A Day Off In Portland With Randall Taylor of Amulets

In September 2022 I was on tour with Nine Inch Nails with three days off in a row in Portland, Oregon. I had spent my first day under my usual spells of sleeping in late, followed by an afternoon stroll to get some freshly roasted coffee. I have been fortunate enough to visit the rose city on countless occasions over the years, but this was the most time that I had been alotted to explore it’s offerings while on tour. As much as I am always in search of new experiences, I also enjoy revisiting familiar scenes from my past.

After a damn fine cup of coffee and some lunch, I decided to hop into a cab and cross the river over to Old Town Music, one of my favorite independent guitar shops in the country. They have a great selection of used and new instruments, from old Japanese guitars, to vintage synthesizers, and multiple glass display cases, bubbling over with boutique pedals. This was my third time visiting over the years. In 2019 while on tour with Morrissey, I walked out with an incredible sounding Martin OM-28, which was was my main acoustic for a while, and the guitar I used to record my first instrumental record. It was the guitar that got me back into acoustics, as I had spent years avoiding them. This time around I was keen on finding a telecaster as I’ve had very few over the years, and was looking for something different to record with for my next record.

As I walked into the room with all of the electricity, I was greeted by a late 60’s Baldwin C-1 Professional that Willie Nelson is known for using- a great sounding amplifier that looks like it came out of an old church organ. After gazing at my shoes, I looked up and was eye to eye with an all black telecaster sporting a maple fretboard. It’s a classic aesthetic that I love on a telecaster, but what really caught my attention was the three bridge pickups all in sync with one another. I had never seen this before and you better believe it was a certified Fender made instrument. I immediately took it off the hanger and plugged it into the Baldwin. It sounded mighty and twangy from the get go, just what I was looking for. 

After doing some research I found that this guitar was part of a limited run from several years back. Fender had their team of master builders design some lower cost models with custom shop specifications. The neck is described as a fat C, but feels somewhere between a thin 60’s and fat 50’s profile. The three magnetic bars are all custom shop nocaster pickups, wired to a classic Stratocaster five-way switch, with volume and tone controls. My main electric over the years has been a 2006 Eric Johnson Stratocaster (purchased from CME, also while on tour with NIN), so I was looking for similar flexibility over the pickups, but in tele form. Hats off to Todd Krause, the main designer and head of the masterbuilt team for designing this Nashville-Baja inspired Nocaster.

After playing it for over an hour, I knew I had to bring it back to my hotel room and hear how it sounded while recording. If I hated it, I could at least return it before the show day. Oregon is a wonderful state for many reasons, and no sales tax happens to be one of those. After spending the remainder of the night not being able to put it down, I had a feeling that there would be no walk of buyers remorse shame back through the doors of Old Town before I left.

The following morning I clocked out of guitar mode and went for a hike in Forest park, a beautiful 5,000 acre wooded area just outside of downtown. While taking in the serenity of the birds and trees rustling in the wind I decided to reach out to Randall Taylor about getting together for some food and drinks. I have admired what he has been doing with his ambient tape project, AMULETS for years and I figured that this was as good of time as any to meet in person and talk shop.

We met up later that night for dinner at Thai Peacock and quickly discovered that we are both from the same far-out reaches of Western New York. Randall grew up just outside of Syracuse, a forty minute drive from my hometown of Auburn. After spending years making noise in Buffalo basements, he eventually found his way to Oregon and found his calling composing and performing lo-fi ambient music that encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest almost perfectly.

After consuming a delicious bowl of noodles and some yellow curry, we grabbed some Buoy Pilsners to go and made our way to the lobby of the hotel that I was staying at. I am fortunate to get to travel with a mobile studio, so I had an acoustic with me as well as my Old Town “Triple Telecaster” and the new field system from Teenage Engineering. After showing him the new features on the OP-1, I set up a couple of microphones and we made some noise, played guitars, drank some beers, and discussed his creative process, to working with Chase Bliss on a sound for the Generation Loss MKII pedal.

When you sit down and write music are you trying to achieve a particular sound or are you wandering around an idea until it lands you somewhere?   

I feel like it’s a little bit of both- it depends on the song or my mood that day. Sometimes there is more structure. For example, I will take sounds that I recorded from an improv session and sample them onto tape loops. I’ll then arrange them onto the four track so I have four distinct chords or notes, and then playing the four track as instrument can inspire a whole new approach to the song or whatever it is that I am trying to do. Sometimes it can end up being something that I like or not at all, but I will try and record it to tape regardless and see if it feels more lively. A lot of it is just recording an idea to tape and then slowing it down with the pitch wheel and that can make all of the difference. 

On the four track are you recording with the pitch knob all the way up for more variation, or are you keeping it center? Is it ever all the way down?

I do that less often because I don’t really like the chipmunk sound (laughs), but it can be a really nice shimmery octave up sort of sound depending on what it is I am going for. If anything it’s the opposite-most times I will record with the pitch wheel all of the way up for more control and subtle pitch shifts. Another thing I will do is physically manipulate the tape by crunching it up and putting it back into the deck to see how it sounds. I have a lot of pre distressed tape loops that are textured. Some are broken, and I will record to those as it chops up the sound into fragments along the tape and that can sometimes result in some very interesting sounds as well. 

How did you approach getting that mangled tape sound into a pedal format when working on your preset for the Chase Bliss Generation Loss MKII?

They had a lot of parameters already set in place. Part of that was the destroyed tape sound that I mentioned. I had sent them samples of what I physically used and I think they tried to emulate some of those sounds as well. With my model, it wasn’t intended to emulate a specific tape machine (like a four track or Walkmen), but rather an imaginary tape player that you would find at a thrift store. The battery would be dying, the tape head is almost worn out, and it has this degradation and feeling that is hard to capture and sustain with anything else. I wanted to make a sound that was kind of broken like that, but consistent, because in a real thrift store machine that is on the verge of not working there is that sweet spot, and that’s the sound that I was going for. I believe the model on the Gen Loss is called broken even (laughs).

How do you feel when your performing live? From my experience playing instrumental music, it can be rather daunting and even anxiety inducing at times. Can some people not be as receptive when you show up with a briefcase full of mangled cassettes and a four track?

It’s an interesting thing when people realize that the sounds you are making are on purpose. I think it’s all about the venue for me at this point. I learned a lot from booking my own tours, and playing a lot of shows that I didn’t enjoy- like in a noisy bar or in spaces where people didn’t want to hear gentle ambient music. I get it because most people didn’t come to a bar to hear background music, but now I am a bit more selective of where I am going to play and that feels good right now. I used to feel bad when I would set myself up for disappointment- playing in a noisy bar on a Friday when nobody cares, after I drove six plus hours, but you have to play to your strengths in a place that you are comfortable performing. Play in a space that feels good to you, and to the audience.

Do you think living where you live has an effect on the style of music that  you are making? 

I was already beginning to develop it when I was living in Austin, but I think since moving here it has felt like a warmer welcome for my personality and my music. Everything sort of fits here. My music has always been inspired by nature and my surroundings, so the moodiness of the Pacific Northwest helps. I don’t think that my sound fits in a sunny southern California setting; it’s misty, slow, and grey. 

This beer is kicking in now and it’s very crisp and refreshing! 

It’s one of my favorites, Buoy out of Astoria. All of their beers are really good and if you ever get to Astoria its a beautiful place. They have a brewery there right on the the pier, a perfect spot to post up by the water, it’s really nice.

I will add that to my list of places to go. Do you have a nature spot around the city to escape when you need to?

I go to Forest park a lot, its a huge forest right in the middle of the city. I love going out to the Gorge, and to the coast as well. From my house I will walk to Laurelhurst park, it’s forested but also very open, the best of both worlds really. During the start of lockdown, I walked there every day as it was one of the only things I could really do. I would go there and work on my last album, “Blooming”. I would write in the morning, then take a walk and sit there for a while and then come back home to record some more. I think I recorded that album really fast because there was nothing else I could really do, no other distractions. 

What’s next for AMULETS, are you working on any new projects or does it come in waves for you?

I recorded a new album that I’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s been a slower process than previous albums as I am taking my time with it. Im going to go mix it next month in Rhode Island at Machines With Magnets studios. The Flesner will be releasing it at some time in 2023 depending on vinyl pressing plants and what not. I’m also working on a few movie scores which I am really excited about as well.

As our discussion carried on for a couple hours, the beer cans were emptied, the battery on my OP-1 died, and the “Triple Telecaster” from Old Town was all twanged out of tune. It was late and the guests were getting tired of our discussions on what overdrive pedals we preferred over the tube screamer. Randall came out to the concert the next day and it was a euphoric experience for him seeing one of the bands that inspired him to get into recording with tape machines in the first place. 

Old Town Music

Portland, Oregon

Rating: 5.5 out of 6.

An almost perfect shop that’s thriving in the ever vibrant city. I have bought two guitars from them and both times were a pleasant experience. I love a shop with multiple rooms to get lost in, and I’ve had my fair share of hours spent behind these walls. Add this to your list of places to visit while you’re in town, after you hit up Powell’s books and Pine State Biscuits of course.

“Blooming” by Amulets

Randall Taylors first release on the Flesner brings forth funeral songs of the many salvaged tape machines amidst the gloom of a long Pacific winter. Death brings on new life with a spring of synthetic birdsong, easing a calming reflection, weaving in and out of darkness in a landscape filled with desperation.

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