“I’m So Minimal, I’m Not Even Minimalist!”: Harold Budd Interviewed

Haakon Nelson speaks to Harold Budd about his sense of space and a recent retrospective album released by All Saints

Since the mid-70s, Harold Budd has been at the forefront of what, for lack of any better nomenclature, could be called "space music". Not meaning music which necessarily possesses a sci fi quality (though there are elements of that to his work), and certainly not meaning it belongs in the currently in vogue "new age" genre, but more that the sounds he creates give one a sense of space. More specifically, his music transports you to either a real location, or removes you to another realm entirely. Starting out as a music educator in California, upon making the transition to recording artist, Budd was soon partnering with Brian Eno, who produced and collaborated with him on multiple releases. With over 20 subsequent albums, both solo and in partnerships with many figures in the vanguard of forward thinking music, Budd is a constant source of inspired ideas and sounds. That isn’t bad for someone who is quick to point out his own technical shortcomings, and remains entirely humble next to his cohorts.

How were the selections of your retrospective release determined?

Harold Budd: I had nothing to do with it, I left it up to All Saints, which was exciting to see how it turned out.

How did you go from being a teacher, to be a recording artist?

HB: I’ll tell you, that’s either a simple answer, or a very complicated story. Simply put, I quit teaching in 1976, because I wanted to take a chance. It was a very good job, at a prestigious university, but I knew if I didn’t leave teaching, I’d be stuck for life, and kicking myself in the ass forever.

How have your different collaborations over the years – Eno, Robin Guthrie, John Foxx, David Sylvain, etc – come together?

HB: All I’ll say about them is that they all come together organically, there’s no plan to it at all. Every collaboration is a thrill, and all of them are still very dear friends, and always will be.

Do you find, when collaborating, that there’s a specific style you bring, or is it totally determined by who you’re with?

HB: It depends entirely on who I’m working with. I am always attracted to seeing what happens, because it’s always something interesting. All of them work differently.

What’s been the appeal of combining poetry into your music, as opposed to singing/lyrics?

HB: It’s actually been a surprise to me. I’ve been writing periodically for a number of years. It was totally unplanned, but then seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s me – "the man without a plan"! [laughs]

Was it something you at least knew you’d do, going into the studio?

HB: No, not at all. It just happened, and I went, "Why didn’t I think of this earlier?" I was just thrilled to be surprised like that.

In earlier interviews, you’ve stated you were indifferent to technology, being more focused on the sounds themselves. Is that still the case, or do you follow any of the new hardware/software developments?

HB: Yes, I have to confess you’re right about that. I’m not attracted to technology, at all. When it’s used, I owe it all to someone else’s experience. I never do any of the programming.

In recordings, not only sound, but silence and space are used so effectively. Is that part of your "minimalist" beginnings, where the lack of clutter makes the listener focus more on what’s left?

HB: Honestly, I have no idea why I was tagged as "minimalist". I’m so minimal, I’m not even minimalist! But no, none of that is true. I don’t like minimalism, and I never have.

But back to the first part of the question, there is a sense of space and…

HB: Openness. I haven’t a clue why I do that. When I was recording with David Sylvian, who is into layering, just putting together these amazing layers of sound, I was so impressed by that. There are just people who can do that better than me. I’m just not a musician.

Do you think of yourself more in the Western/classical tradition, or do you seek to free your music from any connection to the past?

HB: I hate labeling myself at all. When I’d go into Tower Records or Piccadilly Circus, over the years, I’d sometimes see my music lumped in with "new age," which was so infuriating. Jesus, it’s so insulting to be so categorized, with such no-talent sound. I’d go and complain, and they’d usually put my stuff elsewhere.

Where would they put you then?

HB: I’d have no control over it, obviously, but they’d usually just put me in "rock".

Your 2005 concert, at Brighton Dome, was billed as your "final concert", though I see you’re still playing?

HB: That being billed as my "final concert" was complete nonsense. I never intended it to be. The first person to publish that, I made them correct it. You know, that was at a really low point in my life, my marriage had just broken up, I was living alone in the Mojave Desert, and I had just made a lot of bad decisions at that time.

In playing live, what appeal does it still hold for you, as opposed to recording?

HB: Travel! Travel, travel, travel. Good food, good wine, good conversation and a good performance. I don’t play solo piano anymore, I always have someone accompany me on stage now, someone I can share the responsibility for the night with.

With your soundtrack to The Mysterious Skin, how much shaping of your music was there that went on around the visuals or was there a total disconnect? Were you handed material to be worked with by the director?

HB: There wasn’t a total disconnect, no. What I’d try to do is meld my own language, in the service of someone else’s, if that doesn’t sound too obscure. With Gregg Araki, who I just think so highly of, I’d have been willing to do anything for him. He was the boss, and if he needed something changed, I’d have tried to shape it as much as I could.

There has been another, more recent audio and visual release, the Jane recordings [with Jane Maru]; how did that collaboration come about?

HB: Well, Jane was living in the desert like me, in a nearby town; there’s actually a sizable art community in the Joshua Tree area. She’d actually used one of my earlier recordings for a piece of hers. But she’d invited me to see one of her films, at a nearby gallery, and when it came on, they didn’t even bother to turn on the sound, which I thought was so rude. I could see she was very upset, so I said to her, "You don’t know it yet, but you and I are going to create something." She called me the next day saying, "Did I dream that? Did I imagine what you said?" I said, "No, we’re going to." That’s been a real partnership.

Your website, haroldbudd.com, states that you’re about to work with Robin Guthrie again, in France. Can you tell me anything about that?

HB: I didn’t know that! Robin and his family are coming to spend the holidays in California, and I will be seeing him then, so I can ask about what we’re doing then. He lives in France and is easy to get a hold of, but that website, that’s not me at all. Maybe I should go read it, and find out what they have to say!

Do you have any plans for this upcoming year?

HB: Not at all. I don’t have anything planned, and it’s the first time in a long while that I’ve been able to say that. We’ll be seeing the Jane DVD come out in January, and then the second album/DVD from that will come out in a year.

As you are such a prolific artist…

HB: Haha, yes, very prolific.

…and an influential one. Do you follow any of the genres you’ve been connected to in the past such as electronic, experimental, drone; or do you follow any of the artists like Sunn O))) and Oneohtrix Point Never and the like, who work in those genres now?

HB: Not a bit. Not because I don’t like it. Not because I’m rude, but because I just don’t know about it. I just don’t, really. I don’t consider myself a music fan.

[As we are saying our goodbyes, Harold asks a question]

HB: Hey, do you have kids?

Yes, I do, an eleven-year old son, who wants to play the drums.

HB: It’s great, isn’t it? My son’s taking piano lessons, and flute lessons, and is able to take advantage of all the things I couldn’t at his age. When I was his age, the pinnacle of music was the avant garde, with people like John Cage. So, there wasn’t a focus on playing live. Or learning how to play. Just the whole philosophy of sound instead. I’d have taken piano lessons, but you just didn’t do that when I was in school. I’m so glad my son can learn those things now.

Budd Box is out now on All Saints

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