Raymond Scott Woolson

2006 interview with Somewhere Cold website:

Raymond Scott Woolson is not your typical rock musician. In fact, he's not a "rock" musician at all. Instead, he crafts dreamy and dense atmospheric instrumental music. And, true to the fiercely independent nature of his music, Woolson's 4 full-length releases are all home-made and self-released. With these four beautiful releases to his credit, we felt it was time that we interviewed this visionary musician. He may not be popular, but Woolson has sincerely and quietly contributed an impressive and unique body of work in his music, and has many interesting thoughts to offer about music and recording.

Give us an idea of who you are...and how did you get your start in music?

My father was a guitarist, so I grew up with guitars in the house. I remember picking one up when I was about 4, but I didn't learn to play the thing until I was 12. I took a year of lessons from Mrs Babcock, who taught me the basics of acoustic guitar. Then I took a year of lessons from Tom W., who introduced me to the infinite joys of electric guitar and effects pedals. After that I taught myself. I can't read music and I don't know what notes I'm playing. I don't even know what the strings in the middle are called. At best I'm an average guitar player, but I'm pretty confident within my limits.

 Right from the beginning I wanted to play in a band and I wanted to play my own music. I started writing songs as soon as I could string two notes together. I've never had any interest in playing cover tunes. Why should I play somebody else's songs when mine are just as good as theirs?

But having said that, I did play in a band once and we did cover tunes. We were a sloppy psychedelic garage band. We knew 8 songs, 4 of my own and 4 covers: Chuck Berry, Pink Floyd, Suicidal Tendencies, and Motorhead. If anything we were eclectic. But the bassist wanted to just play hard rock hits of the day, and the drummer was more interested in smoking a certain herb than in playing the drums, so we went our separate ways. The bassist did eventually have some local success in a group that played hard rock hits of the day. I have no idea what became of the drummer. There are no plans for a reunion.

 But that was a long time ago, and all my efforts over the years to put together a decent band were unsuccessful. Eventually I surrendered my visions of rock stardom and devoted myself to being an obscure recording artist. My first release was a primitive cassette of harsh industrial noise. No melody, no rhythm, just brutal unlistenable guitar abuse. It was fun.

 That was a long time ago, too. Since then I've done at least a dozen cassettes, a couple of 7" records, a handful of CD-Rs, and a few proper CDs. All self-released and entirely profit-free. I'm not sure what I'd do if I ever made any money at this. Pay more taxes probably.

In the early days I jumped around a lot stylistically from weird experimental noise-scapes, to short and snappy folk/pop songs, to loud guitar rock epics, and finally into my current (and hopefully long-lasting) ethereal instrumental phase. All this leaping about certainly contributed to my consistent failure to build up any kind of audience.

 So this was how I got my start in music. I figure my end in music will be something like, "He did his best, even if he never knew what the strings in the middle were called."

Describe for us the songwriting and recording process for a typical Raymond Scott Woolson song.

A song sometimes begins with a little scrap of melody going around in my head. When I pick up a guitar and try to play that melody, I nearly always discover that I can't. But in my efforts I sometimes come up with a new melody that's just as good even if not quite the same as the original. It's the battle of the melodies, and the one that I can actually play is the one that wins.

A great many of my songs begin with me recording a simple circular chord progression, something interesting going around and around. I usually put down a basic rhythm track, just one guitar and a simple drum pattern. Then I start building up layers of guitars on top, improvising and experimenting until I find a few melodies or repetitions that mesh well together. I like repetitions. My music is full of layered and interlaced repetitions. To fill in the spaces where vocals would usually go and to give the song a sense of progression, I'll often start out at a fairly low level and build up to a crescendo, then drop back down and build up again.

Once I figure out what works, then I go back and redo the rhythm tracks, revising them as needed to fit in with the layered stuff on top. Or I just start over again from scratch and re-record the whole song, keeping my fingers crossed that it will still turn out the way it did the first time. I do a lot of re-recording, but I very rarely make "demos" of anything. Every recording is either a finished work or a finished work that didn't work.

Mixing a song is always a tedious affair. Because of the environment I live in I can't crank up my monitors very loud, or play music late at night, so I do most of my recording and mixing through headphones. I'll mix a song in the headphones, then burn a cd of it and listen to it in a variety of places; on my computer, on a cheap boombox, in my car, etc. I'll take notes of what sounds ok and what doesn't, and then go back to the mixer for another try. I easily burn through a dozen cds before I get a final mix I'm happy with. And even then there's no guarantee I won't change my mind a week later.

I should mention that I don't have a proper studio set-up. I've lived in a variety of small apartments over the years, and put my music gear wherever I could find room for it, usually right in the middle of the floor. My recorders sit on a very low coffee table, with a couple of effects units and other equipment crowded together on a small bookshelf next to it. Effects pedals are scattered around my feet. I record my guitars either crouching on the floor, or sitting in a kitchen chair, or standing nearby and squinting down at the level meters far below.

All of my mixing is done sitting on the floor, with my studio monitors stacked up on boxes to get them at ear level. I've worked this way for many years. It feels like I've spent most of my life stepping over and around guitars and effect pedals, huge tangles of cables, scattered cds and tapes. And, as time marches on, it seems to take me longer to straighten up again after a few hours of crouching over the old tape recorders. Not quite the boy I used to be, I suppose.

Understandably, it can be very difficult for me to get a good sound. I don't have any real professional equipment, and I'm not very confidant as an engineer or producer. I don't understand the technical side of audio engineering, and I don't trust my own ears very much. But I'm getting better at it, and I've gotten compliments about my recent albums being very professional sounding. I no longer feel like I need to apologize for the production quality of my albums. A less than polished sound never bothered me very much anyway. I've been immersed in the Do-It-Yourself home recording culture for a long time, and a good song is still a good song, no matter if it was recorded at Abbey Road or in my living room.

How did you come to create the kind of music that you record?

I call my music "ethereal" for lack of a better term. It floats a bit uneasily along the outer edges of the shoegaze / dreampop universe. Not heavy enough for the hardcore shoegazers, not wispy enough for the Enya-ites. No vocals, no dance rhythms, no screaming guitar solos. It's mood music for skylarkers and chronic daydreamers.

I was always attracted to the atmospheric sounds that popped up every now and then in the progressive and psychedelic rock music I listened to while growing up, and in the New Wave synthpop groups that came and went long ago. I wouldn't admit it in public, but I really liked the delayed guitars and breathy synthesizers of groups like Flock Of Seagulls or Thomas Dolby. In my early days I toyed with this type of spacey floating sound, but kept it tucked away on the very fringes of my noisier psychedelic and experimental enterprises. I felt slightly embarrassed of writing "pretty" songs.

The shoegaze movement of the early 90's really revealed to me the wonders of highly atmospheric guitar music, of a sound that is best desribed as beautiful noise; and my own songwriting took a decidedly celestial turn right about 1992 or so. But I still spent most of the 90's focusing on more traditional indie rock music. I used to sing and write lyrics as well. But I was never the arrogant "in your face" type, and my music didn't have that dark edge to it that gets noticed.

Eventually I realized that, with a gazillion macho rock bands out there all screaming at the top of their lungs and jumping around, there was no way my non-aggressive voice was ever going to be heard above the tumult. So in 2001 I decided to slow everything down, aim for the heavens, and concentrate solely on swoony guitar instrumentals. There aren't as many people doing this kind of thing, and us shoegazey artists are a kinder, gentler bunch anyway. I love loud rock-n-roll, but I'm no longer coy about being a composer of pretty songs.

Who are some artists that influence you in your music?

Pink Floyd and Slowdive are the only true influences. The Floyd gave me the love of spacey atmospheric music, of incorporating non-music sounds into my recordings, and of creating an album as a whole listening experience rather than a random collection of unrelated songs. I love concept albums, if they're done well; and only the Floyd did them truly well. My albums are not concept albums, but I structure them as if they were. I want there to be a definite sense of progression and unity from the beginning to the end, and a sense of completion and satisfaction when it's all over.

Slowdive opened me up to the possibilities of the electric guitar as a beautiful noise-making machine. I had discovered very early on that the electric guitar is not just an amplified acoustic guitar. If you plug it into enough gizmos you can turn an electric guitar into an ocean of gorgeous sounds. But I never knew a guitar could sound so orchestral and much like those breathy synthesizers I was fond of until I heard Slowdive.

There are plenty of artists that have inspired me with their music, everyone from Rush to The Wedding Present, but only Slowdive and Pink Floyd seriously influenced my approach to songwriting, recording, and guitar playing.

Have you tried the songs out in a live format?

I've never performed any of my ethereal songs. I don't have the resources necessary to pull it off properly. Since there is usually no clear distinction between lead and rhythm instruments in my music, it would be pointless for me to attempt playing solo to pre-recorded tracks. So much of it would have to be on tapes that it might as well ALL be pre-recorded. Not exactly a thrilling concert experience. Maybe someday I'll be able to put together a live band, but I don't see it happening any time soon.

Out of all of the tracks you have recorded, what track are you most proud of, and why?

I've recorded literally hundreds of songs over the years, and all of them are my friends. Of my more recent ethereal work, "Jubilate Deo" is probably the song that is dearest to my heart. I don't quite remember how it came to be written, but I do know that I recorded the acoustic guitar first, and more or less improvised the sparkling and breathy guitars on top of that. The big drums were actually recorded last, which was ridiculously difficult to do.

There is an overwhelming sense of mingled beauty and sorrow and longing and joy to "Jubilate Deo" that stirs me every time I hear it. The quiet section in the middle, when you hear the little girl's voice, brings forth visions of distant children running and laughing in wide green fields beneath the golden sunsets of long ago. The triumphant second half sounds like trumpets shouting out victory to the skies, the huge sheets of sound at the end like an ocean washing over the world. "Jubilate Deo" makes me homesick and happy.

I'm very fond of music of that nature, music that is hauntingly beautiful. "Nadia's Theme", "The Ecstasy Of Gold", Pachelbel's "Canon": these are all deeply stirring songs to me. I don't know yet if I have any real talent for writing such music myself. I have a hard time instilling any great depth of emotion in my songs. But I think I came pretty close with "Jubilate Deo".

What is being a totally independent artist like?

Mainly it means I spend a great deal of my time alone. I'm a solo artist in every sense. I don't have to answer to anybody, but I also don't get to work with anybody. I'm responsible for everything. I wear all the hats all the time, but I'm not especially happy about it. I would rather be the creative side, the musician who makes the albums, and let somebody else handle the business side of promoting and selling those albums. No one has ever shown a glimmer of interest, but I would sign with just about any label under the sun if it would get my music properly released.

What are some of the challenges you face as an independent musician?

The hardest part is getting people to take my music seriously and give it a listen. In the eyes of most people I'm nobody. My albums are low-budget homemade deals. Luckily most of the people who do hear my music enjoy it very much. They affirm my belief that I create music worth listening to. But getting them to listen to it in the first place is an exceptionally difficult task.

What are some of the freedoms you enjoy?

The best thing is that I can do whatever I dang well please. I can put out any kind of music I want. I can be as wildly artistic as I choose. I don't have to argue with anybody about anything. And, when I get frustrated and tired and feel like calling it quits, I can just leave the guitars leaning against a wall and spend the entire weekend reading or hiking.

You have been quite open about your faith. How does your faith inform your art?

There can be no separation. No genuine faith can be set aside. What I believe permeates everything I do. My music sounds like it does because of my beliefs. I will not add to the burden of darkness in the world, so my songs are naturally uplifting and hopeful. There is no specific message in my music, but there are clues pointing in a certain direction for those who are interested. And those who aren't are free to enjoy the music as it is without feeling any pressure.

I am in a somewhat unique and difficult position. I am a born-again Christian, which turns off certain groups of people. But I work mainly in alternative styles of music, which turns off other groups. I've drawn fire from both sides; ridiculed by one set and frowned upon by the other. Sometimes I feel like I'm the designated misfit. But in the end that doesn't matter. I'm not trying to be accepted by any group.  I beleive that any small talent I may have is God-given, and I feel a responsibility to put it to productive use. I agree with Bach that "the aim and final end of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."

--- RSW, 2006

Excerpts from an unpublished 2013 interview:

...I've been a fan of the Cocteau Twins since the late '80s, but I don't think they influenced my own music at all. Not that I can remember. I just think Robin Guthrie and I have a similar approach to songwriting. I'm not really a fan of his solo work. I own one of his solo albums, but I never listen to it. It just doesn't interest me. Probably the main difference between us is I don't have is his technical skill as a producer. I never had a Liz Frasier either...

...I admit the Slowdive influence, but it was a gradual thing. I can pinpoint the moment when Shoegaze began to influence my music, because I still have all the cassettes I made in those days. My last 1991 tape was indie pop with a strong Wedding Present/Smiths influence. My first tape of '92, in March, was the same indie pop style but now with a heavy layer of processed guitar noise on top. It was all My Bloody Valentine stuff then, lots of distortion and string bending. None of it was a very good imitation really...

...Slowdive crept in later, the clean chorused and delayed sound. It was easier to do and it fit my songs better than the noisey approach. I didn't own a reverb unit until late '92, and I figured out how to get a similar Slowdive type of guitar sound with it, but I rarely used that trick until the late '90s when I set aside indie rock to do an album of ethereal soundscapes. That was Atmospherium, in '98 and '99...

...I have never been able to match the pure sound of Slowdive's guitars, but that's due to my lack of amps and quality studio mics. But the floating guitar trick, of playing it through the reverb, I think I took that effect farther than they did. I don't know of anybody who turned it into a type of big orchestral sound the way I've done. I first used it extensively on the "Boggins Heights" album in 2005, but I've refined it a lot since then. I simplified the technique so it's smoother and easier to control...

...I lost my momentum with "Broken Things Mended." I had released an album or a mini album every year from 2003 to 2007, but then I went off the rails. The plan was to produce a new album by the end of 2007, but I ran into all sorts of problems, technical and personal. I kept falling further behind until I crumbled under the pressure and lost all confidence in myself. So the album wasn't finished until 2010, and I still wasn't happy with it. I just forced myself to stop working on it. I feel better about the album now, I do think it contains some of my very best songs, but for a long time I was really miserable. I felt I had blown my only chance to get my foot in the door of the music world...

...After "Broken Things Mended" I swore off all album projects. "See Us Then" wasn't made as an album, but simply a collection of songs that were all recorded more or less in isolation from each other. In contrast to "Broken Things," which was produced as one big huge epic slab of sound. I backed off from the over-the-top approach too, the thousand tracks of flying guitars, so "See Us Then" is a more mild-mannered release, with quieter songs and a fairly pastoral feel. To me it sounds now like a musician who isn't trying to prove anymore that he's just as good as everyone else...

...I like my music. Even though I am my own biggest critic, I'm also my biggest fan. I listen to my albums all the time. If I'm unhappy about something, it's almost never the actual song itself, but rather the recording of that song. It's just the frustration of not being able to produce a professional level recording; I don't have the money or the skill.

And that frustration isn't really about what I hear myself; I can live with a less than perfect recording if I'm just listening to my songs at home. But if I'm sharing my music with the world, I want to give them the best production possible. That's where I struggle, because I've reached the limit my skill and equipment will allow. I can't get my albums to sound better than they do now. Nobody has ever complained about it, but it bothers me...

...For a couple of years I thought my audience was slowly growing. "Accidental Grace Notes" sold about 400 copies by 2008, which was a good 300 more than "Atmospherium" and "Boggins Heights" sold together. (The first edition of "Legendarium" was a giveaway of 100 copies.)

My intention with "Grace Notes" was to introduce my music to a wider audience, and in that respect I think it was successful. I had a distributor from the end of 2006 through 2007, so it got more exposure than my previous releases. Because it was a manufactured CD rather than a CD-R I believe more people were willing to plunk down a few dollars and give it a listen. The initial sales were promising enough that I was encouraged to re-release "Boggins Heights" as a proper CD in the summer of 2007. It was a massive flop, selling only 20 copies in two years.

The limited-edition mini album "With Stringed Instruments" that came out in the spring of 2007 was also a flop. I made 30 CD-R copies and after a month I announced it was sold out, but that was a total lie. I sold 16 copies and gave away 4. The remaining 10 sat in a shoebox until eventually I tossed the discs and used the jewel cases for something else. It was embarrassing, so I covered it up. I think that was the beginning of a change in the way I viewed myself as a recording artist. It seemed like just about everything from that time onward was an embarrassment...

...Looking back at it, I guess what happened with "Grace Notes" was, with that album new people were introduced to my music for the first time. They gave it a listen, and then I can only assume they dismissed it and moved on to other things. I think very few of them came back for more, and a lot of copies of "Grace Notes" started showing up on eBay and GEMM...

...The long period of time between albums didn't help much. My brief association with an indie label between 2007 and 2009 was such a humiliating affair that I really won't talk about it in any detail. I made a mess of it and portrayed myself as a bumbling amateur. That recording contract was my big chance and I think I completely blew it.

That whole process of producing "Broken Things Mended" left me convinced that I was an incompetent fool. I was so miserable that for most of 2009 I abandoned any attempt to finish "Broken Things." I had actually recorded two new songs in late 2008, while still trying to work on "Broken Things," but then I felt so low I didn't try to compose any new music at all until late 2010.

When "Broken Things Mended" was finally finished and released in 2010, after four years of struggling with it, I had very mixed feelings about it. It was released on a private label, and I was grateful for the effort that the label made, but I didn't think it was a very good fit. And by that point, honestly I didn't have very high hopes. I don't know the exact sales, but they were well below expectations, which pretty much solidified my opinion of myself as a failure...

...All of this was internal. "Accidental Grace Notes" and "Broken Things Mended" both got great reviews, and I got a lot of positive feedback from people who bought those albums. But internally I was viewing myself more and more as "Raymond Scott Woolson the bumbling amateur." I joked about it, calling myself a critically acclaimed artist who got excellent reviews but never sold any albums. But seriously it was embarrassing to be that person...

...One night in 2011, on the spur of the moment, I started calling myself "the late Raymond Scott Woolson." It was partly a gimmick and partly an attempt to take the unwanted attention off myself. For a few minutes I think I toyed with the idea of really pretending I was dead. But I couldn't go through with it; I felt too guilty about how that would make people feel.

But it was true that I didn't want to be myself anymore. If I was going to continue making music I needed to hide somehow. So I started thinking about killing off the Raymond Scott Woolson name and starting over again with a new name.

The process began in 2012 after the release of "See Us Then." (By the way, I was very happy with that album, but sadly it got no reviews at all.) I posted a few songs online with no artist name attached to them. I wanted to see if they would do anything by themselves, but they just sat there. After a few months, I put my name on them and re-posted them and they still did nothing. That was the end for me.

By the autumn of 2012 the weariness and frustration of being a musician who couldn't seem to do anything right anymore became unbearable. I finally made my decision and announced that I was retiring Raymond Scott Woolson and starting up a new project called Orchard Doves.

The first Orchard Doves album is called "...reflect and refresh..." It was released in March and is really a transition from RSW to Orchard Doves. It's a pretty short album that still manages to jump around in style quite a bit. They're good songs, but I'm not sure now if I shouldn't have done one more RSW release to clean up the leftover songs, and started over with all brand new stuff for Orchard Doves. It doesn't have a clear identity of its own yet, but I've been thinking about that and I think the next release will have a more unique voice.

I haven't done much of anything to promote it yet. I've been hesitating but I don't know why. I really want to get another group of songs finished with a more definitive sound. Then maybe I'll have a clear idea how to present the project. I don't think it can be called Shoegaze music anymore; I've moved pretty far away from that these past couple years. I'm not sure yet what it's going to be, so I suppose that's why I'm not being very vocal about it...

...The truth is I'm pretty nervous. It's a new name, but it's still me behind it, and I'm still very uncertain about what I'm doing. I presented "...reflect and refresh..." as a group project, with different people involved, but that's just wishful thinking on my part. The other names are sort of jokes that can be easily identified.

I've only got one new song finished, but there are a couple more in progress. I'm not being such a guitar purist with this project. I'm including keyboard, especially organ and piano, as a regular instrument, and I want to be more adventurous with percussion and other sounds.

"The Scenes Which Then Before Us Rise" is a song from "...reflect and refresh..." and is a good example of a direction I might like to go in. That particular song is mostly keyboard, with some floating guitar in the background, but I'm sure whatever I do will still have plenty of swirly guitars. I do have some confidence with swirly guitars. If that's the one thing I know how to do well, I might as well keep on doing it.

--- RSW, May 2013

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