Interview: CFCF on “Outside”

15 Oct 2013 — Evelyn Malinowski

Mike Silver, aka CFCF, has earned a reputation for creating soothing, nearly too soothing, synthscapes. His first release, Continent, along with his well-played remixes of Health's "Triceratops" and "Before Tigers" have placed his openly new age style into familiarity. Earlier this year, Silver released an EP entitled Music for Objects, which characterizes our interpretive relationships with certain materials and househeld objects. The piano-centric work parallels those lovely mornings were the sun finds its way into the house, and shimmers in a glass of water left on the counter.

Outside, due October 21 on Dummy Records and Paper Bag Records, is a new work which conceptually and structurally evokes separation, distance, and being on or going through the borderlands. As aimlessness is something that all of us have experienced when traveling, even if we know where we're headed, it is interesting, even useful to contemplate those memories of weary, anticipatory transit through Outside. That sense of exhaustion, yearning, and even gazing out of the window are delicately sewn throughout the album.

The new album likewise will make you want to put on Roxy Music's Avalon or Kate Bush's The Sensual World, maybe a David Sylvian record, as you fetch a wool blanket and curl up to do whimsical some reading on an autumn evening.

Silver and I recently discussed the themes of distance as well as seasonally appropriate music. We also touched on geographical features of northeastern North America, new age, OPN's new album, and rivaling cities.

Well, first of all, I'd like to say congrats on the album. It's really nice, and I find it very appropriate for this time of year.

Thank you very much! I was definitely hoping it would pair well with the season.

It for sure does. I remarked last year in a letter to a friend that it amuses me how every fall, the perfect album or few albums hit right as autumn nostalgia kicks in. Outside is definitely one of those for me right now. On that note, I read in the promo summary that the emotion of being in transit and in between is captured in the album. Do you care to elucidate on this? Where were you traveling to/from, and was the reason for traveling significant in the creation of the album?

Basically it was a lot of traveling back and forth from Toronto and Montreal, and Montreal and New York. Trains and buses, usually leaving early in the morning, sometimes at night. The reasons for travel didn't really play into the album -- it was really journey itself, and getting kind of lost in transit, watching the landscape go by and being immersed in those surroundings -- kind of as a fantasy in contrast to the boredom and restlessness of being on those long journeys.

One can definitely perceive of early morning colors and mist, and of days that never really light up. Perhaps that's a part of being lost in transit? We lose our grasp of time and feel somewhat dim.

Yeah. There's a kind of half-there mental state. So a lot of the time I prefer to just stare out the window and allow my mind to wander instead of like, watching a movie on my laptop or whatever.

Right, and let the day pass. So daydreaming out of train or bus windows, and watching the landscape, perhaps in the company of some instrumental albums, or Bonnie Prince Billy, is definitely a dreamy way of coping with idle time. You're a sort of unabashed lover of new age and muzak-y dreamscapes, right?

Haha yes. Actually right now I am listening to this two-disc compilation that just came out of Private Issue new age called I Am the Center, really great stuff. 

Oh man. I have been in search of some new, new age. I'll check it out.

Yeah it's great!

Although it's a big and banal question, are you in touch with what draws you into new age dreamscapes musically?

Heh, yeah I don't know what it is exactly that draws me to it. There is a kind of naivete and separation from pop expectations, by which I mean expectations of personality, provocation, engagement with pop culture. It's music that usually has very clear and pure intentions, which is to evoke.

But with distance and separation, to look at things through a glass window, or from the borders?

Well I think the music is really about intimately exploring sounds, without detachment or irony. But yeah in relation to the album, that was the thing that I think made it an interesting concept as it started to become clear to me… that separation from nature, rather than being immersed in nature which is what a lot of new age music is kind of evoking. So being on this bus or train that just completely sucks, and then just out of arms reach, this natural splendor.

That's quite a beautiful yet tragic circumstance... Isn't the region around Montreal/New York/Toronto quite green and forested? Maybe hilly?

The route from Montreal to New York is definitely hilly and forested. It's the Adirondacks, which is just one of most beautiful forested areas in the USA. That would be the bus route. The train is more standard but you get to see a lot of that in the distance. And the train to Toronto passes Lake Ontario for a while, so you have this gorgeous view of the water on the horizon, and then for a while it's a lot of these rural areas with kind of dilapidated houses and stuff, still quite beautiful.

I'm going to Toronto next week to check out a school there. Never been - really looking forward. I've heard a lot about its uniquely compelling atmosphere.

Haha I'm personally so-so on the city – I think like a lot of native Montrealers there is just something off about it for me. but I always have fun when I'm there, my sister lives there.

We do tend to choose our cities... Seeing that separation is a conceptual theme of the album, would you reckon that, structurally, the spacious, echoey, even tribal drums represent this sensation? Or do the melodic sequences, especially in the first three songs, with their lamenting, solemn anticipation (I would say), better reinforce distance and removal? That's sort of a weird question.

Haha. I really can't say which sounds would correspond to which emotions -- I choose the sounds because they do for me evoke elements of a nature which are both frightening and attractive -- and it's kind of trying to build a world that only really exists in this music. So for me choosing these sounds is a more intuitive thing, I never really intellectualize the choices. After the fact it might be interesting to try to make those connections though… but I don't think I'm the person to do it.

Are you the singer?


Also on the Bonnie Prince Billy cover? 

Yes. There are backing vocals by Stefanie Franciotti of SLEEP∞OVER. But I am the primary vocalist on all the songs.

I listened to the original, which has the same dissonant vocal harmony, but the cover on the album is completely haunting. Between you and Stefanie, was there any attempt, be it intuitive or deliberate, to take the innocent sounding original and turn it at all darker?

I find the original to be quite dark, but with quiet hopefulness. To me it's like the sound of those dilapidated houses, with debris in the yard and giant puddles of rain with rotted wood in them. I definitely wanted to kind of amplify these things that the song showed me, and make it kind of grandiose, epic.

It definitely comes through. I find that the instrumental melody, or melodic chorus, offers some release after the first two tracks, and parts of the third, build up on feelings of longing. It's a very powerful moment in the album. Track two, "Jump Out Of The Train," is likewise haunting and in a way loose-ended. It reminds me of Oneohtrix Point Never's anthem "Returnal," and has the same lamentation. OPN is another of few openly "new age" or "quasi-new age" musicians out there today who stirs a lot of intellectual interpretation. Do you have any OPN records?

Yes for sure I am a big fan of Daniel's work, he's a great guy as well.

His new album also debuted in time for autumn, but on the earlier side, while CFCF's is deeper in the heart of autumn. Have you heard the new OPN, and do you find it satisfyingly new age?

It might be his most openly new age record yet, but fascinating how he both unironically employs that style while also using its artifice as kind of a comment, there is a lot of humour and total earnestness going on on it which I really love.

Music and humor definitely mix, and there is quite a bit of it in OPN for sure. The combination gives a song a type of soothing and very human glaze, I think. Speaking of which, I have one more question: it's sort of nerdy. Do you care to talk a little about the message behind "The Crossing?" I read it as a sweet, caring song about helping oneself or someone else unwind at the end of the day, and to know when to call it quits, saving the rest for the following day.

That's a nice interpretation! The funny thing with lyrics is I'll write them and they have no meaning other than kind of trying to convey imagery that works with the music, but then gradually as the song takes shape and listening to it a lot I start to find out of what it means to me. So with “The Crossing” I kind of see it as this apology and attempt to re-establish devotion after a painful/failed journey. Like returning after casting off responsibilities and admitting that that human connection is something truly valuable and tangible.

Traveling and being physically in motion does automatically make the traveler cast things off, including communication with others. Did you feel that your journeys which inspired this album ever failed? Or were a misfortune in the way that, three hours down the road, you realize you forgot something and suddenly feel unprepared?

Haha I'm sure that kind of thing happened somewhere along the line. I've missed a couple trains as well. Or running to catch a flight… I mean, usually the purpose of the journey, a show, visiting someone or whatever, that's kind of an afterthought as far as its relationship to the album… it was really about just being in that in-between space.

I like that space as well.

Like the autumn, Outside starts strong, dreaming, full of anticipation and special awareness or love of being in that vulnerable, changing state. I recommend that you will love it from the moment it starts.

Outside is out October 21 on Dummy and Paper Bag Records.