Montreal-based sound artist Tim Hecker has been creating music since 2000, first as Jetone, then under his own name beginning the next year. Entwining electrocuting blasts with aerial murmurs, Hecker’s intricately crafted music can induce a dreamy headspace during an iPod-equipped stroll, or send shockwaves of bone-rattling sound across a concert space in a manner that evokes a sensory deprivation chamber.
Orchestral tsunamis of volume have been one of Hecker’s strongest suits, and his latest album Virgins, following 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, undertook the considerable challenge of creating the same intensity with a subtler facility, not excluding songs with titles like “Amps, Drugs, Harmonium.” We spoke to Tim over the phone about his musical beginnings, his detour into Canadian politics, ’90s technology, Pascal’s Wager, and lightening up.
HANNAH GHORASHI: Could you tell me about how this all started? How did you get to be where you are right now?
TIM HECKER: That’s a super complicated question. It was a series of misshapes and failures and things that didn’t work out and other opportunities that kind of presented themselves. I just followed a journey. I mean, I’ve been playing music all my life. I wasn’t really fostered in a musical family, it was something I did despite the kind of limitations put on me. My father did purchase a trumpet for me once, in grade three or four, but before that I was playing on my grandma’s piano and things like that. As a teenager, it’s some of the greatest moments that happened with music, and I could tell in my late high-school years that it had some kind of narcotic potential. I was really not inundated with real avant-garde music practice. I was really kind of into alternative music and forms of music that were accessible to suburban high school kids who didn’t have access to parents who were composers, and things like that. I kind of had to take a slow journey and discover things on my own. It came with time.
GHORASHI: I read that you were once a policy advisor in Canada; is this true?
HECKER: Yeah, I had a day job for a few years in my late 20s. And it was kind of a stopgap, you know, I didn’t plan on doing it, but I had this kind of job, this kind of coveted “policy advisor,” you know? You work close to the Minister, or the Secretary, or the government department, whatever you guys have in the States. But it something I kind of fell upon because I did a Master’s in philosophy in the Poli Sci department. They had a surplus of jobs, and I was broke, so I took it. Before you knew it, I was writing briefing notes to the minister on WTO negotiations. It was kind of weird.
GHORASHI: Where did you go to school?
HECKER: I just finished the degree in McGill, in Montreal.
GHORASHI: Cool. Did you go there for your Bachelor’s?
HECKER: No, I actually did a Ph.D. there. I did my undergrad in Vancouver in a place called the University of British Columbia. I’m a Canadian education system product.
GHORASHI: Yeah. Why did you want to get a Ph.D.?
HECKER: Just because I enjoyed reading and writing and didn’t know what else to do. It was something fun to do. Like it seems self-evident that I’m a musician now, but it’s a really hard path. It’s almost impossible. So I didn’t put much stock into that working out. I just put that to the side, and it was kind of fun? I would say I enjoyed it. It fired up a part of my brain that I felt was getting weaker with each year, you know? You don’t read much, you don’t think. You just log onto websites. Your brain kind of turns to something else.
GHORASHI: Did you consider going to a Ph.D. program for music, since you’d get to do research and things like that?
HECKER: Yeah, I mean I’m more interested in the historical conditions of the things I work on, you know? Like learning how to make music better, because it’s kind of done from the outsider approach, and it’s worked for me. I don’t know. I don’t think high-level studies would help.
GHORASHI: Would you consider yourself to be an outsider artist?
HECKER: Hard to say that; I would say no, out of respect for true outsider artists. I could cite you people that put contact microphones up their bum or something. To the mainstream rock apparatus, yeah, a little bit outside. But I don’t really thrive on positions of outsiderness; it doesn’t really fire me up. I’m more interested on the personal level, of the journey, of making work that satisfies me as a sentient being, you know?
GHORASHI: I was reading an interview where you said you had been listening to bands like Nirvana, and all of the sudden you discovered ambient music, and it was like realizing Xanax existed when you had just been taking aspirin. Which I thought was really funny.
GHORASHI: But how did you realize that you could make a completely different thing than what you were used to? Was there a particular artist or a band, maybe something like New Order, that made you realize that you could do more with music?
HECKER: I mean, New Order was kind of a weird gateway drug to me. I didn’t go through the Joy Division route until after, but I went through their Euro-pop album called Technique when I was in grade nine or whatever. I was given the set from a friend of a friend and it was dubbed on those tape decks that are two decks, like tape-to-tape copy, and it meant a lot to me. I was always interested in rock music going in these terrains of power and intensity and moods and surrender or whatever, and it just didn’t work out with my friends. They weren’t as committed as I was. I ended up buying electronic instruments in the ’90s because I saw that as a way of building up things myself, and computers were this really renegade thing that was accessible all of the sudden, you know? In the ’90s I was kind of involved—I got the first cracked versions of dial-up modem and shit like that, and it was really this weird terrain of expression. Like of course computers existed in music 25 years before, but that was like way more academic, and you had to program code and stuff. And this was more performable. And I kind of came up through that world. And it was at a time when CD burners were really radical, because it totally afforded the idea or the professional production at your house or bedroom studio.
GHORASHI: I’m not sure specifically how you make a song. Could you tell me a little more about that?
HECKER: [laughs] Yeah, I’m not really sure either. It’s a process. Sometimes it’s really improvisational and it happens in an hour, and sometimes these ideas that kind of come up…. The best kind of metaphor is I work with digital audio, which is like sculpting, a form of chiseling down metal or wood. And I take audio and move it back and forth between the analog and digital realms and work with it almost like a plastic art until it takes forms in different shapes. And I use those figurines that come out of that type of work.
So lately what I’ve been doing is taking pieces like that, that I write in these really back-and-forth ways of improvisation and performing by myself, to musicians and have them play overtop. And I interact with that sound in a malleable, improvisational way, where I’ll give them instructions and scores and have them transform the sound that’s also being fed from a microphone into some weird computer patch that takes things, maybe takes a bass clarinet and turns into some pulse or gated sound. It’s a real back and forth, and there’s no linear work process.
GHORASHI: It sounds like what you’re describing is that the music has a life force of its own, like it’s a living thing that you’re trying to tame and sculpt to produce a song.
HECKER: I’m really sensitive to the beginning of a motif or a phrase or something that’s kind of the backbone or becomes kind of the spine that you grow muscle tissue onto. You know from that, if you have that good beginning, it’s like everything that grows off it often has potential. Maybe I’m good at that early bit of recognition of pieces of potential. I’m not sure.
GHORASHI: A lot of your songs tend to have patterns—how do you find them?
HECKER: I try to structure albums in a pattern, like in a way where there’s a motif that runs throughout or some kind of conceit that informs it in a general way. Maybe it’s in a harmonic key. I like to go metastructural sometimes, like look at more than the three-minute passage and how that interacts with other pieces. And I’ve been increasingly interested in false starts and fraudulent beginnings, and things that don’t reach their implied conclusions. I take an album and I kind of start moving things around like Jenga, you know…[laughs] It kind of becomes this disfigured collage or something. Where you’re cutting up bits of a magazine and putting the nose where the ear is or whatever. I don’t know.
HECKER: Totally. Some form of Picasso.
GHORASHI: Do you ever get inspiration from things in nature… this is clichéd, but like from the sound of wind blowing through the trees, things like that?
HECKER: Yeah, I definitely road test music. I’ll drive in the car and look up at the sky and that often makes it more clear, like what’s good and what’s not. Driving in darkness is amazing, because you really feel the energy and what has presence, spirit to it, and what doesn’t. But I more draw direct inspiration from human culture more than anything, like works of human art.
GHORASHI: Do you think it’s odd that artists tend to stick to one area, whether it’s art or writing or music?
HECKER: I’ve always thought that each album—going back 10 years—would be my last one, and then I would be out of ideas and I would move to photography or something. I thought it was transient and it’s not because of this entrenched career stubbornness that I’ve done it for so long, it’s just something I enjoy doing, and it’s the most direct way I can express something.
GHORASHI: I think it’s interesting that there are a limited number of ways you can go artistically, if you think about it. Maybe the way people should be expressing themselves is by washing windows or something.
HECKER: Yeah, yeah, that could be cool. I’m really into clean glass. Dirty glass really fucks me up.
GHORASHI: Yeah. It gives you such a dark message.
HECKER: Yes! [laughs] It’s so dark.
GHORASHI: Speaking of dark, a lot of people say your music is… not depressing, but dark would be a good word. Do you feel like it’s an expression of sad things or dark thoughts that you have?
HECKER: I don’t know, to be honest. It’s like a kind of a mode I’m comfortable working with in expressing myself. I don’t really lead my life in an overly morose way. I kind of have a dark sense of humor sometimes…
GHORASHI: We like that.
HECKER: Of course. Who doesn’t? [laughs] But yeah, I wouldn’t say that they’re all depressing. I would say there’s a certain weight to things sometimes. I will say I’ve really tried to reign back on the bloated, heavy-handed Lars von Trier stuff, styled mood bludgeoning. I’ve tried to do things more delicately, and this record is an attempt to pull back like an inch from the kind of bombastic maneuver or motif. Even though sometimes it gets intense. At the end of my last record, I kind of feel like I went as far as I wanted to go as far as the dense, bloated, kind of crescendo-as-expression, and where do you go after that, make it even more crescendoed? More intense, more dense? I felt it was like a dead end, and I felt like I had to pull back.
GHORASHI: I think listening to your music live is a much different experience than listening to it on mp3. When I listen to it digitally, it seems much less intense and much more melodious, but when I heard it live it was much more of a drone sound, really flattening. Do you think people can appreciate both forms equally, or do you recommend that people see the live experience?
HECKER: I wouldn’t say that I’m a consummate live artist. Album work is kind of just like quilt weaving or something. But live music is just like a method of emptying out the mind through volume. Volume as a form that allows you to do different things. And that doesn’t really translate to recorded music, like how do you listen to that, on Spotify or in your car? It’s not the same kind of effect. I would say that the loudness is a huge part of what I do live.
GHORASHI: You give organ concerts, right?
HECKER: I have done that, yeah.
GHORASHI: Do you like that whole cathedral tradition of music; do you like to listen to Gregorian chants and things like that?
HECKER: For sure, I definitely enjoy liturgical work and choral work from the 15th century and 16th century, but I play in churches with a bit of trepidation, and it’s not something I enjoy because there are all these problems. It’s an implication that you’re part of the theological apparatus, like for atheists or something, and I don’t like that. I like playing with the form, inhabiting the tropes of religious music without that promise of angels at the end. It can be awkward, you know?
GHORASHI: Are you an atheist?
HECKER: I’d say more agnostic, personally. I’m not Dawkins-style. I’m more into Pascal’s Wager. You can’t be sure there’s not a God, so why live your life in hatred or the denial of that. It’s better to be open to the possibility of it. Just because the whole conceit of scientism… is that our world is explained by two atoms smashing, right? Our green planet came out of that. But I just don’t buy where the original line comes back to, those two atoms. The explanations aren’t fully in yet, so I’m not part of the Dawkins-meets-Hitchens-meets-Stephen Hawking kind of thing. It’s a killjoy.
GHORASHI: Back to more secular things, it seems to me that musicians of your sort have an anti-image, where you’re the guy in the hoodie in the back and you do a set and you leave and you definitely don’t bring a lot of ego with it. What do you think?
HECKER: I wouldn’t say I’m ego-less, but I’d say there’s something uncomfortable about the presentation of one’s self in the media. I think photographs used to be a bit more ephemeral, like they’d decay and be in magazines and they were not consolidated into this formaldehyde of eternity like the Internet is. Any image sent out is permanently in the spin cycle. And there’s a paralysis of that, the way your image is presented. I’ve always been hesitant, but I’m definitely not shy or anything. Does that make sense?
GHORASHI: Yeah, I think your music is trying to speak for itself.
HECKER: Exactly. That’s the hope, absolutely.
GHORASHI: What are your feelings about music journalism and written critique of music? Do you think music should only be responded to by other music?
HECKER: No, I really support criticism as a craft and as a vocation. People who devote as much time to thinking about sound through writing as I do practicing and forming it, the whole system of journalism seems to not yield rewards sustainable as a craft. So few can spend enough time to be serious about it and approach it with confidence and a kind of depth. And that’s good on one level, because you have some leveling, that’s kind of maybe leveled the petty fiefdoms of undeserving people but it’s also made it hard to make a living as a writer. So whenever I cry about how hard it is to be a musician, I always know journalism is a challenge to devote yourself to writing about music.
GHORASHI: But do you feel that adjectives are enough to encompass what the sound is?
HECKER: Yeah, I mean there’s a limit of any form of representation; it’s the same about writing about visual art. I still think it’s useful for people to think through things in a deeper way, and use adjectives even if they’re not sufficient, you know? I always find it interesting what terms they use to refer to the work. It’s always different, and that’s kind of intriguing. Sometimes it’s clichés, but often it’s really creative ways of paraphrasing or reformatting what to mean seems something else. I like that, personally.
GHORASHI: How did you get the name Virgins?
HECKER: It kind of came out of the album art. When I was making the record, I was pretty sure this picture I took in the dome cathedral in Milan was going to be the cover—it was kind of the encapsulation of this weird kind of beauty. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And at the end of the record, album titling is just literally like me and a few friends sending quips back and forth. And I think my friend Paul Corley, who worked on the record, threw it out with other things. It takes a little while to sink in if that’s going to be the title or not. I mean, talking about words, I take that stuff really seriously and I think the kind of lighting around music is really interesting. I used to begrudge it, I used to be about radically pure sound… you know, any form of one sheets, writing, album art, presentation of any form, context was always super secondary. And then it just, at some point, maybe three albums ago, I lightened up and enjoyed it more and kind of saw it as this poetic moment to kind of finish a project that’s primarily sonic.
GHORASHI: When you’re making music, are you trying to get closer to the answer to some question?
HECKER: I’d say not. I like to think while I’m in the midst of it, but I always see it as a document of thought and effort and inspiration over a period of time, you know? It’s like trying to make your work better, more interesting, push it in different directions, make it satisfying on a kind of personal level. But I don’t know. It’s a hard one to say. I’ve always said my records are these failures of not getting where I want them to go, they end up detouring somewhere else, so on one level it’s partly a disappointment, and on another level it’s being comfortable with surrendering to that kind of state of becoming or whatever.
GHORASHI: Do you think you’ll ever be satisfied with an album, or will it always be a progression?
HECKER: If I was completely satisfied, I’d probably give it up, because that’d mean I had attained some kind of state that was greater than I’d ever hope, so I think I’d just give it up. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
TIM HECKER’S VIRGINS IS OUT NOW. HE WILL PLAY HUMAN RESOURCES IN LOS ANGELES NEXT WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 6. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.