hristopher Willits is a busy man. As one-third of Flössin, he creates the melodies that float through Zach Hill’s harried drumming and Miguel Depedro's wild electronic maelstrom. As one-half of North Valley Subconscious Orchestra, he teams up with former Medicine guitarist Brad Laner for inspired avant-pop experiments. Willits is probably more popularly known, however, for the music he makes under his own name. As one of the more accessible acts on the 12k label, Willits guitar playing captivated on his 2002 disc, Folding, and the Tea. Willits returns this year with a record under his own name on the Ghostly International label called Surf Boundaries. We caught up with Willits via e-mail in advance of the record to talk about his various projects.
Much has been made of your custom-made software in the past when talking about your music. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Is it based on Max/MSP?
It’s based in Max/MSP, but I have new setup recently. I'm now making plugins using Max and using those in Ableton Live. So, the bones of the sync system are now in Live and funky processing, folding, cutting, strange sample mapping, and whatever else happens in these plugins that run in sync with it all.
Have you found Ableton to be a better tool than Max—or is it apples and oranges?
Yeah, they are very, very different tools to me. Max is my favorite tool for making my own processing systems and customizing things—and Ableton is great for live sequencing. But I don't even compare in terms of what is better, because they complement each other so much in what I do.
Your new record under your own name—and your project with Brad Laner: North Valley Subconscious Orchestra—are both appearing on Ghostly International. Any reason for this change?
(Label head) Sam Valenti IV got in touch after he heard some stuff from the EADGBE comp that 12k did in 2003. So I started talking with Ghostly about collaborating a few years ago, and the first thing we did together was the SMM Vol. 2 12” in late 2004.
I was really impressed with working with them and the music I was visualizing was less 12k in sense—it was growing, twisting, and overlapping into a new focus. I dig the diversity that Ghostly is going for and I feel that Sam's approach to managing the label gives my music a lot of breathing room to evolve.
I don't want to box in what I do, so working with a label that respects pushing things into some new turf is key to me. I am definitely still planning on working with 12k for specific projects, but Ghostly is now my base camp.
Was there a particular impetus for this new focus or were you always interested in branching out your sound past the minimal 12k style?
I've always been making music that's different from things I've done in the past. I just follow my creative energy, I try not to lock myself into any specific formula style-wise. In 2004 people were asking me the same question about the Flössin release. And before that about my 12k work. I just follow my intuition in terms of what I feel like making at any given time.
Some of your time at the Kansas City Art Institute was spent studying video art. What part does video play into what you’re doing musically?
Editing video is actually what got me into digital audio in the first place. I was always playing guitar, making noise, painting, and doing strange sound installations, but the sequencing and editing of audio in a nonlinear way didn’t happen for me until I got into video around 1996 or 97.
So, on a technical level, it was revolutionary in terms of my process. I started blending my band's sounds with strange montage sequences.
And I think that despite the musicality of a lot of my work, I always approach sound/music in a very material way—the same way I edit video. So I think starting with video help to dodge any hang-ups about specific music sequencing and editing.
I’m finally getting back into more filmmaking after a few years break, which I’m excited to explore with my sounds more.
Do you think that approaching music in a more material way hampers your ability to make “song-based” music?
No, but in a way I hope it does. I'm interested in trying to make new forms. I've always been interested in making music that branches out of the traditional pop form, while still feeling somewhat familiar. I'm not against the mainstream structures of pop, I just find it more interesting and challenging to produce other things. I want to hear different patterns.
Do you have any specific plans for video and your future work? It certainly seems like Surf Boundaries might lend itself well to visuals…
I’m working on videos for live shows right now, and I’ve also had some specific short film ideas brewing for a while that I'm excited to get off the ground. And, yes, I definitely have some "Surf Boundaries" video stuff brewing.
What’s your favorite moment on Surf Boundaries? (Perhaps a happy accident or a particular sound that took an extremely long time to get just right…)
I think the moments that I am singing in harmony with Latrice Barnett. The songs are about shifting love, and being honest—and eventually the need for us to let go of each other, even though it hurts to do so. It's also about feeling so strong about the decision to set each other free, to be great friends, and devoted artists. This LP was in production during all that.
Surf Boundaries has a whole host of different instruments. Did you bring in collaborators for that? If so, was it a process in which you knew exactly what you wanted—or did you allow them to improvise to see what happened?
I never know exactly what I want. The music drives me to make decisions. Solve problems.
I just follow things that I'm hearing in my head, and once they make it out into the air I let them dance a round a bit to settle and find what they want to do. Seriously, I have no idea how this stuff ends up in the final shape that it does. It’s hilarious, and I love that about it.
For the other performers I recruited for Surf Boundaries, I would write some notes down or give other performers some constraints to work within, and then I would edit and process those results. Exactly the same way I generate guitar pieces—general ideas, improvisations, refinement, or erosion, but all working through a broad emotional or spiritual vision. I feel like I become so much of the process that my energy is encoded into these sounds.
How many people ended up working on Surf Boundaries?
I recruited friends for strings, horns, drums, and a couple friends helped me with the recording, so nine total. Latrice, Brad Laner did some overdubs on one track, Adam Theis and Alison Sawyer did the horns, Gabe Coan and Sam Ospovat the drums. I’m so happy to have all these brilliant friends around me to help grow these sounds—my name is on this record but a lot of collective energy made it happen.
How did you meet with Brad Laner, and what led to you working together as the North Valley Subconscious Orchestra?
We met through a mutual friend, Miguel Depedro (kid606). I told Miguel to tell Brad what’s up, since I've been a huge Medicine fan for years. (We're talking high school soundtrack level.) He was a very influential guitarist to me—up there with Hendrix, Lee Ranaldo, and Van Halen. And so he got us in touch. I had no clue that Brad even knew who I was, let alone that he was into my music. We hit it off on the phone, then hung out when I was down in LA, ended up improvising for a few hours and had a blast. It felt so natural, so we did it a few more times and decided to make a record. I never told Brad how starstruck I was when we first kicked it. Hopefully he's not reading this!
Can you tell us a bit about the older bands that you were in before your 12k work?
While I was in art school I had a project called saturn 138. That was a main focus for about that years. We were making some really messed-up tunes and videos from about 1997 until 2000. Before that I had this psychedelic noise funk band. Lots of long guitar solos and feedback experiments. Sonic Youth, Hendrix, Sly Stone all rolled up together. That was pretty much my first real band, I was 14. I think our big climax was opening for the original Puddle of Mudd in Kansas City before Fred Durst signed them. That was possibly the most wack bill ever: Strange stoned noise funk psychedelia with maximum butt rock.
Why do you think that you’re moving more and more towards composed elements in your work?
Hmm, yeah. It’s funny because I have not really changed my creative process that much since I was 13 years old or so.
I’m always just playing with different materials and listening to them and letting them take shape with gentle pushes and pulls.
But I think now it’s a more refined process. I'm being more patient and more efficient with my own creative energy. I understand better the overall vision and relationship I have with sound and energy in general, so that sharpens my intuition within the process of making and experimenting. I definitely feel like I’m improving my creative process, which hopefully should happen as people get more experience.
It’s a mixture of improvisation, memory, concentration, and devotion.
People think I'm doing something new here, making songs with words and stuff, but I'm actually returning to ideas about song structure that I was playing with in old bands, even pre-12k releases. Avant-pop has always been a core idea to me—trying to push things into a fresh familiarity. It’s funny, what was avant-pop then is purple haze now. The market, the tools, the ideas of music are always evolving. It's anyone’s guess what will bubble up next.
How do you feel about people sharing your work via P2P networks?
Go for it, I hope it spreads the sounds to people. The North Valley Subconscious Orchestra release is the first digital only, object-less full-length release I've been involved with, so I'm really interested to see how it moves. I would definitely appreciate it if people download the files from emusic, bleep, or iTunes, rather than try to get it for free, it helps us out since we get some of that money. But I'm not freaking out about it. I trust that people will, if possible, trade us for the files. Its inevitable that people will share recordings and I encourage it, but it's also good to pull your own weight and support your people and sounds and culture. Whether it’s a download or a live show. and again, I trust that people will.
On that note, with all the free and low-cost tunes out there I really don’t understand how people complain that it costs $10 to get into a live show. If independent artists are not making much money from their recordings (few are) we've got to compensate them at live shows. It is not easy making left-of-center music, or pretty much any music or art for that matter—and still have enough money and time to propagate its growth. But, an easy way to support the stuff is with some cash. At Overlap.org we're going to be sharing a lot of content, working with creative commons, using CC licenses, to find that middle ground between making people feel like a criminal or letting everything fly free to the wind without any context of sharing. For instance we can communicate, via these CC licenses, that it's cool to share a certain file featured on overlap.org, but if you use it for commercial use it's going to be glaringly obvious, at least to that person, that they are not respecting the artists wishes. To me it's all about communication via clear licenses and trust that people will respect those boundaries—not enforcement. Amazing times these are.
Tell us a little bit about the Overlap project that you’re involved in.
Overlap.org is a lens that focuses on featuring forward-thinking independent music, video, images, and live events.
All kinds of artists and media types will be featured on Overlap.org. This work will come from two places; content submitted to Overlap via RSS feeds (blogs, podcasts, vlogs), which is open to the public (we call this the Overlap commons), or unreleased content that people involved in the day-to-day operations of Overlap decide to feature on the front page. This could be a digital-only audio or video release, or recordings from a live event that we promote. Basically, we will feature cool work, distribute/syndicate it, and hopefully bring some people together on the web and at Overlap-sponsored events. We have got a solid crew on board, and already have some fine content to share, so it's going to be interesting to watch it grow. The site goes live later this fall.
Last five records you listened to?
Douglas Lee - Ethnomusicology is the City: Informal Case Studies
Sun Ra - Lanquidity
Magma - Spiritual
Jeff Parker - Like-Coping
Coltrane - The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions
The Beatles - Revolver
Carpenters - Close to You
What have you got upcoming?
On October 17th the new solo release will be out on Ghostly. I’m also preparing Overlap.org to go live with some friends, as well as finishing the new Flossin release and recordings I made with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Taylor Deupree and I are finishing a release for early 2007, and Brad and I are going to begin the next North Valley Subconscious Orchestra LP.
Christopher Willits at MySpace
North Valley Subconscious Orchestra