METRONO.ME interview with Jonathan Ray aka Skincage  05/11/2012

Skincage interview for

Your name and age

Jonathan Ray, 34
Birthplace and present location
Fayetteville, North Carolina, now in Tucson, Arizona
How long have you been doing your project?

In a rough form, roughly 17 years. In a refined form, maybe more like 12.
Has has your music evolved since you first started? How?
Definitely. I started by doing straight up tape collages and gradually progressed toward ambient loopscapes. This was both a function of practice and also of acquiring more capable equipment.

What are the main themes or topics for your work?

Well, you know, it varies a great deal. I've at some point or another addressed everything from historical catastrophes to personal disasters, which feeds into the micro/macro-cosm thing I like to play around with. The great within the small, and all that. I also, in my better moments, tackle more postive themes like wonder and spiritual awakening, but I take care not to be too hamfisted about that stuff. I throw in linguistic, numerical, and sonic clues for my own amusement, but at the end of the day, the listener decides what the piece means to them, and that's how I like it. I've put a few songs on YouTube with black screens because I wouldn't presume to tell people what images to associate with the music. If there's one thing I'm trying to accomplish, it's to take people out of time for a minute and let them play with their own minds for a while.
Describe your music/art. How do you describe your music to people?

I'm terrible at doing that. Sometimes I feel I really need an agent! I tend to feel that my music has a cinematic quality, which I don't feel bad about saying because it's been echoed by other people with more objective ears. I feel that my better pieces have a trance-inducing quality that plays with time, so maybe psychedelic noise, in some way. I would describe it as bigger on the inside, because it's full of all these layers of symbolic meaning that you can strip away and decode, or just leave there. Hell, I don't know. You do it.

What music did you grow up listening to?

My folks were hippies, but also really religious, so I came up hearing a lot of "safe" music and was always curious to go looking for the rest of it. What I did hear, though, was all quite good and influential. My Dad, for example, accidentally turned me on to electronic music by having a few Walter/Wendy Carlos records in his classical collection, and my Mom got me into oldies, which is the first music I really loved. I grew up hearing a lot of "black" music because the white kids wouldn't hang out with me, and I think that actually influenced me a lot as well because of all the electronic elements, and sampling, and all that. Thank you, Sherard and Emaine, wherever you are. Way better to me than any crackers ever were in those days. Also, my folks sent me off to church camps, where I met all the freaks who got me where I am today, God bless em. I went through metal, goth, punk, industrial phases, all in quotes of course. I stuck mainly to more dark music but I took what I needed from all of the above and these days I feel myself moving actively toward the more positve and beautiful music that I've grown to love over the years. I feel like I have pretty open ears, and I love discovering new music as much as I love sharing my favorites.
What's the first song you remember listening to or that sticks in your mind?

Well the first record I bothered to purchase was a 45 of Ray Parker Jr's theme for Ghostbusters, which actually now that I'm thinking about it contains a lot of sounds that are still favorites. This isn't a very punk rock answer but it's the one that comes to mind.
Who are your influences in general, musically and artistically?

I have a LOT of those. Too many to talk about, really. I'm happy to say that I've been influenced by just about every kind of music I've ever heard. Barely anything of any substance grazed my ears that didn't speak to me in some way. If I have to pick a few, I'd say the big ones are Coil, Eno, and most of all, sound tracks.
What got you into making _____________ (fill in genre you feel is best) in the first place?
It just kind of happened. I used to borrow my Dad's tape recorder when I was a kid and hold it up to the TV. I would tape movies and listen to them when I went to sleep, trying to remember how they looked. It all stems from insomnia, really, when I think about it. When I first started to hear electronic music, I knew it was for me. It flipped a switch. When I got my first chance to play with a 4 track recorder, I was hooked for life.

Are your sounds deliberately composed, is your work abstract, or a combination of both?

Oh, a bit of both. What normally happens is I'll get it into my head to record something, or stumble on it in the field, or build something. From there, I take that sound and play with it until it takes the shapes I want, and that leads me to the composition. I feel strongly that songs are stories and that maybe you don't know the story until it's written down, so to speak.
Do you rehearse or plan your performance in any way, either in your head, on paper or in a studio, or do you just wing it when it comes to performing and recording?

I find myself improvising a lot more in a live setting. I can't really play a lot of my recorded works because they were meticulously composed over time, though at this stage a few tracks have begun live and made it in a finished form to the albums. I like to have more of a pallete than a set list, you know? I'll bring the sounds I want and find a way to put them together in front of people, with a certain amount of safety net for good measure. I like it this way because it's a shared experience of discovery in a way, rather than just something I'm doing separately and being observed doing.
Could you briefly describe you music-making process?
Spasm into creativity, improvise, edit, edit, edit, process, process, process, and re-compose. The best tracks get made it a trance when I'm having too much damn fun to overthink it. Some pieces have benefitted from the introduction of long gaps between components, however. So, whatever the story calls for, really.

Where do you record? Do you have a home studio setup?
I'm blessed with options. I have a couple of portable recorders, and you can even get by on your phone these days. I have a studio set up in the garage with all the big guns, and a laptop I can work on whereever. It's a great time to be alive in that way. You can do things on the bus now that you couldn't do in a studio a while back.

Are you prolific?

I make a lot of starts, let's say. I don't always finish for a while, if at all. Some pieces don't get made because I stop feeling whatever spurred them, which in many cases is a good thing, so I don't mind! I do try to practice as much as possible, which to me can just be as simple as making a loop and enjoying it for a while.
Are you constantly cranking out new stuff or does it take time to get it right and done?

I'd love to say that my production equals my inspiration but I am not there yet. I've been slowly streamlining my process for a loooooong time. I'll get it right some day, but I get shit done in the meantime.
Are your live performances structured in any way or are they freeform?

I may have a rough outline, but they're generally pretty loose. I've learned not to make them truly boneless.
What can you tell me about your instruments?

Well they are mostly kludged, and some of them do not live very long, but I like to think I squeeze all I can out of them. I have been a builder of 'circuit bent" instruments, and I know how played out that is now, but it was great to be a part of that scene while it thrived. I also really love contact microphones, I call 'em "secret ears." Lately I am starting to build things with guitar pickups and enjoying that new sound. I feel that a large part of what I do is not just the raw sound, but what it gets fed through, where it ends up, all that. I consider the effects rig to be part of the instrument with a lot of what I build.
What made you choose the particular pedals/effects/instruments you have now?

There's something about that dirty homemade sound that speaks to me. It feels genuine. I use a lot of stuff that most people wouldn't bother with anymore. I think there's a lot of leftover beauty in the obsolete, and I like to find it.
Any other favorite pedals or music items you're into? Anything you're looking to acquire?

I'm always into new ways to sample, loop, or mangle sound. I like crappy reverbs. I'm excited about finally getting into modular synths one day. I'd buy a box full of modules from The Harvestman right now if I could and I'd probably record a few albums with nothing but that.
Where have you performed?

All over the place here in Tucson, and anywhere I get a chance to. I've been on a couple of small tours (Thank you, Klangstabil!) and I've played at festivals in NYC, Providence, and Germany. I like to play for small, receptive audiences the best, but I'm finding it good exercise to just take as many chances to perform as I can. I'm pretty open about just showing up now. I used to fret a lot more about that kind of thing. Being open has led me to some wonderful places and experiences.

What are your favorite and least favorite venues?

I do of course prefer to perform for people who are already on the same page as far as being deep listeners, because I feel like I'm talkin' to my people, you know? But, also, playing in places where noise is not expected can sometimes get new people to stretch their ears, so that's great too.
Most embarrassing experience? Most awesome?

Well, I actually got asked to stop for the first time ever a couple of weeks ago, so that was a bit hard to deal with, but it was one of those cases where it was fun to get away with playing there at all, so it's fine. My peak experience is opening Maschinenfest in 2007. That was an extremely eye-opening and life changing experience. It showed me how much love there really is for this kind of music. You don't see it in the States as much. In Germany, it was like being at Woodstock in a way, this sense of community that I had never seen anywhere else.
Are you involved in any other groups or projects that you'd like to mention?

I play small roles in whatever appeals to me. I think it's really important to keep this music happening live and I'm involved in a few efforts to that end in town. Someday, I'd really like to set up a sort of loop-music clinic for kids, because I imagine children would be great at this stuff. I also feel compelled to build instruments that anyone can play, regardless of experience, handicap, etc. I'm still chewin' on that one.

Where do you live now?

Tucson, Arizona. Comin' up on 11 years now. I love this town. I'm from the Southeast, and I have to say I prefer the Southwest. The heat is rough at times but it's the price of admission and there is a LOT of wonder in this place, so it is a good trade.
Do you have a day job? What is it?

I'm an inventory specialist, so I essentially count stuff for a living. There's more to it, but that's the gist. It works for me. I love fixing things and inventory is a continually evolving problem. Job security, too.
Have any hobbies like stamp collecting or knitting?

I have some gadgets in my life, but I really admire good old fashioned things. I admire the old schools of design and I'm enjoying the process of making my home into a sort of museum. I think I'm trying to create a place that stimulates me, and a place that feels like an extension of myself, but that also gives credit to my influences by displaying them. I'm not sure if that makes a lot of sense, but there it is.
Do you play any other instruments ?

That depends on your definition. I am not an expert at playing much of anything, but I can get sounds I like out of just about anything. I guess  what I play is more an approach to instrumentation than an instrument in particular. I'm as at home with a bucket of dry ice as I am with a keyboard.
Do you collect anything or are you a minimalist?

I collect less than I used to, in fact it got to a point where I had to do a purge in order to get my garage back! Still, I do love old things, strange artifacts, and records. I've gotten back into record collecting, but switched from CDs to vinyl, and I'm really enjoying that. You might say I collect books for my retirement since it's taking so long for me to actually finish them.
What's your favorite food of all time?
Grilled cheese sandwiches, made with love. Also, anything with eggs in it.

Computers or what?

Just another tool. I'm more into fucking around with amps and recording it with a handheld, these days, but computers do help put things together. I still do basically the same thing, multitracked loops. Most of my work is in the mixing, but it is nice to have so many effects and instruments available. I've still never played a laptop show, though, and I doubt I ever would with just the computer. I think you should give your audience something to enjoy, and you should keep it real by having some hardware to fight with. That conflict between me and my equipment seems to lead to my best work, so I'll honor that!
What was the last book you read?

I'm reading a few at once. Revisiting Robert Anton Wilson's "Cosmic Trigger" again, and also reading a great book my girlfriend got me called "Electric Universe" by David Bodanis about the history of electricity. I recommend both heartily.

What are you currently listening to that you're really into?

Well I finally put on "Bitches Brew" for the first time while I was filling this out, and I'm glad I waited for this precise moment because I'm really soaking it up. I am on a big Tangerine Dream and Can kick lately. I really don't listen to a whole lot of what people might expect me to.

Do you watch TV or listen to the radio at all? Any favorite shows or broadcasts?

I listen to about 20 minutes a week of NPR in the car for my news. Mostly I consume podcasts. I'm pleased to have a great community radio station here in Tucson that I remember to enjoy fairly regularly. I'm watching a lot of things on Netflix but I go back and forth.
Where do you go to discover new sounds/music?

I find most things online these days. I started off crate-diggin' like anybody, and I love to do that still. I love to discover things digitally and then try to find physical copies. I've made a few Pandora stations that are pretty good at feeding me new sounds. I dig shuffle. I think it knows what it's doing. I like to just stay open and let people introduce me to things. That's how I got all my favorites.
Been to any good shows lately?

I have, happily, been going to shows fairly regularly again after a period of not indulging in that. I am lucky to have a good woman in my life who keeps me from forgetting to do that!  
Describe a day in the life of Skincage.

Hm. I sleep a little too late, eat breakfast that may or may not be sufficient, and either scuttle off to work or get going on the day's projects and missions. At some point I eat again, usually after I'm silly from not eating, and I may throw on a record or a film. At some point I wander off to bed. Ideally, I am doing these things with my girlfriend, as her presence improves all of it immeasurably.
What does your family think of your art and do they support you?

They don't seem to know quite what to think, and don't really mention it. I'm sure they'd be happier if I was making a living with it, and they probably have a point there. They do support me, though. My Dad doesn't know what to say about what I do, but he's never told me not to do it. Part of him identifies, on some level. He was a musician for a while himself, but a very different sort.
Any advice for people who are starting out creating music/noise/art?

Get notebooks and fill them with your ideas as they come. Keeping records will save you some time if you're as scatterbrained as I am. Don't worry so much about getting it right and putting out records for a while. Fuck around and find your voice, in short. Get as many different kinds of people to listen to you as you can, so you get a balanced idea of what you're saying with your work.
Any upcoming shows? New recordings? Projects?

Later this year, I will be part of a pretty big drone event here in Arizona, and that's exciting. I'll be joined by many very talented folks. I've got a third record waiting for release and I'm toying with new directions. Right now, I'm mostly trying to get reacquainted with my gear and find whatever the current version of my voice is. Also, I'm trying to learn about tube gear and audio restoration.
Any parting words or pearls of wisdom you'd like to share with whoever's reading this interview?

Nobody is in charge and you can actually do what you want with your life. Happiness is a choice. Get good headphones.
Thats it. Whenever's clever. Photos of gear would be a +

Hey man here you go, I'll grab some photos of stuff for you sooner than later. This was good for me. Thank you.

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