A lifelong artist, musician and Grammy-nominated composer, for best electronic dance album titled ‘These Hopeful Machines’, Brian Transeau has remained fervently attuned to the enigmas of man-made machines, in fact building them at will. I call him ‘The Wizard’ because of his mastery over modular mysteries. He has produced, remixed, written for, and collaborated with a variety of artists in his gigantic music career, and then one really can’t get enough of albums like ‘Ima’, ‘ESCM’, ‘Movement In Still Life’ through to ‘This Binary Universe’ to drop some. The pulse, sizzle and raw electric charge inherent in All Hail The Silence, all of that intermingling with expansive Tangerine Dream / Kraftwerk style kraut-cosmic dreamscapes to dig into, always focusing his energies towards cinematic flair apparent in films such as ‘Fast & The Furious’, ‘Monster’ and ‘Go’, in short makes for a legend.
I caught up with him to find out about his machines, his latest untitled album released on Black Hole Recordings and to give you a glimpse into the life and times of a living, breathing example of a genius composer/DJ/ Producer amidst us, a man who thinks like a machine, from outside a machine and bending the machine exactly to his will, all the while retaining emotional human traits that offer sounds that only he can. Presenting the wonderfully affable BT in a tell all.
It would be fantastic to know what initial steps you took for getting into production and DJ circuit, how life was in Maryland, as a young musician?
I suppose for a start, there wasn’t any real impetus or intention to start DJing or production, I was a classical music brat, I studied Piano Suzuki methods starting at age 4, I went to the Washington conservatory of music and then at 7 I studied counterpoint orchestration, harmony and theory, plus other types of orchestral writing. I studied at the conservatory till I was about 12 performing piano recitals.
Around that time I discovered breakdancing music and culture as well as early English New Wave, during that time I started mowing lawns to buy my first synthesisers, I had a miniature lawn mowing empire, I earned the money with my callused hands to buy my first synthesisers and drum machines. I joined local talent shows, where I won some which I enjoyed very much. I applied for music school at 15 and thereafter was accepted at Berklee where subsequently I got into film music and composition.
What records were you dancing to back when your interest in electronic music started to develop?
I really got into early break dancing music and new wave. Bands such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, Depeche Mode, Man Parrish, Cabaret Voltaire, and New Order to name some. You know all the early protagonists of 4/4 electronic music were the ones that grabbed me.
With an extensive body of work with releases such as “Ima” to “Blue Skies” with Tori Amos and then that gem “Remember’ with vocals from Jan Johnston, it’s been a long way full of originals, remixes, movie scores and albums that have touched gold. If you were to choose a tune that you have produced, one that’s your favourite, which would it be and why?
Thank you, it’s kind of you to say that. It’s such a hard question to answer because I have such an emotional attachment to all that I’ve made. And to thousands and thousands of stuff that have never been released. So difficult to choose, but I’d say some of my favourite music are pieces such as – ‘Satellite’, ‘Good Morning Kaia’, ‘Flaming June’, ‘Artifracture’, ‘All Hail The Silence’. I’m attached to all that I’ve written, and it’s not some marketing hyperbole.
What machines did you invest in, during the early days?
In fact, the first synthesiser that I bought was the Roland Juno 106, and interestingly at one time in Los Angeles. I had that very keyboard stolen from my home along with many other things. For years I had the serial number and I kept looking on sites like for example Craigslist and eBay hoping that the first keyboard that I had bought from when I was a kid, having saved up for it over two summers, would pop up and that I would buy it back again, funny enough it actually happened.
I got the kiwi modification done to it, and some aluminium panels made for it like the Jupiter 6 and it looks special and was quite a coup to have it back. My first drum machine was the Yamaha RX 11 which I hated. Plus some of the early Korg, PCM based, and sample based drum machines. The realistic Moog which was a mono synth, the DX 7, the D 50 and the Akai S 900, which was my first sampler and my first sequencer was the Roland MSQ 700 followed immediately by an IBM 51 50 that I built with my dad which was a lot of fun.
Then I got an MPU Roland IMF/ IPC card with a Roland MPU 401 and the only reason why I remember all this is cause I still use this computer to date and in fact I sequenced my entire first two albums – ‘Ima’ and ‘ESCM’ and all the remixes that I did around the time, on the IBM PS2 model 70 with 16k of ram and I still actually have been refurbishing this computer to put in my new studio and I cannot wait to work on it, as I can operate it with my eyes shut. It’s incredible how fast it is and pretty astonishing.
You’ve experimented under several aliases in your early career, what made you take to several avatars?
When I started out, I was experiencing a lot of idiomatic ideas and sounds and it just felt right to name some of those things differently. I realised pretty early on that it diverted the focus of the fact that I wanted to have a really eclectic body of work and that’s what I had been called to do creatively, so I stopped doing that soon enough.
Was there a moment you knew that this is it; I have hit the big time?
Geez, that’s hard to say. I do everything with a lot of humility, reverence and excitement. But yes, there have been some honestly, where I have thought that wow this is what I dreamed about as a kid, one of them landing in India and my mobile just exploded with text messages that I had been nominated for a Grammy and I literally burst into tears and the hostess in the flight inquired as to whether I was ok, looking back it was a crazy time. Another time in the early 2000’s when I was in Australia, there were 25 thousand people in the docklands and they had gone over the capacity by 5 thousand, my mom and aunt were there too and for them to watch me perform in such an atmosphere, with an amazing gathering of Australian fans, really made it special. Yes, some wonderful moments for sure.
If you look back do you think Europe and in particular the UK music scene influenced your earlier records because you created sounds to suit their sensibilities more than an American audience?
Interesting question, people said very early on in my career that I was sort of an anglophile. I don’t think there were a lot of Americans with whom you could talk to about Acid House, Captain Sensible and so many random things from English music and culture, bands such as The The and things that never really made it to America. I used to obsess about all this. Matt Johnson still such a hero of mine and someone like Jools Holland played piano in a certain way, I studied it. I certainly paid attention to English culture and music, but when I first broke into the music scene, what I did was totally unrelated to anything that was happening in England or anywhere else for that matter.
In fact, there was no such thing as a breakdown in a record, or build-up as it were or a drop, these elements didn’t exist. Whatever I was doing followed form and structure from classical music, and also a lot of counterpoint, root motion, inversions, modal interchange, and secondary subdominants all carried over. There was no electronic music in America, albeit we had Detroit Techno, Chicago House and pockets of stuff happening in New York which also had an incredible Disco scene, but House music was not of any consequence. All these scenes were pretty localised; I certainly had no exposure to them.
I was more or less making music in my parents’ house, which meant something to me. Things just exploded from there and people started to copy what I was doing. Crazy, funny story comes to mind, I had recorded some stuff at a studio very early on in my career, plus Sasha and I did a remix for Seal and about two weeks after, a remix came out from the guys called Brothers in Rhythm and I happened to hear what they made and it was one of the most unbelievable rip-off of the sound, the style, arrangement, the engineering, ideology, the methodology of what I’d do, but this instance was uncanny. Turns out these guys had taken out the 24 track master tapes that I had recorded and they had studied each track. Clearly, there was a want to understand the things I was doing.
A first developer of the sound-processing software plug-ins Stutter Edit that’s patented in your name, a technique of real-time manipulation of digital audio and then you have the drum machine surround sound sequencer BreakTweaker, plus the live audio and visual remix app called Sonifi, could you simplify it for a layman?
Sure, absolutely. Thanks for doing your research on this, sounds like you might be a musician yourself. Basically, I started splicing tape from when I was 14 years old, before my time at Berklee. I worked as a tape op at a local studio and they would let me use the facilities in the night, in exchange for cleaning toilets, pouring Tea and Coffee for clients, cleaning tape heads etc. I would experiment with splicing tape and that’s when the first ideas for this type of non-linearity took place.
My teacher at my time at the conservatory had exposed me to ‘music concrete’ and the idea of tape splicing and also to how the godfathers of early electronic music such as John Cage, Ian Xinakis which contrary to popular belief, are not let’s say Hardwell. No just kidding, he’s great, but you know what I mean. Obviously, there is an incredible long lineage of early electronic music composers who are actually the founders of the kind of music we have today.
Anyway, studying music concrete, working as a tape op I started thinking of hey what happens if you spool out and cut through tape into 4-foot lines, you subdivide that by twos and so on and so forth. Thereafter you recontextualize this thing, not in a linear fashion, but let’s say use this first foot, and then the seventh foot and then the second foot, in fact, copy two times the second foot and repeat them. So my first rudimentary stutter edits were using tape. Then I started cooking up all these mathematical schemes for what happens if you interpolate exponentially over a dada quad note to 1024 and cluster down to 8th and triplets, I mean just these crazy ideas in my teens and early 20’s.
I had to execute these things, find a way to do so on the first digital audio workstations, which weren’t even what you would think of as workstations but things like sound tools and Peak to do some of the early edits, and I reached a point where it was reason enough to start Sonik Architects where I would be able to automate this process and not do it by hand. It was a fun idea that the Stutter Edit and BreakTweaker sprung up from, and the latter, in particular, came during the time I was making – ‘Binary Universe’, the idea of blurring between pitch and rhythm which it’s so adept at.
I built these tools to do things in my music, which weren’t commercially available, and wire develops things in the very moment. There’s collaboration with Spitfire Audio that takes the concept of adapting the idea of convolution that I call adaptive synthesis through synthesis modality. It’s unbelievable and crazy; the synthesiser is called PHOBOS, which will be released later this year. These things come about because I want to record music and I don’t have a tool to do so with and so I build it.
Did you know when you were creating it that it would become a worldwide phenomenon?
I really didn’t and it’s amazing. My daughter can pick out Stutter Edit in movie trailers, records on the radio; we literally hear it on a daily basis in TV commercials, pop songs, country tracks down to electronic music, starting to hear BreakTweaker all over everything too. It’s all so exciting you know. To hear people use it in a different way than I designed for me to use it in my way and to have that integrated into the vocabulary of modern music.
Are you still hands on with Sonik Architects even after its acquisition by software and music production company iZotope?
Yes, absolutely, super hands on Venn diagram things and dry boarding at development meetings, doing code sketches and all the rest of it. I love to build things.
When you sit to start a tune, is there a certain element or machine that gets you ticking first, how does the layering go from there?
Well, not necessarily a machine as much as my brain, honestly. My compositions always come from a melodic figure, or ostinato or chord changes that I have running around in my head for hours, sometimes for days, months and years. In fact I can recall in this moment, things I’ve been processing since I was about 10 or 11, carrying around things for a long time, there comes a time when it crests in my head and I go wow that’s an interesting idea, I should try to make something out of it, is when I sit down on my piano or acoustic guitar, try to pick out what is in my brain and make sense of it.
Typically all my compositions start with acoustic instruments, it’s never really the accoutrements of electronics that come way later in the process. If you are starting at a computer or DAW, you can get wrapped in the ideology of workflow in whatever that tool imposes upon you and one might lose the essence of the particular thing that you are trying to do. I can give a very concrete example of this; you might have a melodic figure in your head that’s very Rubato when you sit down to play it with a metronome you end up losing the feeling and flavor of it even if it’s not quantized you don’t want to play it against the click and that’s one of the innumerable ways of demonstrating that.
For example, when I wrote the theme for the movie ‘Fast & Furious’ I had this melodic figure running around my head for months, and it wasn’t until one night in a car on my way back from one of the screenings of the film that I realised that this is 6/4, the whole time I had in my head, sometimes I just write it down on a piece of paper.
Aside from the fact that you happen to be one of the most cutting edge Trance and Electronic music producers of this planet, how did you veer into composing music for blockbuster movies such as “Monster”, “The Fast & The Furious” and more?
My background is in film composition and classical music, and it was natural extension of the things I studied and was interested in than making electronic music surprisingly, so it kind of happened backwards for me in some ways.
Your works seem to be delving and exploring deeper into being that composer who thinks futuristic, plus mastering machines, than being a performance based DJ over the last year or so, your thoughts?
I try to keep a balance and thank you these questions are wonderful and I really appreciate all the kind things that you’ve said here. For me, it is about maintaining a modicum of balance between being on the road and then at home composing music. I love being in the studio writing more than anything. Then I get stuck in for too long and then tell myself I gotta go out and do some shows so there is a definite duality where I must do both.
We know that you are a multi-instrumentalist, but have to ask which musical instruments have you mastered, and is there any other that you would like to learn how to play?
I wish I felt that mastery of the instruments that I play. I feel I play the Piano best, secondly, it’s the bass and I love to play the guitar. I can canoodle around on a Cello, built something like a baritone, but yes I would love to learn it better.
Can you run us through the difference in making dance music vis-a-vis a film score, or is it just a more elaborate creation, keeping with the story and the mood of the undertaking? Is it safe to say that the sky is the limit here; to all the additional gear you end up using to compose for the latter format?
I approach both the formats the same way. It starts with a cathartic emotional outpouring of an idea; from there it kind of goes analytical and nerdy. I start to get to the technical part of making music.
You got nominated for a Grammy for Best Electronic / Dance album for – “These Hopeful Machines’, surely must have been a special highlight on your career. Did life change for you afterwards, in terms of offers and recognition as a DJ/Producer whose technical prowess didn’t just stop at a console?
When I look back at tracks such as “Remember”, “Godspeed” and “Flaming June” all propagate anthemic melodic backgrounds, where was your headspace to make such classic pieces, do you think it is to do with you and not so much the machines you had back then?
The music that I compose does not have that much to do with the machines that I use although I’ve got some awesome stuff to work with, it’s super fun too and with different types of work modalities. But really for any composer it always begins with what’s in their head.
Could you run us through your studio setup and what changes have you made over the years to keep up with the times, is it exciting to make new additions and do away with the old kinda thing?
I haven’t had a proper studio in the last 3 years; I work from my daughter’s old bedroom. There’s a desk with two computers, VE Pro rig, my main Mac and I’ve been pulling synths as and when I want to use them from my Eurorack. I’m building a studio and am putting setups from different time periods of my life. I set up exactly the same way when I was making ESCM and other works that I have done.
There’s surround sound, it’s my first sound-treated room with tonnes of vintage analogue synthesisers in it. There’s a dream instrument that took me 3 years to restore called Fairlight, then there’s everything from CS80 to Jupiter 8, 6, 4 and OB-XA, Matrix 12. All kinds of Moog, Eurorack, ARP 2600, things that I have collected and refurbished myself over the years and I can’t wait to get started in that space.
In your views what are the particular components that made dance music records massive in the 90’s, were the compositions working on certain machinations that made them so huge, are they as pieces missing or done away with now?
I think the 90’s had a very specific sound, some of which I love and there are some that’s distressing to me. Things like bass lines, the way we compress it and the tools we have to do it with are much superior now to what we had back then. I like the melodic aspects from then, the acid lines, the pianos, big emotional, evocative breakdowns. I can’t wait to combine all these things that I have learned and bring it together.
How long did it take to finish your 9th album – “A Song Across Wires’, are you the kind to get holed up for days and days for creativity and flow?
Certainly, I have worked on music for 45 days straight up without a break. 16 to 20 hour days, every day. ‘Somnambulist’ is a perfect example of that. I think I take more or less 3 years or so. There are definitely some protracted periods of long stretches against going in and out.
What was the guiding force to you changing gears and collaborating with Christian Burns, has synthpop and new wave formulas gotten under your skin, so to speak?
It’s always been under my skin, these are the styles that made me fall in love with electronic music to begin with. Also, I almost never, ever, ever listen to what we would call dance music. I listen to these bands I mentioned in my down time. So the collaboration came from the fact that I’d been dying to do something like this for years. I am very proud of ‘All Hail The Silence’ with Christian. We’ve made a pact not to use computers on the records, do everything with step sequencers. It’s really thoughtful, bespoke music.
You worked long hours for Disney’s ambitious theme park Tomorrowland in Shanghai, as a music composer, is it the hardest job you’ve done in terms of the scale. Could you give us a low down on your technical set up for this type of undertaking?
Yes, this was an insane project, I had 256 discreet channels of audio and it was a blast working with the imaginers, I had the time of my life.
Talk us through the recent untitled album release on Black Hole Recordings, what’s the vibe and flavour of the offerings. Collectively however they make up a 25 section sequence of – “inter-compositional-themes”, creating 45 minutes of constantly flowing, ever-developing tonality. Is the design intentionally the cinematic you? What new techniques and technology did you apply to achieve the end result and happy with the outcome?
The new album which is untitled is really the combination of 3 years traveling to some beautiful places, working with new things like my Eurorack, a lot of it was me using vintage synthesizers I pulled out of storage, recording these jam sessions and taking the stuff on the road, turning them into really long, interwoven, protracted compositional forms, I spent about 3 years doing so. Then we shot these accompanying 4k drone films in a variety of places, and it’s come out beautifully, a project with detailing and depth.
I think it continues in the lineage of ‘Binary Universe’ except rhythmically different and I am extremely proud of it. I am elated with the outcome and this idea of convolution as a synthesis modality definitely played a lot into the record. Spectral manipulation using fast forwarding transforms to dissect sounds on a molecular level, applying spectra on to another.
A great example of this is in ‘Artifracture’, I recorded Christian’s entire family saying ‘sometimes I wonder if anything is real’ and I had each of his family members’ vocals and I lined them up to a grid and then I put them in a composers desktop project CDP which is a terminal based music and sound design application, after which I morphed between the spectra of these different vocal patterns. I’ve studied and am a big fan of granular synthesis at the beginning of my career, so there are a lot of new techniques.
Any piece of hardware you are excited about, that you haven’t actually gone and owned; one that’s really catching you with a long shelf life?
That would have been the Fairlight but I started buying pieces to it about 3 years ago. I got the mainframe computer from the folks that did the sound design on ‘Tron’, Stuart Copeland from the Rock band The Police actually gave me the monochrome monitor and a keyboard from Australia and I have spent years refurbishing this instrument. I guarantee some awesome music is going to happen on that thing.
Thanks for taking time out and talking to me for Decoded Mag. Stepping outside of your machine world, on an emotional level, does BT ever sit back and think of what else remains to be achieved for someone who’s really done it all?
That’s a really nice thing to say, but I think I am just getting started! Thank you for this wonderful interview. Take care.