John Touchton has spent the past eight-plus years exploring dark moods via his “ritualistic synthesizer” project, Severed+Said. With the January release of Tragic Seeker, Touchton has completed a trilogy of cassette releases through Not Not Fun. With each new tape, S+S explores “the mood and mythos of the Floridian void,” layering Everglade-submerged synth lines with smeared beats, guitar, and a handful of other instrumentation.
We last spoke following the 2018 release of Incorporeality, and enough time has passed (and certainly enough has happened in the world at large and with S+S), that a follow up conversation was in order. Below you’ll find Touchton’s thoughts on the new album, what he’s been up to these past tumultuous two years, as well as a brand new visual accompaniment to Tragic Seeker standout, “Unit of Hurt.”
U: How have you been since our last conversation?
John Touchton: The last few years have definitely felt a bit purgatorial on the live music front. But I’ve been well. I’ve found ways to occupy my time, artistically speaking. I’ve maintained an almost daily practice of working on music, whether I’m composing new material, fine tuning my live set, or even just practising a regular ritual of recording ambient soundscapes in my bedroom studio. I’ve found that this daily practice has kept me sharp during pandemic downtime. It’s also given me room to expand on my methods for composing Severed+Said tracks.
Would you talk about the “Unit of Hurt” video? What’s your approach to creating a visual accompaniment to your music?
I’ve worked with a handful of visual artists over the years for Severed+Said projects. I’ve always given collaborators creative freedom to interpret the music with visuals as they see fit. It’s always worked out well. Even if I have an unspoken theme for a certain track, a good collaboration can bring out new themes, which I’m always happy to see. But for “Unit of Hurt,” I pitched an idea to my friend, Aaron O’Laughlin, that I’ve been wanting to try for a few years. The concept actually ended up being similar to an idea he had always wanted to try, so we merged ideas and began work on it shortly after. This is the first music video for S+S that has a storyline, albeit a vague and mysterious one. But we wanted to keep the music video somewhat open to interpretation, just as the music is. To be honest, we considered a few tracks from Tragic Seeker that could have worked, but we chose “Unit of Hurt” because it’s concise and moves through moods quickly. It also conveys a sense of urgency, which feels important to the progression of our story. It’s been a new experience making this video, as Aaron and I both took on multiple roles to make it happen. While Aaron has a background in film editing and cinematography, neither of us has ever directed a music video with a storyline. But between the two of us, and also my wife Rebecca for a few of the filming sessions, we finished what normally would have taken a small film crew to accomplish. I was sceptical about casting myself as the protagonist, but we thought it would cut down on scheduling issues, as we ended up shooting hours of footage over the course of a month just to get everything we needed for a six minute video. I think that what we accomplished is above our level of experience.
Tragic Seeker is your third album for Not Not Fun. How has the project evolved since Occlusions came out in 2015?
This project has evolved in many ways since Occlusions, although I’ve never tried to steer its direction. I recently went back and listened to Occlusions for the first time in years. I wanted to gain some perspective on the very question you’re asking. The track that struck me the most was “Black Shine Bright.” In my opinion, it’s unlike any track I’ve done since and I don’t think I could recreate its mood now. There was something special happening in that period of Severed+Said that I was unaware of. I think it had to do with the fact that I was so new to making electronic music. I didn’t know the gear or completely understand key functions that I take advantage of now. While I still allow myself to approach each new composition without trying to direct its path or progression, I truly was developing this method at that time. In making Occlusions, I learned that trying to overtly inform the track’s sonic mood or theme limits any possibility of what it could be down the line. This approach allows for the tracks to evolve and over time they can take on new meaning. I applied this concept to each body of work after, but especially during the recording process for Tragic Seeker. What we ended up releasing was the third attempt to record the tracks that ended up on the album. A few were scrapped along the way and each one that made the final cut had different incarnations for every recording session. I hope they continue to take on new forms. Making the video for “Unit of Hurt” has already contributed to this process.
You mentioned in a separate conversation that the standalone 2019 track “Transcendence Device” served as a bridge between Incorporeality and Tragic Seeker. Would you expand on that?
At the time of Incorporeality’s release, I had already finished “Transcendence Device” and was playing it live with the Incorporeality set. It played differently than any of the tracks from the album. I allowed myself to marinate in the mood of each section of the song. I really enjoyed the repeating loops and slow tempo. They made me want to stay in each phrase for as long as they were interesting before building and adding anything new. I recorded “Transcendence Device” shortly after releasing Incorporeality and uploaded it the following year on my bandcamp, just for anybody who was still following Severed+Said and wanted something new. At that time, I had just started working on the first track from Tragic Seeker, “Delayed Sad.” Discovering this new “long form” approach, as Britt [Brown, of Not Not Fun] has referred to it, encouraged me to allow the progression for “Delayed Sad,” and each track after, to take as much time as needed to get to a point where the mood shifts or the song ends.
Did the mandatory periods of isolation in the last two years provide any inspired music creation for you? Did you try out a different instrument or songwriting method that you would have otherwise not had the time to do?
I’ve certainly had the chance to dive into some new gear, which I’ve been using to start composing new Severed+Said material, as well as for some other projects I’ve been working on. My grandmother recently gave me her accordion that she’s had since the 1960s. I wouldn’t say that I’ve learned how to play accordion, far from it. I did, however, get to use it in the final act of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for an original score that I did with my friend and collaborator, Jeremiah Johnson. We do a project, which we’ve haphazardly yet appropriately titled Vague. It’s a project we started with interests of merely experimenting with sound and archiving the work we’ve done, but we eventually decided to do an original score to the film. We began at the beginning of 2020 and worked on it over the course of the following year to release it for the film’s one hundred year anniversary of its U.S. release.
In 2021, you released that collaborative score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. What was the process like from conception to seeing your score play alongside this classic film?
As I mentioned above, we began working on the score at the beginning of 2020. I flew to Los Angeles so we could get started in person, when the pandemic hit. We were able to establish a framework for the score, but not much actual recording was done before I had to fly back to Florida. So most of the process, we finished remotely over the course of the following year. It was a great way for us to maintain our friendship and to work on something we had always wanted to do. We meticulously scored the film, meaning each scene has some musical element in it, as is traditional for silent films. This took a lot of watching and rewatching scenes while performing over the actions of the characters. To this day, I can listen to our score and picture in my mind almost exactly what’s happening in the film. We’re both happy with how it turned out. We’ve only had one public screening of the film with our score, though. Here in Jacksonville, we have a locally owned theatre called Sun-Ray Cinema. In 2018, they presented their inaugural film festival, Sleeping Giant Fest. Due to the pandemic, they had to cancel the festival in 2020 and then reluctantly all but cancelled in 2021, when they screened our version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to a limited, but appreciative audience. It was an amazing experience being able to look around the theatre and see people reacting to different scenes. We have plans to do another silent film soon. In the meantime, we’ve been steadily archiving sound pieces and have even recently contributed to a short film project by NYC artist, Non Films.
How did you get introduced to Jason Gvvl’s artwork, and how did the piece used for Tragic Seeker come together?
Jason had moved back to Jacksonville from the Pacific Northwest around 2017 or 2018. I guess he had discovered S+S while living in Portland and found out I was living here. I remember he sent me a message telling me that he had just come back and that we should hang out or work together. He started coming to some of the shows I was booking at the time and ended up helping me with a few flyers. I’ve always loved his paintings, especially his work with human-like figures in a room. It’s as if the subject is the single entity in an isolated world. There’s something sad and beautiful about the settings he creates. When I asked him about doing the album art for Tragic Seeker, we had yet to come up with that title. I gave Jason complete creative control, other than asking for specific colours. While he didn’t send me any previews or rough drafts of the painting, we did correspond about the mood he was conjuring. When I came up with the album title, Tragic Seeker, I asked him if it worked for the painting. I trusted him when he said that it absolutely did. In the end, I couldn’t be happier with what he came up with and how it works with the album, as a whole. He even mailed the physical painting to me as part of the deal, so I finally have an original by Jason Gvvl. It currently hangs on the wall in my bedroom studio.
Have you played out much since restrictions have lifted? How has it been to re-enter the live music world after a pause?
I performed for Record Store Day in 2021 at Eraser Records here in Jacksonville when we thought the pandemic might be behind us, but when Delta hit I didn’t perform again until December. I had a few shows in Florida cancelled around the new year due to some Omicron concerns. More recently, I’ve performed at a few shows in Florida that went well, including doing a live score for a short film. My friend, Kevin Mahoney, is a professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. He and a few of his colleagues organised the college’s first film festival, Finger Mullet Film Festival, which culminated in a series of short films that were composed of public domain footage, edited together by Kevin. He recruited four artists from all over north Florida to perform live scores over the films. It was a rewarding experience, to say the least. The aspect I’ve missed the most about performing has been the sense of community that can be found with fellow artists and the few performances I’ve been a part of this year have been a keen reminder of that. I think people are becoming more comfortable performing their own risk analysis when it comes to playing or attending shows again. Ultimately, whatever post pandemic world we live in down the line, I hope people will be respectful and careful when attending any public gathering, so that all can feel welcome to make a safe choice for themselves. It has been strange, but rewarding, to go back to performing live and taking a break was not ultimately a bad thing for me. I learned to practice more patience when working on something new. Deadlines and due dates are almost of the past at this point. I feel my work has benefitted from this.
Photographs courtesy of Rebecca Rose