When I sit down with Vancouver-based experimental sound artist Ian William Craig, I’ve caught him at a threshold. “The last record was a culmination of a lot of years of work and it was pretty intense,” he says. “I think with that intensity has come kind of a re-stocking time – trying to figure out what relationship I want to have with music now or maybe what that relationship is, or maybe enjoying a little bit of silence.”
Craig’s last album, Centres, released on 130701 label, came out to widespread critical acclaim, garnering attention from numerous music media, including Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
Craig is best known for his experimentation with analog tape – his technique of running tracks repeatedly through manipulated cassette decks results in compositions that feel like vast environments of decaying beauty. At the time he got into this sort of experimentation, Craig was interested in exploring the relation between space and sound, and the haptic nature of tape is what drew him to it.
“It’s really about the surface,” he explains. “One of the interesting things about surfaces is that they cause you to think about space in a different way. Like how snow is kind of an interference, but because it fills the space in a really interesting sort of way, it makes you more aware of it.The analog tape [is] like a veil for me… I’ve always felt like you should be able to walk into your favourite music, like it’s a place in which you can exist.”
However, with his upcoming EP, Slow Vessels – which features re-renderings of six songs off Centres – Craig is pulling away from tape manipulation, and focusing on the bare bones of the songs underneath. When he first started making music, Craig found his songs had “a real singer-songwriter bent” which “didn’t really quite sit right.” Another aspect that drew him to tape was its ability to break those older songs apart and make them new. “The songs that I had written way back then got passed through this gauntlet and got reworked and recomposed, and sucked back together, and became unrecognizable from their original iterations.” Craig returned to that source material for Slow Vessels out of an interest in exploring the songs “in a more deconstructed kind of way.” For Craig, Slow Vessels seems to be more of a study than a permanent direction – a way of “trying to tinker around with the process itself.”
Repeating songs doesn’t come naturally to Craig. He sees his live show as “more about creating a space or creating a feeling. I like being a bit more of a radio antenna than a loudspeaker.”
Slow Vessels will be released on FatCat’s 130701 imprint. The pioneering post-classical label meant a lot to Craig in the formative years of his musicianship, so being signed to it was a dream come true. “If you told my younger self that that’s what was going to happen – he would just die, he would just explode,” Craig says.
At the same time, seeing the label’s day-to-day operations and talking with Dave Howell, 130701 founder and manager, has had the same effect as pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz: “Prying open the dream and seeing that there’s just a bunch of life underneath it is really weird. I mean it’s beautiful and great but it’s kind of like ‘Oh, that’s not like this magic world, I didn’t become a perfect ball of energy and ascend to this creative Shangri-La’… Like, Dave Howell puts on pants. I thought he put on – I don’t know – magic. Just dressed in magic. But, nope, he dresses in pants.”
Craig is still getting comfortable with the success of his music. “Ostensibly, I’ve made it, right? Like, I make ridiculous choral tape-loop decay music. … This is as good as it gets, and I don’t mean that in a bad way – it’s humbling and awesome and a privilege. But also, this is what ‘making it’ looks like – there’s no secret community, there’s no point at which you feel like you’ve culminated, there’s no other-worldly body that comes down and says ‘You are a musician now.’”
While Craig is also a print studio technician at the University of British Columbia Vancouver campus, he has found himself struggling with the decision to devote his full-time to music after a successful tour last summer. He went so far as making plans with booking agents and management companies before reneging on it all. Craig “couldn’t figure out why [he] was getting so anxious,” but the decision not to quit came as relief: “I realized that the thing that UBC gives me is this interesting stability, and the ritual of it is really interesting, and even the ritual of being disparaging about it, or the ritual of disparaging not being a full-time musician, that’s actually kind of really interesting fuel.”
While Craig doesn’t know exactly which direction he’ll be taking in the long run, he is moving towards something new. “It’s an interesting time because I think I’m recalibrating a lot of these things. I feel like I’ve come to the end of a big body of work, and for the first time I don’t really have anything in the coffers anymore.”
Slow Vessels is due out May 9. Ian William Craig will be playing the Donau Festival in Krems an der Donau, Austria May 1, and Oslo in London May 8.