Throwing Snow, aka Ross Tones, is back with his fourth album titled Dragons and it’s an ambitious effort that occupies the space between science and ancestral wisdom. We talked with Ross to know more about his creative process, main inspirations, and his thoughts about the impact that global pandemic had on artists.
How has 2021 been for you so far?
2021 has thankfully been busy despite all of the madness. Late in 2020 Hannah Cartwright and I were commissioned to score the new Sir David Attenborough climate change documentary, Breaking Boundaries, so the year began with 3 months of writing to picture. It was obviously a great honour and an issue I deeply care about.
This June you are going to release Throwing Snow’s fourth album. What was the concept behind Dragons?
As with all my music I try to mesh together my music with my interests in other areas. Dragons theme is that humans have always used tools to understand the world. Music itself a tool for memory, group cohesiveness and ritualisation of practices. Our brains are wired to function in small societies of extended families but in the modern world the social and environmental complexities are hard to understand. A tool we can use for seeing patterns in highly complex systems is machine learning. The record deals with this by the music being simple, but the visuals accompanying them being complex. They were created using large image datasets and machine learning to morph visual transitions in reaction to the music played.
Would you say you generally follow a pattern with your creative? Where do you record?
I generally spend a lot of time reading and researching before I write any music, I find I’m more productive after a period where I save the creativity up. In this album I let the music flow because I wanted it to be simple and feel natural, but it needed to be pared back and ‘practical’ to fit in with the narrative. It was recorded in my studio just before and slightly during the first lockdown and it was a welcome distraction to be honest.
In Dragons, you wanted to explore the purpose of music from the beginning of human history. Can you elaborate more on this?
I’m fascinated by the origins of music and the part it’s played in human evolution. I’m not of the school of thought that suggests that music is just ‘auditory cheese cake’ as Steven Pinker once wrote. I’m much more in the Steven Mithen camp, he wrote a book called The Singing Neanderthal that I highly recommend. In addition, I’m influenced by Lynn Kelly’s work on memory and mnemonic techniques. I think one of the main reasons music is ubiquitous is because it is a memory aid. There is a wealth of examples in history but a can give a couple of examples. Genghis Khan’s army was mounted, which meant that when they camped for the night they needed to find enough grass for their horses. This resulted in the thousand of soldiers spread across the plains. Khan’s messengers went from group to group transmitting his orders and they did this through standardised song because it’s easier to remember than a list of commands. Another example is the Aboriginal Song Lines of Australia which have many many-layered meanings and levels of meaning but in one form can act as a map. I like to think it probable that all over the world song lines were sung to navigate and understand the laws of the territories people were travelling through. Did Neolithic (/Bronze Age transition) people in Britain move about using songs and stone rows to lead them from Orkney to Durrington Walls (near Stone Henge) for instance?
Were there any particular sources of inspiration within studying music in human history while writing the songs for Dragons? If so, what were they?
I started playing the bodhrán and the Irish bones because they were instruments with a long lineage throughout the world in different forms. The physical mechanics of these instruments dictates that triplets naturally occur and I found this really interesting. There is a really great YouTube channel called The Stringdom (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEBmryl7FvdZjudBs5hZdbw) which goes into the history and techniques of stringed instruments around the globe. I found these interviews fascinating.
Dragons has an eclectic mix of instruments, from a bodhrán and daf to cello and you worked with drummer Jack Baker on an intensive two-day session. How did that collaboration come to be and how was the actual recording process for the new record?
I’ve known Jack for years because we met while I was supporting Bonobo on tour. I’ve always loved his drum solos and sounds so asked him to record for a couple of days at the studio. He’s got relentless energy so we recorded a lot. I tried not to give him a click track because I wanted to see what grooves would appear and from those sessions, I then edited small loops to use on the album. I nearly always start with melodies so it was great to have a unique set of drum loops to add instant rhythm.
You worked with Matt Woodham for this new album. What was it like to work with him and what did he bring to your songs?
Again I’ve known Matt for years and admire his work and methodologies. We share a love of combining art and science and in fact, Dragons was meant to be a live show at a festival Matt was organising before that was scuppered by Covid. I worked to create ‘control messages’ that match the events in each of the tracks on the album. Matt took these control messages and used them to control the transitions in the visuals. The visuals themselves are created by feeding three data sets at three magnification scales into a machine learning algorithm that Matt has trained. The data sets were microscopic, macroscopic and map images to represent the complex similarities at all scales. The visuals twist and morph into sometimes alien, sometimes familiar shapes. The human brain is always trying to make patterns from chaos and the algorithm writes different rules for us to interpret.
You are currently recording a new album with your trio Snow Ghosts, and a soundtrack for a Netflix documentary. Can you tell us more about these?
Hannah, Oli and I are halfway through the new Snow Ghosts record which has been challenging in a pandemic especially when we are spread between Sweden and the UK. It’s going well so far and it’s nice to work on new material again. The documentary is coming out on Netflix in June but the trailer for it is out now (https://youtu.be/2Jq23mSDh9U). It was rather intense writing 60+ mins of music but I’m really pleased with the result and it was pretty mad to watch it be played as part of Joe Biden’s Climate Change Summit. There’s an extra layer of pressure to get it right when it’s such an important issue.
What are your thoughts about the impact of the pandemic on musicians and artists in general?
I really feel for the majority of artists at the moment especially if they rely wholly on live shows. A lot of people I know have been hit hard. Live streaming and the value of music and dancing for mental health have been forced to the forefront which could be seen as a good thing, despite the government’s stance against the arts.
What have you been listening to lately?
That’s such a difficult question! Too many to mention but I have enjoyed cooking to Altin Gün and Lalalar recently.