Most of the electronic music of Askanse is produced in a guest house hidden in the backyard of a much larger residence near the Paseo district of Oklahoma City.
Ben Hill, the mastermind behind Askanse, as well as other electronic projects like Thoma and Harpa, prefers the setting. It’s how he’s always done it. In fact, the label he self produces under is called Casita Records, a reference to the travel trailer on his grandmother’s property where he began mixing live instruments with computer generated beats.
Unlike many people his age who live with as many roommates as they can, Ben has chosen to live alone. He has always been fearlessly independent. It’s what allowed him to bike across Japan alone and live in Korea for a semester during college. The solitary life provides him the freedom to focus completely- something his parents say has always been a skill of his.
“He’s always been extremely focused from very early on” his mother Jean Hill says. “If he had an interest he’d pursue it for hours exploring it.”
That’s not to say that he’s anti-social. In fact, collaboration is so important to Ben he has many different group projects going on a one time.
Sam Regan, is involved in two of the projects. He knew the first time he saw an Askanse performance that Ben was someone he wanted to play with and learn from.
“I just heard his production and knew that he was really talented and could design sound really well,” Regan says. “There were certain things that I was wanting to do that I couldn’t pull off acoustically. Ben was really approachable and after a while we decided to make a record together.”
Joseph Sardashti, whose electronic project Sardashhh is generally considered to be the other top electronic act in the Metro, is also a fan.
“He’s kind of on another level of perfectionism and professionalism,” Sardashti says. “His stuff sounds amazing on whatever you’re listening to it on.”
But even with all this high praise, Hill doesn’t have any delusions about how hard it is to make it in his field.
“I’ve never really considered music as a viable career. It’s like a fantasy I have that I indulge in,” Hill says. “Hopefully it works out, but the number of viable careers in music I actually care about- it’s kind of one in a million.”
But even if he has to keep his day job as a pedicab driver, Hill plans to continue making music.
“You make it as long as you feel inspired and compelled to make it,” Hill says. “The more I make it the more interesting it becomes. I feel like I’m getting better at it and that’s exciting.”
Ben’s process it incredibly meticulous. Sardashti describes him as a “maximalist perfectionist,” and Regan uses the term “highly detail oriented”.
“I’ll make a one minute 32 bar beat and be like ‘I’m done with it, it’s okay,’” Sardashti says. “With him he’s like ‘no, there’s parts of this song that people need to really understand and listen to.’ I’ve been trying to get him to put out an album he’s been working on for months now and he won’t because its not up to his standards.”
For Ben, just like with any art form, the skill of making music comes through in the hours it takes to make something sound effortless.
“Really great works are seemingly simple and intuitive, but that’s the most difficult thing of all,” Hill says. “It’s hard to make music that is strange and breaking new ground, but doesn’t feel like it’s doing it for the sake of that.”
Working towards that goal means spending 40 to 50 hours per week working on music, mostly in the home studio that takes up the majority of his small house. The process often involves recording himself playing instruments and old records, then digitizing the sounds and manipulating them in computer programs like Ableton. When a track is ready to be performed he packs up his gear and takes it to whatever living room, record store or small music club will let him and his collaborators set up shop on their floor.
“Basically I go into this trance state when I go onstage,” Hill says. “I just do things intuitively and I’m so present. I know what I’m doing, people are responding to. They’re following with me and they don’t know what I’m going to do.”
You can tell that the connection with the audience is very important to Ben. Often during his performances he makes eye contact with people in the crowd, making sure they are connecting with what he is creating in front of them. It’s a feeling that he shares with his father. Matthew Hill, who has played the fiddle for contra dances in Oklahoma City for Ben’s whole life.
“It’s fun to be playing and watch people move in response to what you’re doing,” Matthew Hill says. “You can see them doing this movement and you’re playing and you’re thinking wow from here to there this direct connection.”
Ben’s personality also shows the influence of his mother Jean who teaches Irish dance. They share a distinct attention for musical detail.
“I’ve had parents say ‘You’re so exact with them,’ because I want them to be very precise and right on the beat,” Jean says. “Then the music and the footwork mesh and it sounds so great! They’re not just moving with this background noise.”
Jean and Matthew have always been very supportive of Ben pursuing music, even music that is so different from the kind they surround themselves with.
“It’s a different approach to music than just having something in your hand, playing a sound and then its basically gone forever.” Matthew says. “But the main thing was that he got interested in music. Who cares what kind it is.”
But what kind is it?
The tags on the Casita Records bandcamp page describe the music as electronic, downtempo and experimental but that doesn’t capture the music entirely. When Askew, the live iteration of Askanse, plays live, it feels like jazz at some points and new age at others, always with an electronic presence. It is hard to categorize because the computers involve it to be the ultimate exercise in fusion. Ben can and does incorporate every sound he can imagine, from the buzz of cicadas to a sample from the 1958 Julie London album “About the Blues.”
Sardashti says that interest is growing in the kind of experimental music produced my artists like Ben and himself.
“The taste is changing somewhat, a bit beyond things like Electric Circus or sort of just really intense electronic music,” Sardashti says. “People are willing to come to a house show and sit on the floor and hear some crazy music.”
Sardashti and Hill are taking Harpa, their collaboration with fellow musician Laine Bergeron, on a tour to California and the Pacific Northwest in January. Hill’s not sure when he’ll be back. The small scale of the Oklahoma City electronic music scene is starting to make him claustrophobic.
“I’m just doing stuff for a very small group of people, which is satisfying in some respects but it’s just massaging my ego but not really pushing me to be as good as I could possibly be,” Hill says. “Even if I’m going to live in Oklahoma and use it as a base of operations, I have to know people all around the world.”