Words: Jesse Locke
After spending his formative years in the suburbs of Calgary, ambient/minimalist composer Kyle Bobby Dunn has been moved by the unspoiled nature of his former province ever since. On the stunning new album, Ways of Meaning — his follow-up to the colossal, cheekily titled 2CD retrospective, A Young Person’s Guide To — Dunn pays tribute to this solitary era of his life, while continuing to mesmerize with slowly shifting shimmers and enveloping tones. We caught up with him for a chat about early inspirations, outdoor concerts and the ongoing processes he began as a teenager.
Texture Magazine: I understand you were born in Ontario, but spent some of your childhood years in Calgary. Can you tell me a bit about your life growing up?
Kyle Bobby Dunn: I lived in Calgary for close to 10 years, in a community called Lake Bonavista. For some reason, that time still remains an integral inspiration and aspect of my work. I left there when I was fairly young, but it remained a place that sparked a lot of ideas, and I’ve returned to the thought of it a lot.
Ways of Meaning has a song named after the Calgary neighbourhood Canyon Meadows, and another called “Dropping Sandwiches (In Chester Lake)”. For anyone from outside of province, the latter is a somewhat lesser known Alberta landmark. Was there something special about it that helped inspire the music?
I only went to Chester Lake once on a small hiking excursion, but it was gorgeous. There had never been anything like that in my life up until then. It’s not really part of Banff or Canmore, but more in the fringes. You’ve got to climb out to it for a good haul.
Did you actually drop sandwiches into the lake?
Yup, I actually did. My parents had made me this disgusting sandwich, and regretfully I dropped it into the beautiful lake (laughs).
How did you first become interested in music?
Playing my own music or listening to music? They’re totally different. When I first started listening to music, it was no different than anyone else. The first rock band I heard was probably the Smashing Pumpkins. I was a little kid in the ’90s, so music like that seemed interesting at first. But it wasn’t too many years later when I started getting into classical music and soundtrack music, so that was some kind of impetus to start creating on my own. I had been making amateur films in Calgary along with my own scores, which were somewhat derivative of the music I heard on CBC classical radio.
Patti Schmidt was my hero when I was in seventh grade. One summer I was up late working with some friends on a film, and at that time always had CBC radio turned on. Patti Schmidt came on the air, and at that time I was totally unaware of the show. There was this Labradford music playing, and other stuff I never would have thought was possible to hear on the radio. It blew me away. At that age I was very vulnerable, and something like that had a huge impact.
With its timeslot of midnight to 6 a.m., I always felt that the show had an even more heightened effect. It was kind of like a secret world, separate from what your parents were listening to.
Totally. I would try to stay up, but would often use these long-running cassette tapes to record the whole program. Then on the walk to school the next morning, I would listen to what I fell asleep to, and was always perplexed. It was really interesting music, from hip-hop to weird indie-rock to drone. There’s still stuff that I’ve tried to track down and can’t. In my opinion, she got hold of some of the most interesting experimental music that’s nearly impossible to find.
At its peak, how important would you say Brave New Waves was as an outlet for exposing people to off-kilter sounds? Is Patti Schmidt kind of like Canada’s John Peel?
I just felt so alienated when I got into the show for some reason, because nobody my age or at school were into that kind of thing. It was really strange to try and talk to anybody in my neighbourhood about it, and shortly after I moved to the U.S. It was unfortunate, because I didn’t know anyone who was into those channels or those ideas until I was much older. I just thought it was funny, because Calgary had a lot of ’80s rock and country music radio, while there were also these beautiful sounds being broadcast across the country. Even some of my friends that I played it for would shake their heads. They weren’t really into it.
I was reading about your debut album, Music For Medication, which you recorded back in high school. Can you tell me a bit about the process of recording directly to ADAT and VHS tapes?
I wanted to retain a certain kind of fuzziness and fidelity, and there’s nothing technical about that recording. I used a Podium microphone straight to tape with no overdubs. It was really an extension of whatever film scores I was working at in junior high, reworking themes into songs.
How has your process changed or evolved since then? I guess I really want to ask how exactly you begin crafting your pieces, and what kinds of efforts go in to achieve the final effect.
It’s really embarrassing in a way, but my process now isn’t all that different from when I was 13 or 14 years old. Even the new album includes a little bit of reworking of really old themes. Generally, my music begins with an existing memory of a person or place, and that often determines the title or feel of the piece. I feel like I’ve been doing it for too long now.
Will that process change anytime soon?
I don’t know, because I’m really unorthodox. I love classical music, but I don’t have any kind of classical music background. I don’t write sheet music, or have an education in any particular instrument. For whatever reason, I like this process of whatever seems to come to me at the time. If there’s something on my mind that sticks out enough, it becomes really helpful in the composing process.
Well, you’ve maintained a fairly prolific output over the last few years, so clearly your process is working, right?
Yeah, although I don’t know if I feel great about that. There’s been kind of a glut of releases in the last two-three years. I have this neurosis that the music industry and physical releases are dying out. Maybe people have always felt like that way, but maybe time is also running out for releasing things. Everything seems to be increasingly digital, so it feels important to put everything out now, while I still can. I look back on the ’90s, when it felt like CDs were this ultra cool thing, and people were still buying them a lot. Then again, that was a different kind of music, and underground artists have never had a lot of sales. Yet there is a committed group of people dedicated to buying the physical product…
Can you tell me about some of the outdoor performances you’ve done? I’m especially interested to hear about your concert in Banff National Park.
I was back in Banff in around 2006, and being back in Alberta was a great pilgrimage. While I was there I tried to exercise some ideas that I’d had for a while. I performed in the Glenmore Reservoir in Calgary, then just outside of the Banff Center. It was a little more reliant on sound processing, not as musical as some of my recorded output. For me, it was a really fun exercise and experience, getting some things that were bubbling up out there. It was more of a release than my previous compositions, as those tend to be dwellings. Sometimes I feel like a sort of shell of myself when I play music live.
Do you have a dream outdoor spot you’d like to play in the future?
That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s a particular place here in New York, but I’ve definitely thought about some rooftops around Brooklyn. I’d love to play in a forest, and I think there’s a lot of vast, untouched beauty in Alberta. Maybe somewhere in the Rockies, or maybe even Chester Lake. If you could get everyone to climb up that huge hill, it’d make an amazing record release show.
Playing “Dropping Sandwiches (In Chester Lake)” while actually dropping sandwiches in Chester Lake.