A window into the abstract: An interview with Michael Vallera

A vast, stark sonic landscape unfolds through Michael Vallera’s latest record. Window In consumes everything in its wake as lush ambient textures and drones swallow the world in its minimalist compositions. It’s a record that craves intimacy, offering  an introverted glimpse into some abstract mood, cultivated by the artist for objective self-reflection. Swimming through the faint reflections coaxed from veiled sources, Window In is an ambient work that through four extensive tracks creates a sonic tapestry of tranquil beauty and subtle orchestrations.

Gracing the cover of the album is a striking photograph taken by Vallera with his hometown in the distance, trapped in an eerie fog, and cut off from the viewer by a body of water. It’s our first glimpse of the artist behind the work. Michael Vallera is a composer, guitarist and photographer based in Chicago. His musical work has ranged from the three-piece guitar outfit Luggage to the experimental indulgences of Cleared. For the last 8 years he has been developing a sound as a solo artist, which started as COIN before switching over to his given name. Releasing the first of COIN’s records on Opal Tapes, he moved on to German label Denovali under his eponymous moniker, where Window In closes out a triptych of records for the label, starting with Vivid Flu in 2017.

Wielding the guitar as his primary instrument, Michael Vallera has been working at severing the connection between his instrument and its final execution, seeking to completely disengage with the origins of his sounds, especially on his latest record. “Raw studio recordings of electric guitar were taken as the foundation, then heavily altered and manipulated through sampling, erasing the trace back to the origin of the sound,” it reads in the liner notes of the Window In.  Approaching his instrument in this abstract way, each record through his solo catalogue has progressed from the last as the guitar continues to move away from its traditional plucked and strummed sonorities to the sonic milieu Vallera eventually coaxes on Window In

Between the heavily processed guitar and synthesised elements, including  some, but few percussive parts, Vallera creates a dense malaise of sound, where brief melodic vignettes intertwine in an effort to relay an atmosphere above any kind of obvious narrative. On Window In, he achieves something heretofore unheard in his music, as those dense textures acquiesce to the minimal soundscape, in achieving something far less leaden from his previous LPs, where the guitar still remained at the forefront of his sonic palette. 

Delicate and subtle, Window In leaves enough room for the listener to impose his/her own narrative. Leaving the record open-ended, Vallera means “for people to attach meaning” to the work with the artist as an enigma behind the work. It’s an enigma we intended to uncover nonetheless when we sent him some questions over email.

What was the catalyst for your interest in music?

I was fortunate to grow up in a household where music was very important. My father was a guitarist and music was a huge part of his daily life. He had stopped performing and recording after I was born, but always played guitar in the house and exposed me to a lot of classic rock and folk music as a young child. The ritual of going through and putting on records to listen to, and just having that kind of exposure to the world and objects of recorded music had a big impact on me.

The guitar has been your primary instrument all this time, so I imagine there was a lot of guitar music that influenced you initially, but what were you listening to when you started making music as immediate influences?

When I was a kid I was obsessed with Led Zeppelin, so Jimmy Page was sort of my entrance to a lot of things I connected with in terms of the guitar. His use of melody and underlying interest in American fingerstyle guitar, open tunings etc. was something I gravitated towards. When I was a teenager an older friend showed me Sonic Youth and it was a pivotal moment of having anything I knew about the guitar destroyed and reconstructed in front of me. Researching their influences was my first entrance into a lot of experimental musicians and mid century composers.

At some point there would have been a departure from the more traditional guitar music and into the more experimental realm. What encouraged you to start exploring the more abstract elements in your music as a solo artist?

I think at some point I just realized that inherent in the way I play guitar is a deep attention to the nature of the sound. I’m much more concerned with the mechanics and feel of the instrument and how that structure can be exploited in whatever the final thing is that someone hears. I can play traditionally and was trained in that way as a kid, but I think my approach has much more to do with sculpting out relationships of pure sound, certain melodic content and more log arc progressions of movement and space. It’s more of an intuitive approach that over the years I had explored more and more until one day it just felt like this is what I have to say on the instrument. 

You’ve been involved in other projects and even more traditional band formations like Luggage. How have they all shaped what you would eventually do as a solo artist, and what is the underlying thread that ties it all together for you?

I think it all traces back to the relationship with the guitar and making sure I have different outlets to explore certain things that maybe don’t make sense in one project, but will in another. It’s also an entirely different experience to create music with other individuals rather than just myself in the studio. All of the various projects help me keep up various techniques in songwriting, technical playing, listening and performing.

I believe you’re also a photographer and currently studying towards a masters in fine arts. At what point does that side of your creative output intersect with your musical work?

Yeah I got my masters in 2010 from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was in the sound department but had been through years of formal studio arts education before that and photography has always been a large part of my process throughout. I don’t have a distinction between the music and visual art to be honest. I really feel like the solo records especially are best when taken as a complete object that includes the photography and design and the information given in addition to the music itself. I’m really interested in establishing a context for the space and mood of a record through visual means in tandem with what the listener hears.

You’ve been developing your sound as a solo artist over the last five years, from your first pieces as COIN to your eponymous work. Why did you start working under your given name and how does the music you were making as COIN, differ from the stuff you’re making today?

The COIN project was a result of a particular situation where I was living in a very small space without access to a lot of my equipment. I used previously recorded material in a software environment and built those tracks through sampling and lots of processing in the realm of the computer. It felt like something very foreign and different and really just began as an outlet for me to continue to make music while in a less than ideal space to do so. I just started uploading the tracks to an anonymous soundcloud and after a few days I saw that Opal Tapes had followed the account and I got in contact with Stephen who runs the label. It was fantastic to work with him and he is still responsible for so much incredible underground music being brought into the world. As the COIN project progressed, it felt like it was collapsing into other ideas I had been forming for solo projects over the years, and it seemed appropriate to just start releasing under my own name so that a single context could exist for the music and visual artwork I had been pursuing. I consider my last LP on Opal, Distance, as my first proper solo record.

Listening through the last three records, it sounds like there is a constant development in your sound, where one album seems to hand over to the next. How have you experienced your music evolving from Vivid Flu to Window In?

Yeah, absolutely. The goal is to have each record be a progression in my approach and studio technique. They will of course always be different and are made in a very different context from each other, in that they are very reflective of what is happening in my life at that time. 

Is your creative process through these LPs largely based on some kind of introspective environment, or are you channeling outside, albeit abstract influences into your work?

I’m really hesitant to be objective about my creative process; it feels really organic and more or less tied to whatever is happening in my life at the moment. Because the music is abstract I think it becomes easy for people to attach meaning or a narrative to the work, but it’s honestly a very present reflection of my environment.

Most of the elements in your music continue to come from your guitar, and even while you use synthesizers and drum machines in your work, you limit yourself to the guitar. What is the rationale behind that?

I believe that limitations can yield the best results, especially in creating art. I obviously have a long history with the guitar, and it is certainly a natural starting place for many of the skeletal elements of the music I build. However, there are an endless amount of approaches and techniques that can be investigated and applied, and it makes the instrument continually exciting for me. If my feeling were to change at some point, I would reorient my practice, but as far as I’m concerned I keep returning to the guitar because it still feels positive and interesting.

On Window In part of the objective was to remove all associations with the origins of the sounds. Can you tell me what laid the foundation for this idea?

Well, it’s always a bit more interesting for me to obscure the obvious source of the material, but on this record it resulted from literally a catastrophic failure, or at least what I considered to be one. Basically I had been working on the record for a long time and got to a point where I just wasn’t happy with any of the material. I had kept extending the deadline with the label and was feeling at a loss for how to proceed. At some point I started just throwing entire tracks or large segments of mixes through an older sampler I had just acquired, and the results immediately felt exciting and that I was now getting to the essence of what the raw recordings had been suggesting. As a result of this process, nothing really sounds remotely like the source material.

Do you feel you’ve achieved what you set out to do, and what effect do you think it will have on the listener?

I’m certainly happy with how the record came out. I hope it offers the listeners something they can attach to and make their own.

Your music has retained this kind of cinematic approach, and this record is no different. Is there some preconceived narrative for every LP, and how does a record like Window In usually come together?

The records are definitely reflective of current events and interests in my life during the time of recording and production. At some point, either an image, or base instrument recording or even a possible title will emerge and kind of solidify what the record is trying to be, and after that it usually takes off in a direction all on its own and I just attempt to follow that pull. For Window In, a real pivotal moment was when I took the cover photo very early at dawn one morning. I had scouted the location for a long time, and just wanted the photo itself and wasn’t even intending it to be used for the record. When I was editing down the images it just immediately felt so appropriate and a very pure and succinct way to communicate what the record was about, and the kind of mental space I had been occupying while making it.

From previous interviews I’ve read, it seems that you prefer a minimalist approach with little more than the guitar as a sound source. How do you retain that sense of minimalism while applying new elements?

I think it comes down to the editing process in production after the raw material is recorded. I usually will put things up against one another until an interesting relationship emerges, and sometimes that creates a hierarchy, or when something new is added it requires another element to be deleted because the frequency range is too close, or the energy no longer matches that of the emerging track. It’s really a process of collage, trial and error and chance at the end of the day. At some point the material begins to dictate itself and I feel it’s my job to let that speak in an uninterrupted manner.

There is something tranquil when listening to Window In, which sounds like a departure from the previous two LPs, where the textures favoured more distinctive elements composed within the arrangements. Was there any dramatic shifts in your approach for this record?

Every record feels really different to me, I guess that’s part of what keeps the solo output interesting is that I don’t feel the need to stay with any specific formula or structure. They all feel more akin to individual paintings, or works of visual art where there can be perceived continuity between them, but each is really discrete and self contained. This record is definitely more tranquil and lush and I think it’s just a result of my headspace and where the recordings lead the production.

Where do you see this taking your music next?

This record really cemented the kind of collage approach I’ve been using for a while, and it led me to a lot of new developments with mixing and arrangements so I’m looking forward to keep advancing those aspects of my work in the future.

You cited Harold Budd as an influence on All Perfect Days. Was there any particular influence like that, that followed you through this LP?

I have been listening to a lot of Philip Jeck and Fennesz over the past year, and although those artists have always been very influential I think the density and form of their music was a clear point of influence for this new record. I am really into making music that doesn’t necessarily sound like gear, that can’t be immediately attached to a guitar, or synth or something like that. I feel that both of those artists are experts at convoluting the source material and reforming it into something completely unique to them.

Window In is your third release on the Denovali label. How did you get onto the label, and what influence has it had on your music?

I started talking with the label years ago when I was shopping a record for my other project, Cleared. In those discussions they had become familiar with my work from my last LP with Opal Tapes, which was the first record I put out under my name. They came back with an offer for a series of solo records and it was really exciting and felt very natural to work with them. It has been a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t say it has influenced my music at all, which is the best part. The label is very transparent that they want to trust the artists they work with, and I think they have been very supportive in whatever material I have given them.

Considering that your stuff as COIN was largely released on Opal, do you keep the sonic aesthetics of these platforms in mind when you create and record a new piece of music?

If I know the ultimate form the recordings will take in terms of label/format/timeline I definitely keep those things in mind at the beginning because those details matter to me. They greatly affect the way things look and sound and I’m always trying to make the highest quality release possible, and a lot of that depends on the limitations of specific formats. I have affection for all kinds of recorded media and have released on cassette, LP, hard drive, cd and digital files, all have their benefits and shortcomings.

You’re based in Chicago, but these labels are based in the UK and Germany respectively. Why do you have to travel so far to get your music on a label?

I guess both of those labels were pursued by me because of their content and attention to curating a group of artists I identified with. The location never really played into it, although I feel generally my work has been more well known and received in Europe over the years.

What is the scene like for this kind of music back home?

Chicago has always had a wealth of individuals making long form, drone and experimental music. It permeates across all genres and allows for a lot of interesting collaboration, or even just conversation about what people are listening to, or excited about etc. As a current example, my friend Brett Naucke is doing amazing modular and production work right now that feels very singular and unique.

Usually there would be some live performance or tour after the release of the record, but now that seems very unlikely under current circumstances, so what do you have prepared in terms of Window In?

While I do love travelling and performing live, I also feel that for the kind of material I make, many times a live show doesn’t make sense anyway. I am very particular about the sound and context of the performance and would rather wait and perform more sparingly in order to have the material be presented in a manner that I feel positive about. I think overall the performance of long form or ambient music can be really problematic and there has to be a lot of considerations that go into how it’s done and in what way the idea of the tracks can be transferred to a live setting and remain strong. Because of that, I don’t think it has affected me nearly as much as other musicians who perform live consistently. I do hope to be able to perform later in the year as I had worked out a system for live performance I was feeling good about, but it’s hard to say what will happen. At this moment I’m just trying to get the record in the hands of new listeners and try to seek out interviews and other ways to help give the record a life.