Music for Spaceports: An Interview with IIVII
Josh Graham is a musician and multi-media artist. His current musical output is IIVII‘s Invasion, the follow-up to Colony from 2015. Formerly of the instrumental rock group Red Sparowes, Graham has created visuals for the likes of Soundgarden, Mastodon, Neurosis and Jesu. Graham also created the artwork for Invasion and the new ambient electronic Bardspec album from Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson.
Invasion takes many twists and turns. Where Colony was brooding and full of vibrant synths and textures, Invasion builds dread with pneumatic whooshes and church bells on Hidden Inside. Clattering percussion and rumbling bass unsettles and astounds on Painless. The flittering synths at the ending of Sanctuary (III) will have you checking around corners and turning on the lights in the house, searching for aliens creeping in the shadows.
Hi Josh, I’m waking up to your music from Colony and Invasion on this overcast June morning in Southern California. I’ve been wiped out from work and the heat and what I’m hearing isn’t making me happy. It’s kind of scary. Good, but scary.
What were some of the goals you sought when making the tense compositions of Invasion? Was there a story you had laid out and each track is a scene or sequence from that story?
In general I wanted to expand on Colony, vary the instrumentation, add more percussion, and really focus on the clarity of the sounds, as well as the mix. I feel like this was my first successful mixing endeavor, finding a sonic placement for each element so that everything compliments the piece, instead of sounds battling each other. I’ve had a problem with too many elements in the past, especially with A Storm of Light…much to the mixing engineer’s chagrin.
Also learning from past mistakes with Storm, I assigned the larger story elements after the record was recorded and sequenced. Each piece has a path it follows, some have story-like ideas and some don’t. The first two Storm records tell a linear story in both song titles and lyrics, much to the detriment of the albums…in my opinion. I’ve learned to lighten up and create pieces that fit into a general theme and then craft the art and visuals around the strongest audio approach.
What are some of the touchstones you used? Was there a picture or painting, architecture, book that you said “I want to create an audio version of this”?
Thematically the touchstones were sci-fi films like The Thing, Aliens, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’78), all of which have varying themes of transition of being. Musically I wanted to keep movement and tension throughout the record, but twist the darkness into light and vice versa. For example, Hidden Inside starts off in a very dark and empty space (reflecting an old recurring childhood nightmare), but then sort of becomes euphoric at the end. I also kind of tied that song to Body Snatchers, where the body is slowly being replaced by another being, however instead of being afraid, you become one with this new entity, and are happy.
What instruments did you use in the creation of Invasion?
The real hero of this record is a granular sampler, where you can take any second from sound and create a new sound from the one moment. It is truly limitless, and the randomness creates sounds that no one will ever duplicate. You can also trigger movement (forward/reverse/slow/fast) through any sample, creating new melodies and moods. It’s really kind of an insane process.
Beyond that, soft synths, analogue synths, guitar, and some abstracted vocal elements as well.
Do you have geek out sessions with fellow musicians about synthesizers, keyboards, guitars, etc.?
Ha! I tend to have more geek sessions with fellow musicians about trying to make your gear as compact and as light as possible, so that when you tour, your not giving all of your income to the airline industry. In Red Sparowes we used to fly our guitar heads and mammoth pedal boards around the world…that was a distant luxury. Now all effort is made not to exceed two check in items. :-/
I dream about a wall of modular synths but that’s all it is at this point.
What are some of the instruments you adore, sleep near, use the most often?
I am definitely weird in that aspect. I really only play when I am writing. Otherwise everything collects dust. I guess it’s because when i am not writing i am 100% focused on my design work, and have a hard time bouncing back and forth. That said I have quite a few electric and acoustic guitars, a banjo that i love, and various pieces here and there.
You also create visuals for others’ live shows. Do you create a narrative surrounding their music based on what their sound is or do you place more of your own personal stamp on things? How do those collaborations work?
Each collaboration is different. With Neurosis we were thematically on the same page, so my own stamp was synonymous with the content. Soundgarden was similar as well. I definitely took cues from the depth of Chris’ lyrics, but the band gave me the freedom to either craft narrative /liner visual components, or remain entirely abstract.
For Jay Z and Drake, I was always working with Willo Perron, who comes up with the larger vision for the show and then he cherry picks directors for different pieces. Most of the time with both artists, i worked in areas of my strengths, creating tightly synced riot vignettes, or abstracted fluid motion pieces.
Have you heard many of the other people making spacey, ambient, electronic, movie soundtrack-type music? I’m a fan of Gost, Zombi and solo projects, Vaporwave acts like Immune and Ishq, or someone like John Carpenter? And have you heard Kurt Stenzel’s score to the documentary for Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie?
I haven’t heard of anyone making make believe soundtracks other than a band my friend Henry Evans was in, called Spindrift. They made (and i think still make) amazing spaghetti western soundtracks. That may or may have been where i got the idea.
Red Sparowes toured with Zombi, so I have always liked those guys. I have not heard Gost or the Vaporwave artists, though I did just come across 2 8 1 4, which is cool. John Carpenter rules. Favorite artists (in this realm) that come to mind now are: Brian Eno, Ben Frost, Mica Levi, Arvo Part, Barn Owl, Nick Cave’s sound tracks are phenomenal (as is everything else of his), Ryuichi Sakamoto’s collaboration with Avla Noto on the Revenant was mind blowing.
I watched Jodorowski’s Dune recently but i can’t remember the soundtrack. I will definitely give that a listen!
Who out there today and in the past do you take inspiration from, whether you sound anything like them or not? Do you look at there personalities or learn of their work ethic or something other than their actual output?
That’s a hard question to answer but I feel like there are so many references throughout my life that have led me here. Some that come to mind… There’s a moment in Ozzy Osbourne’s Over the Mountain that has always stuck with me…it’s these two guitar notes that sound like bells. I feel like I have tried to emulate those in every record I’ve ever made. there’s a moment on Invasion I think I came closest to succeeding. haha.
Arvo Part’s Fur Alina is a big influence. Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Le Gibet. Brian Eno’s body of work is so impressive. Music for Airports is fantastic. Meshuggah is great…Mind’s Mirrors. Godspeed You Black Emperor. I could go on forever i guess.
What are some of the more diverse live events you’ve performed at and what is the response like? Do they come expecting your rocking side and end up sitting on the floor checking their phones or do most people know what to expect?
So far with IIVII I have been lucky enough to play some really nice European festivals. Dunk! was great and the response was more than i could have imagined. I just played an awesome festival at Hudson Basilica in Hudson NY , which is run by Melissa De Auf Maur. The crew, the venue, and the awesome music direction feel akin to Netherland’s Roadburn festival, but not in the way so many recent festivals have copied their approach. The events at Basilica are very well curated, very original, and run by solid people. The festival I played, 24 Hour Drone – Experiments in Sound and Music festival, was just as it sounds: 24 hours of drone ranging from vocalists, flutists, guitar, keyboards, cassettes, etc etc. The venue probably holds 1500 people, but for this event, people were camped out inside…sleeping bags etc. From noon to noon, the music never stopped, all sets overlapped, and the crowd was fantastic. I played from 3-4am, and it felt like I was playing inside of a dream; and I know I was in fact playing in some peoples’ dreams. Very cool.
How does your music get presented in a live setting? Do you have loads of equipment for yourself? Will there be others to help translate your music like drummers?
Right now it is just me live. Each record is a different set of gear, but I’m using a computer (obviously), with varying soft synths with two midi keyboards, an analogue synth, a double – loop pedal, cassette and digital 4 tracks, and an Akai sample trigger. Depending on what happens with tour opportunities, I may end up adding a drummer or another synth player to expand on the albums, but for now i am keeping it streamlined.
I’m also interviewing Bardspec and wish your show was happening in Los Angeles too! What do you think of Ivar’s new music?
Oh nice! yeah i wish i was playing that too! I love the Bardspec record, and was lucky to create all of the artwork for the release!
And I miss Red Sparowes, fantastic live shows!
Thanks! yeah that band had some great times, that is for sure.
(by Bret Miller)