In Conversation: The Simple Satisfaction of Raw Materials

As an artist, Casey Dawson remains unfazed by the conventions of composition and performance. He has played in bands that range from punk to folk, performed as a solo singer-songwriter, and engineered numerous projects that seem to have nothing in common but him. Currently a recording engineer at Wachusett Recording in Princeton, MA, he continues to experiment with personal projects while helping other bands bring their ideas to life in the studio.

Most recently, Casey released his first non-musical record, White Noise for Sleep and Relaxation, under the name Raw Materials. With six loopable “songs” built from varied tones and clocking in at just about 12 minutes total, the whole project is as easy to throw on repeat as each track is individually. I don’t usually seek out white noise, but it is enticing to drown out the background static that forever invades our quiet moments.

After a few listens I began to wonder how a musician like Casey would approach this pivot into new sonic territory. We sat down to a quarantine video conference to discuss the inspiration behind Raw Materials, Casey’s philosophy on recording music, and what to anticipate next from the Worcester-based artist.

GSC: As an instrumentalist and a recording engineer, White Noise for Sleep and Relaxation is a pretty big departure for your previous work. Why shift to create something outside the realm of traditional music?

CD: When it started I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it except my sister. It was a tool for sleeping. But I decided to post it on Instagram, then I was talking to people about it and I was like, “You know what? I should just embrace this and try to get as many people to check it out as possible.” I wanted it to take off anonymously online. Obviously though, that’s how your grandfather would view the internet… like “We have the internet now so anything can be discovered by anyone!” Really it just means you’re overwhelmed with options, you know, options of what to check out. But it became a public thing by accident. It felt really freeing to keep it as minimal as possible. 

GSC: What’s different about recording something like this versus recording music? What goes into the sound design of something like this?

CD: I did use white noise generators for some of it. That was the very first thing I did, I have generators in my digital audio workspace so I took that blank slate. I started subtractively, cutting things out to focus on certain things that I wanted. Then I mixed it with samples that I’d either recorded in the past or had on my computer that I didn’t even record myself, to mix it with textures like tape hiss, or for the low end, to use the rumble of wind instead of just a digitally controlled white noise generator. Trying to find different nuances or ways to make it more nuanced. But it’s still very simple, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot to take credit for.

GSC: There’s almost a field recording quality to it, which made me kind of curious about how that came about. It makes sense, starting with a template, taking away, and then adding back into it and using other sounds that make sense in the context.

CD: They’re so simple to make, each two minute track, but I made it in the style of how I’d always… I’d like to make a musical album like this at some point, where you have like 40 songs and you record everything you have, then pare it down to the best twelve or so. I made probably 20 or 30 that are unfinished, then I said, “These are all sort of the same and this is the best one.” But it was a mastering project more than anything else because once I had what I thought were finished songs, I put them in an arrangement with each other and then radically changed them at that stage too.

GSC: What went into the process of deciding how they fit together? When you plan out an album there’s some element of narrative to that, and this does not have that same element. How did you come to decide the order without any narrative context?

CD: That makes me want to talk about the one point I feel doesn’t work well on the album, when the “Rain” track comes in.  If you’re listening to the album in sequence, it’s so jarring. But I think in general, I really like the sequence of the first three and the last three. The first three, it gets darker and deeper and then the third one, that’s actually the first one I made for this project. I think I used the word “deep?” They’re all kind of bullshit words but to me that one feels more spacious, like it has width to it.

GSC: So you started with “Deep White Noise.” Did you feel like that was the particular sound you were most interested in, or was this the one that’s most different from what white noise you’re normally used to?

CD: I edited it later but that was my first attempt to make something pleasing, so there wasn’t that much thought in it. I’m actually working on another white noise album right now. I’m trying to pull together pieces that I worked on with the last one and new stuff… I was getting bogged down by the idea that it has to be something. I worked on the first album pretty fanatically for like 48 hours, that’s how I made it. But lately I’ve been scattered, half an hour here or there, working on pieces, and I’ve been distracted by the idea that it has to be sequenced and better than the first. But as soon as you start working on something, naturally you get ideas and you don’t know where they come from and it doesn’t matter. I want the next one to have a little more edge to it or a little more high end texture. I hoped the first one would be simple, and pleasing, and dark and warm? Not too aggressive or challenging or strange. But I do want to make something that’s a little bit stranger, and has a more interesting texture.

Raw Materials is relaxed, like this kitten

GSC: What do you mean when you say something with a little more “edge?” Are you looking to include more challenging sounds, or are you still working toward the same goals?

CD: I think I still kind of want the next album to be in the same vein in terms of its purpose, in that it is for background, for soothing properties. I mostly mean the high frequency detail, emphasizing the high end hiss or sounds that make it more present. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re putting on headphones to go into an airplane, I want it to breathe and be a little more balanced. I do want to make more musical tracks too, but I’m not really sure how that connects.

GSC: And they don’t necessarily have to, they can be two divergent projects.

CD: Your questions are shedding new light on the values that I’m talking about on the tracks. I want it to be incredibly simple and for sleep, so that’s why it was divorced from any musical thing that I’ve done, in my mind, before that. It really has different values, but when I’m working on it, it feels as important. To return to your first question, I’ve been doing a lot of mixing projects, but I haven’t been writing a ton of music recently. I want to present myself as a recording engineer, producer, and mixing engineer, and mostly develop that skill set and work on those types of projects. [Raw Materials] feels like a mixing project to me. It’s just tweaking components that I already have, that are very simple but trying to treat them really lovingly. I’m not working on broad strokes, I’m working on caring a lot about these minute details.

GSC: It’s about getting the tone exactly… when there is nothing else but tone, the question becomes “Is the tone as perfect as it can be?” I see what you mean about the high end contributing to that in a substantial way. Tracks have a more expansive quality when they exist on both ends of that sound spectrum. 

CD: I think on this project, it was easier to roll off a lot of the highs and say, “They’re harsh and gross and they don’t need to be there very much.” Now that’s the thing I’m consciously thinking about, trying to bring them in and actually make them sound beautiful and not something that I don’t want to be there. Like I was saying, I wanted to lay the groundwork to make another, more comprehensive project to follow up. Now that I put it out there, I feel like it’s for other people more than it is for me. I think it sounds good or whatever but it’s not what I want for white noise.

GSC: Where did the interest in white noise come from?

CD: I got into white noise around Thanksgiving or Christmas time, winter this year. I don’t know if you have it from playing loud music, but in the past year I’ve developed pretty bad tinnitus so I just always have ringing in my ears if I’m in a dead quiet room. It was wicked frustrating—I’m finally coming to terms with it, and honestly that’s what this project is to me, mostly. You hear everyone, doctors, web MD types, and forums, say, “Just put on some white noise and just forget about it.” I was like, “Fuck you! How dare you tell me that?” But then I started doing it, and I was like, “Oh wow, this isn’t such a big deal.” To me, it was a healing thing, to just put on this simple background noise.

GSC: I don’t notice it so much because it’s loud in the city, there’s always cars, but if I’m out somewhere quiet, I get that as soon as I try to go to sleep. It’s constant and sort of sounds like it’s inside your head. That’s a really interesting way of talking about it: build it into something better rather than trying to take it away.

CD: There was a trajectory of getting obsessed with it, and focusing on it as a problem. I’ve been using white noise to sleep for a few months religiously. But then the past week, I didn’t use it at all. And I’ve been listening to [the tinnitus] when it’s really quiet. Like when I’m going to sleep, listening to the ringing, and it just feels different to me but I think it’s the same. I feel like something changed in my mental approach to it. 

GSC: Do you feel like this project was necessary to come to terms with tinnitus or just a byproduct of your interest in it?

CD: I felt like I needed to try out making a white noise album. I started being really analytical about every white noise track I’d put on, comparing them in a frequency spectrum analysis way every single time, and I was like, “I gotta try this.” It was a byproduct of the tinnitus experience but also I think it was necessary to work through it… not that I’ve totally worked through it, but it definitely helped me.

GSC: Sure. I think it’s cool you made something kind of specifically to help yourself personally that then also can be helpful to other people. I guess in some ways that’s kind of the goal of art, to do the thing that’s helpful for the self and hope that others find it helpful too.

Casey performing with Bugs in the Corner, 2019

CD: I’d like to release a follow up soon. Originally part of the idea was to get a white noise track on a Spotify playlist, I thought it was all marketing. It seems short-sighted now but the naming, the visual presentation, otherwise there’s so little to it. But I got excited about the audio side more and more and realized I don’t really agree with that approach. I want to make something that’s better for me, honestly. That’s my only real goal with the next project. Having made one in the first place, I know exactly what I think is good about it and what I don’t like. It’s weird to release something into the world, I feel like that’s the only way to really know its successes and failures. If I’m working on a mixing project for a band, I try to psych myself out and pretend it’s real when it’s not to get this effect. Sometimes I quit out of all the editing software and then listen. I have a much different perception of it that way. I can’t tweak it in the moment so I’m stuck with it and it becomes “Oh, that’s what I need to change,” and I go back in and edit. It’s just amazing how little perceptual tricks can have such dramatic effect.

GSC: Just putting the tools away helps you think about something in a different way, that’s pretty good advice. What about Raw Materials, where did that come from?

CD: Originally I was going to use andmaterials actually, my Instagram name. But it wouldn’t let me do it all in lowercase. The distribution program I was using needed to capitalize the A and it looked horrible. The instagram name… I made it up as a freshman in college, I think, something kind of obscure and weird sounding, I liked the sound of it. But it’s a Sufjan Stevens lyric, “for the earth, and materials…” I have no idea what song that is, but it was something that was in my head back then a lot. I loved the Illinoise album for a long time.

GSC: The name has a presence to it. It sounds like it’s meaningful in a very mysterious way.

CD: Yeah, it’s totally pretentious bullshit but I liked it and I really identify with it now.

GSC: Once you start putting out content under the name, it sort of becomes part of you.

CD: I think the name andmaterials and something I picked up in that song, not sure if it’s even what the song’s about, but it had a naive feeling of caring about the earth in a really simple way. I latched onto that word, materials, for this project, and then the day before I submitted it I was like “you know what, raw. That’s fine.”

GSC: Makes sense. In some ways it’s the most raw version of the materials that make up music. Is there some project or projects you’ve worked on recording that you really feel that you’re proud of or enjoy?

CD: Every project that I’ve worked on in the past two years or so, I’ve learned so much. Then I go into the next project, and make mistakes there and learn from them. But honestly the project I’m most excited about coming out is the one I just finished working on. The band’s called Castling, I don’t know what the album will be titled yet but I’m obsessed with it. That was a project in the studio that shaped me as a producer making music with other people, just to feel what it’s like to meet a bunch of strangers and find that groove. I had a unique feeling with that project that this is music that connects with my soul, really deeply. Not even lyrically but just like genre, sonically, you know? I feel like any project that I work on, I care about like it’s my own child… I know that sounds ridiculous but it’s true. That’s the only way to do it, otherwise I think it would be horrible if I didn’t care about it like that.

GSC: Was recording other people’s music influential to you constructing these white noise tracks? As you’re working with people, are you picking up pieces as you go and using them later, musical or otherwise? 

CD: That Castling album and a few other records that I was working on recently had these “wall of sound” guitars, not like the 60s sense but punk rock, just blaring guitars the whole time. I started feeling like I was creating a wall of noise that was supposed to hit the listener at certain moments in those songs, then thinking about how much I want anything to poke out from that. Thinking about music that way is what really made me want to do [white noise], and to take a break from those sounds and have something sonically opposite of that. Another project that just came out, the band’s called Almost Social. In the studio, we were talking like “let’s do the sleaziest thing right here with this,” kind of a funny way to get the right drum fill or guitar lick. These projects were heavier than things I’ve worked on before and I was learning how to do that. I’m really critical of everything I work on, so I’m sure if you listen you’ll notice the places where I was trying to learn how to shape a certain sound. But I had to be self-critical and it was all kind of new to me, so I felt drawn to do the exact opposite of that.

GSC: Related to that, what do you feel is different about approaching your own music as an engineer, a recording artist, versus another band’s or artist’s work? Do you feel like approaching someone else’s work in this singular role is different than kind of having a complete role over your own?

CD: To me, the recording process has always been different from the live, rehearsed expression of a band. You can choose exactly how you want everything to be and for me… I got into it because I had a lot of opinions. In the studio, I realized that it was cool to figure details out in a more deliberate way. Any time, whether it’s a client project or not, you can’t tell someone else what to do if you’re collaborating with them. When I was working on that Bugs in the Corner album, at times I was a real dick to Teddy [Smith], and I really regretted it. It just happens because you’re working at it for hundreds of hours and you really care. The lesson I learned from it and from all these projects was you can’t tell someone what to do, the most you can do with someone else is offer an idea and get them to feel like they’re in a space where they can create freely and feel comfortable. Some amount of pressure is good obviously, but you have to temper any criticism in the moment. You don’t want to say, “You know what? That idea is horrible, we can’t do that.” If you’re going to say that, you have to save those comments for a few sparing uses. Give that person the space to breathe, and then you can just edit later, or redo stuff later, and that’s a separate conversation. I haven’t done extensive recording on my own, but I used to try to play every instrument on a lot of songs I worked on, but it came out kind of weird. I think some people do it well, but I find that anything I’m too much of a control freak about, that I play too many parts on, it sounds unnatural.

Bugs in the Corner performing “The Gold” in 2017

GSC: In the past few years we’ve seen a rise of the solo bedroom pop artist, bands that are really one artist plus their band. It’s become so popular that it’s interesting to hear the opposite, and to think about what collaboration adds to a project.

CD: I listened to a bunch of interviews with Andy Shauf and Kevin Parker, one of the things Parker said specifically was that he billed Tame Impala as a band to his first record label even though it was just him because he thought they’d receive it better. He grew up playing in bands and felt that even if you’re not a band, there’s something sacred about the band and the fairness of collaboration that he tries to emulate in his recording process. He’ll think “Okay, if I were the keyboard player, how would I respond to what that person just did” to create throughlines that are identities in a fake band.

GSC: It’s like creating characters and putting yourself in those characters’ shoes. Seems more psychologically challenging than anything else.

CD: I might be mischaracterizing Parker a little bit, but that’s how I look at music now. Even if it’s electronic, it can still have throughlines. There’s a distinction when an album or song has these clear throughlines, even if it isn’t a band, I really love that. Working with bands, with a group of individuals that I don’t know well before the project, it’s weird. I drive home afterwards and think about the characters that were there with me, like “How do I want the drummer to come across in this album based on who he is as a person in relation to the other band members?” Maybe it doesn’t make as much of a difference as I think it does, but I feel like it makes a difference.

GSC: That’s what you bring to it in some ways, the ability to see that and make that happen. Even though they’re writing the music, they don’t have the ability to make that come through in the way that you do on the recording.

CD: Even if one person in the band records it, it’s still an inside perspective rather than someone who can look at them from the outside and see how they fit together without having to be a part of that. And you do become a part of it. Even though I didn’t play a single thing on it, I’m like a ghost that’s emphasizing their personalities into the best version of how they all actually gel with each other.

GSC: Are there projects that you’ve worked on recently that you’re excited about and can tell us about? Is there anything else coming for you in the future?

CD: I’m gonna release a Raw Materials album on July 15. Definitely the Castling album, don’t have a date for that yet. I co-engineered Grain Thief‘s new record Gasoline, it just got announced and should be dropping soon. I also did some mixing work for our friend Nate Chung’s band Earl on Earth, keep an eye out for them. Other than that, things have been slow with quarantine so I am dabbling in writing songs again. I’ve thought about making a solo album privately, just to work on for myself, for fun. I feel like anything else I can talk about is really distant, on the horizon. New Bugs in the Corner stuff that Teddy and I have been working on… very distant stuff, but I’m excited to keep experimenting.

You can follow Casey on Facebook and his website, and find his work on YouTube and Spotify. His follow up effort as Raw Materials, Catskill White Noise, will be available July 15 on Spotify.

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