At what point the shift from noise to drone occurred along Ohio’s north coast, or for that matter, anywhere the nascent genre has developed out of chaos, is unclear. There are so many examples of slow maturity, increased orchestration, and a growing obsession with analog electronics found on various tapes and ultra-limited releases from the insular Cleveland scene that there is no definitive eureka moment, but rather a constant evolution with each new recording. In that tectonic transition, Sam Goldberg has had his hands in a number of renowned projects along the way. Whether it’s collaborating with Emeralds’ John Elliott in Mist, as an avant-garde solo artist, maintaining the stacked Pizza Night cassette label, or now, exploring kosmiche music under the guise of Radio People, his widescreen vision of drone, ambience, synth experimentation and where exactly those lines can take a listener, make him an integral artist among electronic music’s new age. Taking cues from Popol Vuh and Ash Ra Tempel, Radio People’s Hazel is packed densely with layered atmospheric pieces riding dizzying synth arpeggios, imploding spectral notes, motorik drums, and in the horizon, huge crests of transcendent guitars. There’s a reason Goldberg talks in “tones” and “zones,” as he, like his incestuous community of analog pioneers, is always searching for the next level. Where that is remains an uncertainty, but without a destination in mind, this camp has elevated into a more studied realm, much less existential and improvised than the noise of their past, but not any less fascinating or enigmatic. I recently got the chance to talk with Goldberg via e-mail about the ins and outs of his life on this cosmic journey.
You have so many different projects in the works all the time, how do you distinguish which of your work goes to what project? Do you find yourself giving more attention to some things than others?
Sam Goldberg: I distinguish projects by the sounds and tools that I am using and where my head is at at the time. My work is very project-based. I became inspired to do Radio People after an intense winter of watching three or four movies a day. I choose to say “movies,” rather than “films,” because most of the shit I was watching was harsh straight to VHS releases. I got really deep into the Full Moon Studios sub-labels like Pulsepounders and Action Xtreme . Getting into VHS is like getting into GBV or something; it’s a black hole. I was living in a spot where all I could really do was burn through VHS and work on music. I ended up pillaging Craigslist and ended up with around 800 VHS tapes. When I moved out, I left most of them there.
Working on the music that I put out under my own name is much different. It takes a long time for me to muster up chord progressions and ideas that are really reflective of my personality. I do, however, think that after working on the past Radio People record, the lines have blurred and I am starting to see myself in the music that once had been more of just a weird one-off project of sorts. Radio People definitely developed into something that I wasn’t originally planning on.
How does what you do as Sam Goldberg differ from this new Radio People album?
SG: I think the difference can be clearly heard, although the material under my own name really can go a lot of places. I like to define Radio People by its zone. There are synths, usually clear rhythms, and I try to utilize some of the methods of artists that I’m into. I think that’s why it’s slowly becoming a clusterfuck. I’m not sure where Bob Dylan and The Band crossover with library music or synth exploration, but I guess I am trying to find that weird bridge.
Or, another example, how to you separate what you bring to John and Mist and what you do on your own? What part of your creative personality do you reserve (if any) to your solo work?
SG: Mist material comes out of collaboration. We get together and play—it’s really simple. However, we usually step back and talk about the moods or structure that we want. We are focused on having Mist really have its own sound and vibe. That said, if one of us is working on a track that sounds like Mist, we’ll bring it to the table. That’s how “Daydream” made it on the last record. I had been sitting on these basic string tracks for a while that were just so fogged out, it was obvious that Mist was going to use it.
Pizza Night is your cassette label. Is there anything that you attribute to the revival of cassettes as a format?
SG: That’s a loaded question. Cassette culture is so thick! To sum it up, though, I think that the revival really came to the modern synth scene because there were—and still are—great tapes being released. Some of them eventually see vinyl reissues, but still many don’t. There’s a beauty in spending $5 on a tape that could be better than half of the records you own. I think that’s what really freaked a lot of people out originally about the music coming out of Cleveland. People would buy these cheap cassettes of music recorded not even two weeks before and it could provide a real album experience.
Is there any criteria you are looking for before you decide to do a release? How exactly do you find the musicians on your roster?
SG: I like to try to keep it limited to friends of mine and artists that I am really into. I think I may have gotten carried away with Pizza Night, trying to release too many things at once. That’s why I slowed down and began doing Centre releases. I have only done one batch so far, but that included the Forma self-titled cassette, which saw an amazing reissue on Spectrum Spools. I’m so happy to have released that because they are one of the best live electronic groups around right now, and they have since had some great successes and I’m glad that I could help them in a small way. They are really beyond what I could even do for them, though. It’ll be amazing to see where Forma is as a band in a couple years. That first tape of theirs is so beautiful, organic and fun. Can’t beat it.
The electronic community in Cleveland has become pretty fabled around the world these days. How has all of the attention affected that circle of musicians?
SG: I don’t think the global community’s perception of Cleveland is quite on point. There are really just a couple of us. We hang, some of us work, go to school—pretty normal shit. It’s really left us unaffected because the scene here is so fractured. Also, it seems that the more a musician gets out there and goes on tour or releases records on credible labels, the less that people around here care. There is actually a thriving noise scene here, but people like me aren’t really involved in it. The synth crew is tight, but the weirdos in Cleveland are more likely to go see a 10-band local noise free-for-all than some of the acts that we tend to bring to town. It’s awesome that there is a scene like that, though, and that people are excited about something. It just sucks when you try to put on a legit gig with deserving touring bands and can’t get people out because there is a free gig around the corner.
That circle is very particular about analog synths and gleaning sounds from the German kosmiche bands like Cluster, Harmonia and Popol Vuh. Do you go out of your way to find certain vintage synths and keep to a rigid source for your sounds or do you embrace technology as an alternative to forking out hundreds of dollars for the real thing?
SG: We all have an obsession with collecting synths. A lot of synth bands are using garbage these days, it seems. I think it’s just the Cold Cave era of using Guitar Center–bought synthesizers and it is considered legit. I think there really is a difference in sound there. I do, however, feel that it’s hard to lug around giant analog synths and it’s more convenient to use newer technology for the live setting. I have kind of found a balance between sampling my bulky analog synths and bringing newer and smaller analog gear to play out my material best as I can without losing any of my sound.
Do you have any dream collaborations on future releases?
SG: I’d really like to work on a record with Jeff Lynne. I love his production, even though it’s pretty insane. For every instrument there is, he adds a 12-string guitar to back it up. I could see recording a heavy sequence and him suggesting to soften it up with some 12-string arpeggios—and then doing that for every single thing I recorded!
Any aspirations for how you would like your ultimate album to sound? Somewhere sonically you haven’t experimented with before?
SG: I really want to make records that take on multiple purposes. I would love for people to zone out to my records, but at the same time move them to do something. Nothing political, maybe just reconsider their social behavior or something. I don’t want to be famous, but I want to affect a lot of people with music.