Thursday, August 1, 2013

I Dream of Wires: Exclusive Review and Interview with Jason Amm of Solvent

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've undoubtedly heard of "I Dream of Wires", the upcoming documentary on modular synthesizers produced by Jason Amm of one of my favorite acts, Solvent.  So when friend of the blog Sunil Solanki approached me about doing a feature on the film for Waveformless, it was a no-brainer.  So without further ado, here is Sunil's impressions of the film and an interview with Mr. Amm about the project and the wonderful synths that inspired it. Take it away, Sunil!
Film Review: i dream of wires   *****                                     

Why is music important to human beings? More fundamentally, why is the creation of sound so important? Why does it mean so much to some and so very little to others? What is it about music that fuels our passion for certain frequencies and rhythms? Why is one thing immediately dismissed and why does something else resonate with our very souls? These are not the questions I thought this film would provoke in me, but it did.

Having just finished watching an advance copy of the utterly breathtaking 4 hour “Hardcore version” of the documentary I Dream of Wires (IDOW) one cannot help but be caught up with the sheer love and passion that flows throughout this film, and be enraptured by this eccentric and obsessive subculture. The film outlines the history of synthesis and electronic music and takes us on a journey from the pioneering work of Moog and Buchla to rise of digital synths and the near-death of monster modular systems. Then onto the movement away from laptops and software and the phenomenal global resurgence of modular systems that we have today.

So what is it about a massive wall of knobs, blinking lights, switches and sliders that is so absolutely fascinating? Multi-coloured patch cables in an impossible weave of confusion? The strange, otherworldly noises emanating from these giant machines; Is it possible to really make music on a modular system or are they just for making “bug noises” as many say? Are modulars just for engineers and DIY electronics nerds? Or even worse...prog rockers? These are some of the questions many electronic musicians have often asked themselves. Over 2 years ago, Toronto-based musician, Jason Amm, (Ghostly International recording artist Solvent) was asking himself some of these very questions. Call him a modular skeptic.

It all began with a conversation with a friend of his, Robert Fantinatto, a film maker and former electronic musician . Robert hadn't thought about synths in a long time, but his son was getting into electronic music and one day father and son were looking at Deadmau5's Facebook page and amongst all the gear in his studio was a picture of a Buchla modular system. Robert was intrigued by a modern artist using a modular, thinking they were forgotten relics of the past. A quick search revealed a burgeoning modular community and a growing group of manufacturers. His interest piqued, he decided to make a small film about the growing modular scene.

One of the first people he decided to interview was his friend Jason Amm. Jason began to ask, "Well have you talked to...", "You really have to interview...". Robert, realizing that he needed Jason's expertise, brought him on board and then things began to snowball.

Jason, "It was never our plan to make a big film, but it really was and is alive. It’s a real resurgence and a subject that people are hungry for."

The initial trailer for the film, Modular (as it was called at the time), featured highly interesting, passionate musicians like Morton Subotnick, showing genuine love and enthusiasm for modular synthesis. Something that seemed to capture the attention of the w.w.web masses. The trailer had substantial views on all the major synth websites (Matrixsynth, Synthopia, Gearslutz etc...) and a buzz began to develop in the synth community. Finally a film was being made about the pinnacle and Holy Grails of the electronic music world. "Even if you are not into modulars they are fascinating when you see them. Even if you are not into electronic music or synths, but are just a guy who likes gadgets, you are immediately drawn to a modular synthesizer. There is something compelling about it."

Interest from the public was swelling and orders began to come in and the duo began to think that their little film may have some legs. Financial realities put very real constraints on them from the beginning and throughout the process. They started a rather successful Indiegogo campaign that began to gather momentum and through 4 rounds of fundraising, allowed them to begin to compile a list of all the major figures globally that they would love to have in the film. "There was one figure that I always thought, that if we could get him onboard then this thing could really explode. That person was Trent Reznor. Not in terms of me being the biggest NIN fan. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him and his music. It's just that I realized that he is the most well-known, credible, mainstream musician that is definitely a modular user. That would really help this film."

Jason began to compile a list of all the major figures globally that they would love to have in the film and once people realized that Reznor was involved, the floodgates began to open. The Indiegogo campaign funds allowed them to travel to the major centres of the UK, Germany, as well as, NYC and LA to conduct interviews. "Because money was so tight, we chose places where we knew we could get a lot of people! Throughout the process we have had people complaining on our Facebook page "Why didn't you interview "x"?" It's flattering because I think people thought that this was some big production, but really it is just 2 people. Nothing else. I had someone call asking who my marketing executive was! And this is flattering because we have been able to create something that looks very professional and polished and "big budget". Robert's vision and eye and sense of editing really made the film.”

One of the highlights personally for Jason was meeting one of his heroes, Vince Clarke at his studio in Brooklyn, "We were the very first "media" to conduct an interview with him in his new place. It was surreal. Perhaps if someone else had been making this film they would have gone after the "rock" hero's like Emerson or someone like that, but for me Vince Clarke is one of my largest musical influences. I remember, once the camera's were off and we were setting up the next shot and Vince was going out for a smoke and he says, "You want to come with me?"... and I was like "Yeah!!!" It was insane. A dream come true".

"Being the oddball kid in highschool, obsessed with synthpop and having strange hair and being called a "weirdo", these people were my salvation. And 20 years later, meeting and interviewing these people was just unreal. But meeting them all wasn’t luck. To me this feels like the culmination of me living and breathing synthesizers and electronic music for my whole life. Growing up in a small suburb of Toronto, listening to records by Numan and John Foxx and Fad Gadget, these guys from England playing electronic music and wearing makeup, they seemed completely untouchable. Mythical rock stars. The fact that I sat across from Gary Numan, for instance, that feeling never goes away."

Jason was also incredibly impressed with meeting cEvin Key (from Skinny Puppy). A massive fan of cEvin Key's music he even came out of interviewer role a few times to just ask personal "synth nerd questions". "He was very interesting, because he's part of the goth scene, that I was really into when I was young. I've seen many interviews with Daniel Miller and Vince Clarke and the questions are usually about synths, because in that world they are the go-to guys. But cEvin is often asked about the meaning of lyrics or the influence of horror films and art and those type of questions in his interviews. So it was really novel to talk about gear and technical processes and methods with him. More of it was news to me.”

Some of the various studios visited in the making of the film really amazed Jason, the most gorgeous space being that of Jack Dangers from Meat beat Manifesto "It's like a laboratory. Even though he uses all of it, everything looked spotless and pristine and he only had the very best of everything. He had things like an Arp 2500 and one of the only working EMS Synthi 100 in the world. The studio was on this hilltop overlooking San Francisco and it was such a fantastic environment. Going to places like that was really inspiring".

About half of the interviews were done at the NAMM music convention and the rest were done at studios and offices, where-ever they could talk to people. Some really wanted their studios featured and others were more secretive and didn’t want to share their spaces with anyone. Some of the notables missing from the film include prog rockers like the aforementioned Emerson, but also synth pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
Richard James/Aphex Twin was (and still is) the number one synth nerd dream interview, but his infamous reclusiveness and the few tidbits over the past 25 years that he has mentioned have often been rather cheeky fabrications or outright lies. His complete refusal to conduct interviews is legendary and even getting in touch with him is a difficult task at best. "He's just not willing to talk about gear, so it was understandable that we couldn't get him. But even when we were finished filming, and we were beginning editing, if there was one person on the planet that we would have gotten on a plane for, THAT day and flown where-ever to get that interview, it would have been him. But it just didn't happen. We also couldn't get Martin Gore of Depeche Mode either; more due to timing than anything else. I know he liked the trailer for the film because he mentioned it in an interview in SPIN magazine, but we just couldn’t get it to work."

After all 100 interviews were finished, Jason and Robert had thousands of hours of footage to somehow make into a film. Robert started to put together sections that seemed to work together and then he would write the details of that section on a cue card and place it in a pile. Then every once in a while they would lay out all the cards on the floor and see how well everything flowed. From there they added and removed or moved sections. "Once you have a 100 interviews, some people are only featured for one or two lines in the theatrical version, so the 4 hour version was really needed to give more of each interview"

I ask Jason if there are any plans for an even longer director's cut for the absolute synth fetishists, he laughs and shakes his head no. One of the Indiegogo perks purchased by 50 very lucky people is a yet to be made DVD-R box set of almost all of the interviews in full. I expect this version may soon gain value and major collector status in the synth community globally. There are no plans to release this version. A few thousand lucky souls who pre-ordered the film will be watching it very soon in their homes, but the larger release world-wide is still uncertain. There are ideas to have a premiere at a major film festival, but if that doesn't happen, they are also speaking to various distributors and methods of dissemination. "There are so many things we have learned during this process. One of the things is that you need to be careful about where you show the film first. If we did a fun premiere screening at a cinema down the road for our friends, we would immediately be disqualified from many film festivals that will only show a premiere". As it stands right now orders for the film are closed, but may re-open depending on a distribution deal or on an independent basis.

For over 2 years, all Robert and Jason did was think about this film and making it. Neither of them are in marketing or are lawyers or are particularly business oriented. But they jumped in and learned as they went. They wrote the film, did the interviews, operated the equipment, edited the film, got online buzz and marketing going, answered thousands of emails, put DVD's in cases and packages (friends and family sometimes pitched in) and slept occasionally.

Jason also provided an original soundtrack/score for the film done entirely using modular synths. He tried to showcase a variety of different styles of modular, from vintage Moog to modern Modcan, to wavetable synthesis. Despite having a virtually limitless palette of sounds to choose from, he wasn’t intimidated or concerned with that aspect, "At this point in my life, I felt that I was ready for that depth of synthesis. It could be overwhelming if you felt like you had to incorporate everything, but I just used what I needed.  It was a concern for me that with modulars that you become a tinkerer rather than a productive musician. It happens to a lot of people because the process is so enjoyable. Much of the resurgence of modulars has a lot to do with people who don’t even intend to produce music, they just enjoy the process of exploring sound. And that is legitimate. Some people spend a lot of money on model trains. This is another version of that. Creating challenges for yourself. Mental stimulation.

There were many instances in the making of the soundtrack where I was frustrated, say making a lead sound, where I knew that if I just turned on my sh101 that in just a few seconds I could achieve the sound that I envisioned and it would be better and easier. For straight results and sounds it sometimes was more trouble than it was worth. It had its pros and cons. And it was a real challenge.

Some modular users are musicians who just get carried away with accumulation of things. I KNOW that I am capable of becoming one of those people. I love the machines in and of themselves. I find it very relaxing to sit in front of the modular and not produce anything. But for the soundtrack I needed to force myself and prove to myself that I could get into modulars without falling into this productive black hole. I wanted this to be proof that modulars aren’t only for bug noises but a viable sound source that you can actually make music with.

One of the reasons Jason cites for the growing interest in modular synthesis is the rise of early 80's style synthpop sounds in not only underground electronic circles but even mainstream top40 and even hip-hop today. "Because there are a glut of bands today using analog monosynths and very similar sounding styles and because of that I don't feel as satisfied by making a standard bass sound, like a Minimoog bassline. By this point it is being overdone. That feeling is definitely in the air now. So if you are into synthesis and into making your own sounds then it is really hard to stand out and for myself it is becoming harder and harder to discover fresh sounds using traditional analog subtractive synthesis. And it used to be that if you used to frequent synth sites like Matrixsynth, say 1 out of every 20 posts were about modulars, but now it seems to be 1 out of every 3 is about some new module that is coming out. You can't help but be drawn into this world".

Films with this high level of craft and quality and care are increasingly rare. Films that draw you in with their passion and subject matter rarer still.  I dream of wires is being mailed to homes across the globe as we speak and will hopefully have a theatrical release soon.

Watch this space for further details on a truly wondrous film made by 2 visionary, creative talents.



Jeff Knapp said...

I am anxiously awaiting my Blu-ray disk. I know it will arrive any day now. No, really. It will. I swear...

Unknown said...

I have always thought that the FULL footage would make a great TV series. Something for PBS or Current. That would be great.

Jason Michener said...

I am in the market for a bluray player just to watch this.