Josh Brechner is a Brooklyn-based producer // musician and the sole musical force behind the electronic act Visager. I met him last November when he performed for Brooklyn-based arts company Our Ladies, debuting some songs from his recently released 12-track album Heap, which dropped in February. Amidst all the pre-album-release chaos, Josh was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about his creative process, electronic music, and his take on experimental art.
Where do you start as a jumping off point for making a song?
It depends. I’ll talk about one specific song where I wanted to emulate the sound of a duo I really like called Javelin to get a better feel for how they make music and the kinds of music-making tricks that they use. For them it’s all about a lot of layered percussion, and not traditional percussion, but more vintage drum samples and claps that are panned in the stereo field so you get a sound that is, to me, the visual equivalent of stacking a bunch of layers of dried seaweed — layered but there’s still space in between. So once I had the backbone of the main instruments and the bass line I was able to develop it into a full song, bringing in elements from my own life.
So the jumping off point for that song was that I wanted to make music that sounded like this other kind of music so that I could understand it. Other times I’ll just have random samples sitting around that I’ve taken off vinyl or collected on my own or made, and I’ll play around with them on my keyboard until I have something that I like and then go from there.
What is it about a song that would make you want to sit down and actually try to emulate it?
Most of the music listening I do is for research. I always want to hear new ideas that will help me make better music. And then taking the time to actually sit down and force myself to hear components of a new song and then try to make them on my own is a much more tangible learning experience than just listening. Javelin is a band that I see myself drawing a lot from, and while I am heavily inspired by them, the music that I make is very different. So I tried to replicate it to see where our points of similarity lie and where they don’t.
I think there’s also something about capturing a sound. Not just in recording or making a song, but also in internalizing sounds that you hear, which is what I do a lot … When I hear a person say something in a funny way, sometimes I’ll repeat it back out loud, and they think I’m making fun of them but I’m really just repeating it to see how that sound is. People have weird glitches in the way they say things all the time and we all just gloss over it. So instinctually I sometimes just hang back a second to play with that weird sound.
To me, your music doesn’t really sound like what I associate electronic music with, which is to say it doesn’t sound synthesized or artificial. Can you talk about the sorts of sounds you’re influenced by?
Dan Deacon made a very valid point that … the rise in electronic music is not just tied to people’s ability to make music through electronic means. Yeah that’s one half of the equation, but the kind of music that people are making is a product of the sounds that they’re immersed in. Because we’re in a world of electronic noises, and we filter a lot of them through conscious day-to-day awareness, these sounds become more and more accepted. Speaking personally, I generally don’t like electronic sounds that sound too synthetic. I like sounds that sound more rounded. I like music that is spread around a stereo field so it sounds like there are different sounds emanating from all around you. Because it just sounds very organic.
I think a lot of my musical inspiration comes from growing up in a forest, which sounds crazy and weird. I would go on hikes in the woods and the sounds would change depending on the season. I really like the sound of peeper frogs and cicadas in the summer. I’ve imitated both of those sounds on tracks, either as percussive elements or as samples taken from field recordings. Also, local bird calls, chickadees and finches. So that’s the biggest geographic locator in my music.
You organized an experimental Christmas album last year, and I’m wondering what exactly experimental music means and what, if anything at all, defines it’s “success”?
I don’t think I have a specific checklist for what makes one thing experimental. What I told everyone putting it together was that they could and should do whatever they wanted. As long as they used a song as a jumping off point I didn’t care where they ended up. So in that sense it was an experiment because there was no desired outcome. But I think experimental music is important. And I think it’s important because it’s a dedication to doing new things no matter what those new things are — either new things for you or new things for your field … To me, something is art if it inspires some sort of greater awareness. If you’re able to walk away from it with a positive or negative experience. And that experience itself is entirely contextual in terms of how and when you receive that piece of artwork. So I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that could be across the board, definitively not art. If something catches you in a moment where it moves you, I think that’s enough.
To be completely honest, when Josh told me that he listens to music for research I thought he was just appealing to my scientific sensibilities through an analogy. But then he showed me exactly what he meant, showing me the software he uses to analyze and compose music, while playing some of the tracks he’d been making or had been influenced by. As the music played, he took me through the sonic spectra, pointing out certain moments in the songs so I could actually watch what I was hearing, right down to the tiniest musical flourish! Feeling very much humbled by Josh’s ability to not only listen for the sounds he wanted to make, but to actually recognize them visually by their texture // color // shape, I grew eager to learn more about the nature of sound and how it translates to those mind-blowingly mesmerizing spectral images. So down the rabbit hole I went…
The most fundamental atom of sound is the sine wave—all complex sounds are a combination of a number of different sine waves at varying frequencies [pitch] and amplitudes [loudness]. These simpler sinusoids interact to form more complicated-looking waveforms, much like the ones I saw flying across Josh’s screen. In fact, through a process called Fourier analysis, we can actually break down the complex sounds we experience into their sinusoidal components to see what makes a sound… sound. This sort of analysis results in a spectrogram like the one Josh shared with me to the left. The horizontal axis represents time, while the bands running across represent the different frequencies that make up a particular sound. How much each pitch contributes to the overall sound is indicated by the color + thickness of the bands to create a sort of spectral heat map.
The beauty of electronic music is that it provides the power to deconstruct and then reconstruct those basic units of sound to make something subtly to utterly different—the freedom to synthesize sounds of all textures + bodies from the ground up. What specific frequencies are present in that sound at a given moment in time? How much does each pitch contribute over time to give the sound its particular sonic feel—its timbre? As a result, the musician has the ability to compose novel harmonies that emulate the structure and sound of those that are most familiar, or to splice together sinusoids to create something we’ve never before heard because it simply does not exist in nature. In fact, sinusoidal sounds in and of themselves are completely synthetic—they can only ring out in their purest form electronically. In fact, sinusoidal music is rather thin and strange-sounding [but not really in that super-cool // I-can’t-believe-I’m-hearing-this kind of way].
That sort of free rein to create and play with sound seems utterly daunting to me, as it requires an immense degree of thoughtfulness and specific intention to create something listenable, let alone effective + engaging. Josh’s dedication not only to a particular aesthetic, but his deep commitment to pull off those round + organic // electronic-but-not-electronic-sounding melodies is really what makes his creative process and the music that emerges from it all the more impressive to me.
To hear more sonic goodness from Josh and his Visager project, check out visager.bandcamp.com!
For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!