Frank Heiss is something of a career musician. It is a very rare talent that can claim to have opened for Phish, shared a record label with Pink Floyd, and played alongside Yo-Yo Ma. Frank Heiss can do all that and more. Son of a classical composer, Heiss has spent his entire life exploring music in its entirety. His diverse taste is obvious after one look at his discography. Producing under several labels throughout his two decade long career, Heiss has gone by many names: HearNow, tube, and the Hick Step Massive to name a few. After a brief hiatus from performing, Heiss has re-invented himself, establishing his notable presence up and down the East Coast.
His new Album, Absolutio(N), dropped on 5-1-15, and has over 2500 plays on Soundcloud already. Stylistically, the album swings through genres, showing off Heiss’s musical diversity. The opening track, “The Beast ft. Jackson Whalen,” incorporates heavy hip hop lyrics over abstract future bass with funky rhythmic patterns that create a very novel and unique sound. The album continues in a similar style, as Heiss sprinkles his tracks with this style and that, with a heavy focus on hip hop, industrial, tribal, and funk. “Doorway From Despair” begins with what is unmistakably a disco flavor, then breaks down into a future-y glitch beat that’s very easy to groove to. “Unified Division,” a reggae-esque track with lyrics by Soham, breaks down quite a bit of the philosophy behind Heiss’ music, something that’s evident when you speak with him. He took a break from promoting his new album to chat with Lost in Sound about how it feels to be a musical “OG”.
Back in 2012, Sensible Reason called you an “OG”, for good reason. You’ve been making music for over 20 years! You played in an orchestra conducted by John Williams and opened for Phish before I knew my A-B-Cs! What are the biggest influences from your past that you can hear in your sound today?
I would say YES and FUNKADELIC. Prog Rock has always resonated with me because it’s a combination of styles (Classical and Rock) that ordinarily do not mix and I’ve always been fascinated with musical chemistry in an effort to break down assumptions about what is allowed. I also have a deep affection for the moog synthesizer solos of guys like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson which is likely apparent in my music. It’s also important that I mention King Crimson because that is my favorite band of all time and also a big reason why I use mellotron strings in my music – if you don’t understand, then go listen to “Starless” several times. The harmonic tension and resolution in the music of King Crimson is incredible primarily due to their effective use of dissonance, rhythmically and harmonically. At the time I became interested in electronic music, the reason was hip hop but I was also still heavily involved in psychedelic culture so the idea that music could be funky and psy at the same time enthralled me for the same reason that prog rock did – a mixture of things that I had not yet tasted, so when I heard the first two Funkadelic records my mind was literally blown wide open.
You took a break from music for a while, can you tell us about that?
One day in 1999, I was signed to Liquid Sky Music in NYC and EMI/Harvest in Germany, had a booking agent in the US and was touring with The Sisters of Mercy. Within a few months, Liquid Sky closed it’s doors, EMI dropped me and my other friends who were on the label – discontinuing the relaunch of Harvest Records, the R.A.V.E. act got passed in the US and my booking agent no longer had much for me, the tour with The Sisters ended, and a relationship I was in fell apart, and then while in Germany I had a spontaneous pneumothorax and nearly died after being told I had maybe 36 hours to live when I got to the hospital with no health insurance. Arriving back in the US, I started to realize that perhaps my desire to stay 25 for life might actually be holding me back, and was maybe driven by something in me that could change. Eventually I found one of many entrances to a more Spiritual path which I chose not embrace immediately. I was angry, self-righteous, entitled and somehow felt jaded although I did not have a warranted maturity level at the time to actually be jaded, so I decided to get away from performing music in a retaliatory and possibly self defeating attempt at finding myself. I never stopped creating music, instead I turned my efforts toward licensing and composing music for TV. During this time I placed tracks in a various production libraries and with a publisher. My music has wound up on a variety of shows from All My Children to NCIS. And when the payments started to arrive, I found that I was making consistently more for a single track than I had for an entire album or show on tour doing music the way I used to. I think more producers are doing this today, even behind the scenes – composing to specification for television or elsewhere to support their performance habits, and there is nothing wrong with that. Hindsight being 20/20, the decision I made discloses some extreme thinking – not every decision has to be “shit or get off the pot.” Integration of pursuits and rolling with changes is where I try to live today, taking more of a generation flux approach.
You have a record label, Transcendent Tunes: “Genre agnostic in search of the Divine”. That’s some motto! Tell us about that mission statement and what the label represents.
I grew up in a musical household and was classically trained but was also a visionary and outside the box thinker at an early age, mostly driven by overly rebellious nature and desire to escape reality which would catch up with me later in life. I decided in my youth that the best way to rebel was to be all inclusive and embrace the good in all music, even things that I did not like at first. So when I heard people say “top 40 sucks” I would force myself to listen and learn from it anyway and I still do that. Andy Grammer and Bruno Mars have released some music worth listening to, so shoot me. Mayer Hawthorne is great too. Am I saying that this is genius level music? Hell no. But having an open mind is key and Truth is in the eye of the beholder. I learned to question reality – especially my own reality. I’ve gone through stages of listening to all kinds of music, from Beethoven’s late piano Sonatas to hair metal, country and Jazz. I remember when I first listened to Naked City and knew that John Zorn was really on to something.
The label is really about fearlessness, integrity, diversity and a refusal to conform. The reason it’s electronic music is because that is how forward thinking people are composing today. I see no reason why there shouldn’t be a way to have your “bless” and/or be “turntup” at the same time. I used to be confused why other deadheads didn’t like Black Sabbath for example. I actually met Phil Lesh at a blood drive once and talked about how they created Anthem of the Sun, and its unfortunate that the cutting edge music concrete techniques they used to make that album seem to have gone over many of their fans’ heads – not the way it sounds psychedelic but how they actually did it. Many folks don’t know who Charles Ives either, and Jerry Garcia named that guy as his favorite composer. Anyway, now that I have some understanding of Integral Theory and what Ken Wilber has been writing about his entire life, it became clear that the world needed a 2nd tier electronic music label, even if it wasn’t ready for one yet. The seminal work that Bill Laswell did with Axiom Records in the 1990’s is a huge inspiration for me. There have already been 2nd Tier producers, but they have often been forced to hide behind the artists’ names who they produce. Rick Rubin also comes to mind and I suggest listening to “Beyond Genre” – a phone call between him and Ken Wilber. Books like The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Mission Of Art by Alex Grey also were influential in my realization that when people first created organized performances of chanted vocal music – the reason that music got made was to connect with God, Kosmic Spirit, or whatever… and our culture has largely forgotten that. I also do not think that any music termed “Sacred” has to be super chillout downtempo, most of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is anything but that, so “genre agnostic in search of The Divine” seems about right to me.
You have some pretty spectacular talent on the Transcendent roster already. Tell us a bit more about them.
Dixon Stovall I met at CoSM while talking to a well established nationally touring producer, he had a demo on a usb stick and had clearly come to the event with focus on the future of his career and his music. It really impressed me and we exchanged emails. He followed up and I heard his record, it was very unique and involved live guitar and other cool stuff so I said – let’s release it. Done. I also appreciate the transparency and courage it takes for producers to just go by their own name. Caelis I met at The Polish Ambassador permaculture action day here in Boston. It’s not every day that you see some kid playing tracks in a backyard for a few folks and when you ask him who made that sick track he’s playing, his response is “I did.” Then I found out his moniker translated as “to the Heavens” yet he often produces high intensity glitch hop, I was like “perfect – make a banger and do it for God.” Like Dixon, I wanted to make sure Caelis got on the map and received recognition that he deserved, and his track was so bumping that it had to go first on Inclusio(N). Caelis has an EP planned for release on TT in the very near future and Sonic Geometry thought the Inclusio(N) release went so well that he has plans to release with TT again soon as well. I also recently discovered this guy who calls himself Mynah, his tracks were stellar so I just reached out. Turns out he just won Luke Mandala’s remix contest last week with this track – now he’s got a release planned on TT as well. I did my remix album Awaken(D) back in 2014, before Inclusio(N) and that got me more comfortable with just reaching out to folks online and saying “are you interested in remixing this?” – I did the same thing with Inclusio(N) except I asked about original tracks, and I was incredibly pleased with the results. I put a lot of my time and effort into the release to make sure that all the artists involved were satisfied with the results both in terms of aesthetic and promotion.
Your new album, Absolutio(N), came out May 1st. I hear there is quite a bit of symbolism in both the title and the release date. Could you tell us a bit more about the album concept?
I was reasonably good with math while getting schooled (which is what publicly funded ‘education’ really is) and I’ve always been fascinated with numbers, patterns and numerology, especially after I read some of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, which I actually never finished because it was making me paranoid [laughs].
People often ask me what the (N) means… it’s because life is always a practice and it turns out that by removing the last letter of some words, you’re often left with a Latin root which can then be modified to look like the name of function with a variable being passed to it – I’m also a web programmer who enjoys working with web audio and I currently work with Noteflight on stellar web based music notation software, but in programming, functions do things, rather than talk about them so my album titles symbolize concepts like “Faith without works is dead…”, “practice what you preach” and that “we are Spiritual beings having a human experience” – in other words: it takes action to grow and there’s always a variable that, metaphorically, we might not have the ability to change if we’re living inside the body of that function and the function was called from elsewhere in the program – so the titles also symbolize the magic intersection between Divine will and free will, where knowing that you could let some things go can mean the difference between suffering and inspiration.
Is there a lot of spiritual philosophy put into your projects? Has that always been a part of your creative process?
Philosophy yes, Spirituality no. They’re two different disciplines. Fortunately, I’ve mostly outgrown existentialism.
You’re hitting the west coast in May, where are you most excited to perform?
If I told you that, the the other places where I am stopping would not feel the love.
How has performing live changed since you started in the 90s?
The answer to that is pretty involved, let me see if I can sum it up. Back then there were nowhere near as many tools for real time manipulation of audio as there are now, and the tools that there were, were not as powerful, so we relied on having many different discrete sequencers and drum machines, all synced via MIDI clock and would then arrange the track live on the fly using an actual mixer. Using a multi-track tape to play back was frowned upon. Even using all stems today is not quite the same as what we did in the 1990’s because we had a sandwich full of ostinatos and whatever became part of the track was literally arranged on the fly by un-muting the channel while it played. Ideally on the other end of every channel was a sequencing sampler or synthesizer with its own series of patterns, so anything could be mixed interchangeably with anything. Although people used all kinds of machines, the basic idea is well exemplified by those legendary Roland boxes so anyone who has ever played with all of those at the same time, while synced together knows what I am talking about. Like and 808/909/101/202/303/606 would do the trick.
What else have you been working on recently?
An album of my own remixes of other producers’ tracks which will be called Attributio(N), some of them appeared on Inclusio(N) and I am also working with stems from Radioactive Sandwich, Brightside and others.
Last question: You’ve seen quite a bit in this industry. What’s the most exciting thing happening in music right now?
Music is always the most exciting thing happening in music. That said, when I opened for Random Rab a couple weeks back, I was so blown away by his stage setup. He was a one man show, running the lights, video projects and the music. Back in the day, (like when I had a subscription to Mondo 2000 magazine) I used to have visions of “the band of the future” where there would be different people “jamming” with different mediums (video, music etc) but now we have a one person performing the entire show – it was so cool and really inspiring.