Heaviest Blooming: A conversation with Amulets
Ambient drone is a genre that I both adore and that has accompanied me over the years. I can’t tell you exactly how many hours of the day I would spend in my young adult life listening to artists such as Aidan Baker, William Basinski, Ben Frost, Tim Hecker and Stephen O’Malley, just to name a few. And more often than not, I still do that, I still spend countless amounts of time immersed in the vast sonorities a lot of the aforementioned artists create, as well as some new ones I discovered a couple three years ago, such as Kali Malone, Caterina Barbieri, Windy & Carl, Sarah Davachi and Amulets, the latter of which I will give a small introduction to. The brainchild of Randall Taylor, Amulets fuses old cassette tape technology with newer music gear to create rich and cinematically vivid soundscapes that paint a scenery of tranquility and peacefulness, but also disquiet and fearfulness. His previous record, Between Distant and Remote, stands as a true encapsulation of these feelings, being one of the finest records in the genre released to date.
Last Friday, Amulets released a brand-new record, Blooming, and naturally, the excitement is felt in the air. In lieu of his brand-new release, we spoke with Randall Taylor about his early beginnings discovering and playing music, his interest in tape looping and usage of older musical technology, as well as the creative process behind Blooming.
What was your first contact with music and what led you to the creation of Amulets?
I guess it’s been a long path for me, as I think with most musicians. I first started playing guitar in seventh or eighth grade, I just really loved playing guitar and learning people’s songs. And I was in a lot of bands in high school, in cover bands and a ska band for a little bit. In college, I started having side projects and playing in other bands, and after college, I was in a post-rock band for a while. You know, just playing in a lot of different bands and a lot of different music, with my side projects too, just covering a lot of different music. I guess I was just trying to find what fit and I think as that musical journey progresses, we not only change tastes, but also change the way we approach music. Amulets was a culmination of a lot of different interests; it started off as a side project and just became this thing that I found myself wanting to do as a full project. I didn’t have band members and stuff, I was looking for band members but I ended up finding that I liked working by myself a lot more, it was faster and everything. For me, it really came together when I started discovering tape loops and 4-track recorders, and as I put those all together and like, guitar and looping that, I found myself building my own band members and being able to perform live. That was the biggest part; a lot of the side projects where in the computer, it was really hard to perform live and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Once I started building up these kinds of setups with the gear, I found myself being able to perform live in a way I had always wanted to.
“For me, it really came together when I started discovering tape loops and 4-track recorders, and as I put those all together , (…) I found myself building my own band members and being able to perform live.”
How did you start experimenting with tape loops?
I remember learning about them back in college, I was doing a lot of circuit bending at the time and I was learning about tape loops and other things. I didn’t really make a tape loop or anything, I just remember hearing about them and it wasn’t until later that, I was watching a YouTube video called “Rig Rundown” with Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails, where he showed his setup using a 4-track tape recorder and was playing this chord progression with it. I remember being really fascinated by the idea of using a 4-track as an instrument and I tried it out myself. I remember he was recording a lot of these chords on a 30-minute tape and each chord was recorded for that long, and I remember getting really antsy recording it because they were taking so long. So, I ended up thinking about tape loops and like, well, if I can do it in like five seconds with a five-second loop, then I can do the same approach but with a tape loop. And so, I started digging deep in the Internet and like, putting together a bunch of tutorials that were scattered throughout and some videos that were on the Internet. But I ended up making my own just from everything I learned and everything that I wanted to do for trial and error. But it was definitely a “piece together” thing that I kind of had to figure out.
When checking your YouTube channel, I noticed that you use a lot of old equipment to record music. Was this usage always intentional? Do you try to avoid using newer technology?
I definitely don’t avoid newer technology. I think that there has always been an interest in older technology, but I also like to merge the two. I think a lot of this interest in gear at a young age started with just guitar pedals and just being a guitar player exploring pedals and stuff. As I got older, I expanded that gear search and that gear interest. There’s definitely a lot of tape players, a lot of pedals. I got a few modules, you know, modular synths, but I haven’t really dug deep into that world. But I think that the gear is always an interesting thing for me, and just something tactile and something physical that you can manipulate. I think there is a lot that I don’t really fully understand like Ableton and a lot of plugins and a lot of computer stuff that I know a lot of people can do amazing things with and do them really fast. For me, it’s just something that is very intuitive, it works. I’ve compared it to musical Legos; I can plug them in, build them up and make different things out of them, you know? I like that approach and I really like Legos; I think it just made sense to me. [laughs]
They are like your own construction blocks and, just like you said before, it’s like creating your own band, where the band members are your own gear. Is that where the idea of the tape loop orchestra came from?
Yeah, and I think a lot of that is totally just me feeling like a composer, a conductor of sorts. It’s like I’m both part of it and telling everyone else what to do. You know, doing things here and there. And I do think it was just a fun idea to call it that, but it does feel like that in a way. You know, you have like, this is my brass section and my woodwinds, and I know that I divided it up into that too. It is like conducting a symphony of sorts, but it’s such a weird, small scale tape thing that I just thought it was a fun idea. But yeah, I do feel like it’s a way of making music that I found really fun and explorative, and I think other people found that too. It’s been really cool to watch other people who have been like, “yeah, I watch your stuff and I was really inspired to try my own stuff”, that’s great.
That is a good analogy too. A couple of days ago, I was watching some old videos of Vangelis playing and programming his orchestras on a synthesizer and it was kind of like the same thing. He is essentially playing the whole orchestra himself, but it’s like he is the conductor and everything is just going so smoothly.
Yeah, it’s like you are the conductor, you are the manager of it. It’s different than when you are just playing guitar and you’re playing one or two parts. You know, there is like a singularity that comes with it, like, I play this and then that fits in the rest of everything. When you have all these other moving parts, you have to orchestrate how it all works together and that’s definitely a fascinating part of it. It’s definitely a skill, it can be really overwhelming, like, there’s so much stuff in front of me, how do you make it all work, you know?
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sounds you are creating?
I think that there are definitely some more ambitious setups where I start going and then it’s overwhelming. A part of that conducting too is wrangling in the sounds, like, taming it down or me being like, this is only going to do this thing and this will do this thing, and this will sound good together, rather than everything all at once. And just trying to create that balance and flow – the idea of songwriting or craftsmanship of the ebb and flow of sounds and parts, and how they all move and merge with each other.
Tell me about the creative process of Blooming – what were some of your influences and inspirations when recording it, and what were you trying to achieve with it that you hadn’t been able to in previous records?
I think a lot of my YouTube, Instagram and stuff is all just this exploration of sound and setups. I like to think of my recordings as taking all of those sketches and those ideas and putting them into an actual finished thing that is more polished and everything. I think for this record, it was during a difficult time obviously, this past year has been insane for everyone and I had a lot of personal upheavals on my life – I had just moved and entered in a new apartment by myself. There were a lot of heavy feelings within this time and I was channeling a lot of those feelings into the music, you know, being in quarantine and being in isolation. A lot of what I had grown up with was a lot of metal, post-rock, hardcore and post-hardcore music, a lot of heavier stuff, and that eventually took me to ambient and drone too, but I think there has always been this love of heavier music. And not being in a band and not having a lot of that instrumentation that say a metal band would have, I started to breakdown what made something heavy, you know, what are the essential parts of heaviness? I just tried to approach it in a way that would be like, how would I interpret that in my own way in the music I make, and make something that feels heavier or feels denser? I don’t have drums, I don’t have cymbals, I don’t have a dedicated bassist. And so, just things like that, and trying to figure that out and filter that through what I do and make something that felt like, yeah, this is ambient, this is drone, but it’s also heavy, it also has a certain degree of rawness to it that I feel isn’t necessarily a part of those genres. I just kind of wanted to mix it all together and see what would happen, what would come out.
Was there any new gear you used in this record that you hadn’t used previously?
I used a contact mic and this old mic, and I would actually process my voice – there are a few parts where I would just yell into some distortion pedals and stuff. In a way, I think it’s a very metal kind of approach. I didn’t necessarily want it to be a metal song but I wanted to hint at it and it was really fun to use my voice in that way, as another texture, I had never done that before. I don’t think there is any other particularly new gear I think, just the introduction of voice and using my voice in different ways. I had my friend Mari [More Eaze] lend some violins on one of the tracks, so that was a new instrumentation that was nice to have and something that I have always wanted, and she did a really good job bringing that track to live and taking it to another level. I had my friend do some spoken word on it too which was nice, I guess more as part of theme of using the voice. I think it’s just a little bit different, just trying a few more different things than what I normally would have done and just explore more.
“I started to breakdown what made something heavy, you know, what are the essential parts of heaviness? I just tried to approach it in a way that would be like, how would I interpret that in my own way in the music I make, and make something that feels heavier or feels denser?”
The cover of Blooming was done by Eric Nyffeler. When choosing a cover for this record, did you select it from existing works that Erik had or did you commission it?
We worked together actually. Over the pandemic, I really got into instant photography and I bought a Fujifilm Instax, and I took this photo. [Randall shows the photo that ended up on the cover of Blooming] It’s one of the photos I took and it ended up being on the cover. We worked together on this and he had this process where he scanned this photo and would print out each layer, the CMYK layers, and then we would rescan them and kind of manipulate them. In a way, that was very analogous to my process of taking sounds, putting them on tape and processing them. So, we processed each layer and layered them back onto each other, and we got that effect, which I really like and think spoke to the album of just this distorted, disintegrating beauty. It was a really interesting thing and I worked with him during that whole process, it was very much a collaboration.
Do you always seek to create a connection between the artwork and the music?
For sure, I think it’s an important aspect of that. I’m a very visual person, I make a lot of visual art that is accompanied with the music and so, I think the portrayal of that is very important. The look needs to match the sound or enhance it, they need to complement each other. It’s definitely something that I put a lot of time in and think about, and I want reflected in it, for sure.
This next question is more of a personal curiosity for me, it has to do with the vinyl release. I think this is one of the first times you are releasing your music on vinyl, right?
My last record, Between Distant And Remote, was released on vinyl and that was my very first time, which is amazing to be able to do, it’s very much a life goal as a musician. So, this will be my second ever vinyl release. But yeah, the first batch of the vinyl pressing has already sold out and that is pretty wild to me. The album isn’t even out yet and the pre-order has already sold out.
I was one of the lucky ones that got the first pressing pre-ordered and what struck me was the colour of the vinyl and how it really matched the artwork. And so, I wanted to ask you: was that something you had your hands on or was it up to the record label to decide?
I was working with Erik Nyffeler, who designed everything. We got into the nitty-gritty of everything, you know, the font choices – we designed that font -, he put everything together and laid it out. And then, I remember he called me one morning saying, “we got to pick these vinyl colours”. We had a bunch of options laid out because he is very experienced and very good at it. So, he had already laid out a bunch of colour options and we just had to decide which ones we were landing on. I felt that, like you said, that very first one with the green and the opaque, I fell in love with it. I felt like it resonated with the album and everything matched so well. The concept of the album down to the vinyl itself, everything just clicked.
It looks incredible. Me and my girlfriend did a pre-order last week on Evil Greed of the new Genghis Tron record and I noticed that yours was also there, so I was like, we have to order this now.
Yeah, I want to get that Genghis Tron record. I was a big fan of Genghis Tron back in the day and to see them reform and be a totally different band now, they have two new members.
I interviewed them a couple of weeks ago, I talked with Hamilton Jordan for a while and it was really cool. But yeah, we were ordering their vinyl and I found out yours was there too and I was like, this is sold out everywhere, we need to get it!
That’s amazing, that’s so great! [Laughs] It’s so funny, I remember in college, my girlfriend at the time and I went to visit her friend at some other school, and Genghis Tron put on a show at a student union or something. I remember that was very early Genghis Tron and just fell in love with them. I’ve never seen anyone mix that grindy metal with drums, synths and guitar like that, it was so cool. I’ve been following them and seeing that they are putting a new record and getting pumped. It’s just really fun to know that they are putting a new record and I’m excited about it, but there are people out there that obviously feel the same way about my new record and I’m like, oh, but I’m excited for the new Genghis Tron record! [Laughs]
And then it’s like a circle of people getting excited about each other’s records.
Oh yeah, absolutely! It’s like everyone rooting for each other, producing new music and putting things out there that people are really going to enjoy, you know?
In an interview you gave a couple of years ago, it was mentioned that you had the desire to eventually produce a full-length film accompanied by your music. Is this a project you are still working on?
There was a filmmaking aspect that I have always been interested in and I kind of went to school for, I used to make short films and stuff. I don’t think I necessarily have the desire to make a film anymore as much as I would just like to soundtrack a feature film or do more soundtrack work in general. That is a big interest of mine and to be able to have the music I create match the tone and visuals of someone else’s work; I think that would be such a beautiful collaboration to be able to do. I’ve been having some smaller soundtrack work; I think it’s moving towards that and I can see how my music can fit in certain films and certain arenas. It’s definitely still a goal and hopefully, maybe we’ll see some of my music in some films, I don’t know.
Your music does sound incredibly cinematic and I know that you’ve done a couple of short films before to accompany certain sounds that you have made with tape looping. Was that one of the reasons why you created your YouTube channel, to convey that idea of mixing that audiovisual aspect of your music?
I think that having a background in film and making videos definitely helped me initially when I wanted to do some of this. And yeah, starting the YouTube channel, just like everyone else, I was also on YouTube watching a lot of videos, watching gear videos and watching other people for inspiration and ideas, and I think when I first started doing this, I didn’t really think too much of it. You know, I’ll start a YouTube channel to start filming some things and putting them out there. Because again, I was inspired by other people and I thought it would be cool to be a part of that. The one thing I didn’t want to do was to be on camera talking and so, I specifically made my videos just about music. Since then, it’s been wild to see it grow, to see people follow it, and I think it’s just funny to see where playing cassette tapes on the Internet has taken me, from where I started to where I’m now. [laughs]
Despite the current pandemic situation, do you have any plans for the near future, any new music or potentially touring?
I’m going to start working on a new album, that’s been sort of the plans for this Spring and Summer. I wanted this one to come out and see how it goes, I’ve just been inspired to come back to it and work on some more new music. I’ve been juggling a few projects here and there, but I think for the future, definitely when it’s safe, I want to get back out, tour and play some shows. Especially with the help of my new label, The Flenser, they really want to put our speck out on the road again too once it’s safe. And there’s tons of bands that I like and respect on the label and that I’m friends with that I would love to be able to go and play shows with. Hopefully, that’s going to eventually be part of the plan, but I think it’s just kind of like, taking it day by day, or I guess, week by week, and trying to figure out what’s safe to do, how fast things are actually going to open up and what feels safe and responsible to do. Because I mean, as much as I miss shows, I’m in no rush to, you know, make it unsafe or have anyone feel uncomfortable. I think it’s still going to take a second, even after we are all vaccinated, just to have people feel comfortable doing anything again, you know? So, I’ve been just taking it slowly and working on music, keep trying to soundtrack things, finding different work and staying afloat as a musician. It’s been really just finding different and creative ways to get my music into things, like we talked, soundtracking and stuff, but also finding commissioned work. it’s been interesting to open that up and see where that goes.
“I think it’s still going to take a second, even after we are all vaccinated, just to have people feel comfortable doing anything again, you know? So, I’ve been just taking it slowly and working on music, keep trying to soundtrack things, finding different work and staying afloat as a musician.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photos courtesy of Amulets