Words by David C. Obenour
Almanac Behind. A document of what was happening. What is happening. What continues to happen around us. Things about nature we need to be ready for but not become accustomed.
For his latest work, Virginia’s Daniel Bachman has tried to create the sounds of our changing climate and reality. Extreme weather events that used to happen once only every thirty years – or every hundred – are happening each year. Coming back stronger and more violent than before. Shattering our ideas of what is normal and what we need to be prepared for.
Utilizing traditional string instruments, Bachman adds field recordings – manipulated through analog and digital distortion methods – to create these feelings. The calm, the onset, the chaos, the receding, the grasping at rebuilding and establishing a normal again… only to have it loop back on itself.
Off Shelf: A pressing concern for us all, what inspired you personally to create an album that addresses climate change?
Daniel Bachman: Aside from climate breakdown being the single most important issue facing our human species, I’ve personally seen it start to manifest itself in my daily life. In January 2022 we got a snowstorm in central Virginia that was anomalous in strength, a heavy wet snow that shut down roads and shredded our electrical grid. This event, mixed with a worker shortage due to Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 left us in 16F degree weather without power, water, heat, etc. While our electricity returned in 24 hours, my elderly parents were without for almost a week. This was the first time I truly experienced the mixing feedback loops of weather/disease/disaster in my own life, something the science tells us will be the norm going forward if we continue down this path of fossil fuel use/extraction. I got my first environmental recordings from that storm system and continued collecting for the next 6 months until the record was completed.
OS: By putting those concerns to music, how do you think that message can better resonate with us as listeners?
DB: I’m really hoping to realistically represent these experiences so that this piece is relatable to anyone participating with it. I think there are feelings/emotions that are too complex or nuanced to properly be expressed through language or conventional European musical norms, especially when we are talking about human caused climate chaos. By using literal sounds of extreme weather from my environment, sounds that every person on planet Earth is familiar with, I hope to make that connection. Not only with other humans living through these events, but also the non-human collaborators we share our time on Earth with. It’s my opinion that these kinds of non-human collaborations will be essential in preventing the collapse of the biosphere.
OS: Listening back to the album now – or through live performances – how has expressing this through music evolved your own feelings on climate change?
DB: Working on this record was a pretty intense experience, I’m not going to lie. Not only was I chasing these extreme weather events with my field recorder, but I was also taking note, and writing down all of the climate related disasters/civil disobedience taking place during the time I was working on it. While I follow climate news closely, I was shocked at the sheer numbers of overlapping climate related disaster happening simultaneously all over the world. Even on the day I received the records mastered files on July 12, we had a massive storm system come through that flooded an entire mountain community directly to the southwest of us in Buchanan County Virginia where 40 people briefly went missing. Luckily no lives were lost. Victims of floods in Pakistan, Kentucky, etc. have not been so lucky. I also routinely found myself having to re-edit material as new weather events played out in our area. Eventually I had to stop because there is no end to the extreme weather patterns of the Anthropocene.
OS: How does the album being playable as a loop reflect your feelings toward climate change?
DB: Almanac Behind playing as a loop represents the fact that these severe weather events are not anomalous, but instead increasingly the norm, and something we are going to experience again and again. The science that is coming out about climate breakdown/global heating paints a very clear picture of where we are headed. It is no longer a theoretical discussion, but rather one based on physics and hard data. We are currently experiencing weather patterns based on 1.2-1.3C degrees global heating compared to pre-industrial temperature norms and are projected to meet, or exceed, 1.5C by the end of the decade. Heating on land, as well as in water, have dire consequences regarding the frequency/intensity of extreme weather. Hotter ocean temperatures affect hurricane strength and speed. Hotter land temperatures in some places leads to torrential rains. In other regions, droughts leading to wildfires. Each .1C degree we experience causes further disruption to our ideas of what “normal weather” is. To quote Bill McGuires excellent new book “Hothouse Earth”, “We need to face the fact that, ultimately, there might be no such thing as extreme weather any longer, just weather.”
OS: You have some amazing field recordings throughout Almanac Behind. At what point did you consider them in creating these songs?
DB: Like I mentioned earlier, that first snowstorm we experienced in January was the start of collecting for this record. I kept my recorder and camera by the front door and whenever we had weather producing good audio I just kind of dropped everything and tried to capture it. I knew I wanted to paint almost an audio diary of disaster, but ultimately let the recordings I was able to capture dictate what I included. For some of the more dangerous sounds, like the material dealing with fire, I built my own fires and further manipulated the audio to express different levels of wildfire intensity. The recordings of emergency broadcasts were all sourced from an old weather radio that belonged to my grandpa that we keep in our living room. Sometimes we introduced cell phones to its antenna to create static or an artificial signal disturbance. But my goal throughout this project was to present the literal sounds of nature and weather, even if they are manipulated in some way. In the end, much of what you hear on Almanac Behind is the material I was lucky enough to capture, and I feel experiencing these events helped shape the compositions emotionally as well.
OS: After sourcing these recordings, can you think of any that changed how you had initially envisioned the songs?
DB: I’d say its 50/50 on what came first, the weather or the songs. Sometimes the environmental recordings influenced my writing more than I could have imagined on my own. For instance, with “540 Supercell”, the pounding rain I captured on our metal roof drove home the repetitive drone of these storms, so when I went to work on that one, I tried to play a neutral repeating pattern that would fall right alongside the rain drops. The strange sounds that lie underneath “Think Before You Breathe” are the last gaps of a dying fire my mother recorded. I took the files and significantly slowed them down about 40 times from their original speed. This really gave the ghostly feel of scorched earth I was going for in this fire piece. Only after sitting with the sounds and playing around with them like that did I find what I was looking for. However, there were some recordings that changed how I envisioned the course the record would take. The recording towards the end on “Five Old Messages” is from our local electric company warning residents against trying to restore power lines on their own. As I mentioned earlier, as new experiences were recorded, I often had to backtrack and fix certain sections so that I could include these new narrative elements. This process could have gone on indefinitely but there was a deadline to meet. [laughs]
OS: There are also some really interesting effects and sonic manipulations that you use throughout Almanac Behind. How did you work those into the songs? What dynamic do they introduce to Almanac Behind’s message that resonates with you?
DB: While some of the effects like pitch manipulation and speed are at times subtle, I really wanted to hint at the breakdown of climate/music in more drastic ways. To achieve this, I would wait to make improvisational tape recordings until my head was where I wanted it. Sometimes not long after experiencing and recording weather events. I then would take the tape recordings, digitize them, and then chop up each note individually so they existed on their own. Then I would rearrange all these notes, while simultaneously adjusting speed/pitch, to recreate a new whole piece out of the original one. You can hear this especially well on “Barometric Cascade (Signal Collapse)”, “Flood Stage”, and “Recalibration/Normalization”, although I did use this technique throughout the record. It was my hope that these jumbled, processed tracks would represent the radio static, racing thoughts, weather chaos, etc. that come with these extreme events. It’s a technique that I’m really excited about using going forward.
OS: Amidst these recordings and manipulations, you utilize traditional stringed instruments. How does this seeming juxtaposition of styles playout for you both in the message and for the arrangements as songs?
DB: Folkore and the history of Virginia is a serious passion of mine, and I try and bring it into my art as much as I can. I view Almanac Behind as an aural history project, similar to how a folklore worker would document a community history. These Earth changes we are all living through are absolutely historic, not only in our human written historic record, but also within the bounds of Earth’s very long natural history. In some ways, I’m hoping that Almanac Behind can serve as a document to this history, even if it is an abstraction of it at times. Almanac Behind is also a nod to the long tradition of disaster tunes in the vast American song bag. While not all folk music involves the telling of disaster narratives, it is nonetheless a part of its history. Songs like “High Water Everywhere parts 1 & 2”, “Dry Well Blues”, and “Tennessee Tornado” to name a few, are an important part of America’s folk song and ballad repertoire. In their time, these songs helped spread news and information to the people, and it is in this spirit that I made Almanac Behind. While Almanac Behind does not represent the events in such a literal, lyrical way, I hope that it can stand alongside such historic examples and tell the story of our times just as well as they did.
OS: Building and swelling, repetition and drone, all definitely play a role in the music. How do you gauge how long to ride that out? What are the advantages of knowing when to keep it going or end it?
DB: It’s a fine line, for sure, on how long to string the listener along with repetitive drones/noise/etc. For me personally I listen repeatedly. If I hear a section that loses my attention, then I know I have to edit its length, or change it up texturally. Most of the time I will go to where I feel the section is pushing that boundary, and then give it a couple more seconds. In the case of Almanac Behind, I knew I wanted to really explore some of the sections that might feel uncomfortable. I’m thinking mostly about the “Inundation” section of flood stage, and the wildfire sections. These sounds in the natural world take time to build in intensity, and I really tried to bring the listener to the center of those experiences. The goal is not to scare the listener, or make them uncomfortable, but offer an abstracted way to experience the shared reality of climate breakdown. This experience of tension and relief is also something I have experienced personally during these weather events, and absolutely something I tried to express in this work.
OS: I imagine your fanbase represents a wide cross section of people. What do you think is the most interesting dynamic that comes from that to you as an artist and a live performer?
DB: Probably the most important thing I’ve picked up from years on the road and participating in this community is the vast knowledge of other people out there, and what I can learn from them as a listener and artist. Almanac Behind and my music in general does not come out of an individual spark of creativity, but rather a slow burn of understanding what is out there and how you might incorporate ideas into your own voice. I’ve learned so much from staying up late with people who have hosted me while traveling, listening to records, and talking shop. In some cases, I’ve even become friends with people who I admire artistically. The culture is as vibrant as it ever has been and its really a wonderful thing to be a part of!