An Interview with
C. Spencer Yeh
by Kevin J. Elliott

Whether he’s collaborating with any number of like-minded composers in the unwieldy realm of improvisational noise or at the helm of his signature project, Burning Star Core, C. Spencer Yeh has been the gold standard when it comes to cutting-edge avant-garde rock for nearly two decades. For Yeh, the intent of his musical endeavors has never been about personality or exposing his own feelings, but instead the raw emotion that is felt by his audiences both on record and especially in the live setting. Given that his adventures have tilted so far towards one spectrum, it was particular shocking when he finally arrived with “In the Blink of an Eye,” an actual song, followed by a full tape of tracks that revealed that when he wasn’t out conquering the spheres of feedback and drone, he was sitting alone in his bedroom crafting deeply personal, obtuse pop on a four-track machine. Now courtesy of De Stijl comes Transitions, a full album of these guitar- and keyboard-driven songs which are often accented by homespun beats and modest electronic textures. Yeh seems inspired by a number of influences; Eno, Scott Walker, the Velvets, and the ‘80s new romantics seep into the fold. It’s such an enormous and welcome shift for Yeh that I thought it was high time we caught up with him to explain the album and his new direction. Thankfully he was more than willing to oblige.

You’ve spent a majority of your days composing noise and avant-garde music as Burning Star Core, so was there a particular impetus that prompted you to start using your voice and writing more “traditional” songs?

C. Spencer Yeh: Well, the whole start of Burning Star Core was coming from the realization that music can be as much a blank slate as any other medium and also, for better or for worse, its own vocabulary of gestures and associations, baggage, if you will. I mean, you grow up and are socialized to believe that you should stick to certain paths as being the best for whatever goal you are supposed to be reaching. So it’s really difficult at first to shed those barriers, but ultimately such a good feeling comes from being exposed to stuff which opened up the idea that things weren’t as cordoned off as you are raised to believe. Nexuses in art and music where this was very much apparent—I’m tempted to play fast and loose and nostalgic with names falling out of my wallet—from my impressionable perspective at the time when I first started working with sound and music, which was parallel to my own investigation and discovery. When I was first figuring out my own shit, I was interning at Skin Graft Records in Chicago and DJing at WNUR in Evanston, and all the people around that situation at the time... You would have artists doing one thing, people who put a certain foot forward, but then swearing by something which supposedly didn’t “match up” according to what is known as a typical standard. You knew if you received your education that way, it’s as much about the teachers and the personal vibration as it was about the information. So that really changes how you view ideas of genre. Basically what I’m saying is my early solo sound experiments were simultaneously trying to ape “pop” songs as much as noise. I was trying to tap into that feeling that got me so excited about organized sound in the first place that I felt was living in between the lines.

There was the single last year and then a tape surfaced, Songs, from 2002. So is this something you’ve been doing in your spare time, just not releasing the stuff?

CSY: Yes. Actually there were even earlier “song experiments” prior to the stuff from 2002. However, I did take a break between those 2002 pieces and the De Stijl 7-inch. I was so busy with other projects that I didn’t consider a return to that form until after multiple conversations with Clint (Simonson) from De Stijl. We had been wanting to work together in some capacity, and being a fan of the label, I felt like I didn’t want to jump at that possibility until the right thing developed.

Before Burning Star Core, were you ever in more traditional rock bands?

CSY: The first traditional rock bands would be very, very early on (discounting youth orchestras, which I would argue for being an intense young band experience). I was mostly obsessed with other shit, but also curious about music. It was sort of a reaction to another band which did covers and played relatively well. From then on, some configurations of Burning Star Core have been rock-ish (including the collaborations with Comets on Fire and the Hototogisu), and required that sort of management and organization. That might be a bit reaching there, however.

Were you at all intimidated to start singing or for people to finally hear your voice?

CSY: Yes, absolutely. We just had a first practice for the CS Yeh Band and I was absolutely appalled. Apparently, nowadays I have no problem getting in front of people and looking like I’m trying to eat two ice cream cones at once, but even that took a while for me to get comfortable. It’s no pity party, but I feel like I am more naturally inclined towards an improvised spastic eating situation than I am trying to stay in pitch and miming lyrics. That being said, I have had enough nerve to traditionally sing in front of many people in the past apparently, just not the recent past.

Is Transitions a collection of songs recorded over time or was this album completed as a whole with one driving intent?

CSY: Transitions was recorded over a period of time, but very much with a guiding conceptual bent to it, if you will, that helped shape it. Some songs stuck around for a while as bits and pieces and ideas waiting for a home. The 7-inch originally grew out of an attempt to work on a full-length, but then I decided to downsize to a single as the two tracks I had made the most progress on started to really work with each other well in that format. “Condo Stress” (the B-side to the single) was intended to be an album opener. Also, I had a number of what I considered ideal 30-minute albums that I was a huge fan of. So as much as someone can be inspired by any number of things in their rock/pop dialogue as a spectator, I had these records and how I perceived them formally, as an advisor and inspiration. There are a surplus of ideas and sketches left over from Transitions as well, including an instrumental intro. That was cut because I realized I was sort of overemphasizing what I perceived to usually happen in between tracks of records that I knew well. It was getting a bit too proggy. I’m going to save those impulses for the next CS Yeh record, I think.

Eno seems like a fairly big influence, especially considering his various forays in pop, ambience, and electronic music. Is he an inspiration?

CSY: Yes, absolutely, especially when I learned about his first few solo records after knowing of him as primarily ambient amd the producer who re-launched U2. What a run, from Jets to Mountain to Green World, and then from there into Airports and the Fripp record. Alas, my favorite Roxy Music record doesn’t have Eno on it.

Obviously you aren’t entirely tethered to the avant-garde, so what types of records inspired Transitions?

CSY: I would argue the records that I am thinking of are relatively avant-garde, but there’s a whole host of amazingly formed and executed albums that pop into mind. I’m sort of always half-listening/watching for these structural concerns in records, no matter the genre. I feel like I’ve been so receptive to and informed by that dialogue, of album cover art, sequence, titles, etc.that I can’t help but now obsess over it as a fan.

Actually, I want to digress for a second and talk about this goofy little online game a friend of mine and I were totally into a few years ago, “Rock Star Game,” where you basically invent a band and control some various bullshit, but most importantly, the names of the albums, the names of the tracks, the sequence, the cover art, etc. The actual sound of the band was a secondary, if not tertiary, concern. In some ways that’s what people first and foremost respond to, right? Do my friends know and like this band, and will it heighten my dinner party?

Do you have hopes to take these songs on the road with a full band or did you compose them to be played entirely by you in the live setting?

CSY: I have been working with the CS Yeh band, which currently includes a few people I know and trust fully due to having hung out or worked with them in other settings so many other times. I’ll name them straight up: Ryan Sawyer, Daren Ho, and Trevor Tremaine as honorary (hopefully at some point ) member. There’s also my friend Tracy Brooks, who I haven’t worked with previously, who will help with vocal and trumpet duties. There might possibly be another member, but that’s to be determined.

Given I hear a lot of sugary pop creeping into this album, is there such a thing as a guilty pleasure or does everything have a place and significance?

CSY: First, I would say I’m not so much into the idea of guilty pleasure. I mean, I know what that phrase is supposed to function as, but if I think about it too much, I get a bit reactive. Pleasure is pleasure, though, these days you never know what you are truly supposed to feel guilty about. However, in a bubble where primarily artistic concerns rule, I would say that everything still does have a place and significance as you asked, in terms of concepts of artistry and craft. For example, I have been trying to work out my oral combination of the theories John Olson (of American Tapes) has about AC/DC and the production styles of Dr. Luke. And you know I really do believe it. The names referenced might bring about a number of associations and reactions; the point isn’t to be amusing, and I’m not saying we all want the same thing in our pleasures, but hear me out. Olson basically talks about how AC/DC’s music perfectly translates to the rock arena, and while it seems super simple, there are enough details and changes within the “blunt object” to keep things interesting and moving along. Likewise, with Dr. Luke, you take a listen to the decisions in writing and production and you realize how effectively reductive it is and how well it translates from a loud club to crappy laptop speakers. The maximalism isn’t achieved through multiple layers crowding one another, and all elements being so complicated they cancel each other out. It’s about really building up from as few elements as possible—the music, sonics and the words—and the tensions and dynamics these elements create. It is organizing sound, which in turn organizes responses and associations within people, and that doesn’t even take into account other concerns I mentioned before.