Ramon Mills (previously interviewed on Hypnos Audio) told me to check out the Portland-based electronic musician Dan Pisarcik who records as Occurian. I started sampling some of his work and followed some of his live performances and was completely floored. In a rare move I immediately purchased the vinyl of his recently-released Occurian EP titled “ep” (Heterodox Records).
Occurian blends IDM constructions akin to Warp’s Chris Clark with tracks that have elegant sonic space. Hypnos Audio recently caught up with Occurian and he agreed to an interview.
(HA) I was pleased to discover your work through a respected label owner and have enjoyed your ability to oscillate between ambient melody and frenetic buttton-mashed IDM. How long have you been making electronic music and what got you into it?
(O) “It was 2017 when I finally began to take creating electronic music seriously— that was when I first picked up a reissue Korg MS-20. For years before that, I engineered & played guitar and drums in the studio, and occasionally gigged around town when a friend needed a fill-in. I pursued record production and composition, developing as a keyboardist and arranger for strings and voice. My MIDI chops were already developed because I didn’t have access to strings, pianos, or (eventually) drums where I lived. I almost exclusively used software to compose those parts which were meant to be played by traditional instruments.
I’ve been a huge fan of IDM since the early 2000s. Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and Autechre’s processes were absolutely mystifying to me. I was incorrigible and absolutely refused to watch any tutorials or spoilers to learn these processes. I also refused to use presets as a rule of thumb. So I dabbled on and off with soft synths, the odd digital synth here or there, and Reaktor. I was a proficient instrument & FX builder in Reaktor, but never really finished any songs with those creations. For so long, I was spoiled with how quickly I could generate tones & ideas on a guitar or drum kit.
Fast forward several years after a career change and switching to apartment life– I got the musical itch again, but I had no gear. I always found mouse-and-keyboard sound design to be stifling, so I picked up the MS-20 mini and that’s when everything clicked. I could turn any knob and route modulation to any function in real time—it was something tactile which could be used in the music-making process. Soon after– and only 30 years late to the party– I finally learned that the TB-303 is responsible for all of the classic acid basslines. I set out to loosely clone the 303 sequencer in Reaktor and drove the MS-20 with it. When that came together, I knew I cracked the code. I was never satisfied having to use software to drive an instrument– I quickly went apeshit, building a eurorack and an ever-growing collection of synths and drum machines.”
(HA) I find your music to be elegantly nuanced with precision and a touch of chaos – who and/or what has influenced your creativity and work?
(O) “My musical influences are fairly wide-ranging. The most direct influences on my music are the Warp Records guys I mentioned earlier—RDJ, Tom Jenkinson, Autechre—as well as Clark and Boards of Canada. Each of them has such an incredibly deep vocabulary—both sonically and compositionally—that I continue to be blown away with each record they put out.
Going further, I’ve had an appetite for beauty and madness in most modern forms of music. My rock tastes can go from Pink Floyd to Radiohead to The Mars Volta. Jazz from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Charles Mingus. Even pop stuff ranging from Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” to The Beatles to James Brown to Tom Waits to Bjork. In each of those stylistic categories, there’s someone doing amazing things with feeling, texture, harmony, rhythm, and space. I’m pretty demanding in terms of what I listen to– I need both emotional range and technical precision to hold my interest or I can get bored quickly.”
(HA) How do you approach writing music? Do you have an idea for a track, perhaps a melody, or do compose with spontaneity and chance?
(O) “I try to start each song with a seed—something different each time. I might envision an instrument—a bass, a lead, a chord progression, or a rhythm– and then build out a sound set using a few instruments that can support that basic idea.
Once I have that groundwork, the rest is followed by pretty rapid improvisation sessions playing the keyboard or finger drumming. Mentally, I use somewhat fuzzy-logic to guide me along. Up front I try to cook up some general rules on what I want to hear texturally or harmonically. I will muck around on a few takes to get a groove going. If I love the groove, I zoom in and start workshopping it. I’ll rinse and repeat over the course of a few hours and should have a mostly finished track, in terms of composition. The rest becomes transition building and mixing.
I try to let strong feelings guide the whole thing—feelings that I usually can’t put into words and might not have any grounding in a narrative sense. In a way, there is lots of spontaneity and chance at play, but it is borne out of my head and my hands as I look to channel that energy. If I am not getting to a place I want to go, I will reach into my somewhat more-theoretical playbook, switch into a more careful planning state of mind, and build a bridge to the next place, but I want to get back into that loose flow-state as soon as possible after that.
In terms of machine-driven chance, my background and comfort level as a traditional musician has kept me from delving too far—some day, sooner than later, I’ll dive in. But now, instinctively, my hands want to play the parts, and I want each instrument to have a known tonal & dynamic range that serves the groove. I have a fairly large modular setup, and plenty of folks are surprised that almost none of it can generate a sequence! It’s almost always just MIDI-driven!”
(HA) Do you create with other art forms? If not, would you want to?
(O) “I do some occasional visual work– mostly in service to the music. I did the album artwork for my recent EP—I worked out a way to heavily process some photos, mostly on a mobile device, and then did the rest of the layout in Photoshop. Last month I created my first video reel for projection, most of which was animations of my own artwork or mangled versions of footage I shot in nature.
Learning these visual forms has mostly been fueled by my excitement for bringing the music out to the world. I’d never classify myself as a visual artist, but I want to heighten the musical experience with solid visual elements. If I had unlimited resources, I’d farm it out and spend more time writing.
If I had more time to spare, I’d maybe dabble more in encaustic painting. My partner is a gifted artist & has a small studio for encaustic work. I’ve only made one piece so far and I loved both the process and result. Melting wax and burning shellac can have such an amazing and unexpected effect on whatever it is you think you’ve crafted– the end result can end up quite different than the source material.
I also have a friend who is in the development phase for what should be a very funny and irreverent animated web series. I am contributing music and might even do some voice acting. I think composing and synchronizing with another medium fits within my wheelhouse. As for voice acting, I talk to myself in all kinds of ridiculous voices, so if it works well, I think that bit would be a blast.”
(HA) What is a challenge you face in creating music?
(O) “ For me there are two big challenges. The bigger of the two is more of a personal and practical challenge—finding time. This is the first time I am not just a guest or engineer on a record. Some new responsibilities come with releasing a record—especially one I truly believe in. Lots of time has been spent on artwork, mastering, listening to test pressings, booking gigs, and finding a way to perform live in both a sonically and visually engaging way.
Ramon and Ricardo [from Heterodox Records] have been incredibly helpful and we were just starting to build out a campaign before the pandemic hit. A lot of energy went into rehearsing and playing release gigs in Portland and Austin– a week later, lockdowns started going into effect. We’re all back at the drawing board at the moment. That meant some more time went into building a livestreaming process since that seems to be the new way of promotion, so this past season or two has been focused on presenting the album, and not so much creating the next. However, as a silver lining, I learned some good tricks. A fair bit of what I’m doing in my live performances will inform my next phase of musicmaking, and that came about from rolling with the punches.
In terms of the creative process itself, the biggest challenge is staying interested and excited. My appetite for change is pretty voracious. I loosely recall an interview with Tom Waits where he said something about how he doesn’t want to know how to play his instruments particularly well. I make some technically complex music, so I can’t say I fully abide, however, I very much take that thinking to heart. It’s absolutely essential to continually discover new sounds or ways of creating. If you know how to do everything with a particular instrument or style, the process of discovery stops—and for me, my enthusiasm stops with it.
I mentioned a bit earlier that I try to keep my process in line with a “fuzzy-logic” mindset. To put that “keep discovering” guidance to into practice, I somewhat intentionally avoid finding words to describe both the sounds and the feelings I want to evoke. It creates a good framework to scaffold a tune. Once the frame is up, I have the freedom to meander, make mistakes, and find the happy accidents that often become the highlight of a track. If a track gets stuck, I’ll switch mindsets and take a more clinical, decisive approach—but the goal is to go there as little as possible. Once the tune is back on track, I’ll revert to the fuzzy playbook, where the interesting things usually happen.”
(HA) If you have advice for electronic musicians what is it?
(O) “I think the most engaging music is full of both great contrasts and subtle gradients. Be bold and intentional in your choices. Shift the energy when someone might least expect it. Do something strange in a familiar context, or vice versa. Paint something beautiful and give it a nervous tic or bad breath.
Thinking about how to support these ideas in technical terms, you can create sudden changes by pressing a few mutes or by mapping aspects of several instruments to the same control. I personally love modular synthesis because I can find 4 or 5 different controls I want to turn at the same time and I can use a mult to do exactly that. In the non-modular world, I just discovered the modulation matrix and modifiers in a Waldorf Blofeld. Map a bunch of controls to your mod wheel so that you have your basic sound at the low end of the wheel and set up the modulation to dial a different sound– wild or subtle– when the wheel is cranked. As you slowly turn that wheel, it will slowly morph from the one sound to the other– giving you plenty of subtle gradients to play with. Using the same exact setup, you can choose to just quickly switch from low to high and it’s like you have two presets for the price of one. Interesting and exciting things can come from that.”