Interview: Erika

06 May 2015 — Taylor Bratches

You could say Erika is an explorer, if not a Renaissance woman. Techno producer and DJ, founder of the long-running Internet radio station Erika.net, member of the Detroit-based electro group Ectomorph, and “co-conspirator” of the Detroit-based label Interdimensional Transmissions, she’s been steadily working – and her music, pulsating like a strange and beautiful nebula – in the Detroit electro/techno scene for over a decade.  Her debut release, Hexagon Cloud – a futurist landscape showcasing her range as an analog producer  – was well-received in the electronic community at home and abroad. After a transportive set at Communikey, the boutique techno festival in Boulder, Colorado, I caught up with Erika about her past and her present, and her experience as a female producer in an endlessly shifting scene.

Read the interview after the break.

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You grew up in a household influenced by science and technology. Was the intersection of science and music a natural avenue of exploration for you?

Yeah, it was – though [the synthesis of the two] was something that happened for me later in life. I fell in love with music by listening to radio broadcasts in elementary and middle school. I was also heavily into computer games around that age, too. Those were two of my primary interests: listening to music and using the computer. And that’s pretty much what I do now.

Erika.net, which has been in operation since 1999, defines itself as a freeform internet radio station. How did that start?

I knew one day I wanted to be a radio DJ, and I got my start doing college radio when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for school. That was when I started to get my true music education, because that station has an archive for all kinds of music. I used to go down there for hours and hours – and listen to records and do weird overnight radio shows. I was program director there too. But at some point I wasn’t a student anymore, yet I still wanted that platform, and to listen to music everywhere. And I thought, well, that internet thing exists, I’ll just try that and see what happens.

Hexagon Cloud, your debut album on Interdimensional Transmissions, is impressive in the way it makes the analog sound pliable and ethereal.  What was your process of creation like?  Did you have a clear concept in mind when you set out to make the album?

The process of writing came from the perspective of putting together a live PA. And then I started becoming conceptual – thinking about the Hexagon Cloud: that cloud part of Saturn. I needed some ambient tracks to make it feel like a complete thought, but I started with some individual tunes that began with the idea of a live set, and then used the concept to help fill out the rest.

You’ve been a part of the Michigan and Detroit scene for over a decade. Much of techno’s beginnings were influenced by science fiction. With your science-influenced upbringing, do you feel a part of this tradition? How do you relate to that aesthetic?

I’m a huge lover of science fiction. When I was a kid I basically read the entire adult sci-fi library. That’s what I was into and that’s what I cared about. That sci-fi mentality and ideas of the future are definitely part of who I am and what influences me. When I moved to the Detroit area and heard artists like Rob Hood and Dan Bell – that was mind-blowing; that music really affected me. Those early Detroit underground vibes and artists had a major influence on me musically. I was learning about that stuff around the same time that I was learning about jazz. You could say I was getting a multifaceted, futurist music education on all fronts.

You perform with both analog hardware and with vinyl. Do you have a preference? Can the two inform each other?

Oh yeah, it’s not the medium that makes you a DJ, it’s what you are presenting sonically that really matters. I spend my entire day sitting in front of the computer doing tasks for my job. At the end of the day I don’t want a computer screen blaring in my face when I’m doing creative things. And I DJ with records, mostly. It’s just a personal preference, not a statement or judgment – I’ve seen really amazing laptop DJs and I have respect for all of that.

Do you relate to the music as a dancer?

Oh yeah. I’m a dancer first – at a good party the dance floor is where you’ll find me. If there’s amazing music on a soundsystem, you’ll find me in front of the speaker. 

Does that visceral, physical experience of dance have something to do with your interest in the tactile aspect of DJing?

Yes. That’s what I enjoy about analog – there’s a specific thing that I can reach out and touch and do small or big adjustments on. I really enjoy synthesis and the process of shaping sounds on a synthesizer, but I have a hard time when it’s something that’s trapped in a computer. When I have to use my mouse to get into it, it’s not as interesting, creative, or fun to me.

You are often referred to as an electro artist. How do you relate to that term now? Are you interested in blurring the lines between techno and electro?

I think it’s a super blurred line. When I DJ people say I’m playing all these different genres or types of electro but, in a way, it’s all still techno. And a Detroit DJ is going to play a mixture of what he/she think is awesome – whether it’s techno, house, electro. The term electro has gone through so many changes. I understand why people say I’m an electro artist, because I’m not just using 4/4 beats and because I came into existence as part of Ectomorph, which is a classic Detroit electro project. But it’s just part of who I am;  it’s not where I live. I care about a lot more than just one kind of kick drum pattern. I think it’s also a Midwest thing. I have a background of going to raves in various cities and hearing a lot of different kinds of music. The American aesthetic is very broad-minded. 

How have your collaborative efforts with BMG and Ectomorph shaped you as an artist?

They’ve hugely shaped me. It was through my participation with Ectomorph that I learned how to do live music. I learned how to collaborate with another person, which comes first for me. I got started as someone who was a keyboard tech for Ectomorph live shows, and I learned so much about how a live show feels and works. I just got a lot experience, that I’m really thankful for that. I made every mistake that I could possibly make. I’m so glad I got to do that 15 years ago!

I just saw you perform at Communikey. You were part of a primarily female lineup with Paula Temple from Berlin, Orphx from Canada, and Chicago DJ Christina Chatfield. You also were part of Chicago’s female-centered Daphne series. Can you speak to your experience as a female in the techno community?

To me it’s really similar to my experience as a programmer, or a heavily tech-minded person. It’s the same issue that engineering and math have in the world at large, which is that women get spoken down to, or they’re not believed in – all of the big picture sexist stuff that is a part of our culture, even though it shouldn’t be. In my utopian techno universe this problem doesn’t exist because techno is raceless and sexless and faceless but here we are in a world where there are so few women that hold prominent positions of power, in part simply because there are fewer women participating in things like math, for example. But there is also the issue of women not speaking up and not taking credit, and going with the flow. We get all of this training to be nice and quiet – it’s all over every piece of pop culture in the western world. It’s our job, in a lot of ways, to make sure the next generation of women has better opportunities.

There has been a lot of mention lately surrounding the lack of females in the techno industry, or of subtle and/or overt discrimination against them. Have you yourself faced challenges in relation to this gender disparity?

I’ve never been pushed out; in fact I’ve received a lot of support. Being good at what I do speaks volumes. What you are good at should always take precedence over gender. Back to Ectomorph, when I was traveling with Brendan [BMG] in the 90’s, people would talk to him and not to me, perhaps because of the perception that “she’s just a girl.” I wasn’t upset at the time, but regardless that kind of thing gets really frustrating – when people don’t take you seriously. People will pass judgment about all kinds of things. To a certain degree it’s human nature.

Do you think techno is by nature a masculine sound or is there a feminine power in it as well?

It’s definitely both. When you strip back to techno to what it really is, it’s the heart beat, the life-force. Letting go and dancing is a fundamental human thing that we’ve been doing for thousands of years – seeking a trance state through which to let go. It’s not about being a man or woman, it’s about being an animal trying to have a transcendental experience. Techno seems male heavy because it’s technical – because our society is technical. Frustrating but true. When there’s gender balance, it’s a way better party. When you get that balance and the female perspective, that’s when it’s more whole and more true.

You tour actively in the states, which I think is laudable. Despite techno’s roots in Detroit, more and more American techno artists are moving to Europe. What do you envision for the future of techno in America?

I hope it continues to grow. In the past few years, I’ve seen more and more regional parties, and promoters starting their own small scenes and working with American artists. Yes, there was a Midwest rave scene in the 90’s. But recently – in Columbus, Ohio for example – there are small crews doing really awesome monthly parties. I think we will see more of that in America. Scenes have to be built from the ground up. It takes people willing to be vocal and work in their communities. I hope we see more of it, and we have been seeing more of it.

Certain cities have the benefit of abandoned warehouses, and DIY culture can thrive in those places.  As America’s electronic culture evolves, do you see more people playing in warehouses or in clubs?

The hardest part to deal with, as a promoter, is that you want to have a legit legal venue with an occupancy license because you don’t want to put your artists and sound crew and partygoers at risk. Because ultimately you are throwing a party in an illegal space, which I’ve done myself. But the worst part [of having a party busted] besides losing money, is knowing that everyone has to have this negative experience. In Detroit, now, we are using a place called Tangent gallery and promoters have a 24-hour permit, which keeps it legal and keeps people are dancing until the party is done. The bar laws in America are what make it the toughest, and finding the spaces that exist in that in-between zone – whether it be galleries or art spaces – those are becoming the real places to have a proper underground party.

What’s on your own personal horizon?

I have a few more weekends of traveling and doing gigs – I'll be at No Way Back at Movement, in Detroit.. Then I’m going to stop playing for a couple of months. Because I work a job too, I can’t travel and record at the same time. After doing these next few gigs, I’ll be finishing a new album and a couple EP’s as well. I have so much music I’m sitting on now, but I plan on hopefully getting the album done by the end of the summer so that I can release by early next year.

Interview/Premiere: Pascale Project

05 May 2015 — Henning Lahmann

As Mathematique, Montréal artist Pascale Mercier gave us positively manic synth pop, some kind of 80s-informed proto-charts pop seen through the lens of an extraterrestrial sociologist or, in the words of my esteemed colleague Parker Bruce, music that "sounds like it was recorded underwater in Atlantis". Whatever the association, however, Mercier's work under that moniker was, while usually featuring vocals, heavily focused on the instrumental aspect. Indeed, her voice mostly served rhythmic functions almost more than being included for the purpose of delivering a specific message, as most distinctly shown by Mathematique's stellar singnature tune, "Summer, But I Don't Know". On her forthcoming LP Just Feel Good for a Moment, this has changed. The record is further exploring tropes of classic popular music, which entails a more prominent emphasis on singing along to Mercier's lush synth melodies. Marking the shift with a new name – Pascale Project – the artist's compositions benefit greatly from her newly (re)discovered alto.

Just Feel Good for a Moment will be out this summer. Listen to the premiere of the first single "Super Natural" below and read a brief interview with the artist after the break.

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What has happened in your life since your tour and the release of Feel?

After the tour I did last summer I played a lot of shows in Montréal, then I decided to take a brake in the fall cause I needed to concentrate on finishing the new album.

Why the name change? Did you just want a new name that you're more comfortable with or is it also a change in your approach to making music?

I had been thinking about changing the name for quite a long time...  But I didn't do it earlier cause I thought it would be confusing for the people and too complicated. But at some point when I was composing the new album, I was having trouble finishing songs and I wasn't sure of what direction I was taking...  It just felt like I didn't have any attachment to 'Mathematique' anymore, I associate this name to the early stuff I used to do, which was instrumental. I just felt like I needed to change my name to be able to finish the album and move forward in my project, it's like a new start, it feels really good and it's inspiring.

Would you agree that while Just Feel Good for a Moment is certainly not a 'sad' album, there are more pensive, maybe melancholic undertones?

I agree this is not a 'sad' album, I would just say that all the songs are about normal feelings, good or bad, and they're just really sincere. I'm just writing about what I feel, I sing mostly about love and life and not thinking too much, I guess the song "Just Feel Good for a Moment" is all about those themes. 

The album feels even more inspired by the glory days of 80s pop than its predecessor. Did you use mainly analogue hardware to record it or was it made on the computer?

I only use digital stuff to make my music, it's all composed with Ableton Live and I also use some external digital synths. I used to make music with analog stuff before but now I'm really not into that kind of sound...  I never wanted to make music that sounds like something in particular, everything I listen to inspires me.

Is Montréal still a good place to be a musician, or is the city changing a lot?

I really enjoy being here, it's crazy how everyone is making music...  I'd say it's not so easy to get your music known because of that, everyone works really hard and it's sad to think that a lot of very talented people will never get the exposure they deserve, because there is just too many bands here. It's mostly a question of luck I guess.

Do you feel like you're part of a healthy creative community there?

Yes, totally, all my friends make very good music and they inspire me a lot, everyone helps each other here. It's nice that all the scenes are kind of blending together and that there's no restrictions, like you can go to a show where the lineup is very diversified but at the same time it all makes sense.

Who is gonna put out the album?

I am working on starting a label called Géocités, with my friend Philip Karneef, who also mixed and recorded my new album as well as the EP I released last year. I also might release it with an other label in Europe but it's not decided yet. 

Are you planning on touring with the album? Is it gonna be solo performances?

Yes, I am coming to Europe again this summer from May 21st to June 24th, touring with Bataille Solaire, another solo project from Montréal. Still performing solo, I enjoy it so much and it's very easy when you travel, hehe.

Will you come to Berlin again?

I will be playing the Torstraßen Festival on June 13th and also at Loophole on June 18th!  Here's the FB event of the tour if you wanna know when and where we're playing.

Aural Cinema: An Interview with OOFJ

20 Apr 2015 — Andrew Darley

Reading the history of how OOFJ came together, it almost seems as if the realm of film was pushing them together. The classically-trained saxophone player, Jenno Bjørnkjær, was attending a New York conservatory before becoming disillusioned with the structures of jazz standards that he had to follow. He decided to leave the school in his third year and began composing his own instrumental pieces. One evening he saw a production of Twelfth Night, which featured the South African vocalist, Katherine Mills Rymer. The two hit it off and bonded over their shared love of their favourite directors: Bergman, Carax, Kubrick and Roman Polanski. By this time, Jenno was working with electronic music and creating Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia film score. The two not only fell in love and married – they formed a band. Performing as OOFJ (abbreviation of Orchestra of Jenno), they made an album of idiosyncratic electronica, strings and soaring vocals. OOFJ are now about to release their second album, Acute Feast, which pushes their established sound into new territories. Staff writer Andrew Darley chatted with Katherine and Jenno about their determined desire to add something new to the art world and how cinema has both formed and guided their unique bond.

Acute Feast is coming out tomorrow, April 21, via Ring The Alarm (USA)/Fake Diamond Records.

Read the interview after the break.

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How does this album’s energy compare to your debut, Disco To Die To?

Katherine: Looking back now it feels like Disco To Die To, the first album I ever made, was more icy in energy. In an emotional sense, I look back and see some of the grief and the distance I was feeling because my father had just died. I mean it was kind of like you have a numb heart and then you make sounds through ice cubes.

Jenno: Disco To Die To was more a question of feeling around in the dark for the sound, whereas this album's energy is almost like taking the sound we found and opening it up. It sounds like its reverbing around the universe.

Katherine: But also its underwater, both places are similar. And there is a warmth, even if the warmth comes from strange places – it's more nourishing.

Jenno: Hence the name Acute Feast.

So that’s where the album’s title comes from?

Jenno: When I first heard Katherine's suggestion, it sounded like "a cute feast". I'm Danish so this word ‘acute’ was a bit strange to me.

Katherine: At the time, I was revisiting my Peter Greenaway love affair which I developed while I was a lonely teen. The thing is that I was thinking graphically when I thought of the name. I like the idea of ‘terrible pleasures’. Extremities of the best and the worst kind interest me. So I suppose Acute Feast is the sumptuous, the warm, the tasty, the sexual and loving with the flipside of gluttony, the rot, the smell and the disaster of a heavy meal.

Jenno: It’s the extremes of things that are the most interesting, the most destructive.

Were there any plans made about how the band’s sound should progress after Disco To Die To?

Jenno: We never set out with anything definitive musically as to how we should sound on this record. We knew we found a sound together on our debut, so it was more a question of how to progress past ourselves.

Katherine: Without trying to be like other people or try to become a reggae band or something! This time around we made more than 40 songs and the process of throwing stuff away and sitting on songs for a year definitely carved out what we actually ended up pursuing versus what we thought we wanted. As much as we are into classics and a ton of stuff that is influential, we think it’s important to make music that you can hopefully listen to 10 years later and it still sounds fresh.

Jenno: Not to become a reference of a reference.

What was your initial intention for OOFJ to become?

Katherine: I had no clue. I just blindly did things without really thinking about it, besides from giving my opinion to what sounds I liked. I think as we began to be like "Okay we’re in a real project", we just wanted to try make OOFJ a complete world.

Jenno: Before I met Katherine I was making instrumental music under this name so our partnership definitely changed my musical aspirations. We have similar taste but my sound before meeting her was slightly different. Katherine was born with a darkness that I tap into. More and more, we realize our controlling streak. From press images to videos to making music, we like to make everything ourselves. I think we just want to contribute to music and art – by creating something new.

It’s no secret that you're both creative and romantic partners. Making this album, did you feel that you knew much more about how each other worked?

Jenno: We are very, very close. We make our music wherever we are living so there is no break between things. Honestly there is nothing I didn't know about how she works. I think we just established more of a work flow. But making music like we do also gets into the details of things. Minute idiosyncrasies, ways of hearing and such. Since it was Katherine's first time doing all of this she had to work out what she was trying to say as an artist. As did I, but from a vantage point of experience. I think this time around both of us were more prolific.

Katherine: I knew more of the process of making something. I think I had more conviction in myself this time around. But honestly Jenno and I work in a very compatible way. I wish we could say we fight like Fleetwood Mac – that would make for a better novel!

Can writing lyrics be sometimes awkward or difficult, given that you could be referring to each other in the words?

Katherine: I write about life. The heaviness of it, I guess, is where it all comes from. Jenno will suggest changes once we lay stuff down. I like the feel of words more than concrete meaning. Words have different timbres. Jenno and I both feel like there is something very affecting in repetition.

Jenno: We never put out the lyrics Katherine writes and a lot of the time we're not letting it be very clear. But if you actually had to listen and hear what she writes, she is very clear about something secret. She likes this meta data thing which I think is great. You are affected on your own terms in your own life, without knowing why hopefully.

How do you agree or decide when a song or record is done?

Jenno: That's a good question. You can fiddle away on small things forever if you want to. The biggest fear for me is if I hear something we have released that I’m not satisfied with. I never want to have regrets, like maybe I should have changed the mix, or I don't like that synth completely. The list can go on on and on.

Katherine: Jenno is very detailed, so he can deal with the intricacies of things for a long time. Also he has the patience of Job. We listen and keep the record for a long time and see how a song can still be liked by us after that. Even if we are hearing it and rehearsing it like a 1000 times – from the beginning stages to the geeky mastering side.

Cinema and film are clearly important to you. The obvious giveaway is that you met during the making of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Were there any films in particular which inspired the mood of this record?

Jenno: I think the films we watched at that time were very Russian. One film called Come and See was a big thing for me. It’s a horrible nightmarish but beautiful war film from 1985 – full colour horror.

Katherine: When we first met we went to see a film called Krystaliov My Car! which I suppose in some way was very influential. And as always and forever, we were both heavily interested in Polanski. Chinatown I would say threads through everything in Jenno.

Also, reading reviews of your music to date, one of the most common words that comes up is 'cinematic'. Do you hear your music in this way?

Jenno: Yeah, I understand it. If you have symphony music like we do in our music, of course you are going to hear that. But actually what is strange is that only the older films have really special composed scores that have a definite personality – composers like Morricone, Komeda or John Barry. Today a lot of films are sparse atmospheric so the cinema people hear in our music is there, but it's almost like an echo.

Katherine: I hear it in this way but more like you score your own soundtrack. Somebody said the other day that listening to us while driving to Tesco's made it a much more glamorous experience. This is what its about. I think we want to put you in another world, which is like cinema. Maybe we should come up with a new term: Aural Cinema.

Are there any songs on the album that you are particularly fond of or mean something to you?

Jenno: It changes, radically. But as of today. I would say "Cherry". It is really beautiful from the composition work, to Katherine's melody.

Katherine: I think we both have that as a favourite right now, because we are in rehearsal and we are finally working out how this song should work live. I enjoy singing it. It’s delicate with adult themes. Personally for me, its nice to sing on a track that is so refined and sing  the word 'sweat'. Its the meta thing again.

The video for "I Forgive You" pulls on both beautiful and disturbing elements and leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination. How did its concept come about?

Katherine: Banal things are terrifying but also comforting. As I said earlier, there is something to this life, at least to me, where everyone is shut inside their minds. Language can only do so much.  How we function with all this unsaid stuff and hidden dark thoughts are very interesting but it’s also about how we manage not to lose our minds. I like images that are a bit strange. A lot of the times we work off  the idea of making something normal become expectational in some way like the close-up scene of the man cutting his toenails.

Do you think visuals, both in music and film, can be too explanatory or literal in the time we live?

Katherine: I think the problem in this age is maybe we are all iconizing ourselves. I mean it's weird that everyone is connected to technology. Creating a simulacra of themselves, which if you're in a band involved in this process is something very odd and interesting. I think the problems comes in when people become too perfect in this realm. Everything is a calculation. There is a danger of explaining yourself into the ether.

"Sailor" features a saxophone which Jenno is classically trained in. What was it like playing that instrument, especially in a completely different context?

Jenno: I like playing saxophone in environments that are not strictly jazzy. I prefer making the instrument new. I don't really dig 'shredding' on a saxophone playing the classics like I did for years. Its seems pointless to me. I like the sound of the saxophone – the voice, not the jazz association of it. Even though I love jazz, our live set has a lot of improvisation built in, as a jazz band could have. However, we are doing it with electronic music instead which in some way is our take on what jazz can be nowadays.

You’ve said previously regarding your background in jazz and classical music, that the idea of making an album that doesn’t exist already is what’s most interesting to you. Do you feel you’ve done that with Acute Feast?

Jenno: As egomaniacial as this sounds, I think we have come pretty close. The trick I think is using all the influences we have together – jazz, classical music, modern progressive music, pop music, dance music, bossanova – and swirl them into something that hasn't existed. I think our sound is pretty special, obviously otherwise it would be very depressing right now here for us. Luckily we are in a position to make stuff we like and are not constrained by making things to fit within a specific time or sound that is happening at the moment.

Katherine: At best we hope that Acute Feast sounds like the 'past-future'. We are not into nostalgia and glorifying analogue or digital moods or sounds. We like to jumble it up and almost squeeze it through our filtering system. We make what we think is honest and uncalculated and that comes from us. So I think in that respect we have done that.

Interview: Hama

27 Mar 2015 — Anaïs Duplan

Throughout our conversation, Hama referred to his synthesizer as a piano. This is telling. The Niamey-based musician insists that his music is, all in all, traditional Nigerien music – despite the futuristic quality that the vibrant synth tones and processed drum-kits lend to Hama’s latest album, Torodi. It’s perhaps this play on the ancient-future that has brought Hama such critical acclaim across The Republic of Niger and the countries that surround it; however, Hama’s music was virtually unheard of in the United States until Sahelsounds, a record label founded by ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley, which features the music of 50+ musicians whose music Kirkley came across during his travels in West Africa.

About the futurism of Hama’s Torodi, Kirley says, “I would say it's futuristic in the sense of the innovation, being the first person to do this – programming the traditional rhythms on the drum machine. I don't think he's necessarily composing with that in mind – the songs are really folk guitar songs that he has worked out versions of on the piano.” Hama’s thoughts are similar. He calls his compositions “modifications” on music he has heard and collected over the years, including traditional music, but ranging from contemporary American pop music to Detroit techno.

In many senses, my coming to hear the album at all was a matter of serendipity. “Sahelsounds became a record label by chance,” says Kirkley. “I had lived in West Africa for two years and was back home in Portland. I had a blog, but no intention to turn it into a label. I met the folks at Mississippi Records who suggested releasing a record. After time it's turned into a label, somewhat reluctantly. There's a demand for the music, people in West Africa can get exposure, get paid, and I can finance trips back to West Africa and have a part in releasing what I think is important and overlooked music.”

When I first called Hama, he expressed being quite happy that I’d taken interest in Torodi. I, on the other hand, was surprised to find that no one had yet interviewed him about it. The compositions, to my ear, are significant insofar as they provide a point-of-reference for modern American Afrofuturism. Though I may be alone in drawing such comparisons, when I tune into Hama, I can’t help but hear the synth drums in the intro to Kelela’s track “Cut 4 Me” or certain elements of FlyLo’s “Turkey Dog Coma.” Or even, reaching in a slightly different direction, Phil Cohran’s “The Dogon” from the 2010 album, African Skies.

Hama and I spoke in a mix of French and English, each of us struggling to overcome the language barrier. (As a result, I’ve translated the parts of our conversation that occurred in French into English.) In many ways, it is a conversation I am still processing. I wonder, in particular, whether music can do the work of Afrofuturism without doing so deliberately. I wonder whether it is misguided to hear the future in something that insists that it is, in fact, traditional. Nonetheless, Torodi is an important release for its innovation, regardless of whether that innovation seats itself in the past or in the future.

Read the interview after the break. 

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When did you meet Christopher Kirkley?

It was around the month of November in 2014. Christopher asked me if I wanted to go on tour and I said no problem, because I’ve been playing music for a long time, since 1986. I was very young when I started composing. I’ve used mostly the piano, the synthesizer. I play the guitar a little, but I play the piano much more. I program everything on it. After creating the beat, I add the melody. But I don’t compose on paper because when I started playing music, it was just in my house. I didn’t have a teacher. So the music is very traditional; it’s not modern.

That’s interesting. It has a futurist quality –

Futurist? No. My music is 100% traditional.

And has it changed over time?

Yes, very much. When I first started playing music, I never thought it would reach the United States. And I have a lot more albums than Torodi, which are much better.

More albums?

I made Torodi a long time ago, around 2002. Since then, I’ve produced ten more albums. But Torodi is the album that everyone likes the most.

Why do you think that is?

Well, my music is for everyone. It’s reached Algeria, Libya, Mali – everywhere. In a sense, everyone hears the music but they don’t see me. They don’t know me as a person. They don’t know who Hama is.

Who is Hama?

I am Hama. I mean, for example, I have a friend in the States, who lives in Iowa. In 1992, he was here in Niamey. I learned a bit of English while he was here and I spent a lot of time with him. After six months, once he finished his work here, he went back to the United States. One day, I called him and asked him if he knew that I play the piano. He didn’t believe it. So I sent him my music and he said, “Wow, why didn’t you tell me this before?” So we’ll see what happens in the future. I hope my music goes far. I know how to compose all kinds of things – techno, rap, zouk, traditional. I have it all in my head.

Zouk? Do you have zouk in Niger?

You know about zouk?

Yes, I’m Haitian, so I’m familiar with Haitian zouk, but I don’t know anything about Nigerien zouk.

Oh, no. I use Haitian zouk. I make selections. Modifications.

So when you compose, you’re combining various genres –

No, not at all. I’m not combining; I’m modifying. For example, I might take a melody from Haitian zouk and then turn that into a completely traditional Nigerien song. I can do the same with techno and hip-hop, by changing the speeds of things.

All that on the piano?

There’s the piano, but also the computer. I make the melodies on the piano, but I use the computer to build the beats. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved European and American music. That’s where I pick up my melodies.

Did you come from a musical family?

No, I’m the only musician in my family. My little brother started making music when I did. He’s since stopped, but I continued.

Why did he stop?

He died.

Oh wow, I’m sorry.

It’s okay. It happens. One day, you might call asking for Hama and someone will say, “Hama’s dead.” It’s just like that. That’s life. My mother has died, my little brother died, my father has died. So now it’s just me and my two little sisters, who I live with here in Niamey.

Have you found a lot of support in Niamey?

My music is popular here, yes.

You said before that the music has changed over time –

Yes, the music is different, very different from Torodi, but I’m still using the same piano. Since I don’t have the piano in front of me, I can’t really show you the difference. I can’t play the piano with my mouth. I’m actually working on an album right now, but people have been making good music for a long time, for years, and hoping that it will change something. But we don’t know what will happen in life, what fate is reserved for each person.

 

Interview: Nuearth Kitchen

24 Mar 2015 — Evelyn Malinowski

Split between Seattle and Los Angeles, Nuearth Kitchen appeals to a special type of joviality. Jeremy Grant and Cody Morrison combine their acutely complementary tastes to inform a discography that inspires harmless wildness, urban flare, and a well-rounded thirst for rhythm. As their seedling label Nuearth Conservatory prepares for blossoming, NEK is likewise gearing up for further ripening with the third solo release from Jon McMillion, polished off with remixes from Orson Wells and Fred P.

Submitting to the housey yet devoutly underground charms of NEK, I got in touch with Cody and Jeremy to try and understand where they are coming from a little better. Here's how it went.

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You are forthright about being split between Seattle and Los Angeles. Were you guys ever in the same place?

Cody: Yes, when the label was started we were both in Seattle. Jeremy had a job opportunity in Los Angeles a couple years ago so we've been doing the long distance thing since. We can certainly make it work while living in separate cities, but we're both looking forward to running the label while living in the same city again.

Jeremy: Yes, we've lived within only a couple of miles of each other for most of the time we've known each other. We're both originally Seattle dudes. Living in Los Angeles has only been a thing of the past couple years, and we've been able to make things work quite fluidly since.

Do your respective locations, or a combination thereof, inform the label's aesthetic at all?

Cody: Great question. Sorry for being too broad or vague, but I feel like our aesthetic is informed by everything around us. So yes, I would say our locations do inform our aesthetic. We travel quite a bit as well, so our travels, and most importantly the experiences of the artists we feature, factor most prominently into our aesthetic.

Jeremy: There's a good amount of that to a certain extent, but both of us get exposed to a lot beyond the cities we live in, so most of the decisions we get to make are a culmination of more than that.

What more can you expose about the NEK style?

Cody: We're intrigued by interesting music and sound and the way that those can open themselves up to you differently depending on the environment where you're listening.

Jeremy: The whole gist is just to provide a versatile selection of upbeat and left-field dance music.

Funk and world music can be sensed in some of these releases. What are your earliest influences, and do they include George Clinton at all?

Cody: I was a product of the '70s, so my folks were really into groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Steely Dan, Santana, Black Sabbath, Traffic, JJ Cale, The Cars, Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, etc...When I was old enough to start buying music on my own I got infatuated with what I was seeing on shows like Yo! MTV Raps, Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes on MTV. I was raised in a very rural part of Washington State, so most of those sounds and that culture was brand new to me. I was hooked instantly. Buying Straight Out of Compton without a parental guardian at the local record store was a crowning achievement in my middle school years. Once I got deeper into hip hop, it was natural for me to explore where all the samples came from...and that's certainly where George Clinton, P-Funk, James Brown, and many other funky artists come in.

Jeremy: Not George Clinton specifically. There's no aim to go after a particular sound. It's more what cool sounds are being made by artists we respect and like working with end up being the foundation of the label catalog.

What contemporary labels and artists excite you?

Cody: There are so many labels and artists that excite me right now it's hard to answer that. I go through phases where I'll be infatuated with certain genres and listen to nothing but that. For dance music, I recently went through a big NYC house and techno kick and I've been really loving what Joey Anderson, Levon Vincent, DJ Qu, Jus-Ed, and Anthony Parasole continue to put out. Those cats are so consistent and they're great in the studio as producers or DJ'ing at the club, which isn't easy. This isn't a recent development but I really dig the stuff coming out of the Comeme label, especially people like Christian S, DJs Pareja, and Lena Williikens. Also really feeling the Mood Hut crew up in Vancouver lately as well. We also have a sister label to Nuearth Kitchen called Nuearth Conservatory that focuses on Balearic and New Age-ish type stuff. We've gotten some material from Tommy Awards that we're going to be putting out later this year that is stellar. Really excited about that one.

Jeremy: Aficionado, Honest Jons, Into the Light, Emotional Response/Rescue, Deek, the Test Pressing podcasts, Music From Memory, Anthony Naples, Migos, Rae Sremmurd, Ruffmercy, and Trilogy Tapes for the art direction, et al.

Glad you brought up Nuearth Conservatory. Can you tell me more about the imprint? Why do you guys feel that Balearic and ambient material needs to be released on a sibling label, in other words categorized differently?

Cody: We wanted both of the entities to be unique to each other and the type of music represented on each label. Even though there are certainly songs on Nuearth Kitchen that contain some ambient or at least non-dance music, I think it's nice for each label to have its own focus.

Jeremy: Nuearth Conservatory is simply another vehicle, one where the music vibrates at a different frequency. NEK has one message, and NEC, the other. They're both planets in the same universe, but I think it's much more effective to allow people to experience the differing music on different platforms, rather than putting it all in the same place.

Do you ever host NEK showcases?

Cody: We hosted a NEK showcase a few years ago, and I'm open to doing it again if the stars align. I am very active as a promoter here in Seattle and we've hosted many artists that have contributed to NEK over the years (DJ Sprinkles, Fred-P, Juju & Jordash, Jon McMillion) and we'll continue to do so, but we're long overdue for another proper label night.

Jeremy: We used to do things like this, but it's a lot more fun and interesting to be able to throw shows that aren't tied to any specific theme or musical end.

What do your own personal artistries look like?

Cody: I haven't gone down the production rabbit hole yet, so I'm just continuing to play records with my friends. I'm opening for Joey Anderson and Oliver Hafenbauer while they're here in Seattle in April, so I'm excited about that.

Jeremy: I'm a graphic designer (I wouldn't say an artist), and with that world comes an immense amount of exploration and experimentation. I'm ingesting and creating stuff all the time. I collect music and DJ quite a bit, but not out in public anymore. I make a lot of mixtapes for all sorts of projects that end up being housed online, like the Origin Peoples project I do with my friend Shawn.

What's the future of NEK looking like?

Cody: It's hard for me to say what the future looks like for us. We've never really discussed goals or big picture plans. As long as the releases are sustainable while still being interesting, I'm content. We both have day jobs, so the label is nice creative escape for us that we'd like to keep rolling for a while.

Jeremy: No particular agenda. A few more releases are coming out this summer on NEK's sister label Nuearth Conservatory, but after that we're just taking things as they come.

 

Interview: Jlin

16 Mar 2015 — Anaïs Duplan

Dark Energy is not for the faint of heart. While it would be possible to place the album in the context of legendary footwork producers such as RP Boo and the late DJ Rashad, it would be more accurate to say that Jlin, an up-and-coming producer from Gary, Indiana, has blown apart the foundations of footwork in order to make space for her own uniquely relentless sound. Each of the eleven tracks on Dark Energy subverts expectation at every turn, toggling back and forth between percussion-heavy urgency and equally urgent periods of spacious subtlety. Jlin’s quick transitions are both inescapable and unpredictable, making Dark Energy exemplary of the most controlled and skillful form of pure pandemonium.

Jlin’s debut album will be released on 23 March by Planet Mu. In the meantime, I sat down with the producer and together, we delved into Dark Energy.

Read the interview after the break. 

(Photo by Matthew Avignone)

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Let's start from the beginning of the album, with "Black Ballet."

That was actually the very last song that I finished. I knew that I wanted one of the songs to be ballet-related. So for two or three weeks, I was watching Black Swan, which is one of my favorite movies, but I was drawing absolutely nothing. It was actually making it worse because I wasn't getting anything. And then something told me: Alvin Ailey. Immediately I started watching a lot of Alvin Ailey Youtube videos and it was like this spark came over me.

What made you feel that spark?

There was a connection. I totally understood the movement of their bodies, rhythm-wise. It was like a conversation almost. A silent conversation. That's how "Black Ballet" came into play. At first I was nervous because I was like, "This is far out." But I was really pleased with it.

The track itself felt far out?

It felt far out to me because I had never done something like that before. It was unfamiliar to me, and so was "Erotic Heat." But "Black Ballet" was uncharted territory. You're in there but you don't know what to expect. But I didn't shy away from it and go, "Oh no, I'm not gonna put that out because that's not what people expect of me." Usually what is far out or crazy is what I'll throw out there. I'll see how far it can go.

What other tracks felt far out or uncomfortable? You mentioned "Erotic Heat."

"Infrared," for sure.

Why's that?

I had to go back and play that over and over just to make sure I was hearing it. The sounds. It was just heavy all the way around. The percussion, the synths.

I think you’re quite skillful in controlling the momentum. The whole album is high-energy but there are certain moments when you manage to create space. It gets drawn out.

Right, exactly. Impact is a tool for me. For me, impact is more important than the sound itself. I'm trying to channel the momentum and to be able to be in control of it. Sometimes there are highs, very intense, and there are lows. I wanted it to be an adrenaline rush all the way through, so that you had to go back and listen to it two or three times because it was just so much to take in at once. Sometimes I'll listen to a track of mine before I go to sleep and then I have to go and listen to another track and another – and the next I thing I know, here I am, up for two hours. Then I'll go from my stuff to Sade's to Rachelle Ferrell's. I listen to so many different genres, but there are specific people that I really take note of – not to mimic but just to respect.

Who are those people for you?

I listen to Rachelle Ferrell a lot. My mom put me on to her at a very young age. Sade too. We used to listen to all kinds of artists when I was younger because everybody liked different things in the house.

It sounds like you grew up around a lot of music.

I did, but it was all older music. It wasn't my generation, at all. I had to come into my generation on my own and through my friends. But yeah, I know a lot of jazz. Different things too. The Art of Noise, Elton John. I become like a sponge, not just for music, but for the things that I see and feel – that's where the impact is. Now it's just a matter of channeling that impact into a frequency and a vibration and a sound. Putting it into the atmosphere. I'll never grow tired of that.

What is the process, for you, of translating something you've seen into a sound?

I have to become the thing that I saw. I got that concept from a Bruce Lee saying, "Be water, my friend." When you pour water into the cup, you take the shape of the cup. It's the same process. Sometimes it can be very uncomfortable. A lot of times I have to go places in my mind that I really don't want to, but that, to me, is the realest sound. That's why a lot of times I find myself running from myself. I'm sure you've read that I create from an unhappy place. To create from a happy place just doesn't do it for me. If you create from trauma, there are so many things that can come out. Darkness and blackness – they're not bad things at all. The word 'black' has such a negative connotation and it's so not true. If that were the case, I don't believe the stars would come from darkness. People have gained most of their momentum from low spots. Blackness and darkness produce beautiful things. Like a diamond. It's a piece of coal but when you put pressure on it, what happens? 

There's something about Sun Ra that comes up for me in that reference to stars coming from darkness.

Right, exactly. It's poetic. The process itself is beautiful even though it may be hard. It's beautiful. If you've ever looked at a puddle of oil on the ground, look at all the colors inside it. What I put out splashes so many colors because every color originates from black.

There is blackness in the context of the color spectrum, but then there's also the experience of blackness, of being a person of color. Does that come into play in the album for you?

Of course. It amazes me, the negative connotation that black has. Black is the original color of original colors. And as far as being a person of color goes, I'm just one of those people who doesn't accept everything that's out in the atmosphere. I just don't. The atmosphere that we're in now – we're in trouble.

Say more about that.

Look at the state of world. We're in trouble. Look around you. I feel like I have to put it out there that it's my responsibility to put a certain vibration and frequency back into the atmosphere. There's so much love lacking. People are so accustomed to whatever being thrown into the atmosphere and they just adapt. But it shouldn't be like that all the time, because not everything you put out is a good thing.

In some ways, this is the perfect time for this album to come out.

Exactly. A lot of people are afraid. They're afraid to talk about certain things. The media can immediately shift what you've said and turn it into something else. One day you were being praised and the next day you're being hated. That's how powerful the media is. Because you may have been addressing something that's real, but if you violate a certain terrain, it's like you blackball yourself. In a way, with this album, I probably touch on a lot of subjects silently. I say it without saying it.

In my experience of the album, there's so much of black history there. Like the track, "Mansa Musa."

Absolutely. If you think this one is something, wait 'til the next one.

Oh yeah? Is there a next one?

Hah, you're the first person I've said that to. But yeah, I think it's my responsibility. That's why it's taken my whole life to get through this album. I had to go through so much. It was less about the music and more about my experiences. What I had to go through and what I had to learn, first about me as a person and then about what came before me as a person. I'm still learning.

What were some of the things you felt like you needed to learn before you were ready to produce Dark Energy?

I needed to be honest with myself. That's a hard thing to do. I'm still grasping that. A friend told me, "The truth doesn't hurt. It only hurts when you try to fight it." That's probably one of the realest statements I've heard in my life. Failing is very important. Failing is more important than your success, and I still fail. I'm in a wreck right now musically, but that's another story for another day. And being transparent publicly is hard. It takes a lot of energy because you're vulnerable and you have people who are waiting to eat you alive as soon as you step out. I went in telling myself, "Not everyone is gonna like your music." And you know what? I would be pissed if everybody did like my music. I would feel so unaccomplished.

You want that agitation.

Yeah, exactly. It would be like being in a happy state all the time. No trauma, no drama. What is that?

You spoke about how hard it is to be publicly transparent –

It is. That's the hardest part. The fun part is the creating and the producing, because you can just put your message in a bottle and send it out. But then you remember that once you send it out, it's gonna find people. Interviews are fine, but then you have to remember this interview is not just between you and the person you’re interviewing. It's about to go out into the world. It's like, "Oh, do I sound silly? I wonder if I sound stupid there." There are people just waiting for you to fail and to devour you. To say, "I don't like this. This is whack. She's not going anywhere." You have to be ready to face that. It's kind of like being thrown into the middle of a jungle full of vultures who haven't eaten in months, and here are you, fresh meat. But that kind of thing also gives me an adrenaline rush. You have to know how to use that force against itself.

You've really mastered how to channel difficult emotions –

There are those moments when it is so intense that I can't hear anything. But once I get my hearing back, that's when I create. But when I can't hear anything and I can't rationalize the sound, I don't create.

So there's this element of constructing the tracks that is very emotionally internal for you, and then there’s the fact that you don’t use samples, which means that every sound has to come from you.

Right. That goes back to sometimes having to go places you don't want to go mentally. And as far as sampling goes, I used to sample and I still know how to – I just chose to get away from it. Sampling is such a heavy thing in Chicago footwork. All the stuff on Dark Energy took time and it wasn't so much the music as having to learn myself, having to trust myself, having to forgive myself. It's more personal than it is musical.

I want to backtrack to something you said about footwork. Have you felt constrained at all by that label? You’ve mentioned that you don't like to name genres.

Yes. If I feel boxed-in or restrained, I have a tendency to react a certain way musically. Did you notice the name of one of those songs is "Abnormal Restriction"?

I was thinking of that track exactly.

That's where that feeling comes from. When I feel restrained, I lash out. I lash out in a way that you can hear in my music.

I don't know if this is appropriate to say, but I worry that people will react to Dark Energy by saying, "Look at this great new black female footwork producer" and take only that away from it.

You brought up something that I was worried about. This is predominantly male field – before we even touch the black aspect. I don't want to be known because I'm a female producer. My gender and my race have nothing to do with what I can do as a person, though melanin is very important to me. But I don't want to become a stereotype. You get seen for being the first of this or the first of that but not for your work or your craft. I should be able to stand toe-to-toe with anybody who comes before me or after me. It shouldn't matter that I'm a black woman who produces. Though, again, melanin is very important.

Have you had a lot of people talk to you about what they take away from the music?

Not a lot. Most people just give you their reactions to it. They don't go into detail about it. Certain people do. A lot of people just really like the way it comes across, the way it's presented. I’ve heard people say, “Man, I listened to this one track like six times in a row!” That makes me happy, though I'm never satisfied.

No?

I have happy moments but then those moments die very quickly. I'll make a track and be satisfied with it for one to two days max, and then I'm like, "What's after that?" I'm never satisfied. I have to keep creating. That's my heartbeat, my constant heartbeat.

Is there something you think it's important for people to know before listening to Dark Energy?

No. I never want to dictate to a person what they should feel. It's just a message in a bottle. However you take it is however you take it, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent. Who am I to tell you what you should get from the album? I feel differently about it every other day. So if I feel like that, who I am to tell you what you should feel?

Interview: Susanne Sundfør

04 Mar 2015 — Andrew Darley

For her fifth studio album, Susanne Sundfør vowed to put herself to the test. After building a repertoire of producing for herself and others, as well as collaborations with Röyksopp and M83, she committed herself to self-producing and arranging a body of work. This autonomous approach conceived a frenetic collection of songs, comprising several stories and characters as she embarks on a crusade of love. Ten Love Songs expands on her signature brand of dramatic pop that interweaves classical and electronic elements as she hops between menacing electronics, sweeping synthpop and organ ballads. The initial assault of her diverse palette soon gives way to lyrics of complexities of love; obsession, unfulfillment, vengeance and trust. Her voice is both the anchor and the vehicle of the music as she brings these stories to life in the way she heard and imagined them. I spoke with Susanne about the intent of the record’s literal title, the learning curve of her career so far and the confidence she has developed to carry her music.

Read the interview after the break.

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The last time we spoke in 2013 for Polari Magazine, your back catalogue had just been given a UK release. How do you feel you have progressed since then?

I feel that I have made a lot of progress working in the studio, especially different boxes involved! I have learnt so much about production; from how to use new synths to writing string arrangements. It’s been a very exciting album to make. It was a lot of hard work but it was fun as well.

You recorded, orchestrated and produced Ten Love Songs predominately on your own. What made it feel like the right time?

I produced an album for a band called Bow To Each Other two years ago so I learnt a lot from that. That project gave me the confidence to produce my own music. Also, I co-produced my previous album, The Silicone Veil. It’s been a step-by-step process where I’ve just picked up more and more skills as I’ve done it. I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted the songs arranged and things to sound so I figured it would be best to do a lot of it myself. It was both a wish to have independence in the studio but also a necessity because I had so many ideas. It would have been pointless to tell another person to do what I could do myself.

Do you feel that you are able to execute ideas you hear in your head more effectively now?

Definitely! On my two first albums, which I’m very happy with, it was difficult for me to communicate in the studio because I didn’t have the language or didn’t know the names of things. I might’ve had a vague idea of how I wanted things to sound but I had no idea how to express it to someone else.

The name of this album is Ten Love Songs and the songs feature diverse musical styles and moods. Did the title of record give you the freedom to write ten very individual songs which worked as a whole too?

It was the title that made the most sense because they’re all different worlds. They have quite different sounds so Ten Love Songs was a name that bound them together.

You obviously were not afraid of not being cohesive?

Yeah, it’s a bit schizo for sure! I just had so many different ideas and I was listening to lots of diverse music and that’s probably why my songs came out that way too.

There’s always been electronic dance elements in your music but possibly not as direct like "Accelerate" or "Kamikaze". Did you want to make people dance with this record?

I think if that’s what I directly wanted, I would’ve made it quite different. Like in "Accelerate" there’s a long part of just an organ solo and "Kamikaze" ends with a harpsichord solo. I think I wanted to use the dance elements in music just because it’s an interesting sound. It’s quite instant. It’s not like jazz, you can pretty much get it after a few listens. It doesn’t mean it’s bad but there’s something more immediate about it – it’s like candy almost.

There are several voices and characters throughout this album. The character in "Delirious" really stood out for me in the way they describe his or her desire to hurt, even kill, their partner.  It’s quite a viscous tale. Do you enjoy creating characters like that?

I think it’s interesting to put yourself in someone else’s mindset. I’ve seen these things happen to people – these misunderstandings in love when one is just playing and the other one gets hurt. It’s so classic. I thought it would be more interesting to frame it as a murder ballad.

This theme of violence also has roots in The Brothel and The Silicone Veil. What is it about it that fascinates you?

Extreme things fascinate me a lot – these extreme emotions. Taboos as well. I think the biggest taboo of this album is that it’s called Ten Love Songs. It might even be more controversial than the violent references because a lot of stuff happening in the public or in media, it’s usually about sex or violence. It’s generally never about love or feeling vulnerable. Love is kind of corny to talk about today. That was also a reason why I believed it to be an interesting title.

As you say that, I can see that the album and single artwork is quite different as well. It almost doesn’t match the music.

That’s one of the reasons why I really like it. I completely trusted Grady McFerrin and told him to do whatever he wanted based on what he had done before. He came up with this drawing concept, which I thought brought an interesting element to the record. I love when artists bring their own take on the music and conjure another world or dimension.

Moving on to performing, I’ve watched your shows online for this album and it looks like you’re becoming more comfortable fronting your music in a live setting?

Totally! The first time I was ever on stage, I completely forgot the lyrics but I was 12 then. It’s taken me a long time to just be comfortable on stage and feel like it’s my place. For many artists, going on stage can be a bit alienating especially if you work a lot in the studio – an audience is pretty much watching what you do in the studio on stage. It’s much easier for me now to be in the music when doing shows.

Are there any musicians that you admired in terms of carrying the music over to a live stage?

When I started music high school that we have in Norway, I began listening to a lot of my Dad’s old records. Before that I would only listen to pop music or whatever was in the charts. I listened to Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, John Lennon and George Harrison – all these ‘60s and ‘70s classics. Both their songwriting aesthetic and the way they performed as musicians really inspired me. These artists really influenced how I view and create my own music.

Have you learned anything about approaching music from the contemporary artists you’ve worked with recently, such as M83 or Röyksopp?

Oh definitely! I’m a huge fan of both, so to work with them was such an honour and an education. I learnt so much about the various microphones, different equipment to how they compose music.

Back to your music, "Insects" closes the album in an intense, almost anxious way. Why did you want to close out the record in this way?

When I made the tracklisting for the album, it was more about the mood than the lyrics for me. There also had to be a flow to the songs and "Insescts" was so intense that it wouldn’t really fit in anywhere else. That is the main reason why it’s the last one but it’s also quite open and experimental. It doesn’t end with a statement or something clear – it’s a cliffhanger.

Looking forward, what would you like to achieve with Ten Love Songs?

I just want to have an open mind about it. I am ambitious but I prefer not to make business plans. My only goal with this album, apart from that I wanted it to be good, is that I want to play more shows. Maybe that can happen and maybe not. We’ll see!

My final question I’d like to ask you, given the content of this album, is what are some of your favourite love stories?

The Brontë sisters are the first people who come to mind. They’re probably my number ones.

Ten Love Songs is out now. 

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. 

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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.