Background Noise: Knoxville's Ampient Music Collective Dares to Turn Down the Volume

Todd Steed sits in the corner of Old City Java, a guitar in his arms.

"Welcome to Ampient. Feel free not to listen," he says, just before he begins playing. "In fact, the greatest compliment is that you fall asleep."

Yeah, so this isn't exactly your normal musical performance.

For the next two hours, Steed and Bob Deck, followed by George Middlebrooks and Greg Horne, play blissed-out, quiet, noisy ambient music. Think Brian Eno, with some of the feedback loops of My Bloody Valentine, mixed with the improvisational stylings of free jazz—except all at a volume level intended to be merely background noise, an atmospheric soundscape.

This is Ampient Music.

Ampient is a loose collective of Knoxville musicians—Steed, Deck, Middlebrooks, Horne, John Baker, Jesse Wagner, and 11 others (including, sometimes, Metro Pulse's own Travis Gray)—whose monthly concerts are intended to be just the opposite.

"I would actually prefer that people not listen to us, that they just do what they're doing and we're just there for the ambience—I mean, ampience," Steed says. "Ambient music is just background music anyway."

Steed conceived the idea for Ampient during the first Big Ears festival two years ago. He noticed there were a few gaps between scheduled performances—well, a few gaps between performances he really wanted to see, anyway—and he thought it would be a good idea to provide what he calls "musical downtime." He talked to Baker and Middlebrooks; they eventually played five shows at Java over that weekend, joined by a couple of other friends.

Steed's concept of "musical downtime" isn't exactly Muzak. There is noise involved. There are distortion pedals (a lot of distortion pedals). A guitar might wail and reach a crescendo, only to collapse into a wall of fuzz. There are hints of 20th-century minimalism, avant-garde jazz, post-punk art rock like Sonic Youth, and shoegazing's noisy drone. It's sonic dissonance, but it's also pretty.

"You can be as weird or freaky as you want, but it's at a low volume," Steed says.

Those shows grew into a regularly scheduled performance at Java on the first Wednesday night of every month. Four musicians are picked at random to play with each other, in two pairings, each time. Steed says you're almost always playing with someone different, doing something different. The performances are all basically improvised.

"For me it's a joy to not have any structure, and to just come in and figure it out," Steed says.

The loose structure has other charms too, Middlebrooks says.

"It's nice to play live music for people and I don't get sweaty and I don't wake up hungover and I leave more relaxed than when I came in," Middlebrooks says.

And over time, the members of Ampient have discovered that sense of relaxation has affected more than just their mood—their music outside of Ampient has begun to change, too.

"Coming from a rock-guy background, and playing this slow and improvisational music, it's changed how I listen," Middlebrooks says. He says his band Stolen Sheep (in which Wagner and Baker also play) has developed more loop-based, slow-moving songs.

"Playing quiet for some people is kind of a challenge," Wagner says.

"It's an exercise in restraint," Middlebrooks adds.

Middlebrooks says that the varied nature of the performances has led to unexpected musical collaborations, like at last year's Big Ears festival, when Adrian Belew stumbled across the collective and joined in.

"It's like a musical quilting club," Wagner says.

The random nature of the performances have also led to new friendships. Steed jokes that since you're playing with someone different every time, "The way it's set up, it'll be 23 years before we have an argument."

"The recording I do apart from Ampient is so lyrically based," Steed adds. "With this there are no rehearsals, no thinking, which is great, and no business, which is the best part of all. It kind of offers balance."

Another part of that balance is the recordings the collective makes of every performance. Unlike a traditional concert recording, where microphones are set up to record the band as clearly as possible and record as little of the crowd as possible, Middlebrooks says they record everything.

"The recording becomes this whole other thing in itself, where you have our music mixed with the noise from traffic and the sounds from the barista and sometimes music drifting across the street from Southbound," Middlebrooks explains.

Steed says he loves listening to the recordings and catching fragments of conversations. (All of the recording are also posted for listening or download at Ampient Music.)

"I'd love to go down to the bus station and set up and just play and record there," Steed says.

"We need to work on that—mobile Ampient," adds Wagner.

"Guerilla Ampient!" laughs Steed. "But really, that's what we're trying to do. You know, like Brian Eno's Music for Airports? But, we're like, Music for Bus Stations. I love the found-sound aspect of it. … It's so great to be a musical spy."

Steed and Baker actually made an album called Music for Bus Stations in 2006, long before their Ampient performances and recordings; it also utilizes found sound from the downtown Greyhound bus station.

So, yeah, maybe there is a little bit of performance art in any given Ampient performance. But that's what keeps it interesting, Steed says.

"I think in 12 years we'll all just sit there, with no instruments or anything. The ampience will be the noise of sitting," Steed says.