• Markus Brandstetter

Chords Of Orion (Interview): "My advice is: Don't stop. Keep the fire alive!"

Bill Vencil (c) Chords Of Orion

You don't necessarily have be a fan of ambient guitar to stumble upon the work of Bill Vencil aka Chords Of Orion. Maybe you've been doing a YouTube research on a reverb or delay pedal you were thinking about buying. You might have been searching for tips on how to play baritone guitar or how to use Frippertronics. Chances are you came for the gear or the knowledge – and you stayed both for Vencil's music, his playing. And for his calm, yet entertaining and humorous way of communicating.

If you are into ambient guitar and ambient music, the Chords Of Orion channel is a true goldmine. To be more precise: the channels, plural. Besides the regular one, there is also another channel called Chords Of Orion Long Play. You'll get the extended ambient guitar bliss there. Long, multiple delays, luscious reverb landscapes, atmospheric swells, relaxing sounds – sometimes brought to the listeners in livestreams that last multiple hours.

YouTube videos are by no means Vencil's only musical output – just his way of choice to get his music to his listeners. This year alone, he has released two albums, one called "Rumination", the other one called "Anodyne". They're both available on Chords Of Orion's bandcamp page. I reached out to Bill for an interview in the last days of 2020 – and had an hour long talk via Zoom with him.

Read the full interview with Chords Of Orion below.

How was your 2020?

It was an interesting year. The part of the US I'm in is in the middle of the spectrum between lockdown and non-lockdown. We live in a fairly rural area. I guess my life overall hasn't changed that much. Except, you may know, I have a full time day job. That's been totally working from home since March.

Creatively you've been very busy: You've not only recorded multiple videos a week for your two YouTube channels but also two albums, "Rumination" and "Anodyne".

Yes, on the music side it's been busy indeed. "Rumination" is an album that came out of a video series that I did in the beginning of 2019. A series to walk through the making of an EP in a relatively short amount of time, it was a six week project. I was doing the videos, created the songs, mixed them down and so on. Then I decided to sit on them for a while. I knew that I was going to release them at some point, but I was too busy with other things. In 2020 I went ahead and added some more songs to the mix — to create a more full length album. That's "Rumination". I called it that because I kind of ruminated on the album a good bit before I decided to release it. One of my goals over the next few years is to release albums on a more frequent basis to Spotify, iTunes and such. I release a lot of music on YouTube, but most of it doesn't make its way out to other platforms. That's my plan: To be a lot more consistent about that and to release more regularly. "Anodyne" came out of that. It's a Greek term for "medicine" or "pain killer". What I did with that set of music was I selected some longform pieces that I posted on my second channel and then put them together. It's meant to be some calm, longer form songs. There's a song on the album that's 23 minutes long – and one that's 31 minutes.

Does the title refer to the idea that ambient music has a healing quality to it?

I would say yes, absolutely. The music itself is meant to be very peaceful and calming. I can't speak for other countries, but certainly here in the US it has been anything but calm between the coronavirus and the political situation that's been going on in the country over the last year. I hesitate to use the world "healing" though. People sometimes feel that music has that healing aspect to it and I don't disagree with that. But I wouldn't call my music "healing music". That seems a little ostentatious to me.

You started playing guitar as a teenager in the early 1970s. What brought you to the guitar?

When I was in grad school, I played the flute. I knew how to sing and I also knew how to read music. My mother purchased a very inexpensive acoustic guitar that she wanted to learn. I remember one day, I was probably about 12 years old, I came home and the guitar was sitting there next to our couch. So after school I picked it up, randomly laid my fingers on the fretboard and just started strumming. It turned out that was a D major chord and I thought: "Wow, this sounds nice!" She also had a chord book there, so I started learning the chords. That's how I started learning guitar.

Who were your early musical influences?

As a teenager in the early seventies, a lot of the rock musicians that were popular then were guitar based. That was a big emphasis and a big encouragement. Over the years some of my influences were kind of interesting. A band I really enjoyed as a teenager was The Moody Blues. Some of their music you can almost call ambient music in a sense. I was always drawn towards sound textures, soundscapey things, even as a younger person. But as far as guitar influences specifically I would say, an early one was Phil Keaggy, who is a fabulous guitar player. I've learnt volume swells from him. He had a Les Paul and used his finger on the volume control. I remember hearing his songs and being blown away. How is he getting those trumpet sounds with his guitar? I went on a quest to figure that out. Another early player who was a huge influence was a bluegrass player named Norman Blake. He played with Johnny Cash way, way back in the day and then has had a long solo career. He very much influenced my right hand technique as a bluegrass flat picker. I love bluegrass. If you watch the way I play, a lot of it is influenced by Norman Blake. Also Steve Hackett, the original guitar player from Genesis. Apart from volume swells, he influenced me a lot in terms of his sensibility for playing leads. Michael Hedges. Of course Robert Fripp, King Crimson – along with many other old school progressive rock bands. And of course Allan Holdsworth, a big influence in the way of my tonal choices. Not to mention that I went on a quest to buy every piece of Allan Holdsworth signature gear that I could find.

You often use a Carvin Holdsworth signature electric guitar in your videos.

Yes, the Carvin Fatboy. I actually own a piece of Yamaha gear … I can't prove it, but I purchased it by one of Allan Holdsworth's best friends who said Allan owned it. So I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure that it was his.

You've played in a progressive rock band. Did you aspire to become a full time rock musician?

When I was in college I majored in music theory. My goal was to be a full time composer. That fell through because there were only four composers in the United States at that point who were making decent money. Everyone else was teaching. I'm not sorry that I majored in music theory, but the idea that this would be a career somehow fell by the wayside. I had met some other people who were heavily into progressive rock music. We started a band in 1978 and that went on till the late 1990s. Pretty steadily, we only took a break for one year. We played regionally in the Washington DC area. We're all from a city named Baltimore in that area, so we played a lot around there, in bars and clubs. We played a few larger concerts but not too many. We did a lot of recording, though. We released one vinyl LP.

How was the band called?

The name of the band is actually a Greek word, Tetelestai. It is Greek for "it is finished" or "it is accomplished". Those were the last words of Christ before he died on the cross. We did not play religious music but we were all Christians in the band. I would say we all wrote music from that particular worldview.

"I did end up selling a lot of my electric guitar equipment."

(c) Chords Of Orion

What happened to the band?

I keep in touch with a number of the former members of the band. We're good friends. I think we would all agree that it was a wonderful experience. Each one of us was deeply affected by the experience of composing, recording and performing the music that we did. But since we were not able to make a full time living with it, eventually members of the band, myself included, got married and started having children. Having the time to go out and play the club from 10 pm to 2 am, pack up, get back home at 4 am, that just wasn't viable beyond a certain point of time. We had to discontinue the band because of that. That's really the major reason. I have a large family, I have seven kids. I did continue to record for a while after the band broke up, but eventually that got too hard also. I did end up selling a lot of my electric guitar equipment. There were a few pieces I didn't sell and still have. I sold my amplifier, some of the effect pedals. Partially because I was raising money to buy my first Martin acoustic guitar. I wanted a good guitar, so I needed to swap some equipment out. Later on I purchased a Lowden acoustic guitar and I need to sell a bunch of equipment to purchase that too. It was easier to play acoustic at home. Plus, I was very interested in progressing some of my skills and depth on acoustic guitar into more fingerstyle, Celtic music.

But you kept practicing.

Oh, yeah. I never stopped that. And I think that's one key that I talk about on my YouTube channel for other people who are part time musicians and end up with a family like I did. All of a sudden their time is very limited. My advice is: Don't stop. Do what you can. Obviously your priority has to be your family or your career. But don't stop. Keep the fire alive.

What reignited the spark for electric guitar then?

There were a couple of things that went into my thinking. Around 2004, 2005 I had stopped recording. And by recording I mean old analogue tape recording. I still own three multi track reel to reel tape decks that we recorded on. I got eight tracks of reel to reel available to me. I stopped recording analogue, because it's a lot of work – and where do you set it up? Around 2004, 2005 I began to transition into digital recording. At that point I also felt that I really needed to pick up the electric guitar again. I had two electric guitars left. One was an old Fender Mustang that I got when I was 14. The other was an old Ibanez that I played a lot in the band. I didn't have an amplifier, so I bought an amp. I went through a few amplifiers and realized they were way too loud for the house and for what I was trying to do. So I started getting into early amp modeling. Alongside of that, I started realizing that I was not as young as I used to be. And that, if I wanted to do more, I really needed to start thinking about doing more. I didn't want to run out of runway in my life. I released an album around 2012 that actually represents four to five years of faltering recording. I relabeled it as the first Chords Of Orion album, it's called "Line Of Despair". The same year I also took a music marketing course. I was thinking: Is there a way to leverage the internet for building an audience? There was no way to go and play clubs again. I didn't have the time to get involved in a band. So I took that course and it really answered a lot of questions for me. That's when I decided to start a YouTube channel. I started it in September 2013.

What was your initial concept of the YouTube channel? What did you want to achieve with it?

The initial concept for the YouTube channel was merely to be marketing for my music. The course I had taken was about basic marketing concepts. I wanted people to become interested, but who cares about my music? There are tons of musicians around, why would they be interested in me? But maybe I have something to offer that is related to the music but is not the music? That's how the channel started. The first few months I was just trying to figure out YouTube, posted somewhat random things. Eventually it took more a direction towards performing music, doing tutorials about different topics and gear related stuff, whether it was a demo or a review. At some point I realized that I really enjoy doing it. I view it now as a more holistic expression of my art. I view the channel itself as part of my creative output. Whether it's a performance or some other kind of video, to me it's still art.

Your channel offers a practical approach, wisdom and knowledge, a lot of stuff for gear nerds and of course your own music. Would you say there are different motifs in your communities? Do some people only come for gear reviews?

Yes, I do think some people only come for the gear reviews, for sure. There are some people that seem less interested in the gear reviews and more interested in the music.

When I discovered your channel, I came for the gear but I stayed for the music. The first time I saw you was when I searched for a review of Devin Townsend's Ocean Machine pedal by Mooer. I enjoyed the playing so I kept coming back.

I think there's a number of people who've had that experience and I'm very thankful for that. I think that's part of the original content of the channel: To offer information that's related to the music – and then be able to offer the music alongside of that, knowing some people will enjoy that and other people will just stay engaged with the technical, gear review side of things. To be honest I'm totally happy and thankful for whatever kind of content an individual prefers. To me it doesn't matter what part of what I do they enjoy. I'm thankful for them hanging around and enjoying the content.

You are publishing two videos a week, right?

Yes. I started out with one video a week, then I started doing two a week and later three a week. Then I started my other channel. At one point I was doing three videos for my main channel and one video for the Long Play channel on the weekend. That was way too much. I couldn't do it. Right now I am generally doing two videos a week on the main channel and post one longer form piece on the second. I've got over 700 videos on the main channel and 160 on the other one. It's a lot.

That's an insane amount of work – especially combined with working full time.

Here's the thing though. One of the amazing things I have learnt over the seven years I've been doing this: I've learnt how to do things quickly. I mentioned that first album, it represents several years of recordings. I was lucky to get those done, it took months to do a piece of music. I can now do a similar piece of music in an hour or two. I don't feel the quality is different, in fact it's much better as I've learnt to record better. I've learnt a lot. I continue to learn. I think that's one thing that has really helped me a lot. The other thing is: I think more holistically about practice, performance and recording than I used to. I used to think of them as separate activities. I don't anymore, I think of them together. Don't get me wrong, I still practice for the sake of practicing. Yesterday I spent an hour up in my dining room just practicing a particular fingerstyle technique I've been getting a bit rusty on. But a lot of what I do is to come down here, experiment with gear, technique and do a recording all in one session. I view that as a holistic activity. That really helps, too. The other thing is keeping the scope of what I do to something I can accomplish quickly. I'd love to do an album that has 20, 30 tracks – an album that's very well composed, thought out, where everything is intentional. I'd love to do that, but I don't have time to do that. What can I do in the time that I have? That's something I've learnt and that I encourage people to do in my videos: To take advantage of the time you do have and optimize your creative process around the time you've got available.

Do you have sometimes trouble finding new topics? I've heard from various YouTubers that after some years of creating content on a regular basis it can get really hard to find fresh ideas.

I've gone through periods where I felt a little burnt out. I've taken a couple of short breaks, maybe a week or two. I've just been live streaming over the holidays on both channels, and they're just playlists. So I've been taking a little break. It has been interesting. There have been times where I wondered if I could run out of stuff to talk about. But when I sit there and think about it and brainstorm, so far there have always been more things to think about. That's one of the great things about being a musician – there's always more to think about. And if there's always more to think about then there's always more to learn and there's always more to expand in terms of technique, styles or whatever it may be. That translates into: There's always more to create videos about.

"I think I generally use a lot less pedals other guys do."

Bill holding up one of the pedals he enjoyed in 2020 – the Strymon Iridium (Pic: Screenshot of our Zoom talk)

Let's talk about the gear side of your channel. Having gear sent to you is probably every guitar nerd's dream. How does it work – do pedal makers send you their pedals, asking you to review them?

Certainly in the early days of the channel, the whatever gear I talked about were all items that I purchased. Some of the early items I can recall were the Strymon Timeline, the TC Electronics triple delay, which I still love – I purchased that. Obviously also the guitars and things like that. I didn't do a ton of "Hey, I got a new pedal" demos. I didn't start that right away. Partially because I realized the gear had been out for several years. Do people really want another demo of the Strymon Timeline, which already then had been out for three or four years by the time I got it. I did start doing a little more gear centric things. It was more things like: "Hey, here's how I use this kind of gear to get that kind of effect. Or use it in that way", rather than normal demos. Those were all pieces that I purchased. I would say a couple of years, maybe a year and half into the YouTube channels I did start writing to some gear manufactures to see if they were interested. I was becoming more interested in pedals that were just being released so I'd write them and say "Hi, I got this YouTube channel, I'd love to feature your pedal". I started out by saying: "Would you be interested in lending me a pedal?". One of the first companies that took me up on that was Neunaber. That's exactly what they did: They lent me a pedal, actually a small pedal board. TC Electronic was the first company that sent me some units free of charge. The way it works now is a combination. I still purchase a lot of equipment – and to be frank, the revenue the YouTube channel generates is not enough to live off. But it is enough to fund gear purchases. I do purchase a lot of gear but I also do get a lot of gear sent to me. Strymon has been very good to me and I honestly love Strymon pedals. I purchased a lot of them. When the Compadre came out, I wrote them: "I was waiting for you to make a compressor, would you send me one?" And they said "Oh, we'd love to but our budget for sending demo units is kind of exhausted, we can't right now". They do give me an artist discount. They support me, but I also want to support them. There's a couple of companies that I feel very strongly about. I really, really like Neunaber. I know TC Electronic often gets mixed reviews, but their gear has overall been very good. When I say to people "I like the Flashback triple delay", I really mean it. What I don't do a lot of, though, is paid promotional videos. Partially, because I don't want to be perceived to be in the employment of a particular company. When somebody sends me a pedal, I never sign a contract. I occasionally will write back and say: "You know what, I don't like this pedal. I'm not going to feature it on the channel. I can send it back if you want-" Sometimes they say "Yes, send it back", other times they'll say "Don't worry about it, you can keep it".

But you don't do negative reviews, right?

That's not really my thing. I'm not against people that do more critical reviews and their goal is to help people understand what in their view is good and bad. But I think in the realm of gear there are very few pieces that are really bad. There are some. But it's not really a question of what is good or bad but what is right for you in terms of achieving the results you're trying to achieve. I've decided that I just talk about gear that I honestly like … and in most cases use.

If you had to guess: How many pedals do you have?

A ridiculous amount. I guess over a hundred at this point. I don't know, I haven't counted them.

Do you also sell pedals when you realize you don't use them that often?

I keep most of them. I have sold a few. The reason why I keep them is the thought: If I get rid of this pedal, there might be a video about it I might want to make – and then it is not available to utilize. I obviously don't use a hundred pedals all the time. I think I generally use a lot less pedals other guys do. Especially on a pedal board I don't really like having too many pedals.

One last question about pedals: What's your favorite pedal of 2020?

I try to stay away from "favorite" and play a little bit close to the vest with that. I don't necessarily think my favorite should be someone else's favorite. I find it flattering that people want to know what I use and how I use it because they want to emulate it. But I'll give you one that I have enjoyed. This one might seem a little bit weird for an ambient guitar channel, but I'd say it's the Strymon Iridium. You know, I have several amp modellers. I got the old Avid Eleven Rack, I got the Boss GT-1000, Mooer GE200 and 300, a Line 6 FX100, a HX Stomp and I just got a Helix LT … which I have payed for, by the way. This thing, just for amp modelling, I really really like. I always get good sounds out of it, I don't even have to think about it. There's no bad sounds in it.

When watching your channel, people mainly get to see two electric guitars: The Carvin Holdsworth and PRS baritone.

For standard electric guitar, the Carvin is definitely the main guitar that I use. As a matter of fact I don't own that many standard electric guitars. As far as baritone guitars go, I have three PRS baritone guitars. Then I have a Telecaster baritone guitar that I use quite a bit also. Those are the main guitars. Certainly the baritones have been the main guitars that I've used over the last several years.

"YouTube has been really good for guitar."

Bill Vencil with his Carvin Fatboy (Screenshot from the Chords Of Orion channel)

How would you say YouTube has changed guitar playing? There's so many things going on, new players have emerged, guitar companies have been built around those people.

That's an interesting question. There's a couple of different levels to the answers. As we think about guitar players as musicians and artists, the internet in general has changed the opportunity to record, release music and build an audience. When I was younger this was not an opportunity – and in fact it wasn't even an opportunity that I could have imagine would ever exist. To be sitting in my basement one day speaking with another musician in Berlin. Having the opportunity to leverage platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud to build an audience is an amazing opportunity. It's wonderful. And yeah, I do think there are some issues. There's a lot of complaining about how much Spotify pays for a Stream and that we're at the mercy of some big company. There's some truth to that and a lot to be improved. But fact is, the music business used to be very closed, at least in America. You had to live in New York or Los Angeles or maybe Nashville and then you had to know somebody and then you had to sell your soul to a music company and be at their mercy to have a chance to make a living out of it. Now it's possible for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, to make a living out of music. I really encourage people not to think in the old way. It's hard. Even younger players, people in their 20s, are still thinking: If I could just get a record deal. You don't need a record deal, you can go your own way. Without losing control of your art, your intellectual property rights. That's one thing. As far as how YouTube in particular has changed musicians: The ability to search for anything and learn from somebody who knows how to do that is amazing. As a kid, it was really really hard to find information about that. How do you set up an amplifier to get a good lead tone? You couldn't get on YouTube and watch ten videos on how to do that. Now you can really find out a lot very easily. That's one thing, too: The way it should change those of us who have more experience is to not make us feel like we have some secret. Musicians used to be that way and some of the older ones still are: They treat what they know as some sort of super secret. Like "I am the master, I am the guru, I am the wise man or woman. I'll give you a couple of tidbids, but I'm not going to give away all my secrets". I don't think people like that. People want to connect in a different way with musicians. They want musicians to be authentic and honest about what they're doing. The thing is: It doesn't hurt you. There's some perception that if you're giving away your trade secrets, people are going to copy you and you wouldn't be unique any longer. That's not the case. Ultimately you're still the musician, you're still the one creating. Even if you share your techniques. Nobody else is going to play just like you do because nobody else is like you.

You see a lot of really young players, sometimes 13, 14 years old, doing sweeping licks like it's nothing. Players where even someone like Steve Vai would go: "I probably couldn't play that as fast".

Exactly. But the thing is: So we got a 14 year old who can sweep faster than Steve Vai. But does that make that person a better musician than Steve Vai? There's a musical sensibility that comes with years of experience and honing your art, your craft, your skill set. There's a lot above and beyond technique. It's awesome that there are so many young players out there, who are technically really good. Because I know that a number of them, as they continue to grow and mature, will become really fabulous musicians. I am really excited about that. YouTube has been really good for guitar. Without YouTube and the exposure of guitar we would be in a much poorer position to expanding the popularity of playing guitar. With the advent of EDM and HipHop, which by the way I have nothing against, they're great – but they're not guitar centric types of music … As those genres have exploded in popularity in the last decades, the old concept of the guitar god has been less common. Where are the Eric Claptons that are fabulous guitar players but also extremely popular rockstars? That's a lot less common today. Steve Vai is still around – but he's not on the same level as Eminem. He's not out there putting out platinum breaking albums. He's a guitarist's guitarist. Think of Allan Holdsworth. He was an immensely amazing guitarist and I was lucky to listen to his music and see his concerts. I even mixed sound for him back in the day. But the reality is: The only people who know about Allan Holdsworth are other guitarists. That's cool, but you don't have rock superstars who are also truly amazing guitar players. I think YouTube is helping to keep interest in the guitar.

John Mayer is one who comes to mind.

Yeah, he is one of the few. He's a good example for someone who's a great player who's also very popular.

YouTube's comment sections aren't always inhibited by the nicest people in the world. Your community is quite friendly.

Most of the comments have been positive. I do get occasional negative comments. YouTube with their AI capabilities and their change in their perspective of what's appropriate on their platform actually catches a lot of comments. I can see them, but the viewer can't. Even then I don't get many negative comments. I think different channels attract different types of comments. I don't think what I do is generally controversial. I don't go out of my way to be controversial, so I don't attract controversy. But I realize that there is a community with Chords Of Orion, and I try to foster that and speak to them directly.

A while ago, you published a remarkable video where you responded to a negative comment. Some person was pointlessly rambling, telling you that you're too old. I loved your reaction to that.

I sat on that comment for about two months. I kept looking at it and I finally decided to make that video. It was about getting older. Is it possible to be older and still be a musician? I think the obvious answer is "yes". Some younger people don't realize that before they know it, they're going to be the old person that they have no respect for. I know this happens with most people: As you get older and things happen in your life, you realize that you're not going to be here forever. I'm a practicing Christian – from my perspective as a person of faith, I'm generally okay with that because I think life doesn't end here. And I totally get that not everyone believes that, which is absolutely fine. But still: Even with that, there's this point where you go: Oh, I'm not going to be here forever. Maybe you have a health issue that brings your mortality to mind. But does that invalidate you as an artist? The answer is no, it does not. I think of a great artist like Beethoven. As he got older, he struggled with his hearing, finally putting the piano on the floor so he could hear the vibration – and essentially he was not able to hear the 9th symphony while he composed it. What an awesome encouragement for all of us that as we get older, we should be pushing our art forwards and kind of working through the struggles of mortality. That's why I did that video.

Because of your calm, but also very enthusiastic way of speaking, some people call you the "Bob Ross of ambient guitar".

I don't mind it. Before "Game Of Thrones" finished its run, I got compared to a character thousands and thousands of time. That got a little old, I have to be honest. But there's two ironies. One: I've never seen it because I don't watch TV. Second one: I'm older than the real actor of the character. The character's name is Davos Seaworth, the actor is called Liam Cunningham. I'm older than him, so he looks like me. But Bob Ross? I'm okay with that. I remember watching Bob Ross when he was still alive, on PBS. I have to admit, after I started being compared to Bob Ross I thought "I have to watch some of his episodes again". Guess what? I found it on YouTube.

What are your plans for 2021?

I have a couple of things in the works. I'm working on my next album. I'm hoping to release that before the end of February. I mention that to you, so you'll hold me accountable for that timeframe. But I'd also like to release two more albums in 2021, one in the June timeframe, one in November. That's my goal, three albums for this year. I will continue on YouTube. One of the things I'm exploring now is the idea of more premium content. Whether that's Patreon or a YouTube channel membership. I'm figuring out if there's something I can do that has extra value for someone that would be worth their support through a membership. That's kind of where I'm headed for 2021. The main goal is to keep making music. That's the goal every year: To keep making music.

Can you imagine playing live shows again? I did play a live show in September 2019 in New York – the state, not the city. South of the Great Lakes area of the US, there is a town, where there is an electronic music festival every year. I got invited to play there which I did and it was a lot of fun. And I actually was in a discussion about playing at a music festival in Europe in the summer of 2020. Obviously we know why that didn't happen. I don't want to play clubs and bars, my music wouldn't be a good fit for that anyway. But I would consider the right performance venue. That would be fun.

Chords Of Orion's can be found on YouTube, Bandcamp as well as various streaming platforms.

For more information visit also the website chordsoforion.com.

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