Last month, The National unveiled the tracklist for Day of the Dead, the Grateful Dead tribute album box set that the Brooklyn band curated. Among the 70-plus participants, one name stood out in particular: Tim Hecker—and not just because he doesn't have a beard. Amid a roster loaded with veteran indie rockers, grizzled alt-country acts, and afro-funk ensembles, Hecker was the only musician to come solely from the electronic music fringe. His contribution to the project wasn'teven a Grateful Dead cover per se. Rather, his "Transitive Refraction for John Oswald" was conceived as an homage to the name-checked Toronto sound artist and his ground-breaking 1994 release, Grayfolded, which obliterated and reconfigured several hundred live recordings of the Dead's "Dark Star" into infinitely rippling symphonies. And that choice speaks to what truly distinguishes Tim Hecker from his fellow Day of the Dead celebrants: he fucking despises the Grateful Dead.
"It's like Star Trek," he reasons during a recent phone interview. "Either you love Star Trek or you fucking hate Star Trek. I'm opposed to Star Trek, I'm opposed to Pepsi, and I'm opposed to the Grateful Dead. While my hippie friends were going on trips to deep Oregon to see some performance of Jerry in his last days, I was into weird electronic music. And that's where I fell on the divide."
The Canadian artist's participation in Day of the Dead is ultimately a result of his long-standing friendship with The National's Bryce Dessner, who collaborated with Hecker during some moonlighting forays into avant-classical composition. However, before I can counter Hecker's hippie hate with "but Deadheads were the original ravers, man!," he concedes that there is some ideological overlap.
"I'm totally sympathetic to aspects of tuning out society, and subcultures, and weird spaces of non-capitalism," he says. "You can't say the Dead occupy any such space anymore, but maybe they once did."
And much like Garcia and Co., Hecker has sought sanctuary in the bohemian heart of a California metropolis in the last three years. After enduring Montreal winters for 17 years, Hecker's found his proverbial Haight-Ashbury in Los Feliz, the low-key residential LA neighbourhood that mediates between the tourist traps of Hollywood and the hipster haven of Silverlake. On the surface, it seems like an odd move—Hecker's music more readily conjures black clouds, industrial decay, and perma-frosted landscapes than sunshine, palm trees, and fake breasts. And it was all the more surprising given how deeply enmeshed Hecker was in the fabric of Montreal's electronic music community and how much it seemingly shaped his work.
"For me, where I live is totally incidental," he says. "In a small way, it informs my work, but it's easy to overwrite and essentialize that because of geography or biography. I find it really uninteresting learning about the personal lives of people I really respect—it's counterintuitive to learning about their work. Biography is tedious at best."
Originally from Vancouver, BC, Hecker arrived in Montreal in 1998 to attend Concordia University, during the dawn of a golden age for experimental music in the city. Local labels like Alien8 and the Godspeed You! Black Emperor-affiliated Constellation Records initiating crossovers between indie rock and underground electronic sounds, while the burgeoning annual festival MUTEK was giving left-field technologists like Matthew Herbert, Pole, and Christian Fennesz the same sort of hero's welcome Kanye gets at Coachella today. The city boasted not just the cheap rent and DIY venues to attract adventurous artists, but a sizeable, intellectually curious, student-fed population to encourage them. This was the environment that inspired a young Hecker—then producing techno tracks under the alias Jetone—to step out under his own name in the early 2000s, and forgo beat-making for a more radical kind of sound-sculpting.
"Festivals like MUTEK were really crucial for me," he reminisces. "If you're playing a concert all of a sudden with Thomas Brinkmann, when you've never played a concert before, it forces you to a way higher standard. At a certain point, it's not acceptable just to smoke weed and think your jams that night are good enough. You really have to be more rigorous. That's what happened for me in Montreal, and it benefited my work quite a bit."
But for Hecker, that close-knit, benevolently competitive community dissipated long ago.
"People that were in Montreal making electronic music around the same time as me, a lot of them gave it up," he says. "It's really difficult to make a living in music. I'm very lucky, but it's not something that really rewards you, as a vocation. The whole system is engendered to build up things and destroy them really quickly. And a lot of people [in Montreal] stopped, or moved to Berlin, where they could afford to live even cheaper and find more gigs. These communities are really fluid, and Montreal to me is really shifting. It's not what it was 10 or 15 years ago."
Moving to LA, he says, was a purely personal move, a result of feeling the spiritual need to get back on west coast time.
"I grew up in Vancouver, and I think there's a certain aspect of a slower CPU if you grew up in the west coast," he says. "My brain functions at a slightly slower cadence than east coast people. I felt a little out of place in the east. I'm a bit slower—not in the sense that I can't keep up with hypercapitalism, but I just function better here. LA is no slouch, but it does feel closer to my upbringing amongst the Douglas Firs of BC. When I came back to the west coast, I was more at peace with the frequency of the city."
When you've grown up in Canada and you visit Los Angeles for the first time, the first thing that strikes you about the place is how much it looks like the TV shows you watched when you were a kid. Thanks to the warmer weather, and a relative lack of precipitation and rust, stuff just lasts longer. It's not uncommon to see pristine 70s hot rods rolling down the street, and many businesses still bear their original, perennially kitschy 60s era signage. It's a bit of a shock to see how new everything old still looks. "It's like the Cuba of North America," Hecker quips.
But in the music of Tim Hecker, the past isn't something to be preserved like a museum piece—it's raw material to be pummeled into a new shapes, often grotesque ones. Now 41, Hecker is among the last generation to enter adulthood prior to the advent of home internet, and his work has harnessed the web's disruptive power, with a textural abundance that mirrors the cumulative weight of 21st century information overload.
"Being a pre-digital native gives me a perspective that I think is good, even if it's obviously at risk of becoming 'old man shaking fist at the world,'" he says. "But I am nothing without the internet. I started doing this with the resolute dream and desire and feeling that when I had this shitty computer—which was like a little tower I built myself—I realized it was a symphonic tool. It was a blizzard in a little box. You could do things that were better than orchestral structures, and you could do it yourself, and you could bring more power, more weirdness through the computing."
Hecker's first true declaration of war against the past came with his 2002 EP, My Love Is Rotten to the Core, which did to Eddie Van Halen riffs what John Oswald did to the Dead on Grayfolded: desecrate and mutate a hallowed classic rock text into something unrecognizable and unclassifiable. "That was distinctly culled from Oswald's body of work; it was deeply collage-based," Hecker says. "And I still have a certain affinity for some kind of Xerox punk scene collage aesthetic, in the way I edit albums and cut things together. There's a lot of chop and paste and re-photocopying into some kind of reductionist disfiguration."
Over the next decade, through a series of acclaimed albums on Kranky Records, the serrated edges of Hecker's sound collages became ever more blurred, artfully fusing ominous drones, soothing synth swells, and thunderclouds of distortion. Starting with 2011's Ravedeath 1972, his methodology began to shift, as he opted for a change of scenery (a church-cum-studio in Reykjavik, Iceland), enlisted outside advisors (namely, fellow Australian sound alchemist Ben Frost and composer/engineer Paul Corley), and incorporated more traditional instrumentation (piano, guitar, and, most notably, pipe organ). His 2013 album Virgins built upon that breakthrough, with Hecker mashing an Icelandic woodwind ensemble and the keyboard virtuosity of Kara-Lis Coverdale into the mix like meat into a sausage grinder.
His new album, Love Streams, was also recorded in Iceland with Montreal native Coverdale and the woodwind players,but with one notable difference. Incorporating voice for the first time, the album features the Icelandic Choir Ensemble performing 15th century chorales, reinterpreted by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (best known for recently scoring 2015 film Sicario). But the addition of these naturalistic elements has hardly made Hecker's music more linear or accessible—if anything, it's become more unsettled. Sure, they've added a more human element, but the ultimate effect is more horrifying, like seeing a twitching limb poking out of the rubble of a collapsed building.
While his catalogue is often labeled "ambient," which has become shorthand for "subliminal spa soundtrack," Love Streams is ambient in the strictest definition of the term—it is as, one song, puts it, "Music of the Air." Which, in this day and age, means it's riddled with dust, airborne disease, toxicity, and carcinogens. The album rolls sci-fi synth oscillations, flute refrains, disembodied vocals, and percussive shocks into tectonic plate–shifting masses of sound, the forms and patterns of which dissolve the instant your mind identifies them as such. Against this maddening density, the doom-metal holocaust of the closing "Black Phase" actually constitutes a moment of peace.
Love Streams is not the sort of ambient music you can throw on in the background, because you can't really separate yourself from it—you're forced to breathe it in until it fills your lungs and turns your snot black. So maybe it makes perfect sense that Hecker now finds himself living in a city synonymous with smog.
"I approach music like a sculptor's bench," Hecker says. "I'm pouring molten metal into some mould and seeing how it fits and hammering it down. The live instrumentation is not some ring that's already pre-finished and presented to you as a ring. It's meant to be melted down. Maybe that gold is in some new alloy, but it's not the ring it was in the beginning."
And that philosophy holds especially true for the treatment of vocals on Love Streams. Though he's known for performing in churches—mostly to exploit their unique acoustic properties—Hecker brushes off any spiritual significance to his use of a choir. It's just a fresh ingredient he can manipulate and mutate.
"The voice has so many sublime and deep meanings and one of them is religious, but I'm not interested in mining religious motifs," he says. "I was just into 15th century choral music, and felt that was a starting point. But the album is not about 15th century choral music; it's not about religiosity at all. It's about hybridization and how those forms stretch and transmute. It's deeply contaminated, deeply undermined, deeply doubting its own existence."
Hecker doesn't bristle when I suggest that Love Streams feels like a culmination of the threads he introduced on Ravedeath 1972 and Virgins, the three records forming an "Iceland Trilogy" akin to Bowie's late 70s Berlin triptych. At the same time, his music is very much the product of decontextualization, stripping the inputs of any temporal or geographic definition.
"That was a real problem for me," he says of the Iceland associations. "I was trying to do this choral music, and I didn't want it to sound like Björk. I wanted to take the voice and de-nature it, and try to de-Icelandize it and make it half robot and half Auto-Tune—misalign it in subtle ways, so that its realness comes into question."
"Making records in Iceland for me is more about deep friendship and trusted spaces of retreat and working, and a great community of people. If you need an instrumentalist, it's easy and quick. The calibre is quite high. It's also just a place where you go and you know you're there to work. It focusses you."
It's funny to hear Hecker speak of focus when referring to an album he approached in "more of an ADHD way compositionally"; but then again, that ideal of orchestrated anarchy is consistent with the counterintuitive nature of his career. On paper, he's done all the things career electronic producers are supposed to do to attract listeners beyond the electronic music realm: incorporate live instrumentation, introduce vocalists, trade up to bigger labels. (In Canada, he's joined radio rocker Sam Roberts on the Paper Bag Records roster; Love Streams is also his first album to be released through UK institution 4AD.)
In Hecker's case however, those moves have hardly proven to be populist concessions. He now finds himself in the same enviable position as veteran acts like Swans and the Flaming Lips: his audience seems to exponentially expand as his records have become more elaborate and uncompromising. Yet, where those bands have thrived by successfully translating their strange music into big-stage spectacle, Hecker's live presence remains brutally minimal. He often performs in complete darkness to amp up the sensory deprivation effect to sadistic extremes. While he's achieved heretofore unfathomable markers of success for an avant-garde electronic artist—like winning a Juno Award for Ravedeath 1972, or joining the indie rock elite for a Jerry Garcia seance—don't expect him to follow the predictable crossover route of hiring a crack team of pro musicians and taking the Tim Hecker Orchestra on the summer festival circuit anytime soon.
"The problem is, once an electronic artist gets notoriety, they want institutional acceptance," he says. "And for a lot of people that may be a great thing, but for me, it doesn't feel natural. Getting a live band just turns you into whack-ass acid-jazz jams. Before you know it, you're almost like the Grateful Dead, except I don't know as much about Dorian descending ninths as them."
Love Streams is out April 8 via 4AD (Paper Bag Records in Canada), pre-order here.
Stuart Berman is on Twitter.