Why Tim Hecker Isn’t Playing Noise Wars Anymore
On Love Streams, the Montreal electronic noise artist swaps intensity for simplicity, finding artistic peace along the way.
Tim Hecker has spent the better part of the last 16 years creating some of the most compelling and rewarding music in the electronic noise realm. Yet unlike his peers Merzbow, Ben Frost, or Prurient, who’ve found success through abrasive dissonance, Hecker gives a sort of order to the chaos. Over the years, he's explored intensity in a variety of forms, but never without a sense of restraint.
The Canadian artist’s new album Love Streams, the follow-up to 2013’s Virgins, finds him for the first time applying his semi-minimalist approach to the medium of vocal experimentation, crafting surprisingly sacred-feeling melodies from choral elements. One of the album’s most striking examples of this kinder, gentler side to Hecker can be found in “Castrati Stack,” a four-minute spiral into a hazy Auto-Tuned chorus. Unlike Virgins, which utilized call and response composition techniques, Love Streams is Hecker’s exposition on what vocals can accomplish in a much more subtle way.
I spoke to the unassuming Hecker over the phone from his home in Montreal in late February. He only briefly raised his voice in excitement when I brought up the idea of minimalism: “What kind of minimalism are we talking about?” The 42-year-old artist rattled off no less than five different schools of thought, interpretations, and philosophies before zeroing in on his own perspective on it and its relationship to the music he creates.
You’ve put the melodic front and center with Love Streams. Do you see yourself moving in a more conventionally accessible direction?
Tim Hecker: It wasn't a decision to make accessible music. It was a decision to work with the voice and it was a decision to work with a more simplistic palate in terms of sound density. Yes, it was a conscious choice to pare back shit, so it had more of like a core structure. A lot of my works have been exercises in sound density and sound pressure and intensity and bombast, I think, so it's mostly just stepping away from that heavy metal overload, you know? [Laughs.] It was really not about being accessible or anything like that at all.
Was that paring back instinctive or more deliberate?
It was mostly my realization that using sound intensity, density, loudness, pressure, and bombast was like a nuclear arms race with one sound that eventually would go nowhere. What are we going to do after a while? Make a heavier record than the last heavy record?
There's a point where the tree bears no fruit any more. Or you need to step back and garden, but not that fruit tree. Take care of your carrots or something. It's just like looking at things a bit differently. It’s just a bit of a shift in perspective. For me, it came out of discussions with friends—like, what do you do when you're known for making a certain type of work? Do you have to make a more intense version of that? Are you a slave to this? I mean, especially ten records in, you get in this kind of weird jousting match with yourself. It's not that hard. You have to find a way to make peace artistically. For me, the way through was not stacking things louder and heavier but working in a different way.
I kind of came at [Love Streams] as an ouroboros of the voice, I guess you could say. Some kind of self-cannibalization of the voice. I started out with riffing. People still think like it's some very controversial practice, but there's ways of analyzing audio now where you can write out scores from things. You can use this technology called Melodyne, which will break down portions of recorded audio into scores and midi and you can score that for the instruments. I started with the kind of riffing off of 15th century choral works and re-scoring it for like a really clean digital synthesized palate of like mid-'90s style instruments. Then I had [Icelandic composer] Jóhann Jóhannsson write some arrangements that were based off those pieces and we recorded them together. Then it came back around to [put the] voice back on top of those pieces that originally came from the voice. So even though only like four songs of the album are vocal features, the whole thing is just the voice throughout in some ways.
“What do you do when you’re known for making a certain type of work? Do you have to make a more intense version of that? For me, the way through was not stacking things louder and heavier but working in a different way.”—Tim Hecker
While it's more melodic, the album is still very much in the minimalist spectrum that you’ve always experimented with. Given that, what role does minimalism play in music now just in a broad sense?
I think it's a challenge because ways of making music now almost encourage intricate tinkering, infinite layering, infinite funk, and density. I kind of came out of the early stages of that possibility of computer audio. The computer became a tool that was increasingly powerful to the point where it's now dominant—you can do anything through a computer. What's the answer when you can do 800 layers of a guitar? What do you do with that? Everyone answers that differently. For me now, it's a way of almost painterly focusing on grays, or some muted pastel, or making things hyper-color while still being vibrant. I don't know. It's a complicated thing. I feel that less is more. The more shit I added to my pieces or compositions, it fell below; it just loses something. It’s like you're creating a soup. At a certain point the soup just becomes too much. It’s probably just knowing when you're just adding way too much salt and carrots and broth and whatever. It becomes chaos. It loses its singularity.
Is that space between the synthetic and organic where you’ve always found yourself most comfortable as an artist?
I’ve definitely found that the contrast between the stuff that occurs inside a computer, and things that whirl and buzz and hum, creates a real space. One of my favorite things is to take a perfectly digital, cold, bright rendering of some instruments from a computer out through a room [via a speaker] and have it shake against the walls and record that, then feed that back in and use that as like the beginning of a conversation that goes back and forth between man and machine to the point where what's organic and what's digital ceases to be important. It's just realizing digital audio is a true sculptural, plastic nature now. It's what I've been hoping or working towards for a while. It feels like it’s there.
How has aging affected how comfortable you are with what you create?
I think age is a mental thing. I would say it's as liberating or as debilitating as you want it to be. It's something I think that if you focus on it too much, it weighs on you. If it gets about staying open as a human being to how the universe is unfolding, then good. I sound like some religious, spiritual retreat person. [Laughs.] It's true to an extent. Yes, it's like, foster the child in you always. That's a challenge with time, you know? Creating little moments of beauty that make life worth living.
“I come out of the failure of rock bands.”—Tim Hecker
You started out working as a political analyst before you became a full-time musician.
The thing is that job was a bit of work that fell in my lap that I didn't really ask for. It was me needing to make living like anyone else. I just happened to have this weird-ass job.
It seems like those would be two completely disparate career directions, but you ended up sort of using the contrast to your advantage later on with your Ph.D.
I did my Ph.D. dissertation on sound intensity. I wrote a history of people that were obsessed with loud sounds in the early 20th century. There's all these histories of people that control noise in public spaces. There wasn't really anything that had taken an in-depth look at that. I mean, look at people that were obsessed with atomic power in the early 20th century. It was almost an early history of my own practice or whatever. It’s something that helped make sense of things I was intuitively interested in; how powerful sonic force could empty out the mind in almost a religious kind of way. I looked at the emergence of psychoanalysis, of the psychological mind, and how sonic force could override the ego in a secular or non-religious way. That's something that informed my music.
How much of an influence did your higher education have on your development as an artist?
When I did my Ph.D., I always joked that the farther up the chain you go and the higher the echelons, the less inspiring the conversations are gonna be.
It’s definitely a study in self-obsession.
Right? [Laughs.] You’ve got self-professed progressives talking about radicalism and it's like the least radical person you could be.
Speaking to your childhood, though, what was the real starting point for you in wanting to become a musician and make this your life?
Just suburban life. [I had] a Walkman tape cassette, [and] just walked around listening to things all the time; I was into music and art and having moments with things that felt really powerful and genuine. I felt like I wanted to make things like that myself. I wanted to make beautiful works and give other people those experiences, and just add something to the planet that I thought wasn't being done, in fruitful ways that weren't being explored enough. That's what led me do it; the desire, the deep profound need to make something.
I come out of the failure of rock bands, and my friends not giving a shit about practicing or playing together or doing something, or creating something. I just ended up replacing them with samplers and looping and computers and tape decks and all this stuff that became what's now the modern studio or whatever. It's all things that I kind of cobbled together myself out of the need to do musical expression because other people weren't as into it as I was. It’s come back around full circle. I'm more into working with other people in different ways now than I was at a certain point. I used to make the joke of why would you paint a canvas with four people? It seems totally pointless. Why would I compose computer music with three other people? It’s absurd. You know, commanding a symphony with a crappy computer from 1998 felt like a real rogue thing to do. I was resolutely anti-collaboration at that point, and that's definitely changed in the last five or ten years.