The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Karen Gwyer

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Interview with Karen Gwyer.

“I love, love, love layering. I can end up with so much happening at once that it’s totally unintelligible, and often have to strip it back, but on some of these tracks we’re looking at a good dozen layers of synths, and at times about 40 vocal layers. And where I really went nuts is on the drums, which I hand-sequenced in Logic, and on quite a few tracks there were too many drum layers to even count.”

—Karen Gwyer

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Home to the pioneering London-based label, No Pain In Pop, Karen Gwyer has been responsible for one of the finest dance records of 2013, in the form of the universally-lauded debut album, ‘Needs Continuum’. The US-born Londoner creates thrilling techno soundscapes that crosses a plethora of genres – house, psychedelia, techno, and ambient music – producing a seductive digital universe of enchanting sounds. Recorded while she was pregnant with her first child, Gwyer has described the record as “both a product and champion of immutable, organic cyclical rhythms and disorientating psycho-physical disequilibria.”

‘Needs Continuum’ is one of those records that reveals more and more upon every revisit. The trance-dance euphoria of Brooklyn duo Blondes, futuristic ambient techno soundscapes of RVNG’s Holly Herndon, Fuck Buttons, Actress, Laurel Halo, Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never and the avant-disco of Arthur Russell are just some of the elements inherent in the unique universe embedded in ‘Needs Continuum’. Layers of synths, drum-machines, vocals, and organic instrumentation of steel drum, bells and bongos effortlessly blends the organic and the synthetic, creating something deeply humane and personal. Like the output of any gifted producer, this indeed is music to get beautifully lost in.

‘The Bedroom Club’ is a series of vinyl compilations (released on No Pain In Pop) featuring dance producers doing things differently. A track of Karen Gwyer’s is featured on the opening of the B-side of ”The Bedroom Club II’ 12″ vinyl, namely the sublime slow-burning voyage of ‘Tehe! Blah! blah! Shhhh!’. An essay by Kev Kharas is included in the vinyl’s liner notes, which resonates powerfully for the music of Karen Gwyer: “Solitude need not be a destination. What you’ll find here is the work of acts who use isolation as an escape hatch into vaster internal realms, zones for transmitting untethered from the mores and strictures of music scene etiquette.” The No Pain In Pop roster of awe-inspiring talent is a testament to those words, with the likes of Grimes, patten, Nite Jewel, Health and Forest Swords among some of the residents.

Several re-imaginations of ‘Needs Continuum’ have followed the original release of ‘Needs Continuum’. Released in July, ‘Cowboys (For Karen)’ 12″ revealed the re-interpretations of several ‘Needs Continuum’ tracks from Torn Hawk AKA Brooklyn’s Luke Wyatt. Across the five re-works, scintillating rhythmical cycles endlessly flow in and out of your consciousness. The results are simply beautiful to witness and appreciate new perspectives of Gwyer’s unique sonic creations. As described by Wyatt, ‘Cowboys’ is a “suite of deformations”. Torn Hawk re-imagines Gwyers works here, transforming the shape shifting techno layers to entire new realms of possibilities.

Gwyer released a 2012 EP on fellow No Pain In Pop artist patten’s own Kaleidoscope label and the aforementioned ‘The Bedroom Club II’ vinyl only compilation. The huge promise of these works have most certainly been fulfilled on debut full-length player, ‘Needs Continuum’. Album opener, ‘Sugar Tots’ – the longest cut on the record – is a divine drone-based cycle of layered rhythms and hypnotic beats. The transcendent track comprises of endless layers of drums and synths. As Gwyer has said, “I love, love layering.” This undying love of layering radiates from the vast sonic canvas of ‘Sugar Tots’ and the eight tracks that follow. The serving pulse of ‘Sugar Tots’ is the hypnotic sound of steel drums that creates an afro-beat infused house cut that delivers on every level. Any concept of time is soon vanished as one feels a sacred dimension being arrived upon. ‘Lentil’ contains mesmerising layers of vocals embedded beneath sublime layers of brooding synthesizers. Something pure and divine is unleashed by the meditative choral refrain a la Julianna Barwick. Next is the swirling psychedelia haze of ‘Pikku-Kokki’. A pristine house venture for the moonlight hours.

My personal favourite ‘Some Of My Favourite Lotions’ contains majestic analogue samples and hypnotic vocal embellishes. ‘Trapezoidal Weekly’ conjures up the timeless sound of Laurie Spiegel and all things immaculate, as the soothing synths and transient beats flow effortlessly, producing in turn, one stunning organic whole of ambient delight. ‘Jajja Uses Ancentral Spirits’ – the centerpiece to Part B of the album’s sonic journey – taps into new dimensions as ancestral spirits drift amidst oscillating waves of transcendent beats and a slow-building groove. ‘Needs Continuum’ is undeniably one of the finest electronic records of the year, where the endless layers of sonic radiance illuminates magnificently throughout.


‘Needs Continuum’ is out now on No Pain In Pop.


Congratulations on the stunning ‘Needs Continuum’ album. The nine tracks effortlessly blend techno and house, where a gorgeous organic feel permeates throughout. The layers of tracks embedded within the sonic creations is something to behold. I would love to gain an insight into the construction of these songs and the instrumentation utilized?

Thanks, yeah, I love, love, love layering. I can end up with so much happening at once that it’s totally unintelligible, and often have to strip it back, but on some of these tracks we’re looking at a good dozen layers of synths, and at times about 40 vocal layers. And where I really went nuts is on the drums, which I hand-sequenced in Logic, and on quite a few tracks there were too many drum layers to even count. I’d be scratching my head into the wee hours if I wanted to change anything. But I love doing that. And I love drum machines, but I need 3 or 4 running simultaneously. When I was recording Needs, as far as synths go, I was using random combo of a Roland JP-8000, a MicroKorg, a Siel Cruise and a Vermona Mono Lancet. There are also bits and pieces of steel drum, bells, and bongos. I tried to squeeze in non-digital instruments to keep it a little more quirky.


My current favourite is ‘Jajja Uses Ancestral Spirits’. The feel to it is breathtaking, as the piece flows majestically through this cosmic space. It’s closer to ambient music than house or techno that conjures up the sound of Laurie Spiegel and Oneohtrix Point Never. Can you please discuss this composition and the sequence in which the different tracks were assembled?

I think I started with the synths, then came vocals, drums and that goofy synth pattern to top it off. That’s probably not particularly interesting, but this track in particular has a ton of dreamy John Hughes tribute vibes in it, which maybe is a little more worth going into. Hughes films are so insanely good the way they pick up on an audacious shimmering synth whoosh or bubbling little drum line right at that moment when a hot kiss is about to land, or a heavy piece of teen angst is about to drop. It’s all burned into my brain from the 80s, and I still get the shivers when I hear a Thompson Twins track or a bit of Kajagoogoo. Anyway, I piled a lot of that tingling synth glory into Jajja.


I love the album artwork to ‘Needs Continuum’. The design beautifully encapsulates the music. Can you shed some light on the artwork please?

My grandparents lived in Africa in the 70s and brought back some beautiful things, one of which I’m very lucky to have now: a Makonde carving. It’s a writhing, unending form, and I photographed it, hoping it would work nicely.


Take me back to your earliest musical memories and what were the first musical instruments you began to play? Have you always been immersed in music?

I can’t remember if I had cello or piano lessons first, but it was one of those, and I must have been about 5. My earliest musical memories are of my favourite records when I was 3 or 4, which were the ballets Swan Lake, Carnival of the Animals, and I think Sleeping Beauty. I played those constantly and of course there was a lot of flailing around the living room; I’m sure I drove my mum nuts. Because my folks were musicians, there was music at home, there were rehearsals and concerts, and when we lived in Iowa my dad taught in a brilliant music faculty building that I loved to run around in. Behind every door was an oboe, a piano, a violin, a flute, all playing at once. It was chaos, but really beautiful.


What are your most cherished records from your music collection?

It’s hard to single a few out, but they would have to be: Brown Rice by Don Cherry, which I’d been trying to track down for ages, and then one day, on the wall at A1 in New York, there it was. 7 Wonders of the World by Prince Buster, which my husband surprised me with one day after we’d gotten off an 11-hour flight.Quand Les Ghettos Brûleront by Brigitte Fontaine & Areski (and arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier).


At which point in your life did you begin to hone in on creating your own blend of slow-burning house music? Was moving to London a turning point?

I wish it was that simple and normal, but it was actually when my ex turned into a psycho. Dark, I know, but it took crazy crap like that to get me making music, like many other people, I’m sure. Nowadays it’s my absolutely horrendous downstairs neighbour who provides me with the anger it takes to lay down a nice dark tune.


Another favourite of mine is ‘Some Of My Favourite Lotions’. I love how your vocals are delicately placed in the mix of synths and beats. What is the noise towards the closing section of the track? It feels a free-jazz element is added to proceedings, which works so wonderfully.

Yes, that’s a bit of analogue sample and hold. I was stressing that Lotions was starting to sound too smooth, so I added some awkward oscillation to muss it up. I really don’t want to make music that lacks awkward moments.


When did your love of house and techno music blossom for you? What were the songs/records/artists that gravitated you towards this musical sphere?

Funny enough, I never knew what the tracks were or who they were by at the time, because I was just listening to and taping off the radio. Ann Arbor and Detroit stations were playing gems like “A Groove” by Instinct (Shake Shakir), “Midnight Sunshine” by Suburban Knight, “Black Out” by Lil Louis & the World, and “It Is What It Is” by Rhythim Is Rhythim (Derrick May), and I had no idea what they were until I started buying records. The original vinyls were probably fairly easy to pick up back then, but I was a kid, and a girl at that, so there was no way. I remember there were a couple of DJs called BMG and Chuck Hampton on WCBN’s Crush Collision, whose techno shows I taped religiously. It was incredible, especially at that age when I had no idea what to do with myself. It was just about living in the moment.


Please discuss the recently released collaborative 12″ with Torn Hawk, entitled ‘Cowboys (For Karen)’? This must have been really good fun.The electric guitar notes adds a beautiful late-night feel to the ambient/electronica soundscapes. It’s really quite a stunning collaboration.

All thanks to Luke Wyatt. He took my stuff and just did his own thing, which I was so happy about. He makes wonderful stuff. When remixes go way out there, it’s fantastic. I see no need for folks to diss on remixes, because there’s no need to play it safe.


What’s next for you, Karen?

I’ve just had a release on Opal Tapes, called “Kiki the Wormhole.” And the fruits of my summer labour will hopefully surface soon, being a small range of remixes, including another go-round for the folks at Open Music Archive, working with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. And I’m really looking forward to traveling to deepest Belgium to play a Meakusma event in October. I’m trying to get working on an album, but I’m finding that with a near-toddler, it’s much easier to focus in on smaller things like those. Naptime sessions. So I’ll keep plugging away.


‘Needs Continuum’ is out now on No Pain In Pop.


Written by admin

September 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm

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