Tim Story

Three steps from the Moon

interview by Matteo Meda

I've known you for such a long time that is something really incredible for me to have this interview done! But before the work with Moebius and Leidecker, you've been behind the scenes for a couple of years, six between "Errata" and "Snowghost Pieces"... What were you doing in that period?
Yes, I’d been working on "Snowghost Pieces" since the sessions in Montana in September of 2012, and on "Lazy Arc" with Roedelius for parts of the last 3 or 4 years. Strangely, after all that, they both ended up being released within the same month. So it probably looks like I wasn’t doing much during that period, but really both of those albums took awhile to finish.

Now, you have come out with two new works with both the ex-Cluster members. I think your relationship with Cluster has two different side: as a lover of Cluster music and as a close collaborator. Is it true?
Yes, I’m both an admirer, and for the last several decades lucky enough to count Moebi and Achim as good friends. The records I’ve done with both have really developed out of that friendship. As for Cluster, they were, in my opinion, among the very best artists to come from the very influential 70’s German music scene. They are often unfairly overshadowed by groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, but their music will surely stand up with the greats.

With Roedelius you've founded a long-time relationship: I guess it goes beyond the fact of “just” making music together... Am I right? Where and when did you meet him?
Achim and I met in 1983. I had always been an admirer of his solo work and of course Cluster. We had exchanged a few letters, and when my second album "Untitled" was finished, I decided to quit everything else and focus on music. I travelled to Europe for a few months and Achim graciously invited me to visit him. I stayed with his family for a week – I’m amazed he still wanted to remain friends!

There's one more thing about Roedelius that really shocks me: he's over 80 years old and he seems to have the energy, the ideas and the inspiration of a 20-years old genius. Can you confirm this impression and what do you think about it?
Yes, his 80th birthday was just last week. He has such a personal and effortless connection to music and sound. I think it’s this natural approach that has kept his music so fresh – he just doesn’t get trapped by longtime habits like so many others his age. He ‘hears’ music in so many different ways.

By the way, I think both “Snowghost Pieces” and “Lazy Arc” are quite complex albums... How did they born?
“Snowghost Pieces” started as an open invitation to record at Brett Allen’s lovely studio in the mountains of northwest Montana. Jon Leidecker had worked with Brett, and I’d always wanted to collaborate more with Moebi (we’d already worked on the Cluster “Qua” album), so it was a natural, and a very wonderful opportunity. “Lazy Arc” came out of sessions that I had recorded here at my home studio during the recording of “Inlandish” with Joachim. We had many hours of longer-form pieces, and I had always wanted to work more on these, with a different approach than the shorter, more structured pieces of “Inlandish”.

"Snowghost Pieces" in particular is also very far from your “classical” sound – but actually you got far from it yet after "Shadowplay"... Did you play a particolar role in its composition/execution?
It was very much a collaboration of the three of us. I have always loved very rhythmic music, so it was a chance to stretch out and work with very complex, interesting grooves, and new ways of thinking about music. Moebi loves to ‘live in the moment’ musically, and Jon and I are a bit more from the ‘perfectionist’ school (laughs) so to me the album ended up a great balance of brilliant momentary inspirations and carefully contructed grooves and environments.

What kind of machines did you use on it? It's easy to guess it was quite-completely analogic instrumentation...
Brett’s studio was full of the greatest equipment, so we really had fun. Guitar, piano, mellotron, persephone, and so many toys and found objects made their way into the recordings along with all the synths and machines. It is a very deep, complex soundscape.

Both the albums are really close to post-kraut sounds, and I guess you've been always fascinated by German 70s electronic music, haven't you?
Both Jon and I have a deep respect for that “Krautrock” era, so we surely kept that ‘vibe’ in mind as we recorded, mixed and edited the music. We wanted to have that open-ended, forward-thinking aesthetic in the music, while still making a very modern, perhaps “post modern” album.

"Snowghost Pieces" comes out for Bureau B, a label that is doing an incredible work to renew kraut/kosmische musik's life. What do you think about their activity? Had you got the chance to working close to the label or they just produced the album because of Moebius' presence?
Yes, Bureau B has been really great with re-releases of a lot of that music, and new music connected to that ‘scene’. Gunther, the head of the label, is doing a great service by stimulating all of that. When we finished "Snowghost Pieces", it just felt like a good fit to all of us.

Going back to Cluster, somebody told you've been the man behind their 2007 reunion... Other media stated that you “only stayed behind the mixer and recorded it without having any intermission in the creative process”... What was the truth?
Probably somewhere in between. I think Moebi and Ach both trusted me quite implicitly, so I felt very comfortable suggesting possibilities and ideas, and suggesting that we actually do the project in the first place! Knowing their music so well, I hope I stayed true to their aesthetic, while also capturing the best of what makes them so good together.

In a previous question I talked about the important evolution your music took after one of my favourite albums, "Shadowplay". What happened at that point of your career?
I guess I was getting a little restless. “Shadowplay’ was a kind of culmination of the 3 albums I had done for Hearts of Space – they all had a bit of a similar feel, and I felt like I’d reached a bit of a peak within that style, so I wanted to try some new things that I’d been thinking about. Nevertheless, I would have never imagine that it would be so long since I returned to that ‘style’!

In particular, I remembered I were quite shocked by listening to "Buzzle". I still consider it as a real breaking point for your career. What does that album represent for you? How did you arrive to work with such a different sound from the one you developed in the past?
I just felt that there were different musical ‘languages’ that I wanted to explore. More quirky, more idiosyncratic, and with a freer sense of sound and rhythm. I liked a lot of the electronica that was around at the time, and I thought it would be interesting to try out different combinations. It was actually a bit of a return to my very earliest work when the lure of new sounds and instruments sent me off into so many new directions. But it’s not chaotic or improvisatory. It’s different for sure, but I always work it down to a meaningful composition, even if the elements are sometimes a little alien.

What (or who!) influenced you towards that turning point? Do you still feel the stuff you produced in the “first half” of your career as yours? Do you think it still represents a side of your artistic (and human) being?
Oddly, I don’t feel that they are all so very different. “Lunz” with Roedelius, for example, was a kind of synthesis of both my early work, and the new ‘spikier’ explorations of "Buzzle". I think i also saw that so many musicians of my era were stuck in old habits, and just seemed to be getting ‘softer’ as they got older. I wanted to make sure that I always continued to push into areas that interested me, and not get caught up in making pale imitations of the albums of mine that had been popular or which had ‘defined’ my career to that point.

By the way, let's going back to your first steps as a musicians... Is it true that you were a sound technician before starting to make music?
No that’s not true, though I’ve seen that in print as well. I had a crazy homemade musical ‘playground’ that i created in my basement in the late 70’s, and it was always used for my own musical stuff. As a kind of excuse to build a ‘real’ studio later in the 80’s, I did do a bit of commercial work to help make ends meet. But my heart wasn’t really in it, so it didn’t last too long.

I discovered "Threads" after knowing your masterpieces, and I found it very different from the things you made after it... How did that album take shape?
(Laughs) That came from the crazy homemade studio that i just mentioned. I had brought a lot of eclectic instruments in when I could afford them: an early 4-track recorder, a couple guitars, an early PAIA kit synth that my then-girlfriend’s dad assembled for me. I used tape loops, slowed down guitar, kitchen utensils, an old secondhand vibraphone – whatever i could get my hands on to make new sounds.

What were your artstic landmarks at that time?
Wow, that would be a big list: Robert Wyatt, Roxy Music, Bartok, Satie, Debussy, Elvis Costello, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Steve Reich, Can, Cluster, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Coltrane, and a million others I’m forgetting. I worked at a record store at the time, so I was really exposed to a lot of great new music. It surely had a huge impact as I was getting started in my own strange path.

From "In Another Country" on, you started to develope an unique musical style, one of the best musical languages I've ever heard... What happened to you and your music between "Threads" and the following albums? How did you arrive to get to that particular sound and what influenced you in developing it?
I think there were a few pieces on “In Another Country” (like “On the Green Cays”) that were real breakthroughs for me, suggesting a whole new level of composition, a whole new world. Developing this new organic language of very intertwined and rich melodic and harmonic interplay with a minimum of elements, and a renewed discovery of the piano, really launched me into this new area. “Untitled”, the next album, really started to make it ‘click’ for me, and i started to feel like I was getting closer to the kind of emotional and aesthetic sense that I wanted to pursue.

In particular, I've actually fallen in love with "Three Feet From The Moon" and "Untitled", two albums I use to consider as two wonderful perspectives of the same side of your music... How were they born? What does they represent for you?
They were huge turning points for me, especially “Untitled”. I felt like these controlled, understated compositions really were ‘compositions’. I spent a great deal of time paring these down to very concise, very integrated sound – I imagined this world of perfect little miniature pieces that were a strange but very organic lifeform where it was impossibile to tell exactly where the acoustic and synthetic elements merged. I was influenced by American minimalism at the time, and I didn’t want to make long, flowing, noodly pieces with a few good ideas spread over long distances. I wanted to distill only the very best ideas into very concise, direct pieces that were as perfect as I could make them.

Another focal moment of your career is the one between "Glass Green" and "Beguiled". It was your first “stop”, and the first time you remained in silence for 4 years... Does something happen to you?
I think I felt a little pressure with a followup to “Glass Green” because it had been released on Windham Hill, a very big label here in the US. And I did the soundtrack to a children’s album “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” just after, which also took some time during those years. My first daughter was born, too, and it was a good time for a pause to reimagine the music.

"Beguiled" marked an important development in your music too, and I know a lot of people still consider it as your masterpiece... What do you think about this?
I like it as well. I finally found enough self-confidence to ask some really good orchestral players – Martha Reikow on cello, especially, to play on it, and I really wanted to work on furthering this combination of acoustic instruments and electronics in a very elegant, integrated way. And my compositional ‘skills’ if I can call them that, were developing, too.

Personally, I again simply love "Beguiled" and his twin-brother "The Perfect Flaw". I consider them as the two crowning achievements of the researches you've been doing in the previous 10 years. Do you agree?
Yes, I felt that I was getting closer to something that I’d been striving toward for years. They definitely represented the closest I’d come to the completely immersive compositional/tonal language that I was trying to perfect.

How did you get to the warmer sounds that those two albums are made of? I think the insert of strings also played an important role in that sense, doesn't it?
My sound design was getting more expressive, organic, and subtle, and the use of cello and oboe was a big leap forward. Technology was developing, too, so I could get closer to the sounds I was chasing. The idea was that it would move beyond ‘acoustic’ or ‘electronic’ music into an area where those distinctions wouldn’t matter, and where those elements just couldn’t be neatly separated.

And more in general, what instruments did you use to play at that times?
I often wrote at the piano, and I was using synths like the all-analog Memorymoog, the hybrid Kurzweil K2000, custom-made samples, and a lot of effects and processing gear to shape the sound.

You published that album with Hearts of Space, not a label but a multi-cultural centre in which an entire musical scene used to converge... What do you remember about it?
I was a bit of an outsider, I have to say. When Windham Hill changed hands, and Will Ackerman, who was always a champion of my music, left, they became much ‘safer’ and weren’t interested in continuing the relationship with me. I knew of Hearts of Space, but I was pretty isolated here in Ohio, so I wasn’t really a part of the ‘scene’, which was centered in the West Coast.

I've never found a proper way to catalog your music. And I think that's extraordinary. The only things I cut up from my mind sounded like “electronic contemporary chamber music”. Could you ever be able to use words to describe your music?

No, it’s kind of embarrassing when someone asks ‘what kind of music do you do”, and i always sort of stutter and mumble something. Even after so many years! I think John Diliberto at Echoes, or Stephen Hill at Hearts of Space invented the term ‘ambient chamber music’ to describe it, and that’s maybe not so far off. But that term has kind of caught on, and I’ve seen it now describing lots of music which I don’t feel much connection to, so who knows? I guess if words were enough, there would be no point in bothering with the music itself.

The interesting fact is that your music manages to be so hard to define and so easy to enjoy, refined but spontaneous. It talks directly to heart, but it's able to knock at the heart of a child with the same refinement that brings an adult man to fall in love with it. Have you ever realized this?
Those are very very kind words. I think it’s comments like those that mean the most to me. So much ‘entertainment’ these days seems to want to spill everything at once: it manipulates the audience and never asks that the audience meet the artist halfway – to forge some deeper connection. I never wanted to make music with clear definitions – instead, it asks that you put something of yourself into the process, that you find your own connection to it. The music has darkness and ambivalence and irony, and i hope is open-ended enough that it suggests more than it explains. The art that i love is like that – it has a kind of troubled beauty – like the rest of truly human existence, it resonates with me in ways that I can’t explain, I can’t sum it up neatly. It’s art like this that can mean such different things to different people, and to the same people in different periods of their lives. When someone says they’ve listened to a piece of mine 50 or 100 times, and it seems a little different each time, or feels like it’s a different piece than when they first heard it – well, that’s one of the most gratifying compliments I can think of.

The refinement I talked about is often closed into your easy but fascinating melodies. Did you use to spend much time in developing them or did you just write them down as they came to you?
I try to keep them somehow simple, but I’ve always spent a great deal of time refining them to make them unique and expressive. They often have odd jumps and quirky rhythms, and interesting interactions with the harmonic material that give them their own ‘voice’, their own language. They sometimes stray between harmony and disharmony, I love working with unexpected phrasing, but it has to be absolutely in service to the piece, not a deliberately ‘worked’ or overly intellectual exercise. It’s part of finding that elusive thing which makes a perfect integrated, seamless expression despite the sometimes ambiguous way the elements work together.

How much of Tim Story the man can we find in Tim Story the musician?
I’m probably more boring than the music. (laughs)

Where did you take the inspiration for your albums and track's titles? In which way are they linked to the music?
Titles are a loose, instinctual thing for me, but they’re important. The titles I hope hint about the music, but I never want to impose a concrete ‘picture’ into the listener’s head. The music isn’t about a place or an event, it’s more a personal landscape. So a title needs to insinuate a possible interpretation, a kind of poetic connection rather than a literal one. They are usually interesting, unlikely, elusive phrases that personally appeal to me, which I hope capture just a little of a feeling or a memory, or a fleeting image that, like the music, is not easy to pin down. It’s just so much more interesting to me than naming an album “The Pacific Ocean Suite” or something.

We talked about Bureau B and HOS, so let's complete the cycle with some words on Windam Hill...
It was short-lived but very worthwhile in terms of the much broader audience it brought to me. It was by far the biggest label I had been associated with, and after 5 albums in Europe and Japan, the first one actually released here in the US! It came about simply because Will Ackerman, the head of the company. was a real and gracious fan of the music. In the late 80’s Will was pushing the label beyond its reputation as simply an ‘acoustic-music’ label, and suddenly my strange concoction of acoustic and electronic spaces wasn’t such a weird idea. Will has remained a friend and supporter to this day.

Did you ever really feel yourself and your music as part of the (so-called) “new age” movement?
No, not at all really. I’d been working for years and had several albums out before the term came along. At first i thought being associated with this genre I didn’t understand was pretty harmless. And the exposure I got from its popularity did help gain some visibility for my music. But when I heard a lot of it, I just didn’t feel much of a connection. All this fluffy, spacy, esoteric texture and lack of real musical ‘meat’ just seemed so different than the short, tight concise compositions i was trying to distill. The most disappointing part was that, after spending many years trying to make music which wasn’t so easy to define, the New Age thing just seemed to limit people’s interpretation of it, to try to put it in this ‘box’ with all these limitations and expectations that just didn’t seem to fit. But my music was tonal, somewhat melancholy, and incorporated synthesizers, so I was put into that pile along with people like Harold Budd, Wim Mertens and others who were doing slowish, evocative, melodic music. New Age was an easy catch-all for journalists, and it took a long time to shed that connection - I have to admit its nice to see reviews now finally that don’t use that reference.

Along with Roedelius, Dwight Ashley has been the other important partner of your career, hasn't him? Did he influenced you too towards your musical evolution?
Dwight has been a good friend for many decades, and working with him has been a welcome chance to exercise my darker, more abstract, and more exploratory side. Like Joachim, Dwight has a fundamentally different way of hearing music, so creating with him really opened up new possibilities, new terrain.

You first came out along with a lot of American musicians (i mean Steve Roach, Michael Stearns, Kevin Braheny, etc.) that approached ambient music at the beginning of 1980s – many of them then arrived to Hearts Of Space... Do you feel close to that “wave” of American ambient musicians? And do you actually feel yourself an ambient music composer?
Regarding the connection with other artists you mentioned, no, not too close actually. Part of that was probably that I was was working alone, thousands of miles away from the music centers. Secondly, the long ‘spacy’ improvisational thing was an aesthetic I was moving away from, focusing more on short interlocking phrases which felt closer to minimalism than the “Berlin sound”. I liked what Jeff Greinke was doing in cassette releases like “Cities in Fog”, and I did like the big dense soundscapes of Michael Stearns’ “Planetary Unfolding”. But I felt like some of the other music was getting close to the faux-tribal trap of using ‘world music’ trappings for effect. I was more interested in personal space rather than galactic space. “Ambient’ music was open-ended enough that I didn’t mind being associated with that. Especially since i was very conscious of creating really immersive environments that were an important component of the composition.

Talking a bit about your live activity, I saw some pics of you playing live with Roedelius and Dwight... How and when did those shows take shape and place?
Dwight and Achim and I played several times – In Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati. One of the best was playing in Philadlphia – Dwight and Achim and I played a set, then Achim and Moebi played a set as Cluster, then we all joined for a kind of encore. I’ve also been fortunate to play often with Roedelius – mostly in Europe: London, Vienna, the Big Chill festival in the UK, even Kosovo and Albania.

I watched your full performance at HO'S Ambicon festival – to come to San Francisco those days remains an unrealized dream of my life. How did you feel about playing live there?
It was very rewarding, and I must say a little frightening! It was my first solo show, and it’s difficult performing my very-layered music. Jeff Pearce graciously sat in on guitar which added a lot. It was tricky to select the pieces of mine that i could pull off solo – I wanted to really play, and didn’t want to simply sit there with a laptop and twist knobs.

In that occasion, you mainly played tracks from "Beguiled". Why did you decide to concentrate on that album?
It was a festival of primarily Hearts of Space-era music, so I really focused on playing music from my 3 albums from that era, plus a few from my “Glass Green”. Beguiled has some of my favorites that were a little simpler, tracks i could do justice to as a soloist, and as a duo with Jeff.

I know you've never played in Italy. Would you like to come here, sooner or later?
I hope so! I’d love to play there with Joachim sometime, doing some solo pieces, and tracks from the “Lunz” album.

At the moment, are you planning any show, maybe with Roedelius or Moebius/ Leidecker?
I played with Roedelius at his More ohr Less festival in Austria in August, and I’d love to play with Jon and Moebi at some point.

What other projects are you currently working on?
I really really want to do a new solo album. It’s been a long time since “Shadowplay” and I’d like to revisit that asthetic, infused with what I’ve learned in the last 10 years. The collaborations I’ve done have been so gratifying, but it’s time to shut myself in my little room for awhile and see what happens.

In the end, the worst question, the one I would hate if I was at your place – sorry but I can't brake my curiosity: what's your favourite Tim Story album? Let's say, what is the one you're more proud and satisfied with?
I don’t mind at all! It changes all the time, but I’d have to say most of the time it’s probably "Beguiled" or "Shadowplay". "The Perfect Flaw" also has "Lydia" and "Broken Alphabet", which I consider a couple of my very best. I’m also very happy with “Lunz”, which when I hear it now, seems to have a particular strange beauty.


Threads (Autoprodotto, 1981/Eurock, 1992)
In Another Country (Dubious, 1982/Uniton, 1983/Eurock, 1995)
Untitled (Uniton, 1984/Windam Hill, 1988)
Three Feet From The Moon (Uniton, 1985/Eurock, 1997)
Wheat And Rust (Cicada, 1987)
Glass Green (Windam Hill, 1987)
Beguiled (Hearts Of Space, 1991)
The Perfect Flaw (Hearts Of Space, 1994)
In Search Of Angels (OST, BMG Classics, 1994)
Abridged: Selected Miniatures 1979-1986 (raccolta, Hearts Of Space, 1996)
Shadowplay (Hearts Of Space, 2001)
Caravan (OST, Nepenthe, 2005)
Buzzle (Nepenthe, 2006)
Collected (raccolta, Nepenthe, 2010)
A Desperate Serenity (Multimood, 1991)
Drop (Lektronic Soundscapes, 1997)
Standing + Falling (Nepenthe, 2005)
The Persistence Of Memory (Seventh Chance, 2000)
Lunz (Narada, 2002)
Inlandish (Grönland, 2005)
Lazy Arc (Seventh Chance, 2014)
The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow (Cd+Dvd, with Glenn Close, Windam Hill, 1988)
Errata (with Hans-Joachim Roedelius & Dwight Ashley, Nepenthe, 2008)
Snowghost Pieces (with Dieter Moebius & Jon Leidecker, Bureau B, 2014)
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