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Steel for Brains

Exploring the Brains behind the Noise

Genuine introspection is a lost art.  Perhaps it’s always been lost and those who are able to truly grasp it, if only briefly, make an indelible impact on whatever consciousness they hope to achieve.  The ability to look inward and see yourself as not simply an idea but rather as a member of a vast wavelength of human existence is a daunting task.  I don’t remember my first Hydra Head release I bought.  Safe to say that some years later, I took notice that much of the music I was enjoying was coming from that same source.  Aaron Turner, the artist and musical visionary behind Hydra Head, has always been a force to be reckoned with.  Not simply for his tendency to steer clear of the mainstream, as it were, but, more importantly, for his dedication to giving so many other artists and musicians a clear pathway to do the same.  His work in Isis, Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer, Jodis, and so much more has been pored over by critics, fans, artists, and other musicians as a testament to his unrelenting passion to constantly create a challenge for any listener.  Thankfully, each challenge brings its own reward as I had the opportunity to chat with Aaron about this very thing as well as where he sees himself in the grand spectrum  of existence.  

The first thing I have to ask you concerns your evolution as an artist, Aaron. As far your journey from when you started out as a youngster to where you are now, I’m curious as to how you’ve seen yourself grow as an artist and musician.  What’s that journey been like for you?

Oh, that would be hard to summarize because music’s been my life story.  But I think that I knew very early on that I wanted to be a musician and/or artist.  I felt myself really drawn towards making art when I was really young.  I guess that’s kind of typical with a lot of kids who start out playing with clay and coloring with crayons, but my interest in that – in making stuff, in making images – over time, it just became more intense.  My parents sort of fostered that too.  I think they saw I had an inclination toward doing those kinds of things and maybe some ability too, so they definitely helped me that way.  Not too long after that, I started developing an active interest in music where I really wanted to know more about music and started seeking it out.  I had people who were helping and exposing me to things, too.  As I got older I was just trying to figure out more and more ways to make my art and make my interest in music a part of my everyday life.  I don’t really see that as having changed at all except on perhaps my perspective on how I do what I do.  Why I do it hasn’t changed at all, because the motivation has been there all along.  It’s just that I feel like it’s a necessary thing for me to be thinking that I could be making art, and I’m going to try to find anything I can to keep doing that.

The formulation of the question here, Aaron, is essentially borne from my fascination with the Hydra Head label, of course, and Isis, as well as your numerous other projects.  There’s certainly the aesthetic there of being left of center.  What was your vision going in to creating the label?  Was it predicated on something you saw the industry lacking?

I don’t know if I actually like thinking about it in terms of what was lacking.  I was inspired by all the stuff I saw other people doing.  It really wasn’t that much about industry, it was more about craft at that point.  Part of the stuff I liked was what other young people were using in an unconventional way.  The accessibility of materials, and music, and the ability to view stuff was something that I think was really sort of the initial drive to do that.  By the time I got into music I started to think of it as something that other people were doing, or that there was some level of professionalism involved with it.  And what I discovered and worked hard for, and accomplished later with some more experimental kind of music was that I saw that there is sort of an individualistic way of doing things. I think that was really, really a big part of the edge.  It showed me that one person could do something without having to be a part of a big company or without having to be famous or anything like that.  I think that that was really, really important.  Part of the initial inspiration for Hydra Head was just the idea that I could do that…that I could purchase a data net, that I could have my own way to do it.  The goals, early on, were really simple.  It was just finding bands that I was intrigued by and trying to make artwork and packaging that would be reflective of their music along with the experience of listening as well.  Some of the other labels I found really inspiring were labels that paid special attention to detail, who had really unique artwork, and, in a lot of cases, had handmade packaging.  And even though I didn’t do as much of that as I would have liked, there’s a fairly large portion of the early catalog that had a decent component that was handmade.  It was a way for me to combine my twin love for art and music.

With the bands Isis, Old Man Gloom, and Jodis, just to name a few of your projects, and just the numerous bands that have been on the record label, they’re all completely different from one another.  With Hydra Head there’s always seemed to be this desire to stretch the boundaries and explore the art of the sound and the art of metal.

I think that’s definitely true.  And I’m not really sure where that came from.  I mean, I did have some kind of a teen angst in high school where I was actively trying to be different.  I don’t know that it was just entirely that I would think or focus on being different.  I think it was more about how I perceived the world that kind of pushed me in that direction.  I did start to feel at that point, and still feel now also, hopefully in a slightly more involved perspective, that a lot of our mainstream cultural values are kind of antithetical to life in a certain way.  There’s a lot of tendencies towards really destructive ways of living and being and thinking.  There was something about discovering Metal and Hardcore that was really life affirming in a positive way.  From very early on I saw that light was presented in a certain way, or there was this sort of based set of values and ways of doing things that I didn’t necessarily agree with, and I really started to want to investigate the darker or more hidden side of life.  That was probably what led me towards being initially attracted to it and then later involved with it as well as more idiosyncratic artists.  Essentially it was mostly intuitive, but later it became a conscious effort.  I didn’t want to just participate in maintaining the status quo.  I think I felt driven towards hoping, and in the process opened up my own perspective and other people’s as well.

I definitely benefited from discovering alternative ways of thinking, and living, and making art.  Part of my intention with the label was to try to provide that same opportunity for other people.  I think something as seemingly as simple as discovering a band who is operating outside of that norm, whether it’s the more general metal genre, or even a different genre, can be a gateway in changing your perspective on the world as a whole.  A lot of the most important decisions in my life, or a lot of the really perspective altering experiences that I’ve had, have come through music – whether it was just listening to a record, or seeing a show, or getting to know the people that were making the music and simply discovering this whole network that existed around it.  There is something very crucial to me about staying readily accessible and figuring out what these artists and bands are about and how they can sort of inform a larger perspective on the world.  Being exposed to as many different things as possible, including those things which sort of define your expectations of the way things have been presented to you, is really crucial for me, and I think probably important for a lot of other people as well.

Absolutely.  It seems like so much is sold and marketed to the listener, and we’re kind of told what’s good and what’s bad, as well as what’s popular and what’s not.  I think labels like Hydra Head and the artists the label has fostered are a testament to that.  With that in mind, Aaron, in retrospect as well as looking at the present and the future, in what ways have you seen the music industry change?  Do you see that kind of change as having a positive or negative effect on independent music, if that term is still even relevant?  Or has it been both?

I’m still thinking both.  I think independent music is a broad and hard-to-define term at this point, but I also think that there is a lot of independently produced music that’s still very relevant and that producing music independent of the larger corporations still has a lot of meaning.  But at the same time it’s hard to be completely autonomous from that.  I mean, the material used to make records, even if you’re a tiny record label, are petroleum based, so there are actions right there that are completely attractive to a larger corporate conglomerate, and that has nothing to do with operating a record player in your bedroom and has everything to do with being part of a capitalistic culture, an industrial culture. Now the lines are blurry where you look at something like Kickstarter and how many independent artists are funding their projects with that.  Even though that allows a certain degree of autonomy, a lot of the funds they raise end up getting sent back to Amazon, so I don’t know.  It’s harder to define independent now. It’s really hard because there’s so much gray area.  I don’t see there really being a sharp divide between independent music in the realm of the major label or the corporate music industry.  I think a lot of that has to do more with the perspective of the people making the music and what their intention is. 

I don’t think that much about whether something is independently produced or not.  I think more about what the result, the end result, then the perspective of the people who are making it, and how that affects what they do.  For me personally, operating with a fair degree of autonomy is really important.  I think that the more people you have involved in making a music product, the greater the chance is that the end product will wind up being further diluted from the artist’s original intentions.  Of course, there’s the Internet, which definitely changed things quite a bit.  There’s nothing now, or almost nothing, that’s truly obscuring.  There’s a degree of exposure, even to the minutest record label or band, and no matter how hard people may try now to remain obscure – any artist you wanted to find information about you could Google their name and dig up something.  There’s a degree of accessibility now that definitely wasn’t there before, and in some ways it’s taken away a little bit of the mystery of music, I think.  I think it’s made creating networks a much broader and creating actual connections a little bit more anonymous and a little less meaningful.  At the same time, there’s a greater awareness of all different types of music, and there’s a greater accessibility for people who live in places, where previous to the advent of the Internet, it would’ve been extremely difficult to even find out about something, let alone be able to experience it.  So there’s a positive and a negative there.

I just feel like there’s just a certain way of doing things that seems to make sense to me.  I just have to abide by that.  As far as what other people do, if they do something I like and that I feel compelled by, that’s enough for me.  Unless they’re clearly involved in something of a dubious nature, how the music is produced isn’t of the utmost importance.  I find it almost overwhelming to try to assess it all because it takes away from the process of thinking about my own stuff and appreciating what other people are doing.  I also feel like it’s changing so rapidly that it’s hard to even say where it is right now.  I mean I didn’t even know what the hell Spotify was until a couple of months ago.  By the time I heard about it, it was already apparently this mammoth thing.  When each “thing” that comes along that’s supposedly a game-changing entity within the music industry or a changing in the way that people come about or consume music, those things are so impermanent.  I mean everybody thought Myspace was this huge thing a few years ago, people, and now it’s like a fucking digital ghost town.  Where is it and what purpose does it serve?  To summarize it all, I don’t feel like people are making music with a lot of the same intentions.  I still feel like music is evolving in a really important way.  For me, the way I listen to music, and the way I make music is still basically the same, and I still feel like live music is really important, and that hasn’t changed that much.

I think that, if anything, live music is going to become increasingly more important, because it’s a real time experience.  It involves music and human interaction, and that’s something that could never be accurately represented either as a record or as something that people could experience via the Internet.  Maybe the main distinction is that there is a greater disconnect that’s happened because of technological advances between people and music and the way it sounds, but basically the music itself hasn’t changed.  Maybe it’s evolved more rapidly because people have more access to all different kinds of music, but ultimately I think that the human impulse to create is what it’s always been, and now there’s these different ways of how the products that come out of that present themselves.

In all of this, I can only say what my personal perspective is, and I can’t give an authoritative answer about the way the industry has changed or how the evolution of technology and the Internet has really changed other than from a very basic perspective, and I think that’s the stuff that people already know.

I don’t want to ignore the context of the world which already exists, or how what I create and the way I create it, I think has an impact.  I can’t and don’t want to live in a vacuum.  There is something about the world we live in now that is different, and I don’t want to render myself to irrelevance by just ignoring what is going on.  I feel like the reason I have further reason to make music is because I want to share it with people, and I have to pay attention to the way in which people are accessing music now in order to be able to reach them.  So, it’s not that I don’t care about it, and it’s not that I wish to ignore it, it’s just that I can only follow it to a certain extent, and I can only keep up with it to a certain extent, and a more important asset of making music, to me, is actually making music.  I make some concessions in terms of having multiple Facebook pages dedicated to different contacts and setting up Bandcamps and stuff like that, but, at the same time, I don’t spend that much time doing it, because you don’t know how quickly those things are going to come and go.  I feel if you have one or two websites that are easily accessible, that’s enough.  You don’t have to have a Facebook or a Twitter, or whatever the hell else people are putting out that I’m not even aware of yet.  (Laughs)

(Laughs) I completely understand what you mean.  Stepping out into the social networking realm is a very bizarre thing and it’s honestly a glorified clusterfuck.

Yeah.  (Laughs)  I would say, for me, if anything, seeing how impermanent a lot of these things are just gives me greater conviction to keep doing what I’m doing – making physical art that will last, that people can hold and examine and actually have to physically interact with.  That seems more relevant now, perhaps, than it did before MP3s and iTunes and file sharing.  In conjunction with that, as I referenced earlier, I think the experience of live music is even more relevant now.  There is no possible way you can have the same experience watching a YouTube video that you can by actually going to the show and seeing live music and having the chance to interact with the people who are making it.  I think in the last couple of years, I’ve taken more of an effort to try to actually interact with people coming to shows.  I feel like human contact is so important.  I feel like making contact either with people who make music that you like, or making contact with people who simply like that music is crucial.  Human contact.  Human interaction.  Face to face meetings between people that you work with that could never be replicated or replaced – I think are really important.  It’s crucial to our survival to perpetuate those things, and I don’t think there will ever be any substitute for that.  For me, the more people rely on technology as the interface between themselves and art, the more isolated they will become and the more diluted the experience of art will be.

Absolutely.  I completely agree.  That’s something that has always drawn me to what I believe to be great art and music, Aaron.  For me, it is that attitude of connectivity and synthesis.  I don’t want to sound pretentious at all, because, at the end of the day, I honestly know nothing.  But I think there those artists and musicians who more readily and easily tap into a certain consciousness.  With that – as an artist, as a musician, and as a person, what’s next in your journey?  What’s the next step for you, personally, Aaron?

I’m thinking about the future but not very far into the future.  So many things have changed in my life in the last year in really profound ways that I just have to remain open to what’s coming.  If I have a fixed idea of what I think is going to happen, and I start counting on that, I often end up feeling disappointed or just caught off guard.  I think most of the changes that have happened for me have been ultimately positive, though.  A lot of them have been hard to handle, when they initially came up. For right now I’m just focusing on the immediate future, or even just a private moment.  Day to day I’m trying to wait and figure out Hydra Head.  It’s a big topic in a big area of energy expenditure for me.  I want to keep the label going if only just to sustain and perpetuate our back catalogs.  I’m trying to figure out how feasible that is.  I’m working with our remaining staff and with all of our artists and we’ll just have to kind of see how it goes. I feel positive about it today.  I feel like it’s possible. I feel like we can do it.  It’s just going to take some hard work.  And it has been a lot of hard work over the last month or so.  Really in the last few years but especially in the last couple of months it’s become a much bigger concern and a much bigger endeavor.  So that’s kind of priority number one at the present moment.  Just trying to find some time to relax here and there, sometime in the woods.  Yeah, it’s life going onwards and me trying to make art and music as much a part of my daily existence as possible.

Many thanks to Aaron for his time and, more importantly, his unwavering support for the outer edges of art and music.  Support Hydra Head by going here or here and taking a look and listen.   


1 year ago
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