Raquel Bell interviewed about her new electronic music project, Leafblower

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Raquel Bell has been part of many different creative endeavors, including bands (such as Galecstasy, Normal Love, Mesiko and The Dialtones), dance, painting, and video art. She has now launched a new solo instrumental electronic project called Leafblower and released a self-titled debut. In an email interview, she explains how the project came about and the creative process behind it.

You’ve been part of many projects, and I previously interviewed you about your vocal-driven Swandala solo album. How did this instrumental electronic solo release come about?

Leafblower was born because I needed an outlet to express compositions that fall outside of traditional songs and records. 

In New York City and Austin, I had played in rock bands and punk bands, but I was also composing and creating my own experimental sounds for soundtracks and live performance. I created my own version of a synthesizer using a pile of guitar pedals and my vintage combo organ. I had extensively performed with voice and synthesizer but hadn’t recorded much. Swandala was a record that I built around songs and more traditional ideas, and it cost a fortune to make. I thought “Swandala” was a tremendous achievement, but it did not do well except for a few fans who discovered it and loved it. I have no regrets about pouring so much time and effort into Swandala, but it isn’t an affordable model. I hired an orchestra of extremely talented improvising musicians to work on that music. Flutes, vibes, clarinet, violin, piano, theremin, and more and more and more. After Swandala culminated and it didn’t get the attention I had hoped for (and I realized touring with a small orchestra was a lost hope), I turned my focus elsewhere. 

That same year I was home alone sitting on my deck looking over the Brazos River in central Texas, and I heard a voice loud and clear in my ear: “You will learn to play drums.” This really surprised me because I had played every other instrument imaginable but never a drum. I even played the french horn! That summer, I began studying drumming, and funnily enough, I got very swept up in it. I was doing a serious daily practice of drumming and singing. This was when I met Jared Marshall of Primary Mystical Experience. He had been asking me to perform with him for about a year, but I seemed to be on tour every time he called. When we finally got in a room to rehearse for a show, it was as if our whole lives had been leading up to the moment. I had the sketches for Ferns and Color Wheel, and Jared had deep synthesizer and drum chops; it was moments before songs were pouring out seemingly from nowhere.

Since then, we have been playing as a duo called Galecstasy. My sister named us. We immediately got some great gigs playing at museums and galleries. We even had a record planned with super-star bass player Mike Watt (Iggy Pop/The Minutemen). In Los Angeles, we played at the first Synthplex. Synthesizer manufacturers came from everywhere to show off the newest and coolest in Burbank. It was there I first sat down in front of the System-8 at the Roland trade booth. I sat across from a 4-year-old who was also playing the System-8. We sat across from each other in our headphones for about 15 minutes. Little did I know that was the beginning of Leafblower. 

Could you discuss the creative process behind it, including the tools you used?

The most significant factors in creating Leafblower were 1) The pandemic 2) The Roland System-8 Synthesizer. 

My aforementioned combo organ was starting to fade on me. I had taken it to the top instrument doctor, and he agreed that it was in tender shape and needed to take it easy. I could not keep it in tune on the road, so I had to retire it. I actually got a bit depressed during this time because my identity was tied to it. But fortunately, it wasn’t long before I purchased the System-8. The new Roland synth opened up possibilities for me. It contained versions of the older Roland synths like the Jupiter and Juno within it, and it had the really fun user-end experience that Roland is known for. It took time to get to know the new synth, but it wasn’t long before we started to, pun intended, synthesize. So fast forward, I have a great new synth for touring, and some hot shows and records lined up with Galecstasy when quarantine hit.

At this point, Primary Mystical Experience and I had set up a recording studio in Joshua Tree, California. We did the only reasonable thing a band could do during quarantine and started making records day and night. Leafblower happened completely organically. We had moved a live recording set-up into our living room so that we could live-stream onto youtube. We were doing a live-stream every week, and we called it Heaven Channel. We figured this would help us keep up our chops up and stay connected with people in isolation. So my synth was set up in the living room, and I played it every day. Once the music for Leafblower started flowing, it was easy and magical. I had so much fun recording and mixing it I can’t even express it. This was my creative baby during the quarantine. I am very grateful that I get to share it with the world!

Was there an overall sound you were going for or was that dictated by experimentation?

The sound arrived during my countless hours experimenting on the synth. If I play something and jump up with glee and dance around, I know at least one other person might like it too. I probably screamed with joy and made Jared listen to my initial compositions. From there, I delved deeper into the potential of the synth. I recorded everything myself and layered track upon track. I do a lot of dynamic mixing. One of my main complaints about synthesizer or ambient music is the lack of dynamics. Leafblower intentionally takes you on a sonic rollercoaster. I have several synths, loopers, percussion instruments and vocals for live Leafblower sets. I have several Leafblower records in the making, but I am not rushing the projects. I want them to be wonderful and unfold at their own pace.

Was the album created as a whole, or do the songs span a more extended timeframe (perhaps done between other projects)?

This debut Leafblower album was recorded as a whole. The excitement of the new sounds I was able to produce drove the project. But I am always working on multiple records and projects. I make my living as an artist as well so there are paintings being made, video-art, films, dance, etc. I help assemble and repair Hypno video synthesizers for Sleepy Circuits. Galecstasy has several new records either about to be released or in the mixing/mastering process. Our new ambient-meditation cassette will also be coming out on Aural Canyon this year titled Binary star. I am in the process of making a film that will be part of a ballet with more original music. My last ballet film premiered at the Taipei International Convention Center with live music by Galecstasy. Leafblower was being created at the same time and influenced that project. Going forward, I am very interested in the way sound can transform our bodies and the potential of synthesizers to mend and harmonize on the molecular level. Our military creates weapons that use frequency. I want to do the opposite and bring harmony and a more dynamic experience of daily life due to higher vibrations. 

Why the name “Leafblower”?

I am so glad you asked! For many years I have studied shamanism and energy medicine. In fact, I belong to an ancient school that has passed down knowledge of the divine feminine from generation to generation. I grew up on a dirt road beneath the tallest trees in the world; the California Redwoods. My childhood friends were the plants and animals around me, so you might say I was very connected to the beauty of nature and the language of the weather. When I lived in New York City, I had a really bad pet peeve, and that was leafblowers! I thought that they were the epitome of everything wrong with humanity. I felt like they were a symbol of ultimate laziness and disrespect. You would be walking down a sidewalk in New York, and someone would be leaf blowing. It would hurt your ears, blow exhaust and dirt in your face, and the leaves weren’t even raked up; they were just blown around for someone else to deal with. So I guess I had a very strong hatred for leafblowers. In some shamanic traditions, there is a type of person called a Heyoka, which means the Sacred Clown. Leafblower is my way of clowning on the bad energy that the word brought up for me and turning it around. The REAL Leafblower is the WIND! For instance, the wind is blowing gently while I am writing, and a wind chime is reverberating a beautiful tone across the backyard. Leafblower is the spirit and magic moving through us and all things. I also love the humor of it. 

Is the limited-edition cassette the only physical release? What made you decide to use that format?

Currently, the album is only available as a digital download from Bandcamp or the cassette. My other project is called Galecstasy, and we released our debut studio record on the label Aural Canyon and had success with it. The label offered to release Leafblower on cassette, and I jumped with joy. I was born in 1980, and all of my first records were on tapes. I loved the fact that you could dub them and make mixtapes. I absolutely love cassettes, and I am happy about the resurgence. Plus, the company that the label uses for making the cassettes just released brand new fluorescent green tapes, and I was over the moon at being one of the first artists to have them. It tickled my heart! At the time I am writing this, there are only 3 tapes remaining, so the original edition has nearly sold out in the first week of the release. Hopefully, that means more physical merchandise to look forward to in the near future. And just one more thing, this record sounds really really good on cassette. I personally enjoy dubbing my own tapes. It is an art form in and of itself. Every tape sounds just a little different and brings new qualities to the music. Over time the tapes can change. I like this contrast to the very linear and exacting quality of music in the digital age. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any other projects that you’d like to mention?

I would just like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for including me on Chaos Control! I encourage readers to please go to my website, www.raquelbell.com, and sign up for my mailing list. I send out a letter a couple of times a year with all of the fun updates. For instance, I am going to premier the new Animal Ballet in Marfa, Texas in October, and Galecstasy will be performing again soon. Ganjisland, my duo with Lisa Cameron, started recording our new record, and it is really wild. Also, the world-famous djembe player, Abou Sylla, is coming to record in a few weeks, and I know that will be fantastic. The pandemic broke my heart in some ways but created more opportunities for recording. This is just the beginning. Thanks for listening! 

The Leafblower album can be purchased at :
https://auralcanyonmusic.bandcamp.com/album/leafblower

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