Frescher-Southern Electronic Music


A Conversation with Numbers on the Mast

Posted September 4th, 2004

During August 2004 Frescher-Southern conducted an e-mail interview with Austin-based ambient psych / noise trio Numbers on the Mast. Numbers on the Mast performed at Oscillate Night 1 and they can be found on the web at the official NOTM website or at Moron Labs (their label).

Here's what they had to say for themselves.

Frescher-Southern: I believe the first Numbers on the Mast event I witnessed was a few springs back. The three of you performed a live alternate soundtrack to Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness and Killer Clowns from Outer Space in one of the media rooms at the University of Texas. Was that the genesis of Numbers on the Mast, or had you guys been practicing and performing as a group before then? Leading into the question: So how did you guys meet and come to form Numbers on the Mast?

Matt ThiesMatt Thies: We certainly didn't practice to those movies, which was a big lesson for me when the whole movie thing didn't really work at first. I met Trey through an RTF soundscapes class. I had been playing with a guy in Virginia who goes by Gel-Sol before I came to Texas, so I had been looking for people to play with down here. I don't remember who suggested it, but we ended up playing for the first time on Trey's show on KVRX, sometime in December 2002. That's where I met Eric. Trey had asked him to engineer for us. We got to talking and started playing as a trio after that.

Trey SmithTrey Smith: That show, which I believe was spring of 2002, was the first show we ever played for a live audience. Previous to that we had done a few performances on my show on KVRX, which at the time was on Saturday nights from 11pm to 1am.

This whole thing started when I met Matt through a mutual friend we shared in the Convergent Media lab in the fall of 2001. We got to talking, sharing a similar interest in electronic music. Matt gave me a CD of some solo stuff he had done, and I was just starting to incorporate more live performances into my show, so after hearing his CD I asked him to perform on the show. Around the same time I was just getting into audio production myself, thanks in large part to the influence of filmmaker/teacher Cauleen Smith, with whom I was taking a class. In need of some advice and assistance I approached Eric Archer, then new to KVRX and working in the production department. He gave me hand with a field recording project I was working on and gave me a sort of crash course in Pro Tools. Also, I was beginning to get more serious about my DJing, and started heading down a path more akin to the style of DJ Spooky or DJ Olive, with respect to layering and the more performative and improvisational aspects of DJing.

With the this sort of new perspective on performance I talked with Matt about playing with him on the show and he was down. I talked to Eric about possibly engineering the whole endeavor, as well as borrowing a few pieces of equipment -- namely a sampler a few effects and a tone generator. With a huge amount of gear between the two of us, and having never played together, and Archer at the mixing board, we ended up playing what would eventually come to be known as "Fizzy Toothpaste."

Matt, Eric, and I were all very pleased and vowed to do this again, but with Eric also performing with us, as well as doing the live mixing.

Eric ArcherEric Archer: The Lessons of Darkness show was a while after the point that we'd acknowledged the group's formation, picked a name, developed a musical ethic, etc. About two months earlier, I recorded Matt and Trey playing an improv set live on KVRX during Trey's Friday night electronic show. It was sinister, atmospheric, and had this sardonic touch to it. For some reason they decided to name the set "Fizzy Toothpaste" as we walked out the door at the end. It was December 2002. I don't recall if I'd even met Matt face-to-face prior to that. He showed up with an ARP 2600, a Speak-n-Spell, and some pedals... It was instant charisma for me, the fact that we were both graduate students and liked to freak circuits. I think Trey showed up with a sampler and an electric bass. I'd known Trey as an acquaintance before that, because we were both on staff at KVRX that fall, but I don't recall having played music with him prior to the Fizzy Toothpaste session.

About the Fizzy Toothpaste session: I record a lot of sessions at KVRX, and some artists give me more leeway to experiment. I was getting the 'go for it' vibe from Matt and Trey, and I was digging what they were doing, so I started doing some feedback stuff with a speaker in a stairwell next to the radio studio. Amplifying their sounds into the stairwell, picking the ambience up with a mic, and creating feedback pitches to accompany them by playing an equalizer. This was on live radio, so I hope the listeners appreciated it.

We were all pretty satisfied with the session and immediately made plans to do it again a few weeks later. I had to choose instruments so I could hang with Matt and Trey's steez. The first time we all played together, I brought an Indian tabla drum machine, a Saarang drone box, a laptop, and a keyboard synthesizer -- most of which was a bunch of bunk. I can't listen to the recording of that session. The laptop was especially disastrous, in retrospect. I was running EXS24 and Logic. I love that software for other projects I do, but it really seemed to restrict improvisation. There may be other programs that I could actually flow with NOTM on, but at this point I'm just not interested in becoming a software performer. NOTM means no laptops.

F-S: And how would you describe your sound?

Trey: Personally, I tend to genre-fy us as ambient psych. Often we get the whole experimental noise thing, which I don't necessarily think is wrong, but I just don't really see us as a noise group. But, yeah, experimental noise is pretty broad, and really only exists to sort of blanket a group of people, all doing pretty similar things. We all tend to make stuff very droney or ambient, with a heavy reliance on shifting texture, rather then harmonies or rhythms. People like Rick Reed work more on a dense wall of sound type thing, while the Gates Ensemble does a more minimal electro-acoustic thing. I guess we are more rhythmic than most, more lo-fi, and certainly more pervasively dark in mood. We do get noisy from time to time, using feedback, distortion, bit reduction and such, but I think that is really only one part the sound we try to build.

Matt: Its different every time, I mean how I describe it. Probably because our setups change so much. The words "drone," "soundscape," and "improvised" are usually in there. The Chronicle compared us to Coil once; that was a happy day for me.

F-S: Where did the name originate?

Eric: We drew the name from an occult text called Letters Upon the Mast. It was written by a Polish mathematician named Robert Pavlita. I confess to having skimmed through it once, and it was actually an amazingly coherent synthesis of several famous numerological ideas. The book focuses on the significance of two different ways to arrange a cluster of spheres, and proposes a design for a special three-dimensional form with the power to sharpen razor blades... or something. It gets pretty delusional toward the end.

Anyway, we altered the title to suit ourselves, changing 'letters' to 'numbers'. I don't know about Matt and Trey, but I enjoy the importance of numeric ratios in music, rhythm, and harmony. 3:2, that's a fifth chord. It's also a basic syncopation. 5:4, that's a major 3rd. When I'm playing freely-tunable oscillators or adjusting a delay factor, ratios like that are obvious because they have particular feelings associated with them. I appreciate the significance of numbers, but I can't dwell on them in a mystical way.

Trey: So Robert Pavlita was mathematician/scientist in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s that developed a lot of very controversial experiments which utilized many of the more esoteric principles of sacred geometry and math to show anomalies within physics that were 100% verifiable. His work with pyramids is of particular mention. He showed, in a patent office, that if one places a dull razor blade underneath a pyramid of specific dimensions over the course of twenty-four hours the blade will return to its original sharpness. Many of his patents were taken by the KGB and the CIA and made confidential, and almost all of his texts have been suppressed. So basically, this guy unlocked many of the secrets of sacred geometry, and when he died much of that knowledge was lost...

...Until a man named Michael Donovan had a visit from the arch-angel Michael on his boat off of the coast of Cape Cod. Donovan wrote a book about the experience, during which the arch-angel explained the basics of sacred geometry, which Donovan calls "new geometry," by writing letters upon the mast of his boat -- effectively unlocking the secrets lost to the public by Pavlita's death.

Anyhow, the book he wrote was called Letters upon the Mast. And being the strangely esoteric person I can be, with a healthy love of ridiculous numerical patterns, "Numbers on the Mast" seemed much more appropriate.

F-S: So, like I mentioned above, I first saw you guys perform doing alternate soundtracks to movies. And for the first few months there that seemed to be a big thing for you (including a performance in my backyard a couple of autumns ago). The last time I saw you perform at the Church of the Friendly Ghost (at an Artificial Music Machine event), you had much more of an unhinged punk-band physical vibe happening... Jumping around... Yelling... Was that just the booze coming out of you or have you guys been drifting in that direction lately?

Matt: I was really happy with how the backyard performance turned out. I think we learned a lot from some of the earlier failed silent movie attempts. A big part of this was the choice of visual material though. We were playing to Kwaidon, a set of ancient Japanese ghost stories... Spooky stuff, lends itself well to dark drones.

As for the Artificial Music Machine show... Yes, booze is the direction we've been drifting to lately. Actually, its always been there. This was part spontaneous, just really enjoying ourselves, and part consciously trying to get the audience more involved, to be the anti-laptop (not in the sense of against computers... just different, the opposite).

Eric: I was going through a stage where I liked to perform with a microphone on a pole, smashing it into things, sticking it right in the speaker for feedback, and basically toying with the idea of destroying the sound-making equipment. Just an expression of aggravation through noise, and it feels good when you can do that in front of an audience, to show some irreverence.

Drunk, of course.

F-S: Is there a progression to your sound? Do you consciously try to achieve certain sonic goals or does your sound develop more organically?

Matt: We are definitely trying to push towards something new with each show. There is usually some vague plan going into each performance, but... Not sure how to explain it. I guess part of how our sound develops comes from the constantly changing instrumentation. Our latest kick is creating a feedback loop where each performer's delay is chained to the next.

Trey: As far as the whole visual thing goes: Video is something I've always wanted to use for our live shows. The resources for showing visuals are not always available so usually we have to do without, but if I had my druthers we would be playing with some visual accompaniment every time. Not because we necessarily need visuals to make the show more enjoyable, but rather I think it complements what we do, when the right visuals are chosen.

From a performative aspect, each situation dictates a different vibe from us as a band. Playing in a dark room with some of the chemical footage we have used for visuals lately dictates a much different atmosphere then a well light room full of ten of our friends. I don't think this is something we were able to do a year ago, but as we have become more comfortable with each other and comfortable with playing in different places I think we have reached a point where the environment sort of guides the way we play.

As far as our sound goes, it is definitely a constant progression, and this works in three ways, two conscious, one unconscious. Given our reliance on the equipment we have, and our stance on not using computers in performance, we go through phases of individually working with one set-up for a period of a few months. Eventually we reach a point where we collectively decide to minimize the setup, stripping down what we use to just a few bare essentials, and then slowly building a larger setup from that minimizing. At some point we reach a setup that each of us is pleased with, and works well for us collectively, and begin thinking about what different concepts we can try out with the setup we have. Usually these concepts are some of the most experimental times for us. Recently we have been exploring three-channel set-ups as well as a very large delay loop to which we are all connected and interacting with.

On the unconscious level we are constantly getting better at playing with one another, which allows for us to constantly improve as a band, become increasingly more complex. A recent development is that we have finally reached a point where we can reuse certain musical ideas, like a phrase or a melody, and work with it differently each time, but still produce very excellent results. This could mean actual songs for NotM, but this is only a recent development, so we'll have to see how this works out.

Eric: We seem to adapt to the situation we're in. Our playing depends on the audience, the venue, the sound system, the time of year... We have a music-making process, and the environment is part of the input. We're always altering that process to make something that facilitates improvisation better. Sometimes that means adding more equipment, or discarding stuff, or even building something new. Half of the fun is planning how we're going to plug things in. For me, it's about building a system that's very playable, but runs automatically. The more playable it is, the more emotion you can send out.

We aren't able to define exact goals for what a performance will sound like because of the nature of what we're doing. Usually before we play a show, we'll make an entrance and exit strategy. The planned exit move is important - to have some sort of orchestrated climax or anti-climax - otherwise it never ends! But I don't think we've ever adhered to a plan exactly - it's hard to remember once we start, because we're quickly off into alien territory. Communication is one of our big goals, which makes sense for an improv group, right? But it's a challenge when you have to say stuff like, "can you turn down that thing that's going woooww-wooooww-wooowww?"

F-S: You guys each appeal to a different musician stereotype. Matt seems the more reserved intellectual sort. Trey lives the rock-n-roll lifestyle of plenty of beer, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Good Morning Burgers. Eric has a mad scientist appeal and is usually to be found poking at some sort of machine or other. Does any of this offend you? I think it makes for a good balance of personalities: a key part of any musical group, it would seem. Thoughts?

Eric: Mad scientist? Actually I do take some offense to that. I'd really rather not be called a scientist. I was a Ph.D. student in an area of science for 4 years until recently, when I quit, because I found that science is basically a bunch of dull repetition.

I guess the differences between the three of us stand out, don't they? For some reason, I can't see all of us living in the same space. Trey and I accumulate mountains of clutter, but Matt keeps his place clean like a good kid. Musically, it works out similarly. Trey and I tend to make haphazard moves sometimes, and when shit happens, Matt's usually there with something deliberate and stable to glue it all together while we regain our bearings.

Matt: Hey, I like good morning burgers too. And beer. I think we all have similar musical goals, we just come at it from such different directions that yes, there is a balance when we play. And I'm always getting ideas from the ways I see Eric and Trey do things.

Trey: Shit man, I dunno. I mean, you say that's what comes across then I guess that's what comes across. As people we definetly have different personalities and I think that really helps us as a band. I mean, everything we do is democratic, every choice to be made from naming tracks to art work, to mixing is done as a group. Its difficult at times because of the fact that we are three different personalities, but I think it helps create a more complete product, with which we are all happy to be a part of. As far as the whole stereotype thing goes, I don't find it offensive, I guess its kind of cool that I'm supposed to be the rock star. I just don't know how accurate that is, though I guess the good morning burger really is one of those rock star excesses you have to do to attain rock god status.

F-S: Austin seems to have lots of experimental noise groups these days: The ThomFariCraw team, you fellows, Josh Ronsen, and others I'm probably leaving out. How do you feel about how the scene has been developing in town the past few years. My first real exposure occurred at a Frequency Curtain show at Ceremony Hall back in 2001. Has the scene changed much since then? And who do you think have been really leading the movement: making good sounds, inspiring the newbies, and drawing new audiences out to shows?

Eric: Well, props to Rick Reed especially for hosting showcases at his place. Trey's actually done a great job at exposing the city to experimental music through his radio show. For about 6 months he and Kurt Korthals would invite artists to play live on the air -- that was always a cool mix of experimental and electronic stuff by relatively obscure artists. I met quite a few interesting people hanging out during the show.

And it's great to have a venue like Church of the Friendly Ghost in town, those guys are down for whatever, it's a funky setting, and it's getting a reputation for hosting adventurous music.

Matt: I don't feel like I've been around long enough to really comment. When I moved here in 2002, some of the first shows I saw were put on by New Music Coop and Epistrophy Arts at Ceremony Hall. I haven't seen much from Epistrophy Arts lately, but I still check out the same performers I was seeing then. The appearance of the the Church of the Friendly Ghost has been a nice development.

Trey: No bullshit. Everything here, in my opinion, is because of Rick Reed. He has been doing stuff in this vein since the late seventies. He has known just about every single experimental musician to come from or into town. I mean Christ, the man has an AMM album named for him. Without Rick the experimental scene in Austin would be very different.

In the years since I've been active in it, either as a patron or as a musician, it has gained a very large amount of support. Nowadays there are a number of groups, and people all working on the more experimental side of music. What's really cool about that is that with so many people working in this area of music you get a really large diversity of type, which makes playing shows with different people/groups, and playing music with various people that much more fun.

As far as key figures, there are a lot. If you look at the key figures before the recent boom, people like Rick Reed, Michael Northram, John Grzinich, the guys from Stars of the Lid, Charalambides, and some others were all big in terms of organizing, rallying, and eventually making a name for Austin as place where this kind of music survives. Lately we have the departed Bill Thompson, who was a major person here from an organizational and performative stand point, Brent Farris, Rick Reed (of course), Eric Arn from Primordial Undermind, Anne from Aurora Plastics Company has put together a number of shows, and I think the Artificial Music Machine guys have done a lot to bring this kind of music to other audiences. P.G. Moreno & The Epistrophy Arts crew have done a whole lot in bringing bigger name experimental and free jazz guys in. The New Music Co-Op people. And Josh Ronsen, who has been playing and organizing shows for quite sometime. Also, Book of Shadows and Doug Ferguson have been doing some very interesting stuff that is almost completely unrelated to what most other people are doing which I have really enjoyed.

F-S: So who have you been looking up to musically lately? In any way... As inspiration for your sound or stuff of any genre you like or bands with front-men or -women you find especially hot.

Matt: As a performer, Rick Reed. I dig his use of space and how he develops a sound. Also, local composer Sam Pluta, cause he writes damn good music, and the underlying performance concepts are strong, they've been good eye-openers. Matmos always blows me away. their album "Drug Opera" changed my whole approach to how I use my instruments. And "Civil War" doesn't ever really leave my CD player because it's just brilliant. Anything by Autechre, too -- always growing and just so well-crafted. People like Robert Normandeau, Denis Smalley, Gilles Gobeil, and others electro-acoustic heads are in my mind when I play. I would love to be able to create (on the spot and with hardware) the kind of convincing environments and sound transformations that is such a signature of the computer music tradition.

Trey: For me, Alvin Lucier has been a massive inspiration. As a sound artist he has explored a lot of the notion of the physicality of sound, which I find incredibly interesting. He also has done a lot of work with feedback, and natural dynamic systems affecting the timbre of sound over the course of seconds/hours/days. His work has been very inspiring to me, and us as of late.

Otherwise, I'm a big fan of the ambient doom metal band Sunn0))). I love their super-heavy low bass worship. Actually, a lot of what Ive been listening too has been doom metal, especially early Melvins and this Japanese group called Boris. It's all very heavy, slow, and riff-oriented, and really just appeals to me in everyway at the moment. I'm not sure that it seeps into the NOTM stuff, other then inspiring us to use more heavy bass in our drones.

I've also been listening to a lot of the Kranky catalog lately. When I first got into Stars of the Lid I wasn't aware of the fact that the label they were on released tons of stuff in their vein. So I've been exploring that a lot lately; lots of Loscil, Windy & Carl, Growing, Jessamine, Tomorrowland and the like. All the Kranky stuff is very much akin to what we do, so I find ideas within certain records to be very interesting. Especially Windy & Carl's "Depths" & Growing's most recent record, and their live show too, man, the set they played with us was fucking awesome.

Also, I've been listening to the new Animal Collective record, "Sung Tongs," a lot, which really inspires a lot of ideas about signal processing, and sudden dynamic shifts.

On a personal level I'm really enjoying the new Comets on Fire record at the moment, "Blue Cathedral." Possibly one of the greatest rock records I have ever heard. An amazing amalgamation of prog, psych, kraut rock, and jam bandiness. Just wonderful stuff.

Eric: This may sound lame, but I don't keep up with new releases. I've stopped collecting records. Even though I work at a college radio station, I don't pay much attention to what's new. I mean, I definitely enjoy hearing new releases, but it I don't have money to hit the record store lately. That sounds lame, too. Maybe it's because I spend a lot of time recording and playing music, and the more I do that, the more I enjoy silence while I'm not making music.

F-S: What music would you suggest someone check out who would like to learn more about the genre you fit into? Are there any introductory classics out there?

Matt: Some Coil, but only the good stuff. "Time Machines" is a classic everyone should know. The Kranky catalog is well worth exploring too. (Not at all the same sound as us, but Loscil is my personal Kranky favorite.) Emprintes Digitales is another label well worth looking into. It is a different world from us, but a must know. It's pretty diverse, but check it out, get a feel for the composers and styles. Robert Normandeau's "Lieux Inouis" is a must listen and great place to start. I don't know, Trey knows better on this one.

Trey: Hmm, I guess a lot of the stuff on Kranky, especially some of the Stars of the Lid stuff. Actually, I would recommend their first album, "Music for Nitrous Oxide," which was actually released by a label formerly based in Austin called Sedimental records.

And Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works Vol II," but that's a classic in so many styles of music that its almost not even necessary to mention.

What else, uh, the first couple of Hafler Trio records, Coil's Time Machines, Sunn0)))'s "00Void," Black Dice's "Beached & Canyons," Pelt's "BrownCyclopedia," some of the stuff on a couple of the Tim Hecker records, Last Days of May's "The First 7 Billion Miles." The label called Drunken Fish put out a compilation a few years back called "Harmony of the Spheres" which had a bunch of great ambient people on it, namely Charlambides, Flying Saucer Attack, Loren Mazzacane Connors, and some others. Lull, in generally, but I particularly like the album "Moments." Main, especially "Firmament IV" and "Deliquescence." And lastly, anything that Rafael Toral has done, everything is different but it all harkens back to some basic notion of ambience and noise. Really excellent stuff.

F-S: Finally: You guys have been playing all over town the past few months. You're unstoppable. What's coming up in the future? Any new directions? Are you finally kicking Eric out of the group?

Matt: Word. Thanks. If we can make it work, I hope we'll play a show in the near future where we only use acoustic inputs. I'd also like to see Tuxedo Killers' George D. sit in with us on vocals.

Eric: Ha ha. We've been talking about bringing a vocalist into the group. For better or worse, the idea appeals to me. And we tried an electroacoustic set not too long ago, keeping the electronic processing but shelving the electronic sound sources. It could be cool, but we've got a way to go before we settle on the instrumentation. We were using a banjo, a fucked-up acoustic guitar, temple bowls, a nail violin, hard disk platters, pieces of aluminum, etc. And it was... difficult.

Our one experience playing live with quadraphonic sound was well-recieved, and we had a blast, so we're planning on performing with multichannel sound as much as possible in the future. We're excited about the three-channel "triangle of drone" setup that we're working on right now. It has a nice spacious feel and sounds can spiral around the audience.

We've made a few recordings with splinter groups as well. Matt and I did an improv set on organ pipes, and it turned out beautifully, like a more melodic NOTM. Trey and Matt are working with recordings I made of them playing on the soundboards of broken pianos. And when Trey and I get together and make music on our own, we usually end up breaking things. All of us like to break stuff, though.

Trey: No, no, it's not Eric that's getting kicked out of the group, it's me. I decided that I was too difficult to work with so I had it out with myself, and I told myself to leave.

But anyway, we are just gonna keep on playing when we can. Progressing our sound and what not.

Eric will be leaving to work with Gibby & His Problem as their touring sound man for about 6 weeks, so we'll be taking a break for a while. Beyond that we have some shows planned for late in October, and a few others in the works before the end of the year. We have an album that is finished, for the most part, and when we can get the money together to press about 100 we'll be putting that out. We are already talking about working on another album, so we need to get that first one out with a quickness. Our two-year anniversary is coming up just before Thanksgiving so maybe we'll try and release then.

Discuss this interview in the Forums and get more Numbers on the Mast at the official NOTM website or at Moron Labs (their label).


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