Wednesday 20 April 2022

Dark Ambient Interview: Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse

Dark Ambient Interview: Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse is a dark ambient musician whose music features unnerving atmospheres, spacious claustrophobia, and impressions of murk and horror that provide a soothing escape from the mundane. His YouTube channel has videos with views in the millions, and his music is often used as the backing for creepy story readings and video games.

In the interview below, Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse shares why dark ambient music is an escape for him, and why dark things can exert such a pull. He shares some of the elements of his creative process, such as the tools he uses and the feelings that he is aiming for. He also discusses some of the music that most influenced his own tastes, and how he grew his YouTube channel over the years.

I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed learning about him.

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Casey: In your 2019 interview with, you revealed that you started making music when you were 12, and that you made your first ambient tracks around that time. What do you think drew the young ICA into creating music at that time in your life, which other styles/genres did you experiment with, and what do you think eventually brought you into focussing on the dark ambient genre in recent years?

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse: Music was an escape for me. Creating, also, was an escape. With the exception of movies, I've always created my own forms of every media I've enjoyed. When I was young I was very much into visual arts, first, but that went by the wayside when I lost all the comics I collected. Music felt more like a career possibility, too. Also, music was more of an escape for me. I could lay down and listen to it in the dark for hours and just zone out. A more passive experience, you might say.

I think my best memories of being a kid were when I was entirely alone in an empty house, with no responsibilities, and I was just creating or consuming media. I'd say that there's been aspirational quality in my music, in the sense that it's an audible way to access a better reality. Or unreality, rather. I want to make music that sounds like the world I'd rather live in.

I've done a lot of different styles over the years, but I tend to focus on minimal and hypnotic things. Nothing has really felt true to myself but dark ambient, however. Well, harsh noise is something I also enjoy and feel a kinship with, but I'm not really satisfied with the results when I make it. I think it lacks the textural subtleties I want. And, realistically, it's not healthy for me to make anymore, considering I already have a little tinnitus going on.

Casey: Music certainly seems to have therapeutic power, whether helping someone to escape from mundane reality, or a particular issue that is dragging them down. Was there a particular period in your past where you felt that consuming or creating music, whether dark ambient or not, probably saved your life, and if so, is it something you can speak about a little?

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse: Music definitely gave me something to do when I really needed distractions. Also, I think having some of kind skill to hone was also useful. There were many times when music provided an oasis of escape. I prefer people hear my music in light of their own interpretation and experiences, so I don't want to get into specifics, but a lot of my sound comes from very dark times. Even better than the distracting aspects, I think making music allowed me to do something with my inner poison rather than just letting it erode my mind. I suspect that's true of a lot of art. It's an escape, a distraction and also a form of sublimation.

Also, a lot of times music has allowed me to deal with negative emotions in a way that gave them a sense of "place" or "context" rather than them being just these jagged, terrible things. A type of self-communication. Many musicians have said things I felt, but more eloquently, and their eloquence gave me more clarity. A good example, to me, is Chris Cornell. I think he has one of the best voices in music and there's so many songs of his that seem to embody my life. It may be overplayed by now, but when I first heard Black Hole Sun around age ten, it was like a religious experience. I think it was the first time I heard a song that made it okay to wish for the destruction of all things, including myself. Socially, it probably had a bad effect on me and increased my desire to be a delinquent, but it felt really good to hear. It was honest. Before I heard stuff like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Tool, etc. I only heard my mom's religious music, Michael Jackson and Billy Ray Cyrus. And both were way too hopeful for my actual temperament. Hearing Grunge for the first time gave me access to a whole new approach to music.

Later I got more into extreme forms of music, dark ambient being one, but I think the same principle applies. Being able to aesthetically reconcile, and embrace, one's own demise, and the demise of everything, is useful, to say the least.

Casey: I feel the same way about dark ambient music, in the way that it feels true to my own self. I think, for me, it stems from being so afraid of the dark, or the things that might lurk in it, when I was younger. Now, when I hear a dark ambient track that inspires awe with rumbling drones and strange scratches, it feels like I’m immersing myself in the beauty of the thing that used to scare me. A letting go maybe. What feelings or impressions do you most enjoy when listening to dark ambient music, and do you have a dark ambient track or album that you’ve listened to more than any others?

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse: I relate to dark ambient and all "horror"-themed media in the same way. I suspect the concept of a "counterphobic attitude" probably describes some of the appeal of art with dark themes. Not all of it, but there's something psychologically satisfying about getting close to the things that frighten, sadden and agonize oneself, but without them being real. Symbolic or abstract things are a way to do this. I would be constantly interested in dark fictional media even while very young while, at the same time, trying desperately to escape the real darkness and threats that were in my life.

Brian Eno's Neroli is the dark ambient piece I've listened to the most. He called it "thinking music," I believe. It's not the most distinguished piece, but it's wickedly effective.

There's a few songs I'd like to mention, also, which will give an insight into how I formed my sound. They are:

Last Ap Roach by Squarepusher.
Wildlife by Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
Flowered Knife Shadows by Harold Budd.

Of these, Flowered Knife Shadows is almost up there with Eno's Neroli. The music of Sunn O))) and Thomas Koner's works like Daikan, Teimo and Permafrost are hugely influential, too. After hearing these works, you can see how nothing I do is very original. It's a recreation of stuff I've most enjoyed.

I'd say dark ambient takes me to a place I'd much rather be. A world without people or things. Just large, empty buildings, barren mountains, gray skies. When I played Doom a lot as a kid, I wish I lived there. I would see the backgrounds and the sky and it was just so much better than anything else. I'd also see artist's depictions of the early earth, before life evolved, and those always seemed much better.

A weird horror writer I like, Thomas Ligotti, spoke of the aesthetics of decay. That's also something I'm very into. Not the decay of organisms, but old buildings decaying, old objects. Moth and rust, corrupting it all. I've had the pleasure of exploring such buildings before and there's always a peaceful, dark sense to them. Same with natural landscapes where there aren't many people. Old photographs, too, are very interesting to me.

In many of my videos, I try to have images that represent what the music sounds like to me. Not all of them, but a lot of the desolate images are very much a visual parallel to the sounds.

If my nausea could handle VR, I'd try to stay in places that looked like that as much as possible.

Casey: Something else that you said in the interview is a remark about how you make your dark ambient music, calling it a “very mechanical and unintuitive process”. I really liked your honesty in describing your process in this way, as in the age of social media, it’s so easy to be tempted into embellishing or overcomplicating things in an effort to gain clout, or mystique, or whatever. When you’re exploring and manipulating sounds, how do you know when you’ve found something that feels right, that seems to be what you are looking for, and how often are you surprised by the things that emerge?

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse: With my music now, I just polish it until it sounds addictive. When the song sounds like something I could listen to for hours, then I know it's done. It's really as simple as that.

I'm part of the audience when I create, but, for example, when I do visual art, the main goal is to see how distortion changes the feel of an image. In the same way, it's the effects and distortions and blemishes that form the addictive and attractive qualities of the dark ambient. I especially do this with my project, Death on Cassette. With that, I wanted to make something even more personally rewarding. It aligns with my aesthetics even more so than Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse, usually. At least lately. I'm often surprised by what emerges.

Death On Cassette

To clarify about the unintuitiveness of it, though, I would say it's not at all like playing an instrument, which I see as more intuitive and interactive. In the way I create, it's more like working with images. Taking a single image and juxtaposing it with other images, or decaying and distorting and filtering the image until new qualities are seen in it. It's more detached and cerebral than coming from a place of feeling. It's construction rather than expression.

Casey: What equipment or software do you currently use when creating your dark ambient tracks, what does your creative workflow tend to look like, and how do you deal with things such as motivation, energy management etc.?

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse: I use FL Studio, Ambient Grains, Ambient by Audio Bulb and Audacity, primarily. The workflow is always the same:

1. Start with a simple motif. Could be a drone, or a bit of noise. Something that sounds good.

2. Slowly add in other sounds that complement it, or distort it through effects.

3. Keep doing this until the desired result is achieved.

It really is not complicated. I have done much more complicated music before and this is nowhere near as involved.

Motivation is never a problem. I monitor my mental states, constantly. If I feel like it's time to make music, and I have time, then I make it. It's a compulsion. I have to create things. I'll stop when I'm dead. I may not do music forever, but I'll be doing something. I think if people find trouble being motivated to create art (of any kind), they're probably not cut out for it.

Saying that, a lack of motivation may come from someone not being really clear to themselves about what they want. There's a difference between thinking you want something and really wanting it. If the sounds are compelling, I'll be motivated to make more of them. Even though I can technically do more complex and "normal" stuff, I just don't feel the need or interest.

Energy management is harder to deal with, though. I tend to be lethargic or irritated a lot of the time. I don't have nearly as much energy as I'd like. So, when I feel like I have the energy to do something, I always do it. I don't know when I'll get another chance.

Casey: Your YouTube channel currently gains around 300,000 views and 1,000 subs per month, and certain of your videos sit at over one million total views. Have you made use of any particular strategies for growing your channel, and what do you think about the general appetite for dark ambient out in the big wide world? I ask this second part as someone who finds it incredibly rare to meet someone who has even heard of the genre.

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse: When it comes to growing a channel, the best strategy I've employed is make a video that a lot of people will click on. It's an algorithm game, really. YouTube controls your reach. That's just a fact. So, you have to play their game. There's no getting around it. Something simple and direct like "Nuclear Winter" did great. Simple and direct usually does, so long as the image is good. I don't do it with every video, but it's helpful.

Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse YouTube Screenshot

That all said, growing a channel is a very slow process. G. M. Danielson made a video about me very early on and I immediately started getting more views. I'm eternally grateful to him for that. Other narrators like Lets Read also used my audio early on. I advertised that narrators could use my sounds in their videos, royalty free, and that definitely helped my work spread. I think a lot of artists start out asking for too much money and being too controlling of their work. I like Creepy Pastas and audio narration things, so it's just cool to me that I can be a part of that. But even beyond that, it's a smart move to get one's name out there.

As far as the general appetite for dark ambient, I don't know what I think, really. It might get more popular. It might get less popular. It's really hard to say. I think, though, that ambient music in general is becoming more popular. Even "lo fi beats for study" is technically used as a form of ambient music, in the sense that Brian Eno defined "ambient". YouTube makes it easier. So, while the interest in "dark" ambient may have an ebb and flow over time, I think ambient music in general is here to stay. Or, rather, people will be using instrumental music in more ambient ways. It will become more common as a way to enhance other activities.

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Thanks very much to Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can find the dark ambient of Iron Cthulhu Apocalypse and his other project Death on Cassette on Bandcamp:

On YouTube:

And also by searching on platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.

You can also read my review of one of his Death on Cassette releases: The Dead Dreamer Tapes.