Transcommunicative alternatives: a new model for music

High Castle Teleorkestra is an experimental music collective with songs ranging across a variety of genres. Image: High Castle Teleorkestra.
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With the world grinding to a crawl, experimental band High Castle Teleorkestra is blazing new ground in remote musical coordination, recording complex productions despite global distances and the restrictions of Covid-19. Tim Bottams reports.

A trail of group chats, transferred files and zoom meetings documents the development of avant-garde “supergroup” High Castle Teleorkestra (HCT).

It is a group that exists on computer screens and online networks, cordoned off by the restrictions of both transnational distance and a global pandemic.

Many of the members have yet to meet in person. This until recently included HCT’s founders, the dual producers and day-to-day leads Tim Smolens and Chris Bogen.

Smolens, 44, based in Denver, Colorado, says he “started to get an itch” to make music again after years of domestic life and a hiatus from professional music after the disbandment of his primary group Estradasphere in 2008.

This “itch” led to the release of She’s a Girl in 2018—Smolens’ second album with his band Idea Social Solution, their first release since their 2002 debut album Forget About the Girl.

Bogen, 44, a guitarist from New Orleans, struck up a collaborative correspondence with Smolens after contacting him online to congratulate him on the album release.

Following several recording projects, the duo started work on a piece that would become HCT’s first song Ich Bins, an embellished revival of a German waltz initially composed by José Maria Lucchesi in the early 20th century.

A new model

The two then recruited established musicians to form HCT. The remote band includes: multi-instrumentalist and composer Clinton “Bӓr” McKinnon of Umlaut and Mr. Bungle (Melbourne, Australia); accordionist Stian Carstensen of Farmer’s Market (Norway); former Estradasphere bandmate, drummer and “metal enthusiast” Dave Murray (California); and violinist Timba Harris (France).

“[They] all have a little bit of a name to them … it’s more about what they bring to the table, but the fact that people know some of these people’s names doesn’t hurt either,” Smolens says.

As the “undistinguished” band member, Bogen says he still has “somewhat of an imposter syndrome” in his collaborations with the other members.

“When it first happened, I was like, ‘Oh my god like, what the hell … I’ve been a fan of these guys,’ but when you’re working remotely [there’s] this kind of weird combination of personality and skill that’s needed to make it work and keep going, and luckily there’s just the right space for me musically!”

With each member spread across the globe and Covid-19 still affecting the world, Smolens says he had an idea for “a new model” of a band “not based on playing live” but on crafting boutique recordings via remote correspondence.

“If they were performing more, it may have been harder to schedule,” Bogen says.

I don’t know how available some of the guys would have been if there was no pandemic.

With two deluxe singles (Ich Bins & The Day That Blue Jeans Were Gone and Klawpeels & Valisystem A) released both digitally and on seven-inch vinyl, the group is preparing to release their full-length debut album.

The album will be based on science fiction writer Philip K Dick’s posthumous 1985 novel Radio Free Albemuth, which Smolens says will provide a contextual framework for their music. It’s intended to be the first in a trilogy with 30 songs following each chapter of Dick’s book.

“I can’t say that every note we’re playing directly corresponds with the chapter, but we’re making more of an effort to put it inside these little boxes,” Smolens says.

“That’s a really hard thing to do, cause a lot of musicians write very intuitively, and they don’t necessarily know what they’re writing about, especially with instrumental music where there’s not much you can derive from lyrics.”

Transcommunicative alternatives: a new model for music
HCT “mastermind” Tim Smolens at work in his basement studio, the group’s central station and communications hub. Picture: Caitlin O’Connor.

To prepare for the upcoming album release, HCT signed with Art as Catharsis, a Sydney label specialising in all things different and alternative.

Creating the visuals

Assisting the group in adapting Dick’s work is graphic designer David Dines, HCT’s resident artist and visual director.

“He’s able to bring visually a lot of things to tie in a lot of those concepts a little neater,” Bogen says.

Dines tries to achieve “some grittiness” in his aesthetic application to mirror the analogue approach of Smolens’ production sensibilities—the final mixes are achieved with a quarter-inch tape.

“[The music] has this breadth to it that in some cases, it’s really easy to get from the concepts from the book back to the music … and in other cases, it’s kind of a fun puzzle for me,” Dines says.

Dines intends to include recurring visual motifs, notably a prominent use of magenta—in reference to core biographical elements of Dick’s book—and a planned conceptual continuity across the three planned albums.

“There’s certain things that I’ve already mapped out. I’m going to try to sort of roll them out in small ways so that they get their full expression throughout the life of the project.”

Contributing to the development of the packaging and liner notes, Dines attributes the tongue-in-cheek presentation of HCT’s latest single Valisystem A—which emulates the form of classified government documentation—as the result of a collaborative process between him and the band members.

“[With] the bizarre diaphanous nature of everybody in the band being spread across the world, it’s good to know that certain decisions are still being spread amongst everybody even if we can’t all meet together in the same room.”

I really do like the surprises that happen, sometimes, when you’re bouncing ideas off people.

Smolens says the group arranges their music through the exchange of files and song ideas by the various members, which are then sent to him to coordinate, mix and produce.

“No one’s going to argue over text or anything!” Smolens says.

“So, I can kind of direct the flow of things, and sometimes it’s better that way if someone just, kind of, takes the lead on something and then the other people just jump on and follow.”

The remote approach

Drummer Dave Murray prefers the group’s remote approach to arranging and recording compared to the “old school style” of a face-to-face rehearsal room setting.

“Some of us have families and a lot of responsibilities so, the time spent on this creative stuff is like a special amount of time that you are allotted to do music.”

McKinnon says while he initially struggled with relinquishing control over the development of his ideas, he now finds it an “amazing” ongoing process in “letting go” of the music’s direction.

“I contribute to it, and then I kind of stand back and it sort of takes its own shape and form … so that’s kind of cool.”

“I do have strong opinions about stuff, but there is a real lesson in going like, ‘Yeah I’m not going to be fussing over every little detail’.”

Tim is sort of the Wizard of Oz behind the scenes.

Despite Smolens’ mastermind role, he and Bogen are still the day-to-day guys, producers in constant correspondence over HCT’s direction and development.

“I’m a sounding board for him and he’s a sounding board for me,” Bogen says.

Transcommunicative alternatives: a new model for music
Tim Smolens and Chris Bogen, the “day-to-day” guys at the head of High Castle Teleorkestra, finally meet in person after numerous recording projects. Picture supplied.

In lieu of touring, Smolens says the group aims to achieve “a different model” with the content they release, ranging from insights into song arrangements, remixes, and in-depth chord charts, with the potential to release via a low monthly subscription service or an independent channel. The band has already released similar content on YouTube and social media.

“That seems to be kind of the direction it’ll end up going along with the album releases … it makes sense for us,” Smolens says.

A range of influences, but a cohesive sound

Splicing multiple different genres into their sound, Dines describes the band’s overall style as “a funny elephant” that no one band member has a consistent interpretation of.

Murray says there’s “not a singular focus” to the band but, despite “[meandering] a lot … there is a cohesive sound to it”.

Smolens says there is a large metal component to the band while also citing Italian film composer Ennio Morricone and bands like Mr. Bungle and The Beach Boys as influences on their sound.

“There’s definitely a big ’60s and ’70s vibe to the large productions,” Smolens says.

“‘We’re definitely not a straight-up metal band … It’s just like if we’re playing, you know, a vaudeville waltz, and it just happens to go metal for 10 seconds [then] it’s a grindcore waltz at that point, so we don’t have any screaming or lyrics about dead babies or anything like that, but metal is definitely a pretty big component of the band.”

After a year and a half of intense correspondence and a formed musical partnership, Smolens and Bogen finally met in person in mid-July after many attempts.

Bogen initially intended to travel to Smolens’ home during the post-production of their earlier single releases, and then again in mid-2020, but his travel plans were repeatedly nixed because of the pandemic.

It was just kind of like meeting an old friend and picking up where we left off.

“If you’ve only talked online for that amount of time … there can be awkwardness sometimes when you’re in a situation like that but … we synced really well together.”

Bogen says the experience of working with Smolens in person is a “higher bandwidth situation” compared to working together remotely, and that it expedited their process in conveying their ideas to each other.

“We’ve definitely got more under our belt now to put toward the album … I think in these last two mixes [that we’ve done in person] I’ve seen more potential for where things can go.”

“I think we have a talented group and … we have Tim’s expert production behind it. I think that adds a lot,” Bogen says

Smolens says despite the “impersonal and inhuman” process of all-virtual music production, the result is awesome, attributing the group’s level of production as a key factor and a “core strength” of the band’s presentation.

“You can get on stage and play a song and it’s awesome but there’s something unique about recording.”

“It’s when you hear something that’s really well-produced, it kind of takes it to that next level … that’s sort of what we’re aiming for.”