Name: Jon DeRosa aka Aarktica
Occupation: Producer, composer, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist
Recent release: Aarktica's We Will Find the Light is out via Darla September 30th 2022.
Recommendations: Structures from Silence by Steve Roach is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded.
I also highly recommend looking up Eden Ahbez, what a fascinating character…
If you enjoyed this interview with Aarktica and would like to find out more, visit the project's official website. Aarktica is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I wish I had a more culturally important reference for this, but it was seeing Poison’s “Fallen Angel” video that made me beg my mom to get guitar lessons. I was 10 years old and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
Thankfully — although I didn’t see it this way at the time — she had the foresight to compromise and insist on classical guitar lessons instead of rock guitar, and I relented because hey, that’s better than nothing. And in hindsight, it was studying classical guitar that really forged the foundation for all my music going forward.
But as far as when I started seriously making music … I started writing and releasing music when I was around 15, my earliest musical incarnation was called Fade, a very morose, folky goth project that actually received some acclaim in those circles at the time. In the years prior, I had become enamored with goth and ethereal music, and was very influenced by Projekt Records’ artists like Lycia, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, Love Spirals Downwards …
And then I got into 4AD through that avenue, kind of in reverse to what would be logical … bands like Dead Can Dance, Red House Painters, This Mortal Coil. And the bigger names like Bauhaus, Christian Death, Skinny Puppy, Joy Division, New Order, and so on.
[Read our Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance interview]
[Read our New Order producer Stephen Hague interview]
Though admittedly, there was no bigger influence for me in my teens than Danzig, for what it’s worth …
I don’t really know what it was about music. Maybe it’s because it was one of the first things that felt very natural for me and also something that I felt I was good at. I’ve gone through many phases in my life, I’ve held many jobs and had many hobbies and interests, but music has been pretty much the only constant.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
It’s strange that you are so casual about having synesthesia. Quite rare!
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Well, when I was 18, I went deaf in my right ear. It occurred right at the time I had begun pursuing a Music Technology degree at NYU, literally a few days after I declared it. It was also a time when I felt like I had a lot of forward momentum musically, and this effectively obliterated that. I was having auditory hallucinations and neurological issues that made it very uncomfortable to exist in the world, let alone New York City, and on top of that trying to attend Ear Training and Studio / Engineering courses also.
I also had already been struggling with debilitating depression and anxiety for a few years, so this was just enough to bring me very close to the edge. I had to make the difficult decision as to if I’d remain in pursuit of this major, knowing full well I could never be a professional audio engineer with my disability (spoiler alert, I did stick with it, the jury’s still out on whether that was a wise decision or not).
That being said, this experience was the impetus for starting Aarktica, as recording those early audio experiments became a bit of an outlet for me in my attempts to reconcile this new way of hearing. And it also led me to study with composer La Monte Young, who further helped enrich my abilities to hear sound with just one working ear. I can’t say I am glad about what happened to me, but I made the best of a very cruel and unfortunate situation.
[Read our feature with Michael Robinson about La Monte Young, Tuning & Indian Classical Music]
But as far as finding my personal voice, etc … I have always been very restless creatively. I enjoy trying new things musically and this can be somewhat of a detriment for a musician. Most people want you to be one thing. And I’ve never really been content with being one thing. If I were, I’d probably have made a dozen more “No Solace in Sleep” type albums, which would’ve made some Aarktica fans really happy. But it felt a little too easy, I wanted to explore the possibilities a bit more.
So I have released music in many different styles, to varying degrees of success. But what’s always been important to me is to constantly evolve and explore new things, and to always allow myself, at a very intrinsic level, to come through in the music. If it’s ambient, if it’s folky, if it’s country, etc … I want to really, fully bring myself to the table with it. To me this ability to make one’s presence felt is what makes artists truly great.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
For a long time, I saw myself as that 15 year old kid making demos in his bedroom. A kid who hadn’t really lived his life yet and was less experienced than those around him. Because I started playing music as that kid, it’s been harder for me to see myself as someone different or evolved from that, even though I was constantly evolving artistically as I got older.
But I believe in the past few years I have started to appreciate that I’m a 43 year old man who has acquired beautiful and painful life experiences and stories to tell, that some may be interested in, and some may even benefit from. And there’s more of a confidence that my perspective is interesting or at least valid.
There were man times where it felt limiting creatively to feel like my voice or experiences didn’t matter, or that I didn’t have stories to tell, the subject matter that can be covered gets awfully narrow. So embracing the years, embracing the experiences, trusting myself … always trying to make it out of my comfort zone and talk to other people, to hear about their experiences, to be compassionate in that way as well. This all contributes to perspective and for me, it does encourage creativity.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
More and more lately I try to not be too attached to a vision of what something should sound like. I got myself into a 10 year bout of writer’s block because of what I THOUGHT a new Aarktica album should sound like. When I let that go, the songs finally came and it was nothing like what I would’ve imagined it to be. So … there were some things that needed to shift and while it took a long time, they finally did and it feels like a new chapter entirely now.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I mean, I’m into all of the above really, there’s a place for everything.
I always like to see more originality in music, in general. I know context is important, and music is always borrowing from what came before it. I’m personally not really very interested in artists who are so rigid to a genre and a sound, that they are simply making updated Slowdive albums, or Joy Division albums, or Cocteau Twins albums, etc. Obviously it’s a beautiful and free world, so if that’s what fulfills someone, then by all means, please have at it. It just doesn’t really do it for me personally.
I do like drawing on context and reshaping it into something new. I borrow from a lot of artists I admire all the time. But there’s really no way to consciously create something “timeless,” that’s like … not something that is up to the creator, and not something you’ll ever know until 20 years or so down the road.
Kind of a funny thing in this era of nostalgia where every day I see a post about “It’s been 30 years since _____ was released.” As a culture we are obsessed with looking backwards, and that’s just so strange to me.
I like to work quickly and I’m not interested in perfection. I’m interested in capturing a moment in time. Rarely are these perfect because I am far from perfect. None of my favorite albums by Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, (etc) are really perfect. The minor flaws are part of what make them special.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I’ve always composed on guitar, specifically a classical guitar that I bought when I was 13 years old after I saved up all Summer working in a farm market. It’s my main instrument, I play it almost every day.
This question is very “head oriented” which … is kind of fascinating because I would imagine most musicians are more heart-centered or feel-based. I don’t think about strategies when I’m working. I just do it.