Conversing the Beat
Still Cliff Dweller’s ESCERCESM video. Directed, shot, and edited by Oliver Bernsen.
Ari Balouzian is the force behind Cliff Dweller, the (mostly) one-man act responsible for producing music that transports you to a dusky, strange planet where the old American midwest, deep sea monsters, and warped interpretations of Hollywood classics come alive and illogically coexist. He lives his music, literally using his apartment more as a studio than his living quarters, incubating with some of the sources–shelves of vinyl records, arts publications, and framed film stills–that inform his practice and imagination. To listen to his full discography, click here. – Christine Haroutounian
Christine Haroutounian: Tell me about your creative process. Who exactly is Cliff Dweller?
Ari Balouzian: Mostly I start with myself, and I play the viola so sometimes I begin with that or I experiment with different beats and film scores. I work with filmmakers, so depending on what I start with, I’m usually pretty visually influenced. I start to record and layer things, and I have friends who are musicians to play with me. I work closely with Max Whipple, who’s a bass player and he also plays the accordion, so we collaborate a lot. I also work with Oliver Bernsen, who does a lot of visual work. He’s a video artist, illustrator, and photographer. Concepts behind the “Ghosts of the Dust Bowl” album came out of working with him. I was interested in classical music and he had all these pictures from the Dust Bowl and had been writing this feature while doing art based around a story taking place in the Dust Bowl, so we went from there.
CH: What are some of your non-visual influences?
AB: Definitely Krzysztof Penderecki’s music. He was one of the first classical composers to take what is now considered horror music to the symphony. It’s crazy to hear a symphony doing that stuff, knowing that people of that time went to hear them orchestrate that kind of music rather than something traditionally harmonic. It makes you envision a lot more. Bernard Herrmann, who experimented with film scores on a less conventional level also affected me a lot. Madlib is a huge influence. When I was in 10th grade and a classical violist, I had no idea what sampling was until I listened to his work. He plays the records back live, and I just wanted to try that. I have his old samplers and that’s what I use too; I just enjoy his process and how it’s played live and not programmed.
CH: You can definitely hear those cinematic or theatrical elements in your work. Going back to the idea of the “Cliff Dweller,” I can’t help but think about the archetype of the Cliff Dweller. How did you go about choosing that name?
AB: I saw these drawings that Buckminster Fuller did of cliff dwellings–or glass structures on these cliffs and thought it would be incredible to make music in one of those. Originally I liked the concept of the classical style I was into being desert- influenced, particularly the album “Revolutions of the Indigenous.” Edward S. Curtis did a lot of portraits of Native Americans, which also intrigued me too, so I took a bit from that.
Drawing by Brooklyn-based artist Wes Lang, one of Ari’s inspirations.
CH: Each of your songs reads as its own anecdote. Do you begin a song or album with a concrete direction?
AB: I do, somewhat. The album I’m working on now is called “Sunday School,” so I took a lot of audio from sermons–crazy people who went to all of these extremes to heal the ill and whatnot. I wanted to make a horror score with that, along with taking Sam Cook and blues songs that I arranged into string quartets with bass and drums. I have a few drummers play with me, as well. I’m try to make it all play as one; some things I took from film scores I did for a lot of filmmakers from NYU and a few from UCLA. One was a psychological thriller based in Georgia and I made a really dry, eerie score to fit that concept. I separate this classical work from making beats, since I love to do both but they’re such different processes. “Hallucinations” I saw as more of a color rather than an idea, so there’s always the possibility of beginning with a more abstract concept.
“Hallucinations” album cover.
CH: When did you start playing the viola?
AB: I started with the violin and switched to the viola when I was six, and I was at the Colburn School too. I got into UCLA for Ethnomusicology to pursue more of a classical training but then switched to Linguistics.
CH: When did you realize you wanted to break away from the classical?
AB: Starting in high school, my music teacher got me an electric violin, and he made me improvise. I didn’t exactly realize you were allowed to do that–when you’re classically trained with Suzuki you just learn the piece and that’s it. I started playing with jazz groups and listening to Godspeed! You Black Emperor, which was a gigantic influence. I was so into the fact that music could make you imagine something so profound, which is why I also love Wagner. When I stopped with Ethnomusicology I also stopped practicing classically and taught myself how to make beats on Garage Band and other programs. I started to incorporate the viola later.
Still from “Good News for Modern Man,” directed by David Raboy and produced by Ari and Justin Dalzell.
CH: All of your music is online and you have no connections to a larger entity driving any of your creativity or the decisions that you make. Do you often consider your platform before you make work? How is this making the music scene and the way people discover you change?
AB: People stumble across things rather unexpectedly. Bandcamp has been great because it’s all around. I never thought anyone would listen to “Ghosts of the Dust Bowl” when making it. I just make albums that I’d like to listen to and looking back, maybe I should’ve held some work back now, but I do like that you can make exactly what you want and choose how to do it. This could be good and bad–but people find what they like and you build an audience.
CH: Lastly, what was the first album you bought?
AB: The first album I really wanted to buy was Third Eye Blind. I loved “Semi-Charmed Life” [laughs]. I was obsessed with ska at one point, too. The 90s . . .