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Chosen One: The Gentleman Losers

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So we had a feeling of being stuck in this insane limbo, this quicksand, where no matter how fast we run, we don’t make headway.”

 Samu & Ville Kuukka

Words: Mark Carry

 TGL-Promo-2018-2-Large

Last winter saw the highly anticipated return of Finnish duo The Gentleman Losers with their sublime third studio album ‘Permanently Midnight’ (released on Estonian boutique label Grainy Records). With the addition of vocals (on several tracks) and synthesizer instrumentation, the band’s unique sound world has further evolved, producing a rejuvenated, cathartic and deeply bewitching sonic experience.

The Gentleman Losers consist of brothers Samu and Ville Kuukka from Helsinki, Finland. The duo’s immaculate instrumental music first surfaced in 2006 with their universally acclaimed self-titled debut full length, followed by the equally exceptional ‘Dustland’ in 2009. Looking back, the band mapped magnificently the gorgeous ambient and modern classical recordings of the 00’s. The duo’s first two records capture a fragile beauty of long-lost folk relics, forever filled with cinematic wonder and a lyrical quality is forever inherent in their stunningly beautiful musical works. In fact, many conversations with musicians over the years has seen the name of the Gentleman Losers pop up – often with a flood of excitement and a warm smile. A remarkable band whose return last year was akin to the return of a longtime friend to grace your very presence.

The long hiatus in these intervening years saw the Kuukka brothers form a synth pop outfit Lessons (with extensive touring in addition to the band’s debut album release) and film scores and other commissioned music. Says Ville, “We were really itching to get them out”. The album’s immaculate ten tracks contains a bold spirit that resonates powerfully throughout the quiet bliss of synthesizer-layered opener ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ right through to the closing harmony-laden opus title-track.

As ever, keen attention to detail is clearly evident across the mesmerizing sonic canvas. Gorgeous harmonies are intricately placed on the late night bliss of ‘Swimming After Dark’ while the closing two tracks (forthcoming single ‘Rising Tide’ and ‘Permanently Midnight’) merges Memphis soul and 60’s/70’s Americana to magnificent effect. A healing quality prevails throughout the sumptuously layered creations.

The album’s towering centerpiece ‘Wintergreen’ epitomizes the visionary nature of the duo’s latest sonic jewel. Cinematic strings and brooding synthesizers are effortlessly fused with clean guitar tones and a plethora of pristine instrumentation, radiating a deep catharsis as a result. ‘Occultation Of Hesperus’ is a live jam, bustling with hypnotic guitar riffs and pulsating beat. The range of the band’s sound  is widening yet their trademark ambient aesthetics remain beautifully intact.

Permanently Midnight’ becomes an experience of in-betweenness. Says Samu, “Permanently Midnight explores the idea of liminality, of being stuck in a stage where the old has ceased to exist, but the new hasn’t yet begun”. A timelessness spreads across ‘Permanently Midnight’ like the impending light of dawn.

‘Permanently Midnight’ is out now on Grainy Records.

The Gentleman Losers’ upcoming single “Rising Tide” will be released on June 22nd on all major digital services.

https://www.gentlemanlosers.com/

https://thegentlemanlosers.bandcamp.com/music

30443387_2122838307986294_8106836017710891008_o credit Mirjam Varik

 

Interview with Samu & Ville  Kuukka.

 

Congratulations on the utterly compelling and stunningly beautiful new full length release “Permanently Midnight”. I just love how on one level, it’s unmistakably the unique sound world crafted by The Gentleman Losers but also there is many new elements inherent in your sonic oeuvre in this newest chapter (particularly, the use of voice and harmonies and more heightened use of synthesizer in places). Firstly, please discuss the primary concerns you both had for this new record (from the outset) and indeed the conversations you must have been having concerning the desire to add these new colours to your musical language?

Samu & Ville Kuukka: Thank you so much! I have to say, whenever we set out to make new music as TGL, it’s always very, very hard to meet the standards we’ve set for the band. We’re not happy with almost anything that comes out of our fingertips. I don’t know how many times we’ve cursed ourselves for being so demanding. I mean, who needs this kind of madness in their lives? Sonically, stylistically, and emotionally, we’ve set these boundaries, more or less strict, within which we operate. The world is very finely tuned, and it breaks easily, so each note and idea and sound needs to be carefully chosen to preserve the magic. That said, we felt that, since the gap between the releases ended up being so big, it was time we brought new elements to the sound. The expectations were high, I suppose, from our fans, to come up with the goods again, but at the same time, we’re not the same people as we were eight years ago. So it would have felt a tad disingenuous to keep making the same music we were making then.

There has been quite the hiatus from the second Gentleman Losers record (“Dustland”) and last year’s eagerly awaited follow-up. I get the impression your involvement in the synth pop band Lessons (and particularly the numerous live shows) helped inform the sound of what would become “Permanently Midnight”? The ambitious scope of the record is what strikes you immediately where the glorious compositions inhabit this remarkably empowering and cosmic spirit. During these years of allowing the new compositions to bloom naturally – and gradually I presume – there must have been a proud moment for you once the album finally came into being?

SK & VK: We never meant to take a break from TGL.”Dustland” materialised rather easily, so it wasn’t a question of being fed up with the band or anything. What did happen, was in fact our “side projects” – seeking film music commissions, then getting them, and the Lessons band – ended up taking way more time and energy than we had thought. Lessons in particular turned out to be much more demanding than we expected, much of it owing to the fact that the third member of the band, our singer and co-writer Patrick Sudarski, lives in Germany. But then Lessons got signed to Sinnbus records and there were releases and tours and interviews and the lot. Which was all lovely, obviously exactly what we wanted to happen! But when there are people involved in your endeavours, like label folks, PR people, booking agents, radio promoters, and what have you, it sort of becomes more serious. It’s a job then, really. There are people expecting things from you. With TGL it as just the two of us, more or less, especially after our label City Centre Offices decided to call it quits, after which we in fact had no outlet for the music. But certainly it was writing synth pop songs for Lessons that got us thinking that we might write vocal songs for TGL too. It was a very natural progression, too.

It wasn’t like we were working on the album all this time, but there were long stretches when it in fact was all we did. The film music stuff and the synth pop band were helpful in opening new creative doors for me personally, but I think there were times for Ville when he felt the opposite to be true. And at some point progress on the album got mired down. Those were difficult times for us, I can’t deny it. There was depression, a feeling of futility. The growing panic of having wasted years on a project that might not ever see the light of day, and if and when it did, would we even be on anyone’s radar anymore. And as always, the question of making enough money to pay for the rent. Which, of course, is a real struggle for indie musicians. It’s genuine poverty; there’s no nice way to put it. Ville had a serious bout of burning out and it took him a long time to recover. I was getting serious physical reactions from the constant stress of years on end. I was actually in physical pain for months, and no cause was found.

So we had a feeling of being stuck in this insane limbo, this quicksand, where no matter how fast we run, we don’t make headway. This is what the album came to be about at some point. We kept working on it, because it was already way past the point of no return, and we knew it would be great eventually, because the songs were there. Then we reached the moment where we thought the album was finished. We were in Berlin, and we played that version to some musician friends – Nils Frahm, FS Blumm, Takeshi Nishimoto, Martyn Heyne – and they all liked it. But for us, this was an ear-opener. We somehow heard the thing with fresh ears, and knew that it wasn’t anywhere near finished. So from that moment on, we got back to the drawing board and after some serious reworking, we finally found the right approach and the album became what it is.

And I need to point out that in spite of all the struggle, we love the album now. Once we had conquered the biggest issues and things started moving into the right direction, we knew that we had a great record in our hands.

IMG_3159 credit Samu Kuukka

In terms of the musical set-up and equipment at your disposal (and particularly your home studio set-up in Helsinki), I’d love to gain an insight into your studio set-up and the many innumerable instrumentation and analogue gear that were vital to “Permanently Midnight”‘s enchanting sonic canvas? Following on from the first two albums, were there new musical discoveries (instruments, gear, pedals, production tools etc) that served significant foundations to this latest release?

SK & VK: What has happened is that over the years, we’ve lost access to a lot of excellent gear! On our first album we had what was probably our best-sounding set-up. It was really a matter of serendipity. We just happened to have at our disposal pieces of equipment that, when combined, gave us a gorgeous sound. Often some important pieces of gear have been on loan from other people, so we’ve kind of lost them from our arsenal since then. Over the years we’ve always kept some key pieces that we own, such as our Telefunken mixing console from the 1950s, a Studer tape machine, a tape delay, some choice mics.

Among the new stuff on this record there’s the Roland SH-101 synth, which is mainly appreciated in dance music circles, but is a really lovely instrument. Another unique thing was the kantele, which is a traditional, zither-like, Finnish instrument. It was used for some colours on ”Night Falls in Nowhereland”. Other things included boring, technical stuff such as some Neve mic preamps. And towards the end of the mixing stage we got a pair of these most amazing speakers called Kii Audio. Those things are like the first real major development in speaker technology in decades. Absolutely groundbreaking stuff.

What we hope to achieve is a certain level of randomness and happy accidents. Things that we don’t have total control over. Which is why we like analogue gear, all things lo-fi, and even malfunctioning units. It’s a matter of letting chance take its course, and then editing the results in the digital domain. We do use digital stuff too, Pro Tools and such, and recently, Ableton Live.

The gorgeous soulful americana, neon-lit lament “The Good Bird Singin’ In The Twilight Tree” represents one of part A’s deeply enriching moments. The meticulous layering of the pristine sounds emits such a vivid warmth, particularly the heavenly harmonies atop the warm percussion. Can you talk me through this song’s construction and how it blossomed over time? Did you envision this composition to turn out in this way (or rather, you may never know until much later in the recording process)?

SK & VK:”Good Bird” was a relatively late addition, and one that, thematically, tied the album together. It was a song that came very easily. The music was somehow just waiting to come out. I lifted some of the lyrics from another, unfinished, song, and with minor alterations the song was there. The album’s main theme is sort of condensed in the words of ”Good Bird”. The production side took much, much longer. We knew we wanted this soulful sound for it, but it took a fair amount of experimenting. It used to have just the drum machine as the rhythm section. Then we wondered how it would sound with an acoustic drum kit. We didn’t want a regular-sounding drum kit, so we recorded it with a plastic toy mic onto this 70s cassette deck we had – and voilà! Mixing the song was pretty hard, mostly because of the terrible-sounding mix room that was our bane back then. But once Ville had the mix down, we knew we had a centerpiece track for the album.

Recording over several years and in many cities across Europe must have been a very interesting experience. I wonder would you have been working very specifically on certain songs in these various recording times you had together? Looking back on the album’s inception and creation, did certain tracks bloom much quicker than others? I’m very curious to know how late in the day (so to speak) did the composition (such as “Swimming After Dark” for example?) tell you to add vocals? 

SK: The multitude of recording locations was not something we planned, or meant to happen. It was just a fact of life then that we were moving round a lot. For example Ville was living in Paris with his girlfriend Kaisa Ruotsalainen for a while, and he had set up a little studio around a laptop and Ableton Live. So stuff kept coming to me from Paris, and then I worked on those  ideas, and some of them went somewhere, and others didn’t.

Some of the songs really took forever to find a final form – most of them did, I suppose. Good Bird, like I mentioned, was an exception. Some other didn’t require that much work, if you count the hours we put into them in the end, but they were recorded in a few sessions that were far apart in time. I think ”Soft Rains” was started in this lovely old house in Switzerland and finished years later in Helsinki.

“Swimming” is a song we had lying around for years. If I remember correctly, a version of it was left off ”Dustland”. It didn’t have vocals then, and it wasn’t at all the way it turned out now. Once the decision was made to have vocals on the new album, we found that song draft and fooled around with. That’s when it really came to life.

21-3551 credit Ville Kuukka

A snippet of “Wintergreen” was heard first on the band’s album trailer in the weeks leading up to its release. I feel this piece is one of the album’s pinnacles (and the band’s songbook thus far) with luminescent beats, smoky jazz flourishes and beguiling cinematic soundscapes. It’s clearly demonstrated that as brothers, each of you informs the other – as a near telepathic connection forever connects the pair – where a certain electronic beat or synth line informs the following vibraphone passage (and so on). Please shed some light on the creative process inherent in your work and indeed has the process remained the same or changed in any way from your early days?

SK: Ville has this favourite quote when talking about the way we play on a song like ”Wintergreen”: Keith Richards talks about the ”ancient art of weaving”, which is what he does with Ronnie Wood. The players listen to each other and just trade licks and lines, and the fabric of the song comes out of that. Certainly Ville and I have a wordless understanding when playing music, most of the time, at least. Which doesn’t mean that we always exist harmoniously in the studio! There have been some major shouting matches over the year, that’s for sure.

When we start writing new material, it’s always a very intimate process. It’s rare that we sit down and write together starting from scratch. Usually each of us brings something to the table that we’ve written alone, then see how the other one responds. So it’s this two-part filter always at work on the music. There are so many rejected ideas as a result that I can’t even guess at the number. But it means that only the strongest stuff gets a green light. This process has remained the same over the years.

“Permanently Midnight” encapsulates this in-between state, so it’s as if the immaculate sounds capture precisely this feeling of tension, despair and melancholy but therein also lies burning embers of hope within the darkness. Please talk me through the album’s title and the themes central to this latest journey of yours? The accompanying photobook (beautifully depicting “pictures from the in-between”) offers another perspective on this striking narrative built. Can you recount your memories of taking these many photos – the places you were, the feelings you were striving to capture – and the visual nature of your music (and the undeniable cinematic quality to the band’s sound)? The relationship between sight and sound must forever serve undying fascination and inspiration for you?

SK &VK: It was something that dawned on us as the recording process dragged on, and, in essence, took over our lives, that we were living in this weird place, or non-place, outside of time. We had the feeling that our lives or careers hadn’t really progressed much, in spite of our ceaseless work. We were working on something new, a piece that was to redefine us as artists to a great degree, but the work wasn’t finishing; we were stuck in a moment of transition. In anthropology, this is called a liminal state. In a broader sense, liminality has always been recognized as special, even dangerous state. In folk magic, certain places and times have been considered liminal, and therefore supernatural, such as a crossroads, a place between the worlds, so to speak. Think of the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for superior guitar skills. So for example, the twilight is a time that is between day and night, and, of course, midnight is a time that is no longer the day before, nor yet the next one.

We then realized that we weren’t alone in feeling this. Many of our friends were feeling this in-between-things state as well. Culturally, politically, and technologically, so many things have changed recently that it has left us all reeling. The whole world is in a state of transition, but not really moving on into the future. Technology seems to have altered, in a profound way, a whole generation’s perception of the world, and what it means to be a human being in the world. The world as we knew it has vanished, seemingly overnight, because of technological progress running amok, this inhuman greed setting the pace, and people as the body politic behaving like idiots. Things are changing, but there is nothing in anyone’s field of vision to replace the old. I certainly don’t know what to expect from the future anymore. Like they say, the future ain’t what it used to be.

The photos were something that just happened on the side. We have both been avid photographers for years. So we always go everywhere armed with a camera of some sort, at least a compact 35mm. We shoot a lot of pictures, and at some point near the completion of the record, we realized that we have actually been sort of documenting the process all along. Not really capturing the actual work, but rather our lives, and how the world looked like to us during the recording. And turns out that many of the pictures can be seen as a visual continuation of what we were trying to put down in the music. I guess we tend to have a similar approach to taking pictures, where it’s a mood that we’re capturing, and the mood we’re in ourselves defines the subjects and the approach. So it’s really about this mental and emotional free association. You see different things depending on you’re feeling. The pictures in the book have been shot in many places, from Helsinki to Paris, and Tallinn to Leipzig. To put it in grand terms, I suppose we’re trying to capture how it feels to be alive at this particular time in history.

IMG_3166 credit Samu Kuukka

What also strikes me is the sequencing of the album and how the gorgeous celestial harmonies ascend into the atmosphere, towards the album’s close? It almost feels as if the crystal light of the impending horizon is nearing us. The meticulous attention to detail abounds at each and every turn. Is the sequencing a significant challenge?

SK & VK: We’re happy that you appreciate this! The sequencing is indeed an essential part of our art. We give it a lot of thought and go through endless permutations before find the kind of dramatic and emotional arc that delivers the kind of feeling that we’ve been looking for. We’re big fans of the Album as an art form, and it sort of baffles us that, really, very few artists seem to be interested in offering a good album, a whole, instead of a random collection of songs. I know this is very old-fashioned in this age of throwaway singles, but this is in fact a great loss that albums aren’t appreciated anymore, or supported (or even acknowledged) by many digital platforms. Mainstream music, of course, has never been about the album as a thoroughly thought-out piece of art, the label people just want to have the most obvious hit song to be first, then the next best song, and so on, until there’s the godawful side B. But if done well, the music album can be a unique form of expression. And the vinyl record, by its physical attributes, becomes a two-act show, which is a splendid way to present a suite of music. For the listener, there is a physical and psychological aspect to it as well, getting up, walking up the record, and flipping it over. It’s like reading a book. You have to do something physical to find out how the story continues.

The album’s final harmony-laden gems “Rising Tide” and the gorgeous title-track really conveys just how far the band has come and this sense of a journey – undoubtedly one of rejuvenation – that this music takes the listener on. Recount your memories of writing the lyrics and the various musical layers to these beguiling creations? Were there reference points (certain albums or films or books even) that you turned to throughout ‘Permanently Midnight’s album making process?

SK: The song ”Permanently Midnight” searched its form for a good while. Again, the demo had been around for a couple of years, sans lyrics, but it wasn’t until the phrase ”permanently midnight” came to me, and we decided to do something unexpected with the vocals, that the song found its form. It’s a very sweet tune, but we didn’t want to go too far in that direction. It was another song that was essential to our rebirth. The lyrics are really simple, to drive the point home. And the phrase ”all dressed up and nowhere to go” felt like a good way to describe what we were feeling.

Lastly, I must ask you about the menacing, seductive groove of “Occultation Of Hesperus”. It feels this glorious cut saw the light of day from a jamming session one evening? There is a live feel to this recording, which I love and a charged immediacy and rawness. It must be an exciting prospect for the pair of you to be touring the new record, will you be expecting new versions to evolve as a result of the chemistry of live performances?

SK:”Hesperus” was indeed a live jam, back in our dingy studio in the Punavuori neighbourhood of Helsinki. The basic track was just a drummachine, Ville on the electric guitar, and me on the Rhodes. It’s relatively rare for us to record like that, but it’s something we enjoy doing, and, indeed, will be doing on the road! We just recently played our first live show in many, many years. The reception was amazing and it really left us wanting to do it more.

‘Permanently Midnight’ is out now on Grainy Records.

The Gentleman Losers’ upcoming single “Rising Tide” will be released on June 22nd on all major digital services.

https://www.gentlemanlosers.com/

https://thegentlemanlosers.bandcamp.com/music

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June 13, 2018 at 2:10 pm

Chosen One: Actress & London Contemporary Orchestra

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“…but I do love the meshing of beautiful sound ideas, textures and tones. I like the idea of running them through a computerised process without it seeming as if it’s been touched.”

 Darren Cunningham (Actress)

Words: Mark Carry

Actress-x-LCO-Press-Shot-v2

‘LAGEOS’ is the utterly compelling, shape shifting debut full length release from renowned electronic producer Darren Cunningham (aka Actress) and the London Contemporary Orchestra. At the heart of this captivating record is both artists’ ceaseless fascination with sound wherein new pathways of discovery are forever attained.

The first traces – committed to tape at least – was last year’s beguiling ‘Audio Track 5’ EP. The divine title-track (which is also found halfway through the record’s second half) comprises of beautifully drifting strings that float amidst crunching percussive rhythms and piano patterns. The splicing of the various components creates a shimmering odyssey of rapturous, luminous soundscapes, where the abstract techno sphere is masterfully blended with modern classical elements. Importantly, lines become blurred throughout ‘LAGEOS’, one cannot pinpoint to any one musical landscape, for it is a far-reaching kaleidoscope of timbres, textures and tones.

LCO’s Hugh Brunt has described the collaboration as being “about exploring an ambiguity of sound that sits between electronic and acoustic spaces.” The new co-write ‘Galya Beat’ embodies just that as majestic violin lines are blended with rippling percussion and intense electronic passages: a rich new musical language is formed before your very eyes.

The gorgeous opener – and title-track – ‘LAGEOS’ opens with a gentle crackle of electronics which feels akin to a magical fireworks display dancing across a night’s skyline. Chaotic string patterns ascend into the mix like shooting stars with glorious illuminations of mind bending sounds. The near-choral bliss of ‘Momentum’ follows next with dazzling pulses of achingly beautiful sound waves (precisely orbiting the ether of unknown dimensions).

It is a joy to discover new contexts and insights into the cherished Actress discography as classics such as ‘Hubble’, ‘N.E.W’ and ‘Voodoo Posse, Chronic Illusion’ become a deep stream of consciousness and energy flow. The meditative bliss of ‘N.E.W’ with an endless array of enchanting instrumentation, supplied by the LCO, flows deep into your veins. The irresistible cosmic groove of ‘Voodoo Posse’ serves the record’s fitting penultimate track before the joyously empowering ‘Hubble’s techno fuelled odyssey maps one’s innermost fears and dreams.

Alice Coltrane once said “I just go within” and this echoes powerfully throughout this incredibly inspiring collaboration between Actress and LCO, the sumptuously layered tracks come from deep within one’s soul, heart and spirit.

‘LAGEOS’ is out now on Ninja Tune.

https://ninjatune.net/artist/actress

 

Actress2013_PiotrNiepsuj

Interview with Darren Cunningham (Actress).

 

Congratulations Darren on the utterly captivating new full length ‘LAGEOS’; a glorious collaboration with LCO. Please take me back to the process by which you received the individual LCO recorded instrumental parts and, in turn, your manipulation of these sounds? It feels like such a fascinating sound experiment, and I wonder how your approach varied depending on the nature of the music you got hold of?

Darren Cunningham: Tar thanks 🙂 It was a split process of sorts really. The process of recording the instrumental parts were organised separately in a different acoustical sound environment in the UK. This process layer was then moved to another sound environment in Berlin. It was at this point that I started to receive stems from the first process, and from that point created a demo of what the album could soon like based on what id heard from outside of the recording process, so at each point there’s a flow of information that can be reorganised and captured in the studio.

At the final point I receive the stems created for each instrument and begin the electronics process in my studio. Dipping sounds through chromdioxid super II at different frequencies and layering sound oscillations via subtle modular relays. Some were layered chaotically within the framework of orchestration, or in some cases specifically mapped to expression.

The classical world combined with the electronic sphere conjures up such a shape shifting, mind bending experience. Can you discuss your desires and hopes for this project (from the outset) and your love of classical music (I believe your first musical instrument was the clarinet, so ‘LAGEOS’ is almost like the completion of a full circle for you)?

DC: Hmmm “love of classical music” I  wouldn’t technically describe myself as someone who “loves” classical music, but I do love the meshing of beautiful sound ideas, textures and tones. I like the idea of running them through a computerised process without it seeming as if its been touched.

I came across and begun to appreciate classical music by chance, having heard Gabriel Faure’s – Requiem, but I was exposed to a classical instrument when i was about 10 and that was the clarinet. I committed to the ritual of practice for a reasonable amount of time (2)years. Brief stint in orchestra (2hrs), and that was it. So definitely the clarinet forms some sort of symbolic reference, but ultimately for me this was just an exercise to learn more about music.

This project began with the live show in the Barbican back in 2016. I’d love for you to discuss the source of inspiration that this space and its architecture has had on the music making process and the resultant recorded output?

DC: I’d say the Barbican is a great space for capturing a sort of introspective analysis.

Amped up isolation

An exchange of communication

Like a friendly council estate for the arts

Enriching lives

community

and waterfalls

‘LAGEOS’ gives beautiful new insights into several classic cuts from the cherished Actress back catalog. In what ways do you feel these tracks (such as N.E.W. or ‘Voodoo Posse, Chronic Illusion’) have metamorphosed given this new classical context?

DC: They’re just so weirdly inverted its endlessly fascinating to me.

Lastly, the immense detail and intricate layers – forever colliding particles that feel a distillation of endless moments within moments – of the vastly compelling Actress sound unleashes such a timeless, far-reaching state. Please shed some light into your compositional approach and your fascination with sound? Are there certain musical philosophies that you feel have been central to your artistic creations

DC: DISCOVERY

 

Photography by Tom D Morgan - www.tomdmorgan.com

 

Interview with Robert Ames (co-Artistic Director of LCO).

 

The forthcoming Actress & London Contemporary Orchestra ‘LAGEOS’ record is really quite special. Firstly, I’d be very curious to learn how this particular collaboration was conceived and to bring me back to the original live Barbican show in 2016?

Robert Ames: So about a year before we did that show at the Barbican, we sat down to have a think about who in that world we’d really love to work with (it came out of the meetings that we had with Boiler Room; there was a bunch of us there) and we all agreed that Actress would be amazing for it because he’s got such an incredible ear for the detail in the music and there’s so many layers of interest as well. So it would be really interesting to give him orchestral instruments as a palette to play with – just like he works when he’s creating his tracks with a load of found sounds to create his music before; it would be interesting for him to treat out orchestral instruments in the same way. So, that was about a year before the Barbican show. We had a long process of introducing instruments to him; we were all hitting ideas off each other and then we got the Barbican show.

The classical world and the techno/electronic world really complement each other, it just combines so well.

RA: Yeah, it’s a really interesting time at the moment where – I’m trying not to use the label contemporary classical music because it doesn’t make so much sense – there seems to be a really interesting natural cross-over that’s happening quite a lot between genres and particularly electronic music producers and composers in the world we work in more it seems to be a lot more fluid now and ideas seem to be flowing between each other and it’s hard to pigeon-hole the music in a specific genre so much. And I think that’s something that really exciting about the LCO is finding those ambiguous spaces where it’s really exciting in to make it happen and try to facilitate that and facilitate recording and the live shows. Actress is one of the most exciting examples doing that and we’re really looking forward to the Barbican show that’s coming up and for everybody to hear that album.

I was very curious to hear how much a source of inspiration the Barbican itself was in terms of the space and the architecture?

RA: That’s right, the architecture – especially for Darren more than anybody else – was a big influence in his thought process for the initial show: that brutalist, concrete architecture I think you can definitely hear that in some of the music.

‘Audio Track 5’ was the first taste of this collaboration when it came out last year. Again, it’s the organic feel to it and very distinctive timbres happening like these found sounds etched in the detail somewhere. You presumably had good fun putting a track like this together?

RA: It’s an interesting one that one (I’m just trying to remember off the top of my head). Of the specific instrument or sounds you hear on that; you hear that kind of low crunching sound and that’s a prepared piano and  stuff that is going on high up, you get a lot of plucked harp sounds that have obviously been treated by Darren as well as violin lines (which are played by our lead violinist Galya Bisengalieva).

For these live shows, is it a case of rehearsing a lot in advance or is it an intense short burst of a period?

RA: It’s a fairly intense process. The really nice thing about these shows – we’ve played a couple now and have more planned and obviously they’re all happening in different places but they happen in very different atmospheres as well. So for example we played the Barbican in London last year, we did a show in Moscow that was more of a club venue and it was a standing capacity. We haven’t had a set-list (like bands would have a set-list): we go into the space, we see how we all feel and how the musicians feel and think what audience we’re going to get and we chop and change the set-list depending on that so it’s got a nice programming behind it depending on the space, the atmosphere, the audience and the musicians.

Thinking about your other collaborations, Mica Levi is another person who really typifies this sort of uncategorizable sound and someone who is so unique in the current music world.

RA: That’s really interesting; we’ve just been working on something new with her at the moment. So, Mica Levi and another musician called Koby Sey and a visual artist called Hannah Perry and some musicians from LCO. And so far that’s been four days: very open, work shopping and improvisation and throwing ideas out. So the work we do with her ranges from that all the way to a very specific commission to write a string quartet and we just performed that at the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, we performed it at the Roundhouse as part of Ron Arad’s Curtain Call. And we’re just about to fly off to Salzburg to perform that and that’s a much more standard process where she writes a piece of music, she comes and she presents it to us; we work on it a bit with her, share some thoughts and then we enjoy performing her work.

Does the LCO change or alter in size depending on the nature of the project or time and other constraints?

RA: Yeah it does. I started the orchestra with co-founder Hugh Brunt in 2008 and it started off being large orchestral but we’d like to think of the orchestra as a collective of musicians as opposed to something that’s really inflexible. So, in one concert we could have like a solo piece of music all the way up to a ninety piece orchestra all the way down to a string quartet; so we do a massive array of different types of concerts and different line-ups of ensembles. We record a lot of stuff as well, so something like ‘Alien: Covenant’ which we recorded with Jed Kurzel (and that was a 90-piece orchestra) and we just did a string quartet concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and we’re going to be doing a massive orchestral show in October at the Barbican called Other World which is the amazing batch of shows, eight of our core musicians that we work with a lot. So it’s really changing all the time and it’s nice to be able to do that; it means instead of going to a composer and saying ‘this is what we’ve got, you’ve got to write this’, we can say ‘this is what we’ve got, enjoy it and we can be flexible to what you want.’

There is a wide range of found sounds on ‘LAGEOS’. So, as a listener you’d be asking ‘what is this sound?’ and I just love how all these elements are spliced together so brilliantly.

RA: Yeah, that’s right. A lot of the sounds on there are devised by the musicians themselves so instead of being standard classical sounds, there is a lot of extended techniques on there you especially hear that on the violin, viola and cello. Then you hear a lot of great, interesting percussion techniques like the Marimba’s with blankets thrown over them; plastic bags being used; the clarinet being used more of a percussive instrument. So it’s these very well-known instruments that are being explored throughout their whole sound world. So that’s coming from Darren first or wanting to find out exactly what more instruments can do, the musician having the technical ability to create all these sounds and show them to him.

The studio itself that you record in, is this a space that you all would be familiar with?

RA: This was a slightly different recording process to what we’d usually do. So, although we perform and rehearse together, we actually recorded the stem – the stem being we recorded every single instrument independently and built them up so we could give Darren control over the individual lines and so Hugh and I would have control as well. And the mixing stage we did with our friends at Spitfire Audio Studio: they are a really amazing company; they make sound library store for composers so we recorded in their studio which we recorded our sound library we did with them and we had a great engineer called Harry Wilson.

Was the process itself a short intense period or more lengthy, gradual stages?

RA: It was quite intense, it happened over two very, very long days of each musician independently and obviously each track has a different amount of musicians; some of them have scores and some of them don’t so some were quicker to record than others. So I think safely to say by far my favourite track on the album is a track called ‘Galya Beat’ and that’s not scored at all and that’s written by Galya (the violinist), Sam Wilson (the percussionist) and Darren, so that’s a pure co-write between those three guys and for me is what the collaboration is al about. And there’s elements of improvisation in the writing of that, so something like that was really quick and fresh to record because they performed it so much. The other ones which are a little bit more notated took a bit more time.

One of my favourites at the moment – and it’s where it’s placed as well – is ‘Voodoo Posse, Chronic Illusion’and that groove that goes on throughout.

RA: Yeah it’s a great one, I mean it’s one of his classic tunes, it’s really amazing. It’s fun exploring that groove and it’s fun exploring the darker sound worlds of that piece. And the nice thing about that is the way we perform and the way the music is notated it doesn’t have a set duration, so if we see the audience is enjoying the groove we’ll keep it going for longer.

I gather it’s these live performances would be the most fulfilling or rewarding parts of it all? You’re so deeply involved with everything from composing and writing to arranging, recording and so on, is the live performance the ultimate part of it?

RA: Yeah, the live performance is the really, really fun bit. But it’s actually just being in a room with Darren and just working through sounds has been an incredibly rewarding experience because we’ve learned so much from him and his process; the way he works so it’s been really fulfilling the whole thing.

‘LAGEOS’ is out now on Ninja Tune.

https://ninjatune.net/artist/actress

 

 

 

 

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June 5, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Chosen One: Örvar Smárason

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A lot of it depends on letting myself get into the situation where I can let things happen on their own, if that makes any sense.”

Örvar Smárason

Words: Mark Carry

4.by Birgisdóttir Ingibjörg

Light Is Liquid’ is the gorgeous debut solo album from one of the key musical figures in Iceland’s music community over the past two decades (with his bands múm, FM Belfast among others).

The lead single ‘Photoelectric’ begins with irresistible electronic pop hooks before guest vocalist Sillus further heightens the transcendental pop dimension. “Tell me a story” are the first words uttered; Örvar Smárason’s debut solo album feels like eight scintillating folk pop songs for the modern world. The myriad of warm textures and luminous beats evokes a dichotomy of worlds wherein radiant light and shimmering darkness become effortlessly fused across the record’s sublime sonic tapestry. Later, hypnotic vocoder processing ascends onto the infectious chorus (with the gorgeous refrain of “I’m not in love”) that conjures up the timeless ambient pop creations of French duo Air in all its glory.

Tiny Moon’ serves part A’s defining moments with elements of Italo, 80’s synth pop and minimal wave to masterful effect. The luminous ballad – and duet with JFDR – seeps into your veins and very being. The meditative chorus refrain of “light is liquid/ when you are young” serves the record’s fitting prologue, in many ways,as the listener is transported to astral planes of new horizons.

The duo of ‘The Duality Paradox’ and ‘Flesh & Dreams’ offers ‘Light Is Liquid’s pulsing heart. A hypnotic vocoder line flows throughout the electronic pop flow of enchanting soundscapes; belonging to some otherworldly, mysterious android music. ‘Flesh & Dreams’ (featuring Sillus) is an utterly bewitching, precious pop gem, reminiscent of Smárason’s FM Belfast project and the leading lights of the Icelandic community as a whole. An achingly beautiful soulful dimension lies in the foundations of the synth pop lattice. Joyously uplifting.

The epic closer ‘Cthulhu Regio’ chronicles the exploration through the depths of darkness to find the eternal light of hope. The deeply affecting chorus refrain of “There will be light in the end” – which drifts majestically amidst the shimmering darkness of synthesizer oscillations and computerized vocals – enables oneself to find your way once more in this world.

‘Light Is Liquid’ is out on 18th May 2018 via Morr Music ( available to pre-order HERE).

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by Birgisdóttir Ingibjörg

Interview with Örvar Smárason.

 

If ever a title reflects the music captured on it, it is this one; this collection of beautiful electronic pop songs feel like shimmering rays of light: an array of particles that navigate the human heart and mind. Can you please take me back to the album’s inception and indeed the writing process of these songs? I wonder did you approach this record in a new light in the sense that it was to be your debut solo record?

Örvar Smárason: The title actually came before the album, I had been walking around with it for a while. I was originally going to use it for something else, but when I started gathering my ideas for this album I instantly felt that it fitted perfectly. I wrote and produced the album in a few intense bursts I guess, but I honestly can’t even remember anymore. I was working on a  lot of different projects at the same time, so I kind of had to keep this one on the sidelines for a bit.

In terms of the album production, these eight sonic creations float magnificently into your consciousness. The songs are at once timeless and almost belong to some future world, not quite yet arrived upon. I’d love to gain an insight into your processes and methodologies as a producer (and creating these contemporary pop spheres must almost be second nature to you at this point)?

OS: Like with the múm tracks, the process here isn’t very controlled or pre-planned. A lot of it depends on letting myself get into the situation where I can let things happen on their own, if that makes any sense. And after that it’s just about putting the work in.

Can you talk me through your studio set-up and the recording sessions themselves for ‘Light Is Liquid’? You have a stellar cast of close musical collaborators from the Iceland music community. Did you envision all these musical guests and voices would make such a vital part to these sound worlds? 

OS: I was actually in the middle of changing studios while I was making this record, but that’s actually fine with me because I think I work better when my set-up isn’t too rigid or nailed down. I use a a lot of smaller electronic instruments, samplers and synths on this record, so a lot of it was made by just playing around with them. And while making the record I didn’t really think about which singers I was going to collaborate with or if I was even going to have vocals on the album at all. And outside of the vocals and drums on one of the tracks, there aren’t really any collaborations on the album. It’s pretty much only electronic stuff I programmed myself. In fact, I think I have never worked on an album with so little collaboration with other musicians.

The magical centerpiece of the record I feel arrives with the formidable duo of ‘The Duality Paradox’ and ‘Flesh & Dreams’. The warped voice captured on ‘The Duality Paradox’ emits such a soulful, heartfelt and cathartic release; almost belonging to some Utopian world. Can you recount your memories of writing this and indeed how you must see a song such as this gradually form – with each carefully sculpted layer – before your eyes?

OS: The computerized vocals on these two tracks (as well as on ‘Photoelectric’), the ones that sound like a vocoder…. weren’t really planned. To begin with I was just trying to devise a way to write vocal melodies and lyrics in my songs without having to sing them in myself. I have a very difficult relationship with my voice and I have a difficulty listening to it too much, so I was just trying to find a way so I wouldn’t have to. But when I started hearing these songs again and again with these haunting computer vocals, I knew I couldn’t ever have these songs come out without them.

The dreamy female vocals of the irresistible pop gem ‘Flesh & Dreams’ is another defining moment. For the guest vocalists, how much of the songs were known to you prior to their arrival on the album? For instance, did you find that the guests brought their own ideas and helped shape the songs or did you have a certain vision for what you wanted to create?

OS: Sillus and JFDR kind of ended up on the album by chance, which is amazing. I had already pretty much finished all the tracks before we added any vocals on them, but they just added a whole new dimension to them. And then Sóley did some of the backing vocals and it’s amazing to have someone you can trust so well for something as delicate as singing. I’m not sure I would have trusted my own voice there without her backing vocals.

Sin Fang mixed the album. Can you describe in what way did the album change as a result of this mixing stage? Also, in terms of the various takes of songs (and studio sessions in general), do you find yourself continually revisiting songs where you end up with large library of tracks and moments to choose from, so to speak? 

OS: Me and Sindri have been friends and worked together for a long time, so it makes things very effortless and easy. And he really helped me through the difficult phases like the vocals. We were working on out Team Dreams project with Sóley at pretty much the same time so there was definitely a feeling of the projects spilling a bit into each other. But in the end there is not that much similar between the two albums. And mixing the album with him was great. Sindri is very methodical and focused on details in his work and hears stuff my mind doesn’t compute. So Light is Liquid would probably just be a bag of unfinished chaos if it wasn’t for him.

The album closer is another very powerful moment of ‘Light Is Liquid’, illustrating the more ambient and textured dimensions. I’d love for you to recount your memories of writing and composing ‘Cthulhu Regio’? Please shed some light on the song-title and lyrical content of the song. As a listener, it feels that hope and survival have been arrived upon at the end of this musical journey. How do you see the album’s gripping journey resolve itself?

OS: Cthulhu Regio is a dark area on the planet Pluto in a shape that looks something like a whale. It was first identified just a few years ago and having been very much into HP Lovecraft and his mythos as a teenager, the name really spoke to me. But since then they have actually changed the name to Cthulhu Macula. The song in itself is about working your way through some dark areas, but in a detached agnostic kind of a way. If that makes any sense.  It was an accumulation of a few different things I was going through.

As a writer and poet (alongside your musical creations), is there a particular technique to your writing that you feel is almost constant (or relatively similar) across your different bodies of written work? 

OS: Maybe. I think a lot of creative ideas come when I think I am completely switched off, either when I’m out running, cooking food or half-asleep. But actually sculpting something out of these ideas requires very conscious work. That might not be a technique, but it’s a way of living.

Lastly, looking back over the cherished discography of Múm, can you share with me some of your most cherished moments or memories that you feel very strongly?

OS: A few days ago I was thinking about the very first trip we went abroad playing as múm in ’97 or ´98 and we were playing in Cambridge of all places. There were only the two of us in the band back then and we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing. And neither did the promoters of the show, because when we came to the venue we saw they had written „drum & bass” under múm on all the flyers for the concert. We spent the next half hour crossing out all the d’s and b’s and thinking we were pretty funny.

‘Light Is Liquid’ is out on 18th May 2018 via Morr Music (available to pre-order HERE).

https://www.facebook.com/OrvarSmarason/

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Written by admin

May 15, 2018 at 7:01 pm

Chosen One: The Sea and Cake

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When you hear something come about like that they’re instantly recognized as potential as a song and it took like a few minutes.”

—Sam Prekop

Words: Mark Carry

sea and cake

This week marks the eagerly awaited new studio album from beloved Chicago indie pop luminaries The Sea and Cake. ‘Any  Day’ showcases a band at the peak of their powers, conjuring up an abstract canvas of bewitching and absorbing song cycles wrapped in sublime beauty and poetic expression.

Following on from 2012’s ‘Runner’ LP, The Sea and Cake continue to explore new sonic terrain with a renewed clarity and rejuvenated spirit. ‘Any  Day’ is the first album recorded as the trio of Sam Prekop, Archer Prewtitt and John McEntire; the result is a wonderful minimalism running throughout the ten compelling sonic creations, with a rich, organic feel emanating from the breathtaking musical landscape.

A charged immediacy is enveloped within the glorious album opener ‘Cover The  Mountain’, conveying a deep, near-telepathic connection between the poly-rhythms of McEntire and intricate guitar interplay between Prekop and Prewitt. Chris Abrahams (of Australian jazz trio The Necks) once said “there’s something balanced about a triangle” and this rings true for the Sea and Cake’s latest sonic venture: a state of equilibrium is forever attained as the dynamism and ripple flow of textures, nuances, timbres, colours ascend beautifully into the pools of your mind.

Prekop sings “I had to follow the moonlight, follow it against the ocean” on the song’s opening verse. Rich poetic prose is masterfully etched – like a painter’s deft touch of hand or a photographer’s innate vision – across the sprawling canvas of rhythmic pulses and gorgeous guitar textures. Equilibrium or furthermore, a kind of liminal state is somehow attained with no trace of effort or conscious thought.

The abstract, non-linear nature of Prekop’s songcraft is one of the great hallmarks of The Sea and Cake’s immaculate songbook – and ‘Any  Day’ conveys the Chicago songwriter’s finest lyrics to date. ‘Cover The Mountain’ invites the listener on a journey: to follow along the waves of the ocean. A heartfelt lament packed with an array of immense beauty at every turn, with Prekop’s moving vocals on the song’s moving rise: “Waiting here with nothing to say” with Prekop’s delicate vocal refrain before pristine synthesizer flickers like stars dotted across a night sky. “Crooked smiles are broken” resonates powerfully amidst the charged electric guitars and thundering polyrhythms of McEntire’s trusted brushwork.

The achingly beautiful melancholic lament ‘Any Day’ – the towering title-track – seeps through your every heart pore with its gorgeously floating spell and early 70’s kaleidoscopic pop splendor. The intricate arrangements is a joy to savor (each and every divine moment, from the captivating woodwind arrangements to the airy melodies and jazz inflections).

Occurs’ displays the masterful inner dialogue that ensues between Prekop and Prewitt’s soaring guitar lines. Prekop yearns to “hold on” on the song’s deeply affecting chorus. The phrasing is sublime, especially on the verses, with the syncopated rhythms forming the gripping foundations. “I’m beginning to trust in getting nowhere” is yet another immaculate turn of phrase. An extended jam – from African sunsets or the Brazilian tropicalia movement – serves the track’s fitting outro.

The rich aesthetic flow is integral to any record, and ‘Any Day’ epitomizes just how feel flows (to coin a Beach Boys creation) throughout. For instance, the soothing guitar instrumental ‘Paper Window’ invites deep reflection of the innermost kind with gorgeous, clean electric guitar tones interwoven with warm percussion. The synth effects and soaring melodies of the pulsating post-rock indie gem ‘Day  Moon’ with its infectious chorus refrain “Seal the night / Not just anyone”.

The tempo is slowed down on the heartfelt acoustic ballad ‘Into  Rain’ with masterful addition of layered organs on the song’s soul stirring rise. Perfect pop songs such as this make you think have you known these songs – at once beautifully familiar and mysteriously unknown – your entire life, like remnants of a faded dream.

These Falling Arms’ is one of the band’s strongest songs thus far (a songbook which spans over two decades and eleven vital albums). Prekop asks to “follow my thoughts” amidst the warmth of floating guitars and gentle beat. It is just how each of the music’s elements is melded together so effortlessly, from the beautiful Americana lead guitar lines to the deeply moving poetic prose of Prekop’s near mystical vision. ‘Any Day’ is another timeless odyssey of meticulously crafted, singular pop songs from one of independent music’s most beloved bands.

‘Any Day’ is out on Friday 11th May via Thrill Jockey Records.

https://www.facebook.com/TheSeaandCake.0

https://www.facebook.com/ThrillJockey/

sea-cake-2.png

Interview with Sam Prekop.

 

Congratulations, Sam, on the latest Sea and Cake album; it’s another incredible release from a very special band. I’d love if you could go back to the making of the record and your memories of the particular recording sessions? It’s interesting how you found yourselves with a new challenge of the core group being a trio during this time?

Sam Prekop: Well, thanks I’m glad you like the record. It was quite a bit different making this record than earlier ones. I mean in a weird way it felt the same and completely different simultaneously. So, the big changes were John McEntire moved to California, which he’s been thinking about doing for quite a while and he finally did it but he did that [laughs] while making this record. We recorded the basic tracks all together in the studio and stuff but after that point I worked solo for a month on the vocals and stuff like that. And we actually mixed it over the internet as well which wasn’t the optimal situation but that’s how it came to be. We were really hoping to be able to get together but with John in California, the logistics didn’t quite work out. We were so late meeting the deadline anyway but I think it came out pretty well.

For the title-track – which was the first taster of the new album – the arrangement is wonderful and how intricate all the components are but it still very much has this minimal framework to it.

SP: Those are my favourite kind of songs. So I spend a lot of time just playing the guitar and coming up with ideas and they become pretty solid and have parts that changes and all this stuff. And for that song ‘Any Day’ Arch and I spent quite a bit of time just playing together and that is one of those songs that sort of happened while we were sitting around playing. When you hear something come about like that they’re instantly recognized as potential as a song and it took like a few minutes. All the work beforehand went into like to make an effortless, instant composition; I wish all of it was like that actually. But anyways the basis of that track is born out of improvising situations like on the side, here’s a handful of chords and rhythms that we like and we just made something out of it. But it’s just one of those that wrote itself and took on from there. And it is quite minimalist really, it’s really only two parts and it depends more on the feel than anything else (than any overriding structure). It felt like the right thing to do. And to have that gliding, floating arrangement keeps it wide open for me to try a bunch of different vocals: not just ballad singing but also nice rhythmic punctuation phrases. When a song like that is so open I’m able to take different tacts on different parts of the song so it’s a nice pay-off for the open type of arrangements.

I love how the album opens with ‘Cover The Mountain’with its immediacy and really feels like that perfect opening line.

SP: That song was probably the complete opposite from ‘Any Day’ in that it went through many iterations quite laboured over. My initial idea I threw out half of the song just because it wasn’t working, it was like two songs put together. So that was a pretty major transformation from an initial impulse. I will say I was quite happy with the vocal hooks and lines that I came up on that one. I think lyric-wise, it’s some of the more pointed, visual lyrics that I was able to conjure up; I like that song as well.

I’d love to gain an insight into your songwriting process and whether the process itself has changed in any way over the years? It’s this beautifully abstract nature of your lyrics and with the phrasing, how it melds with the different parts of the music.

SP: I think my technique and strategy I don’t think has really changed with how I get started going and approach it. But I feel like I’ve gotten more refined with it. It’s very particular and how I write it’s a very personal technique and strategy. I don’t think anyone else would come up with anything remotely like it [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but it’s worked for me. I’m not entrusted in narrative songwriting; that’s not my strong point . So I think I figured that out early on so I could find another way of writing interesting songs without having to convey a narrative or typical content. I don’t think the way I arrive on something has changed but it’s become more refined over the years.

I love the placing of the songs and the flow with how each one comes into the next. For instance, the placing of the instrumental ‘Paper Window’ in the middle of the record. You already touched on how some songs are formed without much effort; I can imagine how you and the other members have this really deep chemistry between you that things just naturally occur while you are in the room together.I wonder would you have many conversations in terms of direction and so on, or is it more just to leave the music do the talking?

SP: It’s a combo of both. So that instrumental is another one of those like automatic happened at rehearsal songs. So there’s three on the record: ‘Any Day’, ‘Paper Window’ and the last song as well was also another, ‘These Falling Arms’ was another written in the moment and it just stood out instantly. And it’s really simple and straight forward. Other songs, despite our long history and naturalness with just hanging out and working together, some songs posed different challenges. I would say ‘Occurs’ was definitely a hard one to pull off somehow and I’m not exactly sure why but I think it came out fine in the end. It was a struggle; mainly with the bass stuff and so not having a bass player posed some exciting possibilities but also some difficulties and that was an influence on that song I think. Whereas John was doing most of it but he’s not really a bass player; of course he’s a really fine musician but sometimes you need someone who has years of experience of playing bass to pull it off.

sam-prekop

With regards to your solo work, I love your synthesizer-based music you’ve been creating. I wonder was it a conscious decision you knew from early on that you would step away from adding synthesizer to the album (or a very minimal amount) because there is mainly organic elements to these latest songs?

SP: It was a bit. I mean I recognized that the record was going in that direction so I was following it as it was leaning more that way. I’m still really active and involved with making the synthesizer music with the modular and all that stuff. But I think I just felt like I should focus as much as possible on the singing rather than augmenting or decorating the music with added on stuff so I just felt  that if I could get it strong enough where I didn’t feel like I needed to do that kind of stuff, it would make for a better record. So when I started writing the record it wasn’t neccessarily the case, I just recognized that that was the direction it was taking during the process and I just stayed with that concept basically. Normally, I think if we had mixed it together that’s when we really like to come up with stuff in over-dub situations. So I think had we done that it’s possible that there may have been more organ and synthesizer types of things but since we weren’t able to do that it didn’t quite happen. I don’t feel like it’s missing anything though.

The Sea and Cake typify this, in the way there are so many wonderful off shoot projects and releases from each of the band members (in between the band albums). I wonder do you see things all in the one way or is each one a separate entity that you find is linked to each other?

SP: I guess a little bit. I work a lot on photography and the synthesizer music so I think it’s a case that all the different projects feed off each other and inform the other one and so on. So I feel like if I hadn’t made those solo synthesizer records, the latest Sea and Cake record would be different. I can’t help but believe that would be the case; that everything is a part of a big puzzle and it all adds up. So had I not been making these modular records, with the latest Sea and Cake record I probably would have tried to get [laughs] more of that into it (perhaps, I don’t know). I think it all feeds off each other, enhances and interplays between all of the disciplines.

The music community of Chicago is obviously synonymous with so many great bands and musicians and you’ve been involved in different collaborations with other musicians over the years. I’d love to gain an insight into the nature of the music community in Chicago and how it has thrived so much (and continues to do so)?

SP: I think being in Chicago is really important, more so when I was starting out. The community aspect of it and there were plenty of places to play and to build an audience; enough people to pay attention to what was happening (that was super important I think). I think that’s a benefit of the size of Chicago; it’s a big city and cheaper than New York or LA so that combination makes it a very good music town. But I’m from here so I didn’t come here from somewhere else. And I don’t know if that’s a benefit or not but Chicago is where I’ve always been so I don’t have any outsider looking in perspective. I mean it has worked out for me but I don’t know anything else [laughs]; I don’t know how bad it could be if you lived in St Louis or somewhere. But I will say now that I’ve been doing it for so long I’m less active on the scene than I used to be – not entirely but somewhat – I have two little kids  that I watch all of the time so becoming a father has changed my hanging out at rock bars and stuff like that. And another thing is I feel like I don’t collaborate with a huge variety of people as much as other people. I mean it seems like it but I feel like I’ve got a pretty solid close-knit stable of people I work with over the years. Other people are really good at collaborating on the spot with a wide range cast of characters and that’s never been quite my thing.

Going back to the formation of The Sea and Cake and the early days, looking back on things as a group, would you have had defining records or certain people who you felt were hugely influential and that led to your overall sound?

SP: When I was starting with my first band Shrimp Boat; big stuff from that time was like the Velvet Underground and Tom Waits was an early influence on that music which carried over into the Sea and Cake stuff as well. For The Sea and Cake, I think a big part of it was that I was always interested in a pretty wide variety of music, so I wasn’t exclusively only into rock bands. At that time I think it was somewhat perhaps unusual like I listened to a lot of improvised music, jazz and soul (of course this is completely commonplace now but back in the early 90’s things were more compartmented like if you were a rock band, you listened to other rock bands [laughs] and that’s what you did). So for Shrimp Boat and Sea and Cake that was not the case and we were a rock band basically and we attempted to play jazz or improvized music and we were also influenced by Brazilian stuff and electronic stuff. With the Sea and Cake, Stereolab was a big deal I think for me during that early time, it was quite influential along with a lot of Brazlian stuff (like Caetano Veloso) and even The Velvet Underground and all that kind of stuff. I’d say though in terms of influences it’s never a straight line. I get into some record and it would immediately inform my music, it’s more lke an osmosis process; it warms itself in without me knowing it.

Did you have any important musical discoveries or personal favourites that you always come back to in the past few months or so?

SP: What’s wierd is while I’m working on music I don’t listen to much other music, so the whole year has been quite bankrupt of new music [laughs]. I find that I listen to a lot of techno and electronic stuff (more so than singer-based stuff which people might find unusual). My tastes for listening are much more experiemental and electronica. I guess one recent band – well they are a duo – that I like quite a bit is Visible Cloaks and through them I got interested in a lot of this 80’s fourth world Japanese stuff. It’s not vocal-based, it’s instrumental; I guess ambient (for lack of a better word). But I go back to all kinds of stuff… I really got into that Popol Vuh re-issue from two years ago (on Soul Jazz Records). One thing that I’ve been into though – and I’ve always really liked her but never had been in constant rotation – has been certain Joni Mitchell tracks which I think is more than I’ve recognized before has been quite influential in what I try to do. I think her singing and phrasing is quite amazing; rhythmically along with melodically.

With the new album and the touring it must be exciting, again with a band armed with such a great back catalogue; and the chance to mix new songs with the older ones? Would this be an aspect that you would relish in the sense of how the new songs translate to the live setting and how they combine with the older songs?

SP: Yeah, so that’s what we’ve been working on lately is bringing together the new show. And I’m excited about playing most of the new record I think will be part of the set. So there’s a handful of older songs that we’ve played for years and years and we’re planning on changing that up a bit so that’s exciting to pull out some older songs from the catalogue. One that I’m working on now is ‘Four Corners’ from ‘One Bedroom’ and that’s always been one of my favourite songs from our back catalogue but we’ve never been able to really pull it off live for some reason – I mean I don’t think we tried much, maybe one or two times and I’m excited about getting that one up to speed. So there’ll be some different selections from the back catalogue like we always have to play ‘Jacking the Ball’and stuff from that record; so it’ll be like twenty years of songs I guess [laughs].

‘Any Day’ is out on Friday 11th May via Thrill Jockey Records.

https://www.facebook.com/TheSeaandCake.0

https://www.facebook.com/ThrillJockey/

 

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May 10, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Chosen One: Lucrecia Dalt

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I wanted to explore edges and boundaries in any form; abstract, fictional, material, and by doing so I started to find metaphors I could use from concepts coming from geology like the anticline or the antiform which are ultimately disrupted or distorted hierarchical bodies.”

—Lucrecia Dalt 

Words: Mark Carry

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On the striking, near-prophetic album opener ‘Edge’, Colombian-born artist Lucrecia Dalt asks “How long does a body last without organs to fill it?” Dalt’s hushed spoken word passages beautifully float beneath foreboding synthesizer patterns, which conjures up a world that is both alien and uncanny. Lyrically, ‘Edge’ is centered on an ominous Amazonian mythological creature (El Boraro) under the surface of the earth. The breath, shape, pressure and pulse of this utterly transcendent journey of the self encapsulates the utterly hypnotic and visionary sound world masterfully captured in Dalt’s vital sixth studio album ‘Anticlines’ (released on Brooklyn-based imprint RVNG Intl).

Pulsating bass lines interwoven with altering frequencies of ‘Altra’ emit an otherworldly, trance-like state whose origins could be traced from some distant planet shores. Transmissions from unknown horizons. The lead single ‘Tar’ represents one of ‘Anticlines’s defining moments which combines Dalt’s unique rhythmic structures and bewitching avant pop melodies. The intimate vocal phrasing is one of the alluring aspects of the latest record’s far-reaching quality. ‘Tar’ ponders human dependence  on earth at the boundary of the heliopause. The sonic backdrop of the Berlin-based artist’s newly acquired Clavia Nord Modular creates mesmerizing, shape shifting sound worlds that orbit around Dalt’s poetic prose. A futuristic vision steeped in uncertainty somehow flickers into focus as Dalt laments “we touched only as atmospheres touch.”

Anticlines’ marvels upon the electrifying intimacy that permeates throughout the compelling song cycles. The meditative ambient gem ‘Atmospheres Touch’ infiltrates the pores of the human heart with each luminous electronic pulse. Reference points could be the modular synthesizer pioneers like Laurie Spiegel or Suzanne Ciani (or indeed Colleen’s latest synthesizer-based opus ‘A Flame my love, a frequency’).

Dark, menacing tones amass on ‘Errors of Skin’, a foreboding tour-de-force which sees Dalt’s further investigation “to explore edges and boundaries in any form”. Various manipulations of the visionary composer’s vocals further heightens the sheer intensity and uncertainty of what is unfolding before our very eyes. Dalt asks towards the song’s close: “Is it edge? Is it consciousness? Is it matter?”

The placing of instrumental excursions between the lyrical pieces sees the Colombian artist’s innate ability to fuse poetic theory and sound. Enchanting dubstep sounds are dotted across ‘Indifferent Universe’ whilst the gradual bliss of ‘Concentric Nothings’ creates a magical, hypnotic spell as Dalt’s mantra-like lyrics return like that of a faded, half-forgotten dream.

Liminalidad’s contemporary pop sphere feels like a distant companion to Julia Holter’s cherished songbook, with exhilarating choral motifs layered beneath dazzling synthesizer components. Elsewhere, the vocoder-based electronic gem ‘Eclipsed Subject’ permeates the liminal space, floating amidst the point of not knowing. ‘Anticlines’ is an utterly gripping and fascinating sonic exploration into the heart of human existence and the boundaries that lie therein.

‘Anticlines’ is out now on RVNG Intl.

https://lucreciadalt.bandcamp.com/

https://igetrvng.com/

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Interview with Lucrecia Dalt.

Congratulations Lucrecia on the incredible latest full-length ‘Anticlines’. Firstly, please take me back to the music-making process of ‘Anticlines’ and the recording sessions of this new collection of songs?

Lucrecia Dalt: For this album I worked rather differently than my previous ones. I started exploring a new synth, the Clavia Nord Modular. I designed and reworked patches for it, for processing and vocoding. While I was doing that, I was also making a document that I initially called “SUPER-EARTH” full of ideas, keywords, thoughts, pieces of text, images, transcripts from conferences. With that document I met my friend and collaborator Henry Andersen with whom I wrote the lyrics.  After having done that, I started to make the music with the previously made Clavia patches and the Moogerfooger. My first impulses or ideas are usually rhythmical ones, with very basic melodies, and having the lyrics I started to see how to incorporate them. Then, I arranged it all and mixed it.

In terms of the sonic palette utilized on ‘Anticlines’, the Clavia Nord Modular provided the perfect backdrop for these otherworldly, compelling electronic song cycles. Can you discuss this particular modular synthesizer and the new patches you created? What did your set-up consist of, in addition to the Clavia Nord?

LD: The set up now is a clavia Nord modular, my long-standing partner: the moogerfooger murf, an old siemens mic from 1930, computer, a revox tape recorder. There are different sound sources coming from the Clavia, the op-1 and my voice that feedback to other processes in the Clavia, the murf, the computer.  I wanted to work with effective gestures, one gestures is able to generate multiple sounds, rhythm and/or texture.


The poetic prose of the lyric-driven songs creates an utterly beguiling and shape-shifting sonic universe. I feel that your background as a geotechnical engineer has shaped much of this record. For instance, the absorbing lead single ‘Tar’ details human dependence on this planet and opener ‘Edge’ feels like a study of the self. Can you talk me through the writing process for you, and indeed the methodologies you have favoured when it comes to writing songs such as ‘Edge’ and ‘Tar’ (and vocal phrasing as a whole)?

LD: I went to visit Henry in Brussels, we spent a couple of days brainstorming ideas, sharing interests, playing adjective games, analyzing and destroying poems and lyrics by other artists, and then we started writing.

I wanted to explore edges and boundaries in any form; abstract, fictional, material, and by doing so I started to find metaphors I could use from concepts coming from geology like the anticline or the antiform which are ultimately disrupted or distorted hierarchal bodies. The piece “Edge,” explores skin as a possible trespassing medium of inter subjectivity; an obsessed lover wants to possess the view of the loved one, from within. In “Tar,” I was thinking about how far outward does our inner life could reach by bringing ideas directly associated to human existence to a place where they have no significance. Very similar to the rather pointless gesture of bringing the golden records outer space.

The intimacy of these sonic creations is immediately apparent and how intricately interwoven the electronic instrumental odysseys in counterpoint to the avant pop spheres. Can you discuss the sequencing of the record and indeed, the importance of atmosphere in your works? I have always felt this gripping tension and vital pulse of the human condition lies at the heart of some of your incredible records.

LD: Pulses, atmospheres, blurry boundaries were abstract ideas I wanted to explore sonically. Each piece explores something specific depending on what the composition asks for.  For example “Edge,” it started with a basic pulse, then the pulse suggested a confrontative monologue. Or “Atmospheres Touch,” I was trying to haunt the idea of an Italian song composed by someone like Alessandroni by using four vocoders or in “Concentric Nothings” I wanted to work with clusters of words that are sustained in the air that open to meaningful sentences depending on how you encounter them.

Were there certain reference points or particular sources of inspiration when it came to the inception of ‘Anticlines’? As a listener, it feels as if you are continually evolving and delving deeper into new terrain with each new release.

LD: The poetry of Alice Fulton in particular the poem “Shy one” which I discovered because of Karen Barad. I was also reading The thing by Dylan Trigg while making the album and that gave me a lot to think about, but specially lots to relate to as an engineer, or Hito Steyerl essays about the horizon.

Can you recount your earliest musical memories? At what point in your life did you realize the importance of music in your life, Lucrecia?

LD: Always, my mother was a record collector and was hiding speakers around the house, so we could hear music everywhere. I was growing up listening to Spanish ballads, boleros, folk music from Colombia, salsa. I was also very used to listening members of my family sing, play guitar, tiple, maracas.

Do you feel you have a guiding musical philosophy that lies at the heart of all the artistic works you create?

LD: I wouldn’t say so, as I’m very susceptible to changing ideas and positions and allowing for contradiction, I like to think of a bubble in which I throw ideas, possibilities, concepts that probably only make sense while they are inside of it. And I would try to work only with that encased material but bearing in mind that its material is skin-like, with pores, so still interconnected and somewhat open to the outside.

Lastly, what records have you been heavily immersed in of late?

LD: While thinking a moment about this, I just realized my listening habits have fractured since I’ve making my monthly radio show Pli, which is theme-based, so I’m searching, discovering and grouping music in this particular way… two records that I have been very much into lately are Laurent Fairon – Musique Isotype, Don the tiger – Matanzas (not out yet!), Franceso Cavaliere – Xylo-mania.

‘Anticlines’ is out now on RVNG Intl.

https://lucreciadalt.bandcamp.com/

https://igetrvng.com/

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May 4, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Chosen One: Goldmund

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I want to find that midpoint between composition and experimental forms.”

—Keith Kenniff 

Words: Mark Carry

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This month saw the eagerly awaited new Goldmund opus, entitled ‘Occasus’ (released via the ever-dependable Western Vinyl imprint). Keith Kenniff’s sublime piano compositions continue to explore new sonic terrain as the sonic palette of ‘Occasus’ has expanded to contain synthesizer and analog bliss. Just like the Pennsylvanian native’s other musical projects (whether it’s under his Helios guise or as one half of Mint Julep), a timeless beauty is forever embedded inside the gifted composer’s sonic explorations.

The gorgeous album opener ‘Before’ begins with delicate piano tones, before an achingly beautiful swell of violin drones meld effortlessly, forming a captivating sound world. The resulting crescendo of these masterfully sculpted elements feels like a sea of age-old memories coming flooding to the surface. As the title suggests, the fragile piano lament belongs to some other time or place; perhaps adrift in the ether of faded dreams.

The hushed piano notes of ‘Above’ are a joy to savour. The stillness of night. Inner reflections. The repeating piano patterns gradually rise, as a swell of heavenly noise seeps into the slipstream. The lead single ‘Circle’ unfolds a divine modern classical oeuvre of enchanting sounds.

The slow, mournful piano lament ‘Radiant’ is another stunning and raw musical excursion. A hypnotic spell is unfolded before your very ears. The album’s centrepiece is the bewitching ‘Terrarium’ whose wall of analog bliss is interwoven with cinematic piano motifs, creating a striking catharsis with each intense ripple flow of sound. Similarly, the contrast of soaring drone soundscapes and sustained piano chords distilled in ‘Moderate’ unleashes a deeply affecting journey into lost horizons.

The works of Goldmund always captures something pure: it is as if all of life’s fleeting moments are committed to tape and effortlessly translated to sound. ‘Occasus’ is another vital chapter in Kenniff’s long storied career.

‘Occasus’ is out now on Western Vinyl.

https://www.facebook.com/goldmundmusic/

https://soundcloud.com/keithkenniff

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Interview with Keith Kenniff.

 

Congratulations on the latest divine Goldmund opus ‘Occasus’. Can you take me back to the recording sessions of this newest sonic exploration and your primary objectives and concerns with the musical trajectory you wanted to obtain? 

KK: Thank you! I purposely never have a specific thing in mind during recording an album, I feel as though if I think about it too hard I will over-intellectualize things and for me that produces stale output. I try to keep my mind clear of distraction, it’s like a meditation.

Thinking of some of the earlier Goldmund records like ‘Corduroy Road’ or ‘The Malady of Elegance’, your signature hand-print is forever forged in these sublime piano recordings but also feels like new sonic terrain is navigated here. For instance, the incorporation of synthesizers and analog treatments further heightens the listening experience. Can you talk me through these new elements and how you melded these worlds together?

KK: I feel like there are elements of that throughout most of the recordings, but specifically on ‘Sometimes’ (the previous album) and this one, it’s more about sonic texture and less about focusing on the piano itself. I just like things to sound beat-up, found. A lot of music I hear is super-polished these days, auto-tuned and mixed using the “best” gear finely tuned. There’s a place for that but I like when things are just left as-is or mangled sonically in a way that’s quick and intuitive, not planned out with presets and sample packs.

‘Moderate’ is one of the rapturous moments of ‘Occasus’, particularly the heavy drone washes beneath the achingly beautiful piano melody. Can you recount your memories of composing a piece such as this and indeed the layering of the various interwoven components?

KK: I record most of these pieces late at night, after everyone in the house is asleep, there’s this feeling of being exhausted but harnessing the last bit of yourself before bed that can be intriguing. For that one I just laid down a simple violin drone that I pitched down to sound more like a cello or viola, then put a bunch of distortion and hiss on it, and recording the piano chords over it, then putting various synths layered subtly over top. It sounds a bit like a sinking ship, wavering but thoughtful with the low piano chords giving it some harmonic foundation. At the end that ambience breaks through and takes over the piano and those textures are able to expand, but there’s no discernible build, or resolution, it just stops.

Looking back over your compelling Goldmund and Helios releases, how do you find your compositional approach has changed over the years (whether it’s between albums or between the different musical guises)? For instance, would these new fifteen Goldmund compositions have been circulating the ether for a considerable period of time (perhaps sketches or ideas from previous recordings) or would these have originated from new ideas of yours (from the last couple of years)? 

KK: These songs are all from the last couple of years. Typically I don’t let the Goldmund compositions sit too long, they either work or don’t work and if they don’t work I don’t come back to them or I like to take the first idea and just believe in it. Helios material is different, sometimes it takes a week, and sometimes I’ll work on a song for years to get it right. I think I purposely approach the projects differently, help to not get stuck in a rut and they feed each other.

I’d love for you to discuss your earliest musical memories, Keith. How soon did you realize the importance music would have on your own life? At what point did you begin to compose? 

KK: I started playing music at 9 (guitar and drums, I didn’t begin piano until I was about 19) and quickly realized it was not just a hobby but something I’d pursue as a life-goal. I trained as a percussionist, piano just sort of happened but I never studied formally. I started writing my own music when I was about 18. I actually started off as part of this website where people could submit unofficial Bjork remixes. This was pre-social media but it was kind of like a message board-based site where people could upload tracks, rate them, comment on them and share ideas. It was a really healthy atmosphere and I learned a lot about electronic music production that way.

Please describe for me your studio set up and how your piano is set up (and added analog equipment)? 

KK: My setup is simple, a midi keyboard, 3 guitars, upright piano and speakers. The only analog equipment I use is a small mini-cassette recorder I’ve been using on recordings since 2000-ish. I keep it simple so I don’t get distracted, I feel like having a variety of synths and knobs and buttons and “cool” gear would just take me out of creating, not inspire it to happen. I learned how to make music on a computer and it just feels right to keep most of what I do inside of one still.

I love the series of inner dialogue that is inherent in many of the pieces contained on ‘Occassus’; like the multi-layered tapestry that unfolds throughout ‘Bounded’ and ‘What Lasts’ carves out a richly poignant narrative. I get the impression there is a deeply intuitive nature to your exploratory compositions. 

KK: I try not to intellectualize this material too much, I do feel the compulsion to do it and I find the framework of the simplicity of this project compelling to my overall beliefs in aesthetic and outlook but it’s all done very quickly and once something is recorded I don’t go back and fine tune or give thought to what it means.

The gradual ambient bliss of ‘Terrarium’ epitomizes the far-reaching nature of ‘Occasus’s beguiling sound worlds. What do you feel is the precise narrative that ties these piano compositions together? I’d love to gain an insight into the album title and the central album theme that combines these sonic pieces together?

KK: I chose to name the album “Occasus”, which means “End, Ruin, Destruction” etc…as I feel like a lot of these pieces, when I listened to them as a whole, had a need to become unwound. Sounds would enter but then wouldn’t be treated carefully, I felt like they needed to fall apart or not to develop fully or not be polished or purposely recorded haphazardly. I want to find that midpoint between composition and experimental forms, where there’s no discernible beginning/middle/end but that it’s also not just an exercise or purely sonically-based, so I wanted to rail against my inclination toward one or the other and see if there was a new way to treat the piano in context of whatever that halfway point is.

Lastly, what albums have you been enjoying of late?

KK: Otto Totland’s “The Lost”, Novo Line’s “Movements”, Blouse’s self titled album, and “Scenes Surfaces and Threshold” by Cathaya & Grøn.

‘Occasus’ is out now on Western Vinyl.

https://www.facebook.com/goldmundmusic/

https://soundcloud.com/keithkenniff

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April 26, 2018 at 6:49 pm

Chosen One: Mercury Rev

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“… but actually it was one of the lowest; one of the darkest points because when you are at the bottom you can’t even see which way is up; all you feel is this silt beneath your feet and it’s almost like landing on the moon: everything is silent, there is no sound…”

—Jonathan Donahue 

Words: Mark Carry

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On the opening line of ‘Tonite It Shows’, Jonathan Donahue sings “Into a dream, I took a turn and promised to return” beneath slowly plucked guitar strings and an ethereal classical backdrop. Somehow this lyric encapsulates the magical and highly emotive sound world of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ – Mercury Rev’s cherished classic record from precisely twenty years ago – where the listener gets beautifully lost in the tear-stained remnants of faded dreams and a sea of anguish and pain. A cosmic ballad such as this seeps “into your soul” and from this journey into the heart of darkness, shimmering light of hope ultimately floats to the surface. We all have cherished records, ones that come along in your life and unknowingly becomes a part of you – or more specifically, your own self – ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is one of those transcendental artistic works whose significance only heightens with the tides of the moon.

The fragile, near-whisper voice of Jonathan Donahue on  album opener ‘Holes’ immediately casts a hypnotic spell. The orchestral arrangements capture an unfathomable beauty. As Donahue asks “How does that old song go?” on the closing refrain, feelings of doubt and uncertainty comes flooding in. The prayer-like lament ‘Endlessly’ is steeped in child-like wonder: the gorgeous sonic tapestries somehow weave our innermost dreams into formidable shapes and patterns akin to constellations across star-lit skies. ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ remains as a truly anthemic tour-de-force whose striking immediacy forever stops you in your tracks.

The band’s current 20th Anniversary ‘Deserter’s Songs’ tour offers beautiful insight into the making of what at the time they considered the last Mercury Rev record. The fragile “whisper and strum” of these songs during (their recently played) Dolan’s show – led by frontman Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper – unfolded a truly unique experience (just like those eleven tracks captured on tape). The choice of cover songs such as Pavement’s ‘Here’ resonated powerfully, with Malkumus’ lyric of “I was dressed for success/But success it never comes” reflecting the period of time circa ‘See You On The Other Side’ in 1995. Also, their touching rendition of The Flaming Lips cosmic piano ballad ‘Love Yer Brain’ (the band whose early albums of course Donahue played a significant part in) nestled perfectly among the drifting planes of ‘Opus 40’ and ‘Hudson Line’s psychedelic pop sphere.

For remaining dates of the band’s current 20th Anniversary ‘Deserter’s Songs’ European tour (and October U.S. dates) visit HERE.

http://www.mercuryrev.com/

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Interview with Jonathan Donahue.

 

Firstly, I’d love for you to go back to the time of making ‘Deserter’s Songs’, I know it was a dark period in your life but particularly to the writing of these songs?

Jonathan Donahue: It’s hard to unwind one thread of history without unravelling the entire sweater itself. But I suppose the period before ‘Deserter’s Songs’ for the most part it had actually more roots than actually in the album itself, it had its roots much earlier; probably on the album before, ‘See You On The Other Side’, an album that we were really so happy with – myself, Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann. I thought we had a lot of wonderful orchestral ideas and things that weren’t popular at the time and you have to remember back in ‘95 what came in with such a heavy cloud was Britpop and everything went automatically to a three-minute pop song, jangly guitars, boisterous choruses and very little ornamentation. And here we were putting out an album that had flutes, strings, horn sections and very emotive material in it and we were so happy with ‘See You On The Other Side’ when it was released. And then no one bought it. And that wonderful sound that we had imagined and worked so hard for; it just disappeared into the mist right before our eyes and we were left basically in the darkness for three years. And there was no one to blame, it wasn’t the record company’s fault, it wasn’t our fans’ fault or anything, it was just the music itself had gotten lost in the thunder-cloud of Britpop and the idea of a sensationalized music industry where all of a sudden it wasn’t about music; it became about the celebrity of music and we were lost.

We went into the early writings of ‘Deserter’s Songs’, we didn’t think of it as we were writing ‘Deserter’s Songs’ and it’s going to be this masterpiece and all these things are going to finally come together for us, it was actually the opposite: the fact that we were writing thinking very much that it was going to be our last record. We didn’t have a record deal at the time, we didn’t have a manager, and we just didn’t have anything. And so myself and Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann went into it by and large under the idea that this is our last album as Mercury Rev. And that was basically the fundamental tone to the resonating frequencies that would later become the album that we’re talking about.

Like any special album, it’s amazing just how timeless ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is and how out of the place it is but in a beautiful way; it has its own unique world.

JD: I mean for us it does but at the time we weren’t actually thinking timeless to be bluntly honest, we were just thinking that it was the last thing we were ever going to do. And with that, we went into it thinking well if we are so out-of-place with the music and we are so out of fashion that all we can do is what’s really inside of us at this point because there was no chance we were going to be able to compete with the sensationalism of Britpop and the celebrity of musicians that became that din of noise during that period of time. And so we went to the only place that we knew and that was that fairytale-children’s record-golden sound. You can actually hear it on a song like ‘The Funny Bird’ there’s a lyric in there – I’m going through lyrics because we’ll be playing some of these songs again on tour – “Farewell golden sound/No one wants to hear you now” and that was me I guess saying out loud what was going on inside of me – that no one wanted to hear that sound anymore, it seemed that it was just so out of phase. And from that we simply went deeper into a place that was the only safe place that we had, almost like a child: you run and hide into this place that no one can find you for a period of time just to collect what little wits you have about you. For us, that was that fairytale children’s record, what people later would call the Disney sound.

You’re able to combine that so beautifully in the songs themselves. Even just to think of the opening song ‘Holes’ it really leads you in. I wonder if you have strong memories of seeing this song develop from a sketch on guitar or piano and then with all the intricate arrangements that go over it with the gorgeous strings?

JD: That would only come later, when it hit people and when it was released and when they were sent around in physical form to journalists and people at the label and stuff. But at the time when we were done with ‘Deserter’s Songs’ and the recording with it, I don’t think we thought that it was going to be released. We had no reason to – it’s not just a figment of my imagination; I had no reason; if you looked at the track record of ‘See You On The Other Side’, it sold zero and there wasn’t anybody waiting for a Mercury Rev record in 1998. Most people had thought that we had broken up because back then waiting three years to do a record seemed like an eternity and of course now bands take longer the older you get but back then it was an eternity.

We didn’t have a label, we left Columbia, we didn’t have a manager; we just didn’t have anything at all. And still there was nothing attracting or to be in some sort of pose to be ready to listen to a new Mercury Rev record. And some of the very first interviews I remember doing about ‘Deserter’s Songs’ people just couldn’t believe that we were still a band given all the stories that went on during the first parts of our career I suppose and a lot of the sensational things that were written that weren’t true: people thought I was dead, people thought Grasshopper had disappeared off the face of the earth and all of these things had happened. So there was no giant anticipation that some masterpiece was coming – there was no anticipation at all, not even the record company.

There is a funny story to go with that is around the time that ‘Deserter’s Songs’ was finally being done at the mastering stage, we found a label at the time called V2 that would put it out in England and they had a giant label opening party with all the bands that they had signed and the president went up there and everyone was seated around and people were drinking and lounging in champagne and saying this was going to be a great label and he listed off all the bands on the label and he didn’t even mention us, and Grasshopper and I were just sitting there embarrassed. And I thought well, it’s going to come out in some cassette form or something but even the label that we were just signed to – a new small label – they don’t know we’re on the label itself so we thought well that’s it, here we go, it goes right into the lost and unwelcomed albums of the year.

It must have really surprised you, needless to say when you found there was such a reaction to the album over time?

JD: One of the first places was Ireland because it was one of the first places we played and it wasn’t until then that we saw that not only had people heard it but that there was a deep connection to it. And it wasn’t just one or two people saying ‘Hey that’s a great record, congratulations’, Ireland was one of the first countries where we noticed that something different was happening. It’s funny because even the label at the time was so surprised because they had put all this money in all these other bands but I remember when ‘Deserter’s Songs’ finally started kicking in, in terms of journalistic acclaim and the people coming out of the woodwork to buy the album and when it went into the charts, the label was mystified and even the president of the label didn’t even know who we were. We’d be brought into meetings like ‘Hey this is Mercury Rev’ and it would be like ‘Which one is Mercury Rev?’ It was almost like that quote from Pink Floyd – ‘Which one of them is Pink?’ because the label itself were caught so off guard at this band that had this chequered history all of a sudden was being asked for and not these other bands that they had been cultivating in a pop way.

As a listener, I’d love to gain an insight into the songs being written and as you say, you and Grasshopper were together. It must have been a case that you both felt alone and you were just making this music together?

JD: Well even he and I weren’t together for a lot of the time. We were coming off of a very turbulent time after ‘See You On The Other Side’ tours and I was coming off of heroine but it wasn’t the drug itself it was just more the darkness that came: I don’t know where the darkness came from any more than I know where the light came from that would become the lighthouse that would lead us out of it. And it was a very alone time for me: Grasshopper had disappeared completely off of the face of the earth and the other guys and girl in the band (who is Anne from that time of ‘See You On The Other Side’) they had all gone into very deep retreats, some of them couldn’t even function in the band anymore, they had just had enough. And so I didn’t have a master plan like OK I’m bringing in ten or eleven songs; the songs weren’t like that at all; they were just these tiny, half-remembered lyrical phrases or a moment of a chord in almost the way that you would wake up and remember a dream where there isn’t really a time to it, it’s just a feeling you have and I would do what I could to preserve that feeling for as long as I could to get to a piano or a guitar and scribble something down.

Even in the way that the album itself became material out of the immaterial was much more just me describing using emotional phrases and metaphors than it was any concrete musical notion. And I think that’s what people hear – especially on the first side of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ – you’re hearing possibly something like a dream and maybe some of that timeless state was not to do with something conscious, it has to do with something much more unconscious; the way dreams are timeless in that way – the way the fourth astral dimension has to reverse time and space that our own three-dimensional space and time has. So what you hear on the first side especially and what you are describing in ‘Holes’ was very much the way it came to be; it wasn’t a giant sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors.

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That’s precisely the feeling you get Jonathan; you find yourself asking how is this created. The album certainly has this otherworldly dimension to it. The album  feels like one canvas with all these beautifully interludes where it’s like one flow of a feeling nearly?

JD: Yeah and that’s why it’s so hard to describe the process or the writing because it has nothing to do with mentally constructing a record. And sometimes every band has a record or two that is very much constructed: we know what we want to do, we know how we’ll do it and here we go. And there are ones like that where  it was very emotional and unfortunately the emotions at the time were quite melancholy; there was loss and rejection and abandonment and dislocation and none of those are very promising words when you are arriving into a studio. And even at the time we didn’t have money to pay for a studio so much of it was done in my attic with just an eight track Tascam reel to reel and at times we would gather together some money and we would do some recording in a more proper studio but for the most part it’s exactly like the people say, it’s a very late night record and that’s when it was recorded – it was recorded very late at night and I didn’t want to wake up my girlfriend at the time so I wouldn’t put any drums on it, I couldn’t stamp my feet because I would wake her up so I had to do everything very quietly and that’s why there’s very little drums on it (especially the first side).

It’s very fragile this journey the music takes you on. The fact that the music was borne from a very dark time I wonder even as you were playing these songs in the attic did you find that you were improving in any way or feeling better as you were making the music in a way?

JD: I wish I could tell you that there was a healing quality to the writing but there wasn’t at the time – maybe that came later at some point. But at the time you’re not thinking ‘Hey I’m at the bottom of the ocean of despair and a masterpiece is on its way’, all you’re thinking is that I’m on the bottom of the ocean of despair and everything is dark and everything is highly pressurized just like being at the bottom of a real sea: it’s dark and the creatures around you don’t look like shiny dolphins that live on the top surface, they are all these prehistoric looking creatures with very strange and otherworldly features. And that’s what I remember of that period. It gets confusing to fans sometimes because they want to ask you ‘what was it like? It must have been magical? Writing this masterpiece must have been the best time in your life?’ but actually it was one of the lowest; one of the darkest because when you are at the bottom you can’t even see which way is up; all you feel is this silt beneath your feet and it’s almost like landing on the moon: everything is silent, there is no sound, you get the impression of these footsteps that are going [making thudding noise], there is no air around you to make a sound, there is no oxygen to breathe in, everything is internal at that point. Everything is within your own space helmet.

So the environment you are walking around in from day-to-day – and this is the same for anyone who has been through depression certainly – is everything is internal whether you are in a crowd or in a room by yourself; everything is inside you and everything on the outside just sounds like it’s being muffled – underwater or in a space trying to break through a helmet on the moon. I wish I could be more upbeat but that’s what was there at the time. Of course I try to look back on it with a much more upbeat feeling but at the time it wasn’t. Even when the album was done, Dave and I and Grasshopper looked at each other and said ‘Well that’s it’ we might as well put it on cassette because that’s the only way it’s coming out and give it to our friends (on cassette). And even – I think Dave told me this – on the master 2” tapes (the giant multi-track tapes that you record on) it never said Mercury Rev, it said Harmony Rockets which was a side project so we weren’t even calling what would become ‘Deserter’s Songs’ Mercury Rev, it was under the name Harmony Rockets because we thought that it wasn’t going to come out. So all the 2” tapes until they were lost in the flood that I had here in the Catskills seven years ago or so, they all said Harmony Rockets on the master tapes.

Do you remember the times when the members of The Band who were neighbours in the area, when they would join you for some of the recordings (and all the added players)?

JD: Strangely enough when we had asked Levon Helm to play on the song ‘Opus 40’, looking back it was actually – and even for Garth [Hudson] as well – quite dark times for them too here in the Catskills. It was before Levon’s Midnight Rambles took off and so in the mid 90’s when we had asked them to play, strangely enough they were in a very dark space themselves just as we were. I don’t know all the specifics of their lives but I know that in a way there were parallels between what Levon and Garth were going through and with what we were: no one was waiting for a new record from The Band, people thought they were lost in the ether and even they themselves were going through some very dark times individually. So there we both were in the studio recording but neither band nor individuals were at a high point. This was before the Midnight Rambles and before Levon started doing records again and gaining a renewed accolade for not only The Band but Levon Helm himself and so from my own recollection there were a number of wounded animals playing together.

Levon didn’t come in with some great go and walked everybody around – he carried himself just like a man should: very subtlety, very silently. And we were quite at the same temperature as well; fragile like you say, almost like a trout – too much sunlight in the stream, you’re just looking for shade, the slightest flash and you scurry somewhere. In that way there wasn’t any great fanfare; we were over the moon to play with Levon and Garth but even the label had to recall ‘Who is Levon Helm? Who is Garth Hudson? Oh yeah, we kind of remember them, they played Woodstock’. But it wasn’t like some saviours coming in and all of a sudden everyone is saying like ‘Oh my gosh you have some famous musicians, this is going to be fantastic’. At the time we were all on the very strange dark feed that didn’t have a wind to it, we were just floating there, windless. Fortunately years to come, Levon started the Midnight Rambles and things just went in such a great direction for him but at the time it wasn’t like that at all.

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You already mentioned the Disney records and how it was coming from your childhood sounds and records that you grew up with?

JD: Looking back it was us going back – using that crazy little Guns N’ Roses phrase – to the one safe place as a child you would hide. And for us that was children’s records, I didn’t grow up with rock on the tip of my tongue; I grew up in the mountains far away from it. I didn’t grow up thinking that I would be in the Ramones and wanting to reject society and walk around and spit into older people’s faces, I didn’t grow up like that; I grew up in the woods and I grew up with children’s records and Disney on every Sunday night at 7 o’ clock and that was the place we went back to. It’s one of the forms of music that myself and Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann actually all do feel quite close to: we don’t bond over Sex Pistols records or some heavy rock band. We bond with this subtle, silent, fairytale swimming around and I think that’s why we’ve worked so well together in the past is we didn’t have to do a lot of explaining about that sound. And again it would come into vogue later, after ‘Deserter’s Songs’ but at the time it wasn’t in the collective conscience.

It was actually the wrong thing to do; ‘Deserters’ was the commercially wrong record to make at the time, everything was three-and-a-half minutes with jangly rickenbackers and anthemic choruses and big drums. And here we are releasing ‘Opus 40’ as a single and the drums are very slow and very quiet in a way. Fortunately we had ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ on the record which was a much older song that Grasshopper had found that I had long since forgotten about. And we were running out of material to even make a full album and he said ‘Well there is this one I remember we did back in the 80’s as a demo’ and I said ‘I don’t know’ and he pushed for it. And fortunately that was a song that would find its way into some of the waiting hands of pop and radio at that point. Other than that there is nothing on the album that is that way. Commercially it was not the album that even the record company felt they could do anything with. If it wasn’t for the fans buying it, if it wasn’t for the journalists at the time saying ‘Hey give this a listen from a band we all thought was dead’ it never would have made it out of the gates according to the record company (they would have never put anything behind it at all).

Touching on the Disney sound, a song that really so magically comes together is ‘Pick Up If You’re There’, I love the spoken word that comes in towards the end and just how it’s all interwoven together.

JD: It’s another of the dream states with Garth Hudson talking at the end. It’s funny you mention it because probably if I’m honest with myself that song is closest to the way that time was swimming around inside me. I love ‘Holes’ and the other songs very much but if there is one overarching sympathetic drone through the emotional content in me for that album it’s ‘Pick Up If You’re There’ which was really just a phrase that was on an answering machine that I remember leaving for a friend, ‘Hey if you’re there, pick up’ and of course they didn’t but it stuck with me because I think I said it like four or five times on this person’s answering machine. And it seemed to sum up the entire sky from that period of time, it seemed to have all the constellations and of the emotional star twinklings.

On the following album ‘All Is Dream’ did you find this was a happier time and that it was easier for you to create (especially after playing so many well received shows)?

JD: I won’t say ‘All Is Dream’ was a happier place but it was a place of healing in a way. But the time surrounding ‘Deserters’ and before it left such an emotional cavity in me – and for Grasshopper as well – that anything was healing after ‘Deserter’s Songs’ by and large, you know just any amount of light on the band, on our music was healing compared to the bottom of the sea and just the lack of direction in any sense. It’s still with me and at times I wish it wasn’t: I would like to be ‘Oh Deserter’s was the best time of my life’ and like ‘Oh my God I’d love to go back there’ but I wouldn’t. As much as fans would like to hear ‘Holes’ #2 or ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ #14 I wouldn’t go back there willingly. It was dark, devoid of light and sound.

For the shows coming up, you wrote beautifully about your thoughts of these particular shows around Europe and these versions of the songs are how they really began?

JD: In a way it’s almost going to be the attic where they were written. And of course there are differences but in a way it might be a way to find some sense of closure perhaps and maybe to open up to people a bit of the ways the songs really came about. There wasn’t a confidence in the songs and in the song-writing back in ‘96/’97, I can’t pretend or I can’t whitewash it into saying that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I was always sure of it – I wasn’t. So these songs will have a very whisper and strum because that was what it was like at two in the morning in my attic not wanting to wake someone up so I was humming into a little cassette tape recorder and I’m hoping that people will come with open ears towards that element of these songs.

It will be such a special experience because it’s one of those albums that’s such a defining moment in the musical landscape as a whole.

JD: We’re looking forward too, myself and Grasshopper. In a way we get to perform the songs where it’s not in a festival in front of 25,000 people and you don’t have to play through loud amplifiers with the drummer smashing away just to keep people’s attention. We can perform the songs in the way that they first were revealed to us, these were the way they emerged in my consciousness. So I’ll do what I can throughout the evening to let the listener in on the sort of inner dialogue that was going on. And for your own reference, we’re not playing the album front-to-back, what we’re doing is trying to lead the listener along the journey that created the album (not the final album sequence itself). And so there will not only be a lot of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ but there will be a few very special songs that led to some of the ‘Deserters’ period of time or reflected where we were at that time of time because no one lives in a bubble, ‘Deserters’ wasn’t created in some biosphere that was not in contact with anything else.

These Irish shows will be very special indeed.

JD: It’s funny because we’re doing a lot of these shows in Ireland and again it was one of the very first countries that gave us a shot in the arm, it brought us back to life because it was one of the very first places we played where all of a sudden we could see it in people’s eyes – and it wasn’t just journalists or some A&R guy, this was actually fans and we could see it in their eyes. I remember some of the first places we played in Dublin, larger places than we had ever played before, it was the Red Box: you could just feel it and in a way that was more electrifying to us psychologically than any ticket buyer at the time had an inkling.

For remaining dates of the band’s current 20th Anniversary ‘Deserter’s Songs’ European tour (and October U.S. dates) visit HERE.

http://www.mercuryrev.com/

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April 23, 2018 at 7:56 pm