Two Western Vinyl stalwarts dive into the real questions.
Released earlier this year, Texas-based producer Spencer Stephenson aka Botany’s third album, Deepak Verbera, was a psychedelic revelation for long-time fans. Moving away from the beat-scene style he crafted his identity around, Botany embraced a cosmic mash of free jazz, ringing harmonies, and guitars drowning in distortion. Bringing complex textures to the foreground, and for the most part completely foregoing a drum beat, Deepak Verbera was an atmospheric tour-de-force and an exciting new direction from an artist most commonly identified as a drummer.
Equally accustomed to surprising artistic choices is violinist, software engineer and composer Christopher Tignor. His latest album, Along a Vanishing Plane, is a sparse and haunting masterclass in pushing musical boundaries. Combining his violin with the sounds of tuning forks using a technique he conceived himself, Tignor was able to create a truly unprecedented LP that pays respect to the classical origins of his instrument, while being undoubtedly future facing in concept and execution.
We had to link the two Western Vinyl producers over email for a head to head interview, and they went deep. Delving into ideas of mortality, financial support for artists, and the significance of technology for electronic music performances. Read the interview below, and make sure you check out the new Botany remix of “One Eye Blue, One Eye Black”, as well as the original track’s video at the end.
Christopher Tignor: If not now, when?
Botany: Forever and never.
Christopher Tignor: Is it worth supporting art forms society as a whole doesn’t seem to value?
Botany: Totally. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever put much stock in what society does and doesn’t value, and I don’t give the average consumer a whole lot of points for prescience. Relevancy is fluid, and historically a lot of brilliant art has been shelved at the time of its creation. If we base all artistic relevance on the immediacy of a work’s impact and say that that’s what society values in it – especially what a capitalist society values in it – we end up with a bunch of really transient, but oddly pervasive garbage that we’re embarrassed about in a few short years. Also, biological evolution and the evolution of artistic endeavors are similar in many regards, namely that they both have to allow for infinite instances of failure in hopes one of those instances pushes the overall thing forward. Even the word “meme” originates in biology. Thoughts form, warp, change, and every now and then become breakthroughs. So it’s entirely worth it to support art whose value to a society isn’t entirely clear. And failure is part of an artist’s toolkit.
Christopher Tignor: Corollary, do artists deserve government support?
Botany: Yeah, they do. Many people have said this far more eloquently than I’m about to, but art doesn’t just serve some airy, leisurely purpose, it literally sets the tone for an entire society, or at the very least articulates a pre-existing tone. I think if art funding were a bit more socialized, art could become more pure in the sense that artists would try harder to reflect their own inner world instead of simply pandering to an outer one in hopes they’ll nail an existing market. I think an artist can be positively driven by the acquisition of money because that hustle can provide urgency and a desire to make something so definitive that the artist will never have to work a shitty day-job again. But on the other side of that, life in the grip of capitalism can eat up so much time, energy, and money, that art never gets made. When that happens you end up with endless, beige-bricked boxes that line highways and bear the same dozen or so logos from New York to California, ’cause everyone’s too busy trying to feed their families to worry about how the light hits the archway of the Applebee’s entrance. I think that subversively contributes to societal misery.
Christopher Tignor: Where is the line between online panhandling and “crowdsourcing”?
Botany: This is a perfect next question. Because of the lack of much government funding, there’s no dignity lost in directly reaching out to your core audience and asking them to open their wallets for something that contributes to their enjoyment. In a way that seems like the most capitalistic, hustle-savvy thing someone could do. In crowdsourcing, an artist is extending an invitation to allow the audience to participate, and that implies that art is inherently enjoyable to be a part of. You’re not asking the audience to reach down and pull you out of destitution, you’re telling them that if they put something in, you’ll put something out. Ultimately patrons aren’t giving you their money because they believe that art is a valuable and necessary part of society, that’s not at the forefront of their thoughts. Patrons are giving you their money because they’re confident you’ll do awesome shit with it. If they aren’t, they don’t.
Christopher Tignor: If all of life is suffering, how might we truly live?
Botany: Live with the suffering. I don’t think the true aim of spiritual transcendence is to eliminate suffering, but rather to walk alongside it and aim to understand it. I often hear the word “chill” associated with my music, and I think that’s a lazy description, or at least not very faithful one. I go out of my way to inject turbulence into what I make, and I pride myself on keeping that undertow just under the aesthetic surface of what I’m doing. If I don’t portray that dissonance, then I’m condescending the depths of human emotion and the struggles that guide it. Truly living is suffering, and that’s okay. Wouldn’t be much of a reason to make music without it.
Do you believe every artistic expression to be a political act?
Christopher Tignor: Only in the broadest sense, in that decisions are made which inescapably derive from and begin a dialogue with some aspect of society.
The wonderful thing about art is that everyone is free to make what they will of it — to reinvent that dialogue for themselves.
You may decide your one act puppet show is a resistance to fascism but what I might walk away with, after critical thought, is the absurdity of intention — and puppets.
Botany: In performing with a computer, where do you draw the line between actual performance and the illusion or imitation of performance?
Christopher Tignor: It’s all performance, some of it just works a whole lot better. People are sharp, and tend to not like it when they feel like the con is on.
Computers promise to hide complex decision making. The thing is, a whole lot of that decision making — including the muscular — is what people go to shows to bear witness to. The wise live electronic musician doesn’t use the medium as a default crutch but decides which decisions are best suited for machines and which are best suited for humans.
Botany: What theme, aesthetic, or emotion do you draw from most, creatively?
Christopher Tignor: The outsider, looking in.
Botany: If a solar storm hit Earth and the grid was wiped out tomorrow how would it affect your music?
Christopher Tignor: Well, my load-in would be much worse because I’d have to also haul a gas generator along with all my (rebuilt) gear.
(Historical note: in college we put on a rock show doing exactly this in an abandoned warehouse).
The thing about electronics, is you can’t really stop electrons from bumping into each other and inducing voltage and it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out how you can harness this natural phenomenon to turn on lights, ring bells, spin levers, and eventually represent information. Then there’s really no turning back from a world of streaming porn, gene programming, and badly predicted elections. So I guess my question back is how can one really make music ignoring the medium so materially bound to the only ideologies almost all of us have ever known.
Botany: How does the theme of mortality express itself in your own music?
Christopher Tignor: Few reasonable people believe we get more than just this one go around. So what do you really want to do with your most precious of times here — playing and creating music? Shake some booties? Prove how smart you are to some insular circle of colleagues? Music affords us the opportunity to ask ourselves what really matters and gives us a chance to build a world-view on our own terms which, when done well, cuts straight to our emotional centres. Music lets you lead by example.