Lost In the Sprawl With Rambutan

Photo by Daniel Karp

We’ve all dealt with the isolation of the past 18 months in various ways, but Eric Hardiman took a unique approach. Hardiman, through his solo project Rambutan, does a lot of collaborative work whether in bands, live shows, or through various recordings. During the earlier parts of the pandemic, this proved to be nearly impossible, so he set out to do something else. Parallel Systems consists of 69 artists spread across 33 sound collages. It’s an unbelievable document, easy to get lost and overwhelmed by, but it’s imminently listenable and engaging. The variety of sounds and emotions throughout turns it into a unique experience.

Eric and I chatted through email in August about Parallel Systems. It can be ordered via Bandcamp HERE.

First off, how’s everything been for you the past 18 months and how have you been staying sane?

It’s been a mixed bag – strange, isolating, and frustrating at times, but also calm and relaxing at others. I can’t really complain overall. I’m grateful to have been safe and sound with family during the whole thing. There are a lot of things I missed deeply (such as friends, travel, performance, live collaborations), but I managed to appreciate all of the extra time and focus too. I tend to vacillate back and forth between cautious optimism and total panic, so staying sane wasn’t always easy. Lots of bicycling, learning to play drums, and working on Parallel Systems all played critical parts in keeping the dread at bay.

Before getting deep in the weeds about Parallel Systems, I want to ask about collaboration more generally. You’ve done a lot of collaborations with different artists through the years and I’d love to hear about what collaborating means to you as an artist and why it’s such an important part of your practice?

Music has always been about communication and conversation for me. Even with solo work, there’s a communicative element to creating sound for other people to hear. Collaboration serves to emphasize the interpersonal aspects of music. I crave those moments of musical communication which are instinctual and happen outside of any intent. Being surprised by, responding to, and ultimately finding inspiration in other musicians is my ultimate goal in collaboration. I enjoy the mystery of not knowing where something will go or what it will sound like. I’ve never been particularly interested in replicating musical pieces, and I am more interested in improvisational collaborations which push me forward. I love the challenging aspects of collaboration too, including the initial sense of discomfort and not knowing. During the best collaborations, I can stop thinking and just focus on being purely in the moment. My favorite musical experiences involve walking a tightrope between success and failure, pushing the limits of what I can do technically, and striving to find something new on the other side. There’s also a strong element of ritual in collaboration that appeals to me. Burnt Hills exemplifies that for me – the ritualistic aspect of ongoing collaboration, improvisation, and friendship is at the crux of it. 

I see collaboration as a key to growth, not just musically but personally as well. Over the years, I’ve managed to escape most of my fear of failure during collaborations. If I enjoy the process and push myself outside of my comfort zone, then I consider it a success regardless of what it ends up sounding like. I love the mysteries of collaboration too – those head-scratching moments where it feels like putting a puzzle together or solving a problem. My favorite collaborators inspire me to play better and reach for new realms. There’s so much to learn from other players and I try to approach each collaboration as an opportunity to gain knowledge. 

Any particular wild or fun memories/experiences related to any collaborations you’ve done over the years?

There are so many. My collaborations with John Olson and Jeff Case as part of our annual trio recordings have been pretty magical. We just set up with no plan at all, and several hours later emerge from what feels like a strange fever dream with no awareness of how or what we just did. I crave that feeling of mystery in making sound with other people. My collaborations with Ray Hare as Century Plants, Mike Griffin (Parashi), Matt Weston, Michael Kiefer (as Spiral Wave Nomads), the Burnt Hills crew, Jooklo Duo, and Nick Mitchell-Maiato have all been amazing experiences too. One of my favorite collaborations has been an ongoing series of sessions with a handful of good friends from Edinburgh Scotland (members of Usurper, Shareholder, Muscletusk, Hockyfrilla, etc.). Tucked away in a cramped practice space in Leith, we played for hours on end in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Each collaboration was different, with no holds barred and no goals in mind. Without the pressure of an audience or studio recording, it was purely about friendship, communication, and sonic exploration. Nothing has seen the light of day from these sessions yet, but hopefully someday. I also just recorded a first-time collaboration with Jeff Barsky (Insect Factory) that was fantastic. We’ve talked about playing together for years and finally made it happen.

Alright, so how did the idea for Parallel Systems first come to you?

It was Spring 2020 just after the initial lockdowns were taking place. I found myself isolated, bored, frustrated, and terrified about the future. My original motivation was selfish in that I just wanted some new sound sources to play with and a way to keep away the looming dread of the pandemic. It started small, with only a handful of people involved, and spiraled outwards from there. I had no idea how the idea would grow and morph over time. I just knew that I wanted to connect with all of these people and attempt some sort of collaboration. 

Ultimately the project became a way for me to seek connection and community beyond the barriers of physical location, isolation, and separation.

Is there any particular story or significance behind the title? 

It only came about after the project was done and I needed something to call the whole thing. I spent a lot of time thinking about the experience and what its threads of continuity might be. I realized that with each grouping of different musicians, I was creating a unique grouping of sounds and personalities. Conceptualizing each of these as standalone systems with their own internal logic and structure gave it new meaning to me. I also realized that each system exists in parallel ways. I didn’t necessarily want to frame it as a “pandemic project”, but in some ways it was unavoidable. The contributors all live in their own parallel worlds, separated by geography but bound together through our mutual interest in sound and the possibilities of collaboration. The pandemic further emphasized the concept of parallel existence for me, with everybody isolating at home in their own distinct systems/worlds. Ultimately the project became a way for me to seek connection and community beyond the barriers of physical location, isolation, and separation.   

What was your thought process like when it came to thinking about and deciding what bands and artists you wanted to ask to contribute?

From the beginning, this was a deeply personal project, so I only included people whose music is in some way important to me. I started by reaching out to a few friends asking if they would send some sounds and let me work with them. The process was exciting and so I kept inviting new people along for the ride. As the list grew, I started to think about my relationships with each of these people. Some were close friends, others I knew through social media, others were musical heroes. I started to think about personalities and groupings, wondering what it might be like to create groups of people that had never met or played together. That element became a bit of a social experiment, as I envisioned these groups creating music in the same room together. Some of the invitations were a stretch, and I was pleasantly surprised that so many people trusted me with their sounds. The contributions themselves brought another level of surprise, with people sending material I never would have expected. I loved opening each new email, listening closely to the new sounds, and imagining how it all might fit together.

Once you started getting contributions in, talk me through how you started piecing these tracks together. Did you have particular ideas or concepts you were going for with the individual pieces or was it something vaguer? I’m just trying to imagine having this mountain of music and trying to make sense of it all. It sounds like a blast, honestly, though overwhelming I’m sure.

The process of piecing it all together varied quite a bit, and strategies shifted over the course of the year or so I worked on it. My original plan was to work all of the contributions into an epic long-form track involving juxtapositions, jump cuts, and jarring edits. That idea failed almost immediately, and I started trying smaller combinations, which yielded much better results. Some of the tracks were built out of very specific ideas or moods I wanted. Sometimes a particular contribution would serve as a framework for adding new elements. In other cases, my groupings started with the personalities of contributors, and I followed the sonic juxtapositions more organically with less regard for outcome. The analogy of a mountain of music is pretty accurate. I drew lots of diagrams and charts, mapping and plotting as I went along. I kept a journal with notes to myself and observations about the process. Along the way, I wrestled with some major questions – to what extent was I just assembling and juxtaposing sounds versus using them to push forward into my own vision of something new? Was I taking too many liberties and straying from the spirit of the original contributions? How far could I mangle and manipulate source material if it made a track work better? How would the contributors feel about the final product? After struggling with these and other questions, I eventually settled into a process that worked. 

It was absolutely a blast and a massive honor to have collaborated (albeit virtually) with such incredible folks. I’m amazed that so many people trusted me to work with their sounds and ideas. Yet it was also perplexing, frustrating, and challenging at times. A big decision point was the nature of my own role and whether I should contribute musically to each track. I record compulsively and so I had a huge collection of both musical and field recordings of my own to draw from. Once I gave myself permission to contribute to each system, it started to feel more cohesive and became less overwhelming. I think it’s also what ultimately made it a Rambutan project too.

Photo by Widarto Adi

What were some of the biggest challenges? Surprises?

Some of the challenges were technical. I had to sharpen my editing and mixing skills and pushed myself to learn new tricks and strategies. There are so many tiny details in each track that I’m hyper-aware of as a result of all the mixing. The biggest challenge was trying to build a sense of cohesion and flow into the whole thing. It was overwhelming at times – so many disparate sounds, files, stylistic approaches, and moods. There were points during the process where it felt disjointed and lacking continuity. I can’t count the number of times I got lost in the sprawl. I had to learn to trust the process, and eventually the whole began to reveal itself. I wanted it to work on multiple levels – conceptual, social, sonic, etc. Each track (or system) should stand on its own, with its own structure and aesthetic, but then there’s a bigger picture where the various parallel systems relate to an overarching narrative. I see the whole as far more important than any of its individual parts. I am also keenly aware that it can be an overwhelming listen, particularly in today’s world of streaming and multi-tasking. I realize not everyone will sit and listen closely to the entire thing with an eye for detail. 

The surprises were mostly musical – hearing two or three disparate sounds suddenly converge in magical ways I could never have anticipated. A few of the systems fell together so quickly and naturally that it seemed almost pre-determined. In some ways, it was like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle, but without any photo to use as a guide. In other ways, it was closer to taking a huge amount of random material and color and then shaping it all into something unique and hopefully interesting.    

At what point did you feel like the record was done? Were there any contributions or anything you didn’t end up using?

Ending it was a major challenge. That was partly because I was enjoying the process so much, and partly because it could have simply gone on forever. Some tracks went through countless mixes and versions. At some point, I had spent too much time in the details and lost all objectivity and sense of perspective. I took two months away from it and when I went back in, it felt natural to wrap everything up. Editing the systems down to a manageable size was also difficult. I often veer toward longer pieces in my solo work, so I really had to challenge myself to strip each system into its core essence. Sometimes it felt heartbreaking to make the cuts and edits. I would love to have extended many of the systems into longer pieces allowing for fuller immersion. There was definitely material I didn’t end up using, but I included something from everyone who sent me a contribution. Some people sent multiple recordings, some sent 30 minutes’ worth of material. Others sent just a few seconds.  

So you were just going to do a digital release of the album if I remember correctly, but Sedimental stepped in and helped do this beautiful double CD. How did that all come together?

Initially, it wasn’t even intended for digital release. But as the list of collaborators grew and I started to connect with what was emerging, I decided I wanted to share it. I figured it would just be easy to do a digital release and had no plans to make it a physical product. Sedimental Records has been a longtime favorite label for me, and Rob Forman was one of the contributors to the project. At some point, he emailed and asked how the project was going and if he could hear the whole thing. I hadn’t let anybody hear it yet (excepting a stray track here and there with close friends) and was a little reluctant to let go of it. But I trust Rob’s ears implicitly, so I sent him the finished files. He loved it and encouraged me to think of a physical release, so we cooked up the idea of a Sedimental/Tape Drift co-release on CD. Rob has been incredibly supportive throughout the process, and I could not be happier with how it turned out. 

Now that Parallel Systems is out in the world, what is next related to the project? Any designs on getting some of these artists together to collaborate in person?

That would be amazing, but probably not feasible given the resources it would take to pull it off. I think, for now, the project is completed and I’m ready to move forward.  

What’s next for Rambutan?

There are no real plans at the moment. I’ve got several things recorded and ready to go (including an LP that never got released and needs a home). There is a ton of archival material I’ve never released, but I generally prefer to look ahead. Mostly I’m working on finishing new records with Sky Furrows and Spiral Wave Nomads right now. I’m also planning to do some collaborative trio recording with Holland Hopson and Jefferson Pitcher, a duo studio recording with Insect Factory, and hopefully getting back to Century Plants action too.  

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