As disparate as their backgrounds and perspectives may be, Chris SSG and Astral Industries founder Ario are united by one specific thing: a shared love for ambient music. Well, that and an appreciation for how to mix it properly. Chris first emerged as co-founder of the now defunct MNML SSGS blog, and Ario’s label turned heads with a slew of inquisitive and deeply immersive releases, but both have since earned a reputation for their exploits behind the decks.
That’s probably where the similarities end, making the duo ideal candidates for a head-to-head interview. Picking each other’s brains in a fascinating meeting of minds, they touch on processes and approaches to mixing ambient, the demise of the chill-out room and more.
Chris: As a starting point, let me suggest that I think there is often a tendency to view ambient as a ‘secondary’ genre. Most people focus on the dancefloor – techno, house, bass, whatever – and then ambient is something that they might appreciate, but don’t necessarily prioritise. This is obviously not the case with us, so why? What is it about ambient that really attracts you and led you to focus on it?
Ario: For me it is highly emotive and exploratory music that often commands my full attention (putting me somewhat at odds with how Brian Eno used the term ambient), encompassing a diverse range of influences which satisfy a breadth of musical interests. As an ‘ambient DJ’ I feel a real sense of freedom to explore various corners of the musical spectrum, unconstrained from the framework and boundaries that the pulsing beat of a kick-drum for example can inevitably present. Do you feel similarly? I’ve seen you play quite a wide range of music, from ambient to techno to even disco! What brought you to settle on being, primarily, an ‘ambient DJ’, if that is even how you see yourself?
C: I am glad to hear your thinking doesn’t match with Eno’s definition of ambient (“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”). I have always had a problem with that way of thinking about it, as it greatly undersells and underestimates what it can be. With ambient I am precisely interested in music that commands attention but does so in a way that is not necessarily driven by beats or rhythms. And as you say, it can be very emotive, which means it can connect to people in a different and potentially very powerful way.
Saying all of this, I see dancefloor-focused music and ambient being closely connected. Perhaps the easiest way to think about it would be in terms of yin and yang, with ambient being the yin and techno being the yang. But I don’t want to push that analogy too far… In the ‘90s this complementarity was much more present; at parties you would have rooms with dance music, and then the chill out room with ambient. This left a strong impression on me. In the early 2000s chill-out rooms largely disappeared, which created an imbalance, it meant something important was missing.
A: Why do you think that happened? Why did chill-out rooms disappear?
C: Good question… Actually this is something Pole (Stefan Betke) reflected on in a 2008 interview: “For me, the electronic music scene and how it was ten years ago [late 1990s] there was a lot of diverse places and different things. Even in the same club you had a main room and an ambient floor where you heard something totally weird, and I have no idea why this isn’t existing anymore.” That quote is taken from an early post on MNML SSGS about this exact issue.
While we discussed it, I am not sure if we ever fully worked through the reasons on MNML SSGS… I think a big part is the end of the rave era. There were a number of aspects of raves that were more amenable to having chill-out rooms. In the 1990s there was less separation between different genres, and it was more common to have parties with a bit of everything, so having a room playing ambient was perhaps easier and more natural than now, where the most diversity you will normally get is a techno room and a house room. More generally, everything was a bit more open then, both in terms of how parties were done and the mentality of people going, so there was perhaps more space for doing different things. In the early 2000s there was a real shift, raves kind of ended, techno became much less popular, there was the rise of minimal and with it a mentality and sound that shifted to one where there was less space, both in the sound and the thinking for ambient.
With the 1990s raves, where it was full on techno and trance, ambient made for a much stronger contrast. When you hit the 2000s and minimal, ambient doesn’t fit as well; the music is a bit less intense and the party just keeps going forever, so you also lose the sharpness of the contrast… What is interesting is that when techno started becoming stronger in the late 2000s and into this decade, for the most part, there has only been a small resurgence of ambient at parties. It has largely been relegated to listening at home and online. This has changed slightly in the last few years, but not as much as I would like.
For me, a really basic thing is just about people being properly exposed to ambient music and, through that, the type of experiences you can have with it. For this to happen, ambient needs to be presented in the right way, which includes the environment and the approach of the DJ. Starting with the space, what do you think is the right kind of setting for helping people ‘get’ ambient?
A: It’s a shame that some of the larger clubs who can maybe take the ‘risk’ or have the space for it don’t have an ambient room or anything. It would be nice to have a proper place to chill at Tresor for example, or Fabric.
Regarding environment – somewhere people can be open and comfortable, with good sound. Good sound is the most important aspect. I’ve played at events where everyone has had to stand for ages, the promoter wants you to play background music in like a bar setting or (worst of all, heaven forbid haha) there has been bleed from another room nearby. Disastrous really. The stuff of ambient nightmares. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but the best environments in my mind evoke images of dim lighting, plumes of incense smoke in the air, an attentive and open-minded crowd, no compromise on sound and comfortable floor-level seating. Projection mapping (if done well) is always a bonus and I’m also really into overnight ambient events (running till the morning), which are quite rare but very special when they do happen.
To give a few examples… ISOTOOP did a really great all-night event in the main room at RADION Amsterdam last year that I was lucky enough to play at, the CALMA crew in Madrid are doing things properly too and Experiment Intrinsic is my favourite place I’ve played so far for this kind of music – their festival in France is second to none really.
I’m sure you’ve played in some really great (and terrible?!) environments too?
C: On this we have pretty similar thinking. Comfortable space and good sound without bleed from other rooms – these are the main things. With dance music, people can dance, so standing is fine. With ambient, just standing for a long time is tiring, not very pleasant, and after a while detracts from the experience. Being able to sit and be comfortable is important.
One tricky thing is figuring out what type of vibe you want. At some ambient events we did, we wanted to make it very relaxed, but this meant everyone ended up talking and it would detract from focusing on the music. At the other extreme, though, I don’t actually feel that comfortable at events where it is expected that the audience is completely silent. I understand the thinking behind it, but it feels a bit forced and unnatural for me. Generally bigger spaces and bigger systems allow for more flexibility with this, people who want to talk can do so, and it is still large enough that people who want to focus on the music can find a spot to do so. It is harder to find this balance in smaller venues, though, generally you need to create a vibe that is more music-orientated or it just turn it into background music for a drinking session.
Separate from ambient-focused events, I often play on bigger stages at outdoor festivals, either at the beginning or end of the program. This can be very challenging, the programming needs to be done right and the audience needs to be open, but when it works, it can be brilliant. For me, outdoors is definitely the best for both playing and listening to ambient music. As a DJ, it is definitely more challenging, but if you are sensitive and thoughtful you can really connect to the environment and create something special. Give me a slot playing in the morning outdoor – this is the best, really the best.
Turning to the performing aspect, what do you think is important when DJing ambient music?
A: Whilst playing pads after pads after pads is of course a valid form of ambient mixing, I feel there can be more to it than that. I personally made a huge leap forward when I started digging for tracks not just based on the standalone songs that they may be, but as sounds, textures, artefacts – little pieces that fit together into a more layered collage. Like bricks in a wall. Sometimes I will come across something that, as a song in itself may not captivate, but actually as part of a 3-or-4 track layer adds something really valuable to the overall sound. Layering is really important for me – also mixing harmonically (though many pieces or textures can often be atonal anyway).
How about you? Do you have a specific approach to how you put an ambient mix together?
C: It took me quite some time to figure out how to DJ ambient music. Bluntly, I think many techno DJs think it is easier than it actually is. As you say, just play some pads, some nice tracks, a bit of old Warp, maybe some bird sounds, and cool, job done. With this, you do actually end up with something like Eno’s understanding of ambient, it can be nice background music, but that is about it. For me, the challenge is how to really capture and hold the attention of the audience. I don’t want to be background music.
So how do you create something that is powerful? That stimulates responses and reactions? The way to do this with ambient music is obviously very different to how you go about doing it with techno music, but for me, the aim is kind of similar or parallel. One thing about good techno DJs is they know how to perform, they know how to create energy, to capture the crowd. I have thought about this, the mentality needed, and from that, how to construct my sets in ways that hopefully do this. I really like the kind of the textured and layered approach you talk about. Jenus is another DJ who I think does this really well. But it is not how I do it, my approach tends to be very focused on the overall arc of the set, creating certain types of energies and moods, using contrast, and ultimately there is a certain aesthetic, a sense of beauty that defines the music I use and what I am trying to do.
Can you share and explain a few mixes of yours that you think are the best example of your approach to DJing ambient, or perhaps capture your thinking about ambient music?
A: For sure on the performance side some of the physical energy that techno DJs have in the booth can translate over to the crowd really powerfully. Whilst I think ambient music can be equally powerful, it’s harder to transmit that physical energy sometimes, especially as there isn’t the same sort of ‘drop’ or crowd reaction that you have in dancefloor music. Wolfgang Voigt once told me that if the crowd falls asleep to his music, he takes it as a compliment haha.
I recently did a mix for Patterns of Perception that I feel highlights my approach well. If you go to the 50-minute mark, there are three things going on here: a ‘lighter’ guitar interlude from one track alongside a more haunting, ‘darker’ drone from a second track, both of which are underpinned by some spoken word which I felt added a nice atmospheric layer to it all. There is a contrast in the source sounds but I felt that together they created something quite ethereal, if I may say so myself! I’m a bit of a sucker for spoken word and like using it as a layer in my mixes.
I did one for Monument last year that had the same spoken word sample looping throughout the whole hour. As the mix evolved, I kept adding spoken word layers to the point that in the last ten minutes or so I think there were 3 or 4 different layers of speech all playing concurrently, which all together made for quite a disorientating outro alongside some more experimental sounds at the end of the mix.
And you? Take me through some Chris SSG arcs!
C: Yeah, this is what I find so interesting, I understand and respect your approach but it is quite different from what I do. I don’t use spoken word much at all in my mixes, and when I do it is more field recordings or samples where the voice is used more like an instrument. Saying that, I always have a folder on my USB full of these types of tracks and I find I end up barely using them most of the time. Interestingly, though, I did use them a bit more in the mix I did for Blowing Up the Workshop, which shows my route to trying to create that ethereal vibe you mention. Perhaps spoken word is the key for creating that feel?
Anyway, with the mix, it goes through passages to create different energies: roughly the first hour is quieter and softer, the second hour has some weirder and discordant moments, the third hour has a stronger energy to it before it all falls away at the end. The mix also has another distinctive feature of the way I play, which is using songs to create contrast – so there is an amazing track from Carla dal Forno in the first hour, one from Thom Yorke towards the end.
In terms of playing ambient in a festival context and creating energy, my recording from Organik Festival in Taiwan from a few years ago is a good example of how I try to do that. I had to play directly after Steve Bicknell, so the first part was really about trying to manage that transition from powerful techno into ambient and abstract music, and then across the set there is a similar type of arc with different moods and contrasts. This is a set where I think I did a good job at managing that transition from dance to listening, and carry the audience across. It is very hard to do, and I am constantly thinking about how to do this better, how to create and sustain energy, especially when as you say, ambient DJs are generally not interesting to watch.
I think what is evident is we both have a clear idea of trying to create certain moods or responses from how we are constructing mixes and presenting ambient music. So obviously a big part of that is the music we use. I find I have a certain aesthetic that shapes the kind of artists and labels I gravitate towards and DJ. How about you? Can you share some ambient artists or labels that you like and tend to use in your DJ sets?
A: Following on from Steve Bicknell – I have a lot of respect for him, he’s a great producer and DJ… But that is a tough gig for an ambient DJ! It reminds me a bit of seeing Transcendence Orchestra take over from natural.electronic/system at ISOTOOP festival in Morocco. natural.electronic/system were doing their thing playing really nice rolling techno and then suddenly these two hooded characters come on stage and drop it down into some very serious drone. The crowd actually tried dancing to it for a bit and then ended up just sitting down right where they stood. It was pretty surreal to witness but a very special moment and set. I can hear you trying to work this transition in your set, listening to it that gives some interesting context.
In terms of the contrasts you mention and go-to artists for DJing, I think the combination of drone and musique concrète can work really nicely for layering. Artists like Bernard Parmegiani and Christian Zanési create these really delicate blips, bloops and sharper high-end intricacies which allow space for and can sit nicely atop the more elemental blasting low-end of artists like Eleh as an example. Which artists do you see as a good fit with your ethos and aesthetic?
C: Nice, again an overlap! Actually when I played last year at Berghain’s new year party in the ambient room, I started my set with a Parmegiani track. A lot of the old GRM stuff really sounds amazing… I must admit I stopped playing Eleh, as I had a few times where the sound system just couldn’t properly handle the bass.
For my aesthetic, there are 2 key artists, perhaps I can think of them as my north and south stars that orientate me. One is John Elliott, who mainly produces under the alias of Imaginary Softwoods, but used to be part of the Emeralds. His music has this incredible sense of purity and beauty to it, it really shimmers. And ultimately, what I am aiming for in my sets is a feeling of the sublime, beauty in a way that can become transcendent. John’s work really captures this for me.
If John is my north, then my south would be the sadly departed Mika Vainio. What I have taken from him is the power of contrasts, and of silence. His music is also overwhelming, but in a much starker fashion. I would also say I find aspects of it very beautiful, and he channels something very elemental. It is so powerful. In addition to playing music by both artists, I have been really influenced by the way they have made their music, and what thoughts and emotions they have provoked in me.
These are pretty well known names, so I do want to share some artists that I think are doing really interesting things at the moment: DJ Lostboi / Malibu, Nadia Khan, Perila, Ulla Straus, Vanessa Amara, Shasta Cults and William Selman are some of them, and it is nice to see more established artists like Legowelt and Norm Chambers continue to consistently release great stuff. Honestly, there is not a shortage of good quality ambient around at the moment, it just takes so much time checking and sorting through everything for DJing.
Any artists you want to highlight? And any parting thoughts about where you think ambient is heading in the coming years?
A: There are so many as you say, I’ll end up thinking I should have mentioned someone I forgot to etc… etc… But hopefully more and more people can be exposed to ambient in the right way, feel inspired to create and participate in the scene and hopefully there will be more opportunities to play and hear this music in the right environments too. I think this music can only grow really – it’s an open field of experimentation in electronic music and ultimately many people over time who engage with the various forms of electronic dance music may still want something electronic-based and forward-thinking to listen to outside of the dancefloor. Let’s see, but I’m fairly optimistic about the future… Do you feel positive about where things are going?
C: I’m hoping there will be some more opportunities and possibilities at the edges, some more events open to having some ambient acts or a chill out space. As I said, ambient works incredibly well with outdoor events, and at least in Japan, concerns about COVID led to an increase in outdoor parties. If this becomes a trend, perhaps there are some possibilities there. Saying that, I am generally not particularly positive about the direction techno and electronic music as a whole is heading right now, so I think there is only going to be limited space for this type of stuff.
Regardless, there are lots of interesting ambient producers and labels at the moment, so even if it is a bit disparate, or just online, there should continue to be a lot there to be inspired and engage with, and hopefully build on. We just need to keep on fighting the good fight together, which is why I really like conversations like this and working with like minded souls like yourself. Thank you.
A: Hopefully there will be more cause for optimism once a perhaps altered semblance of normality returns next year, I assume. Thanks Chris and likewise, it’s been a pleasure as always… Hope to see you soon enough.