Interview – Brian Grainger of Milieu
Brian Grainger is an American a composer who produces ambient electronic music under the names Milieu, Coppice Halifax, and several other projects. I used the track ‘We Live in the Trees’ for a recent video I made for A Course in Dying and was interested to know more about the man behind the music. I asked Brian about his own experiences with death and how the theme influences his work.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the concept of death?
Initially, feelings of loss, missing someone, those kinds of things. Upon further consideration, a resignation to the inevitable. The popular saying “Everybody’s got to go, sometime” comes to mind. I think my comfort level with the concept of death changes depending on who or what is passing on – whether or not I feel that they were given a fair shake in life, or were perhaps taken away too soon. There’s this deep-seated resistance to denial in me, I think. The notion that there is no use trying to fight it, because you can’t, even though that’s possibly the most human reaction to death I can imagine. The want to survive, and the fear of the unknown. We know how life feels, and even though that’s hard sometimes, we have no idea how being dead would feel, and that’s too much to bear for a lot of people I think.
Have you lost anyone, or been close to dying yourself?
I have come close a few different times, at least within my understanding of human mortality. That is, I came close because other people said that I did. When you’re the person in question, you don’t necessarily detect that death is closer or further away.
The most notable occurrence for me was a car accident I was in, in the Spring of 2002. I was less than two minutes away from my father’s house in Loris, South Carolina (where I was living at the time), which was in the deep countryside, and there were no streetlights out that far. So at 2 AM, it’s whatever you can get in your headlights. Well, someone had attempted to steal a huge piece of farming equipment, a tractor of some kind, and abandoned the attempt, leaving the hulking machine in the road. I drove into it at 60 MPH (that’s about 97 KPH, for those of you outside the US), and my car didn’t stop until I’d pushed the thing down the highway about 100 feet. One of my bandmates at the time was following me home, as we’d just driven back from a lengthy studio stay two hours away in Columbia, and he saw the entire thing happen. I don’t really remember the time between the impact and the moment I began to crawl out of the wreckage, but my bandmate told me I was motionless for ten minutes, and he thought I’d died. All I recall was the impact, and then having to get out of the car via the passenger side door because the engine was coming up through the floorboards beneath my feet, and the driver’s side door was crushed completely. The police arrived expecting a fatality, and I can’t count how many people told me I shouldn’t have survived, that “someone was looking out for me” and things like that.
Interestingly, this accident prevented me from taking a music journalism job for a magazine in Charleston (two hours from where I lived then) and required that I remain in Loris, working and now attempting to pay for a second used car I was forced into purchasing. A month later, I met the woman who would become my wife, through another bandmate, and this may have never happened if the accident didn’t keep me from moving away.
As far as losing other people, I definitely know that feeling. It’s odd, still, as none of them have been in my immediate family. I have lost friends as I grew up, from high school onward, and that’s just very strange. I remember going with two of my best friends to a funeral for this girl that we knew, who was at work at a fast-food place when an angry ex-employee walked her and the manager into the freezer with a shotgun and killed them both. The three of us used to hang out at her apartment a lot, and suddenly having to think about her being gone, and taken by some crazy, selfish asshole, it was almost too much to even fathom. We all got stoned to try to cope with the grief after the funeral, and that only intensified all of it, and I became violently sick. After that, I have tried to come to terms with the impermanence of everyone around me, and just appreciate that crazy things can unexpectedly happen, and that we should always be grateful for the time that we have with the people we like or love.
” I can’t speak for what’s on the other side of death, but for me here, I think of people I liked or loved or looked up to constantly, and in this very literal way, they can never truly be gone.”
What do you think happens when you die?
I am not of any “faith” on the matter, and I’m sure for a lot of people, religion and spirituality factor largely into their perspectives on death. I do believe, personally, that there is not any real place to go when you die, beyond the simple fact that matter can never truly be destroyed – it just moves around, takes different forms – but that only concerns the bodily side of passing on.
The idea that our conscious selves potentially just “turn off” upon expiring is a really depressing thought – it removes all the motivation from being anyone, I think. And that’s a selfish thing to admit, I know, but purpose is a tricky thing. It’s a human need, to literally be a person, have personhood, have purpose. So, the best thing I can think of that I feel at least resonates with me on some emotional level, is the idea that you only live as long as the last person who remembers you. I can’t speak for what’s on the other side of death, what it would be like for those who have died, but for me here, I think of people I liked or loved or looked up to constantly, and in this very literal way, they can never truly be gone.
I guess the old Egyptian kings had it right – build something large enough with enough longevity attached to the spectacle, and you can live forever, because people are going to think about those pyramids for ages. Though, I wonder how much longer we’ll talk about them after they’re worn down to dust? We talk about things that have perished long ago, in historical senses, a lot – the library at Alexandria, for example, or the Colossus of Rhodes – but these are considered not as people but works of art and great architectural triumph. The pyramids are tombs, they are venerations of people who were deifying themselves, attempting to physically build or buy their way into the afterlife somewhat.
I know this is one big tangent, but I guess the thinking here is that, I too have spent my life creating music that very well could outlive me by a long time, depending on how good humanity stays with record keeping, and if we don’t lose it all to the bomb. So it is a vain, selfish and egotistical hope – but it is still hope, and that constitutes a belief system – that I will live on in my work after my body has perished. Anthony Hopkins, acting as the character Robert Ford in Westworld, has a wonderful quote that reiterates this: “Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died. They simply became music.”
Have you ever been in contact with a deceased person or experienced anything paranormal?
This is interesting, because as I previously said, I am a very logic and science-minded person, and I don’t think that leaves a lot of room for paranormal experiences, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t had unexplained or illogical and irrational things happen to me in the past. Does this mean it was something paranormal? No, it only means I haven’t got the whole picture. And in scientific terms, that tends more to be the norm about understanding our place in the universe than not. We know so little about all of this, so I am willing to accept that what we do not yet know how to quantify or explain, is at the present moment unexplainable. To fill that in with wishful thinking is fantasy, however, so you cannot make any assumptions about things you do not understand (but, that’s never stopped anyone before, has it?).
To answer the question, I used to live with my father on a plot of land, several acres large, in the deep south, and this property had been in my father’s family for generations, going all the way back to before the civil war. In the south, this is not uncommon, as many people there can easily trace lineages all the way back to the Spanish and English ships that arrived centuries ago and planted flags in the native soil. Well, this place where we lived, there was always something slightly off about it, this constant low-level hum of unease, where you’d never go a night without hearing things outside, or even in your house, that you could not explain. You couldn’t step outside without feeling watched, either. And our house at the time was on the edge of several miles of swampland, which used to be farmland with cabins and barns and so on, but had become overtaken by nature over decades. You could walk a bit back into it and see brick steps and chimneys, the only remnants of structures that used to stand.
There were literally so many moments and occurrences that were out of the ordinary, that sitting here now I cannot even think of all of them. It would even happen when I had bandmates or friends over – a couple of them, after a while, refused to come see me when I lived there, because of it. Strange rhythmic noises in the woods, sudden cold air in the house at night, wind coming through closed windows, lights turning themselves off, and even one instance where I’d left the tape rolling after recording a band rehearsal, and captured the following audio (click link to listen).
Were you raised religious as a child?
Unfortunately, yes, although the one positive thing I can say about mainstream Christianity, and most organized religions, is that it set me on a path of outward (away from religions) and inward (philosophy) exploration, which may or may not have otherwise come to pass without having first gone through that experience.
I am not religious today and the closest thing to a spiritual system I connect to is Pandeism – in short, the idea that wherever or whatever God was before the creation of the universe, that the last great creative act of expression for this being was to commit suicide, and in doing so, created the universe as we know (or don’t know) it today. The thinking is that the universe is such a complex array of things that it must have been created, rather than generated per se, but that such an act of creation came at the cost of God-hood – interestingly enough, the idea that death was the one thing that would elude the understanding of an omnipotent and omniscient being – and the resultant universes and the laws within it ARE God, the debris of God, spread outward in a grandiose unfathomable spectacle that is death and birth all at once.
This is reinforced by my feeling that no music I record is ever really my own, that I am simply a catalyst for energies that pass through space and time, inevitable waves in an ocean, inevitable sequences of notes played on a windchime by the “randomness” of the wind. Everything I ever say, musically, is something that could have been said by Bach, or even someone before him, before written and recorded music even existed, and these things will inevitably recur again in the future. No one makes anything, but we do get the chance to draw artistic lines of focus around things that move us – motivated by and observing of the aforementioned debris of God – but what this amounts to is little more, in the cosmic sense, than building a sandcastle, taking a photograph or running a highlighter over a line or two of Shakespeare.
Do your ideas about life and death influence your music in any way?
I think about death sometimes when I sit down and play music, but most of the time I am more invested in the moment, which is life itself. I am very interested in the suspension of perception, elongating time and our sense of placement in time and physical space, through the use of sound and vibration. Not many other sensory experiences, aside from certain immersive films, can compete with the things that sound can do to us, manipulatively. When I “saw” Autechre live in 2015, they performed in a completely dark room with extremely loud volume levels, and to me, this was the same kind of experience I enjoy when I float in an isolation tank – your sense of understanding and perception of your surroundings is completely skewed, and your brain goes into other realms of operation in an attempt to organize the overflow of information (or in the isolation tank, the lack thereof), and that has a physical effect on the body, which allows you to somewhat step outside of time.
So I think, doing this as much as possible, it’s a celebration of truly living in and for one particular moment, a moment that, with the aid of the right sound or atmosphere, could seem to last hours. Obviously, this kind of manipulated perception is not as relevant with more traditional music, things with vocals and lyrics, or rhythms, or even melodies. For this to work, you need to treat sound as a tool, sometimes honing in on a specific frequency or set of frequencies, in order to reprogram how your brain interprets its surroundings.
Relevant to this discussion, it makes me wonder if such states are what it would feel like to die, to leave the body and perhaps still have some kind of mental awareness? I always go back to the short story, “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”, where a prisoner is being put to death by hanging over a bridge on a creek, and as he drops down in the noose, he is set loose, drifting down the stream and running away to freedom, only to find that this was all imagined by him in the moments between his suffocation and the last bit of oxygen reaching his brain before he died. And the funny thing is, we do know that even with something gruesome like decapitation, that the human brain has something like 11 seconds, before oxygen is cut off and brain functioning ends? So what if those 11 seconds are perceived eons, universes like any other?
Another rule I like to consider when I play music is that often times, people’s perception of something, whatever the thing is, is more realistic than what the reality actually entails. And if the brain can be so easily tricked by lack of oxygen, or lack of stimuli in a tank, or through hypnotically focusing on a low-frequency drone, then is perception of bodily awareness, time, space, gravity, everything… is your perception of that stuff in fact just as realistic as the possibly opposite reality?
“A spiritual system I connect to is Pandeism – in short, the idea that whatever God was before the creation of the universe, that the last great creative act of expression for this being was to commit suicide, and in doing so, created the universe as we know it today.”
Do you ever think about the body of work you will leave behind when you die, and how important is it to you to create a material or sonic legacy?
Having somewhat talked about this in a previous answer, I will say here that I don’t ascribe any grand importance to the act of building an artistic legacy. It’s a nice feeling, if a selfish one, to imagine that my music will outlive me, but really, there’s no way to operatively count on it happening. I think any artist considers it, but you can’t give it too much headspace, especially when those kinds of ideas can be like poison to your work. Well, poison to my work perhaps is a better thing to say.
I have tried to capture things, events, melodies, accidents, all kinds of things involved in recording work and sound generation, with as little ego as possible. There are certain works, like Pawleys Island, Summer’s Parting Ways, Sun Cast and a few others, that are much more deliberately an account of me as a person, my past and my feelings. The grand majority of my work, however, is much more akin to a fisherman at sea, repeating the same rituals of throwing out nets, enjoying the isolation and putting some effort into it, to in fact do it well, but never really knowing what will come back in from the act of doing so.
I read a book about Frank Sinatra once that quoted him as saying “It’s the professional who can do it twice”, and I think that sums it all up for me. I am not a professional, and while I believe I could do it twice, I couldn’t do it on command. So if I am remembered for anything I’ve done, it will likely be for things that I did not myself do in any attempt to be remembered. It will be, hopefully, for doing something well.
Are you afraid to die?
Yes and no. Yes, because I am afraid that dying might be immensely painful, depending on how that goes. I am not a big fan of pain and suffering. I don’t know what living thing really would be, but I think that’s more the physical act of dying. I would say no because, there’s no way to really know what to expect after death, and to that end, I welcome whatever the so-called void has to offer me. It is the last great adventure, and we all have to set out on it whether we want to or not. Part of the adventure is that no one gets to go with any real amount of preparedness, so if being unprepared is part of death, then the lazy side of me is just going to embrace it for all the comedy and randomness of it. “The Dude abides”, as someone else more famous than I once said.
How do you envision your own funeral?
Now this, out of all of your questions, is the one I think I have the least amount of an answer for. I haven’t really thought about it? I would of course like all of my family and loved ones to be there, if I died right now, but who knows the where or when of it? I can only hope that, wherever my body is laid down after the fact, it is by people who know who I was, who know that I would’ve wanted everyone to stay happy about being alive. There are, unfortunately, a lot of places in this world for a person to die, without any formality, funeral or acknowledgement, so I think that’s my only pre-death hope about how it will go – that it will carry the resolution and finality that a funeral should. The finer details of such an event, I don’t think I care. As a dead person, do I have a right to care? Having quoted a lot of things in this interview, I will close with one more, from John Linnell: “Now it’s over, I’m dead, and I haven’t done anything that I want, or I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do.”
Artwork by Brian Grainger.