Sep 2017 18

Steven Archer takes ReGen on a journey through time and space to the desert world of Arrakis and invites us into his musical and mental process for his solo instrumental outlet Stoneburner.


An InterView with Steven Archer of Stoneburner

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Steven Archer is a man of many talents, exhibiting a formidable skill in virtually any artistic medium or creative outlet he explores. He’s a visual artist, author, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter, with Stoneburner being but one of his musical outlets. Where Stoneburner stands out is in its exploration into the far reaches of a universe over 8,000 years in the future at a point when humanity continues to battle for cosmic supremacy amid ecological and spiritual crises – if that sounds familiar, it’s the literary world created by Frank Herbert in his beloved Dune series. Though Mr. Archer has referenced elements of the science fiction masterpiece in his various projects, Stoneburner is perhaps his most overt dedication to the rich universe centered on the arid and sandworm inhabited planet Arrakis – presenting an instrumental conception that bridges organic and synthetic elements that evoke a civilization locked in technological and tribal conflict. With his fifth album, The Agony Box, Stoneburner’s first full-length release with Negative Gain Productions, the project begins its transmutation into a heightened state of musical consciousness. While on tour, Mr. Archer was kind enough to speak with ReGen Magazine about the project’s history and the culmination of his latest record, with some insights into the profound impact Herbert’s series has had on him, the differences between Stoneburner and his other solo instrumental outlet ::Hopeful Machines::, the challenges in creating a live visual presentation, and even gives a little bit of tech talk for the gearheads out there. “Bi-la kaifa.”


With The Agony Box being the latest album from Stoneburner, you’re now several releases into the project. What first motivated you to start Stoneburner, and what are your thoughts on how the project has developed from when you first conceived of it?

Archer: I’ve always had the idea of doing something like this stylistically, but it always floated out in the æther. One day, I became aware of the weapon from Dune, ‘Stoneburner,’ and I loved how visual and brutal the word and idea was. While I was thinking about the name, the image of the flaming Torus I use as a logo jumped into my head and wouldn’t leave. At some point later on, for no good reason that I recall, I wondered what dance music on Arrakis would sound like. I put the two ideas together and I had the concept and aesthetic of the project, but no actual music.
Photo Credit: Erik Yonst
From there, I started thinking about the instrumentation and general sonic aesthetics that I wanted. The Fremen are very technologically literate, but also very tribal and of their environment. So synths and other electronic instruments were fine, as well as traditional acoustic and tribal instruments like didgeridoos and dulcimers. One rule I gave myself was that electric guitars are right out. But a hurdygurdy with distortion on it fills that niche quite nicely.
All of which was well and good, but I still didn’t have any music for it. I put out one song on an Electronic Saviors compilation just to pin down the name and identity it, but it’s pretty far from what Stoneburner became. It took about three years and maybe 50 demos before I nailed it down. One day, I took the shield wall sound from the Lynch film and turned it into a bass pad. Then I ramped the BPM up to 150, and practically screamed, ‘There it is!’
After that, I knocked the first two records out in a month, both of which were meant to be ‘proof of concept’ albums. I wanted to see if there was a market for the material and if I had enough of it in me to make it worth pursuing as an entity.
Here we are, five full-lengths, however many singles and exclusives later and I still find new ideas I want to explore with the project, which considering how potentially limiting it could be is pretty cool.

There is a definable sound to Stoneburner across each release; without lyrics, the albums almost create their own narratives. Is this part of the intention, and do they relate to each other in any way other than taking place within that creative universe?

Archer: Very much so. I won’t say there is a specific narrative to each song when I’m working on it, but I do find that I begin to find hints of them after a time; particularly the ones I do live. It’s probably not noticeable to the audience, but I find myself dropping into different characters’ headspaces from song to song.

So, where does The Agony Box take this concept to the next step?

Archer: My goal with The Agony Box was as much artistic as anything else. I wanted to write a record that focused on having catchy songs with vocal hooks, but without any actual content. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and I’ve learned a great deal about songwriting in general while doing it.
By the same token, I wanted to write at least some of the material based on a more efficient pop format. About half of the songs have the standard (more or less) intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, outro format that 90% of the pop songs out there use. Not because I expect it to make the material any more popular, but because it’s not something I’m comfortable doing. It’s far easier for me to write long meandering songs that build slowly towards a payoff.
Almost every record or painting I do starts with some form of limitation or ruleset like that. It helps keep me focused and gives me an outside gauge to test the material against. ‘Does the song accomplish X, Y, and Z?’ ‘No? Then it’s not finished; get back in there and make it work within those parameters.’
As a solo electronic musician, it would be very easy to spit out blippy song after song, call it ‘experimental,’ and be done with it, which to me is a copout as an artist and one of the reasons I think having an outside producer for both technical stuff and songwriting is imperative.

From a production standpoint, there does seem to be a masterful balance of seemingly organic and synthetic sounds so that the music is electronic in nature, but has a human element that is at once tribal and orchestral. What do you find to be the most difficult part in achieving this sound in Stoneburner?

Archer: Thanks! That’s a really good question. And I’m not sure what the answer is. Writing for Stoneburner is surprisingly easy for me – thus the above limitations, lest I spew out crap song after crap song. A huge part of that humanity are the vocal elements, which is a whole process in and of itself. I take vocals from all over the place, any language, doesn’t matter. All of it gets reversed and cut into syllables. From there, I run the vocals through pitch correctors to make them ‘sing.’ I spend a ton of time getting the phrasing and melodies right, lining the words and syllables up with the music so it sounds like something a real person would say.

For those interested, the effects chain in Reason goes something like this – Wav file>Neptune pitch corrector (with formant set to on and dialed straight up), Audio damage ‘rough rider,’ compressor (my go-to compressor), CF-101 chorus (the one that comes with Reason) set to max voices, mix to taste (usually 90-100%), delay to taste.
If I add other effects, they usually end up between the compressor and the chorus or the chorus and the delay. Those could be Scream distortion, or a few boutique effects as the Ubhik-G granular processor, and Ochen Ks glitch effect. I also do a ton of pitch shifting and doubling, because it’s cool.

For those unfamiliar, can you tell us about your affinity for Frank Herbert’s Dune, the impact that his work has had on you, and what elements of it you feel you’ve not yet explored or incorporated into your music?

Archer: It’s funny, I’ve had people ask me about my ‘favorite books,’ and Dune is never in the list. I re-listened to it again recently and I finally nailed down why I am drawn to the universe. I love much of the philosophy on it and I find the characters and the way they interact with the world interesting. But I feel no emotional connection to the story itself. It’s just a vehicle for those ideas, which I am totally fine with from an artistic level, but not from a consumer level. That said, I have two bands named after it, and a bunch of albums and songs that reference it, so who can say? There’s something very real and practical about the ideas presented in it that line up with my own experiences, so it acts as a conceptual shorthand or shortcut when trying to explain some things.

Of the adaptations of Dune – David Lynch’s movie and the several versions that exist, the two mini-series, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt – which version resonates with you the most in terms of your own understanding of the books?

Archer: I love Lynch’s version. While not particularly accurate in a number of ways, to me it NAILS the atmosphere and place, which I think is the soul of the books.

If another adaptation were to be attempted, what would you hope to see?

Archer: Me… doing the score.

As you’ve been performing Stoneburner live, how has the live performance motivated your approach with each new piece of music? For instance, the last time I saw you perform, Servitor joined you onstage – did that spark any ideas on new approaches for the music you wrote going forward?

Archer: Working with the dancers requires a ton of telegraphing on my part to help them know when the changes are coming, which kind of evolved into a primal yelling even when they aren’t there. Those same cues work to telegraph to the drummers when I have them. It’s pretty remarkable the amount of communication that happens onstage.
The biggest change in the live set happened this year. My new label Negative Gain pushed me to do live vocals. I was pretty resistant to the idea because I just couldn’t figure out how to pull it off. As I mentioned earlier, the vocals on the records aren’t me and my vocal range is pretty limited to… D. Eventually, I hit on the idea of using a vocoder, which changed everything. Not only does that take care of any pitch issues, but by using different carriers, (as opposed to the standard synths that you are used to hearing) I can get some really extreme effects, which I feel brings out a whole new aspect of the performance.
Photo Credit: Matt Fox
And about a month ago, I incorporated live triggered hand drums into the mix. I built a vertical drum rig out of a pair of speaker stands and a ton of drum hardware. The rig supports all the drums, as well as MIDI controls for loops, mixer for the overall sound, and an overhead mic. Performing with it is half controlled drumming, half singing, and half very violent punching of drum triggers and cymbals. Yes, three halves; fuck you!

The music already evokes particular images in the listeners’ minds (one hopes), and knowing that Frank Herbert’s Dune is a primary source of inspiration, what is the most difficult aspect of translating Stoneburner into the live environment and having a visual presentation that matches the music?

Archer: Well, other than my performance, I have a whole visual/projection aspect. I decided to move completely away from the Dune thing and just go with imagery that I feel fits the music on a more terrestrial level. The majority of the footage features a large collection of Butoh dancers, as well as other imagery that hopefully invokes a sense of place.

Because it’s a live show, do you perhaps try to evoke a different response or a different mental/emotional picture in the listener?

Archer: I feel that the live show is the distillation of all of the ideas behind the music. Between the energy of the performance, and the selection of the material, I think it’s the best representation of what the project is about.

Both ::Hopeful Machines:: and Stoneburner are primarily instrumental (or at least not lyrically driven the way Ego Likeness is), and each has its own sound and artistic function, but how does your process differ between the two? What in your mind determines which moniker a piece of music will belong to?

Archer: Each one serves a very different function for me. ::Hopeful Machines:: is very literally my own personal soundtrack or diary. If you spent the time to, you could parse all of the key events in my/our lives over the past 16 years by carefully listening to the ::HM:: stuff. I think it’s great shit, but I’m always shocked that other people like it.
You can actually hear the beginnings of Stoneburner on a record I did called On the Mending of Pack. There are a few proto-Stoneburner tracks on there, and I didn’t even know it at the time.
Both projects are totally self-indulgent, but in different ways. They are about communicating different aspects of my little world.

The Agony Box release, the tour… what’s next for you in Stoneburner?

Archer: I have very grand ideas for the next record, and if I try to explain them, I worry that it will skew what people are expecting it to be. So I’m going to wait to see if I can pull it off before delving too much into that. First, we need to get the new Ego Likeness record done. Once that’s flown the nest, I can head back to Arrakis. That said, I plan to drop a live record of this tour at some point, and I keep playing around with this idea of doing Stoneburner Soundsystem – covers and mashups of early ’90s techno and house, but much more violent and noisy.


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Live photography by Matt Fox and Erik Yonst, courtesy of Stoneburner


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