Patrick Callow is a musician whose “auger shell” project produces deeply-textured sounds with a guitar and lots of tech & devices. TSIBV recently caught up with Patrick to learn more about the project and what drives his craft.
How did you get into music?
I think I was always interested in it. I know I’ve been interested in it since being conscious and retaining memories, at about 6 or 7, but apparently as a very young kid I would idly sing along with the TV as I played, ads, show themes, incidental music, always in key (so I am told). My mom would tell stories of me singing along with the Star Trek (TOS) ending credits, hitting every note. Then I received my first portable radio/cassette, then my first record player. My siblings were all much older than me, so I had great hand-me-down records growing up, sort of the pick of the baby-boomer litter. In 7th grade we were all forced to take “enrichment” courses, non-academics where we’d switch every x number of weeks. One of them was a music class in which we had to learn to play ‘song flute, sort of a dumbed-down recorder. The teacher was the band director, and he noticed that I was playing by ear and unknowingly going beyond what he was teaching, so he suggested I join band, He needed trumpet players, so that’s what I ended up playing. Shortly thereafter, commensurate with my interest in records & radio, I started dreaming of being a guitar player and created a fake guitar out of cardboard that I would pose around with. Then my oldest brother restored a cheap acoustic guitar and gave it to me for Christmas, and there it really began.
How did you transition into ambient?
I honestly never really think of it as “ambient”, but in the era of #tagging, I have to pick at least one. I think of it more as the sonic equivalent of silk screening textiles, or diagramming the periodicity of tides, or making abstract ceramics. I’m trying to make plausible, compelling, legitimate, substantive modern art.
It just sort of fit with my approach to guitar playing, which has always been mostly experimental. Before I could play and as I was learning, I started messing around with recording onto cassette, using whatever half-assed recording tricks, and later effects pedals, I could come up with. At the same time I was learning a lot about music in a formal sense, being in band and orchestras, going to band camps, all that stuff. But I always kept my guitar playing sort of sequestered or quarantined from what I was actually learning about music in a formal sense. I’ve had a lot of instruction in music, in many areas, but guitar has always been self-taught for me. As I got old enough to really think about what I wanted to do, and refine it a bit, I sought to create something legitimate from a “modern art “ perspective, something original and plausible. I was terrible at “writing songs” and all of that. I found that additional equipment to manipulate sound was a means to keep things from getting too conventional.
Also, I am much, much more interested in a sort of continuous discovery in music than in perfected performance. I’ve had a lot of experience refining a specific performance, so that you play the notes exactly right, and everyone around you is playing their notes exactly right, and you create this amazing composite work of art in which the whole is perfect and refined because all of the component parts are perfect and refined. It’s amazing. But, I am not particularly interested in creating that kind of art. I want to hunt and search, capture something by accident, and learn how to hear it and accept it afterward. It’s probably incredibly selfish, as if others happen to like it, it’s a happy coincidence, and it can be incredibly frustrating. When you miss, it’s a ponderous sweaty waste of time. But when it works, there isn’t any music in the world I would rather listen to.
There’s been a lot going on in my musical life for many years, so I have a fairly broad range of influences. My earliest influences were in baby-boomer rock like the Beatles, the early Who, Van Morrison, mid-period Pink Floyd. Sort of the ground level of what became radio rock, but at the time it was the music of my teen- and 20-something siblings, who I admired and wondered about massively. My brother turned me on to Yes when I was about 10 or 11, and that kept my imagination captured until adolescence took hold. It was also the beginning of my dream concerning guitar, thanks to Steve Howe, who remains one of my favorite instrumentalists and probably my single favorite “rock” (or whatever) musician. As I got a little older, ’69-‘ 77 Bowie becomes absolutely huge, then punk rock, post-punk, new wave, i.e. all the shit that punks (which I fancied myself) in the ‘80s were forced more or less to claim as “theirs”, then club music, Detroit techno, etc. The stuff from that genre that most obviously influences my sound now was the avenue of ‘art rock/prog’ I got into at a time when I actually had acquired some skill as a guitarist and some equipment, and that’s the Fripp/Eno stuff from the 70s. That was the first inkling I heard of music that established plausibility as art while using minimal means as far as conventional music goes (i.e. less reliance on melody, hooks, beats) and emphasizing other, less-explored (to my ears at the time) means such as texture, density, dissonance, etc.
The other major influence, which now probably eclipses everything I’ve listed so far, is everything I discovered once becoming a fine arts/music theory comp student in college. This is where the baroque, classical, romantic western art music comes in, as well as the canon of electronic music from the invention of recording all the way through to computer-assisted music, as well as jazz. I am a huge devotee of J.S. Bach. I continue to listen and learn from Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bartok. I’ve studied and am influenced by Xenakis. I am an enthusiast of the performances of Glenn Gould and the conducting of Pierre Boulez. I’m an Ellington fan, and have a deep affection for Mingus, Coltrane and Monk. I enjoy all of Miles Davis’ phases up through and including ’74 (can’t get on board for the 80s stuff), and I think that his 2nd quintet in the mid-late-60s is some of the finest American modern art ever created.
Where did the name “auger shell” come from?
It’s the name of a marine gastropod that I discovered one day and thought it sounded cool. I am notoriously indecisive and probably just plain bad at many of the aspects of art concerned with packaging. auger shell is the name for the continuous project I’ve been on since about 2007, when I picked music back up after a 10-year break that began when I dropped out of grad school for music theory/composition. I was pretty fucked up, burnt-out and confused as an artist, and was really a non-artist at that point based on output, hence the extended break. So when I came back I made a deal with myself that I would be incredibly selfish and only do what I wanted, remaining unburdened by the expectations of others, especially those that I internalized myself. The name was literally good enough for me to stop worrying about what to call what I was doing and move on.
What gear do you use to make these sounds?
Everything is sourced from electric guitar, and I take some care in what guitars I use, their provenance, and what components they have. I have three main guitars: a Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster, an Ibanez Artcore as73 (copy of a Gibson 335 semi-hollow) and an Ibanez Artcore as55 (copy of a Gibson full-hollow body). Everything I’ve produced for over a year now has been on the full hollow body. Both Ibanez’s’ have had all their hardware and electronics swapped out for better parts. They’re both made in China and are sort of a “great deal” in recent years. They are super-cheap for what you get — if you can find a good one, you can get it for a low price relatively speaking. Then you have the fun of hunting down all the replacement hardware and electronics (the latter being big fun as you can find a lot of great hand-wired components out there), then have a luthier install all the good stuff. It takes some time and costs more than the sticker price of the cheap guitar, but it’s still less expensive than finding a great vintage instrument, and I find I become more invested in it.
Then there are the electronics. I use around eighteen devices, two mixers, and two amp modelers to get the sound. I don’t really think of them as “effects”, but rather part of a larger composite instrument that includes the guitar. The devices fall into a handful of categories: devices that echo the incoming sound a certain number of times at a certain frequency, devices that split the sound between the stereo channels and introducing ‘attack’ a certain number of times at a certain frequency, devices that alter the shape of the sound from a filtering/equalization standpoint, and devices that add additional frequencies to the incoming signal. Several of these devices take an incoming ‘mono’ signal and output into a 2 ‘stereo’ signals, so I can split several independent paths that each emerge as different voices in the ‘ensemble’. This is where the mixers come in. I use two of them at different points in the signal path to blend and distinguish the different individual paths, and define how the sound is distributed across the final stereo field.
I also use a couple of alternate ways of hitting the strings. I extensively use ‘e-bow’ which is a hand-held device that magnetically excites a string, acting as an infinitely long bow. It’s used in the right hand, while the left-hand presses on the frets as normal. I also use a ‘tone bar’ (or slide) which is used in the right hand to bow strings at the location on the neck to produce the desired pitch. It’s sort of an RH and LH replacement.
All these things have to be deployed together to produce the sounds I am looking for. A given sound will have its texture, density, volume, tone color and attack determined by where I apply the bow in relation to the neck and the pickups, my fingers on the strings, the volume and tone settings of the guitar, how all the devices are arrayed and set to produce the ensemble effect, how independent or differentiated all the sub-paths are, how each sub-path is mixed and placed in the stereo field, etc. I’m doing all of this while I play, so in addition to picking notes and their duration, I’m also directing the rest of this virtual ensemble in real time. It’s really a single faceted instrument in terms of my approach. I do very little post-production modification, mostly just editing for length and normalizing the volume.
You recently said that your Fall 2016 collection is one of your best outputs and captured a sound you’ve been working towards for some time. Why do you feel that way?
I’ve been looking for ways to avoid falling into conventional traps. While my approach has a lot of defiance to convention built in, there are still several conventional clichés that can be fallen into. “It sounds ‘spooky’” or, I’m building up to this grandiose gesture”, or “wow, it’s a big angry wall of sound”. I find that most of these have melody/harmony as the temptation, then you are led down the path, and then you’ve created a big tedious cliché. That frustrates me. My theory is that music often keeps elements like texture and density within a narrow and understandable range or sequence of changes in order for differences in melody and harmony to be noticed, i.e. “hooks”. What I’ve been trying to do is keep melody and harmony in a sort of stasis in order to be the carrier of differences and distinctions and meaning in texture and density. I feel like I’ve come as close as I ever have with the Fall 2016 set. The melodic and harmonic motion seem to be sitting in that magic spot where there is a sort of aimless stasis about them that attracts, satisfies and ultimately deflects attention in just the right way. In fact, I’d like to think that there isn’t a melody to be found in the entire thing. The pieces are much more about, and I think attract and command much more attention to, factors related to tone color, texture, density, and mass.
If you had to dive into another genre, what would it be?
I’m really fortunate to have a great may musical experiences in my life, more to the point I’m fortunate to have been allowed to have them and emerge as a productive, self-sustaining adult.
Here’s a short list of things I would (and might still, but probably not) do:
- Slowly learn the keyboard music of J.S. Bach
- Study and analyze and formally diagramming scores of Mahler and/or Bach
- Play jazz trumpet
- Build modular analog synthesis
- Write code for virtual analog synthesis
- Learn jazz standards on guitar
What do you want people to take away from your music?
That it is compelling, substantive modern art that describes a broad and granular range of natural and emotional beauty (and its opposite) in a non-conventional and novel way. If the person has something to do with the creation of film or other visual art, that it could be a worthy accompaniment.
What do you have next in store?
I think I am going to be on this track for the next few months. I’ve edited another set, along a similar formal plan to Fall 2016, and have several more ideas and investigations to pursue. Producing one thought-through, carefully edited set of pieces a month seems a reasonable goal.
One more thing — pre-drug Beatles (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”) or post-drug Beatles (“I Am The Walrus”)?
Trick question! It’s all drug music. Even the during pre-record-deal stuff, gigging in Germany, they were all speed freaks. I really celebrate the entire catalog, with the exception of about 25% of each post-White Album release and about 95% of Abbey Road (‘she’s so heavy’ can stay). My favorite Beatles stuff has to be the Rubber Soul and Revolver era (US pressings, sorry those are the ones I grew up with) where they were proceeding organically and almost accidentally into unconventional territory from conventional territory. I just find that so much more interesting than things that are set out from the beginning to be ‘wild’ and unconventional. This is the same reason I find Miles Davis’ “Sorcerer” or “Nefertiti” more interesting than his earliest plugged-in stuff (which I also love). They were almost accidentally finding strange new stuff and hadn’t yet set out deliberately to be strange.
You can check out auger shell on SoundCloud with the widget below. Also, you can listen to the latest set from Winter 2016 here.