Hi Austin! How are you doing today?
RB: I am well. I have about 30 things on my to-do list and the it seems like the world is falling apart, but I am well all things considered.
For people that aren't familiar with your work, tell us a bit about your background and what led you to start releasing music as r beny? Also, if you are willing to share, what is the meaning behind the name?
RB: Like many do, I grew up playing guitar in bands throughout my teens and early 20s. While I loved making music and being in bands with friends, I never felt fully comfortable with the guitar. I felt like it was difficult to express what I wanted to express with music, I think due to my own lack of skill and the limitations of the instrument itself.
I had a crossroads moment in 2014, where I was finally able to admit this to myself. All of the work put into practicing, writing songs, and playing gigs had become a source of frustration, rather than one of joy. It was a bittersweet epiphany, considering my passion for music. I ended up quitting the band I was in, sold most of my gear, and put myself into other hobbies.
About a year later, I was at a friend’s house and he showed me a synthesizer he had recently picked up, a Korg Monotribe. We played with it for a few hours and I found it insanely fun, so I decided to pick one up for myself. I ended up with a Korg Volca Keys instead, since the Monotribe had been discontinued. While I always had an affinity for electronic music and instruments, I had never really understood my way around a synth or a sampler. I had a Korg Microkorg a few years back and never figured it out beyond just switching between the presets.
As I started to properly learn about synthesis and sound design, it all just clicked into place. I found that with these instruments and tools, I was finally able to express myself musically the way I so desperately wanted to. It all kind of snowballed from there, getting into DIY electronic instruments, then modular, then starting to record and release music.
“r beny” came about as a pseudonym for my work with synthesizers and other electronic instruments. It was actually a placeholder name, I had quickly made a YouTube channel one day to do a tutorial for some people on the Korg forums. At the time, I was obsessed with the work of photographer Roloff Beny. The name “r beny” was a tribute to him, while also being what I thought was somewhat vague (in my head, I thought it sounded like a word from another language. I now get called “Beny” quite a lot). I meant to just do that one video and then make a real channel for better thought out tutorials later down the line, but the video blew up outside that circle and the name stuck.
Congratulations on the new album! We have been looking forward to working with you on a release for quite some time. How did this album come to be?
RB: Thank you! Last year Past Inside the Present reached out to me to propose a 10” vinyl release. As a fan of the label, it was an easy decision to say yes. The timing and situation was just right. I get a number of requests to release music, but I tend to work on music at my own sporadic pace and don’t really have extra material at the ready.
2/3 of the tracks on this EP (Fjorda and Golden Larch) were tracks I started working on and playing live last fall. They were inspired by my time touring in Europe, earlier that summer. They both started as sketches I made on the Novation Summit synthesizer and then later fleshed out.
I think there were some issues with pressing the 10” records, so the EP is out on 12” instead. I am pleased to be a part of the PITP family and community!
The title ‘The Dashboard Cast a Spectral Glow’ is quite powerful and fits the music perfectly. What is the meaning behind both the song titles and the music you put together for this release?
RB: The EP title is a play on a line in a book I read called Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. “The early darkness came on. My headlamps cut only a forty-foot trail through the rain, and the dashboard lights cast a spectral glowing.”
I have a journal where I write down interesting or affecting words or phrases that I read in books, hear in movies/tv, and see in everyday life. For me, this line encapsulates the feeling I try to emote with my music. Those little lost, in-between moments. That brief feeling of longing for your past you randomly feel as you drive through the forest and the sun breaks through the canopy of leaves. The vision of dashboard lights cutting through the darkness, as it starts to set in the middle of the woods on a rainy evening, felt so familiar. I knew it would inspire the name of a track or release as soon as I read it.
“Fjorda” is play on the word fjord. I had the opportunity to visit Iceland last year, right before my European tour, and I was so struck by the beautiful landscape and nature. I had wanted to visit Iceland since I was young, so it was fantastically surreal actually being there. It felt like a dream. When I got back from that tour, I wrote a song called “Fjossa”, which was a play on foss, the Icelandic word for waterfall. It was sort of a portmanteau of foss and fjord, a made-up word describing this floating feeling of waterfalls, water, and nature. “Fjorda” is a sister track to “Fjossa”, inspired by those same feelings. I was thinking about the history of the geography of fjords and waterfalls, all the events and years that have to pass for them to form. Those were things I thought a lot about while in Iceland and Europe.
I can’t quite recall where the title “Golden Larch Emerging in Spring” came from. That might have been one that just came to me. It felt like a very hopeful title. Winter is over, spring is here, it’s all okay now. There, there. I relate that to my depression. I’ll have peaks and valleys and coming out from one of those valleys feels like emerging from the cold, dead winter to the life of spring.
The songs on this record are both soothing and nostalgic, which seems to be driven by your use of tape. What was your approach to recording the songs on this release?
RB: One trick I’ve been using quite a bit over the last year or so is using 3-head tape machines to process sounds on tape in real time. These machines have separate recording and playback heads that allow you to listen to the playback of the tape as it’s being recorded to. The real magic starts when you start using worn out tape, or in my case, worn out tape loops. The effect means you get these lofi tape loop-like sounds, but you aren’t limited to the length of the loop, or even loops. The tape just cycles through endlessly and each time through, introduces different artifacts and character.
That trick is used at some point on all 3 tracks on this release. In the case of Fjorda and Golden Larch, each of these tracks started out as one take of me playing the Novation Summit through the tape machine and into a looper in this manner. Some overdubs were added later.
Field recordings are also regularly featured in your work. For this record, they especially stood out to us on 'Golden Larch Emerging in Spring.' When and where were these sounds captured? How do you approach field recording in general?
RB: That recording was taken during a rare spring Bay Area thunder storm in April 2019 from my room through an open window. The thunder was so close, it actually started clipping my Zoom recorder and shaking the whole house. There was this weird, still energy in the air. Beyond the occasional car, you could feel the ebb and flow between the dead quiet and then the rain and thunder.
In general, I don’t really go out looking to capture field recordings. I tend to happen upon the sounds I would want to record, which can make things difficult. Thankfully, we all are carrying little field recorders in our pocket, that happen to have cameras and phone capabilities. I do make it a point to bring my Zoom field recorder when I go out for things like hikes or drives out into the countryside. But the inspiration to capture something usually happens externally.
I am trying to make it more of a point to go out and listen to the quiet. Listen to the sounds of the world around me.
If you had to choose a favorite track on this release, what would it be? And why?
RB: Probably Fjorda. Just for the memories it brings from that trip to Iceland. Considering the current state of the world, there is a chance I may never have the opportunity to go back, or at least it could be a long, long time. It’s also the track that I think sounds the least like myself, in a way. It feels less linear than what I usually do, with a clear A part and a clear B part.
What inspires you to write music?
What artists do you admire and continue to be inspired by?
RB: There is so much that inspires me to make music. Nature - the history of and volatility of it. The human experience - working through emotions, depression, anxiety, expressing the nuances that cannot be expressed so easily through words. Architecture - the way materials come together to make a whole, the meaning and symbolism of buildings and structures.
Photography and art. Music, especially instrumental music, has so much in common with photography and painting. From the tools used, to the process, to the finished piece that’s put out into the world (or not) for interpretation. I often liken ambient music to abstract art. It’s about the color and texture and the shapelessness, rather than a specific subject. How it makes you, the listener, feel.
And of course, I am inspired by other music. I am inspired on some level by pretty much any artist I listen to, from a level of emotion and from a technical level. I love thinking about how an artist made a certain sound, and what inspired them. I think that’s why I am so much into the gear and technical side of music. Seeing the technical aspect all the way through into art is something that inspires me.
The world has changed pretty drastically in recent months due to Covid-19. How has the pandemic impacted you both as a person and as an artist?
RB: I live in the county where one of the first cases was found in the United States, so it has been on my mind early and often. I’m super grateful that it hasn’t really affected my day job all that much. I’m able to work remotely for the most part. I live alone, so sheltering-in-place has been a bit lonely. I miss being in the same room or hiking with friends. I try to go for a walk at least once a day, just to get some fresh air and sunlight.
As an artist, it has been an interesting experience. Like many, I have had cancelled gigs. I’m not at the point where music is my livelihood, so I don’t have to be constantly gigging/working on music normally. But I also don’t have a ton of time or energy to work on music on a typical day. Because I’ve been staying home, I have been playing more music. If there is downtime at work, I can just walk into the studio, instead of browsing the internet. And with that, I’ve been able to finish and take on other commissioned music projects. From finishing releases, to patch design and beta testing for synthesizers, to working on live streaming sets.
I hesitate to call it a positive, with all that’s going on in the world, but I appreciate the creative opportunities I’ve had in the last few months that have kept me from going stir crazy.
You recently live-streamed a performance from your studio space.
How do you feel about the medium?
What are the pros and cons of live streaming concerts?
Do you plan on doing it again?
RB: I’m very much on the fence about live streaming concerts, at least when it comes to playing them. I did have a blast doing that stream for Gray Area. For me, I think it’s circumstantial. For one, I think the sound quality is a major concern. That concert was my first time streaming on Twitch, and the quality was better than I thought it could be for a stream. It was an overall positive experience.
I’ve been doing one-take performances on my YouTube channel for years, so I feel like I need to be able to differentiate between doing something like that and live streaming. I appreciated this last stream was actually live, as opposed to a pre-recorded performance. It felt like so much could have gone wrong, so in that way it felt much like a real performance with an audience.
The other aspect of it is the audience. When I play live, I play off the feeling of the room and the audience. I think my live shows are a different experience than one I can provide over a stream or a recording. When I play live, I work with dynamic. My live sets are a bit louder and heavier, as I want the audience to not just hear the music, but to physically feel the music. In a venue, I can shake the whole room with bass and distortion. That connection and intention is lost over a stream. I can only play off my own energy and the dynamics just aren’t the same.
I appreciate things to make the streams feel more communal, like chats. Overall, I have a positive view on streams, but I don’t think they are necessarily my favorite thing to do. I will be doing at least a few more in the near-future, to see if I do end enjoy doing them more and to continue to connect to people who do want to hear me play.
Your approach to sound design and tape manipulation is really inspiring.
What advice do you have for people wanting to work with tape?
RB: Get yourself a time machine so you can buy tape machines at a reasonable price! Kidding aside, I always say go for it. You might have to be a little patient to find a good machine at a decent price, but there are a good number of options out there. I have a few Tascam machines and a few Marantz machines, in varying degrees of working states. Personally, I prefer recorders that have multi-tracking capabilities (like the Tascam machines), or recorders with 3-heads that can monitor the tape as it’s being recorded to (like the Marantz machines).
I love working with tape because it just adds a certain character to sounds that feels “lived-in”. In some ways, they can be unpredictable, especially as these machines age, but there is a certain beauty and magic to that unpredictability.
Reel-to-reel machines are also becoming more prevalent and some can be had for decent prices compared to cassette recorders.
There are a good number of tape emulators and software out there. The one that I’ve found to sound closest to my actual tape machines is Cassette by Waves Factory. I’ve already used it on some tracks in cases where my tape machines were too much of a hassle to deal with.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today!
Anything you want to add and say to people out there?
RB: Thank you for having me and thank you to PITP for putting this release out!
I just want to say that I hope everyone and their loved ones are staying safe and healthy out there. We will get through this together!
And as always, thank you for listening.