The Brooklyn producer talks gear fanaticism, ambient music and sci-fi.
Robert Toher is an explorer of uncharted sonic territories. After playing in a number of punk and synth bands—including ERAAS, a dark ambient synth group that has been on hiatus for the past couple years—he’s now been channeling his energy into his solo project, Public Memory, making music that resembles the soundtrack of an eerie sci-fi adventure.
The moniker comes from the idea of a collective unconscious, and his new LP, Demolition, taps into the sort of tacit and neglected feelings that resonate with us all. Released on felte Records, it’s a collection of symphonic synth music that sees Tohler experimenting with an array of sound elements and field recordings. Tracks like “Doorstep” and “Trick of the Light” employ techniques that are reminiscent of electro-acoustic music. “The Line,” one of the album’s more ghostly singles, is about coming to terms with the fact that things didn’t turn out as planned—a recurring theme on the album. Taken as a whole, Demolition is an other-wordly sensory experience, one that will evoke your most bizarre dreams and subconscious fears.
Toher chatted with AdHoc about how his setup has evolved throughout the years and about the entrancing appeal of ambient music. He also gives some useful advice to aspiring young producers. Catch Public Memory celebrate the release of Demolition at Alphaville on November 30. Grab your copy of the album here.
AdHoc: How is Demolition different from your previous work?
Robert Toher: The earlier LP of 2016, Wuthering Drum, was more of a limited palette and was also my first work, so I wanted it to be a little more consistent by using the same synths and drum machines. There’s always that danger of putting too much into a song. Just because all these elements are cool doesn’t mean they should be together [Laughs]. Sometimes less is more.
On this album, I decided that I didn’t wanna have a rule about that, so it’s more widespread, it’s more colorful, it’s more high-definition, it’s more film-like in a lot of ways. It feels like it’s written in a more orchestral fashion in the way the sounds are arranged.
Do you think you’ve achieved what you had in mind for this LP?
With everything that I work on, I just try to create a mood, and I suppose there is also a catharsis. When I work on music, I am exorcising something—not in a pretentious way, but it’s a way of making sense of your emotions, feelings, memories, and dreams. With this record, I had been through a lot in terms of relationships, personal growth, and this has been a closing of a period of my life. It succeeded in that, and now that it’s done I feel like I can move on to something different.
When recording music, does it take time for you to decide whether a given song is something you want to release?
Yeah, I think everyone goes through that to some extent, and when they don’t you can tell [Laughs]. Some producers just have fun and do what they want, which is great, but I don’t find myself listening to those records again and again. I think anyone who makes anything that, in my opinion, is worthwhile, probably goes through a lot of that, and throws things out. They probably feel like a drama queen, or king, and go, “Oh I wanna scrap it all.”
There’s kind of a vanity in that. It feels almost performative to me, but everyone kind of goes through that. But if it’s any good, it’s gonna stay with you, and you’re gonna wanna show it to people. It’s almost a game, and it’s exciting.
What’s your set-up like now?
For this project, I used a KORG MS-20 synthesizer, a KORG Minilogue synthesizer, a Fender Telecaster, a spring reverb, a bunch of pedals, analogue delays, and a drum machine—the Arturia DrumBrute. That’s pretty much it—[plus] some tape-recorder-type stuff, some field recordings and things that I find online that I just kind of repurpose. Freesound.org is a really cool site; I could sit there at night with a cup of tea and go through these sounds of bells and chimes that people uploaded. It’s fun.
What software do you use?
I use ProTools. I don’t use Ableton—I don’t know how to use Ableton! [Laughs]. I fool around with Logic as well. I’ve never used MIDI instruments on any of my recordings though. I think it’s cool when someone knows how to use MIDI and do cool things with it, but I haven’t ventured there yet. I work purely with audio, so ProTools is the best one for me.
To what extent do you think aspiring producers need to spend money on gear to achieve a “good sound”?
To a very little extent, I would say. It’s fun to get recording software and to learn it yourself—or to get a new machine or a new instrument—but I think some people put too much emphasis on gear. It stifles creativity; I think it’s pretentious. I think people should have the attitude that you can do whatever you want with the tools available to you. Some people are just like, “Well, this is what I have; I have my laptop, I have GarageBand, I have this guitar and this keyboard”—and they make a record! And sometimes they make something even better having those limitations, anyway.
When you were starting out, how did you make things work without having the specific gear you needed?
The first thing I began recording on was a four-track; I would just play into that all the time. I had a reverb pedal as well. This was in the late ’90s, when I was a teenager, and that’s what I started doing—just making ambient recordings that way. Eventually, I got a loop pedal, which allowed me to arrange things in steps. Someone else that I was in band with also had ProTools, and I started to pick it up and figure out.
In the end, I guess it’s about priority. There’s a whole conversation one could have about privilege and creating music and what people have available to them. If you have anything at your disposal, then make the best use of it that you can. Otherwise, if you have the means to work and save a little money and prioritize spending it on equipment—because you can and you’re able to—I think that’s a great thing. But who really has that much disposable income right now, anyway? [Laughs] I don’t even have healthcare.
What were the sounds and genres that inspired you to make your own music, back when you were starting out?
Not anything in particular—I guess I was just inspired by the bands I liked. I think punk definitely inspired my attitude and my mindset, which was really good for me and helped me get through being a young art student. My first concert was Tori Amos. I liked a lot of the alternative bands in the ’90s, and then I started to get into stuff like Brian Eno and Roxy Music, and then ambient music, and then, finally, krautrock and trip-hop.
What was it about ambient music that drew you to want to start making it?
The visual aspect, I think. Music is very visual to me, and ambient music connects to the landscapes, and there’s something about it [where there] is just enough going on to set the mood for things. It affects your perception in way that is present and not unconscious, and it recontextualizes things. It’s almost like a drug substitute, in a way.
Do you feel like you’re influenced by your contemporaries, and the other stuff going on in music, as well?
For sure. For instance, my friend Raph—Raphael Anton—makes very beautiful and atmospheric ambient music. He actually also mastered the Public Memory record. It’s nice when someone you know makes something that is quite beautiful and inspiring to you. I like the Mary Lattimore record a lot. I like the sort of ambient artist, Colleen. I like Christina Vantzou. But I think the last big thing that inspired me was definitely Burial.
He’s so good! I mean, It’s not like his sound ended up in my music—maybe it has in subtle ways. But when I really dove into that, it had a huge impact on me, and I guess I’m waiting for something else to do that to me.
I think you can hear my influences in my music, but I really don’t wanna be a nostalgia band that’s just playing a style. It would be boring to me. I mean, people talk about my music and say it’s similar to Radiohead because of my falsetto—and how it has some glitchy elements and it has a similar ambience. That’s all fine with me, because they were definitely an influence when I was younger. So influences do come out, but I’m also trying to not be completely left-field and make something unapproachable and strange.
Some people say your music sounds like it could be in a sci-fi movie. What are your thoughts on that description? Is film scoring something you’ve considered doing?
I think that’s a cool description! I like sci-fi. I mean, I don’t really watch a lot of movies [Laughs], but I like the aesthetic of sci-fi. ERAAS has had music in a handful of television shows and Public Memory has had a few now as well. There’s been quite a few of them, actually. But I would definitely like to [work on] films. I wanna work with a different palette, with more actual orchestral elements—to explore more instrumental music and to use things that I haven’t had access to in the past.
Yeah, I think Public Memory’s music would sound great played by an orchestra.
Thanks! It would be fun and probably really stressful—I can’t write music. A lot of people I know can’t, but I don’t think it’s cool to not be able to write music. I don’t have any training in that, and sometimes I have to be like, “This is a B, right?” to other people I work with, who, you know, know where the notes are. So yeah, it would be easier for me to know more.
It’s a similar thing with not having an assistant in the studio: it slows down the process more. Like, if you’re on your own at home producing a track, it might take a year to complete the track, but if you have help in the studio, it can all really flow much better. Otherwise, you end up pushing it too far from the original idea, and it becomes estranged from the initial energy that was there.