Austin Rockman’s music is truly an unprecedented journey through time and space. Liberating, unconventional and groundbreaking are but a few accurate adjectives to describe his craft and innovative approach to music. Enter his experimental world where granular synthesis and reverberated sounds will make you drift away, as you experience emotions you might have never felt before. Embark with us, on this path of self-(re)discovery…
Soundontime: Tell us a bit more about yourself, your background and how you decided to become so invested in music production!
Austin Rockman: Certainly! I was exposed to music from a very young age. Each member of my family had their own unique gravitation towards certain genres. My mother was very into early hip-hop like Outkast, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digable Planets, 2pac etc.. While my uncle, who first put a guitar in my hands, and is very much the spark to my interest in music showed me tons of artists, everything from Pink Floyd to D’angelo, David Bowie to Nirvana, he was really the first person to have me consider music as a vehicle for personal and spiritual exploration.
As I began to gravitate towards my own musical interests, I started writing and recording as a songwriter, which was a very beautiful time in my life that coincided with a sort of awakening to the kind of person I wanted to be. My first production endeavours were very humble and self taught using Garageband. When I pursued electronic production in university I really started to get into synthesis and more adventurous types of music. Looking back, everything happened really naturally for me honestly, I don’t think I ever had a choice in the matter.
Which record made you fall in love with (electronic) music?
I stumbled onto electronic music. I was exposed to the technology before I really started listening to artists in the genre. I took a class in university about controllers in electronic production which unlocked this whole world to me. So I was essentially producing electronic music before ever really hearing it, sloppily of course. In those early years, I remember listening to ‘The Pearl’ by Brian Eno and Harold Budd a lot.. I adore that album. Now that I’m thinking about this, there is a song from the soundtrack of the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine film called ‘KIDS’ that had a huge impact on me, it’s called ‘Raise the Bells’. It’s still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I eventually got really into artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Björk, Pole, Andy Stott and composers I feel helped point to electronic music like György Ligeti, Debussy, Zdeněk Liška, Ravel, Miles Davis, etc..
“New York was a huge inspiration, it’s hard to say exactly why.. It’s not like the city is the most beautiful place, it’s quite the opposite, it’s like this pumping organism compressed to the extreme with high and low energies and millions of reactive human experiences.”
Music is your passion, your hobby, your life. When did you decide to become more serious about it?
I think by the time I was 18 I never considered anything else! That’s when I really started writing songs, but I’ve always been very much a dreamer, an escapist of sorts. I like to live in my head, so it never occured to me to take on another ‘career path’. By the time I was in my early 20’s it was pretty much confirmed that music was why I am here, if I could do nothing else it would be that.
How has the city of New York influenced and shaped your sound?
I did the New York thing for about a year, I’ve since left, but may end up moving back at some point. It’s funny, I hadn’t really ever had an experience where I felt like an environment actually inspired me, mostly people inspire me, but New York was a huge inspiration, it’s hard to say exactly why.. It’s not like the city is the most beautiful place, it’s quite the opposite, it’s like this pumping organism compressed to the extreme with high and low energies and millions of reactive human experiences. And there’s a lot of poetry in that.. It’s fair to say the whole ‘Plum God’ record would have never happened without that city, in a large part the record is an emotional response to my experiences there.
“I think a lot of the beauty of composing electro-acoustic/ambient music is the liberation from classical song structures, not that I don’t love songs that adhere to it, but I tend to be compelled by things that are more non-linear.”
Your music is somewhat reminiscent of Oneohtrix Point Never, Nicolas Jaar and even Shlohmo. Which established artists do you get inspiration from?
Nice! I haven’t spent much time with those artists, but those are all very respectable names. Well, inspirational sources are always shifting.. and I do feel that most of my influence probably comes from cinema. But when I do listen to music I find myself revisiting artists like Talk Talk, Tim Hecker, Nick Drake, Pixies, Aoki Takamasa, Taylor Deupree, Ricardo Villalobos, and the late Marcus Fjellström to name a few.
I imagine the creative process must be entirely different for you than for someone who is focusing on classical song structure (intro, verse, break, chorus, outro etc.. )? Is it really that different or do you follow some kind of structure when producing music?
I think a lot of the beauty of composing electro-acoustic/ambient music is the liberation from classical song structures, not that I don’t love songs that adhere to it, but I tend to be compelled by things that are more non-linear. There’s structure in that I’m pretty restraintful in what sound palette or processing tools I’m using, but the overall approach to form is pretty whimsical. My favorite pieces of art, whether films, paintings, music, tend to have a dreamlike, visceral quality to them, I love experiencing things that sort of avoid my intellect, which in some way appears to be more of a reflection of actual life, a very emotional, fleeting, non-linear experience.
“Most of my music is composed rather quickly, in an improvisational setting, which I get the most gratification from.”
Am I right to assume that you have a myriad of projects on your hard drive, and you wonder which ones you should finalize and release?
That’s pretty accurate! A lot of the time if a piece gets sidelined I’ll re-process the sounds I recorded to create something new. Though I do have music I’ll probably never share.
Is it difficult for you to call a project done? How long does it take for you to finalize a track?
Not really.. sometimes I’ll feel like a piece is as finished as it can be at that time and I’ll come back later and make final revisions, but usually a piece ends when it feels like it’s ready to, and that usually has the best results. I’m kind of impatient with music, I can’t really work on anything for more than 1-2 weeks or I’ll start to loathe what I’m working on, and once I don’t love something anymore there’s just no point. Most of my music is composed rather quickly, in an improvisational setting, which I get the most gratification from.
How would you define your music? Experimental? Ambient? Both? It’s surely unique and difficult to categorize…
Well, I don’t think I would define it actually… it’s hard for me to describe my music so I never really try to. Experimental and ambient are both totally fair categorizations. I’m definitely drawing inspiration from that history and current output. Though, I wouldn’t call most of what I do ambient ‘background’ music, at least I hope it’s not.. I want my music to have a visceral, existential quality to it, where the listener is interacting with something that feels like it has a mysterious origin, some balance of the unknown and known.. like the art that moves me most. I’m just happy if it finds a place at all, call it what you want!
“Sonde Aim/Seek No End” is your latest release (available on bandcamp) and was released this February. It’s a truly incredible and immersive experience through time and space. What impressed me the most was the sound design on it. It makes the project complex, but at the same time your ideas are simple enough for the listener to follow. How did you make sense of it all?
Thank you! Well… I’d be lying if I said I was coming from some place with those pieces. It’s all action and reaction. I find a space I love and I just follow it, which can lead to a lot of beautiful accidents, and you start to feel like you’re more of a vehicle for the ideas being expressed than actually doing the expressing. It all ends up making sense in a very natural way as long as I love what I’m doing. It’s all very lighthearted really.
I strongly recommend our listeners check out your LP “Plum God”, released in July 2019. It is an extremely versatile record (both in terms of writing and instruments that are being used). It’s eerie but extremely emotional. Would you say it’s your most accomplished work to date?
Thanks! To date it’s definitely the largest artistic project I’ve released, being my first LP. But it’s my most personally successful body of work up to this point, the fruits of a long trial and discard period where I was trying to formulate something worth sharing. That album will always be special to me for the place and time that surrounded its creation.
“Inland”, “Tell Tide” and “Home and Haunts” are probably three of my favorite tracks on this LP. I’m left wondering if you structure your entire track first and apply effects afterwards. Or are effects sometimes triggering new ideas in the process of writing?
I basically always print most of my effects and processing in real time. It’s also a way of staying committed to an idea. A lot of the systems I use are doing some type of granular or spectral processing which ends up becoming a part of the sound itself, and that definitely leads to the effect triggering an idea. I love to take natural instruments and push them into places they couldn’t go otherwise, while still retaining their organic quality. Structure and form usually come out of a response to a sound, it’s not really something I ever hear in my head beforehand.
The stand-alone track “Perfect Dark” on the other hand is reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s an emotional journey. How did you process this distorted synth/guitar sound?
Ah nice! I love those guys. Nine Inch Nails were a huge inspiration to me growing up. That motif was composed on an OP-1, and I did some additional processing with some waveshapers in Max/MSP.
Some of the background sounds/samples included in your tracks seem to be real life recordings. What exactly are these sounds? How and where have you recorded them?
I love field-recordings, if you listen, you’ll find music everywhere. I recall that a lot of the knocky and bass textures on ‘Wire and Leaf’ were taken from an empty subway station I was in around 2 or 3 am. There was a loose sewer top that if you slammed your foot on would make the most glorious reverberated sub movement. Though, a lot of the background ambience on the record came from sound sources that originated from vinyl, tape, or old public domain films. I’ll record anything or anyone that catches my attention.
Overall, the sounds you use are extremely soothing (such as the Guitar on “Slowfield”). Is calmness an emotion you’re trying to convey through your sounds?
Slowfield was an improvisational piece I composed quite some time ago and never really revisited until my frequent collaborator and close friend Roopam Garg insisted on finishing it. He’s an incredible player and is performing the guitar on that piece. I wouldn’t say I’m really going after or coming from any emotional place, that piece did come out quite tranquil, but I just really love the act of making music, however it sounds after the fact wasn’t really up to me in any way that was conscious. I’d like to keep exploring both extremes of meditative and more confrontational sounds in the future.
Do you thrive in complexity as a person and producer? Is that something that made you realize that you wanted to get into this type of (experimental/ambient) electronic music?
Hmm.. that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if my personality has any correlation with the music I make. Most of the music I listen to isn’t entirely electronic. I don’t think I’m that complex of a person, we all have our depth, but philosophically, I would much rather simplify a complexity in an effort to make it more relatable. I can typically thrive wherever, the mind is an island.
“I’d like to leave my interpretations unexplored to allow listeners to draw their own conclusions since the tendency has been that I feel entirely different.”
Your soundscapes are centered around a main theme. How difficult do you find it to keep a project interesting over the course of 6 minutes? Is it actually something you think of when producing?
In my case, the length of a work is coincidental. I can’t really assume the listener will or will not retain interest or get bored, but I know if I am and if something felt like it was dragging to me, I’d cut it down. I tend to lean away from “very long form” electronic works.
How do you organize yourself when producing?
My template changes once I’ve exhausted a method. My approach to composition is pretty strict and organized with self imposed limits and sound pallets, but that’s after a long time spent in option paralysis, you learn what works and stick to it. Hopefully whatever gets me making music the fastest! Orson Welles said, ‘The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.’
Your music unquestionably takes the listener places. It feels kind of ethereal. What experiences do you think your listeners go through when listening to your creations?
I would really love to hear any feelings a listener may have! I myself have no idea what someone would experience, but I would hope they are taken somewhere they haven’t been before. I’d like to leave my interpretations unexplored to allow listeners to draw their own conclusions since the tendency has been that I feel entirely different.
Do you have any intentions when producing music? Or should the listener make up his/her own interpretations?
Nope, I’m not really trying to prove or achieve anything while in the act. I just want to be honest with my work and let the music happen. At the end of the day, a great deal of being an artist is learning how to get out of your own way.
The artworks you have chosen are extremely well matched with your own creations. How did the collaboration with UK-based artist Ian Hodgson come about?
Thanks! My collaborator Roopam Garg first got in contact with Ian via Instagram and showed me his paintings. He’s a super nice guy and let’s us pick from his work.
“I’ve gotten really close with granular synthesis, which all comes out of Max/MSP. Most of my processing in general, whether compression, saturation, delay, reverb etc.. comes out of Max.”
What does your current setup consist of (hardware & software)?
My setup is pretty straightforward. I mainly use Max/MSP, Ableton, and sometimes some other audio languages like Reaktor and Csound. I use these programs as synthetic sources and also as processing tools for all the acoustic instruments I own. I don’t own much hardware, but really hope to in the future, that’s where programs like Max have been indispensable.
What is your favorite plugin in your DAW? What is your favorite effect to apply?
I’ve gotten really close with granular synthesis, which all comes out of Max/MSP. Most of my processing in general, whether compression, saturation, delay, reverb etc.. comes out of Max. I’ve taken some of these effects and made Max4Live devices I can use in Ableton. As far as plug-ins go, I’m pretty simple.. if I grab a plug-in it’s usually a stock Ableton EQ or compressor, the tendency to use Max just comes from the ability to treat things with basically limitless modulation options, something you couldn’t accomplish by working entirely with a single DAW, but it depends on what you’re after.
What should our readers look forward to from Austin Rockman in the coming months? Do you have any plans in terms of releases, live events?
Thanks for asking! I’ll be releasing a single with UK based label ‘The Ambient Zone’ soon, and I’m presently in the midst of crafting another LP. There will also be a handful of collaborations released throughout the remainder of the year to look forward to.
Are there any other tracks or artists that you have listened to recently which our readers should consider?
On my Spotify artist page I’ve curated a playlist entitled ‘Ambient Fringe’ that holds over 3 hours of music, a lot of really incredible underground electronic, classical, ambient and experimental work is showcased. Your readers are sure to find something new and worth exploring on it.