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Escape Velocity

Uninhibited Limitation: An Interview With Public Memory
John Freeman , February 23rd, 2016 10:46

Robert Toher, the Brooklyn-based musician and former Apse and ERAAS man, tells John Freeman why the stripped-down sound of his debut album was driven by a desire to stop "throwing the kitchen sink" into his music

The Oxford Dictionary definition of the word glossolalia is "the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language". Or, in other words, the act of speaking in tongues. I had raided my dictionary for this new knowledge as there is a song on Public Memory's debut album, Wuthering Drum, on which an androgynous vocal appears to be dabbling in glossolalia. 'As You Wish' is disconcertingly otherworldly, its pulsing electronica subverted by the opaque 'words'.

Public Memory is the brainchild of Robert Toher and 'As You Wish' is typical of Wuthering Drum. Using a limited palette – a Korg synthesiser, a smidge of guitars and the odd field recording – Toher has produced a suite of songs that allow layered atmospherics to frame his narcotic melodies and hypnotic drum patterns.

Moreover, the Brooklyn-based Toher is no newbie. Formerly of the ATP-anointed post rock band Apse, and more latterly of ERAAS, Public Memory represents Toher's first solo project. It is also suggestive of an evolution via reduction. Whereas Apse was fully fleshed in instrumentation and ended as a scattergun of ideas, ERAAS began the process of refining and paring back. Public Memory represents Toher at his most focussed and, perhaps, most beguiling.

When we speak over a Skype video link, it appears that Toher has also mastered the craft of the interviewee. My technique may well be entirely predictable (and that's probably the case) but Toher expertly answers my first four questions within the reply to my first. It's a neat trick – and performed by someone for whom less would appear to be more.

You were in bands – most notably Apse and ERAAS - before the Public Memory project. How did you first get into music?

Robert Toher: Back in the '90s, I was in a bunch of punk bands. That was my entry point. One band started getting more serious. The band was Apse, as in the architectural term, which was a little pretentious but when you are 17 seems like a good name. We found ourselves edging to what is now called post rock, but I swear we hadn't heard Mogwai, we hadn't heard F♯ A♯ ∞ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor or anything like that. We were making this crescendo-based music and then I heard all that stuff and was like, "Oh shit, it's already out there and it is really well done." Nevertheless, we carried on doing that for a number of years.

What happened to Apse?

RT: We had a period where a few of us moved to Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was very isolated, and was like living in a bubble. We worked with some excellent local musicians and stirred things up. I am really gullible – unfortunately and admittedly – and was left listening to the genuine voices of all these different people. I was hearing so many different things and being pulled in so many different directions, that I compromised the vision. We then had a huge line-up change and made an album that I wasn't too proud of, but it was a necessary step to get to the next band, ERAAS. ERAAS was a continuation; songs I had already been working on. When I set up ERAAS, I decided to make some music and pretend no one would ever hear it – and that I would do whatever I want, because it was just for me.

But ERAAS was a duo with Austin Stawiarz. How did that partnership come about and how was ERAAS musically different to Apse?

RT: It was Austin and I – he had been in Apse for a while. He offered to help me finish the songs I had been writing. Apse was more guitar-based; ERAAS was more a blend of electronic and acoustic instruments. We released two records as ERAAS on Jeff Owen's label, felte. Then we got to a point a few years ago, when Austin was beginning to question whether we should continue. We didn't want an 'indefinite hiatus' and so we decided to stop. A little like with Apse, I had some other songs I was beginning to work on while ERAAS was still going.

What were those initial songs like and how did you develop the vision for how you wanted Public Memory to sound?

RT: For Public Memory, I had some tracks but it took me a little while to develop the sound and feel out what I wanted to do. I had to cultivate the songs. It was actually a really long process of trial and error. I must have 40 tracks in total that I culled to make the ten tracks on the album. I wanted to explore, as different things always inspire me. Eventually, I honed in on a sound by having a limited palette. I only used one synthesiser, which was the Korg MS-20 Mini – the reissued version, which is almost identical to the original version that came out in the 1970s. That was instrumental in helping me eliminate certain things. There are guitars and field recordings that have found their way onto the album, but it was about shedding some of the outside, tangential influences and making a reduction in the overall sound.

Listening to you talk, it feels that from Apse to Public Memory via ERAAS, your music has become simpler in the sense of using less instrumentation. Is that a fair comment and, if it is, why has your approach changed in that way?

RT: It's a very fair comment. I have changed from record to record and I am proud of that. I got into music in the early '90s, and I loved bands that changed from record to record. I loved Radiohead, I loved the early Smashing Pumpkins stuff. I loved how they changed so much from album to album. We now live in an era where that is different – you do one thing and that's what people expect from you. They want you to flourish and explore your ideas, but they don't want you to make drastic changes.

That's pretty challenging. How do you flourish and explore without making any drastic changes?

RT: Well, you have to rewire your brain and create new neural pathways! No, it becomes about how you approach the necessity for change when people want to pigeonhole you. There is a way to do that, and it presents a new challenge that hasn't really existed before. It's interesting, because it begets a new kind of thinking and thus yields some new results. I see the Public Memory project as the presentation of my first work, but when I go on to make my second album, irrespective of the audience reaction to this record, I want to think about how I can change in an interesting way but still stay 'on brand'.

Having to stay 'on brand' sounds pretty inhibiting. Is that the case?

RT: I don't think it makes me feel inhibited. I will probably get some new equipment for the next album and eliminate some of the sounds I explored on this one, while keeping a similar approach to production. I will create a different kind of limited palette and, at the risk of sounding pretentious, go to the next 'era' of themes I want to explore. I still want you to tell it's my work, but it will be about something else. I am not a purist by any means, but computers allow you to throw everything but the kitchen sink into your music and I think there is a huge danger in that. I learnt that on the last Apse record.

The Public Memory album was recorded in Los Angeles. What did LA add to the record – were you inspired by long walks on the beach and crazy parties in Laurel Canyon?

RT: Sadly not. There was nothing romantic about that at all. ERAAS had finished and I had been through a break-up in Brooklyn, so I just decided I wanted to move to Los Angeles. I spent a year there and recorded the album in my house in Echo Park, which is a short walk from downtown. I did everything in my room in LA. There was no, "I went to LA and contemplated the vastness of space" – nothing like that. It just gave me some kind of sabbatical from my Brooklyn life. It changed the way I thought in a million little ways, because I was in a different environment, but not in any romanticised way.

Your vocal is pretty low in the mix on much of Wuthering Drum. How do you approach lyric writing? Is that an easy process for you?

RT: For lyrics, I always create a piece of music first – I start with percussion and then may add some bass. Then I will sing and react to the sounds with my voice in a way that would be really embarrassing if anyone else was around. It's almost like glossolalia. I feel that way I am getting that 'first thought, best thought' reaction. I will let that be for a while, then listen back to what I might be saying, and adjust some of the words. I will leave in some of the glossolalia and you hear that on the album, especially on the track 'As You Wish', which is more glossolalia than actual lyrics. When the album is finished, I will go back, listen to the lyrics, and get an understanding of what I was thinking and how I was feeling in hindsight. Looking back, it can make more sense to me. There is a catharsis going on and I am addressing things I was going through. It's hard, as it is intuitive. Sometimes I would just like to be able to pen some lyrics.

Finally, as I believe this is the first interview you have given as Public Memory, I will permit myself to ask the crassest of all questions. Why did you call the project Public Memory?

RT: It's a combination of things – it's about the idea that memories are probably one of the only private things that we have anymore. It is the idea of all of that rich data and knowledge being accessed by other people – and that day when someone can give another person a memory so they can experience the same thing, like in the TV show Black Mirror. Although I had coined the name before I had seen that show. There is also the aspect of the 'public memory', in the way that we document our histories socially, environmentally or politically. Plus, I am a very nostalgic person and I just really wanted the word 'memory' to be in the name.

Wuthering Drum is out on March 18 via felte