Name: Sam Slater
Occupation: Composer, sound designer, music producer
Recent release: Sam Slater's I Do Not Wish To Be Known As A Vandal is out via Bedroom Community.
Recommendations on the topic of sound:
Born in Tibet - Chögyam Trungpa
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism - Chögyam Trungpa
The World Without Us - Alan Weisman
This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein
Eunoia - Christian Bok
If you enjoyed this interview with Sam Slater and would like to find out more, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram.
Over the course of his career, Sam has worked with and for a wide range of artists, including Hildur Guðnadóttir, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Colin Stetson, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Ben Frost, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Mica Levi, Shapednoise and ZebraKatz.
[Read our Hildur Guðnadóttir interview]
[Read our Dustin O'Halloran of A Winged Victory for the Sullen interview]
[Read our Valgeir Sigurðsson interview]
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusual or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
I remember listening to One Pig by Matthew Herbert and being completely blown over by it. His commitment to a single idea, namely observing a pig’s life from birth to slaughter, recording it, creating a record from the sounds and then performing live using the bones and skin to create instruments. This really blew me away. I loved the intensity of the concept, the wry smile that wraps around the record and the totally on the nose aesthetic which keeps the record grounded enough to not be totally up its own arse.
[Read our Matthew Herbert interview]
When working with Johann Johannsson and Darren Arranovsky on mother! I can remember Darren piling around the post-production suite saying “our job is to realize this idea, not another one” and I found something quite beautiful in that conviction. A loyalty to an early burst of inspiration, even if the origin of the idea was 4 years previous and since then it’s had many chances to grow into something totally different.
Sometimes, one can dilute an idea by constantly trying to update it because time is passing and you’ve learnt something new, whereas there can be such stark beauty in committing to the idea you had. Just seeing an idea through because it was a good idea and you took it seriously often leads to something purer than something that’s constantly being revised.
I thought about this a lot when making I do not wish to be known as a Vandal and the parallel audio-visual collaboration Vandals with Theresa Baumgartner as it took longer to write than anything I’ve done in the past. As you become further and further away from the original idea, constantly reminding yourself of the spine of the idea is important. The spine in this case was a real focus on collaboration and the simple mental image of a collapsing body that eventually recovers, looping indefinitely.
Working predominantly with field recordings and sound can be an incisive step / transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
A friend and I were debating if sound can hold a story. Can identical sounds recorded in different contexts have different meanings? He said “I don’t want the sound of someone biting an apple, I want the sound of a President biting an apple” and this really stuck with me - identical crunches, but obviously one recording that’s preferable to another.
I moved to Berlin - it was cheaper than London - with an MPC, a laptop and a bag of peanuts in a backpack. Like many musicians, I was just trying to paddle, or at least feel less swallowed in a sea of deeply talented humans. In this sea, I was confronted with many musicians' deep love of synthesizers and yet found often that people would be looking for their sound by searching for specific small runs of commercially available gear.
It felt paradoxical to seek out something individual by looking for gear that was available in numbers of more than one. I would meet people that said “this specific synth is very rare and that’s a huge part of my sound”, but then lots of people would crave the same box and like it or not, everyone herded into a similar aesthetic.
I decided that I would take the ideas of synthesis and seek out some oscillators that no-one else could have. I figured noise and tones are available in almost all recordings if you dig deep enough, so I sought out noise and tones from places around me and pushed them until I got some sounds that moved me. This practice hasn’t really stopped since.
I’ve gotten better at it, and become less of a purist but I still carry the idea around with me that my relationship to the original source material affects my relationship to the end result. The point being that one can dig into most recordings and fine tones and noise, and from these blocks almost anything can be created and I know I’m going to feel most inspired to write with an organ built from a nuclear reactor (as in Hildur Gudnadottir’s score for Chernobyl which I produced) or percussion from a room of 14 year old kids making gold-leaf with hammers, than a sample library or synth.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
Personally, the idea of melting away has seemed rather attractive lately. I care less about my identity and feel a lot better for it.
As for music, I don’t really think individualism or claiming to be outside tradition holds much weight honestly - anyone claiming otherwise hasn’t noticed what they’re borrowing. Yes, I’m part of tradition and someone with a more objective perspective than I, can decide which one that is.
Personally, my writing process gets quite paralysed when I think about this. Thinking about genre, or thinking about how something will be received is the deathblow to a good idea (read: the anxiety of influence by Harold Bloom for more info). I have maintained a steady meditation practice for nearly a decade now, and this helps with noticing when I stop enjoying what I am doing. That’s the voice to listen to, the one that goes from “this is wild” to “what would my contemporaries think of this”.
I have a rule that I only hit save if I actually like what I am hearing, and if voice number 2 starts being mouthy, I go outside and start from where I last liked it. Delete everything you don’t enjoy, only ever save a project when you are loving it, and then your harddrive fills with things you genuinely like.
What are the sounds that you find yourself most drawn to? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I am often very drawn to sounds that remind me of voices, without actually being from a human. I have a few tricks that really accentuate these kinds of characteristics, and when they appear, I always find them quite heartbreaking. To me it often ends up feeling like someone is singing in a language I don’t understand, yet the emotion is there.
I think my newest track “Kintsugi II” is a good example of this kind of of technique - the duet between the brass and the looping sample in the background (which was forced out of a recording of an old chorale using some fairly unforgiving processing techniques) always feel like voices, out of tune and pained and really melancholic.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools and recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you personally starting from your first studio/first instruments and equipment? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I built a studio in our garage when I was 14 and basically never stopped. Initially I wanted to be a drummer, then a songwriter, and then I moved to Germany and lyrics became less important and instrumental writing took over. During this time, I have gone through phases of having too much gear to move, no gear at all, and now a quite cozy studio environment that feels creative without feeling overbearing.
The only thing I will never go back on are my loudspeakers which are truly special objects. Anyone who ever got good glasses for the first time and spent hours staring at their hands will understand.