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Finding the ghost in the machine: Loscil

INTERVIEW! Ahead of his show on Oct 24 at Funkhaus, Scott Morgan aka Loscil talks his latest album "Equivalents", contrasting computer-driven music with nature and how his native Vancouver inspires his eerie soundscapes.

Image for Finding the ghost in the machine: Loscil

Photo by Dayna Szyndrowski. Catch Loscil aka Scott Morgan at Funkhaus on Oct 24, starts 20:30.

Echoing the gloomy, overcast, and awe-inspiring surroundings of his hometown, Vancouver’s Scott Morgan aka Loscil has spent the last 20 years at the forefront of ambient music. His latest work is a startling culmination of that project, eerie soundscapes overlaid with the barest strands of melody. We caught up with Morgan ahead of his show at Funkhaus on October 24.

What drew you to the source material of your latest album Equivalents [Alfred Stieglitz’s 1922 photography collection, also titled Equivalents, widely considered to be the first ‘abstract’ photography]?

The whole point of this record was to create a blank canvas for people to explore emotionally their own perspective. Stieglitz was really interested in style and expression, looking at something in an abstract way rather than a using method that was concrete and journalistic. One of the parts of that collection is called “Songs of the Sky”. I’m sort of an amateur photographer, and while I was looking into the history of the field I got kind of obsessed with it.

I’m surprised to hear you call it a blank canvas. I interpreted it as quite a gloomy record.

Well, no. There’s a vast array of responses to a lot of my music. Negative, joyous, contemplative, and also what you just explained, a sense of dread or an ominous feeling. I love that about this type of music. We don’t think about it much but music, especially instrumental music, doesn’t really represent anything.

Past albums of yours have examined different parts of nature in sequence, such as the mountains in Coast/Range/Arc and the water in First Narrows. Was this a continuation of that theme?

I think so, accidentally. Living in Vancouver, you become subconsciously trained as a viewer. It’s easy on the eyes: you can’t help but look at the water and the mountains, and of course the sky is a part of that image.

You began producing music as Loscil in 1998. Over that time, it’s become difficult to reflect on nature without thinking about climate change. Has ecological degradation affected your work, or how you make music?

There are a couple different answers to that. There’s actually always been a slight interest in not just pretty things. It’s not all natural source material; there’s an interest in the industrial element. Making computer-driven electronic music, I’ve always been interested in finding the ghost in the machine. I’m fascinated by forms of architecture and engineering and their contrasts with nature. 

On Monument Builders, I even have a track called Anthropocene. It’s a reflection on where we were at that point, and I was exploring the idea that we could emotionally express that feeling of dread or danger. With this record, I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but no doubt that those themes have bubbled to the surface.

That’s probably why Vancouver is the ideal setting, and I say that in a sort of ironic way. The nature is so beautiful but it’s coupled with human intervention. [My 2014 album] Sea Island is really inspired by that contrast. That area being a nature reserve as well as an industrial area and an airport is both beautiful and kind of horrific. I relish that contrast. There’s a balance there that I find interesting from a musical perspective. It opens the door to interpretation. 

You previously make music with Destroyer. What precipitated that departure from the indie scene and brought you into ambient music?

My entrance into this kind of form of music making was academic. I studied electroacoustic and computer music, and I was focussed primarily on very experimental and abstract stuff. I had a really interesting professor who was a pioneer of real time granular synthesis which is a way of building these huge textures.

As I was leaving school and interested in the indie and post-rock scenes, I found the middle ground in this kind of music. It felt like a natural fit to make music that was not quite techno, not quite indie. It took a few records to get to that point.

Do you feel that some of your early work didn’t achieve what you wanted?

I kind of dismiss my first record. I struggle with some of my choices.

Each record draws heavily from a single theme, often a place or historical event. How central is this to your creative process?

I like to get buried in little corners and see what happens when you explore ideas. You could be guilty of taking things too seriously and getting inside your own world, but I think the pleasure I get out of creating stuff is building something slowly and methodically that feels right. I don’t care if nobody understands the Stieglitz connection with Equivalents, that was interesting to me. I think if I was just making music for the sake of making music I’d really struggle to continue. 

Locals tend to be pretty hard on Vancouver. It’s nice to talk to someone from there who actually likes the place.

I definitely can go on about why Vancouver sucks. But – probably because I know I’m going to stay here – I have to find ways to love it.

Loscil | Funkhaus, Oberschöneweide. Oct 24, starts 20:30.