The Spacesuits: Finding Paradise with Karneef

20 Feb 2015 — Anaïs Duplan

Sun Ra and his Arkestra were known, amongst other things, for their elaborate space garb – the sequins, the ancient Egyptian symbolism, the face-paint, the full-length capes. These were spacesuits the band wore to accompany them on their mission to ‘travel the spaceways.’ So when I first began the project I called The Spacesuits, the plan was to construct a series of costumes, modeled after the garments of the Saturnalian people from which Mr. Blount claimed to have descended. I drew inspiration from the early ILC Dover spacesuit prototypes, crafted in the mid-sixties. I also drew inspiration from artist and Afrofuturist Nick Cave, known for his Soundsuits, large wearable sculptures whose bedazzling feathers and contours are meant to obscure the race, class, and gender of its inhabitants.

The Spacesuits, however, quickly became more about the music than about the costumery. The Arkestra’s outfits, after all, were only subsidiary elements of a larger mission; namely, that to restore race relations by re-imagining a future for blacks that quite literally transcended space and time. Sun Ra’s music was, above all, paradise music. It was music, which by the process of “telemolecularization” (a word coined and used often by Sun Ra), would transport its listeners to another dimension.

Thus began my own search for Sonny Blount’s contemporary musical descendants. The Spacesuits became a collective of musicians in whose work I heard elements of new utopias. I studied their bodies of work and searched for themes like apocalypse, reincarnation, the afterlife, etc. To each musician, I provided five ‘calls to action.’ I gave them prompts like, “Create a short book on how to communicate with stars. Do not use words,” (a prompt given to Stasia Irons of THEESatisfaction) and “Imagine the instant the world began. Create the corresponding soundscape,” (a prompt for Bryce Hample of REIGHNBEAU). The responses produced by the musicians in The Spacesuits collective will form the basis of a series of 8+ multimedia installations over the course of The Spacesuits summer tour, which begins on April 24th at Mengi in Reykjavík, Iceland and then travels across North America. (See the full schedule here.)

When Portals did a micro-feature of Montreal-based musician Karneef in April 2014, I knew I’d want him in The Spacesuits crew. The feature was succinct, if humorous. It read:

Montreal’s Karneef is a man that really, really loves his bass. The video for his new single “Swimming” finds him in some weird situations, most of which involve him in his underwear. Karneef keeps it cool with a lot of smooth strumming and awkward dance moves; occasionally hiding behind paintings so he can scope out a cute girl in the studio. She seems to be in her own world for most of the video, walking around aimlessly and dancing while Karneef serenades her in different parts of the studio.

It is true that Philip Antoine Karneef does indeed love his bass. But he’s also up to much more. Karneef’s 2013 album Love Between Us is, for me, an exercise in paradise music. It is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but its sincerity is just as unmistakeable. In fact, over time, it has become clear to me that paradise music always plays on that tension between irony and sincerity. One of my favorite moments in A Joyful Noise, Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, is when that very subtle smile appears on Sun Ra’s visage as he advocates for governments to give constitutional rights to angels. The smile isn’t signaling that Sun Ra is, in fact, joking around. Instead, the smile says, “There’s a lot more going on here than you think.”

Read Anaïs Duplan's interview with Philip Karneef after the break. 

You’ve mentioned collaborating with Pascale Mercier, who has done some work under the name Mathematique, on a new project, and also with Slim Williams. Could you elaborate on that? How you see those projects relating to your other work?

Pascale has played drums for the Karneef band on and off, mostly on, for three years. I saw her live show at this terrifying house party. Terrifying because the house was very scary and dark. I can't remember if it was summer or winter but I'm pretty sure she was wearing a backpack – one of those green canvas ones that you take to school. And she had a baseball cap on. Anyway, I mixed her last EP and I recorded vocals. I’m preparing to mix her first full-length album PASCALE PROJECT which seems to be lots of robust composition with elegant, searing vocals. Simple but not easy.

We've been singing up at Slim William’s mind-blowing recording spot in the Laurentians. I have no idea how I ended up being encouraged to do stuff there, but it's really paradise. It's Slim’s and Phoebe Greenberg’s place, a very beautiful duo. I help out however I can, with equipment or media-based stuff (archival or social media), or with helping set gear up at Slim's live shows. I give him tutorials on software, etc., and I get to use the studio to work with others, like Pascale, Asaël from Bataille Solaire, Dylan III. These are some really beautiful artists and I'm so lucky to have met them, incredible humans!

Will you tell me about your video work? How did the video for "Space," for example, come about and how did that experience compare with making your other music videos? I'm thinking in particular of the videos for "Bring You Back" and "Swimming."

"Space" was just unreal. That song was chosen to have a video made, and produced by the PHI Centre team including Phoebe Greenberg, the director. That took two full days, lots of costume stuff, a great camera and technical crew. And my body-double and dear old high school friend Matthew, who played the sax in the video. The VFX stuff and images are all stunning and engaging, and to be directed in all those scenarios was a great deal of fun. I just write the songs! I enjoy seeing how people want to have them visualized. I did a music video myself once for another band and it took too long. I'm not terribly preoccupied with the visual world.

The video for “Bring You Back” was the first video I'd ever done for my own music. It was directed by Thom Gillies, who has a band called Vesuvio Solo, and it's just me dancing around in my neighborhood, which has a lot of interesting people in it. They really didn't mind the camera and seemed to enjoy watching me dance. It was edited by our friend Adam Wilcox, who is very enthusiastic about cinema, so he put a lot of effort into it and I think it shows. The cuts are all very natural and rhythmic, etc.

The "Swimming" video was just as impromptu, but it was more about objects and fabric colours. But actually now that I think about it, the two videos are very similar in that they’re just kind of weird, with me jerking around and such. But the costumes are really neat and the director, Renata Morales is, of course, a very fun person, and Antoine Bordeleau, who shot and edited it, made it look really cool on the web.

On your website you've released a set of tracks called the Midas EP. In many ways, it's quite different from Love Between Us, but I also think the Midas EP is recognizably yours. What are your thoughts on that? When you go back and listen to your work, do you hear it and recognize yourself? Are there concepts or themes that you seem to revisit?

Midas was actually written before Love Between Us, but I sat on it for a while. I would say that it's recognizably mine because, yes, I tend to oscillate between a few themes. I don't realize they’re there until I listen back and say, "Oh damnit, those are really similar ideas." There are a lot of themes that come about by adding only one instrument at a time, and that instrument is playing only one note at a time. But then, harmonically, something very striking comes out. I don't tend to hear all the voicing in my head as it happens. I hear bits of it and I add it all up. Somehow, though, I have heard from other people that there is something recognizable in my music from one thing to another, even when stylistically it’s very different, and that makes me feel nice because I like to recognize artists too. It makes me feel like I ‘know’ them. We have this understanding.

When I was looking for musicians to participate in The Spacesuits, I spent a lot of time listening in search of what I was calling 'paradise music.' When I heard Love Between Us, I was absolutely certain that I'd found it. That being said, I know how strange it is to have other people characterize your own work. What relation do you think the concept of paradise has to your music? 

A lot of people recognize, when I sing about technology in my music, that it's a really important part of my life. And when I dream, often technology creeps in there, because I know a lot about what might be possible with technology. So it's natural that those ideas enter my dreams, and of course paradise pops up in dreams – or, our projections of paradise maybe. Like being in a pilot-seat of an airplane or in a bed on a beach somewhere. I think I'm often trying to conjure up paradise in my lyrics, and just hoping that other people can relate to those silly ideas all strung together. Those shifting harmonies can really make a person feel like everything’s gonna be okay. I think when you're exposed to jazz, those rules change very drastically and ‘what’s okay’ changes. There are lots of different, faster, and smaller micro-emotions in jazz, and as I go further into the orchestral or instrumental music domain, I really question why I need to use lyric in the first place. I have to save that stuff, make it really count.

You mentioned hoping that people could relate to the “silly ideas all strung together” in your music, and I think that might actually be part of what makes your work all the more utopian. Paradise is a scary topic, or at least, it can cause discomfort – but somehow you manage to make it okay to fantasize about. What is it about shifting harmonies that makes people feel at ease? And more generally, how would you characterize what ‘paradise music’ is?

Lately I've been thinking about a lot of words in French that we use in English too, but mean something different. Like “sensible.” That's the French word for "sensitive.” Isn't that weird? How did that happen?

Anyway, paradise is everywhere these days, if you want it. I'm the worst. I'll just spend a couple bucks at the store and get a chocolate bar, and I'll be in paradise until it's done. Then maybe I'll go on Netflix, or take a bath. Winter on this planet is just devastating. I can't believe we just sit in our heated houses and go out and buy olives or work in a restaurant, or talk to your mother on Skype, who is on the other side of the Earth. Soon people will be so used to being apart and there will be crazy relationships that are born and die online. Probably already a million of those happened. I can sit alone in my apartment, reading a book on how to be a better person or how to drive a boat, or order pizza. Or look at naked people screaming with pleasure. We are doomed.

You talked about being exposed to those faster and smaller micro-emotions in jazz. Give me an example of a track that does that for you.

Well I'd like to offer any track where Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul play the theme together, because the phrases are so long and the notes that are sustained are usually beautiful harmonies interrupted by staccato chirping, a big glowing synthesizer and honking reed instrument blending together. The synthesizer is being strained to sound natural and the sax is played with such exactness and precision that it could be programmed. That's paradise, mechanical and silicone, participating while singing to you. There's no words in that music so you can listen while trying to imagine that words don’t exist at all in life, just melodic themes.

Can you say more about your relationship with technology? How does it open up possibilities for you in your music?

I'm just a freak when it comes to using and fixing stuff. I can't stand that feeling of not knowing about how some very useful device was developed, where it comes from, or how to change it. Lately I've been very scared of the consequences of piracy and received some very scary letters from my ISP. I'm very bad at earning money, so of course, like most composers, I use software that I didn’t pay for and that has been really eating at me. I decided the next big film gig I get, which might never happen, because who knows really, I'm going to pay for this very advanced, thoroughly researched world which I step into each day, staring at their colors and boxes for things that I hear and share with others. What a tragedy.

Something I might like to do when I have some ability to develop my own ideas would be more intuitive percussive interfaces, or just different ones – some things that allow for very natural movement in faking hand percussion, or maybe a mallet-based instrument that does something different than emulate a drum-kit or marimba and uses physical modeling. Or portable 3D sound that seems to be nowhere close. Where are the worn donuts that have 360 degrees of sound? Maybe it exists and I haven't seen it. I think 3D records will be a thing soon. Like easily, through iTunes. Can’t you see a donut-shaped Apple device you wear on your head? It's wireless. 10 or 12 channels. Imagine!

Karneef's newest album, Musique Impossible, will be released in April, in collaboration with the new Montréal-based composers' collective, Géocité, which includes Pascale Project, Bataille Solaire, and Dylan III.

The Spacesuits is sponsored in part by The Afrofuturist Affair, a community for Afrofuturists in Philadelphia, as well as by Pushdot Studio, a fine art printing studio in Portland, Oregon.