.:.THE IRON HARVEST.:.
An Interview with Eric Quach of Thisquietarmy
by Angel S.
Eric Quach is a Canadian musician of Vietnamese descent who has dedicated the last decade of his life to his solo project, Thisquietarmy, which functions as a one-man battalion within the fragile boundaries of post-rock, shoegaze, psychedelic, and drone music. With over thirty releases so far, Quach is quickly becoming one of the most prolific musicians of our time.
Within his discography, however—amongst records on Denovali, Consouling Sounds, Tokyo Jupiter, Oaken Palace, and more—you’ll find a number of peculiar collaborations with Aidan Baker (Nadja), Year of No Light, Syndrome (Church of Ra), Noveller, and USA Out of Vietnam.
I caught up with Quach on his current European tour in order to dig into the driving forces behind pursuing a solo career, with some hints on ‘how to survive being alone so much’.
Heathen Harvest: If I’m not mistaken, this is your ten-year-anniversary tour. What was Thisquietarmy ten years ago, and what is it today?
Eric Quach: Yes, it’s officially been ten years of Thisquietarmy with my first release—the Wintersleeper EP—having been released in 2005, and it is coincidentally also my tenth tour in Europe. Ten years ago, it was an experimental bedroom project during down-times with my band at the time, a place where I could focus on my own expressions rather than being in a constant state of compromise. Today, it is freedom and the path that leads my life, that kept me from going back to my old job because it is miraculously keeping me afloat, following wherever the drones are leading me.
HH: How does it feel to have spent so much time with something? Do you sometimes see it approaching its end, somehow getting exhausted, or is it an ever-evolving process?
EQ: I think an ending happens when something is at its most unbearable and utterly impossible to go on for various reasons. I’m not there yet even though, after ten years and with that many releases out there, I sometimes feel like I’ve reached a saturation point. But that’s a pretty common assessment in anything in life if you’re not a soulless robot. The upside is that it’s still fairly easy to overcome because the challenge has always been to try and do something different on each record and to break more boundaries. I guess it’s part of the creative process that keeps it going, which I still enjoy when it’s time to do so.
It may seem weird or perhaps even ambitious to say this because I’m not sure how many people can keep up with all of this, but that’s not even the point. From a personal perspective, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface—not that there isn’t already too much art/music out there, but what I mean is that in a world where anything could be possible, what I’m doing really only represents a fraction of what’s out there. When people get sick of something, they (hopefully) try to find something else that sparks up their fire, and maybe they’d come back to see what this band is up to. However, from a personal, egoistical, artistic point-of-view, this is my path and my creative vehicle, and it will most likely continue until I cease to exist. I really don’t expect anyone to always follow me everywhere. In a truly evolutionary sense, people will always come and go, and from someone else’s perspective, so will I.
HH: Many musicians reach the point where they go solo; what were your reasons?
EQ: ‘We are born free but everywhere we’re in chains’. Destroyalldreamers was my first band experience—which I immediately formed not long after I picked up the guitar—and it was about learning how to play and how to be or do anything in a band. We released two full-length CDs and a 12” EP, and while we started from my ideas, I kept rejecting leadership (creative or practical) because I wasn’t comfortable calling the shots as I didn’t want to pretend to know what I was doing. It became its own monster after a while, and I suddenly found myself in this dysfunctional four-way relationship. That’s a pretty common reason to start your own solo project even though I was still fully committed to the band. If I had the personality to assume leadership, it probably would have been a very different band, and it would probably have dissolved for different reasons. The real reason is probably that I’m just more efficient working and existing alone.
HH: And yet, somehow, you’ve continued to actively collaborate with other artists and bands over the years. What is the process like? Is it always a face-to-face experience, or you do the internet thing as well?
EQ: Well, collaborations aren’t committed relationships—they’re more like a one-night stand that could evolve into something more but usually doesn’t. So sure, I’m always up for one-offs as there’s nothing to lose—we were talking about things getting exhausting and saturated, and this is one way to keep going. The process always starts with a personal incident, such as a happenstance meeting or a mutual respect for another’s work. Sometimes we meet but there’s either a lack of time or opportunity to do anything face-to-face, so we rely on the internet. Other times, it’s premeditated and planned as a face-to-face thing. There aren’t any rules—the common thread is that it mostly starts out as improvisation and then is either fleshed out or worked on in the studio.
HH: Which collaborations were among your favorite, or, rather, who are you most likely to work—or even perform—with again? Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with live because you haven’t done so yet?
EQ: These days, my favorite collaborations are live ones because after more than 350 solo performances, even though there are always elements of improvisation and my set list changes from show to show, an additional musician totally changes the dynamics of the performance. It’s pretty exciting and it’s also subjectively special for those who witness it.
I would like to do a real live collaboration with Year of No Light on stage though. Even though we’ve toured and shared stages before, we haven’t had the opportunity to do a full collaboration. In Montreal, I often do collaborations with local bands; the last one was with Show of Bedlam, and they offered to flesh out ‘From Darkness’ as a full band, something which I have done in the past already with another Montreal band, USA Out of Vietnam. I would attempt it if it was viable to do something like that as a Thisquietarmy-band tour, but it requires such a large amount of work in all aspects. As much as I play live with twelve to twenty pedals, Thisquietarmy is still very much logistically minimalist. Last week, I did a fully improvised set with Caudal (Aidan Baker’s trance-punk trio) as part of a mini-Hypnodrone Ensemble attempt—speaking of which, playing in a band with three drummers is wicked fun!
HH: Is there a place for another constant member of Thisquietarmy? You seem to use a lot of drum programming in your music, so a drummer would make sense.
EQ: Considering everything I was just saying, a drummer or more: yes, absolutely. However, constant? That’s an entirely different game. To be honest, I don’t know if I would be comfortable with such a long-term collaboration still being called ‘Thisquietarmy’. I had that dilemma when I was working on Hex Mountains as Scotty Rooney from Alaskan played drums on it, and, honestly, half of the writing credit goes to him as what he added completely changed the record. Those riffs wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t drumming, but he did and they came out of nowhere. I obviously consider this album more of a collaboration than a solo album, of course, thus borderline not Thisquietarmy. Then again, Thisquietarmy can be whatever the hell I want it to be, and so can my live shows. It may happen someday; let’s call it ‘next-level Thisquietarmy live’.
HH: You’ve booked most of your tours on your own through a D.I.Y. approach, designing the accompanying artwork and preparing your visuals. Have you considered delegating a part of this process to a label or an agency?
EQ: I would if there was one I could trust. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed working with everyone who has given me an opportunity, but in the end, there will never be anyone as dedicated as I am to my own vision. I have standards and needs. If anyone can do a better job than I am for any of those tasks, I would gladly pay them for it. Sometimes I wish this could be easier so that maybe I could focus more on the music (although, wait a minute—some people think I’m already doing too much anyway [laughs]) or other aspects of life. Then again, it’s what makes it what it is, and, sadly, in a way, it has become my life’s primary purpose. As a nihilist, it’s a bit of a contradiction, but as a depressive and generally apathetic person, it’s a blessing. Since music has now become my main job, it is important to control all aspects of it and avoid the traps of this business.
HH: Is the guitar the one and only Thisquietarmy instrument? Can you imagine yourself doing a tour with a synthesizer instead?
EQ: I actually had an alter-ego called Hi, My Quiet Tsar which was comprised of synth-only sets (Moog MG-1 with pedals/loop samplers). It was fun to do as a local novelty at the time (I haven’t performed a Hi, My Quiet Tsar set in years), but I realized that it needed a lot more work than what it was, and I wasn’t ready to dive further into that. I’m especially not touching any of the modular synthesizer stuff—that looks like a money pit and I’ve already fallen in the pedals pit once.
HH: You’ve travelled the world over, leaving perhaps only Africa as the only continent that you haven’t reached so far, but you mostly appear to be coming back to Europe. How has the scene in North America been treating you?
EQ: I almost played Africa once, actually. There was supposed to be a festival in the Moroccan desert back in 2012/2013 called Alchemy at Zahar, which I was booked to play alongside OM, Secret Chiefs 3, Master Musicians of Bukkake, etc.—it never happened (although some people did travel overseas for it). I have not played Australia yet either, and I’ve barely scratched the surface with South America (Brazil) and Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Japan), so let’s not exaggerate!
Regarding Canada, to put things in perspective, its landmass is the size of Europe (10M km2) which has more than twenty-one times the population of Canada. Basically, you can fit the whole population of Canada inside Tokyo (35M), so it’s a pretty ridiculous country where you don’t even know what’s happening in the next town over because it is so far away. Regarding the United States, basically, if you’re not on a fairly known American label (and this mostly happens because Americans mostly don’t care about what’s happening outside of America) then you don’t exist and no one talks about you, even in the niche scenes. The only way we get some kind of coverage is if the writers aren’t from America and they’re somehow writing for an American website.
In conclusion, Europe is the only part of the world that makes sense for touring. It’s not only compact and mostly borderless, it’s also pretty open-minded and culturally advanced compared to the rest of the world. I know it’s hard to see it sometimes because we’re always dealing with several levels of cultural advancement within the same regions—West versus East, city versus country, upper-class versus lower-class, left versus right, etc.—but generally speaking, it’s that way. Sadly, for European musicians, you’re already where it’s happening (as shitty as you might think it is from your perspective, this is as good as it gets), and there’s nowhere else to go for you guys. Don’t tour North America—you’ll regret it.
HH: How is the life of a musician in this part of the world in general?
EQ: Unfortunately, most of you won’t want to believe me and will want to go see for yourself, and you probably should. In short, it’s the opposite in the sense of hospitality that you don’t get accommodations nor food, the promo network in general is not there because of the aforementioned reasons, and there’s usually no money guarantee either. On top of that, the distances are huge, there are no low-cost flights, trains and buses are costly, gas is expensive, etc. The only thing, at least in Quebec, is that it’s possible to receive small artist grants but you really have to put in a lot of work towards it.
HH: Do you think you’d have this sound and these concepts about art and music if you were born in another place?
EQ: If I was born in another place, I would be a completely different person. My parents are Vietnamese and I was born in Canada. I recently went to Vietnam for the first time, and as much as I was trying to get back to my roots, it was quite difficult to find anything that spoke to me (besides the food). My parents left before the war broke out and the whole regime changed to a communist one for the last forty years. If they can’t even identify with their country anymore, how am I supposed to do so with one I’ve never been to? However, I’m glad to have gone to see that there are things happening over there, especially in Hanoi—it’s quite extraordinary to find people who are into similar experimental stuff as mine, and that there is a growing experimental music scene with talented artists. So who knows, maybe in a parallel world, I would still be doing that had I been born there.
HH: What else is in your life besides music and art?
EQ: Oh, nothing much. As a backstory, I used to work for a large engineering corporation for several years, and then Thisquietarmy took over. I’m still getting used to this corporate slave/artist transition, even years later and after finding new ways to support myself. Otherwise, we were talking about working alone—with this solo outlet, I’ve also learned about who I am in ways that were not possible around people. This concept of co-dependency is kind of mind-boggling if you think about it, and this goes for anything else. If you’ve never travelled somewhere on your own, or have never not been in a relationship, or went to a movie or a restaurant on your own, please do so before it’s too late and you lose yourself completely. However, at the same time, that also makes me want to go out there and socialize and try to work on not being a reclusive misanthrope, try to have real conversations with people, or try to hear my own thoughts. Everything just gets loud, blurry, and messy, especially when anchored around social media. So yeah, I’m working on trying to be some sort of relatively normal human being, but it’s pretty tough—I may have been doing things alone for too long already.
HH: Name five things we have to see, read, or listen to that have recently blown your mind.
EQ: The Black Mirror and Narcos series, Low and Caspian live on their current tours, and Slowdive anytime it’s possible.
Someone recommend me books to read.