Nature and falling in love with synthesizers: An interview with R Beny
Bay Area musician Austin Cairns aka R Beny is a true ambient wizard. To be honest, I only discovered him about 6 months ago thanks to his fantastic Youtube channel, but he's been inspiring the modular synth community for some time now. His debut album 'Full blossom of the evening' was one of the best surprises of 2016 (I listed it as #3 in my Best Albums of 2016 list) and a wonderful glimpse into his hypnotic ambient world, reflecting on nature and emotion. For those new to R Beny's music, his music is a powerful, mesmerising mix of sounds that layer and mingle, harmoniously combining, disassembling, and submerging into one another. Fans of Stars of the Lid, Oval and Tim Hecker will absolutely love R Beny.
In this interview R Beny talks about how Nature plays a big role in his creativity and how falling in love with synthesizers helped him recover his creativity after hitting a wall creatively and quitting making music for nearly a year.
1. When did you start writing/producing music - and was there an “Aha!” moment when you knew that being an ambient / experimental modular performer was what you wanted to do?
I've been involved with making music for more than decade. I started out playing guitar in my early teens - it was not very long before I discovered delay/reverb pedals and loopers, while simultaneously hearing artists like Brian Eno, Fennesz and Boards of Canada for the first time. Ambient, experimental and electronic instrumental music provided a way to express emotions that I was not able to with words. While I tried to emulate these types artists with the guitar (and a constantly-evolving array of guitar pedals), I felt like I never got close to the intricacy and emotion expressed by those artists. I tried various home-recording arrangements, but I was left feeling dissatisfied most of the time.
I kept my chops up by playing guitar in several bands, up until a few years ago. I essentially hit a wall creatively and quit making music for nearly a year.
It wasn't until about 2 years ago, that I started getting into synthesizers. I had dabbled with synths and DAWs over the years, but never pursued them very far. I bought a cheap synthesizer (Korg Volca Keys) on a whim and something clicked. Before long, I was working on instrumental music again, with favorable results. Modular came a few months after that and it was a revelation. Building a system reminded me of building a pedal board - picking and choosing different devices from different manufacturers, making something that is completely your own within a set of certain parameters.
Sculpting sounds on electronic instruments adds another layer of thinking and creativity that I was not able to achieve with the guitar. The last 2 years have been the most creatively rewarding years of my life.
2. Tell us a bit more about your background and how it influences you to create music the way you do.
For better or for worse, I grew up with computers and internet access. I took computer/technology classes in school and have worked on computers for my entire adult life. Because I'm around computers constantly, they are the last thing I want to use when playing or working on music.
Nearly everything I make is made with hardware electronic instruments - the tactility of knobs, buttons, sliders, pads and keys is important to me. Even if the heart of the instrument is digital, those bits help me translate what I'm trying to express better than a screen, mouse and keyboard can. I do believe incredible music can be made on computers, personally I'm just fatigued from using them.
On the other hand, computers and the internet have helped shape my taste and love for music. I've been able to discover and listen to so many great artists because of the internet. The Silent Ballet was my bible for a really long time. I found out about so much great music because of them and sites like Last.Fm. It's never been easier to find new artists and share music with others. It's never been easier to connect with other artists.
3. You live in the Bay Area, California, right? How (if at all) does where you live influence your creativity and your music?
Nature plays a big role in my creativity - hiking in the mountains/woods, driving alongside the ocean, stargazing, getting fresh air - these things help clear my mind and fill me with a sense of inspiration and wonder that I try to bring back to my music. There is a lot of stress in life and that really hurts or limits creativity. I feel that stress immensely here in the Bay Area. Getting away from bills, traffic, people, technology, noise - it's essential. It gives perspective, even if only for a moment.
I'm extremely lucky to live in a place where the mountains, woods and ocean are all less than an hour away. I live within walking distance to beautiful hiking trails. I'm thankful for that.
4. Your music sounds a bit Tim Hecker but more melancholic and emotional. Who you are your biggest inspirations?
My inspirations are constantly growing, changing, evolving. Tim Hecker has obviously been a huge inspiration. Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Dirty Three is a huge inspiration, especially in the way I think of melodies. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is my favorite synthesist. Do Make Say Think, Alice Coltrane, Grouper, Benoît Pioulard, Slowdive, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Tortoise, Tarentel, Sigur Rós, Julia Holter, Boards of Canada, William Basinski, clipping, Colin Stetson, Autechre, Rachel's...I could go on for a very long time. I feel like I glean a little bit from everything I ever hear and enjoy.
I'm inspired visually as well. Nature, buildings, people, lights, fonts, colors...I often try to translate things that inspire me visually to music, with varying degrees of success.
5. What’s the story behind your debut album ‘full blossom of the evening’?
The main idea behind the album was to express the connection between nature and human emotion. I find the two to be similar in their volatility and power. From beautiful and life-affirming, to ugly and soul-crushing. And everything in between. It's not just black and white, it's all of the colors in between.
On a personal level, I experienced several rough years leading up to 2016, I channeled a lot of that emotion into these tracks.
'Full Blossom' took several starts and stops, twists and turns before I was able to complete it. It was a humbling learning experience.
6. What can you tell us about your process of composition? What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
Starting a new piece starts in different ways. I might have a melody in my head that I want to get out. Or I'll try to play a melody that matches what I'm currently feeling or thinking. I might just experiment with a synth or module, exploring textures and timbres...and then the melody will work it's way out of that. I love making loops. Once I have a small loop or melody I like, I try to create other parts that fit with the original idea. I'll process everything through effects. It's almost like doing a puzzle, but you are making the pieces as you go along.
Once I feel like I have enough parts, I'll start arranging and then recording. I like to arrange my tracks linearly. I prefer if I can perform a piece live in real time when I'm recording. I'd say 90% of 'full blossom' was recorded in real time. There were only a few overdubs.
My process might seem a bit disjointed, because it is. It's not elegant, but it works with how my brain works.
7. What are your other interests when you're not composing music?
Hiking. I love being immersed in nature. I enjoy long bike rides. I'm a big hockey fan. I love watching and listening to comedy and improv.
8. Tell me about your favourite piece of hardware. And software? And what does your setup look like right now?
My eurorack modular system is my main instrument. Building a system is an art in itself. The result is an instrument curated to my workflow and the sounds I like. An instrument that can evolve and change over time. Every new patch is a blank canvas for creativity. Not being able to recall patches is both a boon and a hindrance, but it's something I welcome.
My setup beyond the eurorack system is fairly minimal. I have a Korg Electribe 2, a Korg Arp Odyssey and an Audiothingies P6. I also have a few cassette tape recorders.
I seldom use software. I use Reaper for any extra mixing I need to do and that's about it.
9. What do you usually listen to in your free time?
Everything. My listening habits are all over the place. I do love hearing new things for the first time, so I try to seek out new artists and new albums a lot. I'm loving the new Grails album. Hazel by Æthenor has been in constant rotation. I'm really excited for the new Mount Eerie record. I listen to Grouper almost every night.
While I still listen to a ton of music, a lot of my time commuting and working out is spent listening to podcasts. It's a weird thing, I just love hearing people talk, whether it's something that makes me think or laugh or cry. Some current favorites: Song Exploder, Harmontown, Doughboys, Drifter's Sympathy, improv4humans, I Was There Too, Pistol Shrimps Radio, My Dad Wrote a Porno, This Feels Terrible, With Special Guest, Office Hours.
10. Any ambient / drone / electronic music you really like/would recommend?
I'll recommemend the music of some my friends/peers - Paperbark (https://paperbark.bandcamp.com/), Lightbath (https://lightbath.bandcamp.com/), Hainbach (https://hainbach.bandcamp.com/), SineRider (https://sinerider.bandcamp.com/), ioflow (https://soundcloud.com/ioflow), Nathan Moody (https://nathanmoody.bandcamp.com/), Jim Drones (https://jimdrones.bandcamp.com/), Shipwreck Detective (https://soundcloud.com/shipwreckdetective), A Box In The Sea (https://soundcloud.com/a-box-in-the-sea).
I'm constantly inspired by what they put out.
Photo credits: R Beny
Posted by: Miguel Ferreira
Founder & Selector at That Special Record. Miguel loves writing stories about outsider electronic music & vinyl culture.