Hendrix Gullixson looks for new life in stark ambient music

The formerly Madison-based electronic artist plays April 22 at Communication.
A publicity photo shows musician Hendrix Gullixson standing in the snow, in front of a fence and a metal building.
Photo by Aedric Donovan. Image description: A publicity photo shows musician Hendrix Gullixson standing in the snow, in front of a fence and a metal building.

The formerly Madison-based electronic artist plays April 22 at Communication.

Hendrix Gullixson began releasing electronic music under his first name in 2019. The decision came after a few years of DJing and putting out work from an early solo project, Syneva, that Gullixson thinks of as “me just messing around and releasing conceptual sketches.” Even in that early period, after graduating from Mt. Horeb High School, Gullixson showed a peculiar sort of ambition. He co-founded a small record label with friend Aedric Donovan, booked the occasional show in Madison for left-field electronic artists, and developed his own music with an ear toward the tender and eerie sides of ambient. 

As his approach to production matured, he got past some understandable insecurities about using the name, and, in 2021, he moved to his current home base of Minneapolis. One can hear things coming into focus across the strangely plodding piano figures of his 2019 album Ritual, the dark-ambient expanse of 2020’s Star Taker, and the bolder patchworks of 2021’s Nora. On all these releases, Gullixson was playing with the more abstract, textural components of electronic music while also pulling in a lot of sounds of acoustic instrumentation. This was all happening solo and entirely within his music-production software—”I like working by myself,” he says. That said, he did collaborate with Indianapolis-based guitarist Wayne Robert Thomas on a 2022 EP, Juniper, which brings out a warmer element of Gullixson’s sound.

In March he released a new album, Phantoms, which draws heavily on the plinks and drones of stringed instruments, whirring blots of distortion, and the sounds of a Bulgarian choir. It’s all still contained within the software, and the choir comes from a plugin Gullixson downloaded after a lot of digging around online. “They’re very rich, but they’re also kind of light at the same time,” he says of the wordless voices from Bulgaria. That lightness seems key on Phantoms, where icy darkness combines with a sense of yearning for better possibilities.


Ahead of a Saturday, April 22 show at Communication, Gullixson caught up with Tone Madison for a phone interview. We touched on the themes at work on Phantoms, staying focused amid the myriad options of electronic music, and his brief career as a child actor. 

Tone Madison: Compared to at least some of your previous work, Phantoms seems to place a much greater emphasis on acoustic-sounding instrumental sounds. How did that develop?

Hendrix Gullixson: I think there was an emphasis on simplicity in terms of the palette of instrumentation that I was using with Nora, the album that I put out before Phantoms. There was an even stronger emphasis on instrumental simplicity, but just kind of turning things up a little bit to fill up that room where other instruments might live. The acoustic aspect of it, I’ve always kind of cherished, and I think part of working with digital plugins, it can be really difficult to find an acoustic tonality that sustains that acoustic sound. With digital plugins, it just sounds so artificial usually.

In the past couple of years, plugins of stringed instruments and wind instruments have really evolved, and they’re just so much more organic in sound. So anyway, I took a few plugins that I owned from Nora and I just kind of re-emphasized their capabilities on Phantoms. There’s this kind of underlying slap sound that comes from a cello, and it’s just detuned and it’s just a pluck. But the cool thing is that when you’re working with a digital instrument, you have way more flexibility in terms of pitch and tune and all of that stuff. It was really fun to use a cello as this kind of kick-drum surrogate. That’s featured throughout the record, and then there’s higher-pitched plucks that are also involved. I think the purpose of those parts of the pieces is to represent some sort of percussive element without diving into the static use of drums. 

Tone Madison: There’s always that process people have to go through of finding their focus and narrowing down the options, within all the overwhelming options that that music software gives you.

Hendrix Gullixson: I think the biggest challenge is just learning how to limit yourself. And luckily, I’m kind of a lazy person, so I’m not necessarily very ambitious in terms of exploring the thousands of different plugins out there. I mean, so many of them are not very well optimized for newer computers, and a lot of them are just overpriced. I think, ironically, there’s a deterrent. The music industry pushes these plugins through marketing and physically they look really appealing, but it is really important to pull back and just dry out what you already have. I really try to not add too much between each record. I really try to just work with what I have. I mean, I’ll maybe get one new plugin per album, but even then, I really try not to.

Tone Madison: Despite your overall preference for working solo, you did at least like one more collaborative thing within the last few years, the Juniper EP with Wayne Robert Thomas. Did that present a change or a challenge to your usual process? 

Hendrix Gullixson: Wayne is a good friend, and I don’t really remember how we introduced ourselves to each other. I think it was because he had released an album with Past Inside The Present, which is the parent label of Healing Sound Propagandist, the label that I’ve released a couple of projects with. I think we just interacted on Instagram or something. What was appealing about his work is that he works a lot with guitar and amps, and it’s very droney. He does these beautiful drone canvases, if you will. I’m not the biggest fan of drone music. I don’t listen to it that much. But I figured that as a base layer his droned-out guitar could be a very substantial texture, either below or on top of my more instrumental digital collage or whatever. So, we just went back and forth and it was super-loose. It was, “Hey Wayne, can you just send me a stem?” And he would send it to me, and then I would put something over it and then we would kind of just go back and forth. Every once in a while, collaboration just works. I think the biggest thing is that he takes music very seriously, and I also take it very seriously. And I think that was really the life that made it happen. 

Tone Madison: It’s also an interesting release in that it’s a lot brighter than a lot of your other work. 

Hendrix Gullixson: Yeah, the pieces are very bright. I think that’s a really good way of putting it. I don’t know if we necessarily intended it to be that way. But that’s just kind of how it came together. We’re both very proud of that EP. I think it turned out really well. And we would do Zoom calls and just hang out and talk, and that indirectly played a really positive influence on our ability to work together. It was just one of those magical things that just worked. Just an energy that we had. 

Tone Madison: In the Bandcamp liner notes for Phantoms, you talk about wanting to address themes like the “evolutions of friendship, relationship, and family.” Usually when you have liner notes on those releases at all, they’re a little more technical or cryptic—less personal. Did this indicate some sort of shift in how you think about your work?

Hendrix Gullixson: When I started writing Phantoms, I was in the transition of moving to Minneapolis from Madison, and a lot of my friends were going through changes within themselves, whether it was their identity or their physical place, or their jobs, or their creative practices. The pieces themselves aren’t so much about that. It’s more the titles of the pieces. The titling process, for me, is a way to be poetic, almost lyrical in a way. I think the titling is more expressive of what my friends and my family were going through—peeking out of Covid and, you know, just dealing with the weird fascism that’s popping up endlessly. It’s kind of a compilation of all of that.


There’s a little bit more of specific things with specific friends that I’ve just witnessed or acknowledged. Those people in my life know what those things are, and we’ve talked about it, and I’ve almost had to get permission from some of them. They know what the references are, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a personal job in a way, but it’s out of love. That’s what it’s about, is just witnessing friends and family go through significant changes, and also this country, in particular, is sad.

Tone Madison: Just the fact that the first track on it is titled “Their New Life,” that kind of almost invites people to read things into it or wonder what’s in there to unpack.

Hendrix Gullixson: That piece is interesting, because I think it’s the harshest on the album. I think it takes a lot to embrace it, because it’s kind of edgy and a little bit off-putting. Once you get through it, the rest of the album is a little bit more stable. But when you’re going through a big change, it’s very chaotic. Not to sound too cliché, but I think that that title worked with the instrumentation on that piece. It was also important to me to keep the titles simple. I didn’t want them to be too abstract. I wanted them to be very minimalist in terms of static wording. I didn’t want them to be too complicated or too out-there.

Tone Madison: What is your approach to live stuff like these days?

Hendrix Gullixson: My setup now is so much more involved than it was a few years ago. I think at one of my first shows, in, like, 2017, I was using a keyboard and a controller that was crap, and I was just playing each piece individually. That was a nightmare and I wish I would have known more about MIDI and how to match things. I just had no idea. Now I use an eight-channel mixer. I want to move to a 16[-channel mixer] so I have a little bit more flexibility with stems and modulation and just being able to map different effects to different stems. I’ll export stems of my pieces, and I’ll throw them into my DAW [digital audio workstation, the term for various music production software programs], and I’ll just kind of let it play. But as it’s playing, I’m changing things in real time and using effects. It’s way more efficient for me now and it’s pretty chill, but I’m still able to present something that’s improvised—it’s not like I’m clicking play on iTunes. It’s the deeper, turbocharged version of that.

I think that really came out of my history of DJing and being really into electronic music, and bringing that knowledge and that skill set into a more diverse customized setup. It’s just really loose, and it’s way more fun. That’s such an important aspect of playing live, [in that] it should really just be for the audience. It doesn’t need to be, “I have to impress everybody by looking really busy.” They’re there to listen to the music and not look at me turning knobs and stuff. I don’t think that’s what it should be about. So I really cut out a lot of pressure from myself. It’s much more fluid now and I’m looking to extend it, but I want to be careful because you don’t want to compromise what you’ve already put together.

Tone Madison: A random thing that people might run across when looking for information about you is that you performed at American Players Theatre (APT) as a child. You have a pretty unique name, so that’s you, right?

Hendrix Gullixson: Yeah, when I was 10 and 11 I did acting for a while. I think my family thought it was my destiny to be an actor. But ironically, I was really, really, really getting into music during that time. Every time I would go to rehearsal, I would have my iPod Nano with me and I’d be listening to Linkin Park, or some crazy cool artist that I was just getting familiar with. I did a few productions at APT, and they were great experiences; but I think the last one really made me realize that I just didn’t want to do it. In life, when you’re good at something, you feel a lot of pressure to pursue it. But you can make a choice, and I chose to step away from it, and I don’t really miss it at all. I’m glad that I chose to pursue music once I turned 18. It was a good decision for me. But yeah, that is my old youthful life [laughs]. It’s funny that you found that [and that it is] still on the Internet, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Tone Madison: APT is such an institution around here, so that must have been quite an interesting experience as a child.

Hendrix Gullixson: Yeah, it was. It was very comfortable. Everybody was very respectful. It’s not like it was like Hollywood or anything. It was way better than that. Even though APT is a big institution in the Wisconsin area, it felt very small-town. I think Spring Green has a very big influence on that theater and vice versa. So it’s an interesting place. It feels almost like a surreal experience being there, even as an audience member. I have some friends that are from the river valley and from that area, and it’s been interesting to hear their thoughts on it because I’m just so disconnected from it now.

Tone Madison: Did that experience influence the way you ended up approaching music?

Hendrix Gullixson: I think the only thing it’s really done for me is it’s made me extremely comfortable playing live. Having that performative experience of having to speak in front of an audience has definitely made me a very confident live musician. I’m always nervous for a live show, but I feel so comfortable at the same time. It’s a very weird feeling. It’s a very strange phenomenon. There was a technical education from that time in my life, and that was just how to be more confident in front of people. Because sometimes, I just don’t want to talk to anyone, or I don’t want to perform in front of anyone, or try to impress anyone. But on the occasions where I do play live, it feels great. I’m also just doing something that I love to do. In terms of the music itself, I don’t think there’s any influence.

Tone Madison: APT must be an interesting way to get early experiences as a performer because it’s a pretty large place. And because of the outdoor setting, there’s mosquitoes and bats and stuff flying around. 

Hendrix Gullixson: It’s funny because when you’re on that stage, you have to pretend like those things don’t exist. If a bat flies by your face, you can’t break character and [you have to] ignore it. It’s bizarre. It’s like, the elements aren’t real. But they’re certainly real for the audience—all the mosquitoes and different insects and different animals running around. I think a couple of times, squirrels ran across the stage during the matinee shows. It’s a very surreal experience for the performers, and the audience. You also get very hot. That’s one of the biggest things I remember is just getting very warm, because of all of the clothing. Even though it’s beautiful, it’s so warm, [and] it doesn’t breathe because it’s all wool and polyester. It’s all part of the strangeness of it. It makes it very, very special and unique. You’re bringing back a lot of memories [laughs]. 

Tone Madison: Your bio on the APT site mentioned that you were in a movie, too?

Hendrix Gullixson: I was in a movie in high school in California. Please, please don’t watch it. It’s not good. It was a fun experience. But I think that experience really made me not like acting because it’s just all so fake. There’s no realness. The crew are probably the most real people there. They’re just people doing their union work. I enjoyed interacting with them more than I did my co-stars or whatever. It’s like doing anything else that you’re good at as a kid. It didn’t feel like this grand thing. I was always very humble about it. I always kind of questioned what I was doing. I was like, Is this really for me, even though I’m good at it? 

Tone Madison: What are some of the things that you’re hoping to work on over the near future?

Hendrix Gullixson: I’m working on my next record right now. When you finish an album, you go through this withdrawal period where you don’t know what to do, and you’re trying to figure out what to do next. That’s easily like the worst time for me, I think. But then once you get out of that rut and you start riding the wave of writing again, things kind of just come together. I’m working with a sequencer plugin that I’ve had forever but I’ve never touched, and it’s actually been this great, great balance of keeping me restricted, but also giving me plenty of options with what I can do. It’s coming together pretty well. It should be out next year or 2025, and I’m trying to find a label for it. 

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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