A Half-Hour With Ambient/Drone Duo Windy & Carl

October 3, 2017
KJ Rothweiler of 38 interviewed duo Windy & Carl—known for their atmospheric sound and use of cinematic long-form drones—in anticipation for their upcoming performance on Friday, October 6, as part of Ambient Church.
Edited by Alessandra Gomez

KJ Rothweiler: I wanted to start back in the 90’s for a second — and see if I could get a comment from both of you on how you experienced the music scene in the 90’s and how your music was originally received back then.

Windy Weber: Holy Hannah! Well for starters, the 90’s is a long period of time, and so I can’t just encapsulate a whole decade into a couple of sentences. I’ll say that in the beginning when we put out our first record and first started playing shows, there was an interesting scene of musicians here in Detroit—all influenced by similar things. Most of us listened to the radio show that our friend Larry Hoffman was doing at the time, most of us shopped at a record store called Play it Again, which was in Royal Oak. We listened to My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Verve, and heard all of these bands that we really loved and started working in somewhat of a similar realm. We all did shows together in ’95, ’96, ‘97 and on a regular basis, you could go downtown Detroit and see groups like Monaural, and Auburn Lull, and us. We did tons of shows together; we were opening for people like The Magic Hour and Ghost. It was exciting. There were a whole lot of shows all the time and a lot of people involved. It felt like we were really doing something.

Carl Hultgren: It was a lot of fun. We were in our early 20s, there were other bands who were teenagers, and we all just got together because we all listened to the same music and had these shows where we all played together for our friends and for each other. There’s a coffee house in Dearborn called “The Zone” that we all played at and another one in Detroit called “The IO”.  And “Zoots” – Zoots was a really big staple for a lot of independent music – all across the board and all kind styles. And our friend Larry had a regular show; he would have people play in his basement and he’d have parties and we’d all hang out and share equipment and have a lot of fun.

W: It was all very intertwined.

KJ: Could you speak about what your process was initially like and how it might have changed over the years?

W: There are a number of themes that run through how it is that we end up writing and recording. In the very beginning, Carl wrote most of our songs. He wrote the music and then he would teach me how to play whatever my part was going to be, which was usually bass-related and I was in charge of all the lyrics; I don’t play much on Portal, that was mainly Carl. I throw in a little bass here and there but by the time we recorded Antarctica, it was equal parts of both of us. That was a crazy record because I pressed a note on a keyboard and really liked it—Carl ran through the house and started the recorder and we both picked up other instruments and played along with the keyboard sound and Antarctica happened all at once. So it really depends. There are songs that either of us have written on our own and then we invite each other to add to it. There are a lot of pieces we’ve written together when we’ve simply sat down and channeled music from wherever. We do our best to record every time that we sit down and play, so if there’s something we’re really enjoying we can do our best to re-create it or work on it in the future. But then there are experiences like the We Will Always Be album which was, once again, mostly Carl. Then I went in and added all kinds of weird sounds, strange guitars, and all of the different vocal effects that happened. So, it thoroughly depends on what mood we’re in, where we’re in the world, who’s got an idea, what has sparked something that is making us create. There’s really never been a standard practice for us, just many options.

C: I think that in the early days in ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, ‘95 there were a lot of small labels that were putting out 7-inch singles. They’re really affordable to put out it was easy and quick, so we concentrated a lot of our efforts into making more songs to be more fitting for a single—you get more traditional vocal songs instead of long-form pieces, which we saved for the albums in the 12-inch EPs. It evolved over time, but then as fewer labels were putting out singles, it seemed a lot more fun to concentrate on a really long full album. In this moment, other things started to sprawl a bit more and we took more time. After our first single was released, one of the record stores labeled us as “bass folk.” And then strayed away from that within two years which was when the long form pieces started to come into effect.

W: We’ve made jokes through the years that Depths was finally the record that was dark enough for Kranky. We sent Joel and Bruce a lot of things through the years and they would repeatedly say to us “Well, not this one, but keep us in mind for the future.”

C: As soon as Kranky came around we thought, “That would be an awesome label to be a part of at some point.” They put out the first Labradford album in 1993, I believe.

W: We were so in love with Labradford.

KJ: Oh yeah.

C: Kranky was very kind— they were like, “Keep us in mind.. this isn’t the one.” And then eventually we finally got our footing and made some music that worked out a lot better and was probably more long-lasting.

KJ: And speaking more to that, can you discuss the popularity and rise/fall of ambient and drone music? How has that affected you or not affected you? Do you pay attention to that at all?

W: In the beginning, I can remember—this has happened to a ton of different bands, not just bands creating ambient music—we probably should have kept a list of how many times people would yell from the audience, “Play Free Bird!” They would say to us, “Hey man, where’s your drummer?” We didn’t have a drummer… and that’s just the way it was. In the beginning, it seemed like…

C: I don’t think anybody was really doing any kind of ambient music around that we knew of…

W: No.

C: Not in the Michigan area, at least.

W: There were a lot of bands with drummers, but it seemed like in the beginning, it was weird and people weren’t quite sure what to think of it. Later, there were a couple of years near the end of the 90’s where Astralwerks released one or two ambient comps and a lot of it was more electronica ambient, it wasn’t necessarily just guitar-related. The last couple of years it has seemed to have completely exploded… I’m not sure why.

C: It’s much more popular now than it has been since we’ve been doing this.

W: And a lot of things have gotten labeled ambient/new age and it seems like the new age tag is overused and draws people in in some weird way. If it was up to us—if we had to be labeled—someone could say, “Well, they make music that makes my dog relax,” and that’d be fine with me.  I could make music for pets. I could make music for people to fall asleep to, but I don’t know that what we do necessarily fits into the new age thing. Especially with labels like Light in The Attic releasing new age compendiums, it seems like something many people are striving to do at this point.

C: I’ve never thought of us being new age but more of a drone ambient—there are melodies in a lot of our work; it Is not as easy to pinpoint and to pick out unless you really give it some time. It’s definitely more drone than new age.

W: I would explain it as more than experimental/modern/classical and that actually has worked against us in some ways. Our pieces do have a composition to them. They are really long-form they take a long time to unfold. When we have tried to win grant money that has been offered in Detroit over the past decade, we found from people that we know (who inevitably end up on these boards) express to us that unfortunately, board members didn’t have the patience to listen to our pieces unfold.

C: Or they might only require a 2-minute piece, so for us, a 2-minute piece is one passage of a long piece. People might not understand or have the patience for it but we definitely have the patience for it because the longer the better.

*laughter*

KJ: Absolutely. How do you find the music community today between Bandcamp, the internet, etc. – who your fans are and what the community is for you?

W: Well, I could regularly complain about YouTube but I like that someone can go to YouTube and listen to just about anything, however, bands are not being paid anything from YouTube plays. On the other hand, Bandcamp is a really nice resource because it allows an artist to create something right away and put it for sale right away. Anyone who is trying to get a record pressed in this day and age knows having actual vinyl produced takes a really long time. A lot of the plants are rushing the process so your sound quality is bad or your records are warped because they aren’t cured properly so Bandcamp is a really cool option. For instance, we wanted to make music to raise money for friends of ours whose bar was damaged in downtown Detroit (UFO Factory). Within a two-week period, we were able to create an hour’s worth of music that we were really happy with and instantly post it on Bandcamp so we could accept donations to be able to help our friends pay for bills. If we tried to press a record, it would have taken 6 or 8 months so the immediacy of Bandcamp is awesome. The control is great.  

KJ: Similarly, you both run a record store. I am curious where that fits into what is happening now? Are people still buying records and what sort of people are they? Can you discuss the experience of running a physical record shop?

C: It’s very demanding, it takes a lot of time. Given the accessibility of the internet, there are many people addicted to shopping that way too. It’s more of a struggle at times to keep the store going as well as it once was.

W: I enjoy that our customer base goes from kids that are 5 years old to people that are in their 80’s. There are many people who have always enjoyed records and are happy to come in and hold physical items and have all of these amazing memories come back. We luckily have a whole new wave of parents who are anywhere from 25 – 40 who are interested in records and are bringing their kids into the store to educate them to other parents who think, “Wow, when I was a kid I really loved this and I want you to understand and experience what this was like.” I am very thankful for those people.

The media is hard. For years and years, they said records are dead ..people would come in the store and look at us and say, “Why are you bothering doing this?” and “Nobody cares about a record.” But then, people realized records are great. They’re coming back! Then the media started to say, “Oh well, you need a reissue. You now need a modern pressing of something from the 60’s or the 70’s because that original record is going to sound bad.” It’s a constant battle. It’s a lot of work but being able to put a piece of music into someone’s hands that is then going to enhance the person’s life is exactly why we have always done this.

C: Without a record store, I don’t think we would have become exposed to anything that we started doing stylistically!

W: Without record stores, Carl and I probably would not have met each other.

C: And now it’s so different because everything is out there at your fingertips. Before, you really had to go out and do work and trade tapes and read fanzines.

W: Read the NME, the New Music Express, listen to David Wisdom in the middle of the night. College Radio was amazing and CBC radio, it was so important back then.

KJ: Speaking on the topic of reissues, how do you feel about reissues of older works of yours or maybe works of yours like Portal that didn’t originally come out on vinyl?

C: It has never been put out on vinyl… we’ve had a couple people approach us about doing a vinyl pressing and we’re like that be great, but it doesn’t seem to happen — it would be nice to have something like that made available on the classic LP format. We did tapes for Portal and our friend Ben Goldberg put it out on his label Ba Da Bing on CD. As soon as he put it out, we stopped selling the tape, so I’m not sure a lot of people know it existed on a cassette tape first. But never vinyl. A lot of our stuff has not been reissued – the first two or three Kranky albums are no longer available; it’d be nice to get them out there again but moving forward seems to be of more importance to us.

W: We’ve toyed with the idea of potentially re-releasing Depths. We’re too busy, we don’t have the time, it’s really expensive, it would be a lovely gift to the people who we are so thankful for who listen to our music who really want a copy of something that came out 20 years ago and either can’t find it or don’t want pay a lot of money for it. But vinyl is hard to make and it’s hard to get it to sound good, and shipping overseas is a crazy amount of money. If we were to do some sort of reissue campaign, we would really need a European label or distributor to do some sort of licensing to help u. Maybe we’d sell a couple hundred copies in the US but wouldn’t be able to get it to Europe or Japan because it’s really cost prohibitive to ship a double LP overseas.

C: I would like to see some reissues and the titles appear again in a physical format. We aren’t really sure when that might happen, so keeping it on the back burner…simmering…

W: We’re all about options.

C: There’s many plates and they always seem to be pretty full.

W: We’re running around trying to keep them all spinning and no drop them on the floor!

C: It does feel that way sometimes.

W: The circus of Windy & Carl.

KJ: I’d love to see that as well.

C: Well, hopefully it can happen at some point.

KJ: I had one final question from my friend who is also a fan of yours. I thought it was interesting —  can you articulate how your music is an expression of your relationship or if it is at all. Do you see it as a form of communication?

W: Just the other day I was telling Carl that I cannot create the way that I do with anybody else. I did a little bit of music with some other artists on Kranky and I’ve done some live shows. We try to do some recording, and there was a piece here or there that kind of worked out, but I’ve been playing music with Carl now for 24 years and even when we’re making music in a time period when things are difficult between us, it’s always this immediate connection. It’s a very particular feeling, it’s a certain feeling of comfort… it’s a place that I can simply play and feel really good about what is going on. And so for all of these years, yes, we have been in love, and we got married, and we’ve been able to create our art together. And I simply do not see that that would ever happen with somebody else.

C: We both know where each other is coming from – it’s really awesome and weird how it can just click so quickly even after 25+ years.

W: We make jokes, like neither of us gets to be in our own head by ourselves, and that’s because, at any given moment, we think the same thing or say the same thing out loud. If we’re with other people and they ask us a question, we both answer it in the same way or we both do physically the same thing; we have found in a number of situations that neither of us have said anything out loud and yet we’ve actually been talking to each other. I think those are the things that happen with a couple when they’ve been together for 28 years. And it certainly comes across in what we are doing musically, with this incredible ability to interweave things with what the other one is doing.

Through the years, we have made a lot of amazing friends in the music industry and a group of those friends are all of the people from the Elephant 6 Orchestra. The last time they were in the Detroit area was 8 or 9 years or 10 ago; they came to stay with us because they always have. Our home has always been open to the musicians that we are friends with. One night, Will Cullen Hart could not sleep and everyone else that was on the road that night really wanted to sleep, and we said, “Hey! You all know what we sound like.. if we go downstairs and play our guitars can you guys sleep through that?”, and they said, “YES!” So, we brought Will downstairs and he played a little bit of guitar with Carl and me for a little over an hour. When we were done, he stopped and said “How do you guys do that? How do you create like that? I’ve never worked with anyone who was able to do what you two did.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s the connection that we have to each other – it’s working with frequencies and tones and things that somehow reverberate within us that we share with each other.” So it is hard to put into words, but it’s just what we do and I’m very thankful for it.

KJ: Well I think that’s a nice note to end on.

W: We’re lucky. Or maybe we’re cursed!

Carl: I don’t think there’s a curse.

W: I think we’re lucky.

KJ: Well I think we’ll all be lucky to witness that on Friday.

W: Oh gosh, we are so excited for Friday! I will say that in 2001 when we had put out Consciousness, and I very vividly remember in 1997 meeting The Olivia Tremor Control at the very first Terrastock and standing in the hallway of the venue and watching Carl and Will Cullen Hart and John Fernandes talk about the avant-jazz that we were all listening to… talk about Alice Coltrane and how amazing she was and all of these records that we were completely falling in love with. And when we started to record Consciousness, my father had passed away and we were doing these much longer-form pieces that were way more meditative and healing. We were reading all of these incredible interviews like Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane and realized that they had the ability to put into words what we still were only able to form as musical sounds. And when Consciousness came out, we used Archie Shepp artwork for the cover and named the tracks after pieces by Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane. It was our homage to a group of people and a body of work that had found a way to express verbally what we were expressing through music which is that music is such an incredible, spiritual thing. It’s a way to connect with the world in a form and a direction that we have never found in any other capacity. I don’t want to intellectualize it, but rather, I want to people to understand that it’s this incredible gut feeling. When we sit down and play, it’s this electrical connection to the universe that just isn’t there otherwise. I love that there were jazz artists who could put that into words because we never could and I still feel like they’re far more eloquent with it than we are, but that’s a big deal to us — our connection to the universe through what we create musically.