Stockpiling canned foods and developing an interest in permaculture becomes an ever-more tempting lifestyle choice as 2016 continues to dismay, aggrieve and annoy.
Dead Light‘s Anna Rose Carter and Ed Hamilton pre-empted the rush back in 2015, holing up in a rural garret to build a life and record an album far from the decay, detritus and chicken-strewn pavements of contemporary urban existence.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
– W.B. Yeats, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’
There is precedent. Artists have ever sought the retreat offered by the rural idyll. A tradition of simpler existence embraced by Kush-hiking hippies, Provence-bound expressionists and island-dwelling monastics extending all the way back to Gilgamesh and his rough-and-tumble bromance with the wild Enkidu.
For Dead Light, the result is no mere Archers sub-plot. Rather than lamenting the mobile connection and inavailability of decent tamarind at the village shop, the duo set to creating a collection of musical pieces which glances off the treated piano technique of Nils Frahm; spikes tension with discordant violin crescendos a la Peter Broderick; releases a primal rhythmic urge to dance via looped melodic figures somewhere between Terry Riley’s and Mike Oldfield’s, whilst subjecting the resulting recordings to hands-on physical post-processing in a manner recalling Basinsky’s Disintegration Loops.
If that’s something of a headful to read, the album itself is an exponentially more graceful artifact, gelling the poles of ambient and electronic; composed and improvised; contemplative and rhythmic into a collection of songs which is at once immediate and cerebral.
Trebuchet pops a few questions their way.
Your approach to recording involves a lot of post-production processing, but what about composition? Do you sit down at a piano and improvise until you get a loop you like, or is it more formal than that?
Ed: Our writing process is fairly different each time and definitely never gets anywhere near formal! Sometimes I’ll just tinker away with sounds (‘Little Blue’, ‘Sleeper’) and we’ll build the compositions around those initial ideas, and other times the piano leads and the rest follows (‘Slow Slowly’, ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’). Anna is a very inspiration led pianist so the piano parts tend to come very quickly when she’s in the right place and in the quieter times we’ll refine existing ideas….
Usually there’s a lot of improvisation followed by a fair bit of condensing and removing and, if needed, fleshing out and writing for guest musicians.
Anna: It’s really important to us to try out different ways of working together; I think if we made each piece in the same way it wouldn’t be interesting for us, and that would definitely come across to the listener. ‘Little Blue’ was Ed running some test recordings through his delay network, ‘Blooms’ was me writing a piano piece to go with some loops Ed made, ‘Falling In’ was live improvisation. We try not to be too restrictive in the way we work; anything goes!
Some of these tracks feel like dance music without drumbeats, or is that just me? Do you find yourself dancing about to it?
Anna: Ha ha! I’m so glad that comes across! We spent a lot of time when we we’re supposed to be mixing dancing to various looped sections of the tracks! A lot of the music we like has a strong rhythmic quality, and we want this to be represented in our music, but neither of us like the idea of using overtly beat driven sounds or formulas. So the challenge is how to get that sense of rhythm into the songs without it being to placeable.
Have you had a chance to take it to a crowd? How does it go over live?
Ed: Can we let you know in a few months?
Anna: We’ve got our first few live dates early next year but haven’t quite put the finishing touches on our set yet. Ed’s building some weird and wonderful things but knowing him they probably won’t be finished in time!
Ed: They’ll probably all break on the way to the venue! Most of the tracks on the album are, at least partly, improvised, so the show definitely won’t sound exactly like the record, but that variation and a close proximity to total failure is what I’ve always found exciting about live music anyway!
Treated piano adds to the percussive element of the instrument, whilst your use of chemically-abused magnetic tapes brings a more random decay to sections of the album – it seems there’s a constant tension between the played instrument and the echoes, loops, distortions of processing. Or interplay as one dominates the other. Do you take one role each (player/producer) or is it a more nebulous musical arrangement?
Ed: Well Anna’s a very talented musician and I’m not so the roles are quite clearly defined!
Anna: We try to blur them as much as possible though, I’d say the writing is pretty equal between the two of us even if Ed’s not playing the instruments and I’m heavily involved in the production stage (even though I’m not actually pushing the buttons)!
Ed: Yeah, and actually with our music, production and composition are often interchangeable; a lot of the ‘production’ decisions are made for compositional reasons. So I don’t think it’s a straightforward player/producer relationship.
Given that just about any recorded sound can be tweaked, frequency range by frequency range, by mucking about with ProTools, Logic and Melodyne, what’s the appeal of getting stuck into physical tapes, lumps of wadding shoved into piano strings, etc? Does it influence the composition in a way the staring at a bank of stems on a Mac screen doesn’t?
Ed: I suppose it’s a reaction to wanting a more tactile experience when creating sound…. Computers are incredibly powerful and versatile tools and they’re often involved in our compositional and recording processes but it’s nice to get away from the screen and there’s nothing like splicing and sticking bits of tape together! There’s a sound to tape too, particularly as it degrades, that you can’t get from a computer. But I’m happy using any technology; there’s some Max/MSP patches on some tracks on this record, some pedal effects on others and tape manipulations throughout. Whatever works.
This time around we tried to stick away from the computer when we could, but that was mainly to challenge the way I’ve worked for the past few years so I’d be doing something different.
There are some abrupt discords from time to time on the album, sometimes on violin, sometimes on piano. It lifts the repeating motifs out of the familiar (and often soporific) territory of new-classical/ambient into more challenging places. Is there something you’re specifically trying to distance yourselves from, artistically?
Anna: I’m not sure we’re intentionally trying to distance ourselves from anything, but we do get bored quite easily so maybe the discordant sections are just where we’re trying to stir things up a bit!
Ed: We listen to a wide variety of music and this is bound to influence the music we make. Classical and ambient are our backgrounds, so we definitely use instrumentation that is common within those genres, but we’re interested in lots of different musical styles, so the more unusual elements come out of a desire to push the instrumentation that we’re comfortable with into areas where we’re not!
How does it feel to actually finish the album? Was it one of those frenzied hyperactive projects that seemed to just flow, or was it a shattering, almost impossible task that felt like it would never come out?
Ed: Definitely the later! We’re both quite obsessive about the way all the sounds fit together; we wanted something that felt both free and restrained and it was really hard to get that balance right. Almost all of the songs were finished by mid-2015 but we agonised over every detail of the mix and it took FOREVER to get right. Daniel Rejmer (who helped us a lot with the mix) was invaluable, I’m not sure we’d ever have been able to let it go without his help. Honestly, I’m still not 100% happy about the way it sounds, but in the end we had to move on to something else and it’s pretty close to what we had in mind when we started the project.
Anna: In other words it’s total bliss not to still be working on it! Hopefully in time we can enjoy listening to it again but we’ve definitely over listened to these songs over the past two years so it might take a while!
Are you artists or entertainers?
Anna: Can we let you know after the live shows? Hopefully both!
Ed: For me the most important thing is getting across our ideas in the best and most honest way we can… if those ideas connect with people and become personal to them that is great and I’m definitely motivated by that, but foremost for me is a desire to satisfy ourselves musically so I guess I’d say artists.
The album is partly a response to moving to the country from the city, and adjusting to that. Have you figured out how to have rural fun yet?
Anna: We’re still trying! There are definitely advantages to being here, but most of those are musical in that we have the space and freedom to work on things whenever we like. Outside of the music, it’s a little quiet…. I’m not sure either of us are that well suited to life in the countryside yet!
Ed: There’s a tension to that which is where the record came from, I like that tension if not the reality of where it comes from; if our lives were exactly as we’d choose we might not have anything to say!
Anna: Developing our set for the live shows next year and then on to the next record!
Ed: We’re keen to use voice a lot more on the next record and also to utilise the things we have around us; there’s an old organ in the church in the village which we’re hoping to get our hands on, at the very least it’ll help get us out of the house more! Dead Light