Dream Recall: An Interview With Faint Wild Light

James Ginzburg, one half of electronic duo Emptyset, tells John Freeman how new project Faint Wild Light helped rekindle his interest in music after making dance tunes "became like playing a video game"

James Ginzburg has been a busy boy. The boss of Bristol’s Multiverse label collective and one half of experimental electronic act Emptyset will release two albums in consecutive months. And while Emptyset’s third album Recur (out later this month) pushes the duo’s techno excursions into even more abstract territory, it’s actually Ginzburg’s recent release that’s more likely to raise a few eyebrows.

Faint Wild Light is the moniker for Ginzburg’s latest project. An eponymously-titled debut album arrived last month sounding quite unlike anything the American-born producer had been previously involved with. Erroneously pigeon-holed as a folk album, Faint Wild Light is a beguiling mix of acoustic guitars, piano melodies, field recordings and Ginzburg’s gentle coo – and light years away from Emptyset’s formidable and abrasive experimentation.

When I speak to James about Faint Wild Light, he’s in Scotland visiting his grandparents. He claims to be "not feeling very lucid" having just returned from a DJ set in Holland, but proceeds to be an engaging, self-mocking and articulate interviewee and eager to describe the set of circumstances that triggered a ‘creative salvation’ for an industry-weary artist.

As we finish our hour-long chat (which is momentarily paused while he leaves the room to ask his 102-year-old great aunt to quieten down), two things occur to me. Firstly, Ginzburg is Olympically self-deprecating and, secondly, I want to be making too much noise when I’m 102.

Faint Wild Light is very different to anything you’ve previously been involved in. Where did the idea for the album come from?

James Ginzburg: When I was a kid I had a four-track and I was obsessed with guitars and making guitar-based music. I had very little aptitude for playing guitar, but I just liked the idea of making music. I moved to England when I was 17 and I discovered – not in a Christopher Columbus sense – electronic music and it was as if a whole part of my life was eradicated. Moving to England put a massive fissure in my life – going from one person with a certain set of interests and sense of direction, and then getting so caught up in the adventure of it all. I pushed my life in America to the back of my mind.

How did this ‘fissure’ impact on your career as a musician?

JG: What ended up happening was that I spent many years making electronic music professionally and I began to feel, over time, more and more of a dissonance between the environments I would find myself in and my interests. Slowly, but surely, compared to what I had been interested in when I was younger – a mix of hip hop, blues and classic rock – I started to feel suspicious that I had gone too far down a certain path. It was nothing against electronic music but I would find myself standing onstage in front of 1,000 people feeling totally and utterly dislocated from the situation. I soon realised that I never wanted to be onstage feeling cynical as it was such a privileged position to be in.

Can you describe your feelings of ‘dislocation’ to me a little more?

JG: One of the strongest feelings I had was that the act of sitting down and making dance music was like playing a video game. There were all these kids all over the world plugged into machines and it was very transient and very ephemeral. I felt disconnected from it, as if it had lost some kind of texture. The upshot of all of that was that, after many years, I lost interest in that particular world.

Can you help me with the chronology – when did you begin to feel this way and what triggered the Faint Wild Light project?

JG: This happened around the end of 2008. I was trying to find ways of still being interested in making music and that’s what turned Emptyset into a more process, machine-based project. At the same time that was happening with Emptyset, I began playing instruments again. I had never done any singing before and hadn’t played the guitar for ten years. It was much more of a tactile and kinetic approach to making music. It felt like it had some inspiring quality to it. I slowly became suspicious that I could play guitar and piano and that, perhaps, maybe I could sing. But I really, really couldn’t – and I have the recordings to prove it. I took some singing lessons to gain enough competence and confidence for it to be at least possible to open my mouth and some kind of sound would come out and not be horrendous.

Ha. You are the master of self-deprecation. When did you realise that you might have enough material for Faint Wild Light to be something tangible?

JG: Well, all the early recordings were very bad. So, there was no conscious scheme to start another project, but I became compulsively interested in trying to make the songs into something. I probably wrote the first song that I would have been prepared to play to someone else in 2009, but it was not until Digitalis decided to put it out that I felt anything other than being quite embarrassed about the whole thing. With Emptyset, or any other music we’ve put out, I feel like I am pretty good at being objective about it, whereas I really struggled with all of this material. I felt really self-conscious – I would think it was a terrible idea and back off.

Was that because you were outside your comfort zone?

JG: Sort of – it was about not having any criteria by which to judge how I was doing. I was trying to recreate a distant malformed memory of the act of listening to music when I was small child playing my mother’s records on a barely functional turntable. I had to work out whether what I was trying to recreate was true to something that was meaningful but distant. It was almost like trying to remember a really beautiful dream. In the desire to remember the beautiful dream you make something else up – and that is the sense I had with this material.

The album sounds very – and apologies for the shitty music journalist word – organic. Would you agree with that statement?

JG: Yes. One of the things I really like about the record is that it is a document of me learning how to do some things that were outside of my ability set, and having to work with the inevitable awkwardness. I wasn’t proficient and would find ways to compensate. I would take a basic melody and go into the studio and pretend I wasn’t wasting everyone’s time. Most of it would be useless but every so often I’d have ten seconds of inspired playing and I would focus in on those parts and build tracks – in a sea of mental exhaust I managed to sift through volumes of bad stuff to get enough for an album.

When I loaded Faint Wild Light into my iTunes, it came with the descriptor of ‘folk’. I don’t think it is a folk record – do you?

JG: It’s become such a terrible word – it’s as bad as ‘trip hop’. It’s such a broadly-used term. If I talked to my grandmother about a folk album, she would imagine it with bagpipes. When I was a kid and only had access to a limited amount of music, I thought Simon and Garfunkel, or Bob Dylan, was folk music. I was a victim of the journalistic misappropriation of folk. So, I may have made a folk album using the already misused word.

Did you have a particular ‘sound’ in your mind when you were writing the songs?

JG: In the back of my head the entire time was the kind of structure of a song like Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’. It’s a difficult song to define but makes something coherent by having lots of disparate elements cohabitating. So, Faint Wild Light is a very poorly written, poorly executed version of The White Album or something by Fairport Convention.

Faint Wild Light – “Debris” from james ginzburg on Vimeo.

The album’s lyrics are lovely – where did you get your inspiration?

JG: I’m interested in poetry and literature and I’m interested in structure that doesn’t follow a conventional arc or end in catharsis. I was drawn to poems that, through the use of gentle paradox, are able to point at what is the gap between the words, instead of the words themselves. I became very interested in Gaelic and Celtic folklore and their descriptions of twilight worlds. These places, which I took to be experiences, I connected to our own experiences that exist on the periphery of being awake or dreaming. The fixation of the album is the hinterland between being awake and asleep. Fuck – that sounds very grandiose.

With the album now out, has Faint Wild Light been successful in re-igniting your love of music?

JG: Between doing this and the way things have gone with Emptyset, it’s been good. Emptyset has opened up a lot of possibilities for different kinds of projects in other media, where we are pushing further and further into more non sound-based projects, and that’s really exciting and inspiring. Faint Wild Light has opened up what is possible, so, for example, I went away for a month and started writing a novel. Rather than hesitating on the edges of things, my life is able to accommodate doing these experiments.

And could there be another Faint Wild Light album in the future?

JG: Yes. I have written more stuff – and they are more coherent songs. The new songs are vocally stronger. Maybe they don’t have the magic that came from being slightly clumsy – a certain naivety may have been lost. I will do some gigs and see how the whole thing feels. I’ve never played instruments in front of people and never sung to more than one person.

How do you feel about that particular prospect?

JG: I will be nauseatingly nervous. But, I will certainly continue to write songs and it’s something I’ve really grown to enjoy. It feels like a part of me that I want to keep in my life.

Faint Wild Light is out now on Digitalis

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