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SubtractiveLAD: The Redemptive Power of Kindred Spirits

28 March 2011

Since the late 1990s, electronica-based label n5md has released the recorded works of numerous artists of distinction—artists that made unique, interesting instrumental music that defies easy categorization. For the past six years, one of the label’s most distinctive artists has been Stephen Hummel, who performs under the moniker subtractiveLAD. Over the course of those years, he has undergone a creative transformation, cumulating with the breathtaking one-two punch of Where the Land Meets the Sky and Life At The End of the World, released in 2009 and 2010. Both showed an artist who was clearly inspired by the works of notable ambient artists such as Brian Eno and Harold Budd, but these works also found him heading in a modern classical direction; indeed, Where the Land Meets the Sky would include a second disc containing a breathtaking three-piece ambient symphony suite. For those who knew his work, it was understandable how expectations would be high for his follow-up.

Except the creative process is not an easy thing. As you will read in the following interview, his follow-up record, Kindred, would be a vastly different record—taking its inspiration not from classical and ambient music, but from The Berlin School of electronic music. This seemingly radical change is shocking, but not completely unexpected; hints of this direction were found in his earliest work. Gone were the gentle melodies and quiet, hushed tones, replaced with a more upbeat groove, similar in style to Tangerine Dream and the work of so-called “Krautrock” masters. This change was less to do with innovation, and more out of necessity towards the creative process. Kindred is the work of a man seeking direction from the past—and finding in it a kindred spirit—and using this inspiration to excellent, breathtaking result. A challenge it may be for those expecting a continuum from his previous releases, but it has a quality all its own, and, as stated below, it may be a transitional phase for this ever-changing artist.

BIG TAKEOVER: Kindred is an amazing sounding record—so much so that I could have easily mistaken it for the work of someone else, especially considering your previous albums. Was reinvention something you planned on, or did it merely happen?

STEPHEN HUMMEL: When I finished Life at the End of the World, I knew that I didn’t want to make another straight-up ambient album right away . I was experimenting with rhythmical ideas, but getting frustrated in the process. The truth is, I like to keep working; music is how I deal with things, and after completing Life I felt creatively spent. This scared me.

I wasn’t connecting with the music of my contemporaries, in terms of inspiration, so I decided to look back to the music that spoke to me in my youth. I started by revisiting the early Tangerine Dream albums that I knew already and then branching out from there. From the first listen to Phaedra, something clicked in me and I knew there were areas that I needed to further explore in this music. The weird thing is that it was like hearing it for the first time – you know when you hear an old song from your youth as an adult and you finally realize what it really means? I experienced something like this. It felt like I had known this music for most of my life but it wasn’t until that moment that I understood it. I think I had just finally arrived at a place in my own creativity where I could understand what was truly going on in the music, from a technical standpoint, as well as an emotional one.

I knew that I needed to dig deeper, so I followed the trail to other artists of the period—investing time in listening to some that I had known and others only heard of. I fell in love with Cluster again, but in the process, discovered Harmonia—just wonderful stuff! Harmonia led me to look deeper into Michael Rother , which led to Neu!, and so forth, which ignited the spark of creativity in me I was looking for. It seemed to lie in minimalism. I knew then that my next album was going to be rooted in repetitive patterns, flowing over and around each other. I eventually buried myself in the various incarnations of Manuel Gottsching, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, even early Pink Floyd. It soon became clear that my album would have an early 70s vibe to it—I couldn’t escape it.

I treated the whole experience as homework, really, because it felt like going back to school, I got very serious about figuring out how these guys were doing what they were doing, and in the process, making music again started to excite me. In its way,Kindred does feel like a new beginning. I have learned so much over the past year.

I think it might also be worth mentioning that although the jumping-off point for Kindred is deeply rooted in 70s electronic music, I did not want to make my album sound like it was recorded in the 70s. It felt important to me to keep the production values very contemporary for this album. I think this is why some have been saying it sounds old and new at the same time.

BIG TAKEOVER: It feels like the finished songs are merely snapshots of longer pieces, and unlike previous records, the songs feel as if they could—and should—play on into the infinite. Considering that two of the songs break the ten minute mark, and one of them breaks the twenty minute mark—was this record borne out of a series of jams?

HUMMEL: This must lie in the melodic minimalism and repetition of my approach, this time around – something I learned from the music I was immersing myself in. Take a track like “Watussi,” by Harmonia. It feels like it can go on forever. I have also used drones on the album to connect the sections of dense motion with oceans of space. Drones work well to introduce and resolve a passage of intense motion, something that Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre did very well. The combination of repeating patterns and droning sounds allows for a hypnotic experience – if you give yourself the space and listen deeply, you can really get inside this music and time almost stands still.

BIG TAKEOVER: Interestingly, when I went back and listened to some of your earlier work, I can sense you initially heading in this direction, but after the first two albums, your work was much more restrained, going for the more classical-ambient work that you’re known for.

HUMMEL: I think I had to do all that stuff to get to here. Creativity is a strange beast; I have simply followed my path from one idea to the next. I know to some people it must seem like some of my albums have been stylistic jumps, and I understand why they think that, but it has all been a natural progression for me. But you are right, of course; the aspects of Kindred that I am finally running with were there in my other albums but far less developed at the time. As for the ambient influence, I think it will always be in my music, in some way. Kindred has huge passages of ambient music in there; it is probably the music that is closest to my heart.

BIG TAKEOVER: Now that you’ve released Kindred, what are your plans now? Do you perform live, or will you perform this material in a live setting?

HUMMEL: Like I mentioned above, I like to keep working, so I have a few things on the go. I am deep into what looks like will be another album, further exploring some of the ideas that I am currently interested in. These songs I find are more heavily influenced by Steve Reich and Manuel Gottsching, this time, but also with a much heavier IDM/Industrial inflection…

I am looking forward to the Anklebiter comp that I recently contributed a remix to—it sounds like it is going to be a stellar release).

As for the live performance question; I used to perform live, back in the 1990s. I had a residency at a place called DV8, in Vancouver. They would let me play what I wanted, which was pretty cool. This was before laptops, so I would lug all my gear down there and go nuts. I had a reputation for playing something pretty different every show, This experience was my sandbox—my time to really work through ideas and figure out what I had to say as an artist.

The live thing for me now is complicated by a couple things, one being that there is no easy way for me to actually perform the tracks from my albums on stage. My album tracks take months to put together and are heavily layered; even if I had a band to play different parts, it would really be impractical. Simply playing the tracks from a laptop does not interest me. If I were to play a show again, it would have to be something I could really perform. My passion is improvising, so the parameters would have to be open enough to let me roam.

Another important factor for me—the most important one, actually—is the fact that I am a father. I made the decision to be present in the life of my child. I don’t want to go on the road for long periods of time, it’s just not for me at this time of my life. Maybe some festival gigs in the near future, but we’ll see, though Having said that, I have really been missing connecting with people with my improvisations, though; this is the stuff I do all the time, just for me, so I recently thought, “why not invite people into my personal jams?”. So… I have started a YouTube page, which will be featuring my solo improv stuff. I have no strict schedule or parameters for this stuff, just doing it whenever I feel it and I have the time. The music will be different than my album stuff but people will be able to see how I make my sounds and experiment with new ideas. I hope people check it out!