Synth Sculptor Raglani Blurs the Line Between Noise and Pop on Husk and Beyond


  • Courtesy of Raglani

Joseph Raglani is one of St. Louis' pre-eminent synthesists, an instrumental musician whose releases, under various guises, recalls elements of ambient sound-scapes, minimal krautrock rhythms and heady experimental jams. As part of Bryter Layter, he crafts dreamily organic tones that reveal themselves patiently. Under his nom de synth Temporal Marauder, Raglani has created an alternate-universe version of '70s sound exploration that veers closer to psychedelia. But under his surname, Raglani has just released the long-awaited double-LP Husk, the follow-up to 2006's Of Sirens Born, which was later released on the well-respected Kranky label.

But following a 2009 theft after a New York City show that left Raglani without the expensive and hard-to-replace gear he had spent years amassing, the musician had no other choice but to rebuild his arsenal and continue making music with a new set of tools and a different approach to his craft. I spoke with Raglani one Sunday afternoon at South Grand's Mokabee's, and Raglani spoke on his latest release, his approach to pop music, and his set at this Friday's New Music Circle season-ending showcase (7 p.m. at the William A. Kerr Foundation, 21 O'Fallon St.), where he will play alongside Floating Labs' majordomo Kevin Harris.

Christian Schaeffer: Husk has been in the works for a long time. What time period does it cover?

Joseph Raglani: The earliest stuff is 2004 and 2009 is the latest stuff. I think things would have gone in a pretty different direction if my stuff hadn't gotten stolen. The stuff I was working on was pretty poppy, and not having that stuff forced me to go back into more experimental stuff, and the Temporal Marauder stuff was, like, totally different in my headspace than Of Sirens Born. Now I just feel like I'm starting to get back in the headspace of that timeline.

My working style from before was very meticulous and layering every single thing and spending too much time editing it, and over thinking everything to the point where it was becoming maddening. Husk was a maddening process; I recorded those tracks and put them out onto different releases in this style of over thinking everything, and when Husk was proposed I had to go back and do it all over again - remix it, fix some things, do a tiny little overdub here and there. So listening to the stuff so much became a form of psychosis where at the end of the mixing process I couldn't listen to it for, like, six months because I'd get panic attacks just putting on my headphones to listen to it. But it's good - sometimes you have to give space to get an objective to mix.

Temporal Marauder is just, like, no more than a few takes and it was a liberating thing for me to throw some stuff out and let it be what it is, for better or for worse, and just have fun with it. And people seem to really respond to that. So I'm in a middle ground between those two modes. The first track I did for the thing I'm working on now is consciously trying to make something sound like Of Sirens Born and then mix what I'm doing now in with it. So, I don't know. There's a certain amount of composition but a lot more of improv, a lot more live. I'm trying to do less overdubs and a better live take. I'm learning from all these experience. I don't know what would have happened if my stuff didn't get stolen.

You had said that your plan for the Of Sirens Born follow up was poppier than the previous record. What does "poppy" mean in your kind of music?

Anything that's got definable rhythms and a chorus-verse kind of thing, even if it's super loose, I call that poppy even though most people wouldn't call it poppy. Joel [Leoschke] from Kranky wants composed things, he wants song structure, he wants something people can bite into. I am interested in making albums that people will want to listen to more than once but at the same time I also have a group of peers that you're throwing ideas against - you can't just put out something that's total pap or just trying to cash in on some thing. It's a balancing act. When I'm working, I'm listening to pop music all night long - it's seeping in. And when I go home, I'm listening to musique concrete or electronic stuff, and that kinda seeps in. When I'm in the process of making music, I'm not really thinking consciously about doing one thing or another, usually -- it all kind of comes out. I'm between those two worlds.

Even if I was gonna do a total pop record, I feel a responsibility to push the boundaries of what pop music can be. I think the problem with pop music isn't that there isn't bands doing cool stuff or pushing the envelope -- it's the audience; it's being lazy. They want more of the same. So I think it's important to push that boundary and hopefully keep on doing it, and eventually the audience will catch up with what's going on.

For me, I look at the world and it seems like data and a lot of information is hyper-compressed, and everything is moving at a quicker rate. And I don't see that reflected in music. Everyone has an idea of a song that has the bass in this frequency, and the song structures are very traditional, and even if you look at, I don't know, anything on the radio that's kind of edgy -- there's space around each instrument, it's working within traditional song format. For me, what interests me, is how you can combine multiple melodies and multiple song structures within one song. Why isn't the hyper-compressed data overload reflected in music in a sense that, music almost exists in a cloud where your focus can move around and change. When I saw that Bjork app for her new album, that was really the manifestation for these ideas I've been having. This is what I imagine music should be like now. You have an environment where your attention can move around, and by moving around it changes the mix and the information that you get. People should be able to take in more information in a pop song now. That our brains are better wired to multi-task?

I just think it's weird that you can have it in art, and visual art, you can have a Jackson Pollack thing where it's a total web of different forms and colors, and you can look at it and your focus can go in and see certain things here and here and here. And that happened in the 40s and 50s. And that hasn't happened in music, but it's happened in culture and culture and with technology and everything. You have people that do noise and beat you over the head with a wall of sound, but when you have a wall there's no focus and there's no moving around in a piece. I think there should be pop songs where it's like changing the channels on a radio. There's space for things to kind of unexpectedly change into something else or shift. We have the ability to hear multiple things. Maybe it's schizophrenic, the things that's happening with me. [Laughs]

I don't know, but it's interesting because when I first starting doing the Raglani stuff, I was influenced by these Reductionists, where one microtonal thing developed very slowly, and now it's the complete other end of the spectrum: highly compressed information, where it's like throwing a bunch of melodic note structures at a thing and pulling them out and allowing space to move in those pockets of data. And that concept with how do you make that listenable and appealing to people so they won't be like "that's just noise" or shut off. I think that's a challenge for musicians who are trying to do something a little bit different more so because there's not a lot of people who respect that kind of thing. They want more of the same, I think. What will you be doing this Friday with Kevin Harris for the New Music Circle showcase?

Kevin has upped the game. Apparently Kevin's been around St. Louis longer than I knew - Floating Labs has been around longer than I knew, and I remember going to a show there and him playing and just being, "Shit." Cause here's another guy doing modular stuff and it's better than my stuff. It would just give you a shot in the arm not to rest on your laurels or anything. There are people who are upping the game all the time. It's not destructive, it's creative to compete a little bit with these guys. Jeremy (Kannapell of Ghost Ice) and Kevin are two guys who pushed me without saying anything, just by their example of being creative people. I could see Kevin and I doing more stuff in the future. We've been both kind of lazy, that's why we don't have a proper project - due to scheduling. But messing around with stuff last night during practice, it was pretty clear that we had a shared language without actually discussing any of this stuff. There's just something going on with what we do that's either from listening to the same records or being so involved with learning synthesis and everything. Kevin is a great guy to have in town. Besides basically single-handedly creating a micro-community in St. Louis, he's also an awesome musician who does excellent stuff.