Name: Abby Lee Tee
Occupation: Sound artist, field recorder
Current Release: There are a few new Abby Lee Tee releases out: Cohabiting Species on Accidental x Shash Rec; Hausberg IV-V via Never Anything and the field recording tape At The Beaver Lodge I, which is self-released. Coming up are, as he told us, “a kind of field recording diary of a trip to Hornstrandir (Iceland) on Vertical Music, and the second part of At The Beaver Lodge”.
Recommendations: There would be tons of music I would like to recommend and I don’t know where to start. I’m normally not a fan of best-of-lists because most of the time these are best-of-marketing-lists and one can assume that there are always hundreds and thousands of artists being way more interesting but just not having the resources putting out and promoting their music (and on the other hand, the weirdest thing are people saying they can’t find good music nowadays / this year). So if you want to know what music I would recommend, head over to mixcloud.
Of course it’s probably the same with books (but this good-artists-will-automatically-get-famous mindset is frighteningly – maybe more – widespread in music) but here are two which impressed me:
Judith Schalansky - “Atlas of Remote Islands”: is just a classic, and (at least the German version) one of the most beautiful books for daydreaming I know.
Maria Lazar - “Die Eingeborenen von Maria Blut”: is a rediscovery from 1933 (written in exile already), a novel about the life in a small town and the rise of the Nazis in Austria, which felt horrifyingly up to date. (sorry, I think there’s no English translation yet.)
If you enjoyed this intervie with Abby Lee Tee, make sure to visit his excellent homepage, where you'll find plenty of information and music. You can also find him on Facebook, twitter, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started at the age of 14 being fascinated by all kinds of hip hop culture (via skateboarding mainly). I bought myself a pair of cheap turntables, started to practice mixing and scratching, and soon met the very few people also interested in hip hop in the rural area where I grew up.
We embarked on pilgrimages to the cultural sites of the next city – Linz, where I still live – and soon after, the hip hop group “hinterland” was my main occupation as a DJ, as well as mixtapes. But I still needed a few more years before I was ready to produce as well.
Then I got influenced by a lot of electronic music and moved on, got my first zoom recorder and got more and more interested in field recording and experimental approaches.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Calling it my “own voice” is probably a bit exaggerated – it’s an ongoing development and I think that’s one of the most important things basically, never stopping to integrate new influences. What’s more boring than artists getting famous with a certain kind of music and then being unable to grow further (I guess often because of a lack of time to try out new things combined with economical reasons – a lot of pressure from labels and expectations from fans)?
So on the one hand I want to create something as unique as possible of course. But on the other hand I think there is no such thing as a completely “personal” style and therefore no transition leading up to it. You keep on getting influenced by others’ works as well as various other factors – originality is just your way of combining different new influences with old ones and trying to keep running a common thread throughout this ever-lasting process.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Mostly, working on music is a pretty intuitive thing (being a self-taught musician in particular). But of course I’m not able to not reflect on my decisions, at least afterwards. Of course my identity, my history, its continuity and its changes are part of my music, but also I think, the music influences your identity without conscious decisions.
My interest in ecology and trying to improve my hearing, patience and getting aware of the tiny sounds and sonic structures out there influence my recordings and my music. But vice versa, these events and findings are highly influential to me as a person too, even finding (imaginary) friends through field recording (my recent obsession with our beaver population – a particular beaver family – here for example).
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
A lot of these challenges are still the same, I’ve just learned to live with them. Also because of not being interested that much in technical questions (which – in this case – are simultaneously artistic decisions of course) I never managed to do proper mixdowns I’m satisfied with. Plus I never did any mastering.
But I’m just accepting it now, as this is a science of its own and I got a good friend and engineer – Christian Ghahremanian – I’m doing this with. Working with each other ever since, knowing each others approach and sitting down in the same room makes ceding the final touches on your music acceptable, even preferable, also having a deadline to finish stuff and someone else’s ears experiencing it without organizational blindness.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Basically the main tool has always been the same. Due to friends using it too, I’ve started to produce with Cubase, and even now I still don't own a full version. Back then, it was a question of money of course, but now I've become so used to it that I don’t like to change it (plus being too lazy and uncurious concerning all technical stuff). Sometimes I use Ableton for quick sketches too, but in the end I’m still mainly working with Cubase and audio files only, cutting and pushing them around the same way I always have and doing a lot of effects manually.
I avoid a lot of plugins, which makes some things a bit complicated. But at least I’m trying to convince myself that these workarounds give me a bit more control or individuality – so regularly I'll do delays manually for example, copying the particular scraps of sound and changing the volume, fades, etc. on my own. That’s a bit crazy sometimes, but if you work without fixed tempi for example, it’s often even necessary in order to make it feel natural somehow.
Beside this rudimentary piece of classic sequencer software, I’m using a lot of vinyl manipulation / turntablism in my production process, so I've always considered turntables as studio equipment too since day one. Beside a bunch of acoustic instruments and a few cheaper synths (but concerning these I’m often bored after using one a lot on one or two records), the most influential new tools I got myself are microphones and recording devices …
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Hm, it’s nothing that special, but investing some money on buying a Sound Devices Recorder a few years ago, in combination with a few different microphones really made me being stunned (while most other technologies didn’t really impress me and I always went on to consider technological limitation making more sense to me).
So these proper recorders combined with these lovely tiny LOM microphones I can stick through the vent hole of a beaver lodge and listen to them talking inside, or hydrophones making it possible to explore all these often mysteriously unidentifiable underwater sounds. And something different: Bought a piano a few years ago with my partner and we are used to improvising together, both without really having any clue about notation and conventions – so this is a good counterpart to working on all my other music.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’ve already mentioned my year-long work with my mix- and mastering engineer Christian Ghahremanian, which I definitely consider as a collaboration, too. Besides that and the already mentioned (still existing) hip hop group “hinterland” (where I’m responsible for scratches and some involvement with production-like arrangements and adding some little sounds in the end) I rarely do classic collaborations with people (except the piano duets with my partner I mentioned above), mostly just single tracks for compilations for example.
But I really like to do remixes, completely switching moods of tracks I often wouldn’t listen to at all. Jamming is a thing I definitely would like to do more often, but normally just manage to gather some people like once a year.
Oh and concerning DJing, collaboration is an important thing – playing b2b with people and intuitively reacting to others’ music choices is a very satisfying activity. And sometimes I’m missing turntablism gatherings like back in the days. And while writing this, remembering that I’ve done a little collabo cassette with Claire Rousay too last year (not released yet, coming on Tsss Tapes) I maybe should start to reconsider the importance of collaborations in my work. [Read our Claire Rousay interview]
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
No, I don’t have a fixed schedule, as the different parts of work from research, field recording, making records, soundwalks, installations or audiovisual works and collaborations have various different requirements. Especially as a field recordist it’s also impossible to separate my work from the rest of life, often hearing and recording sounds in everyday life. Or some projects and deadlines occupy more time of the day and I’m exporting stems while cooking dinner for example.
So it’s pretty different from day to day depending on the actual project, but I’m getting up between 8 and 9 for example, have breakfast, a lot of coffee and start with some emails. Before going out to buy some groceries I’ll import and sort out field recordings from the last days. Then I’ll work on music or sound design projects for a few hours before heading to the kitchen and making dinner around 7pm.
Afterwards I’m going to the beaver lodge for 2 or 3 hours during dawn, or I’m having a DJ gig, or a nearing deadline forces me to continue working on a project for 2 or 3 hours before it’s time for a movie or reading a book in bed.