A while back I did one of my ‘Room temperature’ pieces about the music I’ve been listening to while writing. It featured litmus0001, the creative name of Jonathan Ewald. I’m delighted to say that Jonathan has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work. It’s quite a long piece, so grab a coffee or refreshment of your choice, put your feet up, and take a journey into the experimental/ambient soundscapes of an inspirational recording artist.
Hello, Jonathan. Could you start by telling me about your background and how you became involved in making music?
I grew up in rural north-east Ohio, and learned guitar from high school into college. I was always listening to the bass and rhythm parts – lead guitar seemed difficult, unnecessary and vacant. I was far more interested in harmony than melody.
At college I came into contact with musicians and played bass. Here I was exposed to alternative college rock in the early 90s, mainly grunge, after which a huge influence was the shoegazer movement. I was in a band called Sinker, which was modelled on the shoegazer scene and was my first real experience in a real band creating music. Because of this, I was exposed to other musicians on the scene who were very influential on my aesthetic, which was centred around DIY and punk. But the music we did was deeper; we learned how to put music together – not so much songwriting as learning about hooks and harmonic progression. Alongside this I began developing my ear as far as production was concerned, translating that through my hands and instruments.
Afterwards, in Nashville, I was influenced by the jamband scene in the south-east US, bands such as Widespread Panic, Phish and Col Bruce Hampton. I fell in love with the idea of improvisation. Then I discovered people who introduced me to jazz and free improv, which blew my horizons wide open. litmus0001 started towards the end of my time in Nashville as a solo project to explore all aspects of my influences, amalgamated together.
How would you describe your music – if that’s possible.
Edgy ambient, punk-ambient, dark ambient, minimalist, post-Berlin School, improvisational/aleatoric, experimental, drone/pulse-drone, soundscape, sonic sculpture. Meditative but unsettling. Open, airy. Xenochronic. No time or rhythm, but rhythm indeed develops based on the period of a loop (or not).
It varies, but mostly I sit down at my rig and hit record and start improvising, moving from instrument to instrument and layering parts. Toying with composition, I’ll map a strategy, a plan of action … enough for a starting point, and often the rest of the plan is abandoned and the piece will dictate its own progression.
Other pieces are composed after the fact, using samples of improvised recordings generated as above. That’s followed by cutting/pasting and editing, including the integration of sound samples of spoken word from various sources, pieced together, often haphazardly.
I gather that you sample sounds using everyday objects. What sort of objects are we talking about, and what have been some of the more unusual?
I love the sound of static and radio interference. I use AM radio to capture broadcasts, static and interference from barely audible broadcasts over the airwaves at night. The voices are from far away and I’m an unintended/unanticipated listener; the broadcasts are not directed at me, so it’s sort of voyeuristic. I also incorporate samples appropriated from the web, such as religious fanatics, numbers stations, news, air traffic control communications (landing/take-off; short-wave transoceanic communications).
I also use field recordings. These have included Spanish preachers on a Sunday morning at an LA subway station; the sound of subway trains in LA and DC, and the sound of passing overground trains (the screeching of metal on metal, abrasive simple rhythms, pounding of rail-cars, the clanging of railroad crossing gates); street musicians; city sounds while walking in downtown areas and the sounds heard while walking through nature, on paths and through neighbourhoods etc.
Who or what have been your influences as an artist?
There have been many different influences and inspirations, most with little direct relationship to my music beyond an aesthetic or working strategy. Many of those influences are retrospective: I make music, so I might find old music that is very similar to what I’m doing, and I’ll pour over that artist’s work. Tangerine Dream is a good example of this.
As for direct influences and inspiration, these include Robert Fripp; Boards of Canada; Sunn O))); Miles Davis; Frank Zappa; Ozric Tentacles; Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Steve Reich; Morton Feldman; Giacinto Scelsi; and Curve.
Literary influences are writers such as Bukowski, Burroughs, Camus and Dostoyevsky. I wish I were better with words … instead, I express musically what I feel to be similar themes.
What are your plans musically? Have you ever collaborated with other musicians, or have plans to do so?
Recently, my music (specifically, tracks off of Compass Rose) was used in a theatre piece titled Personal War, produced by KnAM Theatre from Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia. I was contacted by Tania Frolova, the director of the company who founded the company in 1985. The company toured Europe with this piece, and Tania sent me a video recording of their performance in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was blown away. She incorporates recorded and live video into their performances to stunning visual and emotional effect. I am proud and honoured that they chose to use my music.
As for my efforts now, until my wife and I get a house to settle into, my studio is currently packed in boxes. It has been a while since I’ve released an album. The most recent was through BFW Recordings, called Living the Second Past, in 2013. I played regularly in a band through 2014, so I didn’t release any litmus0001 during that year. I think it’s the only year I’ve missed in a while.
I’m currently putting together an album with already-recorded outtakes and as-yet-unreleased material. I’m going to remaster all the pieces. The only real effort will be in editing a long-scale recording into multiple pieces; a few sections need some production work. So I’m going to get the tracks in order, do the album graphics and liner notes, then find a netlabel interested in releasing it.
I also hope to perform live, depending on whether I can develop relationships and opportunities to do so in non-hostile venues. I don’t expect my music to fly in every live music environment, so I’d like to perform in dedicated spaces for similar non-conventional music, or various other environments, depending on which opportunities I can develop.
You make your recordings available for people for free, which I find really refreshing in a world that seems to commercialise everything it can get its hands on. What was the thinking behind your decision to do this?
I was only ever interested in making music, but in the Nashville environment I avoided music as a profession (although I played in bands). I was turned off by ‘the industry’ that permeates Nashville. Now, a little older, I understand and respect that – to an extent – but still I have no interest in participating in the industry.
I wanted to make music and I wanted people to hear it. In the early 2000s I recorded three albums with only a limited CDR pressing; these were passed to friends, mostly. My first two albums (Resplendent Namesake Observed and Yakima Listening Station) did get airplay on somaFM.com’s ‘Drone Zone’, and on some public and community radio stations.
Then I found netlabels and webstreams that play music similar to mine. This was an avenue to an audience. I also found that I could release music myself through similar avenues, but releasing on other labels increases my exposure to new listeners.
As for free music, I felt that I wouldn’t be heard if I tried to sell my music, because it was an unproven, unfamiliar commodity. And then there’s the enormous expense and effort involved in commercializing music. Over 20 albums I estimate I’ve saved myself $300,000 of debt by avoiding a studio and the industry model of production and distribution; everyone takes their cut first, leaving the artist the scraps. All that said, I’ve enjoyed an unexpectedly wide and enthusiastic audience worldwide, which I don’t believe I’d have been able to achieve in a conventional pay-based model; pursuing other professional avenues allowed me to do this.
Where did the name litmus0001 originate?
Being a scientist by training, I wanted a science-y title. During my time in Nashville I was interested in psychedelic/jamband music – quite acid-y. Plus I play bass, and litmus is an acid/base indicator. 0001 was appended because I knew others might try to use litmus as a band name – and have – but no one would name their band litmus0001.
Do you have a day job/career?
I’m in transition right now. I have a PhD in molecular biology. I was involved for 20 years in cancer research professionally, working on basic, translational and clinical research projects investigating complex aspects of how cancer happens and how it can be targeted.
However, recently I was offered an opportunity to change career direction. So now I work for a hospital system in the Pacific Northwest, administrating, maintaining, monitoring and developing human research projects mostly involved in the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular and neurovascular diseases. I now live in the Portland, Oregon area.
Are you a book reader? What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I don’t ‘leisure read’ as much as I’d like, mainly because my work has and will continue to involve large amounts of technical reading and writing (interpretation, explanation, application).
That said, I’m currently reading Life by Keith Richards. After I’m done with that, I want to read A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. I also periodically read parts of On Food and Cooking.
Any remaining life ambitions that you aim to fulfil?
Managing my life from day to day is enough of a challenge…
I’m not sure I have what you would call big ambitions. I’d like to write more, and write more purposefully. I have a few other ideas, such as a subjective curation of my CD/music collection, describing experiences that are related to albums I was listening to at the time. A sort of ‘gonzo’ music and social criticism.
I would also like to do more music, more seriously. Both recording and moving towards performing live frequently.
Where can people find your work?
Various netlabels have released my music: Kikapu, Clinical Archives, BFW Recordings, Kreislauf, Just Not Normal. My own netlabel AnubisMusic. All can be found by searching ‘litmus0001’. You can also go to archive.org, where many of these netlabels also host their releases. Otherwise, get in touch with me via Facebook and I’ll send you a link.