The Structure of Ether: An Interview With Steve Fors

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I’ve spent a lot of time with Steve Fors’ upcoming album, it’s nothing, but still, and it only grows better each time. Sometimes, something catches me out of nowhere like a silk thread on a jagged edge, and the more I try to cut it loose, the more tangled it becomes. It’s a testament to the richness and depth in Fors’ music on it’s nothing, but still, and the vulnerable connective tissue holding it all together sets it apart.

In this interview, Fors reveals some of the processes behind the album and how he ended up at this point. It’s eye-opening, and the added context only increases my appreciation for the record. Give it a listen. 

it’s nothing, but still is available to pre-order via Hallow Ground now and officially releases on August 19.

So let’s start with where things began for you, from a musical perspective. What are some of your earliest and most formative memories and experiences related to music and sound? 

Music has always been an important part of my life. My mother enrolled me in the requisite piano lessons as a young child. I took up trombone in junior high and later bass guitar. But making music was never a serious endeavor. I do remember two very powerful experiences, though, happening nearly 40 years apart. 

Most Saturdays, we would go to the local library, and I discovered the vinyl section this particular time. You could only take out one record at a time (at least that’s what mom said), so I picked Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Surrounded by 1970s paneling and shag carpet, leaning back in my father’s beat-up Naugahyde recliner, I let the first notes of the first side wash over me. By the end of the double LP—the brass, the tympani exploding from our cheap home speakers—I was in tears. At that moment, The Great Gate of Kiev had transported me to another place, or to no place, or to every place. 

The second experience occurred much later in September 2015 at a Lawrence English show in NYC.

A year earlier, he had released Wilderness of Mirrors, which is, in my opinion, the seminal ambient work of the last ten years. It was the perfect album for my commute from Brooklyn into Midtown, as it could wrestle with the sounds of the subway and win. I learned so much from that record; if I had to pick just one insight—one founding principle of my work since then—it’s that ambient sounds can be physical. Ambient music is not just background; it can literally move your body. And that’s what I experienced at the Soho show. 

So anyway, the venue, Artists Space Books, was a typical railroad-type flat. Wide-plank wooden floors and high plaster ceilings, not five meters wide from what I remember. I was led down a rickety brick-lined staircase to the dimly-lit basement. Lawrence had set up his equipment to the left, and the rest of the space was empty but for a few other people. I sat quietly and prepared myself for the show. 

As the first discordant notes of “The Liquid Casket” floated around the room, I stretched out, back against the dusty wooden floor. And when that bass dropped, the entire room was a subwoofer, and we became air. As I navigated the rest of the show, I knew I had to figure out how to forge that elemental physicality in the sounds I make. 

Did you always want to be a musician? 

I have two degrees in visual art—printmaking and sculpture—and although I experimented a bit with sound in some of my art installations during the ’90s, I’ve never thought of myself as a musician. 

When considering my process of making music, I think of myself as a sort of composer/curator/ compiler of sounds. Each piece is a collage of tone, texture, and rhythm, sewn together to evoke a memory, elicit an emotion, and induce a physical response to the sounds. I feel like I’m most successful when the sounds relate personally to the listener such that they are moved out of their present consciousness and into somewhere/sometime else. 

What spurred you to learn an instrument and pushed you toward creating your own original works? 

I’m really not interested in learning instruments in the traditional sense. When I reach for my cello or trombone or an electronic instrument, I’m most interested in using it to generate a tone, a color, or a sound that moves me, rather than mastering technique. 

I first started exploring sound-making back in 2000. I wanted to use the experiences of my daily work at a design agency to sonically describe the fast-paced banality of my everyday existence. One day in the printer room, I heard the sound of a flatbed scanner and thought it might be interesting to work with. I took a recording with my new iRiver iFP-500 mp3 player and began playing around with it on my Mac desktop. I had free access to all Macromedia’s products at work and used Sound Edit 16 to put it together—after-hours, of course. Not really even knowing what a field recording was back then, I used the sound as the rhythmic element for one of my first pieces, “Suite for Guitar, Digital Scanner, Timpani, and French Horn.” At this time, I was also having severe bouts of insomnia, and as I hadn’t yet discovered Kranky’s rich catalog of drone music, I decided to make sounds to help me sleep. Not long after, my pieces were intermingling on that mp3 player with Windy and Carl, Stars of the Lid, and Loscil, lulling me off to sleep on a nightly basis. 

Chris Miller and me as The Golden Sores at The Mopery. Chicago, 2009.

You played in The Golden Sores with Christopher Miller from Number None (and other projects). It’s funny, I was thinking about him a few months ago when I was talking with someone about a time I was in Chicago back in 2005 or so, and I had dinner with Chris. How did you meet Chris and start working on music together? And how was your time in that project critical to your work today? 

Chris and Jeremy (Bushnell) are long-time friends. I first met them in 2007 at one of their shows at Las Manos Gallery in Andersonville. They played with Good Stuff House (Mike Weis, Matt Christiansen, Scott Tuma), and I arrived late—so late that I missed Number None’s entire set. I’d brought along a CD-R of stuff I’d composed over the years, including the “Suite” I’d recorded much earlier, and gave a copy to both of them. 

In the coming months, Chris and I commiserated over our mutual experiences growing up as evangelical Christian kids in the midwest and started improvising together. After what I remember to be just a few practices, our newly-minted project Flux Bouquet opened for the Magic Markers at Shuba’s in October 2007. I remember setting up on the floor in front of the stage, nervous as hell, frantically scrambling for a defective cable. As the crowd grew restless, I finally found the fucking abomination, replaced it, and we went on. The climax of our short set was a psych-blues rocker called “If I Was God.” I played my 1965 Rickenbacker double neck lap steel, and Chris was on his Octave Cat, and it slayed. At least, that’s how I like to remember it. 

Shortly thereafter, we changed our name to The Golden Sores. The Chicago experimental scene was vibrant then—we played AV Aerie, Enemy, Elastic Arts, and The Mopery alongside locals Tiger Hatchery, Locrian, Neil Jendon, and too many other bands to list. Chris and I recorded our second album together in 2008, called Ashdod to Ekron, a long-form piece split into listenable chunks on limited CD-R that I burned on my MacBook Pro. 

Mark Solotroff (BLOODYMINDED, Anatomy of Habit) put out our last recording, entitled A Peaceable Kingdom, on his BLOODLUST imprint in June 2009. The record was the noisiest of the three we made, with my favorite track being the bass-heavy, shoegaze-y “The Awful Rowing Towards God,” after Anne Sexton’s volume of poetry of the same name. In August that year, my wife and I moved to New York, and The Golden Sores were no more. 

Playing with Chris was foundational. Over those three years of weekly practice sessions and sporadic performances, I learned how to improvise, how to record using a DAW, how (and how not to) play live sets, but most importantly—the sheer joy of collaborating with great friends. 

Speaking of your current music, you’ve got a new album coming out very soon on Hallow Ground, it’s nothing, but still. What is the story behind the album’s title? 

Yeah, it’s in pre-release right now on Hallow Ground’s Bandcamp. While the digital releases on August 19th, we’re shipping the vinyl now, along with the free digital download code. 

When I moved from New York to Switzerland in early 2016—not being fluent in German, much less Swiss-German—I was reminded daily of the heightened importance of language in everyday life. During a routine doctor appointment, I remember complaining about some intermittent shortness of breath I’d been experiencing and using the phrase “it’s nothing, but still.” The meaning was completely lost on my Swiss-German-speaking doctor, but for me, it stuck. Over the next few months, this minor dyspnea rapidly turned into the chronic, idiopathic lung disease that would be the foundation upon which this collection of sounds was built. I find the wordplay both ironic and fitting—how the colloquial usage of the phrase politely minimized my personal symptoms while also poetically describing the (dis)quiet of the COVID lockdowns contemporaneous to the construction of the record. More on this later. 

Sonically, it’s so rich and warm. The sound design and atmosphere are incredible, but it also has this very open vulnerability to it that I connected with. How does composing and playing music tap into this emotional spirit for you? Or, put another way, how does music act as a vehicle to explore and process your own emotions and perceptions?

Almost all of my creative work has been autobiographical in some fashion—from the early mixed media books and art installations I made in the mid-90s to the sounds I make today. Some of the most powerful works I’ve experienced have relied on personal existential narratives; both Bill Viola and John Luther Adams come immediately to mind. 

Making this specific record allowed me to mourn my body’s recent impairment, reflect generally on my mortality as I age, and construct a cathartic response to this intense period of introspection. While I found the pandemic a difficult time to create work initially, it ultimately provided fertile ground for the explicit and intentional re-evaluation of my own mortality and a general reassessment of our progress as a healthy, compassionate civilization. 

The field recordings throughout it’s nothing, but still are really engaging and wonderful. They add such depth and texture to the record but also weave this feeling of being present in a particular place. What about the recordings you used on the record drew you to them? And what is it about field recordings more generally that interests you?  

Of all the instruments I use, the field recording has the most potential for emotional resonance. Everyday sounds can tap an underground reservoir of memories and trigger a vivid recollection of an event or setting from years ago. By invoking personal memories, field recordings can induce an immediate affinity between the listener and the composition, an emotional bond that engages at an intensely personal level. 

Getting back to it’s nothing, but still, the album title and title track. Geoff Gersh graciously gave me a beautifully ambient recording of semi-trucks idling for the beginning of the song. I’m not sure most people would describe the sound of semi-trucks idling as beautiful, but its effect is certainly beautiful. We’ve all heard that low, industrial rumble of a diesel engine, and most of us, when hearing it, could probably place a specific memory with that very noise as its soundtrack. Or a feeling, at the very least. We remember the caustic smell of the lingering smoke, maybe the heat of a summer afternoon. And as the bicycle rides past, we can almost see the scene. It quietly sets the stage for the melancholic entrance of the piano and cello and tunes the listener’s awareness to the character of the song. 

But when the curious listener discovers that Geoff made the recording across the street from Brooklyn Hospital at the height of the pandemic—that the tractor-trailers were, in fact, refrigerated morgue trucks overflowing with bodies decimated by Covid 19—the title begins to embody a new, layered richness for us to explore and a deeper experience of the song begins to unfold. 

I was so excited to see that you worked with Siavash Amini as a producer for this record. How did that happen, and what was the process like working with Siavash in that capacity? He is such a special artist… 

I met Siavash Amini virtually in early 2015. Björn Granzow (The End of the World Championship) and I had formed a new project, Shovels Beat the Sun and began recording our first album to be released later that year on SicSic Tapes. Unfortunately, they went on indefinite hiatus right before we sent the tracks for mastering. Björn was already speaking to Siavash about a TEOTWC record on his new BITROT label, and Siavash was happy to put out our collaboration as the inaugural release. 

Fast forward to 2017, after I had moved to Switzerland, my new friend Remo Seeland (Hallow Ground) brought Siavash to Basel for a show on the back of his break-out record TAR. Siavash and I hung out after the show and have been friends ever since.  

So as I was putting together the initial framework for this new album, I asked Siavash if he’d be willing to be an occasional sounding board for the new work. He graciously agreed, and as I progressed, he became increasingly involved. We chatted at least once every few weeks reviewing the tracks, honing the mix, and polishing the album as a whole. It took almost three years of recording and revision, and it finally felt finished in August of last year. 

It was fantastic working with him. He challenged me without imposing his personal aesthetic. He taught me how to record and mix more effectively. But most importantly, I learned how to really listen to the sounds I make–deeply and critically. Simply put, this collection of songs wouldn’t exist without his patient guidance and finely-tuned ear.  

He’s the best. 

Siavash Amini and me before our show at Kunstraum Walcheturm. Zürich, 2018.

Lastly, you touch on this a bit in the description for the album, but how do music and sound act as a transportive medium for you? 

I always think about how sound can create a new, unimaginable world within seconds and take listeners there, and that spirit is ingrained in this record, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that… So when I make music, I’m exploring. Searching for that state of being, enveloped in the expanse, within both aural saturation and silence. Empowering a simple sound to evoke another time and place, to elicit an emotional physicality, to embody both memories and imagination. 

One of my favorite composers, John Luther Adams, couldn’t have said it better: My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming—sometimes even frightening —landscape and invites you to get lost in it.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.