Bay-Area based artist Tyler Barber discusses anxious optimism, the quirks of AI technology, and how catharsis helped him produce the anodyne record we all need right now.
By Bubba Krishnamurti
Photo by Jody Worthington
Tyler Barber is one of those adroit artists who can bob and weave between soundscapes and motifs while never letting their unique peculiarities out of grasp. Barber’s debut solo record, ‘Peralapse’, was self-released in 2016 and laid the groundwork for his considerate attention to detail and patient songcraft. Tiny Mix Tapes described his approach on 2018’s ‘Heatherica’ as “immaculate sonic calculation.” In the few short years following, he released 3 other records, has had his music featured in video games, and performed a string of new media-integrated shows and festivals including Day for Night.
Yet like so many other ascendant artists, 2020 has taken its toll and imposed simultaneous anxiety and re-imagination. The confluence of the unease surrounding the pandemic, social unrest, dramatic wildfires in Northern California, and the terminal illness of his beloved cat put Barber into a mental health crisis. Yet through this crisis, he found catharsis in the form of producing his fifth record ‘It_O.’ The artist’s music has previously been patient and ‘slow-churning’ yet this new album of 8 tracks brings his delicate approach to a new level of deliberateness. The record opens with the brief but glimmering ‘It O_08’ which sets the stage for the rest of the record — an intent grasp at hope and optimism during dark days. His cool-headed approach is best captured on the hypnotically monophonic 9 minute piece ‘Once Were.’ Barber released a brief statement explaining his struggles with mental health and OCD and how they manifested in the creation of this record:
“This album is dedicated to my dear, sweet, Penny Pen. I love you with all my heart.
This album was written in the first half of the COVID pandemic. I wanted to make music that put tension and anxiety at ease. Most tracks have no set tempo, parts weave in and out, like windshield wipers going in and out of sync with the radio. The result, I hope, is a sleepy album that is calm listening from beginning to end.
After I finished the songs for this album I suffered an intense mental health crisis. Learning of my OCD and subsequent treatment was followed by another tragic and devastating turn of events. My dearest, sweetest cat of 16 years was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor.
This year has been extremely difficult for everyone, and I hope that this album reflects a hopeful view. I certainly would not be able to write these songs today, but I’m happy to get them out. “
Listen to the full record following the interview below.
This record is a clear departure from your previous work, what compelled you to take such a ‘meditative approach’?
I tend to write music that is on the depressing side of bittersweet. And I have always welcomed music that was a harbinger of the type of ultra-anxious state we’re all in right now. But as much as I love these sounds, I realized we were no longer in the realm of warning, and heartache. It’s like that thing in horror films where you’re yelling to the screen, “don’t open that door!” …but we’ve opened it. The monster has stepped through, we’re in the void. Which is why I pivoted to make a deliberately calm, and optimistic album. Track 04, need win, was the first sketch I made early in the pandemic that pointed the way. I “needed a win,” — I was writing music too depressing and dark and I wanted to turn that around.
Is it ever a challenge for an artist to wrap their head around the collective experience we are all enduring right now? Is it hard to see the forest from the trees?
I think there’s clarity. This time is not unlike the global experience of major catalysts through the previous century. From The Great Depression, the World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement there’s a ubiquity of experience. I think the trouble is that we’re now in a, “pick your reality,” collective experience. You either think COVID-19 is an actual threat, of which you’ll find plenty of like-minded people around the world, participating in a shared responsibility toward one another. Or you think it’s a hoax, or at the least a greatly exaggerated threat. And again, you’ll find hordes of people who’ll agree with you as much as they’d agree on the fundamentals of gravity. The opt-in/a la carte reality is the distinguishing feature when compared to the global experiences of the past century, but it’s certainly not hard to see.
It seems many artists are diving deep into experimenting with hardware during this pandemic. Have you adopted existing technologies or have you begun experimenting with new hardware at all during this quarantine?
I’ve been incorporating more physical synths than on past records, and look to do even more in the future. I’ve been utilizing Soma’s Lyra-8 for a few years now, and I love the unpredictability it brings. I’ve also just recently got into modular synths, and I’m super excited to explore more traditional techno, and electronic music with it.
Some would say, electronic music has hit a brick wall in regard to room left for “innovation”. Can’t this be a good thing? Isn’t there a purity in no longer needing to innovate but rather settling into song craft?
I don’t agree necessarily agree — but I do yearn for more “pure song-craft.” I think a lot of the popular electronic artists do amazing, collage-like work. Every time I hear a new Oneothrix Point Never track, for example, I’m blown away by the multiplicity of sounds they’re able to fit in one song. But I do find myself drawn to the more “traditional” style of songs — and that’s something I enjoy doing myself. I think it’s actually much harder to craft a song in the “songwriting” sense. I tried my best to explore this in my previous album, ‘Galena Park’, and it was definitely the album I put the most work into.
Any new technologies on the horizon you are curious about adopting?
AI-generated music 100%. There’s already a few open-source projects working in AI-generated music, and the results are pretty amazing. Openai.com, for example, has a whole collection of songs generated in specific artists’ style. Some are more accurate than others: Iron and Wine, and The Talking Heads’ AI-generated songs are insanely accurate, whereas Rage Against the Machine generated tracks just sound like generic rock gibberish. Even the AI-driven lyrics are amazing, they range from super silly stuff you makeup on your own in the shower, to some wild third-eye cosmic viewing of the universe depth. I’d love to apply the AI algorithm to my own songs, and see what comes up. I already use mis-heard lyrics from other songs for my own, and I’d love to incorporate inane AI-talk.
You really pulled back the curtain and very publicly shared your experience with this record as it relates to mental health and crisis, somethings so many are enduring. Did you have to de-stigmatize this with yourself before doing so with your listenership?
I think it was learning how OCD isn’t just the, “person-who-washes-their-hands-too-much” disorder, and how wide-spread it is that motivated me to be open about it. I have always struggled with depression, but I never recognized the OCD aspect of it: the constant, circular intrusive self-loathing thoughts. But it is funny that I had my major mental health breakdown after these songs were finished. In a way they served as an anchor to a path back to optimism. Where it was impossible to see any light on the horizon in my deepest throes of OCD, this album reminded me that I did have a mind-set able to appreciate the dawn.