Nick Sherman of the Variable Why explains the tech behind his new experimental tape



  • Patient Sounds

Looking at the Triangles, the new tape from the Variable Why released by Patient Sounds last month, sounds at points like the work of a whole orchestra—in fact, it's a solo cassette, written and performed by one person on one guitar. Nick Sherman, who once played guitar with the indie-pop band Light Pollution, came across the record's unusual sound while trying to get sounds to loop in Ableton Live. He studied computer science in college (the name of his solo project is an in-joke among programmers), and now uses that skill set toward composing sweeping postrock. Looking at the Triangles is the product of a guitar plugged into a laptop plugged into a wall of amplifiers, but its sound approaches the scope of music made by the eight-piece band Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

I meet up with Sherman at a coffee shop on Milwaukee a couple hours before he has to be on call for his bike delivery job. His tape has just come out, and he's offered to personally deliver copies to anyone who buys one within the Logan Square or Wicker Park neighborhoods where he works. He does freelance sound engineering as his main gig, but he likes getting outside on the pedals to balance out the technical work.

"The real convoluted path to ending up with the sounds on that tape was . . . I just wanted to loop stuff," he says. "Somehow, I went off on a tangent and something else happened. I was sitting in my bedroom rocking my guitar in my computer speakers. The last song on the tape is the first one I wrote, and it just started happening. Whatever amalgamation of effects I put together in Ableton, I liked it, it was fun to do. It probably drove my roommate nuts. It definitely drove him nuts."

Sherman wrote the songs through a pair of desktop speakers, but he had a much more powerful sound system in mind. With his compositions mapped out, he brought the record to Chrome Attic, a recording studio in Crystal Lake, to work with Dan Good on the final product. "Dan is a great studio engineer," he says. "He's really good with dealing with unorthodox methods of making music, dealing with some more unusual needs. Setting it up probably took longer than actually playing the record. It took hours—getting the sound in the amps and miking them up."

Once Sherman and Good had prepared the room, the former hammered out the recording in just a few takes, all in one day. "We just had a wall of amps in the live room, and I hung out in the control booth and played the tracks. It was loud as shit in there. I kind of wish I was in the live room, but it probably would have hurt my ears."

Hearing Looking at the Triangles through headphones, it's hard to imagine it blasting through a studio at deafening volumes. It's a subtle, introspective record more concerned with drifting moods than power or aggression. On its third track, "Memory Burn," Sherman's guitar trills almost like a flute or a set of bells. Throughout the whole record, it's hard to imagine what his fingers were actually doing on the fretboard at the time. "In the studio, I had the engineer just record my dry guitar signal, which doesn't sound like anything," he says. He explains that he built this particular patch from "a ton of reverb and a ton of delay. And there's some natural filtering that doesn't let it get brittle or too bright. It's kind of muddy. It still has some definition. It also has some tube saturation. It's all VST effects; it's simulated tube saturation. And a lot of extra gain."

Sherman is happy to talk shop, but ultimately the most interesting parts of his music are the ones he can't really explain: the intuitive gestures behind the tape's dreamlike progressions. On its 12-minute closing track, Triangles ebbs between walls of noise and silence, finally coming to rest on a few final seconds of tape hiss. As far as programming tangents go, the Variable Why seems to have hit upon something much more complex than the sum of its data points.

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