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Chosen One: Nonkeen

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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.”

—Frederic Gmeiner

Words: Mark Carry

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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.

http://www.nonkeen.com/
https://www.facebook.com/nonkeen/

nonkeen_portrait_2

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.

http://www.nonkeen.com/
https://www.facebook.com/nonkeen/

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July 14, 2016 at 2:17 pm