Iceland inspired soundscapes!
Introducing the electronic artist and his stunning Iceland inspired soundscapes! ‘The Bridge Between Life & Death’ is the second album from Barcelona (via Bristol) based producer Zoon van snooK. Recorded partly in Iceland, partly in Bristol, the album features 11 tracks of fragile electronica, found sounds, field recordings and collaborations with Icelandic artists Amiina, Benni Hemm Hemm and Sin Fang and will be released on May 20th, via Lo Recordings. The resulting album perfectly captures the otherworldly nature of the island, its beautiful yet forbidding landscape laid down in the delicate, crystalline melodies, ancient and modern coming together as van snooK pieced together.
The album opens with ‘From the Cradle’, which is built around a recording of him playing a sound cradle (a big wooden throne that has tuned strings all around the back and sides of the chair); and follows the passage of life through to the album’s end track ‘The Gaits’, which was written as the final song around the time that a very good friend of him lost his son, its title relating both to the gates of ‘Heaven’ and the unique extra gaits that Icelandic horses have. Fuelled by exposure to the likes of Björk, Sigur Rós and múm, ‘The Bridge Between Life & Death’ is the result of a long-standing fascination with Iceland. A fascination that finally led the producer to make the pilgrimage to Europe’s rocky outpost armed with his sound recorder. He states: “It seems to me that there are no such things as ‘concept albums’ anymore – just ‘albums’ and ‘collections of songs to be played in any order’. This is vexatious to the spirit.”
The first single ‘The Verge of Winter’ featured remixes from Isan (MORR) and Sir Doufus Styles (Flaming Lips, Neon Neon, Cate Le Bon…). The video for which was especially filmed and directed by an independent Icelandic film maker, Ívar Hollanders. The album provided van snooK with the chance to work with some of his favourite musicians such as Amiina, Sin Fang and Benni Hemm Hemm- who contributed a field recording of his family in a cabin, far from the city. The album’s Icelandic connection even extends to the artwork, a painting by Halldór Ragnarsson of Seabear produced especially to capture the spirit of the album.
We are proud to present a personalised guest mix made by Alec just for KALTBLUT and this lovely interview talking all about the experience of making such an interesting musical work come to life!
KALTBLUT: First, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your album, and congrats! It’s as beautiful as freshly fallen snow. A lot of electronic music is repetitive, unrelenting, unemotional and completely in-organic, very unlike your own, how did you come to create such a unique sound?
ALEC: Very kind of you to describe it as unique. My background in making music was not an electronic-based one until mid 2007. I had been in lots of different ‘alternative’ bands before this time, playing keyboards/percussion/backing vocals etc. and so my compositional focus has never been a ’4 to the floor’ type thing. All of my songs are written and built up from acoustic instruments and then the ‘glitchy’ electronic rhythms are layered on top, built from static created whilst recording the instruments, unwanted microphone bleed, the natural rhythm you find in sampled dialogue or just banging innocuous items together and then manipulating them with software. Some of this was born out of necessity, because I didn’t have much equipment to begin with, but then as I wrote more and more songs, I realised that I was really enjoying this process and found that I was actually creating possibilities out of constraints.
ALEC: I’ll never ditch my Bristolian roots, I’m Bristol through and through!! That said, you have to spread your perspective a bit otherwise you can lose sight of what you love about your home city. One of my oldest friends lives here and after a visit for my birthday in about 2010, the easy decision was made to come and live here (although NOT that easy in practice!). There’s a really healthy electronic music scene here which was also a big consideration.
KALTBLUT: We’ve been talking a lot in our last collection about Scandinavian introspection and melancholia. Did you feel that kind of inspiration wrapping around you when you were recording your album in Iceland?
ALEC: Taking recordings outside in new surroundings gives me a thrill regardless; capturing something timeless and specific to that moment is very gratifying, but to do it in a place that I have been vicariously influenced by through other people’s music for so many years? It was very special. It’s impossible not to be roused by a place that is imbued with so much magic and folkloric intrigue. When I brought the recordings back to Bristol to record the songs in earnest, I had a really protracted period of just writing and finishing songs quickly. A lot of the time I would play the field recording and then compose the piano chords or synth parts over the top. The lyre part I started with in isolation and some songs were built around contributions form the collaborators.
KALTBLUT: The shades within your tracks have really intrigued me as i’ve listened more to them, what does your studio set up look like to allow you to create these kinds of textures?
ALEC: My studio in Bristol, now in bits at my brother’s house *sniffs with nostalgia* was built in my erstwhile spare room in Bedminster, Bristol. It was a souped-up PC that ran Cubase. I had lots of keyboards and other acoustic instruments that I had accrued, for example ukuleles, Spanish guitar, tablas, harps, melodicas and a lyre that I was given by a friend – which I play on ‘Lyre! Lyre!!’ funnily enough!! I had sponge from discarded hospital mattresses on one wall and bath mats on the other, to suppress sound – sexy, I know! Finished off with clip frames of PJ Harvey and Bob Dylan cuddling Patti Smith. I’m looking forward to building ‘Music Den II’…
KALTBLUT: You describe your music as “Oddtronica”, is that just because it’s so hard to put a label on what you’re creating, or because you’d rather not be put in a genre box?
ALEC: People have always had a bit of a problem describing my songs, which is definitely a compliment. Being described as a particular existing genre isn’t quite as potentially harmful as being compared to actual artists. A reviewer described my stuff as ‘Oddtronica’ around the time of the first 12″ EP and I thought, yep, I’m having that!! Not quite as interesting as Townshend nicking ‘The Windmill’ off Keith Richards, but there it is. The new record is ‘Snolk’ though, which is definitely mine!!
KALTBLUT: How about when you captured the field recordings out in Iceland, can you share some of your experiences with us? I imagine it to be quite magical, but i’m sure it was probably less so in reality…
ALEC: (See: above) In 2009 I finally managed to pull off the big trip: from the South West of England to the South West of Iceland. I knew it would be a great opportunity to gather the requisite sounds on which to base a whole new album. I was able to collect recordings from the centre, port and outskirts of Reykjavik, and the surrounding South Western area. From national parks to canyons; from hot springs to glaciers; from folk songs to folklore… I love being able to use an entire field recording.
As well as the principal subject, all the glitch rhythms on the album are created from the unintentional background noise or static created whilst capturing it. It’s the musical equivalent of blasting meat off the bone with a high-pressure hose – nothing is wasted. But one of my favourite recordings is the Sound Cradle in the Sangitamaya music shop in Reykjavik – which is a huge wooden throne with strings around the back and side. The shop itself is like music trove anyway, but playing an instrument that I’d never even heard of much less played was a thrill. I love the sounds of people coming and going through the front door which has a little bell on it.
KALTBLUT: You mentioned to me about the name of the album: from the bridge in Kopavagur. This is a fairly melancholic/introspective concept too but your music has a willingness, and lightness to it, how do you feel about that juxtaposition, was it intentional?
ALEC: The title comes from a bridge in Kópavogur that the locals call so because it has the nursing home on one side and the cemetery on the other. The album is themed around birth and death and each song is a chapter in the overall story, taking in sub-plots inspired by Greek/Nordic epic poetry; biblical tales; spirits; outlaws; and unique aspects of the terrain and indigenous animals. My stuff always has an affably sinister edge to it – unintentional, it just comes out like that. There are some really playful songs on the first LP, but the themes are based around betrayal, mental illness, loss and suicide! Have I sold it to you?! Instrumental music needs to tell a story, the narrative is driven by the chord changes and the destination of the melodies. Regardless of the individual plots or overall themes, there is light and dark in every situation. This record does have a more hopeful outcome than the first I think.
ALEC: This is really difficult, I’ve been amazingly lucky to work with lots of my favourite artists and biggest influences. Daedelus is stunningly talented, tunng have inspired me immensely and Paul Hartnoll is in Orbital for goodness sake!! But probably my two biggest contemporary influences: Cian Ciaran from Super Furry Animals, and Múm, reworking chords and melodies that I have written is unimaginable when I think about it.
KALTBLUT: It seems like the creation of this album was so much more than just a musical endeavour, but a real adventure, do you feel that things have worked out in the way you expected, or has it been a winding road to this point with lots of spontaneous diversions?
ALEC: It has been an unbelievably winding road from conception to realisation, but the final LP is exactly how I wanted it to be from the start, and more. (Musically I will always have wanted something in each song to be slightly better or different – I’m not alone as a musician there!!) To have all these amazingly talented people involved in the project is massively humbling, right down to the label – I have been a huge fan of Lo for many years, Susumu Yokota especially being another big influence.
KALTBLUT: How do you/would you perform the album live?
ALEC: Having experimented with a three-piece band, with live guitars and bass, I went down to a two-piece for a week-long tour in the Netherlands with Bristol’s Inner City Grit. I settled on a solo show for NXNE in Toronto, using Ableton Live and a Launchpad, drum sample pads, effects pedals, keyboards and other acoustic instruments such as penny whistles and harmonicas. This set-up allows me to improvise with arrangements, which I like. It’s quite difficult building the new set because there are even more instrumental layers than the first one. The new record doesn’t lend itself to being ’4/4-ed’ like the first one either, i.e. ‘danced up’. Although I am still doing different versions in many instances.
KALTBLUT: You also take field recordings around Barcelona, I bet that’s a bit different from Iceland!? Do you think that people should put more time into sound recording alongside just street photography? (I DO!)
ALEC: I discovered Alan Lomax and what he was doing with the Library of Congress many years ago, before which I hadn’t really paid much attention to the importance of capturing moments in time before they are lost forever. I own lots of his folk recordings from Cornwall, Northern Ireland, Wales and southern American prison songs. Preserving indigenous folk songs and storytelling is our responsibility.
KALTBLUT: You’ve already been working on some visuals with Ívar Hollanders and for sure your music would fit beautifully in a cinematic setting, if you could be featured in any kind of film, or by a certain director, who would it be?
ALEC: Someone likened the new stuff to something from a Wes Anderson film recently actually. I’d be happy with that. I love the Studio Ghibli films, I always find the music very evocative; the incongruity of the western string arrangements seem to fit perfectly.
KALTBLUT: I guess you’re very much inspired by nature around you, if you could capture any sound from the natural world what would it be?
ALEC: Although I haven’t quite harnessed the equipment to achieve this yet, I’d like to capture the multitude of different forms and pitches of tinnitus and make an album out of it. Mine is like a mid-range, TV static hiss with intermittent stabs of high-pitched screaming. I would probably collaborate on it with Matmos, Wolf Eyes and Shit Mat.
KALTBLUT: Do you have a classical background in music, or is music something that has always been a big part of your life?
ALEC: I did study at a music college in Bristol for two years, but no classical training, no. People like my brother are naturally gifted, but I have to work at it – I’m like the Frank Lampard of the music world!
KALTBLUT: What do you think about the current state of the music industry, and the way that the internet is changing music today, and also how this changes the reach of your record… this is something I ask every musician I interview, just for my own personal reference, it’s something that interests me to find out what people are feeling…
ALEC: Crikey, we’ll be here all day!! I’m not sure what I might add that you haven’t already heard. There is a huge deluge of music nowadays which can cause over-saturation and ultimately loss of overall quality. If you have the patience you can find what you are looking for, but as we know people’s attention span for new music is diminishing with the perceived ‘throw-away’ nature of MP3s and the ease with which they can be obtained and discarded. That said, there are dedicated and passionate people out there that love finding new artists and bands and supporting music. From an artist’s point of view, it does mean that you can reach people in different countries and territories that you would have found it difficult to do in the past. Now, if those new listeners translate into purchases, who knows..?
KALTBLUT: If the Icelandic tundra was the setting for this album, what would be your next adventure? A sprawling desert.. a bustling rainforest!?
ALEC: I would love to take some recordings in Japan (see my comments about Ghibli); perhaps it’s time for a bit of flurry and clamour in my music!! I’ve always been fascinated by bright, flashing lights – I’ve played the slots!!! Vegas can wait, but Japan ticks a number of boxes for me. The completely alien culture, the incomprehension of the language, the historical folklore and the hubbub of the big cities…
KALTBLUT: What about the mix you made for us, what made you think our readers would like those particular tracks, and indeed, why do you love them?
1. Kelpe ‘I Felt Fuzzy’ (Scrase Remix)
I’ve been a big fan of Kelpe for many years, he’s an ever-present during my vinyl DJ gigs and I came across Greg Scrase from a filthy tune that he had available for free on Audio Aubergine.
2. Abstrackt Keal Agram ‘Von Agram’
Not sure where I found these French guys, but every time one of the tunes comes on my iPod I think, Oh yeah!! Brilliant!!
3. Flying `lotus ‘Parisian Goldfish’
Mr Lotus has taken things to another level with his production and jazz-infused improv stuff. The ‘Los Angeles’ album for me is still my ‘go-to’ album when I want to Fly Low!
4. Dextro ’1207am’ (unreleased)
I’ve been following Ewan’s stuff since his Border Community days and was lucky enough to be asked to do a remix for him a couple of years ago. Not sure where I snaffled this group of unreleased tracks from – the Bonobo remix did go on to be released for the Ninja Tune 20th Anniversary box set. The tune featured here never fails to get my head nodding wherever I am!
5. Radical Majik ‘Spread the Hot Potato’ (Andrew Weatherall Remix)
One of the The Boardroom Music Collective bands, great track – can’t go wrong with a bit of Weatherall!!.
6. Way Out West ‘King of the Funk’
This one is a Bristol connection; the self-titled album is cracking from start to finish. Jody’s brother Sam (SJ Esau) is doing the video for my second single, which features remixes from Paul Hartnoll, Ulrich Schnauss and Múm.
7. Jackson and His Computer Band ‘Utopia’
I love this LP, his style has been recreated by many people but his chopped rhythms are fantastic.
8. Super Furry Animals ‘Slowlife’ (Sir Doufus Styles Remix)
Well documented as my favourite band and my favourite song of theirs, remixed brilliantly by Sir Douf, who also remixed the first single from my new LP.
9. Jonathan Krisp ‘Futurismo’
Jonathan Krisp is hideously underrated. His first album ‘No Horse, No Wife, No Moustache’ was released on Brighton label Cookshop, the label who released my first 12″ EP in 2008, and features some absolutely beautiful tunes. The featured song is from an as yet unreleased album called ‘The Anthropocene’ and is guaranteed to make everyone that hears it stop in their tracks and ask, “Who is this??!!”. Just love it.
10. Caribou ‘Bowls’
Dan Snaith is one of the most talented and diverse artists around. I’ve loved his work since Manitoba and have followed it through until Daphni. Another regular in the DJ sets.
11. Luke Abbott ‘Melody 120′
I buy anything that is on Border Community because I know it will be great quality, and this is no exception. Nice and minimal this tune.
12. Paps ‘Synthesized’
This is one of Cian Ciaran (AKA my biggest contemporary influence) from Super Furry Animals’ alter-egos. This is the minimal techno arm of the franchise!! Whatever style he does, it sounds like him.
13. Sau Poler ‘Love Minded’
I found this guy, who is from Badalona (very near Barcelona city), on-line very recently and I’ve been hammering it ever since. You can buy this whole EP from Bandcamp on a ‘pay what you like’ basis. If you like the direction that the recent Four Tet albums were going in, then you’ll love this. (Not comparing him to Four Tet you understand!)
KALTBLUT: Do you have any big plans for the summer months and promoting the record?
ALEC: I’ll be touring anywhere that will have me and my little electronic contraptions!! Hopefully Iceland Airwaves in October will be a kind of ‘homecoming’ for the record. There are a number of other festivals in the pipeline as well…
KALTBLUT: Any last comments you’d like to add??
ALEC: Thanks for having me!! xx
Album Release Info
On May 20th, Lo Recordings (Luke Vibert, Four Tet, Susumu Yokota…) is releasing the new LP ‘The Bridge Between Life & Death’ in the UK, and !K7 in the US. Two special remixes, one from múm and one from former Sugarcubes frontman Ghostigital, make up the digital package.