Conversations with Brock Van Wey

I caught up with Brock Van Wey to chat about his latest release on Echospace [detroit], music influences, the story behind White Clouds Drift On And On and upcoming releases. Here’s a little more than just Two and a Half Questions with Brock Van Wey. Enjoy.

How is this album different from your bvdub releases, and why did you decide to release it under your real name?

I don’t really have separate intentions or directions when it comes to something “bvdub,” or something under my own name. In fact, I actually never thought of releasing anything under my real name, as I’ve just been so used to the bvdub moniker for so long. It was actually Steve (Hitchell) who suggested it, after we agreed to release the album on Echospace. He thought it seemed fitting, as it was such a deeply personal work, as well as something that was kind of set apart and different from anything else I had done, and when he suggested it, I thought it was a great idea. Of course he knew how intensely personal the album was to me, but through putting it out under my real name, maybe others would have at least a hint of that as well.

At the end of the day, everything I make is “me” through and through. I just make what’s in my head and my heart at that particular moment in time. But though I’m extremely proud of all I’ve done as “bvdub” (from DJing to throwing parties to now with my own music) over the last 15 years or so since the name came about, I think it really means a lot to be able to make a statement and lend a contribution to this music that means everything to me, and have it be just plain me, with the name I’ve had my whole life. I think it’s really fitting, as this album sums up so much of what my own life has been, and how I see myself in the world, not just since I got into electronic music, but from the beginning of when I was able to cognitively take in this world in which we live. Plus it’s gotta make my parents happy, right? Actually they think I’m a weirdo no matter what I do, and as always, they’re right.

I think it’s different in the sense that it’s much more gentle than anything else I’ve made (at least in parts), and it is hands-down the most hopeful work I’ve ever made. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of sadness in there (I can never make anything devoid of it), but there’s so much hope in there as well – and for me, sadness is borne from dashed hopes, so they are inevitably intertwined, as you can’t have one without the other. My whole life has been one of daydreams – of hopes, dreams, and utopias that surely were never going to be from the beginning – but just in hoping, so much of the beauty of those dreams was realized just in the chase, even through all the sadness, disappointments, and crushing defeats. The album reflects all of those things at once, certainly more completely than anything else I’ve made – at least to me, and I hope it does to others as well.

On White Clouds Drift On And On, I hear influences from Gas, Biosphere, and less subdued loops from Basinski’s experiments. Who are your inspirations for creating these atmospheres and ambient soundscapes?

Well let me preface what I’m about to say about inspirations by saying that I surely have countless ones in so many facets of my life. So many genius artists and pioneers over time have influenced me in ways I can never fully describe, or probably ever really do justice to.

So now that that’s out of the way, before people think I’m some disrespectful prick who doesn’t recognize all those who have paved the way before me, I can tell you with complete and utter honesty that I don’t have a single inspiration for the music I make other than my own emotion. I just sit down and pour out what’s in my heart, and how it comes out is how it comes out. In fact I’ve never once had a pre-conceived notion about how anything I made would turn out. I just sat down with an emotion that I felt needed to get out of my head before it drove me insane, or in some rarer cases, a beauty I wanted to convey or somehow connect with. My mind and body basically take over on auto-pilot from there, and I’m almost like a third party watching someone else work. How it comes out in the end is honestly as much of a surprise to me as it is to anyone who hears it – a phenomenon I actually quite like.

Am I so brash or stupid as to think that all the electronic music I’ve listened to and loved like life itself hasn’t somehow influenced me in countless facets of my life, and now in my own music? Of course not. And I think anyone who hears my music and was around in the early and mid 90’s hears a lot of those times in it, and they’d be right, because those times influence me more than any other, and they always will.

But I’ve never sat down to make music with the music of anyone else in mind, or any particular influence or inspiration, at least music-wise. To some that may seem arrogant or ridiculous, but it’s true. I think that’s why what I make just sounds like “me,” (no matter how much lazy or frankly ignorant people want to classify it as “this” or “that” and lock it in some box for whatever reason that I’ll never understand as long as I live). Because that’s all it is.

On the first track, Too Little Too Late, my classically trained ear picked up a compound time signature of 9/8. The last person who impressed me with using compound triple time successfully was Tchaikovsky, in his Symphony No. 4. My three part question: Do you have any musical training, what instruments do you play, and was this time signature choice intentional?

Well your classically trained ear apparently just bent mine into a pretzel and kicked it into next week, because I didn’t even know that. Though I can’t help but be a bit shocked (in a nice way, I assure you) to be mentioned in the same sentence as Tchaikovsky no matter what the context, it’s funny you mention the name, as in my youth, he was indeed one of my favorite composers, and I always had a great admiration for his compositions.

So though I can definitely see a subliminal tie there, the time signature choice was not intentional (though I wish I could just front and say it was, which would make me sound way more awesome than I am). It is, however, not that surprising I guess, considering my answers to your other two of the three questions:

I do indeed have musical training. I played violin for 10 years, and played both solo, and in numerous orchestras and symphonies here in the Bay Area. I also played piano for about 8 years, purely in a solo context. I think the most hardcore “classical training” of the two definitely came from the violin, and more notably from playing in symphonies, etc, as it’s there that you really gain a deep understanding of how music is built from the ground up. I also had some experiments during that time in writing my own music (sadly enough, I literally can’t even read sheet music anymore), not only for solo works, but some for multiple facets like quartets, etc, and it’s through things like that you can gain an even greater understanding of what it takes to make different parts all work together – because lord knows you make some hideous sounding mistakes on your way to getting there.

Though those days surely have a great influence on how I approach music now, it, like other influences, are purely subliminal at best. Like I said, I can’t even read a note of sheet music anymore (I stopped reading it by 18, tops), and though I can still play piano by ear, in more of an instinctual way (purely playing around with my own melodies and flights of fancy – I can’t play actual organized compositions written by other people), I have no doubt I couldn’t make a tolerable sound come out of a violin if my life depended on it. It’s funny though, in my teens, I thought playing either of them was lame, and I just wanted to go out and be some vandalizing pointless idiot like my friends, but as you get older you understand what your teachers meant when they told you you’d regret giving them up. I would say I’m happy I didn’t end up leaving music behind altogether, but that’s just simply impossible. It’s been my reason for living since my first cognitive thought, and it always will be.

I Knew Happiness Once has a timeless chant… What are some of the vocal samples used on your album?

Well I will (perhaps erroneously, but hopefully nonetheless) take your mention of it as timeless as meaning you like it – feel free not to correct me if I’m wrong. I only bring that up because for me personally, that’s my favorite song on the album, and those vocals my favorite moment of the whole 80 minutes (in fact I’ve still cried on several occasions on hearing them, nearly a year and a half after the track was made) – but I’ve both met, and read things by, plenty of people who couldn’t possibly feel any differently about it. Once again, the subjective beauty of music rears its fabulous head.

The vocals I used on the album are taken from a myriad of sources, and are at times mixed with dense walls of field recordings as well (which also contain their own vocals some of the time), both my own and those taken by others. Some of the vocals on the album I think, quite frankly, caught some people off-guard, and to be honest, though I hesitate to speak for him, I know they threw Steve off at first as well. But I think once they settle in to your mind and the entire scope of what’s happening, you couldn’t imagine the experience without them. At least that’s how I feel, and luckily, it’s how Steve felt as well.

The vocals are from a ton of different sources, and a ton of different countries. In some cases I left them alone either completely or as best I could, as I felt that’s how they belonged, and in others, I did a ton of manipulating, editing, and / or processing to get them to sound the way they did. For me personally, it was really important to use vocals from so many different languages and places, many of which I’ve never been to, because I wanted the album to transcend (I hate that word, but there’s really no better one in this case) any limitations and be something that could speak to your heart no matter where you’re from, what language you speak, or how different your and my respective lives might have been until that moment. For me, music is supposed to be something that can speak straight to the heart no matter where you’re from, and it seemed only natural to somehow incorporate vocals that struck right to my core as well. I can only hope that if the people who originally cast those tones from their heart to the world heard the way they had become part of what I made, they would feel I did them justice, and could share at least a little of what I feel.

You and I share a disgust for soulless music, churned for cash and hungry egos. What are your thoughts on the true purpose behind music, and more specifically the story that you tell with yours?

Well as you surely know all too well, if you have a disgust for such ugly phenomena, it’s hard not to spend at least some portion of every day so engulfed in a feeling of overwhelming illness that you honestly wonder how much longer you can possibly take it. You know, though it’s no secret I have very strong feelings on this topic, I’ve always tried to remain fairly neutral in my “official” responses to questions that even hinted at this subject, mostly because I’ve tried to remain positive about things, in the vain and frankly stupid hope that positivity would somehow beget positivity, but enough is enough.

Electronic music has become a sickening mess beyond any possible realm I ever could have imagined. It makes me literally physically sick half the time to see what it’s become. It’s all the things you said – soulless music, a want to just make a buck, and really the worst of the three in my eyes, the hungry ego bullshit.

Nowadays it’s all about how much attention you can gain, how many “friends” you have on your Myspace page, how many hits you have on your stupid ass website, how many times your name is mentioned on some site or blog, or whatever else. Pardon my French, but what the fuck happened to the actual music? It’s the last thing in the equation. It seems all people do nowadays is talk about music, analyze music, criticize music, and use it to feel important. What happened to LISTENING to it? Feeling it? Nowadays, as long as you have some slick douchebag pictures taken of yourself looking “creative,” apparently you’re an “artist.” And as long as people are talking about you or paying attention to you, you think you’ve “made it.” Never mind that the “music” you make is completely soulless, pointless garbage that literally took as long to make as the length of the track.

Back when this music – and this movement – was real, no one gave a shit about all this nonsense that is so all-important now. We didn’t even have the internet. You had no way to get fame, notoriety, or whatever else people seek nowadays, unless your music was literally so groundbreaking or amazing that word of mouth spread throughout the country, and the world. Someone made a record, and it got put out somehow, bought somehow, and somehow, somewhere, there were people feeling it in some corner of the world. You never knew who they were, they never wrote you an email to tell you you were the shit, and there was no one there to stroke your ego. But you did it anyway. For the love. That was enough. For that love, you sacrificed everything – your last dollar, the roof over your head, your relationships with your family, your friends, and the love of your life – anything and everything. And as a result, the music reflected that. It showed every bit of the love and belief those artists had for the scene that was blossoming and pushing forward every day – a scene we all believed in. What do so many now know about sacrifice? What do they believe in besides waking up in the morning clinging to some illusion they’re cool or important? How have they bled for this music? They never have, and they never will.

What do people believe in now? Website hits? Youtube views? Forgetting that they got beat up every day in high school by trying to think they’re “cool” now? Whatever it is, it’s a million miles in the wrong direction from what this was all founded on, and no matter how much so many nowadays probably want to ignore that or think they are doing this music a great service, they need to know they are not. They’re making a mockery of it and everything it was founded on. It’s disgusting, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

This music was all about community – an actual community, not a random assortment of people out for their own self-gratification – a counterculture that was all about providing a music, a place, and an outlet for those who believed to gather together (whether physically or mentally) and share our love for what we knew was the right way, and the most beautiful music ever created – music that finally, wholly and truly, expressed everything that was in our hearts. Music itself will never cease to be that for me, no matter how many posers in the world continue to ruin it. It’s everything my life is and always has been to me – it’s every joy, every sadness I’ve ever known – it’s my life, both figuratively and literally… and it used to be all about sharing that life with others through music. Artists told the stories of their lives, through its ups and downs, and we all felt it, and all our lives, and our histories, became forever intertwined. Though I don’t go out anymore, it’s still the same for me, and that will never change. Music is supposed to be about that connection, about sharing a piece of your heart with someone else – a complete stranger – and if that connection should happen, and for those few minutes your lives and histories converge, there’s simply nothing more beautiful in the world. And there never will be.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m the only person in the world who feels this way, and who makes music for this reason. There are tons of people still left doing it, and I thank (insert higher power here) every day that they still exist, because without them I think I would become so despondent that I might literally go insane. And I just hope that people throughout the world seek those artists out and truly support them (which you’re not doing by just ripping off their music for free), because without them this music will die forever, and a world without it isn’t one I want to live in.

But unfortunately nowadays it’s easy to lose those artists and those still staying the proper course in the fray of the constant bombardment of every egocentric jackass who cares more about seeing his name in lights than he ever will about anything even remotely connected to the beauty this scene and the music we know now was founded on. In the end, though, those people will fade away. They’ve never bled for this music, and they never will. It means nothing to them. And when the next thing comes along that they think they can be “cool” at or have someone pay attention to them for 10 seconds, they’ll be on to that. And this music can be left to those of us who care, and who always have.

My music tells the story of my life. It lays out every recess of my heart and soul for all to see, for better or worse, in the hopes that it can connect with someone, and maybe become a friend and confidant to them as so much music as been to me. The music I love, and the music that has always meant the world to me, has always been by my side through thick and thin. It’s always had my back, and never betrayed me. If something I make can become that friend to at least one person in the world, I’ll be happy beyond words. Because that’s what electronic music has been about for me, every day of my life for the past 18-plus years. And it always will be.

When I spoke to Steve Hitchell about the second disk, he said that the tracks are not really mixes, but interpretations of your works. Here is an excellent quote from him: “I spent about 2 months mixing down and mastering the original album and couldn’t get it out of my head, mind, and heart, which translated into my own work as well. I felt it every time I went to record something new. and it reminded me of Brock’s album in some way, so that is really how this project was born.” Tell us more about this wonderful collaboration.

It came about quite surprisingly, for me anyway, as I had never even considered letting anyone remix anything I’ve made. It’s not because I’m trying to be some egomaniac dick, I just think it’s already perfect how it is, so why would I want to hear it done differently? You would think I would be more open to it, especially since I’ve had some kind and awesome opportunities to remix others’ work, but in the end I guess I just wasn’t as open-minded as they were.

But when Steve asked what I thought about him doing an interpretive album that would be alongside the one I made, I was, shockingly enough, all over it. Not because he’s “Steve Hitchell,” but because he had become someone I considered a genuine friend, and I knew how deeply and truly he felt about the originals I had made. This wasn’t something he wanted to do to simply play around with what I had made, or see his name in print. This was something he wanted to make to pay honest tribute to the feelings and impact the originals had caused for him, and as a result were to be much more interpretation than “remix.” Though in the past I had been resistant to the idea of remixes etc, this put things in a whole new light, and the end result was quite frankly light years beyond anything I had imagined. It was indeed what he said it would be – really it’s own album in it’s own right, containing ghostly elements of the originals, but really it’s own work inspired by glimpses of mine. Not only that, but it was (and is) quite frankly amongst the most beautiful and heartfelt 80 minutes of music I’ve ever heard in my life. Yes, music. Not “techno,” not “dub this or that,” not “insert classification here.” Just beautiful music without any limitations – a concept I thought all but lost.

It was not only a massive honor to have him take the time he did to make something of that scope to stand alongside mine, but that the original work had affected him deeply enough that he was inspired to do so. He definitely changed my previously obstinate mind when it comes to the beauty and possibilities of collaboration, and quite frankly restored my faith that there’s still someone out there who never lost their way. It’s been inspiring beyond words.

Tell us about your upcoming album on Somnia. What should the listener expect?

The upcoming album on Somnia, “One Last Look at the Sea,” is different from any others in the sense that it’s much more varied than any other. It’s comprised of everything from deep and ambient techno to pure ambient, and the name (like all my titles) really says it all, to me anyway. It’s sitting on that cliff, or edge of the sea, for that one last look, as you remember it all in those moments before it’s all over. The sea has always had a great significance for me, as to me (and this is not unique to me by any means) it always symbolizes eternity, and the fact that it’s going to keep moving, endlessly pushing on, long after you’re gone – and that in the end, guess what? You’re not all that important. It’s helped me through many a horrific time in my life, and I wanted to somehow pay homage to those moments, and what that time alone with the sea and the world had done for me so many times.

As with any album I make, the order in which you hear the tracks are the same order in which they were made, as to me, that’s the only way to get the full and true story. I think listeners will find an album that takes them to different places than some other things they’ve heard from me, and of course all I can hope is that they are places they will identify with and feel. I always try to express a different idea, and a different direction, with each thing I make. I never want to just make “more of the same,” or what I think people who like my music will like. I want people to go to each thing I make for different reasons, and hopefully this Somnia album will be one people go to when they need a friend, at least when they need one that says what it says.

And what is in the future for your label, Quietus?

I have my first full-length album (for Quietus, that is) coming up in October, and after that, a full-length from a very special guest I’m extremely excited about that will follow in December. After that, I honestly have no idea. I never plan anything on Quietus or have a “release schedule,” and actually every release so far has contained music that was all completed within a month or two of when it came out.

I’m not into the idea of stacking up tons of releases, and Quietus has always been about quality over quantity (not saying you can’t accomplish both, but I don’t want to run the risk of not being able to do so). It was brought about, and will always be about being a way to put out music, whether from me or others, that I felt would really only have a home on Quietus, and I only know that when I hear it. So I just take it as it comes.

I know it’s off-topic, but I would just like to take a moment to thank the amazing family of true and honest supporters that have helped keep Quietus and everything it stands for going – many of whom were there literally from day one. They’ve helped me remember countless times that there are still people out there who love this music for all the right reasons, and that it’s not all in vain – and that’s easier to forget now than ever.