Blood And Dread Stained Sonics [2010-07-05]
Yen Pox are the American dark ambient duo of Michael J.V.Hensley and Steven Hall, and since 1993 they’ve been creating some of the most vast, effective and bone chill pitch black ambience around. With Malignant Records just reissuing their classic genre defining debut album “Blood Music”, and the band also just about to release their first new material in eight years in the form of mini album “Universal Emptiness” - I thought it was a very fitting time to catch-up with both Michael & Steven, who kindly agreed to give me an interview via email.
m[m] First off how did you both first meet, how did Yen Pox come to be formed and where did the name come from?
M: Steve and I met through a common friend, long ago in Indiana. A couple of years later, I moved closer, and we started hanging out more often, just about the time I started buying gear and experimenting with sound myself. Steve was playing bass in his rock band "Used", and I'd take my sampler and processor over to his place; at first to mess around with them, but later it turned into Steve and I doing more ambient based noise stuff. This was just for fun and experimentation at first; something to fill the hours and please ourselves. It wasn't until we'd gotten together a few times and recorded a bit that we realized it had potential, that it might be worth sharing. It was these sessions that turned into our first cassette release.
S: "Head Shot" was the first song we recorded and I remember being very enthusiastic about this first session and the resulting sound. Several of the early recording sessions seemed to effortlessly yield what I felt were some of the most amazing sounds I had ever heard. It was almost magical.
M: It was during this time that I read "Junky" by William Burroughs, which Steve loaned me. I noticed the term "Yen Pox", which is the ash from smoked opium, and it seemed like an appropriate name for the blackened narcotic sounds we were creating
m[m]You've just reissued and re-mixed version your classic and genre defining album that is "Blood Music"- why did you decide to remix it? and how long did this process take?
M: We'd been thinking of re-issuing the first cassette release on cd for years, possibly doing it ourselves, but we never found the time. Jason from Malignant Records decided it was time to re-issue Blood Music, so we decided to make it a really special re-release by adding the cassette and a few other tracks; seemed like the right thing to do, to put as much of our earliest output in there as we could. Remixing Blood Music was my idea, for a couple of reasons. The first being, I was never happy with the mix and sound of the original release. I really didn't know what I was doing at the time, it was recorded on 6-track cassette, and mixed down to DAT in someone's bedroom studio, in just an afternoon, which didn't give me the time I needed to really do the job right. As well as being badly eq'd and never actually mastered, that's why the volume was so low on the original. The mixing of our tracks is a really important part, the song is often created in the mix down, and can go many ways. Which also made a good reason to remix it; to come at the songs from a different perspective, and give old fans a new listening experience. I was actually really excited to have the opportunity to breathe new life into these tracks with the small bit of knowledge I've gained over the years, and using some of the new digital technologies, which have finally progressed to the point that I've decided to catch up with them.
m[m] I noted from the remix that the track lengths have changed in most cases from the original released track runtimes- why has this occurred and have you added more elements in or taken away stuff?
M: Like I said, track mix down is a big part of the song creation; there's always a lot of sound recorded for a track that ends up mixed out or down to a barely audible level. When remixing these tracks, there were parts that were mixed out in the original that have greater presence in the new versions, and vice versa. Just because a track was 12 minutes on the original release doesn't mean it had to be, I could have mixed a 10-minute song or a 15-minute one. While I was remixing, I wasn't going back to the original songs to see how I could see how they "should" sound; instead, I started from scratch with the raw tracks, and pretended like I was mixing them down for the first time. And again, the songs did not always include all of the music recorded for them, they just ended up being as long as they felt like they should be. Also, time constraints had to be taken into consideration, with the added song. I ended up shaving a few minutes off of the entire project to make it all fit.
m[m] How long did the original recording of Blood Music take and where was it recorded?
M: I honestly can't remember how long it took, from start to finish, or even much about the actual recording. For some reason, the earlier cassette sessions are much more fresh in my mind; probably because it was all recorded leisurely at Steve's house. Blood Music was different, since I moved away about that time. I believe we recorded a bit before I left in '93, or perhaps when I came back for a visit the following year. It definitely had some of the "live" session work like the cassette, but we also ended up doing quite a bit separately, with Steve sending me tapes from Indiana, and me doing a lot of bedroom sampler sound creation in Denver. This works for us pretty well now, but it was not the optimal situation at the time. Obviously, it turned out ok, but I can only imagine that it would have been even better if we'd recorded it all together.
S: Usually we would put a mike in the room and run it through the processor, grab an instrument or object (a plastic milk jug half full of water comes to mind) hit the play button on the cassette multitrack and go. It wasn't free-form noise making; there was tune and pattern that would form and when we found that pattern, we would cary it through and build on it until we felt it was complete.
m[m] Blood Music is a very deep, multi layered, swirling and pitch black record with many sound elements at play. What kind of field recordings, sound textures and instrumental textures did you use to build-up the chilling sound soup?
M: What I remember is lots of bass guitar, our voices, viola, recorder, and my sampler. I think the only true field recording I did was at my parents place, with an old clock and bits of metal and such. I'd have to say that the most important part of our sound back then, from the cassette through "Mnemonic Induction", was my Ensoniq effects processor. It was really the only way we could create such infinitely deep, lush sounds, especially during those early years when the rest of our gear was fairly primitive. I only use it occasionally now, as it's become a bit buggy, and I'm more focused on synths, sampling and sound creation; but Steve picked one up and still makes good use of it, so it continues to be a big part of Yen Pox's sound.
m[m]: What were your influences sound wise and inspiration wise when putting together Blood music?
M: Again, the passage of time makes that a difficult question to answer, it's hard to remember what I was listening to and looking at during that time in my life. I certainly listened to a lot more ambient and noise then than I do now, but I don't recall ever feeling inspired to sound like anyone else. I'm probably actually more inspired by music that's completely different than what we do; now, as then, anything I hear, watch or read that gives me a charge with it's creativity and greatness could be seen as an inspiration. What really drove me was the simple act of creation, and my mental state at the time, which was somewhat more focused on the grim and grotesque. The cold, seething angst of youth..... as opposed to the bitter cynicism of age.
S: As Mike mentioned, I was in a rock band at the time, so what I was playing or listening to at that time probably had little influence other than possibly the very base doom-laden elements of the kind of deconstructed "rock" music I was involved in. If there was a specific example of music that had an impact on me it would probably be the music that our mutual friend, Joel Bender, was creating for his BELT releases.
m[m] The reissue adds on an extra unreleased track at the end of the first disc in the form of Beneath The Sun; I take it this track was from around the same time period as the rest of Blood Music? What are the track's origins and why hasn't it appeared before?
M: It was recorded with the rest of Blood Music, so it fits perfectly with them on the re-issue. There obviously wasn't enough room for it on the original, and it was supposed to be on a compilation that was never released. I was pretty bad at correctly labeling all of my multitrack cassettes, and I wasn't sure this was the correct track, as I hadn't heard it in almost 15 years; I had to listen to it and everything else a few times to make sure it was the right one.
S: I believe this was the track that was supposed to be on the Omega 'zine compilation "Europa".
m[m]: On the second disc in the Blood Music set you've put seven unreleased tracks from before and around Blood Music, including your first ever release from 1993- what are your thoughts about these first recordings now and have they being remixed or altered at all since the original recordings?
M: Actually, none of the other tracks are unreleased; the first five were on our first limited cassette. Most of those are in pretty much the same form with very little change to the mix, except for "Thin" and "Empty", which I mixed into one track, just because "Thin" was really short and I thought it sounded better that way. Recording and mixing those songs years ago was a new thing for me, and I think the raw state suits them. It didn't take me long to realize that any tinkering I did would only diminish their impact. And I'm really happy to put these out there for mass consumption, so that no one has to pay $100 for the tape again..... The track "Hollow Earth" was released as a 7" in '96, and could have been longer than it originally was; we recorded more music for it. So that one's a more complete mix on the re-issue. The last song, "Summer Skin", was on a comp, and it's pretty much the same here, just a few minor changes to the mix; it's one of my favorite of our tracks from that era.
m[m] Who’s idea was it to not use the original Blood Music artwork & cover? S: I think it was unanimous? Not that we didn’t want to use the original art, but since the material was remixed we thought it’d be good to have a fresh look as well, and putting that in someone else’s hands to see what their vision would become took a load off of Mike shoulders.
M: Steve is being too kind regarding the original art, I really wouldn't have re-released Blood Music with it. The cover art was primitive and amateur even years ago when it was first issued; now it appears painfully so. I had zero design skills at the time (and only slightly more now), and the friend with a computer that helped me didn't either. I had some good images, but they were badly scanned and integrated, and the titles were too dark and out of place. A lesson hard learned, like most in my life....... Now, though, we've got that amazing art by Andre Coelho, and I couldn't be happier with it.
m[m] Since you've reissued Blood Music have you any plans to reissue your second album New Dark Age and how do you personally compare the two records & what changed in the recording/ composition process between New Dark Age and Blood music?
M: We have no current plans to re-issue New Dark Age; I'm not sure there are enough people out there that don't have it that want it. If the right label wanted to put it out, we'd certainly be interested, but we would also give Malignant Records the first option. Unlike Blood Music, it wouldn't be possible to do a special edition; there aren't any unreleased tracks from that time, and it was already mixed and mastered much more meticulously the first time. Though there's certainly potential for remixing, there's not the motivation; I'm quite happy with New Dark Age, and think it still sounds great. I really labored over it, and kind of hated it for a while after it was done, but I've come to love it over they years. For me, it's a completely different animal than Blood Music. We recorded it all via tapes in the mail, and, for my part, it was a much more sampler intensive project using new gear (except for my trust Ensoniq processor). I was living in a cramped apartment in Seattle, and felt pretty alone and isolated. I spent so long going over and over the songs, trying to get them mixed down just perfectly, that I became completely sick of them.....
m[m] In 2002 you released the Yen Pox & Troum album "Mnemonic Induction"- how did this come about, and how was it composed/ constructed? S: We have a long relationship with Stefan Knappe since the Drone 7” back around the time of the original release of Blood Music and we’ve always enjoyed Maeror Tri and Troum’s output, so it made sense for us to collaborate. As for the process, it was much like how Mike and I record; sending tapes back and forth until we felt the pieces were complete.
M: I mostly remember that it took longer to finish than it should have, which was completely my fault. I'd taken responsibility for the final arrangement and mix, and I really had trouble putting it all together. But I always have trouble with that; all of the music I'm involved in is like putting a big puzzle together, and finding the pieces that fit together can be frustrating. I was also using new gear for the collaboration, and getting the mix down just right was trying; I spent way too much time listening to the same tracks over and over and over again, and could no longer tell what was good; it all just sounded like one big noise to me. That was a big problem with Mnemonic Induction and New Dark Age, and by the time they were finished I kind of hated them, it was hard to hear anything good in them at all. Oddly enough, now they're probably the two favorite things I've done up till now, and I'm really happy with the way the Troum collaboration turned out, a great mix of their sound and ours. I can listen to it now and find myself mystified by the sounds on it, as if I had no part in their creation.
m[m] would you like to do any other future collaborations with Yen Pox –if so who? S: We do have an unfinished collaboration with Wolf Eyes from a year or 2 ago that we still need to complete, if the guys haven’t lost interest. The material that they sent to us is very powerful and the work in progress sounds great so far.
m[m] You're just preparing to put out your new mini album Universal Emptiness; can you tell us a bit about this new release and how you think it varies from your past work? M: Yes, it should be out soon, on Substantia Innominata (http://www.substantia-innominata.de/), as a lovely 10" album, two tracks, nearly 40 minutes long. Unfortunately, no cd at first, but we're set on making sure it comes out in some sort of digital format at some point. Personally, I'm really excited to get it out, I think it's some of the best music we've ever done. Which, of course, I'd have to say, but I tend to be pretty hard on myself...... Universal Emptiness was the first thing we've done utilizing a computer extensively; not just for recording, but also for sound creation and processing, though Steve did provide an organic atmosphere with his bass and voice work. Despite this change, I think it still sounds like you'd expect Yen Pox to sound, just a bit more advanced and refined; deep, atmospheric, bleak and cinematic, just as dark and dreamlike as ever. Using the computer for recording and mixing down has been a huge revelation for me; there's so much control, it's really helped to perfect and evolve our music. Not that it's without it's pitfalls; when there's a problem, it's usually a mysterious and debilitating one. I've definitely felt like smashing it into a thousand pieces before.......
S: According to Stefan at Substantia, it should be out late June or July.
m[m] Where there any particular influences (i.e books, movies, ect) you took on–board when making "Universal Emptiness" and how do you feel it compares to your other albums? M: I wouldn't say that there were any particular influences, the music usually comes from a place inside, rather than the noise outside. I certainly might hear music that makes me think "that's really great, I would love to have that quality in my work", but at the end of the day, it ends up sounding the way it does, regardless of my intents and desires. I could be listening to nothing but Tiny Tim, or black metal, and the music created would come out the same either way. That can be frustrating, when I really want to break away and try something really different, but the Yen Pox/Blood Box "sound" can be too difficult to escape.
In the case of Universal Emptiness, I honestly feel it to be some of our best work, I'm probably happier with it than just about anything else I've done. It really builds upon the sound of "New Dark Age", and refines and perfects it. It sounds much darker than I'd expected going into it.... I thought that age might have dulled our angst, but apparently not. Fortunately, the way it was composed, I was able to get it mixed down fairly easily, without listening to it a thousand times and becoming fatigued by the process. It's always nice to be able to enjoy listening to one's own music, which is personally not always the case.
m[m] You talk about using computers for recording, mix and manipulating your new mini album "Universal Emptiness"- do you think you future material become more computer based & are you worried you’ll lose Yen Pox’s organic edge? S: As for my input, I’m dead set on always using some kind of string instrument, vocals or other acoustic sound source, so that aspect probably won’t change.
M: The new material I've been recording this year is the most computer-centric stuff I've ever done, yet, somehow, it's much more organic sounding than I'd intended or expected. Even more than Universal Emptiness, even though that actually contains more real instruments and sound sources. I think there's a way that I go about creating music that gives it a certain consistent quality, no matter what equipment I'm using. Though, I'm not as concerned with it having an organic edge, as I am with it just sounding good; if it ended up sounding completely electronic and unreal, it wouldn't bother me a bit.
m[m] Do you think it would ever be possible for Yen Pox to do a live show & would this be something you'd be interested in doing? M: Anything is possible, but it would be quite difficult, and we'd risk disappointment. The big problem being that we live near each other, so there's no opportunity to practice and put together a show. It's difficult enough just performing myself, as Blood Box; I'm just now, after so many years, equipped to perform live and have it sound the way I want it to. With Yen Pox, I think I'd want to take it further, and it would have to be perfect, with just the right venue, great sound, multiple video screens, and we'd need a space to practice for a couple of days before the show. I'd actually love to do it, but don't foresee us having the chance to do it right anytime soon. Someday, perhaps.....
S: Let's hope so.
m[m] Both of you have solo projects as well; have either of you got any new releases planned? And when can we expect a new full length album from Yen Pox?
M: I'm finishing up a new Blood Box (http://www.myspace.com/bloodboxofficial) cd right now, which will hopefully be out by the end of the year, but haven't decided on a label just yet. As soon as I'm finished mixing that down, we plan on moving right into putting together new Yen Pox. We've both been recording a lot separately, so it shouldn't take too long; I definitely want to have it finished this year. That would be incredibly fast for us, but I've been more productive lately than in many, many years. Must be the fear of middle age breathing it's foul breath down my back.....
S: My intent is to finish up some long due VOS tracks for a split release and then concentrate my efforts toward the new Yen Pox material.
m[m] Have you set out any ideas for the New Yen Pox album yet? S: Unless Mike has a concept in mind, we’re just engaged in the individual recording efforts at the moment.
M: Yeah, I only ever think of concepts for our music in a very half-hearted way, and usually only in the final stages of recording..... and then, it's more for the feeling that the music gives me, the imagery, to help define ideas for titles and possible artwork. And somehow, in my head at least, that half-formed concept usually revolves around either apocalypse or soul-crushing vastness of space and time and all that is unknown. Not intentionally, it's just where the music takes me. I do plan on using more bass, viola and voice than I have in a long, long time on the next Yen Pox, and I'm counting on Steve to provide a lot of real intrumentation as well. That doesn't mean I expect it to sound like anything else we've done, quite the opposite. There's no reason to repeat ourselves.
m[m] Are there any more modern dark ambient projects you enjoy?
S: the [law-ra] collective, Antlers Mulm, Fjernlys, Troum are a few that come to mind.
M: Steve definitely keeps up with this sort of music more than I do, but I've heard a few things lately I like; if you're talking true dark ambient, then Treha Sektori, Zoat-Aon, and Inade's newest come to mind, but if you're talking about bands with ambient qualities to their music, I like the recent work from Voice of Eye, Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and the Pyramids/Nadja collaboration. There seems to be an increasing love of noise and ambience in music that lies far outside the pure forms of those styles; electro with deep ambient backdrops, hip hop acts like Dalek that create big sheets of atmospheric drone under their beats, experimental metal that's filled with noise and drone...... there's a lot out there to appreciate.
Thanks to Michael & Steven for their time/effort with the interview. The band's MySpace can be found here. The deluxe 8 panel DVD digipak double disc reissue of “Blood Music” is out now on Malignant Records, and the new 10” and forty minute vinyl only mini album “Universal Emptiness” is out shortly on Substantia Innominata. The first picture in the interview is taken from "Blood Music" reissue and is (C) Andre Coelho