Cathode Ray Tube creates electronic sprawling, Autechre-length compositions with gloriously reckless abandon. Or extremely carefully. It could be either or both. They're all very tasty and enjoyable to listen to. He's a master of the hypnotic beat; of letting a good thing ride, as with the stellar closer 'Gag Reel', which you'll find sticks around in your subconscious long after the record has stopped. This is a masterclass in making a four-track LP feel White Album levels of substantial, The Burning Century is a smashing success by every metric.
George Ernst: How did you come to settle on the name Cathode Ray Tube? Other than sounding rad, did you intend to evoke imagery of old TVs?
Charles Terhune aka Cathode Ray Tube: First off let’s get one thing clear: everything I do every single day is rad. Okay, seriously though, my friend Stevie picked up one of my cds a few years ago and said “Cathode Ray Tube, huh? So you’re an anachronism?” Funny guy. It actually comes from my initials which became a childhood nickname. Years later, after being a strictly bedroom musician for ages, I started doing live gigs in the IDM/electronic haunts of Boston. It seemed like a cool kind of electronic name. Even then in the mid to late 90s it was becoming anachronistic. Like anitkythera or astrolabe. Now in this age of flatscreens where CRTs are practically antiques, it’s out of date while at the same time harkening to something retro. I’ll admit that some days I’m sick of it and want a different name but after this long I guess I’ll live with it.
GE: Who do you listen to and get your inspiration from? Or if it's not a particular set of bands / acts, WHAT inspires you in general?
CT: I feel like I always give incomplete answers to this question and never quite get at the heart of it but move a little closer to understanding what truly inspires me. It’s usually music and sounds which influence me the most. And for a long time I was very much a musical bigot, but absolutely not on racial lines. I was very rigid about who and what I listened to, like I only let the sounds of the masters touch my ears: strictly electronic stuff like Autechre, Richard H. Kirk, Monolake, Aphex Twin, Jega, Bola and more. When our daughter was a baby my wife asked me to play her something other than those groups in fact. I listened for pleasure but also for some research. Trying to figure out how your heroes do the cool stuff you hear is an age old story. With electronic stuff I often start listen more for reference than pleasure. Which is not a good habit really.
In the pandemic’s early days while working from home I got into a closed loop where I wasn’t listening to anything new or outside of the usual suspects. Like I’d listen to the same thing all day every day, my classics if you will. Then a friend suggested I try doing something different musically, go into areas I didn’t really trod in that often. I got indignant at first then discovered they were right. So I spent a month and a half not making music but instead listening to new music more and more, really going out of my way to listen well beyond my comfort zone. This was an eye opening exercise which changed my music at a fundamental level and turned me on to a lot of new stuff, from Ernest Tubb, the country musician, to Parquet Floors who’s this amazing band from Brooklyn, to Overmono who are these brothers who make incredible dance music that draws a lot from early 90s stuff like Warp Records, drum and bass among others. And more bands like Joy Orbison, Forest Drive West, Rival Consoles to name a few. More recently I’ve been actively listening to music well outside my genre so to speak. More jazz, more country, more rock. I recently discovered Dr. John and have been going back and forth through his catalogue. Not many legends of New Orleans music can say the’ve done rap, electro and recorded and album with The Black Keys.
This in itself, these acts of discovery are tremendously inspiring. So is seeing bands or going to clubs, though I admit that even before the pandemic I didn’t go out much. My wife says I don’t like going out dancing when in fact I do but usually if I’m at a show or a club and the music is good I want to go back to my studio and work out what inspired me about it. Often I get inspired from a single sound or idea and wonder if I could copy it or expand on it in some way.
Though, not to be so artsy-fartsy but inspiration comes from a lot of other things besides music: art, movies, TV, or even just observing nature. It’s truly incredible what happens when you stop, stay still and listen. Your mind empties and makes space for new things.
GE: I appreciate that you're able to stretch out a good groove. What's the longest tune you've ever made?
CT: Ahhhhh, this is the hill I shall die upon! The long format song! Okay you asked for it. I mean I’m the first person to say a lot of my tracks could be shorter without harming the strength of a song. I’m as guilty of self-indulgence as anyone. And as a learner in this liftetime I’ve come to realize songs must be as long as they need to. Doesn’t matter if it’s only a few seconds such as “D” from my 2000 album “Subzero Sensei”
) or a longform jam like Firewatcher (conditionhuman.bandcamp.com/album/firewatcher
). If you’re doing your best to get out of the way of the music by listening and feeling the track and it’s sounds you will be guided to the actual length of a song and where it should end.
One of the best things about the digital age is artists being able to do longer pieces since outside of physical media it doesn’t matter. It’s not always better in the end, but anything that lifts constraints on a musician is a good thing, I think. I’m definitely sensitive to the topic, mainly because it’s been leveled at me repeatedly in a negative light. I’ve discussed it with a lot of people to varying degrees of understanding.
When I was younger I read about Lamonte Young and how he’d start playing before opening the doors to a show to give you a sense of music being eternal like you’re witnessing only a small portion of it in this moment in your lifetime. Then around when Autechre dropped “Else-Q” I realized the only thing holding me back from working into longer songs was my own sense of being unworthy of that perceived luxury. Like I hadn’t put in my dues. Sure, I’m not as famous as them but I’m as old as Sena & Rob and in fact been making music longer than they have though not as consistently strong. I mean I’ve making music since 1984 if you can believe it! It’s not a dis on them I just thought “Screw it!” and started playing with non-standard track lengths whatever that is.
I have several painter friends, one in particular who said to me “I love your music but jeez does every song need to be seven minutes long or more?” So I asked him, “Okay, let me ask you something: why do you have to paint on 6’x6’ canvases? Can’t you paint something smaller?” His answer was that was what the work required as he saw it. So we realized that the work itself is what dictates the size and scope whether it be a 4”x4” canvas or an hour long ambient piece.
I know when I see a long track length on another artist’s album I’m often like “Oh boy here we go!” then if it’s well written you don’t notice it’s 9 or 10 minutes long. I know it’s asking a lot of listeners and I hope people can find a place and time to take in my music and listen.
We’ve been conditioned to think any song beyond three and a half minutes is lengthy or indulgent when in fact that song specific length of time was arrived at simply because it was the longest amount of sound you could put on a vinyl disk at the best fidelity. But before recorded music, any given song didn’t adhere to a specific length of time as that. Classical pieces are made of movements which can be very lengthy. Ritual music or just people gathering to celebrate probably never said “Fade this out and play something else!”
Take for example “Gag Reel” off The Burning Century. It’s 10’32” which is as long as a lot of folks daily commute! But all the elements within it, from the background ambience to the drum loops to the airy pads, are working together in concert if you will to form the whole of the song. The chords, for instance, are created using what’s called “hocketing.” In simple terms, to hocket is the rhythmic linear technique using the alternation of notes, pitches, or chords. In medieval practice of hocket, a single melody is shared between two (or occasionally more) voices such that alternately one voice sounds while the other rests. So the chords are actually formed by a few different sounds if you listen closely. Or the breakbeat that comes in around mid way is cut so that it’s a polyrhythm where the snare never hits in the same place, really. It’s always moving while keeping the rhythm. And believe me I tried different shorter versions but none of them held up as well as the one that is on The Burning Century.
Once you really try to write a longer song you discover it’s actually not that easy. In these days of generative music, modular synths and everything else you can press a button or plug something in and it will run on as long as there’s power and the parameters you’ve set will allow for regeneration. But is it any good? Is it made with passion? Does it inspire an equal amount of passion? That’s the real question. For instance the longest song I’ve written would be the full version of “Post-Anthropocene Morning” the track I have on the Triplicate experimental compilation. Over the course of fifty-seven minutes it repeats a lot while also changing a lot yet can sound like nothing is happening that whole time. One just has to be willing to sit and listen to it.
This is a lot to ask in this day and age. Look, I’m addicted to my smartphone and I hate what it’s done to my attention span. A goal for the rest of my life is to get off the damn thing and see if I can’t get some of my attention span back. One way is recording songs and challenge my perception of use of the time I have within them. But then most things we visually and aurally consume are designed to keep our attention for seconds or a few minutes at a time: soundbites, clips, reels, blinking ads and more. I’m just a twenty-minute man living in a three minute world. So yeah I think I can make a good case for lifting our preconceived notions of what a proper song length is.
GE: Ok, so what about the shortest?
CT: Oh easy! That’s “D” from my 2000 album Subzero Sensei. And it’s not easy making short tracks either! Kent Williams aka Chaircrusher joked with me once I should make a really short album of short songs. So I released “33.3 VOl. One” (conditionhuman.bandcamp.com/album/333-volume-one
) which is comprised of ten songs, each only three and a half minutes long exactly. It was a lot of fun. I challenged myself to work in that format which was hard for me but not impossible.
I’m constantly amazed by what my heroes did with only thirty-seven minute albums like Kraftwerk on Computer World or Talking Heads with Remain In Light. Someday I hope to create something like those but it ain’t happened yet. Those are perfect in my book at yet I’ve released EP’s that long like The Burning Century. Part of that is the limits of the medium like vinyl albums or cassettes. What’s really challenging is working in microlength songs of only a few seconds. Brian Eno said making the Windows 98 sound was very difficult because he had to pack a lot into an extremely short amount of time. I may do an album of five to six second tracks someday just for kicks.
GE: What would you do if you found a Titanoboa in your garden?
CT: Throw something at it as a decoy and run like hell! Those were not only longer than a school bus but about as wide around. A six and a half foot guy like me would be a snack for that thing. We had a giant python scare up here in Maine a few summers back. There were enough sightings to confirm it was real and around ten feet long. It probably escaped from a home or was released into the wild by some jerk. But I doubt it lasted long in the wild come fall though it probably ate well that summer.
GE: 'The Burning Century' is such a cool name. Where'd you get that from?
CT: Thanks! I like it, too. The original title was “Cavaedium” which is a fancy word for the central room of a home. There was a reason for that but it’s lost to me now. Anyway, The Burning Century refers to both the physical and existential climate of the world right now. There’s upheaval in most nations for one reason or another. Then there’s the simple fact the environment is getting hotter. The USA is due for a conflagration on the order of what happened in Australia a few summers back where most of it was simply on fire. There’s widespread drought. I mean even here in Maine in the US where it’s fairly far north and generally cool we’re in a severe drought. Between these two things - the sociopolitical and environmental climate - and as much as I hate to think so I believe we’re at the beginning of a period where a lot of the old things are going to fall one way or another.
Fire is a powerful force obviously. And at the same time it’s a key player in the cycle of life, death, regeneration and rebirth. What the future holds is unknown and I pray something better rises from the ashes of this burning century.
Cathode Ray Tube creates electronic sprawling, Autechre-length compositions with gloriously reckless abandon. Or extremely carefully. It could be either or both. They're all very tasty and enjoyable to listen to. He's a master of the hypnotic beat; of letting a good thing ride. Case in point: the wild and fuzzy 'Wonderment', opener of 'The Burning Century'.
Plodding into existence dutifully, all reserved and polished, soon the opener takes flight and soars into life, accumulating a vastness of momentum and intrigue under ever-changing percussion and shimmering synths. The initial vibe is one of hectic futurism, in techno arpeggios and stuttering beats, though by the time CRT settles the track into its final groove destination it becomes an ominous growling stomper set to strings of... well... wonderment. Enthusiastic bedroom electronica sophomores, take note: this is how you open a record.
'Invisibility' then is how you continue it. Immediately CRT treats you to a halting brush train breakbeat soaked in funk and menace. Warbling pads and a bass that wants to dab you and have away with your wallet, before a heavenly SNES-esque synth line envelops the entire things in oscillating heavenly light. It's an in-evolution piece that goes back and forth between jazzy minimalism and overloaded synth-induced bliss. 'Wonderment was wonder-FUL but the charm of this exquisite little record really starts to sink in around half way through this brilliant number, as does CRT's uncanny knack for pairing seemingly disparate textures in a surprisingly pleasing way.
'Titanoboac' might refer to an extinct genus of massive snake called 'Titanoboa'. Like seriously, look this thing up, it's horrifying. What's not horrifying however is this track. I'd say it was named for it's size but it isn't even the longest tune on the album. Perhaps it's the titanic sound conveyed through the thumping scratch of the beats, or the mammoth climbing synthesizers that feel like psychic forces moving incredibly large objects, while high-pitched keys scatter in syncopated panic and reverence, before giving way to T H E V O I D ™.
Finally we come to 'Gag Reel'. An objectively hilarious closing track title for a TV-themed artist to choose. In terms of being a laugh-a-minute goof-fest though it's anything but. It's a lengthy, energetic-yet meditative banger that reaches almost 11 minutes of pure CRT goodness. The irresistible SNES synth from 'Invisibility' resurges and plunges the world into an array of new colours, just as the percussion starts to bleed into the forefront, and it becomes all about the dance. There's nothing more to be said. It's a beautiful track and an extremely strong way to close an extremely strong record.
A masterclass in making a four-track LP feel White Album-substantial, The Burning Century is a smashing success by every metric. Myriad moods and modalities are explored and mastered over a relatively tight running time, and a sense of wonderment and fun is never far away.
released September 14, 2022
Written & Produced by Charles Terhune
Mastered by Michael Southard
Artwork by Charles Terhune