Josh Hodges on the Ambient Records That Influenced STRFKR

The band’s latest album is a diversion out of traditional structure, and we asked him to talk about its influences.

I feel like the whole project for life now is just: How do I enjoy tiny moments of presence —  breathing, hanging out with family — in the middle of watching everything fall apart. Life isn’t ever very reliable, even in the before-time.

I made this ambient record a while ago as a gift for an ex-girlfriend actually. It was pieced together over time. We had had some shared experiences with ambient music, and she turned me on to some of my favorite stuff. So it was like a birthday present for her; it was my first attempt. There was one particular night that influenced it: We were totally sober and we had these mini motorcycle-scooter things, and we were listening to this Bitchin’ Bajas collection and scooting around and exploring different neighborhoods that neither of us had seen in L.A. It really felt like a drug experience for both of us; we felt very high in that mushroom-y way where you don’t necessarily feel high, but connected to life. It was really powerful. That experience was a big influence for me. I wanted to explore a relationship with music that felt different, that’s not performative, that’s not even for entertainment really. It’s about tapping into something, a shared inner thing.

I didn’t necessarily intend to release it, but I asked her if it was okay if I did, during the pandemic. It felt appropriate for this high-stress time, and she was okay with me sharing it with the world. I originally gave it to her with the intention that it was just for her. I took one song off the original version. And she’s had it for a while.

I had always written music in a way that was meant to grab a listener’s attention, and it was fun and hard in a way to have it be more about creating a feeling, not asking for that at all. Most of it was recorded in Joshua Tree. My band, we have a house out there where we practice. It was cheaper to rent a house in Joshua Tree than in the city; we’ve had it since like 2014, and we use it to write and record in, and we share it with a bunch of other people. My old bandmate has a Prophet-5 synthesizer, and he let me borrow it to use on a STRFKR album, but I ended up using it on the ambient album. It’s a really expensive synth that I would never buy, and he was really generous in letting me borrow it. I almost always play Roland synths, and this had a totally different feel and sound.

Bitchin’ Bajas, which is one my favorite bands, stayed at that house. They played at Pappy & Harriet’s out there when they were on tour with Deerhunter. We asked if they needed a place to stay, and it was really cool getting to hang out with them. I was kind of nervous, even fanboy-ing out a little bit. They’re definitely my favorite contemporary ambient project. It’s this guy named Cooper, he’s from Chicago. His sense of time and building and his flow, I think it must just be natural for him. So much of his stuff is, to me, perfect.

There was a period when I wasn’t as familiar with this stuff. There was a time in Amsterdam — with that same ex-girlfriend actually — when we wanted to drugs, and it was hard to find the right kind of music. I just didn’t know enough. We ended up listening to mostly classical stuff, which was great, but later we found Bitchin’ Bajas, or she did, and it was exactly what we were looking for. It’s not super dark, and it takes you on this journey. It did it to me totally sober, and it still can, but when you’re in that state, music becomes something totally different, where it’s almost like a guide. There’s something about him, I’d trust him with my mind.

I don’t do psychedelics very often, but in this weirdo time of things being hard for people, I think people have been looking — not necessarily into psychedelics — into different truths about reality, and making sense of things and being able to enjoy being curious about what this all is. I’ve done meditation for a long time, mindfulness, and that’s some of the most psychedelic shit I’ve ever done—long retreats, just sitting and watching my body and breath and mind. It’s pretty fucking weird, actually, when you watch it for a long time.

Terry Riley talked about this stuff. Really good musicians have this mix of getting out of the way of the thing that wants to come through you, and of course it’s flavored by ego, often, or your self. That’s what’s cool to me about ambient stuff, and I think it’s why Terry Riley and Bitchin’ Bajas particularly resonate with me. They both make themselves good antennas.  Instantly I believe it. I want to be connected to what they’re tapping into from the universe. It’s way less ego-driven than a pop song, where you’re looking for the hook or the clever lyric or key change. It’s less intellectual. I like the idea of music not just playing that role. In our culture, music is mostly a performative thing.

I think that Terry Riley record, Shri Camel… I didn’t even know who Terry Riley was when the band first started. Whenever the band started touring, I was at Deseret Industries, which is like the Mormon version of Goodwill, in Salt Lake City. They color-code all the clothes, they’re not even separated by size! They had an amazing record collection and I saw that record and thought, “This record cover looks dope!” And it was like a dollar. I got in the van and my buddy was like, “That record’s worth like a hundred dollars!” I listened to it and found it interesting. The tuning is all weird, it’s kind of out of tune the whole time. After that, I had this opportunity to go to India with a friend, and there are these instruments that sound like a harmonium, it’s like an organ, a mini organ. To me it sounded kind of like that, and I thought he must have recorded it on some weird, fucked-up harmonium. I revisited it later when I got back, and he had used this weird Yamaha that has an ability to tune in a fucked-up way, so it has a dissonant, kind of grating thing going on. His stuff doesn’t all sound like that; I like that one because it feels like peaking in a deep psychedelic state. It can be really uncomfortable and scary, and you have to let yourself go. The ego-grasping stuff — the ego doesn’t want to be in danger, so you’re fighting that. The album has a little bit of dissonance that reminds me of that peaking state. But I like that it’s a consistent vibe throughout. 

I got to see him. He played Desert Daze with his son, this great festival in Joshua Tree. It was one of my favorite festivals — maybe the only festival I ever liked, mostly psych-rock. They had a lot of good bands that weren’t necessarily that big, but then legends like Terry Riley. Watching him get interviewed, he’s exactly how I would’ve guessed from listening to his music—very down to earth. He even said some of the stuff I feel about music, like making yourself an antenna.

It isn’t an album that I’d put on to create a vibe, if people just want to chill or whatever. It would be a special thing, maybe a drug experience or a certain type of meditation. I don’t know. 

The Harold Budd album, Pavilion of Dreams, is my go-to, end-of-the-night, to mellow. It’s such a peaceful feeling. That one is all just vibe. I kind of appreciate the idea of making background music. There’s a talent to that. I think he has a different kind of relationship with music. As far as I understand it, he’s got almost a punk attitude. Like, “I’m not using good anything. I’m a terrible pianist, I just mess around and do whatever I want.” He doesn’t seem attached to it being a big deal.

I go to estate sales a lot, or I used to. It’s like a museum of someone’s life through their shit. Sometimes it can be really depressing and sometimes it can be really inspiring and beautiful, and I feel like I want to honor the person. There’s one sale that I went to, where it was this guy who seemed like the coolest person. All the stuff in his house was interesting. He had those maps you get from national parks, going back to the ‘60s, hundreds of them. I bought all of them. I wanted to know about him. He had no family, I talked to the woman running the sale. He had an interesting record collection; he had those Environment records, where they recorded nature sounds. He had some new age-y shit, mostly peaceful stuff, and then some cool ambient stuff. I thought, “I don’t know this guy, but I totally love him, and I want to know what he knew.” There was one album with Terry Riley’s name on it, and it was some kind of collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, and it was so good. It’s the only song I really like on that record, but it was totally worth it.

An old bandmate of mine turned me on to the Woo record, It’s Cosy Inside. There’s two versions, there’s a remastered version, and it doesn’t seem like it should matter, but for some reason the remaster just doesn’t seem as good. I don’t know if they changed the actual mixes or what. Those dudes considered themselves new age music, they’re from the ‘70s, they’re brothers. They’re into looping; it’s electronic but they use a lot of organic stuff, too. It just sounds organic and natural. I think they kind of made music to do yoga to, but there’s something about the album that’s just so sweet and comforting and charming. That was my go-to drug album for a long time. Those sounds are so cute but not obnoxious. The whole album is kind of perfect to me. I was just reading about them, and apparently the album is inspired by 1984, the novel. To me, it’s like, “Oh, it’s cozy,” but apparently it’s not. One of the brothers did the artwork and there’s like cameras on it, like Big Brother watching. I just like the feel of the album. It’s one of the first I recommend to people, who tend to find it and become obsessed with it. It’s great.

STRFKR’s sound has morphed over the years through variations of hyper catchy, danceable pop, but this is something very different. For a little shy of an hour, Ambient 1 drifts through softly glowing electronic instrumentals that extract the synth core from the group’s well established synth pop sound. The inspirations for Ambient 1 were as amorphous as the album itself. Upon completing work on the lo-fi dreaminess of the band’s recent Future Past Life, STRFKR’s principal songwriter Josh Hodges found himself returning repeatedly to albums by his favorite ambient artists and minimal composers.

(Photo Credit: Coco Foto)