Translation by Diana Marrone (introduction and answers)and Diana Cottrell (questions)
A vortex, he is a true swirl of sounds, overlaps and loops; it is a seductive electronic dance, a furious, inner disarray on a continuous climax. You enter by glancing at its border, the edge is allowing your listening to do not go adrift in the ocean of sound in which, immediately, you find yourself immersed. Just a few minutes are needed and the fear of the drift dissolves to leave room to the deep pleasure of the abandonment, to dive as new visionaries in sounds keeping alive and well seen the term ambient by transforming it in a strong and fresh sonic wave to embrace with an intense leap to reach its deep and most intimate streams. Brock Van Why, aka Bvdub, is the master of ceremony bringing us along in this journey, one of the most respected and influent voices of contemporary ambient detached by academic schemes. An alchemist knowing well the levity and the fascination produced by the digital whisper and by the murmur of the sonic wind.
Let’s first go back to the '90s, to the roots of your passion for vinyl and DJing. Which was the sound which was your reference point, what type of music shaped you and your interests and how did you translate it in your DJ sets?
I was always a bit off-center when it came to my musical taste, being drawn much more to side room, early-morning music rather than anything main floor. Even from the beginnings spending nearly all my time in the small side rooms, where things were much more intimate and personal – and where DJ's were playing much braver music that was their true love, rather than what was necessarily the most popular. It was there you could hear and feel music you would never find anywhere else. I made my first mixtape the day I bought turntables – it wasn't pretty (haha), but the first official mixtape I ever had in stores was pure ambient, and 120 minutes – a length no one ever put out at the time, as the tape would stretch too easily and the sound would distort. But to me that just meant you would need to treat it with even more love and care. I guess my love of taking my time to tell a story started early (haha). Then I started releasing different series' of ambient, deep house, and deep techno mixtapes, each with their own story to tell. The series itself would consist of anywhere from 3 – 5 tapes, and together were like the whole book, while each tape on its own was a chapter. Each mix, and series, told a very specific story, I never just made a mix to “make a mix” or simply to try to get gigs. It had to have a specific reason to exist, and I had to have something specific to say – something in the hopes of connecting with someone else who could understand, so we could both remember we weren't alone in this world. Just as I do with my own music now. The same went for my live DJ sets... they always told a specific story, and were their own narrative. If you listened from beginning to end, you would understand... but admittedly my style of DJing and the music I played wasn't wildly popular in San Francisco (or California), with most finding it too ambient-based (even my house sets), consisting of insanely long ambient breakdowns, or just too complicated overall. But I never changed how I did it, it's never been important to me how many people like what I do. It's important the right people understand.
Another step back: San Francisco, the city which we always understood as the cradle of psychedelia or, for the less elderly, the place where the groups such as Tuxedomoon or the Residents started their development, a place which had a fundamental impact on their formation. What, new and original, was happening in the music in San Francisco in the ‘90s?
Well apparently I am quite elderly, as I have never heard of Tuxedomoon or the Residents, just as they surely have never heard of me (haha). I would definitely agree that San Francisco was the cradle of psychedelia far before the '90s, and through their entirety as well. To put it the most simply, the rave scene in San Francisco in those days was the psychedelic rock of the age, and we were the new age of hippies carrying our new brand of utopia forward. Those before us did it with guitars, while we did it with synths and turntables, but the idea was the same – a dream to create a counter-culture and society for ourselves away from the negativity and evil of the world outside. I have never been in an environment of such love. There will never be anything like it again. Of course the Bay Area had its own artists, DJ's, and sound that made it different from anywhere else – even the difference between Southern and Northern California was night and day. But I think what was the most original, really, was the whole scene itself. It was one of the strongest in the country, and the world. It was, as you said, very rooted in the ideals of psychedelia, which were not only (of course) based around the drugs involved, but around the ideals surrounding them... sharing, openness, positivity, unity. It wasn't just about going out and getting fucked up. It was about connecting with each other, the music, and the scene the right way. People didn't just throw parties or go out for no reason – they were serious, obsessed, almost militant about the ideals of the scene and all we were trying to achieve. It was a true movement for enlightenment. There were times we were always reaching for that utopia, and times when we reached it and then some. The levels that scene reached, and the community it built, will never be matched. And my lord did we have good Ecstasy... no one does drugs like Northern California (haha).
Then you broke with all that. You sold your collection of the discs and left for China. What happened, what went wrong, what happened in the musical world which you were hanging out with at the time and … why China?
San Francisco just completely changed... everything it stood for, that made it great, was gone. All the good people left, and the scene was overtaken by hordes of DJ's, organizers, and people who were doing everything for the wrong reasons. People only DJ'ed because they thought it was “cool” or would get them laid, people only threw parties to try to make money, and everything just became a sickening antithesis of everything the entire scene was founded on. Unity turned to division, sharing turned to pure selfish greed, and it just all fell apart at the hands of the worst kinds of people. I tried to fight against it for many years, continuing to do my own events, trying to keep something good alive, but in the end the city was too overrun by everything that was wrong with the world – it had become all the things we had fought for so long to keep out. I couldn't take the heartbreak anymore of seeing it all fall apart, and, like so many others before me, eventually I felt I had no other choice but to leave it all behind. I sold every record I owned, around 7,000 or so, and moved to China. I had been in love with Chinese cinema for a long time, and wanted to get closer to the culture and land from which it was borne – plus I figured if you needed to get away from the death of the underground electronic music in San Francisco, you had to get as far away as possible. And China is about as far from an early '90s rave as you can get (haha). Plus who doesn't love Chinese food?
How do your experiences and memories of different points of your life serve you: your time in the suburbs, your life in Bay Area and in China: what impact do they have on your sound?
Every second of my life impacts my sound... from the fast, dirty life of the Tenderloin in San Francisco, to the slow doldrums of the suburbs, to the simultaneously breakneck yet isolating existence of life in China, and now, yet another new, even lonelier beginning in Poland. Anything I make just tells my story – things that I've experienced, the ways I see life, and the way life has treated me, basically, for better or worse. My experiences, memories, and different points of my life are my music. Many people ask how I can possibly make so much music... but if your music is about your life, how can you ever stop? How could you ever not have something to say?
I will write you one word: ambient. Can you explain what does it mean, how did it enter your life and how did you manage to conjugate it?
For me it entered my life through Steve Roach's Structures From Silence, which, some 35 years later, is still one of the greatest ambient albums ever made, if not the greatest. Before then I could never have imagined that music with no rhythm, with such an abstract form, could do what it does. I did nothing but listen to the title track from that album for months on end, realizing for the first time in my life that something so amorphous, and seemingly “simple” could do what that did. I understood at that moment what “ambient” could truly do, and never looked back. Not only did I start as an ambient DJ, but it was the major influence and force behind everything I did, even through to deep house, which not everyone appreciated (haha). To many, ambient is something you can listen to in the background, or something which can form your “ambient” environment. Personally I disagree with this definition, and it's always been the music that to me, demands the most concentration, and the entirety of your attention. For me it is not background music... it is the most foreground of them all. I think my own version of it says this pretty clearly. Ambient is not for everyone. It's not for the faint of heart, and more than anything, is not for people who are not comfortable with themselves – the good and the bad. It's for people who know themselves, and aren't afraid to know even more. Most spend their whole lives distracting themselves from the beautiful horror of life, and the true reality of who they are – very few are willing to embrace it all, face life, and themselves. These are the people who listen to ambient. And make it.
At this point, I cannot but ask what you think of Brian Eno
Who doesn't love Brian Eno? (haha)
You are considered one of the most characteristic representatives of the new ambient sound, as an artist with his roots in the club culture and someone who never mixed with the academic community: how do you react? Do you think it offensive or does the glove fit?
Yeah I think that glove fits pretty well, I'm OK with it. I consider it a compliment, even if people mean it as an insult (haha). Though honestly I just worry about my own music, and just try to express what I can. But if I have somehow come to represent a new wave of ambient or storytelling through music, well then that's an honor I'm of course happy to accept. This music is my life and I've given everything for it for nearly 30 years. If I can make any kind of impact great or small it's the biggest honor and joy of my life. So if I have somehow influenced our music, what we do, or where we're going, I can die a happy man, no matter how someone labels it. I was always down in the trenches, never looking down from above. Not to say that one is good and one is bad. Every war needs its soldiers and its generals. You need both. I'm just one and not the other. I've only ever come at anything in music from an emotional perspective, never an academic one, so yeah even I feel the separation from the more “academic” community, even through many personal situations where I mixed with such “academics” and it was basically oil and water (haha). I have a much different history than most ambient artists in all aspects – from my musical to my personal lif
I have always tried to understand the motive for your passion for the introspective sound. You started with rave and dj set house….
Even back then, promoters complained the music I played was “too deep,” “too emotional,” “too sad,” “too” anything, really. It always told stories of heartbreak, of pain, with occasional glimpses of hope and joy I guess, much like my music now. I think most of those “in charge” felt people didn't want to go out to think so much... but I still remember once after I had finished a set at a party, and the promoter came up to me and said, People looked confused when you played... they didn't know what to do. But that's good. In ten years... twenty years, they'll understand. You're just born in the wrong time, man. Don't ever change what you're doing, eventually the world will catch up. Of course the people who were truly ahead of their time were the artists who made the music I played, I only did my best to mix it together with varying results (haha). But his words really stuck with me. I've never forgotten them to this day... all I can ever do is what I feel, and what I feel is right. That's how this music raised me. And unlike how terrible I treated my loving, selfless, and amazing parents throughout my youth, to the cruel mother that is music, I am a dutiful son. Quite honestly I don't know how anyone's music can not be introspective. That's like writing in your own diary, but somehow managing to keep it impersonal. Don't fucking write anything then. I literally have no idea how that's possible. Making music is the purest form of self-examination... the reflection of every aspect of your life you can't put into words. Every victory, every failure, every pain, every joy, every dream you ever had and ever will, it's all there to be told. So I think much harder than figuring out why someone's music is introspective is to figure out why anyone's isn't. What in the hell any such people are doing making music is beyond me. But that's the beauty of music, we all get to do it our own way, for our own reasons. And for every reason you have for making it, there's someone with their own for listening
What was your path as a composer? The choice of sound processing, vocal sample loop, stratification and many other features that mark your work out – are the result of a study or have they always been spontaneously present in your way of composing? Is it wrong to say that everything really started with you publishing Resistance is Beautiful for Darla?
Well Serenity was a much bigger album, but even so, no, I wouldn't say that. You can go much further back than that to see where my sound began to truly materialize, although I think you can hear glimpses of it even in my very earliest work, even in the first tracks I ever made. But I would say my work on my own, now-defunct label (Quietus) was where it really started forming in the directions it would take, long before anything on Darla – which makes sense, as the label was started purely for myself and others to release music other labels had turned down for being “too” this or “too” that. All “too” familiar words for me (haha). But my path as a composer is to have no path – my head does what my heart tells it, I'm just there to help the two connect somehow. I have never consciously decided to make any kind of music, track, or album. I just know what I need to say, I have no idea how it will be said. In the end, it's basically an out of body experience, while I somehow watch it all happen. In the end, I couldn't even tell you how I made it. I was just along for the ride. If you go into things knowing what you want to do or how you want to do it, you're just going to end up with something constrained to fit in the tiny box you already created for it. I only care about telling the story I need to tell. How can you know ahead of time how it needs to be told? If you can, then why even bother telling it? If you called your friend to tell them something you needed to get off your chest, would you plan your words out ahead of time? Of course not. If you did, you might as well just talk to yourself. You already know every word you're going to say anyway.
Your studies of classical instruments such as violin and piano as a kid – was it an experience which was useful in your musical development?
For sure. Although I never really listened to classical music, and only enjoyed playing it, it still had a huge impact. From learning composition through playing that of others, to writing my own pieces for solo, duets, trios, quartets, and even attempting to write an entire symphony (which I was unsuccessful at), all those years in classical music carries over into everything I do today, consciously or not. I've always said you don't need to have classical training to make music – and of course you don't – but I think you can always tell those who have. There's a relationship with music and how it is constructed from the ground up that you'll never truly understand unless you went through all those years or decades of hell (haha).
How did your way of composing develop and what events made it so majestically deep and emotional?
My way of composing simply grows as I do. There is a time in any artist's life where their technical ability finally catches up to their vision, and they are able to actually create anything in their head, rather than being limited by what their hands know how to do. Once you get there, the sky's the limit. I've lived an occasionally wonderful, yet seriously fucked up life. I guess that makes for majestic stories (haha).
Without doubt, your music contains high dosage of sweet sadness, someone could call it spleen. Could you explain to us the reason for this mood which is so characteristic to your work?
Life is sad. Life is fucking hard. Most of the time it fucking sucks, and intrinsically it is rendered meaningless by the existence of death. But once in a while it allows you a little sweetness. And it lets you attach some meaning to your journey along its path. And because of all the former, you treasure the latter all the more. You can't know one without the other.
What are the suggestions which inspire you to create?
Live your own life, and tell your own story. If you don't have anything to say, don't open your mouth.
Do you think there is such a thing as a new “ambient school” which gets their inspiration from your sound or from other artists, for example Rafael Anton Irisarri? Are there any contacts between you?
People have told me this sort of thing, so maybe it's true (haha), but personally I don't know. I generally don't allow myself to listen to music, as I work on my own for anywhere from 8 to 12 hours a day, but much more importantly, I don't want to ever take any subconscious influence from music I hear – and conscious or not, that influence will come. The only way to prevent it is to live in a musical vacuum – at least it's the way for me. So I'm probably not the best person to ask... but yeah I've heard stuff out there that is clearly influenced by my sound. Sometimes it's flattering, but most of the time it's not. Do your own thing, and find your own voice. There's a very fine line between influence and imitation. Rafael is a good friend of mine, so yes we have plenty of contact. I would imagine there are plenty of artists taking great influence from him, his music has really done a lot to characterize what, I guess, some call this new “ambient school,” and he is a very active part of the scene as a whole – whereas I just stay locked in my house all day doing my best to never talk to anyone (haha). If you've never seen Rafael play live, do yourself a favor and rectify that immediately. It is honestly one of the most intense, true, and overwhelming experiences you will ever have. I have seen his and my name mentioned together in many such discussions, by people who meant we were doing something good, and people who meant the exact opposite (haha). I really couldn't tell you if what either of us do represents some “new” way of doing things, and I doubt he could either, but he makes music from the heart. So do I. If that's the definition of the “new” school of ambient, then I'm OK with that, and I don't know what the hell the “old” school's been doing (haha).
One question for the lovers of sound porn: what instrumentations does bvdub use?
…by any means necessary.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands, Act 5, Scene 3
You practice Krav Maga, a kind of kickboxing military self-defence and fighting system, if I’m not mistaken. How does it connect / match with the intense melody which you manage to create in your works? Or maybe it has something to do with your other dimensions, that of the beats, connected to the moniker East Of Oceans
Well you're both mistaken and correct (haha). I trained Krav Maga for about 5 years before switching to Muay Thai, which I then trained pretty much full time until my body gave out from too much punishment over the years and I had to stop – though I still help others train whenever I can. So although yes, Krav Maga was a big part of my training, the majority came later from Muay Thai. I wish there was some profound philosophical connection between music and fighting, but the fact of the matter is, they have nothing to do with each other. I just love fighting. To pit yourself against another man in a scenario where it is so completely primal and brutal, yet also so completely fair and pure, it is a thing of beauty in its own right. Music is its own therapy, but getting in the ring is another level all its own. You could have just been told you had two days to live and still not have a care in the world when faced with the purity of fighting, everything else in the world simply falls away. It's a thing of such pure and unbridled beauty, that only those who love it can understand, but it is truly one of the purest, most beautiful things in the world, and for those moments, everything in life is true and fair. Like anything worth it in life, however, it comes at a high price. Pretty much every part of my body is ruined beyond repair from those years. Just like most of my brain from the '90s. Both totally worth it (haha).
How much of the reality which surrounds you manages to enter into your artistic world and have an impact?
I make a conscious effort to have as little to do with the real world as humanly possible – usually to my own psychological detriment, but we are who we are. But clearly it all makes its way into my subconscious, because my music is, quite simply, about my life. So I guess there's some life getting in there from somewhere (haha). There have been a very small amount of times I made the conscious connection between life and music in the sense that I purposely approached one in a way that would connect with the other. But really, one happens, and the other happens. I can't control one much more than I can control the other.
One curiosity, why is the DUB in your name: I don’t think there is much of that in your tracks.
There is zero of that in my tracks. “bvdub” is simply an abbreviation of “BVW,” my initials. It was a nickname given to me in the early '90s by a coworker in a pizza restaurant I worked in – somehow it stuck, and I used it ever since.
I saw you went to Poland a month ago. Are you traveling in Europe, maybe you have plans to touch also the Italian peninsula?
I moved to Poland early this year to concentrate on music full-time, which for me simply means locking myself in my studio day and night and having no contact with any living soul – which I was also doing in America or anywhere else I've lived (haha), but here I do so with even less distractions, as I don't know anyone. I live a more solitary existence than I ever thought possible. This has produced psychological and realizational results of wildly varying degrees. I would love nothing more than to come to Italy. I haven't been there in 30-something years since I went there with my parents as just another dumb kid who didn't appreciate what I was experiencing. I don't like to travel for traveling's sake – I like to travel to see and be with the right people. Hopefully the right people will be in Italy sooner than later. I'll be there anytime they call.
The last question: which bvdub disc would you recommend to Brock Van Wey?
All of ‘em.