Ambient artist and ZMR Lifetime Achievement recipient Steve Roach connects the musical, spiritual, and physical worlds in his prodigious body of work. 

steve roach
Steve Roach

[Updated] The stars of the music that once found themselves ambivalently under the “new age” umbrella gathered last May in New Orleans for the ZMR Awards. Few if any in attendance care for the genre label, which is a catch-all for “New Age, World, Ambient, Electronic, Solo Piano, Relaxation, [and] Instrumental” music, as the Louisiana-based Zone Music Reporter’s website announces. The site covers the industry, and its award show weekend has become a gathering place for people whose music rarely draws attention to itself. 

Windham Hill Records is the historic home of the music, and its founder, Will Ackerman, was one of the bigger stars in attendance for the awards show at Loyola’s Roussel Hall. He performed as part of FLOW with Fiona Joy, Lawrence Blatt, and Jeff Oster, and the folk roots of their autumnal “Rest Now My Friend” were obvious in Ackerman’s acoustic guitar. In person, the music resisted becoming part of the atmosphere, perhaps because in a concert hall, the vitality of the moment overrode the impulse toward gentle beauty. Nothing in FLOW’s performance promised the song’s video—a soundtrack for long, patient, cinematic shots of polar, ice-covered seas.

The recent ZMR Awards were the fourteenth, and they draw participants from around the world. Jim Ottaway traveled from Melbourne, Australia for the second year in a row, and before the show he stood by himself looking ready to answer any last minute tax questions. He came to life when a radio programmer approached him and started talking about the German electronic rock band Tangerine Dream. Ottaway remembered seeing it two nights in a row—once down front and once at the back to see how the different locations affected the experience.

Ottaway was nominated for Best Electronic Album and Best Ambient Album and won for both. With that, he became the most successful electronic artist in the room at that moment, a ranking he got partly by default because the ZMR Lifetime Achievement recipient Steve Roach was ill and unable to attend. Roach would have appreciated the Tangerine Dream conversation; he was inspired to experiment with electronic music by the German electronic music band founded in 1967. When he saw a photo of Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze in a studio surrounded by keyboards and elaborate patch bays, he knew what he wanted to do. 

“That was so very cool,” Roach says. “Sign me up.”

klaus schulze album cover The back cover of Klaus Schulze's "Moondawn"

Roach would also have understood Ottaway’s distance from the rest of the industry. He lives in the desert outside Tuscon, Arizona, and his studio is a place where he can be alone, surrounded by his gear like Schulze in the photo. He uses it to cut himself off from the world outside of the desert in front of him. There’s no wi-fi or Internet on his computers. It’s a self-contained space where he can work, and where he has done so prolifically. Roach has released more than 100 solo albums since 1982 and at least another 30 collaborative projects. Much of his work is proto-chillwave, and he has found an audience outside of the ambient world in the EDM world among those looking for the opposite of face-melting dubstep textures. Unlike some established artists, he has affection for the next generation and particularly likes the German duo Porter Ricks. “It’s got a real body/mind awareness,” he says. “The tones really speak, and they’re emotional, warm and engaging. I listen to a fair amount of that stuff.” 

His music is nominally ambient, but not as aggressively blank as Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. His affection for Tangerine Dream led Roach in more of an art-rock direction. He loved Klaus Schultze’s Timewind, (1975), which “fit in with this surreal, imaginary landscape” on the cover, he says. The epic sweep of his classics Structures from Silence (1984) and Dreamtime Return (1988) bring to mind the sci-fi cover art landscapes of Roger Dean in their elegance and rich textures. The title track of his recent Molecules of Motion pulses with a Kraftwerkian mechanical precision, while pieces move like waves, creating a sound that slowly swells and grows in definition until it crests and recedes, only to be replaced at a regular interval by another sonic wave much like the one before. 

From the start, Roach was drawn to the music’s psychedelic nature. He found the music to have psychoactive properties, but unlike drugs, he didn’t have to come down, and it was easier to integrate into his life. “The music was the medicine,” he says. 

Because Tangerine Dream influenced him, Roach made a deliberate effort not to sound like a clone. On his first four albums, he kept his songs to a spare-by-comparison 8 or 9 minutes, and that helped him find his own musical voice. “What I brought to it was a more concise sense of form,” Roach says. He tried to move through musical worlds more quickly and efficiently, but he could only run from his influences for so long. 

“Eventually, I would go completely full circle and now i’m doing 60 minute-long, sequencer-based music,” Roach says. The lengths aren’t premeditated, though, and on the early albums, he only knew how long they wouldn’t be, not how long they would. Drones and ambient pieces could theoretically go on forever, but Roach attributes his sense of when to stop to his body clock. It’s an intuitive decision partly informed by a deep listening that helps him hear when a thought has reached completion. “I’ve also been aware of when I’m overstaying my welcome,” he says. 

Roach grew up in Southern California and rode motocross in the 1970s until he discovered electronic music. He took out a loan, bought an Arp 2600, and started logging his 10,000 hours to teach himself to play his synthesizer. He had no previous musical background, so he had to figure out how to use the tools at his disposal, what they did, and how to generate the sounds he wanted. When he saw a photo of Schulze setting chess pieces on keys to create a drone, he was inspired to try similar low-tech solutions. The more he played, the more he listened. “That was the process of listening deep into it and learning through your own process of desire and innovation through imagination,” Roach says.

Part of his understanding of his music came with understanding how it relates to his life. Roach works in a number of moods, and different times of day suit them. In general, he has become a morning person and enjoys the clarity that comes when he works before the demands of the day begin to crowd him. On the other hand, he finds late night conducive for some of his deeper work, where his biorhythms and energy allow him to settle into that space more easily and completely.

“Part of that started when I lived in Los Angeles because it was so intense there all the time,” he says. “By about 11 at night, you could feel things simmering down, seeping in under the door. It was quieter and more focused.” His current home and studio is pretty distant from distraction from “the man-made world,” he says, but the patterns he established remain.

The Arizona desert has become integral to Roach’s music. Since his big picture project is to explore states of being, the sensuality of the landscape around him fuels his creativity, not only in its beauty but the scope of its vista. He can see for 50 miles when looking out the windows of his studio. Even the temperature feeds his music. “The body boundary melts away when you get in that sweet spot of the dry heat and the atmosphere,” Roach says. “That’s a constant, supportive metaphor and inspiration for the spaces I crave to create from and be in, and over the years, it works deeper on me. You’re in the land of long thoughts and expansive views.”

Roach’s studio in the desert in a way to draw the American work ethic that he got from his father into his music. His output isn’t only his art; it’s his work, and he approaches it that way, getting up in the morning and getting to it. He flirted with painting early on as a form of self-expression, but the physical relationship he developed with his Arp 2600 at first and other synthesizers later was more resonant for him. He had to work a machine with knobs and sliders and keys and wires to produce an output, just as countless other men did in factories across the country. For that reason (among others), he loves analog synths, though he uses digital ones as well. 

“I have this houseful of hardware—tactile real instruments,” Roach says. “I don’t know if it’s generational or if I’m addicted to creating these sound worlds. Whatever’s driving me is driving me beyond whatever generation I came from. But fortunately for me, coming up at the dawn of affordable, portable, hardware-based instruments gave me access to the connection to that process, which I see is exploding again. The hardware/analog modular world is exploding, and the artists that are just discovering that are discovering analog synths now in their teens or 20s or 30s or whatever, having this direct experience with sound and shaping it and creating these different types of worlds that can continue to evolve and bloom and develop in your space.” Fans have never complained that tracks were too long, though they’ve thought that some were too short. Roach addressed that concern last year when he took one 12-minute song, “Passing Time,” and blew it out to an hour. “That satisfied the itch that was there for 15 years. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes to settle into a piece. When you reach a place a place where the tonal quality is so nourishing, you have to settle in and let it be a 74-minute piece.”

When Roach performs in concert, he often does so at volumes that startle fans who only know his music as subtle, meditative sounds that fit discreetly into their world. It’s part of his desire to create the same kind of complete engagement that he experiences with the world around him in the desert, to break down the dividing lines between audiences and the music. “A complete engagement,” he says. “A place where you step out of the present day and into an expanded sense of the moment.” It’s an impulse that certainly affects the live presentation of techno, trance, house, and dubstep, and its one with roots in such minimalists as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Roach saw Glass perform in the 1980s in Los Angeles at shows when he had a sound engineer who mic’ed and mixed the acoustic orchestra’s instruments so that they were heard at arena volume in a fine art venue. 

That desire for a full-body musical experience also led Roach to heavy metal music. His current favorite is the French band Gojira, and he loves the focused energy of Meshuggah. He listens to Sirius XM’s “Liquid Metal” show in the car because “it’s like turning a firehose on myself and getting rinsed off,” Roach says. “It’s all part of the big soundscape.” He thinks of heavy metal as being part of the same immersive, cathartic experience as Tangerine Dream in its prime and his own shows.

“I want that wherever I can find it.” 

Updated 5:38 p.m.

Roach has recorded more than 100 solo albums, significantly more than the 60 originally mentioned. And Steve Roach, not Steve Reich, saw Philip Glass perform in the 1980s. The text has been changed to reflect these changes.