active looping

Dave Stafford, August 2010: “LOUD” is one of those musical accidents, a happy accident, similar to “Early” in that it was never really meant to be a record.


“LOUD” was recorded during the sessions for “Quiet”, and was released at the same time because in order to really understand the full repertoire of Bindlestiff, you really need to hear BOTH albums, together.


“Quiet” was the target, but “LOUD” was the wonderful bonus that came so very unexpectedly.  While we were working on the tracks for “Quiet”, in weekly recording sessions, we would often play other tracks from our live repertoire, if memory serves, those would be “Suspend Your Disbelief”, “Sleep It Off”, “Fantasia”, “Close The Circuit” and “The Wall Of Ninths” – certainly, none of those tracks really belonged on “Quiet” because we really wanted “Quiet” to be fully ambient.


So multiple versions of those four tracks were recorded, as well as eight other tracks that were just “one-off” tracks, or completely improvised tracks, or ideas developed, recorded and forgotten in the space of a few hours or days (such as the “Suddenly…” series of pieces).


Other tracks still, such as our ebow driven cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” were also recorded, as well as other live and improv pieces that didn’t make it to either “Quiet” OR “LOUD”.


Once we had finished “Quiet”, we realised that we had ALSO finished “LOUD” – because we’d not just captured the ambient heart of Bindlestiff, on “Quiet”, but at the same time, during months of sessions, we’d accidentally captured the humorous, improvisational, experimental and sometime downright odd side of Bindlestiff.


The presence of these extra tracks demanded entrance into the world, so, the minute that “Quiet” was done, that it had been mixed, mastered and produced, I immediately returned back to the tape, and with Bryan Helm’s assistance, gathered together the tracks that became “LOUD”.


I really, REALLY enjoy the “Quiet” album but sometimes, just for a moment, I secretly think that I enjoy “LOUD” just a tiny bit more.  It’s wilder, it’s more uninhibited, and it’s as experimental and as strange as “Quiet” is organised, quiet and lovely.





So “LOUD” begins with another live performance staple, a piece that was devilishly hard for both of us, particularly for Bryan Helm on the world’s fastest manual organ arpeggios.  This track was always difficult to execute, and also, it would tend to change a little bit each time we did it, its form never settled 100% like some of the pieces did.  Well, 85% I should probably say.


It’s a contrast in speeds – Bryan playing very, very fast, myself, playing very, very long notes, carefully layering them atop the flying organs.  Bryan drives this piece forward, relentlessly, through sheer will – and I find this to be perhaps the most amazing, most virtuoso performance on his part – and a delight to play my liquid ebow lines over.


I was actually quite startled during this take – because, for some reason, Bryan had started this normally very fast piece at a MUCH faster tempo than it usually was, but, I just carried on as if nothing had changed, and I think that somehow, we both “made it through” this amazing, super-high-speed/uptempo rendition of “Suspend Your Disbelief”.


The piece suddenly slows, and we improvise a brand new ending – with a send-off from myself – an ebow note shoved into the echo to stop the piece cold.


This is the only take ever made at this pace, but after reviewing many, many candidate takes of “Suspend Your Disbelieve” – most of them at the slow pace, this one, at the very hot, fast pace – in the end, the amazing organ part just had to be the one, so the totally different, never before and never again performed “fast version” of “Suspend Your Disbelief” became the “official version”.


To date, no other version has been published by pureambient.com, but that situation may change.  For the moment, this stands as the “standard”, and what a remarkable piece of musicianship from the good Mr. Helm.





Next comes a jam session, a totally unknown piece, “Passage By Day” that I believe, but am not certain, we only played on the one occasion, Bryan set up this very quick drum and synth loop, I had a series of heavily-overdubbed pitch pedal ebow guitars stored in my looper.  We often started tracks this way, normally, Bryan would get a drum track going, and then we would both experiment, try different ideas for maybe five minutes, maybe longer on some occasions – and once happy, we would turn our volume all the way down….count off, bring in our loops with out respective foot pedals or volume controls, and then started improvising on top of the loops.


I don’t believe that there are more than one or two versions of this particular track, and this one was so obviously “the one” – Bryan layering on those beautiful organs and synth washes, and myself, a mixture of pitch pedal, looped and live, and long, constant ebow notes – and then, the song drifts away as quickly as it arrives.





“A Remarkable Experience” follows, another jam/improv, never before and never again played by the band, just something that Bryan Helm created on the fly, drums, congas, bass – and I then created a loop that “went along with” his loop – ebows, pitch pedal ebows, and in a similar fashion to the previous track, we bring up the loops – and start improvising.  I am playing some very strange scales in this piece, just feeling things, allowing strange bends and even stranger intervals to occur, the ebow lazily winding through Bryan’s brilliant pattern.


It was a complete one-off, and I believe again that there are probably only one or two takes of this track (if there is even more than one).  The title came from me – when we finished playing it the first time, I’d had such a strange experience playing those weird, weird notes, strange bends, playing in a really unusual way – that as soon as the take ended, I looked at Bryan and said “that was a remarkable experience”.


The name stuck.  I love what Bryan does to his track for the last 20 seconds or so, suddenly treating his loop only with some sort of gated reverb, which creates a fantastic mood during the song’s fade out.





Now we reach a piece that is, unbelievably, actually part of the latter-day Bindlestiff performance repertoire, the most unusual “Sleep It Off”.  I loved playing this song, because I really don’t have to DO anything – I am at the synthesiser, and I have one job, and one job alone - to create the strange, stereo bird-like sounds, which drift back and forth across the stereo field throughout the entire piece.  That’s all I do, so I have this sample playing, and I’m just adjusting and warping this funny little sound effect, while Bryan Helm carries the entire song.


As to how he did what he does on this piece, well, that’s the sound of Bryan Helm being UTTERLY creative, he captures pieces of music, and warps them in time, slowing them down, speeding them up, all the while playing away on the organ this cheery little ditty, while I sit and make my little sound effect drift back and forth across the stereo field.


This particular take is an absolute tour-de-force performance from Mr. Helm, who plays the piece absolutely FLAWLESSLY, and while doing so, does various loops, speed tricks, and treatments – this is a live performance, mostly by ONE MAN – with myself assisting only in the smallest of ways.

Despite the frivolity of the tune, I stand in awe at Bryan’s performance on this – an
amazing live take.  And he could re-create this faithfully on stage – somehow.  Using that Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay with an amazing degree of skill, manipulating time and space WHILE he is playing – this is just a wonderful piece of music.





Next up is “Suddenly, Nothing Happens” – these were from a series of two different variations of a common theme, we spent a day or two, off and on, developing this, but it was never really performed, we just worked on it enough to get a decent take of each version, and then never went back to it – ever.


I create a loop of very quickly picked notes, Bryan joins in on looped drums and synths, and then I play a live ebow melody on top.  This is a live performance, on top of two running loops.  I really like this piece, and I think it’s a shame it wasn’t developed more, but this at least captures its essence.  The title, however, reveals that we didn’t really think it had an ending, that it just sort of “goes along” – but, I really like the LONG ebow note at the very end, and how it ends in that reverbed, confused picked loop, fading away mysteriously…





Named thusly because of a passing resemblance, of the synth bass line, to an early 10cc song called “Baron Samedi” – this is another live improv, I think, pretty much unplanned, Bryan had a loop, mostly a drum loop with said bass part, and I just soloed on top of it, unusually, using a plectrum instead of an ebow.


So I’m playing distorted pitch pedal lead guitar, while Bryan is, as usual doing everything else – the drum and bass loop, amazing live synths beautifully underpinning what I am doing, live drum parts being added into the drum loop as he goes – the man is a whirlwind of musical activity, mutating and altering events as the song progresses, while I just solo away…


Then, at 2:35 – something went wrong with the take – I hit a REALLY bad note, or something went wrong, so, we stopped playing. However, I was so determined to save the first part of the jam, which I really liked, that I said, on the spot, “let’s do a live fix to this track”.


We altered our loops, which were still playing away in our respective loop devices, manipulated them so that they were “more ambient”, I increased the reverb level dramatically, and then cued up the tape at the point just after Bryan plays a distinctive synthesizer melody.


With both loops just running, I literally hit “record” with the tape sat just after the melody but just before my error – and it started recording this very ambient piece, which still contains the rhythmic elements of the piece, but the content has been changed – I also think one of us intentionally “smacked” the reverb unit at JUST the moment I started the tape, which made a sort of “explosion” noise – which neatly covered the fact that we had just made a LIVE EDIT onto a piece of ¼ inch tape!


We “finished” this new part of the track, and then ran the tape back to listen to the transition – which, if you didn’t know, could seem utterly natural.  The driving, drum driven rhythmic piece suddenly “exploding” into a deeply reverbed atmospheric ambient loop, as if it had been planned that way!  The ambient outro contains still more explosions (to tie in with the one that transitioned from part one to part two) and rumbling bass and synth portamentos from Mr. Helm, which made the entire piece seem totally planned – which of course…it wasn’t.


Obviously, there was no need to do anything else – I had preserved the amazing first two and a half minutes of this one-of-a-kind jam, AND created a mysterious, ambient “second part” to it – the mother of invention and all that.


I am very proud of that, an unlikely idea that worked far, far better than it should have.  Fortune often smiled on Bindlestiff in the studio and on stage!





Next is “Fantasia”, a piece that we had played for a long, long time on stage, and one of my favourites.  It’s a “planned improv” – we have some basic idea of it’s structure, but, it’s completely different each time.  Bryan plays in total ambient mode, drumless – beautiful basses and synth washes – while I am playing pitch pedal ebow guitar into a harmoniser patch called “Fantasia”, one of my customised MIDI continuous controller patches, so as I played and looped pieces of pitch pedal ebow, I could at the same time “adjust” the pitches of the entire loop / live guitar up and down using this pedal.


So sometimes, the MIDI CC is up, which gives all the tones a very trebly sound, but if I push down the CC pedal, all the harmonies drop down two octaves to this very mysterious, dark, musical place.


The piece is based loosely around “one chord” but it’s really quite formless – I suppose, Bryan is playing “the same chord” throughout, but, there is so much bending, and harmonising, and strange CC driven artefacts in there as well – that overall, it’s indistinct.


I hear myself doing a little loop of pitch pedal guitar, locking it, then turning it backwards – we both just are manipulating the sounds coming from our instruments to the nth degree – trying to get the most possibility out of this open-ended, free-form anything-goes piece of abstract music.


This piece is possibly most closely related to “The Wall Of Ninths” – although it was never intended to be dissonant like that song, in some instances, it ended up nearly as strange.  Nominally, it’s melodic – but the presence of madly shifting pitches, reversed pitch pedal guitar, and the strange effects of the harmonising CC pedal – and then Bryan plays the MOST beautiful synth melodies in the middle of all this, a moment of normality, of sanity, amidst the spinning smoke and mirrors that is the complex, lush, and very strange backing loops that make up most of “Fantasia”.


One aspect of it that I find interesting is that quite quickly, it becomes impossible to tell what is looped and what is live – it just becomes a SOUND, in this case, a very dense, intense sound.


I think this is one of the very best representations of what Bindlestiff could accomplish – and if you listen to this, and then realise that first of all, it’s a live performance, and secondly, it’s just two people – the full performing prowess of the band becomes evident when we were lucky enough to have the tape rolling when a performance like this version of “Fantasia” was unfolding.


Again, as the take progresses, it begins to quiet down, become less dense, and then it fades away slowly, but in your mind, you just hear it going on and on and on forever.


A final pair of harmonised MIDI continuous controller descending pitch pedal ebow guitars-in-motion is met by an amazing flurry of synth from Bryan, and then finally the track disappears into nothingness.





Then – the full on assault of yet another amazing improv - “Heavy Water” - if memory serves, we developed this track one morning, did three takes of it, and then never played it again – or maybe, we tried to play it again once, a few days later - but it was never the same.


I am not sure which take it was that ended up on the record, but this is the classic Bindlestiff improv.  We each develop a loop.  In this case, Bryan has a rattling, insistent snare drum, with synths attached, while I have a confusing, dense set of wildly pitch-shifting guitars.


We bring up the loops, and begin playing live on top of them, Bryan on yet more amazing synthesizers, myself on ebow/pitch pedal ebow guitars.


Given that this is a one-off improv, that came from nowhere, I just love the wild abandon with which the band tackle the piece.


I think that this piece in particular shows a side of Bindlestiff that you didn’t see or hear much of, there are just a few examples, where things get quite intense, almost heavy, and in the execution of this very unusual improvisation, I would say that the band rocks.





Moving from “Heavy Water” onto “Close The Circuit” – if “Heavy Water” was the hint of heavyosity, then “Close The Circuit” bears full witness to the awesome performance power that lay just beneath the band’s quiet, ambient exterior.


This track is unique in several ways, first of all, it’s the ONLY track from the “Quiet/LOUD” sessions that isn’t FROM the sessions, it’s actually taken from a live gig that was done around the time of the sessions, but it was felt that it is such a unique track, that it needed to be included on “LOUD” to fully demonstrate the remarkable range of musical styles that Bindlestiff could, and did, work with.


“Close The Circuit” is another one of these pieces that wasn’t truly part of the repertoire, it almost was, but we played it only a handful of times, or less.


It was based loosely on an octave guitar figure of mine, but in performance, once again, it’s Mr. Helm that’s driving the entire thing forward.  I’m able to loop some of the said octaves to create a rhythmic backing, but once I’ve done that, I return to my role as “soloist” and I just play lead guitar, fiercely, from beginning to end.


Bryan, on the other hand, builds up a fantastic supporting loop, of drums, bass and synths, and does a fair bit of soloing himself, so it’s really in some ways standard Bindlestiff operating mode:  two loops, and both of us then soloing on top of that.


But it’s the soloing that probably sets this apart, because there is absolutely nothing ambient about this track.  The guitars loop and swing and fly, with a lot of wah-wah guitar, a lot of pitch pedal guitar, and the solos fairly blaze along on top of Bryan’s insistent drum rhythm.


Bryan however is not accompanying me so much as he is running the whole track, driving it relentlessly, again, altering his loop at will, dropping pieces of conga or drum into the loop, or as one-off events, and then adjusting time to warp those congas into a remarkable sounding percussive attack unit.


The manipulation of time and space is intense, and it really adds to the whole atmosphere of the track, which is fast, rocking and a lot of fun, both to perform and to listen to after the fact.


Meanwhile, I am experimenting heavily with the possibilities of the pitch pedal, using it at one point as if it were a two-octave portamento on an old analogue synthesizer.


As the pieces nears the end, Bryan brings in a stunning series of live, improvised chords that are just absolutely beautiful, I try to establish a melodic theme, then Bryan brings his loop down to a repeating, two-note bass riff with a spinning synthesizer on top of it…by the end, I’d dumped enormous amounts of very fast lead guitar into my looper, so there is a swirling pool of looped guitars to match Bryan’s synth, and finally, after a lot of really, really quality solos from BOTH players, the track finally starts to wind down.  


I try to “calm” my loop by intentionally dropping long notes into it, and the track eventually ends in a most amazing, and totally live, fade out.


It should be noted that “Close The Circuit” was recorded live to tape at a Bindlestiff gig and contains no overdubs of any kind – this is the sound of two people playing live.


But…emulating a band with a drummer, a bass player, a conga player / percussionist, three keyboard players including an organist, and about six lead guitarists - all playing at once.


This is also one of the longest live improvisations that the band ever did, and in my opinion, one of the finest.  If you want to hear Bindlestiff “rock” – listen to both “Heavy Water” and “Close The Circuit”, but, particularly the latter, because the band really stretch out, let go, let their hair down, and just go at it, soloing as if there is no tomorrow.  A fantastic experience, and a joyful one, to perform that track with just the two of us – I am inordinately proud of this live track.





We now return to the studio environment, but having said that, this track is just as “live” as “Close The Circuit” is.  This is the “shorter”, more concise variant of the two different existing versions, and this one now has a worked-out ending, hence the change of title – this is the piece that “Suddenly, Nothing Happens” had been, now complete with a proper “ending”.


From the very long to the very short, while “Suddenly, Nothing Happens” runs for over three minutes, in the end, in it’s final form now reprised as “Suddenly, Something Happens” we’d decided that the piece needed to be VERY concise, so we shortened it down to under one minute, and instead of looping, I just play the clean lead guitar part manually instead, with a very sharp ending.


So the form is now clear – the drum loop fades up, Bryan comes in with the bass, and I begin the guitar figure, playing it live from start to sudden finish.


After this was completed, we never revisited this track again, but I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle, it shows that when we needed to, we could step up to the plate and play a composed piece of music – so it’s the composed as opposed to the improvised.





And now we move onto to “Thunderous Voice” – this was not a repertoire piece, but I believe we played it a few times, I think it was actually one of the first pieces we completed, it was done early on in the “Quiet/LOUD” sessions, starting with an ominous bass loop from Bryan, and then a set of looped energy bow guitars is brought in.  


Then, my loop stops, I restart a loop from what I am playing live, and at the same time, Bryan starts and brings up a snare drums rhythm on top of the bass line.  So the bass line is his loop, but the drum machine is set on pattern repeat so that the snare riff actually sounds like a loop as well.


Then as usual, we both improvise, Bryan playing a two chord figure, myself, first on normal ebows, with the odd burst of pitch pedal madness coming out, as the piece progresses, Bryan in particular starts adding more and more lush, atmospheric content to it, I begin playing a descending ebow figure on top of my already running ebow melody loop, the reverb seems to turn itself up somehow, and we are now jamming away in a massive hall.


There was a specific plan with the reverb, which suddenly then disappears again, revealing the plain, unadorned loops (which actually sound pretty good “dry”) and then slowly, the reverb begins to return, as I play the odd pitched up note with the Digitech Whammy II pitch pedal.  


Now some high-pitched melodies are added to Bryan’s perfectly crafted two-chord background, more ebow soloing as the track progresses, punctuated by sudden portamentos up or down.


A lovely set of chords played live by Bryan bring some harmonic change, and I follow, somehow, on the ebow – by instinct rather than by having any idea of what chord he was playing!


The soloing starts to back off, and the loops are just running on their own, as we “supervise” the long fade out – suddenly, the snare drum stops, which allows us to hear better what the loops are doing, and at the same time, Bryan fills the new space with beautiful synth washes, while I improvise a new ebow melody on top…neither of us having any idea what chord, what note, even what key we are playing in – we are “just playing”.


I stay on one long note, Bryan follows, and a beautiful ending, with a slowed-pitch “gong” sound to end, makes a perfect finish – a live ending, utterly unplanned – just through shared playing experience, we “knew” when, and how, to end the track.





The final track on “LOUD” is the “official” version of our most dissonant track, “The Wall Of Ninths”, which was part of our repertoire for approximately two years.  During the “Quiet/LOUD” sessions, we recorded many, many live takes of “The Wall Of Ninths”, many of which are quite, quite good.


This one, however, was just a little bit better, it really, really captures the essence of what the track should be – disconcerting, unsettling, alien, strange – nothing is familiar, there is no rhythm, no melody, no chords, nothing that you can really focus on besides a vaguely rumbling “bass” courtesy of Bryan Helm.


In this piece, I am playing both energy bow guitar and synthesizer, mostly the latter, but when I play the ebow, I am intentionally running it through some really uncomfortable intervals on the Whammy II pedal, so if I play a descending figure, a very dissonant “harmony” follows along.


I changed the pitch ratio several times during the piece, and some of the harmonised guitars are also performed using a bottleneck slide, driven by an ebow, into these strange pitch patches.


The combination of energy bow and slide is a really lovely sound, but in this case, it just comes across as terrifying.


The piece is totally improvised, we have no real “rules”, but we do use certain sounds, certain harmony settings, certain atmospheres to try and create a special ambient space, albeit a very creepy and strange one – and to a large degree, this tactic succeeds VERY well on this particular take.


It’s just all a bit uncomfortable, but when I listen to it, I am simply trying to discern with my ears who is playing what when, what is live, what is on the loop, etc. – and it’s very difficult to do – some musical “events” are obvious – the “motorcycle” sound is one of mine, a stock patch on the Yamaha DX7S synth I used for the track.


Other white noises and certain sound effects were mine.  Obviously, the strangely harmonised ebows, and harmonised slide ebows, were played by me, but Bryan is also adding in a lot of content using his Korg synth, so the combination of the two synths and the rather strange ebow guitars, a top the ominous, creepy bass background – it really does create a very sinister and unique atmosphere.


It takes you to a sort of friendly musical hell, where you can experience unpleasant sound and events but not be directly effected by them, where you can try to understand them and allow them to percolate into your consciousness, you can learn to live in this musical world.


I really enjoy this piece, especially when very strange things occur, like during minute ten when you get various white noise/wispy sounding events, sudden wallops, the passing motorcycle, creeping ebow, reverb explosions – just a lovely mix of very unusual sounds.


As the end nears, the loops thin out, there is less activity, and only a few remaining events help us wind the piece down to a totally live fade, with Bryan’s bass part making a slight return to bring the piece to a successful close.


It should be noted that “The Wall Of Ninths” was recorded live to tape, with just two people playing.





“LOUD” was an almost accidental, unplanned “result” of the process of trying to capture the ambient repertoire – in between trying to capture the ambient repertoire, “LOUD” demonstrates that we have two very different repertoires, and the “LOUD” one is really just as powerful and as meaningful as the “Quiet” one.


I find it difficult to separate the two in my mind, and sometimes I wish I had a “chronological version” that includes all the tracks from both albums, so you could hear the entire Bindlestiff catalogue (including one-off improvs) as it was meant to be.


By playing both “Quiet” and “LOUD” at the same sitting, in sequence or even with the tracks shuffled / mixed up, will almost give you that experience – the songs were all recorded together, all performed together, and they were only separated to achieve an aim relating to the release of the “Quiet” album – otherwise, they might have just been “Bindlestiff’s Last Album” – but it would definitely be a double album.


We will never know now, but whether combined with the tracks on “Quiet” or as a standalone album, “LOUD” has an enormous and diverse variety of musical styles, moods and atmospheres present on it which can be enjoyed as the “active” companion to the “ambient” masterwork, “Quiet”.


Any divisions are really arbitrary, and in one sense, the 22 tracks that span “Quiet” and “LOUD” represent what the band was playing at the end of its live career (with a few significant and unfortunate omissions).



But I am very happy with the way the tracks WERE divided, it makes more sense perhaps than the “one big record” concept because you have the option of listening to “Quiet” when you feel…quiet, and to “LOUD” when you feel…more boisterous.



“LOUD”, in a word, rocks – if an ambient band can rock – you’ll hear what that sounds like on THIS record.




Please see the entry for “distant” to read what happens next - the previous album is “quiet”.




notes from the guitarist’s seat:




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