The philosophers were ambient people: an interview with The Billows Burn Bright

Lucid Attention Protocol D1 activated …

Did you ever fell in your sleep? Conscious, but slumbering, possessed by the urge to find clarity beyond the veil of self-awareness. Like drifting through a stream of sensorial inspirations, attending a cinematic reprocessing of things suppressed inside yourself. Out of fear, an ominous excitement, standing on the edge at daggers drawn with your internalized understanding anent a desirable form of existing.

Yes/No? …

Yes.

So the door has been opened. Now, don´t you lose touch. It is time to take the next step. Bid goodbye to the concept of control as such, becoming intimate with a stimulating way of training your ability to embrace the seemingly mazed information transmitted in your dreams and introducing your mind to the impact of an upcoming audiovisual ambient music project named The Billows Burn Bright. Produced and explained in the following conversation by the choirmaster of philosophic experimental soundscapes himself. I welcome Daniel Armstrong.

The Billows Burn Bright is a bilateral music project that I strongly associate with its visual half. In the digital age music videos are not the most important promotional output bands rely on any longer (RIP MTV). They are still relevant, but most offer a shallow performance for the sake of declaring the plain presence of artists. When did you realize that a cinematic experience will play an important role in complementing your tracks?

It started with my fascination with the public domain and all of the beautiful works within it, most of which have been largely forgotten. I thought that maybe I could, in a small way, bring new life to these films and clips by recontextualizing them as music videos. I  used to put on animated films at night and mute the volume, then play some songs over it and see how they fit together. I thought I could use this same format in a more polished, intentionally synchronized way. I also thought (and still think) that having a „narrative“ in the absolute loosest sense of the word allows the viewer to take away their own stories and meanings while they’re watching. I definitely enjoy exploring archives, looking for new footage, and piecing it all together, so it’s stuck with me well so far.

Your first video premiered in June of this year illustrating your song ‚Unrelatable‘ (The Billows Burn Bright 2015-2020). It begins with an animated scene. A colorized man is walking down a street. Later he will convert transparent others into a colored look as well. The process is perpetually interrupted by a 1948 educational material titled ‚How to evert the Upper Lid‘ and fragments of old cartoons alike. Ironically two aspects that make your work relatable are already decisive here. It’s the symbolism and choreography nascent from the synergy of the diverse choice of moving image material. What does the word unrelatable stand for in this context?

Unrelatable stands for an emotional state that I think, ironically, many can relate to. When I wrote the song and when I put the video together, I was in a dark mindset and felt very unconfident in the things I was making. I felt that my thought processes were malformed and dysfunctional. „Unrelatable“ was very much a personal expression of feeling, well, unrelatable.

The genuine interplay between visuals and audio derives far-reaching from your intriguing original compositions of actual retro footage and a range of quaint fictional respectively elaborate works. Are there any classic or modern filmmakers that are an inspiration regarding this facet of your art?

While there are probably many short films and filmmakers that have influenced my direction and focus, I would say Don Hertzfeldt has by far had the largest impact on me. Hertzfeldt’s film ‚It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘ in particular was definitely foundational for both the way I approach art and life in general. I think you could trace a clear line from how I like to put my videos together with how Hertzfeldt paired his distinct ’stick man‘ art style with brilliant choreography and music choice. I was (and still am) drawn to the way he combined different scenes on the same screen via clever tricks like cutting holes in construction paper and layering it over the frame as to create separation. I hope one day to reach that level of mastery and vision.

Two more productions followed shortly after based on the singles ‚Consequences‘ and ‚Limbo‘ (Aimless: A Compilation). Both collages seem to aim at human deficiencies in times of emotional contingencies. I recall a person in the subway being excluded from opposing passengers in ‚Consequences‘ and the lethargic acting man in ‚Limbo‘ right at the beginning, a depiction that is accentuated by its overall melancholic tone and commenting inserts („the need for human interaction“). What interested you especially in this perspective on eye level with disoriented minds?

I believe that it’s when we are at our lowest and most disoriented state of mind, we are also at our most honest and genuine. Our brains are conditioned in such a way that we constantly tell harmless little lies to ourselves and the people around us so that we can maintain the narrative of ‚Everything is fine and nothing is bothering me‘ which while a nice gesture, is rarely truly honest. We’re basically hardwired to put up a front. It’s when we are deeply troubled that the front begins to fall because we no longer have to energy to maintain it. It’s at these moments we learn the most about ourselves because we’re forced to either be honest about our choices and flaws or else wither away in a fog of denial. I believe the disoriented mind is often both our best teacher and the stage of our most triumphant moments. This is why it’s important to me to try and not only just express this state of self, but attempt to put it on screen in such a way that the viewer can maybe relate to that kind of pain and in doing so, allow them a chance, to be honest with themselves. 

Your Bonfire Rituals EP is the first release you fully visualized. In three tracks, each one representing a separate step, you attend to give a tutorial on how to reach the state of happiness. The evident spectrum of symbolism refers a lot to the subject of natural sciences, which I’d argue is a characteristic of your work. Please turn the following list of constantly recurring objects into short statements describing their importance to your expressionism.

The eye …

The flower …

Technology …

The eye is an open book. It is the screen of every emotion and thought. The eye is the projector of the subconscious.

The flower is the creation and it is death. The flower is the art that exists for itself. The flower is peace.

Technology is the greatest double-edged sword. Technology is the potential for both enlightenment and destruction. It is at our mercy and we are at its mercy.

Your topics fluently varying between a macro field covering existential issues, questioning the doings and purpose of humanity in a wider sense, and a micro-level concerning the individual unraveling of human entanglements. On your EP The Philosophers Are Dead for instance you linked a question of vital significance to every song („Is this really all there is?“ – Spirit Walking). Instrumentally centered music genres like ambient, post-rock, or even black metal are often attributed with philosophic virtues, but not uncommonly it‘s all on the surface, reflecting from the atmospheric sound. What are things that create the urgency to make philosophy a prioritized matter?

I believe strongly that philosophy is one of the most useful tools to have in life. I cannot claim to be an expert in the field, but what little I know has helped me communicate my thoughts more clearly, has helped me come to terms with the realities of life, and understand other people’s points of view. In some ways, philosophy is also about finding and understanding our own system of morality. I feel that without this understanding, our morality is vulnerable to malicious influence or even simple atrophy until it is replaced by base instinct and flimsy justification. I think that if philosophy was more emphasized and respected, we would find problems and disagreements easier to solve both in our personal lives and even on a societal scale.

Every release implemented a new quality of sound. Last month you published your most recent release No Moon, No Stars, which is a spherical and pensive journey based on a dream. Yet its unmistakable a The Billows Burn Bright offspring. Do you have musical role models, that helped you to find your own style?

Certainly Deaf Center was an important role model to me. Their album ‚Pale Ravine‘ was the first ambient/neoclassical album I’d ever heard, and remains one of my favorites to this day. It was through this album and a bit of searching that lead me to artists like Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, Eluvium, and the idea that music could be much more than I’d pictured as a child. Some more recent influences would have to be Blockhead and Crest of the Syndicate. Their music has been very inspirational to me, especially when it comes to drum tracks and techniques.

Daniel, thanks for the great talk! This moment is yours to keep the readers up to date with every information you’d like to let them know.

Of course, and thank you as well, Björn! I’m working on a project right now that is much larger than what I’ve done so far, I’m really excited about it! I’m hoping to have something to show in late January or perhaps February. In the meantime, check out my Twitter page for a constant stream of ambient music news and releases from artists I’m sure you’ll love!