Rod Modell has been making loops since before some of you were born, and he’s never going to stop.
As Deepchord, the Detroit-born, now rurally ensconced artist has released over 50 records on labels including Modern Love, Soma and his own Echospace imprint, and continually refined his “sonic paintings”, an endless series of hypnotic landscapes as ambiguous as they are emotive, drawing on dreamy ambient, Detroit techno and the dub electronics of Berlin.
His latest album, Ultraviolet Music, is his fourth for Scottish label Soma Recordings, a double-disc collection comprising two and a half hours of Modell in peak form, creating music both hazy and intricate; bristling with organic detail yet veiled by dub bass and foggy pads. Ahead of its release on Friday (November 27), FACT is streaming the entire first disc of the album.
We also asked him some questions about Detroit’s uncertain future, his connection to the music of half a century ago, and why he continues to make music after three decades at the controls. His answers were so good we’ve printed them in full, and they offer a special insight into a creator whose work has always stood apart from the crowd.
You’ve released an impressive amount of material in recent years, especially as a musician in the third decade of his career. What keeps you coming back to making music? What do you try to achieve each time you put together a release?
Some people go fishing, some people ride motorcycles, some people cook for fun… I guess I make music for the same reasons. I started in the 1980s playing bass guitar in bands, but I couldn’t stand the band dynamic. Working with four other guys was too inefficient. When you have one person doing all the music (as you can with electronics), the route of seeing a concept go to finished track is relatively quick and easy. With a band, you have to sell the others on the idea, show them how you think it should be done, etc, etc. By the time you actually get it out, it’s three weeks later. That could have been done in one afternoon by yourself with keyboards and drum machines.
Making sound art is therapeutic for me. I’d still do it if I didn’t sell one record or get any gigs. It’s just what I do to relax and feel like I’m contributing to society. At an early age, we all make decisions about the paths we’ll take during this life. Some are motivated by money and material things. Others are motivated by creating beautiful things and become artists (in lieu of riches). I think artists (of all kind) take a vow at an early age to accept “the art life”. As a child, I fantasized about being able to make art all the time. The thought of shelving all my sound design tools and forgetting about it is inconceivable. I guess I’ll just stop when I’m dead. Just like someone who’s been painting their whole life. I got a cheap bontempi chord organ from my grandmother when I was about five years old, and have just been making noise ever since.
I think with my releases there must be some sort visual element expressed within the sound. I’ve always viewed myself as an artist, however, never a musician. I don’t know why it is, but I don’t have anything in common with musicians. I (generally) don’t enjoy their company or conversation. When I’m in a room of musicians, I feel like I have nothing in common with them. I have nothing to talk about. But when in the company of painters, sculptors, photographers, I never want the conversations to end. When I see something inspiring, I’m affected by that the same way a painter is. I want to rush home and create a sound painting that conveys what I saw. I think in terms of color, dynamic range, lighting, smell, contrast. I’m a painter who just replaced his paints with sounds, I guess. My songs are snapshots of places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had, seasoned with a little otherworldly cosmic dust. All my songs start with field recordings and drones. Beats and bass are incidental and added last… and probably not necessary.
“I don’t think I ever listened to ‘normal music’ or any music on the radio. My favorite music as a child was the AM radio tuned between channels”
You’re from Detroit but you’ve spent a lot of time in recent years in Europe. What keeps you coming over to Europe? And do you see anything bright on the horizon for Detroit, which we often hear described in such depressing terms?
I think my personal sensibilities are overall more akin to European ones than American. In Amsterdam, I feel a degree of comfort that I never felt back in US. Everything seems “normal” to me, which is more than I can say when back in Michigan. Years ago, I worked at FujiFilm with a girl that would fly to Egypt once per year, and when she got there, she would get off the plane and fall to her knees and kiss the ground. She talked about how she lived other lives there. I always smiled politely and nodded my head while I listened to her stories, but really didn’t know what to make of them… until I went to Amsterdam the first time. Then I wanted to call her and tell her I finally understand her.
The first time I went to Amsterdam, I intuitively knew where everything was. It truly seemed like I was in a place that I lived before. I knew the topography very well. I’ve been to 25 countries in the past 10 years, and hadn’t experienced this anywhere else, before or since. I can’t explain it. I think one’s “true home” is often different than their “geographical home”. Even the vibe that I got from the people there seemed oddly comforting. I rarely get that in Detroit. There are other EU cities that I truly love, but never got this supernatural feeling in those places.
Detroit is uninspiring to me. I moved out years ago, and now live (as a bit of a recluse) a one hour drive north of Detroit on Lake Huron. I feel suffocated in Detroit. Generally speaking, people there are looking out for themselves rather than the greater good. Detroit needs a paradigm shift in its thinking. It’s interesting how younger people who are seeing Detroit for the first time look at it through rose-colored glasses. I lived in Detroit for 25 years and intimately know what lurks under the romanticized illusions of what can be. My grandmother worked in the Detroit City County Building for 30 years. In the 1970s, I would go with my grandfather everyday to pick her up from work. Back then, there was a sodapop factory (Vernors) where the Renaissance Center (aka GM Building) stands. Heart Plaza (where the yearly Movement Festival is hosted) didn’t exist back then. I watched it all being built as a kid. My grandfather and I would check the progress of the Renaissance Center daily. I remember when that building was just a bunch of iron beams. All this to say, I’ve been around that city for a long time. So I’ve seen the patterns.
I think for change to occur, one needs to recognize that a change is needed (or wanted). I don’t think Detroit has too big of a problem with the way it currently is. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I’ve been around that place for a long time. It’s resilient to change. This being said, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Dimitri Hegemann and his “DetroitBerlin” collective might be able to influence a change in Detroit. Dimitri went through all this in 1980s Berlin, and succeeded. Also, his heart is in the right place. I think he wants to do this in Detroit for all the right reasons. Most others who have had their eyes set on Detroit over the years were just opportunists looking to make a dollar. Hegemann has the intelligence, knowledge, enthusiasm and vision to accomplish a renaissance in the city. But will the city be receptive and work with him to accomplish the task? Time will tell. My faith in Dimitri is greater than my faith in Detroit. If they actually hear him out and attempt to facilitate his plans rather than fight him, he could bring some culture back into the void, and this culture would be contagious.
In your own time you’ve said you mostly listen to music from the 1940s and 1950s, and field recordings. Why do you think you have you gravitated towards those niches? And could you recommend a record or two from each category for those who want to find out more?
Maybe I hear music in ways that others don’t. This could be why I listen to the strange stuff that I listen to. I like music that relays an otherworldly vibe. When I was about five years old, my parents bought me a phonograph. I didn’t have any records, and my mom was going to work one day and said, “I’ll stop at a record store on my way home and buy you a record. What kind of record do you want, one with music, one with talking, or one with sound effects?” I immediately responded, “one with sound effects!” She came home that day with a copy of Sounds Of Outer Space for me. I put in on my record player, dropped the needle, and was in awe for days. I could hardly break away from it. These weird noises wobbling off and on… strange sound effects treated with spring reverbs and echoes. Like the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet.
I don’t think I ever listened to “normal music” or any music on the radio. My favorite “music” as a child was the AM radio tuned between channels. A science teacher in elementary school explained to our class once that this AM noise was sound of solar flares and solar activity. I would tune the radio between channels, listening for hours, and was amazed that I could hear such profound noises created by the universe. How could regular music ever compare to this? It can’t. I’m also a huge fan of listening to music in unconventional ways. In the mid 1990s, I did – with Chris Troy – a strange CD for Kim Cascone’s Silent label in San Francisco. It was basically treated shortwave radio and modular analog synths. I was talking to a friend on the phone (Steve Roach, who makes wonderful drone music), and he told me, “You know, I was listening to your new CD through a reverb unit and it was amazing.” I couldn’t wait to get off the phone and try it. I played it through a Roland SRV330 reverb, and loved it more than the original. This was a big lesson that led to further experimentation in my “musical” development.
I listen to old 1940s and 50s music because it triggers some kind of unusual thoughts. They’re weird transmissions beamed through time and space. It’s music that’s out of place today. I love this about it. Music that’s made for a different era, where people may have thought differently and appreciated different things. These thoughts are more important to me than the music. Fascinating to think about how people responded to this stuff 70 years ago, and how it doesn’t go over today. I like this psychology of it. My grandparents also listened to this old music, and frequently did so on long drives when I was in the car. So maybe it’s the associated nostalgia of this that I love too. When you put this music on and drive around, it kind of creates a “David Lynch reality” because it’s so out of place today. In 2015, this music is weirder than the weirdest electronic music being released. I like this. Songs like ‘Julia’ by Eddie Calvert, ‘La Mar’ by Ray Conniff, or ‘Summer Place’ by Percy Faith Orchestra really transport me to this alternate reality. I love Bing Crosby records. Good pipe smoking music.
Regarding field recordings, my grandparents had a summer cottage at Ipperwash Beach in Lambton Shores, Ontario. I spent half my childhood there. I would get fascinated with the sounds of the water around their house. Eventually, my grandmother bought me a portable tape recorder and suggested I record the water sounds. It was the beginning of a lifetime hobby. When I hear a field recording, I visualise a sphere of sound, and it’s easy to get lost in that sphere. It’s like a virtual reality machine. I like the more “static” recordings where not much is going on. That way, you can create what you want in that space. Busier recordings with more unnatural changes force you to accept what’s happening in the space rather than create your own occurrences within the space. Good ones to seek out are Gordon Hempton’s Earth Sounds series. Highest quality and pleasingly boring. The way they should be. I’m listening to one he did as I write this called ‘Old Growth’. Jean Luc Herelle’s CDs are also excellent. He did one that I love called Pastoral Bells that is all recordings of cowbells in a field. I guess, ultimately, I prefer music that is “interesting” rather than “good”. “Good” is too arbitrary.