interview with dave stafford

reprinted from AUTOreverse magazine

 

dave stafford gets a standing Ovation

 

Anyone who’s read AUTOreverse in the past couple of years is aware of DAVE STAFFORD. I was introduced to his music in 1995, when he submitted a radical, near-ambient, ebow-crazed version of “Ballet For A Rainy Day” for the XTC tribute SKYLACKING that I was assembling. A couple of years later he started sending his CDs in for review in AUTO and I basically loved all of them. It’s a rare thing indeed to find an artist in any sector of the commercial hierarchy that produces such consistently pleasing music.

 

STAFFORD’s music is mostly ambient soundscapes created with an Ibanez Destroyer guitar and an array of effects. He also dabbles in songwriting, but more as a by-product of hours of improvisation and looping than a burning need to “be understood” or whatever it is that drives songwriters. Hell, I don’t know.

 

PUREAMBIENT.COM is STAFFORD’s microlabel, which also releases music by BINDLESTIFF, THE DOZEY LUMPS, ANTIFADE, FUTURA, TIKTOK, KEN MISTOVE, PETER SCHAEFER, SAFFRON MATTED VOIDS and BRYAN HELM. And there’s not a dud among them.

 

DAVE STAFFORD doesn’t come from a musical family. Inspired to pick up the guitar by THE BEATLES, he went through several phases of early development, from heavy metal to progressive art-rock and back again. Listening to ENO and FRIPP combined with later seeing BILL NELSON live all inspired STAFFORD to head down the Road Of Ambience.

 

Inspired by the BILL NELSON gig to investigate the ebow (a hand-held, battery-powered “electronic bow” held over a guitar string, causing it to vibrate as long as it is held in place. It’s used in place of the traditional guitar pick. You’ve heard it before on records by DURAN DURAN, BIG COUNTRY and DAVID BOWIE) as a primary sonic tool, STAFFORD mostly left behind the early obsessions with HENDRIX, PAGE, HACKETT and HOWE. He began experimenting with the infinite sustain afforded by the ebow, eventually using the tool more than a regular old guitar pick.

 

“BILL NELSON had become a “guitar hero” in the early seventies, but later became disillusioned with the guitar solo as the be-all end-all. I was simultaneously realizing the same thing. BILL turned to the ebow, playing long, sinuous synthy-sounding solos in place of his guitar hero fretwork. I recall one interview where he called the guitar solo “a devalued currency” and mentioned that he was playing guitar mostly with the energy bow. He said people asked him constantly why he had given up the guitar. What they didn’t realize was that he was playing as much or more guitar than before...only with the ebow, which to this day most people don’t connect with as being a guitar. I believe the assumption is that it’s a synth, or a long sustained note held and turned up really loud through a Marshall, like on THE CARS’ “Since You’ve Gone.”

 

“I’ve heard no other guitarist use the ebow with quite the skill that Bill Nelson did in the early 80s. Others used it but it was often gimmicky. BILL took it and developed an amazing technique, and I have an enormous amount of respect for the work he accomplished using this remarkable little device. I love the sound it makes. A wise man once said “any fool can play fast”...Whereas the ebow allows me to play really, really slow...execute really, really LONG notes...which is eminently suited to an ambient/looping atmosphere. Sometimes it’s appropriate to play quickly with the ebow, but its strong suit is in its long, flowing tones.”

 

For all of the power of the influences of BILL NELSON and the ebow, the pivotal moment in DAVE STAFFORD’s musical development was yet to come.

 

“In 1988, in a record shop that I never go into, I picked up a free music magazine I’d never seen before. Inside was a tiny note mentioning that ROBERT FRIPP would be giving a GUITAR CRAFT course in Malibu, and that if you were interested in attending, you were to write a letter stating why you wanted to attend and send it in to MR FRIPP.

“I had heard of GUITAR CRAFT but I never thought I might participate in it. Suddenly, there it was, just a couple hours drive away from my San Diego home. I wrote a letter, which said that I had no plan, was badly self-taught, and that I needed some methodology or discipline in my guitar playing. To my intense surprise, I received a letter back from WILLIAM FORTH (later of the HELL BOYS) indicating that I had been accepted, and naming what seemed at the time a very large fee. And the need to purchase a very particular and expensive Ovation acoustic guitar, a model 1867.

 

“Somehow on my meager wage I managed these two feats of finance, and quite suddenly found myself in Malibu, in a tiny cottage with five other guitarists I’d never met. Listening to the others play, I thought “I won’t be winning any speed contests around here!” The quality of musicians that attend GC is generally pretty amazing. But there was one gentleman who met his guitar at the airport, so had the benefit of no bad, ingrained habits to overcome.”

 

“I remember the first terrifying evening meal with ROBERT. The stony silence was gradually broken down. One attendee “did a runner” and disappeared during the night – we assumed ROBERT’s comments about the inappropriateness of drug use may have frightened him away. The next day, ROBERT asked us to go away and retune our guitars to the new standard tuning.”

 

“The moment this occurred, we were suddenly pretty much all on the same footing. Speed and chops aside, if you suddenly don’t know how to make a “C” chord anymore you have to start to think. I played guitar in English for 18 years, and then quite suddenly I had to relearn it in Yugoslavian.”

 

“I vividly remember my first GUITAR CRAFT circle: There were 25 of us in a big room, with ROBERT in the middle. He began by pointing at four students, and playing them a melody on his guitar. They learned it, and repeated it. Once established, he moved to the next group of four frightened guitarists, and they learned and repeated their own, different pattern. Quite quickly all 25 players were working together on this enormous piece of music. Then ROBERT gave the first group a new pattern. So the piece continued to evolve. Often these parts were in unusual meters, such as 5 or 7 or 9 or even 13. And it went on and on, everyone repeating the same parts endlessly. I thought my arm would drop off. Then I’d get a second wind. Sometimes, I just had to stop, after 30 minutes of the same five notes perhaps. Then I’d join in again. But it was a sound that I would never, ever forget. I was part of a living and evolving composition.”

“I realized at some point later, that ROBERT was really creating a FRIPPertronics-style loop, but using real players to play the loop parts! What a remarkable and totally amazing thing to be a part of.”

 

“The week passed quickly, and groups formed to meet the challenge of a live performance at the end of the week. I was a member of a large group called BROCCOLI SOUP, in honor of one of the vegetarian delights the Kitchen Crafties had prepared, and we learned and performed two songs. One is lost to memory, the other, “Shower Curtain,” so named because we rehearsed it in the large bathroom because of the fine acoustics, later became a performance piece for THE DOZEY LUMPS.

 

I met various characters who would later resurface in my life: TOM FREEMAN, crazed drummer, later of MIKE KENEALLY fame. A mandolin player named JOHN RELPH, who later became the perpetrator of a little XTC website called “Chalkhills.” And most important of all, BRYAN HELM, my co-conspirator in THE DOZEY LUMPS and BINDLESTIFF.”

 

“During the 90s I attended a number of other week-long courses, often participating in Kitchen Craft, wherein one works at cooking and preparing meals for the students, hopefully with the same diligence and craft that one approaches one’s exercises and work with the guitar. At one course, I managed to overcome the language barrier and teach a group of four Japanese Crafties how to play “The Illusion Of Motion,” a very quick and difficult piece from the latter-day DOZEY LUMPS catalog. And lest it appear to be all work and no play, I also did a solo performance of my peculiar new standard tuning version of JETHRO TULL’s “Aqualung,” which was quite odd to perform within the framework of a Guitar Craft circle. Also during that circle, BILL RIEFLIN, who has a day job as the drummer from MINISTRY (also performed with SWANS, REVOLTING COCKS, LARD, and RUBY among others—Ian) and I successfully introduced a circus-music chromatic melody into an otherwise melodic and pleasant improvisation. Every few bars, we launched into this atonal Barnum And Bailey riff. That was fun...and appropriate!”

 

So how does STAFFORD go about composing his own music? Is it improvised, or written out, or something else entirely?

 

“It’s different every time. Some pieces just appear, completely unrehearsed, completely unplanned...I turn on the system, push “record” and begin to play. On other occasions I rehearse, but I use that term loosely. Often I have a basic idea for a piece, but am not quite sure where it wants to go. So I record a few different versions, and sometimes on the second or third it just works out right. Sometimes I go back and it turns out that take one was the best, because on takes 2 and 3 I was “trying” to play. It’s really better if I just let go, and forget everything except the action of putting fingers to string.”

 

“Occasionally I will record a basic loop, and then process it through several radically different stereo rooms or patches to create extremely different versions of the same “song”. I took this to extremes with one piece, producing seventeen discrete versions. Three of them made the album. The track was “Continuum” from OTHER MEMORY.”

 

“I really enjoy musical accidents. One of my favorite pieces, “The Living Reed” from OTHER MEMORY | SAND ISLAND, had an unusual genesis. I was having trouble with a poor connection in my pedalboard, so I very quickly played some random notes on my guitar into the Oberheim delay and locked a loop, so there would be an audible signal I could hear as I tried to identify the problematic cable. I put the guitar down, found and replaced the bad cable, and realized that I had been listening almost subconsciously to this “irritating” and “dissonant” loop for perhaps 10 to 15 minutes as I worked...and I was starting to like it. So I turned on the recorder, and made a few recordings of it with different voices. One of them, run through a radical detuned chorus patch, sounded remarkable. It became the lead off track of the SAND ISLAND album! It was never intended to be a song. I could never have intentionally played that sequence. Luckily I recognized that it was MUSIC and recorded it instead of deleting it as I normally would have.”

 

“Since I loop almost exclusively now, my music has become almost totally improvisational. Sometimes I begin with a specific structure in mind, for instance limiting myself to only five notes in a scale, and seeing where that leads. More often than not, I hit record and begin to play.”

I OFTEN WONDER HOW MUSICIANS WHO USE IMPROVISATION AS A PRIMARY MODUS OPERANDI KNOW WHEN THEIR PIECES ARE “DONE.”

 

“In a live context, I just know. Sometimes a long improv is best ended suddenly. I could just be sitting there, listening to the last minute of a 16-minute long improv, and suddenly I just reach up and shut it down cold. At THAT moment. I have no idea how I know this. Sometimes a fade is best, or a fade into a huge reverb, or a sudden stop into a reverb...or reverse the loop and fade. I have no plan for the piece other than trying to be very careful with the beginning, very careful with the middle, and very careful with the ending. Sometimes the nature of the piece will suggest the method of the ending.”

 

“When multitracking, in a studio situation it is much harder to tell, because there are so many options. I often create many overdubs, and then over a period of days delete most of them because they’re not as good as the core material. I prefer live performance over endless overdubbing, and so quite often, “less is more”.”

 

What tools does STAFFORD use to create his sounds?

 

“The Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro and the Digitech TSR24S are really the heart of the system. The Oberheim stores up to nine different loops, for a total duration of 198 seconds. One can switch between loops, and overdub any loop as much as they like. It also allows one to Undo loops, to build from a simple phrase to a very thick sound, and then strip back the overdubs to reveal the original idea. It also allows loops to run in reverse, which is an irresistible sound to me. It has other unique features that most loop devices don’t have, such as a “multiply” function, which allows the looping of loops with overdubbed material, and then the looping of looped loops with new overdubs, etc.”

 

“The TSR24S has some great ambient room sounds, really nice 24 bit patches. It’s very flexible, easy to program, and I’ve created some really remarkable MIDI continuous controller definitions using the Ground Control MIDI pedal. This provides amazing control over almost any parameter, and allows for the creation of some stunning real-time effects. For example you can slowly move an entire piece from a completely dry sound into an enormous cavern as the piece develops, or vice versa. Or you can take a fairly normal flanger setting, and modulate it into the ugliest sound on earth by the mere touch of a pedal...and all sounds in between. Another favored patch sends one pitch up an octave and a half, simultaneously sending another pitch down one octave as you move the pedal through its travel.”

 

“But nothing is carved in stone, and if the situation demands it I completely reroute devices until I find the sound I’m looking for. I don’t feel that I have to use every sound in every device, I prefer to use a few really good sounds. Most preset patches don’t sound that good, and I am constantly tweaking them because they just don’t sound right. I try to stay flexible, and make good use of the good attributes of the tools I have.

 

What does STAFFORD record with?

 

“I have the world’s cheapest Digital Audio Workstation. I dragged myself kicking and screaming into the digital world only as recently as December 1998, so technology is still relatively new to me. I wanted to preserve the work I had done to date in CD format, and move forward into the future using something better than my 25 year old TEAC 3340s four track reel to reel. So for recording I am currently using a 3-year-old plus Gateway Pentium 100, with 82MB of RAM, running CoolEditPro, which is a truly remarkable and intuitive product, via my Ensoniq wavetable soundcard. Since I am mainly a live performer, I often run the stereo out of my rack system straight into the sound card for a nice clean sound. Somehow I manage to create, store and manipulate many large WAV files even though my largest hard drive is currently 4GB. Storage and CD production courtesy of the Smart & Friendly CD-RW 426 CD burner, another excellent and intuitive product.”

 

“Needless to say, plans for a new system are in the works! But it is remarkable what one can achieve with the simplest of tools. Acts of heroism and remarkable cleanups have been performed on the old analog four track master reels. Some of the earliest DAVE STAFFORD or BINDLESTIFF material would never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the remarkable capabilities and flexibility of Cool Edit Pro. All new recordings undertaken since December 1998 have been entirely in the digital realm. Cool Edit Pro is great for live recording, just push record and go. It’s also great for multi-tracking. Once pieces are mastered, which includes but is not limited to noise reduction, trimming and normalization, I burn the tracks direct to CD. When microphones are required I use two now-vintage Shure SM57s.

 

DAVE STAFFORD’s ultimate aim as a musician is “to be open to the appearance of music, to allow any and all music to enter my life. To continue to work at the craft of playing guitar, and the ongoing work of looping, which presents so many musical avenues it may take a lifetime to explore even some of them.”

 

Does this mean he’s eager to be a pawn in the recording industry?

 

“My goal is to allow music to come into the world, available for others to hear. This seems straightforward enough, but in reality it is actually quite difficult. The world is not geared towards music. The music industry is set up to produce products and market them to consumers all in order to make enormous profits for almost everyone except the musician. Since I do not ascribe to the view that this activity has anything to do with music, it’s difficult for music to enter the world in this music industry-dominated environment. It is difficult for the audience to hear and enjoy music, since they are bombarded with product and trained through radio and video campaigns that “this is the music [product] that is cool”...and they buy it because they are TOLD to buy it.”

 

“People unfortunately often don’t take the time to listen, and consider: does this music speak to me? Does it make me feel sad, happy...joyous? Does it make me laugh? Does it make me think? These are the criteria I use when considering purchasing a CD or record. Not “this is the new SPRINGSTEEN album, so it HAS to be good”. The music industry has used and discarded so many artists, their actions and intentions are clear: when an artist doesn’t sell anymore, drop them. It’s clear they are not interested in the musician or their music, only their ability to provide large cash income to the record executives.”

 

“So in order to achieve my goal of allowing music into the world, I must work outside the negative confines of the existing music industry, and produce CDs of the music that has entered my life, which may connect with an audience or it may not. My interest is in music itself. And my hope is that people can see beyond the mass marketing strategies of the music industry, music television and radio, and can realize that the choice is theirs alone. The name of the artist, the number of CDs they have sold, are irrelevant. Many of the best recordings I own are ones that I took a chance on...knowing nothing of the artist, their reputation, their ability at playing their instrument.”

 

WHAT ABOUT LIVE PERFORMANCES?

 

“I do not currently perform live, though I am available for live performance should the right moment and the right venue appear. Having said that, each time I pick up my instrument, I perform live. Since I am primarily a looper I have the ability to perform live. The looping tools offer essentially real-time “overdubbing” capability.”

 

“Since leaving live performance aside in 1995, I have dedicated the past few years to cataloging the work done in the previous 15 years and making this music available to the world through the website. I felt this needed to be done. And as I have now honorably discharged the bulk of this duty, I am again turning my attention more to the music of the moment. THE AUTOreverse SESSIONS CD is the latest example of this: a performance challenge met, quickly executed.”

 

“Looping allows music to occur spontaneously, and also contains a real element of danger and hazard - anything can go wrong, and often does. One also learns to turn even the strangest of musical occurrences into something valid, by using those events to mold the musical path of the next portion of the loop. Loops can be static, or constantly mutating, or something in between.”

 

HOW ACTIVE IS DAVE STAFFORD IN HIS LOCAL MUSIC SCENE?

 

“My local community is woefully short of venues suitable for live performance by ambient, energy bow, looping guitarists! I have a deep interest in returning to live performance, but the time and the place need to be right. It may be that the climate here is turning towards more and more acceptance of music styles outside the norm. One can only hope that that is indeed the case. One problem is the amount of attention required to listen to ambient music. Since the works can be very long, very quiet, it is difficult for audiences fed on high-speed films and videos and in-your-face musical styles to sit quietly and listen to a 15 or 20 minute ambient guitar circulation. Having said that, if you CAN manage to get people to do so, they generally find that they enjoy the performance and experience very much indeed. Some of the last live performances by BINDLESTIFF were attended by the most incredibly courteous, attentive audiences I have ever had the pleasure of playing for...so this alone proves that it is possible! Perhaps the challenge here is to locate those individuals in the local community who would be willing to work with an artist who is different from the guy down at the local coffee shop doing NEIL YOUNG covers. This may not be an easy task.”

 

HOW ABOUT TRADING HIS MUSIC THROUGH THE MAIL WITH FELLOW MUSICIANS? HOW MUCH DOWN-HOME “HOMETAPERING” DOES HE DO?

“When the website was established, I began giving away free cassettes. This went on for a year or so, and cost the studio a large sum of money. Then the CD era arrived at last, and I continue to send out demo discs on a smaller scale. I have traded with a few other ambient artists, but mostly they go to radio stations, DJs, magazines etc. My schedule does not permit a lot of verbal or written interaction regarding the act of listening to music. So if people send me CDs, I listen. If they request a CD in return, I attempt to accommodate them wherever possible. On the one hand I am all for the free exchange of ideas, but on the other as a very small business operating at the fringes of the real business world it isn’t financially practical to give the majority of the stock away.”

 

LET’S TALK PUREAMBIENT.COM. WHO DOES WHAT?

 

“PUREAMBIENT.COM Productions is a tiny, independent label. So far, distribution doesn’t exist except via the website, which generates a certain number of requests for promos and a certain number of CD sales. I do everything myself, from performance through to final recorded product, and marketing thereof. I create all the masters, burn all the CDs for Bindlestiff, Dozey Lumps + Dave Stafford, packaging, shipping. It’s a sole proprietorship with no employees. The other artists participate to varying degrees as their situations allow. Each is responsible for creating their own CDs, and I encourage them to start their own websites too to which I then just link. Since we are scattered all over the globe, I coordinate all studio activities, and I receive excellent support from the other artists.”

 

How does he decide what to release?

 

“So far it hasn’t been a problem. There was an enormous back catalog of recorded material stretching back 10 or 15 years by myself, The Dozey Lumps, and Bindlestiff, so for the first year or so I just tried to get caught up by bringing them into the world of digital. Now I can pick and choose, and am mastering the The Dozey Lumps CD ONE LUMP OR TWO?, which has awaited my attention since 1989 - 1992 when the pieces were recorded. But eventually it will all come out.”

 

“There is at least one other BINDLESTIFF CD in the can, but getting it made will take about six months, because there are about 70 tapes to listen to. So for the time being, the very fruitful period of late 1993 through early 1995 remains undocumented, even though some of our best pieces were conceived and executed during that time.”

 

“And of course I am making a supreme effort to balance archival recordings with new, of the moment recordings, which is why there I have done two solo CDs quite recently. I felt I was concentrating too much on the past and wanted to balance out the available titles with some more current sounds.”

 

PUREAMBIENT.COM PRODUCTIONS QUALITY CONTROL:

“It’s very difficult sometimes to decide if a track is worth releasing, my standards seem to get higher and higher for the most part. I’ve increased my mental threshold setting. So as time has gone by, more of my own solo pieces have ended up on outtake storage discs than used to. Sometimes, though, one has to make exceptions, as in the case of the CD I’m working on now. All live acoustic guitar duos, played by two very young, somewhat inexperienced players, in a new tuning. And most of the pieces were incredibly difficult to execute. So I’m more forgiving under those circumstances of the odd missed note than I would be with a current composition of my own!”

 

“In hindsight, I find that sometimes the tracks selections I made ten years ago weren’t as well-advised as my then-self thought. So poorer tracks can be removed, running orders rearranged. The BINDLESTIFF CD catalog, for example, bears almost no resemblance to its much earlier cassette catalog counterpart. I went through a period back in the cassette days where I would make one official album and then another related album of outtakes and alternates. My approach now would be to view both cassettes as a whole, and create one CD out of the best pieces represented. Several works in this condition await my ministrations.”

 

HOW DOES DAVE STAFFORD RESPOND TO THE IDEA THAT ANYONE WITH A REVERB UNIT AND AN HOUR TO KILL COULD MAKE AMBIENT MUSIC?

 

“But would it be GOOD ambient music? Would it speak to anyone? Some measure of experience and the ability to play an instrument to some extent must statistically improve the chances of a trained musician making a better ambient record than the guy with the reverb unit. On the other hand, I’m equally positive that 2 or 3 of these guys with the reverb units will and probably already have produced ambient works of great beauty. Anything is possible.”

 

FINALLY. WHO IS DAVE STAFFORD’S FAVORITE BEATLE?

 

“Without a doubt, GEORGE. That’s “MR HARRISON” to you.”

quiet... peaceful...  ambient music.  pureambient music.

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