D//E Interviews: Diamondstein

As much as a smooth of a listen it's ultimately been, Diamondstein's latest full length, Reflecting on a Dying Man, is also a record with a rich and heart-rending back story, which moves the electronica artist's genre-bending ingenuity a very firm step forward. Deeply contemplative, the album was inspired by dealing with the loss of his father to Lou Gehrig's disease in 2016, hence its penetrating pensiveness and honesty.

Diamondstein comments on the new album and much more about his creative thinking and inspirations in an interview below, followed by a brand new, previously unreleased version of Someday You'll Have This Too from a forthcoming remix companion due in 2020.

Reflecting on a Dying Man is out now through Doom Trip Records, and new episodes of his radio show, The Night Shift, keep coming on a monthly basis.

What drove you to want to reinterpret into art the despair coming from something as bad and tragic like illness and death?

Generally speaking, I’m really interested in writing music and in particular albums that have a bit more of a conceptual cohesion. The Ridges, while it wasn’t quite as complete a narrative, was still designed to be listened to in one continuous experience. So, when I was beginning to think about what I wanted the next solo album to be, I was thinking a lot about the individual stories and experiences I had recently that could guide what kind of sonic experience I might want to share through the record. Of course, my father’s passing, and the experience leading up to it, was the most difficult and emotionally dense experience I’d ever had and was fresh in memory.

Also, when I went home, I was fully anticipating writing and reflecting on the emotions of the experience a lot more than I ended up doing. I had this romantic notion that all of the heaviness would be presently inspiring and would just fill me with endless inspiration while I was there. In reality, I was just really low. I was depressed, which I anticipated, but I completely forgot, or didn’t realize, how demotivating depression really is. I’m the kind of person who tries to constantly make the best of things, and I just thought I would turn it into something important and fulfilling while I was there, but I didn’t, and didn’t think I would later either. So, in a way, this was also an album about making up for lost time, in a sort of way, and turning the void into something constructive.

What kept you strong during the hard times?

Honestly, not a lot. I don’t think I was strong, at all. In fact, I think that was one of the big takeaways for me, that I’m not as strong as I think I am in those situations. That’s the premise of the repeated lyric on The Mountaineer, “I like to think I like to be alone more than I like to be alone.” I like to think I’m capable of handling that kind of tragedy more than I really am at my core. In that way, it was very humbling. I resisted the idea that I just needed to be still and focus on my dad’s last days, my mom’s mental/emotional health, and the reason why I was there. Instead, I think I had a bit my own self-survival in mind at times, which distracted me more than I would have liked.

Now that said, my vulnerability also left me vulnerable to other intense emotions and thoughts that were not so painful or self-destructive. Autumn is beautiful where I’m from, and the chilly air and changing of seasons really affected me, and will now, always give a completely unique feeling of morose nostalgia now. I used to go to movies at this small independent movie theatre about 45 minutes from my house on the college campus of Ohio University. Some of those films really left an intense effect on me because of how I was feeling at the time, I think. I used to have to brush my dad’s teeth, which was this beautiful, intensely human experience, then I would lay on the ground in his room and we’d watch Trailer Park Boys together. It’s such a silly little thing, but it really hit me hard, and I think of it often, because I was just very unguarded and lacked the fortitude, I thought I had. These little things that I think I often take for granted felt extra meaningful to me, because I was weak. If I had been more self-assured, focused, and productive, I may have been less inclined to really appreciate these simple, poetic moments.

What's your own relationship with depression?

I don’t think of myself as a particularly depressive person, though I’ve certainly had bouts of it in the past. Being at home was the worst I’ve ever experienced, to the point where I would beat myself up about my desire for inactivity, and then eventually had an epiphany that it was actually a pure form of depression I’d never really experienced before. It was actually an unfamiliar thought, which made it feel extra horrifying. Historically, I’m actually much more of an anxious person. I get worried about things really quickly, and then can’t quite shake the feeling. I’ve gotten a lot better about it over time, but I just tend to think through my emotions, which traps me in loops of insecurity or scenarios I totally contrived.

Are there any parallels or similarities between Reflecting on a Dying Man, The Ridges and the Sangam collabs?

Yes definitely. In a lot of ways, Reflecting on a Dying Man was really my most comprehensive work, bringing influences from the style and sounds that I’d used on each of those records. It was meant to be a sort of follow up The Ridges, mostly in the way how it was also supposed to be listened to in a complete album. There were some sonic similarities, but the main comparison is definitely in the flow of the albums and the deliberate placement of songs in a very particular order. The projects I’ve done with Sangam are a lot more about creating single songs that feel right in isolation. The projects I’ve done with Sangam are overwhelmingly much more emotional, like Reflecting on a Dying Man. The Ridges was very mechanical. There was still a lot of emotional sound design and structure, but I think that’s more a product of the way I like to write and think of music, than how I wanted people to feel when listening to the album. The Ridges felt like a very important chapter for me because it was the first album I’d ever released, and really made a statement about the intention of my sound as an artist breaking out of the void. The projects with Sangam were really about a collaboration and relationship between two people. Sangam and I are good friends, and he’s one of the loveliest people both to work with and as a person, so it was (and is) just about creating something together, and our relationship. Reflecting on a Dying Man represents a new chapter, and a sort of combination of all the elements of my approach up until now.

Who else would you imagine as ideal collaborators for a project?

That’s an interesting question. Lately, I’ve been thinking mostly about collaborating with visual artists and dancers, etc. I want to try and make more music that’s designed specifically to be consumed with a visual media at the same time. This could be a film, or even still photos. People often say that my music is very cinematic, and I don’t resist this comment since it is quite the compliment, but I want to try and create projects that are designed to be consumed in a cinematic way, and I need a collaborator to do so.

On a musical level, I’m interested in working with people that are experts on more traditional instruments. I’d love to work with some choral arrangers, and string musicians. I’ve also been getting into old folk instruments lately, like dulcimers and slide guitar. I don’t really know how to do much with these, so it’d be interesting to sit down with someone who does and really generate some interesting songs with them.

In terms of specific people, I’ve made some amazing friends through my NTS show, and I’d love to work with them on a few projects. Headless Horseman has become a good friend, and he’s an absolute genius when it comes to hard punishing techno. Similarly, Gilles Demolder from Wiegedood and Oathbreaker was on my show a year or so ago, and I really like his writing in the black metal realm and would love to talk to him about the way he works. I also would love to start working more with a vocalist, so I’m really interested in people like Gazelle Twin or Puce Mary who are very unique about how they handle vocals.

Do you prefer working alone?

I think I prefer writing alone, but I don’t know if I necessarily like working alone. Being a solo musician can be really emotionally draining, since you don’t really have any way to know if what you’re doing is good or bad. That self-belief can be very temperamental, and I’m an anxious person as I mentioned, so I think I overthink things, or stress myself out with too much isolation. So, I guess that’s a bit of a complicated question: I crave support, and someone to help me get the most out of ideas, but not at the expensive of the isolationism needed to begin the creative process.

Where does your artist moniker derive from?

I wish it was a more thoughtful premise, but basically, I had a friend from who used to say ‘Diamondstein’ as a superlative. He’d describe things he liked as ‘Diamondstein’, like “oh hell yeah, I got dinner there last night. that place is Diamondstein.” We were in college at the time, so I suppose it started as a joke. I decided to stick with it, basically because it doesn’t really mean anything, and is broad and vague enough to not necessarily have an identity in itself, so I can take it where I want.

If you could parallel Reflections on a Dying Man to any other non-musical works, which would they be?

That’s a fascinating question that I’ve never really considered before. The short stories that accompany the record definitely share an intention to a few particular short story collections that I love. I’m a pretty big Raymond Carver fan, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love really left a big impression on me. In some capacity, this is similar with death and atrophy. I’ve had some people mention to me that they thought the album was going to be darker, or sadder than it ended up being, because they have certain assumptions about the emotions behind the subject matter. I deliberately wanted to make something that didn’t feel like it was a single-dimensional view on what sorrow felt like, and in this regard, I think it’s a bit like that book. There were a few specific stories from that book that stuck with me because of how utterly mundane they felt, but with the collection’s theme, they totally made sense. On my record, death and atrophy do not feel like what a song like Chasing Cops feels like, but in my whole experience of being home with my father, this pulsing, adrenaline-filled chapter still feels like it informed my interpretation of the dying experience, much like some of the stories from that book and some of the stories that I wrote for the record.

Similarly, and much more directly I suppose, there’s a book called Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollack, which actually takes place in a party of Ohio about an hour or so from where I grew up. It’s a very dark depiction of daily life in this small, backwards town, through the characters that inhabit it. It’s a dramatized version of the true depths of darkness in Appalachia, but yet you can’t help but think that these people and situations really do exist in the fringes of the society. I would say that my album, similarly, is about a place, and the harshness that the fringes in that place can feel on a daily basis. And again, this is one of my favorite books.

The album stands out like a well-crafted mixture of various electronic sounds and styles. How would you describe the sound yourself?

That’s been a big struggle with this release actually – it doesn’t really feel like anything in particular and pulls from a diverse range of sonic influence. Someone described it as “Progressive Electronic Music” once, which I like. I’ve had people say that it reminds them of a rock record with electronic instruments, which I think is interesting. I suppose it’s some sort of fringe IDM electronic album, though really can only be considered in its entirety, since no specific song suggests one genre in its entirety.

Is your radio show something you see as an extension of your creativity, or is it more of a thing where you get to show your admiration for other artists?

Oh, it’s definitely an extension of my creativity. The premise of the show is very specific, and I give all my guests the same general brief. Sometimes I’ll veer away from it for specific guests or occasions, but it’s always still meant to be about the time of night, and experience, of night shift workers leaving their shifts, and there’s minimal noise pollution to get in the way of the sounds that a fatigued person hears when they’re walking or driving home. For some reason, I always use the sound of someone dropping a lighter at a gas station as ultimate sound that encapsulates this. It’s something you may not hear in any situation other than when no one else is around. I also always think of old AM radio and late-night public radio DJs. So, creatively, trying to find new and unique ways to interpret this idea, and inviting people on the fringes of this thought, to interpret the idea with me. It’s different than making music of course, but the curatorial component is really powerful to me, and scratches a different creative itch for me, with other musicians that I really respect and want to get to know better.

What are you currently listening to mostly?

This is pretty typical of me, and probably why my music seems to not have a specific genre, but I’m basically exclusively listening to super-fast, violent, brutal techno, and outlaw country. I think I’m listening to hard techno more lately because I’m just obsessed with trying to deconstruct some of the mixing and sounds, and the country I’m listening to because it just relaxes me. That, and I’m coming to realize how wildly dark and heavy the lyrics in outlaw country can be. I also recently went through a phase where I was listening to a ton of traditional Hawaiian music, randomly. That, I can’t really explain. I just got hooked on it, and just got really curious with how it had come to be, so I was doing whole afternoons of listening exclusively to Jerry Byrd. At this very moment though, as I write these answers, I’m listening to these fantastic, very intense, industrial techno compilations from RAW.

What comes next for Diamondstein?

Well, I’ve been really excited lately about working on new music. Reflecting on a Dying Man was a lot of work, and it’s been something that I wanted to really focus on, so I haven’t been making music as much lately. Now that it’s in the world, and a lot of the pieces (short stories, etc.) are out, I feel like it’s time to start exploring some new sounds and ideas for future projects. I have a few concepts that I’m particularly excited about, and collaborations that I think will be really interesting, but right now I’m mostly focused on organizing some of the project files and early demos that might contribute to it.

I’m also eager to start playing this record out live again. Right before the album came out, I started integrating some of the songs into my live set, and I’m really happy with how they flow. I’d like to start doing more shows and DJ sets to share some of the live experience behind the concept as a whole, which is going to be a constant work in progress, but something I’m excited to do more as new sounds and ideas start to come. The short of it, is that I’m just really eager to do something new that I will feel excited about again, and I’m starting to feel hints of that excitement almost every day.

Artist photo by Tim Saccenti

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