Casino Versus Japan is the production alias of Milwaukee-based musician Erik Kowalski, a discreet artist who’s been tracing his path away from the limelight. To those not familiar with his sound, Erik’s expansive guitar loops present a unique strand of shimmering electronica made up of blissed-out harmonies, ear candy melodies, swirling downtempo drum patterns, teaming with nostalgic tendencies. If you thought that Boards Of Canada was everything… think again.
The discography of Casino Versus Japan spreads over the past two decades but if we had to select just a couple essential listenings, we’d say ‘Go Hawaii‘, ‘Whole Numbers Play The Basics‘ and ‘Hitori + Kaiso 1998 – 2001‘ probably make for the best introduction possible. After teasing us last year with new CVJ music with ‘Damaged Errata‘ – a delicate two-track ambient excursion, Erik now steps up to deliver his largest body of Casino Versus Japan material in the form of an 80 track double-cassette compilation named ‘Frozen Geometry‘.
Having personally been a fan of Casino Versus Japan’s music over the past decade, I arranged a Skype call with him to discuss how Frozen Geometry came into existence. Our conversation went much further that I anticipated and over the period of an hour we dissected his musical heritage, influential musicians, production methods and a lot more. This is by far the most in-depth and revealing interview Erik has ever published as Casino Versus Japan and it is an honour to share this with you.
Interviewed by Tom Durston
"I just thought that this would be a good way to say... yeah I do still make music and it is my life. But it is different; it’s not like anything that I have done before."
Hi Erik, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Is this your first ever interview about Casino Versus Japan?
No I’ve done a few actually, I had one the other day, that was my first one in well over 6-8 years…so it has been a while!
Indeed! I was really surprised when I received the promo about your new 80-track album. – My friends and I have listened to your new music a lot in the past, but it has been years since you released any new music!
I appreciate that; it is something that I do not take for granted. I am a consumer and fan as well and if I ever get the chance to talk to any artists that are influential in my life then I reach out to them. I always feel a little kid sometimes because it is such a personal experience to be able to send over a simple “hello” to them, it makes them more human.
My experience of Bandcamp has been interesting because when you buy something on it, the artist sometimes has the opportunity to drop a message. I have had a few messages from artists that I have admired for years and I immediately lost my mind!
I appreciate the feedback, good or bad, as it is always nice when I get to hear from people because I take that very seriously and it is a big part of my life.
"The production end of the music to me is just filling it in. It’s challenging but it is not the soul of what I like to do with music. It is this constant capturing of ideas."
Have artists contacted you on Bandcamp about your new album?
Are you familiar with Will Long? He lives in Japan and he makes a lot of gorgeous and very drifty ambient music. He releases a lot of music; he probably has about a hundred records out. I really like his more classical tape loops, kind of like in the William Basinski school. Although Basinski is more into using old archive stuff from 30-40 years ago. Anyway I heard from him via Bandcamp. Richard Chartier of LINE also got in touch.
It starts this little connection with these artists that I have listened to so closely to, so it is definitely a change from me being young and growing up. The community is so much closer and well connected since 25 years ago.
Your choice for this album is a self-release via Bandcamp, as opposed to a record label – how did you come to this decision to follow this method for distribution?
That came up over time and this project was one of those projects that I completely over thought. It actually started out innocently enough as a record. But my way of working over this period was to come up with the melody that I liked. The production end of the music to me is just filling it in. It’s challenging but it is not the soul of what I like to do with music. It is this constant capturing of ideas.
After a while I felt like I was coming up with these ideas and they were piling up. I didn’t think that shopping them to a label would do anything and honestly I have this conventional idea that if I was to work with a record label, it would be in a more traditional sense, which would probably fall in line with past work. Releasing a 80-track guitar loop collection on cassette that I feel sets it up.
Expectations are one thing, to me I feel like it exists on its own. It exists on a different plane than a regular release does.
Frozen Geometry (2016)
"I grew up with cassettes, I’m now 43 years old and cassette culture was a big part of my childhood and early adult life."
I guess with tape format you can have 120 minutes per side, so there is ample space for the tracks.
Exactly, you can push it an hour a side but you run the risk of it breaking or sounding bad. You can pack a lot of music onto it and it is a lot cheaper to manufacture, than vinyl for sure and even CDs.
I grew up with cassettes, I’m now 43 years old and cassette culture was a big part of my childhood and early adult life. That’s what I recorded most of my early music on, so it was fun to get back to a format that I was familiar with and which was a big part of my life.
I don’t like this whole boutique vinyl and cassette thing. I love CDs, I love the artifact…it could be on VHS for all I care.
Pressing a vinyl version of this collection of tracks would have cost a lot of money!
Of my god it would have been ridiculous. I don’t think that my music is suited for that either. For me you can put it on, play a side and if you want to pay attention and really get into it then that’s great…that’s how I listen to a lot of music that’s on the more ambient end. You can also just let it run. If you are using a cassette player then it changes the way you relate to the listening experience via the medium.
If it were on vinyl then it would be insanely expensive with money that could be used elsewhere. I don’t want to quantify the value of a release by saying this isn’t good enough for vinyl, it is more of a practical thing.
I wasn’t even going to do this, this is music that I had been sitting on for a while and it has been growing and growing. A friend of mine and through feedback from other people, I decided that I would do it. I just thought that this would be a good way to say…yeah I do still make music and it is my life. But it is different; it’s not like anything that I have done before.
"Music is my life...100%. It occupies most of my time. I have a regular day job outside of music that I do to have an income. But as far as creating music it is always something that I am involved with."
Why has it been so long to release new music? Do you think of music everyday or do you have particular periods when you focus on it?
Music is my life…100%. It occupies most of my time. I have a regular day job outside of music that I do to have an income. But as far as creating music it is always something that I am involved with.
On the consumer side I listen to so much music, I collect, write music and I have worked in record shops for over a quarter of a century. These are all things that I do, it’s in my blood, and it’s everything that I want to do in my life. I think of this path that I have taken when I’m 43 and I don’t really have any other marketable skills other than answering a hospital telephone and scheduling an appointment for the doctor…that’s pretty much what I do.
Do you work at a hospital now?
Yeah I moved from Kentucky to Wisconsin last summer as my wife got her doctorate. So I got a job in Kentucky working in healthcare, I did that for four years, I learned a lot about health care and working with patients in general. Not on a care aspect but on the office side. I moved here, took 10 months off to work on music and then I pretty much ran out of money so I had to get a paying job. Once you get experience in that it is pretty easy to get a job, as there is demand.
Go Hawaii (2000)
"A lot of the tracks on this cassette collection were recorded at all times of the day, all seasons and each one of them has stamped as much in my mind."
When do you prefer to make music, in the evening or over the weekend?
Mostly in the evening. It’s funny because a lot of the tracks on this cassette collection were recorded at all times of the day, all seasons and each one of them has stamped as much in my mind.
I can listen back and think of when I recorded it…at December at night when it was snowing, or this is the one I recorded back in July when it was early afternoon and 98 degrees outside…you know. So it all depends.
Lately I have found that I have more time at night. I am a night owl; my schedule can tend towards the late hours so I do tend to work more at night than during the day.
When you work on a track do you scribble down a name for it at that time?
I never really fancied myself as one who is good with naming or coming up with song titles. It usually comes after repeat listens or if the song has a certain mood or a phrase or if certain words come to mind. If I feel that it fits then I will attach it.
With having so many ideas…I don’t know how artist who have archives of tracks have song title names or what they would be…unfinished song 1, unfinished song 2 and so forth. That’s how I was going for a while. A lot of the loops file names were the dates I had recorded on. You go back after you have put it together and then have this loose wordplay with connecting to the audio.
"There was no set out plan. It was whatever inspired me, I would plug in the guitar and start playing and if I felt like I had found something that I liked then I would record it."
Are there any tracks titles that stand out to you or are connected to a particular time?
Yeah, when I first started to record them it just kept growing. It would go from a 30-minute thing to a 60-minute thing. Being in an environment with four seasons it became a part of the music.
During the time that I was in Kentucky, especially for a 5 year period where most of this was recorded I was having really bad issues with anxiety and depression and other bad self-destructive behaviours, so this was a way to escape that and a lot of the music reminds me of that time.
‘Pink Laced Glaze’ and ‘Autumn By Three’ go together – they are part of a longer stretch of songs that I recorded during Autumn of 2011 and that was bad, when I listen back to it, it takes me back to that time.
‘Cerulean Pool’, ‘Surrender From The Shore’ was recorded during the summer and they have this summer zeitgeist feel to me.
Did you compile the tracks on the cassette to combine them into the four seasons?
There was no set out plan. It was whatever inspired me, I would plug in the guitar and start playing and if I felt like I had found something that I liked then I would record it. There is of course a lot of stuff that would not make it on. But these are all things that I felt were strong enough for me to release.
I’ve marked down ‘Cerulean Pools’, ‘Snowblind’, ‘Blooming Sails’, ‘From The Horizon It’s Just A Blink To You’ to be some of my favourites from the cassette. A lot of them are very short, and then you arrive at ‘Snowblind’, which is 10 minutes long. Are the shorter track simply experiments?
Yeah, thank you for saying that. I am very secure in what I do and I feel confident in it. That’s one of the reasons why I am less prone to release things. It’s more about the world that I live in. I am very shy about it and feel like I would have to justify something. I just do it. Sometimes it would just happen to be a minute; it is as if it had done all that it could, within that moment.
Carl Sagan – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage
"In my world you take little things from life and you make them your own. If you do something creative with it then great. I don't have this hidden message or agenda."
Space is a big theme that runs throughout your work, especially the artwork. Did you grow up in awe of NASA and astronomy?
Yeah I grew up with Carl Sagan – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series when I was a kid and that stuck with me all through my young adult life. Electronic music and space themes is not new and there is nothing ground-breaking about it, but in my world you take little things from life and you make them your own. If you do something creative with it then great. I don’t have this hidden message or agenda.
The concept of music being vacuous always bothers me. I feel like that it is very subjective because what one person finds profound and influential and meaningful is the opposite to other people.
Mood and emotional things I am attracted to. I am a very emotional person and I feel that I am haunted, so a lot of stuff I do is a reflection of that.
Is your music a vehicle for nostalgia?
Yes music has always been a nostalgia vehicle for me, which is one of the reasons why I have this ability to separate nostalgia from what is good and bad. I grew up in a classic rock radio area, here the top 40 radio songs were from the late- ‘70s early- ‘80s and the power of the nostalgia, reminded me of being a kid.
It’s the way I look at time. If I have survived to this point of time, being such an unsettled person, fearful of the future and coming to grips with it, that it is more comfortable for me to embrace the past. Hearing songs from back in the day, that aren’t particularly good, they really work well for bringing me back to childhood.
I could over think and over discuss what it means to make music, but as far as translating that, it is more about capturing a feeling and something to do with the past, not the future.
"I could over think and over discuss what it means to make music, but as far as translating that, it is more about capturing a feeling and something to do with the past, not the future."
When watching science fiction films such as ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Martian’ and ‘Sunshine’ – do you ever think that you could have done a better job with the music?
It is funny that you said that because I went to see the Martian and I didn’t think it was particularly good, the visuals were good but the story I couldn’t quite get into. My first thought was that I would kill to do a soundtrack like this!
It doesn’t have to be space though, that’s the thing. To be able to attach audio to a visual, to me would be really cool, and to work with somebody on that and not have it be all me. I don’t have interest in creating visuals myself, I don’t have the time to do it, but to work with someone would be really cool.
Are you planning on working with someone to make a music video?
No, I would like to though. My friend Nick at Attack Nine is very good at video, graphics and animation, he has been playing around with ideas with doing a video for ‘Damaged Errato’, which came out last year.
I’ve had some really cool things that have come through over the years, from people that would become friends or fans that would make a video. Some film on YouTube I think damn that’s good – There’s this weird relationship when you don’t know each other and you can create work, it’s kind of neat.
I don’t pay that much attention to video on YouTube now, that was more when I was younger. I did see one the other day off ‘Night On Tape’ or ‘Hitori + Kaiso’, which I think is cool but I don’t take inventory of things like that. I’m not connected to social media; I don’t like to put myself out. When I see something it is very flattering, but sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Whole Numbers Play The Basics (2002)
"This culture of sharing to me is too much for me. There is this over riding sense of selfishness. I don't feel that way - I like the simple moments."
By not having social profiles it aids to the sense of mystique behind the author. Is this why you are also not promoting through the digital medium?
I know what you mean and I know artists that do this, but I don’t look at myself in that way. I am more turned off from it. This culture of sharing to me is too much for me. There is this over riding sense of selfishness when it is all about me, me, and me. I don’t feel that way – I like the simple moments.
If I want to talk to somebody in person or on the phone. If someone emails me then I definitely email him or her back. That to me is more personal.
How did you go about discovering music when you were growing up?
Starting as a kid I was really into the soundtrack to Miami Vice. I was 11 back then, very impressionable at that time. I just liked that style of carrying melody with imagery.
Jean Michel Jarre was the first all electronic artist. At high school I played piano, I didn’t take lessons but I did take music theory and failed. I would skip class and spend a lot of time in the music lab where they had a giant piano. I taught myself guitar over time, playing by ear. I wish I did learn theory, as it is awesome.
I was in bands in my 20s, the record stores that I worked at were in a central location so we would always play and support band when they came into town. We’d then break up and a new band would take shape.
I’ve been going to record stores ever since I was a kid. In the small town where I grew up in Wisconsin there is a little record store called Doctor Freud’s where I ended up working, and then from that moment I worked in a record store for 25 years, nonstop. Atomic Records in Milwaukee for 13 ½ and CD Central in Kentucky for 8 years.
"I’m very conventionally minded, that’s what moves and inspires me."
Can you explain your process for writing tracks and the instruments you use?
My way of working hasn’t changed. I most likely start with the guitar or piano and keyboard and coming up with the melody. That’s usually my go-to starting point. I might build something on the computer to add other elements to the song.
For past recordings everything was done by midi control, where I was syncing up the instruments and writing the songs in the computer, which would trigger the instruments. All the audio is going into a mixing board, which then goes into a recorder. I have no stems or recorded tracks of older stuff. Currently there is a computer involved for the odd track.
These days you can record anything and then bring it into a program and get heavy on editing and processing. That can change the colour or intention of the original idea into something new and exciting. I always try to be cautious about that, as it is easy to do and I don’t want to fall into that trap of falling astray to my original intention.
I’m very conventionally minded, that’s what moves and inspires me. The more drifty and experimental noisier side of things inspires me as well, but is not the way it starts off.
Night On Tape (2010)
"A remix for me is like being spun around and then asked to walk a straight line. Having all of these sounds instantly available to me and rearrange them is not me."
Do you think you would be making the same sounding music if you had started off with the advanced technology as we have today, but 25 years ago?
I think part of what I struggle with is this options paralysis, where you have too many tools at your disposal, whereas it is hard to utilise the tools that you have in a way that is harmonious and less productive. In the past I was using a handful of things, guitar pedals, a four-track cassette recorder, a drum machine and a Yamaha DX27 keyboard and that was my original tool set.
A lot of the early recordings are more ambient and not as pop structured. It wasn’t until Go Hawaii until I had toyed with the idea of having the more precise pop structure versus abstract ambient drifty music. I think the computer let me focus in on this pop structure.
What about remixes, have you experimented with that?
Yeah I have done three in the past, well over a decade ago. Prior to that I have said yes and never delivered, which I feel terrible about. I’m not the biggest fan of remixes or remix albums in general. I’ve heard remixes that are better than the original in my opinion. But the remix for me is like being spun around and then asked to walk a straight line. Having all of these sound instantly available to me and rearrange them is not me. I like to come up with my own sounds in a natural way, not everything together at once.
"I don't need anything else from the artist... They have handed over the magic that they do and I will take that."
Do you ever think of how people consume your music, the places and experiences people have connected to your tracks?
Not really, I read interviews with artists who don’t listen back to their work. They create immense amounts of music then don’t listen to it. I definitely do revisit what I record, especially sharing them with my friends. Wondering what would they think of my music?
I cannot even fathom what people get from listening to my music. That’s something that I have always thought. I don’t take myself seriously as an artist, I am not trying to prove anything or need validation. This comes to me from being a music consumer, I buy and listen to so much music, that experience to me is so magical that I don’t need anything else from the artist. I don’t need to know what they do for a living, how many kids they have. They have handed over the magic that they do and I will take that.
What are you listening to at the moment?
The last couple of records I bought are the new Biosphere album. I really like the direction that he is going. It all started when he deconstructed a opera three years ago. I just bought the new Caretaker record as well. Music to me is very seasonal, so right now being autumn, which is my favourite time of the year, it’s Celer, Kreng, Marcus Fjellström, Ingenting Kollektiva – a lot of ambient in the more haunting style.
Techno-wise I like stuff on Modern Love, I think that label is fantastic. That sinister sound takes me back to Portishead played at half speed. I love a lot of the stuff on PAN. In winter I’ll listen to Thomas Köner in January or Bernhard Günter, which is an interesting rabbit hole because it makes you appreciate the more minimal side of things. As I get older I appreciate minimalism a lot more.
"I can’t even imagine how you would remix GAS though. It is so pure, what could I add to it?"
What about GAS?
Oh god I love it! I have the box set in my shopping cart on Boomkat, but the shipping costs are so much for that bad boy! I have most of the GAS records on vinyl, the ones I don’t have are Zauberberg and the first album self-titled. I have two copies of Königsforst and Pop and I have the Oktember 12”.
I have all the CDs that I have collected over the years working at record stores. We’d order from Forced Exposure and I’d buy copies for myself. GAS is a huge influence on me. What is amazing about it is that the most inspirational stuff is the most simple.
If there is something so simple about it, yet is so incredible, a lot of the artists like that such as William Basinski, GAS and Caretaker, the concept is a great idea. It’s extremely beautiful and influential, it’s not overly busy and it is a whole different mentality than the busier and skitzo side of the scene.
Would you ever do a remix of a GAS track?
Yeah absolutely – but I can’t even imagine how you would remix GAS though. It is so pure, what could I add to it? If I were emailed by Wolfgang Voigt asking me to do it, then I would say yes in a second.
Music is such a big part of our lives. It is exciting being able to make connections. Music is something that you and I have in common. I don’t go to many shows, so you’re probably more centrally located than I am.
Damaged Errata (2015)
"Casino Versus Japan" could mean anything; it’s very open ended. I just liked the ring to it and I stuck with it.
Why the name Casino Versus Japan?
In 1998 I shared an apartment with a friend and all we did was make music. We drank, smoked a lot of pot and we had this very insulated creative environment and he had this notebook of ideas. He is one for coming up with song titles before the song was made. He liked wordplay so he’d write them down for later. I saw “Casino Versus Japan” it and asked him do you mind if I steal that, he said no. I then asked him what does it mean and he didn’t know.
I then started to think about what could it mean and to me it’s about a scene in the movie Casino when a bunch of Japanese high-rollers fly into Las Vegas and threaten to win so much money that they will shut the casino down. That’s a very black white translation. “Casino Versus Japan” could mean anything; it’s very open ended. I just liked the ring to it and I stuck with it.
I’ve been asked this question in the past and my answer was different. I think I said something about a showdown in the city of lights or something to that effect. I never really have a definitive answer to it.
Some of my favourite tracks are ‘Marilyn Set Me Free’, ‘Local Forecast’, ‘Warm Windows’, ‘We Are You’ and ‘Go Hawaii’. What are yours?
My two favourite tracks that I have made are on the Split EP with Freescha that I did called “Coromiak” and “Blinking”, I really felt like I nailed it.
Do you have any live shows planned ahead?
Not much to be honest, we were discussing possible shows for the promotion of this cassette and they may come together, I’m not very outgoing when it comes to live shows. I have had some amazing experiences on tour and opportunities but it is not the first thing on my mind.
I guess a live show is a very sedate experience for the audience, people lying on the floor for example?
Yeah I’ve had shows with everyone on the floor. It is not about seeing what I do on stage unless it has visuals, which I have had the luck to do. The music is not conducted for a live setting. But I am toyed with the idea of starting from scratch for a live show that involves different tools, techniques but sticking to the foundation of playing hands on instruments. Strings, keys, percussion, not more electronic stuff.
Discover more about Casino Versus Japan on Inverted Audio.
Casino Versus JapanAmbientElectronica