Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Sci-fi, Texas, and the business of sonic landscaping.
Guitarist Sarah Lipstate has been making music for a decade under the name Noveller, a project that encompasses both eerily serene sonic landscapes and textural explorations of noise. Fantastic Planet (2014), the latest Noveller album, is perhaps Lipstate’s most accessible work, but also her most sonically expansive. Over the years, Noveller’s music has grown to include some keyboard work alongside her memorable guitar playing. Lipstate’s creative work isn’t limited to music: she’s also a filmmaker, and occasionally brings both disciplines together in live performances.
In the time since Noveller’s debut release, the landscape for experimental, boundary-eluding music has shifted somewhat. Lipstate has made excellent use of services like Bandcamp, creating a centralized point for fans of her music to seek out releases both large and small. Our conversation encompassed everything from Lipstate’s work in film music to the experimental scene in Austin to the influence of science fiction on her music. The cover to Fantastic Planet features Lipstate gazing off at something unknown in the distance. That look at something beyond description serves as a fine shorthand for her musical aesthetic.
Tobias Carroll Are you back in New York now? I know you were living in Austin for a while.
Sarah Lipstate I still have my house in Austin. I rented this great place to look for a home studio there, and that’s where I recorded Fantastic Planet. It was funny because I never really made a big announcement that I was moving down there so I was still getting all these great opportunities to do these things in New York. I think within my first four months in Austin we went up to New York four different times for performances. All of the film productions in New York or LA whom I was doing scoring work for thought I was still in New York. So, when it was time to send in my invoice and my address, I’d say “Send the checks to Austin, Texas!”
When I was down there I got a pretty big licensing opportunity. After that happened and I did my big European tour, it kind of seemed like I could afford to get a place in Brooklyn again and then shift back and forth between the two. What’s happening right now is I have a place in Brooklyn and I have someone who is semi leasing my house in Austin. I’m not paying to be in two places at the same time, but I also kind of have the freedom to go back and forth. South by Southwest is coming up and I’m going to be showcasing at the festival, so I will have to be go back to Austin for that. But now I’m here in New York, the album just came out, and I’ll be playing all these great shows here in Brooklyn. I’m trying to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there and being in New York, when I really think about it, is where most of my opportunities come from. I’d love to be able to be in Austin full-time and not feel like I was compromising my career, but, you know, I’m still kind of working on getting those great opportunities there.
There’s a lot happening there but in terms of the experimental music community—it’s very strong, but it’s harder to reach a national or international audience from there.
TC I was going to ask about that. I feel like I know a handful of groups based out of Austin, but I think I know more folks who are doing sort of experimental and avant work based out here.
SL I went to college in Austin and that’s when I started really seriously playing music. I was in an experimental duo in college called One Umbrella and I was kind of brought up in the experimental music scene in Austin. A lot of people are still there. The main organization there is called Church of the Friendly Ghost, and they’ve grown a lot. There’s a big noise scene in Austin, and outside of that—of course, indie rock is kind of king there.
There’s a guy Rick Reed, this older gentleman, who has this amazing set-up, all this analog crazy equipment. He has these giant tables filled with all this really heavy, analog stuff. I don’t even know what it does, but he gets these amazing sounds out of it and he’s been holding down the scene there for a long time. Tom Carter from Charalambides came out of Austin. Christina Carter too—I don’t know if she still lives there, but she still has a presence there.
There’s a great performance space called the Salvage Vanguard Theatre, and right after I moved to Austin there was a big festival there and they asked me to perform at that festival. That was a big deal. They had all this arts funding and it felt like maybe I could do the same type of gigs I was doing in New York in Austin. (laughter) But that didn’t really happen. I was getting these offers–someone literally emailed me three days prior to when they wanted me to perform, and the gig was for me to play at an all-day chili cook-off. I would get paid in chili. It was an interesting offer but I told him I was a vegetarian and I would pass this time around. Austin’s a great place.
TC Were the pieces on Fantastic Planet also written down there?
SL Most of them, yes, were written down there. There’s one track called “Pulse Point” and I actually wrote that—and played that—when I was on the tour I did with St. Vincent. I started writing that piece in Brooklyn and I incorporated it into my life through that tour in March and April of last year. I got to workshop that piece live over twenty-five shows, so it did mature.
When I got to Austin, and I had to focus on the new album, that was kind of kind of my touchstone piece, and I was able to flesh that out and get the recording to a point where I was really happy with it. The last track on Fantastic Planet, called, “The Ascent,” I played live and was able to put that down with the first two pieces. I had an idea of where I wanted to go with the other pieces of music but they were really shaped by my experience being down there and having this great home studio. It’s not a big house but it’s on this half-acre plot of land, and has a hammock outside. I walk down the street and see deer every day, and there are chickens, and all kind of critters. It kind of felt like I was in a cabin in the wilderness somewhere. I had that much solitude.
Everything else was very much shaped by the feelings I had of being in nature, even though I’m eight minutes from downtown Austin in this very strange little pocket that hasn’t been developed. That’s where I got this whole notion of Fantastic Planet and the feeling that I wanted for the album.
TC So is Austin and that area the “fantastic planet” of the title?
SL Yeah, that title just felt really appropriate to me. Some of the distorted synths that I put on the record really reminded me of the Failure album Fantastic Planet, which I listened to a lot when I was in high school. So I had that reference, and then the more I thought about it and that title, I was like, Wow, could I? Should I? Is it ok for me to use this title? But it really transcended that reference and went from kind of sounding like Failure to being really representative of the experiences I was having and this big transition I had made. After a while I just said, This is going to be the title, and I’m just going to make it my own while still kind of having a wink at them.
TC I think I had the Failure record in the back of my mind, but it also just has this very science-fiction thing going on, as well, which my inner nerd really likes.
SL I’m a big William Gibson fan. I found that I had brought all these books down to Austin, and at some point I had basically read all the books I had. I’m also a big Margaret Atwood fan, and so I found myself revisiting all these great science-fiction novels, including Pattern Recognition, one of my favorite books. It feels right with all of my influences and my tastes. I feel very close to that sci-fi world.
TC I get Warren Ellis’s weekly email newsletter, and in the most recent one he talks a little bit about your piece “Mannahatta,” and its connection to his novel Gun Machine. Have there been other pieces like that where there was very much a direct connection between a work of fiction and a piece that you’ve composed?
SL It took me about a year to connect the dots and realize that the Warren Ellis whom I was sending these mail orders to was the same Warren Ellis who is this amazing author. I connected the dots through Twitter. So when I was writing No Dreams, “Mannahatta,” created this kind of dark and moody world and it just felt like the title was an homage to his work.
There are a lot of little references on Fantastic Planet. If you look at the title, it’s not too hard to figure out—to find the clues.
TC Definitely. The cover art has this very sun-drenched, very bright feel to it, especially relative to your other albums.
SL I don’t know if it was a conscious decision in the past, but I never really considered using an image of myself as cover art. When I did this tour with St. Vincent, I spent a lot of time in the merch booth trying to sell my stuff after the shows, and I was really struck by how every album she’s ever put out has a picture of her on the cover. And some of the new t-shirts use this picture of Annie too. I mean, granted she’s a beautiful, very striking woman, but I just thought it was really interesting how everything she puts out, every product, is kind of like branded with her image as the artist.
I was wondering if people really connect to that, if people—when they’re at the record store and they’re flipping through records and they see an image of the artist, does that draw them in more? Does that make them feel more connected to the work? Does that change their impression of the record at all?
There was a picture that my boyfriend, who did the cover art, had taken and it was of me in the water looking up to the sunlight in my eyes. He had taken it with my iPhone, so it wasn’t possible for us to use it as the cover art, but to me it really captured the idea of Fantastic Planet. So for the album cover shoot, we tried to recreate that photo. And we actually ended up coming up with something different. I like how it’s not a full-on portrait of me—my face is hidden in the shadows. But it’s still me on the cover, whether people realize it or not.
It’s a little strange but I wanted to see how people would respond to the different tone. If you compare it to No Dreams, which is this very dark and minimal black and white painting on the cover, it is very different. Since it is experimental music, you are kind of informed by the context of images and the few words that are the song titles. I think it’s interesting how that framework can change people’s perception.
TC Have you been continuing to make films over the course of all of this?
SL Well, recently I’ve had the opportunity to have a screening of new 16mm animated hand-painted film works at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was part of a series in which they pair image and sound, so I was able to screen new film works and also do a live performance. I decided to do an improvised performance. Being asked to do that show was a great excuse for me to turn my attention back to film, and I created all these new, hand-painted, 16mm loops and this new forty-minute long piece. That was so fun. It’s all completely abstract, literally just blank film that I was able to paint on. So that’s the most recent work that I’ve done. That was right at the end of November.
Usually with the film stuff, I wait until someone asks me to do something and then that’s when I kind of allow myself to turn my focus back to that. Music pretty much takes up the rest of the time, and I usually tend to stay in that little world unless I have the motivation to do otherwise.
TC You were talking recently about a piece that you’d been workshopping when you were on tour with St. Vincent, and you talked more recently about an improvised set. What for you is the balance between the two?
SL I find more and more that, I start getting new ideas for pieces while I’m rehearsing for a show. I’ll start wandering, and while I’m rehearsing—maybe I’m bored or procrastinating—I’ll come up with some ideas. There are all kinds of themes I’ll collect and I’ll store in some part of my brain, and at some point they’ll reemerge.
I also really like the freedom of having the opportunity to do an improvised set, and I was able to do that in Austin. I was part of this big night of drone music that was four continuous hours of drone. I like that, but I wouldn’t necessarily do a Noveller show and then throw a ten-minute chunk of improvised music into that. Noveller shows tend to be pieces I’ve worked out that you can hear on my records. But they are very interconnected, and improvisation is a big part of my writing process.
TC Do you still write predominantly on guitar? On the albums I feel like I hear synths a little bit more and more. Do you find yourself shifting a little bit or has the songwriting kind of been a steady thing over the last few years?
SL Starting with No Dreams, I told myself, Alright, I’m going to expand Noveller; it’s no longer just going to be solely an electric guitar project. I’m going to allow myself to start bringing in some synth textures. Other than that, I was just trying to open things up in terms of the writing process. There are a couple of tracks on Fantastic Planet on which the guitar came later. The track “Sisters” opened up with this guitar part and then it transitioned into a very synth-dominated section, and the synth part I recorded first. I had just gotten the MicroBrute analog synthesizer for my birthday and I was messing around with it and I came up with this cool part and I recorded it. That was back in March when I was on tour with St. Vincent. I had that on my hard drive, and then when I was down in Austin in July working on the new record I opened up that section, and I was like, “Oh!” I picked up the guitar and started to work out how the guitar would fit in with the synth sounds.
Another song, “Concrete Dreams,” started out with piano. It was actually a cue I was working on for a film, and they ended up not using that cue for the movie, so I had it. When I was working on the album, I opened up that section, revisiting it, and I started working on it some more with the idea of fitting it in with these other songs. Those are both kind of different approaches, but I think it makes things more interesting and I think it bring more diversity into the album.
TC Definitely. How much of your time is spent doing film score work?
SL It seems like I’ll have these clusters of film projects and be doing one after the other or have two going at the same time. And then there will be a few months where I’m not doing any film projects. When I was in Austin I worked on one feature film, a few short films and a commercial project, and I’m about to start another short film. I’m scoring this series, an animated short film series that’s presented by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the New York Times. I’ve done two for them so far, and they just told me that they’re about to send the shots for the third one, so I’m going to start working on that. It’s kind of a continuing relationship, which is amazing. Other stuff just comes from all different sources. I just kind of take it as it comes, but it’s something I’d love to keep doing.
TC Do you find that that it has an effect on your non-film music as well?
SL The interesting thing about scoring for films is you might write five different pieces of music for one scene, and only one piece will end up in the movie. So at the end of the film project you have this folder on your computer filled with unused cues. Sometimes those are ideas that sound really cool. Just because something isn’t right for this movie doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get out there. I think if you’re making music all day every day for three weeks, you’re going to end up with stuff that eventually might turn into something else.
For a lot of the film score work, I feel like I use the piano a lot more than I use guitar. I’m shifting and playing piano a lot, or using strings, different orchestrations. And I’ve been incorporating piano a little bit into my other stuff. But there have been a few times where I’ve written something on piano and then translated it to guitar, and I’ve ended up using that for another song. The beginning part of “Sisters,” the first guitar lines that you hear, were originally written on piano for this corporate video project that I was asked to do which they ended up killing. But I really liked this one funky piano line that I used, so I ended up learning how to play it on guitar, and now it’s on the album. I get my ideas and they evolve and I tend to trust my instincts. If I like something, then I just go with it.
TC You’ve done a couple of collaborative releases over the years, including a live recording with Lee Ranaldo and the album you did with thisquietarmy that came out last year. Does that work stand by itself or do you find that it also feeds back into your writing?
SL I think that it stands by itself. The recording with Lee Ranaldo was the live performance that we did. So it was all happening in the moment, all completely improvised, and it was kind of nerve-wracking. You just allow yourself forty-five minutes and say, Okay, let’s see where things take us. For the collaboration with thisquietarmy, we were in the studio, but it was still an approach of saying, Okay, we’re here. Let’s put up our stuff, press record, and see what happens.
It’s a very different experience and it’s very challenging to me. For those collaborations, I’m really just trying to do what I do but also respond and react to what the other musician is doing and to try and allow it to go to places that I wouldn’t necessarily go if I was just there on my own, with all the time in the world. When you impose these time limits—“It’s just going to be the length of a live set,” or, “We only have this one night in the studio to make this happen”—it’s really a different beast. I think that interesting things can emerge in those situations, but it’s a pretty different experience from working on music on my own.
TC Are there any artists or musicians with whom you would like to collaborate if the opportunity arose?
SL I love Colin Stetson’s work and I finally got to see him live for the first time on my European tour. We were both playing at this festival in Nantes and I got to see him live. It was incredible and it really changed the way I appreciate his music. It was so crazy. I would love to collaborate with him at some point, but I have no actual plans to make that happen.
TC I feel like familiarity with noise and experimental music, at least a decade ago, was built around things being incredibly scarce. You’ve done a really good job of making it easy to get ahold of music you’ve done. Do you feel like the ability to get your music out there through something like Bandcamp has helped make people aware of the music that you’re doing?
SL Yes, absolutely. The very first Noveller release I did was these three-inch CDR’s with handmade packaging that were impossible to get outside of Austin. That was what everyone in the noise scene in Austin was doing. That’s how they were trying to get some weird out! Going from that to Bandcamp—God, you know, if you have an Internet connection and a credit card you can buy my music. Also, the streaming aspect I think is incredible. Anyone can go and listen to pretty much everything that I’ve ever released, and just that I can get exposure that way.
The volume of sales I’ve gotten through Bandcamp just blows my mind. And I’m a full-time musician, it’s very, very important source of—kind of constant—revenue for me. Around Christmas I find that people gift albums of mine to other people. Bandcamp is something that people have really embraced, especially fans of music that’s maybe more on the fringes. They enjoy knowing that the money is going directly to the artist, more than with iTunes and Amazon. Yeah, Bandcamp has really changed my world, and I think it also opens my world up to a global audience.
Sarah Lipstate is an Austin based musician, known for her solo project, Noveller. She has performed as a member of the groups Cold Cave, Parts & Labor, and One Umbrella. Lipstate has composed several feature film scores with the author, producer, and composer Nathan Larson. In addition to being a musician, she is also a filmmaker. For more information on Sarah Lipstate and Noveller, visit her website.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.