Morgan has been developing his sound over eight full-lengths, a handful of EPs and some collaborations, including a stellar LP with bvdub. The floaty techno of his early records dissolved into a thick dubby mist around the time of 2006's Plume, which focused on themes of air. His most recent LPs show the Loscil project at its creative height. 2012's Sketches From New Brighton and last year's Sea Island form a trilogy of sorts with First Narrows (all three are primarily concerned with places in Vancouver), and they balance Morgan's beautiful soundscaping with his delicate melodies. They're at once epic and humble, as if his songs were in awe of the sprawling surroundings they're meant to evoke.
Morgan's aptitude for songwriting and sound design makes his work stand out. My first brush with Loscil was outside the context of electronic music, through Vancouver indie rock band Destroyer's 2006 album Rubies, on which Morgan played drums. The vinyl edition devoted the fourth side to a 23-minute track called "Loscil's Rubies," which smeared the preceding LP into an impressionistic blur. Full of the billowing melodies, it certainly wasn't what I was expecting from an album like Rubies. I didn't know too much about ambient at the time, but "Loscil's Rubies" sent me looking through Morgan's music. And he's only gotten better from there—in 2015, his consistency and steady work rate have made him one of modern ambient's greats.
When I met him at a coffee shop in East Vancouver, Morgan struck me as an archetypal Vancouverite, dressed in a windbreaker and a toque. He's Vancouver born and bred, having spent his early years in the city's eastern suburbs before moving to Courtenay on Vancouver Island. The 25,000-population town is also home to the well-loved Silent Season label, whose artwork is adorned with the natural beauty of the region. But the picturesque scenery was mostly lost on the young Morgan, who became bored of his quiet surroundings, especially as he became interested in punk rock. Like most people who come of age on the sleepy island, he felt a pull towards the mainland.
"At the age of 18 through to my early 20s, I was so bored of Courtenay," Morgan said. "I was just ready for excitement and exposure—the ability to go to concerts and all that stuff that a 20-something person wants to do. So the adjustment was definitely one that I embraced. At the time, I wasn't missing nature or anything."
Around 1990, Morgan was into grunge and he played in bands in a bunch of different roles—guitarist, singer, drummer. It was a habit he kept up through university, eventually leading him to his more prominent gig playing drums for Destroyer. His double-major communications and music program at Simon Fraser University often focused on experimental and avant-garde music, and he eventually shifted his energies away from bands.
"SFU has a really interesting program," Morgan said. "The studios are almost like museums in a way, they have some old synths, and these old reel-to-reel machines. I worked with a professor who was really into computer music and tape manipulation and stuff like that. A lot of my fundamentals came from the academic world."
SFU's program was essentially Morgan's introduction into the world of electronic music, which would shape the rest of his life and career. After graduation he worked as a sound designer at a multimedia studio, later moving onto the video game industry, where he still makes a living as a sound director. But he also needed an outlet for personal expression. A friend named Alex MacKenzie ran an independent theatre, The Blinding Light Cinema, in Vancouver's Gastown neighborhood from 1998 through 2003, and they would occasionally put on DIY audiovisual shows. It was there the Loscil project was born.
Morgan's first record—or demo, rather—was called A New Demonstration Of Thermodynamic Tendencies, and it was a glimpse at the conceptual bent that would come to define Loscil.
"I remember finding this little book at a used bookstore, in the free bin out front, and the title of it was A New Demonstration Of Thermodynamic Tendencies. I just ripped it off," he explained with a laugh. "I found the design on the book, and the terminology used, really kind of exotic and alluring, and kind of beautiful. The way science is presented—and I'm sure most scientists don't see it this way—is beautiful, the graphs and the numbers and the language that's invented to explain things. I thought that would be an interesting way to present a rather abstract kind of electronic music."
A friend of Morgan's who worked at long-running Vancouver music store Zulu Records recommended sending the demo to Kranky. They promptly signed it, asked for a few more tracks and released the whole thing as Triple Point in 2001. Listening to the LP now, it's funny to hear Morgan describe it as "abstract" because it's probably the least experimental Loscil album, full of smooth techno in the vein of Wolfgang Voigt's Gas project. You can hear his trademark style in embryonic form: the drifting melodies that seem to appear and then vanish on the breeze, the sonorous tones, the broad basslines. It's a relaxed, painterly approach to composition that he would refine over the next decade.
Morgan sees concepts and aesthetic boundaries as a way of unifying the tracks on an album. "I'm really attached to the idea that an album should feel like an album," he said. "I mean, behind the scenes it's always just a hodgepodge collection of compositions, but presenting it as a complete thing is more satisfying. A lot of times the concept is either applied as a framework after the fact, or it's applied midway through, as something to guide me to the finish line. It just adds some parameters. Electronic music can be quite abstract and it can be hard to find reference points, either emotionally or thematically. It's hard to put it somewhere sometimes. I like embodying it or infusing it with some meaning and definition."
That meaning became deeper with 2004's First Narrows, which was the first time he used his local surroundings as a subject matter. This time Morgan didn't have to reach for a textbook: the album is inspired by the Lion's Gate Bridge, a concrete behemoth that runs right through Stanley Park, connecting downtown Vancouver to West Vancouver.
"I remember wanting to make a record that was a little more personal," he said. "I think the first two records were very outside myself, almost objective. Even if what's behind them is personal in terms of expressing myself, I don't think they were presented in a way that was at all personal. First Narrows felt more like, 'OK, I've made this, I'm the person behind this,' and I gravitated towards things that are close to me. Two of the tracks are named after my cats, I'm kind of embarrassed to say."
First Narrows was the first great Loscil album. It was warmer and earthier, in no small part thanks to the introduction of live musicians. It was an experiment that would become another core tenet of his work. Morgan chose to work with his friends and colleagues—including some from back in his band days—which lent the sessions a "homey and comfortable" atmosphere.
"When you're working alone on electronic music you control every element. I was interested in handing over some of that to others, to see what would come back. I keep doing that because I enjoy that process of controlling but also being surprised by what other people would add to it, or how they interpret it. There's still a lot of direction from myself, but it's a lot different to direct a human being who has their own personal take on things than it is to control a machine that you can actually just turn off."
First Narrows opened up a new world of source material, one that happened to be under Morgan's nose. The region's perpetual rain informed the damp dub of Endless Falls, and he would come back to the city itself with the chilling dark ambient of Strathcona Variations, the blooming expanse of Coast/Range/Arc (towering compositions named for the Coast Mountain range) and, best of all, those last two albums. Sketches From New Brighton and Sea Island both examine particular places in Vancouver, taking in both their history and their scenery, and showing Morgan at his most inspired.
"I don't want to sound cheesy about it," he said, "but there's a certain—I really hate to use the word 'spiritual,' because it's not really who I am, but there's a certain energy to the Pacific Northwest in general, in terms of the ocean meeting the mountains, and the rain and the darkness, coupled with so much life. That's the crux of what I'm really attracted to musically. Darkness coupled with vibrancy. Being a port city, too, there's so much industry here, and so much transportation... All of that is just as vital as the natural elements. There's something melancholic about it. People walk around like zombies in the winter here. Not because it's so hard, but just because it's so grey and so dense and dark and wet. There's something comfortable about that to me. I don't know if I could stand living in a sunnier place."
You can hear that tension, between the industrial and natural, in the mechanical hum-and-buzz beneath the softer elements in Morgan's music. It's a peripheral presence sometimes, and other times it collects into a rhythm. Morgan's work also has shades of a deeper melancholy, explored in detail on Sea Island. This one's based on the strange little island that houses Vancouver's main airport, a massive sewer runoff, nature reserves and a bird sanctuary. Sea Island is also home to a quaint, cut-off community that Morgan found so evocative he made up a story about it, informing one of the record's best tracks ("Sea Island Murders").
"I happened to be indulging in a lot of crime fiction at the time I was making the record, so I had this noir-ish idea running through my head," he explained. "At the very end of the runway there's a little town called Burkeville. Driving through there, my imagination was running wild about this kind of 1940s, 1950s town at the end of the runway—which naturally just has its own vibe to it—and murders taking place there. And then I had this magic realism idea, that I'm trying to solve this crime mystery as Sea Island is flooding, imagining rising sea levels basically drowning all the evidence. And that just collided with this attraction I have to water and the sea."
Even with his connection to the region, Morgan insists that Vancouver isn't the be-all and end-all with his music. As I observed in a review of Sea Island, you don't need to know Vancouver for his music to hit home. It's alternately warm and eerie, and as much as Morgan might think his music is abstract, Loscil records are typically approachable.
"I don't know if it's all about Vancouver," he said after a long pause. "It's about a place. If you're willing to be in a place, and contemplate that place and yourself in that place, it's existential and philosophical. I have no doubt that no matter where I end up in this world, if I were to move, I would probably investigate that place in the same way that I'm investigating Vancouver. It's an extension of this idea that electronic music can be very abstract. It's a grounded place, which gives it some context and some sort of perspective. This city that I've lived in for so long is important to me, and it's a big part of me because it's my environment. I mean, it's convenient—I live here. So that's why I return to it over and over again. I don't have to go very far. I'm lazy."