Name: Ben Diamondstein
Current Release: Diamondstein's Reflecting on a Dying Man was published October 4th on Doom Trip Records.
Recommendations: "Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails" by Jimmy Lavalle & Mark Kozelek may be the most moving and poignant song I’ve ever heard. Jimmy has become a friend of mine in the last few years, and when I see him I’m in awe that he created something this wildly beautiful and heavy.
There’s a very sad painting I saw once that I think about a lot for some reason. It’s called Speech and its by the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. The colors and posture of the man in painting feel so incredibly sad to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever been moved so profoundly by a painting in real life. It’s one of those pieces that I struggle to explain why it affected me the way it did, but that just goes to show the bizarre affect that art can have on any person I suppose - what person in my life may have stood that way once, so unassumingly pathetic that I felt a rush of immense empathy and connection with that person. And then a Belgian painter managed to capture the explainable with a few brushes of paint, shaking this deeply buried emotion deep in me that I had no access to. This is what I want to do for someone somewhere, or multiple people if I’m lucky.
If you enjoyed this interview with Diamondstein, more information about him can be found on his bandcamp-, facebook- and soundcloud-pages.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My mom was a music teacher and my father was a fantastic acoustic guitar player, so I was essentially raised on music both recreationally and professionally. My mom always approached it from an almost scientific angle, insistent on my brother and I learning how to read music through piano and choir. She is a classical oboist, and would take us to her performances often, which I hated as a kid, but really wish I would have relished more because it was actually really special in retrospect. My dad rather was a lot more of a true lover of music, always eager to introduce me and my brother to the kind of music that he loved from when he was younger. So I suppose to answer your question, I really started performing and eventually writing music because of school choirs and piano from my mother. I think this is where my initial understanding of the language of music came from. When I started to get a bit older though, I started to explore some of the attributes my dad really loved, a lot more adventurous ideas, which then turned into my own discovery. When my dad first saw that I was becoming enthusiastic about synthesizers, he sent me a burned CD of his favorite songs from the Allan Parson’s project, and we revisited Emerson, Lake, and Palmer together. It was really special.
Apart from my family, a lot of my personal music taste came through a pretty labyrinthine path of discovery. I’m from rural Appalachia, so I wasn’t really surrounded by a lot of scenes who were exploring more artful music. Most of what I consider truly inspirational and influential to my taste now came a lot later, as an adult. Much of what I discovered, I had to find through magazines on my own and the earliest iteration of Napster. I remember downloading Armin Van Buuren and early trance stuff unknowingly, and it kind of changed my life in a way, having never really listened to any sort of dance music. Similarly, I would listen to a lot of Christian hardcore that people from the evangelical community of Parkersburg (my hometown) somehow were into, and that just led me further and further down a path of more extreme music, which I think are the two most prominent genres I’m drawn to now - synth-derived music and extreme metal, etc.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Yeah, this is an interesting question. I often tell early producers asking for tips that it takes a long time to find their sound. For me, I initially wanted to make more electro and somewhat generic techno, but my songs would always steer to a bit of a more narrative form. Sonically, it never sounded quite right because I really didn’t know what I was doing with mixes and EQing, but then the songs itself were also just never as straight as I thought I wanted them to be. Eventually, I made something that would be the beginning of my first album (The Ridges), which eventually became my song ‘Nat Sherman Arpeggiator’ and this was a bit of a revelation for me. The song was in 103, so much slower than the stuff I thought I wanted to make, and it was in 3/4, so inconvenient for dance music. However, it just had a heaviness to it that really clicked for me personally, so I started to go down the route of what people now I think reference with my music, which is the fact that it’s very “cinematic”. It has a lot of narrative, and I think that just happened because I began to truly abandon any attempt to make techno, and lean more into some of the sensibilities of people like Steve Moore, whom I honestly didn’t realize I liked as much as I did until I started deconstructing how I wrote music much later.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Well, the learning curve with music production is really steep of course, but I think because of the way that people acquire digital instruments these days, one of the biggest things I dealt with early on was paralyzation from too many tools. I don’t think this is uncommon either. I started getting quite serious about Diamondstein around 2011, and so I immediately started downloading every sample pack and vst I could find, hoping to have every tool at my disposal in the event I wanted to make something with a sampled pipe organ, or a timbla, or whatever. Of course, this just results in a perpetual struggle to make anything interesting. This, combined with a general lack of knowledge about some of the technical fine points of production led to a lot of disappointing songs that didn’t really feel or sound like anything at all.
Now, I’m a lot more limited with what I use as my initial palate. I have a few analog synths that I rely pretty heavily on, and try to do as much as I can out of the box initially. Then, when I do get to more software pieces, I have a relatively well-organized series of instruments and chains that I’ve devised over the years that I tend to really like for certain specific sounds that I use a lot. Whenever I get a new instrument, or have a hunch I want to start using a specific kind of sound, I tend to be pretty meticulous about what I’m trying to find, and I choose to invest in it. This is another behavior I’ve learned that I think is important for people to realize; invest in the tools you know you want to use. This way, you’re always a bit more inclined to use it, since otherwise it would seem like a waste of resources, which are of course limited to begin with for many people. That and really understanding what clicks with you personally, organizationally, are crucial realizations for anyone trying to make music with modern tools.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was basically a laptop with too many samples. Once I started to really understand a bit more about what I wanted to make, one of the first things I got was a decent pair of monitors, which I’ve had for nearly a decade now. I went through a phase where I started to get as many cheap pieces of hardware I could, but most of which I never really use or used. There are a few gems of course, but I think hardware can be a similar trap to software, where you acquire things for the eventuality, without really ever thinking about whether or not you are really interested in what it’s designed to do. A few years ago, I decided to buy a Dave Smith OB6, which has been the main synth I use for most things now, and largely changed my relationship with the production experience. It’s a very nice synth, so I decided that if I’m going to use synths in my music, I wanted to really focus on one in particular, and I thought it was the best for what I wanted to do. Around the same time, I also started investing in guitar pedals, which have also really changed the way I work. I think it’s important to essentially print sounds that you can’t change later, forcing you to use what you have without overthinking the process. My music is very dense, so I have a tendency to tweak things forever, which again can be very paralyzing. Guitar pedals and analog gear have really forced me to be more particular with the sounds I begin with, and adjust from there, which I really like.
Lately, I’ve actually started to move a bit more back to software oddly enough, but largely through Kontakt and certain sample-based instrument manufacturers like Spitfire, whom I really like. I’m interested in more organic, non-synthesizer music these days, so I’d really like to spend more time working with other skilled players, but for me to try and work with someone to play a cello or French Horn for instance, I want to have an idea of how the timbre might work within certain compositions, and these Kontakt plugs can really help. Plus, these are again, difficult resources, so the sonic fidelity is also high enough for me to let it sit in a song without feeling insecure that it’s coming from a soft synth.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Interesting question. I think music that sounds directly derived from technology are really interesting and really don’t need to necessarily fill a space that music from humans does. Of course they can overlap gracefully, but I think with something like techno for instance, I don’t crave a human touch, because the mechanical narrative is so interesting in that regard. Because we choose to dance with it, it almost feels like we’re creating a symbiosis with that music, and a convenient relationship with something that is increasingly sinister, and there’s something beautiful about that. Similarly, human music at its purest, gospel choirs for instance, are also beautiful in how purely singular they are with their source. In the same way that I’m less interested in techno with a deliberately human touch, I’m not sure I want gospel, or Gregorian chants, with an industrial touch. It’s not necessarily perverting the purity of it, as much as the replication with different tools seems like it just becomes something else entirely. It’d be interesting to hear a Russian Orthodox Prayer built very deliberately with a mechanized touch, but then I think it’s becoming something new, and that’s great, but it’s not really a Russian Orthodox Prayer anymore in the way that I think of it.
In terms of the creative process, and the relationship that I, or humans in general, have with machines, I think it’s just another tool that can expedite or limit the creative process. Like I mentioned earlier about my samples, too much can be incredibly debilitating when you have a tool that can do everything. The older I get, the more I just want a very specific sound, and to see what I can make that sounds a lot less like that sound, using that sound source. For instance, I’ve been thinking about getting a lap steel guitar lately, because I’m curious about how many different kinds of sounds I may be able to get out of it, using the slide. I think that’s much more interesting than finding a lap steel in a sound bank, sitting alongside a thousand other more nuanced sound sources.
This question has got me a bit philosophically ranting, so apologies for that. To center it again, I think humans always excel at nuance and subtly. Machines can produce with hyper efficiency. Both can do the other as well of course, but I think it’s hard to articulate with a machine the tenseness in someone’s voice when they’re trying to sing through the trauma of having just heard devastating news. It’s a little thing, but machines can’t do that. What machines can do though, is provide new and interesting sounds and sonic relationships that we may never get to experiment with otherwise because of money, or time, or whatever, and that truly is a beautiful and wildly resourceful thing.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Organization is so crucial when it comes to using anything technological. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in an interface, or the abundance of choice, that you very quickly lose an idea. My creative process is very impulsive. I get in a flow, and I just go until it feels right to stop. If I find myself getting caught up in trying to find the perfect sound, or getting lost in trying to understand where a button is in an interface, I completely lose my creative flow and then it feels like I have to start over. This makes me very frustrated. For this reason, I actually really appreciate presets sometimes, particularly when they’re very clearly just meant to articulate a very particular origin sound. On my new album, I used a fair amount of dulcimer, and I rarely strayed from the dulcimer sound that was just provided in the preset because I knew I wanted a very traditional dulcimer sound, and I didn’t want to distract myself playing with the tone when I was trying to write a part that would really use what the dulcimer was meant to do in my mind. Plus, eventually I’m gong to be tweaking all of the sounds so that the relationship they have together all feel like it’s fluid and woven, which is where I do a lot of the tweaking with he actual timbre. In this capacity, I suppose there’s a certain co-authorship between what I’m doing and what the technology is designed to do.
I also use a ton of step-sequencing to begin songs, which helps create rhythmic patterns that I can build around, and this is almost always entirely random. I’ll have an idea of key, and usually some part of me knows what kind of sound I want, but the actual pattern starts completely computer generated. Once I have something that feels right, I build.
So I suppose in this way, a lot of what I have my technology doing is semi-predeterminate, and the main thing that I like to spend my time doing is finding the relationship that all the individual sounds and parts may or may not have with each individual part as it moves.