Dave Stafford, August 2010: “Distant” is the first in the at-a-distance series of
recordings by Bindlestiff, and it was created, compiled and produced not too long
after Bryan Helm moved from California to Colorado, in 1996.
In 1995, we had finished our master ambient work, “Quiet”, with a long-form ambient
piece. Except for a couple of isolated examples on the “Early” album, the band never
really got to experiment with long, ambient loops except on stage – and the long
pieces played live didn’t tend to be ambient.
In the studio, however, we had created “Into Blue” as the closing piece for our ambient
album, and clocking in at 23 minutes 20 seconds, this was an obvious pointer to what
our next album should be.
Because we were separated physically, and could no longer interact to create band
compositions “live” in the studio, we developed a new way of working that was very
simple, and very effective. One of us would record a long, long loop – the other
would overdub it, usually live, with one loop – and that would be the piece.
I am pretty sure that we had two of the three pieces, but were stuck for what the
third one would be, when I suggested that I do a very ambient re-mix of “Into Blue”.
But as far as how the tracks were created, what instruments were played, when compared
to other records, that information is quite sketchy when it comes to the three long,
beautiful tracks that form “Distant”.
I think it’s remarkable that it got made at all, Bryan was adjusting to life in Colorado,
I was adjusting to a world without my best friend and partner Bryan in it, trying
to acclimate myself to being a “solo artist”, but somehow, tracks were mailed back
and forth, and, the album was made.
So in 1996, we created a work perhaps more ambient, more engaging, more totally immersive
than “Quiet” but did so without sitting in the same room.
It’s a testament to how well we work together, that we could still make a record
of such quality when hampered by the fact that we could no longer work in our “live
in the studio” mode that most Bindlestiff tracks were created within.
ENDLESS SUCCESSION OF WAVES
I can hear that in my track, the piece of tape that I’ve submitted for this song,
I’ve sampled a particular Bill Nelson CD, which in turn was a female, angelic voice
that Bill Nelson had sampled, so, that’s a sampled sample, if you will, to start
with. It sounds like I’ve layered several very small pieces of the voice into a
longer loop, I can hear more than one sample there, but beyond that, I don’t really
know how this piece was created.
There is a lovely, high pitched melody, that wanders in and out of the piece, insistent,
that duets quite effectively with the female voices, I think they work very well
together, while at the same time, there are a lot of long “ahhhs” similar in tonal
quality to some of the vocal pieces on Brian Eno’s “Music For Airports”, so those
long, even, vocal lines underpin the “solo voices” and high pitched melodies beautifully.
It’s also a testament to how well I’ve mixed Bryan’s samples and my samples, because
now, from 14 years later, I can no longer tell, beyond the obvious female voices
that I know I sampled the sample of, what bits of what music come from what track
and who made what sounds on what track and how they are blended.
The piece is mixed, it’s complete, and it almost makes no sense to try and understand
it’s components, because they are not what is important, it’s the mood, it’s the
sound, it’s the atmosphere that draws us in. After a few minutes, you just naturally
start to relax, it gets under your skin, and it makes you feel…calmer.
Like an endless succession of waves. The title comes, of course, from the lyric
of an old Van Der Graaf Generator B-side, a track called “W” which begins with the
words “Life is endless succession of waves…you’re happy and your sad…” (Peter Hammill).
And for some reason, that was the phrase that for me, describes how this song “sounds”.
It bears no musical resemblance to the track “W”, I just borrowed the lovely phrase
because it expresses very well how this track feels – like a beautiful, warm wave,
washing over you over and over again while you lay on a sunlit, sandy beach.
NO OTHER OCEAN
This is the single longest track that Bindlestiff ever recorded, and one of the most
ambient and most beautiful out of the entire Bindlestiff OR the entire Dave Stafford
I would suggest that the backing track from this, that the master, must have been
on a 60 minute cassette, and Bryan just filled the tape with the loop and then mailed
me the cassette.
The good thing about that is, it gives this loop time to really develop, and to allow
the patterns created by repetition to sink in, to let you hear different configurations
of sounds as the piece progresses.
Bryan’s part is some kind of synthesizers, a string-like sound, that swells and disappears
and contains silences, but always gentle, revolving, quiet, ambient. I was blown
away by his loop, and almost couldn’t add a part of my own, I did eventually come
up with a long, unusual energy bow guitar loop, sparse, in a big reverb, but also
with that beautiful MIDI continuous controller harmoniser pitch pedal, so along with
the ambient ebows, you get the occasional artefact generated by the harmoniser –
so, beautifully harmonised loop through a very big, beautiful reverb…heaven.
So what would have happened, I would have noise reduced and mastered Bryan’s tape
onto two tracks of the TEAC 3340S four track , running 1/4 inch tape at 15 inches
per second, and then, I would have set up my guitar, and created the loop with my
ebow while the piece played, possibly starting up with it, fading in live with it,
then locking the loop and letting it run until the end once I was happy with the
content of it.
So my guitar would start out as live, then quickly become a loop, and, it was then
just running, for 27 or 28 minutes, through the 24-bit reverb, which I can hear that
I am manually changing the level of reverb on the ebow loop as the recording is being
The ebow loop is really low profile, I’ve buried it in tons of reverb, and used the
“turn the tone control on your guitar all the way to zero” technique too, anything
to make it as unobtrusive as possible.
Bryan’s loop also contains some surprises, occasionally, little bits of organ appear
out of nowhere, and are then gone again as quickly as they appear, and the lovely,
slowly-revolving loop of beautiful strings continues unabated.
I think I loved Bryan’s loop a lot and was fairly afraid to ruin it with my overdub,
so I did something fairly minimal, that I could just let run, that would fit, but
would have so much reverb, and would be mixed low enough that the beauty of Bryan’s
original loop would drive the piece forward.
More surprises from Mr. Helm, lovely tinkly synths appear quietly, play for a little
while, then disappear, but nothing is jarring, nothing is intrusive, and both loops
are just lovely. It’s also really nice how well they “fit together” – it was no
problem to do this, I just had to create something quiet, calm and a bit dark that
would compliment what Bryan had done.
If I am not mistaken, when the cassette arrived, it was unaccompanied, and it had
scrawled across it in big black letters “NO OTHER OCEAN” so there was never any question
about what the piece should be called.
This is a Bryan Helm production, composed and envisioned and realised by Bryan, with
the amazing basic string loop, then, big spaces where he plays NOTHING, then, the
occasional organ or synth…beautiful little complimentary melodies, never too busy,
never, ever intrusive – just supporting and building up what is a simple, beautiful
piece of music.
All I could ever do in this case is HOPE that my “contributions” to the piece helped
rather than hindered it.
I believe in the end, I got the right mood, and more importantly, the right mix,
so the true beauty of “No Other Ocean” could shine through – and, it does.
Well, we had two pieces complete, and needed a third. We had no raw material, no
leftover loops that were long enough (having agreed already that this album should
be all lengthy ambient pieces) – so, I had the idea of creating a new version of
“Into Blue”, a re-mixed version, to use to close out the “Distant” CD.
I basically took the master of Into Blue, and transferred it from one reel to reel
recorder to another, but while doing so, I made some changes to it sonically – I
bathed it in a massive reverb, that did change the tonal character significantly,
I spent a lot of time trying to see if I could make this already fairly ambient piece
I tired various treatments, different reverb rooms, eventually settling on one that
made the piece darker, deeper, and less “present”.
At that point in time, in mid or late 1996, I think that our view was that this might
be our last album. So the decision to reincarnate “Into Blue” as “Into Violet”,
again, putting it last, well, it demonstrates the high regard that we both had for
the track on the one hand, and is a “fitting end” to an excellent career as a live
band and an excellent run of five classic, ambient records, that can stand up easily
to any of the established “greats” of ambient music.
“Distant”, then, was possibly to be the last – that is, until “Late” came along one
For me, “Distant” is a record I can put on if I want to hear something long-form,
something ambient, in a very similar way that I might put on “Music For Airports”,
or “Thursday Afternoon” or “Neroli” by Brian Eno, for me, “Distant” has an equal
degree of ambience, and is just as calming, relaxing and meditative as any of those
Listening now, I can feel myself falling into the trancelike state that “Into Violet”
invariably puts me in – it draws you in, the repetitions becoming more and more beautiful
with each iteration of the loop, and in the massive, lush reverb – it’s just loop
heaven distilled down into three distinctive, wonderful, very ambient tracks.