Interview: Sand Snowman


I’m Not Here’, by Sand

Inter­view by O.S. & D.M.K.; All images prop­erty of Sand Snowman.

London-based musi­cian and com­poser Sand Snowman has been releasing his unique material since 2006, also the year in which our web­site started. We’ve fol­lowed Sand from humble MP3 begin­nings to where he is today: beau­tiful releases on CD and vinyl. Together with other artists from the Dutch tone­float label, he paid a visit to our country in early feb­ruary for a con­cert and some inter­views, and he will return at the end of March.
We encountered Sand in the KinkFM radio studio, where he per­formed on the exper­i­mental and avant­garde show X-Rated. Just after that, we had a pleasant chat in the station’s lounge with some tea and wine, and the chance to ask Sand about his music, Irish back­ground, art, and much more.
Our thanks go out to Charles of tone­float and Arjen & Bob of X-Rated for hosting this inter­view.

O.S. & D.M.K.: What can you tell us about the devel­op­ment of the whole pro­ject, because Moth Dream was the first album, back when Woven Wheat Whis­pers still existed, but it’s only been 3 years or less. It’s a big step from an MP3 release to these beau­tiful vinyl things on Tone­float, so… what happened in between?
Sand: I really don’t know [laughs]. I think when you put some­thing out into the world, onto the ether, you’ve a vague hope- I mean, like for example when I did Moth Dream or Obsessive Creatures in America, I had no guar­antee what­so­ever that anyone was going to listen to it, let alone that it would actu­ally be picked up by any… you know, find a home any­where. So, I don’t know, I mean, I put it out there and just see what would happen. As it has tran­spired, I think it’s been per­fect for me, because it’s allowed me some time to develop what I was doing, but without taking too long for this to happen and lose interest. 

Moth Dream’

So then you put out some lim­ited CDr’s on Reverb Wor­ship and Time Lag. How’d you make the step to that?
I think I would’ve had Moth Dream avail­able on Woven Wheat Whis­pers, and I like Six Organs of Admit­tance, I remember looking some­thing up on them through Time Lag. I just sent the label an email and said, you know, “I’m doing stuff. You’re not obliged to listen to it.” He sent me an email back and said “Yeah, I’d love to hear some.” So I sent him a CD and he said “Yeah, that’d be great, I’d love to do a little run of ‘em.” I did “I’m not here” and that’s one that came again on Woven Wheat Whis­pers, I guess the end of 2006 for “I’m not here”, the end of 2007 for The Twi­light Game, and Roger from Reverb Wor­ship just con­tacted me through MySpace and said, “I noticed you have some things avail­able through down­load, would you like a CDr-run?” -“OK, great,” you know? So, it hap­pens kind of in step with what I was doing.

The first release you did was all instru­mental, and then sud­denly on “I’m not here” there’s two ladies singing, so how did that happen?

I know it’s strange, I’m not quite sure myself, but I think with “I’m not here”, cause it was the first con­cen­trated album I did and like writers say that the first novel is auto­bi­o­graph­ical, or that you’re working through a lot of your influ­ences, and a lot of the sonic ideas that I had, the purely instru­mental ideas I had, on the first album I had a lot of room to explore with that. When I started writing the material for “I’m not here” or when the ideas started coming to me, a lot of them were in song form and I thought it’d be nice to still have a kind of con­tinual music, still a con­tinual instru­mental tone exper­i­ence, but to have some struc­ture just pop­ping up there, every now and then. Moon­swift is my long-term partner, so uhm… “honey, do some singing”. I just put the micro­phone in front of her. I met this girl Nix and with her basic­ally, you know, met up, got some ideas. I just gave her some backing tracks I had and “you can do what you want over it,” you know. It could open up what I was doing so it wasn’t all dependent on me, because I was still I think a bit tent­ative about writing lyrics and song struc­tures myself.

You do write all of that your­self?

Now on the new album, there’s some male vocals added and also a bit on The Twi­light Game, so who’s respons­ible for all of that?
Right, on The Twi­light Game I got a friend of mine, Jerome, to do some vocals. One night he said “Actu­ally I do some singing, so if you want some male vocals…” I thought yeah, just for bal­ance, because I like the under­pin­ning of the voices. Also on The Twi­light Game Jo Lepine who sings with The Owl Ser­vice did some singing for me as well, so I thought, great, because I like the idea of poly­phonic vocal lines. I’m not really a singer myself, and I’ve been told that by singers that a lot of my lines aren’t that easy to sing, because I think of them as melodic lines or just instru­mental melodic lines. I think poly­phon­ic­ally, and I like the idea of having lots of har­monies and as many tex­tured layers vocally as are there instru­ment­ally. And you know, it’s just been a con­tinu­ation of that, really. I mean, at the moment, in the songs I’m working on at the moment, I’ve already used three vocals, and I’ve got another three or four in mind to work with.

So, and what about the new album? There’s Jason Ninnis and Steven Wilson, so…

'Two Way Mirror', CD version, artwork by Carl Glover

Two Way Mirror’, CD ver­sion, art­work by Carl Glover

Jason’s a friend of mine, a singer/songwriter from London, and again it was one of these things, one evening he said you know “If you want some vocals some­times.” - “Yeah, great, here we go, that’d be ideal.” And Steven - cause I did some playing on his album, he said “If you want some singing done…” - “Excel­lent, that’s great.” It was a ques­tion as well of thinking of what songs in terms of lyrics and melody suit what voices, and the two that Steven sang, well they’re really ideal in my head for his voice, and I’m very very happy with the way they turned out.

So how did you get in touch with Steven?

Steven got in touch with me, because the chap at Reverb Wor­ship must have sent Steven a CD. There were a lim­ited edi­tion of 50 copies each, and Steven sent me an email, “I’m really really impressed with your work and I think that maybe more than 50 people should hear it.” So, it just went on from there, really. Steven passed “I’m not here” and The Twi­light Game on to Charles [from Tone­float] and… good for­tune, really. [laughs]

Will you rerelease Moth Dream someday?
Pos­sibly Obsessive Creatures, the Amer­ican ver­sion, the reason being because that, as I said earlier, I just can’t find two of the mas­ters for the tracks on Moth Dream. But, I’m not too bothered, because there’s the three tracks “Ser­pentine”, “Moth Dream” and “Light, Space, Shadow” I’m very happy with, and I wrote this other one around the time, which was on the Amer­ican issue, “Obsessive Creatures and Cari­ca­tures”. It may be issued in that format, and that would be again be four fairly long instru­mental pieces. So, that may be…

But the entire album is lost, because you lost some of the master tracks?
Yeah, I don’t have three of the tracks. Also, unlike “I’m not here” and The Twi­light Game and Two Way Mirror, this album didn’t present itself as an entity to me, as an entire album. Because to me the struc­ture of an album is as important as the indi­vidual tracks on it, the moods and the con­trast to each other and stuff. Prob­ably because Moth Dream, my first one, is more a ques­tion of ‘I like these, got them done now, put them together.’ When I fin­ished that album, I started work pretty much imme­di­ately on “I’m not here”, so I was just pretty much taken up with that. So, the mas­ters of a couple of songs just got mis­laid. They’re some­where in my flat, but that’s The Twi­light Zone essen­tially, so they may at some stage turn up. [laughs]
One day… when you move into a new place or some­thing. [all laugh]

'Flicker Fading Spark' EP

Flicker Fading Spark’ EP

And what about this Flicker Fading Spark EP, because that’s also dis­ap­peared along with Woven Wheat Whis­pers.
Well, I do have the mas­ters for those, cause that’s when I started working on The Twi­light Game. It’s weird because it was actu­ally another pro­ject, and that took over. And one of the tracks on the Flicker Fading Spark EP, “Magpie Eye”, is from a longer piece that became “I Spy”, the second track on Two Way Mirror. I had basic­ally done the backing track of this 8-minute piece and I thought ‘the first part, I’m gonna get singing on the first part. The rest of it, I’m not sure if singing will work with it, so… no, the first part will be a sep­arate song and this will just be an entity unto itself.’ And also because I thought that if I was going to do an EP to predate the album, it would be good to have a couple of tracks that don’t appear any­where else. But I do actu­ally have them… [laughs] I was a bit more sens­ible. [laughs]

OK, so then we’ve made it to the new album, basic­ally. It’s going to be released this month, so what’s a bit of the back­ground behind Two Way Mirror in terms of con­cepts and writing? How’d you com­pose it?
Uhm… ooh sorry, there might be a pause… [laughs] I’ll think about that one in silence…
You know, the first 500 CDs have an extra album, The Magpie House. It’s basic­ally a kind of con­tinuum: The Twi­light Game, The Magpie House and Two Way Mirror. What I started with for The Twi­light Game had some of the material that ended up on The Magpie House. Then I thought you know, ‘I’ll use that in the next one.’ But then other ideas presented them­selves. I wanted a dif­ferent colour and feel to pre­vious albums. I mean, “I’m not here” to me sounds kind of like summer evening or some­thing like that. It sounds like wood­land at night­time or some­thing. The Twi­light Game reminds me of a night­time sky, a wintry sky, and Two Way Mirror puts me in mind of clouds and sky and kites and things like that.

Where does The Magpie House fit in in terms of ideas and con­cepts?
Well, The Magpie House, I had this dream- cause I have a thing about mag­pies, I paint them and draw them, I really love them and I love the idea of them as well, going around and gath­ering these things that are shiny and glit­tery. And, I had this dream of this house with all these mag­pies in it and all these wooden beams and stuff like that, and I thought ‘house, mag­pies, magpie house!’ That’s some­thing else, you know. Or you know, me just gath­ering these frag­ments of myself from wherever. The album itself, where it would fit in would be that it’s the under­pin­ning of say, mainly The Twi­light Game and Two Way Mirror, it’s material that was acutally hap­pening con­cur­rent to that. Not so much out­takes, it just didn’t fit in with the idea, the struc­ture and the con­cept of those ones. But it was in its own way kind of essen­tial, because it’s what was going on as well.

Do you think that dreams have spe­cial mean­ings?
Yeah, I do, yeah…
Are they also an important inspir­a­tion for you? For your songs?
Cer­tainly the uncon­scious or the sub­con­scious…
Which speaks to you through dreams, yeah…
Or just impres­sions, I mean, it can be- when we left from the city air­port, this indus­trial area, and it was cold, but there was this intense sun­light coming through. I find that these feelings- I see some­thing like that and auto­mat­ic­ally a piece of music stars presenting itself to me then. So it can be dreams, but just impres­sions, sub­con­scious impres­sions, impres­sions that are out­side of time or a kind of material con­cept of reality.
And then the music comes to you, yeah, and you have to give it shape?
Yeah, and that’s what music is, giving shape to a very vague feeling, an impres­sion, it’s giving the form, struc­ture…
[all laugh]

Speaking of this kind of thing, if one looks at your MySpace, they’ll quickly realise that you’re also a painter, so how did that start for you, and in what way is it inter­twined with your musical expres­sion?

Yeah, well, my mum’s an artist, I was drawing before I could write or any of that. I love it and also it’s a great res­pite from having to think in terms of sound. It really really does cross over for me in terms of music, again it’s very hard to explain because it’s a feeling, a sen­sa­tion, you know. But I think they are- I find that there might be an idea or a con­cept that’s presented in an album, and there’s kind of an over­spill into the paint­ings I do, you know. Again, I mean the thing with music, I might do a painting or a song that I myself don’t really like that much but it feels abso­lutely right. In a way it’s kind of out­side my own judge­ment. And I like to be as much out­side of my own judge­ment as pos­sible. So in a way it’s not some­thing that I have that much con­trol over. I quite like that. [laughs]

And apart from MySpace - you’ve used it for some of the earlier album covers, but do you also do exhib­i­tions or some­thing like that?

'Flicker, Falter, Fading Spark', by Sand

Flicker, Falter, Fading Spark’, by Sand

Uhm, the last exhib­i­tion I did was… nearly two years ago. [laughs] I very very rarely do, to be honest, I rarely put exhib­i­tions on because of just the logistics, sorting it out and having to get people there and stuff. I know it might sound strange, but I don’t actu­ally feel a great pres­sure to sell my stuff, or even have it seen. It hap­pens, it exists. I think it’s the world we live in, where we feel that things have to be qual­i­fied by being seen and heard. In a way, that’s like me being an artistic meanie, keeping it to myself, you know. [lauhgs] But it’s not delib­erate like that, you know. I very very rarely exhibit, and prob­ably the main reason for why I very very rarely exhibit is that the pri­ority is music. That’s my main pur­pose essen­tially. The painting is more *for* me, it’s more of an indul­gence for myself.

Is there for you a dif­fer­ence between musical and visual expres­sion?
Yes, yeah. Def­in­itely, because music to me is entirely abstract from material reality, from what we see and hear and exper­i­ence. Music, apart from bird­song and nat­ural sound, music is a totally abstract con­cept. Most of the other art forms, I think, come some way out of our exper­i­ence, like visual art. I think visual art has always been, through all cul­tures, rep­res­ent­a­tional. European art is in some way kind of an abstrac­tion from real life, but it is based pretty much on the world that you see, you know. And I think it’s the same with lit­er­ature, poetry, because it uses lan­guage, by which we com­mu­nicate. Music then of course is just some­thing else entirely.
Per­haps more direct, some­times at least. Speaking to your feel­ings, or at least that’s a way to exper­i­ence it.
Well, that’s it, cause it has a main line into your feel­ings, your sub­sconscious.

And what about lit­er­ature or poetry? Does that influ­ence you in your music in any way? Or your painting…

Very little, but… James Joyce is a big influ­ence on me, more in his approach than any­thing. The approach of like Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, where you have par­allel worlds, par­allel takes on things hap­pening at once. Because music was the primary influ­ence for him, with lit­er­ature, where he was, instead of telling a story, instead of a sen­tence like saying “he went out of” he’d have these com­pound words actu­ally, cause he was trying to get poly­phony in writing. But it’s just the way that makes you look at reality that’s had a huge influ­ence on me, really, you know. When I read about Finnegan’s Wake, which I haven’t read - I love Ulysses, but I haven’t been able to get through Finnegan’s Wake.
[laughs] OK.
But the idea is abso­lutely mind­blowing for me.
Why is it so dif­fi­cult to get through for you?
Finnegan’s Wake? I think it’s having a primer first, it’s recog­nising the code, because I mean with Joyce you have a lot of ref­er­ences to Greek myth­o­logy, you know. I mean like say for example using kind of musical forms of fugues in lit­er­ature, so the first time you read it it’s… you know. I mean I read about Ulysses quite a lot before I actu­ally read it, so I had a primer in it and I was going to pre­pare for it. I think because Finnegan’s Wake is a dream, it’s kind of under­water, and it’s so very very- I find it very very hard to pen­et­rate its meaning, you know. I under­stand it is about a dream reality, and also the thing of a wake[1]- “Finnegan’s Wake” is an Irish song. There’s also Fionn again, the coming of Fionn mac Cum­haill [wiki], this Irish myth­o­lo­gical hero. It’s the return of the hero, which is going through all of Joyce’s lit­er­ature. The main char­acter, it’s all the hero’s voyage. Except in the last, in Finnegan’s Wake, the voyage is in a dream. It’s dream logic, he has strange jux­ta­pos­i­tions and you don’t know where you are [laughs]. His lan­guage is beau­tiful, but I don’t know what he’s saying [laughs]. You know, but I’ll go back to it in time.
Maybe then it’s a bit more like music.
Yeah, it is.
If you read the words, but you don’t know exactly what it means, you have to rely on the feel­ings he expresses.

Uhm, apart from your ref­ereces, you also have an accent, so…
I’m Irish.
You’re Irish, yeah, cause you were living in London, that’s what we garnered, but we never heard you were Irish, so how did you end up in London?
That’s a very good ques­tion! [laughs] A series of strange events… when I was 17 I moved to London, and uhm, never went back. Oh, I’ve been back, but it’s just become home, you know, but it’s like I said, I’ve been there like since I was 17-18 years or so.
It has a spe­cial feeling for you, the city?
London, uhm, I think so, but then I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve been there a long time and I have his­tory there. I think when you have a his­tory some­where, you have all these ref­er­ences there, so it becomes some­thing to you. I mean, in many ways I don’t have to actu­ally be living in London for what I do, but it’s right for now.

And what about Ire­land? You ever feel like going back?
For a hol­iday, yes, but to live, no.
And why not, if we may ask?
Exile. I take after James Joyce. It’s when you’re in exile from your homeland. The danger is you roman­ti­cise it or you can become cyn­ical about it, that is, you see it out of bal­ance. But, you inter­n­alise the exper­i­ences. I mean, when I go back, I go back for a week every now and then, and I’m really- I’m not saying the people who live there don’t appre­ciate these- but it’s the ordinary things, the smell of coal fires, that’s just amazing, and it’s an instant effect on me that takes me back to when I was a little boy. Because I’m not living there, because I’ve been away from there, these asso­ci­ations are powerful, and I don’t really want to risk losing them. [laughs] You know, and I like that being some­where else.
So you only real­ised these little things when you’ve been away for a while?
Yeah, def­in­itely.
Or you take them too much for granted.
Yeah, well, you no longer see it. It’s if you’re taking the same route every day you don’t notice the odd nuances of an area or of the people’s accents and things like that. It’s when you’re away, then you really notice it.

'The Tower', by Sand

The Tower’, by Sand

In your inter­view just now on the radio, you talked briefly about your musical influ­ences. Your music itself is already pretty eclectic, but does that have a back­ground in your own musical taste?
Yes, very much so, yeah. I mean, I get excited by things, I don’t know if it’s apparent in Two Way Mirror, but there’s a couple of tracks on it… I was really really excited by Bartók’s string quar­tets and Shos­takovich’s string quar­tets. With the string quartet you have a dia­logue going on, and it’s very eco­nom­ical. And, I often get excited about some­thing that I *can’t* do, but it presents me with this other world to kind of play with and get involved in, so I thought ‘well, OK, how d’you get that kinda quality, that dia­logue with acoustic gui­tars?’ You know, so rather than staying in the pat­tern of like, say, what an instru­ment does, I kinda listen to what it doesn’t. What I do often is that I write a piece on the piano and trans­late it to maybe two or three acoustic guitar parts. Or write a piece on the guitar and then play it on the piano. So I’m thinking of it, or I’m seeing it in a dif­ferent per­spective, in a sense. So, I mean, yeah, but the influ­ences, we’re influ­enced by everything, even the things we don’t like, you know, but they are very very eclectic in what I relate and what I love and what I’m excited by, you know. What I’d like to integ­rate in what I do.

And what about playing live, is this the first time for you tomorrow?
I did a couple of very very brief sets in London last year. I did one actu­ally as part of an improv thing with these two other chaps, who were playing like elec­tronics and noises, and I was playing, doing what I do on the acoustic guitar, whatever it is I do on the acoustic guitar. But I did two sets, one in summer and one in October. Just to get myself pre­pared basic­ally for playing in front of people, because everything I do is very much in my head, an exten­sion of that is to actu­ally do it in a room. I mean, I’m excited about it, because I think rather than recreate or trying to recreate a record - because the record is there and people can listen to that - what I’m inter­ested in doing is taking the live exper­i­ence, making that some­thing into itself, an event into itself or a piece of music into itself. So there are themes and bits and pieces from the albums that are inter­woven with each other.

OK, and then finally, you’re doing a couple of shows now, and you’ve just got a new album out, double CD, vinyl, and… Is there any­thing you have planned already for the future?
Uhm, one album, def­in­itely, that I’ve pretty much all the backing tracks done for, and I just need to get the vocals done on that. I’m also working on this other thing at the moment, that I’m not sure what it is. It’s quite dif­ferent, it’s more uh- I don’t know if I’ll actu­ally do it as a- I don’t know if I’ll acutally finish it. Or, I don’t know if I’ll do it as a Sand Snowman pro­ject. It’s quite rhythmic, there’s a lot of drums and things like that in it, and it’s very sort of dis­jointed, but it’s very much in its early stages. I hope to have the new Sand Snowman one fin­ished by the end of summer.

By the way, those drums, do you also play those on the album?

I play some, and I pro­gram some. I mix them up, basic­ally, yeah.
But most of the instru­ments is just you?
I play, yeah. On the new one I’ve just got a friend of mine, she’s done some flute, and I’ve written some cello parts for another friend of mine. But still pretty much instru­ment­ally, it’s me.
You mean the next album, the one that’s coming?
Yes, yeah.
And are there any more sur­prises you can unveil? Is it going to be very dif­ferent from Two Way Mirror? What’s your feeling about it?
I think it’s going to be as dif­ferent from Two Way Mirror as Two Way Mirror is from “I’m not here”. That is, there are sim­il­ar­ities. In fact I think actu­ally you can hear traces of all of them, even the first one. There are parts on that, that are the feel­ings and ideas that occur on the later albums as well. Basic­ally, there’s kind of a cross-pollination thing going on with them.

[1] The “wake” in the tra­di­tional “Finnegan’s Wake” is a ref­er­ence both to the wake at his funeral, and his awakening during the funeral, when it becomes apparent that he isn’t dead, but suf­fering from a severe whiskey deli­rium. An altern­ative inter­pret­a­tion would be that he was dead, but resur­rected by the water of life (whiskey). See: