Step Right Up: Oliver Coates
Interview with Oliver Coates.
“I still think of myself of an interpreter, always channelling something from outside of me.”
Words: Mark Carry
My first introduction to Oliver Coates’s music came in the form of a rather splendid mixtape compiled by British composer and organist James Mc Vinnie. The appropriately titled mix, ‘Music for Travel’ consisted of Coates’s utterly beguiling cello-based composition ‘The Room is the Resonator’ as the fitting opening track. A gorgeous ebb and flow of mournful cello strings coalesces effortlessly with gentle ambient pulses and field recordings, evoking the sound world of Brooklyn-based cellist Julia Kent and Canadian violinist Sarah Neufeld. A returning motif of fragile cello pizzicato forms the pulsing heart of this incredible composition that not only signifies music for travel but music for motion of the beating heart and stirring soul.
The London-based cellist, composer and producer has released records on PRAH Recordings – an offshoot of the legendary Moshi Moshi label – and SLIP and in addition, his collaborative work with the London Contemporary Orchestra, Jonny Greenwood (‘The Master’ score) and Mica Levi (score for ‘Under The Skin’). The gifted composer’s first full-length ‘Towards the blessed islands’ was Prah’s first release and earlier this month saw the eagerly-awaited new solo full-length, ‘Upstepping’. A scintillating record of disparate influences where vital sounds of electronic and techno collide with neo-classical elements, which somehow feels closely adjacent to the works of Aphex Twin, Four Tet and Boards of Canada as it does to the modern-classical realm of today.
Coates has described ‘Upstepping’ as “pumped-up body music”. The record’s meticulously crafted and sumptuously layered tracks forms a lovely parallel with Four Tet’s ‘There Is Love In You’ LP, the early Warp output and Canadian artists of Dan Snaith’s Caribou and Owen Pallett’s otherworldly odysseys. The album opener ‘Innocent Love’ feels a lost companion piece to Kieran Hebden’s ‘There Is Love In You’ opus with a hypnotic female vocal line delicately placed in the forefront of the mix alongside a deep bass groove and utterly transcendent cello sections. ‘Innocent Love’ epitomises the inventive spirit and deeply engaging voyage that ‘Upstepping’ takes you on, transitioning between many musical forms in the process.
A myriad of warm textures and flourishes are masterfully embedded in the following cut of ‘Timelapse’, which maps the cherished memories of childhood as the radiant warmth of nostalgia permeates each and every aching pore of this joyously uplifting electronica exploration. ‘Bambi 2046’ contains looped samples and meditative strings that evokes the neo-classical splendour of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ‘IBM 1401, A User’s Manual’ culminating in a glorious crescendo of distorted strings. Deeper house grooves are employed in ‘Perfect Love’ with scintillating techno beats reminiscent of master producers DJ Koze, Mathew Herbert et al. The masterful transition to the brooding cinematic soundscapes of ‘Memorial to Hitchens’ reflects the soaring emotional depth and rich intensity of ‘Upstepping’. The gradual strings and enveloping emotion of ‘Memorial to Hitchens’ shares the immaculate beauty of A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s modern-classical masterworks.
‘Upstepping’ is out now on PRAH Recordings.
Interview with Oliver Coates.
Congratulations on the truly stunning new record, ‘Upstepping’. One of the great hallmarks of this new full-length is the marvellous marriage of the dance sphere and modern-classical realm; a voyage brimming with ideas, sonic nuances, textures and intricate detail. Please take me back to the recording sessions of ‘Upstepping’ and the main objectives and desires you wished for this solo effort? I wonder were any challenges posed during the making of these compositions?
Oliver Coates: It was an out-of-my-head combination of recording sessions, writing sessions and mixing sessions mixed up into one type of behaviour. There was a laptop, mic and cello, sometimes working all night sometimes grabbing 5 minutes to write a new pattern. There was never a plan – only a desire to make the music come to life. I had more, ambient, noise and dance tracks and then Stephen from PRAH helped me pick for this. Lawrence’s artwork completed it. Desiring the track to exist, for it to be satisfying, a kind of internal ecology with the materials, I don’t think about where it’s going to go or who it’s for. Except maybe for my wife and Stephen. The most intense periods alone, making and listening, were in Hong Kong late 2014, Egypt – a couple of days in 2015, and Waterloo summer 2015. I listened to a whole USB stick of Egyptian pop in the desert in a taxi one day and I learnt a lot from that.
Two sister tracks that feel the vital pulse to ‘Upstepping’ are the sublime techno-infused explorations of ‘Innocent Love’ and ‘Perfect Love’. If there ever was an opener to a record it would be ‘Innocent Love; conjuring up the sound of Four Tet at his finest. Can you talk me through the various layers of these particular tracks, Oliver? In terms of the cello instrumentation, how much of these tracks contain cello and what ways do you treat and process the cello sound? A beautifully euphoric sound radiates throughout and reflects the dynamic and shape-shifting sound of ‘Upstepping’.
OC: Four Tet’s arrangement and editing of sampled sound has an intuitive sense and flow which impacts the way I play the instrument. The practice of taking old sounds, chopping them up, and reconfiguring them digitally until it sounds natural and spontaneous has had an impact on my bowing technique on the old wooden analogue instrument. Maybe this is ironic but to me it feels obvious – the manner in which you approach any instrument which makes its acoustic sound, body language, repetition, improvisation, reduction, ornamentation (or special effect), continues to evolve even if you don’t update the technology – I play on a normal old cello with four steel strings. The microscopic and infinite ways you can vary the attack; you can repeat as if you yourself have been sampled – these electronic processes from the last 40 years affect my work – they set the bar higher. Right now I think a lot about arpeggiators as used by Boards of Canada and also Shackleton’s percussion patterns.
I’m not really sure how I made Innocent Love. I remember walking around Hong Kong Island through the night listening to different mixes.
‘Timelapse’ transitions effortlessly between warm, inventive electronica and luminous ambient flourishes. It feels there are several distinct sections contained within this one piece. For example, I love the middle section’s rhythmic groove and the final – what feels to be – soothing synth passages. In terms of constructing ‘Timelapse’, does a gradual process lie at the heart of layering/fusing the many elements together?
OC: The structure for that track revealed itself quite quickly. Staying in one hotel for a couple of nights when we found the home we had just completed on – our first flat – had been completely flooded out. There’s a repeating sample of a child talking that got in there. Instantly that takes me back to early ’90s Aphex and how to straddle that feeling of innocent bright melody and something a bit sinister creeping along.
Upon many revisits of ‘Upstepping’, the spirit of Arthur Russell most certainly feels present, floating through the ether. Again, it’s the many transitioning styles, contrasts, and moods that morph together throughout the record. Can you discuss for me your approach to the cello instrument and the different techniques or processes you have developed when it comes to performing on this instrument?
OC: The cello is often recorded then transposed to another pitch digitally. There are a lot of notes in this record tuned away from the 12 semitones, microtonally shunted around. It keeps the harmonies alive, pitches have more magnetism or so the intervals between them, being reconfigured from the 12 notes of the piano. Cello unadorned plus beats direct and simple hasn’t yet gelled for me. I don’t know if it will. I add a tonne of processing until it feels right. But the best technique of all is the oldest – slowing down or speeding up recordings. Jonny Greenwood does that too when he records strings. Listen to The Master- things are not quite what they seem. For me it sounds good to record a long pure tone like a harmonic then pull it down to the bass register. You bring these spectral colours down too, into the mid-range. You’re more aware of a spectrum soaked in adjacent tones.
The aesthetic and feel to the new record is another important aspect to the sense of journey the music takes you on. For instance, the placing of the more neo-classical-based pieces, ‘Memorial to Hitchens’ and ‘The Irish Book Of Death & Flying Ships’ (and also, the fragile closing lament of ‘Rise and Fall’ embody the emotive and deeply affecting nature of the music. Can you shed some light on the narrative to these particular pieces? The spoken word segments on the latter works so beautifully, evoking the works of Gavin Bryars and Steve Reich along the way.
OC: If there’s a narrative then it’s personal – a lot has changed recently. I still think of myself of an interpreter, always channelling something from outside of me. And not knowing what kind of musician I am. That way I’m going to keep listening and not just churning music out – listening to nature most of all, but also the rhythms of other people as they go about their lives. The poet Alice Oswald speaks well about this. So much is indirect – I made Rise & Fall in a cupboard in 20 minutes while I was waiting for some dancers to warm up. My brother-in-law heard it playing out of my laptop speakers a few months later and took interest in it so I asked if we could add it on the end of the record.
Please discuss your love for dance music and the more techno-infused sound worlds you obviously have such a strong affinity for? Who would have been the most ground-breaking producers and dance records for you when it came to forming the direction of ‘Upstepping’?
OC: I never consciously formed a direction but I’ve always loved fast dance music. I used to have Moving Shadow & Metalheadz compilations on cassette but I think the Come to Daddy EP was a big moment for my head. I was mostly playing Shostakovich cello music at the time so it was weird to try to make sense of the two. Burial, we had some at our wedding, Enya too.
The album’s penultimate track ‘Stash’ for me is the record’s defining moment. The otherworldly dimension and sense of movement captured is revelatory. I wonder would it be a case of finding one or two motifs – whether it’s a cello-based melodic pattern or some interesting sample – where you then piece these elements together and in turn, embed these into a rhythmic structure? It feels there must be some difficulty in piecing together these various sections whilst retaining the liquid state of the music?
OC: Everything was arranged sound by sound on a timeline. This was the last track I made. The most live cello playing is in the sliding sounds near the beginning, between snatches of conversation and found sound. Then the big melody in the middle bit is a cello harmonic played through an arpeggiator in different patterns. I now have a new version for live performance of this track with new live harmonised cello layers and dubby delays – it’s starting to sound more tropical, maybe this is my seapunk record. I have some great new pressure-sensitive devices which are helping me perform these sounds live.
I must ask you about your collaborative work, if you don’t mind Oliver. I’m a huge fan of your collaborative work with Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi. These scores represent some of the most deeply affecting, adventurous, compelling and timeless soundtracks of recent times. Can you recount your memories of working with Mica and Jonny on some of these scores, for which you must have some particularly strong memories for (‘Under The Skin’, ‘The Master’ to name two)?
OC: It’s mostly nonverbal. There’s a curious magic to it – a kind of quick-read knowingness and a sort of quiet understanding. Pieces of paper with different musical cues. Sometimes these feel finished and polished on the page or sometimes they are a starting point. A studio with lots of mics and some great freelance players getting together. You figure out as quick as you can what to do, where you can help most in each track. A good thing about both Mica and Jonny is they don’t talk much, they listen hard and they trust. They let go and want to do what you can with the notation (obey it precisely with lots of dynamics I find is the best) until it starts to fit with the mood of the scene. With the Under the Skin I enjoyed going in and multi-tracking Mica’s viola playing with my harmonics. Jonny and Mica both play viola very well (amongst many other instruments). Funny that.
‘Upstepping’ is out now on PRAH Recordings.