Chris Oliver | Interview | “Gear doesn’t matter, ideas do!”
Chris Oliver is a DIY artist active for many years. He recorded so much that it’s pretty much impossible to follow.
Besides making solo noises, he made music with The Solar System from 2004-2015 and is currently active in Sound7 and Perfect Number.
Would you like to talk a bit about your background? What can you say about your upbringing?
Chris Oliver: I was born in Detroit Michigan, Grew up in a suburb called “Chesterfield Township” which is 30 miles north of Detroit.
I grew up in a house full of music, My dad’s a drummer who at the time played in a country band called “Borderline”. He also had a huge record collection that I lived in from the moment I could walk to the record player. Discovered many of the classic psychedelic and progressive rock bands we all know and love. My grandfather plays piano and accordion. I also have a cousin or uncle who plays drums. At the age of 3 I started playing drums. That was the beginning of my obsession with music. Toys, playing outside et cetera. It all went away once music entered my life. From the age of 3 onwards, I spent all my free time going through my parents’ record collection. I also have an uncle who had a great record collection in a funny smelling basement, lots of plants around if you get my drift [wink, wink].
I would listen to records and play drums, and dream of starting a band. Music was/is my life!
“Songs started coming and since 1998, they haven’t stopped!”
When did you become a musician and what led you to start recording? When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music? What brought that about for you?
I became a musician the first time I sat behind a drum kit at the age of 3. It’s a feeling that I’ll never forget. I made a bunch of noise behind the kit that first time but I knew, this is what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. As I got better on drums and got to a point in my early teens where I could play along with records like ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ by King Crimson note for note. I decided I was ready to join/start a band. Sadly I was unsuccessful. Everyone I knew thought I was a total freak because all I wanted to do was listen to music, play drums and talk about music when everyone around me just wanted to do the normal things you do when you’re a teen. I don’t remember where or how I found out about the 4-track machine but I asked my parents for a Tascam 424 4-track for Christmas when I was 16. Shortly after I discovered I could kinda play guitar. What I mean by this is whenever my step-brother Gary wasn’t home. I would go into his room and play the guitar he had that was always in the corner, looking sad and covered in dust. I picked it up and tried to strum a chord. Standing up and holding the guitar properly, I couldn’t do more than make noise. Frustrated, I sat down with the guitar laying on my lap, like a lap steel player and within seconds, I stumbled upon the riff to ‘Panic In Detroit’ by David Bowie, Soon after came the ultimate riff every beginner plays ‘Smoke On The Water’ then I discovered bar chords and the rest is history. I still play guitar this way and people trip out on me whenever I play live. I get compared to Jeff Healey often. Afterwards, I picked up a bass. Had a very short piano lesson with my grandpa and started playing keyboards. So when the 4-track arrived, I was off to the races. The first year of recording, I was mainly learning how to use the machine and get sounds. Finally songs started coming and since 1998, they haven’t stopped!
What would you say are some of the early influences that inspired you to start recording your own music?
My early influences are still some of my main sources of inspiration, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath et cetera . My early teens I discovered Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. I got both instantly and it unlocked another door for me. Music now had no rules. It could be anything. It could be atonal, it could be in time signatures beyond 4/4. Humor, sound effects, sonic manipulation et cetera. Shortly after getting my 4-track, I learned about the lo-fi scene. Bands like Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, Cleaners From Venus and the king of the D.I.Y. home recording scene, R. Stevie Moore. Flash forward to 2021. Myself and R. Stevie Moore are making these super psychedelic, DADA damaged, spoken word albums together.
Discovering these other bands that are recording on 4-track and releasing the music themselves or somehow getting signed from 4-track recordings, let me know that it would be possible for me to do the same.
You released countless albums, would you like to recommend a few to our readers and share what’s the story behind them?
This is a tough question as I have over 60 releases from various bands/projects and my solo material
The first album I’d recommend is the 2007 release from my original project “The Solar System” the album is ‘Materi’.
Why this album is so important to me is because I feel this album is me truly finding my sound. From that album on, the direction I would go and my sonic identity began with ‘Materi’. Recorded in various basements and bedrooms on my 4-track. It has a magic to it. It’s also the first album that friends had very positive things to say about it and would actively listen to it. A few of my friends still think it’s my best record.
I want to highlight an album from an on-going collaboration project I’d had going since 2004 with my friend, Zachary Biggs. Zach lives in Texas. We met online in a John Frusciante forum. We started talking and exchanged tapes. We both loved each other’s music and I can’t remember who suggested it but we decided to make music together by sending our 4-track tapes back and forth to each other via the postal service. Our first album ‘Dust and Guitars’ came out in 2004.
As of 2021, we’ve released 16 albums and we’re currently working on multiple follow up to our latest release ‘Waves’.
So the album in question is our 2006 release ‘Invent Yourself’. I chose this one for similar reasons as ‘Materi’. This is the album we’re Zach and I found our sound which would explore and develop over the years.
We both agree it’s one of our strongest releases. It’s a 23 track album broken into two sections. The first half are songs that contain vocals and explore a wide variety of sounds and styles. The second half begins with the epic title track. It’s an avant-classical piece that’s a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist. The rest of the album is instrumental, taking the listener on a very lysergic journey. We’re so young, still learning how to make music in this very unique way at the time. We thought or at least we weren’t aware of other musician’s recording this way. This was years before that band The Postal Service who’s main point of promotion was all about how they recorded music by sending back and forth to each other via the post office, never actually meeting or playing in the same room. Like Zach & Myself. Like The Solar System album, ‘Invent Yourself’ remains a favorite to many Chris Oliver and Zachary Biggs fans and friends.
I’ll pick one more. This is a solo album. So after The Solar System dissolved, out of respect to my bandmates, I decided to retire the name and continue recording music under my name, which I had with The Solar System since I started the project in 2002. It was just me doing the one-man band thing until late 2012, I decided to ask Brian Arvo and Dan Vought to play with me. The Solar System turned into a three piece band. So after the band broke up I started releasing music under my own name. I decided to go with one of the three releases from 2020. The album in question is ‘Slow Arrival’ In April 2020 I was temporarily laid off from my job due to Covid-19. Despite the scary and sadly still ongoing pandemic, I was beyond happy to have some time to stay home and work on music and honestly I hate my job. So to be able to stay home and work on music all the time, was like the dream coming true. Sadly reality returned and back to the dreaded day job I went and still am. Anyways, April 20th was the first day of what would become 4 months off. That very day I gave myself a challenge to write & record a song a day. Tracks 3-12 are the first 10 songs I wrote after starting this challenge. I feel the album has some of my strongest songs to date like ‘Kookland’ and ‘Join The Club’.
‘False Seas’ and excellent instrumental pieces like ‘Brain Factory’ and ‘Night Time Activity’ despite it being the height of the pandemic, and the overall fear felt in the world. I was at home, recording and at total peace. In the 4 months I was home, I wrote and recorded 80 songs. Most have come out on various solo albums and Chris Oliver and Zachary Biggs records. More music from this time period will be coming out in the future. Each song on this album took 3 to 5 hours to write and record. They all came fast and quickly. I also left the mistakes in the recording. I did this to show the human element that I feel is lacking in modern music and I wanted to keep them pure. Whatever comes out of me in each session, is what you hear and that gives the album a vibe that it wouldn’t have if I were to clean it up.
How do you usually approach music making?
Every time I write and record, it’s different. As I’m sure you’ve been told many times by the various musicians you’ve interviewed in the past. Some songs come from a guitar riff or chord sequence, other’s come from me messing around with a synth or experimenting with a guitar pedal. Finding a certain sound and writing a song around that. Sometimes the songs start from the drums. I get behind the kit or mess around with electronic drums, I find a pattern I dig and I go from there. The one thing that’s constant is lyrics always come last. Writing words has never been a strong suit of mine. So they always come last.
Are you currently working on something new?
Yes, I have a few records in the works with various projects. As I mentioned before, I’m working with R. Stevie Moore on two psychedelic, spoken word albums. I discovered RSM’s music around the early 2000’s. After years of being a fan, I found him on Facebook. And found the nerve to send him a song I was working on that I just couldn’t figure out how to finish. Sent it to him and he dug it. That song became ‘Time Share’ which is on his album ‘Space Bar’.
Fast forward to October 2021, After years of no contact, I sent him a message about putting music to some of his spoken word. Pieces that are scattered all over his releases. There are a few spoken word only albums like ‘Mind Crack’ and ‘Text Rage’ that are great and I pulled pieces from to add music too. We’re currently working on Vol 2. It’s been so much fun dreaming up music for his spoken word pieces. The music is varied and dense. Going from beauty to complete avant garde insanity. The first Vol is now available on R. Stevie’s bandcamp page . The album is called ‘Oliver Twisted- The Ego Awaits Trial. Vol 2’.
There are multiple albums in the works with Zach and myself. Some of the material stems from the intense prolific timeline of April-July 2020 among tons of material Zach has been putting together. Last time we spoke, we’re thinking there’s at least four albums in various stages of development. Those will come at some point in 2022.
And lastly, I’m currently working on a new solo album. Not quite sure where this one’s heading yet. As of now, the material recorded is all instrumental and electronic based. 2022 is shaping up to be another prolific year for me.
I really enjoyed ‘Deformed Reality’, did you take influences from the pandemic?
Thank you, glad you dug the album! The pandemic was an influence in the way that a few of these songs were written and recorded during the time I was laid off from work due to Covid-19. Besides that the album is influenced by the dark headspace I was in and I had just visited my mom out in California. My mother moved out there a few years ago and almost immediately after moving, she was diagnosed with lung cancer which she has since beat. Then came the brain tumor and just overall health deteriorating. I went out to California in May of this year. To see her and see how the cancer and continued health issues are affecting her day to day life, hit me hard and some of the lyrical content on the album is about this.
Would you say your albums follow a certain concept or do you prefer working on individual tracks that end up on the album?
It depends, sometimes I have certain concepts, mainly sonically and then I build upon them. A good example is the Chris Oliver & Zachary Biggs album ‘Invent Yourself’ with the first half containing vocals and the second half being all instrumental. Another example is my album ‘Headphone Explorations’.
My goal was to make the ultimate headphone listening experience. Tons of stereo panning, things buried in the mix et cetera. So there are a few albums that follow a certain concept. Like I said, those are mainly sonic concepts. I’m not working on my version of ‘Tommy’ or anything. Well not yet, haha. Otherwise, The songs just come to me and whenever I feel I have enough for an album. I spent time putting them in a sequence, even though I have yet to release anything in physical form besides the occasional homemade CD-r release. I still sequence the albums as if I were to press them on vinyl. Hopefully one day this dream will become a reality. Any takers? But once I come up with a sequence, I unleash it onto the world!
“Gear doesn’t matter, ideas do!”
What gear do you use and what can you say about your homemade studio?
My gear list is rather small. I’m of the school of use what you have and make the most of it. Today I recorded everything on the computer via GarageBand. Most people laugh when I tell them this but as they listen, they are shocked by how well it sounds being tracked on GarageBand. There is a stigma that if it’s not recorded on Pro Tools or Cubase or something, It’s demo quality at best and not worthy of releasing to the public. Coming from the 4-track world, this is bullshit. I’ve released things recorded on micro-cassette and I’m super proud of them. Gear doesn’t matter, ideas do!
My instruments are as follows
1965 Rodgers, Red Sparkle holiday kit. The drum kit I grew up playing on that my father has given to me. Love it!
My synth is the Microfreak by Arturia. Many of the synth sounds, mellotron, strings, fender Rhodes et cetera are from various plugins I have.
My guitar is a pawn shop Epiphone guitar. Mid 90’s. Got it for 150 bucks. It can be heard on all the releases from 2013 onwards.
Bass guitar is a borrowed bass from my friend Joe Paris, who did the artwork for ‘Deformed Reality’ and various Solar System releases. It’s an ovation from the 80’s I believe.
Everything else are various toy keyboards and noise makers.
I record straight into the computer, I don’t own a preamp or any outboard gear. I have 3 USB mics that I use. For years I only had one USB mic so all drums you heard were recorded using that one mic, guitar amp, bass amp, vocals. All from that one mic my wife got me for Christmas years ago. It’s a Blue microphone. Despite having a job, I still live day to day and most of my money goes into paying my bills and maintaining the home my wife and I own. So I rarely have money to invest into music. Funny enough, the two pedals and my synth, I purchased with the money I received from unemployment during my temporary lay off. I made more money staying at home making music all day long than working 40 hours a week. My joke then was I was living my dream, temporary. I record everyday and every two weeks a check would come. My royalty checks as I referred to them. The guitar pedals are the Tensor pedal by Red Panda. You hear it all over the 2020 and 2021 releases. That can also be said for the Infinite Jets resynthesizer pedal by Hologram Electronics.
I still remember your project, The Solar System that was active from 2004-2015. What happened to it?
Glad someone still remembers. The Solar System actually started in 2002 as my one man band recording project. I was embarrassed about putting out music under my name so I came up with The Solar System. From 2002 to 2012 I released 20 albums all written, recorded and performed by me. In 2012 a band I was the drummer and co-founder of called Cody Stagefright disbanded so I decided to turn The Solar System into an actual band. Late 2012 Brian Arvo – bass and Dan Vought – drums joined me and The Solar System turned into a 3 piece that released 4 albums and played tons of the shows in the metro Detroit area. Sadly due to the typical reasons most bands break up, we disbanded and out of respect to my bandmates, I decided to retire the name after our final album ‘Goodbye’ came out in 2016. I feel that ‘Goodbye’ is the best full band release and the best way to put The Solar System to rest. Every now and then, people discover Solar System stuff and it makes me so happy. Those records especially from the 2002-2012 one man band era, that’s the foundation of what has become my sound.
It would be fantastic to see your albums available on CD/Tape/Vinyl.
Yes it would be fantastic to have any physical releases happen. As I stated before, I live day to day and I unfortunately don’t have the money to self-release. The dream for me is to have something pressed onto vinyl. Any album from any project be it past or present. Currently looking for label interest. This music deserves the vinyl treatment. Any labels reading this, let’s talk!
Are you involved in any other bands or do you have any active side-projects going on at this point?
I’m not currently playing in any bands but I do have two active projects. One being Chris Oliver & Zachary Biggs. We have a few albums in various stages of development that will come out in 2022. The second Vol of my collaboration with R. Stevie Moore is currently in the works. Already 20 songs have been completed for the second volume.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
As for favorite albums. There are hundreds but here are a few that come to mind. Some of these may not be familiar to most, if that’s the case I suggest seeking them out Ok in no particular order:
Syd Barrett – ‘The Madcap Laughs’
John Frusciante – ‘Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt’
Apples In Stereo- Fun Trick Noisemaker
Olivia Tremor Control – ‘Dusk At Cubist Castle’
Plasticstatic – ‘A Body In The Brush’
The Pretty Things – ‘S.F. Sorrow’
Brian Jonestown Massacre – ‘Take It From The Man’
Henry Van Loon – ‘Lingo Three’
Brandon Matuja – ‘A-Sides and B-Sides’
The Mothers Of Invention – ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’
Supergrass – ‘In It For The Money’
King Crimson – ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’
Captain Beefheart – ‘Strictly Personal’
Element – ‘SourBlaster’
Elevator To Hell – ‘Parts 1-3’
The Frogs – ‘My Daughter, The Broad’
Genesis – ‘Nursery Cryme’
Iron Butterfly – ‘Heavy’
Love – ‘Love’
The Beatles – ‘Revolver’
And about 49478638618210862864 more that I won’t list. I could be here all week!
Thank you. Last word is your
Thank you Klemen for your continued support and thank you to anyone who’s listened to the music. It means more than you could ever know. Thank you to my wife for loving my crazy ass. And thank YOU!
[Interview was conducted in late December 2021]