Category Archives: sound

Ballard Guitar Cult: May 2017

Ben and the Guitar Cult at The Chapel, May 2017. Photo by Rob Zverina

The first half of 2017 was a busy time for me as I delved deeper into composing for a group of electric guitars, culminating in Mandalas being performed as part of the UW’s Alumni Alchemy (we are all alchemists now – very validating). What did I learn?

  • Have a goal lined up, or interest dwindles (duh).
  • Tab everything out
  • The more the merrier in the case of this piece/anything where Ebows are concerned.

Those last two months leading into May were awesome, and after taking the summer off (mostly) we’re working on a new round of music, and I’ll be writing and sharing here as we continue. For now, check out two of the recordings we’ve got posted on my soundcloud page:

This is the original demo I cobbled together from home recordings:

Audio MP3

Here we are at the Meany Theater at UW:

…and at the Chapel later that month:

and, finally, a shot of the group after our Chapel show.

Ballard Guitar Cult at The Chapel, May 2017. Left to Right: Matt Wainwright, Joshua Kohl, John Featherstone, Jacqui Gilroy, Ambrose Nortness, Eric Amrine, Ben McAllister, Don Craig, Cassidy Williams, Jake Savin, Brian Heaney, Bob Crow

Archival Records time

I’ve been getting together infrequently with my Wizard Prison bandmate John Vallier to do some jams. He works solo as Archival Records, and we’re scheming to start a film + scoring project this winter in the spirit of Robert Hughes Shock of the New. Here’s some of John’s work, followed by bits from our last few sessions:

Rough and tumble clips from our last session:

Audio MP3

Audio MP3

Audio MP3

And, lastly, ep 1 of Shock of the New, if you haven’t seen it:

My Sound: June 2015: Collages + Edits

When I was little, my folks were cool enough to give me a record player and a bunch of random records. These would prove to be formative, just like everything else I heard – themes to tv shows, cartoon music, anything on the radio. I listened to everything with equal interest, but tried to manipulate the picture as soon as I found some way to interfere.

My folks had an 8-track player. I’d pull the cartridge in and out, trying to match the ‘weeerp’ you’d get when you plugged it back in with the beat on the record. I loved Blue Rondo ala Turk by Dave Brubeck, but liked it even better when I could spin the record backwards and control the speed with my fingers. As soon as I got ahold of 2 tape decks, I’d make my own jacked-up radio plays, interspersing wrong-speed variations on TV commercials I’d recorded with weird dialog my friends and I would make up. These recordings are sadly lost – sad for me, anyway.

I started making tape-pause collages back then too. Grab a blank tape, and record tiny bits and pieces of songs, editing the song(s) together on the fly. You have to remember what all you’ve recorded if you want any continuity, but that’s not always the case: sometimes it’s a game of exquisite corpse. I’d forgotten about this until the mid 90s, when the internet brought me John Oswald’s Mystery Tapes. I really dug these, and loved them for their composition-by-deletion economy which generated new sounds.

So this is a collection of pieces I constructed, rather than played, and might be the most out-there of these comps, so far. I don’t know – let me know. Here’s the rundown:

Soul Gold (2007)
Brother Reed O’Berne brought me a short film to score, a little piece my brother had shot (if I remember correctly). Timing the edits in the audio to those in the film yielded new rhythms and ideas.

Shimmer (1995)
The Yamaha MT-120 4-track dominated all of my time for a while, and I experimented like crazy. This is my attempt to distill what, at the time, were 2 of my favorite pieces of music: Pithoprakta and Metastasis by Xenakis. These textures would alternately alienate or envelope whoever I played them for. Here’s a condensed version of what I liked 20 years ago, coupled with my attempt to compliment said textures with my geeeetar.

Tape pause on FM. Listener’s guide: listen for the new melodies and beats that happen accidentally.

You Need Something (2006)
Ryan Dignan and I were collaborating on sounds for Megan Griffith’s First Aid for Choking, this being one we recorded but did nothing with. The woman speaking through the shortwave is a nun recounting a particularly stressful trip to Miami, wherein the stewardess tries to calm her with alcohol. “You.. need… something…”. The percussion is an exercise Ryan created for his elementary school class using a tupperware cup or yogurt container…

Ambient for Piano (1999), Ambient for Viola and Guitar (2014)
I used to have this great schedule: “4 10s”: 4 ten hour days, with Fridays off. I’d sit in front of the piano 9-5, recording any keepers I stumbled into. The cover of the March edition was taken during this time.
This weird line, somewhat tied to serialism, was in an old notebook, one I found sometime in the “4-10s” period, and I made a little piano piece out of it. My friend Barret Anspach and I (we may get that trio going yet!) recorded a variant at our practice space, applying a few more rules to the composition, creating the phasing you hear here.

Blueberry (2006)
In this bit from William Weiss’ Emergency Pants collection, we hear the protagonist’s attention drift while he does the laundry, fantasizing he is winning a blueberry pie.

Shopping Thang
Tape pause on AM, in AZ. Listener’s guide: Ignore the clicks, listen to the bass, kick and snare in this one. This is what happens when I wait in the car while someone runs into the store ‘real quick’.

Travels of the Fetus (1996)
Matt and I make this collage of tape, Native American flute and gtr one night in Lake City. It reminds us of the womb so much, we name it this.

Double Yesterday
Tape Pause on FM. There’s something about FM radio transmitting 80s buttrock that just.. has it’s own flavor. Listener’s Guide: Follow the guitar, at least in the beginning.

Adrift (1998)
Depicting the freezing landscape of Chelyabinsk, Siberia, Russia in 1998. I lived there for two months. Csound, Shortwave, stretched bird song.

Tape pause on FM. Listener’s guide: I think the flutes work with the choral stuff..

My Sound: March 2015


Tracks 1-5: From Shag Carpet Sunset (2002)

I think at some point we thought we’d be halfway between the McKenzie brothers and the Cohen brothers. This was the first big move by my filmmaking brother Andy and a prolific time for me. These tracks were produced with the help of my brethren Ian Rashkin (engineering advice and I think bass), Josh Stewart (trumpet) and especially Neil Wilson (all drums), who let me use his basement studio for this whole soundtrack. Country Session Man and sometimes IT guy Forrest Lee Jr played the steel guitar on Track 1, the opening theme to the film. Looks like Forrest has some cds up on cdbaby here.He’s an amazing player. Track 3 is a four track recording from 1993 that Andy ended up wanting to use, to my amazement.  Tracks 4 and 5 were my first recordings on a computer – Andy sings lead through our upstairs telephone on Love is a Rocket, and Almost Home was recorded on my cousin Mike’s mac while I housesat for them.

DVD here at Amazon.

Track 6 – 9: Game stuff

Some random bits I did for video games never released. Inspired, in order, by China Radio International, Jimpster, Phleg Camp and.. whammy bars.

Track 10: Gtr Trio 1998:

Still studying composition at the UW, I wrote a collage of guitar ideas for 3 steel string acoustics. Friends Don Craig and Pete Matern helped me get through this clumsy little set – I pulled the couple of ideas I think work together here in this excerpt.

Track 11-14: The squid that lives…

At one point there was a rumor of a giant squid living in Puget Sound. I think of him/her (them?) when I hear this now. One of many bits that didn’t make it on Alkaline, I did this after hours of practice around playing slide, ebow, and thumb on my bottom strings simultaneously.  Recorded on the back patio of my mother-in-laws in Mesa, AZ, while everyone slept Christmas Eve, 2003.

Track 15: Sleestax

Tried and tried to get Andy to use this for something, but he never did. 4 tracks recorded with my neighbor Todd’s Bass Guitar Synthesizer, which I still covet.

Track 16: Shiny Clean Vocal

The last bit of Shag stuff, this is my vocal demo of the theme.

Gamma Male: Ice, Whole

My longtime partner-in-crime Matt Wainwright and I have been recording long Herzogian explorations for the past year or two under the name Gamma Male, the latest in a lineage of projects that started in high school with Human Lunchbox, followed by Choco D, Secret Kitty, Underwater Bus Enforcers, and lately KLOD. We’ve been sitting on this set for quite a while, but it’s one I’m particularly proud of. Fans of Popol Vuh, The Residents Eskimo and the early, non-cheesy Tangerine Dream stuff will like this.

My Sounds: February 2015

In 2005 filmmaker Patricia O’Brien told me about a documentary she was shooting on the Duwamish River. This waterway had gone from sacred site to shipping superhighway, and was polluted to the point of being declared a Superfund site by the Clinton Administration. Georgetown residents and tribal elders shared oral histories in the clips I saw. I brought my friends Tom Swafford and Robert Walker to Jack Straw for a day (or two?) of lightly-guided improv, and got come beautiful dark sounds. The doc was aborted before it was finished, so these tracks gathered a bit of dust. Here they are for posterity, along with some sound design, found sounds, and an early (1994) attempt to mimic a recording I’d made from a shortwave broadcast of All India Radio.

My Sound: January 2015

So I’ve been reading these books by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard called My Struggle, where he fills out details of memories to make a sort of embellished autobiographical picture of his life. Not quite non-fiction, it takes a shape of it’s own, pulling you into a part of his life and seeing yourself there. Episodes combine to form a very lucid portrait of the artist.

I’ve been obsessively collecting sounds for as long as I’ve been able, but they’re sitting in boxes and on hard drives, gathering dust. What’s worse: I’m constantly adding to this pile and not making art of out it. So here we go: the first installment of my monthly sound journal. This first issue is all about soundtrack music I’ve written, with some drafts that stayed in the notebook along the way.

My hope is that as I pool these sounds into cohesive packages, a broader narrative arises that will sound like me. Let’s see if it works.

My Sound: January 2015

  1. Moon
  2. Planets

From Circadia Sees the Moon (2005)

In 2005, Dave Hanagan asked me to make some music for his short Circadia Sees the Moon. In this beautiful little film, a young woman is kept from seeing the moon and, it seems, her adulthood. I tried to give childlike quality to the surface but rhythmic chaos underneath. I had just been seduced by the first three records by The Books, and had some of this in mind while building these sounds with Csound and my guitar. The Books taught me to trim the attack off of the note, which was extremely liberating. I began to find all these new ideas in sounds I already had. The film features a repeated shot of the moon, which I supported with this stretched high slide guitar sound you hear here, and later on this disc.

  1. VCS3 Taste
    Sometime in 2004 I wrote a program to impersonate the EMS VCS3, a synth I’d heard on lots of recordings, including Dark Side of the Moon. The sound was sweet and thick, like pork fat. I loved the sound and spent a week or so hacking this instrument together that would eventually be the backbone for my synth weirdness band Wizard Prison. This is the 1st improv I recorded with my new toy I made. The pulses transfixed us. At the end you hear what we in WP called the ‘Party’s Over’ sound, which Scott and I would use to signal it was ready to move on to the next idea.

  2. Highway 99

  3. Park Music
  4. Lego Music
  5. Proto Stay Love
  6. These are Circles
  7. Bizzy Bizzy

Inspired by Raymond Scott, from Urban Scarecrow (2002-2006)

I had heard Raymond Scott’s music in cartoons growing up, but hadn’t heard his groundbreaking electronic music work until the Manhattan Research Inc compilation Basta released in the early 2000s. Like some classic mad scientist, Scott built oscillators and mechanic sequencers from scratch, designing everything along the way.
I pictured RS’s circular sequencers rotating to create loops of sound and wrote these pieces, under the influence of Soothing Sounds for Baby and the occasional scotch. Most of these were created for my brother’s beautiful film Urban Scarecrow. The first three made it in (I think) but the final three I used for other things…

  1. Ascending
  2. Backwards
  3. Broken Waltz
  4. Cherry Blossoms

From The Emergency Pants Collection (2004)

Using the computer and my programming skills for so much music made part of me rebel and crave organics. I set a challenge for myself: create pieces solely with my 4 track, the crappiest guitar pedal I had, and my piano. Brandon Schaeffer liked them and used them in his impossible-to-find Emergency Pants collection of films – maybe he will let me post them on Vimeo? The ring modulator you hear on Broken Waltz is the only reason I keep that pedal around.

  1. Short Waves (2008)

I am addicted to collecting sounds, and for long binges during the winter I will sit in our shed, long into the night, trawling the air for new sound on my shortwave set. I made this out of three recordings. First, the pulsing time signal you can pick up anywhere in the world on 5000Hz, 10000Hz, 15000Hz, you get the idea. Second, a brief digital signal coming from a buoy in our Puget Sound. Third, a distant voice speaking Arabic.

  1. Anxious (1998)

One of the first pieces of sound art I was actually proud of. I made this while in the composition program at the University of Washington, studying with Richard Karpen. My head was full, one part Squarepusher, one part Iannis Xenakis. I’m not sure this has much to do with either.
One loop is used throughout – you can hear it, unedited, in the first full bar of 4 in the piece. Xenakis created Concrete PH from a single recording of charcoal burning. With him in mind, I wanted to create as much as I could from this single loop. You’ll hear glitchy tweaker beats, a Nancarrow-style tempo canon, and Noh Theater-inspired spatial minimalism.

  1. End Credits

From Circadia, a reverse overture that crams all of the elements from the soundtrack into a final pulsing climax. The visuals involve crosscuts of a train crashing through a wall and the moon breaking through the clouds, which I try to reflect.

Medicine Hat: Tri-Cities, 1994

I was guitarist for Medicine Hat, a Seattle rock band active in the 1990s during Seattle’s grungy mcGrunge period. Yuck I’ve always hated that word. Anyways – this is a little reflection on an awesome couple of years playing with my best friends.

Over the spring of ’93, our drummer and bass player convert a derelict moving truck into a tour van that sleeps 6, and things feel official. It’s the beginning of summer and we’re over the mountains, heading east to do another mini tour of the state: Yakima, Tri-cities, Spokane, maybe Boise. This time we’re in a van all our own, just like Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, the Police, etc. We’ll never have to borrow my parent’s station wagon again.

Flying east on 90 to the Tri-cities, we are headed for the Hoedown, which at the time brings to mind the music of Mule, Phleg Camp, and other noise-minded twangpunk bands we were listening to at the time. “We” meaning everyone but our singer Sean, who would recoil in horror at the first sign of Phleg Camp. Hoedown means country to us, and we’re not sure whether we’ll be welcomed by kids or a rain of beer bottles like in the Blues Brothers.

Anyone from Washington will tell you it’s two states for two reasons. There’s the Red and the Blue, divided by ideology and politics, and the wet and the dry, divided by the Cascades. We leave the Seattle cloud cover ceiling, cross Snoqualmie and hit glorious sun. We’d played with Tri-Cities superstars Small a few times so we’re probably playing their tape with ‘Legalize It’. It’ll be a flat few hours’ drive to the southeast corner.

We pull into the club and it’s hot. 90s and dry. Unload and grab food. I nerd out reading Carlos Castenada in our van for maybe 30 minutes, and emerge to see two parking lots full of people and cars, sneaking beers and joints. A cop hangs nearby.

I split a bottle of cheap wine with a few folks who drove from Seattle to see us. I walk in to play and my clothes are immediately soaked with sweat. I’m dropping my fogged up guitar but manage to put it on. I’m 6 feet tall and clumsy, and I’ve got maybe 6 inches of headroom until I hit ceiling. Not so bad, perhaps, because it’s carpeted, though craft-minded instrumentalists have woven coiled bits of broken guitar string everywhere. I’ve also got hair down to my ass at this point in life, and by end of set “rocking out” has tangled me in the carpeted-ceiling-string mess. We have to cut a chunk of my hair off to liberate me from the stage.

Next up is Tchkung: the unique and awesome. Multiple drummers wrapped bass and maybe guitar in tribal calls to action, always pro-earth.

DUNga DUNga dun DUN.
DUNga DUNga dun DUN.
WE SPIKE! was my favorite. An expanded show awaited hungry anarchists this time, as there was a firebreather joining in. In a small sweaty club with very low ceilings.

I pull my stuff out to our van and load back up, sit inside for a moment, take some more wine and listen to the Tchkungdrums through the van wall. There is a break in the sound. Power outage? A lengthy enviro-sermon from the stage? The parking lot is full again with people and the cops have brought reinforcements. The fire breath had caught the ceiling carpet on fire and the show was over. Or paused – I can’t remember. You see, I read too much and often miss out on things like this.


Later that year, we’re invited to play with Treepeople and Engine Kid down in the Tri-cities. Treepeople are too big for Hoedowns, so we’re rocking a giant tent in a dormant state fairgrounds. We’ve got company this time in Jeff the photographer, Dave Lights, and a gorgeous woman named Runhilde, who will later turn up as vocal gymnast lead singer of Thorr’s Hammer with one of the Engine Kid (and later Sunn O))) fellas.

We’ve got a full house to play to, but my amp dies. After scouring the Tri-cities area for tubes, I return empty-handed. Treepeople let me play through their Treeamp though so all’s well. There’s a healthy crowd for us, which is lucky – we are the opener, and they like us.

The Engine Kid hits the stage next, a trio. They quietly sing through the first verse of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, and we have to stop talking to hear the singer in this boomy space. “…never saw an eagle flyyyyyy, rocky mountain….. BBBAAAAMMMMMMMMM.” The wall of sound that accompanies the chorus on ‘High’ melts our faces off. Cool. No wonder we were the openers. Treepeople ruled, but Engine Kid stuck with me.

Being an all ages show, we had some super drunk kids on our hands at the end. Drummer Jason, ever the pure soul, opted to drive em home on our way out of town. In school he’d written a paper on the ‘evils of alcohol’, cinched tight with the closing line “our children are being herded into an alcohol ranch of no return”. He hits every kid with this line as we drive them, one-by-one, home to their parents.

Medicine Hat – I AM from listen faster on Vimeo.