Smile Politely

At a Snayl’s pace: Exploring Without, and the man behind it

Full Disclosure: Austin Duncan, aka Snayl, is one of my best friends in the world; he was one of the first people I became close with upon my relocation to the C-U area, we were roommates for several years, and he’s one of the primary catalysts for breaking this longtime shy nerd’s social shell — I can often be spotted (and heard) at many of the various Snayl gigs around town.

Despite the fact that I’d previously written a couple of music pieces for SP, I often feel as if I’m on the sidelines when observing the C-U scene. Honestly — wishing I had the courage and drive to participate more.

That is where Duncan comes into play. Watching him and his music grow from, in his own words, the “crappy little beats” he was making in his old apartment to the present, has been one of the shining examples of inspiration in my life. Rarely, if ever, have I had a more up close and personal example of the value of hard work, dedication, and a desire to keep perfecting one’s craft and going the extra mile than I have with watching him and his music from my singularly unique vantage point.

I was honored to interview Duncan to discuss Without, his approach to music, future plans for the project, and more.

(Note: the following conversation was conducted while we listened to Without; keeping that in mind, it may enhance your experience as you check out both the music and/or this interview. Listen to it here or stream below.)

Smile Politely: I’ve seen Snayl built from the ground up, and that’s a large part of why I’ve wanted to interview you about it all. I’m curious: what would you say has been the biggest difference between how you view your art when you first started making your “crappy little beats” — your phrase, not mine! — and where you are now? What’s your current perspective on how this has all worked out, as you’re on the verge of releasing Without?

Duncan: When I first started, I didn’t expect it to go anywhere. It kinda felt more like “this is fun!”, like playing a video game or something, experiencing a new form of art that I’d never done before in making electronic music through Ableton. And the learning curve that goes from taking the clips they give you – the wacky drum sounds, the sounds of people screaming on a 20 BPM track, that sort of thing – that’s how it all started. I had NO idea what I was doing [laughs]. I really didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but out of nowhere, the more I messed around with it, the more people began to respond: “hey, this sounds like an actual song! What are you gonna do with it?” and I’d reply, “I don’t know!” But I kept at it, and eventually I had an EP’s worth and released that.

I don’t know, though…even after that, I still never really expected it to go this long. It’s been almost three years since this has been going on — I think the first EP came out in August 2015, so we’re coming up on the three-year anniversary of Snayl.

Now? It’s my everything. It’s all I’ve got, you know? It’s my contribution to society — the little slice of Austin that I can show to the world. It’s amazing — we’ve played Pygmalion two years in a row, we’ve toured once and are about to go out on a second tour — and it’s been quite a fun ride! Things are a little uncertain about the future and about what’s gonna happen after August, but I don’t see it stopping anytime soon — I want to see it keep growing, keep evolving, which I can hopefully continue to do.

SP: You are notorious for your harebrained, spur-of-the-moment ideas to collaborate with everyone and release all of these hypothetical projects simultaneously. And yet, here we sit in 2018, and it’s been almost exactly two years between albums. What took you so long? I know there were some planned collaborations that didn’t work out — you don’t have to name names — but given how quickly you seem to have ideas, why the relatively long gap between albums?

Duncan: It did take a lot longer than I wanted it to, and in retrospect, some of the songs that didn’t work out were gonna be some of the cornerstones of the album, so I was really disappointed to not have them there — they may never see the light of day, unfortunately. But I still feel like the album itself is strong enough that without them, it’s still a great listen, something that I’m super happy with. In terms of the length between albums, there was an EP release (EP 2), but even that was quite a while ago at this point. Some of the songs on the new album date back to the Dreaming of Ghosts era — they were songs that didn’t make sense at the time, or that I put aside for various reasons.

For instance, the song “If Only,” with KVMPVIGN, also initially featured another artist, but that fell through, then KVMPVIGN moved away and I was unable to get into contact with them for a long time. Then I hooked up with CJ Run, and they were super interested in getting on that track, which ended up working out really well since I eventually was able to keep KVMPVIGN’s contributions too. It’s one of the oldest songs on the album, though — I started writing that one right after I released Dreaming of Ghosts, but I was only able to fully complete it just a few months ago. It was worth the wait, honestly. It’s the same with “Warm Rain,” too — that’s almost two years old now, too.

SP: Yeah, you were working on “Warm Rain” when we were still living together — it was in a different key and everything when you first started it.

Duncan: Yeah, so it’s probably well over two years old now. I’d been working on that one for a while, or at least the beat, anyway, which goes through a lot of changes. But it was worth the time I took with it – it didn’t make sense to me at first as a song, I didn’t really know what to do with it, but maybe a year, year and a half later, it suddenly seemed to fall into place – the song seemed to build on itself. I know I’m gonna butcher this quote, but I heard a story once about David Bowie hanging out with Iggy Pop, about six years or so before he released the song “Scary Monsters,” and Bowie was riffing on the song well before he released it and was asking Iggy, “what do I do with this?” And Iggy tells him, “man, I don’t know. I can’t help you with it,” but Bowie was the sort of guy to not let go of ideas like that, and he saved it until he perfected it. I feel the same way about a lot of this stuff – like, I know it’s a good idea, there’s something about this that I know is a good idea, but I just can’t quite figure it out yet. It may be two weeks from now, hell, it may even be a year and a half from now for it to become a real live song. But certainly in the case of “Warm Rain,” it’s one of the best songs we’ve got, absolutely worth the wait it took to create it.

Photo by Erinn Dady

SP: We’ve talked a lot, both collectively and separately, about mental demons — I struggle with my own personal issues quite a bit, and it’s something I try to be candid about whenever I feel comfortable speaking out on it. What I’ve always wanted to ask you is this: how much of that do you channel through Snayl? Has trying to work out any of your own demons ever culminated in something that ended up being artistically sound?

Duncan: I feel like that all the time, honestly. Snayl is really my only consistent outlet for my emotions and how I’m feeling. When I’ll be up in my room, alone in the middle of the night, and things start getting really overwhelming and all my emotions come bearing down on me, it kinda feels like, “well, let’s see if I can make something out of this.” Then all of a sudden, I’ve started the creative process, I’ve got a drumline going, and I’ve got the gist of a song laid down, often before I’ve even fully realized it. In fact, the song that’s playing right now, “Happily Coherent,” is a perfect example, actually – it was written on a night exactly like that, a night where I felt super overwhelmed emotionally and like I had to get it all out of my system somehow. And that’s where the song title came from, too – that’s how I felt listening to it afterwards, like I’d gotten this huge weight off my shoulders, like I’m not so stressed anymore, like I’d gotten all that darkness out of me.

SP: Your songs are usually instrumentals — occasionally there’s some vocals filtered through vocoders — but when there have been vocalists on the track, the singing or rapping has been conducted by guest artists. It’s something we’ve occasionally chatted about before, but would you yourself consider adding lyrical/singing elements to your music?

Duncan: I would like to start singing more… I think my biggest problem with it is writing lyrics, really. I have a really hard time writing lyrics that aren’t just a few stray phrases at a time. I used to take voice lessons from Ryan Groff of Elsinore — we did it for a while, and I mean, I feel like I can sing reasonably well, it’s just… I don’t know if it’s stage fright or what, but I feel like I have a really hard time with it. The title track of the new album, we play that pretty frequently live, and I do sing on that, but it’s through some pretty heavily processed vocoders. That honestly was really my first time writing something more than just a sentence or two for lyrics; there are a few lines to that one. But I just have a really hard time letting that out in front of people. I think what I’m trying to do now with Snayl is… everything we’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever done, has been completely original songs — I’ve never done any covers. We’re working on our first set of covers right now, and in those, I will be singing. So I’m hoping that that will ease off some of that stage fright and feeling like I need a mask of vocal processors to cover things up.

SP: Following up with that, are there any elements that aren’t currently present in Snayl that you would like to explore? We joke a lot about “Snayl goin’ country!” and things like that, but all seriousness, considering where you started out and where you are now, are there any particular future directions that you like to pursue?

Duncan: I feel like I was just having this conversation recently, the phases that Snayl has gone through… it started off as super repetitive, almost ambient stuff. Album #1 is a little less of that — it’s got some hints of psychedelia, maybe a little more EDM and trip-hop influences. Album #3 is shaping up to have more jazz, psychedelic, and even a few prog-rock influences… I love jazz, and the better I get at guitar, the better I get at songwriting, the more possibilities are opening up with us as musicians. I mean, Lily Wilcock, Kelsey Sharp (the members of the Snayl band, on saxophone and keys, respectively)… Jesus Christ! [laughs]

In a way, it kinda goes back to what we were talking about earlier about mental demons, honestly — there’s a reason why we feel like we have to make this art, or that we have to do the things that we love to do, in order to get out of our systems, no matter what form it may take. For some people, it’s making music, for some, it’s writing, for some it might be standup comedy, and so forth. It’s like I said before – for me, this is really the only way I have to get these emotions of mine out, you know? Album #3 is coming out of my system as something more jazzy, psychedelic, even R&B in spots, way more heavy on instrumentals than album #2 was. At the same time, though, I’d also like to do a collaborative hip hop album, where I’ve produced all of these hip hop beats. I’ve got several now, where I could do something similar to “Warm Rain” or “Immortal Flow” (from Dreaming of Ghosts) and get some fresh young faces, some local talent on these beats. So a full-length hip hop album would also be something I’d like to pursue.

SP: Let’s take it back to the upcoming album itself, Without. I know that you usually tend to have an overarching theme in mind when you create your projects; Dreaming of Ghosts has been described as, among other things, music for daydreams. Did you have any similar goals in mind with this second album? What feelings were you trying to capture, and how did they differ from what you’ve done previously?

Duncan: The general idea behind Without seemed to take that feeling of nostalgia, reflecting on powerful old memories, stuff that was important to you, and the way life changes. For instance, in these two years between albums, so much has changed for me. I’ve changed jobs a couple of times — my “main squeeze,” so to speak, was the Institute 4 Creativity downtown and that fell through, which rocked my world; I even quit my job in radio to focus on that because I wanted it to succeed so badly, it meant so much to me. My family moved out of state to North Carolina after my mom got offered a job there, and sold my childhood home in the process. The long-term relationship that I was in just ended last year. I’ve moved a couple of times. And I know others go through similar things on a regular basis. All these things that come to pass when you never expect them, never see them coming… nostalgia is the overall vibe I was going for.

SP: Compositionally speaking, what’s changed for you from your initial releases and first album to what you’re doing now? Do you still write songs the same way, or has the process changed now that you’ve got a better feel for it all? Does trial and error play a part?

Duncan: There’s always trial and error, because I don’t want to keep doing the same things over and over again. So for me, it’s a matter of learning what works and what doesn’t, when to use certain EQs, or knowing exactly which reverb to throw on this person’s voice, or a particular snare… like the snare in this song (“If Only”), this kind of machine-gun esque snare on this song.

SP: And hey, right on cue — there’s my laugh at the end of it, too. [combined laughter] Hey, I had to throw my claim to fame out there, my contribution to the Snayl universe.

Duncan: I have your laugh going forward at regular speed, pitched down 12 steps, and then I played that same file reversed, so you hear it both forwards and backwards. But getting back to the question – the process has definitely changed. EP 1 (Time Alone), album 1, I was just experimenting as hard as I could – just throwing whatever I thought worked on those songs with no real form or concept. [laughs]

SP: That’s very interesting to me to hear, because I mean, for someone who says they didn’t really know what they were doing, that first EP and especially the first album are still very coherent listening experiences, you know? There are still some pretty memorable songs on those releases. I’ve never tried to compose a full song or anything, so I have no experience with that, but for someone who, by their own admission, didn’t really know what they were doing at the time, it’s still remarkably — some would say happily, even — coherent.

Duncan: It all kinda makes sense, it all fits together — almost like Thelonious Monk, in a way, where it sounds like it’s kinda clashing and chaotic to a degree, but it still works. I’m honestly still not too familiar with music theory itself and the way these chords go together, but at this point, it kinda comes naturally to me – it’s become an instinctive thing, and I know where they go, where they fit together, no matter if it’s guitar or bass or keyboards. I was playing Lily’s saxophone at practice recently, and picking it up made me feel like I was back in high school – I was playing it, and I was playing coherently, even though I haven’t played sax regularly in forever, because I felt like I was able to apply everything I’ve gained from Snayl to that instrument now, even. So my processes have definitely improved with time — I know, for example, how to program these electronic drums to simulate the feeling of a real live drum kit. I feel like the first few Snayl releases were less about the songs and more about the effects taking hold; this album, I feel a lot more confident about the songs themselves being strong. It’s still incredibly effect-heavy, yes, but my songwriting has improved to where it feels more structured, much better put together as an overall whole.

SP: The last thing I have for you is something I wasn’t sure if you wanted to address this in the piece or not, but you did kinda hint at it earlier, so I’ll go ahead and ask it outright: In terms of your future plans, what’s gonna happen next? There’s going to be a relocation on your part very soon — how is that going to affect Snayl, and what do you hope to gain from moving vs. what you’re going to leave behind in the C-U area?

Duncan: Prior to very recently, I hadn’t made many comments on it, but I am moving out to Asheville, North Carolina in August. So the Snayl days in Champaign-Urbana, are, sadly, very limited. I  may or may not be trying to do one final Expressions event, as a sort of farewell event in August. Ideally, I would like it to be the best — and wildest! — Expressions yet, as crazy as we can possibly make it. But yeah, we’re gonna release this album, we’re gonna be touring in June and July, and then I’ll see if I can get another Expressions going. Then I’ll move to North Carolina, which will, sadly, be the dissolving of the current Snayl band as we know it. In the meantime, I would like to write and record as much of a third album as possible, all these songs that we’ve been writing and recording together. It took me two years for album #2, and album #3 seems like it’s already turned into a much faster, cleaner process.

Plus, again, those old mental demons — you have your ups, you have your downs… sometimes I feel like I can’t even try to write a song for months on end, and then all of a sudden, the creative spark hits and songwriting is all I can think about. So things are admittedly pretty uncertain, but you know, Snayl started as a solo project, and if need be, it can go back to it just as easily. I haven’t played a solo show in over a year, but I can if necessary. Who knows? Linking up with new musicians in Asheville would be the ideal plan, but I think the move will open up all kinds of new chapters for Snayl, and I’m excited to see where things will go. Hopefully there will be some people that are willing to invest some time in this project that I’ve put so much of myself into, but even if that’s not the case, as I said earlier — this is all I’ve got, this is my #1 creative outlet, and I’m excited to see where I can take it.

Snayl will be playing a free live show at Scott Park in Champaign on Sunday, June 17th, beginning at 6 p.m. This show serves as the official album release event for Without and will mark the longest Snayl set to date (two hours).

Album art (top image) by Billi Jo Hart.

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