By Ray Cummings
At the tender age of 24, St. Paul resident Ryan Potts is living the underground-muso dream: he's married, he runs a small label (Rest + Noise), is on the verge of issuing his second minimalist album as Aquarelle (Slow Circles), and writes occasionally for Skyscraper. In a late September telephone interview -- which we present below in its entirety, though some excerpts appear in the print story -- Potts opens up about Aquarelle, his distain for traditional live performance venues, and why Slow Circles is arriving three years after debut Of Memory and Momentum.
Gimme Noise: Where did the name "Aquarelle" come from?
Ryan Potts: It comes from a French word for a water-color painting. I'm heavily influenced by a number of arts, and wanted that to be represented in my name. Slow Circles was influenced by a lot of photography and a lot of artistic techniques; I'm very happy that everyone pronounces it the way I do!
Gimme Noise: Three years separate Of Memory and Momentum and Slow Circles. What accounts for the wait? I remember that you were planning to put out an album back in 2007.
Ryan Potts: Through all that time, it was one album. My original vision really did not come to fruition until it was done. I thought it was "done" multiple times, but it was never quite right. I focussed on channeling it to be exactly what I wanted it to be. Really wanted to to be fully complete and fully realized. [In those three years,] I got married, moved around, and was still working on Slow Circles every day. I was living in Milwaukee when I started [the album], then moved up to Saint Paul.
I put Momentum together in considerably less time than Slow Circles. I guess I was feeling nostalgic, was interested in how experience and memory stay with you, but are always changing in significance.
Gimme Noise: The most significant difference between Momentum and Circles, to my ears, is that the sound seems thicker -- less delicate and ethereal -- on Circles. Also, there are several almost flamenco guitar accents, plus a lot of circular motifs. What were you aiming for? did you have a different set of goals in mind, this time around?
Ryan Potts: You kind of hit some of the things I was going for. I wanted to bring a broader palette to what I do, which is hard because I'm not technically proficient in much besides effects pedals! (laughs) I definitely wanted a thicker sound, a more balanced sound, to bring more aspects to the music. More instruments, more percussion, a lot more circular ideas that are introduced early on in a piece and come back later. That's really where the title Slow Circles comes from.
Gimme Noise: What instruments and sound sources do you use when composing?
Ryan Potts: I'm really more of a pedal effects kind of guy. A lot of songs start with experimenting with pedals, keyboards, and field recordings, and manipulating them. Before, it was more freeform, but now I really know what I want to do. I use guitar as a sound to mold and get what I want from it, because I'm not technically trained.
The stuff that I use is probably embarassing for most people, but it allows me to endlessly experiment and use sound. It's almost laughable, but I've had this recording program -- Magix digital studio -- for five or six years. It's poor quality, but I love it because I know all the nuances. I have to be comfortable with something to really know what I can get from it.
You can find the Magix digital studio in any electronics retailer for 50 bucks! I guess that allows me to spend more on pedals, which, I have way too many. I'm trying to pare [the Pedals] down to what I can play live with, to about 10 or 11. At present, I have about 20, which I alternate in and out almost as songwriting devices.
Six years ago, I really started performing music. A friends of mine really got me into it; I still don't consider myself a musician -- I'm more of a listener. I started messing around with and guitars and pedals -- discovering what they could do was a mind-blowing experience.
Gimme Noise: Are your originally from the St. Paul area?
Ryan Potts: I grew up in Lacrosse, WI -- a small, normal town, nothing really special about it. Saint Paul is where my wife lived (before they were married) -- obviously, I wanted to be with her, but also I really wanted to experience another city.
Gimme Noise: Has Aquarelle ever been a live entity?
Ryan Potts: The focus has been non-live. Honestly, I've had some horrible experiences with shows. It seems, at times, like an exercise in futility. Either I get entirely ignored or kind of some antagonism happens -- that is always interesting. I generally get a few people who really listen and talk to me afterwards, but it's a struggle.
I would like to get away from "shows" and perform in gallery spaces. I'd like to get more into multimedia, but that hasn't happened yet.
Gimme Noise: What was it like for you when Pitchfork reviewed and posted "In Florence" back in 2006?
Ryan Potts: Grayson Currin, the writer, contacted me, and honestly, I've had a lot of people contact me saying that something would happen [in terms of a review], then nothing would. In this case, I sent him a CD and [the review] was up very quickly. It was obviously great, and I was very thankful.
Gimme Noise: Who do you consider your musical inspirations?
Ryan Potts: There's a lot of them! First and foremost, as a teen discovering music, was My Bloody Valentine's Loveless -- that's where I started my obsession with experimental sound. Others include Steve Reich, Fennesz, and Phil Spector and girl groups of the 1960s.
I'm entirely obsessed with music; I'm a voracious listener, and I try to take in as much as I can. I always try to keep an open ear.
Gimme Noise: What do you do for a living?
Ryan Potts: I work a horrid job at Barnes & Noble -- I'm a manager there. It's not ideal, but it's gives me time to focus on what I do love: music. Years ago, I decided that if I could have work that would allow me to concentrate on being a musician, I'd be okay with that.
Interview conducted by Ray Cummings