Producer, composer and performer Tim Story got up close and personal about his music, the creative process and his most recent collaborations. This unassuming artist manages to fly under the radar while working with some of the most influential musicians in electronic music. We were very pleased to catch a rare glimpse into the creative mind of this modern master and even more pleased to share it with you here.
LBFH: At what age did you start to seriously pursue music?
TS: I’m completely self-taught and always loved music, so it’s difficult to identify a turning point. Aside from a few guitar lessons when I was 8, I found my own path in the early years, playing around with toy tape recorders, making up little patterns on the family piano. Things really accelerated when I landed a part-time job in my late teens at the local mall record shop. The manager knew me from many trips to find new music there, and I was stunned when he asked me if i wanted a job. The manager was John Thompson, who would later become an important cog in the influential Cleveland music scene of Devo and Pere Ubu, and he and I would just devour the latest imports from Europe, Japan, and the UK. I owe him a lot. Over this period, I began to play and record my own ideas, and the music started developing.
LBFH: Were you always attracted to electronic music and what other music forms have you worked in?
TS: Yes, I loved the early electronic albums of Cluster, Popol Vuh, Eno, Can,Kraftwerk. But I also liked tinkering on the piano, acoustic and electric guitars and an old battered vibraphone a friend sold me. I think a major move forward in my music came when I saved up enough to buy one of the first TEAC 4-track recorders. This allowed me to really work on layering, composing music from all these eclectic sources. What I loved about the synthesizer was that I could coax so many different sounds out of it – variety and depth was definitely what I needed for my little 4-track symphonies. My first real synth, a Yamaha cs-30, and a few years later my 2nd, a Moog Memorymoog, got me permanently hooked.
LBFH: Who were your earlier influences?
TS: Really a diverse bunch. My earliest music memory was being blown away by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I was maybe 7 – I still remember the album cover. My parents had really broad tastes – Liszt, Debussy, Chopin; Barbra Streisand, Simon and Garfunkel, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. My years in the record store widened everything, I loved everything from Debussy and Bartok (“Concerto for Orchestra”, wow), Can and Cluster, Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground , to prog rock, to Robert Wyatt (“Rock Bottom” is to this day one of my all-time favorites); Talking Heads, Television, Lou Reed, Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Terje Rypdal, so many more.
LBFH: How did you get your first record deal and what were some of your earlier attempts to become a professional musician/composer?
TS: I never attempted, or expected, to become a ‘professional’. I simply loved doing it, and after 5 years of experiments I sent 6 demo cassettes of the least embarrassing pieces I had, to various labels, mostly in Europe (including one to Klaus Schulze, who I noticed did an interview with you recently). Two of those miraculously attracted interest, and that led to my first deal with Uniton Records in Norway. It wasn’t until after my 2nd album, after I graduated college in an unrelated field, that I had the revelation that I might actually entertain the crazy idea of quitting my job and giving music a shot.
LBFH: Other than commissioned work, where do you draw your inspirations from? Do you visualize it?
TS: For me, music is its own thing. It is its own language, with its own insinuations and its own life. I’m just not ever motivated to impose a picture or a narrative on it, to me it is deeper and richer than those things. The music is undoubtedly colored by what I’m going through at the time, but I never set out to illustrate a place or an event. It’s not programmatic, so there’s probably no “Grand Canyon Suite” in my future. I love to evoke things in the listener that connect them to their own imagery and emotion – the minute I tell someone that the piece is ‘about’ this or that, I’m afraid it might forever limit the range of personal connections that it might otherwise have conjured up.
LBFH: Do you put regular hours into working on music and related projects?
TS: No I don’t. Though virtually all my work is music-related, I tend to descend into periods of complete immersion in it when I’m composing, and other periods of less dramatic activity. I find I need the downtime, and though I wish I could control it a little better, the music just doesn’t seem to like ‘office hours’.
LBFH: Can you give us a descriptive tour of your studio/work space?
TS: I went from a small room in my parents’ basement, to a full-fledged 24-track high-end recording studio in the 90′s, and am back now to a project studio in my home. I love this arrangement much better than the big studio. I can grab a cup of coffee in my pajamas in the morning or fire up ProTools in a few seconds anytime to work out an idea. I have a Yamaha Conservatory grand piano in the room, and instruments and gear scattered around. I do 95% of the work here, and only when I need a better acoustic space for recording acoustic instruments do I travel to the studio.
LBFH: I recently saw the video of 2013 Ambicon, which was excellent! Can you talk about some of the challenges in bringing your music to the stage?
TS: First, thanks for the kind words. But oh yes, it’s challenging. The biggest obstacle is that I am simply not a great keyboard player technically. I am really a composer – that’s what I love – and I have just not developed the dexterity or dedication it takes to be a live musician. So that by far is the biggest challenge. And the fact that I make the music in a very solitary place, layered and pieced together by myself, really necessitates that I find at least 3 or 4 other sympathetic players to do justice to the pieces in a live setting. So my favorite is to play with other collaborators – the pressure is off me to be a ‘one-man-band’ and the interaction is fun. I’ve been lucky enough to have played many shows with Hans-Joachim Roedelius in many great places like London, Vienna, even Albania and Kosovo. – it’s an experience I really never thought I’d have, and one I’m very grateful for.
LBFH: Can you describe your live set up i.e.: equipment, software integration, etc?
TS: Until just a few years ago, I had everything in a Kurzweil k2000 rack synth/sampler – I had initially developed many of those sounds and samples on a Kurzweil in my studio, so it was natural to refine those for playing live. Lately I’ve migrated mostly to a Mac Pro laptop running various programs with my Protools setup – last year at Ambicon I used a lot of Omnisphere virtual synth, run through various Protools plug-ins. I usually access the gear via a midi keyboard that I get at each venue. At Ambicon, I brought a small USB keyboard and borrowed a nicer, larger one from Robert Rich.
LBFH: Do you generally tour to promote your albums?
TS: Only the ones with Roedelius – “Lunz” and “Inlandish.” For my solo work, the rehearsals and preparation for a tour would just take so much time away from creating new music. And, as gratifying as it is to perform in front of an audience, revisiting old pieces is not nearly as exhilarating for me as discovering new things.
LBFH: Because there is an unreliability rate inherent with complex live electronic music set ups, do you anticipate crashes and breakdowns during live performances by putting alternatives in place?
TS: No, and that’s truly a scary thought. Most of the shows I do are in Europe, and I just don’t have the luxury or budget of bringing backups for all the gear that could fail. What makes it all so much worse is that if my equipment goes down, I am not the kind of instrumentalist that could just jump over to the piano and entertain a roomful of people. Unless they like “Chopsticks”. I’ve had nightmares, I can tell you.
LBFH: How did you become involved with Rodelius?
TS: I’d always loved his work with Cluster and his solo albums, and the music’s approachability just made me feel like I might be able to approach him as well. So in ’81 or ’82, I sent him one of my early releases, and sent a note along with my appreciation for his work. OK, it was probably a fan letter. To my amazement he replied, and our correspondence morphed into an invitation to come visit him in Austria when I traveled to Europe in 1983. A really lovely week with he and his family turned into a great friendship that has lasted 30 years. It took us 20 years to start working together, but we made up for lost time with 3, and soon to be 4, collaborations since then, not to mention dozens of live shows. Through him I also met Dieter Moebius, Joachim’s partner in Cluster, who is also now a very good friend. I was honored when the two of them trusted me to produce the latest Cluster album ‘Qua”, too.
LBFH: Did you draw inspiration from some of the other earlier “Zodiac” affiliated artists like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulz and Kraftwerk?
TS: My favorites, then and now, were Cluster and the Cologne group Can, both of whom to my ears sound as fresh today as they did 40 years ago. But I did also like the first 2 Tangerine Dream albums, the first half-dozen Klaus Schulze albums, Neu!, and virtually all the Kraftwerk albums. It was an amazingly creative and distinctive time in European music, especially in Germany. And the music was a perfect complement, or maybe a foil, for the American music I was listening to – Steve Reich, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra…
LBFH: You’ve commented that you hope the audience will become engaged in the listening process. Why is this important to you?
TS:That’s an idea that has taken on more and more importance to me over the years. I feel like we’re all becoming a bit lazier as listeners and audiences. It’s understandable with the endless glut of ‘entertainment choices’ we all have these days. Blockbuster movies, popular music – they do all the thinking for you, and ask nothing in return. You walk out of the theater saying, “wow, that was cool!”, but then you can’t remember a thing about it the next day – it has completely failed to resonate in a meaningful way. I think the only art that has staying power, and the music that has continued to excite me over the years, asks you to meet it halfway, to give it emotion and meaning, to connect. And often that is music that doesn’t grab you entirely at first. It has to have the accessibility to suck you in – enough that you’ll want to hear it more – but its magic only really happens over time. For me, the greatest compliment I ever hear is that someone has played a song or an album dozens or hundreds of times, and it still connects with their lives, somehow it evolves with them.
LBFH: Your music has some of the earliest examples blending electronic and acoustic instrumentation together. Can you talk a little about that process?
TS: Yes, I loved synths of course, and I worked to breathe nuance and depth into the electronics, find that ghost in the machine, but I realized that I could only get so far towards the kind of detail and subtlety that I wanted for some of the lead lines and countermelodies and textures. Using synths to make ‘fake’ acoustic sounds a la Tomita, was just not an option. I was also very ‘shy’ about the music – I felt much more comfortable as a kind of ‘mad professor’ working on everything completely alone, popping out of the studio with fully formed recordings, and no one privy to my inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. But I imagined how great, how organic I could make the music if I could forge a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds into one immersive, integrated whole. Something that was totally convincing, with the subtlety of classical/acoustic music, but the ambiguity and striking, haunting, disorienting sound design of electronics and processing. I always loved reed instruments and cello, but I knew I would need brilliant, soulful performers, and I was frankly scared that anyone that good (professional orchestra players) would laugh at my silly little compositions and methods. But around 1993, I swallowed my pride and my insecurities, and was absolutely fortunate to find 2 spectacular, lovely players Martha Reikow (cello) and Kim Bryden (oboe), that also happened to be wonderful empathetic, sensitive people. I felt very comfortable bringing them into the process and the music was immeasurably better for it.
LBFH: If you were to give advice to someone looking to enter into the music industry, what things would you say to them?
TS:Haha, I’d say I might not be the best one to ask. I’ve had such a strange, circuitous, unduplicatable path into it. But if you’re a musician, just work on what you love for awhile, and forget the ‘music industry’ (unless it’s within the ‘industry’ that you want to work). Trust yourself, but be a ruthless self-editor. Ignore the noise and the fashions-of-the-day, and work on the things that contribute most meaningfully and uniquely to your own ‘voice’. Instead of writing 10 songs in a day, try to make just one fabulous song in a month. There is so much to listen to out there, make yours worth your audience’s time and effort.
LBFH: You keep a very low profile in terms of social media. What are your thoughts on all of the new social media platforms in relation to music marketing?
TS: It’s all great, or most of it anyway, the access is wonderful. As a musician in today’s world, I can’t imagine what I did without it. But I’m also glad I started in music before the internet – before it created the distractions it does. My relatively low profile is not so much a sign of my disdain for it – I just honestly don’t have that much free time, and like a drug, I’m wary of it’s ability to suck one down the rabbit hole – which it has happily done to me more than a few times.
LBFH: What is next for you?
TS: A couple things: A new collaboration with Dieter Moebius (Cluster) and Jon Leidecker called “Snowghost Pieces” will be released by Bureau B in Germany in June. We recorded it together in a amazing studio in northern Montana in in 2012, and spent last year mixing and tweaking. It’s very rhythmic, somewhat abstract, funny, intense, and a lot of fun. Also in the next few months is “Lazy Arc” a limited edition cd with Hans-Joachim Roedelius, of quieter more ambient music. Then, it’s a long-delayed return to my solo album, which I’m very much looking forward to.
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com