Artist Name: JD Roberts
Nationality: British/Northern English
Release title: In Search of Dead Knowledge
Release Genre: Ambient
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Jon and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official channels below.
Single “There is No Way but Onwards” from the upcoming album “In Search of Dead Knowledge”.
Single “Ancient Machines, Awakening” from the upcoming album “In Search of Dead Knowledge”.
Listen to JD Roberts latest album “In Search of Dead Knowledge” on Spotify. Enjoy while reading the interview.
About the Artist
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
A lot of musicians have a great story about a moment they woke up to music, but I don’t, particularly. I started learning clarinet the classical ABRSM way as a child, and picked up sax in my teens as I played in various school orchestras and jazz bands. When I was about 17/18, I started to get into jazz. I really loved the music around me in Manchester, artists like Arun Ghosh and Mike Walker, as well as artists doing similar things further afield like Lauren Kinsella and Laura Jurd. The Manchester and Marsden Jazz Festivals were very much my Mecca at that point.
That jazz approach to melody and harmony still really shapes my playing, but I slowly fell out of jazz and into ambient in my early twenties. Everyone around me in the grassroots jazz scene wanted to play fast, fancy, rhythmic stuff, and that’s just not where my heart is at all, so as I discovered more and more ambient, I gradually drifted towards the ambient and experimental communities, where I found people who shared my love of harmony, melody, texture and minimalism. A special shout-out is absolutely deserved here to my friends at AEMC Records, who have built a fantastic community of like-minded musicians, who’ve all really influenced my love of ambient! I sometimes feel that jazz audiences will applaud anything that sounds difficult to play, but the ambient crowd give me a far more interesting challenge – to make music which sounds beautiful.
What would you say are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
There’s a maxim in jazz, more honoured in the breach than the observance, that you should never play a note until you know what you’re going to play. One of my key ideals is minimalism – every note, every phrase and every sound should add to the overall sound. Ambient music is a wonderful challenge because it’s emotion distilled. You have to put the most emotion into the fewest elements. It’s music stripped bare of frills and pretension, and that means you have to be very thoughtful, very concise and self-reflective in your playing. You quite literally have to know when to make noise and when to be quiet.
But my approach to writing music is that it’s all about place. If I’m not playing direct from the heart, then I’ve got a picture of a place in my head, and I work towards creating the sound of what that place feels like. Sometimes I do that in a very literal way, drawing sounds of birds, wind or waves out of my synth, but a lot of it is more subtle – is this place light or dark? Open or enclosed? Warm or cold? Soft or harsh? Is it a quiet place of comfort, or a wild and lonely place? And again, the challenge is to put those feelings and emotions – those subjectivities, I guess I’d call them with my academic hat on – into sound.
The sense of place is also important because my music is a celebration of nature, and human interaction with nature. I get so much joy and inspiration from this wonderful, magical, crazy planet and all the strange and incredible people, plants and animals I encounter, and I think it’s important to share that. I witness so much that is amazing every time I step outside the door, from the exquisite blending of colours on a grasshopper to the majestic ruins of the mediaeval abbey round the corner from me, and that sublime-ness (sublimity?) has to be testified to. And so I write music about it, and hope that my music reminds people of all there is to love about this crazy world.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Do you have a preference?
I love both, for different reasons! Creating music on your own is a very freeing experience, because it forces you to trust in your own judgement and musicality. It’s a very affirming thing to craft something beautiful entirely out of yourself, your own skill and your own instincts. And it is as great a joy as anything I’ve experienced to just get lost in the process of creating music!
At the same time, I’ve also been collaborating a lot with a lot of different friends recently, and I love how working with different people pushes me in different directions, and challenges me to try things I wouldn’t otherwise have attempted! My friends keep me from stagnating and getting stuck doing the same old thing again and again.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way has music – either your own or that of others – contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Music is a huge part of how I deal with things. It’s how I process everything, just sitting and making music, whether through improvisation or composition. If I’ve had a stressful day, I don’t think ‘I need a drink’, I think ‘I need an instrument’! It centres me, stops me from getting wrapped up in myself. In terms of what I’ve learned from music, one thing that stands out is the need to be yourself and always speak with your own voice. I wrote Wavesong several years ago now, having just come out of a relationship with someone who didn’t value me at all, and didn’t value my music.
That’s when I gave up on the hopeless endeavour of trying to write music that I hoped someone else might like and started writing music purely for myself, music which catered only to my own tastes and came from my own heart. And what came out of that was music which was better than anything I’d ever written before. And that, along with other things, gave me back my self-worth.
About the Album
Could you describe your creative process behind the album? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into a finished song?
In Search of Dead Knowledge came from a slightly weird fusion of horror fiction – mainly Lovecraft and The Magnus Archives – dark ambient music, and history of science. It started off as a challenge I set myself. I love dark ambient music, Flowers for Bodysnatchers, Dead Melodies, Northumbria, all that sort of thing, so I wanted to see if I could write a dark ambient album. A fair amount of my larger projects start out as ways to challenge and stretch myself! At the time I wrote the bulk of the material, though, I was just beginning a master’s degree in history of science, medicine and technology, so all those debates about ways of knowing, deep questions about what knowledge is and how we know things, whether science is special or just one knowledge system among many, began to seep in, and that’s where a lot of the track titles come from.
Epistemology, and the philosophical problems of knowledge, are actually a big theme in horror fiction, especially cosmic horror, where the horror in part comes from the dawning realisation of how little you truly understand your world.
I like to think of the cosmic horror story as the opposite of the detective story: both are about discovery and knowledge, but in a detective story the detective’s knowledge and worldview, their cosmography and vision of how the world works, is challenged by the seemingly impossible and inexplicable, but is ultimately reaffirmed by their cleverness in discovering the rational explanation. Sherlock Holmes is all about the triumph of British rationality and Science over foreign superstition – Conan Doyle was a massive imperialist! Whereas in the cosmic horror story, the protagonist’s worldview is gradually deconstructed by ever-more-disturbing revelations, and their knowledge of the world gradually crumbles as they discover their vision of how the world works to be completely mistaken. Conan Doyle and Lovecraft are a useful comparison – Conan Doyle was writing at the height of the British Empire, filled with jingoistic optimism about the power of Science, Rationality and Britishness, whereas Lovecraft was writing in a more turbulent and pessimistic age, as the world struggled with the trauma of the worst war yet seen and revolutions swept the globe, a world where even science seemed less certain than ever as quantum theory and relativity questioned the idea of a Newtonian clockwork universe.
In general, I’m an optimist, and I like writing about the beauty of the natural world in the hope that it inspires other people to appreciate this wonderful planet. So it was interesting to explore some more sinister sounds and darker emotions, which also have their place in this world. One theme that Lovecraft repeatedly returns to is the horror of seeing other civilisations greater than his having decayed and crumbled, with the implication that humanity is already far down that same road. Obviously, I don’t buy into Lovecraft’s (incredibly racist) declinist narrative, but the horror of societies failing and falling into ruin is a useful thing to explore as we face global ecosystem collapse.
What’s your view of lyrics with “messages”? Is there a main message you want to be delivered within the album?
As a historian, I can tell you that everything has a message! A big part of my job is exploring how people’s ideas and assumptions are embedded into even the most mundane administrative documents. I’m studying colonial public health programmes at the minute, and I’ve come across some hair-raising comments in the same reports that are talking about budget estimates and who’s paying for which drugs. You can’t write anything which isn’t at some level reflective of your experience and worldview. Aspects of yourself and your viewpoint are always embedded in what you write, and that’s not something we can or should run away from. It’s difficult to preach while still being poetic, but it’s dishonest to pretend that your perspective doesn’t shape your music. You can never be apolitical; even soppy love songs are political, because the ways in which we talk about those feelings are very reflective of the ways in which we, as individuals and as a society, understand romance, sex and gender. And those things are obviously major societal, and therefore political, issues!
That said, I don’t have any particular message which I want to convey with this album. I’m happy for listeners to read whatever they find helpful into my music – it’s not my job to tell people how to interpret my music! Particularly with instrumental music, you can never predict how people will understand your work, and it’s a wonderful thing when people connect with your music enough to begin interpreting it! I wouldn’t be releasing this music if I wasn’t happy for listeners to come up with their own ideas about what it’s about. Publishing anything, but particularly something as subjective as music, is an act of trust; you trust that your listeners will be able to understand enough of your intention to add some of themselves, some of their own thoughts and feelings, to it. In that way, interpretation, of music and everything else, is an act of co-creation – the artist and the listener both put a bit of themselves into the music, to create an understanding, an idea, that neither would have created on their own.
Releasing music is such a mammoth effort. What are the biggest challenges? What things did you learn in the process?
The biggest challenge is always just getting through it all, and lining up everything that needs to be done. It’s very easy to start a track or an album, and most of the individual things you have to do – recording, mixing, artwork, videos – aren’t all that technically difficult. The hard part is getting them all done for every track in good time! This was definitely a fits-and-starts project – I got most of the original tracks down in a fairly short period, then remixed them at intervals of a few months three or four times before I finally got to a place where I was happy with the mixes. And then I had to start on everything else!
What I’ve really learned from making music is the importance of working at a pace you can sustain, not rushing or exhausting yourself, but steadily keeping going when you have the time and the energy until you have something you are proud of. It’s very easy for musicians to either burn themselves out by demanding too much of themselves – and the industry encourages this, both by the economic structures incentivising regular releases and by romanticising work and ‘hustle’ – or to abandon projects which take a long time to come to fruition. But if you’re going to get anywhere, you have to keep moving forward at a pace that you can sustain for the long haul.
How did you go about choosing your recording/mixing/mastering engineer? Any advice for anyone else currently going through the process?
The advice I’d give anyone is try mastering a track or two yourself. Once you’ve tried it, you can appreciate how much difference someone really good can make to the sound – which will help you recognise the best engineers!
What’s next for JD Roberts?
Lots of things! I’m continuing to run regular live ambient nights in Leeds, UK – please get in touch if you’d like to play! I’m also working on lots of different collaborations with friends such as Wolf City, Bayun the Cat and Hawaiian Vest, and I have a couple of solo albums in production exploring nature, place and humanity through ambient music. So keep an eye out, because there’s loads more coming up!
Where can we check for upcoming gigs? Links?