A little while back, Alan Herrick reviewed ‘Before I Go’ by Candlegravity. When I found out that Sean Crownover, the man behind Candlegravity, lives in Tokyo, I decided to lure him out to a bar for an interview. My bait proved successful.
Hi Sean, could you tell us something about yourself?
I’m a very old person, I’m 37 now. I was born in Los Angeles, and I moved all over California with my family. Since San Francisco is where I went to university and it’s the place in California I feel most closely related to, I usually call that my hometown. I currently live in Tokyo.
How and when did you move to Japan?
I met my wife, Tomie, back in the US while attending a junior college in Chico, and we eventually decided to move here. That was in ’99, nearly 12 years ago now. Before moving here, we’d already found a house and a job for me, but even so, I wasn’t really prepared for Japan. All I knew about this country was hearsay information.
My only solid plan was that I wanted to learn how to play the koto. This is a traditional Japanese instrument, an integral part of geisha culture and playing it is a role that was mostly reserved for women. I didn’t really know that though, so when I first started working as a teacher here, and I told my students I played koto, they all bursted out laughing. One of those students, however, introduced me to her mother, who in turn put me in contact with her koto teacher. I started studying with her. Recitals were pretty funny, as everyone was focused on the tall white guy. (laughs)
You know the nail that sticks out gets hammered around here.
Haha, I guess that’s true. But at the same time people will have a sort of respect for you because you’re interested in a part of their traditional culture they don’t know much about.
Do you use the koto in your music?
I use it all the time, both the actual instrument and sampled versions. I found a very good koto Kontakt sample library made by Soniccouture.
Have you found that such a radical change of surroundings has altered your art?
I didn’t notice it in the way a lot of people might think you’d do, and most certainly not in the way I thought I would. However, my first release I published after moving here, ‘Wrapped in Bamboo’ must really have had something different about it when compared to my earlier work. Mark Fahey, a long time friend of mine and pioneering dj in many discos in California, is one of my best feedback mechanisms. He is quite critical about what he likes, and if he doesn’t like something, I’ll know about it in a forgiving silent kind of way. Yet somehow, he always mentions that release, so something must have changed. There’s also been a more direct influence on my music. My latest release is a good example of that. The reason it’s called ‘Before I Go’, is that I completed it just before returning back to America for the first time in quite a while. The last song on that EP, ‘A Lifetime of Summers Past’, is a collection of emotions and memories I had of summers spent back home in California. I suppose in that sense, the alterations to my music are more a result of the absence of home more than an influence from being here.
So how did you first get into making music?
I grew up with a piano in the house. It just stood there, but one night, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I saw the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’, and the next day I remembered the theme song. I got behind the piano and started looking for the right notes. That was my introduction to playing music. When I was in high school, I of course played in a band, and later played trumpet in a semi-professional jazz band. At the same time I fiddled around with an application for the Commodore Amiga, called Sonix. It allowed you to modify soundwaves and sequence sounds, and from that moment on I just knew I wanted to make computer music. There weren’t a lot of options back then, so I worked with Cakewalk for quite a long time.
I eventually found my way to a music program at San Francisco State, and I studied jazz and recording there. Later I got a job in LA, and made music for a video game company for its presentation at E3, and have kept writing music ever since.
What’s your music making process like?
It really depends. As I studied music in college, I often find myself doodling around on napkins, writing short parts and then later converting them to the actual sounds. I also work from the opposite direction. I always carry a recorder with me, so I can instantly make recordings of interesting sounds I hear, and start building a track that way. Field recordings are of varying importance in my music, my last EP [‘Before I go’ recently reviewed on netlabelism] featured quite a lot of samples, but that’s not always the case.
Could you give us a tour of your setup? What instruments and software do you use?
I used to have a lot of hardware synths, but I recently sold most of them in order to get a Novation Ultranova. I still have a guitar, a trumpet, saxophone, my koto, a Kaoss Pad 3 (which I use mainly as a midi controller) and some other hardware effects lying around. I’m always amazed at how fast people can make complete songs in sequencers like Ableton Live, while making a similar song might take me a very long time. I’ve never gotten used to the graphical representations that split the music into clips and scenes. I need to see my music as one continuous stream from left to right, almost like a picture book. That’s why I’ve always used sequencers like Cubase or Logic. It doesn’t have the graphical anchor points of 4, 8 or 16 bars, but at the same time that’s a tremendous freedom for me, as it allows me to be more creative with the way I construct pieces. This oldschool left to right view is especially useful for ambient music. It’s such a cliché, but it really doesn’t matter what pieces of equipment you own. Whenever I get stuck in a mindset that focuses too much on expanding my setup, I’m reminded of the Japanese musician Harakami Rei, who recently passed away. All he ever used were two Roland SC-88Pro’s. That’s it. Yet he succeeded in creating incredibly rich material.
How would you describe your own music?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I guess I just make the sort of music I like listening to. That varies greatly, so sometimes I’m somewhat scared there’s no common thread in my music or that I may lose a few fans when dabbling in other styles. I can tell you what I’m trying to achieve, though. One important characteristic that’s important to me in my music is the way silence is incorporated into the composition. I really feel like silence is an instrument. I live by it, and I’m not afraid of having parts of complete silence in a song. Apart from that I enjoy working with contrasts. By this I don’t only mean contrasting the amplitudes or dynamics of a sound, but also contrasting sound characteristics and/or timbres. This often enables a more general feeling of tightness or tension which might build up, letting the sounds in a track generate a sense of pressure, only then to release it. Yah, this play of contrast between tightness and looseness is often what I ultimately attempt to create.
You wrote the music to a short film by Claus Ostergaard, how was the contact with him and do you have any plans to work with him again? Do you often write scores for film?
The soundtrack for the Claus Ostergaard movie is actually related to another project I participated in: ‘Taboun’. That is a short film by Suha Ayash. Taboun is the staple bread eaten in the country of Jordan. Suha’s shortfilm was produced to illustrate taboun’s importance to many low-income families living in the more impoverished regions of Jordan. The film follows one family that has been fortunate enough to live near a road that has recently gathered tourist attention because of it’s historic importance. To date, that has been my most rewarding project. I learned a lot about Jordan and the people who live out there.
I wrote 3 songs for ‘Taboun’, but in the end only two of them were used. It just so happened that Claus was interested in using the third one for his ‘Ocean:dreaming’ shortfilm. After that, we talked about doing something together, and we did a movie showing the city of Aalborg in Denmark. I just wrote the backing music to it which I called ‘Aalborg Pulse’. Claus and I had fun with it though. In the middle of that song, there’s a quiet part, when the movie is showing a cross-country skiier . I searched for ages to find a sample of the sound that makes. Eventually I found it and Claus lined up that sound with the video, and we were quite pleased with the result.
To answer your question on collaborating again, right. I would love to work with him again, but he seems to be very busy lately as am I, so I don’t know how likely another collaboration might be in the near future anyway.
I’ve made music for quite a few film shorts, actually. However, when you’re a small unknown artist like me, writing music for films is really tailoring your own way of working to the tastes of the film maker. You have to bend to what they want, so I’ve had multiple experiences where I worked for a long time on a piece, but it didn’t make it into the finished product. If the director doesn’t like it, to his credit, he just won’t use it. The music I write for films is quite different from my ‘normal’ studio work: it focuses more on acoustic instruments and piano parts.
Have you made movies yourself, or do you mostly write scores for other people’s work?
I have made some movies myself. They’re not always very good though. The third track on the album you recently reviewed is called ‘Snow Monkey’. It’s the soundtrack to a shortfilm by the same name, showing some red-faced monkeys in hot water springs, surrounded by the snow. It was shot in Nagano prefecture. [If you’d like to see the movie, you can find it on the netlabelism front page, or in the links at the end of this interview.]
Do you have any upcoming releases?
I’m almost always working on something, so there’s a good chance I’ll publish some more tunes in the near future. I’m currently working on a soundtrack to a film called “Three Days in Kamakura”. I started working on that soundtrack two years ago, and the film will probably be released in another six months or so.
I’m also working on a tribute song to the artist I mentioned earlier, Harakami Rei. He passed away too soon, and I hope I can express the respect I have for him through this piece. Most tribute songs suck though, so I’m really hoping mine doesn’t! (laughs)
Sean, thank you very much for taking the time to provide us with an inside look at your music. Best of luck with your upcoming projects, and we hope to hear from you again.
Candlegravity – Snow Monkeys (Video)
Suha Ayash – Taboun: Kindling For Eight (Video)
Claus Ostergaard – Ocean:dreaming (Video)
This interview was originally published on netlabelism.com, an online music magazine covering netlabel culture and releases. I was editor for the magazine from January 2011 until December 2014.