An Interview with Robert Rich

0 0
Read Time:18 Minute, 28 Second

Today, I’ve got an interview for you all with one of the definitive Ambient musicians of not only his generation but any generation. Robert Rich is a man who needs no introduction. He’s released over 50 albums, has collaborated with some of the genre’s greatest, and more.

It’s a pleasure to have Robert with us for an interview today. Among the topics discussed are Roberts early recordings and experimentation, collaborating with Steve Roach, his thoughts on the industry today, his newest recordings, and much more. If you would like to learn more about Robert Rich, you can head over to his Bandcamp here. Cheers.

Andrew:
Robert, thank you for taking the time to speak with us here. It’s been such an odd time. How are you holding up?

Robert:
Indeed. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, that’s for sure. My wife and I are pretty good at being hermits, and we are lucky that I can work at home in my studio. Others have it much worse. 

Andrew:
Let’s talk about your background, your musical origins? How did it all begin for you?

Robert:
As a listener first, and with interest more in states of consciousness, psychophysiology, trying to find an artistic expression that speaks directly to fundamental experiences, trance, and ecstatic states, trying to find a language of modern shamanism that could fit within a scientific mindset rather than grafting traditional mythologies that don’t fit our noisy, distracted technological world. Music happened almost by accident, more as an outgrowth from a general interest in arts that conveyed energy. I didn’t absorb formal music education very well and found myself following a rather individualistic path, building synthesizers from kits and recording myself at home.

Those actual childhood beginnings seem so long ago. I hope to keep moving forward rather than dwelling on them. Yet if there is one thing that still permeates my music from that time, it’s this idea of Eden, seeking Paradise, awareness of the loss of it, and the way the metaphor of the Garden shows something fundamental about our consciousness. As we wander in search of a proper home, and as we destroy our planet because we think it’s our tool and not our womb, we forget that Paradise lives inside of us and that our sense of separation from childhood innocence is structured in part by our language and interpretation of the world as something “other.” Music and art can sometimes remind us of a way back to connection.

Andrew:
Let’s dive right in and talk about your newest record(s), Offering to the Morning Fog and Neurogenesis. You’ve put out or been a part of over 50 records. For these latest efforts, how did things come together? Tell us about the recording and the inspiration for your new record(s).

Robert:
The two albums are quite different and have rather different intentions. I started Neurogenesis first, back in the summer of 2019, but then took a hiatus when lockdown started in March 2020, when some long-time listeners started asking for something meditative to ease the stress. I got various emails wondering if I had any outtakes of my most melodic gentle music, like Nest or Yearning, nothing too brooding abstract. I had to admit I didn’t have any usable scraps, so I set out to make a very simple album to act as purely functional music for this dark time. Offering to the Morning Fog started with a simple intention – to make something deep and calm, but not light or trivial, something that could acknowledge the dark time we’re in and try to provide a path through it, a window to another way of addressing the darkness. I needed to keep the music simple – partially so I could finish it in time to offer some solace when it was needed. I decided to focus on the flute, because it is deeply connected to breathing, which is itself a sort of meditation. Once I finished Offering, I was able to return to Neurogenesis and find a fresh approach with it, so it helped to take a little break from it.

Neurogenesis started from a resonant lucid dream I had in March of 2019. I describe the dream on the graphic art section of my website. (Here: https://robertrich.com/graphic-art/graphic-art-acceleration-dream-2019/). This dream offered a visual metaphor for how the brain processed patterns more quickly by doing calculus at a neuron level, taking the derivative of transitions in light and color to detect edges. When I woke up from the dream, my brain seemed to be in a heightened mathematical space for several minutes. It inspired a cubical painting and also got me thinking about energizing effects in pattern-based music. That sent me back into exploring a favorite territory of mine – quickly moving layered arpeggios and pure harmonic tunings. But this time, I wanted the music to be even more electric and harmonically pure than on albums like Electric LadderFilaments, or Geometry, where I explored similar approaches before. I wanted it to buzz and invigorate. The title Neurogenesis comes from discoveries that we are in fact still growing new neurons throughout our life, and there seem to be certain supplements and substances that can help spur this growth in specific parts of the brain (fungi such as Hericium Erinaceus and psilocybin, for example.) With my family history of Alzheimer’s disease, these ideas give me a glimpse of hope. So the album is full of intricate detail, and I think rather optimistic, overall.

Andrew:
You’re nothing short of prolific in terms of your studio output. After so many years in music, how do you stay inspired? What keeps such fresh and invigorated music flowing from within you?

Robert:
Thank you. That’s very encouraging. I have an urge to avoid repetition from album to album. I usually need to find new questions that bubble up out of my curiosity about the world. I read a lot and enjoy the insights we gain from scientific inquiries. I find that curiosity usually exposes new pathways in the overgrowth of age. I have a lot of interests: literature, painting, ancient history, anthropology, cosmology, and physics. There is not enough time in life to understand even a pinprick of what’s out there or what’s deep inside. As I find myself getting interested in some area of inquiry, the music sometimes follows and echoes those new questions.

Andrew:
You’ve collaborated with several artists throughout your career, but I wanted to touch on two early collaborations from earlier in your career with Steve Roach. Strata (released in 1990) and Soma (released in 1992) are exceptional albums. The psychedelic surrealism that permeates throughout the music is standout, and I feel the albums are both watershed moments within the canon of early 90s Ambient. Looking back, what are your feelings regarding those two records? Have they held up for you? What do you remember about working on them?

Robert:
Those two albums grew out of our friendship. We were working together to discover a musical vocabulary that distilled our search for a more organic, human-based electronic-shamanic language. It seemed at the time that the “Teutonic sound” had been explored sufficiently for a while, and it didn’t feel relevant to the landscapes where we lived. We weren’t making “cosmic music”; we were making earth music, body music, animal music. We had both found our respective personal voices during our 1980s solo releases. We enjoyed the times we had worked together, such as the percussion parts I contributed to his Dreamtime Return. It seemed natural to work together.

I think of those two albums; Soma is the one that remains strongest to my ears. Strata has a sense of discovery, an excitement of exploring new territory. But Soma has a depth and maturity, an intensity that I really like. I’m happy that they both left such a lasting impression.

Andrew:
More on the subject of collaboration. For you, what are the most significant differences in your process between working as a solo artist and working alongside someone else? Does your approach change? Which do you prefer?

Robert:
My methods do change when I collaborate. I tend to fall back upon more established skills while collaborating in order to move faster with another person to please. When I work alone, I tend to work slower and experiment a bit more, try new approaches that I am less comfortable with. Each collaboration is like a new entity, a different cross-section of the individuals involved. The interplay itself becomes a new artist, constructed from the space between, from the methods of communication, from the process. I prefer to collaborate in person if possible, and with people whose company I really enjoy. When we release an album together, it’s a bit like having a child. It’s important to stay friends long after the initial union. I think some of my collaborations remain among my strongest albums, especially Soma, Stalker, Fissures, Outpost, Lift a Feather…

Andrew:
I want to go back to your first three records now. Sunyata, Trances, and Drones are three great examples of early 80s Ambient/Drone. That era was very interesting for the genre, as you had an entirely new stable of artists who would go on to greatness. What are your thoughts and feelings on your early records? How would you compare them to your later work?

Robert:
When I listen back to some of those, it feels like I had many of the elements in place from the start, although I had the benefit of naivety and youthful inexperience. I began with a focus around the intention, knowing that I lacked much of the expertise, and the equipment, to achieve a more traditional sort of success. I needed to start strongly from concept, in a way that would show the best strengths of what I could accomplish within my limitations. That involved stripping away most of the gestures or approaches that a listener would compare to more established artists because I believed I could not compare favorably. I put some thought into ideas of slowness, simplicity, and repetition, listening to the results to gauge whether the music actually conveyed the ideas in a visceral direct way. It could guide a focused listener into a sort of altered state, a trancelike sense of otherworldliness. The music always served a desired experience, and I think it benefitted from my intensity at the time.

Andrew:
You’ve released a tremendous amount of music over an extended period. That said, Ambient music is an emotional and spiritual journey. So, is there a through-line that connects all of your work, or does each piece stand-alone as its own entity?

Robert:
I think it’s pretty apparent to most listeners that my music is extremely personal, almost Hermetic in some ways. I don’t follow any specific religion or spiritual practice, but I am constantly in a state of wonder about being alive. Our quotidian existence feels like a thin surface that covers a deep underground ocean. We each find ways of digging wells through the surface to reach down inside for a taste of that clear water. What we each pull up from our personal spring has the taste of our time alive, our specific recombination of energy that holds us together as an entity. That’s the thread that connects my music.

Andrew:
Touring is a huge part of any working band’s proverbial machine, but sadly, COVID has mostly disallowed it. That said, what do you miss most about touring and live music

Robert:
I miss the network of friends that I have met all around the world, but I don’t miss the travel. I really don’t enjoy airplanes. I used to drive a loop around North America for a couple of months every few years, playing dozens of little gigs, but I stopped doing that after my wife developed Parkinson’s around 2015 because I didn’t want to leave her alone for so long. I do miss that closer connection to audiences. One of the better aspects of touring involves rebuilding my playing skills on the various instruments I use, especially flutes and lap steel guitar. When I have to rehearse my own music, it reminds me of the energy that sustains the whole activity. When I am in studio-hermit mode, my chops tend to fall apart as I focus more on composition, recording, editing… spending more time in front of the computer than actually playing.

Andrew:
On the subject of live music, early in your career, you would give shows to “somnolent or sleeping audiences,” which was an exercise in experimentation to influence REM sleep. I mentioned your first three records, and those played a significant role in these shows, I believe. What were the results of these nearly 9 hour long shows? Was the auditory stimuli able to affect the REM sleep patterns of the audience?

Robert:
The first three albums came after the first sleep concert. The music during sleep concerts was even slower. I considered Trances and Drones to be active by comparison. Sunyata sounds a bit closer, but I did not use it in the first sleep concert, which was in January 1982. There have been plenty of full-length interviews about sleep concerts, so we probably don’t need to repeat things here. One key to remember is that the music probably affects hypnagogic and hypnopompic imagery (stage 1 sleep) more directly than it affects REM. The ideas behind the sleep concerts also involve creating a ritual space: an unusual social experience as well as individual internal journeys.

Andrew:
Shifting gears a bit now. One disturbing fact I’ve learned recently is that streaming services simply don’t pay or don’t pay nearly enough. What are your thoughts on that? What can we as fans do to help support the artists we love better?

Robert:
Bandcamp. They are doing it right, offering a direct connection between artist and listener and choices for the listener, including high-resolution downloads and purchasing physical media. Bandcamp creates an environment that encourages supporting the artists you like.

Back when Spotify was just starting, several friends told me about it. They liked it. I pondered the idea of listeners getting free access on-demand to almost everything ever recorded, and I couldn’t help but wonder why it was supposedly better than Napster or a Russian bootleg site. In late 2013, I year later got a decent payment from my aggregator (CD Baby) – around $3000, much of which had been attributed to Spotify. I thought it seemed fair at first. Out of curiosity, I created an artist account on Spotify to see the statistics. It turned out that the $3000 derived from over 5 million streams of my album Nest. I didn’t know if I should feel happy or angry. In any other eras, sales over a million would have been a gold or platinum record: pop stardom, fame, glory, new house, entourage, bling (…not that I want any of that…). Here I had 5 million streams and barely enough money to pay our health insurance for two months. I did the math, and it came out to .06¢ per stream, i.e., 6/100 of a penny, $0.0006 in other words. Artists on record labels or sharing their royalties with band members and publishers will be dividing that in tenths again. It’s no wonder musicians are saying they can’t survive on recordings anymore. I encourage people to buy their music directly from their favorite artists or Bandcamp.

Andrew:
As an artist, who are some of your biggest influences? Who are the obvious ones, and maybe some not-so-obvious ones?

Robert:
I think Terry Riley is the most obvious, and the way he integrated Indian classical music and jazz harmony into pattern-based tonalism. Jon Hassell and his use of global music languages, blended with electronically processed acoustic instruments. Robert Wyatt, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Pauline Oliveros…to name a few. Less obvious might include McCoy Tyner, his specific harmonic language, and the ecstatic positive energy in his music. Daevid Allen was a huge influence (founder of Soft Machine and Gong.) Not only did I borrow gliss guitar techniques from him, but I valued his joyful energy and youthful rebelliousness. I had the pleasure of hanging out with Daevid and Gilli Smyth and their son Orlando in Byron Bay, Australia, back in 2012, a couple of years before Daevid and Gilli passed away. I was able to thank Daevid for virtually saving me from self-destruction as a teenager with his album Now is the Happiest Time of Your Life.  He said it probably saved him as well, from a very dark time. I also thanked him for contributing glissando guitar to the musical vocabulary. He laughed and said, “We are brothers in the gliss!” He was very sweet and open. Throbbing Gristle was another group that inspired me to make the sort of music I do…not because I wanted to sound like them, but because they celebrated a very DIY aesthetic and encouraged independent thinking. These artists share an idea that music is a form of magic, that we can imbue it with intention, and that energy can permeate the music, extending beyond the realm of mere sound to actually affect a listener’s state of consciousness.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Cassettes? Or are you all digital? Regardless of format, where do you like to shop for music? I’ve often heard that like Classical music, Ambient often goes down better on CD. Is that true? Or is vinyl an acceptable medium for the genre?

Robert:
I think CDs are a great carrier for all sorts of instrumental music, especially when the dynamics tend toward the softer end of the spectrum. Although I am releasing my latest Neurogenesis on vinyl, and I often end up mastering other people’s music for LP release, I don’t generally think LP records sound better. I do think that any direct conscious engagement with a recording will make that recording sound better. Attention is a feed-forward mechanism. The more attention we invest, the better the reward. LPs invite full attention because of the ritual involved in listening to them. While I have no problem with a digital download, and I like the recent ability to offer higher resolution on Bandcamp, I am not a fan of streaming or other sorts of random-shuffle. I love to experience full albums the way an artist intended, at the highest quality possible. Also, I really like to make physical objects, and somehow I never feel totally fulfilled with a new album release unless it has some physical print component. I just enjoy creating a beautiful and engaging package.

Andrew:
What are some of your favorite albums, and why? Ones that really mean the most to you.

Robert:
Terry Riley, Shri Camel, Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, Talk Talk, Laughing Stock, any of the Nimbus Recordings by Hariprasad Chaurasia, Hamza el Din, Eclipse,  McCoy Tyner, Atlantis, Echoes for a Friend and many others, Julian Priester Pepo Mtoto, Love Love, the Signature Series albums by Ali Akbar Khan, Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, and Mallet Instruments and Organ. It’s a really long list; I could go on and on!

Andrew:
Piggybacking onto my last question, but who are some of your favorite artists, and why?

Robert:
Terry Riley and Jon Hassell are lifetime favorites. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Ali Akbar Khan, L. Shankar, Debashish Bhattacharya, and so many other great north Indian musicians.  Miles Davis, Coltrane, and Tyner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chicago Art Ensemble, Sun Ra… I really like the recent group Daughter – all of their albums set such a dark and curious mood. Radiohead, Bjork, Massive Attack, Portishead, OnU Sound and Dub Syndicate, Orb… Albert Marceour (French Art-Rock from the 70s), Popol Vuh, and Cluster among the German scene in the 70s…There’s a great local Progressive Metal(ish) band called miRthkon whose debut album Vehicle was brilliant…you can see I have rather eclectic tastes!

Andrew:
Outside of music, what are some of your greatest passions? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?

Robert:
Everything informs everything else. I love to make things – all sorts of things. I enjoy painting, cooking, fiddling with electronics…I have been building sound sculptures recently with custom electronics to use for future sound installations. I was an avid home winemaker for 10 years, and I made ceramics for about 10 years before that. I like refurbishing old wristwatches. I guess I go through intense hobby phases. Others might just say I’m a dilettante.

Andrew:
Last question: You’ve been at it for nearly 40 years. You’ve put out over 50 albums. So, as a veteran of the “scene,” what would be your advice for bands/artists who have just decided to take the plunge?

Robert:
Don’t think in terms of categories or styles. Just make art that expresses your deepest self, your sense of wonder. Make something that you wish existed but doesn’t yet exist: it’s waiting for you to bring it into existence. If it fascinates you, if it makes you want it in your life, then there’s a good chance it will fascinate other people and they might also want it in their life.

Interested in learning more about Robert Rich Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
Happy
Happy
0 %
Sad
Sad
0 %
Excited
Excited
0 %
Sleepy
Sleepy
0 %
Angry
Angry
0 %
Surprise
Surprise
100 %

Average Rating

5 Star
0%
4 Star
0%
3 Star
0%
2 Star
0%
1 Star
0%

Leave a Reply

Social profiles
%d bloggers like this: