US-based composer and musician Rachel Evans has been operating under the name Motion Sickness Of Time Travel since the late 2000s, releasing a series of tapes, LPs and CD-Rs of hazy, droney, semi-ambient bliss that saw her associated – perhaps hastily – with the much-heralded ‘hypnagogic pop’ scene.
In 2011, the vinyl reissue of her Seeping Through the Veil of Unconsciousness album garnered hugely-deserved critical praise for its tentative, ghostly atmospheres and Evans’ graceful vocals. This year saw her release a striking eponymous double LP set on Spectrum Spools, the Editions Mego imprint curated by Emeralds’ John Elliott, and it already stands as one of the imprint’s finest releases to date, building up elegant, achingly beautiful synth patterns over four side-long pieces that evoke the best of Cluster or Emeralds.
The Quietus caught up with Evans to discuss how she got into music, the genesis of Motion Sickness of Time Travel, and the genesis of this colossal album.
Could you please give me some background on how you got into music? Have you always been a musician?
Rachel Evans: Though I hate to admit it, I initially got into music through church. I was born in a small Georgia town and when I was young my mum sang solos at church and in choir, and my dad ran the soundboard. Neither of them were musicians themselves, but they always encouraged me to be.
I was never very good at sight-reading – great at reading music and dissecting it in theory class, but not so great at playing it correctly and on the spot. I’ve always felt the most at home with keyboard instruments, which has evolved into my love for electronics and synths without keys. Somewhere along the way my mediocre musician abilities led me to be much more comfortable with improvising than I was with actually ‘composing’ music in the traditional sense.
What led you to start Motion Sickness of Time Travel? Do you find working solo preferable to collaborating with other musicians?
RE: Well, I’d been in a few bands in high school, and in late high school / early college I tried to do the solo music thing but always with more traditional instruments… it was more singer-songwriter than anything else. Up until that time I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of types of music outside of my family’s tastes (which were always religious), and some early classical music. When I met my husband Grant in college he started introducing me to wider varieties of music, and I started listening to music differently and appreciating different things about sound.
At the same time my music theory professor was introducing me to early electronic composers. I ended up falling in love with Stockhausen, Reich, Satie, and the like while at the same time listening to krautrock for the first time, and Grant introducing me to the music of Valet around that time too. One piece in particular by Berio, titled ‘Visage’, was a huge influence for me, and really opened my ears to the possibilities of using the voice in wordless ways as a key ingredient. About that time I also started using Pure Data and Max/MSP a bit, and creating my own effects and computer-synthesizers. All of that is really what led me to want to give my music a new name and to take a new approach to creating sounds myself. And that’s how Motion Sickness of Time Travel came to be.
I wouldn’t say I prefer working solo. It’s just kind of an exercise for me. It’s how I get out stress, worry, emotions of all kinds. Even before it was called MSOTT, my music has always been a place of refuge, and a diary of sorts. I really love collaborating with other people, but especially with Grant as Quiet Evenings. I really feel like my music is only half-whole on its own, and it becomes something much more beautiful and complete when he and I do music together.
Motion Sickness of Time Travel is a very distinctive name. How did you come up with it?
RE: I actually didn’t come up with the name myself! Grant suggested it to me when I was searching for titles to call my new project, and stumbled across the phrase in William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine. I thought it was perfect, and have used it ever since.
And it does seem to resonate within your work. Is exploring notions of time passing and looping over itself key to your work? Where does this interest in time stem from?
RE: I guess my interest in time comes from my first experiments with trying to make music like this. I wasn’t sure how to begin, so I started by seeing what kinds of things I could do to my voice. Some of the first MSOTT recordings are actually me remixing my older music and just exploring the possibilities of all the ways I could change and affect the sounds I had been used to making. Time is such a funny thing and time passing has always been something that fascinates me. Sound itself is nothing without time, even a completely silent piece has a duration. Looping also quickly became one of my favorite things to do and play with, something I had never really explored until I started recording as MSOTT.
Do you think this interest in time can explain some of the off-kilter atmospheres in your work? A journalist once used the term “queasy” to describe some of your work (as a positive thing) – would you agree with that description?
RE: I suppose queasy could be appropriate… I wouldn’t necessarily define the atmospheres I create as ‘off-kilter’, but my interest in time can definitely explain the feelings and sonic environments it creates, despite the wording used to describe it. Describing my music has always been difficult for me. I just record what I feel at a particular moment in time, and it just naturally takes on an atmosphere all its own, which I guess is just a reflection of my mind and my surroundings; how I see things, I guess you could say. Maybe it also has something to do with being from the South. Things are pretty slow down here.
Do you view your music, particularly on Seeping Through the Veil of Unconsciousness, as channeling something spiritual, or otherworldly?
RE: I wouldn’t call it spiritual. The word spiritual makes me think of ‘religion’ and that’s not what I’m after or trying to convey. In fact it’s the opposite of that. Maybe otherworldly is a better word for it, though I’m not sure that’s the best way to say it either. I’m not trying to channel anything in particular, just myself and my inner thoughts and ideas about the world I guess.
Seeping… was an exploration of basic magic for me, and in a way coming to the realization that I am my own ‘god’, or something like that. I’d been reading a certain book about the history of magic, ceremonies and the like. And although a lot of that can be considered spiritual I guess, for me it’s more human than that, more ‘real’ than that. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not much more than a diary for me. There’s no need to read into it any more than that. It’s just me conveying what I’m feeling, thinking, reading and learning at a certain moment in time, just instead of writing things down it’s recorded as music. Improvised thoughts documented as sounds.
One of the most distinctive and powerful aspects of your music has been your use of vocals. How do you approach the application of singing in your music? Do you write lyrics?
RE: As I mentioned earlier, my voice was one of the first things I felt comfortable experimenting with. It’s the most natural instrument at my disposal to use and manipulate. As I grew more comfortable using my voice in different ways, I grew more comfortable using other instruments in those same ways. Though it’s difficult to keep the human voice from being the centerpiece. It’s something I’ve struggled with on and off again for a while. Music certainly doesn’t need a voice in there to make it music, but the human ear is so strangely attracted to the human voice, which is very fascinating to me.
Beyond my first MSOTT pieces, the rest of my music under that name always starts out with other sounds as a base, and voice is the very last thing I’ll add. I don’t write lyrics. This goes back to one of the previous questions: in the same way the music is recorded improvised, so are the vocal parts. It’s all stream-of-conscious. I can remember some words and phrases from various recording sessions, just because they stick with me. It also depends on how much mixing I do afterward and how much I listen to the music myself once it’s done. Even I don’t know what I’m saying most of the time, it just flows and whatever happens, happens.
How do you know when it’s the right moment to include vocals on a piece?
RE: I generally record layers and layers of synth on top of one another until it feels right. If it still feels like it’s missing something, I’ll do a vocal take or two. I always record from beginning to end until it feels thick enough to my ears. Usually all of this happens in one sitting over the course of an hour or so. More and more often I’ve found myself getting more comfortable with leaving vocals out of pieces completely. Not every piece needs it if there are enough interesting textures already.
Could you tell me about the recording process for the new self-titled album? I imagine working almost exclusively with synths can be difficult!
RE: Ha! I personally find that working mostly with one type of instrument, like synths, is easier for me than combining different instrument textures that don’t always jive in the same way. I essentially explained the process above, there’s not much to it. I sit down with my synths, some pedals and a few other synth/electronics and my laptop and just hit record. For the new album, everything except the C-side was recorded direct-in, one instrument/sound at a time and layering on top of myself until it felt right. I’ll do a little bit of mixing, mostly playing with the stereo-field and adjusting reverb or delay before I bounce the audio and save it. I did that same process several times… I can’t even count how many.
For this album I started work on the material in early 2011 and finished the last piece in January 2012. About mid-way through that period of time, I did a few “live” one-takes. One of those became the C-side. The other sides were compiled from all those various recording sessions. I had so much material for the album come January that I had to cut a lot of it, but still wanted to include as much as possible from all those sessions. So I ended up dragging all of the ‘finished’ pieces back into my audio program and arranging them into side-long tracks as well. It’s the first time I’ve ever gone back in and connected pieces in that way. I really liked the idea of side-long listens and being in control of that space between ‘tracks’. The A, B and D side are more ‘suites’ than they are side-long tracks, but I wanted them to be digested by listeners as side-long tracks, which is why I gave them only one title per side.
I’ve seen Motion Sickness of Time Travel described as being ‘futuristic’, something one could argue is enhanced by its release on Spectrum Spools. Are you influenced by science fiction?
RE: I’m certainly influenced by science fiction to a degree. One of the biggest influences for this album when I first started recording it was Alan Moore’s Promethea series of books. I’d say it’s equal parts science fiction and magic, at least for me. The album is sort of my soundtrack for my own personal Promethea-esque epic. I was also reading Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore when I was finishing the final recordings and arranging them into suites. I wouldn’t call it science fiction, but more metaphysical fiction. I even pulled the titles for the sides from those readings.
Finally, do you have plans to tour with this album or release any new albums?
RE: I don’t have any plans to tour the album. Grant and I have several festival dates set up for our duo Quiet Evenings to play this fall, which will coincide nicely with the next Quiet Evenings LP release on Belgium’s Aguirre Records later this summer.
I don’t see any need to ‘tour’ MSOTT at this point since the music does very well for itself regardless of playing shows. I also just prefer playing live shows with Grant. It’s much more enjoyable and way less stressful than trying to recreate my solo music (which is next to impossible given the recording process for most of my MSOTT releases). That being said, Grant and I have both agreed to do solo performances at legendary venue The Stone in New York on February 1, 2013. I’ve decided not to arrange any solo shows before that date, and hopefully that will make that performance that much more significant and special. But who knows what the future will hold…
As far as new albums, Grant and I just released my most recent cassette tape on our own label, Hooker Vision. It’s called Chinaberry and contains a track that was cut from the 2xLP material, as well as the newest music I’ve recorded post-Spectrum Spools. I also have a cassette tape to be released soon on the label Sacred Phrases, which also features some outtakes from the Spectrum Spools LP. And I’m almost done with a new cassette tape of all brand new material for the Canadian label Old Frontiers. Beyond that I don’t have any plans for MSOTT releases which is actually a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to taking just as much time with the next big release and I did with this 2xLP, and working on more Quiet Evenings music and other new projects.