VENTS MAGAZINE: Interview: Daniel Elms
VENTS MAGAZINE: Interview: Daniel Elms
BY RJ FROMETA
“Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Soft Machines”?
It’s a single taken from my new album “Islandia”. Like every piece of music on the record, it combines chamber orchestra, synthesisers, electronic guitar and found sounds. All the pieces on the record straddle the musical worlds of concert composition, ambient, electronica, jazz; choral music — I use the term “post genre” to describe what I’m doing. Fundamentally, it’s music that is not accountable to any one style, school, or method — it’s me and my influences.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I’d locked myself away on the Suffolk coast — Aldeburgh. I was a couple of weeks into a month-long period of isolation at the former home of the late composer Imogen Holst. It was the tail-end of a much longer period of questioning myself, my music and my influences. “Soft Machines” is my visceral response to that time, those frustrations, burgeoning ideologies and grand plans. It has become a manifesto for me: a declaration to pursue art at all cost.
Any plans to release a video for the single?
I’m collaborating with visual artist David Briggs on a video for “Soft Machines”. I worked with Dave previously on “Bethia”, which was written for Hull City of Culture 2017. I’d known Dave for years, so it was lucky that professionally we just gelled — it would have been an awkward call to make otherwise.
There was a great chemistry on “Bethia” and I wanted to re-explore it for “Soft Machines” . At the moment Dave is repurposing existing footage and using it to reinterpret the music. It’s an endless fascination: watching people react to my music and interpret it in their own way. Particularly in the concert world — where justification often feels like a requirement — shutting up so others can interpret and not be lead is sometimes the best course of action.
The single comes off your new album Islandia – what’s the story behind the title?
The title is borrowed — which is a musical term for saying “stolen” — from the title of a novel by Austin Tappan Wright. The novel is a utopian fiction about a progressive country and was one of the pieces of literature that I inhaled during the prolonged period of isolation while writing the album. I used the title as a nod to those willing to think progressively — any where and any time — and because it stuck two fingers up at the emergence of nationalist sentiment.
How was the recording and writing process?
Writing is always a two-stage process for me: a long period of incubation, in which I read, listen, record, and create the “building blocks” of a new piece — this can last for years. The second stage is the manifestation of all those ideas into a single work: all that time spent researching is converted into creative energy and I might only need hours or days to use that energy to create a final piece of music.
I draw a lot of inspiration from visual arts and I attempt to “preserve the brush strokes” — I want to capture the act of creation, as there is an honest, human aspect to it that gets damaged the more you adjust it.
The album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in the same room where Pink Floyd recorded “Dark Side of the Moon”. I’ve recorded at Abbey Road a few times, but this was a significant moment for me: I’d listened to “Dark Side” repeatedly in my late teens and it was around that time that I had decided to spend my life pursuing music. To record my own album in the place where “Dark Side” had been recorded…it felt as if a loop had been closed, or some imaginary line had been crossed — there it was definitely a moment to breathe in.
Did you approach this record as a conceptual album?
Not from the outset. In fact, I had locked myself away to write an opera, but I quickly discovered that — at the time — I had nothing to say through that medium. It felt contrived: I didn’t want characters expressing something, I simply wanted to express it myself. Opera is something I will return to at some point, but it will be on my own terms and done in a way that is relatable to many — not institutionalised.
During the writing process I created a lot of material. I then used the album as a framework: “which of these pieces have related subjects?”,“which of these subjects do I feel most strongly about?”. In that way the album became conceptual: it was a filter; the device that bound the works together through common interest and shared sentiment.
How did William Burrows get to influence the writing on this material?
I was reading a lot of beat poetry and literature at the time — I think everyone has a phase. I was wondering if, amongst these artists, substance abuse was an influence for, or reaction to, their work. At the time I was pretty naive about the whole period and the individuals within it.
I was asking these questions because a lot of artists suffer from depression and mental illness — even artists who are not diagnosed as such are usually very susceptible to emotional highs and lows. This isn’t easy to deal with, even in today’s society, and people often result to finding their own ways of dealing with it — or ignoring it.
Today it is fantastic to see mental health being something discussed more openly and appearing in artists’ output, Nadine Shah being a shining example of art meeting honesty and openness. The Beat generation opened the floodgates for a lot of this expression and honesty across the arts.
So, the main influence I took away from this was “brutal honesty”, which is why “Soft Machines” is such a dear piece of music to me — it is a visceral response to that time and place in my life. I also ended up giving another nod to Burroughs by using his “cut up” method to create the structure of the piece: an initial structure is made, cut into smaller sections, then reassembled at random.
What other literature served as a source of inspiration?
A couple of tracks on the album use traditional music as their foundation: I take many traditional songs, atomise them, and then reassemble them into something new — often as a single element within a larger piece. In “Bethia” the chorus sings extracts from multiple sea shanties that have been abstracted into waves of text and phonemes. “The Old Declarn” uses a similar method, except its foundations are 12 variations of the same traditional folk song “The Old Declarn”. These 12 variations were in a book compiled by Cecil J Sharp, which was sat on the shelves of Imogen’s house. What I like most about this is that it captures that period of time in my life — the specific act, in fact, of pulling that book from the shelf.
You took on some rare instruments and approaches for the music (e.g. the Carillon, use of electric guitar) – how did you go on selecting what gears to use?
I never chose instruments for effect, “look how avant-garde I am — it’s a kazoo orchestra!”. I chose instruments because they have a specific meaning, function or timbre. For instance the carillon (chromatically tuned church bells) was used in the piece “Bethia” because the venue in which the work was to be premiered, Hull Minster, had a carillon — it is a sound that had rung out over the city for a long time. For a musical work designed to commemorate the changing of the tide for the city, it seemed apt to use part of Hull’s history as a means of looking to its future.
To answer your question about guitar, well, guitar is my first instrument. In my opinion it is underused in concert music and within that world the electric guitar is — at best — a curiosity for audiences. The instrument, when treated correctly, can be an awesome and emotive texture alongside traditional orchestral instruments. I wanted to explore that and also to tap into my own musical journey: learning to play the instrument, which lead to writing, which lead to locking myself away on the coast; on and on.
Was it easy to go on with this direction or you have some second thoughts?
There are always questions and doubts, especially when you feel stronger and more capable with every day that you pursue your art — what you created the day before is no longer “who” you are. Over time I have found the best practice is to capture — as honestly and as earnestly as possible — the moment of a work’s creation, and that includes all of the external influences affecting me at that point. An artist’s work is a catalogue of events, experiences, thoughts and failures, and that should not be damaged for the sake of second guessing.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the Album?
The fast-slow structure of the title track “Islandia” is borrowed from traditional songs found in the Pacific islands. The late David Fanshawe went to lengths to record much of this ancient music and preserve it for future generations — some of which I had the pleasure of hearing at his home back in 2008. What I like the most about a lot of traditional music is the sense of ceremony and ritual, which is often lacking in contemporary, non-liturgical works. As I listened to these records and embraced the earnestness and joy of the music,“Islandia” took on a ritualistic form for me.
Any plans to hit the road?
The “Islandia” tour goes to London, Manchester and my hometown, Hull, in June this year. The performances will be alongside Manchester Collective and Vessel, both of which are making waves in the new music scene around the UK and also taking new music to regional audiences.
What else is happening next in Daniel Elms’ world?
The next year is very busy, and I’m bound to secrecy on a couple of the biggies, but I can tell you that I’ve already started work on the next album. I’m really excited about this: I’m falling deeper and deeper into my own sound worlds; I have the words “sonic architecture” written on most surfaces in my studio — without sounding like I have completely lost it, I am building a sonic palace in the desert.”