How A Retired Air Traffic Controller Became One of Canada's Most Unorthodox Electronica Artists
Robert T is the New Brunswick-based father of two with more synth gear than your local hardware store.
Photo by Alexandria Wllson
His sound ranges from rhythmical to soundscapes and ambient beats; a hybrid of 70s Analog sci-fi music and 90s beat-driven electronica. Inspired by avant-garde artists like French pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre and the influential German electronic group Tangerine Dream, Robert T uses an array of vintage and modern hardware synthesizers and drum machines to produce radical, ambient sounds. But Robert T isn't your typical experimental artist—he found himself in the game unexpectedly. Five years ago, he was forced into early retirement after a 20-year career as an air traffic controller in New-Brunswick.
"It's the most stressful job in the world...I had to take a stress leave and eventually the doctor told me I couldn't go back,'' says Robert, known formally as Robert T Wilson. Quite suddenly, the 50-year-old father of two found himself with a lot of time on his hands, so he started playing with used gear—an old drum machine and a Kaoss pad. His new 'toys' suddenly became a form of therapy.
"My whole life I was always obsessed with synthesizers and drum machines, but I grew up in England, and [back then] one of the things that the government cut at the time was music programs. So I never touched an instrument," he says. He cites avant-garde musician Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room, a masterpiece of minimalistic music, as one of his earliest influences, but says his passion for electronica started when he was 11-years-old. "I was walking by the music store and I heard Jean-Michel Jarre's 1976 hit Oxygene. My mind was blown. At the time, I was a little kid who watched Dr. Who and was fascinated by the soundtrack, which was done by tape splicing, oscillators, and rudimentary synthesizers," he says.
Once he decided to make the jump from a music connoisseur to an artist, Robert quickly became fascinated with hardware and started acquiring and repairing old-school synths. He instinctively started consolidating his influences and inspirations into a sound of his own. "All the gear and devices I wanted in the 80s and 90s, I could actually now afford. Synthesizers were horrendously expensive back in the day. I didn't have $4,000 to drop on a synth back in 1985," he says. "Nowadays, it's like a golden age for synthesizers in general."
One thing clear about Robert—he could talk about hardware for hours. "I recently bought a synthesizer from a dude in Ontario for $27, which he bought for $3,800 back in 1998. It's worth nothing today because it does what a computer or an iPhone does now, but I love it," he says.
The Low Noise Productions artist describes his sound as experimental, for lack of a better term. "It's like the term gender fluid, but it's genre fluid...it can't be compartmentalized or easily defined. It can be atonal, it can be arrhythmic," he says. "When I'm playing the synths, sometimes I get this vision of sounds traveling in space. It's kind of weird and hard to describe."
Lately, he started using natural reverbs in his work, manipulating sounds and echoes he records in churches. With their tall ceilings, tile floors, and long, narrow builds, churches offer a unique acoustic environmental. "I got some really cool textures and sounds, using the reverbs of the church instead of using effects peddles. I have these echo-y, space-y sounds. At some point you can hear cars driving by, or kids playing across the street, or my phone going off because my wife called me," he says with a laugh.
All of his tracks are recorded live, in one take, with all hardware, no computers. In essence, everything he does is a live concert with a one-person audience...himself. "It makes the music less predictable and the limitation is that I only have two arms, so I'm jumping from device to device, but the slight imperfections make the tunes seem more organic," he says.
He says he regularly encounters artists almost 30 years his junior who can't believe he uses so much hardware. "One of them said, 'Holy cow I didn't know hardware could sound that good!' But that's because he never heard it!" he explains. "What's cool about the hardware is that, yes, these old samplers have a whopping 64 meg of memory (which is nothing) or sampling times of 22 seconds, but because they're such pieces of crap, it imprints this tone or sound onto the actual sound that you put into it, and that's definitely definable," he says.
Lately, he's been listening to dub laden minimal electronic artist Deadbeat and 90s psy-goa rave music group Eat Static. He's actually a huge 90's rave music fan, which is ironic, because as a former air traffic controller, he could never do drugs and thus has never set foot at a rave. He says his atypical path into DJ-hood is what makes him stand out as an artist. "Since I'm older, I've got more experience to fall back on and I think that's reflected in my work," he says.
Follow Natasha on Twitter.