Published Apr 21, 2009Over the years, Jeremy Schmidt has been called an analog synth wizard, a cosmic voyager and even Vancouver's godfather of contemporary space rock. All are fitting and all are justified, with Schmidt spending the greater part of the last two decades cementing a reputation as the West coast's resident go-to guy for interplanetary synth sorcery. His space explorations began in the early '90s as part of Pipedream, a Spacemen 3-inspired three-piece, but now take place in Schmidt's solo project Sinoia Caves and most recently among the ranks of retro-rock flag-bearers Black Mountain. But make no mistake: while Schmidt's audio drones may stem from a complex web of circuitry, he's not out to make the music of the future. In fact, he's looking to do quite the opposite.
"I grew up during a time when synthesized and electronic sound was still relatively new in popular culture and it was very much identifying as being the sound of the future," 36-year-old Schmidt explains. "But it's now very much the sound of the past, or at least redolent of an idea that was trying to convey something futuristic, where it reminds you of a past impression of what the future might look like. And part of my initial interest in playing with Black Mountain was about reinstating keyboards in a heavy rock context, as they existed before."
In his anachronistic ambitions, Schmidt has set up what he likes to call his Kosmische Kloset. Being a tiny 10x10 room, it's an aptly named workspace and one that's as much a museum as a home studio. Lining the boxed white walls are decades-old keyboards with names like Arp, Farfisa, Mellotron and Prophet, all feeding into a Tascam eight-track, some Space Echoes and an ancient Richmond Sound Design mixing deck, which looks more like a piece of 16th century nautical equipment than a recording device. It's in this less-than-spacious abode that Schmidt has laid down his synth work for both Black Mountain albums and his sole Sinoia Caves effort, 2002's The Enchanter Persuaded, perhaps one of the finest slabs of oscillating prog ambience ever put to half-inch tape.
"In a band, the acoustics of the room are important. But everything I do is direct input and I don't amplify anything, so that's why I'm working in a space that's basically like tiny galley of a ship," Schmidt says. "The cabin fever dimension does take over a bit, and sometimes it's sort of helpful and sometimes it's bad for your mental health. But it's weird: the music I make is evocative of open space - something sort of agoraphobic as opposed to claustrophobic - but therein lies the paradox."
By Schmidt's count, he has collected roughly 20 different keyboards, organs and synthesizers over the years, yet not a single one is digital. In fact, his only piece of gear that uses any sort of non-analog technology is a LinnDrum, the first sample-based drum machine popularized in the early '80s by artists such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. He admits it's all a bit archaic, but says his largely abandoned approach does have its advantages.
"I like the idiosyncrasies that come with analog equipment, in the slightly imperfect way it behaves," Schmidt says of his computer-free setup. "Everything is its own discrete tool and the interface is very hands on, in that it's all knobs, dials, etc. You actually can really feel what's at work. Also, one could say what it doesn't have in perfection it has ten-fold in character and charm."
And while Schmidt makes no attempts at hiding his love for the long-bygone era when musicians like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson wielded their synths as mighty instruments of rock, he does say his love for retro-futuristic technology comes from more than simply wanting to worship at the altar of rock'n'roll past.
"My interest in this kind of equipment stems from a fascination with how it all kind of exists in the world as objects," he explains. "I've always been enamoured by the fact that these instruments have been around for a long time and they now sort of define the sensibility of another era. I think there's a certain character that things acquire as they become part of the world of obsolescence. In a weird way, it sort of amplifies their meaning, they almost become more of what they already are. The context they once had has kind of disappeared and now they exist as these relics of the past. And that's something I've always been drawn to with things in general. I mean, it's probably just as simple as why people like antiques. Antiquity brings a kind of personality to otherwise mundane objects."