Editor’s note: Jerry Kranitz published Aural Innovations magazine for nearly twenty years until retiring earlier in 2016 to work on a book project. No other entity did a better job covering the worldwide psychedelic music and spacerock scenes. He typically interviewed me every few years about Church of Hed and Quarkspace, my two primary musical outlets.
Recently, Jerry gladly agreed to conduct an interview about the making of Church of Hed’s new album, Brandenburg Heights. For some background on the album, here is an excerpt from a review by Pete Pardo, published at Sea of Tranquility.
“Fluttering synth patterns, piano, and drum loops litter the first part, the melodies soaring but eventually giving way to brooding menace as the ominous synths take the listener into space rock heaven. Part two kicks off with some prog/jazz styled piano and synth noodling before the creepy Pink Floyd/Tangerine Dream explorations take over, Williams use of Moog and various Korg keyboards creating dramatic swells of unsettling terror. Eventually the brooding pace picks up as stabbing synth lines dart in and out of the mix, culminating in a full blown space rock finale that brings to mind Hawkwind, Eloy, Pink Floyd, Schulze, and Tangerine Dream.
Brandenburg Heights is a fascinating listen from start to finish, Paul Williams’ ability to create seamlessly shifting moods quite effective over the course of 40+ minutes of instrumental music. Fans of synth dominated music would be well advised to seek this out!”
JK: Let’s start right in on the new album, Brandenburg Heights. I’m sure we can make assumptions about the Berlin inspiration but tell me about the title. Is this a Church of Hed “travelogue” album?
No, this isn’t a travelogue album per se, in that there’s no journey along a long, lost highway. Still, the music allows anyone to travel in the mind, which is one of the benefits of spacerock and psychedelic music.
This is a Berlin School album and there is a town in Ohio named, Berlin Heights. I didn’t want to call the album “Berlin Heights,” so we used the Brandenburg Gate to finish off the etymology, so to speak. The front cover was derived from an excellent photo of the gate I found on Wikimedia Commons.
JK: The album is comprised of two 20 minute range tracks that for me play as one continually evolving piece. How did that come about, as opposed to the multiple tracks you’ve done on past albums?
After acquiring a Korg SQ-1 hardware sequencer, I conducted a few experiments syncing together two Korg Volcas, a Korg Monotribe, the Moog Sub 37, and a Teenage Electronics PO-12 drum machine. Soon a long-form piece began to develop, and I managed to capture a version with a variety of sequencer patterns, beats, and live playing. That’s the basis of Brandenburg Heights, Part 1.
With one twenty-minute piece in the can (minus additional development and overdubbing), I decided to do a second piece of a similar length, inspired by the mid 70s album structure of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Mike Oldfield, etc. Perusing through some recent improvs, I found a 5-6 minute jam with a Moog arpreggiation and a drum beat. This served as the introduction to Brandenburg Heights, Part 2.
I composed two additional sections, followed by another 7-8 minute sync experiment with the same instrumentation as Part 1. I wrote a melodic motif to tie the different sections together and proceeded to overdub both parts until the album was finished towards the end of the summer.
JK: You describe the music as “a modern Berlin School exploration featuring hints of prog, psychedelia, and space rock”. I would say far more than hints. I think you beautifully bring together all those worlds throughout the album.
Thanks! Quarkspace always took a “stew” approach to music – combining different inspirations into something (hopefully) unique. I follow that same path. It is honestly the only way I know how to do things from a stylistic manner.
My influences range from Philip Glass to Peter Hammill to Neil Young (among hundreds of others). They all get distilled into the final brew – or stew.
JK: I have to say that in the twilight years of Aural Innovations, the music that most excited me was bands who brought these various worlds together. It’s very hard to be really new and, dare I say, innovative anymore. But it does seem that musicians can set themselves apart and even create an identity by mixing things up.
Indeed. Simply regurgitating the stylistic markers of a genre or subgenre doesn’t do it for me. Bringing something new to the table, combined with strong and innovative composition, trumps all.
JK: Any new instruments/software/toys that you feel influenced the direction or sound of the music on Brandenburg Heights?
Syncing multiple pieces of synth hardware, as mentioned earlier, is the “new” thing on Brandenburg Heights – but old hat for the majority of electronic music artists. Part 1 up until the coda, and the last few minutes of Part 2 feature this technique. Typically in Quarkspace or Church of Hed, we’d play live instruments over a loop or beat created using something like Rebirth back in the day or FL Studio or an iPad app (iMS-20, Gadget, iPolysix) more recently. I’ll switch between both approaches moving forward.
The Waldorf Streichfett deserves special mention. A modern string synth, this thing is all over the album crushing all other sound sources in its wake. I love it!
My relatively ancient Pro Tools setup – DIGI 002R – still handles the recording duties. This limits the amount of plug-ins I can use while mixing or as sound sources. Thus, Brandenburg Heights features all hardware instrumentation. It just happened that way.
JK: You dedicated the album to the memories of Paul Kantner and Gilli Smyth. How did those two particular artists inspire you?
Paul Kantner is a huge influence on my songwriting, most obviously in Quarkspace’s Where Galaxies Collide off of the Hidden Moon. Brandenburg Heights is the first time since then I’ve written a side long album track. Almost makes me want to put it out on vinyl! The Jefferson Airplane remains my favorite American band.
What can you say about the Mother Gong? Gilli is another great loss among many in 2016. Gong always greatly influenced Quarkspace more than any other spacerock band, and she was a big reason why. Her space whisper lies within us all.
JK: Produced by Lance Starbridge? I take it that’s a nyuk nyuk joke? Feel free to spin a yarn of a response if you want to keep it “insider.”
Lance remains the long time producer of Quarkspace and Church of Hed. His credit is on most of the albums. We are lucky to retain his services.
JK: I believe Church of Hed has been 100% solo since Electric Sepulcher, is that right? You had historically been a “band” guy. Do you enjoy working solo now that you’ve been doing it for a while? Any wistful desires for collaboration and live performance?
I am really enjoying this newfound focus on solo work. In fact, considering what happened with Quarkspace slowly entering dry dock, I really should have made the solo move when Chet relocated to California in 2009. My productivity level is higher than ever.
Collaborations are always on my mind. The Rivers of Asphalt sequel – The Father Road – is a likely spot to involve others. I am considering doing some live performances in the studio and potentially releasing them. Beyond that, logistics make it difficult to do an actual show when living in a rural country with no electronic music scene. Who knows?
JK: And, following from the last question, Spacefolds 12 was the last Quarkspace album in 2013. I realize those were unreleased tracks and the band hasn’t been a functioning entity in some years. Was Spacefolds 12 the last of the available Quarkspace music you plan to release?
Spacefolds 12 is like any other Spacefolds release – the best improvs from a certain time period, which was 2008-2009 for that album; it wasn’t like they were unreleased tracks from the late 90s or early 2000s. Quarkspace were always 4-5 years behind in getting Spacefolds releases out to the public, not to mention the continued failed attempts to release a studio follow-up to Drop.
So, that 85% finished studio album is still out there as well as hours upon hours of yet to be chronicled improvised material from 2009-2014. If I get bored, I may release tracks from the studio album, or if a friendly record label wants to fund a Quarkspace retrospective box set, we’d include some of those tracks. Beyond that, I am more focused on new music, as always.
If some of the prodigal Quarkspace members are interested in putting more Spacefolds releases out, I’d listen, but I am not doing all the work – or a disproportionate share of it. Ultimately, it seems Chet and I are the only ones who truly care about our “legacy.”
JK: What new bands have most impressed/inspired you in the past year AND which of the old timers do you find yourself revisiting?
I’ve been getting into the LA school of newer hip-hop and electronic artists, centered on Flying Lotus. Thundercat is his collaborator at times, and is a stunning bass player and songwriter. They occasionally work with Kamasi Washington, a tenor sax player drawing a lot of buzz. Kamasi plays with a spirituality and musical vision reminiscent of John Coltrane. Speaking of which, Alice Coltrane, John’s wife, is Flying Lotus’s aunt.
You will find all three of those artists on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album, which is one of the most popular albums in recent years. It’s a stunningly musical work from a genre – hip-hop – many people consider not to be music. It truly kicked my ass.
Cavern of Anti-Matter, the new band from Tim Gane of Stereolab, is doing great work in the Berlin School vein. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a synthesist known for her excellent compositions, largely performed on a Buchla Music Easel. She is garnering a lot of acclaim in the indie music scene – well deserved.
As far as older artists, I’ve been getting more into Dylan; filling gaps in my collection. Klaus Schulze, Manuel Gottsching, and Jean-Michel Jarre have been representing the electronic side of the shop. The Charles Ives compositions outside of his four symphonies and diving deeper into Eric Dolphy’s canon also warrant a mention. As always, there are way too many to mention. I remain open to pretty much all music but pop country.
JK: Tell me about TabMuse and the articles you’ve been writing for them.
I started TabMuse two years ago as a resource for music technology discussion. At first, it focused on iOS music apps, but as I’ve moved more into hardware synths, the magazine’s output followed. I never find enough time to write for it, but I hope that changes in 2017.
JK: What’s upcoming? Your web site mentions a sequel to Rivers of Asphalt?
A new “Seasons” EP is my current music project, ala the Autumn Shrine EP. This one has the moniker of “A Cold White Universe EP” with darker Holiday and wintertime proggy psychedelia. Expect a release in February – before the Spring Equinox at the latest.
Progress composing and rehearsing sections of The Father Road continues. This is the sequel to Rivers of Asphalt, but an aural travelogue of a journey from west to east on the Lincoln Highway this time out. I expect to begin recording it next year with a 2018 release the most likely outcome at this point. I am always rehearsing the piano-based parts for this; it’s on the weighted keys, so practice is a must – I’m not Jay Swanson.
Concurrent with these other releases are two new “normal” albums. One is more concise and beat-laden, while the other is aimed at a Berlin School atmosphere. Expect these albums to see the light in 2017 and 2018. I’m keeping busy!