While still seated on the patio of the Victory Café after chatting about their grunge-era regrets, it was suggested that Jakob Rehlinger (BABEL) and Heraclitus Akimbo (better known as sound archivist Joe Strutt of the esteemed Mechanical Forest Sound blog) should interview each other about their respective releases in Arachnidiscs’ new Extra Limited Run series. BABEL’s MARTIALIS and Heraclitus Akimbo‘s A Part of my Inheritance are both forty minutes long and both involve loops and keyboard-based music, but they are coming from pretty different places. These are the questions that they had for each other…
Joe Strutt/Heraclitus Akimbo: Tell me about the Extra Limited Run series.
Jakob Rehlinger/BABEL: As the name suggests, it’s very limited runs of albums or split tapes — five to fifteen copies per release. I decided I just wanted to get some blank tapes made with the pad-print of the label logo on it so I could just do limited runs of things sorta cost effectively, but still look kinda official. Honestly, for some releases, ten copies is all that’s needed. When I do a run of fifty of something, I give the artist twenty copies and maybe I sell fifteen pretty quickly. But the remaining five or so sit in my basement forever, slowly dwindling down until it sells out years later. Sometimes I think, “well, maybe I should have only made ten copies.” And this way, if need be, make another ten copies. That’s kinda the philosophy behind it, less waste.
[As it happens, the first run of A Part of my Inheritance has already sold out in pre-orders before the July 27th release date. Naturally, second run is planned and Jakob is wondering if he should’ve done it as a regular release.]
I think it’s very important that an album has some form of physical release, but does it need to be fifty or a hundred copies? Or does it only need to be ten copies for the real die-hards and it can have a digital life after that, but still with the legitimacy of once existing as a physical copy? Which is something I cannot let go of. I have zero interest in turning the label into a digital label. That’ll never happen — I’ll quit before that happens.
Joe: [exaggerated table-thumping for emphasis]
Joe: Turning to your tape, I guess I’d start by observing there’s a fair number of BABEL releases…
Jakob: There are! There’s probably too many. But they’re each unique, I think. They’re each a different facet. Some bands, on their bandcamp page there’s this huge grid of a hundred releases and you start going through them and they’re all exactly the same. And you go, “Why? Why do you keep making music?” Whereas I think for the BABEL releases — to pat myself on the back — each album is quite different. I go through phases: percussive prepared guitar, synth, the earlier postrock phase…
Joe: And the same sequential variation is happening in this recent burst? Why have there been so many?
Jakob: I’m always recording. But in October, for no good reason, on a whim, I started recording a thematic album a month. It goes OCTAL, NOVUS, DECIMA, JANIFORM, FEBRIS, MARTIALIS, APRAXIA, MAZE, and then JUNIPER.
Joe: The code! Unveiled! So if you line them all up, it’ll show this long-term musical story of your development? Or decline…
Jakob: Musically, it bounces all over the place. JUNIPER is an American Primitive guitar album. Mini-album or EP. As yet, nobody wants to release it. [laughs] So it might be an Arachnidiscs release.
Joe: You can send that anonymous submission off to Revenant and see what happens.
Jakob: That’s probably a good idea. Maybe I’m aiming too low.
Joe: How many months is it going to go?
Jakob: I haven’t recorded anything in July yet. Since Mandi’s away in Europe right now, I thought I would have a whole album recorded by the time she got back. Maybe two albums. Maybe a double July album, but no. So this might be the end.
Joe: Does MARTIALIS just happen to come along at the time you’re doing the extra limited series, or did you think, “this is one that ten people would want to listen to instead of fifty?”
Jakob: That’s kinda what happened. ‘Cause lately I’ve been going out and hassling other labels into releasing BABEL material to what I think is a shocking amount of success. That they’ve agreed to put these out. OCTAL, I got Kevin Haney to release on Inyrdisk. I did NOVUS myself. DECIMA‘s gonna be released by a sub-label of Jeunesse Cosmique. JANIFORM is on Assembly Field in the UK. FEBRIS just came out on Tymbal Tapes. I think I have a label lined up for APRAXIS. So for MARTIALIS I thought this is maybe one I should release myself, as opposed to trying to get an ambient new age cassette label to put it out. It just felt like one that would be good for this series as opposed to shopping it hard on another label.
Joe: There was no one else in that “heavy Vangelis” niche that you could find?
Jakob: Well, there’s a ton of labels in that niche but I think there’s so many other people doing that I felt like it would be a harder sell… I feel like it’s one of my least unique BABEL recordings. It has the least, “that is definitely BABEL, I can tell right off the top,” whereas some of the other ones have a bit more of a unique artistic slant to them. This one, it was a bit more… it’s a good one for me to do as ten copies and see how it goes.
Although as I was dubbing the copies of all these [Extra Limited Release] albums I really got to enjoy each of them more and more, which I didn’t expect — I thought I’d hate them all by the time I got to the tenth copy. By the end, I was thinking, “wow, I really should have shopped this album to another label to do something more substantial with.” I dunno, just Stockholm Syndrome probably.
Joe: I reacted favourably to it.
Jakob: [laughs] I do think it’s good, but it’s very much a retro-synth album, which is what I was going for. Using space echo effects in a looping style. It’s definitely an aesthetic I was playing with that is well-tread ground.
Joe: Yeah, I said it jokingly a minute ago, but it seems like you’ve torqued the [early period] Tangerine Dream sound of the OCTAL stuff into a more airy Vangelis thing. But then there’s a couple little abrasive moments to wake you up.
Jakob: Yeah. I think it really works well in that aspect. As opposed to just being straight mellow new age pabulum. I think I intentionally added enough stuff that would give it a little more grit. But I feel like it’s kind of an anomaly, at least when I recorded it in March I felt it was an anomaly for BABEL. But then in April I recorded another synth album that was very pointedly synth-oriented, so I guess it’s more of a phase.
But speaking of drone-y/synth-y music based on loops, your album is definitely in that genre. Was this your first stab at it, or is it something that you’ve been secretly doing all along and now you’ve suddenly made this stuff public?
Joe: No, I’ve had other bursts before. I spent a lot more time noodling around with music before I was going to so many shows. And that tailed off once I had the blog and was recording stuff.
Jakob: Which must take up a lot of your time.
Joe: Yeah, so noodling — or recording — has been something that just hasn’t been happening for quite a while. But if you dig back, if you go on my bandcamp, there’s an ambient album there that I recorded about seven years ago. And it’s kinda the same, since I don’t know too many tricks. But instead of the loop pedal, that one was made with this toy I bought from a guy I worked with, a Mixman DM2. It’s like a DJ controller that you could play tracks with and “scratch” on like a turntable. But I accidentally found a way to use it for ambient music, by playing around with the samples that you could load onto it. I generated all these synth tones from an Electribe — an old one, the first version — using it just as a monophonic synth instead of a sequencer. So I had all these synth tones on the Mixman and “played” those to create these drones. So I always liked doing that stuff. I own three Buddha Machines, and sometimes I’d just like to crank them all up at once and live-mix them together. I tinker. Playing with the cheap, low-end gear I have laying around, like the Realistic Concertmate-500, which is the Radio Shack knock-off version of the Casio SK-1.
Jakob: That’s one thing on your album — that keyboard sounds so good. ‘Cause I definitely made a lot of recordings with that. I used to have one of those and I could never make it sound as good. I don’t think I had the know-how at the time. I was probably too [sheltered] to really have witnessed how people do this kind of stuff. So, I’d put a reverb pedal on it and expect it to sound good.
But anything that produces a tone, you can you can make an amazing-sounding synth or ambient album if you just know how to tweak the signal properly. And have the taste to be able to do it. Right? Having an innate taste, as opposed to a talent… [laughs] Taste is the most important element, I think. My problem is ego. I always insert way too much of my own ego into my music. I always want to impress somebody; that’s, way too much of a motivation for me.
Joe: It’s probably not a bad motivation.
Jakob: It’s a good one to be able to push yourself, but I think good music isn’t made when there’s any kind of ego involved… whereas I wanna impress somebody.
Joe: I’d say mine isn’t that ego-driven, except in a backhanded kind of way. Obviously you want people to be impressed by it, but my assumption is, “why in the hell would they be?”
Jakob: It’s because it’s very nice to listen to.
[When Joe transcribed this interview, he apparently deleted a paragraph around here where Jakob tells him how, when Mandi overheard Jakob listening to it, she raved about how much she loved the music not even knowing it was Joe. And how that’s even more significant because she rarely has anything positive to say about music Jakob listens to. It appears Joe is uncomfortable with praise.]
Joe: I think because I’m pretty aware of my limitations I wasn’t doing stuff that would clash. Most of what I recorded, you can just mix all of it together because I was just playing, what’s the word, diatonically? Just on the white keys. And then when I had little melodic moments, it would just be two or three notes in that scale. it’s hard to come up with something that’s an audible clunker like that.
Jakob: I can achieve that. I can go on just the white keys and somehow manage to make the most horrible, discordant racket. So, a lot of people, when they’re getting into this kind of music, they don’t try for any kind of harmony or resonance, they seem to instantly go for the noise end of the genre, as a kind of safety net. “Okay, I’ll just make things discordant. I’ve got this analog synth and I’ll just go blee-oo-wee-oo and nang-nang-nang-nang and make horrible noises.” But you seemed to avoid that altogether and you’ve definitely gone for something that’s very serene and still interesting in that Philip Glass-y, minimalist composer kind of way. Is that a conscious thing you did?
Joe: Well, I have done the opposite. I have distortion pedals and so on. I certainly enjoyed doing that when I played guitar more. And when I had my four-track I’d do that, just layers of abrasiveness. But for this stuff? Not that I dislike noise, but I wanted to make something I could listen back to…
Jakob: You were consciously creating something you wanted to listen to, as opposed to, “I’m going to do something to get on the weird drone scene.”
Joe: I’d say maybe the most immediate thing that was in my head was a piece called “Watermusic II” by William Basinski. It’s an hour long, and pretty minimal and soothing, with textures gently rubbing against each other. it’s one of the things I keep handy to listen to when I’m trying to go to sleep. I think that probably would have been in my head as much as anything else. And I was successful, inasmuch as I find my recordings quite pleasant to fall asleep to.
And I love the infinite malleability of this kind of music. I’d record eight or ten minute “takes” and then mix and layer them together afterwards in Audacity. The funny part with this stuff is, you don’t have to line it up in any particular way for it to align in a way that works.
Jakob: In this kind of music, for sure.
Joe: So there was very little effort…
Jakob: …there’s that happy accident element. You have your take or whatever, and then you line it up with some other stuff, and you realize, “well, I never would have ever consciously thought of doing this, but wow, that works really great.” I think it’s kind of a thing musicians don’t talk about when they work in this field: how much of their music is a happy accident? Literally throwing it against a figurative wall and seeing what sticks.
Joe: For the two-and-a-half hour version of Variation and Variations, I had ten sections, so I made a chart: one through ten on the left channel, then ten through one on the right, and then randomly fill in the opposite channels. And then I just went and copied and pasted that all into Audacity. Move things around so the sections line up and that was the finished product.
Jakob: That’s basically what I do with a lot of BABEL recordings, but I don’t even bother to make a chart. I just organically start doing stuff. What works, works and what doesn’t, doesn’t. I tried doing a thing where I was just recording random synth notes, thinking that I could just put them into the stretch filter in Audacity and it would all work out beautifully. Didn’t work at all. I realized I have to put a little more thought into it at the beginning stage, you can’t just randomly make noise and expect to stretch it out and edit together and have it be this brilliant disaster of an accident that turns into art.
Jakob: When you shared the picture of the tapes I posted today, your caption said something like, “I’m a little uneasy about this, I don’t want people to think I’m passing myself off as a real musician.” So, how uneasy are you about putting your own foot into the pool?
Joe: Well, I spend a fair amount of time around people who are so good at music. So to me it just feels like sheer dilettantism to say, “hey, I’m a musician too!” And worse to say it to someone who’s put their heart and soul into it, and played every day for years and worked their chops out. Even for — or especially for — people who are good enough to play freely in a way that doesn’t sound like they have chops, but who have an amazing amount of musical knowledge to fall back on. So for me to put myself in any way on their level just seems too pretentious.
Jakob: But that would be like saying, oh I dunno, Einstürzende Neubauten should never have made a record or something like that. I mean, there’s a certain period in any musician’s life — and I will, against your wishes, call you a musician — there’s a naïve period, where you’re creating something that is really spectacular. ‘Cause I think your album is really good. I was actually a little upset about how good it is, cause I was like, fuck you, this is the kind of stuff I’m trying to do with BABEL all the time but it just sounds like weird noise or something when I do it. In the art world they call it “naïve art” and when you get a certain amount of chops you can’t create like that anymore. You can’t do it — you over-think things subconsciously. About knowing why what you’re going to do isn’t going to work — that kinda ruins everything. And then you have to get to another level to be able to pull it back.
Joe: When I was thinking about what name to put on this, before I posted the stuff online, I actually had on my list of names this German word, Laienmalerei, which basically translates to “lay painting”, which is basically the same concept as you’re talking about.
Jakob: In the early ’90’s, I was a Joe Satriani shredder kind of guitar player, and I consciously un-trained myself to not ruin everything I played with hair-metal lickage, horrible tapping solos, and whammy-bar divebombs and everything that would just come out subconsciously. Un-training my actual ability to play the guitar was a very conscious thing, but I can also fall back on that technical knowledge if I need to. But I kinda purposely don’t practice very much. Always trying to get back to that naïve period.
But speaking of band names, what is the story behind “Heraclitus Akimbo”?
Joe: Way back, in the time before I was even playing guitar, maybe 2002 or so, I worked at an office job and I’d shoot the shit with a friend of mine who was also really into music. One day, we were talking about what our punk names would be. And we spent the lunch hour or whatever just coming up with lists of punk names. And one of the ones that I came up with, and that stuck with me somehow, was Heraclitus Akimbo. Lingering shades of my big crush on the Presocratics as a youthful philosophy undergrad, probably. But it’s a great punk name: it sounds both awesome and a little goofy.
Jakob: It makes me think of that Kim Mitchell album, Akimbo Alogo.
Joe: I’m not burdened by knowing that specific album.
Jakob: It’s the one with “Go For a Soda” on it.
Joe: Ah. I was just a singles guy for Kim Mitchell. So anyway, once I bought my guitar and wrote all my bad songs, Heraclitus Akimbo was the name they were under. I’ve told this story before, but to recap:
In anticipation of the terror of turning thirty, I bought a guitar. My friend at work, who I had all those list-making rock conversations with, he had a guitar and played a little, so he went with me when I bought my Strat. And we jammed a few times and stuff. He was an English major who was always secretly writing a novel he would never tell anyone about and I thought, “this is great! We’ll start a band and he’ll write the songs, ’cause he was an English major!” So after a little while, once I’d learned four chords, I started asking where the songs were. But there were no songs. So I just started pulling things out from my notebooks — all those pithy bon mots that I was collecting — and cranked out a few songs. And when I made crappy recordings of them I needed something to put on it to make it look like a fake “real album”, so Heraclitus Akimbo it was.
So that was the origin, and it had really passed out of my mind. But then, earlier this year, my father passed away. I was out in Manitoba for the memorial service, and cleaning some of the stuff out his place. And in his office, where he had all of his music, he had this whole separate pile of all the CD’s I’d sent him, set aside in their own place. So it was nice to see he had some affection for my music. We weren’t always the closest, but we’d bonded over music, and I guess he liked the fact I was doing this stuff. And I also ended up with his guitar and his Boss RC-2 loop pedal. And it was in playing with the loop pedal that I ended up sorta accidentally creating all this music. So that’s why it seemed like the logical name to put on it.
Jakob: It’s not nearly as bad as a lot of names that bedroom recordists choose for their projects. But I wondered: where did that come from? It seemed so random. What is this alter ego? So you had a conscious decision not to put it under your own name. Because in the Toronto underground scene, most people know who you are, or know your blog at least. You’ve got a lot of good will, as evidenced by the response when you posted the photo of the tape… you could just use your name. Like, why not?
Joe: Bandonyms are just better than real names. Always. Even if my name sounds a bit like a fake, made-up stage name…
Jakob: True. if I was going to make a movie about a hair-metal guy who was trying to make it, like a Rock of Ages kind of musical, “Joe Strutt” would be an awesome name for that guy.
Joe: Or a Dickensian rock novel, where your name is your character: “Strutt”.
Jakob: In high school I used to jam with a guy named Clay Caesar, and my dad would say, “he’s got such an awesome rockstar name!” And he did, it was like there was no way that name was real… Clay Caesar! [laughs]
[What Jakob neglected to tell Joe about Clay was how, shortly after he graduated high school, he went into the wooded area behind the tennis courts near his house and shot himself in the heart with a rifle.]
Joe: But yeah, I guess it never occurred to me to put my own name. To use one’s own name just seems boring. If it was, like, singer-songwriter stuff, maybe you put your own name.
Jakob: I started using the name BABEL around the turn of the century, sort of a semi-gothic electronic noise thing, and then I sort of abandoned it for a while to do Moonwood. And [around 2010] when I started re-visiting the type of stuff that would again be called BABEL, I was putting it out under the name “Rehlinger”, as if I were a composer of some renown: “Mozart… Brahms… Rehlinger!” And that lasted for about two months and a few MP3’s I posted somewhere and I realized, “I’m going to start calling it BABEL.” I’m not comfortable using my name at all, and even though I knew for a while that there had to be a lot of other people out there using the name Babel — it’s too much of a common word to be unique — it just seemed like a better route to go.
Joe: Are you familiar with the “other” Babels? Do you keep tabs on their career arcs?
Jakob: I don’t really keep track of them, but I definitely discover a new one every time I sign up for some internet service as Babel: “that name is taken.” And then I have to find some weird spelling, like “Babelmusik” or something like that because there’s a “Babelmusic” already. They’re usually techno artists, though. Oddly, I have not found a single dub artist named Babel. I feel like the Babel/Babylon thing… too obvious? How is there not a dub artist named Babel?
Joe: That’d be like evil dub, right? Babylon Dub.
Jakob: It doesn’t have to be a good Rastafarian. It could be the Satanist version of Rastafarianism. He’s totally for the cops.
Joe: He gets a haircut regularly.
Jakob: He’s a skinhead! [laughs] Lotta techno artists named Babel. Lotta flamenco, and an Italian neo-classical sort of thing. There’s an Italian metal band. They posted a video where it’s just their singer screaming into the microphone. You can’t hear the band, just an isolated vocal track, fifteen seconds of him shrieking. I was like, “Wow, this is great!” When you go into youtube, the first hit under Babel is this guy screaming and probably somebody’s gonna think that’s me. And it’s awesome.
And then, also, the Brad Pitt movie, when you google “babel” it’s all Brad Pitt movie for two pages before there’s anything resembling me. I mean, for branding I should have gone with my last name and just stuck with it and persevered and not felt awkward about it but it felt like at the time it was too hard for people to remember or even pronounce correctly. It bothers me when people say “rell-in-jer”.
Joe: Oh shit, I always have. Until two seconds ago.
Heraclitus Akimbo’s A Part of My Inheritance and BABEL’s Martialis both release on 7/27/15 along with Hirudinea by Louis Law. You can order any or all of them HERE.