Friday, February 19, 2016

The Townhouse Interviews: Jeff Barsky of Insect Factory

Guitarist Jeff Barsky's project, Insect Factory, is part of a group of artists who are redefining ambient music.  A group that don't even consider their music ambient.  Instead, they call them meditations, continuations of folk traditions, and examinations of our world through a lens that only music can provide.  Specifically, that only ambient music can provide.  Jeff Barsky was kind enough to give his two cents on the matter.  Enjoy.

Evan Jones First thing's first: what's behind the name Insect Factory?

Jeff Barsky Words just sort of reveal themselves in different ways - imagery that works, a shape of the words themselves, rhythm with syllables - that sort of thing.  I've never spent much time thinking about it, but one review of my first LP said that the name was "simply an abbreviation of the sound", and I like that.

EJ So I don't know very much about you other than that I like your work.  How about a brief history of Jeff Barsky.  Go:

JB I picked up a guitar in the 80's and played along to a lot of Def Leppard and AC/DC on the radio. I played in a lot of short lived bands that generally played covers (Hendrix, Neil Young), and wanting to do little more than play music, I went to college in New England to study guitar performance.  This certainly helped me learn some rules, but it certainly didn't make me want to make music on my own.

I digress for a moment: having grown up in the DC area, I saw many DIY shows in basements and art spaces, and I connected hard with the ostensibly inclusive elements and DIY nature of shows in the punk community, but I wasn't always totally excited musically or challenged by what I was hearing. In college I found a great community of friends who listened to music together, played in bands together, organized basement shows in the arts complex, and so on. This was what I was looking for, but perhaps didn't know it. My guitar playing, I think, was maybe a reaction to what I interpreted as a purely physical sort of nature of punk bands - I wanted to fill space in a way that wasn't just loud chords.  So I still play an electric guitar and use somewhat traditional tools, but I focus more on capturing a meditation or more atmospheric angle of a song instead of a sequence of parts to a song.

But if you listen closely, there are still parts of songs in my music.

EJ What was the last bit of music you listened to?

JB I've really been loving the first record from Urban Verbs, a DC band from 1980 who made 2 beautifully crafted records.  It's kind of similar to what people call "new wave", but I've never been entirely sure about what that means. I'd recommend looking them up if you're not familiar - it's kind of astounding that people don't talk about this band more!

EJ I shall check them out. Who are some artists you like to listen to in general?

JB It runs the gamut but lately I listen to The Rolling Stones, The Gun Club, Al Green, The Ex, Keith Jarrett, and The Psychedelic Furs. I tend to go wide rather than deep.  I like to listen to everything and don't really obsess over any one category.  Hothead is one of my favorite things in DC right now - her songs are really genuine and natural feeling.

EJ Is Insect Factory your only project, or just your primary one?

JB I freelance around. I play in Plums, which is an improvised band that, to give you a ballpark, I would maybe suggest imagining Flipper trying to play surf rock.  I have a duo with guitarist Chris Brokaw called Sunset to the Sea, and we're releasing a tape on Tape Drift next month which was recorded during a few shows that we did together.

Last summer I toured with an improv trio called Paper Balls, and we hope to go again this summer - it was such a challenging experience to improvise music that could be so deathly serious one minute, sad the next, and then absurd.  I also collaborate with Kohoutek, a formerly DC-based psych rock collective, whenever I can.  They're now based in Philly. Scott Verrastro, the amazing percussionist from that band is a close friend and a frequent collaborator.  He's on the latest cassette of mine released by Already Dead, which is the set we played at the latest Terrastock in Louisville.  We've shared more beautiful musical moments than I could count.

EJ How do you typically compose an Insect Factory piece?  Speaking technically.

JB I play into my tape machine at home and hit record.  It's less about intentional composition that's been planned ahead of time and more about what comes out at the time that I'm playing.  I try to focus on developing a sound, a mood, or a moment, and meditate and focus intensely and actively on making something better that's happening right now.  That may or may not be a metaphor.

EJ Now speaking philosophically.  What drives Insect Factory?  What kind of things are behind the music?  Inspirations, ideas, or otherwise.

JB Social justice - racial equality, gender equality, economic equality, books, nature, experiencing the world, bike rides...I am an elementary school teacher and my relationships with my students inspire my art constantly, and my art inspires my teaching and my relationships with my students. My love of coffee and beer are huge inspirations. My music couldn't and wouldn't exist if the inspirations for my music and for my life were different. Both are one.

The philosophy is what dictates the technical needs. The technical side is kind of boring. I use delay boxes and distortion boxes and that kind of thing, but I try to focus more on playing with fewer notes and using the stereo field, volume, and tone.  I don't really relate at all to "ambient", but rather, I think of my music as slowing down a pop song by about 800% and staring into it with a microscope.  I think of it as the opposite of ambient; it's almost as if the microscopic elements of pop are magnified so heavily that the hairs growing on pop songs are the size of tree trunks, and you're examining everything from the middle, and you're seeing everything from a new vanishing point.

EJ Woah.  Slowing down pop songs.  That's a brilliant idea.  How did you arrive at that understanding?

JB I actually think that this is an understanding that comes from intention more than reflection.  As far as being microscopic, it's always been in my nature to look super closely and ask questions and examine.  I used to break toys to see how they were put together.  As I learned, sometimes you end up with a deeper physical and conceptual understanding, but sometimes you end up with a lot of G.I. Joes separated at the torso! Haha.

EJ It happens...

JB ...but given the many routes one can take creatively, it always made more sense to approach this project with a wide open and inclusive lens rather than a genre oriented and exclusive one.  My intention is to explore, examine, break, test, fail, progress.  Maybe not always in that order, though!

I actually think it's not actively about any one thing, but more an intentional and meditative channeling of many different ideas and thoughts - both musical and non-musical. The intention was to be wide open and challenge myself constantly to be more wide open and allow emotion and understanding of privilege and books and pets and death to slowly sort of reveal itself to me through this process.  This is really why I don't mess with my setup and equipment.  To put any concerted effort towards technology would allow equipment to take too much of the forefront and require too much cerebral processing from me.  It does put certain limitations on the music, but we all work within walls of some sort.

EJ I guess along those lines, I get the same kind of feeling from your work as I do Luciernaga, where ambient or whatever you'd like to call it, is more a means of rooting yourself down here on Earth, and not so much a way to look beyond.  You, like Joao (Luciernaga), don't seem to draw as much inspiration from, say, "space exploration" as ambient music maybe has in the past, but instead you seem to be rooted in humanity.  The titles of your music seem to always suggest something earthly.

JB I think that's fair. I'm not really that interested at all in outer space.

EJ And it seems that your music tends to be a slow burn, rather than just a typically ambient drone. There is actually an arch to the music you make, even though it might be a very slow one.  It tends to sneak up on us, rather than immediately presenting itself. That's accurate?

JB Yes - I think it's accurate.  I think it's hard to get my Western brain away from the idea of resolution in art, and the arch is part of that.  There are melodies happening and there is intention, but there's also chance and there are also accidents.

EJ The mother of all slow burns: Glacial.  A 45-minute slow burn, in fact.  It's rad...and also very foreboding (it has a happy ending though).  What was that all about?

JB Haha - I had recorded that at home and I lost myself as I was recording it, and I'm not really sure how or what happened.  Truly I don't remember it very well.  I tend to record hours of music and then either rediscover it or forget about it and move on.  I shared it with some friends and got encouragement to release it as a limited disc.  It's available online now.  Recording and putting my records together is really just about going back and looking at what's already happened.

EJ There's not really a structure as we might typically think of it in the type of music you make, because it's really just about sounds.  Even with your process, the "music" is so slow, so stretched, that it doesn't exactly read as musical off the bat.  That said, there does seem to be an interest more in making "listenable" ambient, rather than just done-y atmospherics for the sake of drone-y atmospherics.  Do you think people are trying to re-interpret ambient music now that we're a few decades from its inception?

JB I don't know - I think that everything is an interpretation of who we are, what we do and what we know. I don't really know what other people are trying to do.

EJ You're a guitarist, but that doesn't seem to be totally important to Insect Factory, at least on the surface.  Do you get all of your sounds from the guitar and related elements?

JB I am a guitar player, but I've never really had the concerns that other guitar players have. I don't really like equipment and pedals and amps. I try to use the bare minimum of what I need to make the music I want to make.  This makes it more portable and easier to adapt to my brain so that my equipment is like another limb.  I haven't bought a new pedal in over 10 years.

Most of my sounds don't come from equipment other than my guitar.  I scratch the strings, de-tune, mess around with the input jack - the delay boxes just help me hold on to those sounds for longer. On a purely sonic level, it's almost all my guitar playing. Occasionally I've augmented my recordings with tape samples or drum machine loops or percussion or something.  The record I just finished is all guitar recorded live.

EJ And there's a lot of what I, as a visual artist, might call "glitch art" in your music. Bits of sounds, digital noise, etc. that contrast with the foundation atmosphere of the song.  Does technology play a conceptual role in your music?

JB Nope!  The technology serves the larger conceptual need rather than vice versa.  As far as the technology, though, sometimes making music isn't a clean process and for various reasons, like recording fidelity, new sounds work their way in.  I welcome this.  Accidents are fine and mistakes are part of a growing process and an artistic process as a human.

EJ So the contrast between the atmosphere and the "glitch" isn't really a conscious one?

JB I haven't thought much about contrast within music. I think, at least with this project, that I try to think less about contrast and more about unification.  Like many people, my thoughts run all over the place, and I want to reconcile everything as best as I can into a meaningful whole.  So while there may be atmospheric elements, percussive elements, or "glitch-y" elements, I try to approach first from the whole, as a concept, and then work backwards, rather than start from the parts and then go forward to the whole.

This is similar to planning lessons that I'm teaching!  I find it more useful to think about what I want to help my students learn and then work backwards, rather than to focus on micromanaging the millions of possibilities.  If you know what your goal is, at least conceptually, it's easier to create parts that are suitable.

EJ Instead of using the word "glitch", would you maybe describe that textural elements in your music the microscopic "hairs" that you referred to earlier?

JB I think that's an appropriate connection that makes a lot of sense.

EJ So what does post-production look like for Insect Fields?

JB There isn't much - I record to tape, mix it onto my computer, and that's it. I like to be self sufficient.

EJ And how do you perceive the state of music these days?  Are you optimistic about it?

JB I don't really perceive it much. There's a lot being made. I'm never really ahead of the curve - I'm always catching up and going backwards at the same time. If there's something cool happening now, I'm sure I'll catch on in a few years. I read something in the past month or so about how music from the past finally caught up with and outsold music being made now. But I find it weird that this was ever not the case.

How many decades has recorded music been around?  Have the last 12 months ever been more important than the rest of recorded music's existence?  Have books written in the last 12 months ever been more valuable than the entire of the history of writing?  Maybe in some cases with non-fiction and research, sure, but doesn't that grow from what came before it? In one sense, a practical one, the "now" is always infinitely more important than the past or the future.  But we're talking about recorded music, and this serves more of an archival purpose than a current one.  Once something's been recorded, it's history.

EJ I notice you return to the history theme a lot.  It seems like you either make work that becomes history by forgetting about it, or you rediscover history and it becomes part of what's been cataloged. Just like anything humans do.  That seems to be an important idea and an important way of working for you, no?

JB It's not something I consciously think about too much.  I think that your work becomes history the moment it's finished, and the quest is for something new to explore.  But yeah - sometimes I'm aware of it as something worth putting in a newer, more "current" context, which is kind of a human sort of endeavor, right?  History is given its value by putting it up against the "now" - that way we get to measure it against what's happening in the present and judge with what we know now.

EJ On that note, anything you care to promote, say, or leave us with in closing?

JB  Check out Already Dead Tapes & Records and Tape Drift.  Both labels release lots of new and exciting music.  I just listened to the mastered version of my new studio record, and I'm hoping to get it out this spring.  Thanks!  This was fun.

EJ Look forward to that.  Thanks for stopping by!

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  1. Thanks for presenting this, EJ, thoroughly informative and enjoyable (now to catch up on the IF catalogue, I have a few already).

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Might listen to some IF myself tonight.