Sequoia Groove & the Chillout Phenomenon

Music Design In Review Interviews Steve Gordon

Music Design In Review recently interviewed Sequoia Records recording artist, producer and co-founder, Steve Gordon, about the new direction and continually expanding vision of Sequoia Records and Sequoia’s sub-label, Sequoia Groove, in addition to the label’s popular Buddha Lounge series and the emergence, growth and direction of downtempo/chill-out/lounge music.

MD:   What made you start the series?
SG:    In the years leading up to our releasing the first Buddha-Lounge, David and I had been listening to downtempo/chill-out music for our own enjoyment.  We discovered these new sounds from hearing DJs playing sets of downtempo at social gatherings, events, and parties, which got us interested in the growing underground downtempo music scene. Then our friends and partners in Europe sent us a copy of the original Buddha-Lounge and asked us to release it here.  It was a huge hit in Europe already.  Since we were already familiar with this kind of music and had even used some downtempo grooves on our own Native/World titles, we thought this was a great idea and that it was perfect timing. So we combined the best tracks from the European version with some appropriate tracks from Sequoia artists and released it.

At the time, that form of music was mostly unknown to New Age music fans. This was originally music that originated in the chill rooms of European dance clubs where the DJs would play quieter music for guests to relax to as an alternative to the upbeat grooves of the dance floors. As we checked out more of this music from our European partners, we found elements in common with music our fans  enjoy such as contemporary world, trance-dance, atmospheric textures, etc. We became inspired to create additional releases in the Buddha-Lounge series and well as other chill-out/lounge releases by combining tracks from Europe with ones from Sequoia artists, to bring the best of those tracks to our new age music listeners who might not have found this music otherwise.  We felt that once they heard it they would connect with the combination of peaceful vibes and cool beats.

MD:  When the first Buddha Lounge album was released, it was a new direction for Sequoia - what were your thoughts at that point?
SG: We felt this was something that was needed at the time, since this new chill-out/lounge music really fit the lifestyle of many new age music listeners. It’s great to have music for healing, meditation, trance-dance, or devotional chant but sometimes it’s nice to just put something on which is more about enjoyment, something to put on during a party or while having dinner with friends.  Or sometimes just to unwind after a day of work, without going as deep as meditation, but which still has an edge of spirituality to it.

MD: When choosing the artists/songs you feature, what do you look for?
G: We focus on music that is both sophisticated and inspiring, sensuous and spiritual. In addition to finding artists and tracks that would work well in our compilations, David and I also work closely with many of the artists while they are creating their songs and help produce the sound and direction of their songs so the end result brings our listeners the positive, fun and intriguing new musical experience they want while keeping the consciousness present in the music too. Since starting the series, we have found some really innovative chill-out/lounge artists both in the US and Europe.

MD: What is your opinion about the importance of spiritual elements in music?
SG: The feeling of spirit in music is one of the main reasons our audience listens.  When the artist creates music that is filled with spirit, people really feel that no matter what the style of music is. When it comes to chill-out/lounge music, it becomes even more important since it is the intersection of spirituality with sensual enjoyment which is the essence of this genre.  While this can sound like a contradiction, it is actually what good chill-out/lounge music is all about.

MD: What made you choose the Buddha theme?
SG: Our friends and partners in Europe had released the European version of Buddha-Lounge and we adjusted the songs for American audiences.  I was our sense that combining the imagery of the Buddha with chill-out/lounge music is a perfect way to express what downtempo/lounge music is all about.  Modern people on the spiritual path need music they can relax and enjoy themselves to.  By combining the Buddha image with a lounge,  the idea of staying centered and spiritual while being in and of the world of the senses is conveyed.

MD: In your opinion, what makes this series better than other lounge compilations?
SG: There are some absolutely fantastic lounge compilations out there, but what makes Buddha-Lounge the best is that it bridges the gap between both underground dance club-type lounge music and new age / world music.  You don’t have to be “in the know” to understand and enjoy Buddha-Lounge.  Each Buddha-Lounge release is easy to fall into whether or not you have ever heard any chill-out/lounge music or not. 

MD: Any comments about the mixing and sequencing? What makes you choose what goes where? Any sort of flow?
SG: There is a great deal of consideration and thought which goes into a great set of music.  We start out with a list of tracks for each release which is about three times as many songs as would fit on one of our extended length 70 minute sets. We draw upon the cutting edge artists from the European version as well as working with talented artists in the US. Over a period of a couple months, David and I cut the list down to the 13 or 14 songs which will end up on the final version. Choosing the sequence of the songs is art in itself as well.  A satisfying set of music has to start with just the right mood, build the energy in a seamless way, and hold interest the entire time and leave you feeling great, while still staying true to the concept of the album.  We have enjoyed mastering the art of DJing and consider the DJ work we do on these compilations to be another form of artistic expression which we enjoy doing along with composing and recording our own music and producing other artists.

MD: Any favorite artists or artists that you've signed because of their work with the series (or would like to?)
SG: There is one group, TYA, which we have included on Buddha-Lounge 2 and 3, which we really feel is exceptional and we also got so many requests for. So last year we released the full length TYA album, Akwaba, and it was very well received. TYA is a place where Worldbeat and chill-out converge in a really satisfying way.  We have also received many requests for another group from the Buddha-Lounge series, Ginkgo Garden, so we may release their album in 2006. There are also a few other artists, which may also be coming out with full length albums such as Althea W., Peter Mergener,  Opera-to-Relax and TAU.

MD: Goals of the Buddha Lounge albums, what are audiences/activities are they most appropriate for?
SG: The goal of the Buddha-Lounge series is to provide a musical environment where spirituality, sensuality, relaxation and entertainment all converge.  A place where conscious people can let go and have some fun while still keeping that thread of spiritually in their play.  This music is for anyone who wants something sophisticated and multi-cultural to relax with after work, while dinning with friends, to put on at a party or for intimate moments.

MD:  What do you see for the future of the series?
SG: At this point we are planning to continue until there are 10. After that we may have found our next inspiration!

MD:  Comments about the new album - what can listeners expect?
SG: Because of the popularity of the first two and then the even more popular third one which even made it onto the Billboard New Age Top 15 twice, we took even longer to find just the right tracks for the fourth one.  Many of the popular artists from the first three return, such as Althea W, TYA, Gingko Garden, Nasser Kilada, Peter Mergener plus new tracks from David Gordon as well as my new music project, Artemisia.  In addition, there will be a track from Sequoia’s latest artist, Achillea, which is created by ENIGMA co-producer Jens Gad.  The full length Achillea title, The Nine Worlds is coming out in August of this year,  David and I are sure this will be the best Buddha-Lounge to date.

MD:  Any comments about the success of the series? What does it mean to you that listeners are connecting with the music?
SG: It is always gratifying for us to see that our intuition about what the next trend is going to be turns out to be true. In this case, we could see that downtempo/chill-out music was getting more popular, but until we released the first Buddha-Lounge in the US, we were not sure that new age music listeners would warm up to it.  Of course, once it came out, it was immediately very popular and each one in the series we have put out has been even more popular that the one before it, so that is great to see.  It makes sense to us that people love these albums as much as we do since spiritually-minded folks do need a chance to relax and kick back too!

MD: What is your opinion of east/west fusion music, do you think it's a good thing? Do you think it spreads consciousness of other cultures?
SG: East/West fusion is a really gratifying combination which has the actual sounds of instruments from India and Asia blended with modern electronica grooves.  We enjoy this genre so much that Sequoia Groove has released two releases in this direction so far this year; Hotel Tara – The Intimate Side of Buddha-Lounge, which combines exotic Indian instruments and vocals with mystical world grooves, and Yoga Salon which blends ancient chants from India with sophisticated downtempo beats.  This Asian hybrid of chill-out/lounge is a natural next step for listeners already into yoga, meditation and eastern philosophy.  It makes the richness of these ancient cultures more accessible for contemporary folks.

MD: Anything else that you want people to know about in regards to this series?
SG: David and I are continuing to find exciting groundbreaking artists which we will include on future installments of the popular series. There are some excellent groups and artists from Europe as well as innovative sound crafters here in the US, which we are currently developing.  As we continue with the series we remain committed to going beyond the high standards of the Buddha-Lounge releases that have come before, as we raise the bar on what we consider to be the finest collection of multi-cultural chill-out/lounge music around.

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