Later this month, Delsin will release a collection of ambient tracks by American producer John Beltran.
Throughout his nearly two-decade career, Beltran has dabbled in a wide variety of styles on a range of different labels, including seminal outfits like Peacefrog and Planet E. But some of his most resonant work, and as he recently told us, the work that he still enjoys the most, is the ambient music he made in the mid '90s, perhaps most notably on his album 10 Days of Blue, the opening track from which ("Collage of Dreams") was later used as theme song to the HBO series Six Feet Under. 15 years after most of these records first came out, Beltran approached Delsin with the idea of doing a compilation. Considering the influence these tracks had on the Dutch label's current roster of artists, it's no surprise they agreed.
Ambient Selections will be Beltran's first release in several years. Reached by phone at his home in Michigan last week, he told us about the creative process behind these songs, his decision to re-release them, and why making house tracks for Oprah isn't such a bad gig:
How did the idea for the collection come about?
I guess I just was sitting around listening to a lot of this stuff one day and realized how old it was and thought, maybe it was time to do something with it. You know, just kind of wanted to do something new, and I think I can probably do that now after this comes out—I'll be inspired to do something new, kind of the same vein. But I almost just wanted to revisit that stuff, and Delsin was down, so here it is.
What was going on back then that inspired you to make this sort of music?
Well, the Detroit techno thing was a big inspiration. But if you listen to any of my ambient stuff, it's not Detroit techno. I mean there are some elements there, because I was a big fan of Derrick May's stuff. He was pretty much it for me. I liked some of the other guys, but I was more into the melodic stuff and Derrick was doing that more than anyone. But to answer your question, I don't know what was going on. I just wanted to do something. But you know, now I feel technical when I write music, back then it was so new, everything was like a clean slate, an empty canvas. It's funny, now that I am a musician I tend to... how should I say, copy more than I did back then. Back then I was free and it was a new sound, so it was easy to do something weird, you know?
So the fact that it was new and unlike anything else made it easier to just come up with something?
Yeah, just do it. Just do it. You know there'd be certain elements of other music mixed in but it was pretty much sterile. I wasn't thinking of any certain sound when I was writing, let's say my album Ten Days of Blue. I didn't have anything in mind at all. That's what was cool about it, for sure.
What was it like to have an idea for that sort of track? Would you have some kind of sound or rhythm in your head going into it?
Man, it was all emotional. All the time, whether it was just girl problems or whatever. I would pretty much just use presets out of the digital keyboards. If it sounded good I just went with it, then use the next one, go with that one. Or throw in more acoustic sounds, like marimbas, tweak those maybe a little bit. Really I wasn't creating sounds or looking for certain sounds. I guess it was more conventional. That's why it was a little different. It wasn't your typical analog screechy lead sounds or anything like that. It was pretty warm stuff. Pretty natural stuff.
How did you choose the tracks for the collection?
Well, they were the favorite songs of mine. All the ones I can actually still listen to. That's not the case for all of my songs. These ones I'm still digging. I like them, I loved them when I made them, and I still love them. And that's not the case for a lot of my music. I'd say a good 80% of my stuff I really can't listen to the way I listen to these songs.
Why do you think some things have so much more lasting power?
You know, a lot of artists will tell you that they write a lot of songs you'll never hear because they're just not good. Either that or in the gray area: some of them were good at the time but they didn't keep. But then there are some things that I really nailed, I was really in a good place and in a good, inspired state, and it worked out.
So in your opinion, this is just straight up some of the best music you ever did.
For sure, in that genre and generally yes, this is some of the best stuff I've done.
Out of all the different styles of music you've done, does ambient have a special place for you? Do you feel that in a way, it's your main thing?
I guess now looking back 20 years, it is pretty much my identity. I wish there was a bigger market for ambient, I wish it was huge. I'd love to have energy and the resources to keep making the stuff. But things change, and who knows, maybe people will mellow out again. But it's my best music for sure. That's what I do best for sure.
It seems like when this stuff came out, you had a pretty receptive audience. Do you feel like that isn't true anymore? Do you think that people aren't that into ambient music right now?
Not albums, I find that people don't listen to albums anymore. You know the whole thing. So you will find a song or two that you really like and buy those or share those, but then you'll have maybe a rock song and maybe after that a house track, and you know, it's all over the place. Whereas back when people were listening to albums, a lot of people liked ambient. There's a lot of Apex Twin, Autechre, anything in that vein, people were just into it. You know, I was. I was especially. I was feeding off that stuff as an artist. But now I'm like everybody else, my playlist is crazy. So, it's just changed, everything is changed. I don't see ambient coming back in a huge wave or anything.
So you think these days people are less likely to be a devout fan of a certain kind of music?
Yeah I think that that is probably the case. People are looking for a song, just a great song. It's not about the whole album. You know, those days of buying a CD, rushing home, cracking it open, sitting on the couch and looking at the artwork while it plays, those days are kind of over. Then you're looking at iTunes and everything is the same. You used to identify a record just by a cover. Now its just a bunch of words and numbers on a screen. So it is different, it's just different. Hopefully this album can take some people back. That's kind of the intention of a "best-of" anyway, isn't it?
So do you think this collection could get you back in the groove of releasing new material?
Yeah I think so, I wouldn't even mind something small for Delsin, maybe a new EP for them. They have a lot of energy. I could definitely pull out a lot of energy for a new project. For me it's about timing and the right label. When I did Ten Days of Blue for Peacefrog, it was a good label but I really believe that Ten Days of Blue was a shot in the arm for them.
I tried a couple of labels. Ubiquity was a very good label. With John Arnold, Jeremy Ellis and I, when we were recording for them, it was their hottest time there. They were selling out their singles, reprinting and all that stuff. I was doing Brazilian dance stuff.
I don't know if you know Jeremy Ellis, and John Arnold out of Detroit. But anyway, it's kind of weird, the label just moved on to something else. So it's funny, I would like to do that but I'd like to create a relationship, dig in with some plans, you know? Cause I don't want to be expendable to somebody. That's why I've been so cautious, not really recording. I don't need that. I don't think I'm better but I don't really care to go through that again, I've already been there done that, you know what I mean?
A lot of the electronic artists have to go through this, especially nowadays with the money where it's at, it's just not there. But I'm looking for something a little bit more long term, not just selling my music to somebody and having to deal with certain things. For instance, with Peacefrog, they never paid me for any of the licensing from Six Feet Under. I'm not bitter about it. It is what it is. But it happens a lot. And that's a lot of money. And they're nowhere to be found, just hiding out somewhere. But long story short, I'm at it again, I just, I would love to do something new. But we'll see, I'm just taking my time.
What are some of the projects you have going right now?
Well, I just had a kid, my girl... it's my first, I'm 42 now and I just had my first kid. Two-and-a-half months ago. And she was born on my birthday.
I also finished a 12-inch for Derrick May's label Transmat, which is relaunching. He kinda goes out back and forth, in and out, but this is kind of a new relaunch, and it's actually a pretty hot track. Then there's the rock stuff, I've actually created the project called the Belle Fast Radio, which has some Radiohead elements in it and Sigur Ros stuff. But it's a little older now. I mean, it's still pretty damn good, but I don't know, it seems like that kind of thing is a little past its time. But it would be great for a film or a TV show. That's the stuff I want to do, I want to be an old man doing that stuff. I want to be an old man doing film scores. That's my dream job.
Also, I write music for the Oprah Winfrey show.
What's it like? I can't picture the music on Oprah Winfrey.
I do all kinds of house stuff. But it's basically jazz chords, R&B chords, it's a smooth and kind of deeper house thing, or they want some kind of uplifting house, which is really easy to do, man. I use one keyboard. I use the Triton, and it has all the factory sound they want. But it's also kind of challenging. When I play that stuff, that is Oprah right there. I am pretty good at doing that. I'm pretty perceptive, and I soak things up so, all I need is to see or hear something once and I can emulate it so. But yeah, basically when you go to a commercial, you hear this cool little house thing, deep house with cool changes, and it's sexy, it's cool. It's not cheesy, its good stuff. A lot of them you can play in a lounge or a club and people will be chilling to it.
So the stuff you make for her is from the heart, it's not just throw-away material.
Yeah. Actually, I don't know if you know who Kevin Reynolds is? He's from Detroit, and he's like "Dude, you got to stop giving this shit to Oprah!" I mean, direct quote from Kevin Reynolds. But I don’t mind, I'd do a hundred of those. So it's okay. I can do another one, you know?
Ambient Selections will be available digitally, on CD and as a triple-LP, with a limited run pressed on clear vinyl.
01. Collage Of Dreams
02. Morning At The Window
04. Sweet Soul
05. Soft Summer
06. Water Colored Dreams
07. Sub Surface
08. Everything Under The Sun
10. Gutaris Breeze
12. Going Home
13. Miss Weird
14. Brilliant Flood
15. Collage Revisited
Delsin will release Ambient Selections in June 2011.