Photo by Shawn Brackbill.

A conversation with Earthen Sea’s Jacob Long

The ambient artist plays a Tone Madison-sponsored show on May 23 at Arts + Literature Laboratory. | By Evan Woodward

Earthen Sea is the ambient project from New York-based musician Jacob Long. After a gestation period of many years, and releases on labels like Lovers Rock and Other People, Long’s music has found a home on the bedrock American ambient label Kranky. Long’s musical career has taken him to several cities and scenes, from Washington, D.C. — where he played bass/saxophone/anything in dub-punk-jazz bands like Black Eyes and White Flight — to San Francisco, where he helped found the agit-dance trio Mi Ami and slapped bass in Skate Laws. Now he’s relocated to NYC, where he finished work on his latest Earthen Sea album, An Act of Love. He’ll be playing a Tone Madison-sponsored show behind that record on Tuesday, May 23 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, with Madison-based experimental musician Emili Earhart opening. I’ve known Jacob since around the year 2000. He was one of the first musical omnivores I ever met, and I can credit tons of musical discoveries to his effortless, constant scan of seemingly all music. I chatted with him recently to ask him a bit about how he makes his records, and records from which he draws inspiration.

Tone Madison: People often talk about Earthen Sea as music for the dead of night, but is the morning a meaningful time for you as well?

Jacob Long: Yeah, I actually often end up working on music a lot in the morning (or at least early in the day). I wouldn’t say I’m a “morning person” by any stretch, but definitely I find it to be a productive time for me, especially in terms of working on something I may be stuck on. Coming back to it and getting fresh ideas I find often happens first thing in the morning.

Tone Madison: I find I have ideas like that while lying in bed first thing in the morning. The trick is getting up and putting them to use. Do you work on music every day?

Jacob Long: I guess not every day but more often than not. During the week I work out of my studio, so I’m either working on music or listening to things related to what I’m working on in some capacity those days, and on the weekend sometimes as well depending on what I have going on, or just sketching things on my laptop on the kitchen table as well.

Tone Madison: You mention sketching. Your work is naturally quite dense, and I’m curious how these pieces start out. What is typically the first element you build off of?

Jacob Long: Typically I start by just recording a few tracks of keyboard/synth things, that I then chop up to use as sample/raw material. Once I have those chopped up I play around with some combination of them and work those around until I have a foundation I like. At some point along the way there I start to work some drums in as well, though often I am working on a beat and beat-less version of similar materials at the same time. Lately I’ve been working on some things that start with percussion/drums first though, and I’m using my “library” of sounds I’ve already made to flesh those pieces out.

Tone Madison: You must have quite a library, you’ve been recording music for what, over 20 years?

Jacob Long: Yeah, it has been quite a while. It doesn’t feel that long but I guess I made my first solo recordings a little more than 20 years ago. Unfortunately most of what I recorded before like five years ago was lost when my old HD crashed (whoops) but yeah, the library I’m working from is from all of the music I’ve made in the last three or so years.

Tone Madison: I’m curious if certain elements or building blocks of sound have stayed with you over time. In my memory alone, I’ve seen you play hardcore, no wave, dub, free jazz, and techno. Or at the least, music tangentially inspired by those styles.

Jacob Long: It’s interesting to think about what ties different music I’m interested in together. I have always been drawn to a wide variety of music, but I do think there is a certain physicality or presence of sound that I am drawn to and a raw/rough/unpolished feel that I like, that I think ties a bunch of those different kinds of music together. I find I’m much more interested in how sound feels and what sort of emotion it directly implies rather than having a sort of dramatic or narrative arc to it or something like that.

Tone Madison: Can you give an example of an emotion you are trying to express on the new record?

Jacob Long: I don’t consciously ever sit down and think “I’m going to make this sound about this,” but I definitely do use what I’m working on as an emotional outlet. It kinda just comes out? Its interesting to think about because I really don’t “think” about making music a lot in terms of thinking things out ahead of time (whether it’s the meaning of things or the music itself). I work just by sitting down and letting what happens happen. That said, my new record was made mostly during a year or so of pretty tough personal times so that certainly had an effect on the overall feel/vibe of the record.

Tone Madison: It may be trite to say, but it’s true that personal turbulence, if captured the right way, can be a strange motivator.

Jacob Long: It could just be because I’m too close to it but I don’t feel the record (or my music in general) is overall dark or anguished. At least, I hear a bit of that, but it’s never the dominant feeling in my mind. Certainly I (unfortunately) found it to be a good motivator to work, but what I took away the most from the work I did is that it helped me to find a way to see to a point past where I was at. Possibly, because that’s what I was reaching for, I hear that a bit in some of the pieces — something that’s more of a hope for the future rather than fully dwelling on the past.

Tone Madison: I would definitely say the overall feel of it is very joyous and beautiful, but the actual bits it’s made of sound dark. Does it bother you that an audience might just hear your music as dark and austere?

Jacob Long: I’m just happy and grateful that people are listening to what I’m making, but it is a bit odd when I’ve heard/seen that response to it because I don’t think about or feel it that way at all. More than anything, it’s just interesting to have a different perspective on what I’m doing, and to realize that your intention or what you think you are doing is kind of only really relevant to you.

Tone Madison: I think there’s just a preconception with dub techno that it is very serious and cold. But the whole idea of dub is to let sound bloom, and live in different spaces. I’m curious who you take after in that way, like I know we both love Vladislav Delay. On “Anima” he totally inverts the isolation of man-made techno into a whole city almost.

Jacob Long: I definitely have gone back to/been listening to a lot of Vladislav Delay’s music over the past six months to a year. I just find it amazing how he created this unique language for his own music and his own world that really feels like a space you could physically be in. Like I was saying earlier about the physicality of sound; that is something that I’ve always been drawn to, whether it was My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, or dub or like, Basic Channel. Music that creates this sound that envelops you or creates this space to just live in.

Tone Madison: Now I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to live inside of Loveless. Maybe that’s why Kevin Shields took 20 years off.

Jacob Long: Definitely, can you imagine how overwhelming that would be?

Tone Madison: Are there any other direct inspirations for the type of music you’re making now?

Jacob Long: In terms of what I’m working on now, or music I’ve been thinking about a lot, I would say Vladislav Delay, Jon Hassell is always a big one for me, some glitchy stuff like Oval and SND, Gas (of course/always). I’ve been revisiting some of the other Chain Reaction stuff and kind of diving into that for ideas, Fluxion especially. Lately I’ve been on a tear of listening to tons of Javanese gamelan music just to try to get some of the floating otherworldly sound to rub off on me.

Tone Madison: I’m listening to the new Jonny Nash LP right now and he did some of it in Bali. There’s gongs and frogs on this record, executed very well. Now that I’ve given you some time, do you have anything playing? Morning music? Any new records blowing your mind?

Jacob Long: The Daniel Schmidt LP that Recital put out last year is what got me off on my recent Javanese listening streak.

Tone Madison: Oh, I loved that one!

Jacob Long: I’ve been digging that Visible Cloaks LP a lot. I really enjoy the sparseness of it and the sort of early-digital meets modern-digital aesthetic.

Tone Madison: Same. they set the bar very high with that.

Jacob Long: In a similar vibe, I really dug the Georgia LP All Kind Music that came out last year, a little more all over the place but definitely in its own world.

Tone Madison: I see those records occupying a similar space, Visible Cloaks and Georgia, but damned if I can put it into words. They both describe an alternative future/present, which is very appealing right now.

Jacob Long: For sure, the appeal of that is definitely easy to see. I think the Georgia record more suggests an amount of chaos in the world as well, but it’s definitely an alternative to any sort of reality that currently exists. How it almost comes together at moments, and those moments hold it together after they pass and it continues to fall apart.

Tone Madison: Yes, that’s good. It really sounds like a multitude, that is maybe only accidentally in harmony sometimes.

Jacob Long: Maybe that’s what’s drawing me to things as well, the other record that really hit home last year for me was the Jan Jelinek and Masayoshi Fujita collab. Another one that feels like an alternative world of their own.

Tone Madison: Would you ever try a collaboration like that? Those guys have pretty different backgrounds.

Jacob Long: I would love to do some sort of collaboration like that…it would be really interesting to approach someone else’s playing with the process I use (and vice versa).

Tone Madison: The new record is on Kranky, which without getting carried away, is really one of the best American labels ever, in terms of longevity, consistent yet shifting vision, and in how they let artwork speak for itself. How has working with them taught you something new? Also, what’s your favorite Kranky record?

Jacob Long: It’s really something to have the chance to work with them. I mean, I’ve been listening to records on the label since I was like 18. I would say what working with them taught me the most so far was to be confident in my vision for what I’m doing, but to be able to take advice/suggestions/feedback when needed, because the combination of that give and take will make for a stronger final result. Favorite Kranky record is a tough one….so many to choose from….an old standby would be the second Growing record, though my recent fave would have to be the most recent Grouper album.

Tone Madison: I guess i saved the unanswerable question for last. I love the Pan American albums, but I would also have to say Grouper’s Ruins. Just a devastating record.

Jacob Long: Man, I’ve never really dug into those Pan American records, which is your fave? My other recent faves are the Anjou records (especially the first one), but Ruins is hard to top in terms of emotional impact.