Polyphasic Canadian Avant-Synth Archive Series
Tona Walt Ohama grew up on a potato farm in rural Alberta. As a child he had became infatuated with music. When he was a teenager he came across a synthesizer in a music store and immediately purchased it, obsessed with its weird unconventional sounds. Shortly afterwards he was introduced to the music of John Foxx and he knew exactly what he wanted to do, his next big purchase was a 1/2″ 8 track reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the early Eighties, Tona started releasing music under the name Ohama on his own Midnite News Music label which he sold through local shops and magazine ads to fans all over the world. He played live shows across Canada accompanied only by a reel-to-reel tape player and provocative props. His innovative self-produced video for My Time played on Much Music and his 1st full-length LP I Fear What I Might Hear climbed the Canadian alternative music charts. After years many quiet years, in 2006 Ohama released the astounding Ohama Box (18CDs & 2 DVDs), an extremely comprehensive and intimate retrospective, his portrait of the artist as a profound young electronic musician. Today Ohama is actively producing music again, and recently released Earth History Multiambient an album of new songs which also includes an interactive indeterminate piece designed to be played on multiple stereos at once.
In August, I had the pleasure of meeting Ohama in Calgary. He was an exceptionally generous host, showing my wife and I around the city and playing new works for us in his studio, all the while narrating a personal history of Calgary and his longstanding musical career. Ohama graciously agreed to an interview and below are the astonishingly expansive results which provide incredible insight on this thoughtful, eloquent and brilliant artist.
– Interview by Brandon Hocura, September 2011
Why did you start recording music and what inspired you to work with synthesizers and drum machines?
I started experimenting with sound at a very young age using tape recorders. I don’t remember my first cassette deck, but I was using one when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. They ran coverage 24 hours a day without commercials and I camped out in front of the television to record the moon landing. When I was young, recording and releasing an album was something only done by people with big record contracts. Although music was an important part of my life, I never expected to be a recording artist. It all began when I saw my first synthesizer. I loved the way the A.R.P. Axxe looked and sounded right away. It was unlike anything I’d seen before and it seemed out of place amongst the pianos and organs in that small keyboard store. The fact that it was monophonic and only had a few octaves worth of keys probably made it uninteresting to “real” keyboard players and there was this clear feeling in the store that no one would ever buy the thing. I had no preconceived ideas and surprised them by purchasing it on the spot. Once I got it home, I was drawn to the idea that you could generate a waveform and filter it and use envelopes to vary the volume. Moving sliders to change the resonance and cut off frequency or modulating the pitch using a low frequency waveform was a powerful experience for a kid in the 70s. It felt like being a part of something that had yet to be defined. Even the instruction manual sounded like the manufacturer wasn’t quite sure what the instrument could actually do.
We saw a number of huge changes in the 70s. The rise of the singer-songwriter and the superstar, the invention of the 4-channel cassette multitrack, the platinum album, the Sony Walkman, FM radio, “Home Taping is Killing Music”, “Disco Sucks”, the musician’s union trying to ban the use of drum machines which were (supposedly) putting real drummers out of work, punk rock and the Sex Pistols and the rise of the independent record labels. By the time we hit 1980, it was apparent that anyone could record their band and then turn that recording into a vinyl record (or cassette) and independently sell those albums, but I wasn’t thinking about writing or recording. I was thinking about playing progressive rock and playing live. Bruce Toll, who played bass in my band, was from Ontario and he had albums that weren’t common in Western Canada. He introduced me to John Foxx’s “Metamatic”. When I heard John Foxx, I instantly realized, like a light going off in my head, that I could do that. I was made to do that. Now I’m not saying John Foxx was the first to do this music, I’m saying he was the first one to inspire me.
You need to realize, there was this universal feeling among synth players of the period that you couldn’t do something unless you were technically trained and had the keyboard skills of Wendy Carlos, Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson. Even though Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream had existed for many years, it took punk rock to free all of us. The rawness of punk clearly led to the synth pop revolution. And it took John Foxx to show me what was possible. Anyhow, what happened next: my father asked for help on the potato farm (“just for a summer” which turned into many years) so I quit the band and moved into the middle of nowhere with no musicians around and my thoughts turned to recording. I made a decision to get a bank loan for an 8-track Otari tape recorder (a major investment) and so it began.
What were the advantages and disadvantages of the equipment you used and how do you think it affected your process?
In the early days issue one was polyphony. My first synth could play one note at a time. My next could play 2 notes at a time. Actually my keyboard technique seemed to grow along with the growth in technology, so it was a good thing in hindsight. Similarly, there were track limitations. Tape decks were 4 or 8-tracks and people would bounce to get more tracks so additional degradation of the sound was an issue. Only a professional studio would have 16 or 32 tracks, and the tape costs were substantial. 15 minutes of multi-track tape could cost over $100. Coupled with the monophonic nature of the synths, the limited number of tracks that one could record was a serious issue.
The next issue was non-programmability. When you came up with a sound you liked, you had to write down all the settings on these patch sheets, or have a very good memory. It took time to move from sound to sound. Again, a good thing in hindsight, as one had to really learn their instrument. When I got the Yamaha CS-40M, the M stood for “memory” and I could save a few banks of patches, and then download the data to cassette tape. That seemed so luxurious at the time to recall a sound bank off the cassette tape in a matter of minutes.
Another disadvantage of the original equipment was it didn’t always work and certainly didn’t work together. MIDI didn’t exist in 1982, and nobody’s keyboard talked to anyone else’s. You needed a Roland sync-box just to convert ppqn (pulse per quarter note) clock times if you wanted to do something simple like have your drum machine play in time with your arpeggiator. Physical cables added to the noise problem. I’ve soldered hundreds of cables in my life and spent a lot of time cleaning tape heads and aligning them with test tones. You end up spending your time maintaining your gear and getting it to work, not writing. On the plus side, you really get to know what your gear is capable of doing, or not doing.
Today is very different. A person might use incredibly powerful yet easy to use software and have little knowledge of what is actually happening under the hood. In effect they are collaborating with the software developer. They know that when they hit “this” slider or twiddle “that” knob something predictable happens but might not understand why something sounds the way it sounds. There is nothing wrong with this. You can program your drums from scratch or you can use a pre-built drum rhythm and get good results with either method. However, I am the type of person who wants to know what’s going on to make a sound and I am the type of person who prefers to program all his own sounds from scratch. Of course, you don’t have to program all your own sounds to make music. Or put another way, one doesn’t have to build a violin in order to play the violin. But I think it’s important to know how and why the violin makes its sound. Also I think one should know, and acknowledge, the difference between a “real” violinist and someone who takes recordings of a violinist and cuts them up to a beat. They’re not the same.
Everyone has their own way of working. I’ve noticed there are some techno artists who could be compared to a painter who mixes custom colors and paints on a blank canvas, while other techno artists are more like someone using a paint-by-numbers kit. Some people don’t even know they can color outside the lines. I encourage everybody to paint outside the lines and go beyond the presets of their software.
I love the new virtual synth software. The new gear allows me to spend more time than ever defining my sound, and less time getting things to work together. I can save entire studio settings in a flash, and these days everything seems to work together seamlessly. Computing power is substantial, recording quality is universally high and prices are rock bottom. All the issues of the old days are now non-issues. There are few limitations. This is a wonderful time to be making electronic music.
Did living on a rural potato farm in Alberta affect the aesthetics of your sound? Do you think living in Calgary now has a similar influence on your music now?
I use to think living in rural Alberta had an effect, but I don’t anymore. Whether I’m on the prairie or in the centre of New York City, I’ve always felt isolated. I thought that would change as I got older, but it has not. I still do not fit in. Apparently location isn’t the factor. Anyhow it doesn’t much matter where you live anymore in the civilized world because everyone has global access via the net – access to music, access to music software and hardware, and access to distribution to sell, share or promote your recordings. It’s a very equal playing field.
In archival video and photos you are seen performing with props and ¼” reel-to-reel tape spooling out all over the stage. It must have been very challenging for a solo electronic artist to perform live in Canada at that time. How did you find the experience of performing live?
I don’t believe it was any more difficult than today, but then again, I’ve never been focused on live performance. My experiences performing live are not typical. For example, if someone asked me to perform in the 80s, I simply went and played, no negotiation. Even if it was far away, I’d just hop on a plane, do the show with rented equipment and then fly back in time to be at work on Monday morning. I never toured, not in the traditional sense, although I have done hundreds of shows. I played because it was fun, and when it stopped being fun, I stopped playing. My focus was the recording, not the live show. As my shows started getting bigger and more elaborate, I began to relate to Robert Fripp.
Around 1980 I read an interview with Fripp that I have never forgotten. He quit King Crimson to play tiny venues, including the Calgary Planetarium. I’m paraphrasing here, but he described his small venue tour as an attempt to counter the trend to idiocy in rock performance, characterized by the escalation in the size of rock events and the general acceptance of rock music as a spectator sport. I was not even close to being a rock star but, like Fripp, when it came to performing I felt I was going in the wrong direction. As I matured I found I didn’t enjoy being the centre of attention nor entertaining people. If you’re going to perform live and ask people to buy tickets, then you should love the spotlight, and in fact, a rock star/performer, in my opinion, has a responsibility to love the audience, love performing on stage, love to entertain and love being the center of attention. That is not for everyone, and it’s definitely not for me.
FYI, the last time I performed live was actually in the Calgary Planetarium. I did a month of performances in March 1994. It was my biggest live production ever. It took place in a 350 seat theatre with a round stage under the huge dome they used for projecting star shows. I sang live and played synthesizers live plus had my entire recording studio on stage, fully sequenced synthesizers, Macintosh computers and MIDI drums synced to the Otari 8 track that synced to the Planetarium’s light show including the lasers, star fields, video screens, 360 degree photo images, early QuickTime movies and 3-D rendered images and videos. I regret that we didn’t get much documentation of the show, but you can read about it somewhere in the Ohama Box Set. The album “on the edge of the dream…” is the music from those shows.