Sunday, February 13, 2022

A Conversation with Erang

Andrew: I'm here with Erang right now. Recently we were emailing each other back and forth a bit, catching up and discussing the old days, when we decided it might be worthwhile to make this conversation more formalized and to release it publicly. Anyone reading this who does not know Erang, well I'm guessing such a person would be quite new to dungeon synth in the first place, and fortunately Erang's discography is a great place to start. His work covers a wide array of the various moods and sounds one might encounter in this genre, and always with quality and earnestness. He has been active with the project for a decade now and I'm quite interested to hear his thoughts, and share some of my own, about those old quiet days and how things have changed since.

So to kick things off, I'll just broadly ask how do you feel about the state of the genre today? What are some good and some bad aspects about it? Do you think it is thriving or dying overall?

Erang: Well I think the genre is very well and well alive! Dungeon Synth is very profilic nowadays with so many great musicians adding their own perspective and background to it. Definitely not a dying genre I would say, clearly a growing one… Sure, it is no more that ancient secret artifact from the past we might find at the turn of an old blog through a dusty megaupload link but that's not really important in my opinion. I'm glad for having been there when it was confidential and I'm also really glad for still being there, here and now. But I'm curious to hear your thoughts : being the one who coined the term 'Dungeon Synth' itself in your blog, how do you feel about it today?

Andrew: As just another music genre, I love it. It's great always being able to find some new high quality dungeon synth I've never heard before whenever I'm in the mood to listen to it, and the community is very cool and friendly, and even the dumb memes can be fun and entertaining. But as something more than just another music genre, it's basically dead for me, ironically because it's not dead. For many years I've been struggling to figure out why it's not the same for me, and recently I've had an interesting idea about that: I think it has something to do with identity. For example, what I mean by identity is what you see displayed by many black metal fans when they wear band t-shirts. What I interpret that to mean is that they're socially displaying this aspect of their musical taste, because they believe their appreciation of the artist depicted on their shirt represents something about who they are as a person. And the fact that hardly anyone they encounter while wearing the shirt would recognize the artist in the case of black metal I think is meant as a display of individualism, which is definitely something that appealed to me when I was young, but it's still a social display. As someone who has always had hermit tendencies, I found in dungeon synth, as a dead genre, what I thought meant an identity of pure individualism, and even a glorification of social isolation because it was a scene of one, even if there might be several other individuals scattered across the globe who are similarly alone in their appreciation and identification with this music. Those days are long gone though, now with possibly over 100 active dungeon synth artists and who knows how many listeners regularly communicating online and sometimes in person, it's no longer something I can identify with as being purely individualistic and solitary. I still catch fleeting glimpses of that reclusive feeling from time to time when I listen to old DS, and I still definitely enjoy listening to and making this kind of music purely for love of the moods and aesthetics, but it takes a great deal of mental effort to appreciate it as more than just another style of music as I once did. But even though perhaps it will never have that same magic for me again, I'm glad for how it has grown and that it's no longer a dead genre. It's wonderful that so many other people are able to experience these atmospheric realms of introspective beauty. And I'm not so selfish as to wish that it was still dead just so that I can maintain some indulgent identity attachments that I concocted when I was a teenager.

What are your thoughts about personal identity in DS? I would say it's still far more individualistic than most genres, but how much would you say it's a social identity for people now? What does it mean for how you think of yourself and how you relate to others?

Erang: Maybe 17 years ago, I wrote in a notebook "we’re gonna have to learn to watch the things we loved disappear". Since then I've tried to live by that motto. It is a bit strange because Erang's music and the Land of the Five Seasons are deeply rooted within Nostalgia but, to me, the feeling is clear: I'm not mourning nor longing for some golden age. I strongly cherish my fond memories but I use them as a positive strength of inspiration! Concerning personal identity it is a mixed feeling and I can only talk for myself. I strongly believe that, specifically in art & music, it is very important to keep some mysteries... to let the shadows cover some things in order to maybe let other unexpected things reveal themselves. I'm a real fan of David Lynch works and I completely share some of his views about art. Like when he says in a little provocative way: “I don't know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that their own life doesn't make sense.”... I think it is truer than ever in our age of social media where everyone (and famous people) expose themselves. I use social media a lot for my music, of course. And it could be a useful tool. But it is always a thin line, in my opinion, between sharing your art and saying too much, revealing too much and killing the magic... You know, I perfectly remember as a teen when the DVD appeared in the market and they started to put bonuses into them: you had full making-of and movie's version with the Director commentary, etc. .. and I remember that, even as a teen, I hated that! Of course with some movies it could work but, most of the time, it killed the magic. When you have a beautiful movie that deals with fantasy and then you watch a making of and you have a shot of the set behind the scenes where you see an actor still half dressed in a wizard with sunglasses and texting on his smartphone, it simply ruins the magic. On the other hand I love to chat online from time to time with people from the community through private messages... Because I'm a pretty solitary person and, "in real life", nobody shares the same interests as mine about Dungeon Synth or even Black Metal and all that things... I'm not playing in a band and I don't like to watch live shows so, from time to time, it is really pleasant to chat with people you share some things with. I would even add that the fact that they are "strangers" really adds something to it to be honest. A modern version of "pen pal friend" like, for instance, you and I have... Do you have people around you in real life that appreciate Dungeon Synth or even know about it?

Andrew: That does sound like a healthier relationship with nostalgia. Dungeon synth has always been about nostalgia for me too, initially probably for the music of 90's video games I grew up with, but now it seems like I'm just being nostalgic for past nostalgia, which is a bit silly. Also I definitely agree that seeing too much behind the curtain can dilute the magic and mystery of art a bit, and intentionally limiting one's exposure seems like an effective strategy. Leaving room for the imagination is pretty important for music like this, and that can be pretty difficult in this hyper-online world where people want that constant dopamine drip-feed of new content and information (myself included).

About people in real life that appreciate/know about dungeon synth, my close friends know about it just from me talking about it and will generally listen to music I make and give a bit of feedback. A few times I've gotten together with people from the local black metal community where I live (Alaska). Those experiences were enjoyable and I found them all to be very good folks and quite a few really talented musicians for how small of a "scene" it is. Through those meetups I befriended a couple people who I continue to hang out with a handful of times each year, and they were aware of dungeon synth prior to me meeting them and eventually even dabbled in making it themselves. It's very nice being able to converse about this stuff in-person, though I've yet to meet with someone who has really gone all-in like many folks I've spoken with online. Interestingly, pretty much every black metal fan I've spoken to seems to have at least a passing awareness of dungeon synth, though most seem pretty ambivalent about it. Still, it's wild to think I could go to a black metal show almost anywhere in the world and expect that at least a few people will be familiar with DS. It's also hard to know how I should discuss my own contributions to it, but it feels weird not to at least mention it haha. I'd be really interested to see how the conversation would go if you were to casually start talking about DS with someone in real life who was really into it, and then you happen to mention you're the one and only Erang, or whether you just wouldn't bring it up at all.

Are there any current artists or recent releases you're particularly excited about? How much attention do you think should be given to a single album to get the most out of it? With so much dungeon synth available, do you think it's necessary to make an effort to engage more deeply with individual works, potentially missing out on the abundance of other quality DS material that's out there, or can one just always listen to new stuff they have not yet heard and still have the full experience?

Erang: I think I would not mention it in a discussion. Because if the person in front of me really cares about it or appreciates my music, that would ruin the magic. And if he or she doesn't care, then there is no point really in bringing it up in the discussion. It's funny because I don't like to tell I'm doing music or talk about it when I meet people. There are of course close friends who know about it but apart from them I avoid talking about it. Not that I'm shy but it's just too long and complicated to explain to people who are not into that kind of things you know. So, sometimes, when there is a discussion with different people and someone who knows me says, pointing at me "he makes music" you always have the other person asking "oh, and what genre are you playing?"... So I usually just reply "well it's like Lord of the ring soundtrack but played with old Synth".. Which is far from true but easier to explain I guess... Concerning current artists I won't be very original here, the top musicians on bandcamp are there for a reason: Sombre Arcane, Fogweaver, Hole Dweller, etc. They all make very good music with a unique vibe in my opinion. Then you have the numerous works of Adam Matlock: not a recent artist, the least we can say, but always worth checking. In France we also have some very strong projects going on: Dame Silu de Mordomoire, ElixiR, Necrocachot, Akerius, the works of John Lordswood, Descort, Arathgoth... you're right, too many to names and I forgot dozen of others beautiful acts. But, you know, you speak about an effort to engage more deeply with individual works... In my opinion, this is not only because of the hundreds of existing projects but rather because the way we "consume" media nowadays have so drastically changed since the apparition of Internet, streaming services and, more than that, mobile. We're constantly under a non stop flux of art. Music, Movies, Images... at first, with Internet & file sharing, you had almost everything in your computer. Then the mobile came and you had everything but in your pocket, 24/7, always with you. However the days are still 24 hours so it became physically impossible to experience art the same way you used to, maybe 10 or 15 years ago. When I was a teen, I don't remember precisely, but I guess I must have had 6 or 7 CDs a year... So I had the luxury of listening to the same album for months. And because Internet didn't exist, I was experiencing it alone in my room, without being connected. I have vivid memories of a young me lying in my bed in the dark, spending evenings listening to one album. So it really was a different experience. However, the huge downside was that, precisely, I didn't have access to very underground or obscure music... I mean, there was only one shop in my city with alternative / underground music so it was very limited. And, definitely, without Internet, Dungeon Synth would have never been a thing and Erang never existed. So I have no regrets for the past. It was just a different way to experience things...

Andrew: Though I personally am not all that interested in physical releases, I think a good argument in favor of it would be to focus one's attention to those particular works and single them out for more listens than would be given to just mp3s or streaming. That hasn't really been my experience with the tapes I've bought over the years, but I could imagine that approach working for some people.

Speaking of being overwhelmed with too many options nowadays, I feel like that is even the case when it comes to producing dungeon synth. For me one of the most fun parts of making music is spending countless hours tinkering with a synth or VST, trying to discover and develop new sounds, and unfortunately I often get lost in that stage of the process and never move on to composition. For me, in recent years, the only way I'm able to really get past that and still enjoy going deep into timbral explorations is by limiting myself to just one instrument per album (along with other strict limitations). While many artists in this genre just rely on presets (nothing wrong with that and is the case for nearly all of the foundational albums), I know you like to create your own samples. I'm curious to know how much you use presets and prepackaged samples vs. how much you develop your own sounds? Do you just do sampling or do you ever experiment with making synth patches? And also do you put any limitations on yourself so that you don't get stuck in that part of the process, of trying to find the next great preset or develop the next inspiring new patch/sample?

Erang: Limitations in art has always been a great (if not the best) way to improve creativity. I guess that ‘limitations’ in life itself (being biological or even politics) is what push us to create new things. This is how I interpret the quote from Picasso « When I haven't any blue I use red. ». Like, using what I have in front of me without caring. A punk / DIY approach that was the same in Black Metal and Dungeon Synth and that I use everyday. So, to answer you, I use what I think fits the song at the moment I’m doing it or what comes under my hand. If it’s a preset then I go for it. If it’s a manipulated sample then it’s the same. I like to create sounds but I won’t spend a day tweaking knobs : what I prefer the most is composing melodies. But it’s very hard to reply because each song is a world of it’s own with its own approach… That’s why my albums are so diverse I guess and not a monolithic piece of cohesive art (which I also like and admire you know). Really, the rule is that there are no rules. If I self impose some limitations to start the track and ignite the inspiration, I quickly drop them if I feel that the track needs something else. That’s why some of my tracks are sometimes Hi-fi while others are completely lo-fi, etc… I’m not doing music to follow rules. I already have the everyday life for that… However, I think the main limitation I have comes from the software I use to make music. It is a very old and outdated thing from 17 years ago maybe but it has the right balance of constraints to my taste : you can still run many modern VST into it (at least if they are not very heavy and in 32 bit only, no 64 bit at all.. I can’t use Kontakt for instance) but you are limited in the number of them you can use because it will crash. Same for other things.. and also, that’s the weirdest one : you can’t click « undo », there is none… I’ve never understood why this feature isn’t programmed into it because « undo » existed a long time ago but, still, this feature isn’t possible in my software. Which means that, when you experiment things in it or try arrangement or melodies, you can’t try too many different paths or you have to rewrite it completely everytime... So you have to go straight to the point and I like it…

Andrew: I think that is a very sensible and efficient approach, just being comfortable to use what you have right in front of you without the concern that there might be a better sound to be found or developed.  I think that's downright necessary for composition.  So far the only luck I've really had in developing all the patches in an album from scratch is by first creating the composition with the Roland Sound Canvas VA VST (which I'd strongly recommend for beginners, has all the classic bread and butter sounds), and then routing that midi data into my synth and tweaking knobs to create the patches while the performance is playing.  Several times I've attempted to just create a whole bunch of patches that I can have at-the-ready for the composition stage, but I always quickly lose momentum with that approach.  It's cool to hear how you use such an outdated DAW, that it can't even run Kontakt, arguably also being a bit outdated at this point.  I remember you mentioning in the past that you use soundfonts as well, which I think are a generally overlooked treasure trove of sounds from pre-VST era, and I imagine are well-suited to your archaic software environment.

Erang: Yes I massively use soundfonts! They are perfect for so many things, having a cool balance between lo-fi / good quality. More than that, to briefly stay on the topic of limitations, the fact that they have very few articulations and velocity (even none most of the time) is in fact often a benefit when they are well made. In the sense that, because there are only here, one, two or three samples at most for the velocity, the person who made it often chosen carefully  the samples that have the most character and tonal/timbral interest. So it is less realistic but more effective. In my mind it is really like pixel art: you have a few blocks to express a face or an emotion so you really focus on what is the most expressive rather than realistic. Like impressionism in painting versus a hyper realistic picture. The beauty often lies within fog and shadows... That makes me wonder if you're as much interested in other media? Painting, movies, video games... ?

Andrew: For paintings I just have a surface appreciation of some obvious names, like  Beksiński, Goya,  Doré, etc. and haven't done much extensive investigation beyond that.  For movies, I'll say I'm not much of a movie watcher these days.  For instance, I'd say the original Matrix is probably my favorite movie, but I have no idea whether the new one is even released yet, and probably won't get around to watching it for a while even when I know it is available.  I tend to gravitate more to the format of episodic stuff.  Here's an interesting experience as an example: A long time ago I decided to buy the DVD of Mirrormask, which is a movie I love because surreal dreamlike movies are my favorite, and I ended up getting a collection of three Jim Henson produced movies, including also Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal.  Labyrinth I also love and is one of the earliest movies I remember watching frequently and getting really attached to as a kid.  The Dark Crystal on the other hand, I had never seen, and upon watching found it very cheesy and boring.  Fast-forward to recent times, the Dark Crystal show on Netflix comes out and the DS community is very enthusiastic about it.  I decide to give it a shot because of all that hype, even though I bounced so hard against the movie, and it actually really hooked me.  I enjoyed it so much that I was really craving more after I finished, so I went and rewatched the old movie and found that now I fully understood it and thought it was great as well.  Also worth mentioning that I grew up on the Harry Potter books and movies, which I was lucky to experience them being released right around when I was the same age as the characters, and surely that influenced my appreciation of fantasy, as it did many of my generation.  And then when the Lord of the Rings movies came out that directly led into my love of fantasy, which then led me to falling in love with CRPGs like Gothic, Morrowind, and especially Neverwinter Nights, which then led me to D&D.  For video games, there's too many games I love to mention, but I will say my favorite games are ones where I can be creative and sort of tell my own stories, such as Neverwinter Nights I already mentioned, which I will say is pretty mediocre if you're judging just on the base campaign, but the real action was in the toolset.  I was a bit too young and unfocused to ever actually finish creating a playable module, but I sunk countless hours into learning the toolset and playing other people's modules, and playing an online server that enforced strict rules about staying in character which were some of my fondest gaming memories.  I've also loved Minecraft and the Sims both since the very beginning, for similar reasons being sandbox games largely just driven by player creativity.  And I want to mention point and click adventure games as well, which are some of my earliest gaming memories, wandering through the atmospheric pixel art landscapes of Lucasarts worlds like Monkey Island and Loom before I could even read.  I still really enjoy that old pacing of wandering around, diving through dialogue trees, and solving inventory object puzzles, and will play some modern takes on that formula, for example Wadjet Eye games I quite like.  I've even dabbled in designing some of my own point and click adventure games, made some prototypes and have ambitions for a big proper game, but haven't gotten there yet.  I remember you saying in other interviews that you did some gaming in the past, but I can't recall any specific games.  I'm curious what were the games that give you nostalgia now?

Erang: I guess I’m a bit older than you. Being born in 1982 the very first video game I’ve experienced was at my neighbours house on the ATARI 2600. I remember we played Outlaw during an afternoon… Then my father bought a computer : the AMSTRAD CPC6128 and, a bit later, an ATARI STE 1040. So my first real memories of games come from there. On the Amstrad I played a lot of « Sabotage » and « 5th AXE » (a french game) and also SKATEBALL (a futuristic game of violent football). I also have memories of a weird french game called « Orphée ». Almost all of these games were unplayable to be honest. The difficulty was way too high and the controls usually sucked. But, back then, it was really cool to play them just to evolve and move on the screen you know ? On the Atari Ste 1040 it started to become a bit more « serious ». Graphics & music were better. I loved point n clicks like « Operation Stealth » and many games on them. Speedball, Strider, Prince of Persia, Captain Blood… but, more than that, I really loved « Another World ». The animation, the atmosphere… For me it was like playing a movie. I couldn't believe it back then haha. « Another World »… sounds premonitory I guess… but all of that was the prehistory, really, and I can’t say that I’m really nostalgic about the games themselves but more about that time of my life. So, if we really speak precisely about games I loved, it is definitely on the SNES for me. That console, really, was a game changing for all the teens in the 90’s. Because it was really the first console where the balance was right : graphics, music, playability, fun, etc. Everything was right for the first time in my opinion. I loved many games on it but if I had to make a Top 5 of my SNES games, that would be (in no particular order) : Zelda III, Secret of Mana, Donkey Kong Country, Bomberman and Mario Paint. And if we speak about music, those sounds and the compositions as well are still a big influence and source of inspiration for me. Just between Donkey Kong Country and Secret of Mana, their soundtracks  are so rich, vivid and beautiful... or very sad & deep at some moments... Here again, the technical limitations of the console really improved the creativity of the musicians. Just on the track I was working on today for the big album I'm going to release for my 10 years anniversary, there are sounds specifically  inspired by SNES games. Even samples from them... After that I made the biggest mistake of my life and sold my SNES with its games to buy a N64 around the age of 17 I guess. Back then, Retro Gaming wasn't a thing and the SNES just seemed outdated... So I played a bit with it (only Mario 64, Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye... Mario 64 which has, with the track Dire Dire Dock, maybe one of the best video game music ever...) and then I moved onto other things and stopped playing video games. Only very recently I downloaded BRAID and FEZ because I was very intrigued by them. Love the aesthetic of both and really enjoyed playing BRAID... But I've never been the kind of gamer that finishes games or plays them well: I'd rather just love to wander into them... For instance Mario 64, at the time I mainly just loved wandering through the levels and just walking into it doing stuff but not necessarily what I was supposed to do in the game...

Andrew: I must admit I've never heard of any of those 80's games you mentioned.  I just searched each on youtube to see what they looked like to play, and while not the kinds of games I could load up today and really enjoy, I can definitely imagine them being exciting as a new type of experience back then.  5th Axe has a really cool art and animation style that would not look out of place in an indie game today I think.  Orphée looks like the type of game I wish I was around at that time to experience.  I think RPGs, text adventures, and early graphic adventures from that time period are quite interesting, and I feel like only back then with the more limited options for gaming and fewer distractions could one really have the patience to fully appreciate them.  Operation Stealth looks really cool and a game I could probably still enjoy nowadays, I might need to check that one out.  Captain Blood looks really crazy and unique.  And I've heard so many good things about Another World, I need to get around to playing that one of these days.  I missed out on the SNES growing up, but have seen enough clips and heard enough of the music that I fully understand how it could be so inspiring.  I definitely enjoyed my N64 as a kid though, and still bust it out for an occasional game of Mario Kart with friends.  Goldeneye was great, and still an awesome soundtrack, though the gameplay has aged poorly in my opinion.  Mario 64 is a timeless classic, and I totally agree about Dire Dire Docks.  I'm guessing you missed out on Ocarina of Time?  That game was pretty foundational for me, and I adore the soundtrack and still listen to it pretty often.  I remember learning to cover the Temple of Time and the Song of Storms when I was first trying to make dungeon synth and wrap my head around playing the keyboard.  And I'm far from the only one for whom that soundtrack was influential, Lord Lovidicus even included a cover of the Song of Storms in his first album Windbuchen.

Do you have any new albums or other projects in the works right now?  Anything to look forward to in the near future coming from Erang?  

Erang: I perfectly remember that Lord Lovidicus cover! I've left aside Ocarina of Time on purpose because I have my own relation with this game: in fact I've never played it. It came 2 years after the N64 apparition, last month of 1998 in Europe, just when I was turning 17 years old and leaving the video games to experiment different new things in my life (we have to remember that gaming wasn't the same in 1998 as it is today: sure it was no more underground like at the end of the 80's but it wasn't either 'spread' like it is today... it's hard to explain)... So I gave my N64 to my younger cousins and when I visited them sometimes, they were playing Ocarina of Time... I found it really atmospheric and I loved to just watch them play, it was really peaceful and soothing. However the opening music hit my heart and soul hard: I truly love the music of this game.. It sounded like Erik Satie for video games... So melancholic & nostalgic, sad & dusty like DS... That's why one of my tracks is named after a quote from this game "Flow of Time is Always Cruel". That's also why it is still part of my inspiration (amongst many other things, albums, movies & books) for the 10 years of Erang's album I'm working on. To answer your question, yes, there are many things planned in the near future! I want to properly celebrate this anniversary and give to the people something really special,  to take them away from a brief moment you know. Especially in these times we're living in. Musically, I'm working on a long album which is a love letter to Dungeon Synth and all its declination and facets. It will be presented a bit differently than usual and I hope people will appreciate it. It's a huge work, 20 tracks of DS from all kinds! That's for the music. I'm also working to physically release some older & recent albums: I can't tell you more about this but I'm sure it will please many! These editions will be really beautiful,  I'm very excited. Then, I also wanted for a long time to make an action figure of Erang you know. Like an old toy from a TV cartoon from our childhood. It's very difficult to make something that fits what I have in mind but I've found some paths I'm exploring right now. It will cost me money and I'll lose some but I don't care: just to imagine that it will please my followers give me a huge smile and I'll do it for them. Finally I have something else in mind but not until the end of 2022 and I can't reveal anything about it... but it will be something very unique that will ask for a lot of work... So, as you can see, the nights will be short but I don't care: I live for my Kingdom and the music I make, nothing else... That's why I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you here in person: you were the first one to reply and show support & interest in my music back in  2012. And for that, I'll be eternally grateful! So,  It is a bit unusual to end an interview this way but I'd like to give you the final word: how do you see the future of Dungeon Synth? What do you wish for it and, more importantly, for yourself?

Andrew: That's very interesting that you have such a deep connection with the music of Ocarina of Time despite never actually playing it. It would seem there is some genuine magic in that soundtrack beyond just peoples' nostalgia for a great game. Perhaps you might be missing out on a lot of gaming experiences, but there's definitely something to be said for the extra available hours of creative productivity. And it seems like you'll need it! Sounds like you have all sorts of big exciting new projects in the works. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing all this new stuff.

About the future of dungeon synth, I can honestly say I don't have any wishes. I'm just along for the ride, interested to see what comes next. I think most likely it has sort of plateaued, that it will slowly and steadily grow and shrink from this point forward without too many changes. But I also think it has the potential to see sudden spikes of interest if particular songs or albums go viral, or some famous person mentions it or something. It's hard to predict how it might change in that circumstance. I'd be interested in seeing either of those futures. I don't imagine it will ever fade to how it was back in the 2000s, but if it did I wouldn't mind that either, would be cool to see who is still left hanging around after all is said and done. As for my own role in its future, for sure I'll be around at least a little bit, maybe with a few blog posts, maybe some more musical sketches with my Illusionment project, or maybe I'll manage to finally see through one of my many more ambitious projects. In any case, I still love this music, and I'm happy that I still have at least a small footing in this community. Thank you very much for reaching out and including me in this reflection on the past decade of dungeon wanderings. It was a very enjoyable conversation and has left me feeling very inspired.

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