Interview with Joey Burns & John Convertino (Calexico).
“So much of what we do comes from tone and timbre, what the sound waves are doing that day in the room with the moisture or lack of. How high is the ceiling? The wood in the walls or the adobe, the thickness of the strings, the loudness of the amps, they all come together when the silence is broken the tide comes in.”
— John Convertino
Words: Mark Carry
The arrival of a new Calexico record is always a cause of celebration and pure joy. Since first discovering the Tucson, Arizona collective’s shape-shifting music – circa 2000 with the mariachi infused opus of ‘Hot Rail’ – Calexico’s songbook has proved the most pivotal and endearing of artistic creations that seamlessly seeps into your veins and hits directly to the heart’s core. Last spring saw the eagerly awaited new full length release, ‘Edge of the Sun’; a sonic marvel of a record that stands tall as the band’s strongest work to date. Like a river finding its sea, a natural ebb and flow ceaselessly permeates from the well-cultivated sounds and timbres cast by the core duo of Joey Burns (singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist) and John Convertino (drums, songwriter, percussion, vibes).
It’s their windswept, breathtakingly beautiful instrumentals (is there anything more pure and beautiful as ‘Minas De Cobre’, ‘El Picador‘ or ‘Above The Branch’?); heart wrenching ballads (‘Bloodflow’, ‘The News About William’, ‘Fortune Teller’); brooding cinematic opuses (‘Red Blooms’, ‘Black Heart’, ‘The Vanishing Mind’); life affirming symphonies (‘Quattro’, ‘Epic’, ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’); songs of hope etched in the heart of darkness (‘Para’, ‘Crooked Road And The Briar’, ‘Not Even Stevie Nicks…’, ‘Trigger’); and momentous rejoice (‘Crystal Frontier’, ‘Guero Canelo’, ‘No Te Vayas’, ‘Inspiracion’). As always, the deeply rooted music telepathy between Burns and Convertino, combined with the peerless musicianship of the greater Calexico ensemble (spanning continents and encompassing worlds of sound) and producer supreme Craig Schumacher, means that true art is endlessly created.
The jubilant album opener ‘Falling From The Sky’ contains the stream-line approach the band previously utilized on the highly under-rated ‘Garden Ruin’ record with a rejuvenating brass section and the mesmerizing synth-led melody (courtesy of multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Sergio Mendoza). In addition, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell adds vocals. The lyric of “like a bird lost inside the cloud/cut off from the stars” evokes the vivid sense of searching that flickers like rays of sunlight throughout the record’s sprawling canvas. A brooding atmosphere exudes from ‘Bullets & Rocks’; reminiscent of ‘Bend To The Road’ (live cut) from the ‘Carried To Dust’ tour. The multi-layered electric guitars conjures up the timeless sound of ‘Zuma’ era Neil Young (or vintage Iron & Wine whose frontman Sam Beam joins Burns & co, in turn, forming a fitting parallel to 2005’s collaborative ‘In The Reins’ EP). “Families disappear to the dark of the night” evokes a loss, pain and suffering; lying at the heart of the “devil’s highway” but the light of hope undeniably prevails through the shimmering darkness.
‘When The Angels Played‘ is a stunningly beautiful country lament recalling Gillian Welch and the heart of the great American songbook; a Dylan-esque folk splendor which could be a distant companion to (the previously recorded Pieta Brown duet) ‘Slowness’. The sublime ‘Cumbia de Donde’ brings the whole latin world to new dimensions, as Manu Chao and off-shoot Buena Vista sound systems flicker onto the horizon. The arrival of Spain’s Amparo Sanchez is akin to a spiritual journey as a lost brother to ‘Guero Canelo’ comes to the fore. ‘Cumbia de Donde’ somehow sits at the intersection between ‘Roka’ and ‘Guero Canelo’ creating, in turn, a spiritual journey: a road trip of epic proportions.
‘Tapping On The Line’s chorus refrain resonates powerfully as Burns asks, “could you step a little bit closer to the line?“: a song which shares the spirit of ‘Nebraska’ era Springsteen; charged with a gripping immediacy and vital pulse. ‘Miles From The Sea’ represents one of the album’s defining moments and undoubtedly one of the most formidable Calexico recording ever put to tape. The chorus refrain is immaculate as Burns sings of “dreams about swimming miles away from the sea“. The vast blue seas of the human heart is explored from the skies above to the seas below. ‘Woodshed Waltz’ is a pristine slice of divine americana. Sonically, it takes me to ‘Toolbox’ (the band’s towering instrumentals-only album) where the burning spark of creativity and spontaneity radiates throughout. The rise/bridge is one of the album’s endearing moments. A song about letting go, moving on. Another songwriter’s song. ‘Moon Never Rises’ is steeped in new and compelling sounds. The nuances and textures added by guest vocalist Carla Morrison brings forth a cinematic feel as new sonic terrain is masterfully explored.
The opening section of ‘World Undone’ – Burns’ hypnotic acoustic guitar is beautifully melded with Convertino’s meditative drums – shares a similar sound world to the band’s instrumental cut ‘Above The Branch’. The (singular) aesthetic created by the duo of Convertino’s drums and Burns’ guitar unleashes a staggering beauty that creates a resolutely unique and singular sound (kindred spirits such as White/Ellis/Turner and Davis/Coltrane also come to mind). There is something magical about how ‘World Undone’ unfolds. The stunning vocal delivery of Burns (joined by Devotchka’s Nick Urata) is a joy to witness as Burns sings “waiting for the devils to come“. The way in which this tour-de-force builds and evolve, represents the immense power and glory of the ‘Edge of the Sun’ as a whole. The cathartic energy of ‘Black Heart’ is likewise emitted here: “the world’s coming down“.
‘Follow The River‘ is another milestone in the sacred songbook of Calexico, reminiscent of ‘Epic’ where a healing quality and power of redemption abounds. In the liner notes of the band’s retrospective ‘Road Atlas’ (1998-2011), Fred Mills wrote: “But it’s not until you take in the entirety of the group’s sprawling discography that the sights, smells, textures and timbres of the Calexico experience fully reveal themselves.” As ever, one feels the emotional thread embedded deep in the songs: a common thread that connects all the band’s studio albums, tour cds, collaborative releases to date.
‘Edge of the Sun’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) & ANTI- (USA).
Interview with Joey Burns & John Convertino (Calexico).
Congratulations on the truly inspiring and captivating new record, ‘Edge of the Sun'; a sonic marvel of a record. You, John and the entire Calexico family should feel deeply proud. A world of detail and intricate layers of immaculate instrumentation are rooted in these songs; some new elements that I haven’t heard before in a Calexico studio album. As ever, an emotional depth of rich intensity & magnitude permeates the headspace and a cosmic spirit that captivates the heart.
Please discuss the making of ‘Edge of the Sun’ and particularly the Mexican city of Coyoacán where the album was recorded. Similar to how you decided to record ‘Algiers’ in the aforementioned New Orleans neighbourhood, as ever you all must have soaked up the surrounding city’s culture and neighbourhood that seamlessly tapped into the album’s twelve gems?
John Convertino: Thanks so much for all the compliments, careful listening, and insights to the new record. As with ‘Algiers’, we felt we needed to get to a place that had the space for us to focus on the album and songs, to put ideas down whatever they may be, and to spend some time together without having the responsibilities of home life. Coyoacán like Algiers has a great vibe and history to think about as you go for walks or runs in the park. Where we lived and recorded there was a courtyard and big trees that gave you shelter from the big city outside, we had two meals a day prepared for us with love, so we never had to worry about what and where to eat, the energy was strong, and we were able to get a lot work done and some sightseeing as well.
Joey Burns: It was important just as it was making ‘Algiers’ to go somewhere for 12 days where we could eat, sleep and breathe music. It really helps to get the ball rolling when we can focus on writing like that. Being in Mexico City was a plus. The food, people and sights all help make for a special experience. One day we went with a friend to see the work he had been doing on Pedro Reyes’ art piece “Disarm”. He was helping Reyes build musical instruments out of pieces of broken weapons seized by the Mexican government from the drug cartels. We got to see a rehearsal and even try playing some of the instruments. I tried the electric bass, guitar and cello, John checked out the percussion which was all midi controlled and Sergio was intrigued with the violin. The symbolism was beautiful and inspired us all.
What is most special about the Calexico songbook (and indeed becomes the essence of the band’s rich legacy) is the deeply enriching narrative that flows throughout each record where one flows into the next like a river finding its sea. ‘Edge of the Sun’ continues this search for hope in the depths of despair; a strive for a better life; dreams of better days. I would love for you to discuss the themes of the new album and what ideas and concerns you felt were important to address on ‘Edge of the Sun’?
JC: I agree with you Mark, I think Joey and his brother John, as well as Pieta Brown and Sergio Mendoza all came up with some of the best lyrics yet for the record. I find that immigration and borders have been continual themes throughout all of our records, and now that we have become so familiar with those themes I believe there is greater clarity in how we feel about these issues therefore translating into the songs in a natural way. As we all get older, it becomes more and more apparent that it’s not always easy being a human on the planet. There are so many misunderstandings and communication can so easily break down, what may be such a brilliant thought comes out sounding completely wrong, it takes time to formulate how to verbalize what your feeling, maybe it comes easier as you get older, maybe not, it could just be more familiar ground. I think this is an apparent theme in the record.
JB: I wanted to acknowledge the difficulties in life, the things we all share and have to endure and yet I wanted to the music to help balance that and give a sense of hope. Near the end of the album sequence the song “World Undone” shows signs of grief from the character’s perspective and by the final track “Follow The River” that same character has found a way out of despair to recognize there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Transformation is part of the process and every album takes on a slightly different direction. Sometimes they parallel the world around us and other times they map out the emotional paths we are on.
The ocean (and possibly your upbringing in LA) and “dreams about swimming/miles away from the sea” on ‘Miles From The Sea’ feels a distant companion to similar themes explored on ‘..Not Even Stevie Nicks’, ‘Sinner In The Sea’ and indeed several aspects on ‘Carried To Dust’. Please discuss these re-occurring themes that are wonderfully re-visited here?
JC: I’ve always wondered about that too, I know it’s really a question for Joey, but having lived in the desert for so many years I have thought of water and the ocean more than when I lived in Los Angeles. Water is such a huge part of life, it is life, water and sun and all the elements. Living in El Paso Texas now, I have visited the wonderful Chinoti foundation a few times and have become a fan of Donald Judd. The massive concrete squares with the bright blue desert sun behind them bring to my mind the beginning of creation, that bang, the snare drum crack that sparked us all into being….there is that moment when the silence is broken, the wave crashes and the world keeps moving.
JB: I wasn’t sure about this song lyrically. I sent it to my oldest brother John who is a good source for feedback and inspiration. He helped with some of the lines in the verses and was supportive for keeping the lines in the chorus which I wasn’t so sure I wanted to keep. For sure there are themes of nature and specifically the ocean that have made an impact on my writing. However recurring they may be I try to shed new light on them with each song. I was surprised when doing some interviews in Europe that this song was some of the writers’ favorite song.
Collaboration has always been integral to your work but with ‘Edge of the Sun’, the spirit of collaboration is taken to new heights and possibilities. I feel this spirit of togetherness and an openness radiates throughout these soaring songs. Talk me through please the songs and the guests on each track? One of the formidable highlights is Mexican chanteuse Carla Morrison’s vocals on ‘Moon Never Rises’. It is also beautiful to witness the many special souls who have served a vital pulse to the Calexico songbook, including Amparo Sanchez, John Burns, Sam Beam and Neko Case. It is hardly surprising that ‘Edge of the Sun’ quickly becomes a source of comfort and solace.
JB: The idea of inviting guests was something that Christof Ellinghaus had once suggested a few years ago. “Make a record of duets with guest singers” is what he suggested. It wasn’t until after Sam Beam sent his vocals for “Bullets & Rocks” did I even consider asking other musicians to sit in on this album or for it to become such a developed theme on this album. We for sure wanted to invite some of our favorite musicians from Mexico on the album. Having Carla Morrison was a big deal as she is super busy and we had never met before. Fortunately we know her manager, Gil Gastelum who used to live in Tucson and he helped arrange for her appearance as well as Gaby Moreno’s. We were really hoping that Camilo Lara could contribute some tracks since he was in a way responsible for us getting to Coyoacán and working at his friend Ro Velazquez’s home studio.
Having Neko Case on one of our albums definitely was something we had always wanted to do since we do so much work on her albums, so we were extremely grateful when she took time out the day she played Tucson with her band The New Pornographers. She nailed it and then gave us all hugs and ran onstage. Incredible! Sergio’s lap steel player in his band suggested that we contact members of Band of Horses and made the introduction. He knew that we were trying to get someone to sing on “Falling From The Sky” and when he made the suggestion to ask Ben Bridwell, I instantly knew it could be a good match and it blew me away. It still stands out as one of the most impressive collaborations for me. Pieta Brown is another good friend who has offered up lyrics in the past, “Fortune Teller” for example. When I read her first lines of “When The Angels Played” I felt a connection immediately. Sure enough it came together quickly and John and I tracked the song one late night in Coyoacán.
Amparo Sanchez has long been a big influence and we were excited to hear her bring some fire to “Cumbia De Donde“. Sergio has been performing with DevotchKa on tour for several years and he suggested asking Nick Urata to sing on “Follow The River” which again was a big surprise to hear his incredible vocals take the higher harmony and make the song go somewhere else. “Coyoacán” features an outstanding harp player from El Paso, Adrian Perez who we’ve worked with at live shows with Mariachi Luz de Luna here in Tucson. He comes to town a fair amount so I had him come in and try not only a pass on this song but add some Kora style lines on “Bullets & Rocks“.
JC: All the guests came about in such a natural way, there towards the end of the recordings when the songs were established Sergio would encourage us to add vocal guests, as in the case with Carla and Gabby, who we didn’t even know, and from there inviting our friends who we knew could help us out so much, it was always such a treat to hear what they would come up with, Ben and Sam living with the songs alone in their own home studios and coming up with parts that took the songs to different places. Neko taking the time on tour to drop by the studio and make one of my favorite moments on the record in “Tapping On The Line”. It really became a part of the whole record to have guests.
The stunningly beautiful ‘Follow The River’ brings the album to a fitting close. The immediacy and honesty hits you profoundly, where a soul’s heart is laid to bare. The harmonies, striking vocal delivery, accordion, lapsteel, drums conjures up a timeless and mesmerising sound. Can you recount your memories of writing and recording this particular track please?
JC: One of my favorites too. Being there in Coyoacán and hearing Joey and Sergio playing guitar and vehuela outside in the courtyard, and then stepping into the studio and recording the idea in that natural cut time feel, it quickly became a favorite because of its ease, like it was so meant to be here. And then to have Nick Urata from Devotchka add his vocal layer put the song into that blue mood even further.
JB: This was based on an idea that we came up with while writing in Mexico City. Sergio started with playing a vihuela rhythmic pattern, and I came in with nylon acoustic guitar suggesting certain chords to follow his motif. We re-recorded the idea in Tucson with a full drum sound and upright bass with a few overdubs of piano and vibraphone. John really liked the minimal arrangement, but I heard some other parts that could help make some of the transitions from verse to chorus and to bridge sections. So we added very minimal trumpet parts from Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela as well as a gorgeous pedal steel part from Paul Niehaus. Some of the Brian Eno sounding synth parts were from a pocket piano synthesizer that wound up on a lot of tracks on this album.
‘Cumbia de Donde’ feels a lost sister to ‘Guero Canelo’ from ‘Feast of Wire’ or even ‘Roka’s Danza de la Muerte. I feel the energy of Calexico’s live concert is effectively translated to the sprawling canvas of ‘Edge of the Sun’. I’m sure it is an extremely exciting prospect to be in the midst of touring this new record. Talk a bit please about the space and aesthetics that inhabits each and every Calexico song? I feel this remains the trusted constant and magical spark to the unique sound of this ever-evolving ensemble.
JB: We wanted to show the variety inside our band, and so every track takes its own path and highlights different sides to the band’s musical styles. The last album “Algiers” was more focused style wise and this time out and reflecting the vibrant spirit that Mexico City exudes, we wanted to change it up. I will speak about “Cumbia de Donde” a little bit. This was influenced from spending time in Mexico and was written after the trip and recorded the first day at Wavelab Studio in Tucson. I had an idea of recording a few snippets of instrumental cumbia tracks to have come in and out of the record. This one turned out so good that we decided to make a full on song out of it. There’s a lot of distortion on the bass, percussion and vocals. We wanted to give this song the werewolf treatment and give it some teeth.
JC: Another fun one for me, I came in the next day after they had recorded this romp to a click track, and found myself a beat to play over it. In reality the beat I am playing is not a cumbia beat, it’s something else I don’t know what, but it’s not cumbia, and playing the song live I am still figuring out what to play….maybe I could try a cumbia?
Beginning back in the 90’s, you’ve been collecting musical instruments, which has been an important part to the creative process. I’m curious to know what new instruments or new tones/textures were added to the sonic palette of ‘Edge of the Sun’? One of the striking aspects to the new record is indeed the wide range of sonic timbres utilized on ‘Edge of the Sun’.
JB: The most impressive addition to the sounds on this album are the jalisco harp featured on “Coyoacán” and the Greek instruments; the kanun and bouzouki featured on “World Undone“. Oh yeah and how could I forget the addition of the pocket piano by Critter & Guitari. It’s an addicting little keyboard. Be careful when you bring it to the studio. My twin daughters Genevieve and Twyla loved playing with it at home.
JC: I did get a new drumset, something I thought I would never do, I love my vintage instruments so much. But this father and son company called C&C make these drums so much like the old ones, and even better, the tones gave me great inspiration. So much of what we do comes from tone and timbre, what the sound waves are doing that day in the room with the moisture or lack of. How high is the ceiling? The wood in the walls or the adobe, the thickness of the strings, the loudness of the amps, they all come together when the silence is broken the tide comes in.
In terms of the production, it was very much a shared experience between the core duo of Burns, Convertino, but this time out, Sergio contributed a lot to this side of the music. I would love for you to recount your memories of this process of the music-making process?
JC: Sergio is positive force; he is ready for the challenges. Coming up with something out of nothing can be like digging ditches some days, you got to have the strength. He has it. I think too, I was not there this time for a lot of the process, using email and texts don’t always translate well, so for this it was great have Sergio there to bounce ideas off of in the mixing process.
JB: It was helpful having both Ryan Alfred on bass and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards in the studio while recording the foundation for the songs. I know it helps out a lot with locking in to the groove. In addition I really enjoy recording with just John and myself as well. So we did some sessions as a two piece and came up with a bunch of basic tracks for songs like “Miles From The Sea“, “Woodshed Waltz“, “Bullets & Rocks” and “When The Angels Played”. John was there for the recording of basic tracks and Sergio was super helpful for me personally being there everyday and supportive on finishing the whole album including reaching out to guests. The studio engineers get overwhelmed with all of the ideas and possibilities, and I am sure the other band members do as well. But Sergio was good at helping me make decisions on what songs to focus on and to finish.
Please pick one song you feel most proud of and reminisce for me the song’s inception and blossom into its final entity?
JB: “World Undone” was started at home with a simple melody line. While I was driving into the studio that morning I listened to Bill Callahan’s ‘Dream River‘ album and thought it would be interesting to try a similar minimal approach. Tracked live, Sergio Mendoza and Ryan Alfred accompanied John and I on ambient guitars instead of keyboard and bass. This helped free up the form and allowed us to experiment more with a live take between my guitar and John’s drums. I like this version of the song and even though I kept wanting the dynamics to build more. That is the beauty of a live take. We did however make an edit so that the song was 4 minutes long and not 7. I think that helped a lot especially in wanting to release so many songs on the album.
Months later while on tour in Greece we added some musicians from the band Takim which really helped outline the melody with bouzouki and oud, plus doubling an electric guitar part with violin. The harpsichord sounding texture that weaves in and out of the track is the kanun, a traditional hammer dulcimer type instrument. When Craig Schumacher went to mix the song he noticed there was no bass and so he added a Moog synth bass which I like a lot and was a nice surprise when listening to his mix. When I played the album to our live engineers in Holland both Patrick Boonstra and Jelle Kuiper commented that this was their favorite song. It was hard choosing which songs out of the 20 we had finished were to be on the album. I’m glad that “World Undone” made it to the album.
JC: I like them all, and that becomes a problem because I was thinking they all should be on the record, but that makes a record long and who has time to listen to long records??? People download songs now, and that’s the world we live in. I have to believe that if all the songs are available in the digital world, people will find them and like them if they take the time to dig.
What books, records, films have served inspiration these past few months for you?
JB: Buddy Levy “Conquistador“, Natalia Lafourcade “Mujer Divinia – Homenaje a Agustín Lara, Mexican Institute of Sound “Politico”, painter Rodolfo Nieto and writer Carlos Fuentes.
JC: As I mentioned before the Donald Judd exhibit in Marfa was in my mind. I’ve been reading the Morrissey autobiography and loving it. His writing and insights to poetry and music is something I can relate to very closely. And I appreciate so much his honesty, even in the most difficult of situations being in a band, the business, fame and all the rest of it.
‘Edge of the Sun’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) & ANTI- (USA).
Irish songwriter Brigid Power-Ryce toured with U.S. songwriter Peter Broderick (Bella Union, Erased Tapes) across Ireland and the U.K. this May while promoting Broderick’s current studio album ‘Colours Of The Night (Satellite)’, with venues including The Sirius in Cobh, Cork and Mono, Glasgow. Since first meeting at a concert in Cork’s Half Moon Theatre in October 2014, Broderick became instantly hooked with Power-Ryce’s timeless songs. Shortly, Power-Ryce will be recording new material with Broderick at his own Portland-based home studio, The Sparkle.
Words: Brigid Power-Ryce
4th May 2015
Bristol! I arrived the day before so I got to check out the city. It reminded me of a more professional and bigger Galway. I met Peter and Peter (Broderick & O’Sullivan) at the venue which was the Lantern at Colston Hall. It was a gorgeous place, Belle and Sebastian were also playing there that same evening in the main hall. I was a bit uptight in my performance, I’d had too much coffee that day and I was thinking too much while singing. Normally I don’t have many thoughts when I’m singing so when they suddenly pop up it’s like “Aaaghhh get out, you’re in the way!” And I can’t connect.
Peter’s set was really impressive and the crowd were all swooning.
I met someone who told me a story about their Granny driving down a cul-de-sac. All of a sudden, she sneezed and instead of putting her foot on the brake she put it on the accelerator and drove into a load of bins. I got quite hysterical about that for some reason. In hindsight that was to probably set off the giggly tone of the tour for me.
We drove up to Coventry, I don’t remember much of the drive. Oh, we listened to some music by Peter’s friend by the name of Brumes. It was gorgeous.
Checked into our hotel. My God, what a place. It was just like the hotel from the film ‘Barton Fink’. Gale-force winds in the lobby, strange paintings and tapestries all over the hotel, a completely full car park, but where were all the guests?
I loved it.
The gig that night was really good, nice and small and intimate. I was much more relaxed than the previous night. They had spelled my name ‘Bigid’ on the poster and Peter was ‘Bodick’.
Long drive up to Glasgow! Peter O’Sullivan, who’s driving us, made me giggle a lot. I would’ve been in trouble sitting next to him in school. We played in a venue called mono. Glaswegians are lovely! My two friends from home came along and I was so happy to see them. We all played an intense card game of ‘snap’ and ‘shithead’. I really enjoyed playing that gig, maybe it was my favourite.
I went up to sing with Peter for his song ‘On Time’ which I love so much. But either my mic wasn’t on enough or my voice was coming out because I couldn’t hear anything. Or it could’ve been that I was so struck by the song that I was too busy listening to him sing it and my body shut down, or I just couldn’t hit the notes. One of those reasons anyway!
We got up early to drive to get the ferry over to Belfast. The interior of the boat was all neon pink and green. I was eavesdropping on an American lady talking about the Smurfs. “Remember the Smurfs? They were cute, huh?”
This was my first time in Belfast. We played a pub called McHugh’s. It was a great little venue. Actually this was my favourite night to play and I loved Peter’s set this night too.
We travel down from Belfast to Cork. I buy my son a dinosaur book from the service station, that he has since informed me “you got me that before, when I was three.” Which he is indeed right about but I’m freaked out he can remember things from then.
Cobh is lovely. It’s kind of hitting me now that this will be the last night and I start to feel a little sad and a little anxious that it’ll take me a while to settle back to day-to-day life. But a feeling of appreciation of having even been able to play every night to lovely people overrides the sadness. The venue is beautiful, I can’t really remember playing, I was sort of floating in and out of being spacey, due to tiredness and an all-over feeling of release that had exhausted me (in a good way).
The two Peter’s go on to Baltimore and I sit with my memories on the bus up to Dublin, laughing out loud a few times and in return creeping out the passengers…
‘I Told You The Truth’ by Brigid Power-Ryce is available now on Abandon Reason.
Interview with Wildbirds & Peacedrums.
“The love of something also brings the fear of losing it, so there is always a duality present.”
— Mariam Wallentin/Andreas Werliin
Words: Mark Carry
Late last year saw the eagerly awaited fourth full-length release from Stockholm husband and wife duo, Wildbirds & Peacedrums. ‘Rhythm’ –released on the prestigious UK imprint The Leaf Label – showcases Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin’s deep musical telepathy and the band’s incendiary live performance. Describing ‘Rhythm’ as ‘going back to our roots’ album, the album’s highly intensifying nine sonic creations incorporated drums (Werliin) and voice (Wallentin) with exception of a bass line added at certain sections. A relentless creativity seeps from the gifted duo whose previous records – ‘Heartland’(2008), ‘The Snake’ (2009), ‘Rivers’ (2010) – have incorporated multitudes of sounds (tropicalia, punk, R&B, spiritual pop and primitive blues) and soaring emotion.
Andreas Werliin’s wide array of collaborative projects include: Andrew Bird, Lonely Dear and Neneh Cherry. In addition, the acclaimed trio of Fire! (with gifted saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Tape’s Johan Berthling) and Tonbruket (with Dan Berglund). Mariam Wallentin has her own richly compelling solo output (recorded under the moniker of Mariam The Believer) and collaborative work with Susanna & The Magical Orchestra, Labfield, Lykke Li amongst others.
‘Rhythm’ is out now on The Leaf Label.
Interview with Wildbirds & Peacedrums.
Firstly, it’s striking that the songs of ‘Rhythm’ contains such raw emotion, intensity and energy that reveals the strength and power of your latest masterpiece. I imagine it was quite a liberating album to make in the sense that you both find yourselves coming full-circle in many ways, and returning to your roots?
Mariam Wallentin/Andreas Werliin: Thanks a lot for those kind words. We are very happy with the album and extremely happy that you like it. When we decided to take a break with W&P to do other projects and bands it was a bit of a slow process to start doing the album. First of all we needed to find the right meaning with it, since this somehow got lost during the last years of extensively touring. But on the other hand we were both filled with passion and love for the duo. We started to record some parts slowly and tried out and experimented a lot but it never felt right until we decided to go back to where we started; the drums and vocals.
Discuss the challenges you faced to effectively translate the intensities of your live shows into a studio album? It’s a question posed by many musicians and bands, and I wonder did you utilize any new techniques for the making of this album as opposed to the previous three records?
MW/AW: Our earlier albums have all been a fast process – squeeze in between tours kind of. But this time we bicycled to our own studio, working on finding the right tempos for the songs, testing different microphones, tuning the drums in right keys and so on before doing a take. We decided to stand close to each other, nothing between us to let the sounds blend in to the microphones and when we felt that everything was in place for the song we hit record and tried to do it as a live take. After that we did some overdubs if needed and then the mixing, so all was made with only the two of us in a room, quite a private and intimate process but with the urge to let the music out and in to other ears and bodies.
It’s amazing to think most of these songs were recorded in one take, again illustrating the monumental achievement of ‘Rhythm’. I would love for you to describe your Stockholm studio and the set-up you have there? The album was written, recorded and produced by the pair of you; which process of the music-making process have you discovered the most intensive that poses difficulties?
MW/AW: It’s basically just a rehearsal space, filled up with a lot of drums and percussion. Since drums are vibrating live instruments just as the voice is, we filled up the room with different reflective materials that would make this small room sound bigger than it actually is. Since we had no time pressure we could let each song find it’s very own sound by experimenting with different set ups and effects so it all was in place when we were done. Instead of trying to find the sound when mixing it was all done in the pre-production.
In terms of the writing process, there is a psychological element very much present throughout ‘Rhythm’ and subsequent emotions of fear, tension, struggle, dreams, longing and hope permeate the headspace. I would love for you to discuss the central themes to the record and what ‘Rhythm’ means to you both?
MW/AW: It is a special focus of tension present on this album yes -fear vs safety, doubt vs hope and so on- and over and over Mariam do comes back to that when writing lyrics, and to our inner emotional lives we have in our bodies and our minds, like the lives inside our lives. It’s a lot about falling, about crossing the line and never be able to go back again, the small steps that can be so small but still devastating. So yes, it is a lot about our psychology as humans, how we think and react, both instincts and more thoughtful. The love of something also brings the fear of losing it, so there is always a duality present.
One of the album’s defining moments arrives on the utterly captivating ‘Soft Wind, Soft Death’, a sublime tour-de-force. I love how the voice and drums effortlessly coalesce together, creating a truly transcendent sonic creation. Please recount your memories of writing and recording this particular song? Was this also a first take? The lyrics linger in your mind, long after the music is gone that results in a deeply enriching experience.
MW/AW: We had the idea of a repetitive haunting drum groove that would contrast to a more floating, thoughtful vocal part. When we recorded it we needed to do it separately so Andreas started to record the groove – we think it didn’t end until 18 minutes, all while Mariam was standing in front, dancing and forcing him to keep up the energy. We took out a 7 minute part and built the vocals from there.
You have shown relentless creativity these past few years, having collaborated with a host of wonderful artists and musicians. I can imagine these various projects you always have ongoing must feed healthily into a Wildbirds & Peacedrums record? What other projects do you have planned?
MW/AW: Even though W&P always have and will be our ”first born” it’s for the both of us very important and rewarding to do other projects and collaborations. Both feeds each other somehow. We have just finished a Roland Schimmelpfennig performance piece in Stockholm – a collaboration between Andreas trio Fire! (Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling) with Mariam and Refused drummer Davis Sandström. Mariam has her solo project Mariam The Believer that will go on tour with Damian Rice and Ane Brun this summer and fall, and she is also part of the improv trio Nuiversum. Also there’s the mayhem project Fire! Orchestra that we are both part of and that will play shows this year all over Europe. So yes, we like to keep us involved in many different projects.
Please go back to your earliest musical memories. How soon in your lives did you realize the importance music would have on you?
MW/AW: We started both very young to discover music – Andreas in my mother’s kitchen banging on cans, and Mariam has been singing since she was a child, both in choirs but also dubbing animated movies and stuff. No matter what else happened around us we have always had the music as a shelter and as a comfort.
When Andreas was about 8 he got a blue cassette from a student of his father with some classic rock on… He especially remember the Max Wienberg drumming on Born in the USA. Mariam remembers her mother’s Aretha Franklin and Beatles vinyls.
Discuss the records you’ve been listening to most during the last year or so? Are there particular sources of inspiration you find yourselves coming back to, again and again?
MW/AW: There’s a very diverse pile of inspirational albums in our living room. We guess what could be the red line between them are bravery. Both in songwriting and production. Records that stand out and takes unpredictable turns.
‘Rhythm’ is out now on The Leaf Label.
Polar Bear (UK/The Leaf Label) have established themselves as one of the most intriguing and vital contemporary collectives over the last decade or so. Since their debut full length ‘Dim Lit’ (Babel, 2003) the five-piece have ceaselessly explored new terrain while genres such as jazz, world, electronic, dub, hip hop, ambient and pop/rock have all found their way onto the band’s utterly beguiling and truly original sound palette. Led by drummer Sebastian Rochford (Brian Eno, Beck, Rokia Traoré, Yoko Ono) Polar Bear’s full lineup include the formidable talents of bassist Tom Herbert (The Invisible), electronic wizard Leafcutter John, saxophonists Mark Lockheart (Django Bates) and Pete Wareham (Melt Yourself Down, Acoustic Ladyland). 2015 marks the release of the band’s sixth studio album ‘Same As You’ (Leaf Label) and follow-up to 2014’s Mercury Prize nominated ‘In Each And Every One’.
Fractured Air 37: No Rush (A Mixtape by Polar Bear)
To listen on Mixcloud:
01. Tyshawn Sorey ‘Awakening’ [482 Music]
02. Blue Eyed Hawk ‘Oyster Trails’ [Edition]
03. Shabazz Palaces ‘#Cake’ [Sub Pop]
04. Actress ‘Voodoo Posse Chronic Illusion’ [Werk Discs, Ninja Tune]
05. Liberty Ellman ‘Pretty Words, Like Blades’ [Pi Recordings]
06. Leafcutter John ‘Music Under The Water’ [Desire Path Recordings]
07. BEAK> ‘Liar’ [Invada]
08. J Dilla ‘Let’s Take It Back’ (instrumental) [Stones Throw]
09. Micachu And The Shapes ‘Fall’ [Rough Trade]
10. Sebastian Rochford & Alice Grant ‘Rini Gave Word’ [The Leaf Label]
11. The Chordettes ‘Born To Be With You’ [Rhino]
12. Wilbert De Joode ‘Peg’ [Wig]
13. Hello Skinny ‘Revolutions Part 1’ [Slowfoot]
14. Eska ‘Red’ [Earthling Recordings]
15. Blue Eyed Hawk ‘Intro (For Fathers)’ [Edition]
16. Jim Black Trio ‘Actuality’ [Winter & Winter]
17. Rosie Lowe ‘Me & Your Ghost’ [37 Adventures]
Compiled by Tom Herbert. The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or their respective record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.
‘Same As You’ is available now on The Leaf Label.
Interview with Poppy Ackroyd.
“The main crossover was thinking and listening to the sound I made on each instrument. Learning to take an interest in the composer and of course the music itself, thinking about the story and why the music was written, and then considering how best to express and perform it.”
Words: Mark Carry
Poppy Ackroyd is a composer from London, currently based in Brighton. Classically trained on violin and piano, she makes music by manipulating and multi-tracking sounds from just these two instruments. Her debut ‘Escapement’ was released in December 2012 by Denovali Records and a DVD – ‘Escapement Visualised’ – featuring bespoke visuals by Lumen for each track on the album, was released in September 2014.
‘Feathers’, her second album, was released in November 2014, and builds on the concept behind her debut, with most of the sounds again coming from the violin and the piano, however this time the tracks also feature other keyboard and string instruments. On the sublime sophomore full-length, a larger sonic palette is utilized by the gifted composer; including an array of acoustic keyboard instruments such as harmonium, clavichord, harpsichord and spinet. Furthermore, the immaculately crafted string section is augmented by guest cellist Su-a-Lee.
Similar to the enchanting debut record ‘Escapement’, Poppy’s trusted Blüthner grand piano forms the backbone of the album. A myriad of field recordings (traffic noise on ‘Roads’ and chiming clock walls on ‘Timeless’) are dotted across the album’s sprawling sonic canvas that further heightens the magical sense of discovery rippling through the majestic waves of piano and violin melodies cast by Ackroyd. The infinite beauty distilled in ‘Feathers’ becomes a wonderful symbol of new beginnings as one catches a glimpse of a bird in full ﬂight; majestically owning the vast blue skies ahead.
‘Feathers’ is out now on Denovali Records.
Interview with Poppy Ackroyd.
Congratulations on the stunningly beautiful and mesmerizing new record, ʻFeathersʼ; you must feel deeply proud of this divine work of art. Firstly, can you please discuss the sonic palette at your disposal this time around? On ʻFeathersʼ, the sonic terrain is expanded to include various other acoustic keyboard instruments and guest-cellist Su-A-Lee. I would love to gain an insight into these new branches to your distinctive piano/violin-based compositions?
Poppy Ackroyd: Thank you! On ‘Feathers’ I decided to expand on the sound world of my debut album ‘Escapement’, and bring some other keyboard and string instruments into the mix. On the new album you can hear clavichord, harpsichord, spinet and harmonium, as well as old pianos – my favourite being a Broadwood piano with a wooden frame, from the late 18th century. These other instruments are all more delicate and intimate than the modern grand. They were designed for smaller spaces, and were instruments that people would have in their homes, they were not designed to project, so are all very quiet and this gives them a more intimate feel. I like that they all have different mechanisms for producing sound, so there are a variety of timbres – for example, the clavichord uses a tangent to hit the string, the harpsichord has feather quills (or other materials such as soft leathers) that pluck the string, and the piano uses felt hammers to strike the strings. In a similar way to how I treated both the violin and piano on ‘Escapement’, I also played with these other instruments, using their frames, pedals, sound boards, strings, tuning pins and mechanisms. Because of the low volumes they produce when played, I had to record very closely and this created a more intimate world – you can hear more of the imperfections…the creaks, clicks and there are also very slight irregularities in tuning. Su-a Lee performed cello on almost all of the tracks on the album, except ‘Taskin’ – which is all keyboard instruments and almost exclusively just made from recordings of the Taskin harpsichord in the museum. She makes such a gorgeous sound on the cello, it really transformed all the string sections on the album to have that extra depth from the bass notes.
Similar to the debut ʻEscapementʼ, your beloved Blüthner grand piano serves the vital pulse to the recordʼs sprawling canvas of sound. Similar to pianists such as Nils Frahm, Hauschka et al, I am always amazed by the new sounds and endless possibilities you generate from the instrument. Can you please describe this particular instrument and indeed the approaches and processes you have utilized on ʻFeathersʼ?
PA: It is a Blüthner boudoir grand, and it is my favourite possession. The day I decided to buy a grand piano it was put online for sale, and it was exactly what I was looking for. It was in a terrible state when I bought it though – most of the keys were stuck together, as the lead weights in them had expanded from being kept near a ﬁre, and so it was kind of unplayable, apart from about two octaves near the top of the keyboard. I immediately ﬁxed the problems with the action and keys, and since then have gradually been doing it up. It has Aliquot stringing which means that the upper register has sympathetic strings that resonate with the main strings when they are played, so the melodies really sing. It is beautiful… I use every part of the instrument when I am writing – the wooden frame, the cast iron frame, the strings, the pedals – and play with my hands, plectrums, ebows and various percussive beaters and instruments. I record and then edit, chop and piece the sounds together, to create different beats and textures. Often I use various effects to alter and manipulate the sounds. After starting with a melody or chord sequence, a lot of the composition is done after recording. I record, and then start to sculpt something. Once there is a loose structure, the melodies and harmonies start to change, and I then record again. The end result is often very different from where I started.
The use of ﬁeld recordings adds a further dimension to the deeply personal and affecting musical compositions. I am curious whether some of these ﬁeld recordings provided the starting point to compose a piece of music, Poppy? For example, ʻTimelessʼ begins with chiming wall clocks. In a way, these ﬁeld recordings – the percussive effect of chiming clocks; trafﬁc noise from a vibrant city on ʻRoadsʼ – become central characters to the albumʼs gripping narrative. Please discuss some of these ﬁeld recordings and the sources of these found sounds, so to speak?
PA: I use ﬁeld recordings when I feel they can add to the story of the track. The trafﬁc on ‘Roads’ is recorded in the centre of Brighton, I like the way the sounds of the passing cars create a feeling of movement and journey. The sounds of the waves and the sea on ‘Birdwoman’ is also recorded in Brighton, walking along the beach and then right down to the shore. For ‘Timeless’, I was playing with the idea of time – the track is in 120bpm, the main beats falling 60 in a minute, therefore every second like a clock. The ﬁeld recordings came later. I came across an old clock in my cousin’s shop – she sells vintage furniture and other things. The chimes and mechanism start quite freely but from quite early on each sound is positioned and chopped, gradually becoming a beat, that continues for the rest of the track.
One of my current favourites is the gorgeous ʻTimelessʼ and the utterly captivating dialogue between violin and piano inherent in the piece. Can you talk me through the layering of this particular composition?
PA: This track started out as a solo violin piece and I wrote the initial ideas using just a violin and loop pedal. The pizzicato came ﬁrst and then the main ‘Tick tock’ sound which is actually ﬁngers on muted violin strings. Gradually the bowed strings come in and the track builds. The meandering piano line came later, in order to contrast with the rigidity of the violin pizzicato, and the beat. The reverse notes, (these are reversed plucked inside piano strings) are also there to pull the track away from its strict time keeping. When everything falls away in the middle, the slightly freer quality of the plucked inside piano notes, and the lyrical piano melody intend to create a feeling of space and free time. I think this is my favourite part of the album. The beats are made mostly of violin sounds and there are quite a few layers, and these are also combined with the beats made from the mechanism of the clock.
I was very interested to read how the album-title was inspired by the line “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson. For me, itʼs a wonderful symbol of new beginnings as one catches a glimpse of a bird in full-ﬂight; majestically owning the vast blue skies ahead. Please discuss the albumʼs narrative for me, Poppy and what central themes you feel connect these eight sublime sonic creations?
PA: The line of the poem is actually only partly responsible for the album title. This quote was lying around in my ﬂat when I was starting to write and it really resonated with me, and the title track ‘Feathers’ deﬁnitely owes its name to this line. Over the months I was writing, other factors started to come into play. A feeling of lightness and delicacy was present in all the tracks, my moving house and general travelling lifestyle created a theme of ﬂight and migration. The fact that some of the instruments in the museum used quills from crow feathers in their mechanisms (like those pictured on the album cover) to pluck the string, made it seem like ‘Feathers’ was the obvious title.
Can you reminisce for me your earliest musical memories? You are classically trained on the violin and piano from a very young age; I would love to know what common ground you must have discovered as you developed on both instruments? It must be quite liberating to have this dichotomy of worlds, so to speak where both these worlds ﬂow nicely into one another.
PA: I have so many early musical memories, it has always been a big part of my life. I think I owe a lot of my interest in music to my father, however it was my mother who pushed me to practice and made me work at it when I was little. My father is an artist and always listens to music while he works, I grew up with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Chopin, Mozart and Schubert amongst others. By studying both these instruments from a young age, obviously one informed the other, but my experience due to my various teachers and the different environments in which I studied each one was quite different. The main crossover was thinking and listening to the sound I made on each instrument. Learning to take an interest in the composer and of course the music itself, thinking about the story and why the music was written, and then considering how best to express and perform it.
As ever, you are involved in various other projects, most notably the wonderful Hidden Orchestra, in addition to composing scores for dance, ﬁlm, theatre and radio. I would love to gain an insight into the collaborative aspect of these ventures, particularly your involvement with Hidden Orchestra which has been (and continues to be) an awe-inspiring musical collective?
PA: My role in Hidden Orchestra is as a session musician. It is actually just Joe Acheson who composes all of the music, it is really his solo project. We record for him during the writing process, then after the album is ﬁnished we come together to tour the tracks live. There are four of us who have been there since the beginning, and often now we feature guests on trumpet, clarinet, cello, harp, visuals etc.
What records have you been listening to the most lately? I wonder do you have plans and works in the pipeline?
PA: When I am writing I can get really involved in what I am doing and after 12 hours of making music I just want silence, or I listen to the radio or a podcast. However, in the morning I usually listen to something new while I wake up, and I try to listen to something different most days. I am currently working on some new material and also a few collaborations, including music for a short animation.
‘Feathers’ is out now on Denovali Records.
A Safe Harbour [A Fractured Air Mix]
To listen on Mixcloud:
01. Amiina (ft. Lee Hazlewood) ‘Hilli (At the Top of the World)’ [Everrecords]
02. Sam Amidon ‘Saro’ [Bedroom Community]
03. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ‘big mammoth’ [Diatribe]
04. The Gloaming ‘Samradh Samradh’ [Real World]
05. Kate Ellis ‘Aisling Gheal’ (Trad. Irish. A Setting by D. Dennehy) [Diatribe]
06. Seán Mac Erlaine ‘Turaghlan’ [Ergodos]
07. This Is How We Fly ‘March For A Dark Day’ [Playing With Music]
08. Valgeir Sigurðsson ‘Big Reveal’ [Bedroom Community]
09. Julianna Barwick ‘Prizewinning’ [Asthmatic Kitty]
10. Mina Tindle ‘Plein nord’ [Believe Recordings]
11. Nadia Sirota ‘From The Invisible To The Visible’ [Bedroom Community]
12. My Brightest Diamond ‘This Is My Hand’ [Blue Sword (ASCAP)]
13. James McVinnie ‘Hudson Preludes: Follow Up’ [Bedroom Community]
14. So Percussion ‘Music for Wood and Strings: Section 3’ [Brassland]
15. This Is The Kit ‘Bashed Out’ [Brassland]
16. Amiina ‘Leather And Lace’ [Sound Of A Handshake]
Sounds From A Safe Harbour is a festival of music, art & conversation, curated by The National’s Bryce Dessner, taking place on 17—20 September 2015 across various venues in Cork, Ireland. Tickets are on sale now.
Interview with Nils Frahm.
“In many ways I feel like I am slowly starting to realize why I am here and what my role is.”
Words: Mark Carry
In the Author’s Introduction to “Writings about Music” (1974), American composer Steve Reich wrote, “You want to hear music that moves you, and if you don’t, then you’re not really very curious to find out how it was put together. The truth is, musical intuition is at the rock bottom level of everything I’ve ever done.” Reading these inspired words from one of contemporary music’s true voices of wisdom, I felt this musical statement resonated powerfully for another vital voice in today’s musical landscape: namely Berlin-based pianist, composer and sound sculptor, Nils Frahm.
Across a rich body of work – ranging from delicately beautiful solo piano works and intricately layered ambient soundscapes to otherworldly synthesizer-based compositions where synthetic and organic worlds are often blurred and re-aligned – the German composer has continually pushed the sonic envelope that has served to, in turn, expand our own thoughts on the art of sound’s endless possibilities. From 2013’s live document ‘Spaces’ to this year’s infinitely beautiful and deeply personal solo piano work, ‘Solo’ and the soon-to-be-released debut film score, ‘Music For The Motion Score Victoria’ (directed by Sebastian Schipper), an unfolding aesthetic development shimmers majestically amidst the sound waves like a dazzling sunlit sea or the dawning day’s first pockets of light. Transcendence abounds and we, the devoted listener, are eternally grateful for this simple truth.
A piece of music such as ‘Them’ (taken from the score to ‘Victoria’) possesses the innate power to move you in a profound way. Frahm’s tender and exquisite piano patterns coalesce effortlessly with Anne Müller’s equally poignant and heart-wrenching strings to create a stunningly beautiful and enlightening musical journey.
Similarly, this year’s ‘Solo’ record carves a deeply affecting and captivating experience that ceaselessly traverses the human space. Recorded in four days, the Klavins M370 (the piano instrument spanning 3.7 metres in height that was built by Frahm’s close collaborator and friend, David Klavins) would serve the German composer’s sprawling canvas of enchanting sound. I feel the essence of ‘Solo’ becomes the sacred moment between Frahm and his trusted piano instrument; the 370 model providing an entirely new spectrum of colours and textures for the gifted composer to explore. Furthermore, a lyric penned by label-mate Peter Broderick – contained on the dazzling ‘Pockets Of Light’ piano-based composition by Lubomyr Melnyk – encapsulates the highly emotive and spiritual dimension that ‘Solo’ inhabits:
“from the hammers to the ears
we invite our fears
to sing outside
little spaces turn wide”
From the opening angelic tones of ‘Ode’ to the engulfing ripples of ‘Four Hands’ on the album’s fitting close, ‘Solo’ indeed invites our fears which ultimately invites the audience to bring their own emotional life to it. The album’s penultimate track – and longest cut – ‘Immerse!’ is a tour-de-force of striking intimacy that conjures up the mystical and sacred sounds cast by Keith Jarrett’s legendary 1975 Köln concert. A timeless sound is effortlessly unleashed by Frahm, when mere moments previously, the hypnotic, pulsating notes of ‘Wall’ radiates like pulses of the human heart.
‘Solo’ is available now on Erased Tapes Records while ‘Music For The Motion Score Victoria’ will be available on 15 June, also via Erased Tapes Records.
Interview with Nils Frahm.
Congratulations on the new ‘Solo’ album, Nils. It’s a really incredible album.
Nils Frahm: Thank you so much. I’m happy you like it; that means a lot.
You spent just four days recording ‘Solo’?
NF: Yes, we were recording for four days with the piano. It was one session and then I mixed and compiled everything. It was last summer I think, I had it finished for quite some time and waited a little bit to see if it stayed being good.
I love how there’s little traits inside the pieces of music that you feel some may belong to ‘Felt’, some feel more like ‘Screws’ where there are elements of certain pieces that go back to a certain time.
NF: Yeah, I revisited some of my ideas and made new ideas out of them and some songs were inspired by others which I hadn’t really put out yet and some are completely new songs. It was really about the sound of the piano and this kind of sacred moment with this instrument which is really special.
I’d love for you to discuss that particular instrument. I saw some lovely videos of the Klavins 370 model and the stairs you go up. It must have been wonderful to play it.
NF: Yeah [laughs]. It’s quite a way up! Once you are up, you just start to play it before you go down again. It’s different with a normal piano where you can just get up and walk away again. But when you walk up there, you are up and then you play and it already makes it special like that.
It was timed so well to release the new album with Piano Day and what a beautiful idea and concept this celebration is. It’s amazing that nobody has thought of it before.
NF: Sometimes you are lucky when you have a little idea and then you know you can actually make it happen. And when I found out that there was no particular Piano Day declared at any point, I thought let’s give it a try. It’s almost not necessary because the piano is very popular in the moment but I simply wanted to make an occasion for people to finish their piano work, for example and share them and give people some kind of deadline to work on some of the piano projects and to share them with us. And I think it’s always helpful for people to have a certain goal and once we announced it people were getting creative and they shared all their songs with us and we had the soundcloud playlist, which was wonderful to listen to and it’s really exciting that some of these people who usually don’t get much attention and then all of a sudden get some attention and some new fans. I think it helps people who don’t have so much experience in trusting their work yet to get more profoundly enthusiastic and interested in their own work.
And for me, it was simply good to have an occasion where you could make a present because when you have a holiday it’s usually connected to the idea of making presents and I wanted to give the album away for free because that just works in general. I think it’s a good idea to make people download it from the source and if they want to donate they can. A lot of people just download the mp3 that’s inside the record anyway and come to the concerts. It was just like a silly little idea to give the present a specific reason and on the other hand I wanted to make people do the same; to share their own piano-based work with all of us and give it away for free and make it accessible. So in general, I like this project where there is a give and take and a nice trade of ideas and all that pays back on all kinds of other levels, I think.
Oh yes, of course. Like you say too Nils, I loved how during that week or two, there was so many wonderful new tracks surfacing. It made me think also how over the last ten years or so – and if you just think of this short space of time – there’s been so much amazing music, based on the piano and in this neo-classical realm. It’s been a wonderful few years for music.
NF: Oh yeah, of course, of course. We are familiar now with the whole thing. If I had done this earlier it would have been too early and maybe in the future, I’m interested in other things. So it was just the right moment to make this album accessible and also play a little bit with the whole conception of releasing albums like artists release albums every one or two years and there is a review and an add to cart button and then you feel like you should compare the record to some other record. Usually people do that very fast because their minds are conditioned in that kind of almost judgemental way. There is a Beatles discussion like ‘Oh which is your favourite album?’ and well you know I am happy that all of them are there and the same with other big bands and influential bands like let’s say ‘Oh what’s your favourite song of Radiohead?’ I never liked these questions; it’s almost like ‘What’s your favourite kind of wine?’ I love wine because there are so many different kinds and I love artists who start a little bit from scratch on each project they are doing and make it not just another record and another record in the same fashion so people feel very intrigued to compare them but to give each record a strong identity, a strong idea and of course from music which is most important in the end but also to make these records exist under their own standards. So I only heard one comment so far where somebody said ‘Oh I like ‘Spaces’ better’ and all the other comments were not about that which is so fantastic.
It’s really hard to compare ‘Solo’ with a record like ‘Spaces’, they were completely different musical projects for me and there were different parameters and I like how the people when I release a record like this with a story and with identity and a kind of conception then people start to see there is a new idea. And it’s almost unnecessary to give this record any rating because people can listen to it in five minutes and just press the download button, they listen to it themselves and since you’re not urged to buy it or not pushed to buy it you don’t really need people to review it. And it makes the buying decision easier because there is no buying decision. So on different levels we were trying to also play with the whole marketing concepts and the old path of music distribution and I really enjoy all these elements in the reviews and write-ups which is not so much about the music but it’s obviously a wonderful piano record which I agree, I like it myself otherwise I wouldn’t have released it but on the other hand, there is so much else to say and that is the stuff where it is good to write about it.
It’s really difficult to write about music sometimes and to describe every piece and to just describe a record in words which is really difficult but it’s quite nice to give to people who want to write about this some meaningful context to work with like Piano Day or the whole 450 Piano building idea. These are stories which are easy to write about and also good to write about and the actual music should just be listened to, it’s a very personal record and I would be very disappointed if people would rip it apart for any reason because for me it’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever done and the most radically me sounding thing, just a record that I did for myself and that’s also the reason why it had to be free because I don’t want to sell myself.
I love how ‘Solo’ begins with the track ‘Ode’ and the slow, meditative chords that feels like the perfect opening piece.
NF: Yeah, this is more elegant and grown up sounding than some of my other stuff which is a little bit more romantic or harder to listen to or something.
With a song like ‘Immerse’ – the album’s wonderful penultimate track – I wonder did it blossom over a long period of time?
NF: Yeah that’s the personal stuff that I was taking about. For me that song is a song which is just in me which I will play in different versions all my life. Sometimes you know this already and sometimes you just make different versions of one song and this is a very important song for me. This song is basically my dialogue with the world and living and the reflection – like the most broad reflection – of what resonates with me and this song had to be on there, this song is the centerpiece and it comes in the end because it sounds heavy and I want people to be relaxed when they experience this song.
And I love how ‘Wall’ comes just before it. There is a wonderfully cathartic feel to the piece and how it builds and builds and how it works and goes into a song like ‘Immerse’.
NF: Yeah, for me the playlist or sequencing of the record was where I spent most time with experimenting because it wasn’t really obvious which order was the best one and so I had a lot of versions – like eight different versions that I was listening to for some time and changing things – and in the end when I heard the version you know now this was really meaningful in some way, when you have to decide A of the vinyl being really quiet and B is overflowing and in many ways it was a lucky choice to make the sequencing like this. For instance even Robert [Rath] from Erased Tapes, he helped me with the last final tweaks and he said ‘Oh I think this song should be first’ and so he put ‘Ode’ in the very beginning which knocks on your door and says ‘Hello, here I am’ and so it’s beautiful in that kind of way.
It’s very interesting too what you say Nils about giving the music for free – and something similar to ‘Screws’ – but it works so well because the physical ownership of the album counts for so much too and to have the beautiful artwork so it only comes natural that fans would seek this out as it’s not enough to have it just as a download.
NF: Yeah I mean this is what we trust the fans in and this gives us an advantage because we don’t try to prevent crime like illegal downloading and all this energy that you would put into preventing leakage and having music being converted to bad mp3 quality and be put on a server or something. This you can only avoid if you just do it yourself with your way and of course we spend so much money on special paper artworks and all these things that people want to have one of my records and feel like ‘oh this is a collectible item’ and most of all I trust that this record – and I hope all my records – are records which you don’t want to sell after five or six or seven years. I mean there is a lot of music which you totally have to say goodbye to after a while because maybe they’re dated. I mean imagine if you’re a drum ‘n’ bass DJ and you have all these early kind of cheesy drum bass records and you really don’t have any parties to play at and what do you do with it? Maybe you have to throw them all away at some point and you feel like you shouldn’t buy that many vinyl records when I’m not sure I will spend time listening to them. But why I am confident that people will buy the record is that we are trying hard to make it a product which lasts, which is sustainable and which is also interesting after a couple of years and maybe even more interesting. So hopefully that makes sense in the conception of giving things away for free on one hand and on the other hand, trusting the people who actually want the physical item because they may want to give it to their kids at some point or something.
As time goes on and you pass the point when a particular record was released, memories and music are always intertwined as well and saying that, you can get new meaning and perspectives from any of your previous albums any time where there is always something new from an album like ‘The Bells’ for example even though it’s one of your early albums.
NF: Yeah exactly. Since ‘Wintermusik’ and ‘The Bells’ and my solo records, I imagine they will all age gracefully . . . hopefully [laughs].
I must ask you about the Klavins 450 instrument that is being made at the moment. It’s an amazing venture and creation in itself. I would love for you to discuss the collaboration between yourself and David Klavins?
NF: David is of course important in this whole release and the future, and the next couple of years. I just love him as a person and he is very, very wonderful and I would even say a wise man, fun to be with and really great to talk to and most importantly he’s a fantastic and talented engineer who is absolutely fearless of challenge and fearless of failure. He reminds me of myself in many ways, I think it’s a mutual thing and we fell in love with each other [laughs] in some way.
So he built this Una Corda piano for me – a small piano which I will be bringing on tour – which was the first project we worked on together. And since it was a full success I didn’t have any doubt that we should try a bigger project. And of course the 450 is almost too big of a project – and I would say it is too big of a project – and I think this is also why nobody would really invest in it or nobody had the balls to do it. Since I know the prototype, the 370 and love it to pieces and I imagine the recording of ‘Solo’ proved that it’s a wonderful sounding instrument with quality no other piano really has. I thought it would be a shame if we missed this opportunity to realize this piano because on the time there is a limit, David is already sixty-two and of course in ten years, he’s not sure if he could make a big project like this and for him time is running out as well and I felt like OK maybe I’m the crazy one who has to make it happen because I can’t imagine anyone else putting the money on the table and realizing it. So in the end I was the one who had the infrastructure to realize the project and do also certain part of marketing.
I always love to talk about things I really, really want to support and this is something I truly, fully believe in. The conceptualization of long, long piano strings is a very good idea and we’ll find a very beautiful and humble economical way of making this big piano happen and everything on the piano will be for the sake of sound. It won’t have any compromises that all other pianos will have and I feel like it’s striding for something like a completion in some way and I feel like if I want to take care of the piano while I’m here, it would be that one. I need to take responsibility for the financial part, I have two years now to make all the money for it and most of it I probably have to pay out of my own pocket but if it’s done I would really like to find a room for it and build a studio around it, to make wonderful recordings and have as many people get access to that and make it part of piano festivals so people can experience it and after I’m gone, I want to donate the piano to someone or some better cause like a wonderful institution maybe or museum or whatnot but it should definitely belong to the public and as long as I’m here, I will take care of it and make sure a lot of people will have fun with it.
That’s the beautiful thing too Nils with a project like this and how it’s being promoted, it feels like all the fans have their own part in it too.
NF: Yeah this is my idea of group effort. Nobody has so much money to buy it themselves and if they have too much money, they should give it to people who don’t have so much. If I would be able to pay this right away with no questions asked out of my pocket, I would wonder that something is wrong because this is too big for one person and this is a shad effort. Basically something that is owned by humanity let’s say, I mean when people started building big bridges and they started building the Eiffel tower or let’s say they built a big planetarium with a monster telescope which are bigger than anything before; there always had to be one crazy person who had to believe in it so much to make it happen and I like that idea in that respect. In this project I’m the crazy one who tries to convince everyone else, let’s make it happen, let’s make it happen. So far, it looks like people get the point which is a big relief and also great to see.
It’s cool too Nils it reminds me of those stories of people with synthesizers some decades ago and how they would collect all these parts and how it would take up a huge room or even a house.
NF: Yeah, yeah and they were expensive already and of course someone had to believe in it so much to just reach out for something unknown and uncertain risking that it could be total failure or maybe actually totally amazing and I totally love that look to gamble in that way and just imagining something, believing in it, seeing that it’s purposeful and makes sense and then start to invest in it.
In many ways I feel like I am slowly starting to realize why I am here and what my role is. For others also, not just to play the piano, make concerts and make records but also to act in a way that people may imagine, Oh I would like to do something like this or I want to lose my mind as well [laughs]. I just want to work on something fun and crazy like this and just to inspire people who you just can’t lose, you just risk things and with a lot of risk there is a big reward waiting and with the whole campaign I feel once again, this is more than just making piano music at the moment and I really like the direction that it takes.
I also want to go in the direction where I think of more instruments that I want to build and find people who can help me do this. Starting from scratch and believe that even something like a Steinway could be different or beautiful or better. This is something where we as a society has lost a little bit of belief because at the moment we are thinking back too much, we are looking back to the old days, we all want to have an old record player, we want to have an old hi-fi system or an old lamp; mostly old because things back then were often better. It is no secret anymore and a lot of people know this already and we need to start to think about how we want to change this. And my little contribution is to make a piano that we believe is the best piano in the world and it doesn’t have to be old, it’s new. What we are doing now because we want to believe that we can make things better than they were and this is giving me a lot of hope and a lot of strength and I can only recommend believing and imagining that what we are doing now can be better than let’s say our father’s and mother’s and grandfather’s and grandmother’s.
Have you had any other breakthroughs or discoveries with any of the other concepts in your mind and working in your studio?
NF: The studio is a little bit abandoned because I am in the rehearsal room right now and my rehearsal room is full with my new instruments like this organ I was building and some mellotron. I don’t know if you know this instrument but it’s a tape for each note like thirty-five keys and each key activates a little tape running inside and I recorded my own sample banks for these three sounds, from Anne Müller on cello, Katinka Fogh Vindelev – the singer from Efterklang on the choir sound – and Ruth Velten on saxophone, so three wonderful girls played their beautiful instruments and I recorded them on tape and made a mellotron out of it. And then there’s the pipe organ which has fifty-six reed pipes like a proper church organ but mobile so you can bring it on tour and then there is a lot more new instruments that we are making new works and making new sounds.
I feel like I’m just starting now. I feel like I’m fully developed now [laughs] and now I really get the results I was always going for and looking for. It is a beautiful experience and 2015 is already a really good year and promising and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun.
It’s very exciting to hear of all these extra new instruments and sounds. It feels like you have this complete canvas to work from and no limit to the scope of your projects.
NF: Yeah there are totally different colours to work with, almost like you worked in black and white before and now you have blue, red and green and it gives you so many new pictures to paint with that, it’s fantastic. And I’m only just exploring and this also what I love about the tour is that it’s also crazy because you have all these old instruments which are old and fragile and could break on the tour so I have to bring technicians to repair them and we have to make a crazy production plan to make the show happen and this is already so demanding and a little too far. But on the other hand, I’m making music which is not released yet but I’m making the tour so I get better at these songs. I will start in Copenhagen with the first show, the first will be more like trying and looking and probably also making more failures but also really giving everything to make it work and to have a lot of charm and character. And in the end after six weeks of playing it every day, I will slowly refine my ideas and when I come home, I have the rest of the year off to make a record out of these new experiences and so I will have a lot of time to practice before I go to the studio and I think this way makes much more sense than making the record first and then going on tour.
It’s like that classic way of testing out new songs and the idea of road testing the new material.
NF: Exactly like you would make a small club tour first, then make the record and then you play the big rooms. [laughs] I wish I had a small club tour first but unfortunately I’m playing the big rooms [laughs] from the very beginning. So it will be an absolutely unpredictable experience and I’m very curious.
But I think that’s fundamentally the most inspiring part. As you mention the unpredictability, but for any live performance, I feel the audience reacts completely when you know it’s something that’s very much there in the moment as opposed to just someone going through the motions.
NF: Yes, I think that too.
I wonder if you had time to listen to any new records in the last while?
NF: Not really I must admit since I’m in this creative phase, I’ve stopped listening to music really. I just want to be in this bubble. In the car, I listen to talk radio and when I’m home I’m not listening to anything. It can be very irritating to be listening to too much music when you’re trying to hear your own songs but what I just got from a friend is ninety unreleased Boards of Canada tracks which I didn’t have. They don’t say if they really did it or not but you obviously hear it and I’m such a big fan of theirs. When I listen to something at the moment I’m listening to a big, big pool of great little songs.
‘Solo’ is available now on Erased Tapes Records while ‘Music For The Motion Score Victoria’ will be available on 15 June, also via Erased Tapes Records.