Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Dark Ambient Interview: Mindspawn

 Dark Ambient Interview: Mindspawn


At the beginning of the year, I posted my review of Daemon, a dark ambient album from Mindspawn, a musician also known as Gene Williams. After reading the album description and some of Gene’s postings on his own website, I had more than a few questions that I was curious to get the answers to. Gene was kind enough to agree to an interview, the result of which you can see below. We talk about the role a persona plays in his creativity, the perils of working with tools that can be different each time you turn them on, and we get a glimpse of Gene’s general philosophy towards life. I hope that you find the interview as fascinating as I did.

Casey: You originally created the Mindspawn persona to aid in the creation of your solo musical projects. In a blog post in early 2020, you say that, over time, the Mindspawn persona has tended to gravitate more towards what might be termed dark ambient creations. With these things in mind, in which ways does using a persona help you in your musical endeavours, and why do you think that Mindspawn, over time, has tended towards the dark ambient side of things?

Gene: Personas create a loose framework on which to explore certain aspects of my creativity. Think about David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Hank Williams,' Luke The Drifter, or Nicki Minaj’s, Roman Zolanski. All were used in some fashion by the artists that created them to delve into musical idioms that reflected the persona in some fashion, but much of the time the music made under these persona’s were usually outside the typical style, sound, or societal expectation of the artist’s main audience. I make music across many genres from blues to hip-hop, and while I do a lot of productions under the Mindspawn name that aren’t dark ambient, the majority of my Mindspawn releases are firmly in the dark ambient, drone, etc., vein. It’s simply a sound or style I gravitate toward.

That said, having a persona that I can play with creates a framework for sound exploration, timbre choices, and arrangements that contributes to a smoother workflow when creating new work. I don’t think of them as inviolate, but more akin to wearing a performance costume, if you will.

Casey: In the same blog post, you also talk about how Mindspawn helps you in the process of self-discovery, letting you explore questions about who you are and the role that perception, both your own and others, might play in who anyone “is”. Is there an example that you might be able to give that illustrates something that you’ve learned about yourself by way of your music creation?

Gene: My Mindspawn persona is one that actively encourages my experimentation, and as it is a persona I can look from the persona back to myself… it’s really hard to learn about yourself without the input of others, my Mindspawn persona is a little like someone else looking back at me, informed by the musical explorations. Over many years of this back and forth conversation between Mindspawn and myself I’ve had revelations, big and small, that have caused me to question “default settings” in my life, revisit old ideas with new eyes (or ears), and shape how I interact with the world in a more balanced (for me) manner. I’ve learned greater patience and discipline via Mindspawn, and a willingness to try anything no matter where it takes me. In that way, the Mindspawn persona is an amplifier of all my creative endeavors. Would that be possible without the persona? Of course, but the persona creates a ready made laboratory replete with recipes, ingredients and best practices baked in… It is kind of strange on some level that creating restrictions can be immensely liberating, and at the same time no restriction is inviolate. I think for me a lot of that stems from an interest Taoism that really got stared with exposure to Bruce Lee’s philosophy and teachings, in particular, “have no way as way."

Casey: For Daemon, your most recent Mindspawn release, the album description mentions the role that experimentation and exploration played in its creation, and the possibility of losing those discoveries if you were to risk turning off your modular synth. How important is it for you to start a project with some kind of purpose in mind, and do you have any particular techniques for branching out into areas that, while related, might not be imagined until you happen to stumble across them?

Gene: Sometimes when I start a new work the purpose is clear and fully formed, at least loosely so. At other times the only purpose is to sit down and explore sound. Quite often I will start with a purpose but that might alter marginally or significantly, even to the point of being utterly unrecognizable in some cases… So the short answer is, purpose can be valuable, but if the art asks you to violate that purpose, be willing to try it on for size. You may find that new place is where you were going all along….

My way of working with my eurorack modular equipment is a perfect example of something that swings both ways. On the surface, the power to create almost any sound I can think of is right there, I have over 120 modules that shape, twist, chop apart, granulate, and otherwise create interesting sounds…. But the myriad ways I can realize a particular kind of sound often will lead to unexpected tangents that can take you far far from the original intent. Many of these tangents are far more powerful and intriguing than the original concept. So, when I’m creating a new soundscape, bass sound, drum hit, weird noise, or any form of explorative sound design, there’s always this side of me listening for the unexpected.

I most often start with no pre-patching at all, preferring to literally create a new sound design from scratch every time. By starting a sound design session clean, it lets me think about new ways to arrive at the same place, different modules that might shape the sound differently or emphasize a particular aspect of timbre, etc. Most often this happens pretty quick and I record my work and then clear all the cabling for the next session. On occasion though, I’ll be onto something, and the chase to find/realize that something can take days. Modular synths, like any analog device, are subject to the whims of the world around them and there is no ‘freeze state” where you can turn everything off and come back to it later and hear the exact same thing.


Digital tools, soft synths, etc., are phenomenal for that ability to have perfect recall, modular synths, not so much. For example, you might be connecting several modules to create a sound... a slight variance in temperature on the last module in the chain might be barely noticeable, while that same variance at the beginning of a chain can make the end result widely different. Thus, when you’ve got a great sound on your modular, but it still needs more tweaking to get it where it needs to be, if you turn it off things cool down/the electrical flow alters and the sound can get altered in really significant ways. “Losing a sound" doesn’t always happen when you turn a modular off, but it can. When I don’t want to risk losing a particular patch/sound I’m working on, it stays live for the entire time, and sometimes that can take days.

So while it can be limiting and even frustrating not having “total recall” on a modular synth, it’s also a way of working that I enjoy. The sound is in the moment, volatile the entire time, and when you turn it off, that sound is gone. Again, a kind of restrictive liberation.

Casey: While Daemon made considerable use of your modular synth, do you enjoy using any particular equipment or software above others, and have you encountered any that you really thought would be fun or powerful, but that you sadly didn’t “click” with?

Gene: Yes and yes…. My guitars, eurorack modular equipment, my small collection of Moogs, my monitors (both my main monitors, Kii Threes, and my headphones, Audeze), and my DACs and Amps (Schiit, Chord, and Apogee) are my favorite hardware pieces. On the soft side, I create a lot of custom patches and sound libraries in Kontakt, and a Kontakt engine I use frequently is the Dark Matter and Dark Matter 2 instruments made by String Audio. The Dark Matter stuff is great for creating specific ideas as you have immense control over the sound shaping parameters…. Aaaaaand the Dark Matter engine has a “randomize” function which is like playing a sound design slot machine. Huge fun and surprisingly capable of creating usable and nearly usable patches out of the blue.

On the other side of things, I’ve purchased many sound tools that sadly didn’t live up to my expectations… And that’s fine. You experiment, maybe something works for awhile but you hate the workflow, or the plugin might be a little too unstable, or you simply don’t jive with a sound. I liken this to the hardware DX7 synth. When those came out (like a thousand years ago), they were the hot ticket and everyone into synths had one. I purchased one in the mid 1980s and as much as I tried to like it, and I did use it a lot, I never cared for the sound, how it interfaced, editing, etc. BUT that’s my experience, obviously lots of people loved that synth…. Still a valuable lesson, as I learned about things I didn’t like and that informed future time investments and purchases.

Casey: When creating Daemon, you embraced the various meanings of the word, from the Greek mythological version, to a background process running on a computer. More broadly, do you have a particular philosophical, spiritual or general view of life, a view that you feel best describes what is going on around us, or that guides you in your interactions with the world? I know that you mentioned Taoism and Bruce Lee in a previous answer...

Gene: I’m not religious, nor particularly spiritual, although the latter would depend on the definition one chooses to employ. Viewed from some perspectives, all life might be called spiritual.

I have a fascination with the occult and the supernatural, but I wouldn’t call myself a practical believer. The world around us is full of so many marvels, it usually seems the supernatural is superfluous, and the occult is usually revealed with little more than patience and an open mind.

Taoist and Stoic philosophies contribute immensely to my perspective of the world, and by world I mean everything, the universe seen and unseen, and myself.... My interest in Taoism originally came through the filter of Bruce Lee’s writings and philosophy when I was wee, maybe seven or eight years old. Stoicism was planted into my mind via reading Seneca in my early twenties. I wouldn’t call myself a Taoist nor a Stoic, but as Bruce Lee says, “absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

Aside from that, I have a strong belief in science. It usually works, and more importantly, as we get presented with better information, the “rules” of science are mutable and can reflect that new information. Science is fascinating, with myriad disciplines to explore and fuse, and real-life wonders which are as mind boggling as any acid infused tea party collaboration that Dali and Giger might conjure.


Casey: What can your fans look forward to hearing from you next?

Gene: I haven’t a clue! Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I’m always working with a few different people on their projects, and I am a full time mastering engineer, so I’m always hearing a variety of new music. All that exposure to other artist's music is such an incredibly cool experience from which I draw a ton of inspiration. I might pick up on sound combinations or maybe a novel mix approach, or any plethora of things you might hear that makes you think, that makes you feel, that excites you…. All these combinations I try to learn from, and then from that mix of ideas, techniques and sounds new interpretations flow… that’s what the next Mindspawn album will sound like.

That all said, I’ve been playing around with thematic ideas from re-reading some of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories and Michael Moorcock’s, Elric/Stormbringer and Corum tales. Trying something that is inspired by those sources might be an exquisite challenge and rewarding no matter where it ends up. The stories are rich with imagery that begs for a soundtrack, a haunting melody, or an otherworldly sound. The worlds of Wagner and Moorcock are very fertile environments that spawn myriad musical and sound suggestions.... I could call the next album, Arellarti by Night, or perhaps, Dreaming City Blues…



Thanks so much to Gene for taking the time to answer my questions. You can visit Gene on his website to learn more about his music and his mastering services. And be sure to keep an eye out for his music on your music stores of choice too!