Stone Cold: An Interview With Emeralds

Louis Pattison talks to the synth trio

Cleveland’s Emeralds – the trio of John Elliott (synth), Steve Hauschildt (synth) and Mark McGuire (guitar) – emerged from the Midwestern experimental underground in the mid-noughties and found their feet with a string of releases on labels including Hanson, Chondritic Sound and Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace. The group’s employment of vintage analogue synthesizers, along with fellow travellers such as Oneohtrix Point Never, would spark a sea-change in the international noise scene. Louis Pattison speaks to Emeralds’ synth children John Elliott and Steve Hauschildt.

Their expansive and meditative sound, explored on 2009’s What Happened and Emeralds, saw them widely hailed as the heirs to progressive 70s names such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Ash Ra Tempel’s Manuel Göttsching. But Emeralds have rejected ‘kosmische’ or ‘new age’ tags, and continue to evolve their music along their own specifications. Their third full-length album for the Editions Mego label, Just To Feel Anything, adds drum machine rhythms to the group’s arpeggiated synths and looped guitar, giving their music a sense of momentum and dragging them to the periphery of the dancefloor.

All three members are also prolific individually, with McGuire and Hauschildt releasing solo albums under their own names, and Elliott recording as Outer Space and curating the Editions Mego imprint Spectrum Spools, dedicated to releasing forward-thinking modern synth music. 

Emeralds Leonardo Greco

Just To Feel Anything feels like a further step in the direction you took on 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here – more detailed, more rhythmic, more emotive. What is behind the band’s transformation?

John Elliott

Emeralds has always been a project on the move. When we started, things were much more simple. As we began to collect more different kinds of equipment things became exponentially more complex. I don't think it's possible to shed yourself of your influence completely if you are a true artist, so I think that DNA remains, even though we have evolved quite a bit. Each album seems to be a snapshot into our constant evolution.

Steve Hauschildt

It’s crazy, the rate we take in new, more out-there influences. In this respect the last two years has been an eternity for us individually to take in new ideas and then finally put something back out into the world again as Emeralds. I’ve actually been listening to electronic or what people would call ‘techno’ music for some 14 years now, so it’s nothing new in the way of influence; more in practice. We all have a lot of memories and feel a very close kinship to our roots in the Midwestern experimental scene, but to be honest we were always trying to do something against the grain, even in the embryonic stages of the band. I feel that our new album is not only a new direction for us, but it actually covers the breadth of our work from start to finish, if that makes sense.

Emeralds - Just To Feel Anything

You’ve spoken before about the influence of space, or a collective mindset, on Emeralds’ music. Now all three of you live in different parts of the US. Has this distance manifested in Just To Feel Anything?

Steve Hauschildt

It means we have to make use of our time more effectively. There is always so much to do and an infinite amount of outcomes can arise from choices we make. Distance isn’t so much of a factor, as we can take a flight to get anywhere. It’s a matter of willingness. But speaking for myself, solitude and isolation are very important. Too many kids are stuck repeating themselves, because they’re surrounded by the same influences and expectations. We wanted to step away and make a new album, different from the last.

Emeralds - Does It Look Like I'm Here (Daphni Mix 2)

In areas of the new record – the title track, for instance – it feels like you’re channelling a rhythmic, dancier feel. Earlier this year, you were remixed by Caribou’s Dan Snaith, working in his Daphni guise. Are you open to the idea of remix culture? How do you feel Emeralds works as raw material for remixing?

John Elliott

When I was doing a lot of the drum machine parts for the new album, I was very careful not go crazy. I used a Roland TR-808 and limited myself to using only the snare drum, bass drum and hi-hat sounds, so it wouldn’t be some sort of drum freak-out. I wanted to arrange simple parts as if I were a minimal rock drummer. Regarding the title track, I didn’t really have any sort of genre intentions, but there is sort of an Italo vibe, as it turned out.

Steve Hauschildt

The three of us are into remix culture, and it’s not ridiculous to think that a remix album will materialise next year. Dan and Kieran [Hebden, Four Tet] have told us that when they play Emeralds remixes to huge crowds in Europe, people go batshit, so I guess it translates well. We’ve always had a better response over there live anyway, to be honest. Any time you are dealing with sequencers and patterning, there is an aspect of hypnosis that can come out in a variety of ways.

It’s easy to fall into a bit of a comfort zone when you keep the same equipment.

John Elliott

I get the impression you’re pretty much gear-heads. How important is the acquisition of new equipment to Emeralds? Is there a vintage of musical equipment that seems to work for you the most?

Steve Hauschildt

It’s so important. But not all of the instruments on the new Emeralds or even on my new solo album [Sequiter] are instruments that we own. Some of them belong to the studio we’re recording in. It’s always a combination of things we’ve acquired and things we have access to. Taste comes in when you make a choice to employ an instrument or effect for a specific part. It is circumstantial and sometimes can take days to totally nail down a sound, without even talking about the part itself.

John Elliott

I always like to obtain and experiment with new equipment, whether it’s software, hardware, stringed instruments. It allows new sounds to emerge, whereas it’s easy to fall into a bit of a comfort zone when you keep the same equipment. Some of the vintage stuff I use definitely has certain tonal properties I’m drawn to. I’ve shifted from the more vintage stuff to having a lot of my synthesizer equipment built for me in custom modules. This is a road I’m very interested in.

Live, there’s an interesting dichotomy between Emeralds’ blissful, melodic side and your noisy, intense side. Is heaviness or volume essential to the live experience?

Steve Hauschildt

In a way it is, because the more headroom you have the more possibility for a dynamic performance there is.

John Elliott

Volume is crucial, but clarity is more important. Having dynamics and arcs can really make a dramatic difference in a set, as opposed to it just sort of starting and levelling off immediately and then ending. A band like Growing, specifically in their Colorwheel era, really nailed this in a way that was pretty inspiring. You’d have these incredibly loud sounds with these beautiful melodies floating across the stereo field. It was heavy as hell, but very light and cloudy at the same time.

Emeralds - Alive in the Sea of Information

James Plotkin has mastered every Emeralds album since 2008’s What Happened. What does he bring to the table?

Steve Hauschildt

You want your mastering engineer to actually have a hand in the way that it sounds and to take some liberty with the equalization at the end. As he is the last one to actually work on the tracks before it reaches our listeners ears, he plays an important role. He's worked with us for a while and has a good feel for our music, or at least how we want it to sound, but he does enhance the sound in a personal way. You don't want somebody to interfere too much, though. There is a line that can be crossed. It’s a matter of communication and trust.

In the 70s and 80s, synth music was closely associated with the movie soundtrack. Is this aesthetic relevant to your music? Do you think of your music visually?

Steve Hauschildt

We believe our music is very visual, and evokes many things outside of musical influence. It’s unfortunate that the synthesizer has taken a bad rap for being in movie soundtracks of the past. A lot of this pessimistic, limited thinking has trickled down into modern thought, and it’s annoying when people try to categorically dig your music into a hole.

John Elliott

The best stuff comes from strong feelings. It’s hard to articulate what happens when I’m trying to create sounds, but I definitely visualise stuff that could probably get me into a straightjacket very quickly, measured by the standard of a ‘normal’ person who doesn’t work on art. Our music exists on a very human level. We get labelled as ‘kosmische’ constantly, and while I suppose that is pretty flattering, it’s also a bit strange as I see our music as being very of this earth that we all live on. Emeralds has an emotional effect that reminds us that we are all humans, even when machines are making the sounds. 

By Louis Pattison on November 22, 2012

On a different note