William Fowler Collins produces some of the deepest music being made today, and by deep I am referring to the philosophy of "deep listening" that experimental legend Pauline Oliveros has dedicated her life toward, which is basically the act of taking the time to put a pause on all the extraneous bullshit in life long enough to immerse yourself into the soundworld being created by a given artist. It's kind of like sonic meditation, and Collins' music deserves to heard under those circumstances to be fully appreciated. As academic as that may sound, his music is also incredibly visceral, calling to mind your most unsettling moment, your worst nightmare or some primal collective memory. Personally, I love to put on his music when I have to drive through rural Indiana, as it casts a blackened grip over the heartland in a way that makes "Children Of the Corn" look quaint.
His last two records, "Perdition Hill Radio" and "The Resurrections Unseen," both available on Type Records, are two of the finest experimental records of the new millennium. Invoking the terrestrial space of haunted dark country roads as well as the blackest depths of the cosmos, his music is both primal and cosmic, resembling György Ligeti more so than Tim Hecker. William was gracious enough to talk with me about his music, as well as books, film, growing up in rural Massachusetts, the difference between intent and interpretation in art, and why the gap between the two isn't such a bad thing.
JB: In listening to your last couple of records there seems to be an internal narrative at work running through each album that makes each piece a part of a greater whole, rather than the records being a simple collection of individual songs. Is that intentional, or is it an example of the listener piecing together a meaning or purpose that isn't actually there?
WFC: There is no specific story, but the individual pieces are ultimately part of a whole, yes. Each piece develops on its own, and then when I have a complete body of work I'll spend a good deal of time arranging the tracks in an order that conveys some sort of abstract narrative form. I have my own personal ideas about what is happening in each album. Others will ideally have their own interpretations. There's no meaning or purpose to miss.
JB: To that end, a lot of people, self included, found a parallel between "Perdition Hill Radio" and works like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," yet you had never read "The Road" until after some reviewers mentioned it, is that right?
WFC: That's right, I hadn't read it. I can see why people would feel that way, although I think there's more to my albums than just darkness. I enjoy McCarthy's work quite a bit.
JB: Are there particularly things that you do draw inspiration from that informs your music?
WFC: I'm a bit of a cinephile. I'm constantly watching films. I find books inspirational as well. Film and literature are certainly inspiring but it would hard to pinpoint how much direct influence they have on my music. I suppose there are parallels between the way chapters or scenes are edited and they way in which I'm editing my music.
JB: What are some of your favorite films and books?
WFC: There are many, but off the top of my head it would be Cormac McCarthy, Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O'Connor, Jerzy Kosinski, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, David Lynch, Hitchcock...
JB:What about the desert? You currently live in Albuquerque, and I know that gets brought into discussion sometimes about your music, in terms of the desolation of the desert having some impact on your sound. Having lived there myself, I always felt that the landscape was like a borderline between life and death. It can be very ominous and powerful to experience. Do you think there is a direct link between your geographical surroundings and the type of music you produce? Or is it just happenstance that you are living out there while producing this kind of blasted desolate music?
WFC: The landscape certainly has an impact, but it may not always be at the forefront of my mind when I'm working new material. It may have more of a subconscious influence. What I'm working on could just as easily trigger thoughts of my childhood in rural Massachusetts. But the sparse population, the ghost towns... the landscape is vast and beautiful. As you know, Albuquerque is the high desert. I live at 6,000 feet above sea level. We have snow, mountains, things that those unfamiliar with the location may not think of when they're writing about people dying a slow, solitary death in the hot desert.
JB: True, Albuquerque is in an area that has a lot more geographical diversity than people realize. When I was out there the joke was 'we don't have a winter, except from October to April.' But let's talk about growing in rural Massachusetts. I grew up in rural Indiana, and, of course, there wasn't much to do. My friends and I got into punk and metal beginning in high school and once we got our driver's licenses we would just drive around out in the country and listen to things like the Dead Kennedys and Metallica. Looking back, what strikes me about that was that we were playing this really heavy dark stuff in the land of God, mom and apple pie. It was like our vision of our surroundings simply didn't comport with the idealized version of country life, instead it was in inversion. Rather than a friendly farmer hanging out just around the corner of that barn on the horizon, it could very well be a bigot, a child molester or a killer. Even the woods took on a dark characteristic for us as we imagined hidden satanic cults and hauntings taking place within them as we wound around those country roads at night. I bring all of this up because when I first heard "Perdition Hill Radio," I had a visceral response to it that brought back those memories of unsettling dark feelings centered around growing up in a rural community. There certainly seems to be a rural flavor to that record, and I wonder if that is a result of growing up in that environment, and if you had a similar experience in terms of the music you listened to and the way you eventually came to view your surroundings then that might affect your music now? Sorry for the incredibly long question.
WFC: My childhood in the country was actually great. There wasn't any fear of God or any of that crap. Up until age 14 I lived on a farm. Over one hundred acres and no neighbors close by. The land where I lived is now protected against any development. The woods were a magical place where my brother and friends would play. Halloween was certainly scarier with all the old farmhouses and covered bridges, but there was no fear of satanic cults or anything. Until I'd seen horror movies, I didn't have any reason to be scared of my environment. Once you see films like that then you can project all kinds of scary scenarios onto your surroundings. You can let your imagination get out of hand. Driving, as you know, was one of the things to do in a small town. There are, of course, miles of country roads, many of them dirt. Night driving, moonlit pastures and the silhouettes of hills and mountains came to mind when I was working on "Perdition Hill Radio". Eden Trail was the road I lived on when we're on the farm. I'm not certain that I'm answering your question. To me it touches on the idea that place, environment, and personal history can play a role, consciously and subconsciously, in the making of music or art.
Lots of people get the darkness, and there is darkness for sure. But then there might be some light as well. There's always someone who has the opposite experience of the writer/listener who was terrified by the albums or at least describes them as being somewhat terrifying. I think that's important. There's intention in the work that I make, no question about that. I don't want to influence how people will interpret the music here.
JB: No that is a great response and a prime example of the ultimate rift between listener and artist and what is projected onto the art and what is intended. Let’s talk about the light then. As you said a lot of people have focused on the darkness in your records, but there is always some part that is lighter, as if there is a resolution in the narrative, so to speak. How important is that to you?
WFC: Since things are abstract, the narrative could potentially change with each person and perhaps even each listen. It is always nice when people such as yourself listen through and can hear that. That takes listening to the entire album and all these people are whining about the album format being dead, so I'm not sure how often that happens these days. Maybe that's too cynical and most people don't feel that way, but I've read it more than once. An album could absolutely be a collection of unrelated songs or pieces of music. But it doesn't have to be. About the lighter parts: I don't necessarily think happiness or joy make the cut, but with "Perdition Hill Radio" I felt there was some sort of peaceful resolve at the end. Could be peace found through death, or just some kind of melancholy end to a frightening journey. "The Resurrections Unseen" doesn't necessarily have much light at all. For all those who find the music to be bleak or completely dark there are always some who have the opposite experience. Maybe my intention isn't "light" but rather a bit more range and/or depth of emotion.
JB: I want to talk about "The Resurrections Unseen" in a minute, but you bring up an interesting point about the alleged death of the album, which has seen more than its fair share of "think pieces" over the past few years. It strikes me that experimental music and metal, for the most part, are the two genres that are somewhat impervious to this issue. It's easy for disposable rock and pop to be reduced to what are basically sound bites in the form of MP3s, but experimental and metal seems to require patient deep listening more often than not. They both lend themselves toward a much more immersive experience than what can be reduced to a three minute song. Yet both are seemingly deemed to be on the "fringe" of music, which is odd since each could arguably be considered more serious in approach and execution than what passes for music these days. There does seem to be a difference between the way music is produced and consumed between genres as well as the kind of fans that are able to appreciate what is arguably more serious music than whatever single of the week Pitchfork is pushing at a given time. Admittedly, it's hard to formulate an exact question about this particular issue, because it could give way to a vast discussion, I'll try to focus it, but please respond however you want to this issue. As a starting point though, what is your opinion, as an artist, about the current state of music in the context of the "death of the album," as well as the advent of things like mp3s and file sharing? Do you think it as dire as some make it out to be, or does it simply delineate between artists and fans who take music seriously and those who have always been casual about it, regardless of the technology?
WFC: I'm fortunate that people will buy the limited releases of my music, and fortunate that there are labels interested in the work. And those that do buy it aren't likely into it for 3 minute pieces that are easy to digest. I guess I think of my albums more like films in that I wouldn't want to watch just a scene in a film, I want to see the whole thing. The narrative doesn't have to be clear or linear. When I watch a Tarkovsky film I don't just watch one chapter on the DVD, I watch the whole film. One has to actively watch or, in my case, listen. Having the option to not buy has hurt labels and artists alike, obviously. The idea that it should all be free is bullshit. No money back into labels and artists means no money to produce the work, period. As for mp3s, the sound quality is obviously compromised even if they are convenient. I personally make more money from sales of physical media than mp3s. iTunes and eMusic type take a nice big chunk out of each sale. For a compressed, digital file and no artwork. Think about that. Anyway, this could blow up into something much bigger and more complex. Maybe we should discuss genres and their failures or successes... from a writer's standpoint that could be interesting for you. It is difficult to write well about music. When someone asks me what kind of music I make I am still at a total loss for words. I hesitate to use the terminology we read so often in contemporary music journalism.
JB: What do you usually say to someone who has not heard your work?
WFC: I'm still at a loss when trying to describe it. Even trying to use genres which are generally useless will fail if the person has knowledge of these genres to begin with. I will most likely describe it as "cinematic", or a combination of various genres. Then they'll usually ask me what instrument I play and I'll tell them guitar and electronics. Boomkat puts my releases in their Dark Ambient/Drone/Metal section and the combination of those 3 isn't unfair. Although, I don't find it to be very ambient because, to me anyway, ambient music implies some sort of passive participation on the listener's part. I feel the music needs an active listener. John Twells called "The Resurrections Unseen" a black metal album without any of the typical elements of black metal. Keith Fullerton Whitman said that the album has absolutely nothing to do with black metal whatsoever. So there you have it.
JB: And I'll add my two cents and say that I would compare it to György Ligeti or similar modern composition. You make a great point about ambient vs. active listening. Do you ever have concerns about making demands on the listener? I realize that is an odd question, but I agree that your music requires the listener's full attention to truly appreciate. At the same time it seems that, and I realize I am generalizing here, the listening public's attention span seems to be shortening. Do you have concerns about that, or do you feel that this particular type of music is always going to have an audience that is used to the "deep listening" experience?
WFC: Thanks, that's a generous comparison! I don't concern myself with being too demanding. As soon as you start making music for an audience, you're fucked. The music will, hopefully, always have an audience that is willing to take the time to listen. It's likely true that attention spans are shortened but that's not my problem and can never be. Think of a Tarkovsky film. Those take a lot of time and attention, but they are ultimately so rewarding. If I'm in a difficult place with a mix I may watch a Tarkovsky film, or listen to some Scelsi. It usually renews my inspiration and reinforces the idea that it is okay to make quiet pieces, to use silence, to take one's time.
JB: The Tarkovsky parallel is apt, particularly on "The Resurrections Unseen" which calls to mind "Solaris" to me when I listen to it. I want to talk about that record and what I notice as a slight shift in direction from "Perdition Hill Radio." To me "Perdition Hill" was 'of the earth,' so to speak, full of rural and rustic imagery. "The Resurrections Unseen," on the other hand, is a much more cosmic album, for lack of a better word. There is a depth to the music that recalls, for me at least, the deepest reaches of the cosmos, or, conversely, depths far below the earth. There is such a subterranean feel to it at times, like tectonic plates shifting. Part of that is because there is some serious lo-end bass sounds throughout the record that will shake the hell out your car windows better than any rap song ever could. Did you make a concerted effort to change things up between the two records? Or was it simply a product of natural musical evolution?
WFC: With "Perdition Hill Radio" there were certainly some references to rural and rustic places. I’m talking about actual places where I grew up. It's interesting that you get a more "cosmic" feel with "The Resurrections Unseen". When I turned the finished mixes into Type, I told John that it felt vaguely like a cross between The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Earthly terror. The deep silence of outer space. I think it is a natural evolution. Where "Perdition Hill Radio" had more raw, impenetrable aspects, "The Resurrections Unseen" has more depth of space for me. Using the deep, low frequencies implies a sort of subterranean darkness. The sounds are felt more than they are heard.
JB: Indeed. That all makes sense. Since finishing "Resurrections Unseen" what have you been working on?
WFC: Right after "The Resurrections Unseen" came out I went up to the Pacific Northwest to work on an album with Aaron Turner. We spent a few days getting hours of material recorded and we’ve started working on that. I'm working toward finishing an album for Handmade Birds. I’m working on a collaborative album with Horseback. I'm also waiting to receive tracks from a French black metal mastermind (by way of R. Loren) so I can add my parts to the next Pyramids album. There are other things lingering but these on my plate at the moment.
JB: you've been a part of collaborations before, most notably with Gog. How do your collaborations typically come about?
WFC: They come about naturally, I'd say. Generally, it's through conversations with people by way of a mutual respect for each others work. There are others out there on the horizon, but some are further out. We are all so busy.
JB: Thanks for doing this. And now a final question, anything you want to add?
WFC: Thank you, Jason! I don’t have anything to add.