In the world of ambient music, the vast swathes of identikit “chill out” releases seem to pop up devoid of any real human involvement.
In fact, a lot of it is inoffensive, a style of music that increasingly seems to be background music for fashion shop chain stores. Either that or it’s trotted out on mobile phone adverts – a style of music so inoffensive it actually becomes offensive.
However, dig a little deeper, and much like any other genre, the diamonds shine through. One such producer is China-based, but San Francisco-sourced, bvdub, who injects a vast amount of actual human feeling into his tracks. Taking in the entire gamut of human emotion, he brings forth the light, the dark, the drama – and the dramatic pauses.
A prolific fellow, with six albums, a collaboration with Organic favourite ASC and a co-curated compilation with Kompakt’s Andrew Thomas all out in one year, a consistent seam of quality runs through his output.
His latest album, Resistance Is Beautiful, on Darla Records, sees the artist take a more beat-led approach to his tunes than his more recent releases, but still retaining the impact seasoned listeners will have become accustomed with.
We talk emotion, China, his past, his future and what the future holds for electronic music with bvdub, Mr Brock van Wey.
Your music hits a very deep emotional core, and in my opinion, a lot more than a lot of so-called ambient music. Was this a conscious decision, or did it flow from your thoughts?
Hitting a deep emotional core is the whole point of my music - but I’ve never sat down and thought “OK, I’m going to make such-and-such kind of music”. I just say what’s in my heart. The form it takes as a result is really beyond my control, as I just let it happen. Sometimes I have a very specific I idea of how I want to express something, but most of the time, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s kind of an out-of-body experience. I’m on autopilot the whole time.
Much of the time when a track is done, I honestly couldn’t really tell how it even got there. But for me that’s the way it should be.
I wouldn’t call myself an “ambient artist”, so in that sense I guess it’s hard to compare. Sure, much of the music I make is beatless, but then much of it is not, and really I don’t think what I make adheres to any set genre necessarily. I just make electronic music. However, if I had to offer a comparison, I think in many ways the “ambient” I make is a bit different from a lot of other people’s, in the sense that it is very “in your face” – for lack of a better term. The intensity commands all your attention, and frankly, is a commitment – but one that I hope pays off.
I have extremely strong emotions, and always have. I leave it all on the table, and put it all out there. There was a time when I struggled a lot mentally as a result, as wearing your heart on your sleeve makes it easy for those who want to hurt you to find an easy way to do so… But over time, I’ve come to ignore those people, and only care about doing what I want to do, how I want to do it. My music is exactly how I want it to be – and that’s what matters.
How did you get involved in electronic music in the first place, and what was the key event that made you think - yes, this is me?
I was a death metal kid throughout the majority of my youth. Then, one day in 1990, I’m not even sure how it happened, I was flipping through the radio and came upon a late night mix-show, and they were playing Spice by Eon. I had never heard techno before, and actually don’t think I even knew what it was, but it hit me immediately. As trite as it sounds, I just thought, “Holy shit, this is the music. This is the music I was put on this planet for”.
The fates conspired quickly, and it so happened that within a few days a friend I hadn’t even talked to in years called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to a rave. I didn’t even really know what one was, but went along to check it out. The minute I walked in, I knew my life had changed forever. Until that point I had been an insanely angry and unhappy kid who basically hated the world, and had spent nearly every waking minute getting into fights and being obsessed with violence. Then all of a sudden, here I was surrounded by thousands of people I had never met in my life, all of who treated me like I was their oldest friend – and all to the soundtrack of the most amazing music I had ever heard.
This was music that truly understood life, and the whole point of it all. It was the full realisation of what music was supposed to be. I knew at that moment I would dedicate the rest of my life to electronic music… And for every day since that day, I have. Before long I started throwing my own parties, then DJing, then the rest is history, as they say.
For those of us who know you primarily for your ambient compositions, it might be surprise to learn that you started off as a deep house/techno DJ. How did that come about, and why did you shift to ambient compositions?
Though I was a deep house and deep techno DJ for many years, the first mixtape I ever made was actually a beatless ambient one (though there are probably about 13 people in the world that know that – the three friends I gave it to, and the 10 who bought it), and I used to DJ a lot in chill rooms at raves back in the early nineties, so ambient has always been there, and has always been important in my life on a myriad of levels.
The transition from starting as an ambient DJ to becoming a deep house/deep techno (primarily deep house) one was not unlike the way I came into techno in the first place. In the beginning, I was all about ambient and trance (keep in mind when I say “trance,” I’m talking about a kind of trance that was gone by about 1994, tops – the kind made for back rooms and headphones… The kind that actually deserved the name) – in fact, I hated house music and used to get in arguments with my friends constantly about that fact, as I was the only one of our group that not only didn’t like house, and actually liked trance.
Then one day I was at some random person’s house fucked up on too many things to count (which was the norm at the time), and this dude I had never met before put in this deep house mix-tape – the kind of amazing, pure deep, classic house of the super-early nineties. It was a virtually religious experience. I had never heard something so purely beautiful and positive. It really showed me a whole new way to look at electronic music – and after I dubbed the tape on a horrible cheap tape deck – the only one that was at the house, thus began what would be a very long chapter in my life, as a deep house DJ. In fact, I still have that tape. The guy who had it had dubbed it from someone else’s dub, and I from him, so it sounds like complete crap – but it’s one of my most valued possessions in the world.
The transition to more ambient compositions was a natural one, especially considering my history with ambient – even for my beat-oriented tracks, the ambient and atmospheric elements were always the main point, so to begin to shift the focus strictly to the ambient side was, for me, natural and easy. It came with time, and went through a pretty natural process I think, so for the most part, many supporters of my music were able to not only accept it, but appreciate it.
I think those who listen closely can definitely hear parts of all my history – deep house, trance, ambient, and deep techno – and, more abstractly, even hardcore and jungle. So in that sense, I don’t know that it’s “pure” anything, really. For me, any music I’ve ever loved, I love because of the emotion it gives – what it says. I’ve never really cared how it said it, or what form it took. So just as it was natural and easy for me to move between different kinds of music DJing, the same is true for what I make. Anyone who understands my music knows it’s all about the emotion of the tracks, not whether they have beats or not. I think they can feel where they’re coming from either way. At least I hope so.
You've done a few live sets - is this something you'd like to do more of?
I’ve really enjoyed the few I’ve done, and would love to do more. But I will say that finding an appropriate venue and environment is extremely difficult, because most promoters consider the music I make to be non-crowd friendly.
The problem is, I get emails all the time from people who say “We really love your music. Can you come play at our event, but play bangin’ dance tracks?”. So what they’re saying is, “We love your music, but can you come perform music that’s not your music?” It’s ridiculous. I think the saddest thing is that so many promoters fail to realize that people who really know music can also dance to more ambient, deeper tracks – or, God forbid, not dance and just listen. In fact, those are the people who really know what’s up. But as we all know, most clubs are full of people who couldn’t have any less idea what’s up.
Your tracks have what could be described as dark names. Do you go in with an 'idea' of a track/album, as some sort of catharsis, or is it a more organic process?
It’s not organic whatsoever. Before I sit down to make a track I already write the title – this is the feeling I have to get out, the thing I have to say or the story I need to tell. Then I sit down and tell it.
The way the track itself comes out is sometimes organic, and sometimes not, but the intention behind every title, and the emotion behind every second of every track is… well, intentional.
At the moment, you live in China - how did that come about, and do you feel it's having an influence on the music you're creating?
I’ve lived here twice, for several years each time. The first time actually came about out of my want to flee the “scene” in San Francisco that to me had become a disgusting, shameful farce that had betrayed everything the people who founded it sacrificed everything for. I simply couldn’t take it anymore. So I sold everything I owned, including my 7,000 records, and was gone.
The second time I came back, a couple years ago, was actually because I really missed teaching, and so I returned to do so in the university I’m currently in as an associate professor. Though I’d be lying if I said I always love China, I absolutely love my job and my students, and in that sense, I made the right decision.
In one sense China has zero influence on my music, because since no one here knows anything about electronic music (well, where I live anyway – I live in a very small, conservative city). I basically live in a vacuum, which actually I think helps me a lot, as I am able to make music from a pure perspective. But in another sense it has an influence on my music, because much of my music of late explores narratives about things that have happened to me here, or in response to the often crushing loneliness and isolation of life here.
Music tells the story of your life, so in that sense, where you live will always influence it… which is a really cool thing, in my opinion. It’s a postcard of your life at that time that you will always remember. Maybe it’s weird that I think that’s cool, as much of my music deals with things I wish I didn’t remember, but those times are part of it all, and the tragic beauty of the weird experiment we call life.
Is China as restrictive as it is made out to be in the West, and have you ever come into problems?
Though China is somewhat what you think it is if you’ve never been here, for the most part, it’s nothing like you think, and nothing like it is portrayed in the West (but to be fair, the West is nothing like it's portrayed here either). My life here is actually freer than it is in the States – that’s not to necessarily say it’s “better”, as that’s a hard thing to define, but it’s definitely freer.
I’m not Chinese, however, so I am not bound by many things that Chinese are. I can say, however, that although there are some things about society and the “rules” here that those of us in the West would find possibly unacceptably restrictive, life in China, for both Chinese and foreigners, is infinitely less restrictive and way more easy-going than most would think. Though in some ways it’s more uptight, in many ways, it’s actually more easy-going in comparison. I’ve run into plenty of problems in China, but never any having to do with being restricted or barred from doing something.
Every country has their rules of the game, and really, most of them are pretty much the same no matter where you go. Respect others, and they’ll respect you. As long as you play by them as well as you can and don’t act like an asshole, you get along fine. But as we all know, not acting like an asshole is extremely difficult for far too many people in every part of the world.
Your music resonates with themes of death and loss, and I've read elsewhere it's an obsession you have. How did that come about?
I don’t know, really. I’ve always had an obsession with it, really more from the perspective of how the people in your world will remember you when you’re gone – how, if any, parts of your life and who you were would still be interwoven into theirs, and how long people might remember you until all memory of your existence is gone, and it’s like you never existed. It’s a thought that’s both terrifying and beautiful to me, and one I’ve been obsessed with for the majority of my adult life.
In some ways I always wanted to just be forgotten when I was gone – and in some ways, like many people, I want people to remember. I have explored the theme so much in my music because it has always been a way for me to face what used to be a paralyzing fear of death, and instead turn it to something to be embraced, in some sense. I’m not going to lie and say I’m not scared of it at all – I think anyone who has anything or anyone important to them in life would be scared of the thought of being without it, or them – but it’s helped me put it in a very different light. Being a card-carrying existentialist for the past 20-something years or so probably doesn’t help. Death is always at the forefront – as it renders all else obsolete. Good times.
Do you feel that emotional music, and more widely, art of all kinds, is looked down on if it takes an emotional view that might not be uplifting?
I used to have to deal with such sentiments even back when I DJed… everyone said my sets were “too emotional,” “too sad,” etc. Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I wasn’t aware I wasn’t allowed to actually express real facets of my life to people. Apparently that’s not what music is about anymore. I guess I didn’t get the memo. Though I’ve dealt with it for 20 years or so, this is a real sore spot for me lately.
Unfortunately, as your question brings up, this applies to really all forms of art, not just music. People are constantly criticised for being “too sad,” “too deep,” “too emotional,” or “too” anything, really. Who are these people to say anyone’s work is “too” anything? It’s art. Art is personal. And it’s subjective. It completely dumfounds me how people can claim to love any artform, then criticise any form of it simply for taking an emotional stance that might not be the one they themselves feel like exploring. Last time I checked, art has the right to explore any kind of emotion – not just uplifting, feel-good ones. If you only want to feel good about everything all the time, go watch sitcoms all day. Let music, paintings, photographs, or any other kind of art say whatever the hell the artist wants it to say. If you don’t like it, either don’t buy it, or go make your own.
Lately many people throw around this ‘sad-sack ambient’ term, which frankly really pisses me off. What exactly is that supposed to mean? That anyone who wants to make music that explores more personal or sadder facets of their life through their music is somehow some “sad sack”? So we can only make or listen to electronic music that makes us pretend realities don’t exist? Why is addressing realities and embracing different aspects of life through music somehow something to be derided as “sad-sack?” If you don’t want to face those parts of your life, or find the beauty in them that other people do, well then good for you. But why should we all have to be the same?
This is one of the biggest plagues of modern electronic music – if someone doesn’t like everything you like, they automatically need to be bashed and insulted. Just like whatever the fuck you like, and leave everyone else alone. Frankly, I find these people who can only listen to “uplifting” music to be quite sad – not because they like uplifting ambient, or uplifting music – I do too – but because they don’t realise that sometimes it’s through addressing sadness or tough times that we see the true beauty of life, as we can appreciate life for everything it is – not just one side – and that in the end, that’s even more uplifting.
Some of us like to use music to face life… not escape from it. But really what it boils down to is that people need to just mind their own business, and shut their mouths when no one asked them to open them. If I didn’t tell you not to like your dance-all-night party tracks or uplifting whatever, why do you have to tell me or others that our music is too emotional or sad? Last time I checked, no one asked you.
Out of your tracks, which one is your favorite and why?
This is a pretty impossible question to answer, as different tracks are favorites at different times for different reasons – and many of them truly take on new meaning and context over time, as I do listen to my own music a lot. The problem is, if you ask me this question at 10 different times throughout the day, I will give you 10 different answers. I attempted to answer this question three different times, and with three different answers – all of which were totally true… At that moment. So in the end, I think I will have to say I love them all for different reasons – and it took me an entire paragraph to essentially say absolutely nothing.
How did the Air Texture compilation come about, and what approaches did you take to curating it, and what did you want to achieve?
It came about from the kind invitation of James Healy and the label (Air Texture), who asked me if I would be interested in the idea.
Though it’s kind of a lot of pressure, I was really honoured, so readily accepted. It was a pretty daunting task thinking of artists and organising the whole thing, but everyone involved was really awesome in their hard work and dedication. I’m truly grateful, not only for the chance to be a part of it, but for every artists’ kind participation. It was a real honour.
My goal for my CD was to build a collection of the more quiet, contemplative side of ambient. I’m known for sweeping, cinematic, dramatic pieces, but I wanted the CD to be a quieter, dare I say minimal experience. In that sense it also turned out to be a really nice companion/contrast to Andrew’s CD, which was much bigger in sound, and actually possibly more like what many people thought I would have leaned toward.
The other main goal in choosing the artists I chose was to not only showcase music I loved, but also many artists who I feel are really unsung heroes of ambient in recent years… Guys who have been in the trenches, dedicating their life, heart and soul to their music, and in the process putting out as much or more output than many more massive names, but who much of the time are overlooked. Don’t get me wrong, there are also some on there who are far from overlooked, but I think it achieved a good balance of the two, and I’m not only proud that some of the more well-known artists were kind enough to participate, but also that I was able to feature some that maybe not everyone knows.
What and who are your major influences, both in the past and now?
I have tons, of course. Everyone does. But mine are all purely subconscious. I never think about other artists’ work when making my own, and in that sense I am influenced by no one. But in another sense, every track and every album from every artist I’ve ever loved has and still does influence me subconsciously, and I’m grateful for what they’ve given to me and the world. That being said, I’m not going to say I’m influenced by this artist or that. One, I’m influenced by no one consciously, and two, all that does is invite ridiculous comparisons, connections and so on, which to me is not only unnecessary, but absurd.
I didn’t invent electronic music. I’m just one person in a long line of people that pioneered the whole thing way before me, and those that will continue on long after I have nothing else to say. But I do it my way, and tell my own story. And in that sense, my major influence is my life. Plain and simple.
How did the collaboration with ASC come about?
One day I got an email from him telling me he was a big fan of my ambient work – which really blew me away, as I have been a massive fan of his for way over 10 years, from the first record he put out (few people know, I’m actually a ridiculously huge drum & bass fan), so that was really one of the coolest emails I ever received. We began communicating quite often, and found that not only were we big fans of each others’ music, but we had tons in common, from personalities, to experiences in music and beyond.
One day he asked me if I would be open to doing a collaboration – an idea which, to be honest, I had never been open to, and had turned down numerous times before with other people. But the chance to do something with someone whose music had had such a big impact on me, and who I had such respect for, man that I couldn’t pass up. Plus I really felt we had started to become friends, which is important. A collaboration is just that – you’re doing something together. There has to be emotion behind it – not just in the music, but between the two of you. Otherwise I think it’s pretty pointless, and you might as well just do your own thing. In the end, I was really glad I did it, and we both said we’d like to do it again someday.
I think we both got a lot out of it, really enjoyed it, and learned something in the process. He is such a multi-talented dude, it was really cool to gain some insight into how he worked, and to be part of the process. It definitely changed my perspective on working with someone else on music, and it was great to see it was well-received by people who listen to both of our spectrums of music.
What do you think the future holds for electronic music in general?
Man, that’s a tough one. I’m a pessimistic person already, but when it comes to music, I’m pessimistic to the nth power. I don’t know, I just don’t see where it can all go when it’s all so based on such exclusion, derision and arrogance now. It’s so fragmented now. Everyone thinks whatever they listen to is the only music that should be listened to on the face of the earth. In that kind of climate, certain micro-genres can flourish for really short amounts of time, but without any real overall unity or community for them to really be a part of, they all die off quick (as we’ve seen in recent years).
This is the fundamental difference between now and so many years before – sure there were plenty of genres back then, but they were all still under the same roof, in that they were all pushing toward a similar goal, and people weren’t afraid to like different kinds of music, even all packed into one night. There was room for everyone. Now, 99% of people’s only interest is seeing their name in a blog or how many people are paying attention to them. They couldn’t care less about this music. When another thing comes along they think is “cool”, they’ll jump on that bandwagon, and forget this music ever existed. It’s a selfish world now, electronic music. That needs to change, and fast, or soon we’ll have nothing left. That being said, there is still a lot of amazing music coming out. I see tons of people online saying there is no good music anymore, but I disagree. A lot of amazing music is coming out on a constant basis. What we need now is a positive and nurturing environment for it to be supported, rather than more and more waves of keyboard warriors and backseat drivers to tell everyone why it sucks. If half these people could focus even 1/100 of the energy they put into bashing on people towards doing something constructive, maybe the “scene” could revive itself to even a fraction of its former self. But they won’t, because they can’t. So they will always be content to try to tear down people who do. Sometimes it makes me so sick I just want to never listen to or make a note of music again, but I know that will never happen, thankfully.
At the end of the day, all you can do is focus on the positive, and the good people. They are out there – actually they far outnumber the negative and the nastiness… but unfortunately it’s easy to let one ignorant idiot make you forget about 100 awesome and amazing people who love for all the right reasons. So I just remember the 100 good people, and ignore the one idiot, because there are still a lot of great people out there, and great things happening. So even the worst pessimism still has some glimmers of optimism, I guess.
What are your coming plans?
Musically, just to keep doing what I feel, and going where my heart takes me. Non-musically, I can never quite figure that out. Hopefully keep teaching, ‘cause I love it – even when my students don’t love me back; not too different from music, really.
With regards to your studio, what do you use? And do you have a particular favorite bit of kit?
Sorry, I never talk about how I make music. It’s not because I’m so full of myself that I think what I do is so abstruse it must be hidden in some top-secret lair – it’s that I just think people talk way too much about how music is made nowadays. It’s taking all the magic away. Who cares how it’s made? You like it or you don’t. You feel it, or you don’t. Nothing else matters.
Where does the name bvdub come from?
Quite simple really. It is just a shortened way of how you would say my initials, “BVW”. I used to work at a pizza place in the early nineties, and one day I walked in, and one of my coworkers shouted “bvdub!” (he was good at coming up with stuff like that). I don’t know why, but it stuck, and though it was kinda weird, I liked it. I had been DJing for a few years by that time, but before that under my real name, so I changed it to “bvdub” and never looked back.
It has absolutely nothing to do with, nor has it ever had anything to do with, dub techno, dub music or anything to do with dub. I have never in my life made a single “dub techno” or “dub” anything track, no matter how many people want to say so out of ignorance as to what on earth “dub” music even means. It took years to get that into people’s heads, but I think for the most part people understand that now, but of course there are still people out there who say something I make is “dub” techno, “dubby” or whatever. I think those people really need to spend some time with a dictionary.
You've just released your sixth album of the year, "Resistance Is Beautiful" on Darla. Was there a theme or concept with that album?
I think in both name and sound, people should be able to notice a difference from my other work, in that there is much more strength in it. A large majority of my previous work is very anchored in sadness, regret and memories… whereas “Resistance Is Beautiful” is about making that sadness, regret and the past, into what you want it to be now and in the future.
At the time, I was dealing with some very hard to deal with issues and instead of channeling them into pieces that explored what they were doing to me, I wanted to channel them into stories of what I was going to do to them – how they would end, and end in my victory. While much of my work is somewhat about accepting realities and even embracing the worst realities, “Resistance is Beautiful” is all about – and forgive me if this sounds lame – the beauty of resistance. There was a time when people really fought for what they believed in, not only in music, but in their lives. It seemed every day, things had purpose. Nowadays it seems most people just drift aimlessly, and stand for nothing. Because to stand for something, and to live your life how you truly want to live it, you have to resist so much around you. It’s easier to just lay down and accept it. To be able to win, you have to be willing to lose – a willingness few people have anymore. Sadly, too many people nowadays would rather just do nothing, and complain about everything from their comfortable seat on the sidelines. As someone put it quite aptly the other day, resistance is the enemy of indifference.
How do you feel your music has matured since your first release?
To me, it’s matured an immeasurable amount. My very first releases were really sketches, more than anything else, now that I go back and listen to them – but really, that’s all I was capable of at the time.
One thing I am very proud of is that even if you go back and listen to literally the first tracks I ever made (my first album on 2600 contains literally the first six tracks I ever made in my life, in order), though they are 4/4(ish), and though they are extremely simple by comparison to what I make now, you can see that from the beginning, the message, and my voice, has always been there. Though of course some tracks have been more fully-realised than others, I think if you listen to them all from the beginning to now, you can see it’s all clearly part of the same story.
I’ve never just made what I thought people wanted to hear, or what I thought would get me “heard”. I make what I feel, so I think the progression, and maturity, has been quite natural and organic. Maturity-wise, it’s changed on a lot of levels, not only in the actual density of the tracks (I’ve made some ambient pieces that at their peak contained more than 150 separate channels running concurrently), but the emotional maturity. In the beginning, they were basic ideas of emotional… well, ideas. Now they are very specific stories, that tell of very specific emotive responses, situations and memories - pretty much to the second. It’s made making music not only more enjoyable, but more meaningful each time I sit down to do so. I feel like I grow as an artist with each and every track. I can only hope the amazing people who support my music feel the same, and grow with me. – or at least be patient while I do.
What does the future hold for bvdub?
Well, hopefully some good things. I have a new album just out on a small Japanese label, AY, another new album for Darla that I just recently finished, which will be released next year, a follow-up to “Tribes at the Temple of Silence,” entitled “The First Day,” which will be out on Home Normal early 2012. The massive honour of being involved in the Pop Ambient series once again, with a track on Pop Ambient 2012. I also have a few more things in the works that will push in a few different directions, but we’ll save all that for another day.
All I can say is, my gratitude for all who have supported me over these years really and truly knows no bounds, and I just hope that in the time to come, as the small stories I have to tell take their twists and turns, that they continue to feel where I’m coming from, and understand. There’s no better feeling in the world – and no more important reason to be alive.