Unsound Preview: Janus / Kablam

15 Oct 2014 — Henning Lahmann

Krakow's Unsound Festival started on Sunday and so far it's been a Golden October dream, perhaps despite that true nightmare that was the early afternoon showing of Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 relationship drama-cum-horror movie "Possession" that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around. "The Dream" is also this year's festival theme – described by the curators as "a symptom of a world where self-expression and experience are increasingly mediated and commodified. It plays out on laptops used for work and leisure, in networked coffee shops, airports, international 'artistic enclaves' and nightclubs. Anxiety is its underside: those Living The Dream often do so in precarious financial situations, while in the background, ecological, political and economic systems lurch towards collapse; war looms on the horizon, threatening to escalate."

In more than one sense of the word, in the past few years Berlin has become The Dream for more and more musicians from all over the world, who mostly seem to come to the city in the search of exactly that: a place that is somewhat detached from the troubles of globalised late capitalism, where artistic expression is still possible due to a still comparably reasonable cost of living, and an overall attitude just liberal enough to not become an obstacle. Whether Berlin really is or has even ever been that dream place is one question, the other more pressing is in which way the expat community itself has started a process that's fundamentally changing the dynamic of the city's social geography. Soon, it'll be time to reflect on the sustainability of the dream. Artists have already started leaving Berlin again, moving to Leipzig or further east, with Krakow among a growing list of cities that now embody the illusion of a culturally rich location that willingly provides the means to devote yourself entirely to creative activity, without being forced to compromise. Which begs the creeping question – has it ever been about Berlin at all? "How do ideas of locality – or the lack of them – affect culture?," asks the panel "Place/Displace/Non-Place" at Naodowy Stary Teatr on Friday at 3.45, featuring some writers who should have to say something about that as expats in various European locations themselves.

However for the time being, legitimately focusing on the upsides of Berlin's evolvement into a truly global creative hub, the Musicboard-funded Berlin Current poject by CTM Festival has started to showcase some of the exciting aspects of the expat scene along the Spree. Over the past two years the Janus night has certainly become the epitome of New Berlin. Still, considering the aforementioned, it isn't entirely clear whether the scene around Janus is even a Berlin thing – or merely something that was started here by accident. After its first Berghain night last Friday the Janus crew is coming to Unsound Festival this week. In anticipation of the event and in order to explore some of the topics just mentioned, we spoke to resident DJ Kajsa Blom aka KABLAM via email. Read the interview after the break.

CTM's Berlin Current showcase featuring the Janus crew is part of Unsound Festival's night "The Ticket That Exploded Part 1", happening at Hotel Forum on Friday, October 17. More information on the event is available over here.

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Try to describe Janus in one sentence.

Hype, hate, copy

In which way does the night's concept embody an approach to club music that was missing in Berlin?

I would say its concept is genre-crossing, rude, more fearless and more diverse than what usually is being served in Berlin’s nightlife.

What does Berlin have to do with it in the first place? You've had a night in NYC already and now you're gonna be at Unsound. In which way is Janus' sound essential to Berlin; could it exist without the city or is its location wholly incidental anyway?

Having a space like Chesters really played a big role. A space like that would probably be impossible to find in NYC or Stockholm. It was not too big, not too small and had a great sound system for that size. It worked as this residency where we could try out things. For me having never really DJ’d before, this was the perfect place to try out things and learn.

What do you like about the Berlin crowd? Do you find it particularly open-minded or rather the opposite, still fixated on techno and house?

The ”Berlin crowd” is quite diverse I would say, but there is definitely still a huge crowd fixated on techno and house. Don’t get me wrong, I love dancing to hard techno, and I really respect a good techno DJ, but it’s almost like a different occupation. Using the CDJs you can manipulate the tracks in ways you can’t do on a record player. I think a large part of the Berlin crowd still wants to see DJs who play records, but I believe that’s slowly changing too.

How long have you been in Berlin now? Do you think that the place is getting more or less interesting? What are some developments that concern you?

I’ve been in Berlin for two years, but I am currently in Stockholm to write my BA thesis. I definitely think it’s getting more interesting, but that is my individual experience. I think it is intact with me discovering more parts, areas and scenes, opening up my eyes and ears more and more. 

Janus is usually depicted as this Brooklyn thing that came to Berlin – by the New York Times anyway. You are from Sweden, right? How did you get in touch with the rest, and how do you fit in from your own perspective?

I am from Sweden, but I am half-German. It is kind of not a Brooklyn thing-- no one in the Janus crew is from Brooklyn. I was not a part of Janus from the beginning but I was at almost every Janus party before I became a resident, and that’s how I got to know Dan, Michael, J’Kerian (Lotic) and James (M.E.S.H.). I had never felt at home in a club environment before. I loved how they approached the whole idea of what a club can be and I loved how they played so fearlessly. Last August Dan asked if I wanted to play a Janus night; I said yes although I had never really mastered the CDJ-2000 before. So I watched some Youtube tutorials, went there and played a bunch of Jersey club tracks and they liked it. I can’t point out exactly what it is that we share that make us work together, we just belong together, it just makes sense.

What are you trying to achieve with your own work? What's your main incentive to do the stuff you're doing?

Whoa, what am I trying to achieve…? I guess I want to produce something that sounds exactly like me in that moment. But it’s also about being fearless, not being afraid to fail. It’s gonna sound corny maybe, but I think my main incentive lies in the creation of ’the new’. When new thoughts and ideas are born, just in that moment, there is a sense of complete freedom. Of course new ideas aren’t born out of nothing like some kind of magic, most of the time they are born as an opposition toward existing norms. I hate genre categorization for instance, this is something that is flooded by norms. I hate the genre term ’IDM’ (Intelligent Dance Music)-- why is that type of music more intelligent than other dance music? EDM is not less intelligent than IDM. Let’s talk about what it actually sounds like and how it makes us feel. Let’s stop forcing music, and people, into categories that they have not asked to be a part of.

Adding this spatial dimension, like a more or less public space where these ideas can take form and be introduced and exchanged, that makes it real. I used to think my music experiments were made just for me, but I was wrong!

What's next for you artistically? What do you expect from the Berlin Current funding? Is there anything in the works already that you could tell us about, or is it mainly your participation in the showcases?

It is mainly my participation in the showcases. The night we did at Berghain was the most insane and beautiful, and now we are doing another night at the Unsound festival on Friday with Dj Hvad and Amnesia Scanner. I am super excited! I don’t know what’s next. With my own stuff I am still trying to figure out what direction to go in and it is an interesting phase because it takes me to all kinds of places.

Interview: Peter Sagar (HOMESHAKE)

14 Oct 2014 — Henry Schiller

Cold weather, warm showers, slick grooves, capital letters: HOMESHAKE (the pseudonym of Montreal-based Peter Sagar) has one of the most full-bodied aesthetics of any act I’ve had the pleasure of covering. The former Mac DeMarco guitarist's debut album, In the Shower, came out last week on Sinderlyn / Bad Actors. I chatted briefly with Sagar over email about his album, his friends, and his influences: both musical and meteorological.

 

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NFOP: Hi Peter. I know you'll be in New York in a couple of weeks for CMJ. Is this your first time playing the festival? Are you currently at home in Montreal or are you already on the road?

PS: I've been down to CMJ a couple times,  we did it last year as well. Right now I'm at home.

NFOP: You’ve mentioned Canada’s "icy landscape" as an influence, which is a fairly atypical point of reference. There is, however, an undeniable iciness to your music. Not to say that its lacking in warmth or emotion, but your music feels like it would be a good soundtrack for being bundled up in an igloo. How is it that you feel your musical output has been shaped or affected by growing up in a cold climate?

PS: I remember when I was a teenager in Edmonton I'd always think "fuck this I'm going out I won't let the weather get me down" while I put on three pairs of socks and 5 sweaters to take the bus across the river to drink at some dank bar, but eventually it broke me and I stopped leaving the house.  It was probably at that point I started spending a lot of time recording music on my own, so I suppose it is directly responsible for my output.

NFOP: Is HOMESHAKE your first project, or just the latest in a long line of musical pseudonyms? What are some other projects or bands you've been involved in, and in what capacity?

PS: I had a band in Edmonton called Outdoor Miners, it was sort of noisy 90's style stuff, didn't last a long time though.  Then I started making solo music under the name Sans AIDS, but the name was terrible and offended people so when I got to Montreal I ditched it.  For the last few years I was playing guitar with Mac DeMarco, lots of fun, saw the world, went insane.

NFOP: We don’t cover a ton of guitar music at No Fear of Pop, so when we do it’s usually because we're listening to something downright unique. You seem like you might have a fairly “standard” guitar, bass, drums setup, but your sound is very difficult to place. Who are some of your biggest influences?

PS: A few would be Curtis Mayfield, Angelo Badalamenti, R Kelly, Herbie Hancock and Broadcast.

NFOP: Kind of in the same vein as the last question, but what kinds of groups / acts are you usually compared to? Have you gotten any comparisons that completely took you by surprise?

PS: Most comparisons are with friends of mine, which is fine because I have some very talented friends.

NFOP: You recorded In The Shower at Montreal's Drones Club this past winter. What was the process like? Do you think of this as a studio album or more of a DIY piece?

PS: I recorded it with my friend Mike, a few days here or there over a fee months. We would do a couple songs and then not work on it for a a few weeks. I paid him with several bottles of Jameson, he deserves better.

NFOP: No Fear of Pop’s readers are on the sharpest point of the cutting edge when it comes to new music. Any acts you’ve been playing with, or otherwise getting into who you think our readers ought to know about?

PS: Wow great job everybody! A few acts I'm into big time these days are Tonstartsbandht, Silk Rhodes and Jerry Paper.

Interview: sloslylove

12 Sep 2014 — Sam Clark

Five to ten years ago a cursory overview of Eau Claire music probably would have read as homogenized, with acts like Bon Iver, Amateur Love, and the Daredevil Christopher Wright garnering various levels of attention from the public eye. But as many of those projects have either disbanded or gone on hiatus, a proverbial curtain has been pulled back, revealing Eau Claire as a more diverse climate and a decisive component in the Midwest musical landscape. The burgeoning network of house venues designed as safe, all-ages spaces has created an environment for underground rap to flourish and for members of the city’s electronic music guild to hone their craft. 

At the forefront of the latter movement is sloslylove, the moniker of Eau Claire native Feng Meng Vue. After spending a significant stretch of time in Minneapolis, Vue repatriated himself just in time to prep and release his second full-length album, The Haunted, which dropped in July. I recently caught up with Vue to talk about his no-nonsense, natural approach towards making music and his interest in building synthesizers. Check out the interview after the break.

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The moniker “sloslylove” seems, at least to me, the perfect combination of adjectives and nouns to describe your sound. Where did the name come from?

"Slow" – adjective: uneventful and rather dull.

"Sly" – adjective: lightly mischievous.

"Love" – noun: an intense feeling of deep affection.

Forget the definitions I listed above, short answer is, I stole the name from a friend back in high school – I believe my sophomore year – I guess the definitions are sorta relevant. Long story, my friend and I joked about starting a 90's cover band, covering cheesy love songs…Never happened; we didn't know how to make music. But the name stuck with me all these years.

You cultivated a rather large interest and following online pretty early on. Has that had a substantial impact on the trajectory of your career?

Not really, it was pretty crazy at first but I thought nothing of it. I don't really focus on what's happening outside of what I'm actually doing, if that makes any sense. I'm just kinda taking things as they come, not really forcing anything.

Talk a bit about The Haunted. Do you see the record as a continuation of Tendencies or more of a step in a new direction?

After I put out Tendencies, I kind of just took a break from the solo stuff to do other projects. That was like two years ago…So, onto The Haunted: I hope it’s nothing like Tendencies. I didn't want to do that album over again. The only thing I want to keep as a constant in all my music is that #feelsright vibe. The Haunted is definitely where I'm trying to go next with my music. I just want to get weird…

One recurring theme in your music is the inclusion of audio samples throughout songs. Where do these samples come from, and how do they fit into the aesthetic of sloslylove?

I watch really slow-paced boring love movies that only your girl or girlfriends would be into. I have my reasons…Let's just say, all magical quotes deserve soundtracks. If I hear Reese Witherspoon say some real soft shit that makes the eyes glossy and there ain't no soundtrack over it, I'm gonna make the soundtrack to it! Also, movie one-liners are my biggest inspiration.

Really though, most my songs are instrumentals. People will create their own stories to those songs. The songs where I include audio samples is just a way for me to set the tone. They’re basically a brief description of what the song means to me without saying much or having to say anything at all, still leaving enough room to make your own meaning. If that makes sense…I hear music cinematically, I see movies musically.

Both of your album covers feature pretty intricate designs, and you frequently perform with images projected behind you. How important is the visual component of your project?

Album covers, design-y things always happen last minute…I don't think much of it, I just do it in collaboration with a good friend of mine. I'll just be like, "Album’s done, I guess I need some art now…" and it kind of naturally happens. The Haunted is my favorite cover though, front to back. If you look closely or pay attention, you'll see many Easter eggs referencing my childhood. Or not…

But yeah, as far as the visual projections go when performing, those aren't me. I can't take credit for the dope animations and time spent. Shout outs to Kimberly Lesik and Eric Wells!

You’ve spent time in Minneapolis and seem fond of California, but you currently call Eau Claire home. What draws you to the town’s music scene?

This is my hometown, I grew up here. Been here since forever. To be real, I wanted to get out of this city for the longest time, and I did, lived in Minneapolis for about seven years. Being away though, at least for me, made me appreciate Eau Claire a lot more. The music here is dope. That's a given. It's the most honest music out there. Everything is made in the blizzard man, that says a lot! Honestly though, everyone in Eau Claire is an inventor. If there isn't something poppin' off over the weekend, you know one of your friends or yourself are going to make something pop off. That's what I'm drawn to, people making their own adventures.

People following you via social media and that have gone to your more recent shows may have noticed that you’re both building and performing with your own synthesizers. Can you speak a bit on that interest and how it’s affected your approach towards making music?

Well, about a year ago, I started learning about modular synths and how they work. I started building my Eurorack Modular Synth about that same time and right now, I have a custom-built 6U case fully filled with modules from different companys. I have no plans to expand at the moment, but I'm sure I will next year or something. I just love gear. Gear doesn't really affect how I make music, it's just another tool to assist in the process. I'm a very hands-on person, so I need to be touching something. Also, it's just so much more fun to have all your machines talking to each other, in time, perfectly synced. I feel like I'm the conductor and my machines are my band mates.

Aside from your own synths, what are your key pieces of gear for recording and live shows?

My live sets are always changing. Sometimes I'll have six machines sync'd up, other times I'll have two machines. I'm always adding and taking things out. The last couple shows I played I used an SP404 and my modular synth.

At home when I'm recording, I usually run all my gear into Ableton. I use a Roland Juno 6 in most my songs. So I guess, that's my main hardware. But as of right now, I haven't fucked with Ableton for awhile now. I’ve been recording all my sequences on my SP404 and SP303.

Between releasing The Haunted and touring around California and Mexico, you’ve had a busy summer. What’s next for sloslylove?

More music man, never stop. #feelsright

Interview: Kristine Lirio (Nima)

28 Jul 2014 — Johanne Swanson

I met Kristine Lirio a few summers ago in Los Angeles. If it was at a renegade show in a parking structure or a pool party she was playing in Eagle Rock, I can't say. What I do remember, first: the quiet strength of command and intention over her insturment; second: the supportive group, friends and collaborators, surrounding her. Last week Lirio, who records as Nima, released the devastating See Feel Real. She was gracious enough to speak with me about the aural metaphor behind the record and the nurtured ethic of freely sharing her craft. Read the interview after the break.

See Feel Real is avaliable now on a limited run of 50 cassettes through Harsh Riddims

(Photos by Nalini Sairsingh)

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Hey Kristine! Thanks for making the time to chat.

Thank you for having me!

Last time I saw you was at the beginning of the year when we were sharing a bill at the short-lived Church on York with the rest of the Smells Like Queen Spirit crew. I feel like gear is always breaking playing electronic music, synths dying right before you're about to go on and whatnot, but you had lost your voice that night! So frustrating to have your most intimate and manipulative instrument fail. Still, your performance was entirely absorbing. What was your setup like?

Everyone was amazing that night! Despite losing my voice, it was interesting to  solely showcase the instrumentals to see if their strength carried without my voice. I used a Kawai K4, a Casiotone MT-68, a few delay pedals, and a sampler to trigger some audio clips - among those clips were some extracts from my favorite Parajanov films.

Are you playing similarly out live now?

With that gear, yes. Sometimes it's overwhelming having so much in front of me visually. I think it's my classical training as a piano player-- there's the idea of engaging with one instrument crafted to produce certain tones versus engaging with several instruments that can incorporate digital possibility. I love both ideas and get to exercise them -- it feels like a balancing act, especially when the majority of my live renditions rely on layered loops. It's all about purging and being able to access the drive within you that no one else can see and engage with it through your craft, which also makes it audibly and visibly accessible.

nima gear

Seems like everyone has funny stories about how gear finds them. Got any?

When I started playing shows I used to lug around my sister's 88-key Yamaha Motif that we kept in a large canvas case with wheels. It must've looked comical and impractical, but there was comfort in being able to access those octaves. Then she gave me a Kawai K4 in 2011 and it's been with me since. As for my Casiotone MT-68, I found it under a bench in Tustin.

When did you move to Oakland?

I relocated from Irvine about six months ago. The Bay Area in general has always resurfaced in my life between family and friends. It's a nourishing region and my creative support system is here. I also love the fog and being near the ocean.

You just self-released bay connected not but a week after See Feel Reel came out on Atlanta's Harsh Riddims. It feels like your older material, more drone and minimal. What were the timeline and process like?

I recorded bay connected in two nights, once in June and once in July. I was trying to shake off the feeling of longing so I shut myself in my room, drank a six pack, and just recorded freely, looping parts on the Casiotone while manipulating and looping samples I accumulated on the SP-555. The intention came from the desire to reconnect with sources that were no longer accessible as how I first encountered them (people, places, or objects specific to circumstance). It's a personal archive of these sources that inspired me.

See Feel Reel is a definite turn for you as an artist. It's pretty aggressive and a bit more challenging of a listen. What were the catalysts for this?

I wanted to combat the expectations of softness and atmosphere to showcase a hardier side with literal tension in the actual sound and feeling. There's also a theme devoted to the power of cinema, in its viewing and production, containing representation and recording the fidelity of a moment. The song "No Speech Sensuality" is the gut of it all-- I was tired of hearing how synths were immediately associated with space, and I think we get that as an audience because of the more conventional identifications taken from soundtracks in cinema and TV shows utilizing those sounds. I'm not opposed to it, but it made me question whether or not we are actively creating our own metaphors when describing or painting music we hear. It's definitely good to relate and recognize the impact of those identifiers, but how often are we able to branch out of the descriptions we haven't created on our own? "No Speech Sensuality" consists of two takes layered on top of one another, and I played the Kawai through the DD-20 hoping to give my take on what kind of atmosphere or visual those tones meant to me.

One of my favorite tracks is "How Does It Go (ft. hellacamus)". It starts with this great melodic tension and intimate lyrical narrative and sort of explodes in this grinding beat while you sing over and over, demanding and sort of teasing, "Don't fucking humor me."

That song was very fun to produce, and is actually hellacamus singing the lead. The way it was constructed began with her a cappella first, which she presented to me one day, and I really wanted to include it in the album. I incorporated manipulated samples of recorded jam sessions that consisted of .L.W.H. on drums, clownshoes on guitar, and me on keyboard. The only recorded instrument in that track is hellacamus' voice and my backing vocals - everything else is a collage of samples.

It's a theme I kept arriving at while thinking about your work-- meditation on tension. Would you agree?

Yes, I'm glad it resonates that way with you because I feel like I can better handle those tensions making or performing music, and not in a way to suspend them or to feel indulgent in my own little world, but to allow those tensions to take a different form than how they appear internally, to make them more relatable audibly despite the fact they are not ultimately defined. That's what the whole project is about, even if it may seem personal, I wanted to create these intentional metaphors and see the sincere connection I can share with individuals outside of myself.

Yeah, I feel like we sort of belong to a generation of cultural anxiety in love with the digital age. We were taught that these consuming tensions, anxieties, are internal forces, but the information age has sort of radicalized or even politicized the vocal expression of anxiety.

I think our generation is definitely speaking out, but there's something lost in the articulation-- we want it to communicate on a wide scale while keeping in mind the individual's context-- and I don't think this kind of voice reaches a general audience because there’s an array of contexts that we want to be inclusive about when it comes to any type of suffering. Vocal expressions, when conscious, meditative, and intentional, will speak to its immediate environment. Anomalies will of course exist, but it seems like the generations that grew up with technology and accessibility will need more narrative or context from older generations when it comes to expressing anxiety in a way that reaches out to other anxious individuals. It seems like we're stuck in this spot where we all know we're anxious, but what can we do about it? I feel like voice has become a thing of shouting versus a call to action. But that's the great thing about our power as individuals when we have the time and capabilities to think about these things and create from our thoughts-- do we take on that responsibility?

There's a lot of collaboration on See Feel Reel that I haven't noticed in previous Nima releases. Can you talk a bit about that choice and your experience working with other artists? 

Megan (clownshoes) and hellacamus are both my good friends. Megan wanted to work on music together after hearing the Demon/Wet Dream tape that Kevin of Bridgetown Records released in 2011. We started playing together and recorded. Clownshoes, hellacamus, and I met in high school in Irvine, and I think we share a lot of the growing pains of that region. When I moved here, L.W.H. reached out and we got to jam and talk about film and music. His album CIA TV has been a big influence. In fact, all three who were featured and myself watched four Godard shorts at PFA one night in February. After the films we got drinks, and Logan and Megan recorded vocals over what ended up being "Come Around". I'm glad I got the chance to create endearing moments with them.

Any other artists you'd like to collaborate with?

It's hard to think of because I feel hesitant to reach out to those who aren’t close by. I like intuitively engaging with someone when creating, and that makes it hard when the individual isn’t present.  A series of video chatting and determined emails definitely make it possible, but by preference I would love to be in a physical space with someone. I did have the opportunity to collaborate on a track with SELA. from Vallejo, which will be on his next release Inevitable.

What inspires you?

I'm inspired by people who are in love with their craft and love to share it. It's something my mother always told me that her grandmother told her, that when you share or give, it's without expectation, it's because you want to-- and that's all there is to it. It's the closest thing to purity I can think of besides your first love, and the fact that she actively does that is mind-blowing to me. I try to live by that, especially in a world where there's so much output to discern that you're just looking for that one sincere moment you can share with other individuals. Giving, in my mother's eyes, doesn't create cycles nor does it seek gain or reciprocation.

Interview: Gabe Holcombe (Vehicle Blues)

29 Jun 2014 — Henry Schiller

Gabe Holcombe is the founder of Chicago-by-way-of-Kansas tape label Lillerne Tapes and makes blissful bedroom pop as Vehicle Blues. Earlier this month Holcombe released his first 7" record - "Luke Song" - on Lake Paradise Records. "Luke Song" is a warbling bluster of soothing guitars and ambiguous, enveloping vocals. The perfect companion for a long weekend in the countryside or being stuck in traffic on the FDR, "Luke Song" contorts to fit the moment it needs to support. I spoke with Gabe over email about the theraputic qualities of music, best friendships, and what it means to be a bedroom artist.

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Hey Gabe - we’re coming to the end of the first week of summer and I can’t think of a better time of year for your particular brand of hazy, shoegaze-y bedroom pop. Any big plans for the next few months in terms of recording or touring, or are you just laying low this summer?

In the past, I've seen summertime as a seasonal excuse to be unproductive and irresponsible. I'd like to think that I've moved beyond that point in my life, but it still gives me reasons to procrastinate and stay up too late. I'm going to work on a lot of tapes for my label, Lillerne Tapes, and begin the first steps in writing and recording an LP. I haven't been much for touring lately, but I am going to spend a couple weeks in July in the middle of nowhere to try and get away from Chicago and all the noise around me/in my head.

I’m on a train in Scotland listening to “Luke Song” and I have to say that the track is wonderfully complimented by the endless green fields and slowly rotating wind turbines gliding past my car window. Are there any particular images or experiences that you associate with the track; any places you think “Luke Song” ought to be listened to?

I often like to apply specific imagery in my songwriting, but "Luke Song" is actually a pretty imageless track. It has no set lyrics, and it's not about much in particular. I guess for me, it evokes more intangible feelings and moods than it does specific experience or images in my life. Clearly, it's a sad, melancholy song, but it makes me kind of hopeful whenever I play it. I guess this is an easy out, but that song can be applied to any feeling or setting you'd like. Cars and trains are certainly good places to be "feeling something" and have a song be applied to that moment.

You’ve been a pretty prolific cassette releaser, but “Luke Song” has been put out as a 7” – your first vinyl release if I’m not mistaken. Was there something about this particular track that you felt made it a better fit for vinyl than for cassette tape?

It just felt like a single. A lot of the tapes I've put out in the past are in the 10-20 minute range because I want things to feel cohesive and never tired or full of filler. Complaints about a tape being too short are taken as compliments, and I want to save any kind of long-player dreams for when I have a group of 8-12 songs that really fit and feel right in the same room together. The 7" was all recorded at the same time, in the same place, with the same feelings and thoughts going through my head. I don't want to clip together releases from all over the place. They should fit and make sense. All of these songs were recorded in a very large, airy warehouse setting. You can hear the space in the tracks. I thought that it would be great to have on wax to utilize the sound and space of a record, as opposed to the more compressed and hissy sound of a cassette.

I’m curious about how you recorded “Luke Song” – can you take me through the set up and process?

The three tracks on the 7" were recorded in a space called Lake Paradise on the west side of Chicago. It's a very large, relatively raw warehouse space where some friends of mine live or have lived, including my friend Jake Acosta, who runs the label of the same name. My friend Drew M. Gibson (Katrina Stonehart, Baby Birds Don't Drink Milk) set up some amps and recording gear, and we knocked out the three songs in a fairly short amount of time. Sometimes we would move the gear into the much bigger room of the space to get that kind of open, distant sound on a track. It was very utilitarian and kind of unorthodox, but the songs came out sounding the way I had envisioned. A dreamy, somewhat sad and oddly hopeful collection of songs.

On “Luke Song” you can hear some allegiance to groups like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. Am I off the mark, or is that kind of late 80s, early 90s dream pop an era of music you’re particularly interested in? Did you have any specific stylistic influences for this record?

I've listened to a lot of late 80s, early 90s dream pop and shoegaze. The bands you've mentioned have always been huge influences on what I like to listen to and what kind of songs I write. I could go on forever, but my holy trinity will always be Lilys, Swirlies, Unrest. I like a lot of pretty music that's buried in fuzz and hiss. At the time of recording this single, I was concentrating on a lot of ambient music as a means of stretching out powerful melodies, and sustaining and repeating certain ideas for long periods of time. I like the idea of obsessing over a certain hook or melody for awhile, and better understanding why I like it so much.

It’s mentioned in your press release that “Luke Song” is an ode to a friend. Presumably this is someone you were (or are) quite close to. Did you have things you felt you needed to say to Luke and haven’t gotten the chance to, or were you trying to create more of a totem to a cherished bond?

The Luke in question is one of my best friends. We have a cosmic bond. We live in separate cities now, but we're always talking to each other about our lives. Like I said before, the song isn't necessarily about Luke, but he may have been on my mind during the recording process. The whole 7" has a "friends-past-and-present" thing happening. "Waving Steps" is about moments of departure. Short, sweet moments and the end of those moments. "4 Tues" is about a kid that I had met in the graffiti scene in Kansas City in the mid 2000s. He passed away abruptly, and his existence and lack of existence has stayed with me throughout my life. He was one of those people who had that special aura of adventure and intensity that's hard to see in many others. It was a troubling period for me in general, and moments like that really cemented how temporary everything was, especially when, like I was at that time, you're a newly minted adult without much responsibility or a support system. I get nostalgic about the past, but I know that everything that happened back then stays with me today.

Your music is classified as bedroom pop, which I think is a fair assessment, but is one that gets thrown around so much I think it might replace “independent music” as a catchall for anything not released on a big label. Do you think categories are unfair to musicians or do you appreciate the sort of stylistic lineage they provide for up and coming artists like yourself?

I literally write and play music in my bedroom, so for me it's a perfectly fine descriptor for what I do. I think that sometimes people associate "bedroom pop" with "lo-fi" or "no-fi" kind of aesthetics, but I feel that it's so broad in scope that it's hard to nail down a sound. Certainly, it's not studio music. I'd also venture to say that it's not always a stereotype for it to be considered a loner's game and a solitary/solemn act, but the idea of "bedroom music" could mean anything. Many of my friends make dance music in their bedrooms, but nobody's calling it "bedroom techno" when it gets put out on a 12" to wide acclaim. I play, and often record pop music in my bedroom, so it's totally fair to call what I do bedroom pop.

You live in Chicago, which I don’t think a lot of people outside of Chicago (especially here in the UK) realize has a pretty diverse music culture. Are you a part of any scene in particular? Do you have a crew of artists that you tend to gig with?

I'd like to think that I'm pretty active in the DIY music scene in Chicago. For me, that entails going to a lot of shows, playing DIY shows, and releasing music for my peers and those around me in that scene. The music culture in Chicago is extremely diverse and widespread, and I enjoy existing in one of the smallest, off-the-radar corners of its universe.

I think there’s a perception of so-called bedroom artists like Daniel Johnston, R Stevie Moore, or Ariel Pink (though less so him these days), as being these strange, asocial, or otherwise enigmatic figures. Do you think of music making as a lonely process, or do you feel as though you’re making music as part of a community (whether it be of artists, colleagues, or friends)?

For me, making music is a solitary and therapeutic act. Much of what I try to do creatively would fall under that category. Chicago can be a very lonely place. It's not that I truly find solace in the music that I make, but I do find some sort of distraction in the process. It's a never-ending battle between myself and my mind. The community I exist in is tight-knit, but I feel like many of us have similar temperaments and lifestyles that keep us out of contact with each other. I can't always call somebody up when I'm feeling down, so I can escape for a bit and try to write a song. It sounds very trite, but it's a real and honest way to pass the time. Escapes are hard to come by. I can't even do drugs right. I'm almost 31 years old, and I can't express myself in the ways that I'd have as a teenager or in my early twenties. I was running across expressways and being bad and truly living day to day. I don't want to self-mythologize here, but it's helpful to put it into perspective. Distractions are not always lifetime sports. I see a future now and I want to try to do something with it. I work a day job to pay my rent, and when I get home I want to involve myself in music as much as I can. It's very important to have community, but it's even more important to have yourself be somewhat okay with who you are on a day to day basis.

No one would read No Fear of Pop if they didn’t care about listening to cutting edge pop music that Pitchfork doesn’t cover. Do you have any artists, albums or tracks that you’re particularly interested in right now?

Lately it's been mostly just pretty new age cassette tapes and Chicago rap music. Pretty much anything on SicSic Tapes, too.

Interview: Amen Dunes on Confinement, Astrology, and The Masculinity of “Love”

12 May 2014 — Evelyn Malinowski

Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, and, especially in the case of the new album, Love, Nick Drake, are all influences considerably easy to decipher out of the Amen Dunes sound. Yet when I talked with the man behind the dunes, Damon McMahon, I wanted to try to learn about other areas of influence, perhaps more ethereal, groundless ones, as the other striking quality of the new album is its rapture. In that process, I gained some extra and candid insight on McMahon's thoughts on women and music, growing out of old habits, and contemporary artist-friends. This is how it went.

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Hi Damon! What's up?

Hello Evelyn! Not much, just in my natural habitat. [Walking through the streets of Brooklyn – sound of cars rushing by]

The last interview I did over Skype was with Mike Silver of CFCF, whose latest album was broadly inspired by traveling nonstop and a lot of the time between NYC and Montreal via the Catskills. You recorded your new album in Montreal and live in New York, so I'm curious if that commute had anything to do with the captivating, rather calming yet mouthwatering mood on Love, because you also have actually recorded in the Catskills?

Yeah, I recorded my first record in the Catskills. I don't think it necessarily contributed to the mood. Montreal is sort of a harsh vibe so it was actually a challenge to the mood. It depends on what mood comes across – there was sort of a mood of perseverance I guess and I think with Montreal being a difficult, harsh place, that played a small part in it. I guess I could say it that way.

I'd say the mood on the album is totally one of perseverance and overcoming, so if you recorded it in a place like that, you had even more to overcome apart from what you wrote about. I hadn't heard that interpretation of Montreal. Well, a good friend of mine lived there for several years and he said it was actually quite traumatizing.

I can see that, the winter was really brutal. We started recording in late February and there was like two feet of snow everywhere. But yeah also circumstances were challenging, so yeah that contributed a small part to the record. But whatever, the environment you record in is a minor part of an album. It effects it slightly, but this record is not all about where I recorded it.

That makes sense. I couldn't help but look up some interviews you did after Spoiler came out, which enlightened me to the frenzy of discomfort and rejection that particular album created. I was laughing actually about that because, come on, it's not that weird, it's a rad work, and it's the coolest thing for an artist to do something out of character. Anyway, you described your music to our buddies at The Quietus as 'negative music,' which I find interesting. Could you expand on that?

Thanks! That used to be true, and when I did that interview, let's see, I had done the first record in like 2006, and the second one in China in 2009, and so I was doing that interview around Through Donkey Jaw in 2011. All those records were 'negative music,' but I think that's not the case with the new Amen Dunes stuff at all. I was trying to be, well, not positive, but definitely but open, I think. The idea of this record was to be open. 'Negative music' was just, you know, aggressive music, sort of cathartic, aggressive music, antagonistic in subtle ways.

Ok so emotionally negative?

Yeah.

I was thinking you could have also meant like sonically negative, like the sound could emulate a negative aesthetic, like inverted colors, like on film. I was wondering if there's a textural element to that description.

Definitely! I think the negative I meant was negative emotions, like vengeance, and it was a tool for me to have catharsis. I don't make punk rock and I'm not a Japanese noise band from the 80s or something, but all those people have emotional agendas that I related to at the time. Their music is a way of striking out at people, and, in turn, it's medicinal to listeners. That's what the old Amen Dunes stuff was about. Texturally, I mean that's interesting, that's not what I meant by it, although Amen Dunes is influenced by certain films and just shit that I've absorbed over the years. I was trying to get away from that. I mean, I never made lo-fi music because I wanted to; If I could've gone to the studio with some engineers I really admire, and made it sound good, or if I could've gone to Muscle Shoals, if it still existed, for the first Amen Dunes record, my god, I would have! But at the time I could only afford a small tape machine for three-hundred bucks, so I was working within my means. So texturally it has a film negative quality – I like warm music, but I don't like lo-fi necessarily. I was trying to make the best warmth out of lo-fi.

That's interesting because if you feel like you can't do what you dream, like go for your first recording project to the dream studio with producers who you admire, you could feel confined. Feeling as if within confines connotes a negative feeling, too, so it's a duality of negative emotions placed into the music.

It's tricky because it's confining, it's limited, it's pro studio dudes in that world. They're not always creative oftentimes; they're stuck inside the confines. It's kind of an ideal scenario to be able to make free music in a good studio. I don't know how that's possible anymore, unless you have like ten million dollars and people let you do what you want.

Yeah it's weird how when you become so rich, you don't have to pay for anything anymore.

Right!? Yeah that's not the case with Amen Dunes. I wouldn't say 'so rich' with 'Amen Dunes.'

At least the Canadian dollar is a little behind ours right now, so you recorded in the right place.

That's true! Here's some money...

So it's about the challenge and overcoming of making warm, genuine music within the confines of lo-fi, negative music. It's like a sensitive paradox, and just talking about that with you makes me view your music differently.

Cool! It's not intentional, you know. I just want to make beautiful music that feels a certain way emotionally. I don't think I'm looking for a sonic aesthetic to convince something.

Yeah, it's free, as you say.

Yeah.

Well the new album has that freeing mood. I think the musicality and emotionality of every song is just... relieving. There's a big sense of relief.

That's what I want!

Well I can't help but pry, but what led you to that place? Do you also feel more in your personal life that you've arrived at a, not a plateau, because that sort of has a negative connotation, because then it's like 'ok, where the fuck do I go from here?' – but to a stable, flatter ground, or a new level where it's prettier and easier than where you were before and you can rest from the exhausting hike or whatever.

Yeah, the hike... I think in my case it was rolling down a hill. It came from years of self-destruction or, you know, years of bad living, which I did with Amen Dunes. It was my vehicle for dealing with bad living. So I think this new record is about moving beyond that and not being hindered by that anymore. Yeah, like you said, that 'relieving' feeling. It's great. I want all the music to have that medicinal quality. That's nice that that comes out.

It does! From the first chord onwards... but how old are you?

I'm thirty-three, a ripe thirty-three.

Ok so I'm really into astrology and...

I am also highly superstitious myself.

Ok right on! Well I'm not about to do a reading for you or anything, but I actually would be curious as to when your birthday is.

Yeah I think it might make sense, too: I'm a Virgo.

No shit me too!

You are? Now that's funny. [Chuckles]

Are you a September or August Virgo?

I'm September 12th - my music is very Virgo.

I never attributed any astrological stuff to your music actually but now I'll do it every time I listen to it. Well, I ask because, in astrology, there's this huge transit we have to all go through when we're in our late twenties and early thirties called Saturn Return – have you heard of that before?

No, I haven't. See, I'm superstitious enough that I stay out of this stuff. Anyway, what was it?

So when we're in our late twenties and early thirties, depending on where Saturn is in our respective natal charts, it transits back through that place where it was when we started life, and that whole process usually has an air on dropping things that no longer work for us, like ending bad relationships, divorcing our parents, feeling like nothing will ever actually change... but it's really a giant growth spurt.

That's very apropos, because I am thirty-three, and I began this record right after my thirty-third birthday and I was just ending this really longterm, serious relationship. So, superficially, this record has been a way of processing that relationship. So that's funny, that record comes right out of that part of my life...I like your thesis.

On the track "I Know Myself," there's sort of crooning, shaky singing style that is always sort of in your singing but here very prominent. What is that style called?

I don't think it's called anything, but it comes from my process of listening to music over the years and absorbing singers. When I was a little kid, I started off by not writing songs but copy other singers. I was a huge Bob Dylan fan when I was a kid, and Texas blues, old acoustic blues people. I loved Tim Buckley when I was a kid. I liked The Band when I was like fifteen or fourteen, and I'd sing and started using this vibrato thing. And over the years, I just worked it out; it's like a tool that I know how to use now. It's just in me, I don't know. Comes from the stuff I listened to growing up.

I thought of Jefferson Airplane.

That's funny – someone told me that once years ago. Yeah, when I was a kid... that second Jefferson Airplane record, Surrealistic Pillow, that is a very overlooked record. It's kind of annoying: people love obscure reissues and all this shit; but, the best stuff is often the most obvious stuff, in my opinion, especially in the 60s. That record is my favorite psych-folk record. Anyway, she was one of my biggest influences as a kid.

That segways us a bit into my question about female musicians. On "Lilac In Hand," it sounds like you and some lady backup singing in the chorus. Is this the case?

No, it's my brother, actually. His name is Xander Duell, and he put a record out on Mexican Summer, and he's putting a new record out this fall on a label called Ingrid. He is an overlooked gem, that guy. Yeah, but it's not a woman, just my brother. He's got an incredible range … he also sings on "I Know Myself." Those harmonies are my brother also.

Ok well he sounds beautiful! Let him know I say so.

I will! [Laughter]

So were there any ladies on the collaboration for Love?

Sophie from Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Jess from A Silver Mt. Zion play violin on the song "Rocket Flare." You know, I don't mean this in a weird, misogynist way, but this record is a very masculine record. Amen Dunes is very masculine in general, or like man-focused.

Yeah, man-focused and also man-folkist because of all the masculine folk music influence.

[Both laugh]

Do you think you could ever see yourself doing a riskier album than Spoiler, like do a collaboration album with a female artist you like, or like a favorite contemporary female artist?

To be honest, I don't think my energy would work with that. I mean, I love women, and I have plenty of female friends, but I don't think my energy would work with a woman. I don't know, I can't imagine it, actually. It's just not my vibe, and I don't mean that in any kind of disparaging or critical way; I just don't think chemically it'll work.

Explosion in the lab!

Totally!

That answer makes me feel like you've thought about it before.

Well I can feel it, instantly, even when you ask me that question. I've never thought about that too much, but all my musical choices are incredibly clear to me, like what would work and what wouldn't work. I'm also picky about who I play with.

I would say that both of those things, the feeling what wouldn't work intuition and being picky bit, are strong Virgo traits. So you're a good Virgo.

I'm a total Virgo!

Before I let you go, I wanted to learn a bit about your favorite contemporary music. Who are your favorite contemporary artists? I'm always curious about what's being collected and loved by artists.

Well the music I love are kind of polar opposites – I love like much more experimental, and electronic music on one end, and then kind of a few more popular things. I don't like stuff in the middle so much. So, I listen to a ton of European/English experimental electronic music. I love this label out of London called Alter … this guy Helm, he's playing my record release show. I like Posh Isolation out of Denmark. I like this Three Legged Race project, and this guy LG out of Belgium. Then I like these more popular guys. I like Kurt Vile, I mean these happen to be a lot of friends … I like The War on Drugs stuff … and Iceage, you know, Elias is a good friend of mine. He actually sings on two songs on the record. I really like those guys, all the Danes.

The duets you guys do on the record sound really good.

I'm so psyched about that, man. There are very few people who are very good singers. And he's a really good singer. I don't often trust someone when I hear them sing, like I hear it, and I instantly know whether it's believable or not.

Like someone is singing and it's a lie? It's not raw, good singing? Lie-singing?

They're not believable, they're phony or something. Most singers don't have balls, and I don't mean that in a masculine way – I don't know how to put. You just don't believe them. But Elias, I believe him.

Did he join you in the studio in Montreal?

No, he was in Brooklyn, coincidentally. It was so awesome. [Snickers] He had been tripping all night, so he came into the studio and he was still hallucinating, was telling me all this stuff, like he had been an old black man from a past life and was shining a candle on the ground – it was very unusual behavior. It was pretty awesome.

I totally have to include this in the interview! [Both laugh]

Love is out tomorrow, May 13th on Sacred Bones, and is, in my opinion, an achievement for Amen Dunes.

Follow Up: Natasha Kmeto on Permeation

24 Mar 2014 — Evelyn Malinowski

A few weeks ago I met up with Natasha Kmeto in Seattle to chat with her about her submission to No Fear of Pop. Her piece, revolutionary, eloquent, and diplomatic all at once, was a response to our critical coverage of 2013's Decibel Festival and their lackadaisical shortage of female artsits in their line-up. Kmeto was one of the featured female artists of last year's festival, and thus her reaching out to discuss the touchy topic about gender dispropotion or "under-representation" in electronic music struck a strong chord across many realms that have experienced and continue to experience chauvinism. What she and I landed on after an engaging conversation was that permeation, or being encouraged or educated to permeate rather than belong, in musical style, gender, politics, and whatever which way, seems a most sincerely innovative way to contribute to the ongoing pursuit of equal rights. Here's a recap of what we had to say.

Photo by Patti Miller.

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Natasha Kmeto is a truly unique individual who, by genuinely implementing that individuality in her music, is benefitting the forward movement of electronic music's aesthetic as well as politic. Biographically, Kmeto is an ethnic permeation. When I inquired about her heritage, she smirked and said she's "Hungarian, German, Greek, and Phillipino," originally from Sacramento, raised in a feminist setting, with a grandmother from Berlin. Coming from a multicultural background, it's no big question that Natasha branched out to find space that supports experimentation for better artistry:

I went to school in LA and the way I was plugged into the scene in LA was very industry-heavy and the school I was at was into training back-up singers or back-up dancers for other artists and doing the pop machine scene where you can be disillusioned about the state of art ... It's like divorcing yourself from consciousness … where you're constantly bombarded by images of success. I wanted a change of pace and wanted a place where I could go and explore art as opposed to the standard music scene and I visited Portland. It's a very supportive art scene and proved to be more open for me.

In effort of finding a community that promotes deviation from models, these set "images of success," Natasha relocated up to Portland, Oregon, where she felt she could cheaply rent a studio space and comfortably "make weird shit" without any fear of ostracization or loss of good conscious. Her statement about divorcing oneself from consciousness speaks to the authenticity of her world of music. For her, it seems, music shouldn't only be good and brooding, like the climate of the Pacific Northwest and that which is found all over her album Crisis: music should also be aligned with experience, with consciousness and open perspective. This is best achieved after one is given space to find his or her own space. Alas, as a female artist, it's sometimes too easy to have plenty of explorative space and yet too difficult to be treated equally when it comes to booking. It is challenging, as we all know, to not be marginalized by the label "female."

You could be thrown into a roll ... it's either you're a woman or you're a human. I'm not trying to come from the perspective of manhating, because I'm not. I'm not trying to marginalize men ... I'm idealistic and I understand it's being idealistic to say that we shouldn't assign gender roles. Part of me would like to see that done away with but at the same time I want to represent other strong female producers. There are many who aren't tauted as highly as male producers, so I think the way out of that is to familiarize the public with the fact that women do other things besides get married and make babies, and I think that the vast majority of people still imagine it that way because they're not shown examples in their day-to-day lives. They're socialized that women are teachers, nurses, or moms, and they can be all those things and there's nothing wrong with it all. But looking at younger generations, I can see that they are already less rigid. So we'll see. I think electronic music is a great avenue for women because we can do it ourselves and it tends to be a more alternative scene. I feel like most men I meet in the scene are usually cool and not chauvinistic.

I agree, but I still think there's this intrinsic, unclaimed chauvinistic trend that dominates electronic music, making it a boy's party, and that was the feeling I came away with after Decibel. I had a good time, and felt that I was constantly surrounded by crowds so in love with the music; those crowds just happened to mostly be bros dancing to bros. And I felt that that's ok but someone needs to be aware of it, and if they don't want that type of festival, then maybe they should make a better effort of equivocal booking. But are there enough acts? Is having such discussion even helpful, or is it a detriment?

I think that there's a lot of women out there right now just crushing shit and it's different from what men do. I'm not saying that women's music is different or it should be different, but women do have a different approach because they kill it in a way that I relate to on a soul level. More women just need to go out to shows and experience that and look for that. And I think they do. I come from a completely different perspective too, coming from the queer community. In Portland, there's a disconnect between the queer community and underground electronic music ... they're not like "oh my god Mike Q!" and instead going out to dance to some top 40 stuff ... If they could go out and relate to it on a soul level then that would help too. That's what I'm trying to do. Maybe they come to a show because they really like singing or they really like R-n-B but then they hear some techno in the works or some drum-n-bass and then they'll be like 'I wanna explore that.' One of my favorite DJs in Portland, DJ Bianca, plays mainly top 40 to keep people happy but she'll also mix in Grimes, or mix in some Disclosure or start mixing in stuff like Jessie Ware, stuff that's a little left and center to the American top 40 but easier for trying to get people hip to that ... subtle moves like that is what is going to moves things forward. 

One of my favorite things about Natasha's essay is how she validates permeation or equivocality overall. It's not just the crossing over of boundaries that we want, but rather the melting down of boundaries and letting all the contents pervade each other. Some individuals may choose to keep their boundary-defining label because they think it's empowering and relevant; still, rearranging things so that less power goes to out-of-date constructs also leaves room for those who wish to be identified in this way, or however they want, to be identified as such. It's really all about awareness, finding your own space to think about and arrange or fuse things, and making a choice.

Some of my favorite music is music that fuses things ... and I'm going to try and bring those elements into my music. Putting a fusion in front of people can be an uphill battle ... they won't know how to categorize this. I could've easily sang back up in Los Angeles or moved to Portland to make dubstep ... but there's still a lot of headscratching going on as to what kind of bills to put me on. You have to fight the big fight, though, in my opinion, to be singular, to be your own voice in order to voice to a lot of things, or to permeate and break down boundaries so that everyone can imagine a reality where a woman is on stage with electronics and executing it well, or someone is combining R-n-B and house. It's all about fusing, and breaking people's minds open. The human brain is programmed to categorize but for the people and artists I relate to the most, those categories are smaller. They're not big, broad categories of 'THIS IS WHAT IS;' it's about being able to step outside of yourself and seeing 'WHAT ISN'T?' ... it's about freedom of consciousness that I feel like a lot of people don't own. Some people can't imagine eating apples and cheese, they'll be like 'Ugh that's just backwards, I don't know what you're talking about,' and then there are some people who are like 'You know, I want to try that,' and those are the people who change things.

The people who don't try eating apples and cheese likely remember that foreign combination, and eventually the thought makes its way through the mind like a worm until they may decide when given the opportunity again to try it. And then they will have permeated with, or fused what someone else knows and what they know.

Let's all be permeable and permeable-minded. This is challenging with the paradoxes given by electronica, that is, its at times genre-specific, hard rhythm and metalic (and so less fluid-like) personality yet multicultural, equal-rights-for-those-who-wish-to-dance tradition. It's been brought to my attention that my favorite music tends to be the stuff that permeates even these, tracks that possess some kind of dreamy reverberation, atmospheric, slippery melody behind, beside, or maybe in front of delicious, crunchy, and solid beats. Let's apply these themes to our personal music tastes and learn more about how we can expand, give ourselves more room to fill and explore, and ask ourselves why we should in the first place. Let's be everything but exclusive, and take what we like but not exclusively.

Interview: Nils Frahm

21 Mar 2014 — Lukas Dubro

While watching Nils Frahm perform, it’s clear that the musician from Berlin devotes all of himself to his work.  Crouched over his keys, his body moves to the rhythm of his music with his lips pursed in concentration. One moment he is sitting on front of his piano, the next, he’s turning buttons on his effects units or playing a line on his synthesizer. Most of time, a lot is happening at once. The sweat always runs.

Frahm works with the same intensity beyond the stage. Before shows he puts up his own lights and soundchecks for as long as four hours. His recordings are a testament to the investment of time in both composition and production. Still, when he does have free time, he works to maintain a studio where he knows every single knob and screw.  It is the same studio he’s done most of the work on his ten albums since 2005.  Equally impressive is the list of his collaborations; over the last few years he’s worked with Ólafur Arnalds, Anne Müller and Peter Broderick.

His commitment paid off. Frahm is one of the most celebrated German musicians of our time. We visited the artist at home a week after his show at Radialsystem in Berlin. As you might expect, Frahm gave 100 percent. Despite his demanding schedule, he gave us plenty of time to ask all of our questions. Before the interview he made some espresso; afterwards, bread and cheese. In between, it felt like visiting an old friend. Nonetheless, the real highlight of the day was viewing his famous home studio.

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This is it, the spaceship. Makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable! Why?

Depends on who is coming, of course, but most people feel overwhelmed [by the studio]. They don't understand what I’m doing here. But I like it when someone commits to something and becomes an expert-- no matter if it's kayaks, canoes or stamps.

Do you know a lot of people like this?

Yes. Matthias, for example, is helping me take care of the studio. He’s a total nerd. He knows everything between 1920 and 1950. He can explain to you exactly what instruments there were, how they worked and who used them. We both think that this time was the golden era of sound recording. People used less tracks, but every single one had better quality. The same goes with every part. We are experimenting a lot with stuff from that time. We unscrew them, exchange parts and maintain them. The studio is our Klanglabor (sound laboratory). 

When did you start collecting instruments?

When I was 12. My first piece was a Fender Rhodes piano, a friend of mine showed it to me. Next was a Moog and then a Juno. That was the beginning, and I never wanted to use anything else again.

Where did you find all these instruments?

Sometimes I read the back of my favorite vinyl records. They’ll have studio photos...then I connect to internet, type in the name and see what comes up. And what I’ll find is a small shop somewhere in Tennessee whose owner put up a photo online. I’ll call him up and talk to him until he realizes that I’m like him. We’ll become friends and he’ll tell me that he knows somebody who might help me.

And what draws you to gear specifically?

I always liked artists that worked hard every day. And I always saw myself as a craftsman. I can't write a song every day, I’m not creative enough. Still, I want to have something to do. So when I’m not feeling inspired, I’ll work on my studio. It’s like meditation. It keeps my life in motion.

Are you ever afraid you’ll neglect the music?

There are different phases-- times when I’ll work meticulously on my studio and times that I have to tell myself to stop. When I’m recording I recognize that it’s valuable to put so much time into my gear, because I can put up four microphones, press the record button and have it sound finished. Jazz musicians from the ‘40s and ‘50s did the same thing. They were able to record their albums within two days because everything was ready for it.

So it’s about creating the right setting?

Exactly! I try to create an environment where things can happen. It's the greatest part of my work and it's what makes me proud at the end of the day. Chord progressions don’t matter as much for me. What’s more important is the sound and how it comes across, how the details are treated. Those are the things that matter.

Noted.  Then how do you feel about people making music on their laptops?

It’s a tendency that I don't like. I think things shouldn't be too easy. The industry is always looking for new ways to make things easier. But that’s very dangerous, because people will be coddled and become lazy. They’ll get used to the fact that you could do an expensive sounding album for 2,000 Euro. I know the people that are running studios, buying expensive instruments, and they really know their stuff. They should be in charge. That would be good for music.

And what about the people who get on stage with nothing but their laptop?

This trend concerns me. Concerts are the last pillar of the music industry. It will fall if these people keep bringing only their laptops on stage. Put yourself in the place of the audience: They travel far, wait in a long queue, and pay a lot of money to only listen to a backing track. This will eventually keep them from coming back. In the end, I’m profiting off people like that. I am the old fossil that troubled himself to tune real instruments and play everything in real time without loops or playbacks.

Then are you always travelling with your instruments?

Not really, but my effects units, my Rhodes and some small things I always take along. The rest of my equipment I rent on location. Before I play the first note I’ve already invested 2,000 Euro. And of course I could ask myself, Do I want to keep the money for myself and only use a laptop? But that would be a bad business idea. The consequence would be that the price would lower. But thanks to my approach, they are rising. And so, I invest money to install good light, get a hazer and pay a light and sound engineer. Ultimately, I am only doing what I would want from a concert.

Why is Spaces a live album?

I realized after trying to record them that many of my songs don't work at a studio. They were missing the energy of a live show.  I wanted this live moment, the madness when the sweat runs and I am doing so many things at once. A lot the album was written on stage during soundchecks, when I found a particular sound. I just couldn't capture that at the studio. Some other tracks I wanted to compare to the original version, to see how they had changed over the years. So I told myself that the extra expenses didn’t matter, I am going to record some live shows.

You recorded 30 shows. What was your method for selecting the songs?

It was important that the room sounded good. Every song has its environment. Some work best at a church; others in a small room. The biggest challenge was to put them all together, to create a flow with the effect that that the listener won’t know when something stops and another begins. Just like my shows, I wanted the audience to be carried away.

There’s a funny moment on the opening track, "An Aborted Beginning". The music abruptly stops after 90 seconds, then laughter and baffled handclaps. What happened?

That song is a tool. I put it there so people set the right volume on their hi-fi station. Originally I wanted to put "Says" as the first track, but because it starts so quiet and gets so loud at the end, I was afraid that the song could be ruined. That’s why I decided to put the short drum machine jam at the beginning. Speaking about the clapping at the end, don’t believe the album.

And here I thought that you’d hit a wrong button…

That’s exactly what I wanted. I like that it’s awkward. You think, Woah, something went terribly wrong here. I wanted to make the listener feel unsure, Is this really Nils Frahm? I like to toy with expectations. This is my working method.

Piano is the main element on Spaces. Why not a keyboard?

The piano is the only instrument where I can create a feeling in real time without needing to edit it afterward. I couldn't do this with a keyboard. I’ve been doing electronic music with the computer for a long time. I’ll spend hours in front of the screen, glass of red wine in hand, programming depth into a hi-hat. A couple of years ago I sat again in front of my piano and realized how beautiful it was. Besides, I thought, I’ve put so much work into the instrument that it wouldn’t make sense to ignore it. Through the piano I found a sound that sounds like me. I have always been focused on this.

You do a lot of collaborations. What do you like about them?

You always learn something. When you’re with someone at the studio it’s like you see them naked. You learn a lot about their working method, their manner, their attitude. You get to see how they do things and get the chance to analyze your own process. I’ve always learned this way. Instead of doing professional training, I made music with other people at the rehearsal room. It’s extremely effective.

From whom did you learn the most?

Certainly Peter Broderick and Anne Müller. I collaborated the most with them. I produced whole albums for Peter and he demanded a lot from me. Peter taught me about playing live, that it’s important to be courageous and improvise on stage instead of arranging everything before...The willingness to take risks was always a part of me, but Peter helped me access it. He’s a man with a lot of self-confidence, an assured person, and that’s inspiring. You can learn a lot from him.

I saw your father at your show at Radialsystem. Does he always come to your shows?

He doesn't always manage to come, but when I am playing in Hamburg he comes every single time.

What does that mean to you?

My father has been very important to me. To begin, he provided me with good music so that I always stood out in class. At home we were spinning the gods of modern jazz, Nordic jazz and classic, as well Massive Attack or Portishead. He supported me when I decided to become a musician. He is a freelance photographer. We wouldn't have anything to talk about if I had become a lawyer or a brain surgeon. Becoming an artist was in the family.

Weren't you afraid to follow your father?

No, I always knew that I could live up to his expectations. I didn’t become a photographer, because it's a bad idea to compete with your own father. He was always was a big motivation, because he set the bar so high for me. That’s why I’ve always been so critical with my own work. I always knew when I showed him my recordings that he wanted me to push myself even further. I remember the day that he first told me he was proud of me. It was in my early 20’s when I showed him a piano recording. I saw it in his face-- the perfectionist approved. I knew that I had done something good. This moment was so important because it’s when he started to become a fan.

So your father is a perfectionist too?

My father does large format photography. He knows everything about chemicals, technique, print, scan and bookbinding. But, like me, he didn’t study or do any professional training. He just did it himself, because he was on fire. He’s always worked hard to achieve his goals...I would have never had the self-confidence to become an artist without such a great example, without seeing that it is possible firsthand.

Spaces was released last year on Erased Tapes. Nils Frahm is currently touring the US and Canada. Check out the dates over here.