Hello Moth leans back in his chair with a composed posture and a serene look upon his face in a break between two of his workshop sessions at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. HM consists of a Maestro-vocalist and a 1980’s Casio Vl-1 synthesizer used with loop to create a layered orchestral soundscape. Performing a brand of self-described “soulless soul” music, HM speaks with poetic elegance; however, one wonders about the intricacy of thought behind the concise statements provided during the interview. HM is both generous in elaborating about his work, but selective in the information he chooses to reveal. There is in enigmatic quality in his on-stage and off-stage persona that creates further interest regarding the distinction between man and machine.
HM cites the inspiration behind his 2013 release of Infinitely Repeated: “The music itself came from just a very alone period for me. And the content of the songs is my attempt to find little vessels of personal truth…. It’s one of those times in life where you’re feeling quite a few emotions and I looked at this little Casio at a Garage Sale and almost felt sorry for it, ‘you poor little keyboard. You might never get to see the stage!,'” he says affectionately. “Let’s see if there is way to make this toy instrument a legitimate instrument. I like the idea of making something from another thing that wouldn’t normally be used for that,” he says. “If I found something beautiful, to me, and I want to share it with [audiences] that something I believe it to be true, whether it is beautiful or not. One of the big dangers that we face, especially with the ease of communication on we have via social media, is people find things that, to them, are truth and they try to force those truths onto others… By Making truths available, somebody might find something to latch onto in one of my songs into that they can use in their life,” he states.
HM elaborates more behind the concept of his brand of “soulless soul” music: “I think pretty much the most soulful thing you can do is sing…. Playing violin, you can press harder, the timbre changes, but the voice is inside our your body. It’s right next to your soul. If you keep taking a step away from the soulfulness of the instrument, you might get a piano where you are pressing the key, and there a system of levers that hits a note, and you hear that note. You’re not actually touching the string, you don’t have any control over how it breathes other than touching it. Then you have a synthesizer, you’re pressing a button and through some strange conduit of electric circuitry, a note eventually comes out of a speaker… It’s pretty far removed from the connection to the soul. But there is that contrast between synthesizer and voice. The synthesizer being the soulless quality and the voice being the soulful quality. I really enjoy exploring the space between those two things, trying to widen the gap by making the synthesizer really strange and the voice really soulful, closing the gap, or swapping out their roles so the voice becomes the soulless element,” he states clearly describing the spectrum of sound between electronic synthesis and human production. Some listeners may feel unease in regards to the sounds because HM is experimenting the vocal boundaries. When HM uses Tuvan throat singing in conjunction with the synthesizer, the ear begins to detect the throat singing, and not the synthesizer, as the robotic quality.
In addition to the textual inspiration, there is a musical construction to be considered when viewing HM’s live show. The aspect of using loop pedals to construct a piece in front of a live audience poses its own challenges. “Initially, I thought I might be very limited by the fact that once I recorded something it’s playing and it’s very difficult to take away certain layers. You can take away the last thing that you have done on the looping. Anything below that in that hierarchy is there to stay. I find the limitations of the device itself and the medium of looping actually end up being a creative tool since I had to work within that limitation. I had to find a creative way of getting around those limitations,” he says before elaborating in terms of how he has to be creative with problem-solving. “If you think of a piano and the idea of rolling a piano you can do something similar and the mind will hear it a bit more. There’s the idea of layering loops one note at a time five times over you get a complex chord progression. And it helps the song not get too big too quickly, which I find is a limitation and advantage for me. A lot of the times when you have a loop, it can get confusingly big really quickly. It’s not as much of a melodic instrument because there’s only one repeat with the synthesizer,” he says.
In order to translate his music on-stage HM displays sweeping gestures and movement within the stage space during live performance. While it may come off as theatrical, HM reveals to me that is how he communicates his music in a live setting. “For me, my way of feeling the music is gestural. And so it helps me tune myself into what I am actually doing with the music I’ve played, but now it’s actually happening around me, and I’m no longer actively playing it,” he states.
HM describes how his songwriting process is an organic process. “A lot of the time I’ll write myself a couple of words here and there. And it’ll turn into a concept that I can actually use… Or random words that come to me that fit nicely with the melody. But sometimes I will strike all those things and find a way to make it a bit more coherent. By the end of the song the first line may have been erased, written over by a new line,” he says. When I inquire if he considers the construction of the piece before he writes it, HM reveals it is more about getting the flow going. “It’s trying to be inspired and getting a jam going. Later on, certainly if there is a point I want to add a vocal harmony a lot of the time I can get it naturally but sometimes I’ll go to a real piano and play it out and make sure I am creating nice harmonies and not things that are gonna clash with other chords,” he states. HM notes that audiences are always surprised that he doesn’t have difficulty keep track of all of the lines. However, since he only add one to to lines at a time, it keeps the musical growth manageable.
The aspect of scaffolding a pieces’ growth is also important to consider. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” he summarizes perfectly with a quotation. “And I think that very much applies to this kind of music. You can do something quickly and get on with it. That has always been a good philosophy for me. If I took two minutes to build ten or twelve different loops at the beginning of the song, I’d lose [the audience]. If I build one or two loops at the beginning of the song and you then you already get verse one 15-30 second in, I get [the audiences’] attention a lot better. So keeping it brief and not letting myself go on these wild fantasies of orchestration without having reason for doing so is a good policy,” he states from a perspective from of wisdom regarding song construction.
It is evident that more significant music and theory training underlies HM’s approach, as revealed when he discusses a perspective regarding Classical Music orchestration: “Certain people subscribe to the idea that every instrument in the orchestra should be heard at the same time…. A great example of that is the Little Mermaid, you hear the xylophones, you hear the percussion,” he says singing the starting percussive melody with a spark of energy, “do-do-do-do-do do do-do-do-do! you hear every single instrument. Even those little instruments you feel like you don’t hear when you’re just listening to individual melody, they’re there and you can hear their individual parts. That’s important when you’re looping the kind of music I’m doing. It would be different if I was playing a guitar. That would blend really well with itself. If I’m playing a guitar and creating a guitar loop. I could make loop multiple different lines of the same thing and it would sound thicker, not necessarily more confusing. With a synthesizer, it changes things, because you can hear all those parts,” he says.
There is a hypnotic quality when watching HM seamlessly construct pieces. It may begin from three separate loops of synthesizer melody and percussive hits of the microphone before he enters with vocal textures that demonstrate command of his entire vocal range from glottal fry to falsetto. The effect on the audience is one of mesmerization as they are aurally treated to an unlikely pairing that merges the sound space between man and machine.
-Coming Soon –
The video for Clouds in Cloudless Skies, will be performed at a premiere screening in NYC on August 7, 2014. Watch the newly-released video online before the live premiere.