Tom Ellard formally of “Severed
Heads" speaks on new album “Rhine"
What new things have you been cooking up in the synth factory, namely
Tom Ellard: I’ve spent too many years meeting deadlines; the music industry, advertising, academic. The push for the last few years has been to escape that. Obviously there’s still a lot of things in life that have to be delivered on time, but this is not the best way to make music. Instead, there’s a lot of things going on here that don’t have a set purpose, until they insist on being realized by their own impatience. RHINE is a name I borrowed from a different project that had failed, and said OK this unexpected thing is now RHINE, what does that mean? What do I do with this?
What has changed on this album?
Tom Ellard: I’m not able to know what is meant here – changed from Barbara Island? That’s like a magazine that has run since 2006. It has a certain style and appears every 4 years (that’s the design). So different from Op3? That was almost krautrock. I am not sure what my centroid is supposed to be. Maybe RHINE is exactly that.
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Vocals on Rhine: the lyrics have always been a trip to me.
Are there hidden meanings to your songs?
Tom Ellard: There is not so much things hidden in the lyrics as I don’t try to make them universal. Like I might have a personal experience, and I could translate that into a generalized experience so that everyone could recognize it, but I don’t see the advantage in doing that. I will just talk about something that I have in mind and if you have something else in mind then that’s fine, it’s not a documentary. Sometimes there might be a bit of play where I will use some words by which a few people will catch the meaning and enjoy the discovery. It’s always designed to entertain on a few levels. Like Bridge To Everything has some allusions to Scientology, and the bit about having your head shaved is a reference to Narconon. So you might think I’m talking about that, but then it’s really about the extras in George Lucas’ THX 1138, and that leads to something else.
Is there a story behind Rhine?
Tom Ellard: There is no single narrative. There are different narratives mingled together. My original RHINE project was about forming synthetic solids by using high pressure sound waves.
That alluded to JB Rhine, the American psychic researcher. He thought he was discovering psychic powers in his lab but I have a different theory about that which is too complex to explain here. But while I was working on RHINE, I was recording music for relaxation and that in itself is a result of the experiment, that something was formed even if not the expected result. It’s not that complex, it’s like living on a beach and calling an album BEACH.
Rhine feels like a Sevs album and taking a left turn from familiar ground, poppy and strange once again, what
brought you back into this territory? It’s as if you’ve rebooted your sound and started over, yet there is plenty to
Tom Ellard: It’s more like having been a professional athlete at one stage, retiring and reaching a point where you can have a fun run without being reminded of all the crap. I have moved on from that. It got tedious, and I would never let things go back to that way of working – you must have the next record ready by June and there will be three remixes required etc… I don’t need to go back that way.
How are you creating music these days, mostly analog, less DAW? That deep bass in this album, is that the SH101?
Tom Ellard: It’s whole mix of things over more than two years and I honestly couldn’t pick out everything. The early tracks were sequenced and then I might go back and play it manually instead. Then listen to them together, keep that cut that. It’s not done according to principle, it’s what works. Like there is a snare drum sound on Fingers which I did over and over again on every damn thing I had to try get what I wanted – there’s a multitude of different white noise bangs on the multitrack of which maybe #12 and #7 might have been the final choice. Some of the later tracks like “Department" are obviously based around one or two devices that do something well. The MS2000 does the warbles, the bass is a Fantom and the melodies are an SY77. Because that’s what worked. In the past I might have owned two keyboards, so it was all of a type. That’s not the case any more.
Do you compose from start to finish. Or record the drums first.
Tom Ellard: Usually it’s melody. Could be on piano. Then start developing lines in response to that. In the more complex tracks, the drums were the last thing and might have gone through many versions over the two years. Like “oh that’s too heavy", “that’s too fiddly", “that’s just sludge" , followed by leaving it alone for three or so months to get a perspective. Simple drums are the start but usually don’t survive to the end, because I get tired of them after a couple of bars. The vocals were right at the end. They had to be done on two Mondays between 10am and 12pm, so they were really cranked out as quick as possible.
Still recording to tape at times, or just mix-down through DAW?
Tom Ellard: If tape makes sense. If it’s an affectation then no, what’s the point? Not everything sounds better on tape. Some tracks you might bounce a particular set of sounds to tape, see if that makes them move away from the rest of the sounds. The end section of “Lolly" has a ridiculous number of layers, including some tape. But all of this technology is just tools.
The album was recorded in the terse tapes, is that right, from past Severed Heads albums?
Tom Ellard: It’s just where the gear is camped at any moment. It has moved about and sometimes it was in a suitcase. Really it refers to a working space. There are still things here that were here in 1979, if that is necessary for the definition.
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Considering your work in the past with the “The Illustrated Family Doctor" in composing music for the entire
film. Do you see more film works in your future?
Tom Ellard: Australia is a small population, smaller than New York, or Tokyo. There are fewer opportunities here, and they are starkly there or not there. For a few years I had lots of synch work. Then I had none. It may come back, who knows? I could move to Los Angeles if I really wanted that, Australians tend to move, but I am not so worried. These days I have a completely different career, this is what fate has decided. It might decide again.
Are you working on new games, videos at this time?
Tom Ellard: There is both a prequel and sequel to HH in early development, and both are critical solutions of problems in the first game. It’s not too bad for something that one person programmed over a year, but I think I would very much like to change the “computer game" look of the game to be more photographic. This is not easy. I am taking spherical photographs at the moment and trying figure out a way to move smoothly between them. There’s not the right look yet. This sort of thing will require a few years. There is also a storyline which must now be made into a “bible" , so that it is consistent across all three titles.
I noticed your latest montage of art regarding the new video to Rhine, excellent work.You’re also teaching these days?
Tom Ellard: I am the Program Director of the Media Arts degree at UNSW Australia. That means a lot of management, course design, financial planning etc. etc. that add up to a fair amount of stress. When we’re at full speed, there’s no time for music, video, anything.
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From reading your the albums PDF, I can tell that the Internet is leading you back from the past into a new light of music lovers and fans, your thoughts?
Tom Ellard: We made an album in 1985 called “Clifford Darling Please Don’t" Live In The Past. It’s being re-issued in 2015. That says everything I could hope to say.
Can we hope for more Ellard releases in the future? Sorry, I’m so use to thinking of your music as Severed Heads, I can’t seem to get it out on my own head.
Tom Ellard: There will be stuff. The word “release" is little bit old fashioned. It’ll be less frumpy than that. It could be under different names, because stability causes cancer. There will not be any new Severed Heads music, the joy is gone from that.
Do you plan on digging up the old bones and the head of your past moniker and go on a tour once again, this time for Rhine?
In our agreement with Gary Numan it was pledged that Severed Heads would not play any gigs in Australia after Adelaide. We have kept this promise, because Gary is an angry god.
What makes Gary Numan an angry god?
Tom Ellard: Actually we told the Numan crew at our final show that we were retiring and they gave us a farewell card which he’d also signed. Once after that we performed in the same city (which was OK because we said Adelaide was our last show, and it was technically). But really it was a funny device to stop a cycle of farewells, which it did. A few calls after that were just “Gary says no".
If not the absence of a head, then your own head will do. Are you planning to do some touring in the name of Ellard then?
Tom Ellard: I am happy just to do the occasional appearance.
Puzzles on Rhine, a map too boot, all very interesting, those videos that were cryptic, have been leading up this haven’t they?
Tom Ellard: There is a consistent line of clues between HH, Barbara Channel, 3 and RHINE. So far I have seen no decodes, so the game goes on. There is also a connection with the coma-tone that was introduced by Co Kla Coma, (however for legal reasons, that signal is no longer available.) This all adds up to a overarching narrative, for the entertainment of the people that have followed it over the years. Entertainment can take longer.
What inspires you to write music? Don’t worry, a thesis isn’t needed for such as vague question.
Tom Ellard: It is necessary to my happiness, and that’s really all there is. No one else has to listen, but hiding it is pretentious.
I have to know what’s the story behind the dog on your twitter account, and the chicken? – laughs
Tom Ellard: The chicken was from my account on Linked In. I made an account as A. Chicken, so it would say “A Chicken wishes to connect with you" on Linked In. I had many people around the world that wanted to link with a chicken, but then LI closed the account. That gave me the position to refuse to use LI, because they don’t understand the importance of self parody. The dog is just a stupid looking dog.
What motivated you to release “Rhine" on USB, nothing unusual since you’ve done similar things in the past with MiniDisc etc?
Tom Ellard: It’s by far the most effective physical media container at the moment. I had to make sure it was as inexpensive as possible, while still providing a pleasing keepsake. My audience are not all wealthy. Even cassettes cost more now. Bandcamp might go off-line some day, but USB should be around for another decade.
You like to call these releases pop albums, yet this isn’t modern pop at all, but it’s own sound, interesting as always.
Tom Ellard: It’s the opposite of difficult music, then I guess.
Do you hope that others create their own sound instead of the same copy paste musicians we all seem to run into these days?
Tom Ellard: To be honest, electronic music is all nostalgia now. That’s why I’m working in game design, because it’s like electronic music was once – difficult and needing new ideas.
But if a band wants to be Tangerine Dream, OK, that’s fine. Just don’t be too lazy.
[Almark] Just wanted to say, I have a friend who sampled the drums to Pilot in Hell, as he tells me, many years ago.
Are you currently listening to new artists these days, no not pop of course, electronic, possibly abstract music?
Tom Ellard: For no particularly good reason, I am not listening to music much at all at the moment. This sounds like a critique, it’s not, it’s just that right now there’s so much data coming at me that any silence is pretty damn good. Or early 20th century jazz – jug and washboard. That’s good too.
Seeking any record labels these days, or sticking with the non-label life?
Tom Ellard: I have three labels currently, all are re-issue labels but they keep me busy. Then I get people that want to be a label for new releases and that’s cool, but it’s really about money, and if you’re not good with money then you shouldn’t be doing it – I know that from personal experience. It took about 1 million dollars of marketing to get NIN up and popular. Getting new music up is very heavy lifting. Keep it simple, keep it low cost, less worry.
Your thoughts on “We are the New Underground." Do you think it will help future artists come to the light who are making music in the dark?
Tom Ellard: I don’t know what the underground is. No one really knows, and there is a lot of discussion going on about that. It’s a paradox, because if you know about it, it’s not underground. If you are completely unknown, maybe that’s it? But that’s not what people really want, they want to be known. So, the words have to be the right words, or you never get what you really wanted. A new underground would be something that was invisible that response to something else that was invisible.
If someone were to walk around in your head, what would they find?
Tom Ellard – Wurst