Intrepid Sound Inventor: Jeff Greinke

Imagine you are flying low over ruins in the wilderness, in this dream you discover gigantic towering cities fogbound in a foreign imagination, a mill of odd sounds, drones echo through the streets, large pieces of metal are driven through a wavy haze, then you encounter what sounds like chattering robots… at one point a huge bell can be heard in the distance, spooky and wonderful. This was how I reviewed an album by Jeff Greinke in 1985 titled Over Ruins, which was released on his label, Intrepid.

Greinke is an American jazz musician, ambient electronic composer, performer, sound sculptor, improvisor, and visual artist. He began composing and performing music in 1980 while studying meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, and moved to Seattle in 1982. There during that same year on his newly established label, Intrepid, he released three cassette albums (later re-released in vinyl and then digital formats), Before the Storm, Neanderthal String Quartet and Night and Fog. He has since released more than two dozen other recordings on various U.S. and European labels. He has composed music for film, video, dance, theatre, radio, and art installations. His music was used as the soundtrack for the trailer of Ron Howard’s film “The Missing.”

In 1993 Greinke founded the group LAND, featuring Lesli Dalaba (trumpet), Dennis Rea (guitar), Bill Rieflin (drums) and Fred Chalenor (bass). LAND released three albums between 1995 and 2001: Land, Archipelago, and Road Movies. LAND played live extensively, including a 1996 tour of China, Hong Kong, and Macau. In addition to his solo performance activities, Greinke is also one half of the duo Hana with Sky Cries Mary vocalist Anisa Romero. Hana has released two albums, Hana and Omen.

These days he is currently based in Tucson, Arizona. Greinke’s unique approach to his ambient work is to heavily layer, multitrack, and texture soundscapes, using the studio as an instrument. His early work often has a dark ambient quality, with his earlier solo albums often compared to works by Robert Rich, Brian Eno, and Vidna Obmana. His sound is always changing, like the weather, from rain and wind to endless blue skies with delicately drifting clouds.

Greinke is a smiling, bespectacled and unassuming person to behold, but as a musical legend he is moving at great speed, today I am only going to try to describe a few of the highlights of his accomplishments. His most recent album, Other Weather, has been newly released on the Spotted Peccary Music label. The sound spans the genres of modern classical, electronic, and ambient as it gently evolves through a refined set of impressionistic ambient chamber music. Blending electronic ambiences and effects with an acoustic ensemble that includes cello, viola, violin, French horn, clarinets, flutes, and small percussion, Greinke realizes his musical vision through an empirical process of improvisation and experimentation, combining tracks and layering sounds, and uncovering the magical moments as they reveal themselves.

I began our correspondence-based conversation about his music by asking him a fundamental question about his methods for making music. This is what he shared with me.

JEFF GREINKE: My approach is intuitive and somewhat improvisational.

My task as a composer is to carry out this great longing I have to make music, and to make something I find beautiful and that others will too.

I have been so deeply moved by the music of others, almost daily it seems, it’s in some way my attempt to give back.

For me the act of listening is absolutely intrinsic and an integral part of my process. In fact, I came to making music, which began at the age of 20, as a dedicated listener and promoter of other’s works though hosting a variety of radio programs and sponsoring live performances. Through those venues of sharing music I love with others, I met my now long-time friend Rob Angus, who was studying film and music at the university. We fast became friends and he invited me into the electronic music studio at school with him to experiment. My career path established itself, so to speak, then and there, and I decided to pursue a life of composing, recording and performing music.

The process I discovered while experimenting with Rob and one I carried into my solo work, has its fundamental basis in listening. I developed an empirical process of layering, recording track upon track, and listening back to hear how things were working (or not). There is a fair amount of improvisation involved and that allows for exciting “accidents” to happen, or random chance combinations of sonic events that create unique and exciting results. This is how I sometimes experience sounds in nature happening and to some extent I’m after that quality with what I create.

ROBIN JAMES: How do you fit your imagination’s visual side with your music?

JG: Without a doubt there’s a strong relationship there. It’s mostly subconscious. How my imagination and visual experiences influence or co-mingle with my music is an interesting question, but one I don’t have a direct or definitive answer for.

Over my rather long life, at 61, I have been to a fair number of places and have taken in many different landscapes, urban settings, meteorological phenomena, etc. I have a strong visceral appreciation for most any environment I find myself in and am acutely aware of the moods of these places, the light, the sounds, how the air feels, what the sky looks like, the clouds etc. With one exception as it pertains to my recordings, I do not set out to make a piece of music or an album related to a specific experience. It’s more of a culmination of these experiences that work their way into what I end up making in the studio sonically.

The one exception being my 1985 record Cities In Fog, which was consciously and specifically created from a particular collection of experiences living in Seattle, taking late night walks on a hill above a canal and distant shipyard, often in fog listening to the clankings going on in the warehouses of the shipyard and the further away calls from the tugs on the Puget Sound, all muted by the late night fog setting over the city.

Living in Arizona is a very different experience, of course, but no less fascinating. Spending most of my time here and in northern New Mexico outside Taos with my girlfriend, I take in all that these wide-open landscapes have to offer. I’m very fond of taking road trips to rural places and Arizona and New Mexico have an abundance of the locales. I think my more current work reflects these experiences.

RJ: How did the cover art for Other Weather come about?

JG: Daniel Pipitone of Spotted Peccary, the label who put out Other Weather, used a few of my photographs, altered them somewhat, collaged and designed what you see. The photograph itself is of clouds and other images less directly related to meteorological phenomena.

RJ: What have been your most important musical discoveries? What changed your direction as you were finding your way?

JG: There are four artists I can think of right now that pointed me in the direction I wanted to take my work:

David Moss and his record Terrain. I discovered this album right about the time Rob was invited to work with him in the studio at college. This is a little known artist and album that’s never been released on CD nor is it streamable as far as I know. Moss is a drummer, percussionist, and vocalist. On this record, using a four track tape deck, he layered various kinds of percussion, sound makers, and vocal sounds that conjures for me these beautiful flowing rivers of odd sounds. This taught me about the importance of texture as a component of music and also gave me the springboard from which to start making sounds in the studio, since I didn’t already play an instrument, and that was to use my voice as a source of making a wide variety of sounds. This was hugely impactful for me.

Basil Kirchin and the album Worlds Within Worlds — I believe this album (now hard to find) was recorded in the mid-70’s using synthesizers and the recording of autistic children altered with processors. He slowed the spoken phrases down, probably half speed, and the resultant effect was to create these incredibly haunting soundscapes. It taught me the power of altering found sounds to create a surreal soundscape.

Harold Budd — Plateaux of Mirror (with Brian Eno) — I fell in love with Budd’s slow, simple piano lines. It taught me the power of doing more with less

Brian Eno — On Land When I first heard this album in 1980 I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It sounded nice, but I missed so much. Over time it grew on me deeply, and I became very enamored with how well he evoked an otherworldly setting in my imagination using found sounds altered, synthesizers, and perhaps a guitar and bass. It was a musical landscape and unlike anything I had heard before. This happened at a very formative time just as I was beginning to make music, and I decided, not so consciously, that I wanted to create music that had a similar landscape quality about it. It also showed me how powerful using sounds in a subtle way and how important placement of those sounds in the overall mix is.

RJ: I see that you have an interesting new performance coming up, a 3-Day Streamed Event March 26–28 on YouTube, an International gathering of sonic innovators and ambient architects, a continuous flow of streamed performances, audio-video wonder worlds and deep immersion zones that will burn bright on ambient music pioneer Steve Roach’s YouTube channel… Tell me about the SoundQuest Fest 2021.

JG: Soundquest 2021 this year will be a festival of various electronic based musicians from the US and Europe performing from their homes due to the pandemic. I’m happy to be part of it and honored to be amongst such good company.

This approach to performing is entirely new to me, and being somewhat technologically ignorant, especially when it comes to video, a somewhat daunting task to undertake.

It has been great to switch gears from the recording studio and return to focus on performance. Those who tune in will see me essentially doing what I do to create a recorded piece of music in the studio live on the spot.

RJ: Where do you come up with your best ideas that you might end up applying to a score?

JG: I try to take a long walk every day, mostly in the desert, and that’s when I do my clearest and most productive thinking around my work.

RJ: How do you prepare for a performance or recording session?

JG: I don’t really have any rituals prior to heading into the studio. I just fire things up and start working.
For performances, if I can, I like to rest, take a short nap if possible. I like a light meal before a gig and enjoy sharing that with others when collaborating or when they might be on the same bill.

RJ: Your work has many influences, lots of environmental themes, also weather related, how would you describe your inspiration by the natural world?

JG: My inspiration from the natural world is, as described above, strong. I’m fortunate to live in a house surrounded by natural desert, saguaros, a wide variety of cacti, small trees, desert scrub, lots of rock and dirt, and a variety of wildlife — coyotes, rabbits, deer, javelinas, snakes, a wide variety of birds, lizards, and some exotic insects. Undoubtedly, this has an influence on the kind of music I make, but much less direct than how, for instance, Cities in Fog was made.

As for the weather and its influence on my work, I have always had a fascination with the weather. I spent a lot of time as a child gazing out the window. When it snowed, which was never often enough, I became obsessive about watching it fall. I ended up pursuing it in college and obtained a degree in meteorology from Penn State University, one of the best meteo schools in the country. I discovered, however, toward the end of my time there, that the academic side to studying meteorology did not interest me very much. What I love is my experience of various meteorological events, especially those that are visceral and visual. Over time I’ve become more focused and appreciative of the subtler and quieter aspects of these experiences — the feeling of the air when everything lines up perfectly — temperature, humidity, no wind or breeze, the quality of light — that to me is rare and very special and beyond words. Or the mood just after a desert rain, as the sun starts peeking through the remaining dark clouds, and the creosote bush releases its incredible fragrance.

RJ: What are some of the most memorable places that you have been and how does travel influence your music?

JG: My six months in SE Asia — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos — back in 1989 was phenomenal and deeply impactful. I went in part out of my love for Javanese Gamelan music and I was fortunate enough to hear a lot of it during my six weeks in Java. Experiencing those performances, and that dreamy sound, outdoors in centuries old court yards, was something I’ll never forget. I recorded a couple of albums after I returned — Changing Skies and In Another Place — where one can hear the influence of my travel there.

Touring with my band LAND in China was unforgettable. It wasn’t influential musically, but the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime event for me.

Otherwise, it’s the more localized road trips that inspire me musically, particularly to places very rural with little or long abandoned human activity. It’s the collage of nature and human inhabitation that intrigues me.

RJ: Is Hana still active?

JG: Hana is neither dead or alive. Anisa (Romero) and I are in frequent contact, and have discussed reviving Hana, but it just hasn’t happened as yet.

RJ: One of your many enterprises was managing your own label Intrepid, how did that start? Where are you now?

JG: Rob and I created Intrepid back in the early-mid ’80s in order to get our music out there — at first with cassette releases, then my first LP Cities in Fog. There may have been a few more cassette releases after that, but I began finding other labels to release my work and Intrepid simply faded out.

RJ: You have had many side jobs making your way to the world of professional musicianship, what kinds of things have you done to create income as you engage the work of composing?

JG: When music was my primary focus, I worked in restaurants mostly, but also as a delivery driver and cleaning houses. In time I realized making the kind of music I make wasn’t going to generate a sustainable living, so being good with numbers, I decided to become an accountant with the interest of helping other musicians and artists with their books and taxes. That expanded into full time work and music drifted further into the background as I began focusing more of my free time on domestic projects. Although I have my own accounting practice and continue to work full-time (often more), I have now organized my life in such a way so as to leave considerable room for music making.

RJ: What is your advice to artists who are considering starting their careers as professional musicians?

JG: It’s a tough road and to have a backup plan early on as to finding an alternative means to support oneself comfortably enough for the remainder of one’s life if and when things don’t work out in such a way that music making is one’s primary means of support.

That said, if the call is there, and one is passionate, disciplined, and driven, then don’t ignore that call and otherwise choose a path less satisfying based on fear.

RJ: What emerging artists might you recommend that we listen to?

JG: I’m not sure about emerging artists, but I’m happy to share with you artists who are most inspiring to me these days.

Olafur Arnalds — I can’t seem to get enough of his beautiful music

Nils Frahm

Chad Lawson

Max Richter

Arve Henriksen

Niklas Paschburg

Hania Rani

And I still listen to Eno, Budd, Hassel, Glass, Reich.

RJ: Thank you Jeff, for your time and for your elegant sounds. You have a way of bringing new sounds to life, often creating a climate of imaginative awareness and invention.

Originally published at

Born in 1956, the year of Sputnik and the emergence of Elvis Presley, contributing editor for Electronic Cottage and BrainVoyager Electronic Music