Electronic ambient music is a funny animal when you think about it. How is it possible to create compelling music with no conventional instruments, no words, and no beat? But, Austin Cairns, aka r beny, is one of those rare sonic alchemists who does just that weaving rich aural tapestries and exploring the labyrinths of memory using modular & hardware synthesizers and tape machines. Using His 2016 debut full blossom of the evening deservedly caught the ear of many discerning followers of the ambient scene with its broad spectrum of beautifully crafted sounds and varying moods. Then, after a period of personal difficulty and transformation he created what surely must be considered one of the best albums of its kind last year, cascade symmetry. Far from exhibiting a sophomore slump, Cairns found the soul of his machines and delivered a quiet stunner with a palpable melancholy and potent emotional undertow that was little short of astonishing. Now, following his most recent release, the delicate and peaceful saudade on Belgian tape label Dauw, Cairns talks with us about how he got started, his creative process, his gear, and what’s on the horizon.
First of all, you and your music are somewhat new to readers of ST, so perhaps you can tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be on your current artistic journey? I am particularly interested in what drew you toward modular & hardware synths as the primary engines of your creations.
My name is Austin Cairns and I perform ambient electronic music under the name ‘r beny’. I grew up playing guitar in all kinds of bands, up until a few years ago. I was struggling with depression and anxiety and the process of making music was no longer fun or creatively rewarding to me. With no end goal in sight, I thought there was no point to keep putting all this energy into something that was making me ultimately unhappy and ended up selling off most of my gear.
After about a year, a friend showed me a cheap synthesizer he had bought and we jammed on it. That led me to purchasing my own for fun and before I knew it I had accrued a small studios worth of gear. I got into modular pretty quickly after that after seeing some great demos for the Mutable Instruments Clouds module on YouTube. I experienced what I felt was a creative renaissance. Synthesizers and modular allowed me to express myself in ways I struggled to previously with the guitar. The instruments felt more exploratory to me, almost therapeutic.
I’m grateful for the journey I have experienced thus far.
I always find the choice of aliases by solo musicians intriguing. Why ‘r beny’?
When I was first getting into synths, I started a YouTube channel as a way to connect with the online communities I was joining at the time. I intended it to be a tutorial channel and it started out that way. I was struggling to think of a name and settled on ‘r beny’ as an homage to Canadian photographer Roloff Beny, of whom I owned several photography books and was inspired by. The name was meant to be a placeholder, but it just kind of stuck as people began to recognize the name.
I preferred to use an alias to my own name, possibly as an escape…to inhabit a different mindset. I’ve always been fascinated by solo musicians using aliases as well.
There are so many layers in nuance in each piece you create. I wonder if you could give us a little insight into your process for putting them together. Do you have specific textural and melodic ideas in mind right from the outset or do you end up finding your way to these elements through experimentation?
My creative process usually isn’t set in stone. Usually it will involve exploring a certain synthesizer or a patch on my modular. Mostly searching for textures or sounds I like, inspired by whatever I’m inspired by in the moment…emotions, other music, people, places, things. That involves making patches from scratch, playing with effects, things like that.
Once I have something I like, I’ll start building a loop or a part. Usually it’s trying to find a melody that matches with that inspiration and mood, sometimes it’s just exploring movements within a texture or sound. Once I have a loop or part down that I like, I’ll repeat the process by adding more layers. By this point, I’ll have an idea of how I’d like the full piece to go and whether it’s going to be something that’s played in one-take or multi-tracked. Because of this process, a lot of my tracks are structured in a linear way.
Some readers might be interested to know about the gear that you use. What are some of the components you rely on to develop your sound?
Right now, my main instrument is the modular synthesizer. My system is broken down into essentially five sections – sound generation, sequencing, modulation, sound manipulation/effects, and utilities. Mutable Instruments Rings tends to be my most used voice. For those that don’t know, it’s a resonator made specifically for physical modelling synthesis. It’s great for getting string, piano, harp, violin, guitar-like sounds, but it uses synthesis rather than samples.
I also use a Novation Peak polyphonic synthesizer, a Korg Electribe 2, an Elektron Analog Heat and a Strymon El Capistan and I recently started using endless cassette loops on a modded Tascam Porta Studio 03.
All of your releases so far have been available on cassette including three editions for ‘full blossom of the evening’. What do you like about that medium and do you feel like audiences are becoming more receptive to it?
A major appeal of cassettes for me is the nostalgia. I grew up right as cassettes were dying out and CDs were taking over. But they were always around when I grew up. My first girlfriend gave me a mix cassette. When I got my first car as a teenager, it had a cassette deck. I would go to the record store and buy a ton of cassettes for $0.50 each.
Beyond the nostalgic value, I think cassettes tend to work very well for ambient and electronic music. It has a character, but I feel the way frequencies respond to the tape just sound pleasing to me. And despite having a reputation for being lo-fi, I don’t feel that is always the case.
Finally, cassettes are still cheap; they are cheap for the artist to get produced and cheap for the fan to buy. Vinyl is just too expensive for independent artists to get done on their own and CDs, while even cheaper than cassettes, are just another digital copy prone to scratching that someone will just end up burning to their computer anyway. I feel like cassettes have settled in as a nice mid-point solution.
In the liner notes for ‘cascade symmetry’, you mentioned that the album was “the culmination of an intense and transformative year-long period” and “an ode to new beginnings and the disintegration of the past”. Can you talk about how those personal transformations are reflected in the music?
After releasing Full Blossom of the Evening in September 2016, the year that followed was intense and transformative (to steal from my own notes). I had a long-term relationship end. I started a new job after quitting my dead-end day job. I started getting more offers for shows. I travelled out of the country for the first time in my life. I faced a lot of truths about myself…both good and harsh, but real. I had a lot of heart to hearts with old friends and new. It was a year of propulsion and looking forward and I put all of that into Cascade. To me, that means maybe a feeling of bitter sweetness, but also of hope and calmness.
If I am not mistaken, your first two albums were self-released. ‘saudade’ turned out so nicely and is a perfect fit for the aesthetic of the Dauw label. How did you come to partner with them?
I had been talking with them about doing a release for quite some time. Personally, I prefer to control every aspect of a release myself and I’m a big DIY person. It took a lot of mulling over, but because of Dauw’s pedigree as a label and their love and understanding of the music, it was a no-brainer to agree to do a release.
I couldn’t be happier with how the partnership has gone so far. It has been a pleasant experience having the support of the label and having the support to get the release out. I’m grateful.
Any new projects on the horizon you can tell us about?
I have a split cassette tape coming with one of my favorite artists and good friend of mine, Paperbark. That will be out in a few weeks on Seil Records. I have a lot of other exciting things in the works, but I can’t talk about them just yet. It will be a prolific year.
The music of r beny (a sampler from the past 3 albums)
“palo colorado” from saudade (Dauw, 2018)
“empty grids” from cascade symmetry (2017)
“light leak” from full blossom of the evening (2016)