Earlier this month, Byron Westbrook released Distortion Hue, his most visceral, emotionally raw collection of tracks to date. Keeping with this theme, his guest mix, Variations on Distortion, is an ode to the beautiful, chaotic nature of distorted sound. Plus, we chatted with Byron about the inspiration of Maryanne Amacher, pairing music with everyday activities, his recent Bandcamp live stream concert, and more.

Name: Byron Westbrook

Hometown: Baton Rouge, LA

Current city / place of residence: Los Angeles

Home away from home: I also lived in NYC for 15 years until 2018.

 Last book you read? Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews and just started Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

The Maryanne Amacher book sounds really interesting, and I see she’s the third artist on your guest mix – can you tell us more about her? 

Maryanne Amacher was a criminally underappreciated composer and artist who has a very rich history. She was a student of Stockhausen who worked with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. She created wildly ambitious and forward thinking projects, only a fraction of which were actualized. She also taught in the MFA program at Bard and though she passed away in 2009 shortly before I was a student there, her influence was resonating very strongly during that time. I did get to hear her perform once and it was something I’ll never forget. She is most known for creating work with otoacoustic emissions, which is distortion that is actually created by resonance within your head, but her work and ideas go so much deeper. I highly recommend the book.

What instruments, gear, etc do you like to use most when making music?

I’d say something along the lines of “assortment of hardware, synthesizer, computer and very occasionally guitar”, but I have no favorites specifically. I’m trained as a guitar player and that’s at the core of things even though I mostly use other devices to make sounds. There are definitely sonics that I gravitate towards, which are harmonium, guitar, reed instruments, multiphonics, binaural beating phenomena, feedback and harmonic series relationships. I do love my Otari MX5050BII – that’s my most used piece of gear.

Are there certain kinds of activities – for example reading, cooking, walking – you like to pair with certain genres of music? Does this idea correlate to how you view your music, in what inspired you while writing it, and how you imagine it might be consumed by the listener? This sounds very LA, but I think about driving music a lot. Though that association might be more in reference to road trips, so it might be less LA-specific and more about expanse and landscape. My personal music listening is most active when either just sitting and listening to my HiFi setup without doing anything or driving. I’m hoping the listener can have a filmic and immersive experience with my work. 

Your live stream concert last weekend was wonderful, was it your first time doing something like that? Can you say a little about what it was like putting it together, and working with visual artist Alex Pelly?Thanks – it was great to work with Alex and was a super fluid process. I think about my music in terms of implying visuals and color, and it’s exciting when someone’s visual work can feel in conversation with it in a way that adds to it rather than detracts. I think Alex did that very successfully, and I loved the color palette and sequence of color she chose. Quarantine time has been good for exploring these kinds of things. I have another new project with a visual artist that I’m really excited about as well, which has been in development for many months and will be announced soon

Lastly I just want to ask about the new album, Distortion Hue. What sets it apart from say, Body Consonance, or any of your other releases? Body Consonance was more concerned with presenting sounds in a way that expressed a kinetic energy and motion, while Distortion Hue is centered around catharsis and a more raw emotional expression that is – at least partially – embedded in its quality of the sound. 
Interestingly, a lot of the ideas from Distortion Hue pre-date Body Consonance. They had existed as either sketches or raw, unedited 1/4″ tape recordings. These were things that I had made intuitively which possessed a strong identity, but at the time of creation I wasn’t sure if I connected with them as something to present in the context of my work. Two of the tracks were initially mixed in 2017 and considered for inclusion on Body Consonance but they were clearly outliers that needed much more development and a different context to feel complete.

Is it influenced by world events, personal feelings? Or more of a depersonified study of sound, distortion, creating sound and hearing sound?

I was focusing on a lot of other recordings-in-progress in early 2020 – some of which will still be released moving forward – but because of both the pandemic and personal life events, my anxiety was at an all-time high. While listening through some older recordings, I realized that what seemed like a grouping of raw and damaged outliers from 2014-2016 was actually a much more focused and unified group of ideas than what I was working on and easily the most honest record I could complete. I didn’t feel like I made the choice entirely – in a way it was just presented to me and I just had to accept that this was the next record. The distortion was something that was just there in all of the ideas, and while I pushed it further when I completed the tracks, it really was just the connecting thread that allowed me to see these ideas as a whole record.  

Variations on Distortion Tracklist:

Jefre Cantu Ledesma – “Star Garden” – Love Is A Stream (Type, 2010)
Yellow Swans – “Drift I” – Drift (Root Strata, 2005)
Maryanne Amacher – “Synaptic Island (Tower Metals/Feed 2/Muse Orchestra 1)” – Sound Characters (Making the Third Ear) (Tzadik, 1999)
Koen Holtkamp – “Atmos 03” – Atmosfera (Love All Day, 2021)
Grouper -” I Saw A Ray” – AIA: Dream Loss (Kranky, 2011)
BJ Nilsen – “Let Me Know When It’s Over” – Fade to White (Touch, 2004)
Martina Lussi – “Care” – Diffusion is a Force (Latency, 2019)
John Chantler – “Fixation Pulse” – Which Way to Leave? (Room40, 2016)
Eliane Radigue – “Feu” – Jouet Electronique / Elemental I (Alga Marghen, 2010)
Rafael Toral – “Maersk Line” – Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance (Staubgold / Touch, 2001)
Kali Malone – “Empty The Belief” – Cast of Mind (Hallow Ground, 2018)
Belong – “All Equal Now” – October Language (Carpark Records, 2006)

-photo credit: Braulio Lam

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