I got a chance to interview Zac Bentz, the mastermind behind Xero Music/Dirty Knobs' eight-hour dark ambient opus Field Recordings From The Edge of Hell. A prolific musician, graphic designer and writer for a veritable horde of online publications, Zac remains one of the most interesting artistic personalities I've come across and we are greatly honored to feature his thoughts on the aforementioned album and career.
A big thanks to CJ also for making this all possible.
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of knocking back all eight hours of Field Recordings in one day. Prior to that I think the longest track I'd ever heard was either " " by Sleep or the first Loops album. What gave you the ambition to make an album this long, was there a sense of one-upmanship involved, and how did you develop the concept?
ZB: Well, I wasn't trying to break any records or top anyone else. I started looking into these hyper-extended songs when I heard some super slowed-down versions of pop songs. Like people taking a Justin Bieber song and slowing it down by eight or ten times. That's how I found out about this tiny little program called Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch. Basically people were just taking the original track, running through the program and posting the results. It would turn these ordinary songs into massive, ethereal dirges. It didn't always seem to work all the well, but it did have some interesting results.
So I figured if it can make Bieber sound, you know, interesting, what would happen if you wrote songs specifically with this extreme length in mind? I did a lot of experimenting and it just took off from there.
Have you gotten any complaints about the length, and do you care?
ZB: No, actually I don't think I've seen any negative reviews. I guess people just don't have the time to be bothered with it if they don't like it. I already know it's not for everyone, that's sort of the point. So no, I wouldn't be surprised if someone didn't like it. To be honest I'm still surprised that it's found such an appreciative audience. The reaction has been nothing short of stunning.
How long have you been making music?
ZB: I first started around 1993 when I was still in high-school. I was a drummer in a normal rock band (and have been ever since then). We rehearsed in the basement at my house. At night I'd start hooking things together and recording my own music. Really primitive stuff. Just basically loops and industrial noises recorded with a 4-track cassette machine. I was deep into , Ministry and at the time. Through the years it evolved into more listener-friendly techno (I was a house and trance DJ from around '95 to 2002) and then back into more experimental glitch territory. For the past few years I've been writing music for my new-wave/electro-rock band The Surfactants.
For an album that is conceptually about Hell, there's a lot of natural beauty and subtlety in the sounds you've made that I wouldn't have expected. What do you picture in your mind when you're coming up with this?
ZB: It's interesting...a lot of the concept didn't really come into the picture until I started naming the tracks. I knew it was dark, that's what I wanted, but it wasn't until I started listening to the tracks over and over that the images of this sort of scientific expedition into Hell started to form. I tried to get my own visions across as best I could in the titles without going overboard. I think that's what makes the album so attractive to people, that it's almost completely open to individual interpretation. I always get the most inspiration out of music that's open ended like that, stuff that isn't just about the person making it, you know? So I wanted this to be almost impressionistic. Just enough color and shade to let people's minds wander into their own dark places.
I'm in awe of some of the tones and textures you get here--especially in "Falling Upon the Darkened Shore" and "The Monks' Infinite Machine." What instrumentation do you use and how did you tweak it for such monumental results?
ZB: In a way, the songs are written two or three times. First I'll just write a "normal" version of the song that's anywhere from two to six minutes or whatever. I mostly use just one synth, a small Nord Rack. Some of the songs were actually older things I never finished. I dusted them off and got them back into shape, adding, subtracting and rearranging stuff. So those had some sounds from this giant Roland XP-80 I still use as a sequencer and some other more messed up and effected sounds from who knows where.
So that's the first pass. Then I'd work on stretching them out and that would be a much longer process of trial and error. Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch does weird, unpredictable things and when you're working with a dozen or so 50 minute tracks things get complicated quickly. So I'd just have to immerse myself in this wall of sound, picking out things that were working (whatever that means) and things that weren't. A lot of the time I'd have to go all the way back and re-record parts to get the right sound in the end. Mostly I did a lot of sitting in a dark room making the windows rattle...
It's interesting to hear songwriting done in a macro sort of way--lots of tiny variations, subtle shifts until you realize the track's mood has completely changed by the end. This is clearly more than just drone. Did you employ this same method on shorter works before making something this ambitious?
ZB: I don't think I've ever done any sort of pure drone before. Maybe one or two songs. I have another album available called Shobute that's more glitch oriented. (I've got a ton or older music but it's probably best kept in a well hidden box.) It's the same idea in a way but in a micro direction. I guess I see the similarity, it's just micro taken to marco lengths. Stretching the tracks out reveals all this subtle stuff you'd normally miss. For me it's about the feel and environment that the song inhabits. I guess I often think of songs in a visual way. Nothing specific or like , but I can almost envision a scene or a mood that the songs would be the soundtrack for, so I try and work out that feeling through the overall sound.
Do you listen to a lot of other drone/doom/dark ambient artists? Any faves?
ZB: Merzbow is easily my favorite, though I can't say that I listen to his stuff very often! I did go though a phase where he was all I listened to, but I think I got that out of my system. I also really like Pan Sonic. Actually, those two did a live show together that was really incredible so i guess that was a pretty big influence. I also love the early ambient stuff did. Selected Ambient Works Vol.2 is easily a top album of mine. Back when I was a college radio DJ I would do one night a month that was all ambient. The mid to late '90s were a great time for electro ambient albums. As a kid I remember falling asleep to on the radio. But I'm not a drone or ambient expert by any means.
Have you gotten any interest from Southern Lord or any of the other big names yet?
ZB: Ha, no. But it's not for a lack of trying! I've sent an embarrassing number of emails out. I have gotten a ton of great reviews though, with writer Warren Ellis being an early champion of the album. The reaction from his fans was overwhelming. I also recently did a remix of cellist Zoe Keating's track "Escape Artist." It was basically just a fan-boy thing I did, but it turned out that she really loved it. She tweeted about it a few times (she's got 1.3 million followers) so that was nice! It's now available as a free download.
I think most record labels and more traditional media just don't know what do with an eight hour album. It's almost impossible to release in physical form (though I have mulled it over) and most of the bigger media outlets have better things to do than devote space to reviewing some crazy, monolithic monstrosity. But really that's fine. Like I said, the reaction I HAVE gotten is from people really devoted to the music and new ideas and who, for lack of a better term, GET it. That's not something you'll find in most main-stream outlets anyway.
Any upcoming projects?
ZB: Right now I'm just trying to get the new album from The Surfactants done. It's a bit like herding cats since we're spread out over two states. But that's what computers are for, I guess. I'm already working on more Dirty Knobs tracks in the same vein as Field Recordings, but I don't want to just repeat myself so it'll probably take a while to figure that out, though there's a lot of ideas bubbling away already. I also have an electro-pop project and something much more harsh in the works, but those are mostly still just on paper and in my head. I figure I have enough ideas to keep me going for at least nine or ten years...
Thank you for your time, and for an incredible album. Best $5 I've ever spent.
ZB: Thank you very much for the support!