Max Eilbacher Talks NSA Classmates, Learning Pro Tools

Max Eilbacher Talks NSA Classmates, Learning Pro Tools

John Elliott is wrapping up Spectrum Spools' strongest year yet with a release by a young Baltimore video artist and musician, Max Eilbacher. If you're familiar with the goings-on in Baltimore these days, perhaps you'll know Max from his involvement with The Bank, the DIY space where he lives, or Horse Lords, the fantastic, post-internet band of freaks he helped found. He has also toured as a member of Matmos. In their early days, Horse Lords used to rehearse in Matmos' basement, and the duo has something of a fatherly affection for the band. During my interview with Eilbacher-- a lot of which was cut for length considerations-- it became obvious that his personal Baltimore is a comfortable site for creative exploration, where rent is cheap and the community is strong. His new solo album, Red Anxiety Tracers, is a thrilling statement for someone who is really only beginning his exploration into frontiers both artistic and technological. It willl be interesting to see what this guy is doing in 10 years. Video work seems to be his his main interest, so that's where our conversation started. If you want some idea of his twisted, trippy 3D animations, just check out the trailer he made for his album.

Ad Hoc: I love the trailer for your album. Can you talk a bit about your video work?

Max Eilbacher: I went back to school because I wanted to do production and film work. I’ve always made video art since I was young, even if I didn’t know it was video art-- making weird movies, like kids do. Especially with 3D animation being so easy and fairly available, it just seems like the next step in that. So I’m just really into making stuff that’s connected to 3D animation, and then a continuation of what I did as a kid, like weird, dumb videos that are psychedelic and psychotic. For some weird reason I can get a degree in that, which I’m really into.

Ad Hoc: Are you studying at the art school?

ME: No, I actually go to the state school down the road from me, UMBC. There’s like huge stakes in my school, because it’s an engineering school, and most the kids that go there go for some weird government contracting reason, so there’s a huge revolving door of 20-year-olds graduating and going to work for the NSA. It’s a really psychotic workspace. Especially when I was taking electronic music-- their electronic music lab is in the basement of this building that’s paid for by Northrop Grumman, so everyday when I go in there’s giant Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin posters, saying all these advancements they’ve made in missile technology and stuff like that. It’s an insane environment.

Ad Hoc: Just a constant reminder that the center of a massive goverment-military machine is just a few miles away.

ME: Yeah, it’s integrated with everyday life. I take classes with kids who work for the NSA and they’re like, “Yeah the NSA paid for me to go back to school.” Especially being part of an arts community, where everyone is so anti-government, and these kids are like, “Oh yeah, the NSA paid me to go here and I write code for NSA programs."

Ad Hoc: Is there any way that culture manifests itself in your video work or music, or is it just something that’s in the back of your mind?

ME: I’ve been going to this school for about two and a half years, so it’s part of my everyday thing. But I have to say, it makes me work harder in a way, because if I went to a normal art school I could present something like a Jordan Belson influence, and it would be more readily accessible, while my school would enlist these kids-- they’re doing this to [work in] Hollywood production. If I showed a Belson influence in art school, they would be like, "Whatever, yeah everyone's done that,” but showing it in my environment, it becomes way more abstracted. The littlest thing I do that’s weird is multiplied, so I make these not-very-strange films. To these kids, [my films are] just so abstracted and bizarre. I think that creates a different workflow for me. Or the normal becomes more bizarre, in a way.

Ad Hoc: Could you talk about your involvement in Horse Lords?

ME: Bernie [Alexander Bernstein] and I were in Teeth Mountain at the same time. Right when I joined, Owen [Gardner] had quit-- It was a band with a big revolving door. So Bernie and I did a lot of touring with Teeth Mountain and we just really related through musical styles with that. He was really into drone and texture stuff. And I guess three summers ago, Sam [Haberman] and I, just from knowing each other through Baltimore, started playing. We all had side projects together, but we just started doing this and it clicked. We actually just finished mixing the next album last night. So we’ve been at it two and a half, three years maybe.

Ad Hoc: Do you guys have some sort of collective goal when you make music, or is it just like, "Yeah, we come together and do what we do?"

ME: It’s not as simple as I kind of wish-- like getting together and we jam something out and we build the song from that. It’s like someone will make an idea and then send us a MIDI track, like, “Oh yeah, I have this drum pattern that I like.” And then we’ll work off that, but it’s very much about people bringing ideas: “This drum pattern sounds really good if we subdivide it this way. What if we do that?” We’ll jam on that. So it’s not as intuitive as other bands I’ve been in. We sit together and we jam and we edit the tape together. That’s when the composition comes out: very much in the studio, hashing, talking ideas out.

Ad Hoc: How does your solo work diverge from that?

ME: I actually see it as very similar, because-- let alone with the synthesizer, especially with the rig I use-- you're thinking monophonically through this signal path. It’s sort of for me the same as playing bass. I have to think about these super minimal, repetitive [ideas], but still having an air of catchiness to them, without being cheesy or melodic. When I sit down and I think of synthesizer parts, it’s almost exactly the same as thinking up bass parts. And then, with Horse Lords, because I use a just-intonation bass, the range of notes I have is super limited, so I have to be really creative about how to change different parts. Whereas when I’m composing with a synthesizer, or a computer, or tapes, or whatever, I sort of have that same feel, like, “Ok, how can I-- in the simplest way-- keep this very interesting, repetitious…”

Ad Hoc: What is the appeal of the modular to you?

ME: I just love its complete, open signal path. Some dude in a factory didn’t decide that the off-splitter has to go through the filter a separate way because people in the past have made string sounds. Modular is completely open. But it’s not open-- they’re so expensive, and you really have to choose what you want to buy. So I like that contradiction of like, “Oh, yes, so open,” but you’re limiting yourself if you can only really afford four things to use. It’s cool because, to me, you can actually mimic the brain in a way. You’re making weird connections between different points, and to me that’s so artistically pleasing-- having this open board of patch points that create new things.

Ad Hoc: Are there any other ideas you had going on with this album, or was it just playing with the modular, trying to come up with certain sounds?

ME: There’s definitely concrete compositional ideas. It took a while to assemble. I wish I could have just sat down in two weeks and laid everything out and then spent another two weeks planning it and mixing it, arranging it, but it took a long while, especially because before this record, I’d only made tapes, and even from that, I had only used a four-track. But when I got asked to do this record, I was like, “Oh, you know, I should probably really step my game up.” And I got a computer, I got Pro Tools, and then I was like, “Uh, ok, I guess I have this nice setup now. What the fuck do I even do.” So it just took me a while to think about, what do I want to present as a product? What is my music? So it took about eight or nine months or ten months just to get all the sounds, and then I just recorded tons of music. Tons. Then I spent about two months just arranging, and I was still having problems, because I’ve never made a record.

Every time I’ve done a vinyl, it’s been with a band. And when I do a tape, there’s so much less pressure, whereas with this vinyl, I was really confused. Actually, I went to John [Elliott]’s for a week, and he helped me, [gave me] sort of like a crash course, like, “Oh yeah, this is what you do with electronics on a computer.” It’s just a totally different realm from working with a modular and a four-track-- working with a few modules and Pro Tools. It was interesting taking compositional ideas I had-- just from live stuff, and spending hours in the studio-- and then being like, “Oh yeah, auto-panning, sick! I guess auto-panning’s really useful here.” This record’s a lot about learning, and I guess even though I talked shit on experimenting, there’s definitely elements of experimenting, because the format’s new to me.

Ad Hoc: I do think that’s interesting, that the sound of this record is really the sound of someone learning how to make a new type of music.

ME: Yeah, well, it’s not so much the abstract electronic music [that was] new, it’s just how to present almost forty minutes of that interestingly. That was the hardest part. Sort of going back to what I was talking about with experimental music, I want to do something experimental, but I want it to be listenable. I like enjoying things. I don’t want to name names, but I just don’t like… especially harsher stuff, unless I’m in a fight or want to break through a wall, why would I ever put this record on? Especially with a long-playing record, I think it's cool to emit series of emotions, and not just have this intense, dark drone album, or this euphoric, blissful psychedelic experience. I really wanted to get a plethora of emotions across. While still being cohesive.

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