Friday 7 May 2021

Dark Ambient & VR: An Interview with Phantom Astronaut

 Dark Ambient & VR: An Interview with Phantom Astronaut

Phantom Astronaut

Dark ambient music creates incredible moods and a sense of immersion. Virtual reality, in the right hands, can do the same. When the world of dark ambient meets the technology of VR, the experience can be astounding. Sadly, I’ve not experienced VR, but you only have to read or watch others to see that it can be a powerful playground. With that in mind, in the coming months, I will be posting a series of interviews with creators who straddle the worlds of dark ambient and virtual reality. This is the first of those interviews, and it’s with Phantom Astronaut, aka Dekker Dreyer.

Dekker Dreyer is a man that wears many creative hats. He composes dark ambient soundscapes as Phantom Astronaut, he creates and directs immersive VR horror films, and he also writes Amazon top 20 selling novellas. As a first interview subject, he certainly ticks all the boxes. Below, we talk about how he came to the idea of merging his art with his music, the roll of dreams, the intimacy of VR, along with the influence of horror, folklore and the occult. I hope you enjoy it.

* * *

Casey: In an article on, your view that VR is about a feeling, and not a narrative is one of the topics covered. Dark ambient music also, for the most part, seems to be about the same thing. When and how were you first exposed to dark ambient, or the idea of it, and why do you think melding dark ambient and VR together is such a powerful combination?

Dekker: I think we've all been exposed to ambient music in one way or another without realizing it. I remember being very small and hearing an orchestra warming up and that chaos-- those tones all blending together-- it stuck with me as musical.

One of my earliest projects was a short film to accompany a movie called Naqoyqatsi, this ambient film scored by Philip Glass. That was probably my first head-on collision with ambient music.

My creative partner Cyr3n pushed me much deeper though. She turned me on to sound baths and places like the Integratron out in the California desert, and the La Monte Young's Mela Foundation in New York.

I took all of that in and started wondering how I could integrate this music with the kinds of themes I explore in my art and I stumbled onto this rich universe of "dark ambient".

I approach all of my projects from the same starting point; I want the audience to experience something emotionally more than intellectually.

I create things that you'll play at midnight, laying on your back, getting lost in the textures. Dark ambient, to me, works best when you feel it, physically. I love playing in domes and halls and places where the audience can lay back and let the bass radiate through them. It's a very physical music, it engulfs you, just like VR. I also pair my music with visuals so it's all part of a single sensory experience.

Casey: At the end of 2019, you released an immersive visual album, Lucid, under your music name Phantom Astronaut. In Lucid, the experiencer gets to explore five dreamscapes that bring about emotions from the darker side of life. The audio-visual experience also invites the person to ponder parts of their own morality. Which is the dreamscape that you are most pleased with, and what was the inspiration behind it?

Dekker: I can't play favorites on Lucid, I love all of it, but I can talk about how it came about.

Did you know that we don't really know what dreams are? Science, as of this moment, doesn't know for sure why we dream. There's also no clear universal definition of consciousness. That fascinates me.

Artists and philosophers have been preoccupied with dreams since the dawn of time. We live a quarter or more of our lives in the dreamscape and yet we can't share that between each other. It’s so lonely to think about that. The road to VR is paved with cobblestones made of history's dream journals. For the first time we're able to create environments that allow others to walk into our dreams... it's very intimate. I'm still not sure how I feel about that aspect of it.

Casey: It is certainly an intimate notion, but at the least, if you have created something to show one of your dreamscapes, you are giving permission for someone to visit and experience that. Are you concerned that someone might learn something about you that maybe even you aren’t aware of, or do you think it boils down to more general hopes and fears that someone will “get” what you hope to convey from it?

Dekker: The nature of privacy is changing and I think that humans have this inherent alienation that can't be soothed. No matter how well I know someone I can never truly know them in the way they know themselves. Communication and art and storytelling is a manifestation of our desire to be closer. I don't believe that someone exploring one of my dreamscapes will walk away with the same interpretation as me, so I just hope they find something that's meaningful to them in that shared space.

Casey: In an interview with Voyage LA, you revealed how you thought that your experience and admiration of the Disney World theme-park might have informed your desire to create your own virtual realities. What was it about the experience of being in that place that you think appealed to your world-building inclinations, and how has this merged with your love of horror and folklore?

Dekker: I end up talking about Disney a lot. It's funny how that's a recurring theme in my life. I want to be very clear because sometimes people conflate my interest in theme park design as an interest in how Disney chooses to use the medium. I'm inspired by this brilliant moment in history where humans have decided that they want so deeply to live in alternate realities for days or weeks at a time that they'll pay extraordinary prices for it. I see that as beautiful. I see that as a willingness for us to collectively embrace imagined worlds. That's what inspired me about the Disney parks.

I see that desire for people to experience environments and characters and I answer that from my own perspective which is informed by paganism, cults, the occult, and the supernatural. These themes, in our majority Christian culture, happen to be connected to horror. Many fairy-tales or myths or folk traditions are firmly in the horror genre when examined through our current sensibilities.

As for why I'm attracted to these themes? I'm not sure. It could be about embracing the powerlessness of humanity on an individual level when up against nature. We're very fragile creatures and our main strength has always been our ability to create social groups. When you watch a horror movie or experience a VR world you're inherently alone in the forest. That position tells you a lot about yourself.

Dekker Dreyer
Dekker Dreyer

Casey: While talking to the Good Men Project, you raised the issue of how art is emotional communication, but that in most forms, it is filtered in some way, and that the effect is easily broken. Why is virtual reality such a powerful platform for creating more immersive experiences, and, if one stands out, what was a time when you felt that you were most immersed while engaging with any variety of art?

Dekker: I think this comes from the element of isolation I mentioned earlier. We're all a child, standing at the top of the basement stares, timidly holding a flashlight.

Unfortunately, I have a hard time becoming immersed in any virtual worlds anymore. That's what happens to anything when you know how it's built. I can tell you about the strongest reactions I've seen in VR though. I was showing a series I created called The Depths, a horror series that takes place in a capsized ship, and one person screamed and threw the headset across the room. They were crying and couldn't speak. I felt proud of that. I'd never seen someone react to a movie like that. If I had to guess why it was, it was a combination of isolation plus the claustrophobia of that rising water and darkness... music designed to make you feel uneasy... throw a creature into that scenario and it transports people so completely, that their bodies react.

Casey: The various viewing and production elements of The Depths came together very nicely to cause that tearful scream. Do you think that, as VR technology improves, it will be easier, or more common, to cause that kind of emotional reaction in the audience, and if so, how would you like to see it evolve?

Dekker: I don't think that any tool makes the creative process easier. Our conversation with media is always changing, so that means that the audience will come to expect something different as technology and culture change. I imagine hearing this same question when the first films were being publicly shown and people were running for cover when they saw a train coming at them on the screen. It won't be easier, just different.

* * *

Thanks so much to Dekker for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find him at his website, and you can find his many creations through any of the links above.