The truth about Hecker, of course, is a bit of a disappointment. He isn't from Transylvania, just Canada. And while his conversational manner doesn't exactly radiate warmth, he doesn't come off as overly morose or solemn, either. As Hecker is fond of saying, people meet him expecting Nosferatu, but what they get is Larry David.
But then, if the point is that he's not the misanthrope everyone imagines, is the inspiration for George Costanza a much better comparison?
"OK, Bobby McFerrin, then," Hecker says. "Maybe Nosferatu is a misunderstood humanist or romantic, also."
Over the phone, Hecker sounds like neither the Prince of Darkness nor the Lord of Neurosis, nor does he sound as if he could break into spirited scatting at any moment. Mostly he just sounds tired. A few minutes ago, Hecker, who now lives in L.A., was peering at a computer screen, working on new material, which is, for him, a draining ordeal. While he rejects being called a "perfectionist," there is a detail to Hecker's work that sets him apart from others in the world of ambient music, another term he's not entirely comfortable having ascribed to him. He likens his creative process to both a monthslong game of Jenga, in which layers are built up and then deconstructed bit by bit, and to riding a wild horse, in that, no matter how hard he tries to guide a piece where he wants it to go, "there's a certain point of surrender." That tension causes even his most serene work to tremble with unease. Hecker's compositions are often called "bleak," but he disagrees with that, too.
"I wouldn't say 'bleak' is some unifying narrative of my work," he says. "I'd say maybe 'blue,' slightly. But bleak is too extreme."
Either way, the images Hecker conjures forth aren't pastoral landscapes and placid waterfalls. It's dew-covered cemeteries in the haze of dawn; abandoned cathedrals; old houses in an advanced state of decay; or, in the case of last year's Virgins, his seventh album, pianos in a forgotten attic that have begun to play themselves. Naturally, his range of influence extends far beyond yoga instructors and proprietors of acupuncture studios. Prog-metal bands have cited him as an inspiration. Sigur Rós invited him to open for the band at Madison Square Garden. Critics from Spin to The New York Times have praised him. His relationship with the wider pop music universe goes both ways: He grew up listening to the Pixies and Nirvana, and started his career in the club scene, spinning techno in Montreal, before determining that rhythm was "the grid I needed to get away from." There are traditional songwriting elements detectable in his current output—harmonies, subtle percussion—but they exist almost as ghosts, haunting the structure rather than helping to prop it up.
Hecker himself is somewhere in there, too—the real one, not the bogeyman of listeners' imaginations. Though he is adamant that his personal biography plays no part in his art, he regards each album as a document of the time in which it was made, only so jumbled and disfigured that the memories are indistinct, even to him. And Hecker acknowledges that, as his audience grows, maintaining a presence in his music becomes increasingly important.
"Those internal narratives, of having an audience, it's something you have to recognize as real but reject," he says. "You have to be selfish about your own work and personal exploration, and at the end of the day satisfy yourself. I did this for myself to make peace with the day and fulfill myself. That's what this is in the end."
In other words: Don't worry, make yourself happy.
SEE IT: Tim Hecker plays Lincoln Hall at Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave., as part of the Time-Based Art Festival, on Sunday, Sept. 14. 8:30 pm. $12-$20 for PICA members, $15-$25 general admission. All ages.