At the time of writing, Ambersmoke has little-to-no presence on the internet. They barely even glance at social media. Their identity is an esoteric mystery, obscured behind decaying photographs, or eschewed for re-appropriated images of the dearly departed. Instead, the being which we perceive to be “Ambersmoke” is a fragmented, disjointed phantom, whose form, consciousness, and volition are scattered across a boundless wasteland of cassettes, CD-Rs, zines, VHS tapes, and more.
Exploring Ambersmoke’s back catalogue is not an easy feat, even in the all-access age of the internet where an entire artist’s discography can be available with a single keystroke. Their archaic approach to releasing their music, often only available on fragile physical formats, promotes the lost act of discovery in music. Tracking down and exploring each of their limited releases is like brushing away the dust on an old photograph, uncovering repressed memories and feelings that have been locked away for years and years.
Some releases take the hyper-limited characteristic to the fullest degree possible. Some records are only limited to a singular copy, or in some cases, entirely unreleased altogether, leaving the listener with the tangible sense of absence that cascades through Ambersmoke’s music. The tape, CD, or music file you listen to is like a puzzle with missing pieces, and a feigning reminder that everything is impermanent, and will all soon decay.
Ambersmoke remains an elusive character in the pantheon of experimental music, more akin to a ghost than a personality. Little is known about them, other than their base of operations being in the Bay Area of California, the centre to a flourishing hub of like-minded experimentalists. Ambersmoke has never given interviews until now.
Over the years, you’ve been slowly encompassing a wide range of styles into your music. Weird folk music… psychedelia… is Ambersmoke growing into more of a tool for experimentation?
Ambersmoke has always been a tool for experimentation, honestly. The project started as sort of an in-joke between my friends and I and after the joke got old (which didn’t take long at all), I immediately began experimenting with just whatever ideas I had that didn’t fit musically into any other project. Lately I’ve been working on droney “ghost folk” and choral, almost spiritual, drone pieces.
Why choose to keep yourself anonymous?
I don’t really. I just don’t care. Lots of people know who I am, lots of people come up to shows and recognize me from Ambersmoke performances. I don’t try to hide my identity, you can easily find my name in a quick Google search. My name shouldn’t have any effect on the art.
Many of your records are super-limited releases. I feel like that goes beyond for more than just a lack of resources. Is there a statement you wish to make by releasing records in strings of ten, three, sometimes singular copies?
Sometimes it’s a lack of resources. You know, along the lines of “oh, I only have these 4 blank tapes and I want to put this out at my next show cos I have nothing else to sell”. Things like that. Other times it’s just a total pisstake. We (much to the surprise of many, Ambersmoke does have a revolving collective-esque lineup) decided a few weeks ago it’d be funny to put out a new tape every day, each limited to 1. It quickly proved too hard to accomplish, but the first tape ended up really cool so it’ll be released soon. Things like the “hand curiated foliage” in the recent box set happen just because we see things in craft stores, like small jars, and just think “wouldn’t that be ridiculous to package this with something?”. While Ambersmoke is a serious project, we don’t take ourselves very seriously all the time. I certainly don’t.
What kind of emotional spaces does Ambersmoke manifest in?
There’s no real answer to this question I think. Nothing I can easily name. It’s easy to say something like “sadness and despair”, but that’s not the case. It’s hard to explain.
Do you feel closely associated to any nearby “scenes”? California has a rather large noise scene.
Not especially. I’ve been shunned by the majority of the people who have heard my music and at the last show, we played to maybe 3 people. Nobody talks to us, nobody really cares about what we’re doing. I’m not trying to be a part of any scene, I don’t care. We’re embraced by the Arcane Visions Collective up north and the Salope Cassette scene down here in southern California, but I don’t see Ambersmoke as really a part of either family.
Other mediums of art appear to play an increasingly more important role in Ambersmoke. Outline the importance of the non-musical aspects of your art, such as the visual design, performance aspects, physical releases, etc.
Ambersmoke has never really been a “band” or a sort of musical project. While the music is the primary artform, I feel the visual design, the tangible elements and the visual elements of live performances are equally as important. As I said earlier, while Ambersmoke is a very serious project, a lot of what I or we do is tongue in cheek. The artwork for Une femme est une femme is clearly a ripoff of Sacred Bones artwork, for example. It’s meant to be absurd or ridiculous. I’m not trying to rip something off and pretend like nobody notices. It’s the absurdity of it. There’s a lot of that in the packaging of these releases. It gets really over the top sometimes and that’s the point. It helps me convey the duality in the project, the balance of very serious musical works with ridiculous packaging, artwork or (less so these days) song titles.
Iconography from French films, Japanese art, nature and nostalgia is something that you appear to revisit constantly in your art. What is your fascination with these subjects?
I like French films because a few years ago I was really depressed and didn’t want to do anything so I laid in bed spending my time watching the most seemingly pretentious things I could get my hands on. There’s a lot of that in French cinema. The Japanese art stuff comes primarily from my adoration of Suehiro Maruo, which has influenced a substantial portion of my work. The rest of it is just because it works, honestly. I’m a photographer, it’s easy to take photos of flowers. Flowers look nice on a good black & white film. The subject matter itself is nearly irrelevant, it’s the feeling it invokes. I work around feelings, not directly with the subject matter.
Listeners tend to lump your music into the labels of “shoegaze, drone, black metal, post-punk, etc.” Do you reject these labels? Do you feel pigeonholed by listeners or critics?
I feel like nobody has really listened to my music. “Black metal”? “Post-punk”? I think like, did you really even listen to it? There are elements of all those genres you listed in my music, but there’s so much more. I don’t limit myself to one genre. I don’t work like “let me make a song in this genre today”, I write a song and whatever elements work their way in make the song. On the last record there were a lot of sampled house and funk beats under the heavy, doomy drums. Lots of tambourine. It’s not a black metal record, but everyone sure as hell tried to call it that.
That said, do you identify somewhat with the insular, “one-man band” character that appears numerous times in experimental music? Say, Scott Conner of Xasthur, for instance.
I see myself more like a loner Keiji Haino or Anton Newcombe. I like working with others, but I like writing and recording on my own. When performing with others, I prefer to let the musicians make up their own parts. The recorded material is that of a “one-man band”, but when others get involved, Ambersmoke is more of a true psychedelic group.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
Absolutely. The next album is inspired heavily by a few supernatural experiences that happened to us over the last few months. Even before then, the supernatural has had a lot of influence on me.
Are you fascinated by nostalgia?
Oh definitely. It’s a big driving force creatively for me. Ambersmoke lives mostly in the past, emotionally. Nostalgia is a concept that comes up a lot on just about every album.
Is “decay” an important element of your music? If so, please explain the importance of it.
Possibly the most important element. It led me to stop releasing music in digital formats, or at least cut back heavily. It bothered me that digital was essentially eternal and never degraded. I know analog formats are the cool thing right now, but I grew up with tapes. I grew up with VHS. Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was weird that the digital formats I’d become accustomed to never degraded. Not naturally at least. I’ve always been fascinated with analog decay. That’s how I want my music and my art to be experienced. I don’t want it to be eternal.
Do you worry about the future?
I worry about the present.
Wear Your Love Like Heaven is available now. Photography by Cameron Puleo.
This feature was powered by:
The Cure – Seventeen Seconds (1980)
Ambersmoke – Flowering Decay (2015)
Wilco – Being There (1996)