From L.A. to Denver, Skyrider Is Always Looking for New Sounds

Denver-based electronic-music producer Skyrider (aka Bud Berning) has a complex relationship with music. On one hand, it saved his life. When he was trapped in bed, recovering for a year after a near-fatal car accident in Mexico that left his body shattered, learning to make electronic music gave him new purpose and a valuable creative outlet. In 2004, not long after he recovered, his debut album, 47:34 — a collection of experimental, edgy yet chill beats and sample-driven sound collages — was released by Endemik Records.

“If I hadn’t made my first album while my legs were broken and eventually that got released — without that initial encouragement, I don’t know if I would’ve kept going,” says Berning. But he did, and it launched him on a ten-year musical journey that spans collaborators and labels as well as geography, stretching from South Florida to the Arizona desert to Los Angeles and now Denver.

Along the way, there was critical success, a live band (with drummer John Wagner and composer William Ryan Fritch), a handful of tours, projects and albums that range in style from left-field hip-hop (Sole and the Skyrider Band) to literary post-folk (Hired Hand). Then there was Furious Stylz, a dub-influenced collaboration with Telephone Jim Jesus that played Rhinoceropolis circa 2009 (one of the act’s few shows outside of L.A.). Sprinkled in between were a handful of solo records. Berning has played a set for Dublab’s Future Roots Radio show and twice performed at Low End Theory in L.A. (with a third appearance coming up August 5). He’s had ambition, a willingness to experiment, and at times success — though never quite enough of the latter to assuage his doubts.

Berning relocated to Denver from L.A. in 2010 to record Sole and the Skyrider Band’s third LP, Hello Cruel World. While the group was happy with the record, it wasn’t as successful as earlier releases, and tour dates were underselling. “It broke the spirit of the band,” Berning says, and an official split followed shortly thereafter. Berning has been in Denver ever since, working on solo material and searching for creative satisfaction.

That’s the other hand: Sometimes it seems like music tortures him. There are moments when dissatisfaction with his own creative output drives him further in search of an endpoint that seems frustratingly near, yet remains out of reach. “If I don’t give myself a deadline, a song might never be done,” he says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been happy with anything I’ve made. That’s the goal — to eventually feel like I’ve made my opus.... I’m on a path to get to the sound that I do want.”

The most recent stop on that path is a new solo record, Ghost Dance, which was jointly released June 9 by local label Black Box Tapes (Sole’s newest endeavor) and influential L.A.-based beat specialists Alpha Pup Records. It’s an instrumental album of gritty, futuristic soundscapes that blend elements of bass, psych rock, industrial, orchestral music and hip-hop. Deep waves of distortion part for moments of blissful clarity, with percussion crashing down behind them. It’s like catching flashes of sunshine through the dust cloud of a recently imploded skyscraper. It reflects the emotional dialectic within Berning’s creative process.

He wants to create some psychic space in a cluttered civilization, one in which he feels we’re “under attack from these outside forces of commercialism, capitalism and materialism.” He wants to give people space to think for themselves, but the musical backdrop for that space isn’t floating in warm waves of sound. It’s murky and gritty. It’s emotionally complex: anxious, then angelic.

“I don’t know why my stuff sounds different,” Berning says. “If I had the ability to, I’d make the stuff that sounds like a million dollars, but I don’t think I have it in me. I don’t have that kind of control over it. I might start with a sound I like, and then it takes on its own life. I don’t know what the song’s going to sound like at the end.”

One reason that his sound remains unique is because of his tireless experimentation with both technique and technology. During a flurry of releases in late 2012 and early 2013, Berning’s sonic experiments were more focused on technique, and his output ranged from remixes of radio shows to hardware programming designed to give him more flexibility to improvise in a live setting. In some ways, he’s still very much that kid lying in bed, teaching himself to make beats. He pushes himself, learns lessons, and diligently moves farther down the path toward his opus. For Ghost Dance, the focus of his experiments turned to the method he uses to build melodies. Berning has always been frustrated by keyboard-style synths, so he set out to find a way that was more comfortable.

“Most of the synths on this album were played using my mouth,” he says. “I never play the keyboard anymore. That’s not my first instrument; I’ve never been skilled at it. I thought it would be easier if I could hum or sing the melodies. I’ve been working on a way, and all my synths are just sung. Bass lines. Even drums.”

He’s not sampling himself and then processing his voice with effects to make it sound like an instrument; he’s recording a hummed melody and creating an automated translation of that sound into MIDI patterns that are then reskinned with synths. “The vocals aren’t used in the audio,” Berning explains. “The frequencies of the vocals are taken and translated into MIDI notes. In real time, I can have a synth set up and sing into it to make it go.” It’s a process he’s still refining, but the ability to move beyond the keyboard has liberated melodic elements of the songs on the new album. He hopes that it won’t end with his own music production, but rather will turn into an opportunity to give back to others — particularly helping quadriplegics find easier access to a creative outlet.

“What I’d like to do with that technique is find a way to help disabled people who don’t have the ability to sit at an instrument and get their thoughts out to write music, if they can hum or sing the notes.”

The idea came to him while working as musical director for Cinema Verde, an environmental-film festival based in Florida; it’s an annual side gig, booking artists and stage-managing performances for the week of the festival. Last year, one of the artists featured was a quadriplegic, who, Berning learned, programmed intricate compositions using a stylus he held in his mouth to punch out every note of every song he wrote. Berning was inspired to find a better way.

“Using vocal-to-MIDI techniques could really help someone like that, or even someone who isn’t as dedicated as he is, just to find a new purpose in life,” he says. “I was in bed for a year, and that’s when I got into electronic music. I have an empathy for people stuck in similar situations. It was a needed escape for me.”

If he hadn’t discovered music while recovering from that car crash, there’s no telling whether any of the joy or suffering he’s experienced over the past ten years as a musician would have come to pass. For years, music wasn’t part of his vision for the future. Originally, he wanted to be a child actor.

“It’s something I wanted to do. I asked my mom to help me figure it out. I wanted to be on TV. She never pushed me to do it, but the pressure was rough,” he says. “I acted until I was twelve or thirteen, then put on some puberty weight. I stopped getting jobs [and] became disillusioned…[but] I did well enough with it that I had saved enough to buy my ProTools studio and all my music equipment that I still use today.”

His relationship with music is complex because it’s a true labor of love. “Music is sacred to me,” he concludes, “because it’s the most honest thing I have.”

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Patrick Rodgers

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