Kevin Doria on Growing's Hiatus, Going Solo as Total Life, and Affording To Make Music

Kevin Doria on Growing's Hiatus, Going Solo as Total Life, and Affording To Make Music

With David Byrne's recent piece in The Guardian so fresh on the internet's mind, Kevin Doria's experience as a musician priced out of New York seems especially pertinent. But listening to Doria speak, you quickly remember that there's much more to being an artist than simply living close to the flame. Total Life is the solo project that Kevin Doria resumed when he moved from New York to Olympia, Washington, putting his much-lauded, mid-'00s drone band and Kranky mainstay, Growing, on indefinite hiatus. He had to drive a half hour to get cell phone reception for us to conduct our interview, but the space allows him to live a simpler life, unfettered by the bullshit that began to dilute his exquisitely sinister and cathartic craft.

Ad Hoc: Total Life is not new-- you have had that moniker for a while-- but it is newly active.  Is that correct?

Kevin Doria: Yeah, yeah. It was minimally active for a really long time, but with me moving out [to Washington] and Growing not being so active, it took center stage for me in terms of output. The first record came out in 2005, and then it was real intermittent really until I moved out here.  

AH:  What can you explore in Total Life that you weren’t able to explore in Growing?

KD: I don’t know if it’s something to explore more-- it's more about exploring less. In Growing, it was three people trying to work together to bring in their own perspective on something. With this, it’s my own perspective and that’s all it is-- it’s about refining that and making it more focused. That’s not necessarily a conscious decision-- it’s more the nature of working alone. I guess the hope is that I’m communicating something using my voice. With Total Life, that’s a pretty singular voice.

Ad Hoc: Many listeners do find abstract music more oblique, communication-wise. Do you feel like you're communicating with your listeners on a less concious, psychological or emotional level?

KD: Hopefully a bit of all of that. Other than when I’m making something with a therapeutic nature, a measure of success is weighed on whether or not [the music is] able to communicate. The specifics of what I’m trying to communicate, I’m not even sure I know. I’m hoping [the music] communicates on all of those levels: on a psychological level, on an emotional level, on a level that can be understood in more than one way, too. What those ways are is hard to put into any kind of coherent spot necessarily.

Ad Hoc: Music does help communicate the things which are hard to articulate.

KD: I mean, I feel like art in general-- it's hard to put your finger on what strikes people. 

Ad Hoc: When you mentioned therapeutic music, did you mean as therapy for others or for yourself or what?

KD: When I say it’s therapeutic, I think about that in terms of any artistic process. For me, whatever I’m working on, regardless of what it is-- the actual creative processes [are] the part that’s therapeutic. Drone music-- or noise music or ambient or whatever you want to call any of that stuff-- whether or not that’s therapeutic as a therapy for people... it would be nice if that worked that way for somebody. If it does, that’s awesome. I don’t necessarily do it for therapy. That’s what booze is for. For me, it’s therapeutic in that the creative process helps me give a purpose, whatever that is. Hopefully that purpose and that sound, that product, in some way communicates with people in a way that is beyond the obvious. Does that make any sense?

Ad Hoc: I think so. It makes as much sense as one can when talking about drone music. Meaning in this context is not as simple has having lyrics that communicate some message directly. 

KD: And when you talk about it, you sound like a pretentious asshole, but you don’t mean it that way. For me, everything is a raw process. The most important thing to me is the energy behind it. I’ll sit there and use the same instruments, the same everything, and try to make something. For some reason the energy will be different in one tune versus another tune, and the one with the right energy is the one that I get interested in. It is an energy to music, to art... It’s still a mystery to me. That’s what makes it exciting, makes me keep going back.

Ad Hoc: I’m intrigued by how this location changed has affected you, if it at all. Going from New York-- an insane urban cluster that’s filled with filth and discomfort-- to an incredibly barren place with no cellphone coverage... How this has changed things for you?

KD: The most obvious and immediate change is the stress of living in New York. I’m not talking about being next to someone on the subway or "Oh, there’s too many people." I just couldn’t afford it any more. I couldn’t do music anymore. I couldn’t afford the practice space, didn’t have time, couldn’t go on the road, didn’t have the means to record because it cost too much. Moving out here, there’s a stress level reduction and suddenly I can be productive again. The big difference is that I can actually [create] now, as opposed to having to, in my opinion, half-ass getting through practices, or trying to write and not really having the time-- but more importantly, the space-- to work on a budget. Growing never had money. I still don’t have money. It’s much easier to not have money in Olympia, Washington and have the time and space to do something. That’s the most obvious change.

Psychologically, I’m sure there’s a difference between making something in a place like New York City versus making it here. There’s got to be something. What it is is hard to tell at this point, because I’ve only been back for three years, and I’m just getting my head to where I’m confident moving forward with what I’m doing. I’m sure at the end of ten years away from New York, there will be a pretty obvious line in the sand. A lot of that is the difference between me working alone and me working collaboratively.

Ad Hoc: Can you talk more about that difference?

KD: With collaborative work, especially with Growing, where there wasn’t a lead dog, everybody brought parts to the table and we all worked on them together. For me, when I’m working collaboratively and someone else brings something to the table, I think of my voice [as being] complementary to what’s happening. If I were to bring something to the table, I would hope that the other people I was collaborating with would also use their voice to enhance what I brought to the table. When I’m by myself, I don’t have to think about that, necessarily. I’m still using different instruments together and everything has its different place. It’s harder for me to work on collaborations and make it cohesive. It’s not impossible-- it just takes more work. 

Ad Hoc: if you are using several instruments at once and it is just you, how do you build that cohesion?

KD:  The cohesion alone is easier, because it’s just me speaking. It’s a process of experimentation to a certain degree, and it doesn’t hurt the synthesizer’s feelings [if you] just put the synthesizer aside and pick up something else. Whereas it’s harder to look at yourself when something is not working, and you’re collaboratively working with somebody and what you’re doing is adding noise. It’s a much easier thing to deal with [solo] than in a collaborative sense. What actually makes that stuff happen is not magic-- it’s just work. To me, it’s fairly obvious when something is not working. And that doesn’t mean I won’t continue working on it and pounding that nail. But more often than not I’ve found that the less I have to mess with shit to make everything fit together, the better the tune is at the end of the day.

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