Bvdub is Brock Van Wey from San Francisco. In just the past year, he has had releases on Styrax Records, Quietus Records, Night Drive Music and its sub-label 2600 Records. While much of his music could be called dub techno, it has deeper roots, delving into emotional chords, retro synths, and late-night ambience. Brock was kind enough to join me for an interview over email.
Jacob: Please tell me a bit about yourself. Were you born and raised in the San Francisco area?
Brock: I am indeed one of the very few people living in San Francisco who was actually born here. I then grew up in Livermore, a small suburb city about forty-five minutes from here, and am Bay Area born and raised. Oftentimes I don’t realize how much of a product of the area I am until I travel somewhere else, and realize I am Northern California through and through.
For the most part I was your typical bored suburban kid who didn’t know how good I had it, usually hanging out with people I probably shouldn’t have been hanging out with, and doing things I definitely shouldn’t have been doing. We’ll just leave it at that.
I was, however, fortunate enough to have experienced the phenomenal peak of the underground electronic music and rave scene in San Francisco, which I delved into headlong around 1991. This was back when you could pretty much go out to completely underground events seven nights a week to hear everything from ambient to hardcore, with anywhere from ten people to ten-thousand. They are without a doubt the fondest memories of my life. From the get-go, I gravitated to the side room and early morning scene, where DJs always seemed to play the deepest and most personal music—the music they themselves loved the most, not necessarily what they felt everyone else wanted to hear. My friends looked at me like I was insane when I announced one morning as we left a party, squinting in the bright morning sun, that one day I was going to be the guy who played at nine o’clock in the morning, when only a small handful of people remained, too entranced to leave. (I’m fully aware of the fact that the drugs didn’t hurt either.) That desire never left me, and the most memorable times I ever had DJing were always those with just a handful of people left. I’ve never felt a stronger connection through music with another human being.
I noticed a mix on your site from 1999. How and when did you start making music?
I began DJing not long after I first started going to raves, probably around 1992 or so, and my first official mixtapes began to appear in stores around 1993. They were primarily beat-less ambient and deep trance, until I honed my sound to the deep tech and deep house styles I became (relatively) known for throughout the mid- to late-nineties. In 2001 or so, I had had enough of the deceitful, political, and selfish state of affairs that had overrun the electronic music and DJ world (at least that of San Francisco), which had degenerated to little more than hordes of people simply DJing and throwing parties to think they were cool, try to get chicks, or to make money. The admittedly idealistic world of underground music I had struggled to maintain for so long had, in my eyes, vanished, and along with it so did I, as I sold off every last one of my records and moved to China for two years to essentially escape and begin a new life in an effort to forget the culture I had devoted the last decade of my life to, for which I had sacrificed everything from my relationships to my money, to my education and my sanity, and which had broken my heart one too many times.
When I returned to San Francisco in 2004, I made a few ambient mixes here and there just for me and my friends, until at the very end of 2006, one of my best friends finally succeeded in convincing me to begin making my own music—a pursuit he had been trying to convince me to undertake for years. I had long protested the idea, assuming that my frankly obsessive-compulsive nature would prevent me from ever finishing anything and that realizing how all the music I loved was made would somehow rob it of its magic. I was completely wrong on both counts. (Hey it doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.)
So to provide a ridiculously long-winded answer to your question, I have been making my own music for just over a year, probably about thirteen months now.
Who are some of your musical influences?
Unlike some who will tell you they take influence from all sorts of music spanning all sorts of genres and decades, I take influence pretty much only from electronic music, as it is pretty much all I have listened to in the last 17 years. That’s not to say I don’t have the odd inspiration from this or that part of a song I hear on the radio or in a movie, but for all these years, I haven’t listened to any other kind of music, really, so as far as straight-up influence, it’s all electronic. Though I never would have thought it, I think a large subliminal influence also comes from my years of classical training as a kid. (I played piano for seven years, and violin for nearly ten, eventually playing in a couple of local symphonies.) The irony was that I always hated listening to classical music, but I loved playing it. I guess in the end, more of it seeped in than I thought. I think as a result, much of the time the music I make contains a more musical, dramatic, and almost cinematic quality.
My music is primarily influenced by the three genres I have spent most of my time listening to, especially in the last decade or so: beat-less ambient, deep techno, and a combination of the “IDM” of the late nineties, the modern-day direction of experimental—glitch ambient, and electro-acoustic. (Genre classification within that realm is ridiculously complicated and seems to change every day, so forgive me if I’m not up on the latest.) I will refrain from listing off hordes of amazing artists who have influenced me over time, both in the interest of space, and because frankly I think in the end my sound is distinct to me, and though I no doubt carry with me the influence of those I have heard and music I have loved, I don’t want to be compared to them. Everyone seemingly has to be compared to someone nowadays. It’s out of control. I think each artist, unless they are blatantly trying to emulate someone else, should be judged on their own merits, and their own vision, rather than being the “next” this person, or “in the footsteps” of that—not only for themselves, but for those who came before. Everyone’s different. At least they should be.
I think what sucks is that a vast amount of influence over time have come from countless underground producers who put out one record, and then were never heard from again. No one (including myself, because I can’t remember the names of many, if any) could name them as their influences even if they wanted to, yet all of them have played a part, some really major, in influencing the music and lives of others, and in constructing the tapestry of the music we know/love/make now. If only their music had come out in the days of email and Myspace, someone could have told them that. But most of them will probably never know that their music changed someone’s life. At least many of them changed mine, and though I can’t credit them by name, because I too am guilty of letting them slip into obscurity, I would like to thank them for their integral part in the role and advancement of this music we love.
Your first Bvdub release was on Night Drive Music. What made you decide to debut on a net-label?
It’s simple, really. They were the first label to give me the time of day. Andre at Night Drive was an instant and fervent supporter of my music, even my first forays, and for that I will always be grateful.
You seem to be linked to the new labels Quietus and Shoreless. Can you tell me about them?
Well I am indeed irrevocably linked to Quietus, as it is my label. I started it late last year to provide a platform for both myself and others to put out both our deepest, most personal music, and that which other labels had overlooked or passed on for being “too ambient,” “too self-indulgent,” or really “too” anything. Everything about Quietus is as personal as I can possibly make it, from taking the photographs for each release’s cover myself, to personally undertaking every step of the “manufacturing” process—hand-stamping and numbering each photo and hand-numbering each CD. (Each release is limited to 100 copies.)
I want each copy to serve as a sort of postcard from the artist to the listener, a way for the listener to somehow feel personally connected to both the music and the artist, and I want them to not only have music to listen to, but an entirely personal item which was essentially made just for them. I think music in its purest form is the most personal way one person can possibly communicate with another, and I want both the music and the release itself to reflect that. It’s been great to see that there are people out there who still appreciate such a notion in this age of pay-per-download and peer-to-peer pirating.
While I am also linked with Shoreless (many mistakenly thought it was my label at one point), it is in a different way, as it is run by my good friend Sven Schienhammer, aka Quantec. And just as he will always have a home in Quietus, I will venture to say I will gladly have one in Shoreless. Though the two labels are both limited-edition CD labels (Quietus will remain that way, but I can’t say what lies in store for Shoreless), each run in their own unique directions, with their own unique ideals and ideas, and so I hope people can appreciate them in very different ways.
Do you stay in touch with other artists doing similar work? Do you think it’s important for artists to build a community?
Yes on both counts. I stay in regular contact with many other artists who are doing similar work (I hesitate to use the term, since I look at each of them as doing very much their own thing in their own way, but I know what you mean), and have been fortunate enough to consider many of them not only musical allies, but close personal friends, even though I have never met them in person. To me that’s immaterial.
I think it’s extremely important for artists to build a community with each other. Just like in life itself, it’s important to have a group of friends to not only help you out when you need it and pick you up when you’re down, but also to tell you when you’re being an idiot.
I consider myself very lucky to have been able to make the friends I have through music, and to have been able to form the family I have with the artists I stay in contact with. It is extremely easy to become despondent in anything involving art if you don’t know anyone who shares your vision at least to some extent. Yes, music, especially that made by yourself, is an individual endeavor. But I think anyone who truly loves the music they make will also be happy seeing others they know who share a common goal, achieving success and being heard, the music they love taking a step in the right direction. Otherwise, not only does everything about the music suffer and stagnate, but you will too. And if that’s okay with you, I think you need to take another look at why you’re making music.
If I can do anything to help any of my friends in my musical “familia,” as I call it, then I’m there. And I know many of them feel the same. Sometimes it’s important to know you’re not alone in the struggle.
Your music seems very dream-like. What are your inspirations?
In a way I can see how they come out like that, because I spend the majority of my life lost in the clouds of who knows where, and rarely where I actually am. I spend most of my time either remembering times past, or imagining idealistic futures that will never come true; I am rarely anchored in the present.
My entire life I have been an over-thinker, and a person who can easily slip away in the labyrinth of my own head, which has worked to my detriment on more than one occasion. The majority of my inspirations come from a need to form those thoughts into something somewhat tangible, so in a way I can be relieved of them (which is only occasionally successful). Most of my music is borne quite frankly from ideas of sadness (both my own and others’, real and hypothetical), regret, and even hurt, but also I think a tinge of hopefulness usually shows through as well. I’ve always loved sadness, and find a beauty in it—sad movies, books, music, art, anything really. And it’s always inspired me when others (artists, musicians, directors, etc.) have the courage to express their own life’s sadness or regrets through their art. I think they really lay their soul bare, and that’s no easy task. Everyone has their own sadness, but not everyone chooses to admit it, face it head-on, or to go as far as to put a tangible form to it for all to see or hear. But I think through that expression is also their own message of hope for a better tomorrow, which I think a lot of people fail to realize.
My music is a way for me to say things I never got to say, either to people I’ve known, or (sort of hypothetically) as a voice for others in scenarios in which I’ve been immersed (such as movies, books, etc.), if that makes any sense.
It’s also a way to paint a portrait of the ideal I would like to hope I and others could reach someday—a sort of mental picture of a utopian place where I long to be, but deep inside know I never will, because ideals are just that. In a way it’s uplifting, though. You have to dream for something, otherwise there’s no point to life.
How long does it usually take you to compose a piece?
It really depends. Sometimes the Fates conspire against me, and I can literally work on one sound for six to eight hours with no result, or only to gain what I think is a result until I wake up the next morning and hear it again and wonder what the hell I was thinking. Sometimes it all just comes together and everything falls into place, with every note and sound seemingly being put on this earth to be in the track. I’ve done a track in as short a span of time as a day (though rare), and as long as two weeks of what seems a daily exercise in futility. But if there’s one thing I am, it’s stubborn. I will not abandon a track, or put it on hold and move on to something else. I will keep working on that one track until it comes out how I want it to come out, no matter what it takes. Eventually, what should happen will click, and it will all come together. You just have to be persistent. Or a stubborn S.O.B. Whichever you prefer.
These days my tracks take longer and longer (usually between one and two weeks), because they have become progressively denser and more layered; some (recent ones) contain anywhere from twenty-five to thirty different simultaneous elements at their peak. A drum ’n’ bass producer will likely scoff at such a number, but for ambient and techno, that’s no chump change.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
By trade I am a Chinese translator who translates literary works (novels, biographies, etc.) from Chinese to English. I’ll never be a rich man off it, but as far as “work” goes, I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather do with my life. I love it. Plus I am my own boss and set my own hours, so you can’t beat that. Not only do I get to do something I love when I actually have to work, but it luckily allows me a lot of spare time to work on music as well.
I lead a pretty quiet life, and would much rather chill with close friends, or stay home alone to read a book, watch a movie, watch TV, or crack-out on my PS3 or Xbox 360 for hours on end rather than go out. I guess you could say I’m not much of a “people person,” except with my friends. Actually, I’m sure some of them would argue I’m not really a “people person” with them either.
Any time I’m not working or isolating myself, I spend training Krav Maga, boxing, and kickboxing—the Krav Maga (a system developed by the Israeli Defense Force) for the whole self-defense thing and the boxing and kickboxing for the pure fighting. At the school I train at, we fight pretty much full-bore, with no headgear and way less rules and regulations than most other schools would ever have. The result, to be honest, is basically a glorified street fight most of the time, but I am sick in the head and find it one of the most fun and satisfying things in the world. Not only do I love the concept that two people can basically try to knock each other out for however many rounds, then shake hands and sit around and shoot the breeze like nothing ever happened, but there’s something extremely therapeutic about how your mind and body shut off everything but the basic need to physically dominate someone else to avoid being dominated yourself. It’s about as back to basics as you can possibly get. No matter what problem you’re having, or how many issues you’re stressing over, it all goes out the window for those few minutes. It’s amazing. Plus I think everyone should learn to be able to fight and defend themselves with their own two hands. You never know when you’re gonna have to use ’em.
What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?
I’m happy to say I have numerous releases coming out this year on a number of labels, including Styrax, Styrax Leaves, Millions of Moments, a very unique release on Southern Outpost, and of course Quietus.
I’m currently taking a brief hiatus from beat-oriented music however, to devote some time to working on a full-length ambient and drone album I will be releasing on Shoreless later this year. I’m excited for and proud of all of my upcoming projects, but that one strikes a special chord in me (no pun intended) because to me, ambient is the deepest possible form of music and that which forms the foundation for all of the other music I make. Someone I met once many years ago said, “It takes a certain kind of person to be able to sit still and listen to ambient.” Indeed.