It’s hard to imagine pop music today without Brian Eno. As a founding member of the seminal glam rock group Roxy Music with Bryan Ferry, the father of ambient music and a producer for the Talking Heads, David Bowie, U2, Laurie Anderson, and Grace Jones (among others), Eno has played no small part in catapulting his collaborators to pop-cultural icon status. A firm believer in using the recording studio as a compositional tool, Eno’s penchant for experimentation has accelerated the evolution of pop and taught generations of musicians about the importance of atmosphere. In 2011, Max Dax spoke to Eno in his London studio about venturing beyond the trusted avenues of making music, analyzing milliseconds of sound, and whether or not Bono has a sense of humor.
Good morning Mr. Eno!
Where are you from, Belgium?
No, Germany—up north near the Baltic Sea.
I grew up by the seaside too, in Suffolk. Isn’t it strange how your thinking and emotions adapt to the horizon when you live near the ocean? When you’re used to space, you need space to be able to think. Lots of people who grew up near the ocean say they wouldn’t be able to live landlocked in the mountains somewhere… Seems like you’re shaped by the landscape you grew up in. At least that’s true for me.
That reminds me of some of some of the things I’ve read on Rick Holland’s blog, with whom you’ve also recently been collaborating. As a poet, he very elegantly documents, step by step, his forays into the metaphysics of memory and everyday life. I appreciate it when artists are so transparent about what they do and why they do it.
That’s understandable for a journalist.
Do you often go to poetry readings?
No, actually never. I don’t often attend anything, really. And when I do, like it was in Rick’s case, then only because I’m looking for something. I always ask myself: How can I use what I see? How does that fit in with what I’m doing? And then when I like something, I immediately start to analyze it: Why do I like it? What parts did I like most? Is it something that I do better or do they do it better? Is it something they do that I don’t do at all, but should? On the rare occasion that I happen to go out, I’m constantly processing these kinds of questions.
What’s so particular about Rick Holland?
He’s very fast, and that’s important when working with me.
Is it important that he’s not a professional musician?
Yes, absolutely. It was very inspiring working with him, because he made me pay attention to music in a different way than a normal musician would’ve done. And also, in some ways, I think I had a similar effect on him. I was interested in his poetry from a musical point of view. I’d say to him: “Can’t you get rid of three syllables in line two?” Or: “Can’t we repeat line four twice?” And he never argued about these things. He’d change the lines or do something totally different…which I think is extraordinary, because you wouldn’t expect that from a poet, would you?
You mean you wouldn’t expect a poet to be such a pragmatist?
In a sense, yeah. In terms of the project as a whole, I would say that I made all the music and he made all the words. The division is fairly clear. But we still were able to give our input in both directions. Because we were in charge of different domains there was never any clash of egos. There was never anyone saying, “No, that’s my work! You can’t touch that!” It just didn’t happen.
You’ve had lots of experience working with big names and big egos. How did you deal with that in the past?
Look, you just deal with it. People can be quite territorial about what they’ve made and what they think they’re good at. Sometimes rightfully so.
Do you think ego and talent and good ideas are inseparable?
Not always, but good ideas certainly make the difference between the good and the brilliant.
Your work often seems based on strikingly simple ideas and you tend to finish stuff quickly—it’s almost the opposite of a composer who spends weeks or months to finish a piece of music.
Have you ever studied other people’s methods for producing good ideas and cultivating a creative state?
My favorite method is stopping everything for a moment. It’s amazing how difficult I find it these days to simply sit quietly. For example, yesterday I ended up on a long train journey. It wasn’t supposed to be a long journey but I got on the wrong train. I was late; I ran into the station, saw a sign saying “London” and just jumped on the train. I tend to do things like that now and again.
Then what happened?
It was the slowest train I’ve ever ridden. It went from Southampton to London and stopped at 23 stations. I didn’t have a book with me, so I thought to myself: why not sit still for as long as you can? I used to be able to do that. I used to fly to America without anything to read and I never used to watch the films they were showing. I just sat still for seven hours. But yesterday… Jesus, it was a nightmare! Every few minutes I was checking my phone or texting someone something. I have to discipline myself.
When you miss a flight or a train you’re confronted with time that you didn’t expect to have. I like to think of it as a gift. Sleeping is sometimes an option. But I often let my thoughts float freely. Every now and then something evolves out of such idle moments.
I call it “stolen time”—there’s nothing more valuable than stolen time. It happens to me sometimes when I’ve set up a meeting at my studio at a certain time and it gets cancelled on short notice. When it happens, I’m like a giddy child. I think, “Wow, I’ve stolen half an hour. It’s so exciting—I can do whatever I want!”
Arto Lindsay always asks me: “When was the last time you did nothing for half an hour?” I’m notoriously fidgety and have a hard time not answering messages or multitasking.
The original idea of ambient music was to try to give the listener an excuse to do nothing for some short period of time. Funny enough, the idea started in Germany—in an airport.
Which airport? Berlin Tegel?
No, Cologne. I had just come from Conny Plank’s studio and was on my way back to London. I remember it was a Sunday morning and I had some time to kill in the airport, which, by the way, was designed by Paul Schneider-Esleben, the father of Florian Schneider from Kraftwerk. It’s really a beautiful building, and back then it was quite new… So there I was, sitting in the airport on a lovely Sunday morning, with almost nobody else around, and all I could think of is: what a fantastic place to be! It all felt so modern, except…
Except that there was this terrible music playing—it had just nothing to do with the rest of this experience, and I thought how ridiculous it was that you would spend hundreds of millions of Deutschmarks on building an airport like this and not think about the music you play in it. You know, everything else was so controlled and so well thought out. Music for a space like this has to match the environment; it has to be designed; it has to be ambient. All I could think is how great would it be to have music which tells you to sit down, relax, and do nothing for the next 20 minutes.
Would you say ambient music is functional?
Absolutely. But at the same time it’s sort of the opposite of muzak, which also should be considered functional, you know. Muzak exists to facilitate work, something that lifts your energy level a bit and gets you back on the assembly line doing your job.
Like radio nowadays?
Exactly. And I wanted ambient music to do the opposite.
Playing ambient music in a place like an airport would seem like a typically German approach to functional music, don’t you think?
It does, doesn’t it. You know, the Germans commissioned Kraftwerk to do the jingle for the Expo 2000 in Hanover…
Yes, Kraftwerk were paid a huge sum for this tiny snippet of music, which sparked enormous public outrage. Aggressive tabloid headlines had the entire country pissed off at them. The tenor was: “Look how the government wastes taxpayers’ money!”
Well, that’s ridiculous.
How was it for you when Microsoft asked you to develop a sound design audible every time you turn on your PC? I assume that was also a very well-paid three-second snippet…
Three seconds and a third, to be precise. Working on a miniature piece of commissioned music impacted me in a very specific way; it influenced my perception of time. When I started working on normal three- or four-minute pieces again after having spent months focusing on milliseconds, I had the impression I was swimming in an ocean of time. Designing Microsoft’s sonic stamp made me feel like a jeweler, like a diamond cutter. Usually, I feel more like an architect who builds big things, although that’s something I only realized in hindsight. Thanks to the Microsoft job, I realized how big my other projects of the past had been.
Actually, you often refer to yourself as a “sonic landscaper.”
It’s very hard to find a name for what I do, because I’m not really a musician. For the Microsoft sound, I had to work on an almost atomic level—with atoms of sound.
If you’re not a musician, then what are you?
Well, I’m not a producer in the classic sense of the word—or at least I don’t do things a normal producer would do. I’m completely bored by that, actually. I’ve been looking for a term that describes what I do for years, really. “Sonic landscaper” will do for now, I suppose…
To what extent, then, do you consider yourself a producer?
First and foremost I try to help the people I work for do away with stuff that doesn’t work. I have to do that, because otherwise projects become crippled by indecision; people are often paralyzed by a range of choices when they’re presented to them on a silver platter with unlimited time to explore and process them. You can’t forget: Everybody works better with fewer possibilities. You see it over and over again that good artists end up coming back to the same ideas they’ve always worked with. And with every year that goes by, they get better and better in understanding the chemistry between these ideas. It’s not an argument for stopping or giving up experimentation. In fact, I’ve spent years in my little studio trying out the new tools and gadgets, which happens almost every week. But constraint is a very useful tool in a lot of ways. Constraint also in the sense of: When are you going to finish this? How much time are you going to spend doing it? Where do you think it’s headed? Who’s going to listen to it?
Are those ideas valid for your production work with, say, Coldplay and U2 as well as with your own stuff?
One of the problems with very successful bands is that they don’t have a limit on their budget or their time—they can just keep going and going and going. They also usually own their studio, so for them it doesn’t matter if they spend a day in there doing nothing. It doesn’t cost them money, and maybe they don’t have anything better to do anyway.
What else do you consider to be as important as narrowing the range of creative choices when producing?
I like to break up days and structure them. You have breakfast, work for two hours on a project, check your emails, work on another project for another two hours and then lunch. Your day has to be a measurable process, in order to minimize aimless drifting. Of course, you can have some days on automatic pilot, and there’s nothing wrong with drifting in and of itself. But you can’t do that every day—you’ll never get anywhere.
Do you ever find yourself in situations where you’ve run out of ideas?
Absolutely. I often get completely bored with myself. Then I know I need a holiday…from myself.
I remember playing PlayStation a few years ago and listening to the generic patterns of the endless music and thinking that it was a rip-off of your work. Do you sometimes think: “I invented this!”?
I sometimes think that, but to be honest, it surprises me even more how long it takes for a good idea to get through the system. Generally, when I encounter something in a new context that I had been doing 20 years ago, I tend to think: “I was right.” And that’s a good feeling. I might react different though if someone wrongly claimed an invention for themselves. I would probably feel the need to set them straight. But people don’t do that. They just use ideas and don’t claim they were theirs, and that’s perfectly all right with me. I’m not poor; I’m not dependent on something I did 30 years ago for my income.
So, when you see Lady Gaga in her famous meat outfit, you don’t think: that was my idea!
She probably never heard about my meat outfit with Roxy Music.
I think she studied art and popular culture at NYU and when she gives interviews, she always cross-references, so there’s a good possibility she had.
The only thing I care about in ego terms is that I want people to know that it was me who put the flag in first. It’s like going to the North Pole.
Or the moon?
In fact, when Peter Chilvers and I did the Bloom app, I was convinced there must be at least 25 people all over the world working on something very similar. It was such an obvious thing to create—given how everything had progressed in the past 20 years. When we finished it and presented it to Apple, they loved the idea and wanted to do a campaign for it, which they said needed six weeks to put together. But I insisted that it should be out the following week—I just wanted to be the first one to do it. I wanted the world to know.
Why is that so important?
Two reasons: One is that I sometimes come up with an idea that’s the first of its kind. Why should somebody else get the credit? The other thing is if someone else is quicker than me and comes out with a crappy version of the same idea, then it kills the chances of the good version being heard or seen. I was and am self-confident enough to be able to say that the other competitors just weren’t as good as Peter and I were.
You make it sound as though you have some special antenna which tunes you in to people working on similar things, and that’s why you have to be so fast with coming out with the idea.
I think the ideas that suddenly pop up do so because there are a lot of other ideas in other places that are all pointing in the same direction. Sometimes you only need to wait for the next technological innovation to realize great ideas you’ve had in the past.
Like the iPhone?
Yeah, that’s a good example. Suddenly all these ideas that were floating around randomly are realized after some big evolutionary step in technology. If you were following the ideas before, you’re not surprised at all by these inventions because you can anticipate them. You were basically just waiting for them to happen.
Some people might say that Bloom was just an app—what made it so important for you?
The Bloom story really started for me way back in the ’60s, when I became interested in pieces of music that could write and create themselves…
Like wind chimes?
Exactly. But also like Terry Riley’s In C or Steve Reich’s Tape Pieces. These too are great examples of self-generative music to me. They really represented a new kind of composition and way of creating music. I think some of my own stuff—Music for Airports or Discreet Music—were also examples of that. But these records were like fossilized versions of those processes; they were nothing more than examples of the million possibilities of how these records could have sounded. They showed 30 minutes of a process that lasts forever. With Bloom I waited decades to be able to release the process itself—and not only a snapshot of it. The iPhone gave me the possibility to release the source code, and I wanted to be the first. I actually released something like Bloom 20 years ago, but it didn’t work out because technology wasn’t advanced enough. It was called Generative Music 1 and it was sold on a floppy disc. Actually, it didn’t sell at all. I still have an author’s copy somewhere in my studio. It probably is a collector’s item today.
Have you heard of any musicians that used a Bloom sample in a hit single?
I don’t consider Bloom to be a tool for making music—I see it more as a piece of music that comes to life if you bother to switch it on. It’s always sitting there with all its possibilities and all the ways it could be. I’m sure that somewhere in the world someone is playing Bloom right now and bringing to life one of its endless possibilities.
But do you know of any song or record that’s referenced Bloom?
There’s supposed to be a Radiohead track called “Bloom” that opens with it, but I don’t know if that’s true. By the way: time’s up—I have to follow my pattern. Anything else you’d like to ask?
I heard this joke the other day: What’s the difference between God and Bono?
I don’t know this one—tell me!
When God walks down the street, he doesn’t think he’s Bono.
That’s great—I’ll have to tell Bono that one.
Does he have a sense of humor?
Are you kidding? Of course he does.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, and the cover image was taken by Martin Godwin. To read more from the magazine, including articles from the Summer 2015 issue, click here.
In each issue of our print magazine, we visit various cities around the world, speaking with residents and getting their stories. Coinciding with the city’s annual Unsound festival, we present a portrait of Krakow from its own residents, originally printed in our Fall, 2011 issue.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Krakow has earned an international reputation as the epicenter of cultural life in Poland—thanks in no small part to generous public funding and, bizarrely, the success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Over the past fifteen years, the city has rediscovered its Jewish and bohemian identities; while the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is now teeming with jazz clubs, cafes and reconstructed relics of Jewish culture, the city as a whole has become an amalgam of a dark past and bright future.
07:15: Coffee at KOLORY cafe, ul. estery 10, Kazimierz
Radek Szczesniak, PR and Programming for Unsound Festival
Krakow is small, so most of the cafes in the Old Town are filled with tourists who pop in for a quick coffee and then move on. Kolory is a different story. When I want to meet up with somebody in the morning, I almost always do it there. Even though I don’t drink coffee, the rich and pleasant smell of espresso fills the entire place. I usually stick to the French style breakfast, which is good for something small and sweet on the cheap. If you take a look at the walls, every photo and every picture is some reference to Paris, which somehow fits the neighborhood’s Bohemian aesthetic.
Poles actually don’t eat breakfast out, so the only reason they offer it in Kolory is because it’s also a B&B. Like so many bars and cafes in Kazimierz, it only opened up a few years ago. But it doesn’t feel new in a bad way… There used to be almost no young people in the area—only boarded-up buildings and sketchy-looking guys milling about. But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, more and more people started coming to the Jewish quarter, and everything changed really, really fast. Kolory is a perfect place to take it all in slowly—that is, until night falls. When the bar’s full, shouting is the only way to have a conversation.
08:30: Auschwitz Tour, Michalowskiego 11, Old Town
Luczan Klimaszewski, tour guide. Above: It might be irritating at first to constantly see Disneyland-like billboards offering tours of concentration camps, but after a few days you get used to it.
I’ve been driving these small electric cars around town for a couple of years now, doing tours of Krakow and selling tickets for attractions outside of the city—mostly day trips to Auschwitz and the salt mines. In Poland, the Holocaust and Auschwitz in particular are still incredibly fresh in our collective memory. Everybody I know, and probably every Polish person eighteen or older, has been to Auschwitz on a field trip. I grew up here and have a special interest in the history of World War II and the Holocaust so it’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I’ve actually never been to Auschwitz. I can’t remember why I didn’t get to go on my school trip, I was probably sick or something. But the more interesting question is why I haven’t gone to see Auschwitz on my own. I constantly tell myself that it’ll always be there, so I can go and see it whenever I want—it doesn’t have to be now. Clearly I’m putting it off, but not consciously. I know what I’m going to see there, I know how it’s going to affect me. I know myself, and I know I’m going to have a very hard time when I go. I’ll be destroyed emotionally for a few days, so I’m really not in any rush. I will go, because I think it’s an important thing to do. But, you see, it’s not that easy.
Some people think it’s strange the way tours for Auschwitz are advertised and that there’s a tourist industry that’s sprouted up around the camps. I don’t think it’s strange at all. For me, it’s normal. You know, when we advertise Auschwitz, we don’t have to tell people what they’re going to see, we just help them get there. Auschwitz should be remembered, but it shouldn’t be a taboo. It shouldn’t be un-utterable, and it definitely shouldn’t be hidden. I think most Krakow natives are probably immune to seeing the word “Auschwitz” on tour advertisements. I’m usually only reminded of what Auschwitz is when I see the traces of Jewish life in the city, usually the synagogues.
11:17: Meet Bartosz Szydlowski , Laznia Nowu Theater, os. Szkolne 25, Nowa Huta
Bartosz Szydlowski, Theater Director, Laznia Nowa. Above: Lights, camera, camouflage. Nowa Huta’s next generation, conspicuously disguised.
In many ways, Krakow is a very conservative city—very bourgeois. Not so much politically, but more culturally. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it can be a serious obstacle for developing a creative community outside of the establishment. Nowa Huta is the biggest district in Krakow, with around 250,000 residents. It’s a district that’s been economically marginalized and written off by many as a cultural desert. Over the past ten years, the feeling of abandonment has only increased; the steel manufacturing plant has been closed down, there’s massive unemployment and people around here are frustrated. We all had big expectations after the end of communism, but the promised land of a “New Poland” has turned into a nightmare for so many. Culturally speaking, the elitism of the educated class only compounds the problems of the poor. Culture shouldn’t be held hostage in an ivory tower and that’s why I’ve moved the theater to this area; that’s what this theater is about.
The theater itself is enormous, the biggest in Krakow. It feels like a miracle to have actually convinced the local politicians and municipal boards to support our cause. Slowly people are starting to understand that high art and community activity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They can’t be! For me, theater is not only about the performance. It’s not just a meeting between actor and audience. I see it as a stream of activities that should reinforce the connections between art and society. We want to be able to tell the stories of the people in the community, whether through the medium of a more well-known piece or by having the people tell their stories themselves. That idea may not sound so radical today, but here, five or six years ago, this was unimaginable. I think we’ve helped give a voice to the people of Nowa Huta, and I’m infinitely proud of that. I actually grew up here, which may explain my attitude a bit. I was always something of an outsider, because my parents didn’t work in the steel mill—they were philosophy professors. Nova Huta has become a Bermuda Triangle of churches, supermarkets and television. I want to offer people a way out.
12:31: Lunch at U Stasi, Mikolajska 16, Old Town
U Stasi is a typical Polish “milk bar”—a kind of subsidized cafeteria where everybody can get good food cheap. Milk bars are one of the few extremely positive remnants of the communist era. I don’t know how long U Stasi has been around, but I know that my parents were going there when they were students. A bowl of soup will cost you 2 Złoty and 79 Groschen, which is a reduced price because the government is paying for part of your borscht. For Polish food there’s really only super cheap or super expensive. There’s nothing in the middle; the middle is Italian food or Chinese or something. Don’t ask me why.
One of the special things about U Stasi is that the staff is incredibly fast. The guy running the checkout has been around as long as I can remember. As soon as you tell him what you’ve eaten, he’s immediately able to tell you the sum without using a calculator or computer. The guy calculates faster than the machine can spit the change back at you. I think he also knows what everybody has eaten—not that anybody would want to cheat them out of the pittance they make on the food anyways. Food-wise, I mainly stick to the soups and pierogis. The pierogi ruskie with a white cheese, potato and onion mixture is probably one of my favorites, with the sweet plum-filled pierogi coming in a close second.
02:50: Meet the skaters, Powisle, Wawel Castle
Sprzymierzeni Crew. Piotrek, Kacpar, and Kuba travel all over Europe in search of newer, better, and more public skate spots. The group aren’t afraid of confrontations with police or pedestrians. At all.
We’re skaters—it’s who we are; it’s our identity. The name of our crew, Sprzymierzeni, can literally be translated as “allies”. Most skaters are lazy. When they go to a new town or city, they head directly to the next park and skate the ramps and street courses installed for them. But these places suck because they’re too clean. That’s why we travel around Poland and Europe for the best public areas to skate, because we believe that skating is about using the terrain that’s not designed for skating. Skate videos are rad, and that’s why we make them. But we also think it’s important to document alternative, creative approaches to public space. The police are always hassling us, because people are always complaining about the noise or about a curb being waxed. It’s true, we’re noisy, but we don’t break anything, and street traffic is twice as loud as we are. We sometimes find it hard to identify with people that don’t skate. What we do is a way of life; it’s all consuming. To be honest, it’s hard to remember what life was like before we started skating. We never played any other sports very seriously… But what we do is not a sport, because it’s not about competition.
When we get thrown out of a spot, we immediately look for another. But if the first one is that good, then we’ll wait an hour or two and just go back—usually when we’re looking to film one of us landing a specific trick. Getting kicked out of a great spot is annoying, but skating should be confrontational… in a good way. People need it drilled into their heads: skateboarding is not a crime.
03:43: Jewish Community Center, Miodowa 24, Kazimierz
Anna Gulinska, Programs Manager, Jewish Community Center. Above: Jewish, Catholic, Communist and Nazi memorabilia are sold side by side at the flea market on Nowy Square, Kazimierz.
Lots of people have this idea that the Jewish community in Poland, if it exists at all, is only made up of older Holocaust survivors. That’s not the case. But comparatively speaking, Krakow’s Jewish population is pretty tiny. There are only around 120 registered members of the official Jewish community here, but you have to see this number in context: To become a member of the community you have to be able to present documents proving that you’re Jewish, which is pretty hard to do. So much of the documentation was lost or destroyed when people were sent off to the camps. And plenty of other people just aren’t keen on being officially registered as a Jew, for obvious reasons. Our center has around 370 members, and lots of young people. Slowly but surely, the community is growing. It’s not the 70,000 Jews that lived here before the war, but we’re making progress.
I feel somewhat ambivalent about how the former Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz has been reinvented as a kind of Disneyland for Jewish culture, with the Klezmer music and fake Hebrew fonts and what not… to me it’s a bit cheesy. My boss likes to call it “Jew-rassic Park”. But it’s definitely helped to spread the word about Jewish life, even if it’s an antiquated image. We send members of the center all over the city to give talks and presentations about Jewish culture. We also do lots of work in prisons, believe it or not. In Poland, many prisoners are involved in a program cleaning Jewish cemeteries and tending to Jewish gravestones. With all of the information about the demise of Polish Jewry, we think it’s important teach about about Jewish life as well. It’s incredible how receptive the inmates are to learning about the history of Polish Jewry. In general, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it’s been for the center to become integrated into the neighborhood. Most everybody has been welcoming, and the majority of the shop and restaurant owners from the area have popped their heads in to say hello. And it says a lot that when we have an open house or put on a festival, we’ve never needed any police protection or extra security. That might be normal for places like the U.S.A., but certainly not for Europe.
05:22: Korporacja Ha!art Books, pl. Szczepański 3a, Old Town
Michal Borecki, Korporacja Ha!art Books. Borecki helps run Korporacja Ha!art and publishing house. The future of print in Poland is in his hands—every day.
I think books in general are niche these days—at least in Poland. I’d love to be able to say that there’s something really exciting happening right now in Polish literature, but actually there isn’t. A few years ago, the twenty-somethings were starting to publish and get their ideas out, but those days are over. It’s really hard to find good young authors, although we receive tons of manuscripts from kids and young adults born in the late eighties and early nineties.
I know that it’s a worldwide phenomenon, but here it really feels like people have stopped reading literature. You know, for thirty-six straight weeks in Poland, the number one best seller was a book on how to lose weight. And what little new literature there is has somehow become totally depoliticized. Our last big seller was written by an eighteen-year-old high school girl from here in Krakow. When she pitched her manuscript she told us, “This is a book about nothing.” And it’s true—it’s a book about being bored all the time. Four hundred pages worth.
07:50: Dinner at The Olive Tree, ul. Kupa 6 , Kazimierz
Yitzhak Horvitz, Restaurateur, The Olive Tree. Above: A typical store window in Krakow’s Old Town: what you see is what you get.
After I served in the army in Israel, I worked on a security detail in Vienna, where I met my wife. We went back to Israel not too long after that and I decided to become a rabbi. The thing is, I like travelling, so we decided to move to Kiev, where I took a position as a rabbi for a short-term project. When that was done I had an offer from a small congregation in Dortmund, but Krakow seemed the more attractive alternative.
This is the only kosher restaurant in the city. I mean, this is Kazimierz, so you have plenty “Jewish style” restaurants and tourists flock here to see the traces of Jewish life that flourished before the Nazis. But there wasn’t a single restaurant where observant Jews could eat proper kosher food until I opened up. I mean, the “Jewish style” places look nice and they draw lots of people with the Klezmer music and all that, but they just don’t smell anything like home, if you know what I mean. Because kosher isn’t just about what kind of food you serve—it’s about how you serve it. What we serve is nothing short of highest quality gourmet food, which also happens to be kosher. But it’s not just normal kosher, it’s the highest possible kosher standard. Rabbi Westheim of Manchester issued our certificate, and if you know anything about kosher gastronomy in Europe, you know that it doesn’t get any better than that. It’s an honor. Between here and London, there’s not another restaurant certified by the rabbi. I literally get calls from all over Europe with people asking “Is it true? Did Rabbi Westheim really issue your certificate?” You have to understand: the first question an orthodox Jew asks about a restaurant is not “How’s the food?”—it’s: “Who certified it?” I want the world, and especially non-Jews, to realize how good kosher can taste. We can promise that every piece of food, every vegetable, every leaf of lettuce has been inspected by my supervisor and myself for insects and other impurities in the most thorough possible fashion. People don’t understand that if you don’t take your time washing the food, you’ll have a zoo in your salad. You can taste the difference.
09:45: Meet Gosia at Miejsce, ul. estery 1, Kazimierz
Gosia Plysa, Director, Unsound Festival
Before we had an office to organize the Unsound Festival, we would always meet up in the afternoon in Miejsce Bar in the center of Kazimierz to work on scheduling, booking, and PR stuff. We’d usually start out in the morning in Kolory Cafe, and then move on to Miejsce around lunchtime. At some point we did the math and realized that renting an office and buying our own coffee machine would be far cheaper, so that’s what we did. But going from working in a cafe to working in an office is not as easy as it sounds: peripheral distractions can sometimes make the work a lot easier. To be honest, we kind of miss it. Even though we’ve found our rhythm in the office, we still go to Miejsce almost every night.
The first few editions of Unsound were really organized in bars. And when the festival is on, Miejsce turns into an unofficial meeting point for the artists, journalists and festival-goers. Last year, Ben Frost and Adam Wiltzie DJ’ed spontaneously from their laptops, which really got the crowd going. The place was packed. You couldn’t move, but you also didn’t want to.
11:12: Meet Radek at Unsound office
Radek Szczesniak, PR and Programming, Unsound Festival. Above: Wawel River at dusk.
Unsound is all about combining an avante-garde program with more classical techno and house and new sub-genres of electronic music. We like to pair artists who are established with those who are up and coming. People need to know how much incredibly good electronic music there is in Eastern Europe and how receptive our audiences are. Collaboration is extremely important to us—it all circles around the idea of building new bridges between East and West and strengthening pre-existing ones. This goes both for the festival and for the mixtapes and albums we bring out. We had Stefan Betke curate our Connections LP, which was all East-West collaborations. This year we’ll have Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason doing a piece together with the Krakow Symphony Orchestra, based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris—with Brian Eno on visuals… Tarkovsky’s version is based on a novel by Stanisław Lem, who was from Krakow. So I guess it all comes full circle.
01:37: Klub Alchemia, ul. estery 5, Kazimierz
Lukasz Rogulski, Booker, Klub Alchemia. Above: Ultra-progressive free jazz has strangely become the norm in Krakow. This avid concert-goer takes a break from the music to strike the thinking man’s pose.
Alchemia has been around for over twelve years. It was the first jazz venue to move into the district of Kazimierz, and if you knew how derelict this neighborhood was back in the day, you’d know that that’s no small feat. Booking for a good jazz venue is a bit like alchemy, because jazz fans are a notoriously picky bunch: some only come for fusion and free jazz; others are old-school purists. We book lots of bigger acts from all over the world. Ken Vandermark was here not too long ago, as well as Peter Brötzmann . . . On the whole the acts we book tend towards a free jazz and avant-garde direction, which bleeds over into the atmosphere of the café as well. I can’t quite explain it, but the atmosphere is, well, free.
I wish I had more time to actually see the music that’s being played live at Alchemia. Sometimes it seems like the multitasking that I have to do fits perfectly to a jazz venue, especially when the band gets louder and louder and you can hear it push and pulse from the basement stage. It’s ridiculous what the musicians and concert-goers leave behind after shows—all sorts of random shit. One guy left a massive case for a double bass. How is it possible to forget something that big? ~
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 27 (3, 2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Arto Lindsay is a US-born guitarist, singer, and producer currently living in Rio de Janeiro. As the release of Kanye West’s highly-anticipated album Yeezus approaches, we revisit Lindsay’s take on Ye’s collaborative epic with Jay-Z Watch The Throne, which originally appeared in our Fall, 2011, print magazine.
There are two production styles I’ve gotten really into these days: the first is the (James) Blakean school of combining dubstep sounds, vocal treatments and strange repetition. The second is T-Bone Burnett’s big, old-fashioned Hollywood reverb thing—huge and fearless. Kanye West’s sound is a combination of the two, which, in my book, makes him the world’s number one producer. After making a name for himself with sped-up samples and beats, Kanye learned old-fashion production skills: orchestration, arrangement and analogue recording techniques. By hiring the best sound engineers around, Kanye vindicates all the good things about the old recording industry. And he’s obsessive about keeping up with the global underground, from dance music and indie rock to every other imaginable sub-genre.
I love the grand, excessive, and triumphant things in hip-hop—beats and rhymes, big and epic. Watch the Throne is exactly that. Plus, Kanye can be so personal and intense, which balances Jay-Z’s more technical approach. Jay-Z’s stories have also become more familiar, compared to Kanye’s highly original observations about life and the world. Take Kanye’s second verse on “No Church in the Wild”: “When we die, the money we can’t keep. But we probably spend it all ’cause the pain ain’t cheap. Preach!” This comes right after he’s laid down the guidelines for a proper threesome. Watch the Throne also features two songs with singer Frank Ocean from Odd Future, whose “Novacane” has blown up over the past few months. It’s an album with a finger on the pulse of the future.
Some might think it’s decadent and offensive that American rappers talk so much about money— especially when so many people are out of work. But this record is split in half in more ways than one: half of it is about how much money Kanye and Jay-Z have and the other half is about those who don’t have money and why; about how black people are still suffering in America; about how black women are still not considered beautiful. And of course, the poor want luxury in their entertainment. People like shiny things, and in a sense this record is the shiniest object of the moment, with the faux bas-relief cover by Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci.
On one track Kanye and Jay-Z literally bought both a Curtis Mayfield and an Otis Redding song in order to chop them up and sample them how they wanted. They bought these songs! Crazy! Or as it’s said these days: “Cray!” The results are pretty impressive, too. Kanye uses the actual sound of the song—that is, the sound of the recording, not just the beat. He then builds everything else in detailed fashion around it, like with “Try a Little Tenderness”, where he layers his own singers and percussion right on top. Then he just yanks some of Otis’ vocal sounds—groans, grunts, guttural exclamations—and uses them for rhythm. It’ll be interesting to see how the world rethinks the American dream now that America is no longer the subject of the world’s dreams. This record is beginning to think such thoughts. ~
In the past, being an ambitious band or musician meant coming up with new and exciting concepts for albums. With Biophilia, Björk has decided to reinvent the concept of the album itself. Her seventh longplayer, available both in classic album format as well as in a bundle of specially designed apps, is an interactive nature- and science-themed extravaganza of grand technological proportions. Famous art curator and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist caught up with the singular musician to find out how the touchscreen has permanently altered the way she creates and hears music.
Björk, your new album Biophilia took three years to make. Both musically and conceptually it stands out from the rest of your oeuvre as part of a larger multimedia project including specially designed apps. Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea to transgress the borders of putting out a conventional album.
More than anything else, touchscreen technology has completely transformed the way I think about writing music. For the past few years, I’d been using touchscreens exclusively to perform, until one day I decided I wanted to explore the world of touch more deeply, because it’s so intuitive. That’s when I actually started writing music with them as well. I had been feeling limited by conventional computer programs with sequencing grids for a while; I felt like I was being forced into conventional time signatures against my will—even though you can do anything with computers, of course. But I needed to be able to both see and manipulate something that was the opposite of a grid. That’s also when I began writing and developing programs together with programmer and sound engineer Damian Taylor back in 2008. The touchscreen immediately offered solutions to issues I’ve wanted to solve since my music school days.
When did you attend music school?
When I was a child in Iceland, from the age of five until I was around fifteen. At the time, I felt like the teachers didn’t try enough to tap into my intuitive tactile sensibility. When I first saw the touchscreen, it brought me back to my childhood and my experiences with my own music. I was so excited to reenter a place where I could map things out compositionally as I experience them . . . while at the same time drawing a connection to nature.
So the touchscreen also inspired you to explore biological and cosmological themes?
Yes, strangely enough. The applications we designed connect a musical element to a natural one, like the shape of lightning being similar to an arpeggio, or double pendulums inspiring the relationship between counterpoint and melody. I was thinking about how somebody without a background in music would want to create music, how a child would explore the basic elements of composition.
Last time I was in Iceland I met up with the composer Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, who passed away not too long ago. He was a real pioneer for electronic music—much adored by people like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Was he at all a role model for you in terms of experimentation?
No, but he was brilliant. Growing up, my formal musical education was much more conservative. I mean, I’m happy I had it, but the focus was on performance, not necessarily on creating. It was about picking an instrument, practicing for ten hours a day, and then maybe in fifteen years, if you’re lucky, becoming part of a symphony orchestra. It certainly wasn’t empowering in the creative sense.
And what about performing Biophilia? The project combines so many different types of media that live, it would seem to extend far beyond the conventional concert context. How do you present that in all of its complexity?
A normal concert venue will work, but to show everything we’ve done, a museum might be better. We’ve actually gotten offers from a bunch of different museums after our premier in Manchester. There we did a small, stage-bound version of something that’s actually much bigger and more encompassing, spatially speaking. Since then, we’ve gotten offers from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, The National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo… which would all be great fits, I imagine.
It all sounds very educational…
Nothing’s been confirmed yet, but the idea is to use the nature-related apps and instruments we’ve developed as educational tools for children, and then develop exhibits together with biologists, physicists and astronomers. I’m fascinated by the idea of providing the kids with both the technology and the actual objects being discussed. As you know, the umbrella app for Biophilia contains individual apps for each song. I keep imagining the children getting to hold and play with real crystals, and then working with the app from “Crystalline”. The Exploratorium in San Francisco actually talked about developing a ten-room exhibit—one room for each song. San Francisco has one of the largest collections of natural crystals in the world.
So the project would be transformed into more of an exhibition?
Yes, in collaboration with scientists.
The transformation that you describe from one form of presentation to another seems so natural; it’s an almost organic evolution; an organic integrated learning system. Biophilia seems to be less about exact replication and more about changing and adapting to a host environment.
Very much so. I remember about a year into the project I had to stop myself from trying to control the direction the whole thing was taking and just let it start growing naturally. That’s when the best ideas started to take form. Of course, when we met all of the app developers and designers, the project took an entirely different spin.
Six years ago, you and I had a discussion about how to introduce your work into a museum context. The plans were approaching an advanced phase, but had to be put on hold because you were coming out with your album Medúlla. Now things seem to be moving again in that direction. What’s changed?
When we met up, I had been really excited about the museum idea, but I think wasn’t really ready for it; I hadn’t thought enough about how to present things in the museum context. But I would say our conversations from back then planted the seed for what I’m doing today—certainly in terms of how to “show” music and how to make it interactive. This is the first album I’ve done that really allows the listeners to actively immerse themselves in it. The touchscreen and the applications encourage a threefold interaction: between myself and nature, between the listener and the music, and between the listener and nature. The algorithms for the Biophilia apps allow you to not only to alter and rearrange the songs superficially, but also to completely mess with the song structure…while still maintaining the connection to the natural elements the songs deal with. The connection to nature, biology and the cosmos is a constant.
I remember from our conversations about interactive music that you were interested in doing an exhibition together with the French director Michel Gondry. He was supposed to do the projections for an installation with singers who line a long, dark corridor, I think.
That’s right—it was going to be a labyrinth lined with singers performing songs from Medúlla. The idea came about because, compositionally, the songs and melodies off the album are so interwoven. I was imagining the exhibition-goers wandering around and singing as well. I think that if I had conceived Medúlla as interactive from the very beginning, then it would have been easier to follow through with the exhibition. I’m convinced Biophilia has become what it is because the entire project is predicated on being interactive.
After the live premier of Biophilia in Manchester, half the people I spoke to thought they had seen a concert and the other half thought they had seen something else.
I would say that whatever it was, it was a compromise. We maxed out our budget a long time ago and didn’t have the funding to do all the stuff we had originally planned. I wanted the event to be really intimate and have people be more involved, and that’s why we set up the stage in the middle of the venue. Children who came by to test the applications when we had days off of performing were actually using the same touchscreens we were—the ones connected to the instruments. I suppose that made the actual performance area something other than a conventional stage.
Did you imagine lots of movement and mobility in the interaction with the audience? Was the performance supposed to take place throughout the entire venue?
No, more via the touchscreens. This is actually the first time in my life that I wrote songs sitting down, as opposed to being in motion. It used to always happen while I was walking, with the exception of Sugarcubes songs, which were more collaborative. I only realized recently how uncommon it is to not write songs or melodies with a guitar or piano. In the past, I always relied on the sounds of nature as a form of musical accompaniment for my singing. That’s why combining the songs with elements of nature felt totally natural. It wasn’t a utopian vision or some bizarre experimentation; it was perfectly normal for me to work with these sounds. And live, the touchscreen has allowed me to be able to focus completely on my singing, because the rest of the sounds I’m making are purely intuitive movements and gestures. It’s freed things up for me enormously.
I’ve had a chance to play around some with the Biophilia app and was struck by its multi-functionality; it’s an instrument, a game, an educational tool…
Don’t forget the animation. This was definitely a collaborative effort, but I would say most of the collaboration was for the visuals and programming. The music I did almost entirely by myself. I think the older I get, the more idiosyncratic I become in the studio and end up wanting to do the music on my own. I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.
You’re still continuing to work with programmers, right?
You mean app builders? Of course. But this entire project was interspersed with some pretty big breaks, because I was so intensely involved with environmental issues in Iceland. Also, shortly before the bank crash, there was a good four-month period where I was over there petitioning against investment in the aluminum industry—which still continues to destroy Iceland’s geothermal resources, by the way. I was working together with a group called Náttúra on developing job alternatives in rural areas where the aluminum smelting plants would otherwise employ entire towns. We encouraged the people to start small businesses to promote a green economy. We also wrote a manifesto, which I gave to the Prime Minister.
I’d love to read that. Where can I get a copy?
It’s online, but it’s in Icelandic. The whole thing is really functional and straightforward. We wanted to avoid doing anything utopian or unrealistic, because people were already calling us idealists and accusing us of being clueless hippies.
Were you promoting a micro-credit system, like in India?
Not exactly. We were coming up with viable employment alternatives and amendments to Icelandic law in order to make it easier for people to start small businesses. For example, it was our idea to have smaller green business owners be allowed to hire people who were collecting unemployment and would continue collect unemployment even though they technically had jobs. This was actually made legal, back in autumn of 2008…
I remember all the international press coverage and how you set into motion some pretty big changes in Iceland.
I really wanted to go for it, you know? I felt like it was now or never… and then the bank crash happened, which was strange because this was the first time in my life that I’d been hanging out a lot with economists. All around us, people were losing their jobs, their houses, their pensions… It was very dramatic. There were all these abandoned buildings at the time because everything had gone bankrupt. And that’s when I had the idea of setting up a kind of music school. It was supposed to have ten rooms, which were to correspond to ten elements of nature. These would then help kids learn music theory and composition…
Each room would be like a chapter in an interactive textbook?
I suppose that’s one way to think about it… it was really about using one of those abandoned or unfinished buildings. Then the economic situation took a turn for the worse, and everybody who’d lost their savings gathered outside the Icelandic parliament demanding for the government to step down—which they did. People smashed pots and pans until all the ministers resigned. It was like 1968 in Paris. This happened to be at the same time that I realized that I was free from all of my contractual obligations with record companies, which was very exciting. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Internet and the endless possibilities of releasing my own work… in whatever form I pleased.
And that’s when the apps were developed?
No, first I was contacted by National Geographic, who were starting a record label and wanted me to be their first artist, which I immediately said yes to. At first, I was imagining an unconventional partnership; I wanted them to help me build the music school! But they don’t build buildings, so they suggested we do a 3D movie, which I thought was a brilliant idea. I ended up meeting all sorts of directors and film producers, but at some point the project became so huge and expensive that I retreated in a way. I started doing a lot of the work on my own, really DIY. I moved to Puerto Rico for eight months with my sound engineer and that’s when I really started writing the songs for Biophilia. At first, I was using a cheap little organ, as well as some midi stuff I got off of eBay—cheap touchscreens and a couple of Nintendo game controllers. Eventually, sometime in 2010, it became clear the 3D film wasn’t going to get made…
But you had already done so much work.
Yes, loads of it. In two years I finished all ten songs, including the application ideas for all of the natural elements.
What are the different elements featured on the album?
Let’s see if I can name them all… There’s gravity, tectonic plates, the human relationship to nature, viruses…
Yes—crystals, DNA, dark matter, cosmogony, lightning, and lunar cycles. Creation myths play a key role, too… What was incredible is that right after I finished all of the songs in the spring of 2010, the iPad came out. It was perfect timing.
So technology caught up with you!
Something like that… That’s when we started contacting some of my favorite app creators.
From what I understand, you sought out a lot of younger developers and programmers who were working on DIY music programs, is that right?
They were all different ages actually. But I contacted programmers who’d done some of my favorite apps—some musical but most not. I was in regular contact with the app designers, explaining the concepts behind each element and what needed to be included. These were then integrated into the “mother app” on “Cosmogony”, where each verse of the song is about a different creation myth: Native American, Sanskrit, Aboriginal, and modern science—which would be the Big Bang theory. After talking to a bunch of scientists I found out that many of them feel the Big Bang, at least as it’s taught in schools, is pretty outdated, very “twentieth century”.
The designer and developer Scott Snibbe was also involved, right?
He was the project manager. He oversaw the app development.
Were you in constant contact with scientists while you were writing the individual songs?
Not exactly. I wrote the songs first and then eventually contacted some of the experts for details. Most of the research came from watching university-level educational DVDs and reading books on my own.
So there was a huge amount of research involved?
Yes, but it was more fun than anything else.
I heard you collaborated with Drew Berry for the animation of DNA. He does such incredible visualizations of molecular biology. How was it working with him?
He’s quite an animator. I think our collaboration for the DNA app is the thing that comes closest to a music video. We actually have tentative plans to put together an animated video on brain functions—specifically, what happens in the brain neurologically when people sing.
It’s always fascinated me how important science is for art and vice versa. Lots of scientists utilize artistic renderings in order to better understand or visualize certain processes.
That’s true. But I would say that this whole project is about taking things that are kind of academic and transforming them into a three-dimensional, non-academic interactive experience. I’m sure the app descriptions sound complex and esoteric, but when you actually see and use these things, it becomes much clearer.
When I saw the premier in Manchester, it was the lightning that really grabbed my attention, but I’ve always been fascinated by Tesla. How did you come up with the idea of writing a song about electrical currents?
It happened during my research. At one point I was YouTubing non-stop and eventually stumbled on all these videos of people making music with Tesla coils. That was the beginning. More than anything, it struck me as something a child would enjoy, because it’s so dramatic-looking. When we did the week-long course in Manchester, showing children the instruments and asking them about their favorites, the Tesla coil was always at the very top of their list. It’s because it’s the most visceral and spectacular visualization of the sound, I think. It brings the listener inside the sound by bringing the sound outside in the form of visualization.
That reminds me so much of our discussions in Paris from a few years ago—having the listener not be an external entity but rather completely immersed in the music itself; an active, not a passive, part of the aural experience.
I think that’s why this current project had gone through so many different manifestations, from music school to 3D film to what it is today… At its core, the project is about inclusion.
Some people have the impression that the digital world creates only virtual connections and discourages live experience. But I think that couldn’t be further from the truth, and this project shows just that. Having seen the premier, it was clear that the live component is more important than ever when there is an increased emphasis on the visual.
I think people who download music have even greater interest in experiencing it live, because the physical process of going to a record shop to buy a physical object has been made more or less obsolete. That’s why seeing live music becomes the primary way to experience the music non-virtually. But the very idea of what’s physical needs to be redefined. All the record industry pessimism towards the disappearance of the physical is unwarranted, if you ask me. The meanings are merely shifting. You know, people will always hunger for physical experiences. Future generations will all be born with two arms, two legs and a sense of touch.
You mentioned before that you felt inspired when you realized that you were out of your contractual obligations for your record company. What kind of freedoms have the Internet and applications provided you with? Has it made you more independent?
Creatively, I can do so much more. Instruments in the form of applications are far less expensive and reach exponentially more people than the physical object. With apps, it feels like anything’s possible. I’ve experienced at least three different album formats, and the app and digital download is by far the least dependent on the music industry. It’s reintroduced something very punk back into music. After we finished the entire project we were able to pick and choose who we wanted to offer it to. All of the major labels were scared out of their wits—they didn’t want to touch something so different from a “normal” album. Then we thought about how welcoming Apple had been to us technologically, allowing us to release an app album in their store without “signing” to any label. They haven’t sponsored me and I’m not advertising them—they simply have a set-up which can distribute Biophilia; they combine all of the technology necessary to explore what we had created. Also, in 2010, the iPad was the only proper touchscreen on the market. But I’ve now decided to work with Universal and Nonesuch to distribute the physical CD. In the beginning I thought that no one would be interested in that anymore, but that’s not so.
Your inventions remind me of the work of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles. She’s been creating incredible musical contraptions since the sixties, and they’re all about exploring sound perception outside of an exclusively aural context…
Sound is experienced in so many different ways. That’s why I wanted to make both apps and acoustic instruments. It was important for me to emphasize the use of air, water, wind and oxygen to create sound. People shouldn’t perceive this project merely as a virtual phantasy world. They should see it as an exploration of the crossroads of electronic and acoustic sound—but from a different angle.
How do you fully realize this in a live context?
Live, the music is played on touchscreens connected to acoustic instruments that read digital information. In order to give people a better idea of how the instruments work, we’d actually like to create some short films for the crowd to watch before the concert.
Is it true that David Attenborough did the narration for the introduction to the umbrella app?
Yes. The BBC was doing a documentary on the making of Biophilia, which David will probably be involved in. We asked him at the very last minute about the app and he said yes on the spot. We immediately gave him the introduction and then recorded it the very same day—it was all very spontaneous.
He has a very calming presence.
Indeed. It always makes me think of the difference between American and British nature documentaries: American nature documentaries are usually much scarier, and the music is much more dramatic—even if the animals are totally harmless and unthreatening. An American documentary on bees would start out with a narrator exclaiming, “If one thousand bees were to sting you at the same time, you’d die!”
Do you think that European nature documentaries are generally more benign?
Less threatening, for sure. And David Attenborough always makes the situation seem hopeful and positive—at least regarding the relationship between humans and nature.
How did you come up with the title for the project?
I’d been reading a book by Oliver Sacks called Musicophilia, which is a collection of anecdotes about his experiences as a neurologist with sound and treating patients. I felt really inspired, and I then had the chance to meet him personally. But as a general matter, I’m fascinated by the visualization of sound, and how sound waves travel—even though my visualizations tend towards particle, not wave movement. On a macro level, sound moves like billiard balls; or even planets and solar systems. Pythagoras saw the cosmos similarly; he ascribed a note to each planet. There’s a long history of connecting our solar system to sound, because the music of the spheres is all about equilibrium and vibration. That’s why I wanted the website and Biophilia app to be set up like a galaxy. It’s the easiest way to explain how sound behaves in space.
Stefan Betke, alias Pole, is a producer, sound engineer, and the co-founder of the Berlin-based ~scape label. Legend has it that in 1996, Betke accidentally dropped his Waldorf 4-Pole analog filter, causing it to spit out the un- predictable hisses and pops that eventually became the trademark of his idiosyncratic dub techno. Zomby‘s recent announcement of his upcoming double album With Love reminded us of Betke’s excellent review of the UK producer’s previous LP Dedication, originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
There were a couple of occasions where Zomby and I could have met in person—I’ve played more than one festival where he was scheduled to appear either right before or right after me . . . if only he had shown up. It’s a running gag amongst promoters that when you book Zomby, you better have a replacement act on hand. It should also be known that when you first listen to his music digitally, it should be in a proper format. My first listen to Dedication was as a low bit-rate MP3 and after around three minutes I thought to myself: I haven’t heard something this bad in a long time. Luckily, my second listen was in CD-quality format and the difference was like night and day. Of course, as a producer and studio engineer, I’m sensitive when it comes to crafting sounds. But with Dedication— Zomby’s second album—almost all of the detail and sophisticated sound-design disappears when not listened to in the proper format. This was most apparent in regards to Zomby’s complex manipulation of hall and reverb. Together with the effects, the instrumentation and balance in his composition make for masterfully precise and clearly defined grooves. Aside from the fact that I don’t like the sound of gunfire at all—and there’s lots of it on the album’s first track, “Witch Hunt”—Zomby has an incredible ear. But I can’t emphasize it enough: anybody listening to Dedication on cheap headphones and in MP3 quality will miss the experience this record has to offer.
The album is a compact work of no more than thirty-six minutes, with individual tracks clocking in at circa three to four minutes—something you might expect more from the conventional singer- songwriter. But Zomby makes his point quickly, sucking in the listener with classic introductions and then leading them to more chorus-like passages. Ultimately, you get shot out the other end with Zomby’s codas, which usually end abruptly. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the album are the refrains, which recur over the course of the entire record—unexpected deconstructions, echoes and cross references of melodies and rhythmic patterns pop up out of nowhere, but are brilliantly embedded in the album’s narrative.
Dubstep tracks are usually the opposite of pop songs; dubstep is about the dancefloor, about never-ending rhythms, trance, repetition and hypnosis. Dedication could have incorporated all of those elements, but instead blazes a new and different trail—one that’s not so bass-heavy. What it retains is a moodiness that’s expertly recast within a pop context. That’s a brave and important move, because over the past few years, dubstep has become monotonous and overly self-referential. Some dubstep producers have moved into new territory—Detroit techno, Berlin-style digital dub techno, Chicago house . . . These are all legitimate musical directions, but I don’t see them leading to anything new. When talking about poppier, post- dubstep genres, James Blake inevitably comes to mind. But unlike Blake, who apart from his first two twelve-inches is little more than an overhyped poster-boy, Zomby’s Dedication is the opposite of superficial. I don’t think a typical dubstep DJ would play individual tracks in a club, but there are intelligent, progressive DJs who would gladly throw a Zomby tune into their set—people like Actress, Flying Lotus or Four Tet. Speaking of Four Tet: I recently listened to his last album There Is Love In You and immediately realized the incredible similarities between “Angel Echoes” and Zomby’s “Natalia’s Song”. Atmospherically the tracks are like twins separated at birth. If I DJ’ed, I’d definitely put these two together. ~