On Strands, Steve Hauschildt channels Cleveland's post-industrial decay into exquisite electronic compositions. He shows Matt McDermott around the city that inspired the album.
On Strands, his fourth album for Kranky, Hauschildt searched for inspiration in his immediate surroundings for the first time. Cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Hamilton and Detroit rose on a wave of industrial optimism, only for them to be reduced, at their nadir, to deindustrialized, nearly vacant cores. Detroit techno and the neo-kosmische music Hauschildt is known for are, to some extent, escapist and utopic genres, but on Strands, he balances heavenly arpeggios with seeping distortion to reflect the beauty he sees in his home city while acknowledging its troubled past.
Hauschildt references the Cuyahoga, the body of water that led settlers to Cleveland as an ideal hub for industry, in Strands' accompanying notes. In 1969, after decades of pollution from the city's refinement and manufacturing plants, the river caught fire, a striking symbol of pollution and post-industrial decay. "The river has always been a part of the life of the city," he says as we talk in his basement. "As the steel industry and everything grew… the river was what was punished. It bore the brunt of all the toxic waste that was just dumped into it." He contrasts the Cuyahoga to rivers he's seen on tour, specifically the sparkling Mur in Austria, fed by pristine streams from the Alps. He says the pollution in Cleveland "leaves a literal residue but also a psychological residue on the city."
Hauschildt shows me around The Flats, a neighborhood on the banks of the Cuyahoga. Black bridges loom overhead. Behind us, brick buildings bearing the painted signs of their original industrial tenants have been converted into work/live lofts. Shiny apartment buildings and small hotels sit alongside newish seafood restaurants, a Cleveland riverside array that would be unrecognizable to a soot-covered millworker. "You see rusted-out bridges and old factories, some of them are still operational, some of them are abandoned, boarded-up houses and stuff like you would see in Detroit," says Hauschildt, who's lived in Cleveland his whole life. "I don't think that new things that are built necessarily fix any of the problems that are here... but it gives the appearance that things are better."
On Strands tracks like "Ketracel," Hauschildt lets in shoegaze-style distortion, adding nuance to his pristine, Drexciya-esque synth journeys. "I wanted to try and capture that moment in nature and society where life slowly re-emerges through desolation, so [Strands] has a layer of optimism looming underneath," his statement on the full-length reads. Throughout his catalog, Hauschildt has hit sad yet hopeful high notes. "Arpeggiare," off last year's Where All Is Fled LP, weaves a wondrous web of synth lines before dissolving into melancholic reflection. On Strands, the highs and lows are less apparent, its tracks quietly pulsing at the pace of the Cuyahoga.
Hauschildt is a deep thinker, prone to densely referential interviews. In a recent Truants piece he compared Cleveland to the muted cityscape of Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert, and he's mentioned the video artist Bill Viola, the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, and Robert Leiner, the producer behind Source's "Neuromancer," as influences in the past. In person, however, Hauschildt is easy going. As we drive through a virtually pedestrian-free downtown, he points out the area where he and some friends joined a crowd of nearly 1.3 million celebrating the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 NBA Finals win. Less than 400,000 live within the city limits, the staggering turnout perhaps suggesting that the city needed this morale-boosting win. "I think it takes a long time to restore the image of a city when it's become understood as a joke," Hauschildt says.
Hauschildt's music has embodied the type of rebirth Cleveland longs for. Emeralds, his trio with John Elliott and Mark McGuire, subtly changed the course of noise music over its six-year run. When they formed in 2006, the American noise scene had been reinforced by Carlos Giffoni's No Fun Fest, with weird acts playing basement and DIY gigs throughout America. Hauschildt looks back on that era's "anything goes" spirit fondly. "The music that we started making together was totally free and open-ended and totally improvisational. A lot of the times we didn't use traditional instrumentation at all, we would just use whatever was on hand, whether a fan or a computer keyboard or the sound of water."
Emeralds toured the world and increased their music's fidelity—the murky atmospherics of 2007's Allegory Of Allergies and scores of other low-key releases were followed by two meticulous full-lengths for Editions Mego, whose influential sub-label Spectrum Spools is run by Elliott. But Emeralds' greatest accomplishment was helping move the noise scene away from high-volume rushes towards more mannered, adroitly programmed electronics. The group mixed the language of krautrock and kosmische with Detroit techno and American noise. After the group's performance at 2009's Voice In The Valley festival in West Virginia, the no-rules gathering descended into a freaky outdoor rave. Emeralds acted as a crucial bridge towards a new noise vocabulary that embraced synthesizers, sequencers and the occasional kick drum.
Hauschildt gravitated towards electronic music from a young age. He cites Detroit greats like Gerald Donald and Carl Craig, along with UK innovators Aphex Twin and Autechre, as early guideposts. "I didn't really go through a punk phase or a hardcore phase," he says, distancing himself from a route towards experimental music common in the States. "For me, electro and Detroit techno were things I could relate to… But I actually drifted away from that music for a long time."
Around the time Emeralds began, Hauschildt put out solo recordings alongside releases from the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Caboladies and Sam Goldberg on his Gneiss Things label. The tracks on his first couple cassettes are far more blown-out and homespun than his current music, which he often completes alongside a trusted producer and mastering engineer. But alongside 2007's "Saw Palmetto," an atonal feedback romp, there are tunes like "Passing Cars," productions that demonstrate a knack for ethereal beauty, which these days leads to listeners to describe Hauschildt's music as "ambient" or "pretty," terms he rejects.
"I don't try to conform my music to a style or a genre," he says. "I can understand people trying to frame my music as ambient or something... I don't think I make ambient music but I understand why people would think it can have that purpose. You're really talking about a style of music that's been around 40 years now, it's really an archaic style of music. A genre of music can mean something and have a certain reality to it. I use words [like ambient, new age or techno] to describe things, but I don't really believe in them." Hauschildt says he prefers the blanket term "electronic music" for its vagueness.
Listening to S/H, a 37-track compilation of his recordings from 2005 to 2012 released on Editions Mego, you can hear how he got from exploratory bleeps to the beguiling sheen of his most recent work. He's an experimental musician in the truest sense, an autodidact feeling around in the dark just like Emeralds did at the beginning. He essentially doesn't see his current output as being different from his early cassettes. "Certainly the music I'm making now is not as free or improvisational as the stuff Emeralds came up on, but it's still in the back of my mind to always do subversive stuff underneath."
As the sun lowers over Cleveland, we leave Hauschildt's neighborhood for a trip to the Industrial Valley, an area characterized by hulking steel plants, blast furnaces and giant mountains of gravel. This mess leads to the edges of the Cuyahoga. The clanking sound of steel rings inside massive yellow buildings coated in a residue that can't be washed away. A hulking plant rises out of the river like a mirage. We see a handful of workers trudging towards their trucks with lunch pails, but they're the only people we spot. A faded United Steelworkers union logo is on the side of a dingy building. The scene is both beautiful and ugly.
"Transience Of Earthly Joys," the penultimate track on Strands, is one of Hauschildt's most evocative to date. It begins with a minor-key neo-classical piano figure, further dramatized by choral synth, pipe organ and a hint of distortion. It could be an elegy for the industrial age, to the hubristic drive for growth without thought towards consequence. In this moment, Hauschildt's goal of tackling the Rust Belt condition seems within reach, even within the context of a wordless experimental electronic record.
"I think that what it comes down to is that it was the realization of the impact that humans have on nature and not just themselves, but the actual place in which they reside," he says. We leave the weary giants behind and head to a park on the edge of Lake Erie, where the Cuyahoga ends. Hauschildt talks about a Ryoji Ikeda show he'll head to the next night before stopping to point over the expanse, speaking with pride about how, on 4th of July, you can see the fireworks shows in various towns from this vantage point. Everything seems clearer from here.