The Road Eternal: an Interview with Steve Roach

I discovered Steve Roach’s music in 2001. I first saw many of his albums (used) in a particularly cool book and CD shop in Toronto. First off, I was fascinated by the artwork, which was unlike any I had ever seen – it seemed alive, in its own timeless and visceral way. As very soon became clear, this was entirely congruent with the music in every respect.

The first album I heard was Midnight Moon, followed by Light Fantastic and Artifacts. Together they formed a neat summation of Steve’s entire career to that point. It was a revelation to me that one artist could cover such vast musical ground in a lifetime, let alone a few years.

Album cover: Midnight Moon by Steve Roach

Steve’s website was my entry portal to the world of ambient/electronic music, which I was delighted to discover. Within a few years, my own musical explorations had turned irresistibly in that direction.

The importance of Steve’s influence on my own musical development can hardly be overstated. Essentially, I’m here, in this ambient/electronic music community, because he is. In that respect, I am as far from alone as can be imagined. Steve is deservedly well-known for his enthusiastic support of fellow musicians – myself included. Whether it takes the form of collaborative recording, concert events, assisting with production, seasoned advice or simple encouragement, Steve’s contribution to this world of music transcends his astonishing discography.

So, when I decided to take the plunge and try my hand at interviewing, Steve was the obvious person to approach first. His gracious response was also typically proactive: “Let’s do it.” I was thrilled, and hope you find enjoyable reading here.

Many thanks to Steve Roach, for taking time from his usually-intense schedule to share these snapshots (and long exposures) of his journey.

Album cover: Streams & Currents by Steve Roach

1. You recently staged the SoundQuest Fest with several musician friends. How did it all flow by? What are your best memories of the weekend?

Steve: The production for the SoundQuest Fest event started about a year in advance. It’s always kind of surreal to have a point in time so far off, then it grows closer and then you’re in it, and then quite suddenly it’s a memory. The prep for this event was immense and since I was producing it, it means I took on the job as chief cook and bottle washer. It was a labor of love, and the end result and the feeling I have around it was one of real satisfaction.

The crew I brought together was vital to helping with the smooth flow the entire event had. Drawing from my experience of playing festivals and events over the years around the world, along with producing the Tucson concerts every few years, it was time to make this festival happen at home. I had a few stops and starts over the past few years, it was on a few times but something would come along and delay it a year. The recent downshift in the economy was a big consideration in 2009 when I moved it to 2010. With this said, I made the ticket price as low as possible to break even. I was happy with the turnout, but could see the current economic impact made its presence with a good handful of people who bought advance tickets not making it.

Best memories… seeing and feeling the camaraderie among the folks in attendance; presenting my set was a real high point as I was excited to present a lot of new pieces in the live setting. Byron and I took an extended time working on the set for weeks in advance; it was a great feeling to be this dialed-in and ready to take it to the edge. During this time we ended up creating some new pieces for a Serpent’s Lair type of project for 2011.

I don’t think many people knew this that day, but since Roger King had to run the video from the stage because of the tech issues, I ended up mixing all the other artists’ sets. That was a special feeling to remember, to be holding the space at that level for the entire event. When I was mixing Mark Seelig’s set it was like doing a mix for CD in that I was constantly ebbing and flowing within his set, constantly adding enhancements, dynamically pushing the mix louder and quiet, pulling deeper into the verb and then back out. Loren rose to the occasion with a great solo set that brought his nuanced soundscapes to life. After years of appreciation and respect of Erik Wøllo’s music, to see him right there in Tucson was a real moment to revel in as well.


Byron Metcalf, Dashmesh Khalsa & Steve Roach onstage at SoundQuest Fest 2010 (photo by Chris Russell)

2. It’s been over three years since the release of Arc of Passion heralded a new musical direction – your various musical streams seem to be flowing together more closely. Looking back on this period so far: what have you learned, and what do you see down the road?

Steve: For me the flow-confluence of the various zones I am drawn to work in seems consistent with my drive over the years. With time spiraling onwards on and with more life lived it just seems that the different spaces I create within are blending and morphing in a way that’s natural and responsive to the pulse of my life and devotion to the music.

What I see down the road… I have a constant array of projects in various states of progress. These cover a wide range and develop over time; it’s hard to say what will emerge first.

Album cover: Immersion: Three by Steve Roach

3. You’ve released many long-form pieces in the past three years and, with the Immersion series in particular, it’s clear that you’re increasing the magnification and slowing down time. You have spoken about moving towards DVD-length pieces like Robert Rich’s Somnium, and it seems like you’ll soon need a longer timeframe to continue zooming in. Do you feel closer to that signpost on the road?

Steve: I haven’t really thought about the DVD format as a sound carrier at this point; I’m looking at other, more current media. For now, I get the sense that people are creating their own custom long-playing playlists from my catalog at the resolution they prefer.

I recently released the Immersion Station for the iPhone and iPad, which takes the immersion experience into the hands of the listener. This is a collaboration with brilliant software artist Eric Freeman. We started talking about it in 2009. Visual Artist Hollan Holmes created the graphic look; he also just released his first CD which I helped him with. [Note: Steve mastered the album.]

Album cover: Sigh of Ages by Steve Roach

4. You have spoken of the increased sense of passing time as your body ages. Sigh of Ages is a beautiful testament to this, being informed by deeply personal life events and the sand in the hourglass growing louder. Is there anything you would like to share about it?

Steve: You can see time is a constant theme in my work for many years. The sense of time’s passage has been inside my work from the beginning really. While the best part of this sense is in the music, in the sigh of the ages, recently a listener sent this quote that seemed to be made for the Sigh of Ages awareness I was expressing, including the title Longing to Be woven in, a title I had given for the last track with no knowledge of this:

“Man remains a mystery to himself. He has a nostalgia for being, a longing for duration, for permanence, for absoluteness – a longing to be. Yet everything that constitutes his life is temporary, ephemeral, limited. He aspires to another order, another life, a world that is beyond him. He senses that he is meant to participate in it.” – Madame de Salzmann, in The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff, published by Random House.

This says it perfectly, about Sigh of Ages and my music in general.

5. You played in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral three years ago. What was it like entering that building, and moving through it? What did the place say to you? How did it feel to play in that space?

Steve: It was the ultimate vessel for my sounds, no question. I have played in large cathedrals in Europe, so I had a sense of what I was entering into and did so with anticipation and reverence for the opportunity.

When creating a set for this kind of space, I am constantly projecting myself into the space for weeks before. The expansive acoustic nature of the cathedral creates a powerful sensation that occurs when you hear the sounds hovering high above in the space as I am playing; this is simply without words. It’s almost like playing outside, but in a contained space which greatly influences the sounds and the set I create for the space. It’s a humbling experience and, at the same time, the call to meet the vast space with my personal energy and music at that expansive level was transformative.

I’m really glad we were able to capture the live recording of this.

This kind of preparation, where I keep traveling to the space before arriving, helps to create a strong alliance with the unseen creative current that I love to be inside of. An early experience of this was my connection to the Australian outback. I was prepping to travel there for some time before going. My research and creative work continued to build in momentum and then – what seemed suddenly – I was standing in these remote places that seemed so familiar. A Dreamtime Return indeed.

Album cover: Nightbloom by Steve Roach & Mark Seelig

6. You’re worked with Mark Seelig on five projects now: Wachuma’s Wave, Mantram, Disciple, Nada Terma and Nightbloom. What does he bring to the table as a musical and spiritual seeker?

Steve: Mark is devoted to developing his sound through a deeper investigation of the self on a daily basis; I naturally respect that. In all of these projects, he brings that devotion of his music to the space we are working in. The technical, studio side of the equation is not a place he dwells in. In the case of Nightbloom, he came in wanting to record some voice overtone and throat singing. Pretty quickly into the recording, things took a change; I continued to work on it for nearly a year.

7. After a year or more of deep solitude, which gave us Dynamic Stillness, Afterlight, Destination Beyond, Immersion: Four and other releases, you’re busy with a new cycle of collaborations. Dream Tracker (with Byran Metcalf and Dashmesh Khalsa), Nightbloom and The Desert Inbetween (with Brian Parnham) are released, and a project with Kelly David is in progress. You’ve also begun a second project with Erik Wøllo, in the afterglow of SoundQuest Fest. What have you learned in your explorations with these new musical partners?

Album cover: Dynamic Stillness by Steve Roach

Steve: This progression is one of a natural momentum. For me, letting go of expectations is the best thing to remember. These collaborations are with kindred friends, so the flow is there; often there are a few different projects running alongside each other and thus feeding a mutual kind of fire. I never create just one project and finish it, then start a new one. As I mentioned, I have a lots of projects in various states going all the time.

Next up in May is a new release with Erik, titled The Road Eternal. Our roles are clear on this one. I am doing all the sequencing and analog textures. Erik is all guitar, processed and Roland guitar synth. While we started it before he came to Tucson for the SoundQuest Fest, after the concert he came to the studio for a few days and we worked non-stop to the completion point.

It’s full of light and energy, very positive feeling and, as the title suggests, great for driving.

8. I haven’t heard any guitar in your solo recordings since Fever Dreams III. Now that you’re finally collaborating with a guitarist [Erik Wøllo], are you done playing guitar, or do you expect to return to it? Is there no place for it in your current solo sound?

Album cover: The Desert Inbetween by Steve Roach & Brian Parnham

Steve: Actually, I continue to play guitar often. It’s woven into more recordings than you might know. Sometimes it recedes to the background as one of the many layers. I have a standalone mini rig just for the guitar, a dedicated Mackie 1604 with processing and looping just for this board. I treat the guitar like I would a synth and don’t do anything with amps or amp modeling. I want a clear tone to start with.

My new set of releases, The Desert Inbetween and Immersion Five – Circadian Rhythms is full of guitar textures, loops and more. The long-form piece on Disc Two of Immersion: Five was created from nearly all guitar. The opening track of The Desert Inbetween has perhaps the most thematic guitar I have recorded thus far, also EBow and textural. More guitar will be more featured on future CDs this year.

9. You’ve begun reissuing albums in recent years, with Dreamtime Return, Truth and Beauty, Empetus and Spirit Dome/Live Archive leading the way. Can we look forward to others?

Album cover: Empetus by Steve Roach

Steve: Quiet Music was originally released as 3 one-hour cassettes; its current version is 2 CDs which is missing nearly an hour. Celestial Harmonies released it as the “complete edition”, but in the end that was not really the case. I am working with Sam at Projekt to release the complete 3-hour Quiet Music on 3 CDs in the same sequence as the original version.

10. How are the studios (the Timeroom and the Analogue Cave) evolving?

Steve: At this point, after the years of refining and seeing lots of instruments and synths come and go, the core is still centered around knobs, sliders… hardware gear I can put my hands on and carve with.

The mixing board continues to be an essential instrument central to the room and a great palette to paint with, in the way I work. At this point in 2011, it’s not a common studio sight, it seems – the big analog board, hardware synths and rack gear. My way is to stay true to the tools that give me the best feeling when creating, the richest sound and the ability to continue to develop a relationship with the instruments, for example in the way a guitarist does with their favorite guitars over the years.

Album cover: Light Fantastic by Steve Roach

I love the fact that many of my favorite synths were with me in the creating of earlier pieces like Dreamtime Return, Empetus and World’s Edge, and are here right now as my first choice on most days. The analog modular continues to be a simmering obsession and right now the studio, as a living breathing space and collaborator with me, is feeling better than ever with no real surges of gear lust being felt. All the focus is on expressing the great mystery.

11. Is there anything you would like to add to our conversation?

Steve: I want to send big greetings to the Relaxed Machinery community and JKN [John Koch-Northrup] for the great feeling around the site. I will be checking in when I can. It’s inspiring to see the regular gathering around the fire ring with this passion towards the art we all love.

All my best and carve on!

Byron Metcalf & Steve Roach onstage at SoundQuest Fest 2010

(Originally published Feb. 16, 2011 (Steve’s birthday) at Relaxed Machinery.)