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Brad Hawes settles his doubts on “I Will Always Be Here”

The Janesville-based electronic musician releases his first album in six years.

The new album from electronic musician Brad Hawes, I Will Always Be Here, sounds like someone working out a fragile peace. Hawes creates a variety of brittle textures and robust melodic synthesizer patches across these eight tracks. He also keeps things remarkably clean and focused, often choosing propulsion and catchy phrases over lush ambiance.

Hawes spent much of the early 2000s playing drums in Madison bands, including the instrumental trio Revolving Doors, The Projection People, The Cemetery Improvement Society, and the notorious Butt Funnel, occasionally working as a session drummer. He began exploring electronic music about 10 years ago, and in 2012 put out his first solo album, In Circles, under the name Echo Island. That album represented Hawes’ first real attempts to write songs on his own. 

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Echo Island also released 2012’s sci-fi-tinged Metropia and 2014’s more ambient-leaning Hivernal, expanding over time to include Kara Purviance on keyboards, glockenspiel, and vocals. Hawes hasn’t put out any solo music since a sparse, gritty 2015 release under the name Drowt. I Will Always Be Here is his first release under his own name. In the interim, he made and scrapped a whole other album’s worth of material, devoted more time to his work as a photographer, moved to Janesville, and went down what he calls the “rathole” of modular synthesizers.

“With the Hivernal record, I was really trying to do this concept-heavy acoustic-electric thing and blending acoustic drums and other instruments with electronics and bringing in some vocals here and there,” Hawes says. “This time around I really didn’t want to do that quite as much. There’s still slower, more moody music in it, but I wanted it to be more straightforward as far as songwriting goes—A and B sections and a bridge—instead of these weird droney things that go on for 10 minutes.”

Hawes set out to make an energetic record, but even its most upbeat moments provide glimpses of struggle and loss. The pointed, almost bouncy melodies of “Aphasia” and “Anticipation” run into playful counterpoints and bursts of glitchy atmosphere, at times scaling back into soothing quiet. “Mold Eyes,” on the other hand, starts with burbles of static and gradually coheres into soft pads and wistful hooks. 

All of this happens within tight and brief song structures. Opening track “Machine Heart” is the only one that runs past five minutes. Closing track “I Will Always Be Here” is the only one that even comes close to being a full-on ambient piece, but even here it’s easy to follow along with a patient sequence of frizzy chords. The album’s concision and tidiness speak to the influence Hawes’ experiences as a rock drummer had on his approach to songwriting and production: “There’s definitely an understanding of, OK, energy-wise, what can I do here to move things along?” Hawes also believes it’s important to push back on one’s creative tendencies in order to grow, but those tendencies die hard, sometimes for good reason.

“I really love ambient music, and I try to, in some cases, get as little drums in it as possible, and I almost always fail,” Hawes says. “As a drummer, I feel like there’s this desire and inclination of, ‘Well, maybe I can at least throw a kick drum in there.’ It’s always that push and pull of trying to work with that. I don’t know where things are going to go next, but I definitely want to try and embrace it more going forward and do more drum-heavy stuff.”

The album’s second-to-last track, “The End Of The End,” captures both Hawes’ desire to embrace the repetition inherent to most music (especially a lot of electronic music) and his need to shake up a song with dynamic energy. He set out to make a synth-heavy track, developing a spiky frost of arpeggiated phrases. As those phrases cycle through different variations and synth patches, though, Hawes is also clearly trying to build tension and make the track feel like it’s, well, moving. 

“I can usually listen to repetition over and over, but when the coin flips and I have to create it, I feel like it’s very boring for the person that’s listening to it. I kind of struggle with letting things breathe sometimes,” he says. “I always feel like I need to put something else in there to occupy the space. With ‘The End Of The End,’ there was definitely an effort there to be like, ‘OK, I don’t want to do too much.'” 

All this friction—between electronic texture and rock-influenced songwriting, between dark corners and energetic straightaways, between the layered and the sparse—yields an album that ends up feeling cohesive and intentional. It also practically invites listeners to interpret it in any number of ways. The title I Will Always Be Here could read as a statement of devotion or a menacing promise. The simplest explanation Hawes has is that it’s about persistence and resolve.

“I went through a lot of times working on this where I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep doing this,” Hawes says. “There was a lot of time where I doubted what I’d come up with, whether or not I’d release it, whether or not I thought there was any point to doing it anymore. A good chunk of the years that I did not put anything out was really just me thinking, ‘Is this really worth it anymore?’ I realized that this is something that’s very important to me, that has been part of my life since I was 15. Understanding that, even if it’s only just for me and I’m the only one who’s ever gonna hear anything I ever make anymore, that I’m still gonna do it. I’m always gonna keep doing it. That’s kind of the thought process I had going into that one, trying to capture that move of, I don’t know—sadness but hopeful as well too.”

The cover photograph, which Hawes created, opens the album up to a whole other range of responses. A black-robed figure stands in a narrow hallway, soft sunlight creeping in behind. It’s creepy but also contains so much of the familiar and domestic—carpet, a plastic thermostat, the wood trim on bedroom doors. Hawes doesn’t believe in ghosts but notes that while some people who report hauntings of course find them terrifying, some of them take comfort in the idea that a lost loved one is near. 

“Putting it together gave it that different meaning. It almost seemed more ominous,” Hawes says. “Regardless of what happens I will always be here, but also,” he pauses and laughs a little ruefully, “I will always be here. I like that it’s a little bit ambiguous.”

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