An Interview with Derek Rush
Derek Rush speaks with ReGen on the development of the Dream into Dust sound as the band moves from ambient industrial folk to a new phase of dark electronic melody.
by Ilker Yücel
Dream into Dust is something of an enigma in the underground music scene. With several independent releases on their own Chthonic Streams imprint, the duo of Derek Rush and Bryin Dall has with a small cast of collaborators over the course of three albums and several compilation appearances created a unique mixture of nightmarish ambient textures topped off by somber acoustic melodies, with Rush’s emotive voice weaving lyrical tapestries that touch on the darker recesses of human experience. After the 2003 release of The Lathe of Heaven, the band focused on playing live, but before long seemed to go on an indefinite hiatus, each member embarking on various other projects and collaborations.
In 2010, Dream into Dust returned with a digital single that marked an unexpected shift in sound. While still retaining the combination of dark melody with decrepit atmosphere, their formula was infused with skittering electronic rhythms akin to dubstep and drum & bass. It was a more energetic form for Dream into Dust, but one that maintained the band’s fascination with the bleaker side to life. A music video followed, with another new song, “Perfect Vision” furthering the band’s progression into more electronic territory. With a new album on the way, Dall and Rush stand poised to recreate their sound in a dramatic fashion that is sure to appease both fans and newcomers alike.
Derek Rush speaks with ReGen on the development of Dream into Dust’s sound over the years, touching on the hardships of bringing such a unique sound into the live environment and the incorporation of new atmospheric elements on the eve of the release of the new album.
Until late 2010, when you released the ‘Counterfeit’ web single and video, it had been some years since Dream into Dust released any new material. What can you tell us about this? Why so long a wait?
Rush: After the last album, we decided to focus on playing live. Finding the right people and translating the arrangements turned out to be difficult, though the shows went pretty well. The idea was to build a band who would play the existing material at first, then create the next album together as more of a group effort than before. Being a live band has a completely different set of challenges than recording and promoting a release. Then there was a learning curve of new equipment and working processes. We were also doing Bryin’s album, Deconstructing Hank, and two new releases as A Murder of Angels, as well as playing those projects live.
Tell us more about this learning curve. What sort of new equipment was brought into the fold and how did it compare with your previous methods of working? As well, how did this process come to affect the current sound of Dream into Dust?
Rush: The Lathe of Heaven was mostly recorded using ADAT tapes, synced to drum machines and samplers, and mixed live to DAT. This time, I’d record through an analog board onto a hard disk recorder and then end up adjusting the tracks in the studio computer so others could do overdubs. It became clear I could make things sound better in the computer, but it’s a much longer process — file transferring, volume optimizing, and learning software effects instead of hardware — or trying to use both, actually recording reverbs and mic’ing things with tube preamps. Then, once things are in the computer, you can get incredibly detailed, save your work and try again later. You can get lost in that. I try as much as possible not to let the process affect the sound as far as arrangements or tone. It’s all about getting it to sound how I want it to. Certainly ‘Counterfeit’ being created entirely on the computer in a loop-based program affected it, but only because the concepts behind the song led me to choose that path.
Do you still hope to expand on the live band and incorporate that into your studio process?
Rush: Definitely, though I’ve given up any preconceptions of what form that will take. Everyone works in their own way.
Regarding Bryin’s album and A Murder of Angels, how did working on these projects affect your mindset when it came time to focus on Dream into Dust again? What are the major differences among the projects that differentiate them for you, not just musically, but mentally and emotionally?
Rush: I’ve always liked working in separate projects as a way to organize different kinds of music I like. Deconstructing Hank got much of the dark folk sound that was a greater part of earlier Dream into Dust, while A Murder of Angels gets more of the dark ambient/soundtrack aspects. Mentally and emotionally speaking, Dream into Dust is focused on whatever I feel like expressing lyrically as well as musically. I try to distill the most intense aspects into each song. Of course, life isn’t always so intense, but that’s how you make a point; by showing how much you feel and think about it. The Hank Williams songs we did are the simplest yet bleakest ‘popular music’ ever written. For me, it was about bringing out the rawness and heaviness of their meaning: really simple, stark arrangements based on acoustic guitar, noise, and of course Bryin’s voice. A Murder of Angels creates creepy atmospheres by layering different sonic textures. They’re basically mini film soundtracks. Sometimes we work from visuals, but the end result can be whatever you want to project on it. We have a lot of fun doing it.
Your most recent releases present a much more electronic — though no less experimental or melodic — style that is a rather drastic departure from the more ambient/industrial/acoustic style of The Lathe of Heaven. How did this new dynamic to Dream into Dust’s sound come about?
Rush: ‘Counterfeit’ started off the same way as both ‘Black Ice’ and the title track from The Lathe of Heaven. We collected specifically chosen sound clips, and processed and edited them into a piece on the computer. It started off as an instrumental trip through all kinds of lo-fi sounds and beats, but once the vocals were added, it evolved. By comparison, ‘Perfect Vision’ was done much more traditionally. It was written on acoustic guitar, though it ended up being programmed and played on vintage ‘80s analog synths and drum machines. I’ve previously stayed away from synthesizers, but I’ve always loved those sounds. On another level, both of those songs are prime examples of a sort of musical method acting. To some extent, the lyrics and concept drive the sound. They each criticize certain things that are embodied by those musical arrangements.
You say you previously stayed away from synthesizers, yet your past work – while primarily driven by acoustic guitar and your vocals and melodies – clearly retains some synthesized elements. What is it about synthesizers that you resisted for so long, and what has changed now that you’ve decided to work with them much more prominently?
Rush: Actually, there are almost no synthesizers on older recordings. Things that may seem to be are either samples or Bryin’s guitar going through his effect pedals. My avoidance of synths was just a choice of palette. The sound of a band is defined as much by what’s left out as what’s left in. What changed was just growth, evolution. The Lathe of Heaven tells a kind of story that showed a change, coming more into the light. The next natural step musically was to let other sonic elements in. I also got a few synths of my own that I’ve always wanted, and Bryin let me use some of his.
The newer songs as they’ve been released are also noticeably shorter in length and faster in tempo (and perhaps more danceable) than your past work. Was this an attempt to achieve a more accessible mindset to the underground electro/industrial audience for your music?
Rush: No, I never think of an audience while I’m writing. I absolutely appreciate anyone who likes our music, but I think people respect artists who just do what they do, and not what they think will be popular. I’ve never been against short songs or dance songs, but I like to subvert standard song structures. Some of the musicians on this album, like Scott Reiter, pointed out that too many left turns kind of loses the plot of the song. I realized in some cases he was right. Context is also important. ‘Counterfeit’ was released digitally because it was produced to be a crappy MP3 and still sound cool over the Internet. It was built into the whole concept. ‘Perfect Vision’ similarly relies on high frequencies and melodies that jump out at you. But we haven’t abandoned longer songs or more overt experimentation. Those are just things that work better in an album format.
Mentioning Scott Reiter, what were his contributions, and who else can listeners expect to hear performing on the new material? How do you feel their contributions affected the final sound in a manner that you wouldn’t have expected during the writing process?
Rush: Scott is a brilliant synth player and engineer who I know through Bryin from other projects. He has a very intuitive and organic way of playing with one hand while tweaking knobs with the other. He improvises with incredible fluidity, and he and Bryin playing together is amazing, because half the time you can’t tell who’s doing what. One piece of music he did ended up fitting perfectly as an intro to a crucial song. The album also features bassist Mario Padron, who interpreted my bass lines in a much more nuanced way than I’d have played them myself and added some touches of his own. He also shares co-writing credit on one song. In fact, all three of the others are credited on the improvised pieces that ended up being used. Although I hoped to create some interesting soundscapes, I couldn’t have predicted what the four of us would sound like playing together, and I’m very happy with the results.
Also, pertaining to the previous topic of a band, how does the chemistry between guest performers and a full band compare and contrast for you? Does it ever become a consideration that a guest could become a more permanent member?
Rush: A guest performer is someone who plays an instrument that wouldn’t normally be used and I also can’t play, such as viola or violin. But there’s not much of a distinction made in the credits. It basically says who played what.
In the video for ‘Counterfeit,’ we see the band members performing the song using a variety of instruments, toys and other noisemakers. How much of what is presented in the video is representative of how Dream into Dust’s music is constructed?
Rush: The video is intentionally ‘fake’ to underline the song’s meaning. While some of the instruments shown were actually used on the song, for the most part they don’t match up between what’s shown and the sound heard. We do sometimes go wild, pulling out various things and trying them out for a song.
Everyone’s familiar with Bryin Dall as being ‘the guy who plays guitar with a machete.’ What would you say have been some of the more outlandish and original tools and techniques you’ve used to produce your music, both in the past and currently?
Rush: There’s a sound towards the end of ‘Black Ice’ that is Bryin’s amp rattling. What he was doing was so destructive that it shook the cabinet louder than the actual sound he was making, so I put a mic behind the amp instead of at the speaker. Bryin also likes to overprocess things. He goes wild creating multiple versions of tracks that have been slammed through effects in a way that would make most engineers cringe. Then we find the most interesting bits and combine them. I guess the stranger things have had more to do with recording my vocals. In order to get into the right frame of mind, I sang ‘Black Ice’ drunk while lying on the floor. For ‘Dissolution’ I was crouched naked in total darkness. ‘Enemy at the Gates’ was recorded in full military uniform in the freezing cold while smoking a cigarette, and I don’t smoke. Vocals for ‘Counterfeit’ were spat out while flailing around the room with a hand-held mic plugged straight into the mixer.
What is the songwriting and production dynamic like between the band members?
Rush: Mostly, I start with lyrics, concepts, musical fragments, and production ideas. They’ve usually already been worked out as full songs with lyrics before presenting to the others. In a different example, I just had a title and an emotion, and the next session, Mario plugged in and played an original bass riff, which blew away everything we had. I recorded him and wrote the rest of the song around his part.
I usually ask Bryin to play something with a certain kind of feeling or sound, and he has fun coming up with noises that are like what I’m talking about. Often in the process, he’ll play tons of other things and that gets incorporated into the songs. Later, when we’re overdubbing and mixing, Bryin sits back and gives an objective and alternate point of view and offers further sonic ideas. He also does effects I wouldn’t think of.
‘Counterfeit’ was released as a digital single featuring several remixes expanding on the song’s glitch/drum & bass style, while ‘Perfect Vision’ has a much more new wave style akin to New Order. Will both of these songs be featured on the new album? How are these songs representative of where Dream into Dust is going musically?
Rush: Both songs will be given a final mix and professionally mastered for the new album. Hopefully in that context, they’ll be understood as part of the larger whole. As far as direction, each album we’ve done has taken so long, it’s more of a distillation of where we’ve been than where we’re going. I’d like to change that in the future, and there are already new ideas started for things I’d like to get done quicker and play live.
The video for ‘Perfect Vision’ features clips from the 1980 adaptation for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, while The Lathe of Heaven was titled after a book by Ursula K. LeGuin (also taking inspiration from Neil Gaiman). Obviously, classic science fiction and weird fiction literature play an essential role in the themes you explore in your music. What can you tell us about these themes? What sorts of points or observations are you attempting to convey to your audience and how do these literary works play a part in that?
Rush: I think the best science fiction seems to be about some kind of fantasy-based premise, but is really an allegory for current issues and events… or an extrapolation of what might happen if those events are taken to a logical conclusion. For example, Brave New World is a cautionary tale about a ‘perfect’ society achieved through genetically created caste systems; everyone does what they’re supposed to do, because they’re bred to be that way. Each person’s life is free of major choices and so supposedly free of conflict, but also free of individuality. Anyone who feels sad or gets out of line is reminded of shallow platitudes, shown mindless films, given mood-altering drugs, and encouraged to distract themselves with emotion-free sex. When you break it down like that, it seems like Huxley did pretty much predict the future we live in today.