Name: Sam Ashton aka Fortresses
Occupation: Producer, composer, guitarist
Current Release: Fortresses's "Near" is out via Dragon’s Eye Recordings on November 18th 2022.
Recommendations: Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Grey), 1970. I have this as a print above my desk at home, and I find it inspiring in its simplicity.
For those who haven’t come across it already, The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski.
[Read our William Basinski interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Fortresses and would like to stay up to date with his music, visit him on Instagram.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
When I was in secondary school I was given a guitar by a school friend who never played it, and from there playing the guitar became my primary passion in life. I continued to play in punk bands throughout my teens, and as my taste developed and diversified I became increasingly drawn to instrumental bands such as Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky.
The thing that drew me to these bands was the atmospheric effect and emotional intensity of their music.
I later discovered the music of Rafael Anton Irisarri, and artists with releases on labels like Type and Kranky, such as Grouper, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Richard Skelton, and ambient became the genre I identify with most.
[Read our Rafael Anton Irisarri interview]
[Read our Richard Skelton interview]
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you’re listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
Music also makes me see colours that I associate with certain places, moods and memories.
When I listen to an artist whose work I admire I become inspired to make my own music, but not to emulate what they have created.
For instance, one of my biggest influences is Burial, but I have zero desire to try and create anything similar to the work of an artist with such a boldly singular vision and style. Instead, his music inspires me to create music that truly represents me, and my own story as a person, rather than someone else’s.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
There have been some significant challenges in my development as a musician.
When I was in my last year of university I developed a nerve injury called Cubital Tunnel Syndrome which caused half of my left hand to become permanently and irreparably numb, meaning I could no longer play guitar with the same level of proficiency.
Instead of giving up the guitar I adapted to the situation by creating alternative tunings that allowed me to play open chords with just two fingers on the fretboard at a time. These unusual open tunings have become the defining feature of my sound in Fortresses – the repeated resonating chords with unusual voicings and harmonic overtones are all made with the unconventional guitar tunings that I was forced to create as a result of my injury.
I also looked to modular synthesisers, as they are instruments that do not rely on use of my hands in the same way a guitar does. As a musician I feel that I have used my limitations to shape my sound, and discover my personal voice.
Contacting Yann Novak in 2020 with my demo, the LA-based artist who runs the amazing experimental label Dragons’s Eye Recordings, and having him agree to release my music – that was a breakthrough moment for me. Dragon’s Eye have released all my work to date, which is two singles and an EP, and are continuing to do great work.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
As a person of dual-heritage growing up in East London, one of the most diverse areas of one of the most diverse cities in the world, I have grown up with a widely-varied experience of culture in both my immediate family and wider circles. I think this exposure to many cultures has made me very culturally open-minded, and has perhaps given rise to my largely varied taste in music and art.
Behind the scenes there is a lot of music that inspires me that people might not expect – styles that stretch far beyond ambient.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
As a musician, the idea is to create something evocative and listenable that is for everyone.
I am an ambient musician who is associated with the wider ambient and experimental scenes, meaning I am part of a niche that some might consider esoteric, but I intend to make music that anyone can enjoy, regardless of musical inclination.
I love a lot of challenging music, but as for my own output, I have no intention of alienating anyone. I want to make music that people can immediately understand or appreciate – ambient and experimental music lovers, or otherwise.
I have the same approach to art. I look to create something that has immediacy, and can be appreciated by any type of person, art enthusiasts or otherwise.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I believe that all artists should do is be true to themselves, and aim to make the music they honestly would want to listen to, whether or not that means pursuing originality.
As for me, I think that there are qualities in my music that are distinctive, and I discard any idea that feels derivative to me, but I am not trying to create a new genre.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools – and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Everything comes back to the guitar. All of my ideas stem from guitar chords, which I record and piece together to build my compositions. After that I put in the field recordings, noise, bass, and synth lines to complement the guitar arrangement.
Other than the guitar, Apple Logic, the Strymon Flint, the Keeley Aurora, Fabfilter Pro-R, and Fabfilter Pro-Q are tools I could not live without.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
If I have no other commitments I aim to fill my day with as much creativity as possible. I chip away at both my music and visual art throughout the day, taking breaks to go on walks or see friends.
I strive to balance diligence and self-discipline with letting my ideas flow in an easy and natural way. There is nothing more gratifying to me than seeing the tangible result of a day’s work.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
I will refer to my latest release, “Near” – a ten-minute piece inspired by the climate and natural landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.
The track was made slowly over a period of months following some time spent in Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding regions of the city, where I visited in early 2022. During the month I spent there I encountered the most stunning natural scenery I have ever seen, and it was a time of profound personal change. I let these experiences inform the direction of the piece.
I based the song on a single repeating chord, with small variations throughout. I blended in field recordings of my walks in the Oregon forests, and white noise that I edited and mixed to evoke wind, rustling leaves and rain, and when I listen to the track I am instantly transported back to the places that inspired it – I recall towering trees and grey clouds of mist in the Oregon forests.
I look at all my music this way – the experience of listening to my recordings is similar to that of looking at an old photograph in an album, or a page in an old diary. The tracks stand as markers of significant moments in my life.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
With Fortresses, the music is created in private, as I find it easier to work that way. With all of my output to date the music has not been heard by anyone until the day of mastering. Taylor Deupree has mastered all of my music, and having him impart his engineering skills and the rich tone of his analog hardware on my recordings has played a big part in achieving my vision.
[Read our Taylor Deupress interview]
[Read our Taylor Deupree interview about collaboration]
Ambient music allows for modes of collaboration that many other genres do not. I am not performing live at this point, but I am open-minded about alternative applications for my music – sound design projects, gallery installations, soundtracks, library music, and more.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Ambient music can be received as intensely captivating, or understood as background music. Some people have told me that they have had deep listening sessions of my music on headphones, while others have told me that my music has been a backdrop whilst they focus on other things.
I am more than happy for my music to be received in either of these contexts. I do not have a specific situation in mind in which my music should be listened to.
Music plays a vital role in society, but the only role I want my music to have is for my recordings to be there to be enjoyed by any kind of person, in whatever listening situation they please.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others – contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Music has helped me through some rough times, as is the case for most musicians and music lovers. When there is an event of emotional upheaval in my life, good or bad, the very first thing I am compelled to do is to listen to music, or make music in response to it.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
Over the years, as I have become hands-on with the technical side of making music such as sound design and mixing, I have naturally become more aware of the role that physics has in my practice. My increased understanding of the audio frequency spectrum and harmonic content has been useful for my practice, but I don’t want to think about science too much when making music.
I want enough technical knowledge to be able to create the music I hear in my mind, and leave it at that.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more ‘mundane’ tasks?
I do not believe there is any kind of commonality between how I approach the mundane tasks of my everyday life and my work as a musician, but I do believe that there is a crossover in how I approach my different creative disciplines – my music and my art. I am meticulous, and I pay attention to virtually unnoticeable details.
That said, I am working on becoming less of a perfectionist
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation for how it is able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I have no explanation. Nobody truly knows why a minor chord is associated with sadness and why a major chord is associated with happiness. There is no real explanation for why music, or even just a simple stand-alone chord, can evoke strong emotions in us. But this mystery is one of many things that makes music so special.