Edmonton, Alberta’s psychedelic noisemaking trio Pigeon Breeders were kind enough to chat with me via email about some questions regarding their music and what they do.
I’ll go ahead and start off with the most mundane and asked question, what got you into producing the style of music you make? When was it that you decided you wanted to make noise as oppose to other more accepted forms of music?
Tyler Harland: It was gradual for me. I was playing around with effects during my time with my last band, The Wicked Awesomes. After that I was doing quite a bit of making more structured songs out of unconventional noises, having no-input and oscillations, fuzz pedals and stuff.
Myles Bartel: How many pedals do you have? A rough estimate?
TH: 30 or 40. When I was in Wicked Awesomes I was getting into noise as a sort of instrument, seeing bands like Holy Fuck. I saw them when we were playing Sled Island [an annual music festival in Calgary, AB] years ago. That’s when I started listening to them, as well as Health and Nice Nice. I thought of making a solo project with looping and noise within a structure. It just never really happened — and then Pigeon Breeders did.
Will Scott: What got me into this style of music was listening to jazz, particularly free jazz and the like: Medeski Martin and Wood, Ornette Coleman — and even more mainstream music, I would like the two minute intros of ambient sounds. So I started making sonic landscapes with my own music, but it was still structured within a beat. Then I joined the University of Alberta’s experimental improvisational ensemble [XiME], and that expanded my mind more. So I was already practicing with making stranger music. Then one day, I was working on a song in my room — just recording it — and I hear Myles downstairs in the basement, improvising with some other people. We had not yet discussed much about that music; he had just moved in and I didn’t really know him that well yet. Anyway, he was doing that sort of stuff on the same page as me. It was totally an unexpected surprise — and I went downstairs and I just asked him “can I jam with you? This is my style.” So him and I just started jamming. So that’s when it sort of started with Pigeon Breeders.
Also, I don’t like to classify our music as noise. We’re not a harsh band. We’re more restrained. If you want to pick a generalization I would say it leans closer to ambient.
MB: I think experimental improv. But noise has been a useful umbrella term for a lot of bands and styles.
WS: I don’t think we’re noise at all.
MB: Sonically, its a similar mindset, in that its essentially just chunks of sonic textures as the driving force. I suppose when we started, we were kind of a noise band in the more typical sense.
Basically how I got into noise was listening to Throbbing Gristle and others like them in high school. At the time I thought of myself mainly as a guitarist. I was playing in a punk band with some friends. We had some songs but we were having trouble with our direction. It was hard to write songs after the first batch or two, and we were without a full-time bassist. It just fell apart. So I took it upon myself to go forward and explore music I didn’t think I could do with other people. I had bought a Tascam 4-Track [cassette recorder] and started laying down layers of improvised guitar and other sounds. That was basically how Ocra started. At some point I was able to jam around with a few people but never found an opportunity for a full-time band within that style. So when I started jamming with Tyler and Will it was this amazing thing. I had been to a lot of the Ramshackle Day Parade concerts, and even performed a few myself. It was something I knew I wanted to be a part of, and incorporating my own performance style with other musicians really opened up a lot of doors.
With all of these sounds coming together as a sort of living wall of noise, structurally, Nocturnal Reveries reminded me somewhat of Cleveland, Ohio ambient / drone trio Emeralds and Portland duo Yellow Swans. Are their any particular musicians that have influenced the sound of Pigeon Breeders?
MB: I’m somewhat familiar with Emerald’s back catalogue, and Yellow Swans I’ve barely touched.
WS: I’ve never heard of those bands. My influences are more of the home recording material, such as John Frusciante’s solo albums, which is him and his tape player, just experimenting with his guitar. It’s not really noise, but it’s a more angular approach to working with his instrument. I find that interesting and inspiring to me. MMW is a huge influence because of the sheer magnitude of their improvisational skills — I have pretty much everything they’ve recorded. They have live recordings where it’s completely improvised. The main thing that’s inspiring with them is that, like us, it’s just three guys; they’ve been together for so long, they just know where things are going. They’re able to work together, it’s like a conversation — they know what they’re feeling at all times, how to respond and instigate things, and they know where to stop. Other influences — tons of them. I love Charles Mingus. Can, also — just like MMW — they’re master improvisers. They’re able to jam for as long as possible, and always create interesting things. What really inspires me about them is that they’ve had six hour jams before, and they’re able to sustain, and be able to know that they’re playing for so long; they’re not getting everything out for the first five minutes. We’ve tried lengthy jams like that to force ourselves to come up with new ideas.
TH: For me it’s bands like Health, they were the “noisiest” of the first such bands that I listened to. I was really taken aback by the weird sounds — the two guitars and a bass just sounding like random instruments, synths, and weird textures and stuff. The way they make your unconventional, or not necessarily melodic things and angular sounds — dissonance and stuff like that — sound like music. On that note, a bands like AIDS Wolf, especially the first album, a song like “We Multiply” — there’s nothing that would be traditional guitar chord or anything, it’s just a melody created by noise and a basic rhythm behind it. It’s incredibly catchy, and for a lack of a better term, noise. Also, as mentioned before, Holy Fuck — at its heart, just two dudes with a tableful of effects and mini keyboards. The amount of catchy melodies and great music that they’re making from unconventional instruments, a lack of real instruments. They’ll have singing in a song where there’s no lyrics — it’s just vocals as an instrument that’s highly manipulated and pitch-shifted to create a melody.
MB: Most of my influences for Pigeon Breeders came about before, with my work as Ocra. Around that time I was heavily into post-industrial groups like Coil, Current 93, Nurse With Wound. I think some of that carries through, in terms of sensibilities. Ambient artists such as William Baskinski, Andrew Chalk, and of course, Brian Eno, were all a bigger focus of mine. I like asynchronous sounds that can be noisy but melodic as well; when everything is just sort of this beautiful blur of sound. In that time, I got to see a great pool of bands live — Shearing Pinx, AIDS Wolf, Zebra Pulse, etc. Getting pretty into the Dead C when were starting Pigeon Breeders had quite an effect. That whole dissonant, wrangled punk/improvised noise style is just so wonderful. Looking back, it seems noise rock had more of a role in the beginning. Now that we’ve developed into a much more ambient style, I hear us sounding more like bands such as Natural Snow Buildings, we’re kind of just drifting naturally in that direction.
The sound of Nocturnal Reveries could be described as encapsulating; are there perks to utilizing an electroacoustic means of producing sound as oppose to exclusively using a traditional means of producing music (via guitar, drums, bass)?
WS: Basically, I feel we’re incorporating these non-traditional instruments — for me, antique or flea market-style purchases — and just finding what these items sound like. It’s a joy to try to get sounds out of things you never would think you could get sounds out of. We do utilize traditional instruments — we believe in the best of both worlds. We’re just interested in new sounds, whatever it is.
MB: It’s important for us to re-contextualize the sounds of certain things. It keeps things interesting for us. You can get into certain patterns and habits regardless of what you play — the instruments, the pedals, the sounds, etc. can all start to feel very familiar. But as soon as you throw a new idea or two in the mix, so much changes. And everything builds from those changes.
Being that this is a very specific style of music in terms of interest, it’s no surprise that music of this nature often harbors a negative reaction from listeners who are unfamiliar with it. Has there ever been a time while performing live that you have faced a negative reaction from members of the audience or are they generally receptive?
TH: Usually at our shows, after performing, people just come up and say, “I’ve never seen anything like that before, that was really cool.” They’ll ask when we’re playing again, so they can see us more often. But, one time we did have a heckler. He said “sound check’s over” and some other things, just near the end of our set.
WS: I really don’t care what people think of it. I’m making music for personal reasons. Sometimes it grounds me, sometimes it’s a way for me to get my anger, my sadness, or my happiness out — I don’t care either way how the public takes it. But it’s a pleasant surprise when someone comes up to you and tell you that they do enjoy it. As for people who don’t, I ended up smoking outside with our one heckler after our set. We were joking around, he said “you basically just turn volume knobs” and I just said “yeah, and you paid to see the show.”
TH: Yeah, “you paid for our beer tonight.”
WS: So, we take it light-heartedly, and I think it’s funny. There’s a realization that what we like, other people may not like, and it doesn’t really affect me, or the band. And I kind of appreciate a heckler more than someone who’ll just say “nice set” or “that was interesting.”
MB: Well, if we’re playing a more drone-oriented set, it will indeed look mostly like we’re just adjusting knobs and pressing pedals. To a general audience, that’s visually uninteresting, and to someone who isn’t even into that kind of music that’s just meaningless to them. But if we’re playing a well-rounded set, we’ll overlap a variety of styles and sounds — it’ll be dynamic and interesting, even on a visual level. But even our most interesting stuff could beckon hecklers, simply because they just want to see the other rock bands on the bill. It could be worse for those people, they could be watching three dudes on laptops.
WS: For me, it’s just great to go out on a night, be out and play, have a couple of beers with our friends for free. When we started this band, we never asked the question of who we’re playing to. We never thought people would be interested. It’s just a surprise that they are, so we’re happy, and we’ll reap the benefits.
Noise and ambient musicians are notorious for being prolific, often releasing multiple albums and sometimes more within a year. It is obviously important to remain consistent in releasing material in this scene but would you say that there should be a balance between the quality and quantity of what is being put out? With that said what is your process like in determining what does and does not make the cut?
WS: We record every single time we play, more or less. We have a backlog of recordings. Sometimes they go un-listened, but we’re getting a lot better at listening back these days. We are striving towards listening to every show we play. Listening back to your own recordings is one of the most beneficial things you can do. We don’t even have to talk anymore — we listen, we analyze. We know how to fix ourselves; we know how to fix the each other. For the recordings we put out, it’s usually Myles who listens to a lot of the stuff, and he will come and let us know what he likes. Then we’ll all whittle it down. He picks “the hits.”
TH: He’s the one that listens to absolutely everything.
WS: He weeds it out and then we’ll all have conversations, sometimes heated ones. We’ll think of what we actually really like. Do I think everything we’ve released has been golden? No. But I think in this style of music there will be jams that have a really good energy. There may be a minute here or there that I’m not happy with, but overall it’s the right decision to release. We also select democratically. If two people are into it, the third can veto. Sometimes the third person will give it more thought, and it will go through.
MB: There are moments where I don’t think it’ll sound right, in that the dynamics or the levels are a little off, and you kind of just have to deal with the odd moments like that. Even more so when you record how we’ve done most of our stuff — with a Zoom H1. We can’t re-record them, it just doesn’t work like that, and there’s little you can do with editing. But the performances matter. It comes down to: does this represent us as a band? When we pick something, is it appropriate? That’s why we moved from something like “Nocturnal Reveries” to “Luminous Debris.” The whole point was that we had this jam, then this live show shortly after, and both performances had all these motifs and on the whole they complemented each other and were worth listening to together.
TH: It sort of shows off our process.
MB: It was an early move to do that [a partially live album], but I felt it was an appropriate one. I wanted to get it out there, I have an archival impulse. It was a breaking point in what we were doing, I think. That’s why we put out “Squab” so early, too, in that it captures so well how sounded at the time.
WS: Also, upon selecting tracks, as we go through them for our next few releases, it will be our best material but also what’s very different. We’re never going to release the same thing, it’s always the most unusual thing that can take us to a new place.
MB: At this point we don’t all live under the same roof. There’s less jamming, which means less recording, and therefore less listening material to sort through. It gives the jams room to breathe, and therefore it gives us a lot more focus. None of our albums were recorded as albums, they were just jams. We could release more, we were pretty close to, but we feel content with what we have. We don’t need to capture us as we go all-out for a set’s worth of material as one continuous jam, recorded on a Zoom H1, and sort through it later. What we’re interested in currently is using actual studio recording equipment. There’s been a few sessions, and some experiments in limitations. We can explore different combinations of what we have at our disposal and find a way to construct a statement with it. That’s a new way to express ourselves to an audience.
Pigeon Breeders released their second album Luminous Debris on Ramshackle Day Parade on August 22nd.