‘Form Hell’ : A Conversation With Victims’ Timothy Fife And Chris Livengood

It seems we’re in a bit of a synth phase, musically. Five years ago you had to go digging for those great heavy synth albums by newer artists or head to some obscure record shop that smells like a mix of mildew, takeout food, and cigarettes and spend and afternoon digging in the crates for cats like Klaus Schulze, Edgar Froese, Wendy Carlos, and Popol Vuh. This really wasn’t a bad deal. The thrill of the hunt was what it was all about, if I’m being honest here. Then back in 2013 I started reading about this record company over in the UK called Death Waltz Recording Company. They were reissuing the scores to all those films I used to rent in the back room of Video World when I was a kid. City of the Living Dead, House By The Cemetery, Zombi 2, as well as countless others were being beautifully pressed on splattered and clear vinyl, as well as standard black. For a guy like me that grew up in the early 80s on all of those great horror films on various Betamax and VHS copies, to have these scores on vinyl was like being able to jump into the Wayback machine every time I dropped the needle. Death Waltz Recording Co and it’s originator Spencer Hickman saw there was a need to revisit these underappreciated musical scores and hear them in a different light(or at least a slightly brighter one.)

Besides the old film scores, Death Waltz has gotten into releasing original artists as well. Under the label Death Waltz Originals, Hickman(along with his partner in this venture Mondotees out of Austin, TX) have filled ears with new,exciting artists exploring the far reaches of heady, dense synth music. These aren’t guys and gals reinterpreting the musical past, they’re expanding what has already been done and putting their own creative stamp on composing with the synthesizer. I’ve been personally blown away by artists like Law Unit, Pentagram Home Video, Pye Corner Audio and Miles Brown just this year. Recently Death Waltz Originals put out a 10″ by a band called Victims. The released titled Form Hell, consists of two tracks of extremely dense and heady synth explorations. I was immediately blown away by this release and wanted more. “Profecy” and “Cleonova” both swirl and sway like a mix of science fiction dread and existential wandering put to music. If these two tracks were the appetizer, I’m ready for the full-album main course(sorry for the food analogy, I’m hungry.)

Victims consists of musician and film composer Timothy Fife and musician Chris Livengood. I reached out to the guys to see if they’d want to talk about the band and their music and they said absolutely.

J. Hubner: So tell me about Victims. How did you two get together? 

Timothy Fife: Victims was started out of a few failed attempts to make a record.  The first was more of a mood record of sorts, that might have been a lost 70’s electronic score.  Another was a more full band giallo experience that I honestly just wasn’t right for.   During both Chris and I would play for fun during the writing process and we would always play music that was similar to the Victims record.

I sent Spencer a soundtrack I did for a film called Normal, and he liked it a lot.  He posted about it on Twitter, then offered me a record deal with his yet to be unleashed label Death Waltz Originals.  I knew Chris from seeing him in a couple of great bands, AM Frank and Video Nasties being the ones that really grabbed me.  We both shared similar views on music and had similar influences and he seemed like a good person to try and work with.

Christopher Livengood: The first time I ever saw Tim was probably around 10 years ago. He was in a Portsmouth venue that my band at the time, Visitations, was playing. I remember it clearly because he was wearing a corduroy or tweed sport jacket and was walking deliberately across the room. He had 2 or 3 big box VHS tapes in his hands, almost as if they were business documents and I thought, I should definitely know that guy.  As it turned out, we had some friends in common and from then on, whenever we would run into each other, we’d chat about Italian horror, soundtracks, and stuff like that. At a music festival in the summer of 2014, after my band, Video Nasties played a set, Tim approached me about working on the Death Waltz record. I was totally thrilled because I had bought their Zombi 2 LP when it first came out and was well aware of who they were, not to mention I’d get to work with Tim who shares many of my interests and influences. Over the course of the next year I would lug my synths from Portland to Portsmouth or Tim would drive his rig up to Maine and we worked on a lot of material, some of which became ‘Form Hell’.

J. Hubner: Can you tell me about your previous musical projects? Are you still currently in them, as well as Victims? Tim, what are some of the films you’ve composed music for? 

Timothy Fife: I haven’t been in band in a long time.  I used to be in a lot of noise bands that would play a few shows and then move on to something else, so nothing really substantial.  I got into doing soundtracks around five years ago.  In the beginning I did lots of movies for Scorpio Film Releasing out of Providence, which was great because I shared similar influences with the director and I had a lot of creative freedom.  Since then I’ve done work for Troma, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ungovernable Films, Nick Principe, Izzy Lee and a bunch of great directors.  I even have some music in Paul Schrader’s new film.

Christopher Livengood: I was fortunate to grow up in a small town called Windham, where for whatever reason, within my age group there was a tiny group of total weirdo art/music nerds that ended up doing cool things. I grew up and was in bands with the artist, Scarecrowoven (who, coincidently, has done some work with Mondo),  the avant-garde drummer/multi-instrumentalist, Mike Pride (who just toured in the opening act for Amy Schumer…!??), the noise artist ‘id m theft able’, and my current band mate in Video Nasties, Brendan Evans…

Although I’ve been involved with a lot of projects over the past 15-20 years, some of them were important in my development: Visitations was I guess what you would call a ‘freak folk’ band…we were an improvisational trio (including Brendan) that used a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments in our sets. We played spontaneous songs about occult-type stuff, apocalyptic scenarios, horror tales. There were elements of harmony, noise, song, ritual, performance…it was pretty exciting in that we never knew what was going to happen at shows…but we played really, really quietly.

Things got more energetic when we started a side project (A.M. Frank) which was kind of like a Suicide tribute band, in that we played 60’s garage rock songs as if Suicide was covering them. I performed all the music on an old Korg MS20, Moog Prodigy, and simple drum machine while Brendan freaked out on vocals and Janane Tripp (our 3rd in the trio) did some unnerving and confrontational dancing underneath a bunch of strobe lights. It was the first time I found myself playing minimal electronic music to crowds of dancing people and in some ways it led into a lot of what I’m doing now.

Video Nasties is my current, ongoing project with Brendan. We’ve been doing it since around 2011. It’s basically the band we both wish we had had together when we were in high school, meaning it is noisy bedroom electronic/punk that has been deeply influenced by a heavy consumption of sleazy horror videos in said bedroom…basically an extension of what we were both doing alone as teenagers. Our initial plan for the band was to pre-record a lot of our backing tracks (drum machines, synthesizers, etc.) to a vhs tape on which I collaged some gore scenes and other weird elements from our tape collections and sutured together using some old analog video mixers and fx machines. We’d project the tape onto the stage and play along with the tracks. We did this a couple of times before realizing that the crudity with which I edited the materials together caused the vhs to flutter and distort, repeatedly putting us out of tempo and pitch.  Now our shows consist of the video reel projected over us while we play our guitars, bass, synths, to a rhythm track which I control from the stage. We have a male dancer/tambourine player. It’s a lot of fun. We released a string of cassingles and we just finished reworking a lot of those releases along with some new material for our first LP.

victimsJ. Hubner:  What got you guys into heavy synth? It seems a lot of the heavy synth guys I talk to start out in hardcore band and find themselves tinkering on synthesizers at some point. Are you two coming to it in a similar way?

Timothy Fife: I certainly grew up on punk and hardcore, and Void has always been one of my favorite bands.  But I was always into synth stuff too.  My dad would come home from yard sales with casio keyboards for me because he knew I liked Skinny Puppy and bands like that.  So even when I was in basement hardcore bands as a teenager I was playing on my synths trying to make an arpeggiator type sound.

Christopher Livengood: I was really really really deep into punk and experimental music as a teen, but the first instrument I ever owned was a large but simple Yamaha keyboard that my parents bought me from Service Merchandise. The 1st song I ever wrote was on that keyboard, circa 1987. It definitely involved the automated arpeggiator and built-in drum machine…so I had an early start on this type of music I’m doing today. When I finally got a guitar and started writing punk songs, I thought it was perfectly acceptable, and in fact economical, to use that keyboard for the drums and bass. I would teach my younger brother James (10 years old at the time) the bass lines and he would play them, pushing the ‘start’ and ‘stop’ buttons on the drum machine, while I did guitar and vocals. We had some originals but also did G.G. Allin, Misfits, and covers of 60‘s garage rock tunes. It helped that bands like Big Black were around to demonstrate that you could play punk music to drum machines and it would sound cool.

I think I really got into heavy synth music in my early teens because I was completely and totally obsessed with cheap horror videos. I spent a great portion of my youth riding my bike to the local video stores and renting everything they had. I noticed early on that when a movie had a score performed entirely on synthesizers it was a strong indication that something totally surreal and uncanny was about to unfold. It seemed to me that the more synthetic the score, the more whacked out the content of the movie. I always wanted to make movies and music like this and it took me a long time to realize the reason those synths sounded so dense and vibrant was because they were analog. It was even longer before I would eventually be able to afford some of these machines.

cleonovaJ. Hubner: How did the ‘Form Hell’ 10″ come about with Mondo/Death Waltz? How did it get into Spencer Hickman’s hands? It’s one of the best things I’ve heard all year, honestly. Beautifully textured music.

Timothy Fife: I already had some correspondence with Spencer because we both knew Fabio Frizzi and I was very excited about his label right from the beginning.  I sent him a demo because I really admired his vision and I really wanted to be a part of it.  So when he asked me to do a 10” it was a pretty cool moment.

J. Hubner: So the 10″ is comprised of two tracks, “Profecy” and “Cleonova”. Can you tell me a bit about the composing process for the band? Are the songs equally written between the two of you? Or is one song more Tim’s and another more Chris’? I’d also like to mention Aaron Dilloway. His sonic touches seem to add just the right amount of graininess to the proceedings. Is Dilloway’s process the last thing that happens in the composing process? 

Timothy Fife: I would say the composing process is equal.  There would be some sections that would be more Chris, then I would go home and tinker with them later.  Throughout the process we did a lot of editing and changing sections together.  

Yes, Dilloway was basically some of the last part of the composing process.  I really wanted to have him on there because I grew up on Dead Hills and was really influenced by Wolf Eyes and his solo work.  Plus he is also into the whole soundtrack, horror thing just like us.  I also wanted to have something that was really harsh and snapped you out of the moment.  It is a much different experience to hear Profecy without his sounds in it.

Chris Livengood: Tim and I are always sharing ideas with one another (sometimes, fully completed tracks) and trying to add to each other’s efforts. In the case of the two tracks on the 10”, we spent a lot of time watching horror trailers and talking about specific films with scores that possessed certain textures. I think Tim would describe a feel or ‘vibe’, I’d come to the table with a arpeggiated sequence, and we’d build off that…sometimes spontaneously jamming over it together, sometimes adding elements independently in our studios. Tim definitely handled much of the organization of the individual tracks and atmospherics and I don’t think that he would argue that I am more of the ‘melody man’.

Tim sent Dilloway rough edits of ‘Profecy’ and he (very quickly and efficiently, I might add) sent us back a series of loops that synced up perfectly with different parts of the track. Tim and I, with the help of Caleb Mulkerin (our mixing and mastering engineer and a seriously amazing artist in his own right) organized them and mixed them in. I think they blend in very subtly and sound organically a part of the overall mix. Tim and I have both been active in noise scenes so it’s pretty thrilling to have a figure as important as Aaron Dilloway collaborating on the record.

dwblogJ. Hubner:  I’d like to know who or what are some of the inspirations you guys are pulling from when going into something like ‘Form Hell’? “Profecy” reminds me a lot of ‘Phaedra’ and ‘Rubycon’-era Tangerine Dream, while “Cleonova” puts me in mind of Boards of Canada and old Betamax copies of horror films I watched too much of in the mid-80s(Gorgon and Vestron Videos come to mind.)

Timothy Fife: Certainly the Krautrock, Komische, Berlin-School movement was a huge influence on the recording.  For me Klaus Schulze is one of the greatest and his way of hypnotizing you with very simple repetitive patterns is very engaging to me.  But also lot of the early electronic pioneers were influential to us like Mort Garson, Phillian Bishop, and Marcello Giombini.

Christopher Livengood: Well, you’re definitely in the ballpark with these estimations: Those horror tapes left a lasting impression on my aesthetic development and over the course of my life I’ve consumed more than any healthy person should. Tangerine Dream, Moroder, early Steve Roach, Jarre, Michael Hoenig, Terry Riley, Kraftwerk, Goblin, etc. etc….I fell in love with this stuff in the early-mid 90’s. Back then you could find some LP’s like this in the ‘New Age’ bin for about 2 bucks. I used to be self-conscious about being a punky-goth kid browsing that section, but once I got them home I’d daydream to those records and truly feel transported. To me it was total alchemy as to how they made that music…all those different synth lines that seemed to be played impossibly fast. I had no idea about sequencers!  I think B.O.C. is also a bit of an influence…I’m not huge into their kinda beat-driven tracks, but I love the little miniature interstitial pieces that they do…not to mention all the masking and subliminal stuff going on in their mixes. I was really in love with the production and mix on Geogaddi.

J. Hubner: Was there more music you two created as Victims, but “Profecy” and “Cleonova” were the two tracks you decided to go with? 

Timothy Fife: Oh yes, I’d say there’s about two LPs worth of music we didn’t use, most of it is unfinished.  Right from the beginning Spencer wanted a 10” so we knew how much material we could fit on the record.

Christopher Livengood: This project went through 3 distinct phases: We recorded a number of demos in the vein of Bruno Nicolai or Morricone with the intent to have an orchestra perform them. We probably have nearly an LP’s worth of this material.  When that proved too difficult and expensive to organize, we pooled together a large number of electronic ‘miniatures’…strange, distorted, synth pieces inspired by the more bonkers cheapo horror scores, like The Severed Arm, or Messiah of Evil.  We have a lot of material like this that we hope to do something with at some point, but it didn’t seem appropriate for the format of a 10”. Finally we settled in on doing side-long pieces and that’s what made it to the record.

profecyJ. Hubner: Could you tell me about your music/recording set up? What are your main synths/instruments? Do you guys record to tape or are you recording to a DAW? The songs have a very warm, analog feel to them, that’s why I ask.

Christopher Livengood: For this record, we employed a variety of recording techniques, both analog and computer-based.  In my home studio, I mostly record and mix on a Tascam 388 1/4” reel-to-reel. I also use multitrack cassettes when appropriate. I’m clueless when it comes to DAWs (absolutely nothing against them, I just can’t keep up and like to stick with what I know) although I use a computer for final editing. Tim, through his film work, is much more adept at using computers for music.

I have a number of analog synths from the 70’s, none of which are midi-equipped. For the past 10+ years I’ve been trying to make synth music that sounds like I’m using sequencers despite not having one. I’ve developed some strategies for convincingly playing this way, but it’s difficult and inefficient. Only recently did I get a newer model Moog that can be synced to other devices and has a built in sequencer. ‘Form Hell’ was, in many ways, the first opportunity for me to express my excitement about that. Analog synths and CV gear has become so much easier to acquire in recent years….it’s really exciting!

J. Hubner: Tim, can you tell me about your full-length debut with Mondo/Death Waltz? Is this just you or is this a Victims full-length? If it’s a solo release will you and Chris be putting something else out together as Victims or in some other form?

Timothy Fife: My full length solo album will be called Black Carbon and it should be coming out near the end of this year or early next year.  I know the art will be made by Eric Adrian Lee, who does a lot of the covers for Death Waltz and Giallo Disco.  I’m not sure what else to say about it, I just know that Spencer really likes it a lot and that’s pretty good to me.   It definitely feels to me like it could be a companion to Form Hell in a sense.

Soon, I really want to start work on the next Victims record.  Chris temporarily lives in New York and I live in New Hampshire, so it’s a little bit tougher to work on music at the moment.  I also would like to work out a live Victims show as well.  

Christopher Livengood: I’m hoping for a Victims LP in the future.  We’ve also bounced back and forth some ideas that are a little different from Victims, but we’ll see.

J. Hubner: So what do you two think is the appeal of analog synth? What’s the appeal for you guys?

Timothy Fife: For me, analog synths are very nostalgic.  My dad used to play me The War of the World Musical by Jeff Wayne and the Flash Gordon soundtrack, both of which have some really great synths sounds in them.  So I feel like others might be like myself, that they remind of a time when all of this cool, very creative stuff came out.  I also look at analog synths in the way Sun Ra might have, as a textural instrument that you can very expressive sounds with that other more traditional instruments could not be able to do.

Christopher Livengood: There is something uncanny about the purring harmonics of VCOs that you can practically visualize. Like a string on a guitar or cello vibrating, you can feel the constant undulations and transformations of the sound waves.  It’s almost as if there is an acoustic presence to the sound yet there is no physical object moving around. When I was a child and heard synthesizers in PBS station breaks or in re-runs of Dr. Who, I got chills…I thought those moments were scary. Vocoders and talk-boxes in pop songs creeped me out. But those were also the moments that stood out and fascinated me the most.

I’ve always appreciated any element in art or narrative structure that intrudes into and disrupts the fabric of a narrative. It’s what I like about the horror genre (or poorly made films in general)…that reality as we know it can suddenly be ruptured by the incomprehensible or the abject. So in ‘Lucky Man’, Keith Emerson’s out of tune Moog solo suddenly transforms a fairly straight-forward song into a something casually transcendent. Boring Steve Miller songs sound like drifting ambient music for just a moment before returning to rote blues-rock…I swear I’ve ‘seen’ and felt sawtooth synth tones from a well-recorded prog album slash their way through the speakers and buzz across the room.  It’s definitely a palpable, tactile sound.

J. Hubner: What does the rest of 2016 have in store for you guys? Are there any live performances planned? Chris, Video Nasties has a debut LP coming out on Feeding Tube Records. Are you gearing up for that? And Tim, any other projects we can look forward to?  

Christopher Livengood: 2016 has been a big year for me. My wife (Sascha Braunig, who provided the artwork for ‘Form Hell’) and I have temporarily relocated to New York City for the year while she participates in an artist’s residency and prepares for several upcoming shows. While this will add some challenges to my existing collaborative work, I’m still very excited about the Victims 10” and would love to do a live performance if the opportunity is right for what we do.  The Video Nasties album is something I’ve been working on for the past several years so its completion is kind of a dream finally realized. When that album comes out (very soon) we plan to do a number of shows and perhaps upload some of our video works to the net. We also have some new material we’re working on.

Tim and I have a lot of unused material from various ‘Form Hell’ sessions in addition to some rejected tracks we recorded for Paul Schrader’s new movie, ‘Dog Eat Dog’. I think we’d be into developing some of that stuff for a future release.

Another collaborator, Nick Barker, of the band Tempera (formerly the drummer of Herbcraft), and I are finishing the final mixes of an album we recorded almost entirely on various beaches in Maine. We used a portable rig to record ourselves playing small digital synths while surrounded by sunbathers and surfers. I think the atmosphere was definitely captured on those recordings.

I’m also sitting on hours and hours of tapes full of unreleased material including a couple of finished ‘garage psych-pop’ (best way I could describe it) albums and lots and lots of synth music. I have a habit of filling up tapes with material, not labeling them, and then tossing them into boxes for later, so I’ve got years of boxes overflowing with stuff that I don’t even remember making. My goal for the year is to organize all this material and maybe figure out what to do with it.

Timothy Fife: Right now Dave Ellesmere (ex-member of Discharge) and I are finishing work on the score for a film called Streets run Red.  I’m also working on a collaborative project thats a bit of a secret for now, but I will probably be able to talk about it very soon.

Want a copy of Form Hell? Just head over to Light In The Attic Records here or get one of those triple color variant copies at Mondotees right here. And be on the look out for Timothy Fife’s Black Carbon via Death Waltz/Mondo, as well as Video Nasties’ debut via Feeding Tube Records.




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