Ambient instrumental music is notoriously abstract and nebulous, making reference points and context hard to determine or convey. If a musician is trying to make a social statement or commentary, it’s usually done through lyrics or spoken work. Guitarist Tristan Welch creates expressive ambient music for thinking people that comes coupled with a message: all is not right with our economy and society here in America. He’s an outspoken musician with a sardonic take on modern human existence, and has just released his latest album Temporary Preservation—a concept based on his experience as a funeral director. Tristan is the most fascinating musician I’ve met in a long time, and I had to get in touch with him to find out more about the ideas and personal history behind his sound.
I started off by asking Tristan how he got started creating music and got a brutally honest response. “I’ve been playing music for a long time”, he says, “I grew up on punk stuff and hardcore, that was what appealed to me when I was younger, but I was never very good at it. And any band I had would fall apart for various reasons. And through a lot of that, truthfully I was on drugs. Like it was bad, so that would kind of take over.”
Recovering from drugs and addiction would form the basis of a personal rebound, but not without first abandoning his musical aspirations. “So around like 17, 18, that was my frame of mind, and as I mentioned before, I had a real bad drug addiction, so just really fell apart. Various jails and institutions and things for years. I sold everything I had or pawned it.”
Tristan continues: “So it took a long time to refocus. I got clean in 2010 and then for about five years, I simply focused on getting my life together and music really had no part of that. I listened to music, I still read blogs and kept up and restarted my record collection, things like that. But within that timeframe, the whole idea of how you discover music had changed. I was used to seeing ads in print magazines, going to Tower Records, seeing flyers, and that was not the case. Then eventually I started doing things under my own name again, around 2015, 2016.”
Another angle of Tristan’s story is his non-musical profession as a funeral director. While he was in a halfway house years ago, his dad offered to get him a job at a local funeral parlor. “They took me under their wing,” he says. “They were like: ‘you’ve done a lot with your life. If this is something you want to do, we’ll teach you how to do it’.”
He continues to work as a funeral director, a job that fits surprisingly well into a musician’s schedule. “I work at a small place. It’s just me and one other guy, and we alternate weekends. We work 10 days in a row.” This arrangement gives him four consecutive days off—Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday—every two weeks, allowing for large blocks of creative time. This time has led to a consistent string of releases of the past four years.
“I took the punk chords I knew and [asked myself]: how do I draw these out forever?”
Welch inhabits a realm of ambient and experimental guitarists shared with luminaries such as Loren Connors, Roy Montgomery and Carl Hultgren. Informal music training and a background in punk music helps to keep his sound fresh and urgent, especially given the tie-in with contemporary social issues. A line drawn from punk rock to loop-based ambient music isn’t always a straight one, so I asked Tristen how that path evolved.
“I’d always been interested in other kinds of music or more artsy forms of punk or post-punk,” he says. “After I graduated high school, I discovered I actual like noise music, through people I met. That opened my mind towards what I always liked about punk—it’s just pure expression. It doesn’t really [take] technical abilities; things like that weren’t necessarily the focus. It was more like: what are you expressing?”
Distilling punk and hardcore music down to pure expression using guitar, Tristan then built his sound up from there. “I discovered that and ran with it since then,” he adds. “My interests, like I said, [have] always [been] more into the arty aspect of things. I took the punk chords I knew and [asked myself]: how do I draw these out forever? Ambient music is clearly just based on the tone and I like that.”
Any guitarist, especially with an ethereal sound, will tell you that their pedals are their secret sauce. The desire to draw out chords into ambient soundscapes takes the right combination, though that setup is constantly evolving. Tristan explains: “I use a Boomerang Looper. It’s a big pedal that has four loopers built in and you can fade them out individually, start and stop things. You can sync it. I’ll hear a sound in my head. I still can’t create it, but I’m always selling a pedal for another one I think might help. I’m always flipping my pedal board.”
My first exposure to Tristan’s music came with the Chromesthesia Chronicles album, released in mid-2020. Steve Loya, an artist and friend from the DC area, had posted the album on his Instagram account, with some background on the project. Both Steve and Tristan had traded material—Steve sending paintings to Tristan to interpret; Tristan sending songs to Steve to transcribe visually—over several months.
The result is a collection of nine tracks based on mood and feeling without a heavy focus on composition. From the liner notes: “One of my earliest influences on guitar taught me to view every note I play as a stroke of a brush. To think more in color than in sound.”
Steve Loya says of the collaboration: “I admire his ability to collaborate, and working with him on that was easy, which I found can be a rarity when working with other artists and musicians. He really tapped into the spirit of my paintings with his music, and I’m hoping I did the same for his work, as well. The good news is we’ve got some more collaborative stuff in the works in the near future.”
Although Chromesthesia Chronicles was a more abstract outing, much of Tristan’s material has a more social commentary and capitalism critique angle. An earlier work, 2019’s 40 Hours, served as “a meditation on the standard 40-Hour work week—why it exists, why we are doing it, how it effects us.” We discussed creative people needing to do much of their work on the side, and Tristan expanded on the topic. “Look,” he says, “[I am] in the funeral industry because it happened and I need[ed] a job. But the truth is, I actually do kind of like it. I probably do everything I do in 25 hours and I would do that because I enjoy it. I think it helps people and I’m good at it.”
He then points out the modern reality of work life: “But realistically I have to hit 40 hours to have health insurance. I have to hit 40 hours for retirement, like I have to. It’s a control thing: we have to produce, produce, produce. And well, I would produce, it just wouldn’t be for a company. You know? I think carpenters would still be carpenters. I think some people are workaholics. They’d still put in 80 hours because that’s what they want to do. I believe the economy would actually boom. That was the big message I was trying to push on 40 Hours.”
Since having a message is an integral part of Welch’s musical persona, I asked him how delivering that message through his material has evolved over time. “It’s a complicated relationship,” he says. “I got interested in the whole thing when I first heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor as a teenager, hearing them use instrumental music to push an agenda, for lack of a better term. And I was very influenced by that. So when I did the 40 Hours record, my idea was: I could do that.”
Tristan continues, “I’ve grown a little bit in those few years and feel like no one really needs someone else pushing any ideas down anyone’s throat. So now I still want to convey experiences or even opinions or beliefs, but I want to do it in a way that’s just like: this is how I’m feeling. This is what I was experiencing and this is how I’ve dealt with it. And then maybe you can just be aware of it and can draw a conclusion from that. Which is what I wanted to do with Ambient Distress. “
For that album, each song title reflects a different—often negative—emotion about real-life topics. Titles such as “Employment Frustration”, “Environmental Anger” and “Social Hopelessness” paint vivid pictures of the underlying musical currents that underscore those emotions. He sums this up by saying: “I like using the titles to give a sense of purpose, [and] the feelings that came from it.”
Live Performances and Streaming
Given that live performances should be the best means of exposure for a musician, I asked Tristen what he thought about the future of live performances post-pandemic. He gave a blunt response: “I have no idea.”
“I have a lot of friends that joke: ‘well we could probably safely have an ambient show because it was only gonna be 10 to 20 people.’ And they’re right.”
Welch elaborates: “I play a lot—or I had, after this COVID stuff slammed the brakes. The funny thing is, I don’t miss it tremendously. It’s weird. I felt like I had an obligation to [perform], because that’s where I’d sell most records. But at the same time, I’d go play at some bar where no one would pay attention for maybe 20, 30 minutes, get home at two in the morning and have to be wake up for work at six, to hustle one or two records [I] already lost money on. And that’s not the most important part, but objectively speaking—I get home and [think], that was such a waste of time.”
Going forward, modern-era social distancing may not be the obstacle to putting on shows. He adds, “I have a lot of friends that joke: ‘well we could probably safely have an ambient show because it was only gonna be 10 to 20 people.’ And they’re right. I think when it does start again, I may end up being quite a bit more selective. I have found that I actually much prefer recording, putting the record out, talking to people like you.”
A good middle ground—and the only option for most these days—is live streaming over the internet. I asked Tristan if that had become a part of his repertoire. “I’ve actually done quite a bit,” he says, “and the funny part is this is I’ve probably been more successful on that than I am most shows. Any CD I put out this year, I [did] one on Facebook or Twitch. People from other areas of the country have [asked]: ‘Hey, I’m trying to help artists out. Do you want to do this on Twitch for me?’ And I’d be like, yeah, sure. I don’t have to go anywhere. Why not?”
Then he returns to the topic of live shows. “It’s funny, I’m talking about how I don’t really miss playing shows, but at the same time, the live streaming I don’t think compares with a lot of what I do. I view live performance as an art in itself and I want you to be able to feel the volume. I like the dynamic when it’s quiet. I like people being able to hear the bar glasses; being able to surprise them with the loud part. I have plenty of equipment that is catered only for that, [it] just doesn’t really happen on the live stream. I like both honestly.”
Recording the New Album
The intersection of composition and performance ultimately leads to recording, and I asked him how he handles being able to reproduce his songs live. “I previously have always been recording with the idea of performance in mind. It’s like millions of layers, but I’m always trying to make sure I can recreate it. And so, even though I can’t remember most of Ambient Distress by this point—just because I’m not playing it—I made it with that idea in mind of when touring is a thing, I can do it again, [it’s] reproducible.”
For Tristan’s new album, Temporary Preservation, he took a different approach not tied strictly to playing it live. “The next record I’m getting ready for I made with a complete disregard the performance,” he says, “where I just put a click track on my computer, make a layer and then spend hours trying to figure out the next layer. It takes me eight to ten hours to put something together, sit down, mix it or revisit it; either decide what else needs to be done or if it’s complete trash (which has happened quite a bit). And that’s the first time I think I’ve actually sat down and been like: I’m just recording, I don’t care what happens afterwards. And honestly I liked the way that sounds best. I think after I put that out, I may try to combine the two ideas: I’m going to disregard performance, but I’m going to make sure I can write everything down so I can revisit it.”
That new album, out now, is about “capturing a moment in time – but only for a moment.” The concept of “temporary preservation” comes from his funeral director background, but the term can also apply to the recording process he explained above. You can’t do a job like that without it affecting large parts of your psyche. Thankfully Mr. Welch has found a suitable outlet for the experiences he encounters at his day job.
Although he has released material on other labels, Tristan plans to continue self-releasing his work for the indefinite future. In classic DIY fashion, he handles the production, manufacturing (both CDs and vinyl), distribution and promotion himself—and prefers it that way. “The last one (Ambient Distress) I did through the label Somewherecold, who I haven’t personally met yet, but I’ve met a few people he’s worked with on tour. And [Jason from Somewherecold] really liked the 40 hours record, so we’ve worked together. But honestly, unless things change, for now on I might stick with self-releasing because I’m kind of a control freak.”
Closing out our conversation, the topic naturally turned to current events—particularly the political situation here in the US, as well as the Coronavirus pandemic. He offered up his thoughts on how we can all try to make things better. “I generally feel like we need to understand each other,” he begins, “and I don’t even mean politically (but I obviously mean that too). It’s just with COVID and stuff, there are certain people that get on because [someone] may not be isolating, and I’m like: well they’re working manual labor, what do you want? There’s no government check, they can’t stay home. Just try to understand.”
Finding a middle ground for society to move forward can sometimes feel like a losing battle as each side becomes more entrenched in their positions. “And that’s important, we can disagree. [Except] on racism—there is no middle ground”, he clarifies. “But these other aspects, like, okay, you believe we shouldn’t be taxed. But we need [things] to happen. So how do we make it happen? Because otherwise we’re suffering. I’m not a politician, but it [doesn’t] seem like a lack of talking. Maybe a lack of listening.”
For me, I’ll keep listening to Tristan’s music as he navigates the worlds of social commentary and self-releasing music. Many of the topics he covers are not ones that people think about on a regular basis. But maybe through listening to pensive ambient music, more will take the time to ponder them.