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Mike G – the Ambient Music Guide
By Baz Bardoe

It started with the dream of publishing a book that would document the ambient music genre. And whilst this got very close to fruition at one point, it seems that publishers perhaps don’t see huge dollar signs when it comes to the genre. So Mike G took advantage of the internet and began the Ambient Music Guide, an online resource of ethereal, evocative and subtle sounds. Over time it has flourished and provides not only a resource, but a well informed reference for the critiquing of new releases. Catching up with Mike was long over due. Here’s what I asked him.

What initially attracted you to chill and ambient music?
I think more than anything else it was the trippiness, the psychedelic qualities. It started with Pink Floyd when I was about 16, smoking spliffs with mates and kicking back with this incredible music. The Floyd did a lot of instrumental ambient rock, especially in their late 60’s and early 70’s live sets which you can hear on the Ummagumma album and the concert bootlegs from that era. I found it much more open-ended and subjective than the pop and rock songs I grew up with. With songs, vocals and words naturally draw your focus, whereas I later came to realise that most music under the ambient, downtempo and chillout banner is either instrumental or uses the voice as texture and colour rather than a vehicle for a message.

Anyway, I remember being seduced by this music that took me somewhere exotic and let me travel inwards. I’m an introvert so I think that had something to do with it. loved the mystery of it, the sense of awe. I bit later I discovered Brian Eno and Berlin-school acts like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, as well as some of the better examples of early new age. By the time I was in college I’d discovered the classical minimalists Terry Riley and Philip Glass. I sensed a common thread through the music of all these very different artists.

So I was hooked for life. But I’ve never stopped listening to other music. I’m into all kinds of straight-up vocal pop and rock – AC/DC, Zeppelin, Radiohead, Dylan and Neil Young, the Beatles and the Stones, Procol Harum, Brian Wilson, Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, George Michael. I play guitar and my favourite living legend is still Jimmy Page. I love thumping progressive trance and house, cabaret and broadway musicals, trad jazz and classical music. No one really understands my taste in music, which is okay because I don’t either. I’ve given up trying to explain my love for The Incredible String Band.

Can you briefly tell me a little about establishing the Ambient Music Guide – and some highlights?
It actually started life as a book but ended up online in 2001 because I couldn’t find a publisher for a manuscript I’d been working on since the early 90’s. I was writing for a few music publications and at the same time writing this A-Z album guide to ambient and instrumental music I wanted to share with the world. I was pretty naive and wasted my time with Australian publishers for years. Then after some sage advice from Bruce Elder at the Sydney Morning Herald I targeted some specific publishers in London and got a bit smarter about how I pitched it. The closest I got to getting a contract was Virgin Books, but it wasn’t to be.

It was a difficult concept to sell to publishers because no one could really grasp the breadth of it. I’d talk to classical types who called it soundscape music or thought it was classical minimalism, but their understanding didn’t extend beyond their own scene. Same with rock bio publishers and the dance music media. They knew their genres but little beyond them. The irony was that ambient touches all those genres. If you define it broadly like I do, it’s the biggest and most eclectic genre of them all, and its borders are highly porous. At that time there were only a few books around that seemed to grasp the concept. The best of them was one that came out in the late 80’s called “New Sounds” by American radio broadcaster John Schaefer. That book changed my life.

So Ambient Music Guide became a website instead, and looking back now I couldn’t be happier. I can update and reshape it it how I want. I have a direct connection with my audience. It’s given me a platform for my radio shows and DJ mixes over the years. I’m doing what I always intended to do, which is to turn people onto good stuff and try to find the connections between all this extraordinary music.

As far as highlights go, last year the website turned 15 and I guess that’s some kind of milestone. I’ve also had some nice comments from artists whose work I greatly admire, like Steve Roach and Mixmaster Morris.

Do you think ambient music has the power to influence human psychology? Can it have deeper therapeutic effects?
Well new age and relaxation composers have certainly been saying so for the last 40 years. But the reason great new age music is great is because the music itself is on at least equal footing with any stated purpose or function. I’ve always believed it’s better to just let listeners do what they want with music. Good ambient is the same as quality music in any other genre because the music comes first. If music is art, surely its intrinsic qualities are what really matter. Stephen Hill from the radio show and record label Hearts Of Space nailed it when he said that all music is addressed to the human spirit, so why make it a selling point?

Some genuine new age music in brilliant. I’m thinking of some of the original DIY stuff from the 70’s and early 80’s, as well as a recent strand that’s emerged via small American labels like Inner Islands and Northern Ashram. It’s the subgenre of relaxation music that I can’t stomach. The style appeared in the 80’s as an offshoot of new age, and in many respects became its non-threatening replacement. It strips away all the spiritual ambition and psychedelic reverberations, leaving nothing but numbing instrumental muzak. If it makes a sick person feel better or helps their blood pressure, then okay. But that’s incidental, because it’s still complete fucking garbage. I remember in the 90’s Australian post offices and bookshops were flooded with the stuff. It’s a money spinner and that’s why it’s still around today. It pains me that some people will hear it, dislike it, and think that’s what ambient music sounds like so they’ll never explore further.

I’m more comfortable with psychedelic ideas about ambient music expanding consciousness, though. Exotic or unusual instrumental music frees the imagination in a way that the storytelling tradition of songs doesn’t. Sometimes I feel that ambient music echoes a profound reality just beyond our everyday conscious state. I sense that same quality in meditative Asian, African and Arabic music too. Exactly what it is I don’t know, but l’m comfortable with mystery. That’s the attraction for me.

In the 1970’s ambient entered the mainstream via channels such as Eno’s work with Bowie etc. Then in the 1990’s acts like the Orb, FSOL etc all had mainstream chart success. There can be little doubt that ambient was visible at a mainstream level, and it also started to play a big role in raves where the chillout spaces had become increasingly popular. Scanner describes these sorts of spaces as a kind of cultural ‘nexus’ where a range of ideas and cultural influences were exchanged, feeding into different artistic and commercial areas. Then around 1999 the term ‘ambient media’ started to pop up in advertising circles which referred to advertising that inserted itself into the ubiquitous environment. To what extent do you think this ‘ambient consciousness’ might spread from music into other areas?
Ambient media is advertising, which means it has a commercial or education purpose, so I find hard to talk about in terms of something as deep as consciousness. Certainly some of the best creative work in marketing is being done in that space. But if you’re talking about the idea of transforming environments with ambient ideas, I think one of the biggest potentials is the use of ambient music in visual art installations. Brian Eno was doing it as far back as the 80’s but I’ve had some experiences recently that have taken it to a new level.

The David Lynch exhibition few years ago at GOMA in Brisbane was seriously impressive. It had these droning industrial soundtracks not unlike the score for his film Eraserhead. It made my experience of the paintings and sculptures completely different to a traditional exhibition. I felt like I was in the middle of Lynch’s nightmares but I couldn’t pull myself away. I wouldn’t say it was a stressful experience but I’ll never forgot it. The MONA museum in Hobart also uses ambient sound brilliantly. That place is 90% underground. When I visited last year there were rooms and spaces where the music and drones made me feel like I was passing from one reality into another. I could feel it on my skin. The owner David Walsh is a millionaire and has designed MONA how he wants it, it’s all his money. I assume he and the artists are free to integrate music in innovative ways in the museum without things like management and budget getting in the way. It’s a special place and I can’t wait to go back there.

The old record label model where you would record an album, release it, and tour to promote it is clearly dead. Downloading has made it very tough, and everyone I speak to is talking about radically diminished sales. Many labels have gone out of business and there are plenty of artists who have had successful careers who are now getting into other areas and so forth. What are your thoughts on this? What is the way forward for smaller labels?
Well many artists making ambient and down-tempo styles are already doing their music part time or casually, and it’s been that way for decades. The exceptions might be people like modern classical composer Max Richter who land a lot film and TV scoring and licensing. Many of the electronica artists I know work day jobs in studios doing audio/video production, graphic design or web development and that’s how they earn a significant part of their income. Some do commissions for video game soundtracks, which I’ve noticed can be pretty lucrative work nowadays.

The business model for music has radically changed in the online age and I know some artists feel like the floor has disappeared beneath them. That must be really frustrating and I think I understand the anger. But I read an intriguing article by an old record industry exec that explained the 20th Century business of music in a very different context to how it’s usually portrayed. He argued that the period from the 1950’s to 1990’s saw an unnatural alignment of events, business deals and technology that made it a one-off in terms of the massive profits it generated for record companies. His argument was that what we are seeing in the 21st century is a technology-driven market correction that is much more natural and democratic. But the disruption is obviously huge. Such an explanation will be cold comfort to recording artists who simply can’t make a living out of doing the thing in life they love the most.

As to the way forward for small labels and independent artists, I can only comment on what I’ve seen some of the more successful ones doing, or not doing. A really important element is social media. Use it well. Don’t over-post or your fans will unfollow you. Think about your audience before every single post. Don’t assume they care for your political views or stuff that’s not relevant to music generally. Another thing I’d say is provide both CD and download options if you can. Use multiple platforms for digital, not just iTunes because some fans don’t care for Apple’s walled garden with its mandatory and invasive software. People acquire and listen to music in many ways now, so make it easy for them because they live in a world where they have more music to choose from than ever before. I’d also suggest that you keep a good email list going. Email is not dead and good newsletters created in apps like Mailchimp can be really engaging. They’ll also capture that part of your audience that doesn’t care for social media. Yes, people who aren’t on social media do exist, and they are legion.

I enjoy the physical artefact with music. I like the artwork to be as intended and so forth. One artist I spoke with recently said he saw a time when the internet collapses and a huge amount of music will simply disappear, or even in a few years some servers may simply delete items and so forth. He liked vinyl because it was a more enduring statement – what are your thoughts on this?
Ahhh, but what if after the apocalypse you have no record player or CD player to play your discs? Or you do but can’t get spare parts? In many ways CD’s and vinyl are just as vulnerable to obsolescence as as digital music files. The general question of longevity is an excellent one, though. 300 years from now, will people have any idea what we listened to and watched in our lifetimes? Some science fiction writers have been riffing on the topic. I read some short stories recently that looked at it in a really interesting way. In one of them, digital music files from the 21st century are a rare and treasured commodity, keenly sought after in a post-apocalyptic world and something that people will literally kill for.

Digital is my favourite format nowadays. To me the medium is not the message – the music is the message and always was. Properly mastered digital files sound superb on consumer grade gear, whereas well-mastered vinyl requires much more expensive gear to satisfy my ears and I don’t have that kind of money to spend. Have you ever spent time on audiophile forums? There lies the path to madness in my opinion. The placebo effect is alive and well.

As a DJ and radio producer I also find digital by far the most convenient format to work with. If I do a mix that moves people, who cares what format the source tracks comes from? I still have a large CD and vinyl album collection and I do like the tactile nature of discs and booklets, especially those 70’s gatefold LP covers. I’m just not wedded to that feeling like some fans are. Whatever you’re into, that’s fine. The whole experience of art and music is a very personal thing.

It seems everyone has got a computer and a sample library and is putting together tracks – the market has never been so crowded. Good thing or not so good? How do fans, or even labels, navigate a way through the deluge of material out there now?
If you’re looking for a filter, try my website. I only review and play stuff that I think is good, not everything I come across. The A-Z album reviews section covers releases from the past 50 years that I regard as essential. My mixes showcase either music on a theme, such as Detroit techno or new age music, or they curate the best new material that’s coming out now.

Then you’ve got some really good indie net radio stations like Soma FM and Groovera which are fantastic ways to find ambient and downtempo stuff you’ve never heard before. I’m rather less keen on Spotify and similar streaming services as discovery tools. Most of the Spotify playlists I’ve heard suggest that programming should be left to people who actually know how to program music. l’m not being a snob, I’m just commenting on what I’m hearing. Some people discover loads of wonderful music via Spotify, especially older music, and good luck to them. But the world still needs good programmers and DJ’s and curators, too. I think the best of them are on internet radio and DJ platforms like Mixcloud.

As far as the quality of the music itself goes, I find artists who create their own samples and sounds will always stand out. Those that don’t will usually sound derivative. With downtempo beats and chillout grooves, I find the most enduring stuff often comes from artists who are both good electronic synthesists and good physical musicians who know their way around multiple instruments like guitars and keyboards. One who comes to mind is Seb Taylor from the UK. He does both things really well and gives full reign to his creativity by recording under all these different names like Kaya Project, Hibernation and Digitalis. I highly recommend the three volumes of his Collected Downtempo series.

On the more beatless end of ambient, having distinctive samples and sounds is even more important in order to cut through. One of the best is Matt Hillier who records under the name Ishq. It’s psychedelic ambient, a kind of hybrid of Eno and early new age nature music but with an ambient dance/chillout sensibility. Matt combines his natural musical gifts with exceptional sound design. He has this incredible talent for carving imaginary three-dimensional spaces for his sounds.

What are your thoughts about the future of ambient and downtempo styles? There seemed to be a high point in the 90’s – will it build again, go on as it is, diminish…….? Also it seems to me that the mainstream music scene has never been worse – never been less creative……how will creative music aspire to survive given the impact upon small labels from downloading etc?
Given that most major developments in 20th century ambient and related music were technology-driven, I’d hazard a guess that the current century will be no different. As to what it will actually sound like, who knows? Whether you are playing acoustic instruments or doing electronic synthesis and sampling, the production studio now seems limitless in its potential and flexibility. Never before have musicians had such an extraordinary tool in their hands. That probably sounds both exciting and daunting to recording artists. As a music lover I’m just glad to be alive at this point in history and experiencing all this change and creativity.

I agree the early to mid 90’s were a high point in ambient music, in terms of its visibility at least. Ambient was lucky to be picked up and reborn on the back of electronic dance music and new subgenres like techno, trance, trip hop and exotic dub. It’s really interesting how it found an audience through chillout rooms and among people in need of a post-party balm that echoed some of the ecstatic release of club music without the brute force. The explosion in creativity back then was pretty amazing. But here’s the thing: the stream never stopped flowing. It’s just that such a creative burst had to subside back to normal levels sooner or later. Pioneering labels like Silent and Beyond died but new ones like Interchill and Waveform arose in their place. All those strains of dance-related ambient and many more besides are still with us and still being created or explored in one way or another.

I really don’t think the mainstream music chart is now any worse than in previous generations. I think that’s largely a perception born of people growing older, to be honest. Go back and listen to the singles charts from any month going back to the 1950’s. I did that once, sampling a few Top 20 pop charts from each year between 1950 to 1990. That was a revelation. The popular music charts always seems to produce the same outcomes: a handful of outstanding songs alongside a lot of imitations and derivative dross, as well as the occasional cheesy novelty song that becomes inexplicably popular.

I don’t enjoy current rap music, but if I was a teenager I might. Sometimes it gets my respect if it’s a creative mashup of poetry and groove rather than a just another ego parade. And there’s usually something moving and beautiful to be found in mainstream dance pop, it’s just that there’s not very much of it. Same with folksy guitar pop and what used to be called indie rock. If you crave more creativity then get off the main road and explore the back streets and tunnels. There’s a lot of good music to discover and it’s never been easier to hear it.

Take a trip: some ambient & downtempo mixes by Mike G





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