Like many musicians who are unable to tour extensively, keyboardist Aron Magner has turned inward this quarantine.
His new EP of enveloping tunes – The Ambient Mode – was born out of his informal at-home jamming, allowing for a creative output that is informed by yet unexplored in projects like The Disco Biscutis, SPAGA and Electron.
“Part of the reason why I’m also releasing music is just to be able to like, check things off, feel that things are done, close that chapter and move on with progress into another,” he explains.
In the conversation below, Magner checks in from snowy Pennsylvania, excited to talk about this new release, the power of ambiance, the wisdom of Mickey Hart and more.
The Ambient Mode is available on Spotify.
How has quarantine impacted your creativity?
Well, I’ve got three kids and they’re young. So there’s never any moments of boredom, because they’re doing all virtual school. My wife is definitely spearheading all of that, but it is always the five of us in this house. The number one goal has always been to keep everybody happy – whatever we can do to try and keep a happy household. That goes for the kids, it goes for us, it goes for providing a calm atmosphere, which was definitely a little bit of a Genesis of how this album started. And some people are well versed in their own practices of meditation, or yoga, or whatever it is, but I’m not as highly evolved as those people.
Some days are productive and creative days, and a lot of days are not. It’s been on and off in terms of being productive and creative throughout this whole thing and not feeling like your feet are in cement because of anxiety about the future. It’s hard, you know? You need to always be able to be in a place where you’re able to receive the Muses of music, and that could come at different times and in different ways.
Ambient music can be used to soundtrack a cup of coffee or yoga or a long drive. Is that how you want people to consume The Ambient Mode?
My wife and I were talking about this the other night as she was thinking of the wording for the announcement of it. In putting out any piece of art into the world, you can’t tell people how they should be able to consume it, right? So, yes, it is probably appropriate for relaxing settings, but I didn’t want to guide people like, “Use this with your morning yoga, use this with your morning coffee or morning meditation.”
It can tread that line between passive listening and active listening. There’s a lot of Easter eggs, these cool sound effects that you could latch onto. There’s things that can actively captivate your attention, but can also be totally used atmospherically as a passive listening session while you’re doing things to relax.
I was using it to self soothe – creating these tones and getting lost in them, and being able to write these songs in a linear fashion as opposed to most of the other ways that I write, which is in a loop based fashion. A four bar loop, a 16 bar loop. So it was a lengthy process to get there. But the process was what was the pacifying part for me. It was taking these nice, relaxing textures that I don’t normally have a chance to do in any of my existing projects
You mentioned some sonic Easter eggs in the album. Did you sample anything weird or unique for this one?
My favorite one is my wedding ring spinning around on my desk as it lost its centripetal acceleration or whatever the terminology would be. Spinning my wedding ring on its axis, the way that you can spin a quarter. It’s the sound of it starting to bang against the surface, and the sound becomes faster and faster and faster, the closer that it gets to that plane.
I remember as a kid being fascinated with the sound. We had a ping pong table in our basement, and I’d take a ping pong ball, and it would bounce between my paddle that was sitting just above it, and the table. And then I would move my paddle down, so the ball would have less room to bounce between the table and the paddle on top of it. And there’s just such a cool sound that I’ve always loved, and I was able to mimic that by just sampling my wedding ring losing its velocity, spinning around on its axis.
You’ve said Brian Eno has been an inspiration for this album.
I’ve always been fascinated with the things that he’s done to help push boundaries, whether it’s with his own music, or producing other people’s music. But yeah, Music For Airports – I’ve always been fascinated by those types of soundscapes
There’s a lot of synthesizers in there, but there’s a lot of organic elements as well.
Obviously these tunes are so layered and so complex. Do you think any of them could drift into Disco Biscuits land or a live setting in general?
If the composition can evolve into another group, and that other group interpreted it in their own unique way, then that’s awesome. I hadn’t even thought about that until you just said that. And I’m not even sure whether it would work.
Would it even be possible? I guess that’s really the question.
The Biscuits have been doing this ambient thing for five minutes at every show, just because it helps loosen us up. So I think maybe if there’s anything that can be taken from this album and put towards the Biscuits it’s that I have a new arsenal of sounds and tones that I can play with. I have a new concept of how we can approach ambient music and adjust.
And that’s something that Mickey Hart was very steadfast with. He was obsessed with the drone. Like, othe frequency of the universe that resonates is a D. Actually, just like, a couple of years ago, there was some sort of scientific paper that came out that did actually prove that there is a resonant frequency of the universe. And it is, in fact, a D.
And you know, “Drums” and “Space,” especially in the modern era of “Drums” and “Space” with Dead & Company, is my favorite part of the show. In ambient music, the point is to not have those distractions along the way. You know? You can take this journey, and nothing crazy happens along the journey, because the journey is inwards. You have nothing to distract you along your inward journey.
The Grateful Dead clearly deemed that journey to be important. Come hell or high water, “Drums” and “Space” were happening every night.
Totally! Every single night. I mean, that’s fascinating too. It wasn’t something they would do every now and again, you knew that it was coming every single night. I think on a pragmatic level, those drummers love to bang on their drums. So, it gives them a chance to do their thing and not have like the outside influence of melody and harmony. And you get to have that tribal thing and the power of that that comes with it. That’s my loose interpretation of it.
I’ve done some “Drums”/”Space” with the Dead guys before and it’s super fun to bring my interpretation of what that means into their construct of it. You get to turn your brain off. There’s no lyrics to remember, there’s no chord changes to remember, you can literally go into your monkey brain and just turn off your regular means of thinking and just express yourself and your being on your instrument with no rules, and no expectations. And that’s really cool and unique to that moment.
Did you look back on those experiences sitting in on “Drums”>“Space” to help create The Ambient Mode?
No, not necessarily. I feel like this album was a little bit more deliberate, right? I actually wasn’t even thinking that this would be a release thing at the time. But I was just playing these sounds because they were so fun to play and so calming to listen to, right? And I remember the specific moment where my wife, Angelica came into my studio, and she was like, “Hey, can you make the house sound like that more often?” And I was like, “Sure!” That’s what inspired this whole thing.
You got together with the biscuits in early February at Ardmore Music Hall. And you just announced a couple of shows in Florida and Tennessee. How tough is it to navigate show announcements these days?
It’s incredibly annoying, right? It’s not just the jumping through hoops to make sure that they can happen, but everything, as soon as you leave your four walls, even going to the grocery store, comes with some degree of risk. And so when we help assemble even a distanced gathering of people, there’s a degree of risk. There’s a degree of risk just getting the band together. We definitely don’t want to be the catalyst for any sort of negative optic response, or even God forbid, somebody gets sick because they came to a concert. On the same token, we have to start playing concerts again to feed our souls and our creative outlet to make sure that our community of fans know that we’re still here to provide an outlet or some sort of ability to remember the things that are dear to them, like music and concerts. And we’ve been through enough of this, we know how to be safe at this point. There’s not that many venues that have the ability to do these things safely. So it’s hard. What we’ve found is you can’t really announce something that far off. It’s way too early to announce anything for the summertime. Things are always moving, there’s so many moving parts. It’s almost easier to plan in the very near future than to keep on pushing things like further and further out.
There was a point in time, before the pandemic, where we would like book a Red Rocks weekend two years into the future. And now it’s like, “Okay, it looks like we’re gonna be able to do this thing in Orlando next month.”
I’m looking forward to being able to do more of these. I think I need it. I think fans need it. So if we can set a good example of how to safely and effectively be able to put on concerts, then I think we could build upon that.
How often are you talking to the rest of the Biscuits guys? Are you guys in constant communication, just checking in as friends, but also maybe talking about music and future plans?
The gates are very slowly being lifted and that light at the end of the tunnel is more approachable. But nobody has a crystal ball. Between the band and management, some of us are more optimistic. It’s amazing that our ecosystem has made it through an entire year thus far. I’m not really sure how much longer this ecosystem can go without opening up some gates. But don’t forget, the gates are gonna get opened slowly.
Now we’re over halfway through the winter and by this time next month the tulips will start coming up and there’ll be a new levity to our situation. We’ll be able to go outside, we’ll be able to maybe have people over distantly in our backyards again, rather than the complete isolation the winter has brought. So, I’m feeling good. I’m feeling better than I was in mid-January, that’s for sure.