Monday, February 6, 2017

Tuonela: Primitive Progressive

At 66 years of age, Australian Sound Artist Ian Rochford is undeterred from making a very listenable racket! 

Inspired by the experimental, boundary breaking acts of the late 60’s and 70’s, these days Ian can be found utilising field recordings and found sound through basic music software to create classically infused drone and dark ambient soundscapes and has gathered a large number of followers on Soundcloud.

Latest Tuonela effort ‘A Rover’s Guide to Coastal Chambers’ is a dreamy sci-fi soundtrack but not without a few doses of nail biting tension, and might just be Ian's most progressive release so far. The sounds made by Ian are proof that you don’t need top of the range gear or to speak fluent theory to produce great music, all you need is a good imagination…
Listen below:

DMD: What is the meaning behind the name Tuonela?

Ian Rochford: It’s the name for the Underworld in Finnish mythology. There’s no deep significance in that, other than originally I was intending to create a body of dark ambient work and it suited, even though it wasn’t my first choice.

The first track I created digitally (something wicked this way comes) used a recording of The Swan of Tuonela as it’s source. It was two am and I was anxious to post it. I tried to register on SoundCloud under several names, all of which were taken. Tuonela wasn’t. I was going to change it (initially I couldn’t pronounce it properly myself), but it stuck, and it certainly attracted the interest of several serious dark ambient artists from Northern Europe.

DMD: What albums/artists influenced you throughout your childhood?

IR: Just about all of them. Remember, we’re talking about the 50s and 60s here. I loved radio dramas, and the weird noises my cousin picked up on his crystal set. He became a Beatles fan, but teenage me fell for the Four Seasons, The Animals, Stones, then Pink Floyd, blues records… you name it, I bought it. In the late 60’s I discovered prog rock and electronic music. I just devoured everything. 

I have to say one record that made a lasting impression and still intrigues me today was called “An Electric Storm” by White Noise, who were David Vorhaus and the extraordinary Delia Derbyshire. I regard "The Visitation" as the first piece of dark ambient I ever experienced, goose-bump stuff in its day.

DMD: What albums / artists do you listen to the most today?

IR: I don’t really follow any listening program anymore. I’m slowly selling off my collection, so I’m sort of working my way backwards through a garage full of vinyl, good and odd. A typical afternoon might include Savoy Brown, Miles Davis, Wrekmeister Harmonies, Mozart and Jeff Beck.

 I’ve bought a lot of experimental, dark ambient & drone stuff over the last few years, but had to put the brakes on as money and space became hard to find. At the moment I suppose my ‘favourites’ are the artists I listen to most on SoundCloud, who tend to create in the same sound world that I do. 

DMD: Why do you describe yourself as a primitive musician and what instruments do you play?
IR: I bought a guitar when I was seventeen, a lovely old Hofner jazz guitar with f-holes. I still have it and still can’t play it. I can plunk out a clumsy 12-bar and a crappy version of Greensleeves, and that‘s about it. I used to take it with me to parties and gatherings. Finally someone asked me to stop.

I sometimes use instruments to create sound samples for digital misuse – you know, lean on the keyboard, play the two chords I know. I now have four guitars I can’t really play. I even bought a duduk, but you need breath control for that – I nearly black out if I try to play it for more than two minutes. I have a box of assorted noise makers.

This is the main reason I call myself a ‘sound artist’ rather than a musician. I know quite a few good musicians and I know the lifetime of hard work and dedication (not to mention ability and talent) that they have applied to their art. I have no talent, an appalling sense of rhythm and fat fingers. I have to get there on a different path.

DMD: Your first release was the beautiful drone trip 'Tunnel to the Sun' back in January 2012. What would you say has changed about your music since then?

IR: Thanks, it’s still a bit of a favourite. That was the first Bandcamp posting – I’d been posting on Soundcloud since mid-2011. ‘Tunnel’ was an experiment using recorded sound. I’d bought a Tascam DR-07 and was recording everything. It was made from the sound of my electric jug boiling on a marble slab. I also made a track from the sound of my cat snoring

I guess not a lot has changed. The artists who directly inspired me to start this journey were 36, Barn Owl and Machinefabriek (I was impressed that one of his tracks melted the crossovers in my speakers). I started playing around with a copy of Audacity and was hooked. As I experimented I learned more, and a number of Soundcloud artists were very generous with advice regarding effects, software etc.

DMD: Other than Tunnel…what are your other favourites you have released or would recommend to a first time Tuonela listener?

IR: That’s tricky – I’ve released so much that I can’t remember a lot of it. I’d begin with the stuff on my SoundCloud home page, a track called ‘Return Of The Sorcerers’ and then just wade in and start listening randomly. Good question, though – I might make up a beginners playlist. Some of the early stuff was taken down before I got a pro account, you’ll find it on bandcamp in the Early Voyages series.

DMD: What equipment do you use for recording/capturing your sounds? 

IR: Not much. The Tascam recorder is great for field recordings, but other than that most of the sounds I work with I either create from scratch digitally, capture off the net or from old cassettes and vinyl. I don’t have a synth and still haven’t bothered to learn how to use Ableton.

DMD: Where you in many bands before Tuonela?

IR: I was never in a band. We used to jam a lot when the world was young. I played some naïve guitar early on with friends to raise money for a film, and got stage fright the second time & hid in the balcony. End of career!

DMD: What happened for you musically between those early days and up to the birth of Tuonela?

IR: Not a lot. I got caught up with filmmaking in the 70s and 80s, went to film school, got married and never really considered that I’d be doing anything (musical) like this. The triggers were a tape of synth noodling I recorded one drunk & stoned evening in the 90s, hearing a wave of new ambient (Steve Roach etc) and buying a couple of albums. 

(I think Memories In Widescreen by 36 was one of the first). I had started using Audacity (best free software ever) to record stuff off the net & the radio, and started experimenting with the effects suite. I posted my first track online shortly after that, in 2011.

DMD: What else inspires you to make music? 

IR: All of the above, in different ways and combinations and at different times. I just finished reading Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series, found it very inspirational in that way that we use to create the soundtracks to “mind movies”. 

I’ve never had any problem envisioning disturbing things. I guess I’m trying (a lot of the time) to create soundtracks for nightmares. Being unburdened by any melodic ability helps, to a point.

DMD: What other books/films do you like and had a big impact on you?

IR: Difficult to be specific, I think everything has an influence, some more than others.

DMD: Any gigs you saw in your youth that left a lasting impression on you? 

IR: All of them! It was cheap and easy to get tickets back in the 70s (usually for about $5 Australian), so we saw Frank Zappa, Yes, Jethro Tull, Rolling Stones, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bob Marley, Osibisa, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Black Sabbath, Split Enz, Tangerine Dream, Santana, Free, Pentangle, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Caravan, Slade… there were probably others, but the memory ain’t what it used to be. Zappa and John Martyn were quite outstanding, as was Janis Ian of all people.

DMD: Do you perform live with Tuonela at all? Do you have any other projects that you perform with? 

IR: No, it’s really all about digital creation, just an old guy with an old pc and a load of (mostly) free software.

DMD: Do you have any favourites when it comes to software?

IR: Whenever I think I’ve reached the limit of what my cheap or free software can do, it surprises me. One of my favourites is a demo copy of The Mangle, which I use as a standalone processor. This severely limits what it can do, but I’m still extracting weird and wonderful sounds from it. 

DMD: Who are the artists you listen to the most on Soundcloud?

IR: It varies a lot from week to week, and I’ve probably omitted a lot of people I admire greatly from what is a woefully incomplete list...
Boson Spin (a fellow Aussie)

DMD:  Who does the artwork for Tuonela?

IR: I do most of it, using a brilliant free program called, though I do occasionally ‘borrow’ a photo or picture from the net. I used quite a few by FrodoK ( ) for my ‘Sorcerers’ series, without permission I’m afraid, though I always attribute work where possible. Or mangle it so much that it’s unrecognisable!

DMD: When you aren’t making music what do you do with your time? What is your profession?

IR: Well, for the last couple of decades I’ve written for TV – mostly comedy – but with no work for a long time now you could probably call me retired.

DMD: Name your favourite dark ambient/drone albums

IR: Not easily, I tend to jump from track to track – It’s hard to go past early Zoviet France and Throbbing Gristle – I remember listening to TG in the late 70s and that was a life-changing experience. 

Early stuff by 36, Nadja, Barn Owl. I listened to so much in a short time that it was difficult to find time to play anything twice! One afternoon I played a Machinefabriek CD so loud that my speakers overheated and filled the house with smoke. That was impressive…

DMD: Name your favourite classic prog rock albums

IR: Everything by Yes. Everything by Genesis, up to “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”. I used to love Brain Salad Surgery by ELP, but it’s lost a bit of its lustre over the years. “Thick As A Brick” by Jethro Tull. Most early King Crimson. Pink Floyd. Frank Zappa.

Pretty predictable so far… let’s see…   “Butterflies” by Joy Unlimited, Culpeper’s Orchard, Gong (the early Daevid Allen incarnation) Peter Hammill, Gracious, Soft Machine and so on. I bought everything I could lay hands on back in the day.  

All that obscure Vertigo stuff, early Harvest… some are worth a fortune now. Pity I don’t still have them! Lots of jazz, too. I had a friend who loved jazz and we listened to a lot of stuff, especially Miles Davis when he started experimenting with fusion.

Here’s some Albums that really shaped my musical imagination:
“An Electric Storm” by White Noise ; “We’re Only In It For The Money” – Mothers Of Invention; Soundtrack of 2001; Sgt Peppers, The White Album; Vanilla Fudge (Yeah, I know…); The Blues Alone – John Mayall; My Favourite Things – John Coltrane

DMD: I think its absolutely brilliant that an older guy like yourself is producing some stellar musical work! Do you often encounter any other music-makers online who are also in their 60’s?

IR: I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m 66 this year! Yes, interestingly I find that a lot of my sonic compatriots on SoundCloud are in the same age group.

DMD: Is there a big following for this type of music in Australia?

IR: There seems to be, and growing. Some very respectable and successful artists are working here and running labels, particularly Lawrence English and Room 40 and the wandering expatriate Kate Car and her Flaming Pines project.

DMD: You describe your vinyl collection as 'burdensome.' Do you download music these days and do you have any super rare vinyl you would never part with?

IR: I used to download lots, but never got around to listening to much of it. I still do occasionally, but I just lost a hard drive full and am experiencing a new round of techno-fear, combined with feeling a bit weary from lugging all this stuff around and having nowhere to put it. Getting a bit tired of stuff…

DMD: Finally, I must say that I admire your approach, what is it that keeps you sat at the computer making music?

IR: Thanks again for taking an interest in my sounds - it's funny, I still occasionally baulk at using the term 'music', even though that ground has been well and truly broken. I've known some good and even great musicians and I know how much time, sweat and talent goes into their art, sometimes I feel that whatever it is that I do comes a little too easily... then I sometimes sit back and think "Wow, how did I do that?" it doesn't happen a lot, but it's why I keep going... 

Follow Tuonela on soundcloud here:

Bandcamp here:

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for a most inspiring interview! All best wishes from David Paganin