Keeping track of all the music Will Long has released under the moniker Celer isn’t an easy task. His output easily numbers in the triple digits, having put out collections of sun-dappled drone since 2005.
This year, the Tokyo-based artist has decided to look back, in an effort to help fans navigate his discography.
“For the first four or five years, everything was handmade,” Long says. “Just a few CDs or some just really tiny stuff. I’m sure many people can’t find (my music) from the past few years. I don’t want people to pay lots of money for those on Discogs or something.” He adds that a few opportunists have tried to sell rare Celer releases online for “outrageous prices.” To counter this, he remastered and re-released his two earliest works under the Celer name — “Continents” and “Scols” — this spring.
This price gouging and hunger from listeners for Long’s work from the early 2000s reflects Celer’s status in the world of ambient music. Long’s music routinely appears on the bestselling section of the website Bandcamp, while Celer has received praise via the online community at Rate Your Music and critics such as Simon Reynolds, who called Long’s 40-minute track “Coral Sea” “a gorgeous record, one of the decade’s best.”
I want to talk to Long for reasons beyond his status in the ambient community. When I reach out to him, the COVID-19 pandemic is at its height in Japan, and his music has become part of my own daily soundtrack. The looping nature and lengthy run times of his songs encourage concentration at a time of great discombobulation. Yet it isn’t pure escape — while a sense of warmth often cracks through, tracks often lean toward unease or even abrasiveness. The more you focus on repetition, the more unsettling parts come out. Being able to be absorbed by something not tied to the outside world for an hour or two feels like sanctuary.
“Almost everything is like a diary. Sometimes it’s more attached to an actual experience,” Long says of Celer’s music, which also helps explain his prolific catalog. He doesn’t dwell on perfection when creating music, opting instead to capture a feeling and move on, although it’s a different situation when he actually decides to put his work out into the world.
“In some ways it’s more cathartic, I guess, like something you really want to talk about or share,” he says. “I could just make music in my bedroom by myself and then never press a record, and probably have the same result without the capitalistic selfishness of actually publishing it and all that kind of stuff.”
“But it helps to survive in Japan,” he adds, laughing.
Before moving here, Long was restless. Born and raised in Mississippi, he grew up loving movie scores in the 1980s and experiencing raves in the ’90s. He eventually found his way to California where he and his partner, Danielle Baquet-Long, started Celer as a duo in 2005.
“I think when I was making things with her, we really were just throwing many different things together,” Long says. “I remember for ‘Continents’ where we found a list of the top 10 most polluted places in the world and used those names somewhere in the titles here and there.”
This initial form of Celer shared around 22 albums, all homemade and with limited availability, while the pair also worked on art installations. In 2009, Baquet-Long died of heart failure. Long carried on with Celer.
In 2011, though, he had the chance for a change when he came to Japan to play a handful of shows. “It was after the recession in the U.S. I had been working for newspapers, but that industry collapsed. I was living at home back in Mississippi, and my father had cancer and was on his way out. It was really the time to start something new or get stuck in a place where I couldn’t do anything at all. I guess, I just took the immediate experience and inspiration, and went with it.” While not initially intending to stay in the country long term, he has made Tokyo his home since.
“I’m staying for a long time now, but I also have somewhat of a displaced permanent traveler feeling sometimes. It’s like almost any foreign culture, we can’t ever assimilate completely, so you’re always somewhat of an outsider,” he says. “It seems like you’re running parallel to everything in the same place sometimes.”
Long has kept with Celer throughout. He plays “a couple” shows a year and doesn’t feel many ties with the contemporary Japanese music community. “I don’t really think I fit into anything that’s continuing for a very long time. All the venues that I played in the first few years, such as SuperDeluxe, are almost all gone now. Many of the artists that I was playing with at that time also either just disappeared or don’t make music anymore.”
Perhaps that’s a fitting situation for a musician creating primarily from personal memories and thought experiments. Many Celer releases capture very specific instances in Long’s life. None better underlines this than last year’s “Xiexie,” a work mixing long ambient passages with field recordings taken on a trip to China.
“I really wanted to put the setting of the trip to China as the record of the time, but also tried to insert the feeling of moving much faster than you can control. I think the trains and the noise and everything, and how it surrounds you, represents that memory for me. I’m not sure it makes sense to anyone else.”
The irony, though, is that “Xiexie” has become Long’s most talked-about work, at least in online music communities.
“I feel like it’s written off a little bit too much as a travelogue sometimes, but I guess it just is what it is,” he says of the album’s reception. “Even if they can’t understand the specific, the abstract connects in some way.”
Long has been busy this year. He continues to release music as Celer — most recently, an hour-long track titled “For the Meantime,” released via Longform Editions — while also putting out house music under his own name. He’s also contending with his own COVID-19 hurdles. He started taking orders for a four-CD box set in December, but the physical orders didn’t arrive at his Tokyo home for months, and the Japan Post suspended airmail to many countries soon after.
“I’ve got like 1,500 extra CDs in my room right now, so it will be nice when international mail stars up again,” he says, though he knows he will have a lot of trips to the post office at that point.
For more information on Celer, visit celer.bandcamp.com.