by Mark Katzman / Cover photo: Jason Thrasher
The word ambient in Latin, ambiēns, means “going around.” Encircling, enveloping, surrounding. In the musical sphere, atmospheric. Ambient music creates a feeling; a mysterious experience which unfolds uniquely for each listener. It’s a genre of electronic music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. It might proceed linearly or non-linearly or any combination thereof. It can segue from a relaxing, dream-like soundscape abruptly into an unsettling drone or a series of interweaving sounds, using an array of instruments (lap pedal steel and hammered Dulcimer in Sletten’s case) or a children’s toy thingamajig that makes funny bleeps and seemingly silly noises (processed and enhanced (or not) by modern technologies). The music may simply descend into “noise.” It’s the perfect music for our imperfect age (aren’t they all imperfect?). It’s existential music which opens a portal for deep reverie for the listener. There aren’t any three-chord blues singing about lost love, break-ups, being cheated on, tragic deaths, shitty upbringing or all the many human misfortunes and traumas we go through in life, as well of the opposite; new love, new beginnings, some beer and a gal on a summertime truck ride, or hope for the world and an end to the destructions, falsehoods and injustices taking place. With the inevitable legalization of psychedelic psychotherapy I have little doubt there will be some form of ambient music played during a clinical session. It is undoubtedly a vehicle for evoking/reflecting/gaining deep insight into traumas or deeply engrained destructive tendencies while being enveloped within ambient music’s multitude of sounds.
Ambient music envelops the senses. It might seem dull and repetitive to one person and revelatory to another. While it may be something to simply “escape into,” it might just as easily lead to a break-through during the listening because the mind, whether “relaxed” or “disturbed” is moved into something heretofore unknown, opening new doors of perception (thanks, Aldous). It creates introspection. A space to experience transformation.
There are numerous micro-genres within the ambient fold: Ambient dub, Ambient house, Ambient techno, Ambient industrial, Ambient pop, Isolationist ambient, Dark ambient, or, simply, space music. Dark ambient, for example, “features toned-down or entirely missing beats with unsettling passages of keyboards, eerie samples, and treated guitar effects. Like most styles related in some way to electronic/dance music of the ’90s, it’s a very nebulous term; many artists enter or leave the style with each successive release.” (Wikipedia)
Ambient music is generally credited as beginning with the early 20th-century French composer, Eric Satie, who is “acknowledged as an important precursor to modern ambient music,” (Wikipedia) with a genre he called “furniture music,” (1917) consisting of five short pieces, composed in three separate sets, with “an indefinite number of repeats.” Furniture music had only a single performance in his lifetime. From there a line of musicians followed Satie’s lead, all adding more nuance and the wonders of new technologies to their compositions: John Cage (ambient silence?), Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Laurie Spiegel and many others. Brian Eno was the first to coin the term “ambient music” in the mid-70s.
Eno: “Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” You will hear Sletten brush Eno aside as an influence, much to my surprise, and be introduced to an entire new generation of ambient pioneers; musicians whose continuing innovations are nothing less than astounding.
Marcel Sletten has a vast range of influences, stemming from the energized rockabilly of his father, who introduced him to modern rock, as well as his mother, who may be his most seminal influence with her love of music and constant support of his trajectory into the musical realm at the ripe age of 13. The fact of his mother’s musical influence and her picking up a MIDI keyboard from the side of the road (everything happens for a reason?) to gift him lends ammunition to the title of this piece. I’m not one to casually throw the word “destiny” around, but, as you will see (and hopefully listen to) a man who is following his own path in music as well as releasing the work of artists he admires on his record label, Primordial Void, be they ambient, indie-folk, county-inspired psychedelic pop etc. etc.
Sletten cites many musicians and bands which will likely be new to you. These are the sounds of our modern age enhanced with the continuous advance of technology. Ambient music sears into one’s DNA. It can create a kind of panacea from the upheavals and stresses each of us face every day. But instead of allowing us to think (which we are generally overwhelmed with, hence the rise of meditation as a protective measure to destress), it opens within us a more liminal space and just as easily allows us to not-think. To let our thoughts go. Things get interesting there. You become the universe experiencing itself through a person: you. It might, as they say, rock your world, or the world you thought you knew. To reiterate: ambient music allows possible breakthroughs not achieved by traditional musical structure, however cathartic that music is for every generation. We all have our memory songs from a time and place of deep meaning or something extra-special that happened while a song was playing. Ambient music doesn’t negate any of that experience. Sletten loves music of all types and varieties, as you’ll hear, hence the variety of music on his label.
The future is wide-open for Marcel Sletten, who seems hell-bent on examining every mode of expression ambient music has to offer. I have little doubt it will lead him to film scores or perhaps something akin to a symphony but in an entirely new form. Just listen to the last song/video of a recent performance at the Cloud Recordings Festival. Psychedelic Samba?
His newest album, Irish Words and a Bottle of Myrrh, is an ambitious double album worthy of all of his influencers, past and present. He began Primordial Void before his own musical odyssey to help other sound-makers (of various genres) achieve an audience. His own sound explorations continue to expand and refine the ambient genre and fulfil his, well, there is no other word, destiny.
I spoke with Marcel Sletten in October on Jittery Joe’s patio in Athens, continuing with email exchanges. The interview has been edited for content.
All in the Family
I grew up in a musical family. My father, in the late 1950s, was one-half of this Everly Brothers-style rockabilly duo called the Duals. He had stopped doing live performances long before I was born, so I only ever saw him playing guitar at home, but he would introduce me to various stuff like Warren Zevon, for example. My mom has this history of hanging around bands as a photographer and a general fan. She hung out with the Clash and Elvis Costello and all of these incredible artists who I ended up getting into later on. She knew them through shows, basically. She hung out with Tom Petty a lot and is still good friends with one of the members of his band. So a lot of the music that I ended up loving I discovered through her, primarily. I grew up hearing the Velvet Underground, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine at a very young age.
“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash was the first song I fell in love with. I heard it at a very early age when I was out with my mom driving around, and I wanted to hear it over and over. And around the same time I heard “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and wanted to hear it constantly and begged her to play it over and over. They were the two songs that kind of kick-started music for me even though I didn’t get into music properly until I was 13.
I was 13 when I got into music as a fan and actively started seeking stuff out on my own, not just what my parents were listening to. I saw the first concert I wanted to see myself at 13, which was Widowspeak, in Santa Cruz, they’re really good, kind of Fleetwood Mac style folk rock. I had started a music blog around this time. I ended up doing a lot of interviews just in that first year alone of running a blog. I’d literally approach bands if they were playing a show in Santa Cruz or San Jose at a soundcheck or over e-mail. Sometimes I’d literally go over to them before a gig and ask them on the spot and they’d feel bad cause it was, like, a 13 year old? (laughs) People would go up to me all the time and say, “Have you seen Almost Famous?” I heard that constantly. (laughs) It was cool. I got to interview people I never thought I’d interview. I was doing album reviews and features of artists I was really into. During the tail-end of running the blog I was going to college in Santa Cruz studying Digital Music Production and World Music. I only finished the Digital Music Production course.
I started making music at 19. I taught myself everything on the same MIDI keyboard which I’ve had since I was a teenager. When I was still living in Santa Cruz my mom literally picked the keyboard off the side of the road near an abandoned house and just brought it home one day and gifted it to me. (laughs) My entire set-up since I started making music has been my laptop and MIDI keyboard. The “piano sounds” are all MIDI. It’s just another plug-in.
Primordial Void – a record label emerges
I was 19 and living in Lodi (California) by that point, in the Central Valley, but it was the previous year (2018) when I started Primal Void (PV). I was getting seriously into releasing music at 18. I was inspired from musicians I knew in New York and all over the world – Gobby, emamouse, Lockbox – were kind of like the initial core of the label. The thing I don’t understand about some labels is, why limit your roster to just your city? I started the label before I began making music. At that point I was only making DJ mixes and stuff. I hadn’t started making music of my own.
I founded Cosmic Trattoria, a curated mix series, in Lodi in 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, but I had been doing that kind of thing since I was 13. (Features include Love Tractor’s Mike Richmond on Johnny Cash, Ennio Morricone, and Bauhaus. Commissions have included artists such as Christian “Megazord” Oldham, Sean Lockwood, Beat Detectives, HKE, and emamouse)
I moved here for the music scene. There was absolutely no artistic community in Lodi and I was losing my mind out there. Right before I moved here I had been getting into local bands like Surface to Air Missive, Antlered Aunt Lord, and The Dream Scene, so those groups were a big draw for me as well. I had familiarized myself with the contemporary scene before I even knew I’d be living here.
As for “experimental music” in Athens, you’ll encounter it here and there but it’s mostly safe, indie pop/rock-oriented radio fodder that gets people to throw beer money. I think the best experimental shows I’ve seen here were touring acts. But there’s definitely great experimental artists in this town if you look hard enough. A good number of them are the Elephant 6 guys who are still around, as well as acts like Shane Parish, In a Kythe, and Magic Tuber Stringband, who are just incredible.
On Marcel Sletten (first EP)
Working with the first core group of artists on PV – Gobby, Lockbox, and emamouse – really inspired me to make my own music. What the three of them were doing seemed like so much fun. I was also very influenced by traveling to San Francisco and exploring the landscapes of the Central Valley, since I was still living in Lodi at the time of the EP’s recording. Staying up late at night listening to Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN) and Talk Talk records was another big motivator, as was getting into folk singers like Dylan and Townes (Van Zandt).
On “Morphine” you can hear the Spirit of Eden influence in the piano and string arrangements, and then of course the Lou Reed influence with all that guitar feedback. “Amador City Blues” was absolutely another Autechre-inspired trip.
I made “Amador City Blues” from fragments that I stitched together from different recording sessions, this Brian Wilson-style modular recording approach, like what he was doing with Smile, which was a big influence on me at that time (ditto for Elephant 6 Collective). The piano sounds are from a MIDI plug-in, and the concerto-sounding short section with strings towards the end was one of the many fragments I recorded in one take, completely improvised and tacked on there. I’ve always wanted to write symphonies. Classical music has always been an influence and huge interest for me.
At that time I would have edited that song entirely in Audacity. The actual plug-ins I was using was in Spitfire Audio, and I recorded it in Cakewalk, before I had Ableton. Now I use a combination of those two DAWs. I learned a bit of editing in college but I didn’t really seriously get into studying it until a few years later at home when I was really bored.
The glitchy samples at the beginning of “Mount Diablo Sunset” were inspired by Pete Townshend’s guitar part in the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” whereas the title of the piece I lifted from Calm’s “Arlington Sunset.”
From the linear notes:
“I consider this release to be the first example of a new genre called Zen Americana. Rooted in my own artistic philosophy of Honest Music, the tracks contained within channel the spiritual energy of the Bay Area, California Delta, and Sierra Nevada.” – Marcel Sletten – (this is the first use of the term Zen Americana)
California Delta Blues
California Delta Blues ended up being a lot darker than my first EP. When a very close family member passed away in early 2020, I fell into a deep depression, and California Delta Blues, more than any other work of mine produced between 2019 and 2021, was influenced by their passing.
Murder ballads, train songs and sacred music were all influences for the EP. This time around, I wanted to make something that was dronier and more minimal. The tracks on my first EP are pretty maximal, and they have so many layers and complex chord progressions, etc. Instead, California Delta Blues was going to be strictly cathedral music. I was taking trips to San Francisco from Lodi and would go cathedral-hopping there. (laughs) I’d hear pipe organ music in my head. But also I got into the French composer, Olivier Messiaen. I listened to him over and over, it was a huge influence. The murder ballads came from listening to Tom Waits, and the train songs came from just listening to country music. Again, it all came from living in Lodi, which was huge for me, living in that kind of inspiring landscape. The EP was recorded in that period of 2019-2020. I was also pretty influenced by Ariel Pink’s recording style on California Delta Blues, particularly tracks like “Burned Out Love,” which was reissued while I was recording CDB.
So yeah, California Delta Blues is pretty much just drones, whereas Marcel Sletten was heavily processed collages. A lot of the basic tracks on CDB were improvised and recorded in a single take. It came together pretty quickly.
On the track: “Jack Nance.”: I was really into David Lynch, and Jack Nance was, like, always my favorite actor of his. In Eraserhead but also in Twin Peaks and he was great in Blue Velvet. He’s such a strange guy but so endearing and at that time. David Lynch’s work was a big influence on the music I was making. One or two of those songs on the EP are reimagined soundtracks to certain David Lynch films. Watching Twin Peaks at that time was really big for me.
Vocals At Last
The choral kind of vocals in my records so far are all MIDI, too. But I recently finished a track from the upcoming album and it’s the first time I’ve had an actual person doing live vocals, my friend Reed Winckler. She’s in Atlanta now, but I met her through living here in Athens when she was going to UGA. So I made this whole instrumental track for her to write lyrics for or come up with something back in February, and only like a week or two ago and she sent back some amazing vocal parts and it fit perfectly when I placed it over the track. I didn’t have to edit anything. She laid down the vocals in a day. The track is called “Pressure Drop.” It’s finished but I don’t know when I’m going to release it because I have a busy label schedule. It’s definitely the most conventional-sounding thing I’ve ever done. It does sound like a traditional indie-folk song. I was playing it for Sam (Samuel Miller) (Dividers) not long ago and he said, “That’s a hit,” which was very unexpected coming from my work. (laughs) Reed’s definitely a kindred spirit. If I hadn’t met her I would have definitely been lost here. She’s been very important in introducing me to other artists and getting me more involved in the scene. It’s awesome to finally collaborate.
Favorite from Primordial Void Releases
I’d have to think about that because there’s so many to choose from, but the one song that I’m most proud of releasing on the label is Dividers’ “You Win Again” cover, which is a Hank Williams song. At that point when I put out that single they were a full band but now it’s just Sam. To have released that track and their first EP, Once More with Feeling, I felt like I had my own Byrds or something. (laughs) It was the kind of music I’d always wanted to release, because I started out by releasing all kinds of electronic and experimental stuff. They did come from that kind of background in noise and electronic music but they also have an appreciation for country music. So it was cool to finally have a “band” band on my label.
I was still living in Lodi when Once More with Feeling was released. Living in Lodi is what got me heavily into country and Americana music cause it’s a very rural, agricultural small town. The only other notable band to come out of that area is Pavement. They came from Stockton and went to High School in Lodi.
Vicious Kisses evolved out of the same recording sessions as my first two EPs and, to an extent, Irish Words and a Bottle of Myrrh. I had never thought about making a full-length album, but Will Miller from Sound as Language heard my EPs and really liked them. He approached me to do a release for his label, which motivated me to record some new material. So I ended up recording most of Vicious Kisses in a week. It’s my insomnia album. Some of the music had been recorded a few months earlier, but the bulk of the album was recorded within a single week. I was just not sleeping for days, basically. (laughs) I finished a new song every day. I was just compelled to do it. It wasn’t necessarily something I set out to do. I was just really inspired.
We had originally planned an EP, but I had enough tracks for an album. On Vicious Kisses, I was really influenced by ‘80s synthpop stuff like the Blue Nile and Talk Talk. This was in early 2021, so I also knew I was going to be without my MIDI keyboard for a bit when I moved from Lodi to Athens, which motivated me to record as much stuff as quickly as possible.
I had been listening to country, dub, jazz. There is some percussion involved. I wanted it to have that kind of poppy retro sound while still having these ambient experimental undertones.
While recording Vicious Kisses, I was reflecting on these short-lived romantic experiences I had in NYC. That’s partly where the title comes from, but it’s also an Elvis Costello reference, like the album’s cover.
Making stuff with percussion for the first time was pretty fun. “Sleepless Nights” uses an 808 plugin that I’ve been recording so much stuff with lately. That’s another track that I made in a day, probably less. I remember with “Redwood Tree” in particular, the drum-and-bass groove was inspired by Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch.
I’m insanely proud of Vicious Kisses. I remember so many people being into it when it dropped, which was really reassuring for me. It felt like a proper album. Part pop, part drone.
Irish Words and a Bottle of Myrrh
Irish Words was an interesting one. It evolved out of all these tracks that were sitting around and I just started filling in the blanks to make new songs to make it sound more complete. The album was a couple of years in the making. I’ve always been into those sprawling double albums like The Beatles, Tusk, Get Happy!!, and Exile on Main St., so this was my attempt at making something like that. I kinda see it as the Tusk to Vicious Kisses’ Rumours. I wanted to combine a bunch of different styles, and just really let loose. “I Miss You,” “Primordial God,” and “Sassafras” are edited versions of some of my first-ever recordings I ever did at 19, and then there’s a whole bunch of new material on there as well. I never intended to release “Sassafras.” It was originally 13 minutes long but edited down to around 6 minutes for the album. It came from a jam session which was improvised. I was definitely more influenced by classical, jazz, and soul music this time around. Morton Feldman, Bela Bartok, Erik Satie, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, and Prince were all reference points.
Irish Words is also a breakup album. I think that’s one reason why I recorded so many somber piano pieces for it. It’s almost entirely about a brief relationship I was in when I first moved to Athens. In that sense, it’s also my first Athens album. Much like California Delta Blues, it’s really raw and personal.
“Georgia” was another stray track with hammered Dulcimer. “Normaltown Blues” is one of the last tracks I made for the album. It’s more recent. I made it here in Athens. It’s inspired from living in Normaltown. I made it when I first moved over to my Beechwood house. That track, in particular, is one of the first times I’d ever worked with generative synthesis, so there was a bit of – I guess you could call it – AI. It was all working with the plugins. So I’m playing these chords which are all in there, and then the kind of sounds and pitches it takes are decided by this particular plugin which manipulates the sounds I’m playing in real-time. And so that song in particular, is two improvised recordings stitched together. You know how it kind of changes at the 3:00 minute mark, and then it segues into this separate recording from a completely different session, but both were made using this generative synthesis and both were improvised and it was all played live in one take. I was really happy to do something like that. I had been listening to the ambient album Sign that Autechre released around that time (2020). It was basically similar sounding. They had been an influence back to the first song I ever made, which was “Grace.” That more ambient sound of theirs is still something I’m chasing after.
No to Eno
Everyone assumes he’s been an influence but he hasn’t been. The only stuff of his that I’ve kind of been influenced by – which is a light influence – is his punk and glam rock stuff, which is the stuff of his I like the most. (laughs) I heard My Life In The Bush of Ghosts growing up a lot blending these African funk rhythms. In terms of his ambient stuff, I was never influenced by it. It didn’t impact my sound at all. I was always more into people like Oneohtrix Point Never and Aphex Twin. Those two have had the biggest impact on my sound.
I love recording live. A lot of recordings are edited from jam sessions. I’ll have like a 20-minute jam session track and there might be a two-minute bit in there, like, oh, if I just take that two-minute bit it’s a song on its own. That was partly inspired by Oneohtrix Point Never’s early recording process when he was doing all those Juno-60 tracks. That’s pretty much how he recorded all the material for his compilation Rifts. It was all edited from jam sessions in GoldWave, which is similar to Audacity, this very bare bones software.
Primordial Void – The Future
I have about 5 releases that are ready to be put out and I’m trying to schedule them all which is going well into next year at this point. I do it all on my own. I don’t have anyone helping me aside from the occasional mastering engineer or layout artist. It’s just me working directly with artists. I think the next thing we’re going to release is this album by probably the youngest artist who I’ve ever worked with, Morgan Storer. He makes music as Bloria’s Voice. He’s only 15. I wasn’t even thinking about recording at that age, but he’s coming up with this unbelievable free-folk, psychedelic stuff, which sounds a lot like early Animal Collective or Little Wings, that era of free-folk, indie-folk, which is definitely a big influence on him. Putting out that album with him is pretty exciting. The label is going to definitely move into this more folk-indie direction, I think.
Then I’m working with two separate artists, both from Spain, who make incredible guitar music. One of them is more psychedelic, Mondo Lava, and another artist, called Ubaldo, who’s more kind of like Godspeed-esque, post-rock guitar soundscapes with auto-tuned vocals over it, so it has this electronic bent. The guitar playing is so beautiful. The sound is achingly beautiful.
I’m about halfway done with my next album, so I’ll release that at some point. I’ll definitely be releasing original music by Reed (Winckler) at some point. She hasn’t even released an EP. It’s just been these two stray-kind of demos. But when she does do her debut EP or album it’ll be on Primordial Void. I’ve seen just about every live show she’s done through living in Athens. She plays guitar and does vocals. Every time I’ve seen her she gets these great crowds. She mostly does originals, and the repertoire she already has is amazing. This is somebody in the making. I’ve watched her in awe.
I want to do more classical-type stuff as much as I want to do more indie-folk or conventional pop-sounding stuff. I definitely have longer pieces sitting around, like 12 or 13 minutes, that I haven’t put out. I’d like to stretch out. The one recording by Bartok that really got to me is him playing An Evening in Transylvania. It’s just him, solo piano, and it sounds like a whole orchestra. In the same way you can listen to Son House, for example, and it sounds like a whole band, even though it’s one guy stomping his feet and clapping, it’s the same kind of thing, which is really what I’m influenced by.
I’m in the process of putting together a Primordial Void live band. I don’t really know what exactly I’d do with it, but that’s another thing I’d like to work towards. Working with Sam, from Dividers, has definitely been a big part in getting me interested in doing that sort of thing.
I try to make every how different.
Touring – Solo/Primordial Void Artists
So far I’ve only played live three times, and all three of those shows were in Athens. I’ve been thinking about going up to New York to play some gigs since I know a lot of people there and I think it would go over well. If anybody would be willing to finance a tour of sorts, or maybe just some gigs a bit further away like in SF or LA, then I’d be totally open to that.
Athens, New York, and Brussels are the three major hubs for us at the moment. I could definitely see us organizing more Primordial Void shows in these cities and other places as well.
Articles focusing on Primordial Void and its projects.
- Aaron Carnes, “Santa Cruz Native Marcel Sletten Draws on Nature and Americana Music for Inspiration,” Good Times, June 16, 2021
- Liero Plantir, “An Introduction To: Primordial Void,” Midnight On Jupiter, March 11, 2021.
- Oscar Chiu, “Unravelling the Layers of Internet Subjectivity with Primordial Void,” SBVRSV, February 11, 2020.
- Patrick St. Michel, “Emamouse: Unmasking an experimental cult favorite,” The Japan Times, April 2, 2019.
For all inquiries, please write to email@example.com
- Out for Justice 2
- Floral Feelings
- Mind’s Eye
- Crime of Passion
- Irish Words and a Bottle of Myrrh
- Two Variations for the Shadow of the Absolute
- Dana Rosa
hunterc44t & Finlay Clark
- Vicious Kisses
- Spiritual Malware
- You Win Again
- Paroles Cavernicoles
- California Delta Blues
- Once More with Feeling
- Marcel Sletten
- Crooner qui coule sous les clous
Oï les Ox
- Morning in America
- Zen Guitar
- I’m Here
- Dream Detective
- Children of the Sandman’s Sperm
- Neo Druid
- I’m a DJ
- Eye Cavity
- V/A – Primordial Chaos
- Bloria’s Voice – Floral Feelings
- Harshest Real – Out for Justice 2
- Mind’s Eye – Can’t Read
- Dividers, Crime of Passion
Leave a Reply