Interior Interior Decorating
Looking into the infinite potential void with musician Geoff Saba
There’s a multi-tiered desk flanked by speakers and pinecones and bones and tree branches. Lingering sage smoke is caught swirling in the early afternoon sunlight. A computer monitor is hooked up to a flatscreen T.V. which is playing a YouTube video of two men frantically playing the violin. They face each other and I’m not sure if they’re going to fight or kiss, the violin bows stabbing the air around them. Geoff picks up a journal and looks over the pages. “What I have to do today,” he trails off, flipping the paper back and forth. “I have to record a floor tom. So that’s pretty simple.” He sits down in front of his computer and opens ProTools to start recording. The sun is coming in at a harsh angle, hitting him like a spotlight.
Geoff works as a sound engineer under the moniker Itinerant Home Recordings and also makes his own music as Forest Floor. He often uses his home in an East Oakland warehouse to obtain a natural reverb. After recording a track in the common space, musicians skip up the stairs to Geoff’s room to review, followed by the promise, I think I almost got it, just one more, before heading back down the stairs to try another take. There are windows everywhere which let in the sunset as it passes over the Oakland Coliseum and into San Francisco’s skyline. Once, in 2016, Geoff and I were recording some of my own tracks and took a break to listen to cheers blossoming into the summer air after a Warriors Game.
I open my bag and put a book about ESP and a plastic figurine of Freud on his table. It feels like I’m making an offering to Geoff’s creative process. “They were in a free box at the Jung Institute,” I explain. “Maybe part of the recording today could be inspired by Art Bell or something.” Art Bell, the host of Coast to Coast Radio and one of Geoff’s heroes, had recently died, and on Friday the thirteenth no less. In the four years that I’ve known him, most of Geoff’s days have involved tuning into the AM radio station, saturating himself with conspiracy theories, ghost stories, and alien abductions. Just mentioning Art Bell sets Geoff’s wheels in motion.
“Okay,” Geoff holds his hands out in the air, “so, how I was doing this the other day was sitting down with my eyes closed trying to navigate this psycho-acoustic space, I don’t know, it’s like, interior interior decorating. So, I guess how I approach the visualization aspect of Forest Floor is like, Okay, if this was a space and I was walking through the space, what would I see? And in the middle of the space is something even more intangible and I think it’s like that moment of inspiration that craves things and doesn’t crave other things.”
“It sounds like a being you encounter.”
“Right. And I try to reflect the messages the being is sending me, the messages that reveal a bit of its characteristics to me through different sounds.”
Those violin players keep sawing away at their instruments in the background. The melody is frantic and triumphant, like we should be running over hillsides with our fists in the air for something we really deeply believe in.
“And do you feel like the place you encounter is where the being lives, or is it the same thing, like the space is the being?”
“It’s more like the being’s clothes.”
“It’s almost like you’re a bat, fleshing out where—”
“Like with echolocation? Yeah! Okay, it’s like, hold on, this guy is shredding too hard,” and Geoff pauses the YouTube video and there is a large, jagged space in the air where the sound of violins used to be. In the silence, Geoff’s internal process continues to condense and he curses as if stubbing his toe, “Fuck, sometimes I just see Aslan with his mane and his countenance is so overpowering that you can barely make out his face, but you can see his flowing mane in the light. And the sounds to me are like articulations of his character. Not his direct countenance, but sort of the negative space around it, and I can only catch glimpses of that. And I want to capture that so realistically, so accurately that maybe you can abstract some kind of semblance of the countenance.”
We riff off of this narrative, this visualization, using our conversation as a sounding device, much like Geoff’s own process—throwing out words and images until something sticks. Like we are walking through a dark cave together, laughing at the fact that we’ve both been here before but forgot the way.
“At least by moving around it and hitting it on the sides, you get the shape of it,” I add.
“And eventually, the goal is to have these little nuggets of song, which I feel like are the most distilled spirit of the inspiration.”
“No big deal,” we laugh, faced with these images of dark caves and Aslan and alien beings and realizing how much reverence we feel for the whole thing. The BART train goes by, asking for a moment of silence.
I remember when I first met Geoff and asked if he would master one of my albums. That day he had come from a psychic reading where several women with their eyes closed, yawning and snapping their fingers to clear the air and find the message, told him that every layer of his aura is filled with extraterrestrial beings making sure he is fulfilling his duty as a musician on Earth. Once I heard this story, I knew I wanted to work with him. And what I’ve loved the most about making music with Geoff is the way he treats it like a spiritual practice that involves his whole being.
“Most of the work that I want to do involves not knowing. Like, let’s see what happens if I hit a cowbell, and to interact with that, and then to interact with that interaction, and then at the very end of the process, something is just the correct pattern and it wakes me up, and it says hey, you’re done. And then I’m inspired to write a song about all the shit that just happened in the gathering process. It’s like psychoanalyzing myself through music.”
“Like you’re making your own inkblot.”
“Yeah! A lot of my work is symmetrical!” Geoff laughs in recognition and it grows. He laughs as if he has just realized the image in this mirror is his reflection for the first time. “I think I’m ready.”
Geoff starts unraveling quarter-inch cables, plugging them into microphones positioned around the room, then drapes a tee shirt over the floor tom to muffle the boom. “Sometimes I’ll catch myself fucking around on an instrument, then looking here,” he points to a corner near his recording gear, “It helps me. It’s like once the piece is playing, these speakers are a visual portal to the soundscape that I wanna create. You know, like in Stranger Things, when Eleven finds this like, black zone, and there’s shallow water on the ground. It’s like that—infinite potential void. And right now there’s a floor tom in the void and it’s over here,” he says, waving his hands in a circular motion, catching and stirring something.
He tells me to hit the space bar on his computer, and the track he’s been working on starts to play. Bits of noise overlap each other until a subtle rhythm emerges, not unlike dragging heavy chains over a keyboard made of concrete, then the silence before dropping the whole thing into a black hole. A cymbal jumps in unannounced and disappears before the sound can properly decay. “This is scary,” I say. It’s one of our old inside jokes whenever we play music together, as if we’re on a carnival ride that we desperately want to end. Then I say what I really mean, “This is awesome. There’s a melody coming through the glitch, that sound right there,” I say, trying to identify which glitch I mean, out of all the glitchy sounds happening.
He says he wants the floor tom to sound like a stampede. I’m sitting in his recording chair as he tells me this, and he keeps glancing behind me at the speaker monitors. “Am I in the way of making eye contact with your portal?” I ask, and we laugh.
He hands me a pair of headphones and puts another pair on himself. We both listen to the track this way, held up against our ears. Geoff is standing over the floor tom, eyes closed. We are descending into the song, still and silent, and we are trying to learn what it needs. More time passes, and he starts lightly tapping the mallets, brewing up a storm, making a sound to search with. Thirty seconds later it’s done. The track has its place. I can hardly pick it apart from the other sounds that emerge and eclipse from the speakers behind me. This searching for something, over and over again, track by track, is what makes a song.—Jennifer Williams