Archive for the ‘CHOSEN ONE’ Category
Interview with George Xylouris & Jim White.
“All these things forge our sound and make us more who we are and where we are from. Pictures and sounds, deserts and forests and towns and sky and people, and I woke up in the bus in Arizona at 6 in the morning at sunrise and everything was pink, I’d never seen anything like this.”
Words: Mark Carry
Xylouris White is the inspired collaboration between Greek lute player George Xylouris and the Australian, Brooklyn-based drummer Jim White. Both composers are legends in their own right, the former through his Cretan lute-led sounds of the Xylouris Ensemble, the latter through his membership of mythical Australian trio Dirty Three and myriad collaborations over the years (Nina Nastasia, Cat Power, Bill Callahan, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, to name a few). Both have harnessed truly unique and unparalleled playing styles and levels of musicianship in their respective instruments where inspiration seems in endless supply at all times.
A catharsis of energy is unleashed throughout ‘Black Peak’ with an incredible force and unwavering beauty that has become one of the treasured hallmarks of the duo’s incendiary sound (ever since the duo’s 2014 debut full-length ‘Goats’). A wider sonic palette is masterfully explored here with the addition of George Xylouris’s immense baritone vocals (on several tracks) and a myriad of special guests from the extended Xylouris family (George’s father Psarandonis and Will Oldham carve beautiful new textures and colour to the duo’s visionary sound), further heightening the revelatory experience that awakens with each pulsating beat and enriching narrative.
If ever a song embodied the spirit of a record it comes with the closing epic ballad ‘The Feast’. A rich tapestry of otherworldly sounds gloriously ascends amidst a whirlwind of life’s fleeting moments. George’s father Psaradonis takes the lead role: his soaring lyra and voice weaves majestically around his son’s hypnotic lute playing and White’s joyous and sprawling drums. The Last Waltz. The gorgeous, sombre feel could be any one of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s deeply moving records and shares the infinite possibilities and sacred space of Dirty Three’s Ellis, White and Turner.
The sheer expanses covered on ‘Black Peak’ is staggering. The opening rock opus ‘Black Peak’ and ‘Forging’s momentous rock’n’roll rhythms are followed by the poignant parable of ‘Hey, Musicians!’ and divine epic love song, ‘Erotokritos’. Worlds drift in. Ancient traditions are interwoven with contemporary, avant-garde musical structures, forever embedded deep inside a mysterious, enchanting and cosmic space.
Bret Easton Ellis began his introduction to John Williams’s vintage novel ‘Butcher’s Crossing’ by saying: “A novel is about the opening of consciousness, in both the characters who inhabit the fictional narrative as well as that of the reader envisioning the novel in their head as they explore the terrain the author has laid out.” Just like the sweeping, intimate portrait of (central character) Will Andrews’s search for a new way of living, ‘Black Peak’ invites the listener to inhabit the far-reaching plains of life’s mysterious and kaleidoscopic landscape. As depicted on the striking narrative of ‘Hey, Musicians!’, music indeed never ends.
‘Black Peak’ is available now on Bella Union.
Fractured Air & Plugd Records present XYLOURIS WHITE w/ KATIE KIM
TDC, Triskel Arts Centre, Cork Friday 28 October 2016 Tickets: €15 (ORDER ONLINE HERE)
Interview with George Xylouris & Jim White.
Congratulations on the stunning sophomore full length ‘Black Peak’. Firstly, there is new sonic terrain covered on ‘Black Peak’ with the addition of your immense baritone vocals, and a wider sonic palette is masterfully drawn from, with special guests from the extended Xylouris family also deployed. Please take me back to the making and recording of ‘Black Peak’ and please recount for me the recording sessions? What was the studio set-up and how long did the recording take?
George Xylouris: BLACK PEAK is recorded in different studios around the world, New York, Providence, Crete, Iceland, we were on tour at the time we were recording. That’s one of the reasons we call the album Black Peak, not only because of the song about the mountain above where I’m from but also the symbol of linear B (Minoan script) for this mountain and its sister peak which maybe means the horizon (anthropological theory).
The first song recorded for the album was Forging, recorded at Guy’s studio and it also helped us with direction for the record. We recorded Black Peak (the song) in Queens, The Feast was from Guy’s in New York and finished in Crete with my father singing and playing, and Erotokritos was finished in Louisville the day we played a show there, the studio set up is different depending where we were.
In Rethymnon you can hear the birds from the open windows singing with Psarandonis. Hey Musicians! was the first time we played this song, we recorded it in Iceland in a studio that used to be a swimming pool and we played in the bottom of the pool. We recorded many songs like that, but this was the first song we recorded that day. It tells about somebody asking the musicians to tune up their instruments because he wants to sing about his old loves and he wants the air to take the words away where his loves hang out, those ones who loved him and those that lied to him and he’s got a lot to take out of his heart in a love way and then when his fantasy party finishes he says to the musicians to hang up their instruments and put them in their cases because music never ends.
A catharsis of energy is unleashed throughout ‘Black Peak’ with an incredible force and unwavering beauty that becomes one of the trademarks of the Xylouris White sound. For example, the aesthetics of the record is another important aspect, where gripping intensity of the more rock fuelled anthems (‘Forging’ and ‘Black Peak’ at the beginning) is joined with epic ballads such as album closer ‘The Feast’. In what way do you feel your live tour of your debut album help shape the songs off ‘Black Peak’. It is this energy between the pair of you – this resolutely unique duo – that evokes such a shape-shifting, enriching and incomprehensible sound. Please talk me through the creative process and indeed the space you each create that forms the bustling heart of Xylouris White?
GX: Thanks for your comments.
We’ve played a lot of concerts in a lot of places since the release of Goats and we like to do that, a lot of time together a lot of sound checks, traveling, concerts, talking, listening, and traveling to the horizon all the time, ahead. All these things forge our sound and make us more who we are and where we are from. Pictures and sounds, deserts and forests and towns and sky and people, and I woke up in the bus in Arizona at 6 in the morning at sunrise and everything was pink, I’d never seen anything like this.
Are any of the new tracks actual traditional songs?
GX: The lyrics of Erotokritos is from the 14th century. There are different melodies – different ways to sing the words depending on the area in Crete; it’s a love epic song 10,000 couplets, we cover around 15.
Pretty Kondilies is a traditional dance and that type of melodies are traditional, there are many choices and you choose and put them in a row and often people and musicians improvise the words on the spot. it depends the situation and their feelings, the arrangement is ours.
Please discuss the rich musical lineage of the Xylouris family and indeed the players – past and present – that comprise the Xylouris Ensemble. Also, there is a beautifully vivid sense of place in your music, something that resonates powerfully with The Dirty Three and how a sense of journey always finds a way into the music, and Xylouris White is certainly no exception. Can you explain the importance of travel and the act of travelling must have on the music you create? I always feel it could be music to an epic road-trip through many journeys past.
GX: I grew up in a musical family, my uncles, father, brother and sisters, my villagers who were also feel like my family and many of my friends, we grew up together playing music and soccer in the village, and hung around in the sides of the village and cut wood and would pretend it’s a lute, and play, singing the sounds and that’s one of our fun and enjoyable games, and we also mimic dancers and musicians from our village. So I grew up playing mandolin and serenading around the village many, many times, and hung out with older people, who wanted me to play for them, to sing and have all the sounds of the wedding and parties in the square and later on when I was thirteen I left school and I went with my father to play all around the island as a full-time musician and soon I understood what I wanted do with my life.
Later on I had the opportunity to travel with my father and met many other musicians and singers and dancers and kept in touch with them through the years, exchange ideas and hear other music, keep in touch and play music all these years, unstoppable, and when I was 27 we went to Australia to play with my father and I stayed there for 8 years. A few friends and family there happened to be musicians from different traditions and background and that’s how we started Xylouris Ensemble, and that’s also when Jim and I met in the late 80s and later on Dirty Three started and they invited me to play as a guest etc.
What are your earliest musical memories?
GX: Listening to my Dad rehearsing at my grandfather’s house, a couple of my Dad’s friends were there and one is a really beautiful and unique dancer and I remember that and I never forget that I heard the melodies I already knew and I saw my Dad try to play those melodies in a different way, put more or less in, different bows and try in that way to cover the dance, talking with the dancer and tried to drive them connected to the dance and that was a huge experience and I discovered that you could play the same thing in different ways and I noticed it was for them the most important thing that was happening in the whole world , like a meeting of the big countries having a summit to save the world.
Jim White: My parents playing Bob Dylan records at parties at my house.
As masters of your chosen instruments, I would love for you to discuss your first encounter with the drums and lute?
GX: In the square at a wedding listening to my uncle Yiannis play the lute.
JW: Listening to records and loving it but having no understanding of it at all, and then making a band with my friends which never even got together once but I decided to choose drums.
What musical philosophy you feel has remained true to you throughout these years?
GX: To quote my Dad, – he doesn’t play with meters he plays with kilometres.
JW: Trying to understand the drums from the basics.
Can you recount for me your memories of first meeting one another? It’s amazing to think this occurred even before the beginnings of Dirty Three, another factor to what makes this duo so special and unique.
GX: I met Jim through friends at a party, and then again when I saw Venom P. Stinger play.
JW: At a party through friends when George couldn’t speak any English, and then playing by himself at a bar in the city and then later Xylouris Ensemble by the river.
What is your compositional approach? I wonder has the process changed or developed in any way from the debut ‘Goats’?
GX: Everything changes. Nothing stays stable. Next year will be different again! We don’t know what we are exactly looking for but we face our direction.
The closing ballad ‘The Feast’ represents the finest moment of ‘Black Peak’s rich tapestry of otherworldly sound. The music of Xylouris White feels at once steeped in an age-old tradition of folk music and the wide expanses of experimental nuances. Can you talk me through the construction of this song and the addition of lyra & voice? It must be exciting to be playing some of these songs more stripped down as a duo (minus the added instrumentation of the guests), I wonder do the songs mutate or evolve in any way over the course of a long tour?
JW: This song is an improvisation on a melody we recorded at Guy’s house in New York, we had that and liked it very much and later on in Rethymnon at Aristotelis’ studio with the windows open on a hot day the birds came and started singing with Psarandonis (George’s dad) and George.
The words are about someone, he’s going to marry the moon and because he loves that moment he writes the lyrics and the moon is in and out of the clouds and he calls to the mountains because he is so happy “hello friends, how heavy you are, as much as I love you” and he calls earth his mum and the sky his dad and he asks them to come to his wedding with the moon because that’s what he feels is so beautiful that he loses his mind and wants marry the moon.
‘Black Peak’ is available now on Bella Union.
Fractured Air & Plugd Records present XYLOURIS WHITE w/ KATIE KIM
TDC, Triskel Arts Centre, Cork Friday 28 October 2016 Tickets: €15 (ORDER ONLINE HERE)
Interview with Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie.
“…when it works, it’s a feeling not even of contentment, it’s a sort of cross between accomplishment, contentment, satisfaction and just where you can sit there for a moment and it feels as if the whole world is OK for a few minutes even though the rest of the time it feels as if it’s about to explode.”
—Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie
Words: Mark Carry
Since releasing their debut record ‘Music For Nitrous Oxide’ in the mid-nineties, Stars of the Lid have been responsible for creating some of the most ground-breaking, singular and innovative ambient music to have graced the earth’s atmosphere. The innate ability of the gifted duo Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride to stretch out space that in turn, creates vast, limitless drones steeped in unimaginable beauty. Each Stars of the Lid record remains a vital musical document whose meaning and significance has only deepened with time.
Brian Eno once said “A studio is an absolute labyrinth of possibilities — this is why records take so long to make because there are millions of permutations of things you can do.” It is abundantly clear across the storied career of Wiltzie and McBride’s sacred works that a labyrinth of possibilities permeate the drone soundscapes and intricately arranged symphonic works of monumental works such as 2007’s ‘And Their Refinement of the Decline’ (the band’s last studio album); ‘The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid’ (using strings, horns and piano to captivating effect) and ‘The Ballasted Orchestra’s utterly compelling ambient explorations. These albums were painstakingly recorded, processed and assembled over long periods of time (for instance, the band’s last studio album was five years in the making). I feel this has become the essence of Stars of the Lid’s resolutely unique musical oeuvre: the listener feels the creator’s sheer devotion to their chosen art being poured through every divine note and aching pulse.
SOTL’s Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride will be embarking on an extensive tour to debut some new compositions, and some old classics with long time visual collaborator and projectionist Luke Savisky, and German lighting designer MFO. On stage this tour will be featuring a new band. Two new members, Robert Donne from Kranky label mates Labradford, and Adam’s long time studio collaborator Francesco Donadello. Plus Brussels residents and A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s string ensemble, the Echo Collective and a vintage Moog 55 Modular Synthesizer.
2016 has already seen Brussels-based Wiltzie provide original scores for a number of feature films including Jalil Lespert’s ‘Iris’, ‘The Yellow Birds’ by Alexandre Moors and Mike Plunkett’s ‘Salero’ (the latter will be released on 11th November 2016 via Erased Tapes).
For full details of Stars of the Lid’s European tour, which kicks off this Saturday (1st October @ Paradiso, Amsterdam) and includes two Irish dates (Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre and Dublin’s National Concert Hall), see HERE.
Interview with Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie.
I’d love for you to discuss the forthcoming Stars of the Lid European tour itself? It must be very special for you and Brian to be re-united again after being involved with other projects in the interim?
Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie: So, technically it’s been ten years since we released a record. In the meantime, I’ve been really busy doing a lot more soundtrack work and working with A Winged Victory For The Sullen but at the same time, pretty much every year Brian and I have at least done a couple of shows here and there. So we were always there but I think initially it was intentional to step away from it for a while and try something different so I think more and more we’re kind of getting back into it and getting closer and hopefully we’re going to find a way to finally finish the record and so it’s connect a little bit to both, you know getting our feet wet again. And like I said, we haven’t been completely gone away from it, there’s also this thing connected with the Moog that brought us to do more than just a couple of shows. Having the ability to use this beautiful piece of analogue furniture was sort of the catalyst to make the tour go longer and go to places we haven’t been in a long time – like Ireland – and yeah it’s good to be back.
I’d love for you to discuss a bit more about the synthesizer itself because as you say that must be a real treat to have in your live set-up because normally that might not be possible?
AW: Yeah absolutely, it’s a hugely famous piece of old gear that’s obviously really expensive and fragile and it’s so huge that it’s not really so easy to normally take on tour. We’re really lucky to have this for a really short period of time. I had it in my studio some months ago to test it out and see how we could make it work. We’re going to be playing some new material plus we’re playing some old songs we’ve played throughout the years so it’s nice to breathe some new life into it with some new sounds and in a new way to approach it.
The Moog is a complicated instrument because this one in particular doesn’t have the ability to save pre-sets, so when you get a sound it’ll go away really quick so we’re kind of meeting it halfway. The Moog can very easily turn into some sound that doesn’t sound like anything that we do but there is some inherent beautiful simplicity within the instrument that really fits to what our sound is. It’s been a nice journey to find a way to make it fit inside our world so we’re looking forward to trying that out every night.
Another component too, Adam, is the wonderful string ensemble that audiences would already be familiar with those very special A Winged Victory For The Sullen shows?
AW: Absolutely. The same string players I have been using for a while now, mostly through A Winged Victory For The Sullen. They’ve started playing with Stars of the Lid a few years ago but they live with me, I’m here in Brussels and they’ve become really good friends and they have become a really big part of my live show no matter where I play so it’ll be a real treat to have them along with me as well.
It was cool to see last year Kranky re-issuing some of the Stars of the Lid albums on vinyl, and just a reminder of what special musical documents they very much are.
AW: Yeah, they went out of print. I don’t know if it was really conscious but it seemed a really good time to re-press them on vinyl. It’s been such a long time it’s funny; I figured out that sometimes the best promotion is to do nothing for as long as possible and for some reason we’ve grown in a strangely beautiful organic sense that I never really imagined. For whatever reason those records resonated with people and people care about them so in a weird way this is almost like we’re going back on tour to support those records we released almost twenty years ago [laughs]. It’s nice and as I always say, I’m pretty lucky that people like anything that I do, it’ll be a real pleasure.
I’m curious with the art of a duo – there’s of course you and Brian as Stars of the Lid and alongside Dustin as A Winged Victory – there’s obviously something very special with working or creating together as a two-piece?
AW: Well there’s something two people can do that one person could never do, that’s always the beautiful thing with collaboration. I guess I’ve always been a big believer and big fan of it. I’m lucky to have two guys that I click with in this world.
You already mentioned scores and different things – even more so in the last few years – it’s a wonderful time seeing all these composers with so many projects and varied releases coming out where you’re one prime example. It must be interesting to have all these different projects in your mind at the same time?
AW: I think it’s nice to do different things because you don’t get bored with it whether it’s the different projects or working on something individually like the score project. And obviously as an artist you want to keep busy and not become stagnant so it’s good to have all these different things you can work on.
In terms of the new Stars of the Lid material, can you shed some light on the new material or direction in which you’re going with it?
AW: I don’t really know. We have a lot of new material but I don’t think we have really sat down and decided on what’s actually going to be on the record. In that sense, it’s almost as if we’ve done nothing but we go out on tour sometimes to test out new songs and see what feels like you want to develop more. As far as telling anyone about our new record, there’s actually nothing to report. Everyone seems to think we’re going on tour because we have a new record but we don’t. And everyone also seems to think – it’s a strange thing – that we still live in Texas, I don’t know why that is but they always say the Texan duo, it seems that in the world of the press we will always be existing in Texas.
You already mentioned living in Brussels, you know the studio itself has it been a place that’s been developing over the last few years? I’d love to learn more about the space itself and your set-up?
AW: Yeah I mean I’ve been there for almost twenty years. So, it’s slowly developing – you get new gear and whatnot – it’s basically a really old apartment with really high ceilings and it’s very sympathetic for recording acoustic instruments. Although I do a lot of recording for bigger projects with an orchestra in a studio in Budapest and sometimes I record some strings at another studio in Brussels but I somehow have been able to make it sound like as if you can’t really tell so you can mix and match different things from different places and it feels connected. I’ve always – from the early days – all my earlier recordings were recorded at home because I didn’t have any money, so I’ve always loved recording at home, it’s something that I think I will always do.
The special thing is too with the range of the different material, you know it always has this sort of DIY aesthetic to it too, which is a big compliment too.
AW: Yeah absolutely, it’s all connected. I mean in the beginning, we were so anonymous and we didn’t have any money so we had to do it yourself. So I think it stems from that even though I have a manager now and people who work for me, it still feels strange if I don’t do most of it myself. I feel as if I’m cheating someone if I don’t. My mom told me the other day, she likes to tell me that I remind her of my father because he always had trouble sitting still and so maybe I have adopted a little bit of that from my father. It’s hard to let someone else do something because you just want to do it yourself.
Looking over the Stars of the Lid discography, there’s obviously a string of really amazing records. The length of time it took to make some of these double or even triple records, it must feel like a gradual process when you’re trying to build one piece with so much going on?
AW: I think in the past; songs would develop over a course of years. A two-hour record – you know like a triple album – could take years to make but as I’ve gotten older it seems things happen a lot quicker. I recorded a score this summer – and I’m going over the soundtrack right now to release it – it’s this French film Dustin and I have just composed and it’s over an hour-long and we did all this in about two months. So I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that it’s a little bit easier to let go and not be so precious about everything. I’m not necessarily saying that one is better than the other and I do still slave over things, there are some other music that I’m working on that will take longer and develop. I guess it really depends on the project, you know when you’re working by yourself – for example a soundtrack, it’s a commissioned piece – you have to please other people so you have to find a way to not be precious and let go quicker because there’s deadlines and people have agendas. When you’re working for yourself, you can take all the time in the world.
I always think about when you’re connected to the first [Stars of the Lid] record ‘Music For Nitrous Oxide’, which came out in the early nineties and you had your whole life building up to that one moment, which I was in my early twenties when that came out so it was essentially twenty-three years of my life to release the first record and after that it’s a series of a lot shorter times. So I can see both sides, I do have to say that since I’m professional and that I make a living out of making music, I am relieved in a sense that I can not spend too much time if I need to. I was talking to Jóhann Jóhannsson the other day and he feels as if it doesn’t matter what he has recorded, it never feels finished to him and that must be really stifling at times you know. I like to let go when I can, I think it’s good for you; they’re like these time capsules so you need to let go, otherwise you’ll never finish anything.
It reminds me of Arthur Russell too who always seemed to struggle in order to finish something.
AW: It’s hard to let go sometimes, which I totally understand. You’re making this piece of art and once something doesn’t feel finished it can be very stifling and suffocating, you know it’s better to put it aside and release something that you aren’t happy with because you don’t want to end up feeling like a prostitute or something. What’s the line from that movie, “a wise man once said there’s always a fine line between clever and stupid”, that’s important to remember.
I’ve been listening a lot to your ‘Salero’ soundtrack recently, it’s really amazing and the pieces are just so beautiful. It feels related to other things you have done but it exists in its own realm as well, there’s a separate identity as well.
AW: Yeah maybe, it’s a commissioned piece so I had to work a lot quicker on it but I mean I still think that it sounds like me even though it’s recorded with an orchestra but I’m biased so I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel about it, I’d like to get out of my body and look at myself but sometimes it’s hard to do that. But I’m pleased with it, I’m glad it’s going to come out. I think it’s a beautiful time capsule.
And composing to actual visuals is the process really but in terms of the film then, it feels like a perfect fit where you’re composing music to a vast salt flat?
AW: The first time I saw the images, they were absolutely overwhelming, they’re so beautiful and it’s also kind of strange to see a part of the world that you’ve never seen before. It could maybe look a bit familiar but just have no concept for it, especially the reflections from the sun it looks as if it’s not part of the earth sometimes. It was just so beautiful.
You already mentioned the string orchestra, you must go to that stage after having the compositions pretty much written I imagine but I wonder it must be nice to end up in the same space as the orchestra?
AW: For me, it’s my favourite part because this is the moment where you have this brain fart in your head and you get to let it come out. And just have these other people interpret, it’s going to pretty much sound like you wrote it down, I just absolutely love it. I found this great orchestra – I can’t say they connect with what I’m doing because they are just playing notes – it’s really my favourite part of the whole process because this is where all the happy accidents happen. It sounds like kind of what I was trying to do and you get these other things out of it that you never imagine in a thousand years, you know when you get thirty people in a room to play a drone, it’s absolutely beautiful.
That must be the same feeling for those Stars of the Lid albums where the sessions at the end, you hear all these strings and horns over those drones?
AW: Yeah, it’s different though because that record I mostly recorded in my home studio, not to say that wasn’t a satisfying recording experience but since I’ve been moving more into larger orchestras for the past number of years now, it’s a different thing. I mean there’s one track on the ‘Salero’ record – most of it is recorded with an orchestra except this one track called ‘Bring This Place To Life’ – it’s recorded in my studio with the people who I play with normally and it’s got a totally different sound so the feeling you get when you get people to play on something that you have written – it doesn’t matter if it’s large or small – when it works, it’s a feeling not even of contentment, it’s a sort of cross between accomplishment, contentment, satisfaction and just where you can sit there for a moment and it feels as if the whole world is OK for a few minutes even though the rest of the time it feels as if it’s about to explode. I guess if I meditated on a regular basis, it would be like this moment you come out of meditation and everything is calm. That’s the only way I can describe it, it’s just a feeling of slight contentment.
You have done so much and there’s been so many accomplishments that you should be very proud of, I wonder looking back – and forward too – has there been one philosophy or belief that you always hold onto when you work on the next album, like a musical philosophy so to speak?
AW: Oh my God I definitely do not have but I did read ‘The Oblique Strategies’ by Eno the other day and he has one called ‘Honour your mistakes as a hidden intention’ [laughs] and that one makes complete sense to me [laughs]. I think that’s about as close as I can get to having a theme song.
There’s been several odes to ‘Twin Peaks’ in some of the Stars of the Lid material in terms of song-titles and whatnot, you must have great memories of watching the various David Lynch films and the TV series?
AW: The Lynch connection was more with ‘Twin Peaks’ because when Brian and I were starting out that was around the time when ‘Twin Peaks’ was on TV so we used to sit there and watch it every week on a Thursday night when it would come on TV. It was a great moment in television history for America. I don’t know if we were the biggest David Lynch fans but we absolutely loved that TV show so that’s why we dedicated that song to him.
Lastly, Adam, what’s been your favourite records that you’ve been enjoying lately?
AW: Well my favourite record that I’ve been listening to is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s new one called ‘Orphee’, it’s absolutely beautiful. He hasn’t released a record of his own work in a long time, it’s gorgeous and I would highly recommend checking it out.
For full details of Stars of the Lid’s European tour, which kicks off this Saturday (1st October @ Paradiso, Amsterdam) and includes two Irish dates (Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre and Dublin’s National Concert Hall), see HERE.
Interview with Jherek Bischoff.
“When I was inside of making this music, I was just living it and when I stepped back and listened, I realized quickly why this record made so much sense for me to create.”
Words: Mark Carry
The modern-classical opus ‘Cistern’ is the latest masterpiece from gifted Los Angeles-based composer Jherek Bischoff, which was released earlier this year on the ever-dependable Leaf Label imprint. The suite of nine stunningly beautiful modern orchestral recordings awaken a myriad of feelings: euphoria, joy and hope are inter-woven with moments of fear, anguish and despair as a voyage of epic proportions gradually unfolds with each momentous note and the intense reverb contained therein.
The album-title reflects the origins of Bischoff’s joyous string-laden voyage. An empty two-million-gallon underground water tank was the space in which ‘Cistern’ was conceived that led the prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist to improvise music inside this vast space and (as described by Bischoff) “fascinating days of music-making” would soon ensue. Distance and time are integral components to the immersive sound world of ‘Cistern’ where the space between the notes become just as important as the notes themselves. In many ways, I feel a striking parallel exists between the slowed-down strings of these exceptional compositions – for example, the heart-wrenching closing lament ‘The Sea’s Son’ or eternal rejoice of ‘Attuna’ – and the pioneering ambient works of revered duo Stars of the Lid (particularly the more orchestral-based works of the band’s last two records). Bischoff’s ability to stretch out space is one of the great hallmarks of ‘Cistern’, a timeless quality that indeed prevails throughout the record’s sprawling canvas.
The effect of the cistern as a recording space was in fact two-fold for the LA-based composer, which saw Bischoff drawing on his childhood growing up on a sailing boat: “The experience of being in that space brought back so many memories of my time spent traveling by sailboat on the open ocean. Compared to city life, the pace of moving on the ocean and the speed at which you travel is slow”. ‘Cistern’ immerses the listener deep into an ocean of enchanting sounds that invites inner-reflection of the rarest kind. The intricate arrangements and rich sonic palette – supplied by renowned New York-based Contemporaneous Ensemble and Bischoff’s (multiple) instrumentation of contrabass, flute, electric bass, ukulele, casio and bells – creates an utterly timeless tour-de-force that navigates the depths of the human heart.
‘Cistern’ is out now on The Leaf Label.
Interview with Jherek Bischoff.
Congratulations Jherek on the stunningly beautiful and epic tour de force, ‘Cistern’. First of all, please take me back to the inception of this enchanting record and the special journey it took you on? Discuss the sound world and acoustics captured within the cistern itself and the emotional trigger in which brought your musical ideas to glittering life?
Jherek Bischoff: Thank you so much for the kind words! The journey began when I was awarded a residency by Centrum/Artist Trust in Seattle. The residency was to take place in Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend Washington. The plan was to finish mixing my last record Composed, but for years I had been told about the Cistern that was there. Many of my friends had made music down there and many people have made great music in there so I wanted to hear it for myself. To get into the cistern, a park ranger takes you up the hill to a giant stone. The stone is lifted to reveal a manhole cover, the only entrance to the cistern. I brought my recording gear and set up for 3 days, planning on just messing around and experimenting. However, upon playing the first few notes down there, I realized immediately that this sound would be my new record – in fact, the first thing I improvised in the cistern was the title track from the record! The cistern itself has a 45-second reverb decay, and you could hear distance and time if that makes sense. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. Emotionally speaking, it was interesting because it is such a dark space, literally and tonally, and in the first day, I tried to fight it by experimenting with beats and trying different things but it quickly distilled into soft, deliberate and beautiful music.
The record as a whole feels akin to an epic voyage across deep blue seas amidst vast seas of engulfing moods, colours, textures. One of the hallmarks of ‘Cistern’ is the immaculate detail and rich tapestry of instrumentation that is so masterfully realized (and subsequently arranged). Can you recount for me your memories of making music inside the cistern? In terms of improvisation, please shed some light on any structural framework or ‘gateways’ you search for when it comes to composing music through the art of improvisation?
JB: I would say that maybe 5 of the tunes began in the cistern as seeds during improvisations. The rest was inspired by how it felt to play music in the cistern. Having that intense reverb was like having a collaborator, and slowing everything down that much in order for things to resonate gave me such a deeper appreciation for the space between notes. Slowing things down like that gives you time to think about the next step or even the next 3 steps. Arranging is maybe my favourite part of a musical process for that very reason. I get the chance to think about every single note that will be played. I get to sit there and ponder for a while if a note should even be there. So, arranging music that was so based on ideas that are already slowed down and in general kind of simple was wonderful because it was like a double dose of getting to think about every single note and also magnifying it. Sometimes looping something a dozen times and then just changing the note in one instrument and enjoying how much that changed the feeling made for the most successful musical moments on the record. It was a wonderful process.
What are your earliest memories of traveling by sailboat, Jherek? It’s fascinating how serendipitous Cistern’s story proved where an empty two-million-gallon underground tank led you to re-awaken ceaseless memories of your childhood at sea. What aspects of the sea – and particularly the axis of space and time – have made an impact on you?
JB: Well, I was sailing since the year I was born and my earliest memories of sailing were probably in San Francisco on my parents’ first boat. I loved the moment when the sails filled and you could feel the wind pull you along; you could turn the motor off and you would hear just the water against the hull. I travelled many great distances on the boat including crossing the Pacific. I learned to appreciate the things that I had at hand. People used to ask me if it was boring to travel around so slowly and it absolutely was not. The colour of the ocean in the middle of the Pacific is the most incredible blue and you can see the rays of the sun shoot down toward what seems like infinity. I could and did just stare at that for hours on end and it never got old. So yes, the cistern and sailing were very similar in a lot of ways that only became apparent to me later upon listening to the music as an outsider. When I was inside of making this music, I was just living it and when I stepped back and listened, I realized quickly why this record made so much sense for me to create.
‘Headless’ is one of the record’s defining moments: a golden dawn fills the vast skies above and seas below. The mesmerising guitar-based melody is particularly poignant, as is the delicate piano notes and gradual pulses of soul-stirring strings. Please talk me through the construction of this piece of music and indeed the moment in the journey ‘Headless’ signifies for you?
JB: This tune I added at the last moment. Another song that I had recorded with Contemporaneous I decided to not use and it left me short a song. I had just written this tune and was headed up to Seattle to do some other work and very quickly pulled together a recording session with some friends. I had to piece this one together more like my typical process. I recorded the strings and then put my bass melody on there and then I ended up playing the rest of the instruments myself just because of lack of time and budget. I did my best to mix it to feel like it was in the same space as the rest of the record and I think it does pretty well. With pretty much all of the tunes on Cistern the biggest challenge was trying to decide how many times I could loop something before it would lose its focus too much. I wanted the listener to be able enjoy it as ambient music and be able to get lost in it, but I also wanted it to be something that an active listener could enjoy. I kept shortening and lengthening this one over and over until the end to get it right. As far as what the tune means for me emotionally, I can only really say that it was music that I made to satisfy something deep within myself.
Looking back on the making of ‘Cistern’, were there certain moments or parts in the process that proved pivotal in achieving the record’s desired sound and feel? For instance, collaborating closely with the wonderful ensemble Contemporaneous and recording in Hudson’s Future-Past Studio must have many of these sonic creations afoot to new pathways or directions as a result?
JB: As I was working on writing the pieces to go on Cistern, I was playing a lot of shows in New York and started working with Contemporaneous pretty regularly. We were playing some of these tunes and I was refining them as we went along. It was apparent to me right away that they were the perfect ensemble to play this music. They are the right size, have more than enough skill and have so much great energy. We could all be very serious and get deep into the work, but we could also have a laugh and shake it off. We were working on this recording for three days and getting very, very specific to get the most out of every note. We were developing and honing in on specific vibrato for instance that created a feeling of the sea, and if everyone was not totally focused, we would lose the feeling. That kind of focus causes a lot of tension in your mind and body, so being able to have a good laugh is critical!
I wanted to record outside of the city so we could remain more focused. We decided to go upstate and Future-Past was recommended by a few very smart musical minds in the area. We were all able to stay out at Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s place in Woodstock. It was so wonderful to be able to work all day together and then party together in the evenings.
In mixing, it took a long time for me to find the right combination of reverbs to feel like the cistern. It was at times a combination of 4 or 5 reverbs to create the desired effect.
I must ask you about the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, which took place very recently. This must have been a very special moment for you and also I must congratulate you on the gorgeous and deeply heartfelt ‘Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute’ EP. Can you describe the importance of David Bowie’s music in your life and indeed this beautiful chapter that saw you work closely with Amanda Palmer, among other wonderful voices?
JB: Oh man, Proms was THE BEST! It was such an honour to be part of that. It was certainly one of the highlights of my musical life so far!
Making the Bowie EP was wild. We did it so quickly! I had a day to arrange each tune, including “Blackstar”, which is basically three songs in itself.
I was actually not much of a Bowie fan growing up for whatever reason. I certainly had tunes that I liked a lot and appreciated him as an artist, but in the last few years my enjoyment of his work has grown so much. About 6 months before his passing, I did an arrangement of “Life On Mars” for tuba octet! His passing was so intense for me and everyone around me. Like I said, I didn’t grow up with him, but losing him was such a huge blow. I felt losing him so much heavier than I think I had ever felt losing someone I didn’t actually know personally. This is one reason why I felt that working on the EP was okay to do. I felt that I was in mourning and I should deal with it anyway I could.
What are your earliest musical memories? I wonder how did your musical upbringing develop and with whom do you feel you have learned a lot from when it comes to making music and forming your own unique musical path?
JB: My dad is a musician as are/were his friends. When my folks would invite friends over, the night would usually end with them all on the couch, a little whiskey in hand and eyes closed, just sitting there listening to music together. I remember distinctly Kate Bush being played a lot. I used to think it was really strange and now I do the same! Still with Kate Bush!
As far as musical upbringing, my great friend Sam Mickens from our band The Dead Science would certainly be that dude. We had that band for about a decade and see eye to eye on almost every single piece of music. It’s crazy. We always pushed each other too. If we didn’t see eye to eye, eventually we would. I remember him playing me OK Computer and thinking it wasn’t for me…even Bowie, too! He was always pushing me and I like to think I did the same for him.
Lastly, what artists, musicians, records or live shows do you feel made a profound impact on you?
JB: Live that I have seen: Jimmy Scott, Tom Waits, James Brown, Prince, Boredoms, Deerhoof.
Arvo Part – Tabula Rasa (particularly Gil Shaham playing Fratres)
Tom Waits – Bone Machine (for the sounds)
Busta Rhymes – E.L.E
John Jacob Niles – Tradition Years: I Wonder As I Wander
Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
Prince – Purple Rain
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
‘Cistern’ is out now on The Leaf Label.
Interview with Frederic Gmeiner & Sepp Singwald (Nonkeen).
“I think these are the moments which we are searching for where you dissolve in the music with the others.”
Words: Mark Carry
In the liner notes of 2011’s ‘Felt’ full-length, Nils Frahm describes how “the music becomes a contingence, a chance, an accident within all this rustling.” It is precisely this important factor – the role of chance – that lies at the heart of the many monumental works of the Berlin-based composer, not least the latest awe-inspiring project, dubbed Nonkeen – unveiled at the beginning of 2016 – with his childhood friends, Frederic Gmeiner and Sepp Singwald.
The trio’s shared fascination with the powerful possibilities of sound would mean their childhood days were spent experimenting with tape machines, whose inception was the birth of a playground radio show in the suburbs of Hamburg. The utterly beguiling debut full length release, ‘The Gamble’ – released on the prestigious R&S label – unfolds a divine pathway to notions of space and the cosmos. The hypnotic lead single ’Chasing God Through Palmyra’’s looped electronic beat offered the first glimpses into the other-worldly sound world of Nonkeen. The dazzling cut could have been taken from Scottish duo Boards of Canada’s ‘Geogaddi’ LP such is its eternal magical bliss.
A parallel that bridges Nonkeen and the renowned electronic producers is their (shared) compulsion to “uncover the past inside the present”. An entire spectrum of sounds – jazz improvisation, pop hooks, electronic mastery, ambient flourishes and post-rock euphoria – awakens from the very compositions captured on ‘The Gamble’ and its eagerly awaited (and appropriately titled) follow-up, ‘The Oddments of the Gamble’.
The shimmering seas of summer are somehow transplanted across the sprawling canvas of ‘Diving Platform’, one of the band’s crowning jewels (taken from ‘The Oddments of the Gamble’). A gorgeous haze of reverb-soaked Rhodes and pristine electric guitar tones (supplied by special guest guitarist Martyn Heyne) dissolves into a myriad of fleeting moments as waves of transcendence washes over you. The pulsating ‘Glow’ contains a deep groove and shape-shifting rhythms that feel like remnants of a faded dream. Elsewhere on the record, trusted friends & collaborators, Andrea Belfi, Peter Broderick and Martyn Heyne each add their distinctive musical hand-print to the trio’s scintillating odysseys.
Nils Frahm’s sold-out Barbican show earlier this month – as part of the captivating ‘Possibly Colliding’ marathon weekend, curated by Frahm – felt not only like a celebration of the visionary artist’s cherished songbook (thus far) but rather a distillation of the most ground-breaking moments of today’s contemporary music scene. The angelic, hushed solo piano pieces were interwoven with the sprawling and sublime synthesizer-led pieces and many live collaborations – cellist Anne Müller, Nonkeen with the addition of gifted drummer Andrea Belfi, London-based vocal ensemble Shards, and the André de Ridder-led stargaze ensemble – rendered new versions of Frahm’s towering body of work and offered new insights into the gifted composer’s sonic sphere. Nonkeen is one vital part to this sphere wherein Frahm and his close friends continue to blur the boundaries of what is attainable. Perfecting sound forever.
‘The Oddments of the Gamble’ is out on 15th July 2016 via R&S Records.
Interview with Frederic Gmeiner & Sepp Singwald (Nonkeen).
I’d love for you to discuss the wonderful story behind Nonkeen – and how you’re all childhood friends – and your experiments with sound using tape recorders and your shared fascination with sound?
Frederic Gmeiner: From the material on ‘Oddments of the Gamble’ and ‘The Gamble’, the oldest tape is maybe eight years old that we used for the albums now. But before we were also playing together but very loose – just in the rehearsal space when we had time to play together. So in the evening somebody would call, ‘do you have time tomorrow? So let’s meet. Is the room available? Yes, it is, so let’s go there and play’. So, over the years the rehearsal spaces changed because we had to leave one in a hurry because the owner wanted to do something in the building and stuff like that. So you might call it also accidents that happens which you have to deal with but we always kept on being inspired by this band. But we didn’t even call it a band because it wasn’t such a thing; we never organized a concert for example – friends were inviting us and I don’t know how old we were, we were very young – when we were playing together from time to time and people knew you were playing in a band so they asked ‘do you want to play here and there?’ and so it happened.
I could see also how when we were younger, we were maybe not fearless but we didn’t think much about it. We were playing the stuff that we were inspired by or listening to anyhow and since it was a Fender Rhodes, 70’s amp and electric bass and 90’s drums with the 70’s sound – drum set drums [laughs] – and we were playing music that when we were listening to it, you could pretty much tell what the influence was straight away like this sounds like Soft Cell for example. We found it like crazy music and automatically we were eager trying this out and topping each other you know and trying to show off in a way. But over time by listening to the stuff that we recorded – I mean at the beginning we never recorded rehearsals we were just recording when we were playing live – and then listening back to it, it was always nice but you could always tell like “oh, this sounds like this, for example” and so over the years we got more and more defined in finding your own sound.
We were curious about these moments that we kept on tape where we were saying like “I don’t remember us playing that actually” and “I don’t know, when was it? Five years ago?What instrument is it? Who’s playing that?” And also the music and these moments, somehow I can’t get it out of my head and you’re listening to it back and back. We never took it out with us home, we always just listening all three of us together when we were meeting. I mean sometimes there might have been a month in between when we were listening to the stuff but we were then picking again these passages up when we were all saying “From the last session I remember this” and “Yes me too, and it was somehow stuck in my head” so it all came together somehow.
It’s cool how it was almost like a listening exercise where you build a library and subconsciously in a way, you’re agreeing on a certain direction or type of sound. I can imagine that was either the most difficult part of perhaps most exciting? Also, I wonder would you be adding counterpoint sections present-day to recordings that you had made previously?
FG: It is hard in a way to come to a mutual agreement, it is true but we had time and there was no target; none of us were even thinking of making an album while doing that. It was just out of curiosity so that was easy in a way. But of course if you’re going to have a record contract back then which would say ‘next year you have to do an album’ that would be problematic of course. It would be much more like ‘OK guys, I know you don’t like this but let’s go for it, you know’ but it wasn’t like that.
Sepp Singwald: We didn’t analyse it so far that we’d have to find a counterpoint to this or to that. We always played what we wanted to play and in the very, very end after eight years we combined it.
‘Chasing God Through Palmyra’ is a very special recording of yours [from ‘The Gamble’]. Deconstructing it, is that a sample that is looped continually throughout?
FG: Yes, it’s all from the rehearsal space and from the tapes. We were playing around with the material in a way that we were more sequencing stuff. There was a drum machine running in the rehearsal space, it was just there and so we were plugging it in and trying it out.
SS: So we had a Gretsch and made it loud.
FG: Then putting it on a big tape machine to basically use it as just a compressor but we pitched it down so it became this wobbling, moogy, tribal-ish, techno-ish thing which we were inspired by. But all of these things coming together was a real coincidence and we could never re-do this. That’s also why on tour it was problematic to play this. For us we were really confronted with a decision, shall we play it or not.
SS: Should we try best to be as a computer?
FG: Exactly because without the drum track – without the electronic drums – it would lose its preciseness and none of us are playing like a machine so we had to compete with a machine basically. It was very frustrating for us to put on a beat and just play synthesizers so we said ‘we’re not playing it’. But we were thinking it’s a nice track, people know it so we should somehow play it. So then we came up with the idea to put it on a record onstage so in the middle of the set in the front of the stage there was a record player and we were setting up the record and serving drinks to the audience and making maybe a few foolish jokes but then we would continue to play the songs [afterwards]. I mean it’s unconventional – you might also say why are you doing this? – but it’s exactly the reason why we did it because we wanted to play it but we didn’t want to compete with a machine onstage and lose [laughs]. And being so over-concentrated on following it and being precise because it is the preciseness that makes electronic music is just one example.
It must have been a totally new perspective for you when it came to touring and playing live shows? And also how the trio was joined by Andrea Belfi on drums, it must have added new elements and perspectives when the group were now a four-piece?
FG: I mean for the first time in playing together, we were confronted with a situation that we had to practice, that we had to prepare something for playing and not just for a single evening but for twenty evenings in a row. So we couldn’t use our method that we used before saying like OK let’s maybe define a little bit and go onstage and play together because it would be way too intense to – and way too long also – to come up every night with this uncertainty and play with it. Maybe it’s also possible, I don’t know. On the other hand, if we were to completely streamline it and plan it until the last sound and note and moment, maybe it would become boring for us and also for the audience, it’s always like that.
So we were looking at it because we knew the songs also so well after working with them for such a long time – not playing them but just listening to them, editing them and making overdubs – they were inside us already, we could just make interpretations of them. That worked very well I think and it also helped us as a band to deal with more diverse situations because every night is different, every room is different, the spirit, the mood of the audience: are they sitting or are they standing, are they more reserved, it makes something with you. Also does it feel like in a rehearsal space on a small stage or is it a huge hall where you have big reverb and you don’t hear each other very well. Things like that and all these situations helped us a lot I think. Now I am very curious to go back to the rehearsal space after that experience and that learning process.
I love also with these two albums is the wide range of sounds and influences, there’s jazz, post-rock, electronic, ambient, krautrock that all really effortlessly ebbs and flows into one another. The sequencing of the albums was also an important factor I imagine?
FG: Also what I think developed from the live set was exactly these counterpoints and to sometimes let loose and have moments where you don’t know really yourself where you are and you just have to let yourself fall down and trust that all will turn out good in the end. And there are more parts that are more defined and precisely arranged. But I think it is right – I see it as well – I think a single track doesn’t make much sense but it’s always the combination of them and how you put them together which makes it interesting.
I love how the new album represents an entirely new chapter too. It doesn’t feel like a sister album but rather it feels like a new point in time. For example, the lead track ‘Diving Platform’ with the gorgeous guitar parts, it feels more direct and immediate.
FG: It’s more easy-going I would say. We always have this vision of a perfect summer day, driving a nice car or a bicycle in the countryside and the wind is coming and you just want to dive.
SS: It was with the first bass drum you see someone jumping from a diving platform into a lake.
FG: I think most of the sessions we had because when we went into the rehearsal space we didn’t know what would happen and often I mean you have other things in life and sometimes you have a good day and sometimes there are bad days, sometimes you are more energetic and sometimes you are a bit more tired, sometimes you’re patient to listen to something, sometimes you’re not. It was like a meditation thing and often sessions were sounding more like the music I think on ‘The Gamble’ but there were some sessions that were more like on ‘Diving Platform’ for example. This is like an excerpt; we were playing it for like thirty to forty minutes and there was this thing developing. And it always starts like that; someone is playing a beat or on the Rhodes or on the synthesizer or the bass and you all just start.
SS: It came up by fooling around and just make some fun but then OK we’re really playing this kind of track so let’s go for that and I had a big moustache in my mind and we are all smiling.
Do you think it was a difficult decision to release the second album so quickly after the first one and to decide on what goes onto it?
FG: As I said, we didn’t plan to release an album for such a long time – we didn’t even have a name – and then this all happened and we were all wowed by this warm reception and the feedback and now with this live tour that we thought let’s also share this other album basically and not to wait. And of course strategically or marketing-wise, I don’t know maybe you should wait or whatever and no one told us that so it was more like it’s great, I might like it even a bit more than ‘The Gamble’ [laughs] so let’s release it and so that’s basically how it was, nothing more or less. But I think that’s also good not having something in the drawer to hold back and you’re always waiting until this gets out. You put it out and then you have no cards left, you have to make new cards that you can play.
SS: And even to wait another seventeen days feels long. Actually because it is there, it’s got a cover, I want everybody to listen to it and get the feedback.
FG: It is strange because back then we didn’t have anything on vinyl or cd or to download or to sell, if someone was interested, we would just give them some music for friends, so now there’s a release date and it’s all interesting. But this is also new for us because it makes it more a band of course, this process like doing interviews and preparing for a tour, touring and doing band photos and stuff like that and thinking about music videos. It’s all great and fun but it’s not making music [laughs], it’s something else, you know. It’s new for us in that context, I mean everyone has their other projects. Seeing it also sometimes a bit sceptically, thinking will our innocence be gone afterwards? But I think going back to the rehearsal space and taking time because that is what it is; it’s a gift for all of us, we all have other things in life where we make a living out of it but Nonkeen is not about that. Luckily we have all the time in the world, if it takes ten years now for the next album and to go on the next tour but you don’t know, chance will tell.
I love how there is that DIY ethos at the heart of Nonkeen too where there is nothing pre-conceived or anything like that. And as you said, it’s completely music you’re just making for yourself without ever considering the audience?
FG: I mean it’s really like that. When we had the tracks and we were saying: “Oh this is finished and we don’t have anything to add” but really we had no idea if other people would like it or not. It’s different to say oh it’s OK to like something, it’s really interesting. It took so long like distilling alcohol again and again just to get the essence which was for us because it was so close to our heart always, we were taking our time and working on it as long as it needs without any rush. But you don’t know how others would perceive it and for us I think the most wonderful thing was and is, what people hear in it because I would always love to listen to that music without having heard it before. For the first time if someone played this to me and said, here have you heard this, listen to it but that’s not possible because you know that stuff but that must be great somehow.
SS: It’s like standing onstage and playing, I would often like to ‘snap’ and sit in the audience and see everything and listen.
FG: It’s really, really great and we’re really happy about it that there is so many people listening to it and also come up with so many references and often also very true. And often people say Boards of Canada, it’s a huge influence on us but it’s other instruments and stuff. Of course it’s maybe inherent in the music because we are so inspired by them but if someone had asked us ‘how does your music sound’, we would never say ‘yeah like Boards of Canada’, we would never think about this association. For me of course, it is so far away somehow but it is a great honour and it is what it is, we are all inspired by things.
There’s something special about a trio. I wonder would you ever individually come up with something like a sketch or idea and then come to the rehearsal space where the three-piece would flesh it out?
FG: I think that when we go to the rehearsal space – I mean except now preparing the tour but all the years before – it’s really interesting that we never really talked about music, I mean we didn’t talk about our music. It was never like ‘hey guys, I have this song, let’s play this’ or ‘I think we should sound more like this’. It never happened because I think we would have failed [laughs]. It’s more I think of finding a style in the way of making music together that we all feel comfortable with, technically and emotionally and seeing it as a whole thing basically. I think these are the moments which we are searching for where you dissolve in the music with the others. In that moment you don’t think anymore, it’s just this and you’re completely enjoying it. And then when you listen back to it a year later, you couldn’t even remember that moment where we’re like, is it us playing this?
It’s a very intimate thing but I think these moments you can’t plan, it’s as simple as that and I think we realized that from a very early stage. For all of us it is the most important thing that we will have is continuing these moments, no matter what. No matter if we release any albums or going on tour because this is the most important thing, to play together and Nils has so many other projects and you [Sepp] also, it’s not about not being able to play. But I think what we are always curious about is finding these moments where you dissolve and where it’s not about you, it all has to work as a whole thing, it becomes its own creature somehow.
And that’s the thing too where it’s not the first album in isolation. Suddenly you have a body of work now quite quickly, there’s a narrative now flowing and where you can see down the line nearly. I loved the 12″ vinyl release too where you can pick the desired speed to play the tracks on.
FG: I mean in the end again like with that decision why would you put both tracks on a single but it’s because of that; it happened by playing around with a tape machine and by pitching it and this is something you can also do with a turntable or record player, so why not using the medium and giving it out to everyone to try it out. It is really about always deciding on what makes sense. And now with these two albums we made a trajectory that we have to follow because that is a style that everyone is expecting. I don’t know but maybe the next album will be something completely different. Let’s see.
‘The Oddments of the Gamble’ is out on 15th July 2016 via R&S Records.
Interview with Marissa Nadler.
“The times you think of speaking
There is nobody near
The times you think of listening
There is nothing to hear
There is nothing to hear”
—Bill Fay, “Narrow Way” (1971)
Words: Craig Carry, Interview: Mark Carry
For well over a decade now, the beloved Boston Massachusetts-based songwriter Marissa Nadler has been quietly amassing a soul-stirring body of work which is both unrivalled amongst her peers while (almost effortlessly) managing to channel the same spirit as earliest U.S. folk musicians from bygone times. Two years on from the mesmerising “July” (an album that “details the events of my life from one July to the next”) there are noticeable points of departure on “Strangers”, Nadler’s seventh full-length album, released via Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones (USA).
Interestingly, “Strangers” finds Nadler’s sonic palette expanding (synths and drumbeats are at times added to Nadler’s voice and guitar). But despite the added instrumentation and more intricate arrangements, a purity forever remains. Beautiful subtleties exist within the sonic tapestries (feint synth passages hinting at harmony or choral works, recalling the likes of Bert Jansch or Townes Van Zandt, L.A. Turnaround or Our Mother The Mountain, for example). Crucially, Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Earth, Black Mountain) remains on production duties. Like kindred souls Tucker Martine or Thomas Bartlett, Dunn’s mystical sleight of hand somehow manages to faithfully preserve the spirit of his subject’s artistry while making the songs an even more heightened experience for the listener in the process. He manages to bring us closer, even – we are less strangers than witnesses – all the while meticulously fine-tuning Nadler’s prized songs, only always for the sake of the song.
While previous works have been explicitly “autobiographical” in nature, lyrically there is a certain sense of the surreal mixed with the personal here. Songs do not seem to occupy clear focal points while their genesis don’t seem to be limited only to lived experience. Imagery such as disintegrating cliffs, towering skyscrapers, darkening woods and deep rivers are offset with characters often feeling at odds with the world they find themselves in (or more accurately find themselves suspended into all of a sudden). There’s a tangible sense of contrasting dichotomies lying at the heart of “Strangers” (between the familiar ad the unfamiliar; safety and danger; darkness and light; life and death) which makes the journey Nadler takes us on all the more real. Tangible. Life-affirming.
While the listener looks to navigate their own way through the dense maze of Nadler’s grippingly challenging and irresistibly cinematic sonic canvas on “Strangers” one finds oneself looking for recognisable points of reference, as if on the search for evidence of the familiar (reassurances, even). The lack of a fixed point of view (and therefore no clearly defined sense of a known space or time) forms the basis to Nadler’s haunting gothic tales here. We find ourselves suddenly suspended inside an already-moving orbit or an already-unfolding story with no known sense of a beginning or ending. The startling effect is akin to experiencing the short stories of George Saunders, Chris Marker’s ‘La Jetée’ or perhaps the still photographs of Paolo Pellegrin.
Like all of Nadler’s previous works, it proves a futile exercise to limit an album’s achievement by merely isolating individual songs. For Nadler has over the last twelve years also attained a true mastery and wide-eyed appreciation to the full potential of the album as an individual piece of work, a living document to her own craft (and life). From the heart-stopping piano-led ballad “Divers of the Dust”, we can immediately feel the impending sense of danger that may be about to unfold: “Divers of the dust / You can help me if you must”. “It’s hard to know / When to let go” sings Nadler in the haunting “Katie I Know” (interestingly, referencing names – whether fictional or otherwise – has often formed the basis for some of Nadler’s most prized songs, take “Dead City Emily” or “Janie In Love” for instance), it seems like a perfect analogy to what a songwriter’s mindset must be: constantly aware of the present tense even as it becomes the past, open to every living experience as it unfolds in the here and now. Whether such gifts can be attributed a blessing or a curse must be oftentimes blurred.
As the world in the songs of “Strangers” begin to disintegrate and dissolve around us, moments of epiphany and realisation abound too. Central characters find themselves at places they formerly called home only to find themselves feeling an unnerving sense of alienation; only seeing the unfamiliar in the familiar. Other moments of realisation occur on “All the Colours of the Dark” when Nadler sings: “This is not your world anymore” across a glorious backdrop of chime-like piano notes and a steady (as if reassuring) drumbeat (recalling the timeless songs of Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse).
Indeed, Nadler’s divine art has always been about losing oneself in a moment only to regain that sense of self (ultimately through the songwriter putting pen to paper) once more. The cycle continues as we continually – and ultimately – find out more about ourselves in the process. One can always find solace and hope in the joy that Marissa Nadler’s timeless songbook brings, for she majestically navigates that narrow way so we don’t have to. And like a silent witness we can quietly navigate that darkness with her. For we are not strangers after all.
“Strangers” is available now on Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones (USA).
Interview with Marissa Nadler.
Congratulations Marissa on your sublime new record, ‘Strangers’. This batch of songs represents your finest work to date; such empowering songs of heartbreak awash in a kaleidoscope of ethereal and otherworldly musical patterns. Please discuss for me the making of ‘Strangers’ and how the (music-making) process changed in any significant way from your previous ‘July’ LP?
Marissa Nadler: Thank you so much for the very kind words. My process is always about the song. You can’t build a house without the foundation. These songs could have gone many different directions sonically, though I knew I wanted the melodies, structures, harmonies, lyrics, instrumental lines to remain the same. I was more open to experimenting this time around with adding drums and creating more dynamics in a purely musical sense.
‘July’ marked your first collaboration with producer Randall Dunn and he remains at the helm for ‘Strangers’. I feel this deep dialogue between you both can be felt throughout the new record’s expansive and adventurous sonic terrain. Can you talk me through the transformation of these songs (from the original demos) as they bloom into their final entities? How do you feel the collaborative process has developed with Randall?
MN: I think Randall has a very good pulse on what my influences are- ranging from girl groups to spaghetti western soundtrack- to shoegaze- to 70s prog rock to classic rock to country balladeers.. I think he’s also into stuff I’m not as familiar with, and working with someone who brings their own unique influences into the mix can result in a unique amalgamation of sounds. He’s also a great friend and has a wonderful circle of talented musicians with him that make working with him even better.
‘Katie I Know’ embodies the rich beauty (forever) inherent in your mesmerising folk tales. Tell me about the characters depicted in ‘Strangers’, Marissa? The layering and sumptuous arrangements of a song such as this leaves a profound impact on the listener. I wonder was this song a significant breakthrough or gateway into the rest of the record?
MN: I don’t think of them as characters (this record or the last few).. They are real people in my life but I guess they’ve become characters now that they are in these songs.
Katie I know is a really personal song. I’m very happy you like the layers. I wasn’t sure what people were going to make of it but at the same time I knew that I was happy with it so…
Please take me back to the recording of ‘Strangers’? One record that comes to mind when reflecting on the immaculate production and highly emotive quality is Julee Cruise’s ‘Floating Into The Night’. ‘Strangers’ encapsulates that ethereal dream-pop realm so masterfully. Would you often have reference points (in terms of records or perhaps poetry, authors, films) when it comes to beginning a new chapter in one’s songbook?
MN: I honestly don’t intentionally go about making any certain genre. Influences just have a way of getting into the brain. I will say that the impetus is not usually books or records.. it’s usually personal relationships and experiences that are catalysts to my songwriting.
The sparse lament ‘Dissolve’ serves the perfect close. Again, the record’s aesthetic quality and dynamic range creates a surreal backdrop to your deeply moving songs of loss and heartbreak. As always, an undying light of hope resides deep in the songs. Can you shed some light on the writing process, Marissa?
MN: Thank you. My writing process is very organic and intuitive. I just led the melody lead me.
What do you feel were the defining records for you Marissa, in terms of leading you towards your songwriting path?
MN: There’s so many it’s truly impossible to list.. but I would say generally that I gravitate towards pure music.. pure voices, pure emotion. It doesn’t matter what genre. My first true music loves were Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Elliott Smith, Townes Van Zandt, Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Pink Floyd, Neil Young. I mean more than anything I truly grew up immersed in those kinds of songwriters.
I would love for you to discuss your earliest musical memories: the first song you wrote, the records in your family home that made a big impression and your life in music to this day?
MN: I have to say that I have very few childhood memories that are more than colors and feelings. It’s very strange but I do not know the first song that I wrote. I remember always loving to sing though.
“Strangers” is available now on Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones (USA).
Interview with Warren Ellis.
“I like to work and when I’m not working I find a lot of things quite difficult to deal with. And actually the more work I’ve got the better I feel in certain respects.”
Words: Mark Carry
In W.G. Sebald’s novel ‘Austerlitz’ – the German writer’s celebrated tale of one man’s odyssey through the dark ages of European history – a central question is posed: “Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction?”
Certainly an unquantifiable dimension forever lies at the heart of Warren Ellis’s singular, sonic creations that maps the rawest of emotions and ceaselessly traverses the human space. The Australia-born, France-based musician is responsible for some of the most mesmeric and profoundly moving music of the past two decades—across the many film soundtracks scored by Ellis & Nick Cave; the life-affirming records of Australia’s Dirty Three (alongside drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner) and as the longtime bandmate of The Bad Seeds (joining in 1995) and Grinderman.
The sacred songbook of Ellis reminds us that it is still possible to be outside time. Many cherished memories flicker to the forefront of my mind: witnessing the near-mythical live performance of Dirty Three—the larger than life figure of Ellis sprawled across the floor as the mournful violin melody of ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ graces the atmosphere, culminating in a sheer catharsis as an ocean of noise -and emotion – engulfs every aching heart pore. The ethereal sonic canvas to Andrew Dominik’s ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ remains one of Ellis’s most formidable artistic achievements. Equally, the majestic looped violin motifs of ‘The Proposition’ and brooding tour-de-force of ‘The Road’ and last year’s illuminating ‘Mustang’ soundtrack represent further crowning jewels in the Australian multi-instrumentalist’s storied career.
The Australian composer’s debut solo score, ‘Mustang’, a French film directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, saw Ellis deservedly winning ‘Best Music’ at this year’s César Awards.
‘Mustang’ is out now on Milan Records.
Interview with Warren Ellis.
Congratulations on your recent score, ‘Mustang’, it’s a really gorgeous film score. Please take me back to the period in time in which these pieces of music were created? It marks a departure too in the sense that it is your first solo work, which must have given you a new perspective too?
Warren Ellis: This is the first one [‘Mustang’] that I have stepped out on my own. It’s interesting because there’s obviously a lot of things I’ve developed through Nick [Cave] that I used— there are certainly aspects of the way we work together in there. Something that I definitely noticed was the lack of another voice to bounce things off, which is one of the big positive aspects of our working relationship that we are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and questioning things—what the other person will do and that feels very healthy and fertile, at least until now. I definitely missed having that voice of question.
But I actually had that with the director [Deniz Gamze Erguven] because the score was done very quickly – it was done in six days – in my shed in the back of my house, I have a little studio. I actually said that I couldn’t do it at the time because I had a big tour coming up with Nick and I had to get prepared for that. And then I eventually changed my mind after a couple of people persuaded me to try and make an effort, which was really good for me to try and do something like that. So then I did it but it was done in like six or seven days I think in total and the director was very proactive, she was very amazing, Deniz she was really incredible because she knew what she wanted, what she didn’t want. She also knew when I sent things—if the majority of it was good but if something had bothered her – she could explain to me what she wanted to be taken out which is not a skill a lot of directors have. So she had a flexibility with the musical lexicon that I really appreciated.
I’ve since done two more scores on my own but haven’t been released yet. I’ve done a manuscript for a film on Django Reinhardt and I’ve written a manuscript that he wrote a dedication to the victims of the Holocaust; the Romanian gypsy victims and it was a piece of music that is real and did exist but it was lost after a performance (the manuscript). I was asked to re-write it so I have done that for five organs, strings and choir with Romanian Gypsy language dialect, it’s a Mass Requiem kind of thing.
In January I did a horror drama Australian film – a very small budget – but again I had a set of rules to work with and I wanted to see if I could so a score while I was on tour. Doing ‘Mustang’ in such a short space of time and being on such a shoestring budget really gave me a hunger to do more things outside of my usual comfort zone. So I did this other score and I had to do it on tour because I didn’t have access to a studio, so it’s been done in hotel rooms, apartments, on my laptop only and I used synthesizer and bits and pieces I had lying around and I mixed it on the airplane coming home, I’ve got a tiny speaker. I wanted to see if I could do that and I think I have. I actually enjoy the challenge of stripping it back and with limited tools and limited resources what that can do. And then I just did a score with Nick as well called ‘Comancheria’.
As you say Warren, it must be very refreshing when the limitations for you as a composer and musician that they become the liberating factors and gives you the freedom to create?
WE: I think anything that allows you to find a new way into something that you’re very familiar with has to be good and sometimes it’s about having more things at your disposal, trying to find something. I know this with records when I go in, I might have a whole lot of stuff and I’m looking for different sounds: I’m bringing in instruments I don’t know how to play but I’ll try and get something going on; I’m not playing violin this time, I’m only playing synthesizer or I might say ‘I did that with the score, I’m only going to play synthesizer’. I try and set myself things to do but that would be the way that you can find a new way hopefully back into something that does not have a lot of parts to it really.
Listening to the different pieces of music and the many scores, it’s amazing to hear the endless amount of ideas – all these little motifs and details – that are always present in the work.
WE: I approach score work like I do the music in the bands whether it’s The Bad Seeds, Grinderman or Dirty Three. I mean the last thing you have done is your launching pad and that’s what you don’t want it to sound like and then whatever has come before you try to navigate around that as well. So with the score work, I’ve done something like ‘The Proposition’ which was very lean and muscular and very atmospheric and then we did a kind of stringy score for ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ and ‘The Road’ and to see how far we could go with that idea was appropriate. And again with film work, it’s whatever is appropriate for the image, I mean there’s not much point putting a hard rock song on something that doesn’t need it or whatever and so it’s obviously with that in mind. The approach that I have to my score work is definitely the same as I write to any music that I create, I’m looking for something different each time with the limited skills that I have.
All those John Hillcoat scores are incredible too and how the relationship between sound and the visuals work so well together.
WE: I don’t think we’re everybody’s cup of tea to be honest. It’s not just by chance that the films that do work are by people who actually like what we do. I mean the problems we have had in the past with scores has generally been because other people involved in the film – be it producers or financers – they don’t really get the way we work.
We don’t work in the traditional sense: find the score in the studio and then put it on there. Most composers present a temp score and then they mock it up and they get to hear it and they go ‘yes I like this I like that, oh can you change this melody? etc etc’—we don’t do that and that makes a lot of people nervous. Unless they know what our potential is which John [Hillcoat] and Andrew Dominik do, they know what we can do and they like what we can do. And it actually poses a real problem I think for a lot of people outside of the directors because we don’t work in the usual way.
There are other composers that work in that way now like Trent Reznor and Jóhann Jóhannsson —I don’t know how they work but I would assume that they do a lot of stuff and they stick it to the image and they probably have surplus of music left I get that feeling as opposed to the traditional composer who just by the cue by cue has their things already in place. These days they want to hear something mocked up on a computer and all that. And just to back-track, the people that we work with is generally because they like what we do. I think that a film director who just got us based on who we were and didn’t really know what we do would be in for a rather unpleasant shock.
There’s that lovely trust between what you are creating and what John Hillcoat is creating.
WE: Yeah I mean having said that we have stepped away, John’s got a new film [‘Triple 9’] that Atticus Ross is scoring, which is really good he has a different composer on board. We’ve done ‘Loin Des Hommes’ we’ve done this new film ‘Comancheria’ with David Mackenzie who has done ‘Starred Up’ and we’ve done a lot of work with Amy Berg on documentaries and that feels good for us too to move in different circles. It’s important for us to have other projects coming up. For me, ‘Mustang’ was important: I didn’t know the director, I saw the film, I loved the film and once I engaged in it I wanted to see what I could do with it. And also not knowing the director was really good – and some of the others I didn’t know the director – and that made it instantly a different kind of world that took me out of my comfort zone.
You must always have a number of different projects going on at the same, and these different avenues you’re thinking about?
WE: I like to work and when I’m not working I find a lot of things quite difficult to deal with. And actually the more work I’ve got the better I feel in certain respects. At this point in time I have five things on the go at the moment and little things keep appearing from them and I like that they are out there slowly coming together. I mean when you play in a rock band you make one record every two years – you write twelve songs every three years – that’s not really very much, I don’t think the average rock band is very ambitious or far thinking in that respect in terms of creating music and you hear about that struggle about making it and all that.
I actually like the idea of having too much to do so that you keep moving through it. I like the idea of making stuff. When I was younger I didn’t really but now in the last fifteen years since I’ve started doing score work, things changed for me, I really enjoy having that possibility to make music that I wouldn’t normally make in a rock band setting and to be asked to do things that was outside of what I would normally do. I really enjoy that challenge about it and I like the fact that the film score has somebody saying to you ‘Hey I don’t like that’ and you might really love it and you have to let go of it. There’s something incredibly liberating about that and when I was younger I just would have told the person to get f**ked and walked away because I wasn’t interested in that and you need to have that attitude in a band I think to protect you from the rest of the world and to protect your idea about the band.
But I think there’s a point also too where it becomes stagnant and you stop moving and you need other things. For me, I needed other things to do and I didn’t look for it, the film stuff just came along by accident when Nick asked him to do ‘The Proposition’ with him and it just developed from there and we found we had this great way of creating things together and it was something we both really enjoyed. So actually I really cherish having those things to do.
Dirty Three are one of those truly special bands for so many people, and for me, has been my favourite band for many years. You must have so many cherished moments with Jim and Mick over the years and across the many records?
WE: I don’t tend to look back. I don’t really have a sense of nostalgia about things. We have started re-releasing the vinyl records right back to ‘Sad & Dangerous’ and they’re doing an extended issue, double-vinyl with Record Store Day coming up and that gave me a chance to look back on stuff. Unless I’m trying to remember how something went I don’t go back, I don’t listen to the stuff I do, it always feels counter-productive in a way. I do like to think of this as something moving forward so if I do have any nice ideas: probably from long ago or when we were touring America when we started our or in Europe.
But having said that, I got together recently with Dirty Three in Australia and we hadn’t played together for about three and a half years for various reasons. We did two shows in Australia – one in Sydney and one in Melbourne – and they were genuinely moving to play the songs again and to play with Jim and Mick again was genuinely really emotional and I was really happy for that because you never really know if it’s all going to kick back in again, you hope it will. I think it’s certainly the thing with that band and it’s a similar thing with the Bad Seeds too where it starts up and you just feel this thing that is outside of everybody’s control and outside of the people that’s in it. It’s the amazing thing about playing in a band that’s known each other for a long time and that has worked together for a long time and have developed this way of communicating. And you hope it’s going to kick in each time but you can’t just take it for granted. I was genuinely moved to do these shows and to play these tunes that I haven’t played for a long time; it was very moving.
Would you have moments of inspiration that you can recall from your score work, Warren?
WE: Well not so much by the end but during the process of making it there are certainly moments I can remember with each of the scores but particularly ‘The Proposition’—it was extraordinary doing that one because we didn’t really know how to make a score and we just made a load of music and started sticking it to the image. It was amazing to see when something would just work with the image and it hadn’t been even made for the image. That was genuinely thrilling to see that with ‘The Proposition’, it’s a very strong memory I have working on that one and it was done very quickly like in five days.
Also, I have strong memories with ‘Jesse James’ particularly because I do feel if there is like a finest hour in someone’s creative life that would be one of them. It felt like in respect to the film and the music that everything came into alignment with that and I am very proud of that film and my work on that and I’m very proud of the score Nick and I made for that. And I remember certain aspects of making it where it felt like we weren’t going to succeed and being terrified that we may not realize this one so I have strong memories of that one and also the turning point where it did start to work just by sheer determination.
I have in many ways probably a stronger dialogue with the soundtrack work than the band work; the band work is a collective thing and everyone comes in with what they do and then it gets spread amongst the band and it becomes this band thing. I probably have a stronger opinion about the soundtrack stuff in many ways.
Going back to ‘Jesse James’, the music was so powerful and those magical scenes of the train coming in, the trees, the lights—in terms of what you were working with in order to create those sounds, did you have the script and stuff like that?
WE: For that film, we made the time to see a cut of it and we booked a studio because that’s how we work: we start going in February, we need to cut by then and they go ‘yes we’ll have it’. So we go into the studio but we’re not very flexible because we go touring as well so we can’t just chop and change things. We got in there and they had nothing for us so we composed and we just started improvising like we would do and ended up getting a lot of the main themes, probably forty percent of the music was recorded in four days without even seeing anything. For me, my logic I have always had with film scores is that we very rarely make specific cues for certain moments, it feels like the things you discover by accident—by putting them on and seeing what they do it creates a different kind of dynamic with the image.
There’s also a sense of an accident that happens and that also creates a sense of a purpose and it creates its own meaning. I guess it’s what happens in the rock ’n’ roll world too where you think you’ve got a good idea and it’s bullet proof but it’s actually not bullet proof and it doesn’t really work. And then you have a really simple idea that you think won’t fly at all, it’s one that comes through. I think certainly from my point of view there’s too much control and there’s too much manipulating going on, it feels like they’re the kind of ideas that very rarely get through. Sitting down and making cues to image has never been appealing at all.
For ‘Jesse James’ a lot of that was done without ever seeing the film and then we saw the film and we started to fine tuning it. Obviously there’s a point where you’ve got to start to fine tune it, ok they need something for here so what can we do. Even then when we had done it, Andrew just changed everything around and did what he wanted with it, which was a fantastic thing about that film, you know you never really know until you go see the film in the cinema.
I love how the soundtrack work is like a document that work so well as just records so you see them as records more so than just soundtracks.
WE: I think because of the process that we do and I’ve spoken to other composers and they mention that about our scores that they actually work on their own. And they actually pointed this out to me that the problem they have is that they just do the cue and it might be a thirty second cue and they have no time to build around it whereas we make pieces and then find thirty seconds that work. So mainly the ideas that we have are fully realized and then we see if they fit with the film. So that’s why we end up having pieces that in their own right stand alone. It’s not just a bunch of incidental music joined together in the attempt to make something which a lot of soundtracks feel like that.
In terms of films and composers, would you have long term favourites that you come back to?
WE: I like Ennio Morricone; I like Popol Vuh and all the scores of Herzog like ‘Aguirre’ and ‘Nosferatu’, I really love their scores. I really like ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’ I still think it’s one of Bob Dylan’s best records. I really like John Carpenter’s scores, I think they’re just fantastic. I really like Artemiev who does the scores for Tarkovski’s films, those electronic scores—I really love those scores, I think they’re so bold and they’re so far-reaching. I love Hans Zimmer’s scores for ‘Thin Red Line’ and for the Batman films. Also, Mica Levi’s ‘Under The Skin’ soundtrack is just incredible and really blows my mind when I listen to it.
‘Mustang’ is out now on Milan Records.
Interview with Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka).
“I’m drifting big time—I’m drifting away a lot of times while I am performing.”
Words: Mark Carry
A wealth of magic emanates from the scintillating piano works of Germany’s Volker Bertelmann. Under the guise of Hauschka, the gifted composer has carved out a string of phenomenal neo-classical masterpieces from spontaneous improvisations (‘The Prepared Piano’); ‘Ferendorf’’s ode to his childhood home in Germany (which features intricate arrangements of strings and brass); the ‘acoustic techno’ of ‘Salon des Amateurs’ and ‘Silfra’’s gorgeous collaborative effort with violinist Hilary Hahn and 2014’s career milestone of ‘Abandoned City’, revealing the artist’s crowning jewel thus far.
2015 saw more indispensable Hauschka-related releases – and a continuation of the ‘Abandoned City’ story – in the form of ‘A NDO C Y’ (featuring gorgeous outtakes from the ‘Abandoned City’ sessions and sublime remixes courtesy of Devendra Banhart and Eluvium) and the (vinyl-only) live record ‘2.11.14’ comprising of two exploratory 20-minute improvisations built on themes from ‘Abandoned City’. This captivating and otherworldly stream of consciousness emitted from Bertelmann’s singular creations (and particularly displayed on the revelatory experience of the aforementioned live record from the small Japanese village of Yufuin) brings to mind the collected writings of American composer Morton Feldman [‘Give My Regards to Eighth Street’]. A similar sentiment can be shared with Feldman’s description of Varese’s music and the 21st century modern composer:
“He alone has given us this elegance, this physical reality, this impression that the music is writing about mankind rather than being composed.”
Interview with Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka).
I absolutely love the two-track improvisation vinyl release you did more recently. I love the fact you can feel the remnants of ‘Abandoned City’ but you are going further and deeper where there is more freedom and space within the music.
Volker Bertelmann: I was trying to get things a little bit looser because while I was performing a lot of shows with the ‘Abandoned City’ album, I realized that I did not always want to repeat the same program. I was thinking rather of creating this atmosphere every time a little bit different and so I did and that in a way was quite a random coincidence. We were recording the concert; it was not planned at all so we were just pressing record on the mixing desk. Then we found out it sounded very nice and in a way it fits very nicely with the live record and the last vinyl ‘A NDO C Y’ where we had extra takes and we said we wanted to release them, and as well the remixes. I felt that it was quite a complete picture of a period that I was working in.
I love too how reading your liner notes it’s beautiful how it’s all this sense of happenstance and spontaneous—the place itself – Yufuin, Japan – sounds really lovely.
VB: In a way it’s a very nice fact that when your career is growing – mostly you grow and grow and grow and you go into bigger venues and then suddenly you’re at the biggest venues where you hardly have no time and a lot of things are going on auto-pilot. What I like about a lot of parts of my career is that I have things that are growing but at the same time I have the chance of working on projects that are quite low-scale, in terms of going into remote villages and playing there or I play in special, small places like in libraries or small Buddhist temples which I really like. It’s not straight away swamped by fans [laughs]. It’s very nice that I can go there and there is a delicate atmosphere but it’s not empty. In this quite remote village [Yufuin] there were quite a lot of people coming from other cities outside so it was a nice setting in this museum kind of building.
As you say Volker it was spontaneous but I wonder on some level was the music in some kind of way a result of your surroundings?
VB: Oh absolutely. Mostly, even when you prepare a set or when you have a steady program for every evening you are always influenced by your day. So you arrive at some point at the venue or at the place where you are staying or sometimes you are early so you can stay at the hotel or you can hang out. Sometimes you are pretty late so everything is in a kind of rush. And then you don’t know the circumstances of the venues—sometimes they are great and sometimes not so great. In a way, there are a lot of things that are piling up. And what is nice is actually it doesn’t matter how the day was, somehow the performance that you have is a mirror of your day and I think that is very lovely because for the people who are coming you present them what you are experiencing over the day that’s actually inside of your music. And maybe when you are improvising and you have an open concept of performance it’s much deeper in this concept rather than having this solid set-up where you know the light is switched on at this song—you have an automated drama in a concert [laughs]. In my case that’s a little bit more an influence of the day.
I suppose with the act of travel and seeing places there is a nice parallel where the music is accompanying that or vice versa?
VB: Yes, exactly. In a way I also like the idea that the music that I play is part of the day and not the only part of the day that is important. I think that when I am travelling somewhere of course I spend most of the time on the road or on the train: looking at things, I’m seeing things, laughing at people; there is a lot of interaction happening. Then in the evening –just this one-and-a-half hour – is this concentrated output that you have, maybe absorbing the day’s experience. But I think this one-and-a-half-hour period is important but it’s not the only thing that matters. All the rest in a way is on the same level.
On Part I of the improvised music contained on the live record ‘2.11.14’, there is a beautiful, gradual rise in the piece – a quite mournful piano line – which comes back again during the twenty-five minutes. You can hear elements of ‘Abandoned City’ but I love all the textures and detail that develops over time.
VB: That’s very interesting that you mention that because it’s in a way the purpose that when I find an area it feels right and I want to create something that is attached to the album and bring in a theme or an element of that and of course I am expanding that. I have a couple of recordings of concerts where I played for example ‘Craco’ which is actually the piece which is appearing on the live record in the area where you mention – there is the melody theme of ‘Craco’ which is coming in – and this melody sometimes I play this piece so slow—it’s like it’s stretched into a drone and you hear the melody very slowly. And I like that remix aspect that I’m remixing actually live – not with DJ tables – I’m bringing in elements but while I’m playing them I’m taking them apart using just sound snippets.
That’s another thing Volker, I can imagine the influence of electronic music is something you can really hear even though funnily enough most of the sounds are not of electronic origin whatsoever but you can hear that whole world of electronic and dance music in more recent Hauschka records.
VB: My purpose is to get away from the cheesy piano music and that was in a way the purpose in the beginning of my time when I started piano in the age of 9. But at 14 I was already in the area where I was much more attracted to bands and to music where you can have a lot more different sounds like I was working with synthesizers. At that time, I played of course a lot of piano but the piano is a very difficult instrument because there are so many clichés and when you start playing it and play a few chords, you already have an association with something that was already happening at some point. So it is very difficult to use the instrument in a way that it feels right and also sometimes that it feels edgy and maybe new. So I really tried in the last couple of albums, after going through albums that were very melancholic and melodic and beautiful. Even in the ‘Abandoned City’ record I had a small record that was called ‘I Close My Eyes’ that was completely piano pieces without any preparation and has very little, delicate piano pieces. But I wanted to get away from the normal use of the piano and how you normally approach piano for myself, just to be happy with the instrument and not like getting into an area where people are wanting me to play the romantic piano music they can dream [laughs]. But I think there is still an element of this dreaminess. I know that a lot of people who are coming to my shows and who are writing to me after the concerts, they say a lot of times that they totally lost time and drifted away from their everyday life and to get somewhere else. That for example is something that I really love but I also want to challenge myself and them as well in the way they get refreshed so that they don’t get every time the same kind of package.
Well I’m sure that must happen for you as well when you are playing especially as you say when some of these tracks are so long there must be a great sense of freedom when you are literally at your piano doing something spontaneous but it can last so long.
VB: Yeah absolutely, I mean that helps me. I’m drifting big time—I’m drifting away a lot of times while I am performing. That is for me a very nice working environment because I am always quite fresh and I’m uplifted every time I am performing and that helps me so much in a lot of ways because I can then decide every evening if I want to keep it short; every day you have a different mood and you can’t actually avoid that. And I don’t think that professionality and offering people in our day’s music has to be like in real time because you don’t get so much real time events anymore: a lot of things are planned and things are already predictable and people know already what’s coming up. So I think it’s very nice when they can participate on an evening where they maybe are surprised or touched or where they think I’ve never expected that this would happen, which doesn’t have to be the purpose every evening—I’m not in a circus you know [laughs]. But it’s much more the idea of bringing a real time life into the space where I am performing.
The surprising thing with ‘Abandoned City’ was how you had the music first and then you came across the whole concept of the photos of these abandoned cities and then putting that to music. I wonder even since performing the music live and all these exceptional releases, it must be giving you a new perspective when you are composing the music with these themes in your mind?
VB: That’s totally true. I think that sometimes it is of course very interesting to do things one-to-one: so if you want to write a love song—you write a love song and sing about love and people in the audience are hugging each other and they know this is the song they want to hear when they are in love. So that is all one-to-one but I think for me personally that doesn’t work. I feel love when I have the space for it so when I can actually decide if I want to be in love or not. It’s the same with music– if you give people the offer that they can come with you they don’t have to, they can stay somewhere else and just maybe slowly come with you or they leave because they are not with you or they come along with you. And it’s the same as with writing about abandoned places, I was thinking about the idea of abandoned places but not in the way that I was thinking that I have to go there by sitting in an abandoned place and play exactly the architecture of a place where I am sitting in. I like much more the idea of putting myself into the situation—my mind into the situation and imagining that I am in an abandoned place. I think that that is very nice because that creates a whole bigger part in your brain where you can actually stay for a long time.
I love how Side B of the ‘A NDO C Y’ record has those remixes from Devendra Banhart and Eluvium. It must be very special for you, the composer to hear someone’s remix or re-interpretation of your own work it must be very interesting to hear how something is interpreted?
VB: It’s always an awesome part of it actually. I have done that already a lot of times so to speak. The first remix CD that I have done was on my record ‘The Prepared Piano’, I was asking people to do vocal tracks of my versions so I ask singer-songwriters if they could work with the prepared piano pieces. Then I did another remix album to the ‘Salon Des Amateurs’ record where I gave away all the music and they could work on that. And to be quite honest what is very nice about this is it has different purposes: one the fact that your music suddenly appears as a sound source for other ideas so I like actually the levelling that I feel my idea that was maybe the biggest idea in the world for that moment where I created it is actually shrinking to a sound pool for someone else’s ideas. I like that because it put things into perspective and you don’t get too much attached to what you have done—you can pass it on and people can continue them. On the other side it also shows you a lot of different ways of working with your own music which helps me as well to find pleasure in other works. Everyone has their own way of dealing with rhythm and stuff like that and I am so excited about how people are working with that. And so these two remixes are in a way following a tradition that I want to continue forever because I think obviously that means sometimes that you have to find musicians that have the time to do something like that because a lot of times it is not very well paid—a lot of times it’s something that you do because you have a lot of spare time and you want to work with someone’s music. And I am doing the same– I am remixing stuff for many people.
When you are remixing other people’s work, it must be a very exciting process because it’s completely the other way around?
VB: Yes, absolutely, which is for me as well a very, very nice way of working like starting with my work, for example getting stuff from Devendra Banhart when I did a remix for him, it was so great because I could actually work on a vocal track and find ways of dealing with his music and that is so nice to get to work on something like that and I really love that.
I must ask about ‘The Boy’ soundtrack which has been another wonderful project of yours of recent times. In terms of the process, it must involve with dealing with much more specific detail?
VB: Mostly all of the musicians that I know that are in the field where I am existing like Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’ Halloran, Max Richter – all of these guys that I really like – they and I know each other very well and we meet each other every now and then. I think we all are working on a lot of different projects by working with soundtracks, working with dance pieces and doing all sorts of different work in collaboration. What is very nice about that is in a way the work is for everyone quite the same because you have to deal with the imagination of someone else and you have to find a way of giving him/her of not only being this service person you know because of course there is a service involved – somebody is doing a film and they want to have your music and he also has an imagination of where the music can fit – and in the ideal case someone says your music is actually my imagination so please go ahead and do what you like. In the case of ‘The Boy’, I felt Craig MacNeill, the director was so strongly convinced of my music and that he wanted to have me scoring the film that I was so happy about that and I was really thrilled by that. So I did a lot of work and I didn’t have to re-work too much because in a way it was all quite clear because he really likes what I am doing. And then we had a couple of music exchanges where he was saying “I think this could be a little bit thinner or it could have a little less of this bass” and then we were fine. I liked that a lot because it also gives me the perspective—the eyes of someone else looking onto my music which is awesome.
I remember the last time we spoke you mentioned about the MDR Symphonic Orchestra in Leipzig. I wonder how has that been going, it must have been another very interesting project?
VB: Now I am so happy that I have done it because I wrote so many pieces for the MDR and we had many premieres, all the things are recorded and now I am looking to maybe release it. I mean there is so much material and I gained so much experience with working with an orchestra and just continuing in all sorts of other ways—I am working with other classical ensembles, I try to find a way of expressing myself on that level as well, which is I think a big challenge. But I like it so much that this is possible and of course the music is completely different because the music is not working with electronic elements, it’s working with more classical instruments and I am trying to translate my music into a classical setting. I think I learned a lot and I was very happy for example that the last concert was filmed by The Boiler Room and it was being shown in the electronic music world and I liked that it was getting some really nice feedback.
What’s next for you, Volker? As you say there’s probably a few things on the go at the same time?
VB: I am working on a dance piece right now so I wrote the music for that which is also using somehow sound recordings from ‘The Boy’ because they were very fascinated by this dark inhaling sound on the score so I integrated some string players. I have two more films coming up, one is a Brazilian documentary and the other which is dealing with some refugee lives which is quite an actual theme at the moment but I think they were already creating one-and-a-half years ago. At the same time I am working on music for string players because next year  I have some premieres with a string quartet like commissioned work where I am writing a cello concert, things that are really challenging in a way but I am very happy that I maybe can have a year that I am only committing my work to writing music for others and just keeping my own music a little bit in the background, which always means that I am working and writing new material but I’m not forcing it to get the next album already going. But I have many, many things in my hands that I want to do so that’s what at the moment is in the air.
I wonder have you been listening to any records of late?
VB: I was listening to the record of Nicolas Jaar which I really like. Well I like his music a lot and I think he is one of the guys coming from the DJ world who are doing great music. Besides that, I am mainly listening to music from festivals because I was invited recently to play festivals and I stayed and listened to bands that I saw. I was really fascinated by the concert of the band Little Dragon, I really love them and they were awesome—it is wonderful music and I really like them. I have many, many unwrapped records where I have hardly no time to unwrap them and give them a listen because the records are coming in faster than I can absorb.
Lastly Volker, I wonder were there defining records for you when you were younger – before you ever started your solo music path – that really blew you away that you think were huge for you when you were younger?
VB: When I was younger I was in a completely different zone. First there was a lot of synthesizer music at that time when I was fourteen—I was listening to The Alan Parsons Project and all this music that was full of synthesizers, I was interested in Kraftwerk and music that was really pure. In a way, also electronic music at that time but at the same time when I was getting into my first band I was into hip hop music, I was very inspired by music that was – you the whole crossover of music at that time like Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nirvana and all these bands for me were a very heavy influence. I was really listening to that music a lot and I felt it was very new music for me because it was combining very groovy, solid rhythm section with an interesting way of rapping and singing as well and I liked that a lot. At the same time, I was listening to bands like Arrested Development or Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, a lot of hip hop. And then this disappeared in a way because I was done with music that had form and hip potential and then I went into abstract electronic music, I was a big fan of Oval and Mouse On Mars. Mouse On Mars were actually a band from Dusseldorf so I was going to their studio every now and then and I was feeling attracted to what they were doing. So that helped me as well to be around them or to be in the area, it helped me to get closer to what I wanted and so in a way this was music that was influencing me a lot and then I slowly got into my solo music.
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