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A Scanner Darkly [2005-05-21]

Michael J V Hensley has over the last ten years or so produced some of the best dark Ambient/ drone music around. Under his solo project name Blood Box. And with Steven Hall in the much praised Yen Pox, as well as a few other collaborations.
Towards the end of last year he released his second Solo album The Iron Dream (which I reviewed here ). He kindly agreed to give me an interview via email.

m[m] How did the recording process differ on The Iron Dream to your first album A World of hurt- did you use different equipment?
Michael Yes, totally different gear, I think the only thing that I still use from that period is my effects processor; it's one of the first pieces of gear I ever bought, and, especially in the beginning, it's had a huge impact on my personal "sound". A lot of the big, vaporous walls of sound that I've created have been due almost completely to use of my processor, though now I've backed off the big effects and focus more on the sounds themselves. I have a good sampler and digital multi track, so that helps. I still haven't joined the computer revolution though, I'm a bit technically challenged when it comes to these things. I'm a button pusher, a knob turner.

m[m] How long period of time do the tracks The Iron Dream date from?
Michael Well, I was working on new Blood Box material for quite a few years, but most of what ended up on the cd was recorded within the previous year, Very little older stuff made the final cut. I'm never really completely satisfied with whatever I'm doing at the moment, so Iíll work on putting an album together indefinitely, until the label finally prods me hard enough to give it up.

m[m] I believe you played live some years back? How did this work? Was it recorded? Any back drop i.e. slides etc? Any thoughts to play live again?
Michael I'm getting ready to play a show in April here in Seattle, the first one I've done in a couple of years. I've played a few shows before, with varying degrees of success. I can't honestly say that I find it a fulfilling experience, usually it's a one-time gig, which I spend 2 or 3 stressful weeks preparing for, after which I perform for less than 50 people (sometimes far less). Sometimes I feel pretty good afterwards, other
times, it sounds nothing like I planned, or the stage monitors muddy up things so much that I have no idea how I sound. It's always frustrating when you're in the middle of a performance, and every time you hit a key, nothing sounds the way it's supposed to. When it sounds great and the crowd seems to be really listening, it can be good. Just a lot of work for a small moment of elation. Also, since I don't sequence anything, and rely only minimally on a backing tape, there's a lot opportunity for me to mess things up and make a fool of myself.

m[m] How did the show in April go?
Michael It was ok, though as usual with such things, I wasn't really able to tell how it sounded, my position made it all sound muddy and "wrong", so I didn't really feel like I'd done my best. A friend of mine did some visuals for me, which I'm sure were great, but I was too busy to take a look myself unfortunately. Really wish I could have just stepped back and watched. It was a fairly small show, only about 50 people, but a lot of good friends came out and supported me, which was nice. Tom from control came all the way from California to visit and play the show with me, which was great, made it all worthwhile.

m[m] When recording a track do you have a certain vision
in mind? I find your work conjure up all kinds of imagery to me.
Michael I can't really say that I have a particular vision myself, though Sometimes just working on the music conjures some great imagery in my head, just as it does for you when you listen to the finished product. I'd also say that it's not so much about what the music makes you see, but the things you can't see, just out of reach. Things almost too large or alien for our small minds to comprehend fully, but only begin to imagine, the infinity of space and time, the unknown interior of a black hole, the impossible centre of the sun, the mysterious nature of reality itself. My favourite ride at Disneyland when I was young was called "adventure through inner space", it gave you the illusion of shrinking down, to the size of a snowflake, then a water molecule, then inside of an atom towards its nucleus. I miss that one, it's been gone for almost 20 years now. But that ride fired my imagination to contemplate that which I cannot see or truly know, and that's something I feel I accomplish with music. However, I am human, and carry with me those human weaknesses, emotions, desires, fears and the other generally horrific and amazing chemical reactions that occur in our brains. And this is something that I strive more and more to inject in my music: the emotion, the sadness, the human condition in the midst of an vast and mysterious universe, not to mention the mysteries that reside inside our own bodies and minds.

m[m] I recall reading an interview with you and Steven in Spectrum Magazine (no 4). Stating you had thought's of remixing and reissuing your long out of print Yen Pox classic debut Blood Music, is this still a possibility?
Michael I think so, yes. Malignant Records recently brought up the Possibility, and I'm certainly agreeable to the idea. I've never been happy with the
audio quality of the cd, it was never really mastered properly, and the levels are way too low. There are also a couple of areas I wish I'd mixed down
differently. The mix down process for me is a big component of the music, I can radically change the structure of a song just by changing things a bit when mixing down, so there are a few possible different songs within each song, if that makes sense. It can be a challenge sometimes to decide on the best path to take, especially as after listening to it all over and over again I really have trouble telling what works and what doesn't. With Blood Music there were a few lessons I hadn't learned yet, and it would be nice to make it sound the way it should have. If, when, we do this, it will
almost certainly be different enough sounding for even original fans of the work to take a second look, it would likely be a fairly radical remixing, and maybe an extra track. Can't say I've ever liked the cover for it either, so
it'll be nice to have another go at that as well.
We'd like to do the same thing with our original Yen Pox cassette release as well, even more so since it's never been available on cd. Right now we're exploring the possibility of releasing this ourselves, perhaps with an
extra cd of unreleased recordings from the same time period. If we're not up to it, we'll let someone else take it, so it'll come out one way or the other, I just need to work on the remixing and mastering.

m[m] I see from Steven's site that some of your Yen Pox material was used on the film Brain Robbers from out of space How did this come about? And what material is used?
Michael I really have no idea what's been used, it's all stuff from Blood Music I think, maybe some from New Dark Age, but I'm not sure, I havenít seen It yet. The guy making the movie just wrote to Steve and asked him if he could use some music, and we both love those old grade-z schlock flicks this Is supposedly a tribute to, so, no problem. It's one of those made in your spare time, no-budget films, so it's taken a while. I'm looking forward to seeing if it was worth it...

m[m] Have you been offered any more soundtrack work?
Michael I wish, but no, unfortunately not.

m[m] And if you could have recorded a soundtrack for a film?
Michael That's a tough question, most of the movies I love already have great soundtracks, and I certainly don't have the ego to claim that I could have improved upon them. I often watch movies and think "the music in this scene is totally wrong, it should sound more like.....", and then I build a little soundscape in my head. Especially movies today, the art of subtlety has been lost by all but a small handful of filmmakers and composers. It's all about using music as a weapon to beat into your skull whatever emotion the film wants you to feel: be scared, be sad, be excited... the composing and mixing of the music is done with such a heavy hand so as to ensure that dim witted audiences get the point and know what they're supposed to feel. Don't get me wrong, this is fine and great for a lot movies, big action spectacles and the like, hell, I love the original Planet of the Apes score, Jerry Goldsmith was a god when it came to these larger-than-life movie scores. And one thing that made him great was that even with these big, over-the-top scores he'd write, it never sounded forced or too heavy-handed in the context of the films. I think modern dramas are the worst offenders, they all seem to either have over-saccharine, too loud, string scores, or crappy pop music. And of course there's the over-reliance on popular music in general in movies, it's so lazy. There's nothing I hate more than "music video" moments in movies, when they play a good chunk of some shitty song way to loudly over a scene. I remember years ago seeing David Lynch's Lost Highway and being completely disillusioned that he of all people had gone this route, half the movie seemed like an advertisement for the soundtrack cd.
If I could record the soundtrack for a film, I'd probably like to do Some sort of deeply depressing drama or psychological horror, movies like Das Experiment or The Machinist or The Tenant or Repulsion, where the layers of dread and tension are slowly and carefully built up, I think I'd be most effective with something like that.

m[m] You have collaborated (both on your own and with Steven) with a few people i.e. Troum, Jonathan Canady and Nothing; how did each come about?
Michael Jon and I were friends when I lived in Denver, and we just decided to hang out and make music sometime, just for fun. With Nothing, I had played A show with him in San Francisco, and was impressed with his set, and I thought it had good remix potential, so I offered to try it. The Troum thing, I hate to say, I don't really remember how that came about, it was so long ago. Steve was really the one that set that up, and I'm glad he did.

m[m] Any plans for any more collaboration in the future?
Michael At some point, I'll probably get some music done with Thomas Garrison Of Control, he does some amazing power electronics, death industrial stuff. I don't know anyone involved in noise who spends as much time exploring new technology and pushing themselves to improve. I really wish I had a tenth of his drive. Anyway, I'd like to try and combine his knack for harsh, stark brutality and mine for deep, emotional drone.

m[m] I've always admired your cover artwork - Yen Pox's New Dark Age, and Blood Box' The Iron Dream etc - how many covers have you worked on all together?
Michael Thanks, I really appreciate that, I'm definitely not a graphic artist and art is completely subjective, so as long as someone else out there likes my covers, then I'm doing okay. I've contributed in some way to all of the Yen Pox and Blood Box covers except for the Troum collaboration, which was luckily done by Stephen O'Malley. That's a cover I really love and am proud to have associated with my music.

m[m] So what's next in the pipe line? Any new Yen pox material or Blood box or, anything else?
Michael Besides working on the Yen Pox reissues, we're finally working on new Material, hopefully we'll have something ready by then end of the year. I've also got another cd's worth of Blood Box music just about done, Some of it was recorded during the same sessions as The Iron Dream, and some is more recent. Not sure what I'm going to do with it yet. In the past few years, I've made the bad choice of committing to releasing music on a label before the music has even been recorded. This works for some people, the necessity, the deadline, the commitment; but not for me... I've come to realize that I don't enjoy feeling obligated to make music, at least on such a small level. I don't make any money doing this, it's a past time that costs me, so it's got to be for my own enjoyment above all else. If others want to hear it, and enjoy it, then even better. But my own needs have to come first, or else it just becomes a task, with low rewards. So I've made a promise to myself to go back to making music the way I used to, for Pleasure... then, when and if I record enough music that I want to Share with the world, I'll find a label to help me do so. I think I'll be much happier in the long run.

Thanks to Micheal for the interview. The Pictures used in the interview where taken at Aprilís Blood Box show in Seattle. You can Download two tracks from The Iron Dream here, Stevenís Vos, Yen Pox, and Blood Box site is here and a new site dealing with all the projects is here.

Roger Batty
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