Experimental Synth Musician Brett Naucke on Decoding His Dreams

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In the latest episode of RBMA Radio’s Chicago spotlight show, The Deepest Dish, host Leor Galil spoke to Chicago resident Brett Naucke, who is a solo synth musician with releases on the likes of Spectrum Spools and Umor Rex in addition to playing in cult art-punk outfit ONO and touring with post-rock behemoths Tortoise. In July 2016, Naucke released the Executable Dreamtime cassette on Mexico City-based label Umor Rex, further exploring the creative possibilities of his modular synthesizers. In this interview, Naucke talks about unlocking the meaning behind his dreams, Chicago’s ambiguous, overlapping scenes and how he draws inspiration from visual art.

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You came out with a cassette recently. Could you explain what you were doing with it? It’s a pretty interesting concept.

Sure. It’s called Executable Dream Time. I’ve been working on a record for about a year called The Mansion, which will be out in several months, but I kind of lost my mind while I was recording it and started focusing on something I could do really quickly, in like a month – putting together a smaller release that didn’t really have a label, it didn’t have anything. The whole focus was on dream elements and how I would put that into synthesis. Soundtracking very weird recurring dreams I was having.

Interesting. Based off of the titles and off of the patch that you use, it’s hard for me to get a sense of what those dreams were about – what were the moods and elements of these dreams that you were riffing on?

It’s a lot of different things. The titles are a little bit vague. I try to use the titles to have a vague idea or somewhat of a general sense of imagery for them. You could pull up whatever you wanted out of them. The dreams that I was having were recurring themes but not so much recurring dreams.

Something I’ve had my whole life is the ability to lucid dream. I’d say 90% of the people I talk to are usually like, “I don’t remember my dreams.” I’ve always considered it a weird thing. I was having these really specific recurring things – it was themes, it was people. For instance, the final track on the release, which is called “Mouth to Mouth,” I was consistently having this situational dream about a person… I remember telling them, there’s just been this weird recurring theme – it was a friend of mine. A couple of weeks later I woke up after this crazy-involved, really intense dream at like seven in the morning to a text from that person who just had the exact same dream, about myself, which was so eerie. It felt like a dream when it happened because I was like, “That’s not possible.”

And it started happening many times. It was really eerie. It wasn’t just about this person. There was a couple of other people. It was this really eerie thing that was happening. It was over the winter and I was collecting them and writing them down, so I was getting better and better about analyzing dreams and keeping a dream journal.

In January of this year, I had a break from the record and just started thinking about if these dreams had soundtracks. How do I put the imagery to sound? [I] just started messing more with the modular, which I hadn’t been doing in the summer months. I came up with this system that worked, and started doing it, and finished it within a month, which for me is insane. It’s taken me a year to finish the last release.

Had you kept a dream journal prior to embarking on this project?

I have the weird ability to remember these things, and I’ve always remembered weird aspects and had this imaginary place where I can put all these things together. But no, I’d never really written them down. I’d never really started looking up some of the archetypes in them – looking up different books and dream analysis guides. I was pulling really interesting things out of them. You’re always learning more about your subconscious and what’s going on. I was taking it to the next step.

Then I started thinking about how moods and things relate to keys and scales, which ultimately is why each of those songs is in a specific key or a musical scale. The ones that are, do follow that. Those were fit looking about what moods you associate with certain notes and combinations of notes and chords.

Given that you were analyzing your dreams for the first time in this way, did working on these songs – doing this in a month – did that change the way you dreamt at all? Did that change the more peculiar recurring dreams you had?

It sort of put them to rest, almost like burning a sigil, encompassing something and setting it out into the world in whatever way. I’m not sure if those dreams subsided immediately. I was still having aspects of them recurring. It did stop after a period of time. It’s hard to really say when. This was going on for months and then it just tapered off.

Some of those are still around in my head, but not to the degree that they were happening over and over and over again – like four nights a week.

That’s still a lot.

At the time, four weeks. Not so much at all. I still do have lucid dreams all the time, but they aren’t recurring themes at all.

I kept coming up with what a dying piano sounds like.

Of all of the recurring theme dreams that you had, which one and which track stuck around the longest? What took the longest to shake?

It’s hard to say. Especially the ones that had people involved. All of the ones that had people involved, they were having really similar things with myself. It was really eerie. Friends I’ve known for really long periods of time… Like, I mentioned waking up to a text from somebody that’s saying exactly what just happened. It is totally coincidental, you could say, or not. Who’s really to say? It’s interesting nonetheless, and it does trip you out a little bit. That was happening with everyone.

I made a lot of other tracks that didn’t really fit on that release. Those were the six core ones. Yeah, it was really just strange. That one, specifically the song “Mouth to Mouth” was a really, really eerie one.

The only other one that I think that could be really explained was a track called “Dying Season [93],” which is the only one that doesn’t use all synthesis. Mike Perkins – who’s Mr. 666 and a bunch of projects – he’s a classical pianist I’d been talking to about this. I kept having this image [of] my childhood piano, which I didn’t have a childhood piano – there was no piano there. I kept having dreams about the house I grew up in, which was a very iconic, classic home, and the image of a dying piano in that home. I kept coming up with what a dying piano sounds like. It’s not really a real thing that’s translatable to real life. He nailed exactly that sound with the piano, and that’s probably the most literal – on that record, the most literal taking an image and making a sound like it. It was possible to be that literal with a song like that.

That’s impressive that he was able to take that thing that was so dreamlike and reinterpret this thing that didn’t even exist in the world.

Right, yeah. Like any record I make, they’re all very visual. I have a background in visual art as much as I do sound, so I tend to think on that level a lot. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to be like, “Oh, that’s what this sounds like, literally.” It did, when we recorded it, sound like exactly what I had in my head, which is really fun when that happens.

What made you want to pursue music?

I started playing drums in the band when I was in fourth grade. I started playing house shows in, like, punk bands when I was probably 13 – like seventh or eighth grade. So I’ve been playing shows pretty consistently since I was 14. I wasn’t playing electronic music at all until I was about 20 – maybe 19 or 20. It was something that was a long time coming. It took me a long time to realize that I wanted to do that. And then even longer crafting out what I feel like is my sound, which I’m constantly trying to augment and change up.

You talk about changing your voice around and still changing it. At what point did you get to this place where, as a solo artist, your like, “Oh, this is what I recognize as my voice” or approaching something that resembles how you feel creatively?

It was a while after using synthesizers. I started figuring out how well I connected with them. Which sounds really cheesy, but I felt really comfortable around synthesizers really, really quickly. I’m awful and couldn’t tell you anything about how to do simple arithmetic, but I can explain voltage paths and coefficients and digital sense and frequency modulations very easily. It makes a lot of sense to me. I can hear sounds and just think, “Oh, I want to go make that sound.” I thought it was just a really expressive instrument. If not for the fact that you’re taking electricity out of the wall, and shaping it into sound: At it’s core, it’s cool. If I could get as much use out of a banjo or a violin or whatever, it doesn’t matter. Whatever I could get the most creative use out of I’m going to use. For whatever reason, synthesizers just felt really organic to me, in terms of how expressive they are. How different they can sound from one thing to another – just shaping the same synthesizer or doing anything.

From that, I got into modular synthesis – that was when everything clicked. I was making a lot more interesting things. I was coming up with a lot more ideas, I was having a lot more ideas. Just thinking about things during the day, and going home and doing them. It just felt really expressive. That’s what carried into now – I think most people probably know me as a person who plays modular synthesizers. My last record Seed, on Spectrum Spools, was made entirely from one single patch. Most people know it as that – that was the ultimate expression of just using that. That’s the most reflective record for me, and it shows. If you look at everything I started releasing, when I started releasing stuff under my name, it all culminates right there.

Brett Naucke - Seed

I think that’s where I felt fully comfortable, like, “I can do this one thing and feel not that different from a guy who just plays guitar or does this.” You spend enough time with an instrument, it becomes yours. You learn how to bend it. Modulars are no different from anything else, but they do have this whole other element that is very infinite, as you can wire them together to do insanely different things.

When you moved to Chicago, you mentioned this creative change for you. How has living in the city as long as you have influenced your creative process and your sense of the world?

Oh, a ton. I can’t really imagine living in a different music scene, for lack of a better word, than in Chicago. Not that there’s one scene here or something. I do find that there’s a lot broader of a weird underground here, where it encompasses any form of electronic music or weird punk or strange ... Just anything that is just kind of off from anything straightforward, which is really cool. [Me] and a lot of people I’ve known for years have booked shows that we try to have different elements.

It’s not that common going to a show – at least the shows I go to – where it’s five of the same act. They totally happen. You can go to a hardcore show – which I don’t really go to hardcore shows, but that was an example of what I was very bored with when I moved here – where you go to a hardcore show and it’s five hardcore bands, four of which are sound like the headliner on tour. That does make sense for a lot of people, but I just was super bored [by] that. Then they’d play hardcore music in between bands.

That doesn’t happen all that often in a lot of things I like to go to. I’ve definitely tried to set things up like that. That is why I’ve probably gotten the most inspiration to make other music, or try and not just have things be straight in line with synthesis – or whatever it may be. You’re going to pull inspiration from all these other things. If you’re only listening to punk and you’re only seeing punk bands, you’re only going to go to punk. I’m not trying to put down punk or hardcore, either. I’m just saying I found that more often in those communities. That’s cool. If that’s all you want to see, that’s awesome. A lot of times that’s all I want to see, but being around different sorts of things, just different music – whether it’s synthesis or literally anything – has at least kept me wanting to do more stuff.

Chicago, more than probably anywhere else, has a weird modesty complex where it shits on itself all the time – it’s just like, “Yeah, everything sucks.”

Given that there are so many places to see these bands – or to escape them, to go check out other places – what are some physical parts of Chicago that are a beacon of community or just feel like home to you?

I lived in Pilsen for the last six years, and there’s a huge art and music community down there. It’s great. You’re going to constantly just run into people all the time. It’s nice to talk to people anywhere. You know, just, “Oh, what are you doing?” “Oh, I’m working on this.” “Cool.” That’s a fun interaction.

There’s some mainstays here that I’ve never gotten bored with. I love going to Smart Bar to hear music on Saturday nights. I’ve been doing that since I got here, and I’m not even a big techno, or house, or dance person, but that’s a place that I feel very comfortable, and I like going because it’s really fun. There’s been so many show spaces, like alternative spaces, over the years – I could just give a laundry list right now. So many places were so fun that lasted for so long, and some of them are still here.

I’ve been going to the Empty Bottle for 11 years now, and it’s never really gotten old. The only thing that changes over time is you know more of the staff. You spend more time in the Empty Bottle basement. I don’t really take any of those things for granted. Chicago, more than probably anywhere else, has a weird modesty complex where it shits on itself all the time – it’s just like, “Yeah, everything sucks.” I’ve lived in other places for brief periods of time and I’ve spent enough time on tour to know that that’s the most insane idea.

I’ve never seen so many places that just stick around like here, and things that you can constantly go to. Like Hot on the Heels – really perfect example. Beau Wanzer’s Hot on the Heels night going on at Danny’s. I go to Danny’s pretty much never, but I’ve been going to that night every month, probably like nine months out of the year for, like, eight years or something, and it’s always fun. I’ve seen the crowd switch over a number of times.

I think when you stay in a place for ten years you kind of start making it – it’s like working for you, sort of, if that makes sense. You just learn what you like about things, and almost exploit them for your own purposes. Not in a bad way, but I know exactly where I feel comfortable and what’s going on, instead of kind of looking around aimlessly or something.

It’s interesting you mention Danny’s. It threatened to close and the response was just so intense that the landlord–

Yeah, that was really cool. It was a weird few months. It was really strange to imagine that night not happening, and I’m sure someone would’ve… just, like, anytime anything has ended, someone picks up the slack and is like, “Well, I’m going to start a night here.” There’s so many nights at Danny’s, whether it’s [The] Smiths Night, and Loose Joints, and all of these different nights – plenty of nights that I probably don’t know about. I’m sure there’s a lot more.

Yeah, the response was crazy. Because a lot of people would be like, “Nah, I’m not going to go. Whatever.” And then of course when they announce they’re closing there’s lines out the door every night, which sucks but it also shows when the chips are down people will be like, “No, no. This place is going to stick around.”

You mentioned moving here ten years ago. Did you expect to be here ten years later? Did moving to Chicago turn out in any way that you had planned?

I moved here to finish college, and within a month or two of living here I was showing visual art at galleries. I wanted to start a band, but it was not a goal at all. I really didn’t consider it. I was going to shows all the time immediately when I moved here, but I had no intentions of that. Within six months I was playing shows. Yeah, I think probably within six months of living here I’d started a band with Ben Billington, who’s a drummer who everyone knows here – he’s probably played in more bands that anyone I’ve ever met. We were both, like, 20 years old, and we immediately were just like, “Yeah.”

There was definitely a period where I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I really want to live here anymore.” But the more I spend time in other places, like, “Oh, wow, this is really beautiful and this is awesome, but I feel great here.”

By Leor Galil on November 16, 2016

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