Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Fran. Let’s start with your awe-inspiring new album: Horst & Graben. Can you tell me why you chose that title and what it means for you in 2021?
In Geology, Horst and Graben refer to regions that lie between normal faults and are either higher or lower than the area beyond the faults. These are the areas across a landscape that are rifts or river valleys (Graben) and ridges (Horst) and that you often traverse when hiking and mountaineering, especially on long distance excursions. Recent hikes during the last year had me thinking about these topographical features and their analogous qualities to our everyday lives-our ups and downs, highs and lows.
These recent hikes in concurrence with the political and natural climates of the last few years (and made more volatile by the current pandemic), started me on a sort of philosophical journey about the highs and lows of spiritual, social and economic cycles we go through as a society and how the speed of these cycles seem to be on overdrive at the moment. The album’s title refers to the current state of these cycles.
The album was partly inspired by David George Haskell’s book ‘The Songs of Trees’. How did you first encounter it and can you tell us about how his words could create a sonic landscape in your imagination?
I’m often on the lookout for books that help me widen my knowledge about the natural world and ‘The Song of Trees’ was one of those online algorithm based recommendations that happened one late night in the early Fall of 2020 while browsing through my computer instead of being in bed sleeping. I remember making a mental note but it wasn’t until a month later that I remembered the book had piqued my interest. Soon after, I bought it and right away Haskell’s narrative took over my attention.
In general, books about nature are easy to visualize in my head, to the point that I can associate places I’ve travelled to the visual aesthetics the author describes. This in turn, helps me relate to the narrative with a greater sense of accuracy. Haskell’s book was no exception. In fact, his prose made it all that much easier to visualize his narrative. Maybe being a hiker and mountaineer might have something to do with this visualization ability but it does help tremendously if the author’s narrative is especially captivating. In the case of Haskell’s book, each element fed off each other.
Having said that, and going back to the first question and what sparked my philosophical journey, Haskell’s stories helped me propel my own narrative and my own observations I was drawing. His themes helped me fill in the blanks of what I was going through in my head by giving me a deeper understanding of the connections between ourselves and the natural world around us. It gave me the confidence to draw conclusions about why we’re doing a disservice to ourselves, and understand how our species is constantly doing a disservice to our own spirituality and the spirituality of the natural world.
The album was mastered by Taylor Deupree (12k). How did your relationship with the artist come about and what do you think he has lent the final sound?
I have been following Taylor’s musical journey since 1994 when he released an album in collaboration with Savvas Ysatis as SETI on the now defunct Instinct Records (the label was bought out by Knitting Factory Records back in 2003) for which he also worked for as Art Director (many releases featured his art direction) and mastering engineer.
At the time, Instinct Records was a portal to discovering other great labels such as Fax +49-69/450464, em:t, and Ninja Tune. It was also a portal to discovering more of Taylor’s work under different aliases, such as Human Mesh Dance, Prototype 909, Futique and Drum Komputer. For a while, it seemed there were one or two releases a year that involved him in some capacity or another. Needless to say, it was a rewarding experience following his work during the 90’s.
But after the 90’s I lost track of his musical output for a while and it wasn’t until the last few years that I rediscovered him and much to the delight of my ears, he continues to be as prolific and rewarding to listen to. Not just that, but he also runs a wonderful label (12K) with lots of great releases including a few of his own.
Since the time I began composing (2004) to the time I began Forest Robots (2017), I have learned about the process of creating an album-from demo recording to mastering. However, one thing I’ve learned in particular is to sometimes let certain aspects of putting an album together be done by other people. In that way, by seeing others work their craft, you can also learn to improve yours. So with that in mind, I reached out to Taylor.
The man is a busy creator and curator though and it took sheer synchronicity for him to be available to spend time on the album and finish putting all the pieces together. I can’t express enough how grateful I am to have had his assistance. He has a tremendously deep intuition and understanding of the hierarchy of each instrument within a composition and how to best manage that hierarchy to achieve the clearest sound. His stately experience benefited the sound of the album a great deal.
On a personal level, it was a rewarding experience working with him after following his work for three different decades. There is a feeling of reaching a full circle of sorts with this album and Taylor’s involvement in mastering it.
Can you describe the process of how you created one of the tracks from Horst & Graben? Are there any favourite pieces of software/ hardware you like to use in making music?
Oftentimes, a composition begins outside of the studio and it doesn’t begin as a musical idea either. Instead, it begins as a line of thinking. It could be philosophical, spiritual, or emotional. It can be a certain feeling of introspection, gratitude or awe, usually sparked by a view or a place I’m exploring in the outdoors. The idea then gets complimented later on by other things, like a book, a film, documentary, a television program, or current events taking place either where I live in or in other parts of the world. Once I’ve had some time to process what I’m thinking about (usually takes weeks or even months), I then ask myself, ‘Is there anything that I can contribute to the subject?’. If the answer is yes, I then ask myself, ‘How can I best say this?’. That’s when the studio finally comes into play and I begin to think about what instruments I want to use, what musical direction I want to take.
Before I began recording Horst & Graben, I had purchased an Elektron Digitone and an Analog Heat. However, during the first two months these two were in the studio, I mostly played around with them in a learning capacity and didn’t record anything with them.
When I finally decided what musical direction I wanted to go with Horst & Graben, I knew I wanted to have a warm, nostalgic-like, electronic sound throughout the album. Something reminiscent of electronic and ambient works from the 1970’s. It was then that it became obvious I would use both Elektron machines. A lot of the electronic tones from the album come from the Digitone processed through the Analog Heat. The rest of the sounds came from processed piano.
The track, This World Is Held Together By The Beauty Of Humble Places struck a particular chord with me. What can you tell us about the video which accompanies it?
The title of the track is a phrase that has stuck with me from the first time I read it. It is one of those quiet but monumental kinds of statements. We have a tendency to focus our attention on visually stunning views-especially in nature. Waterfalls, mountain tops, river gorges, grand valleys, but it’s the quiet and often out-of-view places that make the outdoors thrive. It is these places where wildlife usually dwells and where it is created, nourished and renewed every day. The places we don’t run into, we don’t walk by, we don’t get to on purpose. This is what I wanted to convey in the video-quiet moments in those quiet places.
Do you think music has more depth, resonates more with the human condition if it isn’t obviously happy or uplifting? What are your thoughts on the place of nostalgia in the creative process?
That’s a tough question to answer. However, I will say, on a personal level, the kind of music that has endured for me strikes a balance between a nebulous and direct approach in its message. At times it can spark intense emotions of positive exhilaration, other times it can make you feel a sense of nostalgia or bitter sweetness. A great test for me when it comes to music, is when a composition can do the aforementioned but also manages to grow along with you throughout different stages in your life.
Who are your most important influences both within and from outside of music (writers, painters, poets etc)?
From within music, David Bowie and Brian Eno stand out the most. Bowie because of his fearless approach at exploring genres, his drive to evolve and his valiant efforts to try to never do the same thing twice. Eno because of his willingness to operate outside of the norms and always be open to allow a multitude of influences from different disciplines to the creative process. Films have been a great source of inspiration as well. Directors like Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón, Hayao Miyazaki, David Lynch, Taikia Waititi, and Stephen Chow among others have always been great conversation starters in my head. There are many writers I enjoy too, however, because my attention is very genre indifferent (If I like the subject or premise, I purchase it regardless of genre), I don’t have any particular favorites. My influences in writing are more book oriented rather than author oriented.
In what ways do you think that electronic music can translate into political thought? Is it more important for Art to be political or should it just reflect personal emotions?
Another excellent question and one that I’m also not sure I have a definite answer to but, I do feel, like any other musical genre out there, political music often starts with a title, then maybe a dialogue sample (for which electronic music is very adept at lending itself for the use of samples) and ultimately the artist guiding the listener through the music’s intention via lyrics, liner notes, interviews, ect. As to the importance of art being political versus personal, I think if you were to draw a Venn diagram, we’d find that oftentimes, both can be one and the same. Personal emotions can drive personal politics after all.
Horst & Graben started out from a spiritual stance and that spiritual conversation drove the emotional and social justice aspects of the conversations it is covering. So again, there is an overlap in these and it’s never one or the other.
If you would like to find yourself anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’m a fan of Google Earth and the application is a great place to find and access information for an area of the world you would otherwise have no clue about. When I’m on it I am usually drawn to far-away-from-civilization places. I find the application rather addicting but also highly educational as well. One area I would love to spend a great deal of time (if money and numerous responsibilities were no object at the moment) would be the Nunavut Territories in Canada. I find the Geological and topographical aspects of the area absolutely breath-taking. I may yet find a way to visit someday, but visiting such places requires a great deal of logistical preparation.
What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
First and foremost for the pandemic to subside but for that to happen, common sense needs to persevere over misinformation. I look forward to that happening. Meanwhile, I also look forward to continuing to hone and grow my skills as a composer. Every instrument currently in my studio comprises a musical journey and I feel I’m just under half way of that journey with most of my instruments, so there is a lot of room for growth and learning and that’s something I can always enjoy and look forward to.