An exclusive interview with Andrew “Necros” Sega for necros.gibdon.com, conducted by Petrit “Aeternus” Augustini via e-mail, May 2010 – June 2011
Aeternus: How did your interest in music start? What was your first instrument?
Necros: It's hard to remember exactly, but when I was very young (around 7 or so), I was living with my grandparents, and my grandfather had an old organ in the house. It was a 2-manual, sort of a mini church organ but with some electronics for drum rhythms and similar things. I think one day I just started playing around with it, and he started to teach me how to play. Eventually I started taking lessons with the organist from a Polish church nearby, who was a friend of my grandfather's. I did practice a lot, because every week I'd have to go to my lesson and would be embarrassed if I hadn't learned the pieces properly. It was almost exclusively baroque classical, lots of Bach and other composers of his era. Interestingly, I never really studied any piano music (Mozart, etc), since we didn't own a piano, and you can't really play piano pieces very well on an organ...
A: Did you initially wanted to become a musician?
N: I'm not sure. I know that music is something I really liked, and it's something that I had realized I was becoming pretty good at. Later on in high school I learned some more instruments -- bass clarinet in the band, piano, a bit of a few other things.
A: Who was your first favorite artist/band?
N: The first records I ever owned were from bands like Men at Work, Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, etc. I think I started listening to what my parents listened to, and what was on the radio, but after that I started getting broader tastes. I do remember getting into Public Enemy and Depeche Mode at about the same time (a strange combination, I know..)
A: When/how did you discover trackers?
N: It was in my first year of college. A friend who was living next door had gotten into the demoscene a bit, and showed me various early demos by Future Crew and other groups at the time. I was shocked at how good the music sounded, and eventually discovered FastTracker 1.0. At first, I didn't even have a computer that could run it, so I borrowed a roommate's computer for an hour or two at a time to play with it.
A: Being able to sequence notes, did the importance of playing a “real” instrument started to decrease?
N: No, I think the importance actually *increased*. Anyone could easily type notes into a tracker, but the key was to know which notes to put in, and in which order. So if you had a traditional musical background, it became much easier to create complex/melodic tracks. I never really thought I was that good of a technical tracker, but I did have a lot of experience playing keyboards at that point, and some understanding of how more complicated chords and progressions worked.
A: How did others respond to your tracker music (family etc.)?
N: I don't think they ever really understood it. They knew I was making some sort of music with my computer, but had no idea about the scene, parties, any of that sort of thing. The big change was when I started to do some music for Crusader and actually got paid for it -- it was a significant amount of money at the time, and it actually helped me to pay for college.
A: Have you been in any “traditional” band at that time?
N: I was never really in a traditional band, besides the orchestra in high school. Strangely, I would be over 25 years old before that would happen.
A: How did the opportunity for composing music for Crusader series came?
N: As far as I remember, I got pretty lucky. I used to hang out on IRC back in the mid-90's in #coders/#trax, where a lot of scene people would be. I met some people who introduced me to Jason Ely, who was working for Origin at the time on the Crusader series. They were looking for someone who could do 8-channel .MOD, and I somehow ended up getting a bunch of work, along with Basehead and a few others. This lasted for a while, and I did both Crusader games. It also led to me getting a job at Origin when I graduated from college in 1997, even though I'd only end up staying at Origin for 6-7 months.
A: Which was your first demogroup and how did it all started? Can you reveal to us the complete list of all the demogroups you have been a member of?
N: I've never really been part of a really big demogroup. Myself and some friends started the Psychic Monks, and we did a few small productions and musicdisks under that name. Later on, I would start Five Musicians, which was like a demo group, but all musicians. It has always had 5 members, but often different ones :) From what I remember, the list was myself, Basehead, Mellow-D, Big Jim, WAVE, Purple Motion (briefly), Stalker, Vic, WAVE, Zodiak, and Hunz. I was also part of Legend Design, a German demogroup for a while, as well as iCE (the ANSI group), and a couple more I'm sure I'm forgetting.
A: Your song, “Ascent of the Cloud Eagle”, won the first place at North American International Demoparty 95. Was this your first award in your music career?
N: I guess. I was actually in the bathroom when that song started playing on the big screen at NAID, it was kinda funny. I composed it in a hurry, so I was honestly surprised that it won anything. I won a brand new Gravis Ultrasound ViperMAX, which let me actually start using more than 12 channels for the first time :) I think that is still the only real "award" I've ever won... other than getting 2nd place in Hornet's Music Contest three years in a row :D
A: Were European demosceners aware of NAID at that time? Have you felt NAID had the same quality compared to European scenes?
N: I have no idea, honestly. I went to TP95 which was much bigger than NAID, but NAID had a certain special feeling since it was the first-ever real demoparty in North America. The quality of the productions was lower than Europe, but I thought at least in the music category we were pretty equal.
A: Any funny moment from the demoscene days?
N: I was very drunk for an entire weekend with some Canadian sceners in Syracuse, NY once, and we ended up making this: http://www.pouet.net/prod.php?which=2992 . I still think the song is great!
A: The dead cow beef demo is funny, but I think the situation you were in when "Ascent" started playing is even funnier :D Had you noticed the song is being played or did you realize everything out after flushing the toilet?
N: Oh, I noticed it was being played! It's a 5 minute long song so it luckily gave me enough time to, umm, "finish up" and run down to the big hall where it was being played. I just listened to it again today after not probably hearing it for 5 years... I could have made the first 2 minutes a bit better, it was definitely rushed at the time. Around 2:30 is where it starts to get a proper groove. Strange to think that track is over 15 years old now.
A: When & why did you quit demoscene?
N: I don't think I ever really "quit", I just started doing less and less. It wasn't a conscious decision really. I recently went to Blockparty, which is a new US demoparty, and I thought it was a lot of fun. I even entered a demo (a crappy Flash one), but it got 2nd place! I don't really do tracked releases anymore, however all of my recent music output has been done in Buzz, which is very similar to a tracker in many respects. So, I just slowly moved towards the "real" music world, while still trying to keep one foot in the old ways...
A: When did you form Straylight Productions? Where did its name come from?
N: My mind is fuzzy on a lot of the details, and the Wikipedia page is probably more accurate than my memory. But the general idea is that it was started by Alexander Brandon, Basehead, and myself. The name came from the Villa Straylight in William Gibson's "Neuromancer" (sorry, we were lame cyberpunk wannabe's back then :) Alex was known as "Siren" in the scene, I originally met him through #trax, just like most people. I didn't stick around long, because I had other obligations, but I did do a few things here and there. SP did the Unreal games, Crusader (although that was mostly just me and Basehead), and a few others. I don't think Straylight ever officially disbanded, but like anything it just gets to the point where everyone goes off in their own directions. Alex is still doing videogame music for a living, he was at Midway for a while, and is now at Heatwave Interactive. He has actually also just released a new album called "Earthscape" (http://alexanderbrandon.bandcamp.com/album/earthscape), and I did a small bit of production work on the last track.
A: New Millennium brought us a new "alter ego" of Andrew Sega -- The Alpha Conspiracy. A consistent, electronic, heavy-melancholic and intelligent project. How did this project came out?
N: I have been doing music for quite a while, but it never really occurred to me to release an album of any sort. I always thought tracked music was interesting, but it would never compare to "professional" CD's, and it would just be silly to try to release something straight out of Impulse Tracker using my primitive 8-bit samples and etc. However, that all changed a bit when I got into Buzz, which was sort of halfway between a tracker and a modern production studio. I had also met some friends in Austin who had self-released records, and I decided to give it a shot and come up with a full-length album. I didn't have any real plan for the style, it just evolved naturally, and represented my personal musical tastes at the time.
A: When compared to your previous works, Alpha Conspiracy's whole vibe is much darker and is some ways, pessimistic. Also, the passion behind the songs is somehow "gated". It reminds the early works but at the same time, it's different. Something has changed. Can you give us some insightful information about what has changed (including technical changes)?
N: A lot of my tracked music was written when I was very young, relatively speaking. I was very optimistic, I had finally discovered some sort of public musical outlet, it was generally a very happy time. So, the music of that time sort of reflects that, I think? By the time I started the Alpha Conspiracy project, I was older, a bit more sophisticated (and, well, cynical), and so the music got more complex. However, certain songs (like "Crush Terminology") still retained that older, happier feel, I think -- while others were darker and moodier pieces than I had ever done before.
Technically by the time the second Alpha Conspiracy album was released, I was using Buzz with all sorts of VST's, and I think I finally became comfortable with a more "professional" musical approach, mixing, that sort of thing. And of course sound-quality wise, I could do much more in Buzz than I could ever do in a tracker.
A: You also started incorporating vocals on some of your Alpha Conspiracy songs. Was this a thing you had in mind for a long time?
N: No, not really... I just had a few tracks where vocal lines kept popping into my head, so I just tried my best to record them. I don't think my voice sounds particularly good, so I used a lot of bandpass distortion and compression and effects to try to at least make it sound somewhat passable.
A: It seems you were very excited about Buzz at the time you discovered it. But since 2000, Buzz has stopped developing. Does this fact bother you?
N: Actually, Buzz has started up development again! (see: http://twitter.com/buzz_builds) The new version is nicer, although I don't always use it since it has some problems with certain Iris tracks. There are certainly some features that Buzz could really use, but I've gotten so used to it now that I don't mind the limitations. I have been using Ableton Live more and more, and it's possible that I'll switch over to it entirely, maybe before the end of this year. However Buzz will always have a special place in my heart, the non-linear effects chains have allowed me to do many things that would have been very difficult in a normal sequencer.
A: That’s great news! The old version didn't seem to handle all the VST's and stuff. What about this new one? Is there any new feature that gets you excited?
N: There are some new features, but really I'm probably just going to move over to Ableton Live at some point. I've been using Buzz for 10+ years now and it may just be time to move on :)
A: How about Diffusion Records? What inspired you to found a record label? Is it fun doing everything by yourself?
N: Well, mostly because nobody would release my records in the US :D So, I thought, "Why not do it myself?". There were certainly many things to learn about manufacturing, digital distribution, financials, but in the end we have done over 10 releases. I'm not sure if it's "fun" to do everything myself, but it does allow me to have complete control over both the end products and the all-important copyrights. These days, I'm not sure what some other label could offer me that I can't do myself -- unless they perhaps had a large amount of money for promotion.
A: How did Iris came and what convinced you to join in?
N: Basically, I met Matt Morris through a mutual friend (Joel Willard formerly of CTRL). He had been working with Reagan on the first Iris album, but it was becoming clear that they were going to go their separate ways. I gave him the first AC disc which had just been released, and after listening to it he suggested I talk to Reagan (who was living in Dallas at the time). I traveled up to Dallas to meet him, and we decided to try some tracks together. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try a more "pop" project, especially one with a strong songwriter. He came down to Austin for a weekend and we recorded some demos and vocals, and I started working on what would become the first tracks from Iris' "Awakening" album. 8 years later and we're still making Iris records together!
A: Is there a common element/feeling in music that always seems to get your interest?
N: Well, I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but I have always been drawn to dense harmonies, interesting sounds, syncopation, that sort of thing. My tastes do change regularly, though!
A: People tend to associate certain melodies/harmonies with certain emotions. Can this be a form of associative learning humans have gone through evolution? (If not, how do you explain it?)
N: Yes, that's exactly right. I don't think it's Darwinian evolution, though, it's cultural evolution. We started out in the middle ages creating music which had certain desirable physical properties (for example, a major chord sounds "nice" because the frequencies are in integer ratios to each other). And then as society evolved, we created these emotional contexts for certain instruments and progressions. Major-chord arpeggios sound "happy", minor chords sound "sad", chromatic scales can sound "scary", et cetera. In the 20th century, film soundtracks reinforced this point as people associated certain kinds of music with certain visual and emotional experiences. It's a giant feedback loop, really; once you grow up in a given culture, it leaves this musical fingerprint on you which colors your experiences.
A: Do you think every single musical piece can impact humans emotionally?
N: No, I don't think so. To impact someone emotionally, it has to contain "interesting" melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic content, and what defines "interesting" is up to the listener.
A: Is it music's purpose to affect humans emotionally?
N: I think it's music's only purpose. You could argue that there's maybe some mathematical interest in a Bach fugue, say, but the only thing that music does really well is "move" people -- make them feel something.
A: You argued that there are some objective qualities that make, for instance, a major chord sound "happy", or "whole". But when it comes to choosing the "best" song, people make war. How do you explain musical taste?
N: So, if you played a C major chord to pretty much any person on the planet, they'd say that it sounds "harmonious" (or pleasing, or happy, etc, etc). But now when you want to put chords and melodies in an ordering and make a larger piece called a "song", then that is a much more difficult process, and gets very subjective. At that point, it's not just the chords, it's the lyrics, rhythms, instrumentation, tempo, intensity, any number of other things that goes into a song... so many variables that it's almost impossible to predict how a song will affect a given person. Certainly there are songs out there that are massively popular, and you can use some reverse analysis to see how they're put together, but it's difficult to reliably engineer a "hit". Add to this the constantly swirling winds of cultural taste, and you can see that the music industry is more akin to playing the lottery than anything else. Having some talent or taste can give you a bit of an edge, but it's still a huge roulette wheel..
A: So, people ultimately listen to music because it moves them, makes them feel good. What about those who get moved/feel good while listening to music which is supposed to inflict, say, terror and fear? Is this some sort of contradictory situation?
N: Well, when music "moves" someone, it doesn't necessarily have to be in a positive direction. Some people certainly get moved by darker music, and there are all sorts of emotions which music can create that are interesting -- aggression, foreboding, anger, fear. Not everyone wants to feel happy all the time :)
A: Do some people have better taste in music than others or is every person's opinion about music equally valid?
N: A strict relativist would say that everyone's opinion is equally valid. But some people obviously have a much wider/broader knowledge base to draw from, and it can be useful to use them as filters to discover new and interesting things, musically. If someone only ever listens to, say, Nickelback, their opinion is valid but largely meaningless since they don't bring any depth to the discussion :)
A: Do professional music ratings make sense to you?
N: Not very much. They used to be more meaningful in a time where it was difficult to discover and hear new music before purchasing it. Now, I can hear about a band from a friend and be on iTunes 30 seconds later listening to sound clips. 20 years ago, you couldn't do that. So, as people's access to different "preview" methods for music expanded, critics became less and less relevant. I still read certain blogs like Pitchfork from time to time, but it's amazing how arbitrary and narrow their reviews can be. So, in general, I don't find most ratings very useful -- I'd much rather just hear someone's "top 10 of 2010" list, to see if their recommendations fit my taste.
A: Do you personally believe in objective rating of music? Do different pieces of music have different objective values?
N: I think there are some objective qualities... how complex something is, how melodic, how diverse the tonality is, et cetera. But I could also make a piece of music that contains all of those and yet isn't "good" from a subjective viewpoint. For example, take Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata", Beatles "Yesterday", and Underworld's "Born Slippy", and play them all on top of each other at the same time. Great music in their own right, but terrible sounding together.
A: What are the necessary conditions for classifying something as music?
N: I think those conditions change all the time. Imagine presenting a Nirvana or BT track to someone from the 1850's, they would probably see it as noise and not much else. Society as a whole has a much more nuanced and wide view of what music can be now. It still usually contains various rhythmic, melodic, and vocal components, but they can be combined in so many interesting ways now.
A: Do you consider John Cage’s 4′33″ to be music?
N: Not really. I think it's a humorous cultural statement, though.
A: Indeed. Let’s change the topic a bit. You are influenced by a wide range of genres and artists. Do you feel your current musical output reflects that?
N: I think so. The music I make tends to be electronic, but I'm sure my various influences tend to shine through, regardless of genre.
A: In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of pop music?
N: "Pop" music can be disposable fluff, but it can also be a very distilled nugget of direct emotion. I don't think there are really pros and cons to it, although there are better and worse songs. I do think in this day and age it has gotten a bit watered-down and has pandered to the lowest common denominator. All you need now is a minimal euro-sounding beat, a big synth lead, and some auto-tuned vocals and 95% of the time you'll have a hit. Doesn't necessarily mean the track will have any longevity, though...
A: What about progressive rock?
N: I don't listen to much prog anymore (although I used to be a huge Rush and old Genesis fan). The usual problem with prog is that the band can get so wrapped up in their own fantasy land that their music becomes completely inaccessible. "Wanky", if you will.
N: Electronica is such a wide term now. These days, it'd cover Underworld, Imogen Heap, Justice, Matmos, Max Tundra, all radically different artists in their own right. So it's hard to analyze as a whole.
A: Is there a band/artist you used to listen so hard in the past, but in the present you can't imagine yourself listening to anymore?
N: Lots of them! I have a love for cheesy music. I don't want to list any bands and embarrass myself ;D
A: Have you ever been a fan of metal music? If yes, which bands did you find interesting?
N: Not that much, although I do like a bit of Dragonforce, Nightwish, that sort of thing. Also I do like slowcore metal (Jesu, Jucifer, etc). I appreciate traditional 80's hair metal, but I can't listen to it for any long period of time :)
A: Have you ever thought about studying music formally?
N: I have thought about it, but honestly I think it's only worthwhile I were going in the direction of classical/film composing, performance, that sort of thing. I have some friends who have done a lot of formal music education, but it seems like the only real career opportunities are in teaching (university) or doing film music, neither of which really interests me that much.
A: I'm gonna name some artists/bands now. Tell me if you listen/appreciate etc.
N: I think he's a good producer, although I don't really know that much of work. I did think "Adagio For Strings" was a bit boring (although that's not his fault really, the original song itself isn't terribly interesting).
A: Pink Floyd.
N: Classic. "Comfortably Numb" still sounds good after almost what, 40 years?
A: Ozric Tentacles.
N: They're good, although I've never really been *that* into psychedelic/jam music. They are very good musicians, though.
A: Pnuma Trio.
N: Sorry, never heard of them.
A: Dream Theater.
N: I prefer Rush :D
A: What is your favorite Rush album?
N: Probably "Hold Your Fire"? I liked their mid-80's "lets use lots of keyboards" phase :D
A: Britney Spears.
N: Hah! I think she's a perfect example of an artificial construct -- someone with a decent voice and a very marketable image, that producers and business people turned into a pop star. Unfortunately, I think it took a toll on her, mentally, and I feel bad for the trouble that success has brought onto her. However, her music is pretty disposable, and she doesn't have the intelligence and cultural impact of someone like, say, Madonna.
A: While we're here: why do you think people buy disposable music?
N: Every form of linear entertainment is in some way "disposable". Movies, books, music, they provide an experience that you consume and then are essentially done with. You can experience them over and over if you like, but the content doesn't change. I think people are still willing to pay for those experiences. Certainly there is a perception that music for some reason should be "free", whereas movies and books still generally get paid for. The problem these days is again just the sheer amount of music available, and that music isn't as important an experience in people's lives in the 21st century as it was previously.
A: Back in the day, music industry was about helping music through business (distribution, marketing etc.), but now it seems to be all about helping business through music. How do you see this issue?
N: Business has always funded music. But now, since album sales are declining rapidly, musicians are perhaps more willing to take money from advertisers and television/film. I've been given money for the use of my tracks for appearing in commercials and on TV, but like many artists, they used already existing tracks. I don't really mind that, as long as the product isn't offensive to me in some way. It's not going to make me (or most people) rich, but it does provide a bit of income and these days every bit helps.
A: If you were a president of some major label, or even MTV, what steps would you take to change the industry for the best?
N: I'm really not sure. I think the old industry is gone, and it's never coming back. Everyone's moving away from MTV and radio, and towards the internet as a means of discovery, and that's very difficult to control/penetrate. So what we're seeing is instead of 20 huge bands, we have 2,000 medium-sized bands. If someone gave me a million dollars to run a music label, I would focus on creating a specific artistic point of view, and creating some channel to build a fanbase. Warp Records was a great example of a label that had a particular style, and many people would buy records just because the artists were associated with the label.
A: Why do you think music isn't as important as it was in people's lives?
N: I just think that you have so many more options now -- movies, videogames, even social networking sites to some extent. I do think music does still play a role, but it's more now of a "background" to other things. In the old days, people would go to record shops to buy vinyl albums, and go home and play them on their turntables, paying attention the entire time. Those days are gone...
A: Diffusion Games: why did a professional game developer turned indie?
N: Well, the mainstream (AAA) industry really isn't very satisfying. You work on a small part of a huge 3-year project, and in the end your creative input is very small. I like making games with short turnaround times (3-4 months), that are a more a real representation of my style and creativity. We haven't had any huge successes yet, but I've somehow managed to make a living.
A: I read at xfire.com that Diffusion Games “focuses on exploring emotional and social aspects of interactivity.” True?
N: Well, the "social" part, yes -- I'm working on a social game that uses Facebook right now. The emotional part will have to wait until we get bigger budgets :) I do like creating atmospheres with sound, though, that's one of the cheapest and easiest ways to create a bit of emotion in the player. Game companies are finally starting to do a good job with audio, which is so important because really it's 50% of the experience.
A: Aside from computer science, you got a minor in philosophy. Why philosophy?
N: I love philosophy. It's fascinating to try to discover how perception, or experience, or memory works. I've always been a diehard relativist at heart, and I find it very interesting to read other people's philosophical ideas and how they see the world through their particular lens. It's not something that's terribly useful from a work perspective, but I think studying it helped me to appreciate a variety of viewpoints (which is personally what I think Americans need the most right now).
A: An individual can see the world through his particular lenses. But does that make the world brighter only in his mind?
N: Philosophers have been pondering this questions for millennia. I think much of the conflict in the world is directly the result of people's varying interpretations of reality, or perhaps you could term it the "distortions" in their lenses. The best one can do is to try to consume as much knowledge as possible, both from your experiences, and from the words of others, in order to try to form a complete picture of the world.
A: Do you think computers will equal humans in terms of intelligence and emotions?
N: I personally don't think so, not anytime soon. A human is a complicated organic/electrical system, which is immersed in a culture. Try raising a monkey like a human, it won't work, you need the human's certain brain characteristics (including self-reflection) in order to create a truly intelligent creature. The brain processes inputs and perception in very particular ways, and I think until we understand the underlying processes better, there is no way to really simulate it in software. Computers will continue to be good at simplistic analysis, and raw processing power, but the subtlety of emotions is something intrinsic to the human organism and culture.
A: This is a broad question, but do you think humans have a particular existential purpose?
N: I don't believe so. If so, we are a long way from knowing what it is. Religion is a simplistic answer that society has created in order to make people feel better, but there is little evidence as to it's validity. There are thousands of religions in the world, each with their own "correct" answers, and each contradicting each other. For now the most sensible explanation to me is that we are the result of a lucky combination of cosmic factors, we're the "mold" that has grown on this particular planet and in a universe as vast as ours, it's expected that somewhere this would happen.
A: If there is no existential purpose for humans, is it worth existing at all? Why do you think people still feel the need to survive, develop, and create?
N: There may not be a high-level purpose for humanity, but that doesn't mean we can't find inspiration in the world. I think there is a combination of psychological and environmental factors that combine to create various urges in humanity -- most importantly the urge to create, to contribute something to the world, to express your personal worldview and see how the world responds. Art doesn't happen in a vacuum, and if it were only for personal gain then nobody would ever release music to the public. The process changes you, and also changes the world itself, creating ripples of inspiration which flow between the artist and the listener.
A: Not long time ago, I read a post of yours where you said inspiration has come to write a third Alpha Conspiracy album. I also read you were planning to form a new dark/romantic/electropop side project.
N: I would like to do a third AC album, but I'm finding it difficult to create purely instrumental tracks anymore. Also, my lyric-writing skills have never been great, so I've decided to put it on hold and explore a few other things first. I am working on a new dark electropop project with a woman named Julia Beyer (singer of Chandeen & Technoir). I think it'll be interesting, sort of my spin on "trip-hop", maybe a bit more dancy and organic than you'd traditionally think of that style. We have a number of demos done, but I don't see anything being released until the end of 2011.
A: Very cool. Miss the old-school instrumental tracks, though.. Anyway, the interview is about to end. Can you tell us what have you been listening to lately?
N: I think I still have a fairly broad listening spectrum, which gets harder and harder to manage as you get older :D A lot of times when I'm at work, I'll play KEXP or some streaming radio in the background, it's a good way to discover new artists that are a bit "underneath the radar". Otherwise, I've been listening to: Deerhunter, Sepalcure, Bassnectar, Depreciation Guild, Negative Crush, Alcest...
A: Would you like to add something before we close?
N: Nothing witty comes to mind, so I'll just say thank you for interviewing me, and best wishes to everyone.
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Special thanks to Neil Obremski for making this thing happen.