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Dismal Light's Music: The Perfect Soundtrack for Getting Lost in the Desert

Dismal Light's Ryan Rousseau (aka DJ Gila Man)
Dismal Light's Ryan Rousseau (aka DJ Gila Man)
Courtesy of Ryan Rousseau

In the liner notes for his 1978 LP Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Brian Eno wrote that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Eno's ambient ancestor, Gymnopedies composer Erik Satie, called his work “furniture music.” The terms writers use to praise or denigrate ambient music reflect Eno and Satie’s perspectives: “sonic wallpaper,” “elevator music,” “sound bath.” It's music as something that comforts and soothes without calling attention to itself.

The ambient music Ryan Rousseau makes as Dismal Light is too interesting to be "ignorable." On past tape releases like Dunes Of Gypsum, Mindswap, and Trench Tones, Rousseau lays down a sound that unsettles rather than soothes. If most ambient/New Age music is the sonic equivalent of a relaxing breeze wafting through a room, his is a dust devil blowing pebbles and grit in your eardrums.

“I do a lot of weird shit,” Rousseau says. It’s a hell of an understatement: Few locals can boast of having more weirdo bona fides than Rousseau. In addition to being the founder and driving force of psych-punk guitar army Destruction Unit, Rousseau also played in The Reatards, fronted Earthmen and Strangers and Ryan Rousseau and His Desert Children, and has carved out a niche on the party circuit by spinning an eclectic mix of curios and mind-warping deep cuts as DJ Gila Man. When he’s not engaged with those projects, he’s recording solo ambient jams as Dismal Light.

“It started when I was doing the band with the Desert Children,” Rousseau says of Dismal Light’s origins. “I had all my synths set up in my bedroom, and my friend Steve Reeves came over and we just jammed out on them and pushed ‘record.’ And I’ve been making tapes like that ever since.”

Dismal Light songs don’t flow so much as they seep into each other: A tape side can feel like permutations of one long track. While the project was born out of jamming, Rousseau utilizes a mix of live playing and layering to create Dismal Light’s moody ambient soundscapes. “I try to do as many layers as I can live,” he says.

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Compared to the sky-is-crashing-down tumult of Destruction Unit, Dismal Light’s sound is spare and minimal. The tracks on tapes like Dunes Of Gypsum conjure up a sustained mood: They’re calm and stately, but they have an undercurrent of uneasiness to it. Like camping out in the desert at night under a canopy of stars and seeing strange shapes moving in the distance.

That nocturnal desert vibe isn’t an accident. Rousseau describes the music on his latest limited-release tape, Chubasco, as a “Sonoran desert jungle soundscape.” The new tape is being released via a Tempe-based label, IDS Recordings, that’s helmed by Ryan Wick. Both Rousseau and Wick will be performing at The Lunchbox on Friday, November 2, as part of a cassette release for Chubasco. Also on the bill is Rousseau’s Destruction Unit bandmate Andrew Flores’ project Jock Club and fellow experimental acts GLOB and Scale.

And while Chubasco sounds like a portmanteau for chum and Tabasco, Rousseau says the title for Dismal Light’s six-song tape is another nod to the desert. “It’s from a book about the Sonoran Desert,” Rousseau says. “It’s what the native people would call a monsoon-heavy rain. So the tape is pretty much about the weather and shit.”

Brainwave! With Dismal Light, Jock Club, Glob, Scale, and Ryan Wick. 9 p.m. Friday, November 2, at The Lunchbox, 4132 East McDowell Road; lunchboxphx.com. Tickets are $5 at the door.

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