Textural Sonic Realism: An Interview With Asher Tuil

Tucked within every crevice of Asher Tuil’s Automatism are stories waiting to be discovered. He sculpts so many ideas from different textures and sonic wanderings that each listen to one of his albums produces a different experience each time. Familiar sounds drift through filters and radio waves to morph into something new and unexpected, all carrying the weight of buried emotions. It’s a world I want to explore from all angles.

Tuil’s latest, Automatism, is out now on Room 40. I am also thrilled to premiere the video for the album below.

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What are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound?

One experience that I remember quite clearly is hearing my recorded voice. The way it sounded played back was different than how it sounded to me, while others’ voices sounded recognizable, and this seemed really uncanny. I still have that experience when making recordings, not with my own voice but with how things sounded to me out in the world compared to how they sound when played back. I like the idea of recordings being a sort of fiction; I think of my compositions in this way, as describing a fictional landscape which only exists in the piece itself.

What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

When looking back on my youth, the thing that stands out to me is all the different environments I was in. I moved a number of times, and met new people quite often because of that, which allowed me to reinvent myself and how I related to others, something I hope I am able to continue to do.

Was there something specific that pushed you to start creating your own sounds?

I had been starting to have ideas for compositions while playing the trumpet for a while on my own and with some friends when we were all living in Boston. At some point, everyone I had been playing music with moved away, which led me to buy a multitrack recorder and a sampler. That, in turn, led me to begin researching and listening to electronic and experimental music, which became a big influence on my work. Artists like William Basinski, Richard Chartier, Steve Roden, and Pan Sonic were particularly inspiring to me at that time. Eventually, the trumpet stopped making sense with the sounds I was using, and I started working with mostly synthesizer and field recordings. I think at that point, my compositions really started to take shape as I began creating the body of work I have been making ever since.

Did you always want to be a musician?

Actually, no, I only became interested in being an artist of some kind when I was a teenager and originally wanted to be an author. But a number of things led me to be interested in bebop and free jazz, and I eventually got a trumpet and taught myself how to play by mostly practicing on my own and along with recordings. I basically fell in love with music at that time. I was really drawn to trying to play, working at it every day, and eventually meeting other people my age who also played instruments and practiced together. I have a lot of great memories from those years of discovery, not just playing music together but listening to recordings and talking about music whenever we could find the time.

One of the things that always draws me to your work is the field recordings and the way you use them in composing. First, can you tell me what draws you to sounds and makes you want to capture them?

A lot of times, I’ll hear some environmental sounds when I’m not thinking about compositions and then go back and try to record them, which isn’t always a success. Other times I may hear something in a movie and want to recreate that, and I’ll go look for those sounds locally if I can. Movies are a big influence for me in my sound work. I love the way that they combine dialog, music, and environmental sounds; it’s something I’m continuously drawn to and in which I find much inspiration.

And then, I’m curious what your process is like regarding using these recordings in your work. Do you get specific ideas when you’re out in an environment of how you want to use something? Or is it more that you capture sounds and then, at some point, an idea for using it in a recording reveals itself?

I would say mostly the first one; I generally try to work with the sounds I record as soon as possible. I think I tend to work rather quickly, gathering sounds and then working with them immediately. However, I’m not always sure what will work—I play the sounds back and combine them with other sounds to see what I like. Sometimes things come together really well, and other times I have to rethink things and go back out to gather more sounds.

Speaking of all that, your new album on Room 40, Automatism, is so engaging to me because of how tactile it feels. You are able to do so much in adding depth to the tonal/harmonic aspects of the pieces that it just heightens and reinforces so much of the emotion running through them. Reading the liner notes for the album, I think this sense of discovery runs and reveals itself throughout, so I’m wondering how making this album has helped you learn more about yourself and creative practice.

First of all, thank you for saying that about the album.

Each project has a process of discovery for me, I try to start with some idea of how to work, and then the sounds lead me somewhere on their own, whether that’s finding a new way for me to combine methods I’ve used before or finding a new technique either of recording, producing or processing sounds. Making Automatism was a way of trying to find new locations to record near my new home in Providence, RI, where I’ve been living for two and a half years now.

One project usually feeds into the next one, and even when I try hard to throw out everything I know and work in a new way, things from the previous project or some older way I’ve worked with the material will sneak their way into what I’m doing.

I mentioned that this music has a strong emotional undercurrent when I listen. I wonder how music and your creative practices are helpful for you as ways to explore and process various thoughts and emotions and how infusing that in your music can also become a way of connecting with the world.

Having a strong emotional response to music and sounds myself is a big part of why I like to work in this medium. I try to produce material that invokes a mood and a unique sense of place. It’s maybe an emotional release for me to focus and struggle to express something while working relatively abstractly. I hope that comes through and communicates something about the way I experience and feel things, so it’s very gratifying to hear you say that about my music.

What are some other things that surprised you when making this record?

I guess just the overall sounds that came from combining the various elements and how well they blended together, at times when listening back, I knew what the sources were for each sound but found that they would briefly trick me into thinking that an environmental sound or one sampled from the radio was actually something I played on the synthesizer or vice versa.

I also don’t think I’ve ever heard swan calls before.

On the opposite side, how did making this record challenge you?

Lately, I’ve been feeling the need to find new ways of working, and that’s been a big focus for the last couple of years. After around twenty years of producing material, I’m feeling a tendency to rely on what I know how to do too much, perhaps. So at the start of working on this and other recent projects, I’m having trouble sometimes getting going and might dramatically change course in the middle of a project or between projects when previously I’d have been more likely just to pick up right where I left off when working on something new. In the case of Automatism, I was feeling stuck at one point until I started using very overt radio samples.

What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

It’s difficult to narrow it down; a few that come to mind are the complex drones from airplanes overhead, distant sounds of traffic, waves crashing on the shore, room tones when it’s very quiet in my home, and the wind in trees.

And to close, as we’re still in the early days of 2023, what are you looking forward to this year?

Just the next projects and always the summer and warm weather. Right now, I have plans to work with some cassettes I made around ten years ago, which I’ve used for a couple of projects over the years but not for a while and never completely satisfactorily. I love the sound of those tapes, and I keep thinking about how to properly incorporate them into new works.

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