Interview: Daniel Menche
by West Philly Eats
Since 1993, Daniel Menche has released roughly 50 recorded documents in CD, LP, 3” or 7” format, has collaborated on over 20 albums, and has recorded for 5 film soundtracks. As a newcomer to all things noise, of which Menche is a leading figure, my first experience with his music occurred when I was reviewing Kataract for Tiny Mix Tapes (read it here). For the album, Menche manipulated field recordings of waterfalls. I was immediately attracted to the idea, its motivating factors and implications, so I wanted to talk with him more about it. Despite a busy schedule, he graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions.
Me: What’s the most recent album you acquired and why is it so great?
DM: Darkthrone’s Circle the Wagons. Really great album…especially for playing in my truck. Oh sure it’s knuckle-dragging Beavis and Butthead tunes but it’s rocking my world and bringing me back to when I was a punk-metal kid. Just super simple metal-punk….nothing more and nothing less. They always deliver the rocking goods. I tell ya honestly that I never cared about their black metal stuff that all the cool kids drool over. Their last 5 or so punk-thrash records are tops. I really admire those guys for pissing off all the orthodox black metal kiddies. When I was a teen the nipples I was snugging up to were early-mid 80s hardcore and metal. The ACCUSED and POISON IDEA ruled the Northwest America….or so it seemed to my little head. They were gods to me. I hear a heck of a lot of POISON IDEA influence in the recent DARKTHRONE albums. All that crazy music back then really had a strong influence on me as a teen. I mean it scared the hell outa me at those shows. Extremely violent gigs that were beyond loud and powerful. It shaped me greatly to go on and make the music that I waned to make. I was talking with Stephen O’Malley recently and he was a Seattle metal kid in the 80s and we both glowed with excitement remembering those hardcore-metal days in the Northwest. Both of us agreed that all the concerts that we have seen in our lifetime can be traded just for those few magical moments of witnessing POISON IDEA and the ACCUSED in the 80s while we were young-dumb teens. So I can see how DARKTHRONE has pulled a few pages outa that history book. It was those punk-metal concerts that were our “church” that gave us the sense of freedom and power for us scrawny dorks with acne and skateboard scabs to go on and make our music. I’m constantly meeting top-notch sound artists and discovering that they themselves were raised on 80s punk-metal yet grew up to make powerful and original music. Recently I was staying at a friend’s house that was a very serious academic sound artist and I peaked at his huge CD collection of “serious” music and such and I noticed he had a copy of D.R.I’s Dealing With It and I told him….FUCK YEAH! and lo and behold we partied it up listening to that fine gem and just chatted all night long all about the good things in life growing up in the 80s….skateboarding and punk-metal. The list goes on who’s who in the sound art world that was raised on punk-metal. Punk-Metal really was the nipples that we suckled in that cradle of the all ages shows. So there’s no shame in loving the newer DARKTHRONE. They keep it alive and I salute them! Also I have been really loving the latest Hildur Ingveldardottir Gudnadottir CD Without Sinking that TOUCH music released. All of her solo work is absolutely beautiful. Needless to say I have both low brow and high brow taste in music. I listen to a lot of good shit and bad shit.
Me: What was the process of capturing and producing the sounds on Katract?
DM: I hike a lot in the forests and mountains here in the Northwest America and at first I was taking the sound of the waterfalls for granted as well most local folks do. I never really listened “closely” to waterfalls. But for tourists coming from large cities these waterfalls can be mind blowing, visually and soundwise. I never really thought about recording waterfalls and working with them until I took my friend Zbigniew Karkowski to some of these massive falls. He never really witnessed such waterfalls due to being in cities and he was amazed by the full spectrum sound of them. I remember him saying that this is more exciting than electronic white noise in which this is what he works with a lot as a computer music composer. Zbigniew Karkowski works often with several types of white noise as a starting blob of clay and then sculpting it. Also with pink noise, blue noise, brown noise etc etc etc….So this is what Zbigniew comes from in working with computer sound and such. I then remember responding back to him that it would be interesting to collaborate with his electronic white noise sounds and my waterfall recordings and have a nasty war between the organic and the digital noise. White noise vs waterfalls…to the death! Well as it turned out this concept never really happened at all for collaboration but it spawned a great inspiration to me to work with waterfall sounds as raw chunks of clay to sculpt with. So I bought a cheap digital recorder to attach to an Ipod. Cheap and simple because for starters I can’t afford expensive equipment and also waterfalls are of course a very wet experience. So getting a dumb little Ipod wet is no big deal and the little recorder could take a beating. The quality of the recording was actually very good for being so simple and cheap.
Now the timing of these waterfalls was key because in the Springtime the water is RAGING! Mainly due to all the snow melting from the mountains. So this was a prime time for waterfall sound hunting. Loud and violent and all that good stuff. I made hours upon hours of recordings in several locations and positions. Some direct straight forward recordings and other situations I found cave areas behind the waterfalls where I would position the microphones away from the falls and against the cave walls to pick up the infra-bass sounds. Those where my favorite recordings. Also I used a long PVC pipe (actually a potato canon) with the recorder at one end and seal it with a cap so that I could get really close to the falls and get that “pipe” sound. Those recording were very interesting as well. Funny too because it looked like I was trying to shoot a waterfall with a bazooka….that baffled many other hikers walking by. Also I would tie a string to the recorder and swing it around near the waterfall to get that crazy panning-phasing noise stuff. Sorta like the Old Testament’s David with his sling trying to kill Goliath that is the waterfall I was recording. So as you can see I aim to have fun with field recording.
For Kataract I mixed all these versions of recordings along with some slight stereo funkiness and choppy-chunky editing. But really no tricky effects. I strictly rely on EQ and simple band filters. It’s my belief to work with field recordings in terms of “subtraction” and “amplification” Stripping out frequencies and boosting them with the simplest of tools. Mother Nature is indeed a lovely lady so I avoid plastering her image (sound) with a bunch of make-up. I mean women with globs of lipstick and eyeliner is silly looking. So I strive to present Mother Nature as raw and powerful as possible….but of course sensual and elegant at the same time. Rodin’s way of sculpting the female figure is very inspiring to me and there is a connection to Rodin’s approach to sculpting the human figure and how I approach sculpting the sound of nature. Very stripped down and presented as bold, powerful and as sensual as possible. If there’s a inspiration to my work it’s the way Rodin sculpted hands and arms…..so powerful!
Me: I find Kataract particularly interesting because it raises questions about how we normally think about, talk about, and remember nature. Are you attempting to bring up such questions with these sounds? If not, what sorts of philosophical, cultural, political, or other questions to do you think this release raises?
DM: The late heart throb actor, River Phoenix who died of a nasty-violent overdose right in Los Angeles in front of a loud and noisy rock club. His heart literally cracked in half inside his chest from a lethal dose of a speedball concoction. Truly a really freaky way to overdose and die. Yet just days before his death he made a comment “I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die it’ll be a glorious day. It’ll probably be a waterfall.” This quote is very funny to me. I mean death by waterfall to me….is a absolute nightmare yet for River Phoenix it was the ideal way to die. A car accident is so “urban” which is perceived as a bad way to die but the waterfall death is a picture perfect demise. But he got the speedball overdose death in front of his horrified fans and friends. What a sad story….he didn’t get his final waterfall goodbye.
Here in the Northwest there are countless near deaths out in nature. As a matter of fact just recently I took Zbigniew Karkowski on another waterfall tour to Silver Falls, Oregon and took a handsome photo of him in front of a particular waterfall. Just a few days later a young man fell to his death right exactly where Zbigniew was standing. I e-mailed him the news story and he responded to some effect “Stupid idiot…just like the fool in that Into the Wild movie. It’s so common for deaths to occur here in the Northwest from tourists or city folks. Likely the deaths occur because the poor soul was trying to get the best photo of mother nature and well…..whoopsy daisy..game over!
So it’s all amusing to me the perceived “peaceful nature” in our comfort zones of the urban dwellings. Try observing a city dweller pooping in a forest for the first time…comedy I tell ya! Mother Nature really does not care about our benevolence. We created the “EDEN” story and thus entered a long history of art that conveys nature as something romantically grand to our eyes that is always seeking some sort of divine “bigness” than ourselves and really it’s all no more bigger than what’s below our feet with dirt or the oxygen we breath. A glorious mountain with the suns ray shining on it gives us that “profound beauty” to put us in a “AWE” state. But to a bird or a dog it’s well….just another big pile of rocks or just some sound from a gushing waterfall that is blocking the hearing to find food or prevent danger. Different sensory-circuitry for the animals vs our human perception is possibly the divisive politics involved. If there is a fatal flaw it’s within our perception of nature and how we just can’t get over the whole nature supremacy stance. Why is it so shocking to many that we simply do not rule the world?
I relate to the painter Jackson Pollock when he was asked once “Do you work from nature?” and Jackson’s answer was, :I am nature.” Brilliant answer to an ongoing question about art vs nature and the goal is that there is no “vs” and it all is a natural process expressing form and chaos with nature. If anything I refer to myself as an old fashioned hunter and gatherer, bringing back to the camp sounds I hunted down and retelling folk stories with sound in a form of electronic media. How a Native American Indian will go and kill a coyote and bring back the carcass and make an artistic expression with the fur and bones to represent his or her experience. The same can be said with gathering waterfall sounds and myself carving the sound’s carcass to make a story out of that sound object. After all we’re only storytellers with our gathered experiences and elements and nature is the words that we use to share with each other. Primal and primitive… let’s not forget that…right? Observe nature in an individual manner and then express and share with others our own interpretations. In my case this would be Kataract and how I perceive my waterfall experiences. It’s really nothing special and a rather ancient way how us humans connect with each other. How one tells the story of the experience can be a form of ecstatic storytelling of nature…..especially if it’s presented really loud in the case for Kataract.
Me: What do you think is the relationship between the sounds on Kataract and Emily Hyde’s art work, which appears on the cover of the CD version?
DM: Perfect fit as always. Emily Hyde has done some of my other releases and she always “gets it”. She’s a really amazing artist and very young too. So I really think her work will be recognized more in time.
Me: What’s the difference between the LP and CD versions of Kataract, and why did you choose to release these two different versions? Is there any particular reason why one version is on vinyl and the other on CD?
DM: The LP version is the “alpha mix” which was the first mix I did years ago. It was initially intended for a LP release years ago but another labels couldn’t release it. Then MEGO came to the rescue and offered it to me as a CD release but I remixed it much denser and louder and some more tweaked waterfall stuff. So yes the CD version is very much more intense and bolder yet the LP version is much more subtle and textural. Back to the “white noise” vs waterfall topic. There is some very strange sounds I got from the intro to the CD version. There’s this odd noise removal software that tries to remove “white noise” from any source sound. Really odd because I have no idea what this application could be used for. So I threw in a bunch of waterfall sounds to trick the program that it’s trying to seek white noise to remove and it got really confused in a good way. Basically it melted the waterfall sounds into a bass blob with slithering highs. Experimental music to say the least. So I used those sounds for the beginning of the CD version of Kataract. I love confusing technology with organic sounds. Always something “wrong/right” happens.
Me: You’ve collaborated with many artists in the past, including Kevin Drumm, Zbigniew Karkowski, and Kiyoshi Mizutani. If you could collaborate with any artist in the future, sound or otherwise, what would this collaboration entail?
DM: I purposely went through a phase with collaborating and I knew it was a phase that would pass. I plan out my own “phases” so that I can grow and learn about my own creativity capacity. So I had my run with several collaborations and all of them I am very pleased with and have learned a great deal in composition. Although I must be honest that there isn’t any strong plans for collaboration recordings. I’m always open for live collaboration because that entails “instinct” approach to music. I mean it’s live so it’s a different game than say recordings because that is all about strategy in which I feel it’s more important to focus on my own strategy. There is still some unreleased/unfinished collaboration that may never become a reality just due to whatever reasons. But again never say never. I suppose the geography aspect is a hindrance because I live in Portland, Oregon far away from the artist that is willing to collaborate. Because as we all know collaborating in the flesh is ideal and not so much through the mail system in which I’m opposed to even though I have had no choice to in the past. But as I said before about collaborations… never say never. So to really answer your question about who to collaborate…..… hmmmm….. Vangelis? That would be awwwwwwwwesome! Honestly I really cannot think of anyone now besides possibly my alter ego in which I haven’t created yet.
Me: On your website you mention that you recently recorded a 40 piece student choir that performed at the high school where you work. Can you tell us more about this?
DM: For over 10 years I have wanted to record a big group of voices. I have had so many ideas but it never would take off. One of them was to make my own shape-note singing chart all with shapes of the sounds but it just took to much work trying to get adults to cooperate. I mean everyone needs all this sheet music and notation layouts and I simply cannot work that way. Then in about 2007 I worked with Joe Preston and I wanted to get his voice in a way he never has done…which is straight, clean singing. So to convince him I instructed him to sing in vowels as long as possible and to give me 10 different versions of each vowel. Some loud and some soft. So all together I had 50 different long voice tones he made into a microphone and then I mixed them all for a release called Cerberic Doxology. Then jump to 2010 where I work at a high school as a librarian and there’s a choir class just in the other building. I was struck by the great sounds I heard from the teens when they were warming up for class. I got the idea to “hijack” the class and record them singing these vowel sounds just like what I did with Joe Preston. So I did this and it went well and fun. Especially with the kids getting a chance to sing however they want. The biggest joy was having them pick out a vowel on their own and to sing it loudly, which really created a great noise! The choir teacher was just baffled and slightly appalled. It was really funny as hell. Finally I mixed this all down along with a Hammond bass organ and it became a track called “HOVER” that TOUCH MUSIC has released as a download only. I highly recommend getting this one, it’s a one of a kind recording from me for sure.
Me: What do you think is the relationship between your photography and your sound-art? Do you ever try to create sounds that correspond to the images you capture, or capture images of the sounds you create?
DM: Honestly….no relationship really to think of off hand. My photography is just a little hobby I do when I go hiking with my little doggie Arrow. I’m really a naive amateur all the way with photography. I suppose there’s some connection with my music and photos in that I really love B/W imagery and so it is when I work with spectrograms while mixing music. I have a college degree in graphic design and basic design aspects of B/W have actually influenced my recording work. For instance BASS is identified as black in the spectrum frequency area and the highest highs are reflected as “whites”. This is what I do very much appreciate in computer technology is that I can see frequencies in color schemes. I rely in this on everything that I record. A good visual spectrogram that shows me the frequencies in color and shape. So yes one can say I work in B/W in photography and in music. And all the colors in between. There’s some tracks that I have recorded that with a spectrogram there is only a big thick black for the bass and some speckles of white for the highs. It always looks rather pretty to me in some odd way. I just love “looking” at sound….if that sounds odd to ya. The mixing program that I have been using for 10 years now is Magix Samplitude and that shows all the colors to my sounds instantly while mixing. Have to say that in the 90s it was rather troublesome and difficult with technology and then the computer came around for me and the ability to see shapes and colors in sound was a big jump in the joy and pleasure in making music. The past 10 years I have felt like a true sculptor or painter.
Me: What projects are you currently working on? What upcoming releases and performances are you planning?
DM: Right now my main focus is trying to get my first DVD released of my abstract films of stop motion animation of close-up nature photos. I make movies that are hyper-strobe effects of thousands of individual B/W photos of highly textured nature shots. An enormous undertaking making these films but they are all done…but not the music. Trying to create the soundtracks for my own films have proven to be an extremely difficult challenge. I believe in challenges and the more the better but honestly this is the biggest challenge for me. It’s not easy trying to be two artists in one and multimedia is really a challenge to say the least. I hope to have it finished this by the summer of 2010 and I’m getting really impatient because it’s been about 3 years in the making. But when folks finally see this DVD I am sure it’ll be an exciting visual/sound experience. It’ll be in HD and super high quality sound (Glorious stereo….not surround) As far as the near future I hope to record some more albums on different formats and perform as much as folks will allow. And yes also with performing….I wish to perform as much as possible and travel as far and wide because after all traveling is crucial to grow as a person. So yeah I’m excited as always for the future. As long as I can wake up in the morning with a heartbeat and a spark of creativity then you can call me a happy camper.