Paul Dickow (aka Strategy) is a lifer. His music as Strategy runs the gambit of sounds and styles but is always thoughtful and detailed. Dickow’s in that sweet spot where I often don’t know what to expect when one of his new albums comes across my desk, but I know it will be worth hearing. I’d call Dickow a shapeshifter in the way that he approaches music and is seemingly able to pull off any style he puts his mind to, but that suggests a sort of superficiality that doesn’t apply to his work. His work is heady and exciting, traversing so many paths that Strategy has become a singular path of its own. Along with various side projects and collaborations, I hope the music continues for another 20 years at least.
Okay so first let’s go way back and talk about early days and early memories. What were some of the first songs or sounds that left their mark on you as a kid? Was there any particular experience that made you realize that music was something different, more special to you than it might be to most other people?
I can’t point to particular songs or sounds as my memory is fuzzy and vague. It’s cliche for people that grew up in musical households, but music was immersive and ubiquitous. My father was music faculty at a small-town state university and taught French horn, music theory, composition, and electronic music, and was part of local ensembles and symphonies. I probably heard the sound of French horn every day from before I was born to finishing high school. Piano was also ubiquitous in the house. My mother and my younger brother also played instruments avocationally. At home, my dad composed electronic music as well. I was exposed to everything from classical symphonic music to popular music to folk music. My childhood is a blur of concerts, graduate student recitals, family folksong nights. Music didn’t strike me as special or exceptional until at some point I realized that it was not an integral part of other households. I can’t pinpoint when I made this realization, probably in grade school sometime.
A couple of memories that stand out: a few performances of my dad’s pieces that were very avant-garde, like the choral piece Syringa (the state flower of Idaho, where I spent most of my years growing up) or his postmodern version of a Hungarian “csardas” recontextualized for virtuosic and absurdist French horn leads. When the Yamaha DX-7 appeared at home that was particularly influential. I spent hours playing it. I have a vivid memory of Pauline Oliveros giving a sort of deep listening clinic/salon/talk in our living room, part of her visit to the University of Idaho. Wearing tremendous billowing clothing. Very Californian! I was too young to understand the content of the discussion but Pauline’s presence was unforgettable. At Transylvania University in Northern Kentucky, my dad had assembled a kit-built modular synthesizer called Darth Vader (this would have been the late 70s / early 80s) which certainly stands out in my kid-brain memories. I guess I just highlight this jumbled set of standout experiences because they underscore that music was conveyed as a hands-on social process of everyday life, not a thing you ‘consume’ per se. (Don’t get me wrong, records/tapes/CDs were everywhere in the household)
How did you first get into playing music and move into creating your own work? Was there any specific impetus or anything like that?
The usual ways for a kid growing up in the 80s whose parents were teachers and musicians, I expressed interest in instruments I thought sounded good, and they tried me music lessons (cello – short-lived attempt during grade school) then in junior high school band class I played drums and percussion, which I continued until I graduated high school. During high school, I agreed to a school year’s worth of piano lessons in exchange for getting my first synth. Reading music never stuck, and I recall a specific moment where I was practicing piano and my mother sat down next to me and asked, “you’re just learning it all by ear and memorizing it, aren’t you?” followed by, “you don’t have to do piano lessons.” (I did complete my recital though!)
Creating music was always a sidebar to other things I was doing until maybe college, in the mid-90s. First, it was a boredom abatement measure. Then it was art that was just sort of happening but my mentality about it was pretty short term, no goals. The town I grew up in was small and pretty boring. You had to make your own fun. There was the music/drugs overlap. I started buying my own tapes and record in the mid/late 80s (around 5th or 6th grade I think), influenced by synth-pop, new wave, and rap I would hear on Top 40 radio, MTV shows like Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes, and eventually freeform college radio (KUOI-FM, where I later had my own radio show during high school). Once I figured out that I wanted a path making music outside of institutional settings I knew I wanted to mess around with electronic music and industrial music. In high school, I played music with a close friend, Borg Norum. We had a keyboard and drums duo that continued through college until the late 90s and was the first band I released a record with (as Two Noises). During that period I also played drums in a punk band called Emergency that played out a lot more and participated more in the moment of rapid music scene change that started to happen in Portland around 1998.
I’m curious, too, what motivated you to start releasing your work? I guess on some level that might be a silly question, but I was just looking at the little bio on your Bandcamp page and it says you started doing Strategy in 1998 but didn’t release anything until 2002, so I’m curious how that all happened.
My desire to release music as recordings really relates to my life as a music fan. Bear in mind that it wasn’t until maybe 1998 or 1999 that I really considered myself a “serious” musician. I think releasing music with the bands I was in (on 7″s, of course! It was the 90s!) was a process of recognizing our immediate community and creating a chronicle of a thing that was happening. It felt like putting a drop of water into the river of the history of recorded music. Buying records, making and trading mixtapes, and going to shows were my biggest hobbies actually. Even today I sort of consider myself a record collector first, a DJ second, and a musician third although it probably shifts order depending on my mood. Releasing music with Two Noises and Emergency was very much about the present moment. In contrast, the notion of eventually releasing music as (with?) Strategy felt like a different motivation and challenge. The records might not be snapshots of a Strategy’s daily existence or “the music as it happened”, the recordings might be conceptual things that I construct gradually for distant, unknowable audiences.
So by the late 90s, the writing was on the wall that my bands would eventually have to stop playing due to the usual life things that carry people away, graduate school or relocating, etc., and I had conceived of Strategy as a vehicle for exploring music on my own as a sort of necessary measure against band loss. I could sense I was putting roots down in Portland and needed something to focus on. I felt like a lot of bands/artists released music too early and I wanted to incubate my music intentionally before doing anything. At first, it was cassettes shared privately with friends, then public shows as Strategy — I can’t remember if the first one was in 1999 or 2000. I wasn’t well-networked with other electronic musicians when I first started, and the west coast music scene was very jumbled and multi-directional (a typical show in Portland or San Francisco around 2001-2002 might have featured any combination of punk, hardcore, noise, metal, performance art and film, electronic – it was not weird at all to pour these together into one container at the time.) So part of why it took a long time to make my way to releasing Strategy was just not understanding where I fit in the direction that music was flowing.
The other reasons for being gradual in my evolution were technical. My recording techniques were really rudimentary – I improvised all my electronic music live to stereo two track recordings on Minidisc and editing and finalizing the music took assistance from others, like longtime friend Brian Foote for example who coaxed me into digitizing all the music and manually editing it together on his computer. It felt so futuristic actually manipulating what happened into a refined recording. That method of just stereo recordings (no multitracking) continued until about 2008 or so. David Chandler (aka Solenoid, my partner in the Community Library label and longtime friend + mentor) would help me edit my dance tracks and his hand is evident on a number of my 12″ singles through the 2000s. Not much has changed. I do my own editing now; I have a room where I make recordings, but I will often mix down the work at a real studio because I’m not technical in that way. I still often record to stereo rather than multitrack, for reasons of impatience or setting artificial boundaries in my process. I recorded my first album for Kranky, Drumsolo’s Delight, live in a studio like a rock band, doing live takes and picking the best ones. Almost no editing.
You’ve worked with a ton of great labels over the years, from Kranky and Peak Oil to Geographic North and most recently Dreamtone. Do you have any sort of guiding principle when it comes to deciding what labels to work with?
I feel really lucky about many of the label collaborations I’ve been able to explore. It’s a huge privilege and they’re all so different. It has kept me moving in unexpected directions and some of the label heads have had a very influential editorial role that has shaped my trajectory.
One of the sort of obvious things that links any Strategy music to a label is style. Strategy could do any type of music, but this is not typical for peoples’ solo alias projects, so generally there’s not one label that will want to handle multiples, let alone everything, that Strategy produces. Sometimes I’ll do something that clearly belongs in a specific label’s lane, so when I completed an album-length dub project I knew it would go to Khaliphonic / Zamzam Sounds because they put out Strategy’s dub stuff. And they just put out dub.
I guess the principles that I use to decide whether I will collaborate with a label are trust, transparency, and creative freedom. I look for confirmation that the label curator understands that I am usually trying to tease out / discover / reveal a specific theme or narrative strand that feels really important to me. More recently my guiding principles have been things like prioritizing labels that let me direct, create, or commission the artwork. As you may know, it is common in experimental music that the labels have a house style/template, designer, or ultimate decision power over all visuals. I make exceptions all the time, but increasingly prefer full creative control over all parts of the release or at least high influence.
Alright, I want to ask about a couple specific releases if that’s cool. So first, Nectar came out last year and I love that one. It’s a longform, 30-minute piece which is something I don’t often associate with Strategy. How did that come about and was the experience of doing something long form like that different than your usual approach? Is it something we might see again?
So, there’s a lot of longform Strategy music in the past that never got released because I edited it down into smaller shapes. In the mid-2000s I had a couple of one-off ep releases with underground labels, that are long form (Sines of Life and Awareness Is Fruit, both on my Bandcamp). I set that aside until 2019 when the Longform Editions label asked me to contribute something. I decided a good way to get back into long-form composition was to start with how I was creating music for performances, stringing together multiple thematically related pieces with long segues, and using codas to sustain recurring elements. Recording The Babbling Brook for Longform Editions really got my head into it again as well as collecting a lot of their releases and discovering ideas that might not have occurred to me, like the one they did by Robert Curgenven that silent portions and unexpected pauses interspersed with different movements. Nectar was similar to The Babbling Brook but I wanted to explore rhythm in a much more direct way. There’s a performance of Nectar on Youtube that I did for my local venue Holocene’s pandemic period of streaming concerts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6h3xhvJ1lE
I’ve done very little music during the Covid-19 period, due in part to the stressful complexities of current life, and due in part to greatly reduced energy from having Long Covid (I got sick at the start of lockdown in March 2020.) I’ve lost a lot of time to chronic fatigue, brain fog, and times I just don’t have the ability to putter around the studio. But of everything I’ve done, Nectar feels like the thematic / technique thread most likely to continue. I find myself daydreaming and composing similar music in my head (which is how most Strategy music starts now — I will conceive of it in great detail mentally and imagine myself doing the music for a long time, before sitting down and finally executing it, sort of a photographic memory approach to composing.) I could see some of the “Nectar Music” being long form, but think that some of it will be short too.
And then Chaotic Era is the most recent, I think? Or at least close to it. Again, as I said I think you’re doing some of your strongest work recently because this one blew me away. It still has a rhythmic element, but it seems less beat-oriented and a bit more free form. It really fits the title. Did you set out to specifically do something in this vein for this release and change up your approach in the process? Or did it just sort of happen?
Chaotic Era was recorded before Nectar by a year or so. But it took longer to come out because the collaboration with Lando, the graphic artist who developed the accompanying comic book, took time. The music of Chaotic Era was recorded over about 2 weeks and was literally stuff I was doing to procrastinate from other music I thought I should be working on. To make this music I specifically set out to use very minimal instrumentation, just one small polysynth and an 8-bit sampler I built myself from a kit called Where’s The Party At? (I didn’t make this up – it’s actually called Where’s The Party At?) Along with some effects units. I wanted to make music that accurately captured the apocalyptic, caustic anxiety I felt at the time. But the pieces of music themselves were improvised, they just happened as you suggested. I think the album stands out as one where I didn’t orchestrate it in my head in advance, its creation was very visceral and unplanned.
You also have a collaborative project with Bill Selman and Marcus Fischer, Wild Card and you all have a new album that’s just out. I’m a huge fan of the record (and the project in general). How did you guys first get together and start working on music with each other?
We first started the band in 2016 because I sent an email to them both asking, “do you guys want to be in a band with me?” And I described the general concept. It felt very vulnerable and daring at the time because I don’t really know people who start bands anymore. At the time I had been fixated on a certain idea about experimental and ambient music that — instead of great washes of tonality (I don’t listen to much music like this honestly)— I thought about the music more as clusters of colliding musical occurrences and unexpectedly juxtaposed rhythmic and arrhythmic elements. Sort of a ‘dream logic’ way of thinking about experimental music composition. I had been trying this with Strategy continually, culminating in the Seeds of Entropy tape, but the element of “surprise” was totally missing. Even with instrumentation that allowed me to play with elements of chance, I could never get away from knowing generally what might come next, so it became very clear that the only way to achieve true surprise was to play improvised music with other partners, which is a continual series of surprises because you just can’t predict or replicate what another mind will do, even ones that you know well. I recommend Derek Bailey’s book “Improvisation” for people who are interested in this phenomenon. Though I had a hand in setting forth some of the initial outlines of how Wild Card might work, I quickly stepped back from any notion of a controlling role because I find the experience of being musically surprised incredibly rare and precious and important above all other outcomes for me personally.
Something that stands out to me about Wild Card 2 is that the music feels like it has a lot of space in it. It almost seems like an illusion because a lot is going on at almost all times, but it still feels spacious and airy. It’s fantastic. I’m curious what the process is like for you guys when you’re starting on a new project – do you all record together, live, or is there a lot of post-processing/mixing of disparate parts – basically, how does Wild Card happen?
While we put a lot of effort into the recordings, I would say the main work of art is the shared social experiment of being the band, and all the rituals of discussion, hanging out, improvising, experiments with technique, group text thread shit-talking, and sharing inspiration, which that entails. The recordings, though important, are like point-in-time snapshots of this continual flow “bandness.” Something to think about on the nature of collaboration as art rather than collaboration to make art.
In essence, Wild Card music happens through improvising live together in a room, and usually in a way where I think we’re not often over-thinking things. Sometimes we’re more like a live instrumental band, other times it’s like spontaneous sound collage or musique concrete, the “mode” or “configuration” of the band always changing but playing with a similar shared musical vocabulary, and often trying to throw in new things to expand it. I’ve described us as “like Supersilent, but more ‘fun'” and “like AMM jammin with The Orb” but neither of these really do justice to the working process which is really fluid. Someone will advance a theme, prompt, or concept, and sometimes it’s almost like a game or challenge or puzzle that we unpack by jamming. Or we’ll have some technique or instrumentation we want to explore and build a session around that. I believe strongly in the “there are no wrong answers in this band” ethic that we’ve established and think that this enables surprises to always occur. It can then take a lot of time to actually understand what happened in the resulting recording. We’ll spend a long time, months or years even, listening back and digesting before editing.
The spacious editing is interesting because Bill and Marc have such a great sense of how to distill an idea to its essential key moments and use subtractive techniques and articulate really nice changes and segues. Left to my own devices I just tend towards the “pizza with every topping on it” way of working, and while I think there’s a place for that sometimes in Wild Card, the magic seems to be in peeling back layers. I love that by taking turns on editorial duties, the assembled recordings end up being quite varied. A lot of experimental music releases have an extremely narrow range of expression, which may well be the intent of most artists, but doesn’t appeal to me that much personally, I like listening to albums that cover a lot of ground in mood and character.
Any new Sound People stuff in the works? I love that project.
Not at the moment, but Jesse Johnson and I live closer to each other geographically in the city now, and I suspect that we may want to further explore the explicitly beat-oriented side of the Sound People language that started to be revealed on our tape that Beacon Sound released in 2021.
Also, can you tell me a little about this record you’ve got coming on Community Library – Jan Steele and Janet Sherbourne’s Distant Saxophones – how you ended up with it on Community Library and what makes it such a special record to you? I’m absolutely floored by it.
So when I moved away from home my dad gave me a lot of his avant-garde records, and the Jan Steele / John Cage Voices and Instruments LP on Obscure was among those records. I was incredibly intrigued with the Jan Steele side but didn’t like the John Cage side (even though I like Cage and the vocalists who perform the pieces, it’s just not particularly great to me). I tracked Jan down when we started the label and we have slowly been assembling an LP of his collaborations with his partner Janet Sherbourne. It’s not a direct reissue of the Voices and Instruments material, the masters of which were likely lost or destroyed. We assembled an anthology probing that same music through alternate takes of those pieces, additional music from the 70s and 80s rare and private press releases, and then several new performances of some compositions from the same mid-70s period that were never recorded at the time – done very carefully in the spirit and technique of the original recordings and featuring Jan and Janet’s adult children, who are also talented musicians, as part of the ensemble.
My plodding, detail-oriented approach to the project (along with the increasingly complex distractions of adulthood) meant it took way too long — but we were extremely detailed and careful along the way, I think it is the highest level of finish and quality of anything we’ve released to date. David recently retired from his public sector day job so we have renewed focus on the label and while I’m sure our release schedule will remain eccentric in terms of frequency, I think this new release sets a new bar for what we want to be doing with the label.
The record is special to me primarily for its beautiful, hovering, pensive mood and pace, and Jan and Janet’s clear expression of essential rhythmic and harmonic geometries without any unnecessary ornamentation. Community LIbrary’s trip has always been music that jumbles genres–unselfconsciously. I would say this is the specific thread that ties together all the releases on the label, none of the artists work cleanly in a stylistic silo. Jan and Janet threaded together jazz, minimalist chamber music, experimental pop, cinematic music, gamelan, and improvised music techniques — to me, the music is a precursor of “almost-ambient” post rock artists like Movietone and is very British in a similar way. As an American listener, when I listen to some of Jan’s 70s compositions, it makes me think about ‘what if’ the work of mid-century U.S. composers like Morton Feldman were the basis for an experimental jazz or rock group’s thinking, although as I understand this was not a reference point for Jan and Janet at all at the time.
So you’ve been at this for over 20 years now and, to my ears, are doing some of your best work right now. What keeps you going and can you imagine a time when you aren’t doing Strategy?
Thank you so much for saying that. I consider it a necessity to not retread the same territory over and over, sell out, or whatever musicians do through middle age and beyond.
What keeps me going is an unfaltering love of music and sound. There is an album title by the dark ambient group Mirror that has a great title that sums it up for me: I Paint For Love of Color.
Also, a big thing that drives me to compose music is my music collecting. I do notice that when I’m hearing some sort of music in my head that I believe ought to exist, I’ll try to run it down and see if it exists already. If I can’t find anything, that’s usually when I set about making the music to fill that void. It’s often silly stuff like “what if members of band X joined with members of band Y for an unexpected side project and it was remixed by Mouse on Mars” or “why are there so few amplified / prepared clavichord records”– that kind of thing. But it becomes highly motivating. Record-collection-as-DNA-splicing-gene-pool. There are a lot of music collecting reference “easter eggs” in Strategy music though I don’t often hear from listeners if they think they’ve discovered something.
I suppose there’s a distant possibility that Strategy stops releasing music publicly, but I don’t see a time when I stop making music for my own pleasure. Why / how and when to make Strategy music (or not) raises questions of identity and agency though: who/what is Strategy? Just Paul Dickow wearing an alias? Who decides what the music is and what to do with it? Paul Dickow, or Strategy? Is Strategy actually sort of a suit I step into and wear in order to do the music? Or is Strategy a part of my psyche that takes the driver’s seat occasionally when Paul Dickow does music? If I make music or stop, is it a “decision” or is it just another thing that’s happening to me, or to Strategy?
What’s next then?
Amplified / prepared clavichord experiments.
I just turned in my third release for the Peak Oil label!
I have five very different unfinished Strategy albums, and I’d like to finish one of them this year. Maybe two!
Wild Card has material in progress for a 3rd release which we will work on this spring and summer.
I’m working on new East Side Ancients (Strategy x Best Available Technology) material right now.
Several other collaboration projects are midstream that have yet to be announced.