While he's occasionally been featured on this site for his twisted sense of humour, Riley Byrne is probably best known around Ottawa as ambient-electronic musician Radioactive Bishop. I recently had the chance to interview him (i.e. I sent him a texting saying "interview?" and he replied with "coo"). So here we go.
DL: How did you get into music?
RB: The same way I think most people do. Idolizing Jethro Tull and forsaking getting laid in high school to be the only male flautist in the concert band.
DL: When you're not checking your email before dozens of writhing strangers, what do you do as a productive member of society?
RB: I study Public Affairs and Policy Management at Carleton and work at Aritzua.
DL: Using as few "post-"s at possible, describe your general sound.
RB: "Ambient" or maybe "downtempo electronica" as vague as it sounds, is probably the best way to describe it. Lots of droning notes, minimalist beats and synthesized textures.
DL: Philip Glass filtered through a computer, say?
RB: I wouldn't want to be accused of ambient hubris. Although, the structures in Philip Glass' work did have a huge influence on the way I write my pieces.
DL: Who else would you say has had an influence?
RB: The most obvious influence would be Brian Eno. When I was 16 I heard Ambient 1: Music for Airports and I became fascinated with the idea of the studio as an instrument. It was a whole new way of producing sound.
DL: Have you incorporated similar recording methods, or is your focus mostly on texture and rhythm?
RB: When I'm working on purely ambient pieces so much of the work is put into processing sound in interesting ways. Sometimes that means creating new virtual instruments that decay or warp overtime, or recording organic sources in different ways to create new sounds that previously didn't exist. For instance, the first set of songs that I ever did I named Ambient 1: Music for Prom Nights. The only sound used on all five of the songs was a piano sample of middle C. I believe this is the only surviving piece.
Is that video even a can of worms we want to get into?
DL: There are going to be literally a dozen confused readers, so elaborate if only a little.
RB: Alright. In that video, all those piano tones are coming from the same original sample of a piano at middle C. by pitch-shifting and slowing down the sample, I was able to create different tones that also have different sonic properties than the original sample. The song is using only a single sample, but by warping the waveform I was able to create an instrument that has piano-esque properties, but a completely new sound. A lot of ambient music is sound design.
DL: That is actually incredibly fascinating, if not the elaboration I had in mind.
RB: Originally that piece was just a single piano line repeated, but then I took it and redoubled the pitch-shifting and time warping. The effect is that it's essentially 10 tracks all playing the same thing. It's what gives it that distinctive rhythm.
Radioactive Bishop circa 2057?
DL: What hardware and software do you use to create your music?
RB: For hardware I use a MacBook Pro, a MIDI keyboard and a Novation Launchpad. I've also started to use an iPad more extensively, as there are a lot of apps coming out that are using the touchscreen to interact with sound in incredibly inventive ways.
In terms of software, I use Ableton Live for my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Within it I run various synthesizers (producing a new sound based on algorithms) and samplers (programs that trigger clips). Often I will create a new sound on a synth, and then run it through a sampler to give it unexpected properties.
DL: When you compose, what do you find is often the seed for a particular piece (ie a melody, texture, rhythm)?
RB: The first thing I do is create an interesting texture. My MO for strictly ambient pieces is usually to create a sound that's never been heard before.
DL: Tempted to comment on how you describe your creative method in the same way criminal investigators describe a serial killer's patterns. But I refrain.
RB: Hahaha. Like, In this piece the first thing I had was the synth that comes in after the scratchy intro. It was pretty plain, sonically speaking, so I started chopping the waveform up and pasting it together like one of the creatures from the Isle of Misfit Toys
DL: Brian Eno's Human Centipede, if you will.
RB: Exactly. It's not so much going into writing something with a specific sound in mind. Oftentimes it's more limiting yourself to a set of sounds and finding creative ways to process them. Otherwise you're just staring into a digital abyss. You can make some pretty boring things when you have limitless resources.
DL: Moving onto current events, let's talk about your upcoming EP--title, content, etc.
RB: I have a few things on the go right now. There's the next Radioactive Bishop EP called Spectral Hands that I'm in the process of finishing up. In an effort to get more than my parents to half-heartedly listen to it, the EP features songs under 30 minutes long and with beats. Some of them even have vocals, albeit heavily processed. I'm also working with the remnants of a local Ottawa band called The Glass Chain on a project called Sun Service, which promises to deliver some darkly danceable tunes sometime this summer.
DL: When and where will your next show as RadioBishie be?
RB: Oh goodness. When I can find something interesting to do with myself onstage. Most of my performances to date have simply been myself looking very intently at a computer screen and drinking beer.
DL: If Robert Fripp is the Guitarist Who Sits, you're the Keyboardist Who Imbibes.
RB: There aren't as many groupies in the ambient circuit as I thought there were. Booking shows as "the guy who slows down the death rattles of children into soundscapes" has proven to be a tough.
DL: There is a price to be paid for screwing with waveforms.
RB: My goal is to work with someone on an accompanying visual display to my two-hour piece Distressed Silence. Have a show kind of like [Philip Glass'] Einstein on the Beach where people are free to come and go as they please.
When not converting waveforms into righteous jams, Riley Byrne desecrates pre-Raphaelite artwork at Sleptember and blogs at Justifiable Culturecide.