Chris Strouth has been a pillar of the Twin Cities music scene for years, both on and off stage, as a performer, designer, producer, head of Twin/Tone Records, and prime mover of museum-friendly dub experimentalists Future Perfect Sound System, among other hats. His most recent project is Paris 1919, an electronic collective that grew out of his studio-bound, largely solo sonic collages into a live band that includes Boiled In Lead’s Drew Miller, Uzza vocalist Tabatha Predovich, and drummer Eric White. And sometimes many others—at this year’s Art-A-Whirl, Strouth helped mastermind the 30-musician improvisational ensemble project Czeslaw’s Loop. With three albums of moody, post-industrial ambience already under his belt, Strouth is in the midst of signing a deal with UK distributor State 51, home to like-minded experimentalists Current 93 and Throbbing Gristle. At the Ritz Theater on Saturday, an 11-member version of Paris 1919—also including Joe Hastings of Hastings 3000 and Blue Sky Blackout’s Jon Hunt—will spin a live soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 serial-killer thriller, The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog, an excellent early example of the dark, suspenseful, and macabrely funny Hitchcockian sensibility. Strouth sat down with The A.V. Club in advance of the show.
The A.V. Club: You began Paris 1919 around the same time as you were diagnosed with a potentially deadly medical condition that eventually required a kidney transplant, so do the three records you’ve made chronicle your emotional journey through that?
Chris Strouth: It kind of started even before that. I went through a bad patch where I got laid off from my job. It was a bad scene, and I wound up being really depressed. So what I decided to do was learn Ableton Live, a software program a lot of people use to make techno—90 percent of modern dance music is made on Ableton. So a lot of the first record, Book Of Job, was about that anger, and over the course of making it, I found out I was getting sick, and sicker and sicker, and truthfully I was pretty irrational. Kidney disease [results in] more toxins in your blood. It’s a little bit like being high, and I’ve never been a recreational drug user in any way, so it perplexed me. That first record is about that disjointedness. There was a lot more that just got tossed, because of my [creative] process. A lot of times, the way I make things, my wife will come in and hear me play some bad, death-metal, horrible guitar, and she’s like, “That’s hideous, I hate that!” And she’ll come back half an hour later and say, “This is beautiful, what is it?” And I’ll say, “That’s what I just played that you hated, but I had to make it really loud and horrible first so that I could make it tiny, soft, and beautiful now.”
AVC: A process of adding and subtracting elements until you find what works.
CS: Yeah. It’s what I like to think of as “sonic fuckery.” You have to tinker a little bit until you get it where you want it.
AVC: It sounds like you don’t necessarily have an idea of what you want when you start, but you discover it as you’re going along. Otherwise, you’d never go to all that trouble.
CS: The first record, I didn’t entirely. But Antarctica, I went in totally knowing what I was going to do. Book Of Job, honestly, I’d been playing this stuff just for myself, and I was a little self-conscious. It was the first time I’d engineered all my stuff myself. Because of my profession, a lot of my friends are big-time engineers and producers, so it’s a little weird. I’ve [worked with] a ton of jazz, classical, serious heavy-duty guys, and here I’ve made this thing that’s weird and chaotic and structureless and purposely off-beat. Literally off-beat, like the timings are meant so that you couldn’t play them live. So I was really amazed when people got behind it.
AVC: The next two records, Antarctica and Collected Short Fictions, are much more structured—Antarctica is a complete story in four parts.
CS: Antarctica was a very conscious thing. When you get sick, you don’t want “sick” to be your only identity. But it was a big part of my identity for a while. Especially for me, because I was sick in such a big way. Everybody knew. And then when it stops, and you’re on the other side of it and you’re trying to find what normal feels like, it’s really weird. Because you’re not where you were, and you’re not where you are, but somewhere in the middle, and that’s a really strange place to be. I was trying to decide what to do with my life, because it is like you’re being reborn. That’s where Antarctica came from, because I wanted to feel cold, desolate, and alone.
AVC: At the same time, Antarctica also has the character of Richard Byrd, the polar explorer, which seems to bring in a more positive element—it becomes more than just a story about cold and desolation, but about discovery and exploration.
CS: And aftermath, too. I tend to look at songs the same way I look at stories, which is that they’re all either portraits or landscape. Landscapes are telling you something more abstract.
AVC: It’s interesting that your music can be so dark, even though it’s obviously inspired by dark things you’ve gone through, because you yourself aren’t a dark person.
CS: That’s the irony. I was a Goth, but I was the Goth who told jokes. And I made half my bread being funny. But that’s the nice thing. Everybody’s got that dark place, and that’s the stuff I always gravitate to. When I’m listening at home, this is the kind of stuff I never listen to. I listen to jazz or country or soul. Music, especially experimental music, and especially longer-form pieces, is like a Jackson Pollock painting. If you look at it from a distance, it’s going to be abstract and messy as hell. But as you get in closer, you can see the crevices, and the geography of why and how, and it’s a whole other thing. I think about [that kind of art] a lot—things that are deceptively simple, but they’re not really simple at all when you get into them.
AVC: How are you approaching The Lodger?
CS: If you listen to silent-film soundtracks, they were horrible as a rule, because they used whatever canned music they could find, and they don’t match. I have a version of Metropolis that has Laurel And Hardy music on it. Our approach is so different. I saw Philip Glass do the soundtrack to Dracula. I love Philip Glass, and I hated that. It didn’t seem related [to the movie], whereas I’m trying to treat this as an actual film score.
AVC: Live movie soundtracks are interesting animals, because you’re kind of collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock, responding to and embellishing the emotions in his film, but Hitchcock’s part is done, and you’re improvising against a fixed, unchanging element.
CS: The way I’ve always done it is that you always need points of reference. You use what I like to call “box theory.” There’s a set of rules [forming] the boundary of it. The rules might be pretty abstract. They might be, you know, cold, or nothing over this Hertz range, or 140 beats per minute, but anything inside that is fair game. With something like this, there’s a lot more points of intersection.
AVC: You have to create a space where it’s okay to go wherever you want, as long as that’s not so far you throw everybody else off balance.
CS: It’s a system of mutual trust. With a lot of people, it’s like, you own this much of the bandwidth, and if you want to make a bold choice, realize you can capsize the whole thing.
AVC: Is that harder with nearly a dozen people on stage?
CS: [Czeslaw’s Loop] had about 30 people on it, which was insane, so this is fairly reasonable. But everybody knows what they’re doing, and in part, you need a big group of people because you’re doing things that turn on a dime.
AVC: Do you have certain points in the movie earmarked beforehand—for example, the moment the Lodger is first seen onscreen might belong to Jon Hunt on guitar, and everyone else hangs back?
CS: Exactly. Except that’ll actually be Joe Hastings at that moment. I tend to double my instruments wherever possible so they can have a conversation, so you have Jon and Joe on guitar. I’ll use two bass players, and you get these intersecting grooves, and it’s beautiful. For the live band, really what I do is come up with scenarios for what goes here or here or here, but those guys really own the notes themselves. The guys get to come up with their own stuff, because I’m like, “What do you want to play?” You hire a fantastic team, then let them be fantastic. Let them do what they’re doing. You’ve got a team of fantastic horses. Let ’em run!