Caleb Mueller - Decomposure
Interview composed by Stu Hood - May 2007
As with most groups, I never knew much about Decomposure's Caleb Mueller until I started to really get into his music- a style laden with noticeable talent and creativity that is a unique experience these days, especially from a relatively unknown solo artist from a place like Elmira, Ontario.
His new album, Vertical Lines A was released at the beginning of May, so I decided to ask him a few questions about his work. Included for your listening pleasure is the first track off the new album.
The type of music you make seems like a long and painful process. Do you involve anyone else with your work, or is it strictly solo?
The songs on Vertical Lines A have a wide range of styles (pop, industrial, hip hop); who would you cite as an influence for each style, or overall?
Well, maybe not painful exactly, but I certainly do spend a lot of time with it. Probably too much time, really. The album I've just recently finished, Vertical Lines A, spans nearly two years from conception to birth: four months of planning and pre-visualizing, followed by a solid year of songwriting and recording, topped off with seven months of release preparation.
And yes, it's a strictly solo thing run from my after-work time island, which is part of why it takes as long as it does: writing, vocals, sequencing, video, web, album art and assembly, mailing, whatever; it's all me in my spare time on my lonesome. I've always been drawn to working with detailed, longterm art forms, and music just happens to be the point where all the things I love to work with converge.
Of course, in retrospect, it's a bit daunting or discouraging that it took as long as it did to get this one done, but I'm happy with how it turned out, and I don't know if I could have done it any other way.
You mention how the new album is constructed from eleven cassettes of sound fragments; where do you normally get your samples from?
My instinct is always to cite the old primal influences from back in junior high and high school, i.e. Counting Crows, Nine Inch Nails, Fatboy Slim, Eric B. & Rakim, etc. But while it's true that they may have laid a few foundations and hardwired themselves pretty deep into my awkward adolescent head, I've steadily become aware over the last couple years just how far away that era's becoming, and how little bearing it really has on my present outlook.
I think my influences have much more to do with the present than the past, and what I focus on in the present tends to be an amorphous jumble of many different artists, songs and elements; so it changes constantly. Right at this moment it's a lot of Burial, Smithsonian Folkways recordings of African drumming, Tim Hecker, and Sage Francis.
Although I honestly haven't had the time to listen to as much music as I'd like for the past few years, just because it's difficult to listen to music when you're working on your own stuff. I find myself looking forward to mindlessly monotonous or repetitive tasks just so I'll have enough deadspace to listen to music.
Your lyrics often seem to be a mix of surreal imagery and tech culture references; what are some of the inspirations behind your writing style?
I haven't really settled on a 'normally' yet; there's quite a bit of internal variation across what I've released so far. With VLA I went through the first 11 cassettes from a day I recorded then picked out sounds to build 11 songs from, but with past albums I've shuffled between instrumental and vocal, played instruments, and deconstructed board games, my computer's sound card noise, a political speech and stuff from around my apartment, so there's quite a bit of difference between sound sources (although the end result seems to cluster around a more unified overall texture).
Generally, I find unconventional or unstudioified sound fascinating, i.e. field recordings, cassettes, analog noise, the way sound reacts to walls, mic pops, botched takes, all that stuff. There's just something about it that I find infinitely more engaging than anything bleached by the millennium aesthetic. And often the song comes out of whatever that 'it' is: it gradually crystallizes around the characteristics of its source, sort of as a byproduct of exploration initially, until something snaps into place and becomes its own independent thing that can be elaborated on.
What I'm trying to get at is that it's really more about the process than the samples; the samples are just where the interest happens to start for me, like how individual Lego bricks are the starting point to a larger Lego castle.
The additional material on the DVD includes one of your sketchbooks with 80 pages of extensively annotated cut & paste collages. Was this put together during the making of the new album? Why did you decide to include it, and all the other bonus material, with the album?
Man, writing was my big preoccupation with this album, so there's a lot to say about this. Well, briefly, you guys reviewed At Home and Unaffected so you may have noticed that the writing in Vertical Lines A is drastically different. In the trough between the two albums I spent a lot of time tearing 'At Home and Unaffected' limb-from-limb and ultimately scrapping most of my entrenched assumptions about songwriting.
I found that in my attempt to present a unified 'message' and make The Important Statement, I was simplifying and narrowing self expression, working with a version of myself that wasn't complete, and people didn't seem to get/care about that 'message' anyway. So the writing in 'Vertical Lines A' is instead written with a much more personal vocabulary, about a broader palette of issues and concerns, constructed with language that allows for much deeper personal resonance and isn't quite as concerned with telegraphing everything. It's sort of a variation on the old 'you write what you know' adage, i.e. 'you write in the language you know'.
And yeah, because i'm a nerd, that language often hatches in the form of programming code, graphic design terminology and movie references. So yeah. I think i'm just going to abandon this one now.
You've mentioned that you try to make music unfiltered by what other people might expect you to make; is this harder than it sounds?
From the very beginning, Vertical Lines A was conceived not simply as an album, but as a larger project comprised of many other streams revolving around the nucleus of the album. So over the course of the project, in addition to compiling the music itself, I worked at finding or shaping elements that ran parallel to it.
Most of these elements are collected on the second disc (i.e. photos, process recordings, sound sources, the sketchbook), some I'm keeping to myself (my little songwriting notebook, additional field recordings), and some stuff is there to summarize other stuff (a video overview, instrumentals, isolated beats, an interview, etc.).
Each piece has its own reason for being, but the original motivation behind all of it was simply that I didn't/don't have much time to work on music, and I needed to find a way to feed that urge when it wasn't actually possible to do so, which seems a little counterintuitive ('Don't have time? Do more things!'), but it worked out.
Blank Squirrel Musics is a label you started recently. What are your plans with the label, and do you have any intentions of getting picked up by a mainstream or indie label?
I don't know. I guess what I was trying to get at was that I don't want to stagnate. So many artists reach a point where they simply stop inventing and turn back to hollow out their past for money or comfortability, like Monty Python or Steve Martin, and that prospect scares me.
I expect that you always sound like yourself to a certain point, but I don't want to become beholden to others' expectations, or allow my desire for acceptance to stunt artistic and personal growth. So far, one of the lucky perks of being an excruciatingly unknown spare-time music guy is that you have a lot of room to change and explore without threatening your livelihood or disappointing a massive fan base.
What are some of the tools you use to create your music (software & hardware)?
Yeah, I'm pretty excited about my little label. But as far as all that stuff, I can't honestly say I've thought much about it, although I do occasionally daydream about it solidifying into a self-perpetuating multi-artist full-time thing. But for right now, I'm just happy to give my music a home that isn't dependent on others' interest and won't collapse until I do. And I'm excited about the possibilities in unconventional packaging, smaller projects, experiments, etc.; there's a lot of artistic potential that I can't wait to tap into.
Have you played any of your music live? Do you plan to tour at all?
I'm really not much of a tools person; I use mostly very basic software on an aging (now deceased) PC and a little red multitrack recorder. Actually, this whole 'Decomposure' thing came in part out of a frustration with electronica's technology addiction, where entire industries are built around new expensive machines that do all the work for you.
The original idea was to wrestle control away from presets and easy roads and autopilots (at least halfway) and inject some humanity and effort into what I perceived as a trend toward sterilization and surface as opposed to expression and artistry. Being taken over by your tools, if you like.
However, I do have a weakness for kids' musicmaking toys from thrift stores. They don't often make it into albums, but I love them anyway. That's hardware, right?
Where can people get your music?
I've played live a couple times, and I love doing it when it works out, but between working a nine-to-fivethirty, chronic money deficiency, lack of time and general unpopularity, it doesn't work out that often, and I don't really have any plans as far as touring.
Excellent question! You can pick up actual physical copies of the album through Paypal or mail order through Blank Squirrel Musics, as well as CDBaby and Amazon.com. It also is/will be available through most major download services; I believe it's up on iTunes already, even.