Saturday, January 7, 2017

AMULETS: Planet of the Tapes

Ever since recording his debut EP on a single day back in 2013, 31 year old Austin TX musician Randall Taylor continues to merge ambient, drone, field recordings, post-rock and noise to create a blend of music that stirs the soul and sets the imagination ablaze.

With solo project Amulets, Taylor experiments with tape machines, circuit bent guitar pedals, and making his own homemade tape loops. As well as designing the cassettes, artwork and packaging for his releases. 

In the 3 years since the birth of Amulets, his music has been distributed via a plethora of labels such as: 

Wounded Knife (Poland) Heligator Records (Cincinnati, OH) Pirate Ship Records (Little Rock, AR) 
Spring Break Tapes (Los Angeles, CA) Horror Fiction Tapes (Grand Rapids, MI) and Never Anything Records (Portland, OR)

After many online showcases of his tape loops, live performances and collaborations with video artists, Randall has amassed a dedicated following and managed to successfully crowdfund a 2016 Spring US tour of the South West to promote his EP ‘Know your America’. 

This year has seen a flock of releases from Amulets, one of the most notable was ‘Personal Power’ born after Randall stumbled across cassettes of motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, he recycled and re-used every part of the original packaging by making a 2 cassette deluxe edition (now sold out) which also included Robbins’ original empowering message. 

Another was ‘Infinity Tapes’ (also sold out) a 2 part tape loop that came out last August, a tape that Randall encouraged his listeners to use in their own musical experiments.

The latest (at time of writing) Amulets release ‘False Horizon’ came out 22nd September on UK label Vanity Pill, which you can read my thoughts on after this interview.

DMD: What bands and artists had the biggest impact on you from growing up until now?

Randall Taylor: When I was in high school I was listening to a lot of emo bands like The Get Up Kids, The Anniversary, Saves The Day, and Thursday. As I got into college I started discovering more indie rock, electronic, metal, and eventually post-rock bands. 

During this time (and post college) I dove heavily into bands like Minus The Bear, Explosions in the Sky, ISIS, Refused, Russian Circles, and This Will Destroy You. I never really got into traditional ambient music, but always loved the aspect and influence of ambient music within post-rock.

DMD: Before Amulets, what were you doing musically?

RT: I was in a few bands back in Buffalo, NY where I went to college. After college I was in a 3 piece instrumental band called PRESIDIO. I played guitar in this band and really developed an interest in pedals and effects. After I moved to Austin I started an electronic side project called GEODESICS that was very much inspired by the indie electronic/chillwave scene of the time.

DMD: How did you come to start experimenting with tape loops and building up the now legendary suitcase of drone?

RT: With GEODESICS I made one album and never performed live because I quickly realized that I had no interest in learning Ableton or performing with a computer. I wanted to do something different. I became obsessed with finding live hardware based alternatives. I remember watching a gear run down video of Alessandro Cortini (Nine Inch Nails) where he showed how he used a 4 track tape recorder as an instrument. 

He would record separate chords on each track of the 4 track and use the sliders to play chord progressions. I was fascinated by this but wanted to do try this with cassette tape loops. I had never made a cassette tape loop at the time, so I then became obsessed with making tape loops and eventually fused the two ideas together. The first recorded experiments with this setup became The Old Testament album. 

DMD: There have been a number of religious references in your material, are you at all religious or hold a belief in God? 

RT: I am not very religious at all, but I do find it very fascinating. I grew up in a household where my dad was Christian-ish and my mom was Buddhist. They never really made me practice or believe in either, so I have always been floating somewhere in between. 

The use of religious materials in my releases is part curiosity, part inspiration. I have been finding A LOT of discarded religious books on tape while thrifting and have been constantly inspired to recycle and reuse these forgotten artifacts.

DMD: Have you always been a tape collector? Any chance of some Vinyl/CD releases in the future? 

RT: I had a bunch of tapes when I was younger, but then they were all replaced by CDs. I started seriously collecting vinyl during college and wasn’t until about 3 years ago I started buying tapes again. Since then my collection has blown up. As far as releasing, I definitely hope to do a vinyl release soon. I am in talks with a few labels so we shall see how it all works out. 

DMD: What made you want to start recycling the tapes and equipment? Was it because the newer tech just wasn't giving you the sounds you were after?

RT: I have been into thrifting since like high school, so once I started collecting tapes it felt natural to start thrifting for weird ones. I remember stumbling upon this huge box set of Jehovah’s Witness tapes and loving the printed look of the tapes. I immediately knew I wanted to re-purpose these tapes, but they were all varying lengths and not suitable for a traditional album. 

That's when I had the idea to make a droning tape loop album (William Basinkski style) and record over Side A, while keeping Side B or the original tape untouched. This became my recycled concept album New World Translation.

DMD: Please talk me through your recording and live gear set up.

RT: So the main hub/mixer for everything is my Tascam 414 tape recorder. It was broke when I got it and I was able to "fix it" with a paperclip. It still plays too fast and doesn't spin correctly - it kind of sputters if you look closely in some of my videos on youtube. Also due to this sputter glitch problem it can't play normal tapes, only the tape loops! 

The 414 tape loops are all pre-recorded chords or notes that I use for the main drones and progressions of each song. The 414 has two built in effects loops that I run delay, reverb, and tremolo through. 

To the right of the 414 is a Tascam Portastudio 4 track recorder. The tape loop in this is mainly used for added layers and texture which includes samples, field recordings, and small melodic parts. All sounds from this unit are run through separate delay, reverb, and echo and is run into the aux input of the Tascam 414. 

My guitar parts are all looped live and processed through my pedal board. From the pedal board the guitar signal goes into a Line 6 amp modeler, to a Korg Kaossiltor, and finally into the Tascam 414. 
I record all songs in real time as live (mostly) improvised sessions using this setup, constantly bouncing back and forth from tape loops to guitar parts. I play a MIM Fender ’72 custom reissue telecaster with added locking tuners and Seymour Duncan Hot Rails bridge pickup.

DMD: How did the ‘West by West West’ tour go? Was that your first tour experience? 

RT: The West by West West tour was so awesome! I met a lot of great people, stopped at several national parks, and shared the stage with so many talented artists. Even though it was a shit ton of driving (3833 miles, to be exact), it was such a great experience meeting people and fans who have both supported my music online and helped financially support this tour through crowdfunding. 

Their support of my music and meeting them face to face was really one of the best and most exciting parts about that tour, and really touring in general.

DMD: What was your first reaction to surpassing your goal on the crowdfund? 

RT: HOLY SHIT. That was my first initial reaction. Honestly I was very nervous to crowdfund bc it seemed tacky and I was ultimately afraid to realize that no one actually gave a shit about what I was doing. Sure some people bought some tapes, but to ask them for money to support a tour seemed not very realistic. I was truly blown away and flattered that people cared enough to support my tour and my music in general. 

DMD: What would be your 15 desert island disks?

RT: This question is REALLY hard and I hate picking favorites (also I don't really believe in guilty pleasures haha)...that being said, in no particular order:

  1. Weezer - Pinkerton
  2. Saves the Day - Through Being Cool
  3. Tim Hecker - Harmony in Ultraviolet
  4. Explosions in the Sky - Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever
  5. Sigur Ros - Takk
  6. Refused - The Shape of Punk to Come
  7. The Postal Service - Give Up
  8. Minus The Bear - Highly Refined Pirates
  9. Taylor Swift - 1989
  10. ISIS - Oceanic
  11. The Blood Brothers - Burn Piano Island, Burn
  12. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights
  13. The Get Up Kids - Something To Write Home About
  14. Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion
  15. Thursday - Full Collapse

Amulets: Suitcase of Drone

DMD: The earlier Amulets material was a bit more beat-driven, the more recent releases have been more drone based, will the drums be returning at all in the future? 

RT: So that first AMULETS EP was recorded a few years ago when I had an awful cold and stayed home from work. I had joked around with my friend about starting a joke witchhouse project because I was really into Salem at the time. 

I recorded all the songs that day in Garageband, made some cassettes, and put them on bandcamp. They sold out really fast and people actually liked my joke, so I kept making music under the name AMULETS. 

After playing out the beat oriented stuff I got bored and wanted to make/perform music without a computer. This got me interested in hardware. 

I love modular synths, but couldn't afford them so I began to experiment with tapes, tape loops, and pedals. After that I just dropped the drums all together and began focusing on how to create rhythm, movement, and texture through looping.

DMD: Apart from music, what else inspires you?

RT: I am constantly inspired by movies, nature, art, photography, and thrifting. Weird old found objects and antiquated technology have definitely inspired my music and become an important vehicle for my artistic expression.

DMD: I have noticed a general lack of vocals (unless it is the odd sample) do you have plans to add your voice in the future or will Amulets always be an instrumental project?

RT: I have never been much of a singer and never really had a desire to be. I know my strengths and they are not in my voice haha. That being said, I don't have any current plans of using vocals in AMULETS and plan to leave it as an open ended instrumental and experimental project. If I do ever decide to add vocals they will be someone else's and most likely be a different project all together.

DMD: How did releasing False Horizon on Vanity pill come around? Is this your UK label debut?

RT: So I remember really liking this Alocasia Garden tape and reaching out to Reece to collaborate sometime. He eventually got back to me and was like hey I run this label Vanity Pill, I love your stuff, let's release something. That was pretty much it. And yes I do believe this tape is my UK debut!

DMD: There is a fair amount of Harsh Noise coming out on False Horizon amongst the usual drones, tape loops and guitar parts, was this a conscious decision or it just happened naturally? 

RT: It definitely was a conscious decision to be more noisy and experimental. Every album I try and incorporate a new piece of gear or sonic element into the songs, so knowing that Vanity Pill had a few noisier releases, I wanted to create something that would be a fitting and an experiment in my own sonic limits. 

My thoughts on ‘False Horizon’ 
Since 2014, Vanity Pill haven’t been putting a foot wrong, helping them become one of the UK’s finest experimental cassette labels. False Horizon is just another shining example.

Embodying the track’s title, the short intro 'Abstract' kicks things off with a few metallic echoes flying around the place, then a single flicker cues the next track. ‘Corner Of The Eyes’ flares up into a towering audio tapestry, with high guitar notes cut through that edge on piercing. Meanwhile underneath, droning chords decompose into a low hum bringing this monolith to a stop with the sounds of tape player buttons being pressed.

Third track ‘Loss_Less’ goes in more of a Noise-lite direction, the low hum is still flickering away there, but it's overwhelmed by some jumbled rumblings. The title track has an angelic synth line looking down from above, trying to break through but obscured by a static shroud. ‘Decryption’ brings a short but not overwhelming shot of noise blended with extracts of speech.

The first thing that happens in closing track ‘Between The Margins’ is that the harshness reaches it's peak, but then the drone tapestry returns, this time it's at it's most cathartic and evocative point. The noise shoots through again and out of nowhere it's all replaced by a department store tannoy that jolts you awake from a beautiful musical dream.

A great addition to an already impressive roster, False Horizon mixes the rough with the smooth and shows off a rarely heard noisey side of Amulets. Bearing in mind this release doesn't set out to fry your ear drums, but it keeps the trademark dramatic drones of Amulets as the delicious thick bread in this ambient noise audio sandwich. Pick up an Amulet today and feel the power and protection.

Read an interview with another Vanity Pill artist James Shearman here

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