Bird Traps: I just came into the studio with this minimalist concept, a guitar and badly written scores
Bird Traps hails from Australia and takes the listener on a trip of sonic meditations and hazy minimalism. Quiet sprawls and repetitive, hazy harmonies. Blurs genres of ambient, neo-classical and experimental. Marcus Skinner’s music is ethereal and ephemeral, slow shimmering soundscapes, cinematic and warm, lush and emotional, long slowly unfurling melancholic melodies, sun dappled and soft focus. Exploring unfolding abstraction and minimalist arrangements. However, somehow Bird Traps fell under the radar, which is something that should be changed as soon as possible. If you like A Winged Victory For The Sullen, you should definitely listen to what Marcus Skinner has to offer. You might be surprised.
How did you get in touch with music?
As a young kid, I remember first being shown how to use a record player properly by my parents. It was like a ritual, choosing a record, putting in on the Marantz system and sitting back and drifting off. It was a modest collection, lots of typical and classic albums by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles. Film soundtracks were big in the 1980s and composers like Lalo Schifrin, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, John Williams, John Carpenter all played a big part of my childhood soundtrack.
Where did you grow up and how did that influence your musical tastes throughout the years?
I was living in suburban Melbourne during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the art-class-kid playing in rock bands after school and listened to Sonic Youth and The Slits. It was a creative escape from the mundane life of suburbia. I would trawl through second-hand record stores and trace back through the history – either with recommendations, trawling through the genres or often just stumbling across stuff from album covers.
It was becoming an explosive time for Melbourne’s music scene too. On the weekends, we would all escape the suburbs and meet up at these underage rock gigs. It was a great scene. A lot of amazing bands formed and friendships came out of that time.
Back in those days you could find quite a restricted or on the contrary, abundant variety of records around the world. What was the situation in Melbourne?
I was lucky, as there were quite a few nondescript, second-hand record stores around when I was teenager and I could easily go find a beaten-up first edition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ on vinyl and like most cities, Melbourne had its integral indie record stores, and they became legendary during the 90s.
Do you remember any particular album covers that made you buy a record?
The two albums that come to mind are:
Skip James: Complete Early Recordings (1930)
I was always looking for pre-war blues, this collection of ghostly vocals and guitar is probably my favourite. Born in Mississippi, Skip James had enough success to record during 1931 during the Great Depression but had little notoriety and he went on to become a preacher until (like many) he was re-discovered briefly by the 1960s folk scene. Amazing stuff.
Alan Hovhaness: And God Created Great Whales (1970)
I picked up this odd record when I read it had field recordings of humpback whales from both the New York Aquarium and off Bermuda. It also has a pretty crude painting of a whale on the cover. The album of Hovhaness, Sibelius, Skalkovottas, Weills and Glicka is a bit disconnected, but that 10 minute opening track ‘And God Created Great Whales’ has some beautiful moments, from here I went on to discover Alan Hovhaness and can relate to the quiet and nostalgic moments of his music.
Your project is obviously inspired by nature. Besides the name itself ‘The Colour Fields’ contains a vast amount of field recordings… What is your personal relationship with nature?
‘The Colour Fields’ has a lot of personal references – through the music, titles and through the field recordings. The album title ‘The Colour Fields’ comes from the 1950s New York art movement Color Fields (Morris Louis, Mark Rothko), where these artists were creating a new form of abstraction. That title seemed to fit the new material to help create its space.
I always travel with my field recording set up and it’s become a big part of the Bird Traps sound. Over the last year I’ve been recording more industrial ambience – building sites, hotel rooms, air conditioners, underground carparks, machinery and quiet spaces, more than my usual wilderness recordings. Some of these featured in ‘The Colour Fields’ and probably will drop in and out of the next album. Sometimes it’s a call and response to the music, sometimes it merges. I find drone and field recordings work well together, they share a lot of similarities. It has the ability to warp the listener.
Ambient music scene in Australia seems to be blooming lately, however every now and then it seems to be a challenge to get your music ‘out there’. I would say that Bird Traps did not find its proper audience yet; do you find it demanding to spread your music? What are you experiences related to this issue?
I find the promotional aspect a real challenge and ambient music has its limitations as a lot of people aren’t engaged in this kind of music. I find the Bird Traps ideology as quite punk rock – Bird Traps isn’t particularly radio friendly; it’s not commercial listening. So some avenues just aren’t responsive but others are more open, it just comes with the genre. I consider it heavier and a more personal journey or response than something you’d normally listen to. It is particular listening. It’s good motivation to keep working and releasing new material when tracks are featured on film soundtracks, radio and we receive reviews and messages. Otherwise I can find myself falling down the rabbit hole of just writing.
Do you have any ideas what would make it easier to promote your music?
I agree with Steve Albini when he speaks about how it’s a great era to be a musician, due mostly to the internet – by having the ability to release your own music and connect to people instantly all on your own terms. We need to nurture ways that work for the artist and listener, and support each other as much as we can.
While listening to your music, we can discover some obvious influences coming from the legends of ambient and neo-classical music. What do you think it takes nowadays to besides making a beautiful record also break some barriers, reinvent the genre, dare to experiment and take everything a step further?
Bird Traps is very personal music, I’m not trying to re-invent anything at all, and yeah, a lot of music has influenced that ‘slow sound’ from classical, the 1960s and now. I give myself constraints and guidelines like repetition and drone, while also discovering new methods along the way. It’s quite minimalist in theory. I don’t come from a classical background and I don’t listen to it that much, I’d much more prefer to hear guitar feedback, so I’m pretty naive when working with string ensembles but I find that exciting too, it’s more about using that texture and tone. I love the sound of a bowed instrument. My collaborations with ‘The Colour Fields’ musicians were pretty loose and they were very patient with me, I just came into the studio with this minimalist concept, a guitar and badly written scores.
As for breaking barriers, ambient as a genre seems very malleable to me, it can cover a lot of sub-genres and features in the background of others. It will shift with new technologies, production techniques and will be entangled in other genres (like most other styles), but I don’t see it being reinvented, it’s too free.
Have you been doing some touring? Is that something you would like to pursue further, perhaps also on an international level?
Bird Traps have performed throughout Australia and Europe, but not any of the new material. I hoped to put together live shows of ‘The Colour Fields’ but then I found myself writing new material. I’m looking forward to figuring out some performances soon.
What are you working on these days? What are your future plans music-wise?
I’ve been promoting ‘The Colour Fields’ for the past few months and I’m finishing up the demos for the next Bird Traps release, which I’m really excited about. Trying new methods, searching for new tones… I also have a few recording sessions coming up with cellist Peter Head which should see the tunes come more together.