The title of DC musician Tristan Welch’s new album, “Ambient Distress,” might lead you to believe the sounds contained within are barely noticeable. After all, ambient music is often characterized as sonic wallpaper that creates an interesting ambiance but is easy to ignore. One listen to “Ambient Distress,” however, and it’s clear that Welch has very different intentions.
First and foremost, this is music designed to be front and center. Welch wields reverb-drenched drones and cycling patterns of ethereal textures like an expert marksman.
I can’t help but think of German electronic experimentalists Cluster when I listen to the pulsating tones of opening track “Employment Frustration,” or the repetitive patterns in “Family Stress,” only these wonderfully strange sonic vistas derive not from a keyboard, but from Welch’s guitar.
Equally noteworthy is just how strikingly accessible and engaging this record is. Each track strikes with force and has its own beguiling personality. “Ambient Distress” is the kind of album that could serve as the ultimate “gateway drug” for “normals” to fall in love with the wider world of experimental music.
With Tristan Welch scheduled to perform a special livestream show via Zoom for WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about his journey as a musician, how he comes up with his sounds and the relationship between the issues he cares deeply about and the music he makes. Read on!
1) Can you tell us a little about your journey as an artist? Did you always set out to make instrumental music that explores different tones and textures?
Tristan: Sure! My journey is simple really… I’ve played in various bands/full groups – but nothing substantial. It’s hard to find people you can actually click with and create a structure to practice with peoples jobs and stuff so I’ve always found myself alone over the years. Honestly, that fits my personality; I’m kind of a loner for the most part. Instrumental music has always spoken to me. I actually find more feeling and emotion with sound that I do words. I enjoy poetry and song lyrics but I listen to mostly instrumental music and I’m not very vocal in my everyday life – so it suits me. Music is about expression and while not everything I make sounds exactly like the title I may have given it – the title will give an idea of where the sound is coming from. It’s like an abstract painting for me. Musical portraits in a sense.
2) What are some of your go-to sound sources? Would it be accurate to say most of the sounds on “Ambient Distress” are manipulated guitar?
Tristan: Everything on “Ambient Distress” is sourced from an electric guitar. I use a variety of electronics but I do my best to create from a standpoint of performance to make sure I can repeat certain things. So instead of going crazy with computer plugins and other things I like using actual pedals and loopers. It’s funny though… I’ve sent this record to various publications for review or whatever – most of the responses have been “we enjoy more guitar focused tunes.” I’ve battled and battled over the years trying to find pedals that create the sounds I hear in my head… this is just a recording of the process really; I’m still not quite there.
3) One of the most striking things about “Ambient Distress” is how engaging and accessible it is. The new record utilizes a wide array of textures and sounds, with each track leaving its own mark. The tracks are almost pop-music length. What led you to take this approach? When you were making this album, did it occur to you that this could potentially connect with “proletariat” listeners, and not just experimental avant-garde music elites?” 😉
Tristan: I appreciate that you find it engaging! Accessibility is something I do think about. A reason I put my music on streaming services is for accessibility. I know a lot of people who enjoy music and are open to new ideas but are not going on Bandcamp, Soundcloud or even visiting various blogs to find out about stuff… so I like to know it’s there for anybody to find. The shorter song lengths are influenced by pop music. Although I listen to a lot of instrumental music – my next most listened to style of music is hip hop and I enjoy that the production is repetitive but in digestible pieces. I also think about how people live their lives… it’s a privilege to take in a 30 minute masterpiece. If you are anything like me and struggling to find 15 minutes to eat then maybe this will be more suited for you. You don’t have to be privileged to enjoy the avant garde! I guess in line with this concept is why I love graffiti so much – it’s art for the masses. It’s not in a gallery. I like things to be kind of easy. I hate working.
Photo: Stephen Palke
4) Speaking of the proletariat, I can’t help but think of the iconic slogan “The personal is political” with your work. The new album features track titles like “employment frustration,” “family stress” and “environmental anger.” How do you see the relationship between the music you make and the issues you care about? Is your music primarily a means of catharsis from these stresses?
Tristan: Music is pure catharsis for me. I think that’s why sometimes things don’t necessarily sound like my images I’ll portray with words. If I name the song ‘Environmental Anger’ – I’m not exactly trying to sound like that but I’m trying to deal with it. At one point in time I had the audacity to think I could kind of put some views out into the world with music… but I’ve started to just think that if I just share my experience through the sound and the little glimpses of a troubled world then the point will be made. It’s going to be more how I approach things that will matter. It’s more of sharing the struggle. While I sometimes will do things that are more related to the abstract or focused on other areas… I’ll always have a soft spot for art centered on real social / political experiences… even if it is vague. I’m from the D.C. area and grew up on punk. It’s in my blood.
Photo by Cameron Whiteman
5) 2020 has been a harrowing year for obvious reasons. When you think about the year to come, and what may lie ahead for you personally and our society, what gives you hope?
Tristan: What lies ahead of me personally is another record. Maybe more. With society? I don’t know… In my 9-5 I work at a funeral home. I deal with every walk of life. I find that most people have a decent heart even if maybe we disagree on so much stuff. I hope that maybe that can bleed into the world politically. I know most people are just trying to do the best they can with what they are given. When I remember that I’m able to forgive the asshole on the road or in the store. We all have bad days… sometimes they just last a lifetime. That gives me hope?
Catch Tristan’s special live show at the Dec. 4, 2020 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE. To register for this event, e-mail Rick Taylor: firstname.lastname@example.org