By Dakota Parks for Downtown Crowd
For many of us, music is the much-needed respite from daily chaos and our catalyst for creativity. While some people are drawn to music with heavy lyrics and a structured rhythm, others relish in the layers of soundwaves created by ambient music that allow them to imprint their own emotions and memories on the noise. Local cinematographer and musician, Doug Stanford, began creating music in 2013 under the name YNICORNS and just released his newest album “we miss you, stay safe // &&&” in April 2021 with the record label “Post. Recordings.” Armed with his electric guitar and pedalboard, Stanford creates layers of sound reminiscent of the ambient, post-rock and experimental genres. His music can be found on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube @YNICORNS.
Tell me a little about your early years and discovering your creativity.
DS: I grew up in rural Williamsburg, Virginia as an only child, so I think I always gravitated toward creative endeavors. As a kid, I made videos on our family camcorder and would record tapes on my parent’s piano. It didn’t occur to me until the end of college that I could make a career out of creativity. I went to college at James Madison University and quickly switched from science and technology to media arts and design. Watching TV was like my number one past time for most of my life, so I started to get really interested in movies. In college, I played in a few post-rock bands. It wasn’t until I started moving away from my band mates that I decided to be a one-man act and play music independently.
Is there an overlap in your career as a cinematographer and your interest in making music?
DS: I think that both cinematography and the way I play music are philosophically very in line, because cinematography is about communicating a lot of unspoken things in the story. The dialogue might tell you a character says one thing, but the cinematography can tell you they think a different way. If you need to communicate how someone feels without announcing it to the audience, you can do that through the way you shoot it. With the music I play, there are no words or lyrics, so it allows the listener to imprint their own feelings in that space. I look at both mediums as a way to communicate mood and atmosphere in ways that are difficult to do verbally.
Can you walk me through the steps of making a track?
DS: There are two basic composition methods I use for YNICORNS, and it's all guitar based. I play a regular electric guitar and put it through a pedal board with 15 or so effect pedals that are mostly reverb, delays, looping and one pitch shifter. The board is almost a generative music machine like an instrument of its own because I can have different phrases playing in different loop lengths. So, you have like three different parts playing out of sync with one another that start to build unexpected combinations of harmony and rhythm. This most recent album started off as 30 improv recordings that were 15 or 20 minutes each, and then I rearranged them to easier listening lengths. The only unconventional thing I do is inspired from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, where I use a screwdriver to pick the guitar strings. It creates this weird violin-like sound that kind of sounds like a violin bow made out of a saw blade.
Your album “we miss you, stay safe // &&&” that came out this year seems to have some pandemic-undertones. Was this a byproduct of the pandemic?
DS: Originally, this album was going to be songs about being alone. I started working on it in the midst of the state-mandated lock down when I was quarantined by myself. The entire thing felt weird and unpredictable and frightening. Then, in the summer, America blew up with this massive civil rights problem surrounding police violence and people took to the streets to protest. Suddenly, the album took a turn from being just about loneliness to this shift about the experience of mid-summer protest and the violence and confusion that erupted along with it. So, there is a shift in the album—it begins in a place where you have some sense of what’s going on and ends in a place where you understand what’s happening, but it’s a completely different world.
Your Spotify bio says that your music is inspired by nostalgia—can you explain what you mean by that?
DS: This new album itself isn’t necessarily nostalgic, but my music in general is kind of repetitive and hypnotic. Through repeat listens, you can hear new textures and little details you may not have heard the first time. I think repeat listens are opportunities to dive deeper into the sound, lose yourself and be meditative. A track from one of my first albums called “We Laid In Cool Grass as Satellites Streaked the Summer Sky” was inspired by a night I had hanging out with a really good friend of mine in the backyard just staring at the sky and talking for a long time. To me, that’s really nostalgic to be taken back to that specific experience. The ultimate goal is if someone can re-experience something from my listening to my music, like triggering a memory about a trip they took or a person they lost. That would make me so happy.