A chat with Grant Aaron
The first time Grant Aaron went to an event with a chill-out room, everything clicked into place. It was the beginning of a long love affair with ambient and experimental music, with its sparsity and often beat-less nature leaving plenty of room for the imagination to take over. Grant went on to take up DJing in chill-out spaces himself before founding the influential platform Mysteries of the Deep in New York a decade ago. Initially a podcast, Mysteries has evolved over time to incorporate an event series and record label, and has established itself as one of the most revered sources for ambient music, both online and offline.
2021 is shaping up to be as busy a year as any other for Mysteries: there are releases in the works from Christina Chatfield, Mosam Howieson and Grant’s label partner Oliver Chapoy, plus plans to bring back the podcast after a brief hiatus. In the midst of this busy schedule, Grant took the time to showcase his cinematic, storytelling-driven style for our own podcast, with a mix recorded in a dense New York winter and inspired by the dampening of sound that comes with heavy snowfall. Here, he speaks to us about his path to ambient music and the special role that the genre plays in the current climate.
Hey Grant! How have you been going lately? I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to the last few months.
I’d say it’s been primarily work. I have a full-time job in advertising, as head of network operations for a fairly large group of agencies. Prior to COVID I always had a pretty healthy balance between my work life and my music life. That afforded me the ability to focus on the label and my band and my own music. COVID really changed a lot of that because we had to restructure a lot of what we were doing within the company. So my free time sort of evaporated last year, I was just working all the time. Which is interesting because we had one of our biggest years ever on the label last year, too. We had seven releases and we also switched from releasing vinyl, both because that wasn’t so much available to us and because we had some inner dialogue going on about producing more vinyl. Not that we don’t appreciate the medium – we definitely do – but from an environmental standpoint, we didn’t want to continue to contribute to that process. So we decided not to press more vinyl, at least for the time being, and we did all digital releases last year. We had a huge compilation, three chapters in the series, and those went really well. A number of albums, a couple of EPs. So it was a big year.
That’s quite a lot considering you say work is taking up so much of your time!
Yeah, trying to balance all of that is challenging but we figure it out. I have a good team. There’s my label partner who is head of A&R, Oliver Chapoy. He takes on some of the administrative stuff which has been a huge help. He also mixed Christina’s album and preps all the new releases. The rest of the team is made up of our chief designer Gabriel Benzer, Candace Price who provides photography and video content, Rafael Irisarri, our mastering engineer, and Taylor Bratches who handles release editorial. It’s a great team of people who kind of do their thing really well. I love these people, they’re some of my favourites, and we really share the same vision.
Are you able to find time for yourself for music in all of this?
Last year no, not really. It was a combination of just being super busy and then the free time that I would have … it’s been really hard to find inspiration. I would find it other ways. I was always still recording mixes or DJing in my own time. Production was tough. I produced one track last year, for my band Birds of Prey. We had a track on the third chapter of our compilation (on Mysteries of the Deep) and I did that cut, which was an edit of a previous session recording. So I produced that one, which was fun, to get my head back into it. I found some inspiration from that so now I’m just trying to turn the machines on as much as I can.
Your bio describes your influences as far-reaching. Are there any musical influences that people might be surprised to hear about?
Well, I am a product of the ‘80s and ‘90s and a massive Cocteau Twins fan. That’s always my go-to: things like Joy Division and that kind of stuff. It’s had the most influence on me when it comes to how I make music and the sounds that really appeal to me the most. But I think over the duration of 30 plus years of really being involved with music – or at least at a stage where I’m super engaged with music – I think I’ve kind of formulated this sound in my head that appeals to me and I don’t venture off of it too much. But it’s pretty broad, that’s the thing: it can be anything from weird jazz to weird bleepy techno from the early ‘90s. I think it’s just deeper music for me, that’s probably the best way to describe it. Nothing else really appeals to me.
What first drew you to ambient music then?
I first got into electronic music in the ‘80s and early ‘90s really, when I first started buying records. I think I went to my first rave in ‘91 or ‘92 maybe. I went to an event and they had a chillout room. It was the first time I was really exposed to that stuff and it instantly just clicked with me because it incorporated a lot of the sounds that I would hear in other music that I loved. You take the beats out of stuff and you take the instrumental out of things, and what you’re left with is space. And I was just instantly hooked. I went on this deep dive and started buying up every record I could find from that period of time in ambient: things like Global Communication, Mixmaster Morris (Irresistible Force), all of that sort of stuff. And then I started playing chillout rooms.
There was a moment towards the end of the ‘90s, early 2000s where I made the shift from that into super deep techno and went down that path for a very long time, maybe a decade or more. Ambient became something I was just listening to, I wasn’t actively participating in. But that changed when I was living in Berlin. I don’t want to say I got bored with techno – but I got bored with techno. My engagement with it changed and it felt like I wanted to shift gears a little bit.
Is this when Mysteries of the Deep began?
Do you know Eric Cloutier? He’s one of my oldest friends from New York. When he was still living in New York, I’d had him over at my house and he was digging through all my ambient records. He had never heard of any of this stuff that I had and was just fascinated by it. So he invited me over one weekend and was like, ‘Dude bring a bag of records, let’s get into some weird things and play music all night’. I wound up playing all night long – records I hadn’t touched in over a decade – and wound up recording the entire session and then broke it into these mixes which became the first couple of releases on the podcast. I remember that night coming up with the name for it; it just popped into my head, I can’t really explain how it happened other than maybe psychedelics played a big role in that. I took that and started a Soundcloud account and it just exploded into this whole other thing. It just became this thing: it started with the podcast and then evolved into an event series in New York with a community of friends.
What do you think it was that resonated so well with listeners?
It happened at this moment where I think a lot of monotonous stuff was happening in New York on the techno front – not that it was bad, there was just a lot of it – and I think people were up for something else. People were open to something new so we decided to do a Mysteries event, and it wound up becoming a multi-year series. And then the label started, which felt like the next evolution of the thing, and that’s done really well too. It gave us the ability to actually promote artists within our circle of friends who were making music but didn’t have a larger platform. That was really the most important thing: to give a platform to people who didn’t have one.
It’s kind of amazing that this started from that one night of playing records.
Yeah, it was really funny how that whole thing happened. But Eric and I had a million moments like that over the years where we were just hanging out.
What defines good ambient music to you?
For me personally, I think it goes back again to the use of certain sounds and frequencies. To me, it’s a little strange that I’ve kind of been labelled as someone who only plays dark ambient. I don’t even know what that means. That tag or genre or whatever, it absolutely makes no sense to me because I don’t consider what I listen to ‘dark’ even though I guess it is to other people. For me, it’s about how artists hold space in music. I like ambient music that has deep bass tones and yet has these beautiful melodies that ride on top of it. That is the whole package.
It doesn’t have to have rhythm, it doesn’t necessarily have to have instrumentation. It just has to hold space. Sometimes you listen to tracks and they’re so full, that there isn’t a lot of space in your head for imagination. I like world-building in music, when you can listen to stuff and it’s got tones and different things that are happening but there’s enough space there where your own imagination can take over. To me, that’s super important.
To make it sparse enough that people can fill in the blanks themselves?
There you go. Because your mind will naturally do that, if you give it the chance.
How do you go about selecting music for the label?
That’s a tough one because we get a lot of links and a lot of demos, but unfortunately, we don’t have a tonne of time to go through them. We’re really particular about how we choose music. To be honest with you, it usually comes through our community of friends. This year for instance, on our roster is this amazing woman from San Francisco, Christina Chatfield, she’s more in the techno space but she’s been working on this album for quite some time for us. She’s one of my dearest friends so I’ve always been super encouraging of her to participate because I know her music. So how we’ve chosen music before has usually come to us through that group of friends. That’s what we try to do – we try to grow that community and keep it inclusive.
I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on the role that ambient music plays at the moment. I have some friends who previously wouldn’t have given ambient the time of day but have been getting into it lately. Have you noticed anything similar?
Last year for sure, yeah. After the pandemic hit, our next release was in March, which was William Selman’s second album with us. There was such an outpouring of support for that release because people were in a legitimately frightened headspace at that time. The feedback that we were getting from people was that they were loving the fact that we were consistently putting out stuff that they could just sit with and it made them feel better.
I think it’s an energy thing. People need or are desiring a more meditative, calm, peaceful state of mind. And I think this music does that. At least it does it for me.
Maybe this goes back to your point about imagination: the idea that when we’re lacking external stimulus, ambient allows us to still fill in the blanks ourselves?
Yeah, we’re lacking experience. We’re lacking that everyday aspect of being out of the house or going to work or whatever that social experience is that you have. I think I’ve seen my friends a handful of times in the last year and that’s super impactful in what it does to your wellbeing. I can really only speak for myself and the feedback that I get from friends, but I know for me I don’t really want to listen to anything that has an energy that I can’t replicate, that I can’t really harness. For me personally, I would rather just stay in a headspace that I feel comfortable in.
Maybe it also gives you calm amongst the chaos.
Absolutely, I think that’s what it is. I love techno but it’s not where I’m at from an energy place at the moment.
What have you been listening to lately? What has been getting you through this time?
A lot of different stuff. I listen to non-music podcasts and audiobooks a lot. Other than that, a lot of Harold Budd. His passing really blew me away, I’ve been such a massive fan of his since forever and ever. A lot of HTRK. Have you heard of this band Demen? They did one album called Nektyr that came out a few years ago and I just can’t escape it, it’s so good. A lot of Biosphere, he has a new one which is really good. The new Alva Noto record was really good, Sophia Loizou’s recent record Untold was fantastic. Pretty much anything on Astral Industries. A lot of compilations, a lot of my own label stuff. I’m also an active listener of my own podcast. There’s just so much to it, I love going back to the early days and listening to what some of my friends were doing at that time.
Tell us a bit about the mix for Patterns of Perception. Was there a concept behind this one?
To me, my mixes are always fairly cinematic in nature meaning there is a story going on in my head. In a weird way, and maybe that is just the genre itself, it just feels like storytelling to me. The last eight or nine months have been some of the most difficult that I’ve been through in several years. A lot of it has to do with my work situation, which has been incredibly challenging and pushed me to rethink many things in my life. Then you have the pandemic, which has been this overarching theme for so many, most just trying to get through each day. But then there are these rays of light. I always try to be optimistic and hopeful about stuff, even when that can be really tough, so while this mix is very solemn, there are rays of light coming through.
Lastly, what’s on the cards for Mysteries of the Deep in 2021?
We have three albums coming up, the first one is by Christina Chatfield which I mentioned before. We have one from Oliver Chapoy, his new moniker is called The Spiral. The theme behind that album is how he hears music on psychedelics and it’s incredible, one of the best things I’ve heard in years. And then we have an album from Mosam Howieson, he released on Silent Season and they directed him to us for his next release. It also looks like we will have a few more but they are still in the works. And then the podcast, we took a brief hiatus from that in September for the first time in a decade and so we’re going to be ramping that back up. We have a streaming event coming up in March, which is part of the Common Festival, hosted by Currents.fm. We’re also starting a monthly show on a fairly new live streaming platform called Channel 66, hosted by VANS which begins on March 9th. We’ll be making formal announcements on all this soon.