Interview: Marcus Fischer

Marcus Fischer is a multimedia artist and musician based in Portland, Oregon. Fischer releases music both as half of ambient duo Unrecognizable Now and as a solo artist, with an album coming soon on prestigious label 12K.

In addition, Fischer maintains his popular blog Dust Breeding, which has seen him succeed in his self-appointed challenge to make something every day for a year.

Hi Marcus, at what age did you begin making music and what provided the inspiration to begin?

I can't remember exactly when I began making music.... I didn't grow up in a musical household but I always had a desire to make music. My earliest exposure to music creation (I didn't think at the time that it could be considered music) came from experimenting with tapes. My Father for one reason or another owned a number of portable cassette recorders that I would dig up and use to record things off of the TV or from records... a lot of weird tape mixes of "I Love Lucy" and "I Spy" samples played on top of things like Frank Sinatra records. There are boxes and boxes of these tapes still littering my parents house. It wasn't until high school when i began playing proper music.

In the early to mid 90's I started getting into a lot of independent music that had a strong DIY aesthetic and it inspired me to try and do something too. I began playing in a band with some friends where we all switched between guitar, bass and drums. It was a great way to learn to play... there were no rules, no one telling us what we could and couldn't do. At that time there was a great network of underground art and music venues and kids doing similar things all around Los Angeles. It was a very inspiring time for me. I began to release tapes and records by myself and of bands that my friends played in which was a fantastic learning experience for a 16-17 year old.

After high school i moved from Los Angeles to Olympia, Washington which at the time was kind of the epicentre of independent music for the west coast. It was a bit of a culture shock to go from living in a huge metropolitan area to a tiny little town in the Pacific Northwest... but all of the amazing things that Olympia had to offer outweighed everything else. Artistically, Olympia was a place where i had so many wonderful opportunities to learn from, some great and talented people and to share my work with a lot of people. Musically i began to develop my skills as a drummer and was exposed to baritone guitar which then became my primary instruments. At that time I did quite a bit of touring, both with my own bands and as support for other larger acts. (it still amazes me when i think about how much we all got done at that time without the aid of the internet). After staying in Olympia for nearly five years Nicole and I decided to move down to Portland to go back to school for graphic design. We moved into a small apartment where I was unable to play drums or amplified instruments. This lack of a musical outlet led me to begin to experiment with samplers and sequencers that I could use to create music on headphones. That naturally led me to making music with computers and then ultimately the convergence of all of my collected personal musical history (which is where i feel like I am today).

Portland seems to have a thriving art scene. Do you see a close-knit community of creatively minded people or is it just a happy accident that so much art comes out of the city?

Portland is most definitely a place where art and music thrive... It is a fantastic city but it isn't really (and in my memory, never has been) a close-knit community of artists. There are so many people here that just do their own thing. It has a very strong DIY music and fashion community. People that are doing similar things tend to kind of bond and help one another out but there is also a lot of very insular groups of musicians, labels and artists here that seem to stick to their own. Aside from those groups of people there are so many positive, supportive people here. I love it.

Portland has grown quite a bit in the ten years that i've lived here and I am really interested to see where things go in the next few years. There are so many new people here and more and more there are established artists and businesses that are re-locating here. It will be great to see how they integrate themselves into the city and the community.

Do you think that Dust Breeding helped you to grow as an artist and would you recommend a similar venture to someone hoping to get out of a rut?

That would be a huge YES. The year that I spent on Dust Breeding has been so incredibly important to who I am as an artist now. WhenIi started Dust Breeding I honestly didn't think that I would even make it for a month, let alone more than a year. Aside from it being extremely challenging and therapeutic, it connected me with so many amazing people and presented me with a lot of new creative opportunities.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this exercise to anyone looking for some kind of creative catalyst to help push them forward. There are a number of blogs that I am aware of that have taken the Dust Breeding concept and ran with it. It is great to see that... it warms my heart.

Have you received any formal musical training or are you self taught?

I'm pretty much all self taught. I took bass lessons for a few months in high school but at the time I felt like I was learning so much more just by playing and writing music with my friends. Part of me would love to learn to play piano properly or perhaps something like cello or viola... but I don't know if i could stand to sit through lessons.

What inspires you as an artist?

I am really inspired by my surroundings. I mean that with both my physical surroundings and socially. I have always been inspired by the work that my friends are doing throughout the years.

When writing tracks and ideas, do they usually come from jamming or is there a more deliberate and measured approach? Please talk us through a typical songwriting session for your solo work.

It is different all the time. With my solo work the music most often comes from a process. I typically set up some kind of situation and improvise within that situation. Sometimes that means a certain chain of effect pedals or a specific recording technique. With Unrecognizable Now everything comes out of recorded improvisations between Matt Jones and I. We will usually record for an hour or two and edit down the material from there. We have been improvising together for so long that we barely need to speak while we are working on projects. It is an amazing feeling.

Once a track is written, is it then generally left alone or will you continue to build on it?

It really depends. For the most part, nothing I do is ever "written" before recording. It is all a process of playing and editing, playing and editing, playing and editing... and so on. That is the problem with working in a non-destructive editing environment. You can keep going forever. The trick for me is just trying to determine when something is done. I tend to leave a fair amount of imperfections in my recordings. They can sometimes be the most beautiful parts.

Your daughter Gemma has featured in Dust Breeding regularly, with one post detailing how you've captured audio of her playing a Casio SK-1 and then incorporated the resulting tones into a track. Is it typical for you to involve loved ones in your creative process?

I think that my loved ones always play a role in my creative process whether they know it or not. Nicole has been instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my creative projects and offering her support when I doubt myself. If it weren't for Nicole I don't think that I would have the confidence to do what I do.

Gemma was a huge part of my year of Dust Breeding. In August of last year my wife Nicole became very sick with a rare illness which resulted in Gemma being delivered about three months premature. She spent 11 weeks in the hospital before being able to come home with us. It was a very hard time for the three of us but during that time, keeping up with Dust Breeding while difficult also became very therapeutic. I love recording Gemma because she is really curious about things that make noise (like her dad) and it is really fascinating to watch her interact with them. In one corner of our living room we have an old upright toy piano that belonged to Nicole when she was little and on top of it I have a Casio SK-5. About five times a day Gemma will crawl over to it, stand up and then start to pound on both at once (á la Herbie Hancock or Rick Wakeman). I'm sure those recordings will find their way into one of my projects someday.

You've made your own Monome and appear to be confident with modifying and constructing your own instruments and controllers. Please share with us what it is about the Monome in particular that appeals to you.

What drew me to the Monome first was the beautiful minimalist industrial design of their original 40h. I loved that it was such a simple device with unlimited possibilities. The more I read about it and watched videos online, the more intriguing it became. Then once they released their next series (256, 128 + 64), I became obsessed.

The Monome has really helped me in the area of live performance. Through a combination of very useful applications it has allowed me to get away from looking at the computer screen and focus more on listening and interacting with my instruments. When I perform now, I can set my laptop down, faced away from me and forget about it. It is a wonderful feeling. I now can get all the visual feedback that i need from the grid of illuminated buttons on the Monome.

In addition, I feel that the rise of hardware developers offering inexpensive DIY kits and the open source movement has been a real windfall for people with a passion for electronics. I can't think of anyone that I respect more than Monome in both of those areas. There is a very active Monome community of very brilliant and creative people that develop and modify applications for the monome and help people with their problems. It is the most positive and supportive internet community that I have ever experienced. It is no small part due to what Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain have done with Monome. They built a small company based on strong principals of community, sustainability and minimalism. How could you not love them for it?

Is there any gear which you feel like you're missing or just otherwise would like to own right now?

There are a few things out there that I would love to have and use. One is a tape delay simulator pedal called El Capistan by a company called Strymon. It uses some fancy DSP to simulate many of the characteristics of tape. That sounds very appealing to me because of my love for warm fuzzy tape tones. I had been talking about it quite a bit with Taylor Deupree and he pretty much confirmed that it is right up my alley.

The other thing is the OP-1 by Teenage Engineering. It looks amazing. If it ends up being all that they claim it is, it will be hard to resist. There has been a ton on internet hype about it so i will refrain from hyping it further.

I believe you use software such as Ableton Live and Max For Live. What is your favourite DAW style software and why?

Yes, I use Live, Max for Live and Max/MSP. I feel like Live does pretty much everything that I want it do do and Max kind of fills in the rest. What I like about Live is how quickly I can get ideas down with it. I can just open it up and start creating. The flexibility is also very important to me. I can work in many different ways to get the results that I want. I have been using it since version 1.5 so at this point it feels like second nature to me. I messed around with ProTools many years ago but just felt like it was too ridged for me. Live feels much more like an instrument to me than just a studio environment.

Are you happy to use software and hardware/acoustic instruments when composing music or do you prefer one over the other?

I feel like my approach to music creation usually relies on using both. The set-up that I use for improvising in Unrecognizable Now more or less only involves things like guitars, delays and looping pedals but it all ends up in the computer at some point. In my solo work I tend to change my approach depending on the project. For the album I just finished for 12k, I mostly recorded instruments and sounds using cassette tape and portable digital recorders to the initial tracking and just used the computer for editing and supplemental recording. I think that this approach really suits the album. All of the tracks are pretty much equal parts found sounds and instrumental recordings. It is a sound that couldn't have really been achieved without hardware and software working together.

You released your previous album arctic/antarctic through a Creative Commons license. Is this because you believe in the ethos behind Creative Commons or was it simply a pragmatic approach to help more people hear your music?

It is a bit of both. I have released music on several netlabels who release material through a CC licenses (like Luxus Arctica and Public Spaces Lab) and i think it really make sense as an outlet to share music and ideas. I think in the future there will be more and more people releasing music in that way. I love that there are so many great netlabels out there now but i just hope that we don't see an end to traditional small independent record labels over the next few years. I have always been a sucker for nice packaging and am happy to take a chance on music if it looks good or is released by a label that I trust. I feel like so much of that mystery is gone now. I would really love to see more physical releases by some of my favorite netlabel artists and i'm sure that i'm not alone.

Finally, what are your plans for the near future? Have you any upcoming projects that you can discuss with us?

Unrecognizable Now just finished up woking on a music score and interactive installation for a pair of artists through the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and we are really looking forward to moving on to new things. The project for PICA took up six months of our creative time and energy. During the last three months of that, I was also working on my album for 12k which was just wrapped up a week ago. That album is called "Monocoastal" and should be out in November. Taylor at 12k and I have been discussing a new collaboration which I am very excited about. I will be starting the first phase of that project very soon. I also owe several more netlabels some new music later this year. Hopefully I'll be doing more live shows in the future too... I only played out a handful of times in 2010. I also have a cross country collaboration going with Devin Underwood (specta ciera). We are pretty proud of this 5 song EP that we finished and we will try and release soon. All it needs is to be mastered and to find an outlet for it.

sound creation:

wurlitzer electric piano
baritone electric guitar
electric guitar
short scale electric bass
nylon string acoustic guitar
lap harp melodicas
found objects
casio sk-5 + sk-1
toy piano
misc. percussion

sound collection:

sharp cassette recorder
sony cassette recorder
sony mini disc recorder
akai 1/4" reel-to-reel (2)
zoom H4n presonus firebox
mackie 802 vlz3
contact microphones
misc. awful microphones


eventide timefactor
electro harmonix 2880 (w/ foot controller)
electro harmonix freeze
electro harmonix stereo pulsar
mxr carbon copy
boss rv-3
ernie ball volume jr.
frostwave resonator
zvex ooh-wah
behringer slow motion
univox ec-100 tape echo


monome 128 + 64
kenton km mini
doepfer pocket fader
logidy umi3


ableton live 8
bias peak le
cycling '74 max5

-misc. monome applications:

stretta suite


Website: Dust Breeding

Article by Adam Williams for Futuresequence

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