On his entirely wordless and guitar-less new record Capitalist Teeth, the D.C.-area musician Tristan Welch sonically explores the tension surrounding a real world topic: our teeth. As those who aren’t lucky enough to take their health for granted may be all too familiar with, dental health is a marker that might be able to separate the privileged from the underprivileged. Those with resources get the opportunity to bring their dental health up to par, while those without similar financial resources may not.
On Capitalist Teeth, Welch confronts these themes through billowing clouds of soundscape ambiance. In the absence of the guiding qualities of a series of melodies, Welch uses the record’s sonic palette to dive into a pattern of tension and release like that which may accompany going to a dentist’s office itself. (This pattern, of course, makes other appearances throughout our lives.) Welch’s ambiance varies from a piercing, power electronics-adjacent tone to something softer and gentler, at least on the surface, and there’s a real sense of flow between these extremes. Welch feels like he’s powerfully captured some of the organics of the emotional experience that he’s dealing with.
Capitalist Teeth includes two tracks. Opening track “A Wealthy Smile” begins with minutes of searing tension in which Welch presents a steady stream of erratically textured, abrasive yet flowing sound. It’s worth noting — even in the more abrasive segments like this opener, there’s always a rather crisp vibe to the sound. Welch never really ventures into lo-fi territory here — which seems fitting, as if he has placed the tension he’s dealing with inside of an emotional reflection of the sterile environment of a dentist’s office. Within a dentist’s office, one might feel like they’re “supposed” to feel secure but still feel out-of-place anyway, especially if they’re dealing with, say, financial concerns. The sounds of Capitalist Teeth reflect this emotional struggle.
On “A Wealthy Smile,” after a few minutes, the soundscape drops off into simmering ambiance that feels kind of bright. Over the course of the ensuing minutes, the track builds into steady tones that feel more shrill and piercing, and the piece culminates in a conclusion that introduces shaky, emotional unease-riddled dynamics to the mixture.
“Financed Chewing,” the record’s second track, builds into a static-textured whir after a few minutes, which eventually gives way to a cleaner, somewhat shrill tone that carries an air of slight solemnity in its unwavering procession. The closing segment of the track returns to simmering tension.
Across Capitalist Teeth, many of the segments feel relatively unbroken, which helps build the immersive aspect of the listening experience. Welch carries individual sonic ideas for substantial chunks of time; there’s not a lot of jumping around here, at all.
Below, check out a Q and A with Welch about the creation of Capitalist Teeth:
Capturing the Themes
Captured Howls (CH): Your new record, Capitalist Teeth, is very compelling. I’ve read some of your explanation for the theme that is referenced in the title; are there other sorts of guiding principles that you would say led the song composition process? Was the title theme the main source for “inspiration,” in a broad sense?
Tristan Welch (TW): I work in varied processes; sometimes I have the music then I kind of work themes into a completed work and other times I have the theme first then work the music into it. With Capitalist Teeth, it was the latter.
I originally really had this planned to be some sort of art installation of sorts. I wanted to project video of dental work with just uneasy sounds that would incite some anxious feelings. I actually started creating video before I had any music.
So yes, the title theme was the main inspiration for this project. It took a few years for this to transition from a vague idea into what it is now. During those few years I started the process of fixing my teeth. I had spent many years previously unemployed and suffered from addiction – so by virtue of that my gums and my teeth were in terrible shape. I got insurance from a job and started going through the go-through – and it was a lot of money. Like a lot of the themes I use for my art – they are based on experience. I find influence just from going through life.
I wanted the music and art to reflect the odd notion that our human teeth — our ability to eat and talk — is turned into a profit margin. I believe that minimalist compositions can be of great use of expressing ideas. After all – life isn’t that complicated; we just make it that way…
CH: Since there are no lyrics on the record — although the title theme and your explanation for it are definitely plenty poignant on their own — is there a particular “journey” that you imagine accompanies the record? Is there something, even if quite broad, that you would hope shines through for listeners?
TW: I’m not the best at words. If I ever include lyrics or poetry to accompany my music they will have to be vague in nature. Sometimes my music and message may not necessarily coincide, at least outwardly – but then again life is grey.
The tracks build and fall. I considered the dental care experience. The gnawing, sawing and drilling. It’s rather intense but then you get a slight relief at some points when the dentist is switching instruments or it’s time to rinse. Then it’s back again for something unpleasant. I get fascinated by the strangest and most mundane things, really.
I imagine the music to reflect this journey – even the part where your insurance denies the claim and you’re stuck trying to get some cash together – financing your bill at a high interest rate.
Even without the template of the title I would hope the music would provide some sort of cathartic relief otherwise. It did for me.
The Sounds of Capitalist Teeth
CH: What sorts of cues did you use in developing the sound of these tracks? Did you focus on tying the sound to the thematic vibe? Were there particular sonic points that you wanted to hit? Some of both?
TW: The process was natural. If I was working with a pulse I’d follow it ’til it ran its course and develop a transition. I was not trying to create an “ambient” record per se – although there are moments when that comes through. I did not think Capitalist Teeth would be best viewed as something of the sort. I took influence from various noise and power electronics sounds to get the sonics I wanted. I felt those sorts of sonics found in industrial-influenced noise would fit the theme much more and reflect the experience.
When it came time to master the record I actually contacted Billy Pizarro as he was the first person to come to mind when it came to bringing out the textures I was shooting for. I wanted it to be heavy but I also wanted it to be harsh – but I wanted the harshness to be smooth. I wanted the experience to make you feel uneasy but I didn’t want the music to be unlistenable. I didn’t have to tell him much for him to get the picture and bring it to life.
While I love more blissful forms of ambient/drone music – I first got introduced to a lot of this kind of thing through heavy, noisy and loud music. I kind of used this recording to take advantage of that.
CH: The new tracks are guitar-less — how would you describe the mindset that led you to take that leap? Did you want to try something fresh, song-construction wise, for instance?
TW: When I was first trying to create the music for this project I actually started out with guitar. But I just could not get the sound I wanted. It kept coming off as either too pretty or uninspired. I’d do some heavy drone stuff – and it’d just not have the right texture or just go nowhere fast. Sometimes I’d end up with a riff or structure that is now being used elsewhere. I had a sound in my head and I just could not find it. I’d work on something else for months at a time then come back and get frustrated again.
At some point I just thought I’d try something different. I have a few little synth/noise boxes from Rucci Electronics. Out of the lack of inspiration or maybe even my own inability to gain the sound I wanted I plugged the minimal drone box into my pedal board and finally reached a sound I wanted. It was a moment of relief and I just took off from there.
This recording is just actually even more minimal than other records I’ve done. I’m always very focused on manipulating the sounds I get and structuring them – but due to instrument choice here the original tones don’t change very much. I’d use my pedal board to control and make things interesting – hopefully listenable.
The funny thing is though, this has to be one of my favorite recordings I’ve ever done. I feel I was successful in creating a piece of art with sound and that’s what my goal always is. Maybe the lack of “notes” and just the focus on certain pitches and sounds was helpful in the vision I had.
Connecting with the Community
CH: What do you like about ambient, free-flowing song constructions in general? What has your journey up to the particular kind of song construction that’s on display on this new record been like?
TW: With most of my guitar work – pieces are actually pretty structured and thought out; typically via trial and error. It actually takes me a very long time to get something down. I have charts scattered upon a million pieces of paper. Once performance is a thing again and I have to re-learn a bunch of songs from all these releases I’ve done… It’s going to be troublesome.
With this record though – and something I enjoy the most about ambient-centered music – is the focus on expression and feeling. One of my favorite things about music of this sort is the pure cathartic expression. I love being able to feel the emotion through volume and texture. I find it much easier to relate to than words in songs. I also enjoy riding things out. I first grew to like a lot of doom metal, sludge, and those sorts of genres because they’d find a killer riff and just ride it. While I’m not playing any killer riffs – I’m finding sounds that I don’t really want to end. It doesn’t have to fit into a short structure and change. The change can be the same sound from before – but just from a different reference point. Kind of like all my life’s experiences. I’m always me but I’m just in a different place or frame of mind. Not much ever actually changes.
I would say though – my experience of writing all the previous things I’ve done helped me get to this point. Also all the shows I’ve played, booked and attended. Hearing how other people express things or even just making sound for the sake of making sound. I always get excited when I hear something and just think “what the fuck is this?’. When I first wrote the first few minutes of this – I was thinking “what the fuck am I doing?”
CH: Do you see a place for a kind of brightness or optimism, within your particular corner of the music community and in general? How do you feel about the way things are going — do you see bright spots? Music that’s been particularly inspiring lately, perhaps?
TW: Oh, I don’t know. That’s difficult. I’ve spent a lot of time on the outside looking in. It’s difficult to truly give this your all when you gotta fight to pay bills. My work never feels complete due to circumstance. But I just keep doing it because I have to and majority of the time I still feel incomplete. Trying to fill a hole or a void, maybe. But the process and the feeling of accomplishment from creating is something I’m addicted to. In D.C. we have a venue called Rhizome which is a beautiful thing. It’s community operated and truly one of the only places I even like to go for live music and art. It operates outside of capitalist ideals. Sometimes there’s a downfall such as the room isn’t really treated for a loud PA – but the feeling of community and lack of care for profit is ideal. Due to the current crisis we will see some venues close. While that sucks and I truly feel for the workers – the bartenders, engineers, stage crew, etc… maybe the new venues can operate as proper listening rooms without a focus on alcohol sales?
I love that the internet has made music very accessible. But social media has turned into a game more than a way to connect. Social media platforms want money to get your posts in front of people, blogs and zines have always been a source of community but I see the struggle to maintain that. But I can say that I personally buy so many records, tapes, CDs and random downloads from so many cool artists because it’s all at my fingertips. It’s just hard to dig sometimes. I’ll still buy a record at the record store because the cover is cool and I may have heard of the label at some point. The record store is a place where I can have a real life conversation about some cool music I’ve just discovered.
How do I feel about things in general? Like the state of the world or the United States? I’m not optimistic. I firmly believe that as long as there is a profit in hate that the ills of a “free market” will continue. The power structure is based on money and if that gets shared – it ruins the benefit of having the most of it (I guess?) – Fuck, this even bleeds into the music world; it bleeds everywhere. I try not to go into too deep of conversations about this ’cause I don’t have all the answers – I’m just another person trying to get by and I do think most of the world is doing just that – trying to get by. I don’t fault people for playing within the rules, especially when you have mouths to feed. My example of this is like – Fuck WalMart – right? But if you got 3 kids and make $10 an hour — then sweatshop t-shirts made by billionaires? Fuck it who has time to care? Fuck McDonalds – but you got 3 jobs and need to eat to have energy to make it through; fuck it – eat. I don’t know. I’m a very forgiving person but something has to be done – I see more people die working than really living. I get pretty depressed thinking about it. I create to deal with it.
As far as inspiring music I’ve come across (lately) – from playing shows I discovered Elizabeth Colour Wheel and by virtue the label that put out their record, The Flenser. Midwife, Sprain, and the Planning for Burial re-issues are fantastic. Lots of good heavier, darker rockish centered music.
As far ambient music is concerned I’ve been on a big kick of the records Past Inside The Present puts out. Lots of beautiful, lush and deep music. I’ve also got a few things from 12K – The record Break by Corey Fuller is fantastic. I’ve always been very interested in the music from a label called Time Released Sounds – crazy, extravagant packaging of lathe cut records by a lot of neo-classical and ambient artists. Of course I’ll buy anything Kranky puts out.
I’ll also note Alex Ruder of Hush Hush Records does an amazing Sunday morning ambient radio show on KEXP. It’s 4 hours of the most beautiful sounds and every time he includes me on it I’m baffled by the quality I’m surrounded by.
I’m actually very interested in hip-hop and rap as well. I’ve been way into an artist called Backxwash. Her production and delivery is incredible. I recently just downloaded some shit from a group called BLACKHANDPATH that is noisy and intense. Justin Pearson and hip-hop producer Luke Henshaw have a thing called Planet B which I absolutely love as well.