Courtesy of the artist
Mike Shiflet. Courtesy of the artist
For a brief period after graduating college in 2006, all I listened to was harsh noise. It couldn't have been healthy: Those piercing squeals and pounding walls of static entered my consciousness and fueled 3 a.m. stares into space. But those late-night noise sessions were as cathartic as they were damaging.
As much as harsh noise still persists underground, the move toward ambient, drone and beat-based noise in the past few years has yielded far more innovative results. Artists like Columbus, Ohio-based Mike Shiflet are among these boundary-crossers. Though still rooted in extreme texture, Shiflet's excellent self-released album, Llanos, is a pink haze of layered drone-goo, wrapped in static and led by a melodic return to the guitar.
You can hear Shiftlet's Llanos in its entirety on his Bandcamp page, which I've embedded below, plus a few other cassette- and vinyl-only releases digitally available at a "name your own price." I conducted the following interview with Shiftlet over Gchat.
I often associate your music with the harsher end of noise. But Llanos is quite different — it's prettier, decidedly paced, and even in the midst of grating atonality, quite restrained. What was the shift for you?
It was slow, tectonic-like, and I don't think I ever considered my work as harsh as others did, but one major turning point was when I decided to buy myself a guitar as a birthday present a few years ago and reintroduce that into my work.
Had you played guitar before?
Yes. I came through the Sonic Youth gateway to experimental music and moved from straightforward bands to improvised guitar in high school. As I embraced more noise-based music and explored more electronics, guitar just got phased out of my setup somewhere along the line.
What is your set-up? Analog or digital?
I don't currently have a standard set-up these days, but the central elements are laptop and guitar. Cassettes, contact mics, field recordings and my collection of analog noise boxes work their way in and out depending on what I think will work for a given track.
For those that may be new to noise, what are some of the sources recorded onto those cassettes, and how do you manipulate them?
Well, I actually haven't worked with cassette manipulation in a while. Not on Llanos, which doesn't actually have any cassette work incorporated. But for another upcoming album, I used found cassettes from some mysterious medical device (given to me by Daniel Rizer) and asked my friend Jason Zeh — who works exclusively with cassettes — to warp some guitar recordings for me.
Going back to reintroducing the guitar to your work: I'm listening to the title track right now, and there's almost a melody washed in all that static. Has the guitar reintroduced melodic form to your work, as well? Or was it always there and I'm just now hearing it?
It definitely came along with the guitar, but that wasn't my intention. I was only planning on using it to reintroduce some natural tones to the electronic haze I'd been creating for a while at that point, but it went in a completely different direction once I started playing.
What is llanos? Does it have anything to do with the sound or creation of the album?
The original title for the album was Pink Meadow, which I kept as a [song title] but felt was too generic for the album and thought might be too overbearing with cover art... a little obvious. I tried a few variations on the "field" theme, but none quite fit, and that has been done repeatedly by ambient and drone artists. But I somehow stumbled on the llanos, which is Spanish for grasslands or plains, and it felt right. Though there is apparently a specific geographic area in South America that uses it as its proper name, and some reviews have assumed that was what I had in mind.
The best tracks on Llanos are the ones that temper harsher elements of noise with a thick coat of shoegaze-y goo. I'm thinking of "Web Over Glen Echo" and "Gunpowder (For Raglani)," in particular, where it's clean and it's dirty at once. Do you consciously limit your more extreme tendencies when coming up against (or with) more ambient/shoegaze textures?
I don't consciously limit it, no. My process is very layer-oriented, and often it just depends on where a piece originates, which element I consider the backbone. (Two tracks could theoretically sound very similar despite very different origins.) So the tracks that end up sounding a bit cleaner, with more emphasis on tones than noise, usually began as pure drone works and evolved from there. Knowing when enough is enough is a bit different in every scenario. "Web Over Glen Echo," for example, was recorded specifically as a track to act as a bridge and a palette-cleanser between the harsher "Sunbathers" and the album-closer "Gunpowder."
Yeah, you bring the serious drone-doom in "Sunbathers." I hesitate to throw out the early Earth or Sunn O))) comparison, but it's there, made uglier and more pummeling by its surroundings.
I really don't know where that one came from. I was trying to create an extreme counterpart for "Pink Meadows," and it went farther beyond that than I imagined.