Nathan Cearley is one half of Long Distance Poison, experimental analog modular synth outfit with over nine years of stellar releases. We caught up with him on a day off to talk about LDP’s new release Astro Topoi.
Gray Lee: So what’s your day off been like so far?
Nathan Cearley: Woke up at 5, went running, been watching movies
GL: Oh nice. Which ones?
NC: today I've watched an odd handful--The Bronx Executioner, Good Favour and The Man Who Would Be King.
GL: I’ve seen none of those, but Bronx Executioner sounds good.
NC: The Bronx Executioner is a weird Italian cyborg film that was distributed by Cannon at the end of the 1980s. Robots vs humans. It has a crazy credit sequence at the beginning that has all sorts of weird video distortion and noise. There is a gang in it called The Humanoids
GL: I already love it -
Let’s jump right into talking about Astro Topoi. That is awesome album, by the way. I was in the middle of several things and basically stopped all of my activity to focus on it.
NC: Wow, thanks. what do you like about it?
GL: I really dig Liminal Diamond, when the beat comes in, and about halfway through there’s this dirty, funky bass line that emerges. Really good interplay between that and the drones in the background.
NC: Thanks! that is sort of a dive into unassembled blues and funk. Like the other two songs on the record, that song unfolded completely by chance from the moment we were doing it. We didn't sit down and say, let’s do something that goes from droney into blues and then shifts into funk, but kind of weird and decontextualized. instead, one thing lead to another.
I guess the idea for the album was to have as little idea of time as possible, in the sense of goal-oriented time. Like, lets make a song that sounds like this, or, let's do this and do this other part.
GL: Yeah that natural way that it moves from one zone to another really pulls the listener in. And that’s something id like to dig into. This release is not 'computer generated,' but played live with analog equipment?
NC: Yes. All three are mostly me on the modular synth and Erica on different analog synthesizers. Most of the "composition" is psuedo-random, random or completely intuited, as far as sound, control over sound, and timing is concerned.
The long form piece, called Ausunya, was originally an experiment that came from a residency we had with Clocktower Gallery at Pioneer Works that explored how to create sound outside of typical modes of goal centric time. It was first performed there and then it evolved and was finally recorded. The spirit of that experiment is also how we made the other two songs - zero idea of an end point or goal underpinning what we were doing in the moment when bringing the songs into being
GL: How much does the recording end up differing from live performace when some of it is based in improvisation? Do you have an overall tone that you are aiming for?
NC: Rather than aim for a tone, we allowed the tone to create itself from how the sounds ended up manifesting. So, in a way, the songs decided their own tone, or were part of that process, as the making of each song unfolded. We wanted to get our minds as out of the way as possible
The live performances of Ausunya changed quite a bit from the experiments at Pioneer Works to the performance there to when we finally recorded it. Although, towards the end, the song decided to kind of reach a kind of stasis with regards to its parts. after awhile it had a kind of structure that we didn't decide on and that just worked itself out. there is a youtube clip somewhere of us performing at Silent Barn and its not completely unsimilar sounding to the recording on the album but if you compare either to some clips of the Clocktower Gallery residency event its really different but obviously related.
GL: In that way would you say this mindset is inverse to how maybe a rock or blues musician would improvise, watching for chord or rhythm changes? Do you make visual contact during the recording process?
NC: Lol, yes, probably, in that a rock or blues musician probably really knows what they are doing and we don't. We don't even pretend to know. We want to un-know the little we do know.
For example, we are not jamming chord inversions. But we equally are not, not jamming chord inversions. The practice is to try and avoid being dualistic whatsoever, but, quite different from a musican improvising in the fact that much of the reality of the music is being determined in the moment by the instruments themselves and the processes the instruments are engaged in.
GL: I think it's really working. The release has that transcendent feel without straying into psychedelic tropes
NC: Thanks! that is the whole natural event of it: autonomy, sovereignty of sound
It’s basically all proceeding from the strategy of what happens when the "musician" is removed from the music as much as possible. One time I was part of a really horrible improv group. it only lasted a couple meets. one of the men in the group looked at me one day and said, "You aren't a musician." it made me so happy. I was like, “Yes. Thank you.”
GL: It definitely takes on a life of its own
NC: Absolutely. And, once the mind gets out of the way, something else is there--something very mysterious.
GL: This is your second release through Deep Distance. There seems to be a lot of contrast between the previous album and this one. The previous being a lot more tribal/meditational/ ancient sounding
NC: That album emerged from a really different context that also was weirdly similar. but that album definitely had a kind of concept to it. whereas this album was about neither clinging to a concept nor clinging to trying to avoid immanently emerging concepts
Human program was about trying to apply the tension between order and chaos, illusion and reality, simulation and ??? to sound composition. so we wanted to really work and try to create orders and organizations of sound that appeared song like but that were in fact not.
But that album connects to this one because they intersect with the emphasis on process and psuedo random, random and intuited events
GL: I definitely think they work well together.
NC: Thanks! There is also quite a bit of that play between apparent stability and real disorder in our two Hausu Mountain releases and our 2AM Tapes release. In fact, on our last Hausu Mountain release, Knock Magh, there is a long form song called Ooch Nuch which is really a good example of randomness and intuition in composition that was literally like crazy weird mutant cell mutation where one duration unfolded or imploded or flipped out or exploded or whatever into another creating what should have been complete chaos but instead something weirdly listenable and relatable.
Same with this one song on the 2AM tapes release Perfect Weather, Nodri Yaksha. It unfolded from this kind of industrial martial thing into drone and then this Cure song. Erica and I were like, WTF? It’s definitely related to evolution in the sense that there is really no master plan. and circumstance creates the next form that becomes the next circumstance
GL: I like the level of thought that goes into your music before and after it's recorded.
NC: Ha, thanks! but the funny thing is its an absurd amount of noticing how not to think.
Like, the mind is going to keep on spitting shit out. the trick is to notice it without reacting to it. we try to do that in parallel way when it comes to "making music"
But you always have to be aware. you can't stop noticing. Then, the awareness becomes the letting go.
GL: Thats poweful. Where does the title Astro Topoi come from?
NC: It’s funny you say powerful because giving up control for just noticing and being aware of whatever is going on when its going on opens up the space for all this energy that would otherwise be lost in trying to impose time on the context and will on reality. there is an energy once you give up control. Once your thoughts are no longer wrapped up in the idea of what happened then or what might happen later.
Astro Topoi means “Space Places.” It was a conventional way for us to try and suggest that the songs have a presence with no direction - kind of like middles without beginnings or ends. You can just be with the sounds and not worry about being anything.
GL: I think in many ways people are weary of being told what to think, and the message of this music is not to think but to be.
NC: Totally. or not to get entangled in your thoughts. Trying to willfully negate thinking is dangerous too, right? but definitely, we hope that when people experience this album they can just be here. i think we are worn out with being a self, though--i think you are totally right about that. Modernism screamed:, “You gotta be someone, an identity, a self. and we will give you all these commodities and narratives to accomplish that.” And i think now people realize all this suffering in the world is a bigger problem than just political parties and political points of view...that there is this attachment to self underpinning the horror. Music is so amazing because its at one a thing and at once completely empty. And though it is used by modernism as a thing to create identities, it is equally a powerful way to cut attachment to self.
Noise, experimental music, the avante garde, jazz, whatever, can really pull the rug out from under the ego. So, its really horrifying at a deep level, because we equate that dissolution of attachment to death, rather than seeing it as freedom. That's why i get kind of crabby about how weird forms of music are being territorialized by capitalism through branding and social media. through the simulacra of community.
it’s like modernism got a guard dog called postmodernism to save it from weird music robbing it of its treasure, the ego. Maybe music shouldn't be a form of self validation, maybe it should be a form of self dissolution. if the strategy, for sound, is creating the space for something new to happen, something not yet to arrive, something that is already here to be free to be seen, the attachment to self has to be cut. in that way music becomes the most important form of “validation”—it is the affirmation of the sacred or mysterious, whatever it is that is other than economy and rationalism and classification and thinking.
GL: I dont personally like talking about my day job but if youre cool with it, in your 'waking life' you are an educator? How does that influence your music or vice versa?
NC: I work in a gifted school that is almost entirely African American. These are brilliant kids that society has thrown roadblocks against. So, just like i see music as a way to cease suffering in the world, i see teaching in my context as similar. And on a really basic level there is also this struggle between goal centric thinking and the moment. between right now and "then and next" Also, I try and remove myself as much as possible from the experience of learning and create systems, processes and structures that create the developmental events. I kind of am more of a facilitator than a chalk and talk teacher.
GL: That sounds like an incredibly rewarding experience
NC: i guess its also like music in that its both rewarding and super frustrating, lol.
GL: Do you ever spin a LDP record in the classroom?
NC: Ha. I did play an early mix of a track once to some guys who were in detention. Then they wanted to come up for detention the next day to hear more. Today, they just find it online, something that didn't happen so much a couple years ago. It was there but they weren't so "google-ly" Now they are like, "cool show you are playing on Friday night." Or, "that video you made made me see things." Or, "what's with the flashing lights."
GL: Haha that’s wild. I go to great lengths to hide what I do from people at work. It seems like you are the same wherever you are.
NC: If you can figure out a way for me to hide the internet from my students, please let me know.
Well, I don't go on about making music. Its such a academically tough experience for them that we are really focused on the work then and there. but i think my "persona" is the same. i wear my street clothes when i play out and i wear my street clothes when i teach.
i actually try and avoid talking about it with the other teachers more. kids are like, whoa, that is weird. and its a cool questioning and curiousity thing. with adults, its like, i don't get it. and the tone is like, you are a weird idiot. the kids aren't threatened. their minds haven't been as conditioned. it causes anxiety for the adults.
GL: Whats on the Horizon for LDP?
NC: Erica and I are working on a couple of new long form things, like inside out ambient, again, mostly created from autonomous psuedo random processes and structures and plain intuition. We are really focused on creating our version of an ambient album. There will be zero rhythm and lots of weird chords.
Also, Mark Dwinell of Forma and I have a Polytechnic Youth record that is just being released now of some raw early 80s'ish sounding industrial jams. very different than LDP and Forma.
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The LP of Astro Topoi is now sold out, but you can still obtain the digital version of the album here:
Also, Nathan wants to give away some codes - grab them while they are still vaid!