Feature of Thom Brennan

Velvet, highly cinematic soundgardens: the music of Thom Brennan

Date: Sept. 9 2007 

More than anything else, Thom Brennan’s music is (and always has been) inspired by nature, seasons, landscapes and environments. In his early years it was the Sonora and Mojave Deserts. Later in the 70;s its was Tucson in Arizona, followed by Southern California for the next 15 years.
In those days, the desert was the place he would go for inspiration. In the mid 70s, Brennan developed an interest in electronic music, listening to Morton Sobotnik, Tomita, and the early Berliner School styles of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. But probably the most influential was the output from the German band Popol Vuh, in particular the track “Vuh” from the early ‘70s. It was through their music Thom Brennan discovered the films of German film maker Werner Herzog, whose incredible visual images turned on his interest in the visual impact of nature.
Thom recalls Popol Vuh often created a sense of movement without motion in their music. “Vuh” was a perfect example, with its sustained organ tones remaining almost motionless against the backdrop of frantic percussion.In addition, Thom also spent time studying the microtonal pattern music of minimalist pioneers Terry Riley and Steve Reich next to Lamont Young’s “just intonation” piano works. Thom’s output was especially influenced by Riley’s live improvisations on electric organ and tape loops.
Over the years his music has developed into highly visual soundscapes and rhythmic journeys which rarely contain percussion sounds, any acoustic instruments whatsoever nor any samples. Above all, Thom prefers an organic quality to the sound which features movement within the timbre, something he feels for many years was hard to achieve with digital synthesizers.The first steps Thom Brennan took toward electronic music occurred when he was attending Film school at California State University. But while doing this, Brennan really found he was thinking, more and more, in terms of sound. A very visual sorts of sound, which were all about atmosphere.
It was at that time he met Steve Roach, with whom he started getting together at his Los Angeles Studio back around 1982. Thom was just setting up an e-music studio using this older Roland modular stuff and an organ.Around 1985 or so he started working on what would end up being his first album “Mountains”, recorded on a 2 track stereo cassette deck. The music was done largely on two Yamaha DX-5 FM synthesizers, an Oberheim Matrix 12 and a Prophet 5. The album came out as cassette only version in 1987. He recorded the music at home, and then took the cassette masters to Steve for the addition of reverb, and some further sound processing. Thom and Steve just finished “Mountains” when they composed the extended track “In The Heat of Venus”, not music later followed by another shorter track “New Moon at forbidden Mesa”. Both tracks would end up on the concept-album “Western Spaces” with Steve Roach.Steve taught Thom about the quality of sound, the silence behind it, the importance to the overall music. The silence between notes, or the musician behind the field of music, is equally important. In that period, Steve and Thom were getting together almost weekly for a mix of fun and work. They would usually go out and after a few beers, go back to his studio and either listen to stuff they were independently working on, or improvise some recordings.
“In the Heat of Venus”, was done that way. It happened on a really hot day, of which Thom recalls most of the composition was improvised live around the opening drones on an Oberheim Matrix 12. Later they did “New Moon on Forbidden Mesa”, which was based around a small chord progression Thom did. As a matter of fact it’s a really simple piece, creating a strong mood.

In the meanwhile “Mountains” started gaining some media attention as it was released on the (now defunct) Canadian Rubicon-label.
Thom: “Mountains” had already been out as a cassette, mainly distributed by Backroads mail order at the time. Steve was in contact with Gilles Bédard at Rubicon, and arranged its release. They later licensed it to a sub-label of Phillips in France.
That cd version features a 20 minute track called “Monsoon”. We wanted to take advantage of the extended play time of a cd”. Later on Thom made “Mountains” available as an mp3.com cd, but without the track “Monsoon”. Instead he added a shorter track recorded in 1988 called “Tiger River”.

In 1993 Steve Roach asked Thom to produce a 20 minute track for the Italian Amplexus label. The music was extracted out of a longer 30 minute track and released as the mini-cd “The Path Not Taken”. Brennan recorded it at home in San Francisco and sent it to Steve. He edited it to the 20 minute length and the music went to Amplexus. In 1996 the label accepted “Beneath Clouds” as a full album release.

During the period 1991 to 1996, Thom recorded hundreds of hours worth of music. He had recently moved to San Francisco and was working with a decent home studio. Since the 20 minute “The Path Not Taken” came out, Thom killed plans for its album version, but years after that he started work on it from scratch. Beside that, Thom had also actually recorded about four versions of “Beneath Clouds”, some quite different from the final release. Brennan released an edited version of it through mp3.com, and Emusic.com, but he personally thinks the edited version is better as there were some dead moments on the full version. On both “The Path not Taken” and “Beneath Clouds” Brennan used a Korg 01-W Pro-X (a large 8-octave weighted keyboard station) and a Korg Wavestation.
In the mid ’90 Thom composed the album “The Last Dragons Dream”, which peculiarly enough features overall active music and heavy use of drum machines. Until now the music remains unreleased.

From 1996 to 1999 Thom got in period with a lot of personal stress. Part of it had to do with a move from a house into a tiny apartment, with hardly enough room to set up a studio. Actually, Thom did not record a single note of music between those three years. He had a single Korg Wavestation set up in his living room on which he would play out ideas on, but no recordings. Finally in late 1998, he recorded a 30-minute series of chord progressions on the Wavestation direct to a portable DAT-recorder, which later became the basis for the track “Vibrant Water”. Unfortunately Thom had to deal with a lot of personal issues at that time that interfered with the right mind set to create music.

In late 1999, Thom Brennan “escaped” from his twenty-plus years of life in California and moved to Seattle. Brennan experiences the American Northwest as an amazing place, which he says shares a lot in common with the European North-West.
The new, impressive environment with the mountains, the rivers, and the
western temperate rain forest really helped create the mind set Thom needed for music again.

He started re-building his studio, making it all digital recording. Between 2000 and 2001 he recorded enough material to make up for the lost time between ‘96 and ‘99.

It was like the release of water from behind a flood gate, resulting in the albums “Mist”, “Vibrant Water”, “Secret Faiths of Salamanders” (=“Strange Paradise”) and “Shimmer”. For most of the albums since “Mist” Brennan used the Roland XP-80 and Korg Triton.
These albums all share the same characteristics as Brennan wanted to play music simply: no sequencers, no samples, no running backing tracks, and no overdubs.


“Mist” for example was recorded completely live, with no use of sequencers nor overdubs. Although the album only has 2 synthesiser, Thom layered about 32 digital tone generators on top of one another to create the intense textures he had in mind. In addition, Thom decided to use the internet for distribution, something he dreamt of
a decade ago. The original plan was to have a website called TMB Music and allow the purchase on line of mp3 formatted downloadable albums.


For his album “Silver” (which had the working title “The Fall of Winter”) Thom was looking for icy, glistening sounds from where he developed the timbres, which usually inspire the melodic themes. He started work on it in winter 2003, and finished it in winter of 2004. All music was done almost entirely on the Roland Fanthom S and the Korg Triton, and Thom spend a lot of time on the sound development side.
Thom: “I always design my own sounds, and rarely ever use sampling, I mean very rarely. It never caught my interest to sample anything. I treat all synths as synths, designing the sounds from the original waveforms and building upwards from there”. When that process is done and the outcome satisfying, he starts improvising with a set of timbres to built his impressionist ambient music. Thom recalls “Silver” appeared to be moving a bit backwards in time, because there are influences from “Mountains” and “Beneath Clouds” (particularly “B. Clouds”). The outcome on “Silver” is a nice merger of ambient layers with cyclic structures that occasionally appear as rhythms, sometimes as some sort of timbral movement. In a way this aspect brought more life and movement in it, and in a way the album seems to breath more melody than a lot of his more recent music.
As Thom dislikes large studios with tons of overtly distracting gear, Brennan’s own studio is rather simple, and he’s always on the look-out to make it simpler. It mainly consists of a Korg Triton, a Roland Fantom S and a Roland XP-80. The Triton has a Moss expansion which offers Thom some alternate synthesis types such as FM, virtual analogue and physical modelling. The additional effects are primarily done with the synthesizer as part of the sound, with additional reverb coming from an older Lexicon unit. Recording is all done straight to an Alesis Masterlink 2-track 24 bit digital recorder. All multitracking is done within the synthesizer workstation sequencers. He prefers Workstation synths as he finds traditional multitrack recording tedious and boring and the fact he doesn’t use any computers in his music. If he can’t play it with his hands, its not on the cd. However to be able to compose an entire work on the instrument pretty much requires it to be a decent “workstation” type synth, so Brennan mainly uses those.
When it comes to composing, Thom limits himself using only about 2 instruments in a particular work, as it forces him to work in a more inward fashion in which he gets more intimate with a particular instrument.

At the start of 2004 Thom launched his own label Raingarden Music. This new online sales office re-issues all past releases, which are different from the previous ones. For this purpose he chose 2 new on demand publishers to create the cds , and made full use of the superior design and audio. Thom: “Those cd manufacturers produce very professional, high quality cds on demand- meaning they are “burned” when ordered. But I am leaning towards doing future releases as “pressed” standard cds , as opposed to cd-r, but with the advances in cd-r technology and the rapid growth in I-Tunes and Mp3’s, I am not convinced that it is the way to go. The cd-r’s I use have 70 – 100 year lifespans, about the same as a mass produced “pressed” cd, and the packaging is equal quality, so it seems to me to be irrelevant if it is a cd or cd-r. But some people are picky about that- so I may make that change for future releases”. In addition, Brennan’s new website features hours of non-repeat streaming ambient music which everyone can check out for themselves.

Spring 2006 saw the release of “Vista 1” and “Vista 2”, an on-line exclusive, virtual double album in Mp3 format, featuring over 2 hours of new and unreleased shorter tracks of the last 6 years. He also completed the album “Alaskan Highways” (formerly announced as “Northern Lights”).
Thom states to him the music is a cross between Froese and Vangelis, anthem-like but built around some Edgar-like sequences. Nevertheless, Thom feels somewhat hesitant to go back to the ‘sequencer’ type material, because its been done so many times now, although the overall sound is really different from the Euro-style.
In addition, Thom is still planning to issue the full length version of “The Path Not Taken”. The new release will feature a 30-minute version of the track that was originally issued by Amplexus in 1993 plus two additional lengthy rhythmic tracks from the same period. Unfortunately, a release-date for it is not yet set.
Thom’s new cd “Stories from the Forest” will hopefully be out by November 2007.


Mountains (1986), The Path Not Taken (1995) (cd-single), Beneath Clouds (1996), Mist (2001), Vibrant Water (2001), Secret Faiths of Salamanders (=Strange Paradise), Shimmer (2001), Satori (2002), Signals in Moonlight (2003), Silver (2005), Vista 1 &2 (2006)

Collaborations: Western Spaces (with Steve Roach)

Website: www.thombrennan.net

Sonic Immersion
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