Interview with Channelers on Isles Beyond (September 2020)
Steve Targo of the Inner Travels project interviewed Sean Conrad, the artist behind Channelers, about his latest album on Inner Islands. The interview was conducted in a Q&A format over email.
How important is folk music to your work as Channelers?
Well, if we’re talking about folk music as a popular or traditional music that’s been passed down (often orally), then I feel like the Channelers work has definitely benefited greatly from working with other musicians and learning about the tools of the trade from them. My friends and various people in the underground and house show music scene have taught me a lot about both gear and musical approaches. There was a point when I didn’t know that I could loop in a DAW. I just always thought people recorded themselves playing with loopers, until my friend explained it to me. And seeing friends use the SP-404, EH 2880, Microkorg, and other things has inspired me to use those same pieces. I do think the kneeling droner with pedals splayed is a sort of modern folk tradition.
Do you recall your first experiences with folk music? When & where did you first hear it? How did you react to it?
I definitely don’t recall my first experiences with folk music. It was probably from my parents. They listen to all kinds of music. My dad has a small collection of Indian Classical and Qawwali music. It could have been that. Those musics have always been really really special to me. The kind of feeling that I’ve felt from those musics is incredible: stillness, grounding, yearning, ecstatic joy. I’ve been listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan since I first was cognizant that those sounds were an option to put on. I think “Maki Madni” is one of the greatest pieces I’ve ever heard.
How long have you been playing the dulcimer? How did you learn to play it?
I’ve been playing since the beginning of 2014, but I wouldn’t say I “know” or ever “learned” how to play. I just kind of freestyle it and use my intuition. And I don’t play it in the standard tuning either because it just has too many key modulations for me.
Isles Beyond started with the title track, which you recorded while making Faces of Love. Why did the song sit on the shelf, as you stated on your Bandcamp page?
Well, I recorded a handful of longform tracks for Faces of Love, but felt like the two that ended up on there were the strongest. But since then I’ve still been listening to “Isles Beyond” and have felt like there’s possibly something good in there. Actually, sharing the piece with you, Steve, and hearing your positive feedback made me think that it might actually be worth putting out there. So over the last couple of years I have been editing it so that it’s as strong of a piece as I can make it by editing out sections I don’t like and working with the overall texture with the help of this Lexicon reverb/FX rack unit I have.
Were the other songs of Isles Beyond written to complement the title track? It seems to me there is a strong cohesion throughout the album.
I wasn’t explicitly thinking about “Isles Beyond” while working on the other tracks, but I do think there is a cohesion in the palette of the album. It’s pretty much all acoustic instruments. When I record on tape I almost always gravitate towards using acoustic instruments, because the texture is so rich. The tape handles the high end frequencies of those instruments in such a satisfying way for me. And when I play acoustic instruments, I have a sort of style or approach that I seem to gravitate towards, kind of a mixture between composition and improvisation, and often playing slowly or minimally. If you heard all of the tracks that didn’t make it onto the album, but were recorded during the same period, you would probably notice some cohesion with those as well.
What does the title of the song & album mean to you?
It doesn’t really have a specific meaning. It was the first thing that popped into my head when writing down the piece title in my journal of tape notes. Mostly it just feels like the right jumping off point for listening to those sounds.
How so? To me, the title meant that maybe you reached some place or state of being with the music — “isles beyond” where you usually go, for example.
Haha! Although that’s very flattering of you to say, that’s not at all what I was thinking. The title probably more makes me think of a place like Avalon or something, some idyllic and mythic island that nobody has ever plotted on a map, but still persists in our cultural memory.
Do you feel your music fits under the tag “sound healing?” Why? How do you feel about the tag in general?
I went through a phase of resonating with the term “healing music”, maybe about 9 or 10 years ago. But soon after that I felt like it’s not really my call to make. Even if at one point that was my intention, I don’t want to guarantee any results. I think for healing to work, one has to be open to receiving healing. So in my mind it’s more of a tag a listener might apply to albums in their collection, rather than a tag supplied by the artist. At this point I can’t say that sound healing or making healing music is a goal of mine.
Name a song or album that has become indispensable to you these days & explain why.
An album that I’ve really been resonating with lately is Close to the Edge by Yes. I know a lot of people balk at Yes, and I get it, especially post CTTE Yes where Steve Howe seemingly forgets that he’s playing with other people/being recorded and just noodles over everything. But that album is quite remarkable. It’s incredibly dynamic and composed in such an unusual, fluid, and intuitive way. The pieces have a lot of sections, but never lose sight of the overall theme or mood. I could wax on and on about it, but most importantly I just resonate with what they’re expressing, not specifically lyrically, but musically.