Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Eluvium

This is the 16th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Eluvium

Album: Nightmare Ending

Year: 2013

Label: Temporary Residence Ltd.

Favorite Song: "Covered in Writing"

The Bare Bones: NightMare Ending is the seventh full-length album of American solo music project Eluvium, the brainchild of musician Mathew Cooper, who also leads and takes part in several other projects such as Inventions, Matthew Robert Cooper, MRC/PRB and others.

The Beating Heart: While seemingly never far from his own self-made zone of musical melancholy, Nightmare Ending is perhaps one of Eluvium's most sweeping and grandiose attempts to achieve the smallest of feats, the expression of personal emotions and mental states. The instruments swell and, at the same time, never sound like instruments at all, inhumanly blending and bleeding into one another in a manner that creates a unified focus on a droning present. All the while, however, this inhuman tint, like a cloud of slowly shifting sounds, feels as if it has a beating heart, one that aches. It is a difficult thing, I think, to make music that could possibly be described as "minor drone" to sound as human and as beautiful and perhaps even hopeful as Eluvium's songs sound on Nightmare Ending, which perhaps is the reason why an album such as this found its way into a list made up almost entirely of the heaviest kinds of music imaginable. That Cooper manages to be as personal and as small as possible while, somehow, retaining the grandiosity and overbearingness associated with metal music or even heavier drone.

As always, before the short correspondence I had with Matthew I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year, with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (FacebookInstagramSpotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local metal. Thank you all for being here.

Was there a moment in your life, as a younger person, that stands out as a kind of watershed moment in music for you? A song or album that changed the way you thought about music, or made you want to become a musician?

 It is hard to pin down any single moment in life that made a switch get flipped on in me. I think it was just an ever-present feeling and enjoyment. I have many images of music in my life from when I was a child. I can picture listening to a vinyl copy of Peter and the Wolf (I think it may have been a Disney record), and being so sucked into the story and charmed by the sounds and even scared a little bit by some of the orchestral instrumentation. My older sister practicing classical piano music in the house (which I believe made me want to take piano lessons), or playing Simon and Garfunkel tapes on family trips in the car, or listening to my older brothers vinyl collection, or sneaking into his room to look at his tapes of Billy Brag and The Sugarcubes and The Smiths. And later on in life, my other brother opening me up to the worlds of Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Built To Spill, Pavement, etc., which fed into finding lots more independent/instrumental / experimental stuff. All of these things just always meant a lot to me, and spoke to me in a way that nothing else did.

 What were some of the influences, music, film, art, books, nature, that informed the writing and production stages of Nightmare Ending?

Nightmare Ending is a unique album in my catalogue as it is the one album that is more an amalgam of many various stages in my musical career. This album was originally a mix of pieces that followed up from Copia, but was then shelved for many years. I returned to it much later and created more work for it. But ultimately I almost think of the album as a mix-tape of my earlier years of work. So it isn’t easy to suggest one area of time of influence, so much as to just suggest that the intent was to learn to be less intense on my approach to what I choose to output, and to try and let things be more rough at the edges and broken and busting or whatever the naturally occurs. Before this album I had been much more intense in my crafting, and I wanted to break down this construct inside myself to allow some freedom to create more freely and openly. I’ve ultimately found the process helpful, as it has been nice to see such positive reactions to the music. Curiously, I’ve found myself falling into the same old traps of becoming extremely overly focused on meaning and intent when working on music again. It is a difficult balance to try to maintain. I often want my work to be drenched in meaning and intent forwards and backwards, yet I also want to ensure some level of effortlessness, and a great deal of mystery and mystique in not giving away the ghost of what my intentions are. Which I hope creates a nice puzzle for listeners, if they choose to listen to things in that manner, but also allows for a more straight forward listen as well. I don’t know, that probably sounds rather pretentious. Too much brain activity.

How important is it for you to remain free while writing? Presumably you’re freer than most, since you are you own band, but what does the process of staying confident regarding your voice and art while being informed by influences or outside disturbances?

I think confidence is the operative word in this question. Although perhaps I’ve suggested some of my methodology above, I think I can become so entranced by the world in my head while working on something that I forget to come up for air. I’ll live my life in a haze of blank stares because I’m mentally off somewhere else in a musical thought, concept, conundrum, or fix. But I think it is quite common for artists to be a mixture of extreme self-confidence and utter despair and concern for what they are doing. Usually when I take the time to return to Earth after a project is the time when I start questioning everything that I’m doing or noticing how I didn’t quite accomplish what I had intended to do or set out to do. It can be a frustrating time, and is usually best served by moving onwards and upwards with new ideas, or starting again, but allowing the work that was made to exist and believing in yourself enough, trusting your intention enough, to allow it to exist. Influences can be a good thing while in a project, but I tend to only let those things come from non-specific real world phenomenon, as opposed to listening to other music. 

As someone who has a background mostly in heavier music, I always find that there’s something of an invisible thread running from the type of exploration of size and power that takes place in, say, punk and heavy metal, and the kind of exploration of space and perhaps even spirituality in the kind of ambient, drone, and piano mix that marks Nightmare Ending. You can sometimes see it in the later ambient experiments of once quite brutal musicians. Does that link have a resonance with you or your background, the kind of shift of exploring through high energy to exploring through a mind toward patience, dynamics, and space?

It’s an interesting suggestion. A couple of things that do come to mind regarding this are that I often find a lot of heavier music strangely soothing instead of perhaps disruptive. I think drone and metal are very close to each other and have a similar capacity for creating a comforting space for the listener. Aside from that I have also always been a somewhat nervous personality. I’ve relaxed a little with age, but that personality seems tied to having a pent up high internal energy, and a mind that needs stilling. Generally speaking the creation and consumption of these types of music can act as a form of meditation, which creates a calm in the composer/listener. One of the main reasons I ultimately ended up on the path of making music as “Eluvium” was in a need to create a cocoon of sound that could comfort me in a way that I wasn’t hearing or finding elsewhere. I think that as my catalogue has grown, this idea has expanded to become more complex and evolving, but the initial intent often remains the same.

With that last question in mind, there seems to me that, despite this sense of spaciness or abstraction, there’s a certain gravity or anchor to your music, especially perhaps on Nightmare Ending. How does one achieve “heavy” or “grounded” given the ethereal nature of much of the instrumentation?

 An interesting question. I’m not certain I can answer this as I think those terms can mean something different to each individual. I’m not sure if this can relate or not, but as much as it is easy to wax poetic about musical philosophy and intention and try to treat a piece of music as a piece of considered art. I’ve always found that there is something inside of me that ultimately pulls back from being too clinical about it. As much as I’ve been so inspired and gone through periods of totally devouring what I would consider more “clinical” works, often by avant-garde composers, I’ve always tried to use what I’ve learned as education and instill these forms of composition and exploration into my own work, but to also always ensure that a piece does not get so clinical as to lose its heart. I want a piece of music to undulate and breath and pulse and act and react like something from nature and something as complex and simple as the world and ourselves. When I can find a balance of something that stirs the mind but also purrs to the heart. I know I’m in the right place. To communicate something without this sense of understanding is, although at times desirous, ultimately anathema to me.

Looking back at Nightmare Ending, is there something about that project that you’re especially proud of now? Something about the process of creating it, a moment, a song?

 Having Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo singing on the final track was a pretty big “wow” moment for me.