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...But Only A Handful of The Pieces Are Longer Than 100 Hours [2009-12-21]

This is a version of an interview originally published at musiquemachine.com on December 7th before a server crash. This version surely predates the finished one, but it is here for posterity.

The two core members who comprise Bull of Heaven have a decorative and scattered history between them. Some achievements of note include lecturing to grad students at art schools, high profile DJing, touring with bands rooted in noise, prog, hardcore, and drone, as well as burning both EMI and the entire mash-up genre in one foul swoop, among other things. As of around two years now, their prolific energies have culminated into a recorded output that has eclipsed any other in musical history; with works ranging from 1 minute to 1 month in length and beyond, sound sources that utilize anything from electronic drones to crazy hobo rants about the end of the world. There are tracks with titles taken from Crowley's 'Book of the Law,' the Gnostic Bible, Shakespeare, Poe, political quotations, and various newspaper clippings. Any given chunk of sound could contain a complexity and breadth with the potential of being picked apart for days, or it could mean nothing at all. Not unlike the work of John Cage or La Monte Young, Bull of Heaven further challenge current preconceived notions of music and recorded media, but to add to that, they realize ideas that Salvador Dali or Marcel Duchamp probably took to their graves. Throughout this formidable heap of work, one might hear tribal war drums, theremin, prepared piano, modified fan propellers, psychedelic rock, political speeches, or an entire answering machine tape whose previous owner is probably a deceased mother. To simply call this drone, or to say that anyone can do it would be derisive and pedestrian.

In the 70s, punk rock spurred DIY ethics and leveled the playing field like none other before it, or so I have read. To bypass the bureaucracy and nefarious qualities of mass distribution, bands got together and pressed a 7 inch, slapped it between xerox paper, put it in record stores, then broke up a month later. Several small record imprints popped up, releasing all of the new music that oozed out of everywhere at a rapid pace. Here in the digital age, more than ever, the musical climate is overflowing with lots of flash-in-the-pan MySpace bands and virtual attention whores, who easily produce, promote and distribute music all on their home computers, maybe before they are quite sure what it is they have to say. There are a lot of net labels who use free archival sites to host mp3s that probably wouldn't make it to a concrete "b-sides & rarities" type of album in real life. Having said this, I'm glad that Bull of Heaven exist. They don't have a PayPal button or any other advertisements, an artist statement or a mailing list. It's not about a cult of personality. It's just a strange cyber-portal where tons of seclusive audio whirls around freely, each with accompanying art that often outshines many a proper underground release. Whether there are thinly veiled political agendas, mystical rhetoric, or just experiential symptoms of drug-addled lunacy is left for the listener to decide. One thing is for sure: This entity is more primal than your average academic desktop composer, and more ornate than the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

MM: How did this project come about?

BOH: We met in Chicago in 2001, and played in a few bands together. We have a lot of the same interests musically, so Bull of Heaven really just came about on its own. If we hadn't done this, both of us probably would have done something similar eventually.

MM: So the lengthy pieces happened naturally, what drove it to such excess?

BOH: Curiosity, absurdity, insanity. Technically, it's a lot more work than people might realize. This project has evolved into a kind of semi-pseudonymous collective (or collection) drawing heavily from experiments in serialism and indeterminacy.

MM: It's definitely outside of the songwriting/jam session realm, but in terms of a drone, is a listener missing out if they listen to only half of it? Is the full effect lost? Is the material on the longer pieces more important, and therefore more pronounced because it is part of a week long piece or what have you?

BOH: There's no simple answer to that. In a literal sense, by listening to only half of a given piece, the listener is missing out on the other half. As for losing the full effect, it depends entirely on what the listener thinks that should mean. If they're expecting more than what is there, then the full effect was unattainable to begin with. If they expect nothing at all, the full effect is more pronounced than they'd anticipated. The longer pieces aren't any more essential to the bigger picture than the other components. In terms of overall length, yes, they are a big part of what we've done, but only a handful of the pieces are longer than 100 hours. They're individual works. Whether anyone listens to them without interruption is beside the point, and, as with any other piece of music, they're meant to be explored in whatever way the listener deems appropriate.

MM; Is it intuitive? Is it a process of preparing the vessel (the listener) to receive? What goes behind these actions?

BOH: Well, one example might be that the acoustic drones we've used, the treated piano, harpsichord, etc., were physically arranged to create nonrepeating loops, which then became the foundation of the Roman numeral series. Many of the lengths of the tracks, elements used, numbers of iterations of loops, pitches, velocities, tempos, delay times, phase, etc., have been arrived at by various means, sometimes conceptual or complex, but not always. It depends. It may be easier to think of it along the same lines as any other composition. Music itself is dependent on repetition. Sometimes the lengths are determined by chance, and at other times decided using more esoteric methods. In some cases, the numbers are relevant for historical or other reasons. We really just don't have much to say about these longer pieces, any more than the shorter ones.

MM: What got you into repetition and things like that?

BOH: Repetitive forms can be soothing and hypnotic, like a mantra. We're both fans of minimalism and drone, and have been since long before we met. There's not really a single reason we've gravitated to it.

MM: How does length play a part in the creative process?

BOH: Individually, the length of each piece is unimportant, but these extreme lengths are one of the last remaining unexplored territories of audio experimentation. Constructing these longer pieces is often not too different from writing a song. The production is much the same. It's either written, or improvised, and retooled until it feels right. Now, the differences between songwriting and writing longer pieces of music are obvious. But they are similar in the sense that, as the creator, you feel however you feel about it, and you strive for it to be some kind of cathartic experience. When someone writes a song, they'll often just start with a verse, figure out a simple chorus, then work on lyrics, and finally revise and re-revise it all so that it goes together. There are many ways to approach it, and for something like this it can be different each time. Sometimes that involves thinking about something you want to express beforehand, and at other times it just comes over you and gains such momentum that it's impossible to stop it. That's how we feel about this project. It has gained a life of its own, and to try to contain that would be a mistake.

MM: Do you make pieces that are best listened to from beginning to end? Is that part of the motivation for some of these works? If not, is it about the element of surprise or something?

BOH: Some pieces are more or less stories, and some are endurance tests. We don't approach each piece with some rigorous idea. Usually it's a theme that we're exploring across multiple pieces, or a series in which one or more elements are reused in different ways. Sometimes these alterations are almost indistinguishable, and at other times the pieces come out sounding radically different. Some pieces are static, and some change quite a bit over the duration, so it's really not so easy to pinpoint. To answer your question more directly, though, it's like with any other music. Most every kind of music should be experienced from beginning to end, but that can be a serious commitment in some cases.

MM: How does a Bull of Heaven piece reach its nexus? You've obviously done away with limitations, how do you go about refining the process when literally almost anything is possible?

BOH: We don't have a great deal of patience for small things. That isn't to say that we're not putting thought into it, or that we're not doing our best to realize each piece as fully as we can in the EQing and mastering, within the limits imposed by the finite amount of time we have. There are some parts that can't even be heard without a subwoofer, and others that aren't even designed to be listened to. Other pieces contain different kinds of data. It's all interpretation.

MM: So it's not a purely electronic group by any stretch, I mean you're not just using sound samples, there are live band elements throughout. Do you guys get into a studio and write all of this stuff before you mix it down and do the production?

BOH: We've used vibraphone, harpsichord, Rhodes, Moog, piano, cello, trombone, guitar, bass, drums, Jew's harp, harmonica, and many other instruments in between. We sometimes use treated instruments, or else we manipulate the recordings heavily to emphasize certain frequencies or diminish others. Occasionally we'll drop the pitch of a recording by an octave or more, and then build a piece over it. At other times, we may start out with a given idea, and by the time the piece is completed it will be completely unrecognizable. So, it's never a matter of just writing a piece of music and recording it, although many of the pieces do contain written phrases, movements, etc.

MM: How many pieces are finished and what is the longest one to date?

BOH: The longest one is the most recent one, which has taken a while to upload. It's more than 60 days long. As soon as a piece is finished, we add it. If we decide not to use something, it gets scrapped, so depending on how you count the Aleph series it's either 228 or more than 10,000 pieces completed. We're not sure, we're not keeping count.

MM: What do you think about the future of music? Do you think that kids are going to be hyped about the newest MP3 album from the current hip band?

BOH. We're a couple of musicians. When we were digging on Foghat 8-tracks, could we conceive of a Jonas Brothers MP3?

MM: I'm not expecting you to foresee what Mp3s are going to evolve from, but seeing as you seem to be the forerunners of territory that hasn't been touched yet, has this empirical data (extreme length of pieces) given rise to any other experiments you'd like to share? Are there any other exciting concepts on the boil?

BOH: We definitely intend to keep working on new music, and we have a general idea of what direction it will take. It's not necessarily the lengths we're so concerned with. We haven't even really begun to scratch the surface, and we have a lot planned for the future. This is an exciting time to be musically active.

MM: It seems fairly obvious that the days of the self-important rock star are on their way out, but there will always be a demand for new music. Is it reasonable to go about trying to make a living as a recording artist by only maybe selling t-shirts at shows or doing sound design for commercials?

BOH: The marketing of music is what has destroyed the exploration of new sounds and musical concepts. The only way to make money as a musician is to perform, but this band as of yet has not performed live. We're not interested in making money off of our music, but as musicians, we both recognize that it's every musician's dream to make a living doing what they enjoy. Art is so temporary, and technology is a sinking ship. Once electricity is gone, people will go back to tribalism, playing lutes and fiddles, working on non-electronic things, and probably lamenting the good old days for at least a full generation. But that doesn't stop us from wanting to create things in the here and now. Now is the thing most of us are looking for, although we often delude ourselves into thinking we're preparing for the future or regarding the past. But now is the only thing that matters. What am I doing now?

MM: Do you think that giving away your music cheapens the way people look at music?

BOH: The question seems a little weighted. You could just as easily ask: Do you think that giving your music away enhances the way people look at music? It's really not a question of that. These contracts with the listener are counterproductive; whether art itself cheapens the human condition seems a more appropriate question. Does art reduce the whole of cultural history to a finite set of representations? Or does it singularly represent the indefinable characteristics that make up our lives in ways that words never could? Does it appeal to its own finer instincts, and inspire others? We're not in the business of changing minds, we only want to help free them from imaginary boundaries with respect to what art should or shouldn't be. We really don't have such cynical views of music, and we enjoy what we do.

MM: Well you're definitely a forward-thinking entity, you don't have any other peers producing tracks like yours or at nearly this rate. Is this a matter of foresight? Do you think a lot more people will be listening for this sort of "mantra" effect in the future?

BOH: This is reality for us, at this point in time, and everything we can conceive of, but has yet to come into being, just isn't. We are responsible for creating our own idiosyncratic realities, and no one else's.

Delirious Insomniac
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