Together now for for almost quarter of a century, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid have developed a cult reputation as two of the world’s foremost minimal drone composers. Since their 1995 debut LP Music for Nitrous Oxide, they have released a string of critically lauded albums as well working on numerous side projects and collaborations with artists such as Johann Johannsson and Dustin O’Halloran. With a short European tour kicking off tonight in Amsterdam, State caught up with Adam Wiltzie ahead of their two Irish shows this month in Cork and Dublin.
Not one to mince words, Wiltzie begins to explain the philosophy that underlies his compositions. “I was always in search of really quiet music. I was maybe influenced by some records, or some pieces of visual art that I felt an affinity to that I wanted to recreate via music. I don’t think there was some diabolical plan, things evolved over time. I’ve never really been into conceptual art. I can appreciate beautiful art but conceptual art sometimes can be a little like swimming through vomit for me. You know, it means a lot to the person who creates it, but just because I create something it doesn’t have to mean anything to you. You might think what I do is complete crap or you might be touched by it. That’s the random subjectivity of art. Honestly, even now, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is just to make things that are beautiful. It’s as simple as that.”
From the humble beginnings of a home studio in Austin Texas twenty three years ago, Wiltzie has come a long way, and now composes orchestral scores for film. While his ethos remains clear, he describes how the learning curve has changed over the years. “I used to be working on music all the time cause I had a home studio and I used to record on these little four track reel to reel cassette recorders. But now I’ve grown up and for whatever reason my music resonated and I started to get film work and now I’m scoring music for large orchestras for film. Because working on commission pieces you have another person that needs to approve of things, you really have to leave your ego at the door. But this is something I find really helpful, because I used to be so slow and pieces would evolve over years, but now I’m working under the gun and have strict deadlines so I’ve learned to write music really quick.”
Working for film has also sparked new ideas for Wiltzie’s other projects, including his work with composer Dustin O’Halloran for their A Winged Victory for the Sullen project. “There is so much music that you’ll make for a film that might fall to the wayside because it’s not really working for a scene, but it might be something that you really like. So the past few years especially have been so incredibly productive because of the film work. And this is probably why it’s taken Stars of the Lid so long to put out a new record because I’ve been so busy with other things. It’s been enlightening and also liberating, it sounds strange but to have directors busting my balls about certain things has really inspired me to create something and let go of it and not be so precious, which I think has really helped me a lot emotionally: to be able to not take yourself so seriously just because you make art and inspire a lot of people. If you get lost up your own butt, then how are you going to create something interesting, something important? I think it’s really important also that you can be self-critical. Everything doesn’t have to be so precious, is what I’m trying to say.”
The current European tour sees the duo join up with a whole team of collaborators, including the Echo Collective, which is the string section from A Winged Victory. Not the least remarkable addition on stage for these performances will be a vintage Moog 55 Modular Synthesizer that will feature on both old and new material.
“We have this huge piece of furniture from the 70s [sic] that’s creating these beautiful tones. It sounds like all new music even though we’re playing a few old pieces. This is probably the biggest tour in terms of equipment. We have the string players, we have the Moog, we have Bobby Donne from Labradford playing modular and effects, we have our light engineer Marcel who works for Ben Frost and Tim Hecker, we have Luke Savisky our projectionist who has literally been with us from our very first show. So it’s really an accumulation of our whole lives coming down to this couple of weeks. It feels good, like a reunion of sorts.”
The Moog 55 is a legendary modular synthesiser built by Moog in 1974 and was a catalyst for the tour. Wiltzie tells how it came to be a part of their show. “This is also connected to Bobby Donne of Labradford, they’re a really big influence on me, but connected to Bobby is a guy who used put out his records in Europe, his name is Paul Smith who ran Blast First Records. He started working for the Moog foundation in Nashville and got some old pieces of Moog that they donated to him. So he’s curating these events with people whose music he likes, it’s not just the 55, he’s got all these other Moogs. He’s storing them in the University of Surrey, and he’s got an engineer there called Finlay Shakespeare who’s just keeping them going, cause, you know, they’re old, they don’t have presets, they’re just these archaic pieces of history. I feel really lucky cause this instrument is €30,000 or something. It’s a relic from our past and it looks beautiful too. Even if we’re terrible, we’ll have a nice light on it, you can just zone out on it.”
A machine like this is going to require someone pretty special at the helm. Wiltzie assures us that it’s in safe hands. “We have Francesco Donadello, who’s the guy who recorded all the Winged Victory for the Sullen records. He mixes a lot of my film scores. He’s the guy who introduced me and Dustin. He used to be a nuclear physicist and he kinda got into music. So, we have a pretty intelligent person who’s operating the modular synth. You need to hire a nuclear physicist basically,” he laughs.
Another important new addition to this tour is lighting engineer Marcel Webber who has worked with the likes of Ben Frost and Tim Hecker in the past. Adam explains how indispensable the visual element to a Stars of the Lid performance really is. “It’s hugely important to what we want to do. It’s a little bit different this time because we have Marcel Webber and I’ve admired his work for a long time. I wanted to find a way to bridge his world of lights and the visuals we have. So it’s the first time we’re able to do something that I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m probably most excited about that. We’re bringing in these really expensive lights and projection so we’re losing a shit load of money but we’re going to do something we’re proud of.”
So what’s up next for Adam after this Stars of the Lid tour? “I have this film score coming out on Erased Tapes, the label that puts out A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It’s coming out the first week of November. It’s a film I did last year called Solero. Then Dustin and I go on tour in Taiwan. And then my dear friend Johann Johannsson’s new record has just come out – it’s a fucking great record, it’s absolutely beautiful – I’m joining his band and we’re going on tour in December. Then after that I start a new film, they’re making a film about the Chappaquiddick story. It’s being made by this guy John Curran who made The Painted Veil. So this is the fun part cause I get to have fun with my friends and then after that I gotta get down to work. But, hey man, I’m a lucky person. It’s a nice life. It’s a real pleasure.”