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: