Two luminaries of exploratory and experimental sound offer us a seafaring collaborative album, with ReGen digging into the philosophy that binds this communal effort.
An InterView with Mark Spybey of Dead Voices On Air / Robert Galbraith and Elizabeth Virosa of Snowbeasts
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Mark Spybey is a man who needs no introduction; whether you know him from his work with :Zoviet*France:, Dead Voices On Air, Download, Pigface, Beehatch, Gnome & Spybey, or any one of his numerous collaborative endeavors, the man has cultivated an impressive reputation for his exploratory approach to music and sound. On the other side of the Atlantic in Lovecraft country, the duo of Robert Galbraith and Elizabeth Virosa – collec-tively known as Snowbeasts – have been carving out a similar niche of their own, defying categorization and challenging the parameters of darkly industrial and ambient sound. It is then no surprise that after encountering each other at a festival in Providence, the two acts would combine their respective talents into a new project, resulting in an album released this past April via Re:Mission Entertainment. Drawing on the mystique that the Atlantic Ocean holds for them as a thematic starting point, the album sees the two pooling their resources into a blissfully cavernous and contemplative audio journey that presents the best of what Dead Voices On Air and Snowbeasts have to offer… until their next cooperative effort, that is. This past summer, Spybey, Galbraith, and Virosa took the time to speak with ReGen about their collaboration, touching on their individual philosophies about music and sound, living by the sea, and hinting at more to come.
First of all, as the pandemic seems to be going through a wax-and-wane – seemingly starting to die down, but now with new variants arising – how are you?
In what ways has the crisis affected your outlook on the world and the way you approach your music – in the studio, general performance, lyrical or thematic concepts, etc.?
Galbraith: For me, the pandemic affected me in that it afforded me a lot more time to focus on music. When the things started to shut down, the company I was working at had a series of two week furloughs. For the first two furloughs, I gave myself a commitment of finishing an album during each one. This bore two of the Obscure Formats albums and the first Solypsis & Snowbeasts albums. This time off also gave me some time to focus on what is important for me in life.
As for the pandemic affecting the themes in my music, I would say no. I would go as far as to say that I purposefully tried to avoid any words or phrases that were associated with it.
Virosa: I am well right now, although I am concerned because of the variant that we might just be in a period of coming up for air when it comes to social gatherings.
In terms of how I see the world, the pandemic has just amplified issues that have always been bubbling under the surface. It also shows just how fragile certain systems are that we might have formally taken for granted, ignored day-to-day that are in need of attention. Major shifts in perspective and innovation will need to happen for us all to survive.
I have not taken a break like Rob, although I hope to at some point to take a break and just focus on music, but because I currently work from home, this has allowed a bit more free time than usual. As a result, I released Inner World (Chthonic Streams), collaborated on tracks with Rob, Mark, and Solypsis.
From what I understand, this album was created without any discussion about concepts or composition, just allowing the exploration to take shape as it would. Through these explorations, what sorts of challenges or surprises did you encounter – tonally, production-wise, method, etc.?
Spybey: Yes, personally I try to avoid concepts. I find them too limiting. Plus, by the time I get round to working towards the attainment of a concept, my ideas change, sometimes drastically. I think the challenges of collaboration are intrinsic, it starts with respect for each other’s work. Production means little to me – if there are any rules, then I think the challenge is to do what one might to ignore them. One has to accept that sometimes it may feel as though one’s toes are being stood on. Accept that change is inevitable and welcome it. Open ears and eyes. I also liked the sounds that Rob and Beth contributed.
Galbraith: For me, I think it was just a matter of trust. I knew when I sent something off to Mark that I would get something back that I would love. ‘Summer Storm Revisited’ was the first piece we did together, and I remember being floored with what Mark sent back to me. As I was working on a few beat oriented projects at the same time as this collaboration, I kept my focus on more ambient and organic elements.
Relating to the sea and your proximity to it – Snowbeasts by the Atlantic Ocean, and Spybey by the North Sea – and how the sound and imagery is about ‘building a community’ and ‘opportunities,’ can you elaborate for us on what the sea means for you, both individually and collectively?
Spybey: The sea is home, I moved back to my hometown. I feel connected to the North Sea. It is there, it is just there. I feel at home.
I noticed that Rob, Beth, and I were posting similar photographs and it interested me as we were in two different geographical locations; that’s about the long and the short of it.
Galbraith: I’ve always had a huge connection to the ocean. I grew up around the ocean and have some very deeply imprinted memories of being on and around the ocean as a young child. I see the ocean as both powerful and mysterious and one of the things that still fills me with wonder.
Virosa: Right now, we live very close to the ocean and use the ocean as a way to relax our minds, and I find it fascinating that both of our coastlines are similar and have industrial structures nearby. You can see how the two continents were once connected.
On the same note, I’ve always personally felt that living by the Atlantic (I live in MD and have always been close to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic) is very different from the Pacific. What sort of characteristics or personalities do you feel are intrinsic to specific shores, if any?
Spybey: I honestly don’t know. All I know is that the North Sea is grey most of the time and it’s a gateway to Europe. The next stop from here is Northern Germany or Denmark. I lived close to the Pacific, and I didn’t really feel an affinity to it; not sure why. Maybe it’s facing in the wrong direction – I think my body is used to facing east! The Pacific is very evocative, it’s a bit wild and rugged, and it’s so vast. I like The Beach Boys! The Atlantic kind of controls our weather here in the U.K., so whatever leaves Rhode Island kind of ends up over here!
Galbraith: I can only really speak to the areas I know, but the coast here can be varied, from rocky cliffs to whitish grey beaches. When we were compiling the photos for the cover art, Mark’s photos of North Sea were shockingly similar to the photos that Beth and I took in Rhode Island.
Virosa: The New England shore is pretty rocky, and I associate it with being rugged and very temporal.
There are voices present on the album, but…
Spybey: Exactly, there are voices but… voices are everywhere. As I grow older, I yearn for silence.
The roots of this collaboration seem to be through Rob’s act of kindness giving Mark and Robin Storey a ride back to Boston from a festival in Providence. As live shows and festivals are steadily returning (and again, barring surges and new variants of the virus), how do you feel touring/performing live will or should change – both across the board and for yourself personally – in the wake of the last year’s events?
Spybey: I like playing live, but wouldn’t be too fussed if it just didn’t happen again. I don’t feel the urge to travel at the moment. I enjoy traveling, but I don’t know, I don’t really want to be around people who won’t wear masks, etc. I’m happy to wait for opportunities to arise that excite me and if they don’t arise, then so be it. So yeah, not sure I have much to contribute to this question really. I think my preferred way of working as DVOA might be to play small shows in people’s houses, or strange unique environments, because I am a little weary of playing in rock clubs. It can and it does work, but the environment is perhaps a bit limiting. I like to connect to people. I like to be with and feel the audience and respond to what is happening around me. I get really weary of being around people who are drunk and noisy. I feel grouchy for saying that as I’m not against having a good time! I don’t have much of a show really; I don’t feel a connection to the dramatic presentation side of live music shows. I like listening to live music – people playing and not striking poses, I guess, as I find that all a bit formulaic… variations on a theme. That’s a bit like fingers down a chalkboard. I’ve always liked the Fugazi approach – turn up the lights (or in my case turn them off) and concentrate on the doing. No frills. Get what you see and hear.
Of course, I wouldn’t rule out doing something different and bigger. For example, cEvin Key and I have talked about playing The Eyes of Stanley Pain live, and I’d be really into that as I’m very proud of that album, and feel it still has legs so to speak.
Galbraith: I’m pretty excited about playing live again. Beth and I actually recently did our first performance in a club in about a year-and-a-half. It was sort of a hybrid event where just the bands who were playing could be present and were being filmed at multiple angles for an upcoming stream. It was for this year’s PVD Loop Festival put on by our good friend Laurie Amat. For me, the best part of playing out is connecting with other artists and fans. I find that to be the most rewarding part of the live experience.
Virosa: While I learned a lot about livestreaming because of the pandemic, I am looking forward to playing out again. When we played the streaming event Rob mentioned, the club, AS220 has been able to create a series of streamed events and has become very proficient with video streaming technology.
It’s been some months since the album’s release – reflecting back on it, is this a collaboration that you all feel compelled to revisit again – will there be more Dead Voices On Air / Snowbeasts?
Spybey: Yes, for sure. I really enjoy working with Rob and Beth.
Virosa: Of course!
For Mark, you’re known as much for your work in DVoA as you are for your numerous collaborations. What about the collaborative process do you find most invigorating?
Spybey: I refer to it as ‘community.’ Entering into a collaboration is a kind of big deal for me. I can’t work with anyone; I have to feel a connection. The community is everything, and I wouldn’t do what I do, nor carry on if I didn’t feel connected to people. The prospect of failure motivates me; I try to embrace it. I think I have learned a great deal by working with others. I like to be challenged.
Even the name of Dead Voices On Air conjures some distinct connotations of sound and style – in what ways do you feel these collaborations have helped you to establish a firmer sense of your own creative identity?
Spybey: That’s an interesting question. Of late, I have become more aware of my vocal ability (or lack of ability) as a result of some of the collaborations I’ve worked on; particularly with Anatoly Grinberg and The Gnome. I feel like I have upped my game, lyrically and vocally. Some of my collaborations continue to inspire me. I learned and gained so much by working with Michael Karoli, for example, from Can 20 odd years ago. I sometimes feel that it was a mistake to work with one of my heroes, as my relationship with Can’s music has changed, but I gained so much validation from the experience. I feel Michael’s light continues to shine brightly for me. Can were and still are for me the greatest influence on my work and without question, one of the most influential bands ever.
My band name feels like a bit of a millstone, I am afraid. Way too late to change it, but some people tend to associate it with the goth scene, and while I’ve not really sought to classify what I do nor courted any particular market, I don’t care for that association. When we toured with Pigface in 1997, some of us had a bit of an abreaction to the nightly sea of dark (not that Pigface were dark!), so we deliberately wore bright clothes – orange mainly. It felt necessary. I like the sun. I love the light. I like flowers, bees, and birds. Each to their own!
It feels like you have a new album/collaboration released every two-or-three months, and I’ve lost count of how many DVOA releases are currently in my Bandcamp wish list. Are there any that are currently in the works that you’re able to share with us?
Spybey: I have a DVOA album that is to be released on vinyl by a label from Austin called eMERGENCY hEARTS that also features Rob, Beth, Anatoly, Marco (Roberti), and Lori (Cole), some of my closest collaborators. I’m committed to working with that label on numerous projects. I also have an album due out later this year, hopefully on Re:Mission, which is a collaboration I did with Jochen Arbeit from Einstürzende Neubaten and a Reformed Faction double-CD too for Soleilmoon. Bandcamp is working for me, I tend to concentrate on releasing rare-to-find or exclusive bits and bobs on it.
On that note, you seem to have embraced and taken advantage of the online platforms of Bandcamp to consistently release music. What are your thoughts on the way modern technology has made it easier to release and discover music?
On the flip-side, what do you feel have been the major disadvantages, and how do you feel you’ve overcome them?
Spybey: I don’t Spotify and I see no disadvantages in making the most of a platform like Bandcamp. I think it’s (somewhat ironically) made it much easier to release music, but at least for, me much more difficult to discover new music because there is just so much stuff to browse through. Quantity-wise, it’s a maze. Personally, I still buy physical products.
As physical media seems to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence with the popularity of vinyl and cassettes, what are your thoughts on this?
Spybey: I’m more interested in physical media. Downloads for me are easily avoided and mislaid. I like to hold a product in my hands.
Being so prolific, one can imagine that you make more music than you’ve actually got time to listen to – I say that somewhat jokingly. But truthfully, when you’re not creating, what do you listen to for pleasure?
Spybey: I guess I am prolific. I tend to work quickly. I get bored easily. I don’t listen to nor enjoy my own music; never have. I listen to music most of the time, when I don’t have sports radio on! My tastes are very broad; for example, of late, I’ve been listening to early Joni Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, Richard Thompson, lots of free jazz, contemporary classical music, opera, and as its summer, dub. I listen to a lot of reggae – old classic stuff like U Roy, King Tubby, etc.
What other sorts of influences – works of literature, cinema, people you encounter, anything – come into play in your personal process?
Spybey: I suspect that I’m pretty constantly taking in influences. I watch a lot of movies, read poetry, and I like to go to galleries. Generally, my tastes are pretty much left field. I can take in an action movie, but I’m more interested in work that allows me to think. Over the years, there have been a number of artists who have really affected me, such as Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, etc. Townes van Zandt; had to mention him. Play some Townes!
Snowbeasts was formed in 2014, but would you give us a little more of your backgrounds and what led to the formation of the group?
Galbraith: We had already been working together for a while as Pattern Behavior, and Snowbeasts was originally more of solo modular project. It came into being after having a really bad winter with a ridiculous amount of snow, coupled with dealing with the onset of some symptoms that were rather disturbing. It was my way of dealing with being sick and a rough winter. Luckily, the issue ended up being a rather minor one that could be treated with medicine.
As things progressed, Beth became a much larger part of the project. She brings a lot to the project with her vocals and her approach to sounds and synthesis. Snowbeasts sort of evolved into our main project on accident.
Before Snowbeasts and Pattern Behavior, I used to record as Raab Codec and Codec (in the late ’90s and early 2000s).
Since you’ve shared the stage with the likes of Richard Devine, Alessandro Cortini, Author & Punisher, etc., what would you say were the most valuable things you learned from the experience; what did you observe in their approaches that has helped you to shape Snowbeasts, as well as your Obscure Formats and Pattern Behavior projects?
Virosa: Even with a complex setup, you need to be able to find ways to simplify and make setups quicker. Often in a club environment, you don’t have a lot of time to get things ready.
Each of your monikers seems to possess a different focus – Obscure Formats and Pattern Behavior explore techno and electronic dance, while Snowbeasts seems more experimental and atmospheric. I’ve often asked this of other artists who have numerous projects, but what is the process like that allows you to determine which piece of music will go into which project?
In what ways do you find, if ever, the different facets blend together – do the lines ever become blurred? How do you reconcile the disparate parts of your creative identities?
Galbraith: The lines can be very blurry at times. When we start working on a track, we typically have a pretty good idea what project it is intended for, but there have absolutely been times when we were unsure as where a particular track might fit best. Pattern Behavior has taken a backseat over the last four or so years because most of what we were doing together fits best under the Snowbeasts moniker. Obscure Formats is the most defined of projects – it’s industrial influenced techno and it will likely stay within those constraints.
Virosa: We usually try to focus on one project at a time, but occasionally, a track will end up under a different project than intended.
What’s next in the pipeline for you?
Galbraith: On the immediate horizon, we have a new project coming out with a local modular synth wiz, Alec Redfearn (DUMEbeasts). Even though we both live in Providence, most of the tracks were written by sending files back-and-forth. Now that all three of us have been vaccinated, we were able to have our first in-person session recently. The album should see the light of day over the next few months as a cassette release.
We are also finishing up the next Snowbeasts & Solypsis album. We are about 85% done with that one. James is one of my favorite people to collaborate with and he always brings a ton of enthusiasm to a project!
Virosa: Other than the projects Rob mentioned above, I have been collaborating with my friend Giuliana Funkhouser on some ambient/soundscape projects. As she is on the west coast, this was all done via file transfer and Zoom calls.
Photography provided courtesy of Dead Voices On Air, Snowbeasts, and Re:Mission Entertainment