The pseudonymous San Francisco-based former naval officer turned journalist and literary editor has now turned his hand to music, quietly learning the piano and guitar before releasing his debut album Some Ungodly Hour. His haunting music is, like him, impossible to pin down.
Tell us a bit about your sound and your influences.
Recently I’ve been referring to ArchiveX’s sound as SoulAmbientElectroRoots. That captures a bit of what I do, but really it should probably be something more like SoulAmbientPopElectroRockGospelSingerSongwriterHipHopRoots. Tidy, eh? Only some of those adjectives apply to any given track, but over the course of the record they all come into play. But at a foundational level, the biggest influences for this album are golden-era gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson, Spirit of Memphis and The Soul Stirrers. I’m not religious but I love the forthright, unselfconscious delivery of those gospel tracks from the 1930s-1950s and the artists’ complete investment in their performances. I strove to capture some of that energy on this album and that’s really the connective tissue across the different tracks. I also have a number of prior musical influences – from moody electronic rock to pop to R&B – and they rear their heads here and there to create the idiosyncratic mélange of sounds on the album. Hence the unwieldy genre tags.
How have you evolved as a musician over the years?
I’ve become interested and invested in a much broader array of music – particularly the old-school gospel and soul – and that’s given me both new musical tools and fresh inspiration to create new music. On a song-by-song basis I’m now also much more driven by whether I have a real emotional connection to the track than by whether the track is following any set conventions. When I’m writing I constantly check in with myself: do the structural and sonic choices further the core emotional message? Am I totally invested in the vocal? That process often leads me to sounds and delivery that are quite different from the surrounding tracks. Which leads to messy genre tags.
Were there any alternative names before you arrived at ArchiveX?
Not really. At one point this project was just a bunch of tracks collected in a folder called Works in Progress. In trying to describe the project to people I’d say: “Well, there’s actually a bunch of different musical personalities in it. In some of the tracks I’m dipping into the electronic music archive, in some I’m dipping more into the gospel archive”, etc. The name ArchiveX became shorthand for describing that blend of musical personalities and inspiration drawn from different drawers in the archives. But it also captures for me part of the mysterious element of creating new music, because a lot of the time I have no idea where an inspiration comes from – it seems almost extraterrestrial – and that’s really kind of magical. It’s the X factor.
What are you up to at the moment artistically?
On the one hand, I’m working on some new tracks that are absolutely stripped to the bare bones. My goal with these is to see how much impact I can pack into the simplest package. I want to be able to solo the vocal and have that be an effective, compelling track in itself. Then I’ll add maybe one additional element, which could be either acoustic or electronic. I think there’s a lot of power in that sort of simplicity. It puts a heavy stress on the quality of every note and syllable. I might ultimately build some of those tracks out further, but first they have to survive the simplicity test. But I’m also working on some stuff that’s built on live, improvised performance with a pile of old analogue synths. You get completely different, spooky, awesome, surprising sounds out of those things every time. So scratching a different itch there.
How do you stand out from the crowd in a saturated industry?
You got me! Really the only thing I know how to do is make music that I feel strongly about. That music proves to be a bit difficult to pigeonhole, which is both a blessing and a curse from a marketing perspective. The blessing is that to some people it’s a pretty fresh and interesting blend of sounds, so it stands out. The curse is that, in an era where attention is so fragmented and scattered, many people need a very clear reference to draw their focus: that is, “If you like Alt-J, you’ll like this”. That’s not something I can offer. This is kind of an old-school project in that it’s really intended to be consumed as an album. You won’t get a full picture, or really even much of a partial picture, from listening to one track – or to 20 or 30 seconds of one track.
What’s on your rider?
Really as long as there’s electricity I’m good to go. And actually electricity is kind of optional.
Tell us about your worst live show.
One of the first gigs I ever did was a midwinter acoustic “fireside” show at a little music café. There were a bunch of other performers and I only had two tracks to make my mark. My guitar had been in the freezing cold trunk of my car, and when I sat down to play next to the hot fireplace it went completely out of tune. It got worse and worse as I played my opening track. I tried to tune as I sang, but I turned one of the keys the wrong direction and the guitar morphed into a chorus of demons mocking my panicked vocals. Soon enough I was forgetting words and I just sort of ground to a halt. I sat there stupidly turning keys and plinking strings while the audience watched in silence, but I was so flustered I wasn’t even playing the right reference notes. So I just started in on the second track, playing only the low E string on the guitar. And then I slunk away in shame. This is the first time I’ve spoken since.