An Interview With Jake Muir

Michael McKinney speaks to the electronic artist/field recordist about pursuing a queer narrative in sound art, not recording his first music until 25, creating each album from a conceptual angle and...
By    February 27, 2024

Image via Patricia Castañeda

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Jake Muir has been trekking deep into the uncanny valley for years now, but with each trip, he goes a bit deeper. The Berlin-based sound artist and field recordist makes electronic music that is, at turns, blissed-out, queasy, and disorienting; frequently, it is several of these at once. In his work, he builds worlds out of found sounds and reassembled timelines, tangling histories of electroacoustic and ambient music in the process. His first record, 2016’s Muara, recalls the Biosphere’s glacial electronics, and Lady’s Mantle, released two years later, saw Muir turning surf-rock samples inside out, going a few inches below the water’s surface and finding a preternatural calm.

In the past few years, though, Muir has found an even more particular well. In 2020, he released Bathhouse Blues, a DJ mix for queer dance-music mainstay Honey Soundsystem. Here, he created a zero-gravity mix of ambience, illbient, and queer love, weaving samples from vintage gay pornography in between sepia-tinged synthesizer washes. He would go on to mine the same vein three more times: Bathhouse Blues Vol. 2 and Bathhouse Blues Vol. 3 turn the whole thing deeply surreal and a bit more direct, cranking on the samples, leaning into deep-space synthetics, and rendering the intimacy all the more affecting.

Finally, there’s Bathhouse Blues. Released between the second and third mixes, the DJ & producer’s latest LP explores the same slow-motion intimacy as the mixes, crafting something otherworldly along the way. Muir works carefully and tenderly on the LP, looking towards new-school ambience, pornography from fifty years ago and sound art that is older still, soaking each in sweat until their silhouettes are indistinguishable from each other. Like Muir’s finest work, the LP is disorienting for how it scrambles notions of place and time; here, he splits the difference between the here-and-now and the fourth world.

If you flip over the Bathhouse Blues vinyl, you’ll find a faded illustration. The piece is an advertisement for a bathhouse in Sydney, but it might as well present a portal to another plane. A man, wearing nothing beyond a pair of trunks, is walking towards a door; above him, an archway: “Far hence Remain / O, Ye Profane! / Be Ye Washed / Ye shall be clean.” This artwork presents intimacy as a transformative and otherworldly experience; it catapults queer spaces deep into the astral plane. On Bathhouse Blues, Muir pulls off a similar trick, presenting visions of intimacy overheard, soundtracking encounters half-remembered, and blanketing the titular space in a deep fog.

Late last year, we had a chance to speak with Muir over Zoom, digging into his artistic process, queer representation in experimental music, rebuilding the wheel, and plenty more.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Growing up in LA, what art do you remember really connecting with you?

Jake Muir: The tidbit that already exists about Lady’s Mantle is that my dad got me into The Beach Boys as a kid. In middle school, I was mostly listening to nu-metal and alt-rock. I don’t think there was much, beyond music, that I really connected with. I’ve read interviews with other abstract artists who said a relative gifted them a recorder or something. That never happened [to me]. My mom used tape recorders for notes and things for work, but I was always too afraid to ask to use one. I never ended up doing anything with that. I can’t remember much else other than liking some movies as well.

I read an interview you did with Seattle Weekly a few years back. They mentioned that you found your way towards ambient music through video games.

Jake Muir: Yeah.

Does that track for you? You’ve got Final Fantasy; in a pi pi pi interview, you mentioned playing Metal Gear for 24 hours.

Jake Muir: Yep. That was in high school—It might have been junior year. I forget what the circumstances were, but I was left at the house alone—I think it was during Thanksgiving, and Metal Gear Solid 3 had just come out. And because it was a prequel, it was a fresh slate. I didn’t have to have played the first two. So yeah, I just sat there for 24 hours and ran through the whole thing. I probably got up to eat and go to the bathroom. I was like, “This is insane.”

If there was art I connected with as a kid, it was video games. I grew up in one of the canyons in LA, so you’re kind of dependent on your parents to take you anywhere. There’s not a ton to do, so—I don’t know if I want to call video games an escape, but it was an easy and fun thing to do while you’re in a no man’s land.

Final Fantasy X—the first Final Fantasy game I played—really made an impression on me. I remember being taken by the soundtrack in that game, which was the first one that had three separate composers rather than just Nobuo Uematsu. Looking back at it, it was weird jazz, proto-dub-techno, and the like. One track is almost adjacent to a zoviet*france piece. That was maybe my first introduction to hearing more abstract music, without knowing what it was. It was like, “This stuff’s really cool,” but I wasn’t aware of a whole realm of music like that, that actually exists outside of that medium.

The video game influence more explicitly came into play with Mana. I stopped buying games on my own 10 years ago. But my roommates were going through all the From Software games—Dark Souls, Bloodborne. I didn’t play them, but I would watch. I really appreciated the world that you inhabit, and that became an influence to the record. I felt like it tied in with the context of illbient and post-industrial [music]. There was also a weird magic and fantastical kind of element with some of the zoviet*france stuff. Some of the titles reference magick—with a “k”—and a couple of the tracks were versions of zoviet*france and Rapoon titles, where I’d add another word or mix and match them. RPGs are definitely a big influence on what I’m doing.

How did you find your way towards production and field recording?

Jake Muir: I guess it came to be via recommendations from friends, really. I started listening to electronic music in junior year of high school; it started with Autechre and Aphex Twin. In 2007, 2008—I graduated in ’06—I found my way into the Touch catalog, and a few other labels. 2008 was the first time I heard Biosphere’s music. He became really big for me regarding both sampling, which he had done quite a bit of, and field recording.. A few years later—it would have been 2011—a couple of friends said, “You seem really invested in this realm of music; maybe you should do something with it.” I had never considered making music; I never played an instrument as a kid. My dad tried to get me to play guitar in sixth grade, but it wasn’t meant to be. I think it was a combination of not having the right teacher, having a hard time with school in general, and being so into games. I didn’t start making any music for myself until I was 25. It was May of 2013, and I just started playing with samples. Between 2011 and then, I had taken a few production classes, just so I could get some idea of what I was doing with Ableton, knowing what an EQ does, effects, and so on. If no one had said, “Maybe you should get into this,” I might not have.

Early on, what were you aiming for, if you recall?

Jake Muir: Most of my first experiments ended up becoming Muara, which was my first record. It came out in September 2016, so I think the whole gestation period for the record was two and a half years. There was a vague theme revolving around Seattle’s geography and climate. I took loops from all these old, pastoral-themed library records; those, alongside a few other bits, became the main sample pot. There are some field recordings on it from the area. Even with the classes I took back then, nobody teaches you how to make weird music. I had to figure out how to do what I wanted to do, which I didn’t have a very good idea of. Sometimes I’d use a sampler, and sometimes I’d process the raw audio directly.

I think that’s what ends up happening with all of my albums. Giving myself a concept, a palette of sounds, and a production method makes it easier for me to focus and put something together. But, it also creates a scenario where I won’t really have anything left over. So, when people ask me to contribute to a compilation, I don’t have anything to give them, because each project is so particular; I end up having to make something fresh. I feel like a lot of artists have this plethora of material that they’ve amassed over the years. I remember living with a few friends in Seattle in 2016. One of them asked me about my production process, and I told him that I have to mostly rebuild the wheel every time. He was like, “Wow, that seems like a lot of work.” [laughs]

As opposed to what, though? It works, so I don’t mind doing that and not having a general process. I respect people like Rod Modell or Thomas Köner, who have been evolving a certain sound for their whole career, which I guess makes things easier. But I prefer the path that Biosphere took: Every album has a different idea and source material. Sometimes it’s not sample-based. It’s more refreshing for me, from a creative standpoint: “Okay, I did that thing. So why would I want to do it again?” I just spent six months on it; I’m good.

Do you see a throughline in your work?

Jake Muir: I suppose so. There’s always an emphasis on texture, and I like very spatialized effects. There’s been a concrète influence on the last three [records], for sure. I suppose I also like watery sounds: Sounds that have a fluctuation, warble, or goopiness. That’s a consistent aesthetic that I think is in all of it, to some degree, whether it’s obvious or not. Lady’s Mantle had an obvious aquatic influence; for the other albums, it’s still there, but it’s not as in-your-face. There’s also a level of mystery there that I like; I think I’m drawn to things that are a bit nebulous, and I think most people aren’t. I’m finding that with the vibe of the new record, which is perhaps the most abstract. It returns to some of the RPG influence, where I am kind of drawn to a sci-fi & fantastical sound. I’d rather be placed in a world that’s less familiar than one that’s commonplace. I’d rather listen to a space music record than a diaristic portrait. I don’t find the sound of a dog barking or something in a piece enthralling; it’s like, “Yeah, I hear that sound every day.”

Chasing that mystery strikes me as potentially at odds with the work of field recording: That immediately you’re conjuring some sense of place. How do you square that circle?

Jake Muir: I think they can be symbiotic. Even though a field recording can ground a piece or a moment, I think it can be more suggestive rather than literal. The Hum of Your Veiled Voice had a cityscape backdrop to it; it kind of puts you there, but it’s not real life, either. It’s a bit impressionistic, you know? So maybe it’s this notion of an alternate reality. I could liken it to surrealist noir films, where there’s just enough fiction to remove you.

I do like to include elements like field recordings for that purpose, in a way: to ground things. There’s a sense of familiarity, but it can also become uncanny: “That’s a water sound, but these other things are unrelated,” so there’s something off about it.

Talk to me about intimacy within the context of Bathhouse Blues. Are you thinking about it differently compositionally? Why this source material, and why now?

Jake Muir: That project came about with The Hum of Your Veiled Voice, which was the precursor to that whole idea. With that album, I was exploring how to approach a late night mood without making a sleep record. I felt like it was more exciting to explore notions of intimacy. I gave it this city-scape backdrop as a landscape for all that stuff to exist in, since it’s tied to reality.

We’re all meeting up in our apartments, mostly, for such purposes, as opposed to cruising at a park or bathhouse. That still happens, but that’s a slim percentage, I think. All the field recordings on that album came from old sound-effects records. All the musical samples came from jazz albums and soundtracks. Several ECM records made their way onto that.

Just to be clear, this is Veiled Voice you’re speaking to here?

Jake Muir: Yep.

The field recordings added a textural element that I felt was important. The last track, “Silent Sailing,” starts with a weird sound effect, like a jacket being removed. It sounds really sibilant. Even though it’s not a voice, there’s something to it that’s really suggestive of a more intimate gesture. There’s a variety of those kinds of sounds on the record. I guess it was me trying to find a way to explore those ideas through electroacoustic music.On the whole, there’s not many queer narratives in that realm. It’s generally more academic or for purposes of healing, chilling, et cetera.

Before the album came out, I was asked by Jacob from Honey Soundsystem to do a mix for their series. I held onto it for a while, and once I knew the record was coming out, I thought, “I can do something that ties into this album, but what would that be?” I tried to select music that fit a similar vibe: late-night, low-lit encounters. Because it was Honey, I thought, “I feel like I should do something more explicitly gay,” because it was a unique opportunity to do that with a mix. Or, at least, that felt appropriate.

That was when I thought to layer campy bits of dialogue from old gay pornos throughout the mix. The first mix was popular, so I felt like I should keep it going and make a second one. Before I released it, I had been asked by GRM [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] to perform [in 2023]. I was racking my brain about what to do there that felt meaningful; I wanted to find something that hadn’t been explored before. A few friends thought, “This is a more academic space; maybe it’s an opportunity to fag it up.”

Then, I thought, “The obvious thing to do is to create a studio interpretation of the Bathhouse Blues idea.” I went directly to the pornos, and beyond the dialogue element: I took various sound effects, both sexual and in-between moments, as well as music from the films. Half of the music samples came from online videos, and half from albums used in a couple films. My friend Tyler runs a podcast, “Ask Any Buddy,” with a friend of his named Liz that explores vintage gay pornos. They managed to ID a bunch of the music used in both of the Falconhead films. Tyler sent me a couple Spotify playlists containing the ID’d tracks, which included music from Xenakis, Vangelis, Herbie Hancock, Tangerine Dream, and Alice Coltrane, among others. The taste was immaculate back then. Whether or not the end product was as functional for intimacy as the mixes, or Veiled Voice, is not for me to say.

But I felt it was worth exploring and doing something that was more outright with that kind of narrative. I’ve joked that the record is more kinky than I actually am. I like the ideas of cruising, bathhouses, and group sex, but because of anxiety problems, I don’t really engage with them. I’ve been to some bathhouses, of course, but not for cruising; just to meet someone I’ve already spoken to. As far as the material goes with Bathhouse Blues, some of it is quite dark. I say that as putting myself in someone else’s shoes—I don’t think it’s particularly nightmarish or anything, but some people have made comments alluding to it being a bit out there. It wasn’t intentional. This is maybe a good opportunity to speak about the pros and cons of DJing versus production for the more functional purposes of this album. It couldn’t be as moody as the mixes, because I wasn’t able to find the material.

For the most part, porns from that era had house soundtracks, or sleazy and loungey beats. Those are quite positive, and it wasn’t the source material I was looking for. The Bathhouse Blues concept, with the mixes, was to explore notions of intimacy through abstract music, and whether that’s a possibility or not. The amount of films I could find that actually had those kinds of soundtracks was maybe 10 out of 100. From there, I looked to see which films had synthetic scores, which was an aesthetic I was trying to use as a throughline. One of them had some raga music; another had a repetitive strumming guitar piece. I was left with these experimental gay-porn films, like Falconhead. They’ve got a fantastical and otherworldly element to them. The main character is this muscular guy with a falcon head. It’s almost witchy, in a way. These films were more art than they were function, perhaps. That’s what I was able to find, so that became the general vibe. It could have been completely different if I managed to find other films that had lighter scores with abstract music, but I didn’t happen upon those, and maybe they just don’t exist.

Just to make sure I’m following you correctly, what era of films were you pulling from?

Jake Muir: ’70s and ’80s.

Why that in particular?

Jake Muir: It was partly the aesthetics. The audio from that area had more character to it. That tied into the source material I used for The Hum of Your Veiled Voice, which all came from older records. Both have a faded quality. Also, I think that back then, they treated porn differently. Some people were treating it as art. The music used back then, and a lot of the visuals, even, were very psychedelic and creative, as compared to now, where it’s just: Walking into a doctor’s office; “Hey, how’s it going? Let me inspect your backside”; and that’s all. Obviously, there’s still some very independent filmmakers who are keeping the dream alive. Back then, I think it was more common.

Part of it also was: This was the era where bathhouses had their heyday. There was a whole culture around it. That led to me finding the back image for the cover; it was an advertisement for Ken’s, a gay bathhouse in Sydney. I found the image through a paper that revolved around notions of spirituality: How gay men found bathhouses as a place for escape. They lost themselves there; they found community, and maybe a sense of otherworldliness. I guess that ties back to the aesthetics employed in films of that era, and the record: Yeah, this is supposed to be a weird trip.

I’m struck by the language you use to describe bathhouses there: It’s the language that people use to describe nightclubs. It’s escapism; it’s “This is a place where we can express ourselves fully and be completely safe in that.” Which, obviously, you know that rave music has deep roots in queer music.

Jake Muir: I hadn’t thought about that. In those spaces, you’re unclothed, and whether you’re a voyeur or actually engaging, there’s something for everybody. It’s a place to not really have any hangups. There is something to be said about the healing or potentially spiritual properties of being in a sauna. Plenty of cultures have history with these spaces, and for some, it’s pretty integral to day-to-day life.

The back image [on Bathhouse Blues] maybe alludes to that: A sense of cleansing oneself. The middle part of the picture says, “Be washed; ye shall be clean.”

A while back, I read an interview where you posited that ambient music has always been a form of protest music.

Jake Muir: That was the Theory Therapy interview. Gary [Hunter, the founder of Theory Therapy] asked me how I felt about the wellness industry and how that related to ambient music. I feel like a lot of people might not be aware, or maybe have forgotten: The people who made this music back in the late ’60s through [the] early ’80s were doing a lot of psychedelics. Also, some of the artists, like Vangelis and German kosmische musicians, were influenced by the student protests at the time. It wasn’t music for relaxation. These people were rebelling against really popular forms of music and lifestyles. Some of these artists were living in communes. It was a highly alternative form of life, and that’s a pretty far cry away from making modular videos with plants and having a tech job.

Whether it’s a trend or if it’s going to stick around, I do feel that there’s less trademark-ambient music that has more psychedelic properties. A lot of it seems to be made for [healing or therapeutic functions], and even if it’s not, that ends up being the result. I don’t think this music shouldn’t exist, but I think it’s a bit sad for it to be the de facto standard. It’s getting away from what it used to be.

I remember an interview with Brian Eno. He had a rule about not doing drugs in the studio, but he had a trip—on mescaline, I think. It had quite an influence on him. The way he’d work with generative sounds, and the way that those would flow and overlap, recalls the way that psychedelic images manifest.

I guess that’s a good segue into the other aspect of this discussion. I’ve read press releases where people mention albums influential to them, and those albums were made from psychedelic experiences. That impacts the work. If you’re referencing GAS, that whole project is about Voigt’s acid trips in the Black Forest. That was in the press release way back. The music sounds that way because it’s his interpretation of those experiences. If one is going to reference such work, I think it’s important to recognize the context that it’s formed from.

Have psychedelics informed your own work? What context would you situate your own music within?

Jake Muir: I feel like there is some level of psychedelic nature to my records. I’ve had people say that my albums and mixes are good on ketamine, and I guess I’ve done enough to know the vibe. As far as actual psychedelics are concerned: I edited The Hum of Your Veiled Voice on half a tab of acid as a second opinion, so to speak. Maybe I wanted it to have certain psychedelic properties—it was a very interesting exercise. I made some very deliberate decisions [there], especially with “Reservoir of Memory,” which ended up being the most popular track on the record, and maybe there’s something to that. When you’re in that state, there’s not so much gray area with how sound affects you. Some of the elements I had were nagging me. I replaced almost the entire second half of the piece: I took out a field recording that was in there and made some other changes. In that way, it had a literal effect on the music. I haven’t done this since, but may do it again.

I think also the aesthetics that I enjoy in music are often ones that you’d associate with being trippy. This may be a big part of why the vast majority of my listening is with more abstract forms of music: The sound design employed; the structure, or lack thereof; the fact that there’s no real rules. I guess I gravitate to that more than rhythmic structures. Maybe it’s almost a miracle that there were any kind of beats at all on Mana. I do wonder if I’ll ever make some kind of dance or trip-hop record. I think more experimental forms of music tend to be more exploratory, because they’re not performing a particular function.

Talk to me about doing something this explicitly queer at the GRM. Did you situate it as “This is something that feels important because it perhaps moves against the grain?”

Jake Muir: Yes.

Tell me more.

Jake Muir: That was definitely part of it. I don’t think anyone had done something that obviously gay there, so it felt impactful to do that. It did run into its own problems, though: I didn’t think to run the idea by them before submitting the program notes. They were fine with it, but the venue they partnered with for that particular showcase is all-ages. So, there couldn’t be any explicit references to sex, porn, et cetera. While I worked on it during the residency, I tried to figure out if I should do it, and how it should manifest. One friend thought that it wasn’t as impactful if it was watered down. In the end, it was, to a point. It’s not so heavy on the sampled dialogue, and I removed a few elements that were a bit more raucous or on the nose. I wanted to make a statement, but I also wanted people to be able to listen to it. It’s about finding a balance. For the sake of this record, I felt I didn’t need to do something so completely out there. It’s still mostly that, but it did have to be toned down for it to be performed. It seemed like people appreciated it. A friend said that a couple of people in the audience liked that it was more melodic than some of the other pieces that were performed.

There’s a certain narrative to it. Emmanuel, one of the engineers, said that narrative pieces don’t always work in a multi-channel context. But I felt like I should go for it. So beyond trying to do it there, I wanted to pursue it for the sake of having more representation: Some kind of a queer narrative in sound art. In that realm, I feel like there aren’t many artists who are notably out. I thought it was meaningful, and I thought it would be fun to explore. Working with something that’s a bit campy for the first time was a personal challenge, and it was an opportunity to do something new.

Earlier on in this conversation, you mentioned that you consistently want to rebuild the wheel. Here, you’ve got four installations that center around this conceptual framework. Do you feel you’ve rebuilt it each time? Have you been building something larger? Have you completed that construction?

Jake Muir: With the third mix, and the album, it’s come to a conclusion. As far as the mixes go, the third time’s the charm. I suppose the last one is more abstract than the second, but the first wasn’t as cinematic; it didn’t employ as many popular forms of music as the second, which had pieces that were a bit closer to pop. The first was a bit amorphic in comparison.

Maybe as a result of the album, the third mix went in a more abstract direction. I think it still keeps the mood of all three. I suppose the album itself is a bit more removed from the mood of the mixes. But maybe this is an opportunity to go back to the brief statement I made about DJing versus production. With the mixes, it was easier to explore narrative, because there’s more to pull from. I’m only one person with a particular kind of brain, so I make the music I do. With the mixes, I can pull from many eras of music, styles, and aesthetics. So there’s a bit more room for keeping the thread, as opposed to production with such a particular concept. There’s finite time and less material out there; I probably could have gone through 100 more films and tried to find music that was less “dark,” but I have to get things done. [laughs]

I had a limited window to compose the piece for GRM. On paper, I could have taken as long as I wanted to finish the album, by the time we sent it off, it had already been six months of work. That’s the same timeframe as Mana, and that’s a long time. It does seem like the mixes work based on my own experiences with having visitors over and getting comments. It’s nice, and kind of validating, to hear that this kind of obtuse idea—sensuality within highly esoteric music—is achievable.

How connected, in your eyes, are your DJing and production practices?

Jake Muir: I guess there’s some similarities. There’s a funny anecdote here: I played [Malzof and] Kiernan Laveaux‘s Sweet Abyss night in Pittsburgh back in October, and our friend Nick was sitting next to Davis Galvin. At one point, I did a particular blend, and one of them said, “That was some sound-design shit.” If it’s more of a chill-out room vibe, I’ll play tracks that are a bit more full-bodied and maybe have less room for layering. In recent sets, it’s been fun to play pieces that are more skeletal, so I can do more layering. It becomes more collage than explicit DJing. The lines can be blurred there.

Part of the reason I like DJing so much is that it’s an extension of sampling. I personally find it more fun to DJ and collage things than I do to perform my own work. I’m not much of a performer; I have to fight a lot to feel comfortable with [it]. DJing feels a bit easier to stomach, and it’s a way to share the music that has informed my own work. Through it, I can create a thread through different eras and styles that are important to me. This is especially true with abstract music, because it’s so open-ended. You can go back to 1948—When GRM was founded, and similar studios, like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Weird stuff’s been made for a long time, and so that’s 70 years of music to pull from. Dance music basically goes back to the ’70s. I think there’s something kind of unique and powerful about that: “How can I find a relationship between something that was made in 2023 and something from 50 years ago?” Sometimes, current music is informed by music from that era, and maybe it’s not.

To explore that in a live context is more fun to me. I guess the same could be said for creating DJ mixes, and especially more conceptual ones. It’s a way to explore a theme that I might not do with a record. I think DJ mixes can be a really great avenue for exploring personal narratives. You could say Bathhouse Blues is an example of this: This is my interpretation or vision of hooking up.

When Debit released her last album, she did a mix, which I think I actually sent her a couple of records for. It was all electronic music that came from Mexico. I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity with that format to explore ideas that are meaningful. It just requires people to think about what they want to say with a mix, if anything.

What’s something you recently came to learn about yourself?

Jake Muir: I was going to dinner with my friend Rick here in LA. I’ve known him for five years now; I guess I was 30 at the time. He said I wasn’t the same person that I was back then; he felt that I was more confident and self-assured with the way I conducted myself. It’s been a slow process, and perhaps one of the reasons why I came out so late; at 27. There’s a host of reasons why, but I didn’t do a lot in my 20s. I was apprehensive about various life things. So that was nice to hear. I hadn’t seen it myself, because I still had the same sense of humor and other things. I guess the way I conduct myself has changed.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Jake Muir: I’m trying to finish my sixth album, which is a very complicated process. I have a few compilations I’m supposed to be a part of. And there’s a few collaborative projects that I’m excited about, which will hopefully be made [in 2024]. I have some shows in Texas in January, which will be my first time there. So far, it’s San Antonio and Austin. And I think that’s it. I’ve been spending a while in LA, and I’ll return to Berlin in March.

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