Armed with a deep understanding of sound design and genre hybridization, Comaduster gives ReGen a closer examination of Hollow Worlds, the impetus of his musical identity, and taking creative risks.
An InterView with Réal Cardinal of Comaduster
By Zachary Locke (ZLocke)
Yesteryear greatly affirmed that there is no scarcity of innovation in the world of electronica. Veterans and newcomers violently shook the format, ushering in a throng of refreshing sonic channels and promise for the future. One who vastly illuminated this notion was a Canadian artist under the guise of Comaduster. Further expanding on the ambitious concepts in 2009’s Slip Through EP and infusing a level of intricacy as only a sound designer can, Réal Cardinal captivated many electronic admirers through his emotive opus, Hollow Worlds. With accomplished works in the video game industry like the lauded Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, collaborating with other artists along with a new EP and side project just around the corner, the possibilities seem endless for this sonic alchemist. ReGen gets up close and personal with the man behind it all to discuss the meaning of his latest trek, performing live, the pros and cons of sound design, and what else is on the horizon.
Mid last year, you released the long-awaited Hollow Worlds, which definitely did not go unnoticed. You not only appreciably expanded on the multi-electronic sound in 2009’s Slip Through, but you instilled it with more vocal intensity that created a large part of the album’s impact and gravitas. Subsequently, it made listeners remember that Comaduster is not just a moniker incorporating a myriad of genres, but also a person trying to convey a message to the world. What message is that? What does Hollow Worlds mean to you?
Cardinal: Thank you for noticing that! I spend a lot of time digesting and internalizing new sounds and directions before I start really ‘working’ on real songs. For a long time, it just sounds like me trying to make a drum & bass song, or me trying to make an ambient piece. I treat all of those projects as ‘etudes,’ and I don’t normally share them with anyone except my close friends, and they usually want me to release stuff right away. Eventually, a space/world kind of appears, and I kind of just stick to the rules of that conceptual.
I guess that kind of ties in with the actual question. I wouldn’t say it’s a hard concept album, nor am I trying to be profound, but most of the songs deal with emptiness in a lot of forms. That sounds pretty drab and depressing, but it’s more of an observational thing on how people (well, through my own eyes) deal with different types of emptiness. To some people in certain contexts, it’s Zen – perfection even. Sometimes it’s a terrible, depressing reality. Sometimes it’s petty and delusional. Sometimes it’s an emotional separation from another person. Most of our physical universe is empty, but it’s EVERYTHING we know and are. So, each song on the record deals with a different angle on emptiness. The opening track, ‘Ma’ (which is a Japanese word for ‘negative space’ or ‘gap’) is basically me trying to do a soundtrack for the big bang or something. There was nothing; then there was everything. (Laughs)
But from a technical perspective, I definitely aimed to make this album pretty genre agnostic. ‘Dark, modern, electronic music… that hopefully people will like’ was where I pointed. I’ve always felt out of place with genre and subculture, and that solid music and ideas can transcend/sidestep/overlap all of that. I think that’s something that I will always strive for with Comaduster.
The ‘genre agnostic’ approach seemed to naturally allow the album to permeate the electronic community, which then saw you in the upper echelons of many best of 2013 lists. Were you expecting it to be this well received? How has all of the critical acclaim affected you?
The critical acclaim has been both humbling and inspiring. It’s given me a lot of hope that we can still make diverse and explorative releases and shake things up a bit. 2013 was a pretty amazing year for music and I’m incredibly honored to be included in the lists with some of my biggest music inspirations. Personally, I don’t currently have the sense of urgency to get on writing a full album again. I took quite a while to make Hollow Worlds, and despite being a diverse record, it was a huge challenge to keep it cohesive. I’ve got a lot of scattered ideas right now about what kind of music I’d like to be making and I’m working getting out to tour and support the music released so far. I’m currently pushing through an EP, which is kind of along the same lines as Hollow Worlds, but maybe a bit more cinematic and atmospheric. That should be out later this spring or early summer.
I plan on releasing a string of EPs and one-offs that kind of explore some different ideas, and then eventually the compass should start pointing towards a full album again. I also have a secondary project called Underfelt; I’ve just been getting that underway. It’s definitely more club focused on drum & bass and deep dark dubstep. So I’ve been chipping away a bit at that as well.
Hybridizing various genres gave Slip Through and Hollow Worlds a very crisp fantasy/sci-fi-esque sound. You come from a background in sound design; did working in that environment spark your desire to create this unique aesthetic or has it been brewing before that? What was the catalyst that led to your musical identity?
Eventually I got a job in the game industry as a sound designer at BioWare, and I worked there for five years. From a technical standpoint, that definitely helped me get my chops up and think about sound in a hyper-detailed, yet intuitive/physical way. A lot of the stuff on Slip Through was written well before I started there, but I definitely honed my ear a bit more while I was there and finished that record while being heavily involved in both sci-fi and fantasy franchises (Mass Effect and Dragon Age). So I can definitely say there is an influence, albeit more of a technical one than a creative direction.
On a related note, now that the world has heard your work through mediums of video games and music, do you aspire to eventually be heard through film or any other art forms?
Cardinal: Funny you mention that. My day to day work is generally in sound design and music for film and TV (as well as games), but it’s largely uncredited contract work for libraries or a variety of music situations where I don’t necessarily know how the music is being used. So in a way, I’m already creating quite a bit of stuff in those forms. I can’t say I directly aspire to do outright composition for film, but if what I’m doing affords the opportunity at some point, I’d gladly give it a go!
Earlier you mentioned touring. What’s your favorite aspect of performing live?
Cardinal: Performing live is a blast, and I love all of the different possibilities and ways you can present electronic music in a live setting. In older incarnations of this project, I performed live quite a bit, but that was back when I had to bring a lot of hardware out just to cover the basics, and then still ended up relying heavily on backings. That really turned me off of it for quite some time. I hated having to dismantle my studio every time I went out to play a gig.
In 2007 or so, I started doing one-off ambient, IDM, and techno gigs solo. I had just switched over to using Ableton Live as my main creative tool, so that inherently brought the idea of playing live again to the table. I continued to do that for awhile, even through the completion of Slip Through in 2009. I didn’t even consider playing anything off of that record live at the time, and it was largely meant as a studio record since it’s so heavily based on sound design. I was working full-time in the game industry at that point, so I didn’t really have the time to put together a live band and tour, and I didn’t really feel it’d be worthwhile to do as a solo performer.
When I was writing some of the tracks off of Hollow Worlds, it became a bit more apparent that some of them would probably work well in a live setting, and after talking it over a lot with my good friend David Murphy, we figured out a few ways that we could perform the material. Dave took over live guitar duties, as well as performing on a midi touchscreen guitar controller call the Kitara. I play an electronic drum controller as well as sing. We really wanted to focus more on the ‘active’ performance elements (like singing, drums, visible controller performance) rather than on more subdued knob tweaking. We spent quite a bit of time getting it dialed in.
The thing I really like about playing live now is that we can do our entire performance with controllers and a laptop, without any sacrifice in flexibility. The laptop handles all of the mixing, effects, sequences, backings, live vocals, live guitar, samplers, etc. It’s been very liberating, and we wouldn’t be able to bring Comaduster to a live format in a meaningful way with out that. We can do things that would normally be impossible or risky with racks of gear, and focus more on actually performing. I think, as a result, our shows come across as more of a rock/hybrid media type performance, as we aren’t hiding behind gear tables or anything. We’re right upfront, sweating our asses off.
Secondly, where do you plan on touring? Do you have any artists in mind or already slated to accompany you?
Cardinal: As for touring, we’re exploring a few avenues. We’ll definitely be making some rounds, but I can’t really comment on any specifics at this point. We’re excited to get out there, though!
What is the most profound thing you had discovered about yourself while composing Hollow Worlds?
Cardinal: I think the biggest thing I took away from doing this record was that it really helped me realize some of my personal limitations. The record took a long time to make, as I was really spread thin with work and life. I realized that to make something I’d feel was worthwhile; I’d really have to really give it my all. I left my full time job, and started doing freelance so I could manage my time a bit more. That’s something that’s really stuck with me since releasing this record. There is really no substitute for time and ideas.
It’s often said that the degree of a video game’s impact can be measured by how readily its fans can discern its sonic elements outside of a gaming context. From the satisfying Biotic explosions to the menacing Banshee shrieks and everything in between, your team covered a lot of ground and branded the Mass Effect trilogy with a very distinct sonic identity. Growing up intrigued by game sound design, what is it like to view the final product and know that you helped immerse audiences into one of the richest gaming experiences of its respective generation?
Are you currently working on any titles?
Cardinal: I’m currently not working on any games directly; I’m kind of out of the fold for that right now. I really needed a break from that on and off pace. I’m doing a lot sound design for libraries that will most likely end up in games, though.
Last year exemplified that there’s no shortage of creativity in the realm of electronica. Just to name a few, Worms of the Earth, Atiq & EnK, and Diaphane were also exploring some rather inventive avenues. What artists are on Comaduster’s radar?
Cardinal: Yeah, 2013 was absolutely insane for electronic music. I really had a hard time remembering how many releases I really dug. I really like the deep dungeon dubstep that Macbre Unit Digital and Osiris have been putting out; stuff like Biome, Demon, Kaiju, Kryptic Minds; definitely Tympanik, the Zinovia record is gorgeous. The Jon Hopkins record Immunity was probably my favorite record of the year. I dug the Moderat record. There were countless awesome drum & bass EPs and singles that came out from Mefjus, Icicle, Invisible Records, Enei, Rido. The drum & bass scene is flourishing hard right now and it’s awesome. The last Sigur Rós album was beautiful as well; they’ll always have a time and place in my heart. I don’t follow much of the happenings of the industrial world closely, but what I’ve heard recently has been solid. The last FLA album, Echogenetic was really good. I just finished a remix up for them and I’m starting to do a bit of collab work with a few of the guys in that camp. It’s very exciting! The Architect record was definitely one of my favorites. I’m forgetting a lot, but 2013 is going to be a tough year to beat. I think one of the best things about music that came out in 2013 was that it was a year of emergence and reemergence. Artists started taking risks again and started to step out of their skins. It’s inspiring, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come over the next few years.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Cardinal: I think I’m good! Thank you so much for taking the time to ask me these questions. I’d do it again any time. Watch out for the new Comaduster EP coming out this spring/summer entitled Solace.
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