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Erik Nilsson creates music that, in someways, defies logic. It is intrinsically linked to the manipulation and re-ordering of the “natural”, yet through this process somehow creates a new “nature”. Releases such as Hearing Things, Recollage and his forthcoming The Imperfect Tense are testaments to Nilsson’s innate sense of melody and progressive compositional strategies. Drawing on folk, classical and electronica, Nilsson blends acoustic instruments with field recordings and computer-generated sounds, crafting music akin to early Four Tet, Tortoise at their most minimal, and fellow Scandinavian soundscapers The Gentleman Losers. Yet all his work sounds like Erik Nilsson.
To get a glimpse inside the master’s mind we asked Erik to pull three questions out of the bag…
What kind of activity is your music made for?
I imagine that the music I make likes to put its listener in a state of “inwardness”. Perhaps it is music for the activity of paying close attention, either to the music itself or to some other solitary activity: walking, sitting, reading, breathing, running. I particularly admire a piece of music that sometimes just lends a certain emotional quality to my surroundings or to whatever I am up to , the next day has me counting beats, and the day after that seems to be all about texture. That is the kind of music I aspire to make.
Why make music?
Because it presents an opportunity to apply oneself – mind, body, and soul – to the construction of something like a rudimentary, abstract, self-contained world. Such a world makes possible the experience and exploration of longing, elation, sadness, grief, or ecstasy as such, in the absence of any particular cause or object. One may for instance try being gentle (as such) or aggressive (as such), probe the relationship between the two, or push either or both as far a one possibly can. There is obviously a tremendous sense of freedom here, but also a sense of duty. Musical ideas always seem to have potentiality, to be en route somewhere – to demand something. One listens carefully and labours to bring potentiality into (imperfect) being. Somehow, it reminds me of what it is like to be alive.
What’s your most treasured item of musical gear?
A Martin HD-28 that friends and family had got me as a graduation gift. Not only do I love to play it, it reminds me of people I love, and also of the fact that I have it in me to carry something difficult to completion.
Summon the Birds’ latest album Blood Love is an inspired interweaving of song and story. The 6-track epic pulls you in right from the opening strains of ‘Funeral for a King’ and only lets go long after brilliant closer ‘London Tap Water’ rings out its last note. The band’s ability to immerse the listener in vivid scenes that feel somehow intrinsically Australian, even if their subject matter drifts abroad, sees them as kindred spirits with Australia’s Augie March and The Drones. It’s a very special thing indeed.
To get a peek inside the Bird machine we asked Jonathan Shaw from the band to pull three questions out of the bag…
What’s the best show you’ve ever been to?
In 2011, Milky and I went to the now-defunct Harvest Festival in Werribee and saw a whole stash of incredible acts, including Mogwai, The Flaming Lips and Kevin Devine. For me, the highlight was Portishead. Oh man. My heart. To hear Beth sing ‘Roads’ live transported me beyond the stars… so beautiful.
Which song of yours is most important to you and why?
I’ll nominate ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ from our new album because of its unrelenting ambition. I also feel that if you like that song, you’ll like Summon the Birds. Just to complete that track, all 9 minutes of it, and to actually evoke – sonically and lyrically – the falling of a man into the Centre of the Earth is – in my opinion – a huge artistic achievement for the band. It also completes the ultimate synthesis of STB – the music as narrative and the lyrics as sound.
What’s one of your favourite albums that’s unlikely to be featured on anyone else’s list of favourite albums, and why do you love it?
A big album for us in the making of Blood Love – and one that Milky and I bonded over particularly – is Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, released in 1991. It is phenomenally good and as soon as I heard it, all I wanted to do was make music that good. The pace of it is what captured my heart. It unfolds at its own steady pace and weaves the listener into an unrelenting tapestry of beauty, wisdom, sorrow and light. I think it’s a colossal suite of songs and I can’t believe I only heard about it 8 or so years ago. We also based the final number of tracks on our record – 6 – on the number of tracks on Laughing Stock.
Target Archery’s stunning 2017 debut, The Clock of the Long Now, unwinds over 40 blissful minutes, weaving a suite of glimmering musical tapestries that expand beyond the borders of conventional guitar pop. Headed by Ambrose Nock (Apricot Rail) and featuring contributions from Apricot Rail members Justin Manzano (production and instrumentation) and Jack Quirk (guitars), Clock of the Long Now explores the fertile realm of delicate, experimental post-pop, influenced by the likes of Sound Dust-era Stereolab, left-of-centre indie-pop bands such as Lacto-Ovo, The Go! Team and Ninetynine, and a dash of late ’80s Sonic Youth.
Why are we telling you all this? Because we cornered Ambrose and asked him to pull three questions out of the bag!
What’s the best show you’ve ever been to?
While it’s hard to go past Sonic Youth playing Daydream Nation in full, it’d have to be Gersey at the Rosemount many years ago – they were an incredible live band, especially in a small venue.
Build your own dream supergroup.
Keys & Sounds – Stina
Bass Guitar – Simon Struthers
Drum Kit – Ben Gibbard (lead singer from Death Cab but he played drums on their second record & they are stunning)
Woodwind – Mayuka Juber
Guitars – Myself!
Singing – Waltz era Glenn Richards (Augie March)
What’s one of your favourite albums that’s unlikely to be featured on anyone else’s list of favourite albums, and why do you love it?
I’m going to go with They forgot it in people by Broken Social Scene. Theres so many layers and little parts of it where they’ve just pushed things to their limit – things that you don’t notice at first but the character of the record has a lot of thought behind it. Without setting out to be, it’s almost a summation of all the techniques and things that were good about mid 90’s experimental guitar music, but with a lot of energy and delicacy thrown in.
With an acutely transcendent and atmospheric vibe, perth‘s ‘Drank and Kites and Tomorrow’ is a lucid and expansive slice of wave-gaze pop. Pulsing, agitated rhythms offset the cosmic streaming of synths, voice and guitars, eventually morphing into a kind of motorik ambient that counterbalances propulsion with serenity. – Wagner Hertzog
On his debut album as Memorybell, Grant Hazard Outerbridge delivered an abject lesson in need versus want. Obsolete is more than a simple minimalist document, indeed it could be argued that Outerbridge’s deft touch and innate sense of time make each of its sparse notes laden with import. As if each successive strike of hammer on piano wire were the only thing in the world… until the next. So it’s no surprise that Outerbridge is as much a thinker as a “feeler” when it comes to his musical work. In this utterly engaging interview the lovely Wagner Hertzog sat down with the artist and covered everything from Marvin Gaye to transient global amnesia. A truly great read.
Many thanks to Wagner and Grant for their time and efforts in making this happen.
WH: You have been playing music for decades. Was the concept for Memorybell already in your mind before you started working on this music, or is it a more recent artistic project?
GHO: Memorybell is a very recent project. I wanted to focus on ambient music following the release of Genus Euphony, but the way this album came into being was decidedly unplanned.
I had been composing, shaping, and reshaping 20 or so songs but could never quite get them to feel the way I wanted them to. After I got out of the hospital, playing the songs was a uniquely unpleasant experience. They sounded awful to me and I had trouble remembering why I had written them in the first place. When a song felt wrong, I either threw it away completely, or focused exclusively on its essence (often just one or two chords) and explored that as granularly as I could.
My close creative collaborator from The Very Hush Hush, Peter Bo Rappmund, had heard most of the songs in various stages of their composition. When I was able to play these new, post-amnesia versions for him he strongly urged me to release the record under a new name. The songs were so different from anything I’d ever recorded that it made sense that they be the start of a new project.
WH: What are your main influences and sources of inspiration?
GHO: It sounds odd, but a lot of my musical ideas come from mundane objects. There is a particularly pleasant sound that the metal vent in the roof of my house makes when it lightly rains outside. In my old neighborhood, there was an old row house whose laundry exhaust whistled beautifully whenever it was in use. I could listen to the sounds of an oscillating fan all day long.
I enjoy sitting still and listening to the world, though it’s far too loud for me. This is one reason why I’m drawn to expansive silences. I draw an immense amount of inspiration and solace from the quiet that descends during a snowfall.
Less esoteric and more to the point, I find the following works very influential (in no particular order):
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Air – Moon Safari
Billy Holiday – Solitude
Gas – Pop
Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Stars of the Lid – The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid
WH: You seem interested in exploring extreme minimalism in your music, creating a slow, surreal experience for the listener. How did you come to develop such a style?
GHO: When I was studying classical music I was most attracted to dissonant passages. These “sour” notes and chords represented for me a warmer, more interesting way of approaching musical expression. I would sit for hours playing a single passage over and over, slow it down, and make subtle changes to it. As I grew older, I looked forward to this monastic repetition far more than completing whichever increasingly difficult piece of music I was learning.
Starting in the early 2000s, I played bass in The Very Hush Hush. Like the piano, my method of approaching the bass has changed over the years but, even back then, I was more concerned with playing the most interesting note than playing the root. One well-placed note can heighten anticipation in ways little else can.
My ears most want to hear what happens in the moments after a note is played before it dissolves into silence. That tension is powerful and shaping that tension is my primary concern.
WH: In terms of your creative processes, are you driven by your technique, or do you let your emotions drive your composing and arranging? Or is it a combination of both?
GHO: Emotion is the driving force behind my music.
To my ears, technique is only as useful as one’s ability to use it to express emotion. Technique for its own sake does little for me. It’s not that I don’t admire accomplished musicians, I do; I fully understand the time and dedication it takes to become an accomplished musician. But when technique becomes the focal point music becomes hollow. There is a whole spectrum of emotional experiences to be had while listening to music and feeling awe at someone’s ability is only one.
When I compose a new song, I try to keep my mind blank. Turn off my brain. Focus on what I’m feeling and sensing. What do I hear? What do I smell? Taste? I often begin with my eyes closed and open them once something interesting has presented itself. From there, repetition and manipulation of time and silence. How best to amplify what I’m feeling in the moment? What is the simplest way to say what needs to be said?
WH: Is there is a special place or time that you write music?
GHO: There used to be, but now I’m restricted to when my toddler son is either asleep or out of the house. Otherwise, he’ll come bounding from wherever he is and start mashing the keys. Adorable and amazing, but not conducive to thoughtful creation. I’m lucky if I get an uninterrupted chunk of 20 minutes per day.
Place is an interesting problem with the piano. You’re stuck wherever the piano is. My work around for this used to be scribbling ideas in a notebook, studying them when I couldn’t be at a piano, etc. Now, unless I’m particularly inspired and one of my 20-minute mini-sessions produces something more-or-less fully formed, I’ll hold a strong phrase in my mind for as long as I have to until I have time to explore it at the piano.
This results in a kind of fermentation. The most emotive part of an idea tends to become stronger, while the less necessary, more ancillary bits float off. This won’t always be my song writing process but, considering my 2 year-old just had a baby brother, I don’t see it changing in the near future.
WH: How do you work on individual songs? Do they keep evolving as you experiment with them over time, or do you find it quick and easy to finish each piece?
GHO: It depends on the song. Many songs are vague and gauzy at the start and I have to sit with them for a while before they reveal themselves to me. I try not to force anything onto them, just wait for whatever emotion it was that drove me to sit down at the piano to come out. Sometimes this process is quick, other times it is glacial. It took 14 years for ‘Somnolent’ to become what it is.
That’s an aberrant example, though. Most songs take on average 2-3 years before I finally leave them be. So, at any given time, the batch of songs I’m working on tend to have been initially conceived several years previous.
Occasionally, a song will emerge and I can’t figure out how to improve it. Those are always happy moments, though infrequent. I quite enjoy the long, slow evolution of a song. When one is finished, it may sound quite unlike it did in its infancy.
WH: In regards to your artistic process, are you a perfectionist, or more of a relaxed creator?
GHO: A complete and utter perfectionist, though I’m trying to let that go. My compromise is to direct my perfectionist tendencies toward my process rather than toward my music, to stay dedicated to giving the songs room to breathe, to grow, to change. Rather than try to force the songs to be something I want them to be, I allow them to be what they are. Even if I don’t like the end result, being true to the process feels like being true to my nature.
The most important part of my process is letting go. Ego can be a useful tool, in crafting personae, in pushing yourself, but I find it a barrier to making meaningful music. My best songwriting comes after I’ve processed whatever drove me to write a song in the first place. What remains after the dust settles.
WH: Silence, and the ambiguity it evokes, plays an important role in your music. Is this aspect of your music planned, or do you improvise?
GHO: Very much planned, as much as one can plan silence. I can never predict the affect any given length of silence will have, so I conduct tests. Do I add a single beat here? A measure of seven? Thirteen? It’s a little like introducing oneself to a strange animal.
As consumers of popular music our ears have been trained to expect predictability in regards to rhythm. 4/4 and 3/4 dominate the sonic landscape. The ghost of the Western classical music tradition is persistent. The purposeful shirking of predictable time signatures is a good thing but if not approached carefully it can estrange the casual listener.
When I shape the silence in my songs, I pay close attention to what my ears want. Then I give them something else. Unusual time signatures often do the trick, but I try not to employ them for their own sake. Sometimes a standard time signature alternated with an irregular or changing amount of silence has a magical effect. The ultimate test is if someone can’t tell that a song is in 17/8 or 13/4.
The ideal is to make the unexpected feel natural.
WH: Can you tell us about your experience of transient global amnesia and how it influenced the creation of this album.
GHO: In late February of 2014 my first son was two weeks old. He was curled up with my wife on the couch and I left to meet up with some friends. We had a couple of beers and I made my way home. It was lightly snowing.
I walked in the house and my wife and son were still curled up on the couch. I took my son upstairs, swaddled him and put him in his crib, and put on my headphones.
I woke up in a hospital roughly ten hours later on a gurney, obscenely bright fluorescent lights flashing over my face. I saw my wife and asked, “What am I doing here?” She patiently recounted the story of how I had come into our bedroom saying I couldn’t remember where I had been, what I had done, the people I had been with; how she had called the police, to whom I had apparently been quite charming and funny, who in turn summoned an ambulance that brought me to the hospital.
My poor wife told me this story over forty times before it stuck. Tests were run; EKGs, MRIs, CAT scans, toxicology screens. At one point, a group of medical students with clipboards surrounded my bed.
Throughout it all, my wife sat holding our absurdly small son wondering if I’d had some sort of stroke.
I was diagnosed with Transient Global Amnesia, which is, maddeningly, a diagnosis by exclusion. Once everything else has been ruled out, that’s what you get, a rare condition about which little is known. Extreme stress, sleep deprivation, and excessive physical exertion are thought to be the triggers.
The effect was as if a bomb had gone off in my brain. All memories months into the past and future were turned to glass.
The tests showed an increased sensitivity to light and sound. This proved problematic with a small baby at the house. I was given to carrying earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones with me for diaper changes. Going outside without sunglasses triggered a migraine. A screaming police siren triggered a migraine. A teakettle triggered a migraine. A loud sneeze triggered a migraine.
I quit my job. The thought of trudging through that soulless routine coupled with my new condition caused me so much anxiety I couldn’t function.
I was home all the time. When my son was sleeping, I had to do something. When my son was at day care, I had to do something. When I couldn’t sleep, I had to do something. I turned to the piano.
The songs I had been working on for the previous few years sounded like boxes of broken glass. Some of them literally gave me headaches. To heal, I picked them apart, focused on the parts that were soothing, that felt right, and threw out what remained. I reshaped them, let them ring out into silence, and created something new.
WH: Did you know beforehand that you were writing songs specifically for this album, or did you choose from songs that had already been written?
GHO: I chose from songs I had previously written, but completely altered them, post-amnesia. I had a concept for an album I had been pursuing before I awoke in the hospital. That’s the raw material to which I returned
At the time, it was important to me to force the issue, to make the collection of songs work even if they felt wrong. That’s when I really started focusing on silence. I threw out the superfluous, ornamental bits and chiseled the songs to their core. Then I wrapped them in silence.
WH: The title of the album, Obsolete, is very evocative. How did you settle on this title, and what does it mean to you?
GHO: I really don’t like titling my own songs. When I do, they’re almost always non-sequiturs. I reached out to an old friend, gave him the raw, un-mastered tracks and asked him to title the songs. He suggested the title track be named “Requiem for Obsolete Technology.” A great song name, to be sure, but I felt single word song titles were more apropos, given my editing method and interest in silence.
In general, I often feel like I was born a couple hundred years too late. The world is the loudest it has ever been, and for someone who craves quiet it is a struggle to remain focused amongst the head-splitting sounds of squealing brakes, screaming people, crackling electric lines, and wailing sirens. I like to imagine what the world must have sounded like before the industrial revolution.
Actually finding a quiet place is becoming more difficult. I live in Denver, Colorado and the legalization of marijuana, along with our city’s policy of being as inviting as possible for new businesses, has created an immense influx of people. City streets are jammed beyond capacity, and what used to be an easy drive into the mountains has become an arduous chore. Hiking trails are as clogged as motorways. Landmarks are being vandalized.
Quiet places are vanishing. So I create them in music.
WH: Did you work on the songs for Obsolete individually or collectively? The titles of the songs suggest a link between them.
GHO: The songs I ended up including on Obsolete were originally written at completely different times. The only thing they had in common was the fact they were the ones I had been drawn to in the years and months leading up to my amnesia. When I slowed them down and picked them apart after my return from the hospital, I noticed new patterns and arranged their order on the album accordingly. I rarely worked on one song at a time. I typically shaped the whole set of songs at once. If I made a severe edit on one, it often let to a complementary edit on another.
I touched on this earlier, but I find naming my own songs difficult. My natural inclination is to be abstract and sarcastic with names, but I felt it would be a disservice to the honest and existential nature of these songs to name them so. The titles of the songs are representative of various themes that were woven through my life when I reworked them. Koan is inspired by the Richard Brautigan poem, “Karma Repair Kit, Parts 1-4.” Ambulator is in reference to the Max Frisch novel, Man in the Holocene.
Both of these speak to me on a level that is difficult to articulate. “Karma Repair Kit” is a reminder to be still and accepting. Not of anything in particular, but of everything in general. Man in the Holocene is a meditation on loneliness and struck a note within me during my recovery, despite the fact I read it a very long time ago; it just bubbled up out of my mind.
The other song titles are fairly literal and loosely based on my friend’s suggestions. 2014 was unequivocally the worst year of my life. The amnesia wasn’t even the most difficult struggle, but I’m not going to elaborate. The songs are my way of processing what happened.
WH: What’s the main intent behind your music? What are you trying to communicate to your listeners?
GHO: That sitting still, especially when it is uncomfortable, is important; that the act of listening, whether it’s active or passive, is important. It slows down your thoughts, so you can spend time with them. Depending on your type of mind or life situation, that may not be desirable, but then it is all the more impactful.
Modern city life is fast and loud. We run around from place to place, from work to home, from the gym to the grocery store, checking our watches or phones, making sure we don’t miss appointments; little of that matters to our internal lives. We focus so intently on what we have to do that we rarely stop to think what we would like to do. Or what we should do, not only for our own happiness but also for our own mental health.
Slow down and take a nap. Memorybell can help.
WH: Do you have a lot of unreleased songs?
GHO: I rarely make a proper recording until I’m satisfied that I have a cohesive collection of songs. I have a few songs that didn’t make the cut for Obsolete, but if I do anything with them, I’ll probably chop them up and use parts of them in another project. I’ve reworked one song that didn’t fit the way I wished it had for Obsolete and will most likely include it on the next record.
I don’t have a lot of unreleased material but I do, however, have a lot of unrecorded material. I don’t write any musical ideas down, I just run the songs through my head over and over. I have several albums worth of songs in various stages of completion floating in my brain. Sometimes I’ll carry a song around for years before I return to it. One song I’ve been working on for 19 years and it still hasn’t fully revealed its mysteries to me. My approach is that if something is worth recording, I’ll remember it. Thankfully, the part of my brain that stores my musical ideas seems largely unaffected by my amnesia.
WH: Are you currently working on something? What can we expect next from Memorybell?
GHO: I’ve had my fill of reworking old material for the moment. I’m moving forward with my new approach and writing an album from scratch. It’s very freeing, and my process has quickened; I’ve let go of thinking of any given idea as precious, as worthy of meticulous appreciation. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s gone. If some essence of it sticks around, then it has merit and will find a place in some different form. It’s a looser and faster method than I’ve ever used before. I’m halfway done with the follow-up to Obsolete. The songs still breathe slowly and are still melodic, but it’s somehow…different.
My main obstacle is lack of time. I have a 2 year-old and a newborn at home (both boys) and, unlike when I wrote Obsolete, I am now gainfully employed. My time to write is limited to naptime, or those rare occasions when I’m home alone. I’m finding it helps, actually. I carry around the songs in my head, tweak them, try different arrangements, and then when I finally have the time to play them and test my ideas out, the good ideas tend to present themselves more or less immediately.
Whatever comes next will be looser and more organic.
Memorybell’s debut album Obsolete is available now through Hidden Shoal. Head to the artist’s profile for all links and more info.
As soon as its tense, antagonistic beat kicks in, Arc Lab‘s ‘Through the Burning Glass’ begins to stretch out before the listener like a vivid, grey horizon. Its diffuse but expressively cadenced rhythms and melodic lines ascend and circulate the song’s atmosphere, creating an exquisite tension between the serenity of the synths and the aggression of the beats. This is a track that you cannot stop listening to over and over again. Lifted from Arc Lab’s 2016 release Anthem. – Wagner Herthog
On ‘Ex Nihilo’, the quicksilver opener to his superb 2015 album Hearing Things, Erik Nilsson‘s impressionistic deployment of the guitar is very much in the tradition of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis: minimal notes, maximum impact. The track beautifully sets the stage for the album to follow, putting the listener in a receptive, contemplative mood that allows Nilsson to work his magic to best effect.
With an album due out next month that is an abject lesson in understanding the spaces between things, Grant Hazard Outerbridge (aka Memorybell) is well poised to present this beautiful mixtape, aptly entitled Still. Lets hand it over to the man himself to explain.
“Society these days is in such a rush. We bounce from one thing to the next, often, it seems, with little idea of where we’re going. As an artist I attempt to fold into my process a slowing down, preferably to a stasis where blurred notes and ideas become suspended, frozen in air where I can analyze and manipulate them. The songs included here for me represent stillness in many of its forms: sitting with discomfort, ennui, idleness, sadness, relief, and release. Once distraction is removed, we’re left with our bodies and thoughts which, in turn, can lead us to some unexpected realizations.” – Grant Hazard Outerbridge (Memorybell)
Chicago band Roommate, led by Kent Lambert, came to our attention in the second half of 2015 thanks to a glowing review of their fourth album MAKE LIKE on review site Coke Machine Glow. Since then, it’s been blasted regularly in the Hidden Shoal offices, and has received an extensive review on the blog of Hidden Shoal’s Tim Clarke. After contacting Kent about the release, Tim conducted an illuminating interview with Kent via email.
TC: This year you released your fourth album as Roommate, MAKE LIKE. Listening back to your discography, there’s a clear evolution away from electronic sounds towards a more sophisticated, full-band sound. How do you feel about the album now it’s been out for a while, and how do you see it sitting in relation to the rest of your releases?
KL: I’m going to quote from my application for the Illinois Arts Council grant that helped fund the album’s release. I wrote this text almost a year ago. Keep in mind that I was trying to convince strangers to give me money, so I come off as more grandiose and less humble than I otherwise might:
“I consider the album to be a pinnacle of my own career as songwriter and music producer, and a definitive representation of the band’s transformation from intimate, lo-fi, solo affair to cohesive, creatively ambitious, organically collaborative band… More than any past Roommate album, MAKE LIKE is the result of a collaborative decision-making process, and its songs were arranged for live shows before being translated into recordings. As with past Roommate albums, I wrote all of its songs in solitude. Unlike with past Roommate albums, all of its instrumental arrangements, recording processes and mixing decisions were conducted collectively. Though this album is ultimately a collection of my songs and its production was directed and managed by me, it is a document of a band, of multiple distinct sensibilities converging and diverging to untap and maximise the songs’ emotional, sonic and kinetic potential.”
A year later, I’m going to quote from your review, it describes very well (and much more concisely) how I feel about the album: “a culmination of all that’s come before it – a distillation of an aesthetic and a refinement of purpose.”
TC: Can you tell me a bit about your songwriting process, perhaps giving a couple of examples of how some of the songs on Make Like evolved.
KL: From 2000 to 2013, I continuously wrote material that eventually became songs on various Roommate albums. Some songs came together very quickly, others existed as pieces and parts, phrases and ideas, for months or even years before they cohered into a complete song. The process was basically me carrying these parts around, in notebooks or in my head, and filtering the stimuli of my daily life into parts that might lock together with pre-existing parts. For example, the line “lodgepoles are all getting eaten alive” in ‘RIOT SIZE’ was something my dad said on a camping trip in 2008 (he was pointing at and describing swaths of forest that had been destroyed by mountain pine beetles). I kept that little piece in my head, along with something about a tiger, and then in 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring and protests in Wisconsin over collective bargaining, the rest of that song came together within a few weeks, and those little lodgepole and tiger puzzle pieces found their place. By the time I wrote ‘PEOPLE ON SCREENS’ in January 2013, the rest of what would become MAKE LIKE had already been written, and I had a pretty good idea of how it would be sequenced, and of some of its overarching themes. I felt like there needed to be one more song. So I wrote most of ‘PEOPLE ON SCREENS’ in one sitting. I think it came together so quickly because it had all of these other songs to support and inform it.
TC: Your current line-up includes some pretty stellar players who also play in other Chicago bands. Do you have a clear idea of what you want the band to contribute to your songs, or do you let them create their own parts independently?
KL: It can vary from song to song, but our album arrangements are typically a mixture of parts I’ve come up with and parts that the other players figure out independently, or together as a band in rehearsals and recording sessions. The typical process is that I write the song and record a demo of it on my own, so that my bandmates can learn the song before we get together to arrange it for live shows. The demo will have placeholder drum, bass, synth and vocal parts, basically whatever comes to mind as I quickly try to sketch the song out. I am usually not attached to those parts and encourage my bandmates to replace them with new stuff, but in many cases they get very attached to the demos and sculpt their parts from those placeholder arrangements. On past albums, the demos would typically form the skeletons of the songs’ album versions, with my bandmates and I recording new parts around them (e.g. ‘MY BAD’ and ‘AUGUST SONG’ on Guilty Rainbow), but with MAKE LIKE, we arranged and played the songs live for a while before we worked on them in the studio. In the case of ‘OLD GOLDEN,’ the album arrangement is quite different from the original demo – that song evolved considerably through multiple live arrangements before settling into its album form. By contrast, ‘DANCER HOWL’ is much closer to the demo. The guitar figure that repeats through the verses and early ‘choruses’ is directly taken from the demo (although of course Sam fleshed it out with gorgeous tone and articulation) and we flew in the electronic drum parts from the demo and processed them through outboard gear.
TC: I find your lyrics and vocal delivery to be incredibly affecting. You manage to strike a difficult balance between the specific and the universal. I’m never exactly certain of what you’re singing about, but I understand what you mean – if that makes sense! At what point in the songwriting process do the lyrics take shape, and do you feel there are certain themes or ideas that recur in your songs?
KL: It’s extremely gratifying to get that feedback! What you say makes perfect sense to me, and though I’ve never articulated it that way, I’d say that striking that balance (between the specific and the universal, between cerebral ambiguity and emotional clarity) has been an underlying goal of my songs in recent years. I’m not interested in or comfortable with writing literal, confessional songs, but I’m also not interested in escaping into a fantasy or musical genre-fetish persona… I suppose I write songs as some kind of self-therapy. I meditate on my personal world and the social communities around it – my own creative communities, the city of Chicago, and beyond. The lyrics pretty much always come first. I might have some chord fragments or keyboard riffs floating around, waiting for lyrics to bond with, but it’s the lyrics that drive the process and turn the fragments into songs. I try not to analyse my own songs too intensely, I leave that to people like you, but yes, there are definitely themes and ideas that recur. My songs tend to come directly out of my anxieties, and those anxieties certainly have recurring themes. A prominent theme would be my anxiety with my own tremendous, ridiculous privilege as a comfortably employed white American man in the 21st century. I feel a burning itch to reckon with that privilege, to scratch at it, question it and atone for it somehow, I suppose. Other themes that I consciously reflected on while writing MAKE LIKE involved the kind of identity slippage facilitated by social media and immersive video games, the ease with which we can ‘connect’ with childhood friends, casual acquaintances and strangers through status updates and 3D avatars in violent virtual spaces, the beauty and horror that can live on the surface of those experiences, and the loneliness that often lies at their core… Or something like that?
TC: The production on MAKE LIKE is incredibly deep and rich. Can you talk about your relationship with Nick Broste and how you approached production on the album?
KL: We’d all known Nick for many years (he’s been a ubiquitous presence in Chicago’s music scene doing live sound and as a trombonist in Mucca Pazza and many other groups) but we’d never recorded with him. In 2012 we played a couple of shows at The Hideout for which he was running sound. We were very pleased with our stage mix and the feedback we got on how it sounded in the room. After one of those shows he told me that during ‘SECRET CLAW’ (a very new song at that point) he’d gotten very creative with the live mix, turning certain elements up and down and manipulating effects at various points in the song, and he sort of pitched the idea of helping us record a new album. We’d always self-produced with the incredible help of our good friend Gerard Barreto, but for a fourth album I was open to changing up the equation. I’d been fortunate enough to accumulate some complimentary recording days at John McEntire’s now-private SOMA Electronic Music Studios (my grandmother’s Mason & Hamlin piano was housed there for a couple of years), so Nick and I made some plans to do a bunch of tracking there. I think Nick was accustomed to a more straightforward recording process, wherein a band more or less documents their live show in the studio, followed by overdubs and mixing. We did a version of that by tracking basic rhythm section parts first, but for us, tracking and mixing are intertwined throughout the entire production process. Our process relies heavily on intuition, experimentation, trial and error – we’d listen to the evolving mixes to try to divine what else needed to be added. Once Nick got used to this process, he dove in headfirst and became a sort of mad sorcerer mastermind. He’d conduct all sorts of experiments with various outboard gear at SOMA (while talking to himself in various Spinal Tap-esque characters), he’d send tracks to tape or through his Memory Man pedal, he’d come up with counter-melodies (the Stereolab-like Farfisa part on ‘OLD GOLDEN’ was his creation) and strange textures… he basically became another member of the band. There were countless hours of tracking and mixing that just involved Nick and me.
TC: MAKE LIKE was mastered by Rashad Becker, who’s pretty legendary among those in the know, and who seems to have an exhaustive understanding of audio. How did you come to work with him? Have there been albums he’s worked on that you admire? What do you feel he brought to the album’s final incarnation?
KL: I don’t tend to pay too much attention to the technical personnel on albums I love, I typically just let my friends and collaborators educate me on such details. So I hadn’t heard of Rashad Becker until a conversation with my friend Cooper Battersby (he’s in CAVE and Bitchin’ Bajas and is an accomplished sound engineer and producer in his own right) when MAKE LIKE’s final mixes were on the horizon. Nick and I were a bit concerned with the robustness and density of the low-end in our mixes. Cooper was thrilled with Rashad’s work mastering CAVE’s album Threace, and he was confident that Rashad’s work on so many incredible bass-heavy electronic music records more than qualified him to help preserve the clarity of our mixes. I looked him up and realised he’d mastered many, many albums I listened to heavily in the aughts (e.g. Lali Puna’s Tridecoder and Scary World Theory, Morr Music’s Blue Skied An’ Clear complilation) and more recently (Fennesz’s Becs and Pantha Du Prince’s Black Noise), so I was determined to work with him, or at least to have someone at Dubplates & Mastering do the job. I think he did exactly what Cooper said he would – he applied a light but firm hand to the mixes, preserving and gently enhancing their clarity and dynamics. He kept the bass-y elements from becoming the muddy over-compressed mess that could have resulted from other engineers and facilities.
TC: When I first got in touch with you and asked about whether MAKE LIKE was going to be released on CD, this sparked a conversation about how frustrating it can be to continue making music when recouping costs has become close to impossible. How big a part does Roommate play in your life, and how do you see that changing in the future?
KL: I’ve worked various part-time and full-time jobs in the 15 years that Roommate has been a thing, and I’ve been active as an experimental videomaker, and played in other bands (the most recent and active of them being The Father Costume), so Roommate is one of many projects I’ve juggled in that time. But in terms of the sort of psychological/emotional/psychic presence it’s held in my life, it’s often felt like the central activity of my life, and there have been sustained periods of months during which it has more or less been a second full-time job, particularly during album production, mixing/mastering, release and touring cycles. I stopped writing new material after ‘PEOPLE ON SCREENS,’ I think I wanted those cycles to stop, at least for a while. I wanted a clean break – a break from new material to obsess over, from the costs and logistical headaches of studio recording, from the infinite decisions and minutiae involved in recording, mixing and mastering, and especially from the label/publicist/promotion/business side of it. I didn’t and don’t want to end the band, but I did make a conscious choice to stop participating in the traditional (and seemingly outmoded?) album release model that we and so many of our peers have used for years. That doesn’t mean I won’t record music again, but I am definitely not generating songs the way I did for so many continuous years.
So I really don’t know what role Roommate will play in my life in the future, but I’m keeping an open mind about it. In June we had a residency at our favorite Chicago venue The Hideout, which entailed a different show every week for five weeks, with different musicians and songs in each installment, and in the lead up to and during that residency, Roommate felt like two or three full-time jobs. But it was an intensely rewarding experience. It made old songs feel new again, and it involved so many different collaborators: the four-piece at the core of MAKE LIKE, numerous ‘alumni’ from past incarnations of the band, and a few incredible musicians with whom I’d never performed before. There was a program of music videos (including an interactive art-game by Thorne Brandt that will presumably be made public in 2016), a live score to 16mm films performed by Sam Wagster and me, and chamber ensemble versions of a few songs. I came out of the experience with a renewed confidence in the depth of the catalogue, and in the potential for the project to continue to mutate and reincarnate, even if there are no more proper albums for a while, or ever.
TC: As far as I’m concerned, 2015 has been an absolutely stellar year for music – including outstanding releases by Jenny Hval, Jim O’Rourke and Björk to name a few – with Roommate’s MAKE LIKE as my favourite of them all. Which records have you held close this past year?
KL: It’s amazing to me that our record would be in the company of, let alone top, those records you mentioned! It does really seem to have been a stellar year for music. I find it difficult to keep up with and fully appreciate music during its initial release cycle. For example, I listened to Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan in 2012–13, but it wasn’t until this past summer that I really, really got into it, and 2015 was also the second year in a row that I listened to MGMT’s 2010 album Congratulations semi-obsessively… But that said, in 2015 I spent much time with and got a great deal out of the latest albums by D’Angelo, Holly Herndon, Joanna Newsom, Kendrick Lamar, Julia Holter, Dungen, Sufjan Stevens and Flying Saucer Attack, as well as the Björk and Jim O’Rourke records you mentioned (Jenny Hval is on my radar but I haven’t dug into her music yet) and an amazing work from a large ensemble called Never Enough Hope (it includes Nick Broste and a couple other Roommate alumni, Amy Cimini and Erica Dicker). The composer and leader of the group is Toby Summerfield and the album is called The Gravity of Our Commitment. It’s phenomenal.
TC: And finally, what’s with the digital handclap sound that keeps cropping up in MAKE LIKE?!
KL: I don’t know, we got a Yamaha drum-pad at some point during the production of the album, and a couple of its clap samples became as crucial to us as a shaker or tambourine. I definitely felt a craving for sort of ’80s science fiction movie atmospheres and textures to be strongly represented on this record, and the handclap sort of encapsulated the fulfillment of that craving, particularly at the ending of ‘WILDERNESS.’ A digital clap through some precisely calibrated delay effects, at particular subdivisions of the beat, is an exquisite thing!
Here we present the MixTape version of Long Range Transmissions, the first in a new series of themed compilations from Hidden Shoal. The album showcases the ambient and neo-classical side of the catalogue, bringing together beautiful tracks from artists as diverse as Robert Pollard collaborator Todd Tobias, British chamber-pop songwriter Chloe March, and American ambient nostalgist Slow Dancing Society. From the delicate piano of Antonymes, Kryshe, Gilded and Medard Fischer, and the celestial experimentalism of Elisa Luu, Markus Mehr and Cheekbone, to the expansive guitarscapes of My Majestic Star, Erik Nilsson and Sleeping Me, Long Range Transmissions is an essential introduction to just one of the many facets of the Hidden Shoal label and licensing catalogue.
Long Range Transmissions is also available as a free downloadable album via BandCamp.
Hidden Shoal MixTape
- Hidden Shoal Artists Featured on Rudy Maxa Soundtrack
- New Slow Dancing Society Single, Forthcoming Album
- Erik Nilsson “The Imperfect Tense” Out Now!
- Todd Tobias “Massabu Evening Entertainments” Out Now!
- Three Questions with Erik Nilsson