Making Machines Speak : Gene Priest Opens Up About ‘Ritual’, His Process, and His Influences

Gene Priest is a man on a mission. That mission is to create music as much as humanly possible, and offer his art and creativity into the atmosphere for all to devour. Whether it’s in Cemetery Gates with his life long pal Derek Jones, or in one of the many musical projects he’s been involved in over the course of years of making noise with whatever instrument he could get his hands on.

What he’s been working on most recently is music for his project Skeleton Beach.

Over the course of this past winter and into spring, Priest recorded live sessions in his home studio. Using the many pieces of hardware at his disposal he turned knobs and let the vibes work their way through him and into various Moogs, Junos, Prophets, and various reverb and delay pedals. The results of these free flowing sessions is the new Skeleton Beach long player Ritual.

Ritual is a throwback to those classic 70s LPs. Gatefold sleeves containing long form songs that take you on a journey while sitting in a bean bag chair in a partially finished suburban basement. Albums like Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and Rubycon, as well as records by fellow German musical wizards like Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, and Florian Fricke. There’s also hints of Trent Reznor’s score work, Radiohead’s electronic wanderings, and plenty of things you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s an album in the classic sense, meaning you dive in and get lost in its world.

Gene Priest sat down with Complex Distractions and we covered it all; from the new record, to getting the recording bug from his grandfather, to witchcraft, to musical influences and lots gear talk. Grab a drink and dive in.

J. Hubner: Let’s talk about your upcoming debut album ‘Ritual’. Man, it’s stunning. Just a vast record with dense soundscapes. How long have you been working on the album?

Gene Priest: Man, that is such a deep question, first of all, thank you so much for those kind words. With this album, I tried really hard to craft it in the most minimalistic way while at the same time trying to make it as sonically rich and dense as possible. The great thing about using analog synthesizers is that they have their own unique way off filling out the right spaces and textures all on their own. I find it’s best to let them speak for themselves at times.

J. Hubner: How do you see Ritual fitting into the Skeleton Beach canon?

Gene Priest: This record is an absolute marking of a new sound and direction for Skeleton Beach. The approach and the music have both been refined quite a bit since the beginning. I won’t bore you with all of the electronic music I created and produced before starting Skeleton Beach, as I’ve been into it for quite some time, so I’ll start from the first Skeleton Beach album, “Being There.”

J. Hubner: Sounds good. 

Gene Priest: When I started this project and recorded “Being There,” I was using roughly 75% software and VSTs and 25% hardware. I was using Logic Pro X at the time, so I went about recording as I had always done in projects and bands prior, by multi-tracking and layering everything until it sounded right. Basically how a vast majority of great artists record their albums.

This process, however, of writing had become highly un-inspiring to me, but I still wanted to create. It felt like a cycle of searching for a sound, recording it, finding something complementary, then adding on to it. I then noticed that I was trying to track and sample something and then within Logic effect it until it sounded “right” to my ears and the composition. I did this to the point where I start to second guess everything I had done at the end, and even though I had a finished record, I was never thrilled with it. So I decided I needed a new approach.

For the next album “Victim of Night,” I decided to flip it the other way and stripped it back to just a few pieces of hardware, and I would record multiple parts at a time, then while setting limits on myself, I’d do some minimal layering as needed.

I approached “The Devil’s Wake,” in a very similar manner; it was minimal, with a bit of piano and found sounds, etc. thrown into the mix just to add a bit more texture. I had more fun with that record than I had in a long time. I was recording foot stomps, claps, and random hits and sounds that I could use to build my own percussion essentially.

J. Hubner: It sounds like things were getting more organic. 

Gene Priest: When I did “The Seven Circles,” It was sort of a big mix of everything I had done up until that point, coming together in one record. I was tracking most everything and then chopping, sampling, and mangling these clips into really abstract ways, but aside from sonic manipulation, I also wanted to refocus on making the drums more interesting. I’ve always been heavy on the “beat” side as the drums were the first instrument I began learning at 12 or 13, and throughout my youth and early 20’s, I played drums and toured in countless projects. Drums and rhythms were always my safe place, really. “The Seven Circles” was the first album that I wrote and mixed entirely in Ableton Live, and it began to change my workflow and mindset completely.

Along with the creation of that album I was learning to use the Push 2, hitting record and creating tracks on the fly, creating and looping sequences and drums while also playing hardware synths at the same time. It made me realize something about myself and my process, you know? Here, I had all of this hardware around me… why was I sticking myself entirely inside of a computer, when I had enough gear to do the same thing but in a more spontaneous, live, and most importantly hands-on and tactile manner, which is why I became obsessed with analog and modular synthesizers, to begin with.

J. Hubner: And all of this leads up to Ritual. 

Gene Priest: So at the start of January, I began recording these live “sessions” of sorts. It started as an idea or even an exercise in creativity. Everything would start recording/ running at the same time and in sync with one another, and I would just have to settle on a key, and then the songs would just flow. I found that starting with something as simple as a key, chord, scale, or simple progression programmed into a sequencer gave me the ability to float around from instrument to instrument and just create in the moment. This was an incredibly liberating realization that had quite literally been in front of me the whole time. Fast forward to only a few weeks and 15 or 20 songs later, I had just found a new workflow for myself that involved primarily tracking all things in one single take live, never having the time to overthink anything, and forcing myself to stay minimal and extremely and more importantly, intentional.

J. Hubner: There’s a very naturalistic vibe to the album. The titles of the tracks bring to mind Gothic images, but still very much tied to the earth and nature. Is there a theme or concept that ties these songs together? What’s inspiring you here? 

Gene Priest: Absolutely, the entire theme of this album revolves around witchcraft. I’ve always had a deep obsession with all things that fall into the occult, and the dark arts and witches have always been especially intriguing to me. Also, here’s a little fun-fact, feel free to make fun, as I began writing this record, I had just discovered the brilliance and was heavily binging the show “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” which is no joke one of my favorite current television shows. I didn’t really pay any attention to it until it hit its second season, but my friend Derek kept urging me to watch it, telling me he just KNEW I was going to love it. He was right. I got sucked in, and I adore the hell out of that show, Praise Satan!

J. Hubner: Inspiration comes in all forms, even teenage witches.

Gene Priest: But seriously, back to Ritual. For me, the creation of electronic music is my own personal ritual. Not just with this record, but in general it’s always been the absolute best meditation and anti-depressant for me. I can let my mind wander at times, as happens with someone with both OCD and ADHD, however, sometimes that leads down a darker path of self-doubt and depression. That said, in the time I spend crafting sounds and creating music, I let all of that go. I’ve learned to harness all of that negativity that occasionally floats around my brain and put it out into productive use. In essence, I’ve learned to tame the inner demons to a point, as Anton LaVey said… “There is a beast in man that should be exercised, not exorcised.” That quote is significant to me, and a reminder that having self-doubt or depression isn’t necessarily a bad thing to a point, it’s all in how you learn to manage those emotions. You either let them take over and win, or you exercise your creativity and put everything into it.

J. Hubner: What’s the significance around the track titles? 

Gene Priest: I chose different themes throughout the world of witchcraft as the track titles, and almost in the same way as I would write a score to a film, I would focus on the idea and what it truly means within witchcraft and to me, and then I’d let the creation begin to flow in whatever direction it seemed to feel the most natural. Nothing on this album was forced. If after one “live take” what I tracked didn’t feel right, it was trashed.

J. Hubner: So who or what are some sonic hallmarks that influenced the direction you took with ‘Ritual’? What artists and albums blew your mind and drove you to create this record? 

Gene Priest: There are a few essential albums and artists that led to the creation of this record. First off is likely the most obvious, and it’s Tangerine Dream. When I was writing this record, I had just gotten sucked back into their album from 1975 called Rubycon. I can listen to this album on repeat, over and over. It’s only 2 tracks, each over 17 minutes long, but good God man, that record is an ambient masterpiece. Another artist with a massive influence on this record and the direction I’ve veered towards in Skeleton Beach was Conrad Schnitzler. He made a record with Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze as Tangerine Dream, the only album with the three of them together, called Electronic Meditation. This record was recorded in such a minimal way but had such a striking effect on me, when I discovered Conrad, I had to seek out more of his music… and that was when I came across his brilliant discography but most importantly his album Ballet Statique (released initially as “Con.”)

J. Hubner: Schnitzler is a heavy hitter for sure in the Berlin scene. 

When I started to create music differently, I decided to revisit that record, and it all hit me again at just the right time, and I knew I needed to scale things back a little bit, let things breathe and try to allow these songs to evolve themselves, as opposed to forcing them. I highly encourage anyone that is into electronic music from the fantastic modular pioneers of the ’70s to seek out his work. Every album is a journey into sounds, repetition, and beauty.

J. Hubner: I would imagine Brian Eno had an affect on you as well.

Gene Priest: His ambient stuff with Harold Budd was what inspired me to write the albums that came just before Ritual called “Heaviness of Heart,” “Living Life on a Deathbed,” and “The Solitude of Being Lost At Sea,” for those albums I started to have a play with running some sequences and loops and then playing ambient piano over top of them or literally just crafting dense soundscapes with a few pieces of gear as I could challenge myself to use. I began to realize just how much I loved to create ambiance and soundscapes, and I have always loved the balance between beauty and absolute destruction. There is nothing like taking a sound and crafting it, in the end, into an entirely new sound you’d not discovered yet.

J. Hubner: Tell me about the videos you post on Youtube with you playing various synths. 

Gene Priest: Those videos are all perfect representations of how this record came together. I even started a YouTube channel because I was recording SO MANY tracks weekly, I had to have somewhere to put all of this music I was creating. I am the type of person that I like to call a “hyper-creative.” I get restless if I go too long without using my own “ritual” as a way of release and creation. The end result never really matters, for me it’s just about creating something at all times because when I stop or go too long without crafting SOMETHING that’s when the sad feels start creeping in.

J. Hubner: The videos are like musical therapy for you then. A live recording of exercising the beast LaVey was talking about. 

Gene Priest: This more LIVE and minimal method of creating music became a near daily ritual for me. Almost like meditation. It takes a lot of concentration to capture everything you want in one take. Planning out the key and the chord structure, setting up any sequences that might float in and out, or even evolve, and most importantly finding the right mix and balance of ambiance vs. melody. This causes me to completely zone out everything else that is going on in the world around me, if only for a few minutes to pull focus on nothing but making these machines speak in sync with one another in a pleasing manner. Sometimes there are flaws, but again, with analog and modular synths, that is kinda what gives them character.

J. Hubner: Tell me about your go-to hardware for the album.

Gene Priest: There was a good number of synths that made an appearance on this record, but it was honestly extremely Moog heavy. Using the Mother 32 for a lot of the sequences, arpeggios, basses, etc. Using the Moog DFAM for a good majority of the percussive and drum elements, running it through a series of effects like delays and reverbs, sometimes both, as well as the absolutely invaluable Moog Grandmother.

J. Hubner: The Moog Grandmother? 

Gene Priest: If there were one piece of gear that was the centerpiece, it would be the Grandmother. It was used more than any other piece of equipment the most consistently on this album. There are shimmers of the Jupiter or Prophet here or there in pads and ambiance, but most leads and deep soundscapes came from the Grandmother and a LOT of reverb. In my studio, I could not live without the Moog Grandmother or my Juno-106. Most anything else could come and go, but those pieces of kit are absolute hallmarks of my sound. That and a WHOLE lot of reverb, always. I have an unhealthy obsession with reverb, but at least I FEEL like I have learned to use it constructively as opposed to making everything sound muddy or start blending together.

J. Hubner: What’s your composing ritual like? Do you start with a specific synth and see where it takes you? Or do you just start twisting knobs and see what happens?

Gene Priest: Both really, I create songs in several different ways. Sometimes I’ll sit down behind the piano,  Juno-106, or Prophet and play until a progression really resonates with me. I tend to get fixated and obsessed with certain chord progressions and scales, and I’ll explore them in almost every combination possible. My process gets extremely mathematical at times because when you are using the same machines to create album after album, you can find yourself recreating the same thing over and over. This is why I use a lot of poly-rhythmic arpeggios, or multiple drum/ percussion sources played on various machines at once, so that while everything IS in time, there are those odd moments of “Oh, wait… did the tempo or timing just shift?” I love that aspect of electronic music, and I learned a lot from artists such as Burial, who creates everything in his own VERY distinct manner, without quantization. Just feel. Because when you’re creating music, feel is really all ya have, right!?

J. Hubner: Absolutely

Gene Priest: As for the process, I’ll find a sequence and some sounds for drums/ percussion that seem to fit together and just jump straight in. Other times, more often than not really, I will literally just be aimlessly turning knobs, patching cables, and plugging in effects pedals until I find a sound I love and then the next thing I know, I have a sequence dialed up, and I just run with that. I figure out the root key and then just experiment all around. Sometimes it works out amazingly, other times it’s just a glorious mess of noise, and I decide it won’t work, and that’s that.

J. Hubner: As long as it’s feeling right, then you’re heading in the right direction.

Gene Priest: Basically, if I have to force too much to make something work, I know that I’ve already gone too far. In the way that I currently have upwards of 30-40 tracks recorded at this present moment, there was an equal, if not more considerable amount that just got deleted after being recorded. I’ve gotten pretty good at letting ideas go if they don’t feel right from the start, I’ve learned to just move on instead of trying to tweak something ad nauseam to work the way I want. I use to spend too much of my time on MAKING things work instead of it being more organic and coming together on its own and in its own time.

J. Hubner: Besides music, what else inspires your work? Does cinema play a part in your music?

Gene Priest: Cinema absolutely plays a very crucial part of what I do. I have always loved watching movies, but nothing is more exciting to me than a great horror film. Luckily from a VERY young age my parents introduced me to the horror genre, as my mom is a big horror fan, but dad not as much, when I was like 5 or 6, my parents thought it would be a good idea to take me to the theatres to see one of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, because they wanted to see it, and it was the 80’s… so ya brought your kid.

J. Hubner: Of course you did! Things were different back then. So you were a fan at an early age.

Gene Priest: I was hooked from that moment on. I loved and absorbed all things horror that I could, and luckily they not only kick-started that love for me, but they encouraged it. Every time we would go to the video store I would gravitate towards the horror section and never once did they say “Maybe not that one…,” instead I would remember my mom HELPING me to find films I’d maybe not yet seen, but she had. Again… dad has never been the biggest horror fan, but he DID lead me to a discovery that would prove to be fairly crucial in my musical leanings.

J. Hubner: Were you paying attention to the scores as well?

Gene Priest: I remember discovering the films and music of John Carpenter through my dad watching “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Escape from New York” on VHS over and over. He loves both of those films tremendously, so they were always in rotation. Then I when I later saw “Halloween,” and “The Thing” I realized John Carpenter was not only writing the films but also composing a vast majority of his own scores, my mind was blown.

J. Hubner: So you learned the value of a great score as well.

Gene Priest: Over the years, I’ve realized then how important the musical cues are to a film. A bad score can make a potentially great film feel flat, off, or just wrong. However, when appropriately used, film scores can not only take a scene that might otherwise feel slow and add an extra layer of tension or emotion in general, but the music composed to a film is meant to invoke and convey a message through sound. Just like the magic it works for a scene, It should also be able to live just as powerfully as it’s own piece away from the film.

J. Hubner: Are there any modern film scores that have stood out for you?

Gene Priest: I really enjoyed the soundtrack to “It Follows,” it’s actually quite a perfect example of the way I look at film scores and their importance. Disasterpeace has such an incredible way of building tension within beauty, it made that film so much more of a full experience. I love how while that entire score is phenomenal on its own when listening as an album, it takes on a whole new life when paired with the film and its imagery. That is a magical thing.

J. Hubner: How far back can you track your love of electronic music? 

Gene Priest: I would be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing within electronic music that REALLY got me excited and showed me the extreme power it could have was Nine Inch Nail’s “Pretty Hate Machine.” I remember discovering that and “The Downward Spiral” in middle school, and from those albums on, my entire mindset on music shifted. Can you ACTUALLY believe that “Pretty Hate Machine” was released in 1989?! Trent Reznor is someone I look up to heavily in so many respects, as I absolutely will now and forever adore NIN, that was the first “band” or “artist” that made electronic music not only sound COOL to me but extremely relevant. And what’s even better as a fan of Trent’s is the number of film scores him, and Atticus Ross have been doing over the past few years. His output is beyond inspiring to me.

I’ve also always been a MASSIVE Radiohead fan, ESPECIALLY when “Kid A” first came out. The sounds of that album completely blew my mind. Everything they have done since (and even before) has an extraordinary place in my heart. Thom Yorke is an absolute genius, and his solo records further implored me to start digging deeper into this glitchy, beat heavy electronic stuff. There is so much out there; it was tough to know where to start.

J. Hubner: When did you realize you wanted to create electronic music?

Gene Priest: Looking back into the beginnings of when I personally felt like I wanted to create electronic music more seriously was in the mid-2000’s hearing artists like Burial, Autechre, Apparat, and as with many others, Aphex Twin. I was on a journey at that time to find as many unique and exciting artists as I could to learn more and more about the different styles and genres within electronic music.

J. Hubner: Burial is an interesting one.

Gene Priest: Burial spoke to me hard the first time I heard his music. His beats (again, as a drummer of most of my life) just blew me away. The fact that he would painstakingly spend hours lining up and chopping samples and found sounds to create these intricate and at times VERY odd beats that shuffle in and out of time just blew me away. He is an unbelievable sound designer, and if not for him, I don’t think I would have gone down a more exploratory road.

The other artist and record that I will always view as one of the most significant influences on me is Apparat’s and his album “Duplex.” This record was released in 2003, and I remember seeing it at the record store and loving the minimal artwork, as it was still very striking. Then I flipped it over and read the track listing. By scanning the names alone, I thought “I’ll give this a go…” and to this day it’s still not only one of my most listened to albums in my collection, but more importantly, one of the most essential ARTISTS that set me down my own electronic music path.

J. Hubner: What sort of kid were you growing up? Outdoors running around, or more inside reading comics, watching horror movies, and playing videogames? 

Gene Priest: Man, I was definitely a good mix of all of the above. I grew up as an only child, so with that, comes a lot of time to yourself. I filled a lot of my time absorbing as many films as I could, that was a really big part of it, horror films were a VERY close friend to me growing up.  I was also a bit of a loner as a kid and I preferred doing my own thing.

J. Hubner: Was there anybody in your formative years that had a major impact on you growing up?

Gene Priest: I ended up spending a whole lot of time with my grandfather growing up, who I unfortunately just lost last year. He’s the first person responsible for really igniting my love of music and creation in general. He was an incredible human being, as well as a musician, who could play pretty much anything, completely self-taught, which is what he passed on to me. He had his own recording studio which meant by default, I also had access to quite literally any instrument you could imagine. He had tape machines and old early drum machines, reverbs he had built himself, quite literally anything you’d need to create, it was always around.

J. Hubner: Oh man, I can’t imagine how much of an impact that had on you growing up.

Gene Priest: He taught me how to use software to record my own stuff when I was around 13 or 14, I feel like Cubase was the first software I ever used for recording. So I would literally for hours just experiment with everything he had around. There was never a “wrong way” to approach music, which is something he told me a lot along the way. He likely didn’t care for my ambient 30-minute guitar orchestrations I was making with loads of layers of reverbed guitar with a minimal Boss drum machine pulsing in the background, but he always encouraged it. And he was always constructive, over anything else. It was never “bad,” but hey, you could do this instead.

So yeah, as a kid I really did just spend a lot of time watching horror flicks, making really strange music, and playing loads of video games.

J. Hubner: Ritual is being released by the amazing folks at Lakeshore Records. How did you get hooked up with them?

Gene Priest: Yeah, so they have been nothing but absolutely amazing. I’ve known a few folks over there for a while as I have done some freelance video and audio work for them for social media trailers, podcast editing, etc. I knew John (Bergin) was a big fan of Tangerine Dream’s music, like myself, so when I was finishing up the first rough mixes of the album, as someone I respected in the industry, he was the first person I thought to send some stuff to as to maybe get some super critical advice. I was literally sending these tracks over to him with nothing but the sole intentions of getting some honest and insightful feedback from someone whom I respected in the industry. A few days passed, and I hadn’t heard back, so I instinctually, as I always do, started to think, “Man, that’s not a good thing…” Then the very next day, I got an e-mail back from John, and I was extremely excited to hear his feedback on the album. I was welcomed with kind words on the compositions followed by “would you like to put this out through Lakeshore?” I was at a loss. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had to read it back a few times because I could not believe that it was possible to release an album on one of my absolute favorite labels.

J. Hubner: It’s great when things work out like that.

Gene Priest: Bottom line is, I owe so many thanks to John for hearing something in my music, the way that I do, that he felt strongly enough to present it to the world through their incredible label, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

J. Hubner: Will there be a vinyl release as well?

Gene Priest: There absolutely will be! I am a HUGE vinyl nerd with a stupidly large collection in my own home, so as an artist releasing something into the world, I wanted it to be available on 180g vinyl. The way I feel music should be listened to and enjoyed!

J. Hubner: So who’s doing the vinyl release? 

Gene Priest: I decided to start my own label called “Grief Thief Records” to do a vinyl release, as Lakeshore is solely handling the Digital side of it. So I made the decision that had to be made, I’ll put this into existence myself, and now not only will “Ritual” be the first release on the label, but I will now have an outlet to not only release my own material but to put out music from people I love. I fully plan on making it a pursuit moving forward if only to share the things that I love and inspire me.

J. Hubner: That’s incredible, but also a lot of work.

Gene Priest: I did, however, realize at some point that shipping out records on your own is really hard as one person. So, luckily the fine gentlemen at Burning Witches Records put me in touch with  Two-Headed Dog and between them and Light In The Attic Records, they are the ones wholly responsible for getting this vinyl release out there and available to as many people as quickly as possible! Without Two Headed Dog and Light In The Attic, I am not sure how the vinyl side of this would have gone down.

J. Hubner: It sounds like you’re in good company.

Gene Priest: And just as a little tease, Two Headed Dog and I are partnering with the incredible artist Hauntlove for a super limited edition of the record. Details on that to come later, it’s gonna be rad!

J. Hubner: Hauntlove is absolutely amazing. Such an incredible artist. Cannot wait to see what you all come up with. So what now? Are going to savor this a bit, or are you back at it already?

Gene Priest: I never stop, man. Never. I think I would die. As I mentioned before I have at least 30-40 tracks just sitting, finished, or at least near finished, and I actually DO already have the follow-up to “Ritual” completed. No joke, the next record (maybe 2 or 3) are already finished and just sitting here. I have so much output that I am always creating, and only not enough outlets in which to release it all!

J. Hubner: Anything outside of Skeleton Beach?

Gene Priest: I’ve got some really exciting stuff coming up with my other project Cemetery Gates, so this summer is going to be pretty awesome. I plan to continue writing and recording as much as I possibly can on my own as well as with Derek in Cemetery Gates, we have a lot of plans for that project, and it’s nice to have someone to write with the way he and I have done for nearly 20 years now. It’s an AMAZING outlet to have as an extension of what I am already doing.

J. Hubner: What about taking these compositions to the stage and performing live?

Gene Priest: The next big step… is doing what I do on records and on my YouTube channel live. I am trying to figure out the best configuration to start doing a whole lot more live Skeleton Beach shows. I feel like it would be an exciting experience to create something in a live setting that lives only for that short time, and only once. That’s what I am working on more than anything, not necessarily playing all of my recorded songs live, but by making each show a completely different sonic experiment. I feel like instead of seeing someone create something you’ve heard before, how cool would it be if it were completely different every single time, unpredictable, and experimental in a way that you just see and hear these pieces start from nothing and evolve into a room full of sound. I feel like that could be a whole lot of fun!

Skeleton Beach’s Ritual is available Friday, June 21st thru Lakeshore Records. Preorder the digital album here. 180 gram vinyl edition of 250 can be preordered thru Light In The Attic Records here.

And if you’d like another taste of Ritual before it drops tomorrow, then check out the dark and alluring album track “Death Walking” here.

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