An Interview with Caul

After rediscovering the dark ambient sounds of Brett Smith (aka Caul), I interviewed him about Caul’s origins as well as current and future projects.

One of the bad things about running Opus for as long as I have is that, while I’ve discovered tons of great new bands to write about, others have inevitably drifted off my radar for one reason or another. Unfortunately, such was the case with Brett Smith, who records his dark, haunting soundscapes under the Caul moniker. I discovered Smith’s music several years ago, greatly enjoyed his CDs, and then just lost track of what he was doing. However, I’ve recently re-discovered his music and he was gracious enough to answer the following questions via e-mail about his music.

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first. What are Caul’s origins? When and how did you start making music, and what eventually drew you to the particular genre (dark ambient, for lack of a better term) you’re currently associated with?

Like a lot of kids, I would play around with toy instruments or extremely cheap ones, like a guitar, that we had. My older brother is a great guitar player and when I was younger I wanted to play guitar because he did. I eventually settled on the drums and I got a cheap kit when I was around 12. I didn’t take lessons, I tried to learn on my own and became frustrated and quit. They sat in the basement for a few years and when I was in ninth grade, I decided to get them out again. With my brother, and being around older musicians that actually knew how to play, I made much better progress this time and I planned on being a drummer in band.

The year after I graduated from High School, my friend Chris and I began using my brother’s 4 track recorder and making our own music. This was pretty surrealist/avant garde kind of stuff, much of it pretty humorous. We really had the desire to create something of our own, plus being fueled by drugs and boredom. We have hours of this material and every once in a while I listen to some of it and am still amazed. It really had quite an identity all it’s own.

Chris moved away to attend art school, so I started working on my own material. It covered a wide range of styles and I continued to work on music for several years, never actually completing much of anything. Again, I have hours of this stuff — it ranges from acoustic to electronic, pop to experimental.

In the early ’90, I began playing guitar in a band called Trust Obey. I had been playing with them for a few years when I bought a new piece of equipment, an RP-1, made by Digitech. It was a guitar preamp and is the equivalent of several “stomp box” effects pedals, put together in one unit.

The first night I had it, I was up until the early hours of the morning, experimenting with all the sounds I could get out of it. At some point, this music just started to come out and I recorded it. These first few tracks are on the first Caul CD, “Epiphany/Fortunate.” It was amazing to me and I felt like I finally had a direction of my own, though at the same time, I felt like a conduit through which this music flowed. I just kept going after that, amassing enough material to just about fill a 90 minute tape. I decided to just sell it on my own label and I did the packaging and duped the cassettes by hand.

I did like “dark ambient,” though I’m not sure what it was called at that time. There weren’t as many artists releasing material in that style then though there were plenty of people releasing “ambient” music, Brian Eno having basically created the blueprint several years prior. I basically only knew of Lustmord and a few others and had just started in earnest to seek out such material. I really had no idea at the time that I wold make music in the particular style of Caul, it just happened.

A quick perusal of your music will bring to mind some pretty immediate comparisons, such as Steve Roach’s darker works, Lustmord, Les Joyaux De La Princesse, some of the Cold Meat roster such as Raison D’Etre, etc. Do you feel at all connected to any of the other, more recognizable artists in your genre?

I don’t really feel much of a connection with them — I think because my music is very personal to me and I just listen to theirs! There’s a gap involved — if I knew them on a personal level, I think I would then see those elements in their music, consequently seeing their work in a way that I could relate to in a more intimate manner. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy others music on a personal level but it’s difficult to feel a connection with someone I don’t know. What resonates with me in their music may be the parts that are less than important to them.

As far as possibly being involved in a “genre”, I could see that. There are certainly elements that we all share in our music but hopefully there’s enough variety that we all have our own identity.

You’ve worked with a number of labels over the years (Malignant, Grinder, Eibon). How did you come to work with them? You also run your own label, Epiphany Records. How did that start, and what were your goals with it?

Originally, Crucible was slated to be released on Tone Casualties, a label out of California owned by Klasky/Csupo, an animation company that did the first season or two of the Simpsons, among other cartoons. My friend that was running the label, Phil Easter, ended up leaving — things were not going well and I think he felt he was not being treated fairly by them. Consequently, the artists that he brought to the label all left. None of us had contracts that made us stay, we were legally able to leave. It did turn ugly and there was a major lawsuit against Phil in which artists that he signed, like myself, were named. After a lengthy battle, the suit was dropped.

However, Phil had been working with Jason Mantis of Malignant on a compilation and I had a track on it. Phil suggested that I send my tapes to Jason, who gave them great reviews in great magazine called Audio Drudge he was producing at the time. So, when Crucible no longer had a label, Jason said he’d release it. Jason has always been fantastic to work with and I hope to have another Malignant release someday.

Epiphany Records started as a way to release my original cassettes. When I got to the point that other people were releasing my music (on CD, no less!), I shut it down. Last year, I decided to get it going again. I thought of it as kind of an antidote the modern MP3 package-less trend. I felt it would fun to do something that looked nice, had some texture and color and that you could tell someone made by hand. I use special bookbinding glue and acid free paper, so the packaging, though delicate in some cases, should last.

I’m sure that a lot of people listen to ambient music and probably think it’s a case of the artist randomly pressing keys on their synthesizers, hitting “Record” and leaving the room for an hour or so while loops drone on and on, or some other similarly passive process. However, I’ve always found your music to be pretty intricately composed. Sure, there are many drones and atmospheric passages, but it doesn’t seem entirely random and tossed off. How do you go about composing your songs? As many of your pieces are conceptual, do you start with an idea and go from there, or do you simply begin piecing sounds together and use that as a starting point?

I basically just play around until I get something going that I like, then I riff off of that. Then, I usually go back and start sculpting it. Moving elements, changing them, many times deleting them altogether — some tracks were fully realized yet during the sculpting process, I stripped them back down to one track and rebuilt them, the end result being a completely different piece. In some cases there are elements that are put in randomly — I’ll be watching TV and just trigger sounds with the keyboard — but when you play it back for someone, their brain automatically “organizes” them, so they don’t really sound that way. This method doesn’t always work though, sometimes it just doesn’t gel. There are a few times when I started with a concept but it always went out the window fairly quickly, so I’ve given up on that idea. I feel I have to discover the concept as I go, only fully realizing it when I’m finished with the CD.

Some pieces come out fully realized, I can barely keep up with the flow of the music and ideas. They change very little from the initial recording to the finished CD. I wish they were all like that. It makes my job much easier!

One term I’ve often seen used to describe your music is cinematic. Does film at all influence your music? If so, any specific titles or directors?

I love movies, I doubt if I could put together any kind of list of favorites. Foreign films, horror, science fiction, animation. There’s just so much out there these days to see and so many older films I haven’t seen.

I can’t say film has been a direct influence, though I would say it is an influence. Anything I feel strongly about probably influences my music- books, photos, painting, etc.

Another thing about your releases are their packaging, which you often make yourself. How important is it for you that the external packaging mirror and complement the music? Is that always lurking in the back of your mind when your composing your music, what kind of visual accompaniment would go with the sounds your creating?

I like doing the packaging, I feel like I’m the “best qualified” to create it, seeing as how I created the music. However, I realize my talents are meager compared to many others and so maybe the packaging isn’t is good in some respects as it would have been had someone else designed it.

The images definitely tie in with the music but the packaging has come together at different times. I’ve used images I’ve had lying around since before I started working on the music and I’ve also done it from scratch after the music has been completed. Usually, it’s done concurrently. The music and the packaging definitely influence each other, they kind of play off of one another.

The titles of your albums (The Sound Of Faith) and songs (“The Measure Of The Stature Of The Fullness Of Christ”, “Christ Altogether Lovely”) are often full of religious allusions, and there is certainly a spiritual dimension to your music. I know that a lot of people might think of dark ambient as this really dark, evil genre of music, and yet your music, as dark as it is, also has a reverent quality to it. Could you explain the significance, if any, of these spiritual aspects? How do you see faith as a component of your art?

At the very first, I didn’t realize it but Caul is a dialogue between myself and what I would consider to be God. By the time The Sound of Faith was recorded, I obviously had clued in. Caul is still that way for me, though I’ve ceased to call myself a Christian and it will continue to be so, since that’s the focal point of it. It’s not a “project” or “band,” it is, as I stated earlier, a dialogue that I assume will continue the rest of my life. Working with this music puts me in touch with someone or something outside my understanding.

In your last e-mail, you mentioned several of the project that you were/are/will be involved in, including one based on the famous “Watchmen” series of graphic novels. Could you discuss some of those projects in greater detail here?

Here’s info directly from Objective-Subjective’s page:

The future will see Objective-Subjective releasing a series of discs drawing inspiration from and dedicated to Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen graphic novel. This concept series will be published in twelve parts to correspond to the novel’s twelve chapters, with each part inspired by a quotation from the chapter to which it is dedicated. All twelve parts of the Watchmen series will be published on three-inch CD-R media and strictly limited to a hundred copies.

Objective-Subjective’s Watchmen series is homage to Alan Moore’s brilliance and an exploration of divorced text’; that which happens when words and passages are separated from the piece of writing to which they belong and used in a new context as creative building blocks. Isolated as such and re-contextualized — in this instance, within a piece of music — the text takes on a very new and poignant meaning based upon the perceptions and biases of the creator and, thereafter, the audience, though still loosely bound to the original context (implicitly by chance and pop culture awareness, and explicitly through the title of the series, directly referencing the work from which the quotation and inspiration is taken).

The Watchmen series of three-inch releases is, in essence, a compilation in twelve parts and spread over nearly four hours of music, dedicated to the creative genius of Alan Moore.

I’d like to point out, I’ve never read the Watchmen series though I’ve heard many good things about it. I decided not to read it before I worked on this music, in the interest of seeing how what I create matches the feel of the comic where the quote I was given originated.

In addition to this, I’ve remastered The Sound of Faith, and it will soon be released in a signed and numbered edition of 50 on my own label. Following that, I have a minidisk of more orchestral material, Invisible Light, that will be released in a limited edition. I’ll also be helping John Bergin on the soundtrack to a animated version of his graphic novel, From Inside. There’s a few other projects in the works but it’s too early to really say anything definite about them. I am playing guitar in a band again, this one with my wife and some old friends. It looks like I may be getting a drumset to bang on again as well!

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