"I think that this is what I like: people who are not afraid to be who they are and who try to do what is good"
Far Out Radio Systems is a producer with enormous musical talent. Musically hyperactive, he moves through the field of electronics with discretion, good taste, eclecticism and honesty. Get, like very few, that music penetrates through the pores of our skin in the same way that it does with our emotions. We have had the pleasure of interviewing him, and this has been the result.
Hi Thomas, where can we find you right now? How did you start your day?
In my studio. My wife and I are renovating our house, so we have just moved to live with a friend. I have re-built my studio here and I have just finished the first track that I have made in this new environment. Due to corona and my daytime job as a biostatistician I had to devote a lot of time to analyse data during the last few months. But I’m trying to find some time to put that work aside for short periods, and I’m happy to have reached a point where I can partly focus on my music again. It has actually been long since I didn’t start my day with checking my emails - I turned on the 303 instead and worked on a melody that I started on working yesterday evening.
Can you tell us a little about your youth? Where did you grow up, and are you from a musical family?
I was born and raised in Genk, a small city in eastern Flanders, very close to the Dutch border. I come from a middle-class family; not very musical, but my dad was very much into movies and television series. I was raised with music from Angelo Badalamenti, John Williams, etc. I was crazy about animals when I was a young boy and the music that I liked mostly had something to do with animals. For example, I liked Michael Jackson, but a part of that came from his music videos which often featured animals. When I hit puberty, I started to like teenage punk music, the very bad stuff :-). When I turned 16, I started to dig music that had experimental vibes. A lot of that was triggered by a Dutch online music listening platform, 3voor12’s Luisterpaal. Via that, I got into all kinds of music: alternative indie, such as The Zephyrs, Sparklehorse, Wilco, etc., but also electronic music like Boards of Canada, Bogdan Raczynski, Autechre, Venetian Snares or experimental hardcore/punk like The Mars Volta. At that time, I started to go to parties as well, and I dug the sound of 2 Many DJ’s, who mashed up different genres. I decided to buy turntables and bought around 10 vinyls with the genre that 2 Many DJ’s played, often called electro-clash back then… But within a month, I hated this music so much that I almost decided to sell my turntables. Until one evening, I heard a DJ set by Daniel Bell. And this was a pivotal moment in life (by the way a reference to a beautiful track of Levon Vincent ;-)). It sounded to me like “Boards of Canada for the dance floor”. So the day after, I visited Luisterpaal online and looked up “minimal”. The first DJ that I found was Ricardo Villalobos, who had just released Alcachofa. I immediately fell in love with his music, and since then I started to buy everything related to minimal house and techno.
Who have been your main inspirations (both musical and in 'life')? And how have they affected your sound?
In music, this is much related to Perlon: Ricardo Villalobos, Zip, those guys. Especially Ricardo Villalobos. His mixing style is very rough, very improvised. Some hate it, but I love it. I don’t want things to be perfect, I want to hear that a person is playing tracks. He also has gone very far in perfecting his production style. Some say that “his music goes nowhere”, but I see it as an extension of his person: there is no direction; the ever changing journey is more important than the destination. Jamal Moss has a similar mindset: he doesn’t care what you think of him, he just does what he feels that he should do. In life, I have always admired conservationists: e.g., Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, researchers that brought ecological crises to the general public. They move against the stream, often against a money-backed lobby; I think that this is what I like: people who are not afraid to be who they are and who try to do what is good. I don’t expect them always to succeed, and therefore I am very much against the recent cancel culture, where the “good cause” is often convoluted with attempts to get recognition. There is so much hate. You don’t need to do something to get recognition; you need to do something because you know it is the right thing to do. And while doing that, you need to understand that not all people are as informed about it as you are. I am not sure how all of this has affected my sound. I like to make long tracks, which I definitely have discovered in the music of Villalobos. I also like to play DJ sets that do not gradually build to a peak, but that go all directions, very rough. In production, the sound of Angelo Badalamenti has been very influential. Cheesy synths with hypnotizing deep sounds.
You’re a Biostatistics lecturer by day. Do you find that your skills and knowledge in that field translate well to your music production, and can you give us an example?
I have given talks about how you can make stochastic music. This is directly related to my research in statistics. For example, I develop statistical models to analyse the movement of animals, such as nightjars or elephants. These models are so-called hidden Markov models. Think of it as movement choices that are based on a behavioral state: an elephant might be migrating or feeding. During migration, movement is focused on one direction, while during feeding, movement happens much more randomly. If we have GPS-tagged animals, we might deduct from their locations, e.g., observed every 10 minutes, what they are doing. If their movements resemble a random pattern, a so-called random walk, which is a probability process, they are feeding; if it does not follow a random walk, they are probably heading in a specified direction. These movements can all be interpreted as Markov processes with specific characteristics. The characteristics depend on the behavioral state, which we do not know for sure (they are “hidden”, hence the term "hidden Markov models"), but we have a good guess, based on the data of the movements. This concept can be translated to music, where you generate random processes and more directional melodies, and you can shift between both of them, based on a probability process; e.g., based on the time that you have spent in state 1, the probability to shift to state 2 becomes larger, etc. This resembles feeding patterns of animals: the longer they are in a non-feeding state, the larger the probability becomes that they will switch to a feeding state. I have made music like this and I am planning to devote an album to this.
As an artist you release under a few alias’. Why do you feel this is necessary? To avoid preconceptions? A freedom to explore new sounds?
I do this because when I buy music, I like it when it is by someone that I don’t know. There are no expectations. Also, I like to browse through discogs to find out that two artists are actually the same person. And indeed, it allows me to explore new sounds, without the need to cater to a demand, based on what I have done before.
You’ve just released your debut album as Far Out Radio Systems, "On Boolean Plains". Give us a brief overview, and the story behind its creation…
On Boolean Plains was made when I was exploring experimental music. I have been buying a lot of new experimental synths: Buchla, Serge, Ciat-Lonbarde, Meng Qi, etc. These instruments push you towards undiscovered musical territories. They often have a substantial mathematical approach, with modules that are named after processes that I investigate in my academic research. Boolean algebra is also a type of mathematics that is the backbone of logical processes, such as what happens inside your computer, or in a robot. Boolean logic is used in synthesis as well. “On Boolean Plains” is an exploration into that world. It has some functional tracks as well, because I am still very much connected to the dance floors. And I personally love dance music as well. However, my main achievements on this album are the experimental tracks, like Cassini Titan, Beta Ceti, Bolkonsky, etc.
We know much of the album was produced on your Modular setup. What were your ‘go-to’ synths, instruments and other notable hardware/software during the creation process?
The randomness in the experimental tracks was based on randomized patterns, made by the Serge Animoo. I think that this is my favorite synth in my collection, and the one that I play around with in every session. I use the 808 a lot as well. But I send it through other synths, such as the GRP A4, and fx machines like the Sherman filterbank, to give the drums different textures. A few years ago, I bought a Sequentix Cirklon. This is the heart of the studio. It has affected my sound as well tremendously, because I now make all rhythms and melodies out of the box, which helps me to keep things simple. I actually only use the computer for Omnisphere and some compression tools. Oh, and I love the MKS-80 for strings and melodies. And the Buchla Music Easel is great to make inventive whole songs.
How would you describe your own sound in 2020, how has it evolved over the years, and how do you see it developing in the future?
It has become more mechanical, less finished. On the computer, I always overdid it. Now, I just record and blend sounds out of the box, and I then have a few wavs that I master on the computer. I also want to make more off-beat stuff. The Ciat-Lonbarde synths and samplers are great for that. In the early years, I searched for ways to please audiences, and I listened a lot to advice of others, who all wanted me to make the most rational (= financially interesting) decisions. But deep inside I didn’t like that. I was buying stuff like Vladislav Delay music, and I loved how special it was. But at the same time, my productions were pretty “safe”, housey. With Nuno, it became different; he kept asking me to do weirder things :-). I think that those pushes have defined my sound a lot, and it’s much closer to what I liked when I discovered electronic music than my early releases. Don’t get me wrong: I’m very proud of a lot of the things that I have done in house music. But I was always more into the house tracks with the weird elements. It takes some time to push yourself to go there. I love how it is now. I just do what I want to do, like the artists that I admire myself.
Can you give us a hint about an act that you love right now, especially one that other people may not be so aware of?
I am mainly discovering old music. Inoyama Land, Japanese experimental pop from the ’80s. If you have never heard of it, please check it out! In terms of dance music, Fuse’s Deg (Circadian Rhythms) is everything that I like about club music. He has done a couple of releases on Basic Moves, a great label from Brussels. There are also many artists that I know from Youtube: Caspar Hesselager’s improvisations on the Macbeth synth - beautiful!
It is difficult for everyone in our industry during the crisis. What have you been doing to keep everything balanced, both musically and personally?
Ha, my life has been very unbalanced in the recent year, because I was so busy with the corona analyses. I became an assistant professor in October 2019 and our research group focuses on statistical epidemiology. My expertise lies in spatial biostatistics and epidemiology, so when the pandemic started, there was so much work coming at us, and we have been advising the government etc. For my academic career, this was a good thing, but I am happy that I have pushed myself to make time to produce music again, because I needed it. I also saw a lot of hate towards the analysts and the advisors, often by friends and musical peers who didn’t know that I was one of these people. It has regularly affected me more than I wanted to admit; the unscientific short-sighted nonsense that some people were spreading, often persons who I knew very well, struck me very hard. I always tried to put this in its context, e.g., acknowledging that this was partly due to their economical hardship during lockdown times. But still, when DJ peers started saying that the advisors were made of “nerds that know nothing of culture” (because festivals had to be canceled), it did hurt.
What future projects are you working on at the moment, and is there anything we should expect to hear soon?
There is this live set by Atom TM & Pink Elln, “Live at Valparaiso”, which was pressed on vinyl back in the days. I wanted to do something similar and I have now recorded an experimental live set of 50 minutes, which I want to release as a record. Secondly, the Hidden Markov Model music that I talked about previously is something that I would like to release as well. On the other hand, I have some new dance floor tracks that I really like and some edits of old club tracks that people often ask about. I didn’t obtain the rights to release the latter, but hopefully one day I will press them on vinyl. The other dance floor tracks will most likely come out in the spring of 2021, hopefully on my own label Tanzbar Records.
Do you have any final words of wisdom?
Yes, if you’re an aspiring producer or DJ, never listen to someone claiming to know how something should be done. The best artists are mostly not those with the best technical knowledge, but those who pursue their own vision of what art means. But when I think of it: the paradox is that when you follow my advice, you shouldn’t follow my advice ;-).