The Thinking Man’s Music: A First-Ever Interview With The Ebullist/SLM
“I’m just this kid locked in his bedroom, happy playing around with DSP units,” the elusive suburban Mumbai artist we know only as Sean (he releases music as the Ebullist and Synthetic Lying Machine) tells me revealingly in a first ever interview. “I’ve exchanged my social life for modular programs.”
Sean is a very hard man to track down. There are only dead ends on his blog’s contact page, and no authentic signatures on his impressively large collection of quality Bandcamp releases. His hermetic anonymity seems carefully cultivated – but for once it’s not a marketing tactic, this is the real deal.
You see, for all intents and purposes Sean isn’t an anti-scenester, simply that rare artist who doesn’t pay heed to anything but the music; he completely eschews any need for the socialising that’s inevitably attached to more ‘successful’ budding musicians. This is the ‘tediously boring aspect’ of being an artist, and he wants no part in it. In fact, Sean sometimes seems disinterested in the very idea of success as something encashable, as something quantified by fans, followers or charts. This is why, despite recently garnering the approval of underground veterans like Samrat Bee, the 26-year-old remains firmly entrenched at his home-desk with no foreseeable live appearances on the calendar.
At first he appears to be slightly suspicious, asking me questions about myself and Border Movement, perhaps used to having to establish the legitimacy of forum and chat room bots. “I’m totally cut off from any form of this scene,” he says minutes later as though by way of apology.
Unlike the seasoned interviewees I’ve become used to, Sean needs to be eased out of his guarded answers. Throughout, he seems as intent on learning more about me as I am about him. Most interestingly, he defies all attempts to slot him into a convenient category. Take, for instance his gear. He lists:
“1 cheap MIDI controller surface
1 cheap Casio keyboard with some defunct keys scattered all over the octaves
1 electric guitar with 3 rusty strings (last changed in August ’10)
and a couple of cheap mics.”
In an industry where people hanker for louder and shinier production baubles every other month, this minimal equipment may border on amusing. Yet it is this very approach which holds the key to his creative technique, one that echoes geniuses like Burial – that music doesn’t need to be restricted by technology in its creation, and that it is in fact the constant want of brawnier gear that blunts a musician’s creativity.
“People don’t believe me when I mention my setup. But limited resources stretch the mind a fair bit, I find,” Sean says. “Who needs gear anyway? I see so many people being addicted to acquiring the next new thing, it’s rather sad. Because all it comes down to, ultimately, is the artist’s imagination. So many folks spend so much time pimping their studio that they never even learn any chords – and even if they do learn a few, they don’t know why they’re chords, what they mean, or how they’re constructed. If you’re just going to sit in your bedroom with a fuzzbox playing root fifth octaves with a crunchy sound then eventually it will matter what kind of a fuzzbox you use.” Sean types furiously, this is important to him. I’d be lying if I said I’m not impressed.
But then again, Sean slips comfortably into his skin as an anomaly. An art school product, he switched to production because painting was ‘the expected path for (him) to walk’. Entirely self-taught, he began to compose music seriously about ten years ago. As for motivation: “I’ve wanted to play Chopin’s Mazurkas for as long as I remember,” he says.
The most obvious monetisation of his talent, as for every other musician grappling for a foothold in the scene, is playing to live audiences. But he cursorily brushes this off as a probable logistical nightmare. “It’s too complex to recreate my records; to me they’re performances in themselves,” he tells me doubtfully. “I haven’t actually given it serious consideration. Being conscious of the fact of going live later with what I’m producing would mean limiting my abilities at the time to tempos that would work live. Right now it’s great not to have to worry about that aspect. In the future, with a combination of the right factors – just maybe.”
Sean mercilessly pulls at cultural references, so it’s not surprising the name Synthetic Lying Machine is homage to a pre-Neutral Milk Hotel project of Jeff Mangum’s. “Except for Mangum’s, I’m not really big on lyrics myself – I find them too domineering. Besides, they get in the way of the overall structure and narrative of a piece. You have to keep shit interesting musically, though. On Vaccuum (last LP) , for instance, I converted raw NASA data (PSD packages) into sound through a process called sonification. ‘Voyager’s Trajectory’ contains the electromagnetic emissions of all the planets of our solar system captured by the Voyager spacecraft. Even the artwork of Vaccuum (Sean designs all his own art) was created by running the NASA data through my DAW and controlling it with my MIDI controller. Those mountain-like rises you see are me controlling the LFO and the volume of the sound. This was rendered visually in real-time through a 3D spectrogram. If I remember correctly, this one was Cassini’s Saturnian Plasma Spectrometer.”
It’s safe to hazard by now that Sean is a different breed of artist from those I usually encounter.
As we’re finishing, I ask him who the remixing artists are on his latest EP (a ten-tracker of B-sides to Vaccuum) if he’s so socially disconnected from other musicians.
“Those?” he says casually, “they’re all me. Every single one.”
Watch Synthetic Lying Machine’s video for ‘My Interstellar Love’ below. The footage in the film is of the Cassini Solstice Mission, and was captured by the Cassini Imaging Science System. Like all of Sean’s music, this is strictly meant for headphone listening.
written by Tej Haldule