Loren Nerell

Human noise between ambient and tradition

interview by Matteo Meda

Twenty-six years after his debut, Loren Nerell has arrived to Projekt, where he published some weeks ago his seventh album "Slow Dream", a particular and very strong mixture of ambient, kosmiche music and oriental traditional music. Nerell's curriculum can boast about the experience with Kronos Quartet to collaborations with Tangerine Dream bandmate Paul Haslinger and pitied californian musician A Produce, not to forget decennial friendship with modern ambient's guru Steve Roach. We've met him on videoconference for a talk full of anecdotes and surprises, where he has explained also how he discovered gamelan, the hard-to-find and very particular balinese instrument that the musician is famous for.

Let’s start from the end: you have just produced “Slow Dream", your fifth full solo work. Where and how the project that brought to its composition has born?
Actually it's my seventh if you count my first two cassette releases. It started about 5 years ago, I had a conversation with Steve Roach. We were talking about hynogogic states, that short period of time between sleep and awake, and also about making music for that state of being, is a very creative space. So i did a bit of research, read some articles on those states, they occur as you start to fall asleep but also occur as you wake. Then I started working on something that I felt would work in that period, that pre slumber time. I worked on it slowly over time, adding things, removing some and replacing them until I was at a pont where I felt it was right. In the end, it came time for the titles, which I took from a couple of research papers I read about the different states with in the hypnogogoic state. For example, the title "Persistence of Dream Imagery" is the state just as you wake up where you are still dreaming but also awake, I choose that title as the ending piece like you are ending your slumber.

Well, we will talk a bit about Steve after. How many and what are the influences that inspired you for it?
Well many, everything that has happened in the past has influenced it for better or for worse. Obviously Steve was an influence, he gave me the idea, gamelan is an influence, particularly gamelan from Java, all night concerts for shadow puppet shows. I used quite a bit of gamelan in the recording, mostly field recordings that I did in Bali and Java, but then mutated to the point where you can not tell what they are anymore. The main thread throughout the recording is this one recording I made in Bali of a rare gamelan, the piece they performed was 20 minutes long, I took it back to the studio and stretched it out to over 6 hours in length, then maniuplated the sound, cut out the most interesting bits and used that as the backbone to the album.

And the use of gamelan is probably one of the things that make your music something very particular. How do you get interested in this instrument and how does it work in a few words?
Gamelan is actually an ensemble of instruments, mostly tuned percussion similar to xylophones. I became interested in gamelan many years ago when I was at University, the college i went to had a couple of gamelan groups. I was looking for another class to take so I would be considered a full-time student. A friend of mine knew I was interested in new things so he suggested that I join the gamelan. At the time I don't think I even knew where Indonesia was let alone what a gamelan is. So I went to the class, saw the large gongs and metalophones and decided that I had to try them out. I've been hooked ever since.

In my opinion, "Slow Dream" is an extraordinary work, that bring together classic ambient music and deep, mystic elements that came from a full research in culture and sound. A sort of “cultured” work. Do you agree with this definition?
Well thank you, I am glad you appreciate it. It is a "cultured" work in that it comes from a study of a partcular culture, and of course I am from a different partcular culture so we have cross-cultures at work here. If its mystic and deep, I am not trying particularly to create such a place. In the end I just make stuff that I like. I like space, I like something that one can reflect upon, I like music that takes you somewhere else then the normal every day. If that is mystic and deep so be it, whatever you find in it is just as relevant.

It is also your first album for Projekt, a very important label for American music. How did you get in touch with this label and with Sam, and how important is the relation with a label for a musician?
So, I've known Sam for years, he came out to California to go to college back in the 1980s. He was roommates with Walter Holland another synth musician who had a band called Amber Route, so I met him back then. But he wasn't doing much with ambient/space music back then, so we never connected in that way. And then I met Brian Lustmord who had a label called Side Effects who liked what I was doing so I started releasing music on his label instead. And then, when Brian stopped his label, Soleilmoon picked me up so I went with them for a while. But I have one other release on Projekt and that is the album that I did with Steve Roach back in 2006 which Sam re-released once Soleilmoon dropped it. As for "Slow Dream", Steve suggested to Sam that he take a listen to it, Sam liked it and its now out on Projekt.

About this, four years ago you made together with Steve a superb work, "Terraform". Can you tell something about that times?
We started work on that album back in 2003, Steve did some eq/mastering on my album Taksu and he really liked the direction I was going in, so he suggested we could try to collaborate on an album together. I made some sounds in my studio and then went out for a week to visit him: we worked mostly at night in his "Timeroom." After that week we stopped, made a quick mix of everything and parted with the idea we would just add a couple of things in the next few months to finish. Well, that time turned into 3 years as we both got busy with other things. So in 2006 we decided to get back together to finish the mix, in the end we ended up changing a lot so it was more than just a mix session. LIke I said earlier, we tended to work late and almost to the point of sleep. We kind of jokingly refer to it as our "sleep album" as we can't really remember parts of it, like we were in a state of sleep during the recording (laughs).

Hot damn! Something strange, very strange... You are revealing me something I've never imagined! So, you told me this is your seventh work. But the first one came 26 years ago! Does your music need much time to develop, or it is caused by your parallel activity of performer?
Well, honestly I am slow (laughs), but sometimes day-to-day life gets in the way. During the last 26 years I have gone back to school twice, moved around, gone to Indonesia several times. I also use to perform gamelan music a lot, I was in several groups in LA for a while, we did lots of gigs and would practice a lot so that would take away from my creativity in a way. And I work full-time at UCLA which keeps me really busy too.

And I know you took part also in other important projects such as Kronos Quartet. How do you remember of these experience?
That came about through school, I was in a graduate study in ethnomusicology at UCLA. The Kronos Quartet were artists in residence for a quarter with the intent of performing a concert with various musical ensembles in the department, one of which was the Javanese gamelan that I was a part of. It was interesting to witness as classical muscians and gamelan musicians have very different ways of doing things, sometimes they would clash, I ended up being the go between for the two groups. An example, classical music is very linear in that you start your music at the top left side of the page and you go down to the bottom, while Gamelan is cyclic, you play a cycle and you keep repeating it until its time to go to the next cycle, and that could be at any time depending upon what you are doing, its all on feel. So Kronos expected a certain number of repeats, the gamelan would just feel it, sometimes we would line up, sometimes not, so I had to kind of keep track of all that, kind of interesting.

I know also you studied anthropology. Is this a second passion for you? Has it got a role in your composition process? Behind your music – particular the traditional influences – is there a sort of anthropology research?
Anthropology in a way led me to ethnomusicology and gamelan music. I became interested in this at a very young age, around 9 years old when my parents took me on a summer long trip through Mexico down to Central America and back. I saw with my own eyes that their is more then one way to live your life, that suburbia is not the only way to live. Plus seeing all those Aztec and Mayan pyramids I found facinating, so I wanted to know more. That first trip to Mexico I think was a big turning point in my life and has led to who I am today and to what I do, muscially and personally. As for compositional process, yes, I don't really use western musical notation anymore, if I need to write something out I use gamelan cyper notation, and most of my compostions have cycles to them so its more related to gamelan in a way then to western music. As for anthropological research, after graduating with a B.S. in Anthropology I worked as an archeologist for a while here in the greater Los Angeles area. And of course my field work on temple music in Bali for my M.A. in ethnomusicology.

Well, we are close to the end! Two ultra-fast question too… What is your favourite Loren Nerell album?
Maybe “The Venerable Dark Cloud”; by the way, I am working on an extended version of this mini album, it will have all the original tracks plus some out-takes and some new material.

Wow, you guessed my last question: what are – if you have ones – your plans for imminent future?
The extended version of “The Venerable Dark Cloud”! I am working on a soundtrack to a short film right now, that is my most imminent plan. I did an album with my friend Barry Craig (A Produce) that was released on Hypnos last year called "Intangible". He passed away with in weeks of its release: we were thinking about doing a second album and I have a few tracks we never finished, so I was thinking about maybe going back and trying to finish them and see what I have. Also bunch of his friends were thinking about doing an album in his memory, as it turned out he had sent a bunch of our material to use as a seed for a possible collaboration, so this might happen at some point. And right now just enjoying the release of my new CD Slow Dream, and my reissue of my very first album Point of Arrival being released for the first time on vinyl.


Point Of Arrival(LAN, 1986/Forced Nostalgia, 2012)
Lilin Dewa (Side Effects, 1986)
Indonesian Soundscapes (Soleilmoon, 1999)
The Venerable Dark Cloud (mini, Amplexus, 2000)
Taksu (Soleilmoon, 2003)
Slow Dream (Projekt, 2012)
The Venerable Dark Cloud (remastering) (Projekt, 2016)
Terraform (with Steve Roach, Soleilmoon/Projekt, 2006)
Intangible (with A Produce, Hypnos, 2011)
Tree Of Life (with Mark Seelig, Projekt, 2014)
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