do you come with a structure in mind, or just improvise until you find a loop that works or what?
It depends, sometimes songs definitely start as a tape loop or sonic texture I’m exploring. I often will be inspired by a sound and bounce it to tape to see how that sound changes, which can be a very time consuming process. I also do a lot of guitar playing and looping to figure out song structures and movements in my songs. Along with my tape and guitar, I’ve recently gotten into the OP-1 which has been a huge creative and compositional tool for me in the studio.
You’ve been on social media and YouTube and like sharing the stuff you’re working on. I remember one time when you were making the—what do you call those little your tape loops, where you have cut the cassette, so it’s just the guides?
Yeah, I just I just call like an extended tape loop. Yeah, that was just out of necessity of, how do I make this longer? Since I moved to Portland I become friends with Marcus Fischer, but I was already a fan of his work for a while. And I always loved his crazy suspended loops. I was like, he gets so much time out of it, it’s so grand, how would I do that with a tape? And I just start experimenting and I think, if I have this tape player, but then I also have the tape. And understanding the mechanics of the tape to be like I don’t even need the spinney by the pinch roller on and that’s going to do all the work. And then figuring out what the limitations of those are was a lot of trials by myself. I think just like this mad scientist, I’m going to just keep tinkering with it until I get it, until I get it to do what I wanted to do. I just call those the extended loop. Now, I see a ton of people. But before I don’t know if I had personally seen someone do it. So I was just like, can it be done?
Right. Yeah, I remember seeing you do them on Instagram a couple years ago. You were breaking the shells and stuff. And I tried to do it after that, but I totally messed it up and the cuts were terrible, and I never tried it again. But yeah. I’m sure that’s contributed to why you see them, since you actually share these techniques with the public. So many artists hold their cards close, right? They don’t want people to know their techniques or the signal chain or what their process is. But then there are other people like you who are super open about it and making these great videos on YouTube that help to demystify. That’s one of the things that I’ve always tried to do with this series is demystify and encourage people to just try shit. That pedagogical aspect, of sharing and not being proprietary about it, is one of the things that made me want to talk to you. Can you tell us about how that whole thing got started? Especially with YouTube (and Instagram), because you’ve really built a significant audience.
Those videos, things have been a trip. I mean, it wasn’t like going in I’m thinking I’m going to get a bunch of followers and that’s the goal, because… I think it’s good, it’s cool, that people follow me, but it’s not the point, I guess. If Instagram gets deleted tomorrow, all I care about is that people like the music I made.
They got something fun with that because they’re like cool you give me something to look at every day or whatever but I think it started from me personally being on the other end of that and being on YouTube and watching so many pedal review videos. So much gear, so much of other people’s rig rundowns and setups and stuff. And I was recording in my computer, in the DAW for many years, like everyone else. So I always have these side projects and I’m trying to figure out how to perform them because that was the biggest thing. You know, I’ve been in bands, and it’s easy to perform as a band. But it takes another leap to perform as a solo artist and figure out logistically how that works. What you want to play. You know what you can play and with the computer I just was like, okay, I can play this guitar part and then everything else is a backing track. And I didn’t love that idea of singing on stage with the computer and just trying to do this. I wanted to do something more.
So I started looking into hardware and I was really inspired by a lot of Eurorack stuff, but, remember, that was like six years ago and it is still super expensive. But I remember finding the Cortini rig rundown video that shows him using a four track tape recorder backstage. Heading out for Nine Inch Nails shows, and he’s recorded all these chords on the tape recorder. He’s like, I’ve recorded like 30 minutes of each chord on a track and I can play the chord progression. I thought that was really cool, so I tried that and then I got really impatient. I’d heard about tape loops, I think I like learned about them in college. And then I had seen people use them, but I didn’t really know much about them. And so I just started Googling. I made this loop, and I can record for five seconds. So I just started experimenting with that, and one of the things, I had to piece together all these websites and all these crappy videos of how to do it, and there’s a lot of different approaches. And I’m like, Okay.
So with that, it was one of my first videos. Maybe not one of my first, but one of the more popular videos is how to make a tape loop. And I just started that because out of all the videos I saw, I thought why don’t I make one that I feel like is more efficient, or at least the things that I picked up learning. I wanted to be able to like show someone really quickly. And on from there. I think it was just about a way I was progressing and exploring that I just started uploading videos to YouTube. Just as a document. And even more so, Instagram became this audio sketchbook where everything’s like a minute long, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a full song, but it is me exploring all of that, every week. And that always came from, I think, that I just want to share but also I like watching other people, and I’d wonder how did they do that? And not being able to know how they did it, I was like if someone wants to know how I did, I’ll tell them. I taught guitar lessons for a long time, and I guess I was always into teaching or sharing and the idea of community around that kind of thing.
Music is music. And even if you do it one way, and show someone else how to do it, they’re not going to create the same thing. When I was younger, I was very protective of that. Like, they’re just going to rip me off if they have my ideas. Then at a certain point, I realized I don’t think people can keep up with me, I’m just going all the time. I’m creating something where I think people are like, Dude, I don’t even know how you do this shit constantly. Well, I realized I’m not worried about someone like ripping me off; what I’m doing is what I’m doing. And I can share that and I still think that that’s encouraging and inspiring for other people, but it really is nothing that I should be hold myself back over. It’s a shift in mindset, of being, if you’re able to share these things because you want to share, and that’s the point.
That’s a great attitude, especially for experimental music, because you yourself you’re constantly coming up with new stuff. That makes sense that you that you are a guitar teacher, too, because maybe there’s some of that. It’s not like you teach kids scales and then you’re out of business. Other people learn the same skills.
For sure. If anything, on my Patreon, I have slots for people to take lessons with me and they’re not like guitar lessons anymore, they’re just either technical lessons or just general inspiration. We go through and talk about what they’re working on and I help them where they get feedback or maybe they want to know, like a signal chain. So we go through and like how to plug things in and so it’s a very random lesson that people can get, once a month for signing up. But it’s really fun, too, because I get to share on a one on one level where someone’s like, I want to do what you do and I don’t know what it sounds like. Let’s start with there, then we can talk and see what you want to do with it.
Were you totally an autodidact in acquiring your gear knowledge? Is it all just stuff you’ve picked up doing this for so long?
Yeah, I think it’s just all stuff I just picked up from doing it for so long. I’ve always been into like pedals and gear. I didn’t always have the money for it. So I just kind of like remember being younger like looking through Musician’s Friend and memorizing cool pedals. I’m like, oh yeah, that one is sick. I liked talking about that with my friends at school and nerding out about that kind of stuff. But I didn’t necessarily know what it did for me. I’ve never used it and it wasn’t till later in life that I actually got any money, a good job, and gear and stuff that I started fulfilling. When I was in college, I didn’t have a ton of stuff. And I was still making records and had side projects. I had a shitty drum machine, like a Casio keyboard, and my computer, and it was just through limitations. I was like, Okay, everyone else has cooler shit. And this is all I have. So how do I do what I want to with it. And so I think that was, those are early seeds of trying to make something work with what you have. And then I took an experimental music class in college, And I learned how to circuit band. And that really opened up a lot for me of looking at something and thinking how you could modify it or change it or like make it do something that wasn’t intended to do. Just conceptually. In fact, I was probably pretty bad at it, but it gave me a lot of confidence to at least try to do some of those things and then use equipment or gear or anything that makes noise in a different way.
I wanted to ask you about Portland, too. Because although virtual camaraderie and sharing is really important, as you know, there’s still no substitute for a local community. Here in Montreal I’ve found the city to be very nurturing and encouraging of things that maybe I wouldn’t have thought would be interesting to people and you know people are kind of just like to do whatever you do. It seems like Portland has been a very nurturing environment for you. You talked about meeting Marcus. But also you’re very well organized. I imagine that must help you in being so productive.
Organization is key. I mean, you can you can see the studio here. I’m an organized person by nature and that definitely helps. I just like efficiency. So when I’m doing something like it if it doesn’t work, like I spend more time making inefficient sometimes in the being late in the end I will get so much more time out of this. I remember building this wall of cables, because I have box. As I got more into doing these little video experiments, I can’t function in this box every time and look for a quarter inch cable. I need to see it. So I definitely think that helps.
When I first started AMULETS I was living in Austin. It kind of started off as a weird joke project where I really wanted to be a witch house thing. I was listening to a lot of Salem and I could do this weird dark synth stuff. And then the joke was on me because I made a little EP, and I put it out there and people downloaded it. And it was weird. And then I played a couple shows with it. And it was kind of like, well, laptop, and using some distortion pedals and keyboards and stuff. And I really didn’t like the scene. So I just kind of pivoted the whole project and I started playing with tapes and four tracks. But When I was in Austin, it was really hard. I would go to a lot of shows, I met a lot of musicians, but I never really found my niche or my community within that. It’s really saturated with… There’s a lot of psychedelic bands. There’s a lot of noise people. There’s a lot of like really academic avant-garde experimentalists. Where I would try to get into some of these shows. They’re like these communities and I never quite fit. There had even been an improvisational festival in Austin. And I remember applying for it, and it was way more academic. And, well I do improv stuff too, but they drew some kind of boundary. You’re not playing free saxophone through a loop or something. I don’t know, I use a guitar.
And you’re not on the table.
Yeah, I never really quite found my footing there. And I remember I was still set on making music and I booked a bunch of tours that I would go on from Austin to Chicago and Atlanta and LA, and then come back and play for no one and you know. Like, I went on all these tours and I was just like, I need to do this for myself. But eventually I was just like, I’m making more fans outside, and I am in Austin. And eventually, you know, I had wanted to move to Portland for a long time, especially coming from the northeast, living in Texas. I was like, great culture, fuck, but also it was just so hot, and I just couldn’t do it. So I had always wanted to move to Portland, and I think my music would do better there. I think I would like it there. Weather-wise, even if it’s rainy, it’s beats a blizzard in Syracuse.
And since moving here the other music community has been so welcoming. I didn’t have to fight to get a show or try so hard to make friends. I guess it’s a help that I had put some stuff out there already. So some people already knew what I was doing. I knew who I was. Or at least, a friend of a friend was like, ‘Yeah, he does tape stuff on the internet.’ It was just so much easier.
There anyone in particular, or any venues or anything in Portland that you want to shout out?
I think everyone at S1, the synth library. They do a lot of great shows, and they do synth education, they have classes where you can go and learn how to patch stuff. Going to their shows is cool, they always have a good variety of stuff. I haven’t thought about venues in so long, like, remember shows?
Oh yeah, maybe that’s not the best thing to ask then. It might end up being a sad question. I have a feeling that a lot of places aren’t going to reopen…
Yeah, I was thinking about that too and worried about, you know, some of the places that I played, some places I like, they’re probably on the chopping block. Who knows how much longer they can survive or if they’re just already closing up and just haven’t announced it yet. It’s really tough.
What about labels or other organizations, what’s holding up the community are there right now?
Beacon Sound. That’s the label that I released through on with my last record [Between Distant And Remote]. Beacon Sound is run by Andrew Nierman, he has the physical store. Or had it. And again, I don’t know the future of it, but he has the physical record store as well. And then he branched off and started the label side of it. And he’s been doing really well. I think that he’s been putting out really interesting music. Before quarantine hit he had just moved into this new space and he was doing shows there and it was really fun. I was helping him out, he got a license to sell beer and wine and I would work there sometimes because he was looking for help. And he’s like, ‘I just don’t know anyone would have a free enough scheduled, help me cover two hours on a Wednesday when I have to like go pick up my kid or something,’ and I’m available. So we became friends and I really start using them, but I think it was a big part of that community, that it was just cool if you go in there. You could hang out to buy records at night on the weekends, I’d have shows there. I got my liquor license, just so I could like, help them out with the bar. Yeah, it’s like crack open beers and talk to people, and they’re like, “are you Amulets?” and, yeah, I’m also a bartender. But it was just a fun aspect for me, it was just so nice to be able to have all of that in one place and have Andrew releasing a lot of interesting music, too. I’ve met a lot of other Portland musicians from the label, it’s one of the biggest things that I miss. The community around Beacon Sound, they were starting to pick up speed they were doing shows for a few months before quarantine and I was really excited about the future of what kind of shows they could have. And we were talking about doing a board of people who wanted to book shows there, make it a collective. But yeah, I think that was one of the coolest things and I hope it like survives this [pandemic].
With quarantine, having to teach this online class and being stuck in my apartment for months, it’s definitely a double-edged sword. How are you finding working from home and everything?
Yeah. I felt pretty equipped before, I mean I guess I’ve been doing this full-time for a year now. So I go in quarantine. And I was like, I can do this. But then I forgot about all the other things that I built in to that. Oh yeah, I work all day at home, but then I go see my friends’ bands and go to shows and go out. The balance of working from home shifted, and I thought maybe I’m not as well prepared for this. I think everyone’s had… I mean it’s just such an…everyone keeps saying unprecedented, but it really is just such a such an insane thing.
Yeah. So you’ve been recording a lot during quarantine. If you had to pick one piece of gear that’s special to you—not because everyone should go out and buy that thing, but something that you have a personal relationship with—what you pick? Because in a way, particularly when you’re working solo and working with machines, they become your collaborators.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s funny. I think out of all, I’m looking around at all these like machines. I have so many tape players. When I look at the tape players, if I just brought this TASCAM, it doesn’t do anything by itself. It’s a tool. And I think when I look at like my wall, I look at my Telecaster, that’s where music started for me; playing guitar. And that’s where it always starts, not being a machine. I just think it’s funny to look back at time you like that is where everything comes from. And without that, everything else around me, it’s kind of rendered useless. The tape recorder doesn’t do anything without an instrument, without sound that something recorded into it. I bring a guitar. The four-tracks, I use them all the time, but in conjunction with the actual sound making objects.
That’s a good answer, and a fair answer.
If I’m not thinking about it that way, it might be a tie between the TASCAM 414, which is just a workhorse for me. I use it on my desk, just to record, but also in my suitcase and for live stuff. It just does everything that I want, it’s so powerful, as a recording device and a performance device. I own four of them, I have a backup. It’s a great tool, a great piece of gear. But also the Marantz here, this one’s particular. I really like this one. And I’ve been using this for a long time. The Morantz PM221, it’s a really fucking great player. I use it like a pedal, just to plug in and like process to tape. It’s great. I think if I just had those three things I can make an album. You know, I can write. And then there’s always pedals, but like pedals are, you know, there’s so many, but I love pedals in general.
Yeah, you’re definitely a guitarist at heart.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I think that it always comes down to the guitar, it kind of starts and ends with guitar. It’s funny when I started this project, I was just using the tape players and I was trying to play. And I played like a few shows and I didn’t play guitar, I was just like playing sliders. And I was really confused because I felt so uncomfortable. I was like, why isn’t this working for me like, I feel naked. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. And then I started thinking, Well, it’s because you’re not playing guitar and guitars are your comfort zone. You don’t feel confident in playing a tape player yet, you might not ever, but in conjunction with guitar, that’s when I started opening up. How do I play guitar with tapes, if I looped guitar with that, then I could be able to be free to loop something else and I can play this and I can come back to it. And I could do this like dance, like with multiple band members or something. And it just like started to make more sense. And when I started playing with guitar everything changed.
Cool, yeah. And you actually just reminded me in that you mentioned the suitcase, and I don’t think we talked about it. But this suitcase of drone, as it’s become know, right, it’s the centerpiece of your live performance.
I thought it was funny, but there was no intention of it sticking.
How could that not stick? I thought that you were just a marketing genius, because it looks great. It’s got a catchy name.
Marketing genius is really funny because I think I’m just like a goofball. The suitcase of drone was heavily inspired by synth videos, when I would watch Eurorack video where they would just open up their case and everything would be patched and they could just play. I didn’t really fully understand how it worked. But I was just always impressed by the idea that like it could open it up and turn it on and it would be ready. Then like playing shows and watching myself and other people have complex setup so they’re like, I gotta get an eight-foot table and I got to spend, you know, 25 minutes, plug it in and then shit doesn’t work. That part gave me so much anxiety that I was like, I don’t want to do that. And so I combined the two ideas, how do I have some kind of turnkey system, that I can open up and play. And that’s where the efficiency and organization brain kicked in. I was like, well, if I’m going to do this, I don’t do this in the suitcase, like let’s like plan it out, make it work, but make expandable. It’s something that’s been ever growing and changing, I swap out gear. Mostly it’s two four-track recorders with two tape loops just playing, like launching clips, it just kind of bringing in different parts. So okay, now I can build something that I could perform with translated for me. Something I could perform and record with, and so many of my first albums were just like straight one day, if I can just record this live then I won’t overthink how I produce it like in the computer, multi-tracking and never finish something. Because that was just like the world I was living in. I had so many songs that I just didn’t release them. And so my first few years of Amulets, I was like, I’m gonna do the opposite of this. I want to produce so much and whether it’s good or bad, I just want to put stuff out there and be able to point to something and be like, yeah, I make music. Here are some of my albums, instead of me like, I make music and I don’t have anything to show for it.
Right. So yeah, it seems like efficiency and organization are really key, helps to simplify the creative process of actually working. We don’t talk about that kind of stuff enough in music journalism, it’s basically ads for gear. But stuff like workflow, it’s not sexy, it’s not something to buy, but it’s important.
Yeah, I get a lot of questions on workflow. It comes with discipline and building up systems that made sense for me. I wanted to get shit down so, here is my recording area, here is the desk I film everything at, the wires I use, there’s storage where I can see everything. If I don’t see it, I won’t use it. So he’s the suitcase and let’s work, practice, even within this tiny room. It’s a partition in a way, that this is what I do. So instead of having one room where you flail around and try to figure out, what am I going to do? Which I fucking hate it, I didn’t want to do that anymore. And so if I’m going to take this seriously and take it to another level that I have to have the space and organization to do it.
Yeah, I love it. And I love the suitcase of drone as a punk rock Eurorack, a do-it-yourself modular.
Yeah, I just bought this suitcase off Craigslist. And I’m like, Okay, this is going to be the chassis that I build everything in. This vintage—I don’t even think it was like 1970s, you know—tourist suitcase. Never thinking that I would have to do heavy touring with it, I’m like, it’s heavy duty enough. And now I’ve thrown it on planes and stuff, cross my fingers that they don’t think it’s a bomb and throw it away.
You have any crazy stories about flying? Because every time I’ve gone through with a couple of pedals and a sampler, I always get pulled aside.
Yeah, I did a… So I made a smaller version of the suitcase of drone, good travel. It only has one four-track and a couple pedals, but it’s the same concept. I think it’s an old trumpet case, actually. And so I got that, I was just going to play this show on the east coast and I just thought, I don’t need to check it. I can just do this and I went through TSA and they were like, ‘what is this?’ It’s a four track recorder and a lot of tapes. There’s pedals. And they’re just, we’ve got to scan these individually, input each piece, we’re gonna have to take this apart, you know. And everything, it’s all very organized. I spent hours, so I ask, ‘can I do that?’ but no, they just tore it apart. And I just have to watch this, like all of my all of my efficiency and like all my organization, just like ruined in like 15 minutes. And then the guy, he’s like you got some pretty cool stuff in there like, what do you do, sleep recording stuff, dream style? Like what are you even talking about…. But that was the worst one, every other time has been fine. I’ve actually checked this a couple times and I leave a little note that explains the situation.
That’s the nice thing about the TASCAMs, you still find them for super cheap and the suitcase is replaceable. It’s not like a Nagra or a Eurorack or something.
Yeah, it would be way different story.
So can you tell me something more about what you’re working on at the moment?
Yeah. There’s a label based out of San Francisco called The Flenser and I’m working with them and releasing a new record [Blooming] with them. They do a lot of dark experimental stuff, some heavier bands. Probably the kind of stuff I would be more attracted to anyway, as we talked about.I feel a deeper background releasing an album with them and I’m really excited about because I’ve been working on it during quarantine. It’s a lot darker and heavier. I think it’s a lot more guitar in it. There’s still a lot of tapes and still like lot of suitcases drone and stuff. But this is kind of like more guitar in general. I’ve been feeling like I’ve been wanting to play more guitar. And but I guess for me there’s just more traditional guitar in it. You know, distorted like palm muting. My whole thing had been, how do I bridge where I where I came from and where I’m going, and make something that feels really authentic to me.
How has working during the quarantine impacted the album?
Definitely a quarantine album, because at the height of quarantine, I was just feeling, like everyone else, I was trapped and feeling angry and the loss of everything. The life that I knew, all these tours that I had planned and cancelled, my livelihood was being threatened. That came out in the music; kind of aggressive and claustrophobic, and just dark.
One last question: I always like to ask about an artist’s favorite work outside of sound art or music. What’s inspired you, what do you find kinship with?
I went to school for filmmaking and photography and am always inspired by visual art in my music. In school i got into a lot of experimental video art and was inspired by artist like Nam June Paik and Karl Klomp, an aesthetic I still chase in my live visuals. I also always loved the DIY craftiness and resourcefulness of Michel Gondry and the grittiness and emotional intensity of Danny Boyle‘s films. For me, I feel an aesthetic kinship with art that evokes strong emotional responses and try to capture that in my own art and music.
Thanks so much for chatting, Randall.