Modesty and reticence may be admirable traits in a person. But in music, they are mostly a sure-fire recipe for mediocrity. Well aware of this equation, London-based fourpiece Kontakte have made grand gestures and big ambitions the foundation of their oeuvre. Following in the footsteps of an already anything but shy debut, Soundtracks to Lost Road Movies, their second full-length We Move Through Negative Spaces marks another progression for the band: Yet more epic in its architecture, even more varied in its stylistic outreach, more daring in its arrangements, more ecstatic in its moments of blissful euphoria and more forlorn in its instances of sweet melancholia, it maximises the quartet’s sound and scope in every possible way: Pieces like proudly triumphant opener „Astralagus“ as well as a two-part, fifteen-minute closing suite composed of „Every Passing Hour“ and „The Ocean Between You and Me“, are inspired as much by the dynamics and emotional catharsis of rock as by forces of nature: Howling walls of stormy distortion, the burning brightness of shimmering harmonics and cooling waves of consoling harmonies combine into a work that is sure to leave no one cold – and many feverishly aroused. At the same time, the album marks a gradual shift in Kontakte’s stylistic outreach. While Soundtracks to Lost Road Movies was still indebted to the aesthetics of Krautrock, the title to standout-piece „Motorik“ openly referencing the genre’s emphasis on hypnotic grooves and slow-simmering rhythmical propulsion, for example, We Move Through Negative Spaces offers the highly personal blend of a Post Rock band driven by stuttering elecronic beats and the finely nuanced sensibilities of a neoclassical ensemble – with befriended violinist Brigid McCafferty adding timbral richness on select instances. The general impression of the album is therefore one of a work of change, and it is further reinforced by the inclusion of two pieces written by former member Paul Burton, thereby linking past, present and future of the band in an intriguing fashion. That is a challenging proposition for sure – but Kontakte would undoubtedly not have it any other way.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi. We’re good thanks. We are spread across the globe right now – three of the band are based in London and one in Toronto, Canada.
What’s on your schedule right now?
The past few months have seen us getting things together for the release of our second album ‘We Move Through Negative Spaces’ (Drifting Falling Records). It’s been a labour of love for the past two years and has been worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears on our part! We are really proud of the record, and the good feedback it is starting to receive (hopefully) shows that people can hear the passion and care we put into the writing, recording and production.
How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
Well, the band is based in London, which is a fantastically diverse city for music. There are other great cities in the world where you can find brilliant music scenes full of enthusiastic listeners, but London seems to be a melting pot for almost any kind of sound or movement in music. It’s fascinating that whatever you listen to, whether it is Jazz, Classical, Doom Metal or Skiffle (!) – you are going to find a club or night dedicated to that somewhere in London. As a musician that can be exciting, but at the same time frustrating – simply as there are so many artists vying for the attention of listeners, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd.
Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
Not really, no. There are obvious comparisons that people and reviewers make with our music (dare we say p**t-r**k) – but I guess it’s only natural for people to try and group things together sometimes for ease of reference. To be honest it’s not something that we really pay too much attention to though – we’d rather just be judged on our own merits (as any band/artist would). In terms of tradition though – there is definitely a lineage of interesting music going back through the years that we’d like to think we’re building on in some way. I don’t think there are many ideas left which haven’t been explored in some form already, so anything we do now is obviously influenced by people before us. I guess starting with early electronic music (hence the band name), right through to MBV, Spacemen 3, and more recent (and perhaps more obvious) influences like Godspeed You Black Emperor.
Are there any movements in music any more in 2011?
Don’t know – you tell us!? Our individual tastes are pretty diverse and I don’t think we really latch onto scenes or movements as such. Just seeking out good music is enough for us, regardless of when it was made, or by whom. Sometimes the best way to discover ‘new’ music is by reading about artists you like and admire, and finding out what has influenced them. It can sometimes be a bit overwhelming when you dig deeper and deeper and realise just how much great music that there is already out there (let alone things that are coming out this year) that you haven’t discovered or listened to yet.
In terms of composition, what do you consider your main challenges?
First and foremost the main challenge is to keep it interesting for ourselves. We do this because we love it. If it ever gets to the point where it is no longer interesting or enjoyable then we’d have to find something else to keep us busy. The best way of achieving this is to always keep pushing on and trying new things – different sounds, different arrangements, even swapping instruments – just to keep challenging yourselves in some way.
We aim to write music that is both delicate and powerful at the same time – and the key element that is needed to convey these (sometimes conflicting) ideas, is a good use of dynamics. It needs to move, build, and be fluid within its own space … and surprise the listener. It’s sometimes a challenge to achieve these different things within a track, and find the right balance between the various elements, but we’d like to think that more times than not we get close to what we’re trying to achieve.
How would you describe your method of composing?
In a word … iterative! Due to the part-electronic, part-live instrumentation nature of the band there usually needs to be some sort of pre-preparation necessary in terms of electronic elements when we write. Songs can start around just a simple beat, or a synth line, which we’ll play together over – finding what works, what doesn’t, and how the track can be structured. Then it’s a case of re-programming the electronic elements to suit and playing through again with live instruments, again noting what works and what doesn’t etc. And repeat ad infinitum …! It’s sometimes hard to know when to stop (this recent set of songs took almost two years to pin down), but it’s the way that works for us right now.
Software like Ableton Live is bringing us closer to the point of being able to improvise whilst writing in terms of beats and electronics as well, but at the moment we don’t have enough pairs of hands in the band to make full use of that … Though it is something that we’d like to explore in the future. With one of us now based overseas we’re also starting to explore ways of collaborating on new material remotely, and exchanging ideas online. It may change the way things work a bit, but we’re hopeful that we can all still contribute to new tracks and keep making good music together.
In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your work?
Short answer … I don’t know. Your background and upbringing is always going to influence what you do in all aspects of your life, but as for how it affects our music I’m not sure to be honest. I think one trait that we share as a group is an underlying sense of optimism … whatever bad things happen, and however bleak things may seem sometimes, I think we share the ability to see some light at the end of the tunnel – and I think that comes across in our music (though I’m not sure that was the question you were asking!).
How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Both are equally important. The best records are those that are made up of interesting sounds and textures – where you can find a new layer, or something you hadn’t noticed before, every time you go back to it. For me personally, the first time I heard Loveless was the first time I realised that a track could be more than just verse, chorus, melody etc – it was the nature of the sound itself that was just as important (if not more so).
It may not be that obvious from our music, but a couple of us have become obsessed recently with Tim Hecker’s work. His records are so interesting from a sound design perspective – things are so heavily processed that often it’s not discernible what the original sound sources were. Yet even amongst all that dissonance and the abrasive textures, there is still something very human-sounding – and captivating – about what he does. He sets the bar pretty high in terms of creating interesting sound in its own right, coupled with great compositional skills.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
For us, the two are interlinked. Improvisation is a key part of the song-writing process – just sitting and making music together, and reacting to what others are playing is the best way of putting together new material. As mentioned above though – the nature of the band means that we can’t write in a 100% improvisational way … there has to be an element of pre-preparation when we’re writing new music – even if it’s only a drum beat, or a synth line, to play against and improvise around.
What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
This might be quite a literal answer … but to us ‘new music’ is just something you haven’t personally heard before. As we said above, some of the most exciting musical discoveries aren’t necessarily newly released, they’re just new to you at the time.
I think at one point electronic music in general might have sounded ‘new’ to people because of the emergence of new technology but that’s long gone now. Anyone can create these sounds these days, so the challenge is in coming up with new ways of using technology, and/or combining it with other sounds, to create something that avoids sounding tired.
Do you personally enjoy multimedia as an enrichment or do you feel that it is leading away from the essence of what you want to achieve?
Multimedia in terms of visuals? To us there is a definite link between music and visual images, but sometimes we’re in two minds about how we should use that as a band. We originally started using visuals as a backdrop for live performance to try and draw the audience attention away from us as performers – so that they would be focused on something else, and therefore maybe appreciate the music in a different way. We hoped that by leading their eyes away from us playing the individual parts it would somehow allow them to listen to the music as a single body of sound, and hear it the way we imagined it in our heads. But then at the same time I think it is important not to dictate to a listener what they should be imagining when they hear our music – we’d rather individuals made their own minds up about what the songs mean to them.
I guess artwork sort of falls into this category as well – packaging is an important element of any release. MP3’s are very convenient, but the download-only culture of music consumption is not something that really makes sense to us, as it removes that sense of physical connection a listener has with the people who created the music. I think that’s part of the reason we put so much effort into producing a limited edition version of this album – with a DVD, individual photos, and various other bits and pieces – things which can’t necessarily be replicated in digital form.
The films that friends put together for three of the album tracks, and which are on the limited edition DVD, are an example of how multimedia elements can be used to enhance what we’re doing. We’re honoured that these people were willing to spend so much time putting together the films, and they have definitely added something of their own to each of the tracks. This was in effect a ‘one-way’ collaboration though – the tracks were essentially complete and the film makers put together their interpretation of them. In the future we’d love to try working in conjunction with a director to create an original sound track for film work. That would be really interesting.
So … sorry, that’s a very long-winded answer! But in answer to your original question – no we don’t think multimedia elements detract from what we’re trying to achieve. Used wisely they can really enhance what you are doing – but (as with the music itself) they need the right level of care and attention to detail.
What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
The key thing that a good show needs is a connection with the audience. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing to 10 people or 500 – if you can sense that they are into what you are doing then it gives you more energy, and pushes you on to perform better. Our live set up is quite reliant on technology, so our approach is to do everything we can to turn up early and get a good sound check! Things tend to go wrong when we’re expected to just plug in and start playing.
We see live performances as being a separate experience to listening to our music on record – there is a more physical connection with the listener at a live show (often simply through volume), as opposed to sitting at home with your headphones on. It is easier to get across the subtleties sometimes on record, but it is very difficult (if not impossible) to reproduce the physical nature of a live show during recording. Neither experience is better than the other – just different.
How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences without sacrificing their soul?
That’s a really difficult question. We would love our music (and that of other non-mainstream bands/artists we admire) to get more recognition from the wider public, but I worry that if this did happen then it may start to change the music being made somehow. It’s hard to articulate why. We definitely don’t subscribe to that ‘indie’ ethic where anyone who tastes success automatically loses their credibility, but as a listener I think part of the appeal of non- mainstream music is that sense of discovery when you find something new that you love. It somehow makes it more special knowing that you are part of something that most people don’t understand and are missing out on. I don’t think that’s a particularly good answer to your question (!), but it’s more of a gut feeling than anything.
As for how it could happen … I guess you need to rely on artists who have achieved some level of success (whilst retaining their credibility) to try and open their audiences eyes/ears to other new things. For example, The Cure taking 65daysofstatic out on a stadium tour with them, or Mogwai taking smaller bands they admire out as support acts all over the world. I suppose ‘exploiting’ other forms of more mainstream media would be another way into the public eye. It may be generalising slightly, but a lot of this type of music lends itself to soundtrack work – whether it is for films, videogames, or even maybe theatre. Audiences can get subliminally exposed to music in this way that they perhaps wouldn’t seek out ordinarily. For most bands though opportunities like this would be few and far between.
You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
All sorts … I think to reflect the diverse range of things that the four of us are into we would need a stage each to keep us all happy! Stuart would curate the ‘earplugs mandatory’ stage – headlined by Swans, with Sunn O))), Earth, Jesu, Nisennenmondai and Belong. Ben would curate the ‘laptops and guitars’ stage – Tim Hecker and Ben Frost collaboration to headline, with Fennesz, The Sight Below, Marcus Fischer, Jasper TX. Ian would curate the ‘strings and keys’ stage – headlined by Ludivico Einaudi, with Olafur Arnalds, Eluvium, Nils Frahm and Amiina. Gary would curate the ‘anything goes stage’ – headlined by Radiohead with Tool, Alan Jackson and Volcano Choir. There would also need to be a film tent showing the first series of Twin Peaks on repeat 24 hours a day throughout the whole festival! David Lynch is a genius.
Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
In a word, no – at least not yet anyway. Perhaps that just means though that we haven’t peaked yet (!) and we’re still refining our songwriting skills and musicianship. It’s important to have grand ambitions for your music, and to aim high as you can – and I think we’ll continue to better ourselves in the future and hopefully keep making music that means something to people. At this point in time though we’re happy with where we are, and we’re proud of this most recent album. We put so much into it that we’re just excited for it to finally be out there, and hoping that people can identify with it.
Soundtracks to Lost Road Movies (Drifting Falling) 2008
We Move Through Negative Spaces (Drifting Falling) 2011