Tim Hecker Builds Mountains with Sound

By Blake Butler

For more than 15 years now, Montreal’s Tim Hecker has been creating some of the most engaging sound landscapes on record. Over the past two years he’s dropped the monumental Ravedeath, 1972, as well as a series of sketches for the albums titled Dropped Pianos and Instrumental Tourist, a collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin that, like all of Hecker’s music, reveals new layers, edges, and earths. Recently, Tim and I spoke on the phone about his writing process, how he builds an album, the audience, identity, and phantoms.

VICE: When you begin writing a piece of music, do you start with a specific sound, or is it more of an idea?
There’s no real set workflow, or agenda, or trajectory as a piece gets to its end state. It’s a whole range of different ways. Usually it starts with some kind of crystallized seed of something, like a melodic hook or some motif, or a chord change or something, that I take and then work on really physically, and push things, and improvise over and pummel and invert and use all the techniques I have of manipulating sound to push that little seed into something that blooms or transforms into something more substantial.

What’s an example of a seed? Like a melody on a piano, or a sample?
It could be a chord change on a piano, but it’s usually something a bit more complicated, like maybe a piano being played, put through my tape machine, and then reverberated and side-chained off another melody. Then a piece that came out of some improvisation, from like slamming something together, from trying to be as nonlinear as possible, becomes the start of something else, and you use that as a kind of entry point into a work. I see the process like when Jackson Pollock did these not as famous watercolor Japanese ink paintings where he had this giant stack of paper and it was all really thin, translucent, gauzy paper, and he would paint on the top of the stack and do a motif, and then he’d maybe dry that, and pull the next piece and there’d be the trace of the piece before and he would riff off that. And if he got down the stack it would be many, many iterations of different motifs that he responded to in each particular page that he was working on. That’s kind of a good metaphor for my own personal way of working, which is just an attempt at a kind of continual transformation.

I read an interview with you where you used the word “demolish,” saying that you like to try to demolish a sound sometimes.
It’s a bit of hyperbole because I don’t obviously destroy it. It’s more like damaged, as I often like to leave the semblance of some source, some reality of what it was before, but I think it’s an exaggeration to say that I totally destroy things. I’m a middlebrow brutalist compared to noise artists or things like that. Right now I enjoy leaving traces of original sounds. It’s more like the working way of slowly, iteratively manipulating things, dismantling them in some vaguely painterly way. Digital audio is an amazing medium to transform sound. Now younger artists are showing potential, manipulating digital audio in real elastic ways that a lot of analog fetishists would never have even thought about. It’s pretty radical, and it’s an interesting time to work on sound in many respects.

I like that story from when My Bloody Valentine was recording Loveless and Kevin Shields literally had to take the tape and press his finger into it to get that weird specific bending sound that you hear in the melody on one of the songs. It seems like digital audio makes it easier to mess with those kind of effects, right?
It’s both easier and not as easy. It’s kind of funny. Those kinds of smooth, beautiful, seductive maneuvers like slowing down a tape reel don’t equate with digital. The seduction’s not as easy with digital audio. If you’ve ever tried to slow down digital sound, it’s kind of cronky. It just doesn’t have the same lush, hypnotic effect. So there’s still a place for different traditional analog techniques, but the wider swath of what digital audio can do for manipulation is amazing. And I’m not some super hyped preponderant of digital audio. I like to work in a hybrid fashion, like I’ll take analog tape and run it through my desk and put it back through digital audio and back and forth. It’s a constant interaction between the real and the virtual, or whatever you want to call it. 

So you have your sound and you begin messing with it and finding an iteration of it that pleases you, and then you continue to tweak it further to see what else can happen from that direction, but also preserving what you liked until you know when to stop? How does that exploration happen?
You just kind of leave yourself open to how things might evolve. You obviously remember where you started, and a kind of basis, but you’re rolling with it like the way weeds come out of the ground—you find the one that’s the most interesting. My form of creativity isn’t as much a concrete, spelled-out-in-advance vision, where I’m working towards materializing those visions. My interests are really thematic and impressionistic, and I just leave myself open to how that unfolds, and allow that some semblance of a work might become finished, and I’m not so sure how it will be. Usually when I get done with a record I get kind of disappointed that it’s not how I hoped it would be, that it’s a kind of failure. That might have to do with the impact of the arrangements or it not being as oblique as I’d hoped or whatever.  

What about when you’re building an album? For instance, with Ravedeath, how did you cobble together the arc of the album?
I kind of write all these interrelated pieces and then I begin putting them together in an album template, and I start writing more. It’s kind of traditionalist, but it’s also not. I at least try to think of it as possibly forming a cohesive object. Writing for me is a multistage process. Right now, in my current work, I’m entering that album stage and I’m starting to think about putting things together, and it’s still another month even if I have all the pieces together that could constitute a record. I still feel like there’s a period of further writing that synthesizes everything together. It’s just overlaying and reducing and adding and subtracting and transforming things so that everything starts to blur together.

Photo by Sarah Resnick

So you begin to lay things into an overall structure, and by listening to it and continuing to alter it, it begins to develop into an object as a whole.
Totally. That’s the whole point—the integrity of the overall arc. I mean, it hasn’t always been that way. I have releases that were just nine pieces backed up together, but I prefer it the other way. And it’s kind of against the times, you know? It’s sort of a resistance against short, song-based forms of sonic expression. I’m into those short forms as well, but it’s not what I’m doing right now. Lots of people still value longform work. It’s still an enduring part of musical culture. Music journalism sometimes aids in not emphasizing that somehow. Ravedeath was more of a kind of conceptual practice. I took all these pieces I was working on and went and jammed them off a pipe organ and the work came together in this weird whole. The glue on that record was the organ, the way it kept weaving back in, and it provided this kind of template that made sense with these pieces. Without that, it might not have had the same kind of way of gelling together. I learned a lot with that. It’s a good experience, when you think you’re done with something, to just stop and do something else with it, like completely. You can keep the work you’ve done but try to push it way further in another, different direction, and sometimes the results are better than the first time you thought it was done. And that’s not about overworking pieces, it’s about going sideways on it.

Do you think about the audience while you’re working?
I try to eviscerate that reality in my mind, because otherwise it’s paralyzing. Like I know people enjoy listening to my work when they read or write, but my new work isn’t going to be as accommodating as that. It seems a bit more grotesque or unsettling in parts, maybe lacking some serenity that some of my other work had. There’s a risk it won’t be as amenable to forms of inert thinking. You’ve just got to not let that affect you, and focus on the object. It’s a voice in your head you have to squash a little bit, otherwise you can’t get anything done, and you’re searching.

It seems like one of the marks of a great artist is the ability to maintain that kind of unawareness over time, to keep working without losing the original kind of aloneness they had before they knew anyone was watching.
I think maybe after success there’s a feedback loop that doesn’t help you. If you’re told your work’s great, it doesn’t help you to embody that, and if people call out your work as shit, that’s even more punishing. You have to continue to block it out. A lot of good things come from isolation and hard work and being truthful to some object. The first work of artists often comes from that angle, the liberation of expectation from what that work will be.

Do you see yourself in your music? Or do you even listen to your music?
Rarely. Sometimes just to make sure I’m not treading on the same old ground. Or just to check in occasionally. But I try to avoid it. It’s not really rewarding at all. I don’t see myself in my music at all. My work right now is quite heavy and I’m like, “Jesus.” I’m pretty laid back. I’m not tortured at all. So how does that work? I’m pretty level but the work’s on the emotionally heavy side. It’s not like Scott Walker or anything, but still… I don’t get it. Maybe it’s like therapy so I don’t have to deal. I don’t know.

Previously by Blake Butler - Anne Carson Vs. George Saunders