r beny is the electronic ambient project of Bay Area-based sound artist Austin Cairns. Belgian label Dauw announced the release of Seafoam & Dust, a boxset of modular artist ’s first four albums on a limited edition run of 300 clear vinyl. Alongside the boxset, individual copies of each album will also be available on a limited run with new artwork designed by skrewstudio. It will be out on June 19th.
According to the press release, Finding inspiration in the wonder and volatility of nature and human emotion, Cairns uses modular synthesizers, samplers, and tape loops to weave together a sonic bouquet of organic textures, blissful waves of drone, and decaying melodies carved out of mountains of noise.
Having previously played guitar in industrial post-rock bands, Cairns found himself giving up music due to a frustration with the guitar and some personal difficulties around 6 years ago. Sometime later, a friend introduced him to modular synths and he found himself instantly connected like he had never been with the guitar. As he explored the sonic potential at his fingertips, he set up a YouTube channel using the name r beny (cribbed from photographer Roloff Beny) to show how he used his equipment.
His YouTube channel exploded due to the melodic sensibility he pairs with the deep, technical aspects of modular synthesis. It didn’t take long before he was being persuaded to release music – he did so through bandcamp, where his limited-run cassette releases sell out instantly, forging a real name for himself as an “artist’s artist”. Initially a placeholder name, r beny has become an underground phenomenon and one of the most revered names in ambient music.
Check our talk with him about the new release, his introduction to modular synth and much more.
Let’s Start from the forthcoming release of ‘Seafoam & Dust,’ a boxset of your first four albums on a limited edition run of 300 clear vinyl. How was born the idea of this “collection”?
The boxset was proposed to me by the label Dauw. These first four albums were originally released on cassette tape and mark a certain and significant chapter in both my music career and personal life. The idea was to give these albums a new life on vinyl, while giving recognition to that period of time. Dauw had put out my 5th album Echo’s Verse on vinyl and I was immensely pleased with how it turned out, so I was happy to give them my complete trust with this project.
Truthfully, it took a little persuasion to get me on board. I am my own harshest critic and don’t particularly like to revisit my past albums/works once I release them. I tend to hear all the flaws, all the details I would have changed, all the errors in the recording process I made because I lacked in knowledge and skill. I’m still immensely proud of these albums, but was also fine with letting them live in the past. Cassette was the perfect medium for them because they are so lofi and raw-sounding to me.
I am glad that I was convinced. Ian Hawgood did such a masterful job with the re-masters. His work has given new breath to these tracks, giving them new clarity and sharpness. You can hear more of the small details and flourishes that I originally intended to stand out. On some tracks, I even hear details that I completely forgot about because they were so muddied up in my original mixes. I am extremely happy with how the collection turned out.
The artwork is very beautiful. How did you choose it? And how important is the visual part for your music?
The artwork was done by Maarten De Naeyer of Skrew Studio, who is now also one of the in-label graphic designers for Dauw. Dauw has a certain aesthetic for their artwork, which was established by their main in-label designer Femke Strijbol. I loved Maarten’s take on the the Dauw aesthetic, mixing abstract and colorful shapes with scenes of nature. The scenes of nature call back to the original album artworks, which used my own film photography.
It is quite humbling to see how someone visually interprets your music. I adore the artwork that Maarten came up with. Besides the collection, we are issuing each album individually on vinyl, each with original artwork by that will be on a risograph print.
You previously played guitar in industrial post-rock bands and then you were introduced to modular synths. What memories you have of those moments, discovering a new connection with something different from your previous instrument?
Most of my positive memories of playing guitar has less to do with the music and more to do with the comradery of being in a band. I always felt a certain struggle with guitar, like I was not able to interpret the musical ideas I had in my head into actual music.
I actually ended up quitting music for about a year before discovering my love for synths. There are certain aspects from my guitar playing days that I apply to my synth music, more to do with genre specifically. Things like playing with dynamics and a love for distortion, chords, and melody. I like synth sounds that sound warm, organic, and textured as opposed to sterile, brassy, and robotic that is associated with analog synths and a lot of electronic music.
You are from Bay Area. I’m very interested to the connection between the places we live over the years, the territorial geography of our roots and the art. How do you feel these theme connected to your music, your way to think music? What are your favorite places which inspired the most?
There are definitely certain aspects of the Bay Area that connect to my music. I am lucky to live in a place with such a diverse geography. In the same day you can visit the ocean, the forest, the mountains, and even the desert if you are determined enough.
I am directly inspired by nature, both in the abstract sense and the literal sense. I like to imagine the history of how a mountain or river was formed and try to interpret that into an emotion and into music. I like movements in music that are akin to nature. Like synth pads ebbing in and out at the same rate of ocean waves. I love the beauty and volatility that is nature. That’s the sense I try to bring to my music.
There are lots of places I am inspired by specific the Bay Area and California. Mt. Umunhum (meaning final resting place of the hummingbird) is one of my favorite spots. The peak was recently opened up to the public for the first time in decades. It was used as a radar base during the Cold War and had been closed off to the public even long after it shut down.
There is so much to explore in the Santa Cruz mountain range. I love Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near a small mountain town called Felton. It’s such a magical place. My favorite trail to hike there takes you up to a spot called Cathedral Redwoods and then winds down towards a river bank where you can hear nothing except the water and the breeze.
Let’s talk about the current situation. How are you living these strange times and what are the main concerns as musician? And what do you think that we’ll learn from this?
These last few months have been indeed interesting. I’m in an interesting spot, because I’m not yet at a point where I make enough to earn a living as a musician. I still need to work a day job to make ends meet, which I have been extremely fortunate to have while this pandemic has been going on. Because of that, I haven’t been affected quite as much. Not being able to play shows hurts, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have enough other music-related jobs to work on.
I think we are learning how much streaming hurts independent artists. A lot of artists have to make their living by touring and playing shows, without that there is not much to rely on. Thankfully platforms like Bandcamp exist where you can support artists directly. Bandcamp takes a 10%-15% cut and have now been doing days where they waive their fee completely. One sale of an album on Bandcamp is the equivalent of thousands of plays on Spotify. There needs to be more ways to effectively pay working musicians through streaming, as I don’t see streaming going away anytime soon.
It’s been interesting to see the rise of live streaming concerts over this period. It’s tough to say if it is a sustainable option vs in-person live shows. I have a participated in a few myself and find it to be a completely different experience. I find myself missing the connection with the audience, the energy and dynamics of a room/venue. Live shows may never be the same after this, especially with smaller music venues hurting and closing during these times. I think there is a lot of uncertainty here.
Ritual question. What are the best releases you recently appreciated?
Andrea Cortez – The Secret Song of Plants
Ben Lukas Boysen – Mirage
Clarice Jensen – The Experience of Repetition as Death
Federico Durand – Alba
Fujita – Iki
Glåsbird – Norskfjǫrðr
Glia – noemie
Greenhouse – Six Songs for Invisible Gardens
Hadi Bastani – Emergence
Loscil – Faults, Lines, Coasts
Madeleine Cocolas – Ithica
Marc Méan – Collage
Melissa Pons – Swedish Forest Textures
Morimoto Naoki – Hibi
Windy & Carl – Allegiance and Conviction
Ulla – Tumbling Towards a Wall
Vladislav Delay – Rakka