An Interview with Kevin Kendle
by Bill Binkelman
Anyone who has read my reviews for any length of time knows the level of respect I have for Kevin Kendle and his music. I consider him the best new age music artist recording today, an opinion I formed shortly after first hearing his music back in 1996 and a belief that has seldom, if ever, wavered. Besides being a consummate professional (Kevin's mastering skills, which he does through his firm Eventide Mastering, is highly sought after by other artists) he is one of the most down-to-earth and likable people in this entire business. Kevin was literally the first person I interviewed for the first magazine issue of Wind and Wire so it's only fitting he be the last as well.
"...Looking back, I guess quite a lot has happened since 1997! There have been a few ups and downs, but generally I'm very pleased with the way things have turned out. I now have a total of 17 albums produced, hopefully of the quality I continually strive for. Studio technology has raced forward in that time too, and I've been able to upgrade the studio and instruments to the point where I have full 32-track multi-track facilities at my disposal, with more to be made available imminently with a software update to be released very soon. Everything is now recorded in full 24-bit quality with many of the synthesizers I now use being virtual ones, simply existing within the computer!
The development of the audio mastering side of things has enabled me to work with some great musicians in adding the finishing touches to their albums, as well as continually furthering my technical knowledge in the field. The area of music I'm involved with needs a sympathetic approach to mastering, which is different from most other fields of music, where the rule of thumb normally seems to be something like "let's see how loud and bright we can make this sound.....!"
It was good to have spent a few years signed to a label, but on balance I think I prefer to be independent and retain control over everything. I enjoy the freedom to be able to release what I want, whenever I want on my own Eventide label. I still intend to produce one-off commissioned projects for labels, and there are one or two already in production. I have also enjoyed branching out into slightly different styles &endash; chill-out, for example, more rhythmic music which I record under the pseudonym HELIOS, to distinguish it from the more atmospheric, ethereal sound for which I'm best known. And there's the Deep Skies series of spacemusic, two albums of which have been released so far. I just love working in this style, and it's been great working with Nigel Shaw and Brian Abbott on these too. Deep Skies 3 is planned for 2006, while I concentrate my immediate efforts on my Winter album that I've been working on sporadically for the last two years. This is an album I want to get just right, the balance of cold, icy beauty and bleak, bare landscapes against warm open fires and the comfort of returning home. It's a tricky balance to strike, but work is progressing well, if slowly...!!"
Q: Speaking of all the technological advances in recent years, your recordings have always been among the most highly praised for their production and engineering quality. What have all the upgrades meant to you, in relation to both the artistic side of your music (control over the quality of the music itself and instrumentation) and also convenience and technical effort required, i.e. album turnround time, etc. Also, do you ever fear with all this technology that sometimes it's hard to infuse the music with the "real you?"
".... I'm completely self-taught when it comes to the technical side of things - but I've always tried to achieve the best possible quality with whatever equipment I've been using at the time. One of the biggest changes over the years has been the huge reduction in the cost of the equipment, which has obviously opened many doors musically.
It's taken many years to build up the studio to what it is today. However, I've never been someone to go out and buy the latest gear just for the sake of it. I've always bought equipment and instruments that I know will do a specific job, and be usable for many years to come. In fact I've never sold a single piece or gear! My original KORG MS-20 synthesizer, which I bought new in 1981, is still in use today and appears on the Deep Skies albums!
Whilst on the subject of equipment, I must mention the wonderful Soundscape recording system, produced by Sydec in Belgium, which has been at the heart of my studio since 1997. My original unit was 8-track, then that was upgraded to 12-track, and I now have the 32-track SS32 unit, which is just fantastic! The great thing about Soundscape as a brand is their support for existing users - they do not produce equipment that is redundant in two years time - they follow a path that allows users to upgrade the software and install hardware add-ons, all of which keeps the system bang up-to-date. The Soundscape system is one of the main reasons my albums sound the way they do.
Another technological advance that has affected me in a big way is the advent of virtual synthesizers, which exist simply as software inside the computer. The early ones weren't particularly good, but those produced over the last couple of years have been fairly mind-blowing! It's enabled me to have access to all the synthesizers I have yearned for over the years - the Yamaha CS-80, the big Moog Modular systems, the great British OSCar synthesizer - as software emulations, which sound every bit as good as the originals! Much of the Deep Skies series of space albums was produced using virtual synthesizers.
Having access to so many sounds these days can sometimes mean one of two things: firstly, the danger of being overwhelmed with the sheer number of sounds available at your fingertips - where do you start? The second trap, which might at first seem to be at odds with the previous comment, is the potential to actually sound similar to other artists using the same synthesizers due to the lack of motivation to experiment with changing and editing the preset sounds. I get around these issues by having a core palette of synthesizers at my disposal, each of which I have acquired to do a specific job. Certain synths are better at certain sounds than others. On most occasions, I'll start off with a preset sound that's almost what I'm after, then modify it until it's exactly right. I'll then record the part onto Soundscape, and that's it. I rarely actually save sounds. This forces me to experiment and come up with new and different sonic ideas.
These days I mostly play "by hand," recording straight to Soundscape without the use of a sequencer, whereas in the early days, the sequencer was invaluable for getting the arrangement of a piece together by building up layers of MIDI tracks, as the actual audio multi-track count was so limited. However, on the Deep Skies albums, even though most of it is played by hand, we did use some early analog step sequencers to create pulsing bass lines and repeating figures, which harks back to the synths of the 70s, but they sound so great!
I have always maintained that it is the way you actually PLAY the sounds that infuses the music with emotion and conveys your intent. I still stand by this statement. Even though the technology has come on in leaps and bounds, it is still down to the player to convey what they want to get across to the listener by the way they play the sounds. In the wrong hands, the best instrument in the world can still sound bad!
All these advances have certainly brought about improvements in terms of convenience, but it still seems to take me about a year to put an album together to the standard I want to achieve - perhaps I'm just fussy....!"
Q: One of the prevailing opinions among ambient, and to a lesser degree new age artists, is that with the decrease in recording costs (especially with the explosion of CD-R releases, versus manufactured runs) that the market is glutted with inferior releases from "amateurs" and this makes it harder for "legit" artists to sell their albums. As someone who started out recording in their home studio, then went to a big label, and now is indie again, what's your view of this belief?
"...... I have to admit that I have quite a lot of sympathy with that view, but I don't make the distinction of "amateur" and "legit" artists, as you put it. For me, if the music is good, it doesn't matter where it's come from. Whilst I love the idea that the fall in price of the technology has made it possible for many more to be able to make music and strive towards their dream of making a living out of it, there is no escaping the fact that the instruments don't play themselves (despite what many people seem to think!) and a degree of talent, and technical know-how, is also needed. This has most definitely led to thousands and thousands of bland and poorly-produced releases reaching the marketplace that offer virtually nothing to the listener. I don't mean to imply that smaller independent artists are the culprits here, indeed, some of the so-called "major" New Age labels are more often than not the guilty parties, releasing some truly dreadful material into the public domain. I have come to the sad conclusion that some of them honestly can't tell the difference between a quality release and something that's only really fit to stop the drips from your glass ruining the coffee table.....
There is no doubt in my mind that the whole "New Age" genre, for want of a better phrase, has been significantly devalued in recent years by the multitude of sub-standard, cut-price budget CDs that find their way into all kinds of places now - garden centres, supermarkets - you can even get hold of them as you fill up your car with fuel! This is a subject I feel strongly about, as you have probably noticed! This whole glorious field of potentially amazing, other-worldly and profoundly beautiful, moving music has been reduced to simply "whale music", "dolphin music" or "angel music" in some quarters. Sadly, that is the common perception of "New Age" music for many people nowadays.
It's such a shame to see this commercial bandwagon roll on and on, but, thankfully, I think the CD-buying public have had just about enough of it. Certainly, sales in the UK have sharply declined in the last two years, which to me is a clear signal that we as artists need to strive more than ever for greater QUALITY of music - in the composition, the melodies, the background sounds, the production - I could go on. It's the MUSIC that must win through in the end. And for heaven's sake, let's try and leave the dolphins and angels, lovely though they are, behind us for a while! There is a whole universe of inspiring subject matter out there, and my heart sinks when I see yet another "bandwagon" album released, more often than not of a poor standard musically.
Having said all that, there is also some fantastic new material emanating from some of the independent artists here in the UK, I'm pleased to say! It's always been a goal of mine to keep the quality of the music high, and to me this has never been more important. Thankfully, there are other artists out there who have the same values! As artists, we owe it to the genre - to restore some of its lost credibility wherever we can."
Didn't mean to get into a rant - honestly....! ;-))
Q: No need whatsoever to apologize for a rant. Honestly, your opinion is mild compared to some artists whom I've asked this question of! Let's flip over to the other side of the coin. As someone who has achieved a fairly substantial degree of notoriety and success (at least within the constraints of the genre), what words of wisdom could you give to artists who are just starting out now? For example, what helped you persevere in the early days of your career?
".... The advice I would give to artists just starting out now would be to try to find your own style. It's inevitable that other artists will have influenced that style, but you should try not to COPY your favourite artist. Take the elements that you particularly like about a certain artist's music and draw inspiration from them. I hear so many "clone" imitations from many who are starting out - it's sadly quite rare that a truly unique and innovative approach is heard.
I would also encourage all to strive for QUALITY - in your melodies, in your background sounds, in your production. If something annoys you when you listen back to your own music - a sound slightly too loud in the mix, an instrument that's perhaps too harsh - CHANGE IT! If it annoys you, it will annoy others. Don't release anything until you are as happy with it as you can be. Pay particular attention to your background sounds and textures - this is so often overlooked and a standard "pad" sound playing basic chords thrown in behind the melody. Background textures create atmosphere - and this, when done well, can move emotions every bit as powerfully as a strong melody. Combine the two and you're probably onto a winner...! Also, try to avoid the "usual" three chords that everyone expects to hear - the tonic, subdominant and dominant (for example chords of C - F - G) - it's such a dull formula! Try adding notes to chords that "shouldn't really be there" in strict classical terms - add an F to a chord of C major, or a G to a D minor chord. That's the way interesting ideas are born. The more people strive for quality in all aspects of their productions, the more integrity will be brought to the genre, and the more respect it will gain from listeners.
My third tip would be DON'T USE PRESET SOUNDS! In many cases they will be instantly recognisable by those "in the know" about synthesizers and samplers - tweak the presets here and there to create your own unique sounds - it'll be worth the effort, and will draw listeners in as they won't have heard that sound before.
If you work hard at producing something that you are as happy with as you can be, you will truly believe in your music, and this is really the key to making things happen. If the music is truly from the heart, this somehow gets "encoded" into the sound, and listeners will tend to pick up on this subliminally.
To sum up, I'd say work hard at it, believe in it, and ENJOY it...!"
Q: Okay, Kevin, let's focus back on your music. You started out with recording your music with nature sounds, e.g. Eventide, First Light, Autumn, Spring. Then when you went to New World, if I recall correctly, you made strictly "music only" recordings (even if the theme was nature, e.g. Flowers and Butterflies), as well as the "Pure" series recordings you made. Now that you are indie again, you're recording spacemusic in your Deep Skies Project releases. Does this mean you've outgrown (speaking only artistically not personally) your inspiration from nature on earth? Any plans for more releases with your spot-on environmental sounds added to the mix (hint hint)?
"... Not at all - I still derive much inspiration from Nature. In fact, the album I'm currently working on, for release later this year, is called Winter and is a return to the Nature-inspired style of some of my earlier work. That's not to say that the spacemusic is over - far from it - I plan to start work on Deep Skies 3 next year. That's the beauty of being independent - I've been able to work in two related, but distinctly different, styles as the mood takes me. I started the Deep Skies series off primarily to distinguish it from the Nature-inspired music, in case people found the two styles too different. In practice, it seems that most people who like my work enjoy both styles, which is cool!
As far as recording nature sounds goes, there are several issues here. Firstly, on a practical level, I used to have the luxury of time on my hands in the early days - I could get up early on the spur of the moment and go out into the countryside, set up my recording equipment, press record and wait for as long as it took to happen. Nowadays, with two lively boys aged 9 and 7, it's not nearly so easy, with their clubs and parties and visits to friends, which is, of course, great! It comes with the responsibility you take on as a parent - and I wouldn't have it any other way. Also, as a musician I am personally much busier these days, mastering work for others and doing guest sessions on other people's albums in addition to working on my own material. I tend to work much later into the night out of necessity, and consequently feel less inclined to get up at 3 am.....!
It's worth noting, too, that in recent years there has been quite a strong feeling against the use of natural sounds in music from the public. Perhaps this comes from the fact that many albums have in the past contained natural sounds that didn't seem to serve any purpose - or were mixed inappropriately high against the music. Few people would record their own sounds, and so the various "library" CDs of natural sounds that most would use became recognisable in the same way that frequently used synthesizer presets or vocal samples are easily identified.
I would sometimes get asked at shows whether an album had natural sounds on or not, and if so, that person would choose a different album which didn't contain the natural sounds. Each to their own, I guess! Apparently it "breaks the mood" during therapy sessions. Having said that, I am first and foremost a musician and produce music that I feel a need to produce. I don't normally write specifically for therapists or healers, it's just that many find my work suitable to accompany what they do. If I feel natural sounds would enhance a track I was producing, then I would not hesitate to use them again. A couple of the albums I released on the New World label did in fact contain subtle natural sounds, notably Butterflies, Pure Dreaming and Pure Peace, which I did jointly with Llewellyn.
With the new Winter album, as there aren't many sounds to be heard outside for most of the season, and all is quiet and still, the album will reflect this, and most probably will not feature natural sound recordings. That is not to say that I have taken a decision not to use them in the future; if a project would benefit from the use of natural sounds, I shall no doubt be out with my DAT recorder once again....!"
Q: Was there a reason you launched the Deep Skies project when you did? Or has the idea of doing spacemusic/ planetarium type music always been there and it just seemed like the right time recently? How did you find your glissando guitar collaborator, Brian Abbott?
"....I have always wanted to do an album about space, as I've always been fascinated by the night sky. I also love following the progress of NASA missions, and enjoy science fiction films, so it was always a project waiting to happen.
In 2003, I suddenly found myself in a position where I had all the sounds and instruments I'd been waiting for the technology to evolve into to create the kind of space music I had envisaged, at my disposal. It really was that simple. So I thought - "now is the time" - and began experimenting with sounds and effects that formed the basis of the first few tracks of Light from Orion. I wasn't quite sure how people who enjoyed my music would react to this different style, so I decided to release the space music as a sub-series on my Eventide label, to make it clear that the style was a little different to that which I'm known for. I called the series "Deep Skies" after the "deep sky" objects which inspired it, such as nebulae, stars and star clusters.
I mentioned my early plans for this series in a telephone call to my friend Nigel Shaw (http://www.seventhwavemusic.co.uk), who expressed an interest in participating in the project. Nigel produces very high quality music inspired by nature, primarily the wild and wonderful landscape where he lives, Dartmoor in Devon, UK. He also has a band, Global, who play a more trancey, dance style of world music, and suggested to me that the guitarist in that band, Brian Abbott, who was also an expert in the glissando guitar technique, might be interested in getting involved with the music. I had previously heard this style of guitar played by Steve Hillage on some of his earlier albums, notably Green and the amazing Rainbow Dome Musick, which was way ahead of its time. As soon as I imagined the sound of glissando guitar with my experiments for the first space album, I knew we were on to something and it sort of grew from there. I went on to meet Brian shortly afterwards at a Global gig in Devon, followed by discussions and guitar experiments at Nigel's studio, Seventh Wave. Brian learned the glissando guitar technique from David Allen of Gong, so his pedigree is impeccable! Brian is an amazing musician, and a very talented guitarist. The haunting glissando parts he has contributed to the space albums have really come from the heart, charged with emotion, and are now an integral part of the overall Deep Skies sound. We hope to start work on Deep Skies 3 in 2006...."
Q: Kevin, where do you see your music career heading in both the short and long term future? Do you think it's possible for a new age or spacemusic artist (other than someone in the league of Vangelis or Enya) to actually make a good living from this music alone? Are you more or less satisfied at the level of popularity you have attained?
"...I see me continuing in much the same way as I am now really - releasing material when and where I choose to. I am lucky to have my own label on which I release most of my output, but also good relationships with a few other labels for whom I may to one-off projects here and there as I feel so inspired. The spacemusic side of my musical character is something that I love doing and want to explore further, and the same is true of the "nature" and "landscape" influenced style. With regard to making a living out of music, there is no escaping the fact that most deals with New Age labels are pretty appalling with regard to the artist - the royalties are generally tiny despite reasonable sales. Realistically there is little hope of making much of a living out of doing music alone in this situation, unless you're a single person with few financial overheads. If you're thinking of a house and family - have a least a second string to your bow...! This is certainly true in the UK anyhow. There is little distinction between artists with ability and artists with little or no musical heart, and consequently everyone gets paid the same, pitiful rate. However, being independent and releasing your own material, you need to sell far less to make the same amount of money as you would on a "proper" label, making the independent route the one to go for, in my opinion. Word of mouth starts to operate and, if your music is any good, increased sales will follow. I am completely satisfied with the level of popularity I have - people like my music for the most part and that's what's important to me. I don't seek great fame and fortune - I just want the music to be appreciated for what it is, and moreover, enjoyed by as many people as possible..."
Q: We've looked forward, now looking back over it all, what do you reflect on when you see how far you've come with your music?
"... To be honest, I feel pretty much the same about it as I did when we first made contact all those years ago! I still get that rush of excitement as a new album starts to take shape in my mind, and you can't beat the feeling of listening back to a newly-completed track in the studio. Sourcing artwork still inspires me greatly and I basically intend to carry on doing what I'm doing, as I enjoy it so much. There have been ups and downs, sure - but my overwhelming feeling is one of satisfaction, knowing that I've only ever released material that I've been completely happy with, and which hopefully will stand the test of time. It started off as a hobby after all, so to have come as far as I have is much further than I set out to do, and there's further to go, too..!"
Q: Kevin, you were my first interview in the first issue and it's only fitting you are my last (at least for this incarnation of Wind and Wire). I want to extend my deepest and most sincere thanks for all your support over the years. As a huge fan of your albums I also want to thank you for recording all the great music you have so far (and I know you're not near done yet). I certainly hope our paths continue to cross man times in the future.
" ... Bill, that means a lot - thank you. I have discovered music and artists through Wind & Wire that I would otherwise never have been aware of, and enjoyed the radio show, which I listen to over the web. These things must subconsciously influence an artist's style in some way, so I guess you must have influenced me and many other artists in this way. I reckon that without you and Wind & Wire over the years, the New Age music out there would be just that little bit different. So thank you for that, and for all the support and encouragement you have shown me. I certainly hope that this is only a pause for Wind & Wire, and that our paths cross again in the future..."
Kevin Kendle Discography