Oakland’s Tieraney Carter, better known under the moniker Wizard Apprentice, has toiled in obscurity within the East Bay’s avant-garde electronic music scene for over a decade. Over the past year, a string of internationally acclaimed releases has made them a household name among connoisseurs of the new and weird, and with their latest album, they’re ready to share their most personal and vulnerable stories.
Dig a Pit, their newest album released earlier this May, is an investigation into the deep psychic trauma of domestic abuse. It’s a pop album destabilized by noise and industrial techno, an opera haunted by poetry and hallucination. In the act of sharing and exploring this trauma, the performance validates private pain in the public sphere and becomes a sort of healing ritual.
The music of Wizard Apprentice is an exercise in vulnerability and trusting oneself. Their uniquely minimalist style, typically just of a lone, dissonant synth melody, accompanied by little other than Carter’s singing or poetry, is rooted in a deep emotional intuition free from both formal traditions and abstract chaos. Their music is as real as what you feel.
“Healing requires re-contextualizing the whole experience to have more clarity,” said Carter, who prefers to be identified with the pronoun “they.” Since so much domestic abuse hinges on psychological control and the undermining of self-perception, the album became a way to assure themselves that their experience was real. “I have to keep deciding if it’s true or not — there’s a constant deliberation that goes on in the mind. So for me to record what I understand to have happened, with the constant deliberation, coming back and anchoring in my own story, has been a big part of it.”
Carter likens the sudden reframing of reality to the twist ending of the film The Usual Suspects, in which past events need to be reinterpreted once the full scope of what’s happened becomes clear. It’s a process that even audience members who may not be familiar with the topic of domestic abuse can understand through music.
Carter has also launched a new video series on their YouTube channel, “Survivor Catchphrases,” to educate the public on common cultural tropes pertinent to domestic abuse. Education and edification can come in many different forms, and they’re leaving no stone unturned.
“I think one of the things that was so painful and difficult about that experience was being able to explain what happened to other people, especially to people who don’t understand the mechanics of psychological abuse,” Carter said. “Also sharing it openly becomes a way to have other people engage with it. It’s such a crazy experience, having clarity within myself, and for other people to say ‘oh yeah that’s a thing’ — there’s a validation of my experience. That’s helpful.”
And again, it’s worth underscoring that the composition process itself is part of that validation. The album’s lead single “Betrayal Internalized” throbs and flickers with restrained energy, hovering just outside of a tonal center. Carter’s melody and lyrics, though beautifully sung, don’t fit into any tradition or structure.
Even catchier tunes like “Desire to Learn,” bouncing along on a laser-beam industrial techno beat, devolve into dissonance and uncertainty. As Carter’s singing gets more confident, the harsh stabbing of a typewriter cuts through the beat, adding a flavor of Einsturzunde Neubaten to the previously innocuous dance-pop.
“For me, often my music-making practice is: I have a feeling; what sound matches this feeling?” Carter explains. “And then pressing keys until I find a sound that feels right. I couldn’t really describe it in musical theory terms. It’s just kind of a hunt-and-peck process that I’ve gotten faster at over time.”
Much like their academic research into the psychological workings of domestic abuse, Dig a Pit finds its grounding in a validation by a receptive audience, as well as — for the first time — guest musicians. When Carter was recording the album in a studio in Seattle, musicians in nearby recording rooms would drop by and offer to add accompaniment to the tracks. What started as an intensely personal live performance piece became a collaborative effort.
“It does feel very validating, especially because my compositions are pretty minimal,” Carter said. “It’s cool to figure out a way to translate some of that into a cello part, or the best way to mix the two.”
Through their success, Wizard Apprentice has broken through the social isolation that, in different forms, afflicts experimental artists and domestic abuse survivors. Rather than having the value of their expressions rejected, renowned avant-garde labels Ratskin Records and Cruisin Records have rallied to support them, booking tour dates and supplying physical merchandise. What once was a DIY effort is now the pride and joy of a whole community. Carted noted, for example, that while they still play basement shows, they also recently opened for Baths at San Francisco’s popular Noise Pop festival.
It seems abundantly clear that Dig a Pit hasn’t just been a healing process for Wizard Apprentice; it’s a metamorphosis. “Enjoy what you’ve won / Use this song / To relive a time / When you won,” the singer coos on the opening salvo, You’ve Won, taunting their oppressor with the fleeting, frail nature of abusive power. The voice is awash in Glass-esque string quartet minimalism, underwater lounge keyboards, and the rustling cacophony of musique-concrete found-sound collage.
From the bleak cocoon of survival, something valid and affirmative has emerged. Carter doesn’t know what that will look like just yet, but it will be different, likely a performance more rooted in movement and dance.
“There are a lot of really amazing lessons that I’ve learned through that experience — more embodiment, better boundaries, a better sense of who I am,” Carter said. “I want my next live set to be focused on embodiment and pleasure. This album is so gnarly, I want to do something that’s, I don’t know, sexy? Whatever that means to me.”