Tim Hecker

This was originally published in the November 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

The life of a Honduran shrimp fisherman is not an obvious theme for a piece of cutting edge post-glitch, beatless, wordless electronica, but that’s what Montreal-based Tim Hecker’s new Mille Plateaux release, Radio Amor is about. “I was totally obsessed with the idea of fishermen in the Caribbean,” recalls Hecker. “Fucked up, crapped out transmissions that weren’t receiving totally. Disjunctures in every form. Just the loneliness of being at sea – the idea of the heat, the shitty radios they have on their boats, the sea.” If that’s the case, this is probably the most un-tropical piece of music about the Caribbean ever made – no beats, just surging drones and distorted tone clusters, laced with static and noise. Although Hecker did make a trip to Central America in the mid-1990s, the piece seems built more around the pathos of remembering what sunshine is like, while sitting in his home studio in the middle of a long Canadian winter. “The bitter irony is that when I was recording it,” Hecker says ruefully, “I was in this confined space. Maybe no windows. It’s ironic because in my own mind, the music’s totally referential when I’m making it. But I’m not there at all. I’m in this hot room and it’s snowing outside, minus thirty probably.” Unusually for an electronic musician, Hecker is fascinated by the possibility of giving his ambient, abstract music a thematic shape. “It’s easy to put together nine tracks on your hard disk, press burn and send it off to the label. The fruit really comes when you stop that burn button and think more about what you’re doing. I spend a lot of time putting things together and assembling a narrative. You create some sort of fiction out of it. You could say all that stuff about Caribbean fisherman is total fiction – it’s a practice of writing in a way.” While a song with lyrics is readily understood to be “about” something, Hecker’s work instead creates a fascinating tension between the formless beauty made possible by electronic sound and the listener and musician’s desire for music to tell a story, even if its just the “ambient” story of machines, isolation, absence etc. On 2000’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again, released on Montreal’s Alien8, the narrative appears to be about Canada, and the ambient paradise of the Great Frozen North. “That’s a currency that I exploited as a joke – the Canadian clichés of the tundra and all the fucking snow and shit. That sounds good. In the same way, I exploited the idea of this Caribbean shrimp fisherman on the last one. It’s so easily adaptable to any context. You can say this is about Japanese sado-masochism. It might work. It might also work with penguins on an iceberg that’s about to disintegrate.”

Hecker grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, listening to indie rock. He relocated to Montreal in the 1990s where he studied political philosophy and paramilitary policing with cyber-theorist Arthur Kroker, and inspired by Kroker’s homages to the posthuman joys of the machine, bought some gear and began putting out Autechre-inspired minimalist techno tracks on Force Inc. subsidiary Pitch Cadet under the name of Jetone. By the time of his second CD, 2001’s Ultramarin, Hecker already shows signs of getting tired of the minimalist techno paradigm. Beats drop in and out, clouds of noise and ambient sound hover in the mix. It’s a beautiful work, but one that Hecker is eager to distance himself from: “I had a huge reaction against electronic music because it became so self-referential. I just felt nothing. Beats add a completely arbitrary, artificial structure to things. It seems so much more constricting. It’s all this über-associations: people hear the beat and then determine where it fits into in electronic music where there’s now 500 different micro genres.” Hecker’s first venture into beatlessness, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again owes as much to Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine as minimalist electronica. “What they did was amazing”, says Hecker, “white noise and walls of sound: I still don’t think people have realized the potential of pure melodic dissonance – overwhelming tones, tectonic tone plates of sound.” His follow-up My Love is Rotten To the Core, a commissioned set of performance pieces, was based around the history and sound of 1980s pop metal giants, Van Halen. Although the bombastic noise-laced samples initially sound like Kid 606-style deconstructions, there’s greater subtlety and purpose to Hecker’s effort.

Hecker’s sampling and manipulations feel like they’re exposing Hagar, Eddie Van Halen et al. to the void, by creating an enormous “ambient” arena, into which their pronouncements, solos and the like, echo and fade. “The more I got into it, the more I got into David Lee Roth and I found he was quite a sage guru. The things he said were totally fucked and totally intelligent. He seemed like a sad clown, a tragic-comic character.” Hecker is skeptical of electronica’s tendency to run through the available iterations of any piece of software or hardware and then move on to the next one. In a recent piece published in Canadian ‘zine Parachute, Hecker writes, “Perhaps a form of electronic music will come which will leave the technology it uses as only a trace – so that the aesthetic field opens up again to allow for spaces which are free from the suffocation of medium-based discourses; an electronic music which leaves its technology as just a murmur.” Hecker’s recent music is certainly heading in that direction. Radio Amor, like Oval’s Diskont 94 or Fennesz’s Endless Summer, succeeds because Hecker finds a way to produce a fluid, living sound that can no longer be said to be “electronic” according to all the cold, machine stereotypes, or “organic” in the sense that it’s the result of a live performance on traditional musical instruments. Hecker sets up vast drifting rhizomes of sound in which live guitar and piano merge with samples and are fed through multiple pathways of sound processing until everything blurs in an intermeshing sonic field. In a sense, all sound sources are finally being sampled and sonically processed. “When you sample something,” says Hecker, “if you have good source material with a certain chord progression or an emotive quality, you can’t go wrong with what you make from that. The essence remains. When you have a beautiful chord and you’re fucking with it, you can’t do too much wrong with it because you’re gonna have a fucked up, beautiful chord at the end!”