A luminary of the West Coast’s psychedelic-bass music diaspora, Random Rab rises to occasion with Formless Edge, his eleventh full-length solo opus released Friday, June 16. As a headliner at festivals around the world, Rab has become more than just a DJ or producer, evolving into an ephemeral wizard whose legendary sunrise/sunset adventures have become festival culture rites of passage. Formless Edge is a journey through life, with 15 songs that unveil an ever-evolving kaleidoscope of styles, each embedded with his idiosyncratic codings and vintage visceral vibration.
Amid the minimalist programming and trademark electro Rab flourishes on Formless Edge, one will hear the fruits of Rab’s laborious, inventive experimentalism, merging the organic and the electronic. He incorporates over 30 unique instruments and features collaborations with Lapa, Rigzin, Kyrstyn Pixton, Jason Kalidas, and Peia. Live For Live Music‘s B.Getz has written extensively about Random Rab for some years, and was fortunate enough to run down the mercurial “sommelier of sacred” for a comprehensive Q&A. The man born Rab Clinton was kind enough to open the doors and take us inside his heart, mind, soul and memory in sharing the creative and recording processes on his new album Formless Edge.
Live For Live Music: Hey Rab! What an honor to get a few moments with you. L4LM is grateful for your time. I am thrilled to be among the first to discuss with you Formless Edge. Got the album only a couple days ago. Can we start from the top? First single and album opener “Give Me That Hope” starts the journey. What can you tell us about that composition?
Random Rab: I got a bunch of these little Volcas [synths] as presents on my birthday, and I just set up all my hardware, [“Give Me That Hope”] is a live hardware track. For me it was right in the depth of the current political climate right now. So in a way, it was sort of my response to all of the pain and suffering happening right now, and a song for the confusion. That is the basic concept behind ‘Give Me That Hope.’ Also, the album itself, conceptually, is a journey–from hope to birth to life to magic and then to death. A journey through life itself, sort of. The first song is the birth…of a life.
L4LM: Rad, Right on. Let’s talk a little bit about how you conceptually got there. The “birth” of this record. What prompted you to make this record at this time?
Rab: Well, I usually try not to be too literally political, I think that would be the way to say that [laughs]. I try to make stuff that is more timeless, and isn’t really directly associated with any current events. However, with this last, you know, several months, it’s hard to turn away from it. It’s hard to ignore what’s happening around us, so I felt like it was important to bring people into it with this album. The first several songs, the idea was more of a lighter, uplifting positive feeling. And then it evolves, more and more dark. That was the idea, using the album as a tool to access something within us. There’s just so much darkness around us right now, I don’t want to just jump right into the album, and just have another way to get dark, I guess. The idea was to use the album as a tool to be free.
L4LM: Speaking on that theme a little bit: The song “A Little More Free,” is that more of an inward look within yourself? Self-empowerment? I don’t know if that’s where it came from, but that was what I mined from the very first listen. It’s an accessible song for people, more of a pop tune with lyrics. I can see this even reaching a wider audience.
Rab: I don’t really approach music as in me making something intentionally accessible. In a way, I was dealing with some personal stuff, getting through a really difficult time in my life, so I guess that’s true actually, there’s sort of a personal message in there. That was also the closest I got to getting somewhat political. I chose the lyrics “the walls that bridge humanity” as opposed to “the walls that divide humanity,” because I think that’s a common theme lately. But yeah, I mean, that was a time when I was really getting back into myself, I was dealing with some dark personal stuff inside, and that song was a way for me to get free. Once again, it’s creating a tool for release, rather than an overarching concept. I don’t really think of stuff as whether it’s accessible or not, just what the song needs. And that is what it seemed the song needed. It needed to feel like that.
L4LM: Wow, Rab. Damn. I appreciate you sharing such a personal accounting of that personal space and place where you were inspired to make that song. My initial impression, having listened, loved, internalized so much of the wonderful music you have made, was that “A Little More Free” felt very personal–something about the alchemy of the textures and your directness in singing it.
You mentioned earlier about starting with positive brightness, lightness, to combat the darkness all around definitely an apt description of this album’s emotional story arch. As a listener, it seems like the bridge for that journey is “Outpost Aurora,” and you arrive in that introspective darkness with “Parallels” and, of course, “Redacter.” Would you please bring us a little bit inside of those tunes?
Rab: “Outpost Aurora” was the most recent one, cool because it’s just one of those songs I made in one night. I’ve been getting more and more into setting up all my hardware, just pressing record and doing it all in one take. So I have been super stoked working with analog gear, and “Outpost Aurora” is all analog hardware.
“Parallels” is one I did with Ilya Goldberg (Emancipator), he’s LAPA. We called it “Parallels” because he came down to my studio here in Ashland (OR) and set up an entirely separate studio in my studio room. Basically, he has his own monitors, his own set up completely and then we both did Ableton Live links, where we linked up together and I could hear him, and he could hear me. We didn’t talk, and we just wrote the song and we fucking jammed it! But instead of a typical jam situation with guitar and bass, we had two complete studios. We just kept looping the intro for 15 or so, we would love it and keep adding layers and taking them away with out talking to each other about it, so it was like a parallel journey.
It was a really unique way to make a song. I had never done that before, so I hope to do a lot more music like that. It’s like bringing back the live jam! You can relate to that, B. One thing I’m really missing in electronic music is the jam, so now I’m going to be able to actually jam with people. Ilya and I, we did it, and it was definitely a great musical experience.
L4LM: On the music nerd tip, was I hearing an actual trap-drum set, live, on those sweet fills? What is that guitar-ish stringed instrument so prominently featured?
Rab: Yeah we just brought all the instruments we could to the table. All we had, we brought [laughs]. So violin, guitar , an oud, so much. we just went through and sampled things, and did a lil of the jam thing. We’d just be like ‘okay ‘shut up and record!’ [laughs] ‘Now, my turn!’ We just had an array of as many instruments as possible, cannot remember all the ones we used on that one off the top of my head. “Parallels” has the most variety of fantastic pieces of equipment and recording techniques.
L4LM: Tell us more about piano and brushes on “Thunder Shadow?” This tune has such a classic Random Rab feel, forboding, hopeful, ethereal… yet the textures are new, refreshing.
Rab: I used to work at Obscura Digital in San Fran way back in the day. It used to be in a different location, in SOMA in SF, and I had my studio in there, and it was this awesome creative playground. So there was this basement–B, it’s the same basement I shot the video for “The Riddle” in years ago. There was a piano in that basement so we went down and recorded this on that same piano in the video.
A little side story, really interesting is my friend Nick was playing that piano, and its in that crazy, echo-y room, and when we were finished I forgot to turn my recorder off, and I ended up recording like 16 hours of my life after that! When I went to download the file I’m like “what the heck?! It’s 16 hours long?’ It was in my pocket, you know, recorded all my conversations–a fight with my ex, all recorded! I looked into it, like a weird reality show of my on life, spying on myself without even knowing. I had held onto the recording for years, and then finally I pulled it out and was like ‘It’s this song!’
L4LM: “Thunder Shadow” is such a definitive juxtaposition coming off of “Parallels” too. So “Redacter,” I might get misty eyed here [laughs]. This song takes me back to so many glorious live experiences with you, and even some of the darker times in my life that I’ve spoken with you about, too. So naturally I was pleasantly and emotionally surprised to hear this haunting soundtrack to so many musical and spiritual journeys show up on Formless Edge. So first off, thank you! The emotive, juicy, subtle primordial glitch–such a Rab fabric, a crystallized essence of your older sound. I’m curious as to why you chose to release that song on this record. It’s just old school. The only familiar song to my ears.
Rab: Totally, I actually had the exact same thought, in a way. I guess we just never ever officially released it. I just had it all this time. ‘Redacter’ was just one of those things where we kept saying ‘we need to work on ‘Redacter,’ we need to work on ‘Redacter.’ So I kind of just finished it up, and I didn’t recognize that we had not ever released it, and I wanted to sort of put a jewel on there, something that was a call back to my older sound. Something familiar for people, so that was the reason I thought it was ok to release an older track like that. You know, in case anyone is weirded out by my new songs, there’s one song for them! [chuckles].
L4LM: Yeah, I think there’s another bridge there, because “Parallels” and “Redacter” kind of come from that former space and place, yet remain relevant now. Modern flourishes on top of the classic, if you will…
Rab: I feel like sometimes songs age like wine, basically. Their time comes at some point and maybe it’s not when you wrote it, but years later.
L4LM: Great point, brother. How about “Water Chandelier”? It sounds totally different than anything else we talked about. Real technological stuff going there. Elaborate on that, if you would please.
Rab: “Water Chandelier.” I’ve sort of been working on this reality artifact series. The “Water Chandelier” video will be a part of it. A music video where its all super analog, home grown. I wrote that one right around the time that the Dakota Access Pipeline was happening. So this comes from a “Water is Life” place, or thing, that’s really important to me. I went and shot a bunch of footage of beautiful water for my reality artifact series around here in Ashland. This incredible rock that this water was streaming on, it created this sort of amazing water chandelier. That’s what it looked like…this endless, forever-changing, flowing water. So I wrote that song kind of based upon that visual thing first, which is usually the other way around. But for that one I wrote it to kind of accompany the flow of water.
L4LM: A song to accompany the flow of water. Water is life. Give thanks for water! We got you.
Another song out of the sonic wheelhouse of what I’ve sort of come to expect from you is “Heavenly Light.” Something I thought was that it sounded like if you had a live folk band, and were making a sort of gospel music, you know, songs of the great spirit…whatever you want to call the Creator. I’m curious about the intention on “Heavenly Light” and also the celestial sound, how you executed it. The Random Rab folk band! (laughs).
Rab: You know, B, in a way that’s kind of what it is! Because I have a secret online persona I use to release random acoustic music on. I don’t really tell people about it. I just kind of put it out, and let it be. When I first released that song, I released it under that moniker. Folk band, yeah. I was imagining myself being accompanied by a band, and a song that sounded like what you said. You know, what would it sound like if it was live? It just seemed appropriate for that song. I wanted the lyrics to come through, I didn’t want it to sound too electronic. I wanted it to feel live. You know there are some obvious electronic elements to it too, but still that feeling where it was old in a way.
L4LM: I really dug that tune. The textures again, so rich, so lush, yet understated, beautiful. Great touch.
I wanted to ask about the final song “Repose” with the vocalist Peia? Are those her lyrics, her poetry? Give us a little background of that song and where it came from please.
Rab: We wrote that song. I had been working on it for a while, and I brought in Ilya on mandolin and violin right around the time of anniversary the passing of a friend of mine. I remember she came into the studio and we really got to talking about it and the story really impacted her [even though] she didn’t know my friend who had passed. And she went and just created those lyrics kind of based on that theme. Yeah, its kind of an homage to a friend who passed away, through her lens.
L4LM: One of the themes coming through Formless Edge is the intention to marry the electronic flourishes and organic instrumentation, but not in a way where it sounds mashed up or forced; a homogenous blend, gelling smooth. It’s been attempted quite a bit through the years. It’s hard to do but on this record I think you’ve achieved it, with kind of the less is more approach.
Rab: I’ve been really trying to approach my electronic sound as opposed to kind of computer-generated sequencing, to treat technology like instruments and to, for instance, if I end up creating something of the digital realm, to pull it out to analog somehow. Bring it back in so its actually an analog recording. So that was, from a technique standpoint, one of the big goals I had with this Formless Edge.
The idea was to really focus on analog frequencies, even if they started digital, and to find a way to really bring up the resolution. And that was the approach of this album, to really focus on fidelity, and focus on a way to make more frequencies mesh better than techniques I’ve used in the past. Also using outboard gear as much as possible, analog synths, drum machines and what not. I felt like when I approach it like that, it becomes like a live instrument, becomes so much easier to bring in another live instrument with it, because its analog itself. The frequencies have a more harmonic sound, at least to my ear, so that was kind of the approach with this one.
L4LM: Wow. Amazing stuff. What a wonderful view into the mind of a wizard.
Rab, given my personal path in life, and the role that your music has played in soundtracking it, along with the thousands of others whose lives you have touched in your own special way, it is an honor and a privilege to speak with you about your art. So much gratitude. I’ll be spinning Formless Edge this summer, and will see you in August, in your home state of Oregon, when you score the eclipse.
Rab: This was great. Thanks brotha!
Formless Edge is available on June 16 via major digital outlets Bandcamp and iTunes. Special edition audiophile 24 bit aiff flash drive and Formless Edge 6×6 8-page book of artwork is also available via Bandcamp. In support of the new album, Random Rab will tour this summer with ten cities across North America and Hungary. Find out more here.
As told to B.Getz