Expressing oneself through the fog: An interview with SF ambient artist Shipwreck Detective
Dev Bhat discusses video game soundtracks and other new music, the good and the bad in being a Bay Area musician, and how live ambient can be a little punk rock
Shipwreck Detective (aka Dev Bhat) is a musician, composer, sound designer, and copywriter born in San Jose and currently living in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Though their last full-length album came out more than two years ago, the artist has continued honing their immensely satisfying analog-based ambient soundscapes throughout the pandemic. Recordings from their livestreamed performances at Man vs Maschine, Isolated As Fuck Fest, and Audiotalaia are all available here.
Next month Shipwreck Detective will perform live alongside Leila Abdul-Rauf and Joel St. Julien at FALL MASS, a showcase of Bay Area ambient artists hosted by White Crate. Ahead of that performance, we spoke with the artist about his musical journey, the art of producing vs performing live, and some of his favorite new music.
Tell us about your musical background up to the present.
I started learning music in elementary school. I started on trumpet and enjoyed learning an instrument, but I started listening to music more with intention in middle school. I was discovering different kinds of metal and hardcore punk. It was like a light switch that turned on because up until that point I was listening to a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio. And there's nothing wrong with that, but it was just kind of in the background.
Then I started hearing this music that has a pretty intense amount of percussion, like double kick drumming and maybe a little guitar shredding. It seemed like these were styles of music where the instruments were expressing themselves in ways that I hadn't heard before, so much so that it called attention to itself.
I started watching music videos and seeing musicians perform with instruments. And, again, I was classically trained on trumpet, but I found myself drawn to guitar and drums. I think the big thing was discovering bands like Nine Inch Nails and different kinds of industrial rock or electronic music, where I'm seeing people interacting with electronics in a way that, frankly, I didn't understand. I didn't know what was going on, and the mystery of that was really intriguing. Eventually I found out what a synthesizer was and it took me a while to figure out that a synth could sound like all sorts of things. It could sound just as unique as the person programming it.
And that was it. I felt I’d found something.
I'll have to send you our recent interview with Leila Abdul-Rauf. She's deeply involved in the metal scene and also happens to play the trumpet. In fact, it’s one of the main sound sources she uses on her newest ambient album.
That’s wild. I found my way back to appreciating the trumpet because I was being taught symphonic music and, well, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But it wasn't as engaging as all the ways I have learned that a trumpet could be. I started hearing this San Francisco band called Giant Squid. Their music was so heavy, but they had this trumpet part playing above all these colossal riffs. And I was like, "Trumpet can do that? What have I been missing this whole time?"
So you grew up playing trumpet in a classical setting, and then discovered industrial and other forms of rock. How did this evolve into creating ambient music?
I think I started doing it when I was able to get my hands on a laptop and have access to GarageBand and basically just read a bunch of stuff on the internet about how to do this myself. Again, not to belabor the Nine Inch Nails connection, but learning about how Trent Reznor was producing his own music, doing it himself, making the decisions and calling the shots and the way that impacted how everything was produced. I was also into a producer named Tim Hecker, who also had a really similar personal stamp on how he produced everything. And that was super inspiring. I wanted to be able to express myself in that same way.
I was playing in bands, and that was fulfilling me from a performance standpoint. My friends at the time, we were all playing instruments and getting into more and more forms of music just because we wanted to see how deep it went. I think what happens a lot with ambient music is that people expect long drones, no drums. And for me, it hasn’t always been that way. Sometimes there's beats, sometimes there's no beats. Sometimes there's melody, sometimes there's complete dissonance.
Around the time we met in 2019, you released 11 Terrestrial Movements. But since COVID hit, you've only released live recordings, no albums. Is that intentional?
I don't think it was, at least initially. First of all, I have ADHD. And so, as silly as it can sometimes sound, that ends up driving a lot of my creative decisions for better and for worse. I was getting to a point where if I wanted to produce music, I wanted to do it in a way that I’d enjoy. For a while I was almost self-conscious because I hadn’t done an album in a minute. I'll have ideas or concepts for an album and I'd be like, that would be cool and that would be fun.
But then I just get more drawn into the live aspect of things and I always have much more fun putting together a live set. I don't know, maybe it's a little bit more punk rock if it's done live. It has this element of risk to it. And it's a moment in time. And maybe it’s a combination of me not having the discipline to sit down and really chisel out an album to perfection. I love doing live music, even when it's electronic or ambient music. And at least for the time being, I've just been following that intuition.
What's your relationship to the Bay Area? Does that influence your music-making?
I was born and raised in San Jose. And I was there up until I went to college. I lived in Long Beach for a couple years, and after that I moved back to San Francisco for graduate school. I’ve been living in the Sunset for about nine years now, and it massively impacts my music, for sure. I'm in the Parkside area, in a neighborhood that’s angled downward and where, if you turn west, you can see the ocean almost anytime it’s not foggy. It can’t not have a slight impact on me. That’s one aspect of it.
My dad immigrated here from India and you wouldn’t think it, but when your parent has immigrated from as far as India, it kind of, at least for me, had me like, “Oh, well, he made a hell of leap. Maybe I should do that.” And so there was always, at least when I was younger, this part of me like, “I'm going to get out of the Bay Area. I need to go somewhere else.” But that didn’t happen. And at first that was frustrating.
But now it’s in everything I do, everything I think about when I’m making music. I’m thinking about the redwoods. I’m thinking about Ocean Beach on a sunny or a foggy day. I’m thinking about Sutro Tower, which I see from almost anywhere I am. These different spaces definitely have an impact on my music.
What’s your temperature on the music scene here? Because we all know it’s suffered over the past couple decades.
There’s a part of me that’s cynical and there’s a part of me that’s hopeful. On one hand, I've been with a post-rock band for 5-6 years. The sentiment we’ve had is that this was a dead zone for that kind of music, or there just wasn't a whole lot of an audience for it. Which I think over time I kind of disagree with.
I used to be more cynical about it. Venues are shutting down left and right. We lost Slim’s pretty much right at the beginning of the pandemic. We lost Hemlock Tavern a while back too, and that was a bummer. When we lose a venue, I feel a lot less hopeful.
I don't like Instagram, but it’s actually given me a little bit of a window into how many different musicians and artists there are still in San Francisco. There is so much in Oakland, it's almost overwhelming. If there was a notion of the Bay Area as an artsy town or an artsy area, I feel like that spirit’s in Oakland now. Maybe it always has been.
In San Francisco, I feel like it's a little bit more complicated where there are spaces for music, there are spaces for esoteric stuff, very unconventional stuff. I guess it just depends on if you can find it or not.
You talked about a lot of music that's influenced you. But what have you been listening to and loving more recently?
I've been listening to a couple different kinds of things. Every Bandcamp Friday, I just unload on my card. Lately I've been listening to a lot of video game soundtracks, specifically one called Hyper Light Drifter. That's one of my favorites. It’s just so nuanced. It sounds like a film score, but it’s a video game score. It's designed for a pixel art style video game, but it's got this drama to it that sounds so much heavier. You could listen to it on its own separated from the video game. I love listening to it while I’m playing video games. Sometimes I’ll choose to play the video game to listen to it in that context. But I also will listen to it while walking around my neighborhood. And it's not the only soundtrack I’m listening to. I’m also really enjoying the soundtrack for a newer video game, called Eastward. It's really good. It’s got so many of these light motifs that you usually hear in older classic RPG games, but the artist seems to have captured it in a really inspiring way.
Aside from that, I've been listening to a lot of SUNN O))). Every once in a while, I get into a zone where I just want the meatiest, loudest drone music I can fathom. I'll usually put that on when I'm on my way to a hike. It just settles me in a weird way.
I've also been listening to a lot of jazz lately. I've been trying to find live recordings of jazz to listen to, and a lot of different kinds of jazz too. I'm usually listening to them as compilations or recordings of old final compilations. There's this one collective on Bandcamp, I believe it's called Jazz in Britain. And they have this album on Bandcamp right now, that's a bunch of restored old jazz recordings. And because they’re old and restored, you get the weird smudgy saturation and stuff in the recording and it sounds really good. The idea of listening to live jazz music has been really soothing lately.
So it sounds like you love Bandcamp Fridays as much as I do?
It just feels like record shopping. You know what I mean? And it’s not to downplay record shops. I love going to record shops. But if I have to do it digitally or I’m not able to get out, Bandcamp gives me that same sort of feeling. I'll usually shop by what has the coolest looking artwork.
When I was a teenager, I used to go to Rasputin Records in the South Bay. And I would, just as a kid, look for the artwork that spoke to me. And they had that listening station where you could scan the album and listen to it. I would just grab myself a stack of the coolest artwork I could find. And I’d be like, “This checks out. This doesn’t, but this does.” Bandcamp lets me simulate that in a way where I'll just go to certain aisles—digital aisles, as it were—peruse, and just build myself a big old window of tabs. And I'll check them throughout the day.