Kris Force is a Bay Area musician whose best-known band is Amber Asylum. The group tends to get lumped in with the dark ambient genre, most likely because of the violins and cellos. But genres come and go, and meanwhile Amber Asylum is still standing after 10 albums and 21 years, so there.
Force also works as a solo artist and as a collaborator with such artists as Jarboe, Swans and Subarachnoid Space, among many others too numerous to name. She’s also a sound designer, and she composes music for television and films.
Force took the time to answer five of our very pointed questions, and if anything she demonstrated that she’s even more accomplished than her many credits would suggest. Read on.
TZR: You’ve played with a lot of well-known artists, such as Swans and Neurosis. How did you get involved in playing with them?
KF: Members of both bands attended one of my concerts with Amber Asylum, saw me play, and then invited me to record with them and later play with them live. In the case of Neurosis it was Steve Von Till and the keyboardist on “Souls at Zero,” Simon McIlroy who went to see Elliot Sharp. Amber Asylum happened to be the opening act. After the performance, they introduced themselves. Confession — I didn’t know the band at the time. I did some session work on “Souls at Zero” and the subsequent five Neurosis albums.
I did some West coast touring with Neurosis and played several local San Francisco shows. I later recorded for Tribes of Neurot and two of Steve Von Till’s solo albums. For a brief time, Steve Von Till played in Amber Asylum. He recorded on “Songs of Sex and Death.” A highlight of working with Neurosis was going to Chicago to record with Steve Albini at Electric Audio for “Times of Grace.” Albini’s studio is incredible and I liked his process very much — five takes, maximum. I also really appreciated his mix choices. He transformed my performance into incredible textures, distorting the scale of the instrument. He is truly a master.
With Swans, they didn’t have to travel far to see my performance. Amber Asylum opened for them at the Berkeley Square in 1995. After the show, I got a call from Kevin Wardis, who was their manager at the time. [Swans frontman Michael Gira] invited me to record on “Soundtracks for the Blind,” with Billy Anderson engineering at some studio in South of Market, San Francisco that I think is gone today.
I remember I was fussing with Billy over my monitor mix because the viola is pretty loud and right in your face and pushed up your body so you get this natural bone conduction which means you really need a good monitor mix to hear what you are playing along with, especially when you are improvising. Michael started tapping on his watch, in a manner, and then started barking at me about the time I was taking. I barked back, “If I can hear it properly, I will give a better performance.” I don’t think he was used to anyone pushing back. I think it kind of stunned him. Anyway, all was well. I got my monitor mix and gave a good performance.
The end result is unrecognizable as a classical string. It sounds more like a helicopter.
The next time Swans were through town, they invited me to guest with them at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The performance ended up on the Swans Are Dead album. I also recorded for the Body Lovers. I have also toured with and done several studio projects with Jarboe.
TZR: What was your initial artistic goal in forming Amber Asylum, and did it live up to what you wanted it to?
KF: I didn’t set out to play a specific style of music, nor did I have a specific goal other than a need for expression. I had and I think we all have in varying degrees obscured emotions that need an outlet. Some people go to the gym, some people pick fights, paint, draw, have sex, drive fast, do drugs, etc. I play music and paint. Music is another language and it says things with an embodied totality that we cannot express with words. Music is a social practice and much of my social life is built upon that practice. Playing music makes me feel okay and sometimes it even makes me feel good or great.
Producing music and sounds is an ever-changing terrain with technical and artistic challenges that continue to beguile me. Granted, I did start out with a set of tools and knowledge base which framed my early work, and no one lives in a vacuum. I am not immune to outer musical influences. I was a female vocalist with classical training in violin and voice and this training is evident and adds a coloration to the music, but there is more going on. I wanted to make music that spoke my inner truth, and in many respects, Amber Asylum is an amalgamation of just that. Each piece is a discovery. It is the process of discovery that motivates me. I discover many pieces by accident or by fascination with a particular sound. Lyrics almost always come after the fact, from the music itself.
TZR: How did you initially get into composing film and television scores?
KF: All of my A&E biography scores were through an Amber Asylum fan who was a content producer for Turner Media. They contacted me through my website. The first project I did for them was for a biography on Clara Bow, “Silent Sexpot.” It went well, so I was hired again to create a score for “Sharon Tate: Murdered Innocence,” and a biopic on damaged children of presidents and their dirty secrets. And finally there was “Barbie.” Yes, “Barbie.”
These were all licensed commissions which are original scores that I own. Additionally, I’ve had a number of music placements within film and TV. I have also scored a fair amount for games. One of my favorites is The Path soundtrack for “Tale of Tales” that I scored in collaboration with Jarboe. The Path soundtrack won game awards. I enjoy working with visual media. Music adds or augments the narrative in ways one might not expect and there is discovery in that.
TZR: What do you find more gratifying — living out of a van in a touring band or composing music in a stable, fixed-address type of situation?
KF: There are aspects of touring that I really like. I enjoy traveling, usually. It depends on the company. Nothing kills your enthusiasm for touring faster than traveling with a problem companion and there is a full spectrum of “problem” companions from simply whining to adult onset mental illnesses.
I do like how one’s chops improve playing night after night. Recording after a tour is always the best. I love how many people you meet along the way. I think given the two options though, I’m more productive in a stable working environment. A large portion of my expression happens in the studio. I don’t do backing tracks so only a fraction of what happens in the studio ends up in the performance. A performance is a specter of the fixed media.
TZR: Are you working on any musical projects now?
KF: Yes, I am undergoing a metamorphosis. The band is sleeping right now and that is okay. After the release of the 20-year anthology on Prophecy, for which I remastered 100 tracks, I needed a break. Although the rest period is drawing to a close and I am beginning to write new works for Amber Asylum. Meanwhile, I have been writing and releasing as a solo artist on Silent Records. The last few pieces I wrote for Amber Asylum, “Executioner,” “Metempsychosis” and “Convolution,” were a foretoken of my current solo work. They are all long form compositions and very elemental.
I am building my own instruments which is kind of huge. I am programming synthesis from scratch. For several years, I have been striving toward integrating my musical and visual practices through video and multi-sensory media works. I’m also embracing the fact that I may dislike repetition which is informing my musical decisions in interesting ways. I am now creating one off works in the studio, “one off” in that they are not rehearsed and I am improvising much more. I am currently improvising with Fred Frith’s ensemble at Mills College which is really fun. My musical community has broadened and moved into genres of electro-acoustic music. My voice, as in my literal physical voice emitting from my vocal chords, not my metaphorical artistic voice, has remained silent throughout this re-alignment. I feel it subtly percolating too. get out.