By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Roger Sellers.
They say there’s no such thing as time travel, but perhaps certain avenues have been overlooked. Certain musical pathways, that is.
Take an album like 2014’s Primitives. The Austin-based composer, producer, and performer Roger Sellers has been suffusing these songs with energy for more than five years–since his days spent as an undergrad tinkering with songwriting for the very first time.
Primitives isn’t music you play for a single song during a shuffle streak. It’s a cohesive experience that ebbs and flows with the tides of Sellers’ past, ushering love streaked waves of sound that unite and create a tapestry. You wrap it around yourself, and find something new in the fold every time.
The sense of discovery was vital to the making of the album, which proved far more difficult for Sellers than he originally anticipated. It marked a new songwriting process in his career.
“One of the reasons why this one took so long to complete is because I had to keep it fresh,” says Sellers. “These are songs I made some of the original loops for all the way back in college, so I was getting kind of bored with them. I had to bloom a new life into these really meaningful songs.”
One of the ways Sellers accomplished the change was through his use of minimalist layering, creating subtle textures that creep through the mix and interact in ways that summon both the cosmic and tribal. Listening to the end of “Spectrolite,” ears become awash in bubbling springs, slowly winding tape distortion, burbles, crackles, and piano lines descending like dominos made of diamonds.
Goddamn! The intricacies of this music demand their own poeticism.
Hearing these sounds, it’s easy to question how Sellers manages to execute the overwhelming densities. One can imagine a studio filled with a number of percussion players holding bells and chimes, guitar players, organ and pianists, mandolin strummers–all eagerly awaiting some kind of cue or guidance from the wizard responsible for it all.
Trade the studio for a bedroom and the musicians for a single mind. Voila! Roger Sellers, ladies and gentlemen. The trick is in the layering and looping process.
“It’s really hard to perform without the help of electronic layering. Unless you have a 40-piece band,” Sellers reflects with a laugh.
Ever since his afternoons as a child spent playing percussion with paint cans, the singer-songwriter sought out music through any medium he could get his hands on. By the time he arrived at college and bought himself a Boss RC-50 looper to experiment with one-man concoctions, Sellers could already play dozens of instruments with more ability and grace than most Jacks-of-all-trades.
A lot of the time songs and musical ideas will simply flow out of him. He tries not to impose too much of a filter or structure on their creation. It’s easy to understand why. The material is buoyant through its emotional immediacy; no degrees of process or oversight could create raw moments of intensity present in songs like “Waves.”
Which is why creating Primitives posed such a challenge for Sellers. The material had been in his back pocket for years, he’d performed and heard the songs hundreds of times. The stream of consciousness had run its course. How do you stitch together these free-form moments into a cohesive whole, impose structure on an already amorphic energy?
The 2014 album ended up becoming the artist’s most “mathematical” work to date. Yet somehow the coefficients and variables calling out for missing links and substitutions proved to be the most unhinged sonic territories. Ultimately, they became Sellers’ favorite moments on the record.
The avant-garde stitchings combine to create a compass pointing inward; toward the point where the composer draws his greatest inspiration. They exist in the small moments, he explains, sometimes even in just a single second in a song, where everything suddenly feels understandable. They are the instances that act as a clear cut to reality that drive him forward and instill the desire to create and build.
Those amulets of joy are sprinkled throughout Primitives. He put them there for you to discover, and it’s all the more impressive that such an extraterrestrial labyrinth was born from a single person.
“It can get lonely sometimes,” Sellers admits. “But only having one mind means not having so many distractions, especially when I’m writing and producing. I feel like I can trust myself.”