Published on August 4th, 2016 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: Barry C Douglas
Drowsy office afternoon. From behind my Word document, a message icon blinks. It’s from Barry C Douglas, a Melbourne photographer whose portraits of Noah Taylor, Garreth Liddiard of The Drones, Kim Salmon of The Scientists, Ace Frehley, Dave Graney, and Rod Stewart, among others, are cementing his reputation for being a storyteller of fearsome talent.
Barry’s images, depicting candid perspectives of everyday people and everyday scenes, summon a sense of poignancy, sadness, or deep affection that is so often missed in real life. His ability to “see” the interior of his subjects and communicate it in such a disarming and humane way is making him the go-to shooter for both commercial agencies and the musicians themselves.
“Do you wanna review an hour-long piece of music?” his message reads, jab of irony diffused somewhat with a “lol”. Whether the implication of an anticipated rejection is to protect his pride or injure mine, I’m not certain.
“It’s isolated music for isolated people.”
Like his photographs, Barry comes across as being straightforward, but there’s complexity under the surface where self-doubt seems to struggle with confidence. When I ask later in the conversation why he wants to share this music, and how he handles feedback on his art more generally, he says:
“My feelings towards praise are the same as of rejection. To be honest, I have no idea why I share anything. I do what I do for my death, in that when I’m gone, the people around me, and hopefully further than that, can have a tangible record of who I was and the things I tried to project.
“I’m well aware that as a whole I’m a mere cog in a huge machine. I fear nobody caring, and when they do care, I feel they are just being kind. It’s not always true though. I do believe I do good things.”
With my work document blank, and afternoon melting into golden smog, I clamp on my headphones.
“Okay, Barry,” I think. “I do wanna listen to this.”
As the murmured vocal samples that open From Our Own Little Corner Of the War bleed into pulsating noise, I leave my body humped at its desk, and I’m pulled out of my cubicle and into an unsettling monochromatic world haunted by pulsating noise.
Ominous hums, creaks, and groans, slurred hiss and spit of a tuner whipping across a ghostly dial, drops of water clopping into black pools, steel wheels grating on stone. The bleak loops of tension and paranoia are mesmerizing and strangely comforting despite the creeping sense of isolation.
“This reminds me of Nurse With Wound. Soliloquy for Lilith,” was one lucid thought. And, “this is really good”.
After making it most of the way through the piece (I was at work, after all), I’m impressed enough to listen three more times before putting this story together. Although From Our Own Little Corner Of the War was originally composed and divided up in “subtitled movements”, it’s formatted for consumption as a whole.
I envision a recording space with arrays of guitar effects pedals configured in unusual ways, or arcane vintage electrical gear used to produce the diversity of sounds and sonic textures. Not the case:
“All guitar,” says Barry. “Ebow. Various tunings.” He’s happy to preserve a sense of mystery in terms of the specifics of recording, beyond using a Steinberger guitar, an ebow, Garage Band for mixing, and Audacity for mastering. About musical conception, he’s more forthcoming:
“It’s about feeling weak and helpless while such pain goes on, like being inside all the chaos yet being far enough removed that you feel like an observer. The whole piece is called that, with subtitles for each movement.”
So each part was recorded sequentially? How long did it take to track it?
“It’s about feeling weak and helpless, being inside the chaos yet being far enough removed that you feel like an observer.”
“Yes, the whole thing was written as it can be heard, in sequence, over a week and a half.”
So, if each shorter piece was conceived, recorded, and then later assembled into a whole in chronological order, did Barry intend the music to express a certain feeling, or did the music inspire that feeling on its own?
“No, it was all performed by improvising on a feeling, a thought, a theme. Like, how is the best way I can approach and project the feeling of each section? After I had a direction, I went for it. I had to be careful not to compromise that by doing too much editing, so in turned out I did very little. The biggest ‘edits’ were fading one movement into the next.”
I wonder that, given the piece wasn’t laid down in a single session, whether it was tempting to alter what was originally recorded to suit his mood at that moment. While the overwhelming sensation of the album is melancholic, everybody has ups and downs, and I wonder if changing mood affected what was originally intended?
And further, if one is feeling “down”, is it harder to compose, or are those feelings an inspiration for working?
“My moods change a fair bit, yes. I go to college in the city, so I listen to stuff including things I’ve previously improvised to get a headspace for when I get home to start. People on public transport give me amazing ideas, the sounds of the train and all kinds of stuff. We as people ignore a lot of ‘normal’ sights and sounds and don’t take them into account when creating, or at least I don’t think folk do.
“I have a loving gal who I’m marrying in November, yet there are times when I feel so alone and isolated I don’t know what to do. I feel like crying a fair bit, but can’t, and that is strangely uncomfortable.”
So, the music serves to express an interior life that can’t be articulated with other art, or by communication? Brought out by sounds from daily life?
“Very much. I was inspired a lot by Jason Lescalleet’s album called The Pilgrim. A dedication to his father. Sounds of an old car’s exhaust while he was lying sick in the back seat as a child. That is also over an hour. A different beast to my work, but similar in that it’s headphone music that lives and breathes. Each listen is a different experience.
“Don’t be afraid of influence. Nothing shits me more than a band that says things like, ‘we can’t describe our sound, man; we are our own thing’. Bullshit. We all have influence.
“Next time your asshole neighbor mows his lawn too loud, instead of complaining, just record it then listen in headphones, even put it in reverse. Sound is a drug-free high, and although what I do can sound anxious, it can be liberating to just get lost in waves of sound, bass, and other kinds of drone.
“Do you know the work of Daniel Menche?” he continues. “Daniel once smashed up a piano with a sledgehammer and saw. He placed a Zoom H4N inside as he did this, and released the carnage as a double LP called Guts. I own it, and it’s extraordinary. Not because it’s musically good, but the concept is beautiful.
“On my Bandcamp page is a track called Backstreets in the Summertime, where I left the same kind of recording device in my mailbox, complete with other things going on; keyboard and guitar.”
I suggest this approach has parallels with photography, in that it’s capturing a document of time and place, and therefore gains some power from the sense of loss one feels at the passage of time. Does Barry see any parallels with his work as a photographer?
“The world is like machinery. It’s like someone has set everything up.”
“Yes. It all hooks in like Lego. The world is like machinery.
When I listen to ‘sound design’ music while taking photographs, it’s like something or someone has set everything up, and I’m invited. Like a safari, it’s not a zoo, but built to be like one for the observer’s benefit.
“Machinery as in someone built everything, but not in a ‘god’ way, as we are taught. It’s not about ‘god’, but about it being set up like a board game.”
After Barry finishes working on a composition, how does he feel?
“Exhausted, and kind of sad. Like [your] kid moving out, but being happy to see them live.”
There’s no sense of catharsis or release or satisfaction after making something? Are you a perfectionist in that sense?
“Satisfaction, yes, but I’m not a perfectionist at all. I believe that no art is ever finished, only abandoned, at least with me.”
Does the same apply to photography?
“No, with photography, I shoot what I see, so a small tweak here and there, and I’m done. I document rather than lie about what I see. A huge percentage of photography is a lie, especially in advertising and in commercial work.”
From Our Own Little Corner Of the War is Barry C Douglas’ eighth self-released album of music as an ambient artist. His sound design work represents a significant change of direction musically from his background as a singer-songwriter “deconstructing happy pop songs and painting them with a different color” under the name Spindickle.
His album Two Strings From Home achieved No.1 chart status for five weeks running, and No.10 for a further nine on an independent radio station in Adelaide, “not bad for a skinny no-confidence motherfucker”.
“I always claimed to be ‘lo-fi’, but the reality is it was a defence mechanism,” he says of his work with Spindickle. “If people said it was shit, I could claim it’s supposed to be.”
I ask if he sees each of his albums as a step on a journey, or at least an incremental improvement, towards an end goal of clearer self-expression, or if each work is an end in itself, a document of its time and place.
“I do everything through feeling. I used to do singer-songwriter-style music, which needed some kind of self-exposure. I think the stuff I create now needs less of ‘me’ involved, and that creates room to breathe.
“With the singer stuff, I only played simple chords where it was obvious what I was doing. This stuff is wrapped in mystery, which suits better. So the ‘why I do this’ is about still wanting, or at least needing, to create, without showing myself too much. Like Nurse With Wound, if he walked down the street, you might not notice.
“That is a good way to exist.”
From Our Own Little Corner of the War is available now for digital download via Bandcamp, along with other selections from Barry C Douglas’ discography. If you are into drone and experimental work in the vein of Nurse with Wound, et al, we recommend making the $10 investment to own the album. Get inspired by following Barry on Instagram.