Interview w/ Poliça's producer Ryan Olson / by Liquid Music

by Steve Marsh

The Washington Post recently pointed out the problems inherent in protesting our addiction to oil in a world addicted to oil. “How did the out-of-state activists protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline arrive at the North Dakota site?” they asked. “How were the sleeping bags they will use when the high plains winter arrives manufactured and shipped to the stores at which they were purchased? What are the plastics made of in the phones they have been using at Standing Rock, N.D.?” 

When Poliça and s t a r g a z e named their Liquid Music collaboration Music for the Long Emergency, they weren’t planning to make music that could actually be played during the Long Emergency, when electricity will be scarce and finding the time to play music promises to be even scarcer. Neither Poliça nor s t a r g a z e are neo-Luddites nor doomsday preppers—Poliça’s sound is drenched in electronics, and while s t a r g a z e is an ensemble using classical instruments, they’re also making music that needs at least a little juice. But there is something zombie movie eerie about the sound of each group, something that anticipates a time when making music the way they’re accustomed to making it might not be possible.

Poliça’s drummer, Drew Christopherson, first heard of the concept of the Long Emergency during a wedding ceremony in Downsville, Wisconsin—the officiant dropped the title of James Howard Kunstler’s 2005 book The Long Emergency into his homily. Kunstler defines "The Long Emergency" as the interminably fallow period of civilization that will follow our present industrial age where relentless societal growth has been fueled by cheap oil. When that oil spigot finally runs dry, precipitating related crises of food and water, Kunstler argues, convincingly—frustratingly—that Elon Musk won’t be walking through that door with some miracle perpetual motion machine that will save us.

A week before s t a r g a z e arrived in St. Paul, I met with Polica’s Ryan Olson at his practice space in the decaying husk of a paint factory in North Minneapolis. It was a different setting from where I watched him work with s t a r g a z e in Berlin: at the starkly beautiful Bauhaus-designed East German-era radio complex, the Funkhaus. But not too different — there was still something post-industrial about it, a “we just survived something” vibe. We talked about his plans for finishing the collaboration, for making music inspired by, as Olson says, “this shit that cannot sustain.” Throughout our conversation, I was reminded of a long passage in Kunstler’s book, where he seizes on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the axiom of entropy, which states that over time, energy cannot be destroyed or created, only changed from ordered to disorder. “Entropy explains why logs burn,” Kunstler writes, “why iron rusts, why tornadoes happen, and why animals die.”

Steve: What does the Long Emergency mean to you?

Ryan: Preparations for the next stage, after this wave of life explodes. It’s insane who we’re handing the power over to these days. It’s incredible. It’s going to be run into the ground. So we have to figure out ways to do it without that system’s funding.

Steve: The second law of thermodynamics says that as you lose energy, as it dissipates, it spins out of control. It doesn’t resolve itself. It pinwheels off. And some of the music that I heard you make with s t a r g a z e in Berlin was atonal, it had aspects of noise. There weren’t pretty melodies all the way though, it didn’t resolve every time. So what kind of ideas inspired by the Long Emergency ideas will be built into the actual music?

Ryan: Everyone has their own ideas about preparing for the future. It all seems quasi-apocalyptic. It’s too much to even name what exactly it’s about. It’s a good enough blanket to allow you to create under. But everyone is bringing their own dynamic to the project.

Steve: Kunstler believes that one of the reasons modernism sneers at beauty is because it isn’t necessary. He argues that in the Long Emergency, when 90% of our effort will be spent in our gardens, a beautiful human voice will become much more appreciated. But your music is a less literal interpretation: you’re only anticipating the Long Emergency, not making music that will be played during it.

Ryan: It might be kind of apocalyptic sounding. It definitely gets there. The main deal is we are still writing in the days leading up to the show.

  Poliça and s t a r g a z e rehearsing at Funkhaus studios in Berlin

Poliça and s t a r g a z e rehearsing at Funkhaus studios in Berlin

Steve: The musicians in s t a r g a z e, they’re classically trained but they can behave more like noise musicians.

Ryan: Yeah, they’re able to react. It’s not all sheet music. They can improvise very well.

Steve: Is that because of their personalities or their training? What makes them special as classically trained musicians?

Ryan: They’re incredibly versatile and are to pick up on a lot of different sounds. I was playing random radio blasts with like static signal, like sample hits, and they would recreate them on violin. They are insane sculptors of sound, masters of their tone. They are able to react to it and play with it.

Steve: Can all classically trained musicians do that?

Ryan: No. It’s not a common trait.

Steve: You’ve worked with some SPCO musicians.

Ryan: Yes, and they’re all phenomenal players. But in collaboration, s t a r g a z e may be more adventurous. Their sight reading is automatic as hell. But they can also go off the paper, and their ears are quick and responsive.

Steve: Improvisation is a big part of what you do in your band, Marijuana Deathsquads, and you and Channy have been recently playing improvised sets as a Poliça duo. Why is improvisation important to you?

Ryan: The reaction to your environment is pretty important to how music works.

Steve: I was talking to your friend Boys Noize about this in Berlin. In a consumer based society, where everything is about buying this music, whether it’s at Walmart or on iTunes, we have a stricter expectation about how the music will be presented. So we can be prejudiced: in a live setting we want to hear the record played the way it sounded on the record, the way we’re used to consuming it. So there may be something more honest when you’re reacting to the music for the first time in a room, and improv ensures that.

Ryan: That’s true.

Steve: So when you’re playing noise improv, which is another step removed from the western classical music tradition, when you’re abandoning that classical language by making noise music, you’re abandoning the baggage of that language.

Ryan: There’s so much 12 tone noise in classical too. It’s run the gamut. But I agree, noise has sprung up from a rebuttal to the classical tradition.

Steve: And you do love these avant garde musicians—you played me that Steve Reich track the other day, you love John Zorn too.

Ryan: Yeah it’s the 50th anniversary of Come Out. I want to do something with the Reich tribute. Something like Come Out but with a different process.

Steve: Can you explain his polyrhythmic approach?

Ryan: Yeah, like with Come Out, it’s like using the phasing of the tape echo, phasing off of itself. I want to do something like that, but with tremolos that are slightly phasing and a three part harmony in the round.

Steve: So the delayed phasing will prevent the three-part harmony from absolutely resolving itself.

Ryan: Well it might. We’ll see, it could get there.

Steve: But it will be frustrating. It will sound like something falling apart.

Ryan: We make things that make sense, sounding like something that’s on our minds. Especially with the seeming end of the world creeping its way directly up there. Police state fucking problems, climate disaster issues. Just all of it, ready to pop.

Steve: Kunstler writes that in the 14th century, during the height of the black plague, spooky skulls and crossbones were prominent in art. Do you think we’ll see goth again?

Ryan: It’s a bumming time, to be sure. It’s hard to say going into it how much that plays into it. It makes sense, but I can’t claim all those things as having meaning for us. I do believe those messages will be there.

Steve: Channy will make this more explicit with the words. I think about the Come Out. It was a direct response to the railroading of the Harlem Six in 1964. You feel the mayhem of that time, with it’s overtones of racial injustice and Vietnam. And you feel that in that song even though it’s just one phrase.

Ryan: Lift my shirt and push on the bruise and let the bruise blood come out to show them.

  Harlem protests of 1964

Harlem protests of 1964

Steve: The other thing that’s interesting about this project, is that it’s being underwritten by the SPCO and it’s being put on in the Fitzgerald Theater. But presumably the music will be confrontational to our establishment culture. Isn’t the SPCO the quintessential establishment? And now they’ve commissioned a piece called Music for the Long Emergency. How confrontational will it be? Is it going to be shades of Stavinsky’s debut of Rites of Spring in Paris in 1913? Are you hoping for riots in the aisles?

Ryan: Well the only times we’ve been down to Fitzgerald they’ve been incredibly accommodating and exceptionally professional. The folks that run it are amazing. So that shouldn’t be a problem.

Steve: I’m talking about the audience.

Ryan: I actually don’t know the audience for Liquid Music.

Steve: What kind of reaction are you hoping to get from bourgeois Hillary Clinton voters (like me) who are coming in with sour stomachs? Are you hoping to turn our stomachs further or are you hoping we'll enjoy it?

Ryan: I think they should always be entertained in some sense.

Steve: Like in the Gladiator sense?

Ryan: Kinda. It should be entertaining, whether that be a pretty song or introverted noise. It should take you somewhere. It should be some form of entertainment. That covers enough of what it should be. That’s the goal and there are lots of ways to do that. It’s just interesting to try to mix these different conversations together. The classical world conversation versus what we do, which is not that. To try to utilize them both in a unique way to try to understand. There’s a lot to know. That’s the thing about s t a r g a z e, they know that language so well, they can express such exotic emotions. I can say, “play the violin like this sort of thing,” or “play this kind of sound.” It’s like having tons of synths that you can turn into any kind of sound you want basically. They run the gamut of the expression on those instruments. So it’s fascinating to like have that in your band. You know?

Steve: So they’re like an analog modular synth personified.

Ryan: Yeah and they know how to patch themselves very well.

Steve: Can you explain “patch” to the layman?

Ryan: The routing to create a tone, a signal path, is a patch. 

Steve: If you were able to come up with a piece on your synthesizer or on your laptop, and had them make something that sounds similar or to write something inspired by that sound, could you use s t a r g a z e to play electronic noise music without electricity after the fall?

Ryan: Yeah, they could do that. That’s true. But we’re also employing electronics on their instruments to create different sounds.

Steve: But in a pinch, this could literally be music for the Long Emergency?

Ryan: Yes.

Steve: Do you think this music will be beautiful?

Ryan: There will be parts. It won’t get too “campfire.”

Steve Marsh is a Twin Cities based writer who has published with Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, Pitchfork, GQ and many others.

See the world premiere of Music for the Long Emergency:
Co-presented with The Current
Friday, November 18, 2016, 8pm (SOLD OUT)
Fitzgerald Theater, Saint Paul, MN

Follow Poliça:
Twitter: @thisispolica (
Instagram: @thisispolica (

Follow s t a r g a z e:
Twitter: @wearestargaze (
Instagram: @we_are_stargaze (

Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (
Instagram: @LiquidMusicSeries (
Podcast: Liquid Music Playlist