In Between Science & Sound With John Atkinson

So much of John Atksinson’s solo work is tactile, which is doubly true on his newest, Energy Fields. Using field recordings made during a 2019 residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming – the largest coal-producing state in America – he turns them into a revenant, engaging reflection. Meditative sinew ties the sonic spaces together, but it’s down to the deep connections between narrative and sound flow that pushes this music to new levels. Expressive drones are a bridge between subterranean excavations and skyward-facing corridors. 

Additionally, I am thrilled to share the premiere of Atkinson’s video for “Spiritual Electricity” within this piece.

Through his extensive solo, collaborative, and ensemble works, Atkinson has amassed a stellar discography well worth investigating. Energy Fields is out now on AKP Recordings.

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I always like to go all the way back to the beginning to start interviews. With that, can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?

Honestly, this has nothing to do with the music I make now (unless you count karaoke), but some of the first music I remember connecting with that I still absolutely love is Billy Joel – specifically, Greatest Hits Vol. I & II, which my mom had on tape. All those insanely well-crafted, catchy melodies are imprinted pretty deep in my brain, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to really appreciate his lyrics and the way their sourness is juxtaposed with the sweetness of the music. It’s not quite Steely Dan-level dissonance, but there’s so much ambivalence, ambiguity, and bittersweetness – or even straight-up bitterness – to a lot of the lyrical content that feels really real and ‘adult’ to me, and I think it’s a really artful contrast to the content of the music. 

Did you always want to create your own sounds? Was there something that got you started?

I’ve wanted to make music and perform for as long as I can remember, but my journey into “sound-making” probably started in high school when I got a Fostex R-8 reel-to-reel off eBay and a guitar multi-effects pedal whose name I forget. I’d spend hours most nights in the basement experimenting with weird effects chains, overdubbing, and backward guitar, having no real idea what I was doing but making tapes and mailing them to random people on AOL “demo exchange” message boards. It absolutely ruined my development as an actual guitar player, but it gave me an intro to fucking around with sounds that I got into way more deeply when I found like-minded noiseheads at college and in Aa. 

Related, but on a different tangent, what are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

The radiator in my apartment always makes classic New York sounds – it comes on pretty regularly during the winter, and the sounds it makes are pleasingly analog and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s just a lil hiss, other times heavy white noise, sometimes ramping up and down between the two, occasional weird clanks that I don’t really understand… It’s really comforting but also more sonically interesting than you’d expect. I recorded it and made a long ambient track from it a couple of years ago, but it works great on its own. 

I also gotta shout out the birds of Australia and New Zealand – I lived for a few years in Melbourne and spent a decent amount of time camping in the bush. The general vibe down under can feel pretty familiar to an American, especially in the cities – like, Melbourne can seem like a slightly exotic cross between Austin and San Francisco, vibe-wise – but the totally crazy and alien sounds of the avian life remind you of the reality of that you’re on this extremely isolated continent on the other end of the planet! I made an album from some of NZ bird-sounds a bunch of years ago, but it only scratches the surface. I still need to figure out what to do with all the Australian bush bird recordings on my hard drive. 

You’ve released a lot of music I love in the last few years, but let’s focus on the newest thing for a minute, Energy Fields. Where did the idea for this project first begin?

I’d been working with field recordings for a few years, obviously, and occasionally tried stitching them together into something relatively rooted in a specific place, but I didn’t feel like I’d pulled it all together in a focused way yet. And I’d always envisioned ultimately bringing my music-making together with my work on climate and energy issues, which I’ve been doing just about as long and as passionately. 

So, while I didn’t exactly have it in mind when I applied for the Ucross residency, once I started thinking about what I’d do with two weeks to work on music – which I basically never get to do in “real life” – I hit on the idea of road-tripping out there, and recording sounds along the way. Pretty soon into the route-planning process, I discovered the Department of Energy’s energy infrastructure maps. I saw that I’d be passing through some of the country’s biggest coal mines, a bunch of wind farms, an oil refinery, and a hydropower plant that weren’t too far out of my way. That route generated a ton of great field recordings with a pretty coherent concept, and the music more or less flowed from there.

It’s an evocative album that’s made an immediate impression. It deals with climate change in an engaging, meaningful way. And, of course, it’s not the first time you’ve gone down this road – I loved Long Harbor last year. I’d love to know how music and sound work as a medium for you to confront and contemplate big, heavy ideas like this. 

Really happy to hear they both landed with you! Those two are more or less my first attempts to bring together my creative and professional practices, so I’m really curious about how they resonate with listeners. I spend so much time reading and writing about energy and climate issues from mostly a very dry, factual, analytical perspective, but the deeper I get into learning and telling these stories, the more I’ve come to appreciate how intertwined they are with the story of life – the way we as a species, but also as individuals, begin just trying to survive, then gradually – and also suddenly – develop these really awesome capabilities, and now we’re being forced to grapple with all of their implications. It’s like we’re in late adolescence or early adulthood, incredibly powerful in some ways but also a total fucking mess, and we’re trying to figure out a healthier way to be in the world. 

I’m glad that more and more artists are engaging with climate change, but a lot of what I’ve seen and heard seems to tell relatively simple, nature = good, humans/modernity = bad kind of stories with apocalyptic overtones. I wouldn’t call myself an optimist on climate, but I see a more complex story that acknowledges the loss and suffering we’ve already caused and what we risk in the future if we don’t change, but also recognizes the incredible human flourishing that our modern energy system has made possible, the progress that we’ve made towards recognizing the problems it causes and developing solutions and the real hope we have to limit or even reversing some of that damage. As a flawed human being who’s trying to get better at Life, I’m sympathetic to our predicament as a species, and I’d like to believe we can change, even if I’m not sure that we will!  

The “Spiritual Electricity” video features phone cam footage I filmed of the frequently-spectacular Wyoming landscape passing by my car window combined with footage of an unimaginably long coal train carrying the most famous product of the state’s unique geology to electricity-generating plants across the country. It captures the excitement I felt traveling through this new-to-me region, along with the ambivalence I felt seeing the scale of this humanity-powering, climate-wrecking infrastructure. It’s also a fitting start to an album that is to some extent ‘about’ the interconnected physical transformations of our energy and climate system and the social (and spiritual) changes they drive. – John Atkinson

I like the description in the liner notes about “collaborating with Wyoming’s energy infrastructure and wildlife.” I like that way of thinking about the field recordings on the record. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of your residency at Ucross Foundation in 2019 and some of the things you took away from it?

The Ucross residency was truly awesome – the time, resources, and community I had there legit changed how I make music. As I said, I had been making music with field recordings for a few years at that point, but at Ucross, I could focus on really editing the shit out of sounds, making lots of microsamples, and figuring out how to make playable ‘instruments’ out of them with weird MIDI controllers (big fan of Keith McMillen and LEAP motion here!). I still use many of the processes and device architectures I made at Ucross in the music I’ve made since, including the East Portal album and my recent album with Ned Milligan

Less expectedly, I also learned that the residency was founded and funded by Raymond Plank, the son of a coal miner and founder of Apache Oil and Gas. The fact that he took the fortune he made from fossil fuels and dedicated a portion of it to creating a place that would bring artists to Wyoming, where he wanted them to be inspired by the incredible landscapes and wildlife there, seemed really resonant to the story I wanted to tell – that despite the immense harm that fossil fuels have caused and are causing, our modern energy system has also given us the resources to imagine a different relationship with our planet and build a better and more sustainable future. 

What surprised you the most when you were writing or recording Energy Fields? What was the most challenging aspect?

Honestly, I was surprised at how much I loved doing all the work it took to create these sounds! I’d never been able to spend 10 hours a day for two weeks just diving deep into my process. It was really awesome to not only get sounds I really loved out of it but to discover – as someone who’s never tried to make a full-time career out of music – that I still loved making music that much. Going into the residency, I kind of expected that I’d spend more time going out hiking and exploring around the ranch, but I basically just locked myself in the studio for the most part. 

The most challenging aspect was just figuring out how to arrange all these sounds into songs! I had most of the raw material I used on the album after those two weeks, but it took almost two years of work after that to learn how to improvise with them, develop arcs for their development as compositions, and then edit them into something I was happy with. I shouldn’t have been surprised, in retrospect, but sculpting some of those tracks drove me crazy. 

Unrelated, but I was listening to the album you made with Ned Milligan a couple of weeks ago – a record I enjoy so much. How important is collaboration to you, and how does working with all other artists and musicians help push and inspire your work?

Thanks, I love collaborating with Ned so much. From the very beginning of my solo music-making, he’s always been the first and usually the last person I share tracks with. His generously constructive feedback has given me so much over the years. I really don’t think I’d be making the music I make, and maybe I wouldn’t be making music at all anymore without him.  

More generally, my experience of music-making as an adult was originally rooted in being in a band (Aa), and over that band’s various phases, I think we gradually realized that one of the best parts of being in a band is the friendships you make with your bandmates, other musicians, and everyone else you meet along the way. At the end of the day, music is about connecting with people, and despite being mostly not-in-person, these more recent collaborations have been a really meaningful way to deepen my friendships with Ned, Pat (on East Portal), and Talya Cooper (on the Plains album), and that’s kind of the most lasting thing in the long run.

And from the technical perspective of my current all-electroacoustic process, collaboration is also absolutely fundamental – I’m pretty bad at playing instruments, so when I’m not working with field recordings, I really depend on the musical ingredients my collaborators bring to the table. When you’re working with friends and musicians you trust, it’s a joy to be a receiver and shaper of their ideas and talents into something neither of us could do alone. 

Speaking of collaboration, what’s up next for East Portal?

Pat’s had a pretty busy time since the East Portal album came out, gigging in LA and playing bass on tour with Noah Cyrus – who I luckily had a chance to see in Minneapolis last year. I hadn’t really heard her music before but was totally blown away. Legit Fleetwood Mac vibes! And I kept busy working on the album with Ned and an upcoming collaboration with another dear friend Peter Wolfgang. But, happily, Pat and I wrote a couple of new songs that we played live at our LA release show last year, and we’re back in our respective studios recording those and some new ones, potentially with some additional collaborators in the mix—so, hoping to finish a second East Portal album this year!

And to close, what else are you working on and looking forward to as 2023 rolls ahead?

I just finished a super-meaningful collaboration with my friend Peter, an album that’s essentially about his recovery from addiction. It used a similar process to my other collaborations, built from his piano playing, my saxophone playing, and a lot of field recordings he made while at home in semi-rural Ohio, but it also features lots of excerpts from interviews he did with other people in recovery. Between their words and Peter’s intensely personal shaping of the album’s narrative arc, from the numbness of addiction and the pain of withdrawal to the clarity and peace of sobriety, I think it’s a really special, harrowing, and inspiring album that I’m excited to share.

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