deepspace: Exploring the Blue
by Paul Brandon
deepspace is Mirko Ruckels, a genre-crossing musician with a musical history that resembles more a patchwork quilt than a resume. His March ’22 release Superradiance was his first with Projekt, and its follow up The Blue Dunes has just been released. There’s also two Projekt collaborations with fellow Australian artist, theAdelaidean, and eleven other studio albums.
And that’s just in the ambient genre.
To call him restless is something of an understatement. In his twenties, one of his (several) rock bands was discovered in the Australian ‘Unearthed’ competition run by national radio broadcaster Triple J. Mirko has studied and performed opera with the University of Queensland, worked as a professional songwriter with BMG, obtained five degrees in music, arts and psychology, including two Masters, has been in an award-nominated Americana band, self-produced, recorded and released three albums of solo psychedelic guitar pop music, written a score for a computer game, an album of Beatlesque-XTC-Jellyfish inspired with duo Norskiosk and co-written, produced and performed two albums with ARIA-nominated musician Sarah Calderwood (which are the Australian equivalent of the Grammys).
So yes, he can most definitely be called restless. But sewn through all of these vastly differing projects has been his output as ambient artist deepspace. We sat down in a coffee shop in his hometown of Brisbane, Australia to pick apart some of those threads starting, of course, at the beginning.
P: When did you start creating ambient music as deepspace? Was there a particular catalyst for it or did it come out of nowhere, driven simply by curiosity?
M: I look back now and can see that I started creating ambient music as a bit of a response to a frustration/burn-out with more conventional music performance. I had spent over a decade (starting in the nineties) playing guitar and singing professionally as a musician, working in various guitar bands, often performing up to six nights a week. I started work after 10pm, finished at 2am, got home an hour later and slept until midday like some kind of strange nocturnal creature. Such is the life of a working musician, and I’m sure some of the readers will identify. It got old after a while. I also worked as a songwriter for BMG, writing relentlessly and shopping songs; I worshipped at the altar of pop song writing and filled books with hundreds of songs. My musical inspirations were musicians like The Beatles, Elliot Smith, XTC, Jellyfish: Anything with intricate melodies, vocal harmonies, interesting harmonic changes, and usually a late 60s influence. The nineties were an interesting era, and you couldn’t escape grunge or Britpop music if you were a band, so there were some of those influences creeping in as well.
After the early 2000s I turned to, in what you might see as a surprise, opera. I had started singing in choirs at university, and then found that I had a strong tenor voice with operatic potential. I ended up performing lead roles such as Don Jose in Bizet’s Carmen, Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutti and other works. However, I felt I was a little too neurotic for a career in the area as it was highly competitive and demanding, and due to some difficulties between warring stylistic factions within the music department and also my own neuroses, I eventually backed out. I felt a bit bruised by the music industry, and it was a year after that in 2007 that I started recording the first deepspace album. I felt like I could be my true self doing this music. I am a very introverted person, and the music not only sounded like the inside of my head, but I could do it without any of the pressure, politics and noise of more conventional musical projects. Just me, my keyboards, guitars and a computer.
Some people say that you are your most true and joyously ambitious self when you’re eight years old, and you spend a whole lot of time away from and then eventually returning to that state after a whole lot of intervening noise and chaos. Well. When I was eight, I was obsessed by inner worlds, science fiction, fantasy, bells, and faraway sounds. In 2007, I returned to that state. I figured if I can’t navigate the perilous seas of the existing music industry, I can make my own seas. The music flowed out in response at that point.
P: What seems apparent to me is a perceived conflict between being in a band and writing ambient music. Being in a band is social; there’s collaboration, writing, arranging, rehearsing, other egos, and of course the live performance aspect, whereas producing ambient music is by and large a very solo affair. For you, I’ve always thought that it was more than that. Ambient music seems like a solace. You enjoy working in bands, there’s been some incredible bursts of creativity within the different projects, but usually after each, you retreat back to gently lapping shores of the drones and the atmospheric environments. Do you find yourself compartmentalizing yourself somewhat between projects and genres, or do they all occupy the same creative headspace? There’s also the personal aspect to this as well — bands take up a tremendous amount of internal energy, and a lot of that can be spent just dealing with differing characters, directions, and also the shedding of a certain amount of control and not just sitting back in the delicious solitude of composing.
M: I feel like the performative side of creating more conventional music in a band has always been a little at odds with my personality. Even though I did enjoy performing, especially with good friends, I still always felt like I had to ‘mask’ a little and be more extroverted than I actually am. When you are in, or front a band, you need to carry the evening and engage the audience. I find myself getting exhausted by that and by all the noise and activity. Ambient music is my oasis. I love empty liminal spaces, abandoned places where there are no people. I love nature, space, and getting deep into those environments. I guess that’s where the idea of deep ‘space’ came from. It’s not necessarily about ‘outer space’ per se, it’s about spaces and entering them with your imagination. And it’s a space in which I exist happily. And I know that others enjoy those quiet imaginative spaces too.
P: So following on from that a little, the structure of a band — and for this I’m generally speaking of the kinds of bands you’ve been involved in — is somewhat conventional; lyrics, melodies etc. Your composition path, is it generally improvisational or do you map out each piece thematically, sonically, technically? And I guess that question lends itself to the entirety of an album too as to whether you have an overarching auralisation of an album as a series of pieces or a whole? Da Vinci said that ‘art is never finished, only abandoned’ — are you one of those people with a cupboard full of hard drives crammed with musical jottings, settings, phrases and tones?
M: My composition is generally quite structured with some exceptions. Because I studied (and teach) music, I developed a harmonic language that I am very conscious of. I will intentionally use certain chords and musical structures that I love and that have become part of my musical language or often per-album palette. For example, in deepspace I love using chords with bass notes that are not on the tonic but are a third, fourth or fifth below in the same way that someone like Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) did – you’re basically inverting the chord, and it creates beautiful nuances, not unlike highlighting an object with a light, but from different angle each time creating a new beautiful vision every time even though the object is the same. When these are paired with other chords that are unusual and borrowed from distant keys, I become a happy chappy: I start to see a gallery of strangely-lit objects. Then the music starts suggesting itself. The listener doesn’t necessarily notice all this (unless they are another ambient musician!) It doesn’t sound clever, it just sounds interesting, evocative and a bit fresh and hopefully recognizable as deepspace.
So yeah, the composition process tends to be structured and so do the albums. Blue Worlds I for example, focussed on the colour blue, and I consciously tried to find ‘blue’ sounds. The Dream Polaroids was an idea of creating pieces that were based on photos taken within a dream. That gave me a wonderful angle of creating dream-like dioramas of sounds. The new album, The Blue Dunes, is made of music that suggests the landscape. A rich blue landscape of dunes. It’s a concept album with an accompanying science fiction story (inspired by the music) about a figure that enters a vast blue desert and experiences…well, you’ll have to read it (laughs). Yet the pieces are not structured to the extent of a notated composition where all the parts are written out. So, the ambient compositional process isn’t that different from writing a song. Structured, yet within an aural context, occasionally with chord charts. With a song, I try to find a melody or a chord progression that captivates me and then structure that into verses and choruses. Same thing with ambient music, except it might be an A section and a B section, or sometimes through composed, which means it’s ever-changing and not sectional. A difference between a song and ambient however might be: getting microscopic with sound – I might find a progression or sequence that I love but play it in a way where I’m barely touching the keys, and then I might filter and mutate that as well, it depends.
P: What’s easier for you, crafting a lyric or crafting a tone?
M: They’re both a separate game. Yet I will spend inordinate amounts of time on either until I feel it’s perfect. I have a very high wastage rate of pieces (and songs) sitting in my vault of unused ideas. I don’t like the idea of overpopulating my discography with half-thought-out ideas, and I get very selective and neurotic about what goes on an album. I’m sure if there are any ambient composers reading this, or anyone else in an artistic or a craft-based profession, they are probably nodding their heads right now.
P: So Brisbane’s home, and you are one of only two Australian artists on the Projekt label, but you count, by most people’s standards, a fairly broad cultural background of a German father, a French mother. You were born in Germany and spent seven years there before moving to Australia. Music is an odd beast — our creations are like these little private bricks that are our personal contributions within a public brick wall that meanders though many different cultures, and ambient particularly seems less bound by tradition than a lot of other forms — but do you feel a certain amount of pressure on you from different ambient sub-genres or even new age music, and I’m wondering whether you think about where you fit, or if that is even a concern?
M: It’s interesting to develop your music over time and to hear other people describe it. The ‘space ambient’ tag has been used quite a bit with deepspace. And people start to compare you to others. Spotify for example groups you with other artists that listeners also like. I have mixed feelings about this. I think every artist is always a little suspicious of labels and being part of a group of artists as it can feel a little bit like a genre prison and is not so healthy for your creativity as creativity requires air and freedom. If you look at the deepspace discography there are as many non-space albums as there are space albums, in fact, probably more non-space albums, so genre labels are not always very accurate.
I think creativity and inspiration are the guiding factors for me in terms of what direction I go in. If I’m getting bored with a sound or genre, I’ll automatically adjust and create something that excites me. I become disinterested very quickly if I don’t feel a particular feeling from what I’m creating, which is a good safeguard I think. I feel that you really have to create your own path and as French composer (one of my all-time favorites) Claude Debussy said, you should follow your pleasure. I don’t really write for any other reason – it’s certainly not for money. Too many things in this world exist for either competitive or pragmatic reasons. Let’s have a few things that just exist because they are beautiful or unusual. I think art provides that.
P: Your biography mentions the deep joy you found as a child with non-melodic, almost atonal sounds such as lawn mowers, distant trains, church bells. You’re not particularly known as composer that uses found sounds in his work, so I’m assuming that your tonal constructions are an attempt to return to that almost meditative state. Do you find that you’re successful or does the process and focus of creation become the meditation more so than the result?
M: Both. My body fills with strange calm pleasure when I create but also when I listen to the result of what I’ve created and to ambient music that I enjoy in general. When I first heard artists such as vidnaObmana, Alio Die, Steve Roach and Telomere, I realized that it must happen for others as well as for me. That was a very exciting moment for me. When I was little, I would feel a sense of magic in certain places. I would look into the corner of my room and feel there was something exciting there: a vista, a diorama, a hidden world, an unexplainable sense of adventure. It’s hard to explain, but that would cause me to sink into a dream state. I put some of this down to my autism. I would enter an altered state upon hearing certain sounds which is something that still happens to this day. I experience it intensely when I hear the sound of bells. When I hear church bells, for example, my head buzzes with pleasure, and I just drift off into that place. I can listen to bells all day. When I hear distant noises, the same. Imagination, and a non-defined sense of anticipation, adventure and richness pervade my senses. When I hear a propeller plane going overhead, for example, I enter a trance state. I love drones and unfocussed sounds. Lucky for me then, ambient music is precisely the place where I can then play with these sounds.
P: Two of the recurring non-musical themes I’ve seen through your music are the sonic interpretations of deserts and the use of the colour blue as a grounding for a lot of your work. Does that come from a particular sense of place within Australia, a country known for wide deserts and the deep blue of the sky and the sea? What do you think are your main sources of inspiration? Do you draw from specifics like landscape, cityscape, people or particular subjects, or is it a much more internal process: childhood triggers, memories, questions?
M: To the last question, I would say that I draw from specifics often. They’re often external states rather than internal representations of feelings which music also deals with wonderfully, but I would say deepspace is ‘outside’ both in vast spaces and microscopic spaces with maybe a few exceptions. I am obsessed by deserts and have been since I was little. There is something so beautiful in those empty spaces, shifting sands, distant plains, and I’m very fascinated by them in a way that I don’t even fully understand. Maybe it’s the autism again (laughs).
Australia is a beautiful and strange continent filled with these kinds of places and arid spaces that seem to go on forever. This feeds my imagination, and I’m quite proud that it’s a source of inspiration for me as it does feel very unique and something that I can show to people in other parts of the world via sound. Other aspects like the sense of something appearing then fading away into infinite silence. And creating a sense of vast spaces. And then finding an often quite specific title that describes that feeling. “Light in the Neptunian Desert” is one such specific title from The Empty Atoms. I felt like I was hearing a very lonely light glowing in the distance, but it wasn’t on earth, and the title appeared from that. That’s exciting for me and was one of the reasons I started deepspace. Both music and titles are prompts for the imagination of the listener, much like that corner of the room, or faraway sound, was a prompt for my imagination.
P: Let’s talk about gear for a moment. Artists tend to be creatures of habit with their favorite pens, brushes or guitars. Jon Hopkins springs to mind here with his use of an old ‘99 copy of SoundForge (and Win 98 needed to run it). Your career has been long enough that you would have passed through many generations of hard and software. Are you the kind of composer that sticks to what works for you, or do you regularly find yourself getting itchy to try the latest plugin?
M: I’m not very technical minded – I don’t really care about gear or presets. I need things to work fast, and I need to be able to fine tune the sound until I’m happy, so I always like good filters. Synapse makes some good filters. Reverbs are all important. I love reverb; it’s the sound of the gunk in my head. Synapse again, makes a wonderful reverb called Deep Reverb that I use all the time. I use some pretty basic software. Maelstrom, which is a really old granular software synth in Reason. I love it and can make it sing. I have Omnisphere and Keyscape, which are a bit fancy but find that I don’t use Omnisphere that much as the presets are all a bit too authored and specific – I use it for some layering here and there. I like to make my own sounds rather than complex presets. I’m more likely to use something basic like Subtractor or Absynth or an interesting plug-in I’ve come across, like something from Arturia. I like some of the Universal Audio plugins, which are nice. I do use Vienna strings which is probably the most expensive bit of software that I use. I am largely software-based when I’m not adding guitar with my strat or adding other acoustic sounds like bells and odd instruments. I do use some found sounds quite a bit layered under parts – it can give a wonderful sense of space and a meta-sense to a piece. Suddenly the piece is an accompaniment to the found sound, whereas before it was the sole sound. I love that shift. It’s like a viewpoint shift from first person to third person.
Apart from using interesting found sounds that I’ve hunted down, I’ve used my kids quite a bit as sources of sound: “Whisper 1” from Slow Wave Cathedral has my son Luka whispering on it in a stream of consciousness manner. Both my daughters have had multiple spoken bits: one is a spoken section at the start of “The Great Thing in the Sky” where my daughter Astrid goes “Look there’s something up in the sky!” at the start. Another one is my daughter Pixie: she once said that she would like to ask Santa Claus if he is purple. That turned into a piece called “Are You Purple?” on Deep Blue Universe. There are more spoken parts in other pieces if you listen carefully. I have experienced the evolution of software and am seeing some stunning programs emerging now. But I don’t think it does that much for the creative process —you can’t buy the desire to express something. No plugin or instrument will do that. You are the thing that creates the music. You are the most important plugin or soft synth (laughs).
P: And finally, what can we expect from The Blue Dunes? It already sounds like you’re branching out somewhat with the inclusion of the digital booklet and story. Is it a more narrative work than your other albums?
M: The Blue Dunes is pretty much a concept album. Being the desert freak that I am, I was very excited about the footage of The Blue Dunes on Mars that came out a couple of years ago. I was initially very excited but then quite sad when I heard that the dunes weren’t actually blue, but only appeared blue due to the particular software being used in that the cooler areas appeared blue while warmer areas are orange and yellow. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story was my next thought, and I started to imagine walking into a blue desert. The idea was intoxicating to me. The music came incredibly quickly, and I had this very strong intuition: do not touch, do not add anything unnecessary to this. Don’t stuff this up. This resulted in the most sparse and minimal work I have done yet. I imagine the temptation Steve Roach may have felt when he wrote Structures from Silence to add a few extra parts here and there. But he didn’t. He must have instinctively known to leave it as it was, that it was perfect. Which it was and still is. Structures from Silence is one of the most perfect pieces of sound ever written. So, even though afraid, I decided to let the music speak as it is. The beauty of a desert is because of what it has, but also because it lacks so much else. I started listening to The Blue Dunes tracks obsessively — normally I listen to edit, check, critique, like most other writers, but I did actually get hooked on this one and listened to it every day for a few months. I don’t say that to influence the listeners. That would be really cheesy and probably ineffective, as I imagine ambient listeners as being intelligent and very selective about what they listen to. I say it to impress upon you that sometimes it’s good to really listen to your instincts and let something ‘be’ what it is, in spite of the pressure to craft something ‘professional’ that sounds like it fits within a genre.
Paul Brandon is a Brisbane-based writer, musician and photographer. His (sporadic) journal can be found at paulbrandon.com.