New Interfaces #4: Signal Dreams

Posted by on March 6, 2014

Bryon Hayes New Interfaces 4

This issue of New Interfaces is particularly special, because we get in on the ground floor of a fresh new label that is motivated by “process-based experiments, tape manipulation, and mutant synthesis” which is completely up our alley. As Golden Donna, Madison, WI resident Joel Shanahan produces a crafty brand of synthesizer mayhem that is heavily indebted to the soundtracks found in the action thrillers, dark comedies, psychological horror and sci-fi flicks of the 1970s and 1980s (check out the amazing Gloaming Thirst tape released earlier this year on Iowa City’s All Hell imprint). Recently, he dropped the first pair of releases on his newly-minted Signal Dreams imprint. With Signal Dreams, Shanahan segues significantly from his own musical output, far into experimental territory and beaming stellar waves of weirdness into our barely-ready ear holes. We had a chance to ask him a few questions regarding the already-stellar output of his nascent label.

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Signal Dreams is described as being dedicated to “process-based experiments, tape manipulation, and mutant synthesis.” This path intersects, but is still separate from the music you put out as Golden Donna. What drove you to start a label dedicated to such divergent (albeit exhilirating and engaging) styles?
I definitely look at Signal Dreams as a completely separate entity from my work as Golden Donna. I guess I love experimental music for a lot of the same reasons I like jazz. It’s just the ultimate refuge from the caged formulas and reliability of mainstream music. It’s simultaneously surprising and transportive. I’m totally thrilled when it takes me several listens to figure out what the hell is going on in a recording or find any repetitive patterns. I want to release music by people who are fully dedicated to seeking the expansion of what’s considered “listenable” sound through traditional or non-traditional means. While I still intend to seek certain people out to release their music, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and becoming acquainted with so many seriously mind-blowing artists like Noxroy (Troy is amazing too, but he’s actually quite prolific) that rarely release anything because they either don’t want to deal with sending their stuff out or possibly just don’t know where to begin. So I mean, with Signal Dreams, while I’m open to unsolicited demos and I’m also contacting a handful of artists that I have no established relationship with (besides as a fan), it’s way more about me seeking something very specific–even if the work is only really tied together by how I react to it, haha–and inviting them to work with me. And don’t get me wrong, I love a ton of the psychedelic, cosmic, theatrical, house, techno, etc. artists and labels that I’m honored to share a community with as Golden Donna. I love that stuff; I’m obsessed with it, but there are already a ton of folks working in those areas. Of course, I don’t think I’m inventing the wheel or anything with what I’m doing, this is just where I want the label to be focusing its energies.

How did you decide that Troy Schafer and Andy Fitzpatrick (Noxroy) would be the first artists you’d work with?
I’ve been friends with Troy for nearly a decade. The impact that man has had on my life as a friend, collaborator, and fellow artist is totally immeasurable (side note: if you’re curious, here’s a video of us performing as Schafer/Shanahan Duo). He’s an idea fountain, he never sits still, and when he works on something, he works on it until he nails it (and the standard he holds himself to is very high to say the least). He’s constantly surprising me with new brilliant ideas and ways of thinking about music (even if we don’t always agree). I’ve been toying with the idea of starting this label for a couple years now, he was always my first and most obvious choice to kick things off with, and when I saw him post the video of broken tape recorder stuff, I knew I had to release it. Andy is another great friend of mine. I find him inspiring in many of the same ways I do Troy. He’s a super-disciplined, brilliant musician and I’m totally awe-struck by his deep understanding of and dedication to synthesis. We get excited about a lot of the same music and I think the incredible sonic scope of Anverloss works perfectly with the vision I have for this label.

Can you describe the creative/musical/artistic environment of Madison, and how both you as an artist and Signal Dreams as a label fit into it?
It’s difficult to sum up Madison too broadly. Not only is Madison a super transient college city, but it honestly isn’t very big either, so you end up with all the tiny pockets of scenes that you find in every liberal college zone (not complaining, of course). The experimental community here is really special, though. This place is home to some of my all time favorite avant-artists and I could seriously go on forever namedropping everyone, but I’ll spare you. It’s just a great community of free-minded, inimitable artists that do their own thing without overly-concerning themselves with whatever trends the broader contemporary experimental community is cycling through, which is part of what makes Madison such an endlessly inspiring place for me to live.

In an environment where it seems like the cassette is king, why release CDs (not that I’m complaining)? Do you plan on putting out music in other formats in the future?
I have no complaints about the cassette world, as I am a willing consumer and participant, but I want to offer another option for people that love experimental music. Certain things honestly do sound a bit nicer on tape, but I also buy a lot of stuff where, if I had the opportunity to get it on CD or vinyl instead, I absolutely would. In fact, there are certain artists that I’m working on doing archival releases of their out-of-print cassette stuff with. Also, no matter what people say, CDs sound good and I can get them duplicated at a super-reasonable local spot with excellent service and lightning-quick turnaround time. I was talking to someone earlier today about how most people that shit on CDs listen to MP3s most of the time, which is what? One-third of the audio quality?  I plan to do vinyl in the future, but I don’t want to rush it. I need to keep working hard on establishing Signal Dreams as a label that releases only high-quality work that I’m 100% stoked on.

What’s next for Signal Dreams?  Similarly, what does the future hold for Golden Donna?
I don’t want to give away too much of what’s coming, but I’ve got an absolutely next-level, bonkers album ready to go from Los Angeles-based experimentalist Daniel Castledine and a new release from Milwaukee’s Slow Owls, one of my favorite tape wranglers.  I’m also working on a 2-disc set that covers the complete works of Night Burger (the former moniker of Noah Anthony from Profligate and Form A Log).  Beyond that, there’s a lot of wonderfully weird stuff coming for sure.

As for Golden Donna, I’ve got a new album coming out (on tape) on 100% Silk that I spent about a year and a half working on, can’t wait to get that thing out.  And I’m finishing up a 12″ for CGI Records that I’m also totally psyched on. I’m hoping to do some touring in the summer and fall, too.  I’ve also got a few other surprises in the works.


Troy Schafer is a composer and artist whose primary “traditional” instrument is the violin.  A member of Burial Hex, Kinit Her, and other groups from within the Wisconsin-area underground, his sonic output is quite voluminous (he now resides in Chicago). Survey of a Broken Tape Recorder finds Schafer extracting hypnotic clouds of tone from a portable tape recorder, without the use of any cassettes. It’s easy to get lost inside the textures and timbres that emanate from the first track of the recording, as they softly undulate in an ever-quickening pattern. The second piece is more machine-like in nature, almost industrial. Stabs of static wrestle with feedback before the track abruptly slams to a close. Track 3 is the lengthiest of the pieces, veering between mayhem and quiet multiple times in the span of half an hour. Fortunately, we were able to chat with Schafer, to get a feel as to how this amazing recording came to be.

Can you describe the process in which ‘Survey of a Broken Tape Recorder’ was realized?  I’m talking microphone placement, effects used, recording equipment, etc.
The source in question is a Panasonic Slimline Cassette Recorder, as depicted on the CD jacket.  I found it in the attic and couldn’t resist the diverse feedback loops that occurred naturally when it’s play button was depressed.  No tape of any kind was used in the making of this recording.  The sounds emitted from the reflexivity of the machine itself.  The word fidelity came to mind, which originates from the Latin word fidēlis, meaning faithful.  On this recording, we are literally listening to the lies of an unfaithful machine.  On track 1, “I.”, I situated the artifice in my acoustically-treated bathroom and recorded it with a Josephson c42 cardioid matched pair to a custom quad tube preamp, built by my frequent collaborator Jerry McDougal, to a DAW in which I employed EQ filters and compression chains standard to Pro Tools 10.  The introduction to this track is me fumbling with the controls of the machine.  In addition to welcoming performativity through a non-idealized presence, the click of the play button depressing reveals the resonant properties of my bathroom and texturalizes the environment.  Following this audition, I exited the room and left the tape machine playing to give a sense of alienation.  The listener, left alone in the abstraction of the machine.

During the recording of Track 2, “II.”, the tape recorder and myself were situated at my apartment window where the neighboring Chicago Metra train station lended a new low end to the album. There, I added two contact mics to my mix as well as direct signal from the headphone out and applied varying amounts of physical resistance to the motor.

For track 3, “III.”, I finally opened up the machine and recorded directly via headphone out. No mics.  I wanted the cold, dry sound from recording direct to juxtapose with the more human qualities inherent in my long improvisation.

Along with your work with the broken portable cassette recorder, you’ve also realized Pulse Phase, with two computer subwoofers. What led you to experiment with the (mis)use of slightly older technology for musical means?
Pulse Phase is an installation work I created to be placed in the hallway outside the women’s restroom at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The two subwoofers were modified by fitting paper diaphragms to the air ports, or vents. This limits the capacity of air traveling to and from the speaker cabinets. By exciting the subwoofers with ultra-low frequencies, the cones of the speakers render sounds that are barely audible, but require large amounts of air. In turn, the diaphragms slap the air vents in alternating patterns, creating acoustic sounds that resemble two drummers performing single stroke rolls in the distance, each on their respective drums.

I finely tuned a set of parameters and created a patch that modulates the frequencies and amplitudes signaling the subwoofers. Syncopated rhythmic patterns emerge and regress.

I don’t intentionally seek outdated technology for audio experiments. I am not one to troll the electronics bins at thrift stores. But I do use materials that have some sort of sentimental value, which tends to be objects that I’ve developed a personal history with.

You’re also a composer and a violinist. Do you find that your more abstract, technology-based work intersects with your violin-based output at all?
The role of technology within my orchestral work lies mostly in recording and editing. In regards to the sonic aspect of combining technology with strings… One of my mentors likes to say “Sound is inherently oppressive,” which I agree with completely, no matter what the content. I am open to the intersection of electronic and acoustic instruments. Supreme Happiness Forever was the beginning of such an exploration, and my forthcoming series of untitled works pushes that envelope.


Noxroy is Andrew Fitzpatrick, a member of the Madison-based band All Tiny Creatures who also tours with the Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon-fronted Volcano Choir. While there are shades of his Noxroy alter ego evident in his work with those other projects, his solo output is far more boundary-pushing and intriguing (to me at least). Anverloss is a frenetic series of tracks that veer away from pretty much any convention: there are fragments of guitar, but this is not a guitar record; there is repetition, but it serves to stray from the known rather than to pacify; there are melodies, but they’ve been usurped by chaos. There are moments of bliss (the gorgeous “Unconnected Legend,” for example), but these dissolve quickly before they lull the listener into hypnagogia. Fitzpatrick answered a few questions for us as to the provenance of this amazing record.

Can you describe the process in which ‘Anverloss’ was realized? I’m talking instrumentation, synthesizers, effects, software (e.g., Pure Data, SuperCollider, etc.), et al.
I used a lot of different recordings, some dating back to 2007, to assemble this album. Half of the tracks are based on experiments with a Pittsburgh Modular system I recorded in December 2013, and the rest of the album draws from a variety of sources: Serge Modular improvisations recorded at Madison’s (now [sadly] defunct) Smart Studios, VCS3 and CMS MC-24 improvisations recorded at Soma Studios in Chicago, various voice and field recordings, various OP-1, Nord Lead, and Ensoniq ESQ-1 sounds recorded at home, processed guitar improvisations recorded at home, and some sounds I made using Reaktor.

This record is a shift in style from your previous record — the equally excellent ‘Cotyledon Observatory’ — in that ‘Anverloss’ appears to sound more kinetic.  What led you to diverge from that earlier sound, to shift directions?
I’m not sure there was a direction to begin with — Cotyledon Observatory is basically a collection of live guitar improvisations I recorded at home using a specific combination of effects pedals and granular synthesis patches. I had no intentions of ever releasing the material, but I ended up sharing some of the recordings with a friend who had asked what I’d been up to, and he offered to release an album’s worth of the improvisations on his (now [sadly] defunct) label. A lot of the material on Anverloss was recorded before the Cotyledon material… but the Cotyledon material happened to make it onto an album first (the “processed guitar improvisations” I mentioned in my first response are actually from the same recording sessions as the material that ended up on Cotyledon Observatory).

Along with your solo work, you are a touring member of Volcano Choir and a member of the pop-leaning All Tiny Creatures. Do you find that your more abstract solo work intersects with these other projects at all?  If so, how?
Volcano Choir and All Tiny Creatures aren’t necessarily straightforward rock n’ roll bands, so there always ends up being situations where I utilize a similar approach or instrumentation that I’d use in my solo work. My sole contribution to the last Volcano Choir album was feeding some of Justin’s vocals through a tempo-based granular synthesis patch; I used the same process to treat some of the sounds on Anverloss. And I’ve contributed a variety of modular synthesizer and field recordings to both All Tiny Creatures LPs.

Many thanks to Joel, Troy, and Andy for taking the time to answer my questions with thoughtfulness and sincerity. Keep an ear out for more excitement from Signal Dreams and both of these amazing and engaging artists.