Focus Within the Blur: An Interview With Cole Pulice

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Cole Pulice’s new album, Scry, has stuck with me. The clarity of their ideas sings through in each winding melody and each whimsical phrasing. How the sonic approach of Scry heightens, the impact of the feeling woven into each thread of each song is remarkable. But especially in the way Pulice’s songwriting and performance leave me smiling, filled with a quiet joy, and enamored by the hope of possibility. It’s such a beautiful record.

Pulice has had a monumental year, releasing Scry and two fantastic collaborations – one with Lynn Avery and one with Nat Harvie. The future burns bright.

Scry is out now on vinyl, cassette, and digital formats via Moon Glyph.

I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

One of my first jobs – I must have been 15, I started before I could drive – was working as custodial staff in the early mornings at a theme park called Camp Snoopy. The ride maintenance staff would occasionally test the calliope/music system on the carousel before the park opened, which consisted of activating each pipe/tone and letting it ring out on its own, cutting through the silence of the vacant park. I loved when they did this – standing in an absolutely empty amusement park under the warmth of the early morning sun listening to the slow droning peals of the calliope. It was always a beautiful and surreal treat, and I always wished I could bask in that sound forever.

Did you always want to be a musician or a composer?

Playing and listening to music has always been very important to me – but I’m not sure I ever made the conscious decision that it was something I was going to pursue; it’s just been something that’s always been part of my life routine… I’ve never questioned it!

What was the first impetus to start playing music and creating your own sounds? Was the saxophone your first instrument?

I started playing piano for a few years when I was maybe in 4th grade or so, and then I started alto saxophone in roughly 5th grade. I played in my middle and high school concert and jazz band until ~10th grade, but then I transferred high schools to one that didn’t have a music program. So from then on, all my music-making was playing in bands with friends and free improvisation stuff!

So you’ve got this incredible new album on the horizon, Scry. You mention this a bit in the liner notes, but in the sonic spaces of the record, it really hits me – this is deeply emotional, transportive music. Even more than that, though, those qualities, I think, can help others find connections, not just to the music but to each other. There’s something in the DNA of this record that is just so powerful. I’m curious how you think sound and music can help create spaces where people can find connection?

Gosh, that’s so nice of you to say! That’s a big question. I’m not sure I have a good answer… but I do feel that music is always a communal practice, even in the case of solo artists or solo records (other musicians in one’s community/circles, engineers, listeners, audience, mixers, friends, family, DJs, collaborators, writers/journalists and so forth all still interconnected to creative production). I think it’s important to remember that music always comes from a community / an interconnectivity of relationships and is always a communal cultural practice. So yeah, music is a really, really great and powerful practice for making all kinds of connections!

You also mention how it’s a record with this ‘between-ness’ to it – how it seems to bridge many gaps and experiences in your life over the last few years. I can definitely hear that and feel that not just in the songs but in how the record is sequenced and unfolds (though that title track is just swimming in those feelings for me – it’s a remarkable piece of music). How did you approach putting the final record together, and was that aspect of it – the sequencing, the narrative – something that you had in mind as you were making the record or something that came together as you were listening to all these pieces?

Really great question – so, first, the title track, “Scry,” really encapsulates a lot of this. Many of the tracks on the record sort of “made” themselves or were intuitive in what they wanted to be and naturally unfolded. With “Scry,” I never knew what it was or if it would be anything – I had been working on that track for over 3 years. In fact, I recorded several different versions of it, some with alto, some with tenor & fx, some with free improv ripping, pastoral clarinet arrangements, etc., and I could never end up deciding which the track wanted to be. Ultimately I ended up blending it all together, which was really tricky, but I love how it turned out. It felt like it wanted to be a sort of a Borgesian “Garden of Forking Paths,” except all of the forking paths or alternate realities of the versions of what “Scry” could have been existed simultaneously in the same universe.

On the whole, I think the sequencing and narrative of the record came together as I was quite late in the stage of working on tracks and compiling things – and it felt very much like a “mosaic,” with many different fragments that had a sort of larger resonance together.

Photo by Zoey Melf

I usually don’t ask gear questions, but I’m really curious about your setup, especially after reading the description of it. Can you tell me a little about the various instruments and hardware you use to process your saxophone?

I have a Shure clip-on mic for my tenor/alto that I plug into a mixer with phantom power. My FX send chain is very simple: it consists of 3 separate PitchFork pedals, each with an expression pedal attached. I set each pedal to the interval (up, down, or both) that I want it to harmonize, and then the expression pedals allow me to control the glissando or pitch bends for each harmony note. My feet are both constantly working along with my hands and breath; it feels very much like I’m “strapped in” to a mech suit or something. I also use a delay in my chain for a few pieces, usually set to a super fast, almost slapback delay.

On my computer, I run VCV Rack, in which I build module chains that react to what I play on the wind synth, which adds a level of interactivity that I like (sometimes randomly generated, sometimes planned reactions). I also run a program on my computer that allows me to change and edit wind controller voices on the fly.

Everything (saxophones, wind midi controller, pedal board, and computer) run through a mixer so I can use my pedal board on everything.

And what’s the wind synth? I’m so curious about this.

I play a Yamaha WX5 midi wind controller – it can be used with any synth that takes MIDI, but I use it with a proprietary Yamaha rack synth called the VL 70m. It was made to pair with the WX line of midi controllers, so it just works super intuitively with the WX and has a ton of good sounds and customization. In other words: there are no actual sounds on the WX midi controller itself – but it has really amazing breath/embouchure sensors that send MIDI data along with finger/key data. This means I can program some of the VCV Rack modules to react or trigger to the breath/embouchure data and control things with my mouth and air in addition to my hands and feet. Really wild combo, these two things together.

Changing speed a little, you’ve done some really fantastic collaborations recently. How important is collaboration to your creative practice, and how does working with all these great musicians help push and inspire your work?

Oh my goodness, collaboration is central to my practice. It’s what I like most about making music – the relationships I get to build and nurture! Even my “solo” records feel collaborative, either directly somewhere along in the actual process or indirectly simply through my friendships and so on. I am constantly inspired by and in awe of my friends!

Also, you’ve done a lot of work with Moon Glyph, which is such a great label. How did you first get to know Steve and the label, and what’s it been like working with him through the years?

When I was in college in Minneapolis, I was a big fan of the music Moon Glyph was putting out at that time, especially the Food Pyramid, 555, and Daughters of the Sun records (amongst many others). Several years later, I started working and recording with Lynn Avery on stuff that ended up on her Iceblink record Carpet Cocoon, which Moon Glyph put out. I was wrapping up working on a batch of music that became Gloam, so I just emailed Steve and was like, “hey, I’m on the Iceblink record, which you just released, and wanted to send you some stuff I’ve been working on!” Steve was super receptive and supportive right off the bat, which I really appreciated – and on top of the music side of things, he does such a great job with the visual design and aesthetic of the label. He’s been great to work with!

To close things out, what are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

The creaking of the trees gently swaying in the wind in the Redwood forest, the aforementioned merry-go-round calliope slowed down 1000%, in music: glissandi.

And what are you looking forward to as we barrel ahead toward 2023?

I’ve got a few collaborative records I’m wrapping up with some folks that I’m very stoked to finish and share! I think two of them will come out next year. We’ll see… you never quite know how things will unfold.

Also, Konami recently announced they’re remastering and reissuing Suikoden I + II for next year – I am VERY stoked for that. They’re absolutely gorgeous – for sure the apex of pixel art in Playstation-era JRPGs. The music, too… stunning. These are really monumental games for me, and I am very excited to play the remastered versions next year.

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