Forest Management's John Daniel on his deep-down attraction to ambient music

The prolific Chicago-based composer plays July 22 at Art In.

Between dropping over 30 releases under the moniker Forest Management over the past five years and running the heady imprint Sequel, Chicago-based ambient composer John Daniel has maintained an impressive level quality for such a prolific artist. Throughout 2017 alone, Daniel has already logged several releases, including The Elevated Quiet for Oakland-based label Constellation Tatsu, Reset for beloved Chicago imprint Lillerne Tapes, and the self-released EP Flashpoint. But despite Daniel’s wild productivity, the work sounds meticulous and fresh. Layers of rumbling sonic gravel rest below a deep sea of hovering tones and textures that gradually shift in and out of focus. And while tunes like foggy drifter “I’m Just Going To Lay Down” and the ever-swelling ”Scene” from The Elevated Quiet both carry their own emotional depth, Daniel’s tunes manage to latch onto the feelings of the listener rather than forcefully pushing along their own narrative.

Daniel will return to Madison for the second time in a little over two months when he performs at Art In on Saturday, July 22.  The show will essentially function as a showcase for promising Madison-based leftfield label Vesten Records, who’ve released (and re-released) several compelling albums this year, including a lush ambient full-length from Chicagoan ambient artist Velleitie (who will join Daniel on the bill) and an EP from Madisonian dream-pop outfit Dash Hounds, who are also planning to release an in-the-works album with the label. We recently spoke with Daniel about ditching the drums, the link between ambient music and film and photography, and the process of piecing an album together. (Full disclosure: Forest's Management previous show in Madison this year was a Tone Madison-curated event.)

Tone Madison: So I know you cut your teeth as a drummer, playing with several bands over the years. However, for the last several years you’ve been focused on ambient music that generally has no rhythmic component whatsoever.  How did you end up diving deep into that sound?

John Daniel: I started playing the drums when I was in sixth grade—in the school band, but also at home. I'd have these sessions in my sister's room, listening to her CDs and playing air drums. She had some electronic music CDs, which actually got me initially interested in the genre. It was a discovery of something that was already wired within me in some way. I started my first band toward the end of high school, it was called Royal Waves. I was already listening to ambient music at that time and slowly began trying to make my own music over the next few years. I really feel like it was always there. There's that feeling of discovering something, and the sense that you were meant to find it. I was a weird music kid to begin with—my parents didn't have records in the home, so I was unaware of the Beatles or any of the stuff that lots of suburban kids grow up with. It really was just something that built upon the discovery of a few albums, and my private moments with those sounds. I was immediately attracted to music that was intimate, or unassuming. Ambient music came into the picture, and became what I was looking for.

I like rhythm a lot, being a drummer. In recent years, I've really gotten into deep house. But, the ambient music is something that's always been there, and is definitely more a part of who I am as a person. In 2010 I started sitting in with a variety of different bands on drums and eventually started going on short tours. A 2015 tour was the last where I played as a drummer, which was pretty much a full year of touring. The whole time I was always working on my own stuff, though.

Tone Madison: Do any of the electronic CDs your sister had stand out as particularly important?

John Daniel: Daft Punk's Discovery was probably the first I heard. They were just these mysterious songs to me—different from what I would hear on the radio. It was the first time I felt "personal" about music. She also had a few compilations that I unfortunately can't remember, but I recall a drum’n'bass compilation on the label Jungle Sky. That was the first time I heard something that freaked me out, it was super weird.

Tone Madison: One thing I've always found to special about ambient music is that when it's done a certain way, it sort of functions as an expansion kit for your own moods instead of taking on too much of its own narrative. It's a delicate line to tow and I definitely feel that with Forest Management. is that sort of restraint something you're mindful of when you're working on tunes?

John Daniel: Yeah, I definitely feel the same way. It can be a soundtrack to life, and that's not a cliché to me. It's very natural now, to the point where I have a hard time making music that grows or gets epic. It feels more like painting—stroking a brush on a canvas. It’s a natural movement that I just know to do and it becomes more about the colors and textures I’m using. I see the sounds that I hear. I've tried drawing out the sounds that I use for tracks, but I'm not great at it. But it’s still always in my field of vision when I'm working on music. I'm also a huge fan of film and photography, and have always wanted to get more involved in those mediums. I see a lot of parallels with minimal music.

Tone Madison: What are some of those parallels?

John Daniel: It's with a certain style of film or photography—there’s definitely a canvas-type feeling that many of those artists work within. Silver gelatin prints, for example, convey a mood that goes beyond this, of course, just starting with the material itself. With music, I really like listening to and making bare tones that almost sound like sine waves. Just the tones themselves convey something to me, before I even start composing. I also see distortion as a gray sort of television fuzz, which gets interesting when other sounds get involved. You're struck with those feelings when you look at a visual work like that.

Tone Madison: Is a lot of your work sample-based or do you prefer developing synth sounds and then processing those?

John Daniel: I just started using samples last year. Over the previous six years, I grew a collection of material from different synthesizers that have come and gone—old piano recordings and MIDI preset sounds. The more you recycle and process something, the more it becomes something new. I don't remember what a lot of the material I use represents or came from anymore. It also will change the quality and fidelity of something, depending on what the source sound is. That's been interesting to navigate over the past few years.

Tone Madison: It's July and somehow you've already dropped three releases this year—the latest being Reset for Chicago-based imprint Lillerne Tapes. What's your process for piecing an album together?

John Daniel: I like to focus on one release at a time, because each album is its own story or world to me. I'll usually start out by importing different files from my library and feeling them through loops and delay experiments—letting them play out in the room. Once I find something interesting to build upon, I'll speed up the process and sort of record and mix at the same time. Getting started can take awhile, but once it starts, it can happen in a day. LP recording and assembling is always happening in the background though, even if I'm already working on a tape. That's a much longer process, especially right now.

Tone Madison: There's a specific sort of grogginess to a tune like "The Girl Of My Dream" from this year's The Elevated Quiet. It feels like someone walking home at sunrise after being awake for 48 hours and just wanting to collapse. The uneasiness makes it a lot less passive and more about active listening. How do you go about striking that balance?

John Daniel: I definitely see two different zones with this stuff. I was initially very invested in creating pieces that had movements within the track itself. More recently, I've gotten into the idea of music being physical. My live sets have been more representative of that, as well. In the past, I’d play more gentle or passive sets. I think it's what excites me more at the moment—creating something that I can feel in my body. A track like “Girl Of My Dream” embodies that.  Taking moments and freezing them to bring them more to the center. It's easy to lose focus sometimes, so I guess I'm trying to have more focus. It's also related to a certain late-night state—I feel things more when they occur slowly.

Tone Madison: I really like that there's a wide range of frequencies being utilized and explored. Do you tend to play versions of your recorded work live? Or do the live sets sort of stand on their own as something totally different?

John Daniel: It really varies. I usually play different iterations of work that's been released—basically outtakes. I also try to create material based on the show that I'm playing, specially for that location. I played a show in Switzerland last year where I captured these ringing church bells on my phone and later used them for my entire set—slowed down and looped. It creates this special moment in time and makes playing shows more meaningful to me. It's been different every year because of gear that I've either lost or broken. I spend more time thinking about a single feeling or idea that I want to share with people and I’ll select material based on that. The type of venue and bill also plays a part.

Tone Madison: It has to be nice having a setup that grants you that sort of flexibility.

John Daniel: It's a privilege. I don't have to worry about using a static instrument or something.

Tone Madison: So, this show was set up by a Madison-based label, Vesten Records. Have you been working with them on a release? How did it come together?

John Daniel: Vesten Records was introduced to me by my friend Sean Kase, who plays as Velleitie. Sean makes some of the deepest ambient music I've heard in a bit. We met when we both lived in Cleveland. When I agreed to play this show, I started talking with Hendrix [Gullixson] from Vesten. He reached out about having Forest Management on the label. I'm going to be sending them a digital album, which I haven't started on yet. It's been a really nice interaction so far and I'm looking forward to meeting the crew.

Tone Madison: I have to say that I recently heard Velleitie’s album Scheming The Afterimage With God Herself that came out last month and it’s just gorgeous.

John Daniel: Sean's really patient with what he makes, and that's rare these days.

Tone Madison: What do you have on deck for the rest of the year?

John Daniel: I'm currently finishing two more solo tapes that will see label releases by the end of the year and I’m beginning work on a handful of split albums with Skin Graft, Celer, Plus Size, and Plains Druid. There's also some new, pure collaborations that will be happening soon and I'm excited about those. There are more tour dates coming as well—Voice Of The Valley at the end of this month, meeting up again with Earthen Sea in September for East Coast shows, and planning a two-week West Coast tour with my new friend Felisha Ledesma. I'll be doing a three day residency at S1 in Portland before that tour. I'm also planning to return to Europe in either November or December. And in the midst of all the planning, finishing my next full-length.