Lights At Eleven On His Album Vegas, Ambient Music, And His Influences And Passions
Producer and composer Owen Cassidy, aka Lights At Eleven makes ambient and experimental music with such vivid hue. The Texas based artist’s recent record Cloudburst take this same evocative approach. With warm productions and mixes Cloudburst leaves an authentic aura in its audiences ear. But his 2017 output, Vegas, is special and extraordinary and sustains the haunting memory of the the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. In Owen’s own word, all the sounds in Vegas have “derived from audio that is in direct relation to the mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas in October of 2017. Snapchats, phone videos, 911 call recordings, reporting and interviews, body cam footage, etc. provided the base for the creation of these sounds. They have been edited, manipulated, and effected to demonstrate the sounds’ potential to be something more beautiful and universal. This is part of an ongoing project of documentation, archiving, and tribute, one that narrates the history of mass shootings in America. It illustrates the appalling routine of gun violence in this country.” We sat down with Owen Cassidy to talk about his album Vegas and Cloudburst, life during the pandemic and ambient music.
Anuranon Magazine: Hello Owen!! How are you doing during this time of pandemic?
Hey, thanks for having me, y’all. You know, I think for the most part I’m doing alright. I will say that some days are better than others for sure, and sometimes I have a hard time counting my blessings when so much outside of me feels beyond my control. Whenever I contemplate the whole picture of things as they seem, it can feel like a real drag, but I am just trying to be at peace with things for what they are.
When did you start writing/producing music – and what or who were your early passions and influences?
So I had written a few songs in high school, but nothing really substantial. I was a guitar guy, so I was all about writing riffs and solos, that kind of thing. I was big into the stuff I had grown up learning to play, mainly punk, grunge, and metal, and I would never deny that those genres, players, and songs greatly influenced me. In my teens, I developed this love for instrumental post-rock as well as sample-based hip-hop. I was big into MF Doom, Madlib, Danger Mouse, Explosions in the Sky, Pelican, Mogwai, Deltron 3030, Jurassic 5. I liked it because it sounded different to me, unconventional and inspired. Somehow it seemed more liberated than the stuff I had been listening to. When I was 16, I saw RJD2 play a show at Emo’s and I really dug it. I kind of filed that experience somewhere in the back of my mind and subconsciously referenced it when I started making my first electronic tracks in 2011. I had gotten a MacBook Pro for school, so now I had access to GarageBand, which fundamentally changed how I felt about recording and producing. I was like, oh, anyone can do this, and it really ignited my DIY initiative to make my own stuff. My setup then was just the Mac, a KP3 (sampler/FX processor), and an AKAI MPK mini (controller). I didn’t even have an external sound card, I would just run the sound back into the audio input on the Mac (back when they had the dedicated jack). In a way I kind of miss that setup in its simplicity and limitations, which actually ended up being more inspiring, I think. I started listening to more electronic music: Nujabes, TYCHO, Aphex Twin, stuff like that. Gear and software came and went. I put a few things on SoundCloud. After a year or two, I put the electronic/sample-based stuff on hold and worked on a few other projects. I think I needed the time to discover other music, and experiment with production and composition. But ever since that first EP, Lights at Eleven has just kind of been this thing I keep working on and writing for. I’ve tried my hand at writing and composing for various genres, but the comfort of the broad blanket of electronica is what I always come back to.
Apart from being a musician, you are also a photographer and a designer, right?
Yeah those things kind of grew in parallel to my music life. Design and photography were ways in which I could see sustaining my music practice. I have also always been somewhat of a control freak, so I wanted to be what I perceived as good enough at every creative endeavor I could related to producing my music and other creative material. For example, doing album covers, posters, music videos, promo materials, etc. Now, I have the option of tying photography and or design together on my music projects, or just practice those things individually. Other outlets can be a good break from music and sound design too, sometimes. Even if it’s just to give my ears a rest.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
I’m not always sure. There’s certainly significant moments that I think of from time to time: getting a computer that had the capability to record, exporting a mix for the first time, getting that first guitar, finishing the artwork for an album, playing a killer show, completing a degree, building a website, gallery shows, whatever. But I think those moments are fluid in the sense that I recall different ones at different times. Feelings about certain times change. I don’t feel the same way today about a release like say, LEONA, as I did when I put it out, and I probably won’t feel like I do now in a couple of years. I actually hope I don’t. For me it’s about process. Mostly, how do I learn about my process over time? How has it changed? What insights have I gained? I think the important thing is just to keep making, right?
How did you come up with the name Lights at Eleven?
So, I used to skateboard around town with this crew late at night. We would usually start at the skatepark, where they killed the lights, you guessed it, at eleven. I would have never thought of using something like that for a project name, except my good friend Arto and I were sitting under one of the lamps on the hot cement one night when the lights went out with that quick but gradual fluorescent fade. I muttered to Arto: “The lights go out at eleven.” And he said: “Yup. Lights. At. Eleven.” For some reason, I thought that was super unique and poetic. I wish the origin story was more interesting.
What made you want to pursue ambient music? How did you get involved with it?
Since I started even just listening to music I’ve been chasing this full frequency, often overwhelming, cinematic sound. In any genre. It’s just what I consistently desire in my music. Don’t get me wrong, I listen to all kinds of stuff, minimal, thin-sounding, or otherwise. But, I’ve learned in producing that “flawless” mixing, more tracks and the overall crushing loudness don’t usually get me the results I want. I think I’m more inclined to explore space and frequencies and experimental processing. Sound design I guess; designing instruments and FX chains, pushing the envelope literally and metaphorically. All that being said, dynamics is where I want to focus in improving my sound. So in regards to ambient music, I think I’m trying to strip away a lot of what I would otherwise perceive as “necessary” in western music. Based on the recordings I had listened to: Eno, John Cage, Moby, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Willits, various post-rock artists, meditations, etc., ambient music seemed to work my brain differently. I didn’t have to focus so hard on what it “should” be. Like anything else, I just wanted to hear and see my stuff for what it was.
How has your musical journey progressed over time?
Well most people who know me, especially on a local level, know me pretty much strictly as a guitar player. Either from backing up someone’s band or sitting in or occasionally fronting a set. The ambient and electronic music is kind of something I keep in my back pocket for some reason. These days I definitely see myself as more of a sound design or producer/engineer kind of person. In fact, I often joke with people that I should be a much better musician considering how long I’ve been playing. So yeah, a lot has changed over the years, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you?
I’m probably not the right person to ask about the ideal creative state of mind, let alone any ideal state of mind. I’m not one of those sit down and produce everyday people. I know that sounds bad, but it keeps me sane. Sometimes I need a day just for listening. Sometimes a day to write, sketch or collect media/materials. Self-care days are extremely important these days too, especially given the landscape of things. I really admire producers who can write music, record, or just generate and progress material everyday, that’s just never been my deal. I have always had an insanely difficult time focusing on any one project for a longer period of time. I guess what I find to be an ideal creative state, for me, is when my environment is generally free of distraction. The phone is usually off for at least a couple of hours. There’s nothing that requires my immediate attention or dedication. I guess a state of neutrality, whatever that means.
What are your philosophical beliefs regarding the importance of ambient music? What do you think this genre provides to the listeners that other forms of music don’t/can’t?
I believe that ambient music often expects listeners to create their own narratives within the sound. Project their own feelings, reference their personal emotions. It has this ability to make people question the music they might be used to, and what music could be. I also believe that sometimes ambient music is just, there. I mean, it’s in the word itself, right? Like in Spanish when one says “el ambiente”, it literally means “the environment”. I think that’s beautiful. Maybe that idea of music not always having some innate purpose or intention or message bothers some people. I love it, it’s almost like anti-music in that way sometimes. But if you, as a person, are in the sound, “being” in the environment, does it really matter? Just make the most of that environment. If it doesn’t suit you, on to the next one, right? But I do believe, as ambient music artists, we should probably study that word, “ambient”, constantly. Great sounds are great sounds, and they are enough just like that sometimes. But I think it’s critical to examine that process as an artist. I don’t even think you have to know what you’re doing. No way. Most of the time, I sure as hell, don’t. But that doesn’t stop me from looking inward.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space, and composition?
I’m sure I could come up with some super complex, cosmic answer for that. But ideally, I would look at those things equally. Whereas sonic dimensions and design are not ideas that are obviously not on everyone’s mind, especially average listeners. Taking those things into consideration more often probably makes for better music. Explore each one individually, and also how they work together. They are all important.
Do you think there’s a connection between nature, the natural world, and ambient music….that creative decisions are usually shaped by cultural differences even when it’s the same genre of music?
Oh, absolutely. Of course. Like what I said earlier about the word ambient, being almost interchangeable with the word, environment. The music is all around us. And I’m convinced that many people hear the sounds of their environment, whatever that environment may be, and process the collective sound like they would with music. Some hear more music than others, you know? I know I am constantly looking around and doing double takes when I hear a sound out in the world that I feel might make a great sample. I am also fairly certain cultural differences influence music, even within a genre like ambient. Even in genres where folks are doing a lot of the same kinds of things. Instrumentation, pads, samples, structure, whatever. It all comes from somewhere, some influence. Even subconscious ideas or ones ripped from somewhere else. I just think it’s important to acknowledge those influences, especially if they could possibly be perceived as appropriate on some level. And maybe that could even just be an honest conversation that you have with yourself. What am I doing with this sound/piece? It’s kind of difficult to imagine anyone doing that explicitly in a genre like ambient music. I would think that someone might have go out of their way a bit to really “exploit” a sample or instrument or whatever from another culture. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
The relationship between music and other forms of art, like painting, photography, video art, and cinema has become increasingly important over the decades. Do you feel that music relates to other senses as well than hearing alone?
I think that now, more than ever, humans are craving something more out of art. And truth be told, I’m not sure if they will get it. But, I think that media has conditioned us to that, because, for the most part we have been conditioned to consume insane amounts of media, whatever the outlet. I mean, there’s more information than one could ever process in an essentially infinite amount of lifetimes, in your pocket. I don’t know if this is an inherently good or bad thing, but I know that I am not always conscious about what I’m taking in, and that can have negative consequences for my emotional, mental, and spiritual health. So, when making work, I think creatives have a responsibility to society to be honest and real if they want people to connect with their art. To not misuse viewers and listeners brainpower and feelings. We tap into enough garbage on a daily basis on purpose or inadvertently, and most everyone knows when they find something that hits them emotionally. Why wouldn’t you want to try and make something like that? Even if the person you are trying to connect with is yourself. That is more than valid. I don’t think I answered the actual question, but those are the issues I think about when questions about the relationships between art forms, multimedia, or anything really having to do with content, are presented.
Do you think it’s important that artists don’t feel constrained by a genre or expectation of a genre?
I think that depends on the artist. For some, that might be important to them individually, or for their “brand”, to stay within a certain set of parameters or a genre. During the making process, artists can make decisions as to what they are comfortable with. For me, I know for the most part where I am comfortable in my work, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take chances. And I’ve done a lot of different kinds of projects. It’s more fun and rewarding for me that way. Yeah, trying new things, I think most great artists do that. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But nothing moves forward without pushing the boundary a bit. We would have missed out on an immeasurable amount of work and cultural development, narrative, emotion, message, commentary, etc., if artists didn’t try the things others said wouldn’t work, or weren’t conventional, cool, or acceptable, or whatever.
Vegas is a haunting album. Tell us about creating Vegas… What was the motif behind the mood of the album?
So that album’s origins are many, and dark, and probably much too complicated to express here completely. But basically, I wrote that album right after the mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas, NV in October of 2017. I had collected all these samples from phone videos, newscasts, body cams, that sort of thing, surrounding the event. I did a few projects like this in the following months, and the raw audio was incredibly emotionally difficult for me to go through and process. I knew I didn’t want them to sound that way, like pain and suffering. I wanted to change them into something new, still haunting to convey the weight of the event, but listenable and meditative in a way. Kind of like ghosts. They still came out sounding totally sad, but now they were mine. I could emotionally process them on that level, as instrumental/ambient music. It was an exercise in pain processing mostly. I wanted to bring more awareness to the horrific issue of gun violence, and do it in a way that made people question what a sound could become.
What does this album album mean to you?
I mean, it was a huge departure from everything I had done up until that point. In that way, it really opened up my production style and led me to experiment more with sounds and processing. I think it was exactly what I needed to do at that time, and I still revisit it from time to time, even given how rough it can seem at times. But it’s very important to me as an artist. It was a proud moment when I released it, because it took a fair bit of emotional strength and courage.
Your latest album Cloudburst sounds a bit more optimistic than Vegas. Please tell us more about the album and the inspiration behind it.
Well, it’s been a while since Vegas. I guess large sections of Cloudburst could be considered accidents that I refused to let die. But it is somewhat of a methodical concept album, in that, there is narrative present in regards to how the musical themes present themselves over time. It was fun to work on, and I was determined to process it with a tape deck from the start. Mainly because Maybe Someday was very crisp and clean sounding comparatively. I wanted to try something different, and I like how it worked in contrast with the majority of the digital instrumentation. There’s also a lot of different stuff going on in Cloudburst, and Every Color at Once, for that matter, that wasn’t happening in earlier productions. More layers, more involved mixes, that sort of thing. I learned a lot in making it.
Is there anything you are working on right now? What can we expect from you in 2020 and 2021? Do you have any more projects coming up?
I have been refining a few things I have backed up. I think you can expect at least one of two projects I am going to release by the end of the year. It would ideally be a full length. Either a super drone-heavy, ambient concept album about ghosts towns, or this album I did for an installation in a gallery. That set of pieces was composed with a more evolved set of methods, similar to Vegas, that uses samples of recorded cartel violence to address that issue. Maybe I’ll get lucky and finish them both. Other than that I have been experimenting with a few odds an ends, I might post an improv (isational) ambient piece or two if I get one I really like, because I usually do at least one of those every few days. In 2021, my goal is to devise and develop some kind of intense multimedia format project with different components. I have a few infant ideas, but nothing worth sharing at this time. But basically, I want like this more substantial, multi-faceted production, even if it’s all digital output. I think people are searching for that on some level. I know I am.