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‘The life of an ambient composer is always dark’: A Stars of the Lid primer...

CultureCritic | 20.February.2013 | 11:33


With Brian McBride, Adam Wiltzie is one half of the hugely influential (some might say seminal) ambient / drone duo Stars of the Lid. Inspired by their label Kranky’s decision to re-release their 1997 album The Ballasted Orchestra on vinyl, we asked Wiltzie to talk us through his recollections of the band’s back catalogue, as a primer for new fans and a retrospective for old. A great idea, we thought, although Adam didn’t necessarily agree: ‘one thing I never enjoy is reflecting about my music’, he told us. 

Still, he was a sport and offered his thoughts about Stars of the Lids’ 20 year career – sometimes cryptic, but honest, too (read on for details of unpleasant supermarket fantasies). We have also included select highlights of their various releases. For more information on the band, it is best to avoid their profile on the Kranky website, apparently…

The Ballasted Orchestra (1997) was Stars of the Lid’s third studio album, and their first on long-term label Kranky... 

How do you reflect on the early Stars of the Lid releases?

A wise man once said it's hard to free fools from the chains they revere. I have at times felt quite incredulous looking back at this body of work. I suppose there is a charm in the caveman way those early releases were captured on the little cassette recorders we used to use.

Recording The Ballasted Orchestra was a dark time in my life. Wait - who am I kidding? The life of an ambient composer is always dark.

What was going on in your life at the time of the early recordings in Texas?

I was totally broke, living in and out of pawnshops. My four-track recorder was probably the only item of value that I never hawked for money. Everything was captured on those little archaic devices.

Do you think coming from Texas had any impact on Stars of the Lids’ vast sound? 

No. Terms like ‘vastness’ are descriptive terms created by your profession. It’s like the way they used to say at the beginning of each review of underground music from Texas the 90s, ‘There must be something in the water down there’…

The duo’s fifth record, Avec Laudenum (1999) was, apparently, recorded in transatlantic collaboration between Europe and America after Adam moved to Brussels… 


So, you moved to Europe before recording Avec Laudenum…?

I didn’t move to Europe until just after finishing this. Please don't believe everything you read - half the info on the Kranky site is wrong as it was put there by Jon Whitney from Brainwashed. He still thinks we live in Texas.

Why did you move to Brussels?

I was in search of a better quality of life.

Did the move affect your artistic output [McBride stayed in America]?

Absolutely not. Strangely, I think my most prolific period was during my drug-fueled haze in the mid 90s, although the word prolific has a dark side. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I needed to move. I was having machine-gun massacre fantasies with too-common regularity at the grocery store.

What is transatlantic collaboration like?

Not much different. Even when Brian and I lived in the same city, we seldom created together in the same place. I’d record a base to a piece of music, and Brian would come over for a glass of wine and a listen, and would leave with a DAT tape to take home so as to add another melody. We continue that tradition to this day.


The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001) is often regarded as their finest moment, and featured in CultureCritic’s Guest Guide to Ambient Music  

Do you think of this record as Star of the Lid’s masterpiece?

No, but I remember the night I finished ‘Requiem For Dying Mothers’, and wondering how long it would take me to do something like that again. It happened so quickly, I did the whole thing from beginning to end in two days. Normally it takes me years to finish anything.

Music almost never dies a natural death. It dies most of the time from blindness, because we don't know how to replenish its source.

Do you see a progression between your early records and The Tired Sounds…? 

These kinds of questions are painful, and require too much self-contemplation. I haven’t listened to the thing for many a year, so it is hard to know what to say about it. I do remember that it was recorded during the transition period between our moving from analogue to digital. Most of the guitar sounds were recorded on the four-track, and everything was mixed on Pro Tools. We were both using these big clunky samplers - I had an Akai MPC2000 (made famous by Snoop Dog). It used to break down all the time when we were on tour, usually in the middle of the set while we were on stage.


Wiltzie’s first solo-record was The Dead Texan (2004), very much in keeping with Stars of the Lid’s ambient style, but sometimes featuring (gasp) vocals. It was recorded with video artist Christina Vantzou, who also produced a series of films for each song…


You’ve said that the songs on this record were too aggressive for a Stars of the Lid release, but it’s hard to see what you mean…

We sometimes say things that seem profound and poignant, but in hindsight seem quite ridiculous. I have no idea what kind of stinky French cheese I was hallucinating on that made me say that.

It implies that Stars of the Lid have a defined musical style that you want to avoid deviating from. Did you feel you had more artistic freedom on The Dead Texan and on A Winged Victory For The Sullen?

Not really. It was just another recording. Every record I have made is different. As I have said many times, they are all just time capsules of my life.

Are there plans for another Dead Texan record?

No, but A Winged Victory for the Sullen will release some new music later this year. That project will keep me busy for the rest of my life methinks.

Buy Stars of the Lid's re-released The Ballasted Orchestra (and other releases) from the Kranky store

Rhys Griffiths 

Tyler Etters
Tyler Etters | 23.February.2013 | 17:13 | ReportI just discovered the work of Stars and Texan this past year. It's bee one of those play-on-repeat-forever love affairs.
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