"A Long Tradition Of Pessimists": Roll The Dice Play Ball
, August 30th, 2011 08:15
Wyndham Wallace talks to Stockholm's Roll The Dice about the influences at play on their second album, In Dust
As has become the wont of many artists these days, the unveiling of a suitably cinematic trailer heralded the imminent arrival of Roll The Dice's second, intensely claustrophobic album. It features the hirsute duo negotiating their way through a barren landscape – Norway, as if seen through the eyes of Cormac McCarthy when he wrote The Road – while a doom-laden voice invokes memories of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's 'The Dead Flag Blues'. Armageddon, it seems to suggest, is just around the corner, if it hasn't already happened, and the album's title, In Dust, further underlines those themes of death and desolation. It's already clear that Roll The Dice have little interest in picking up fairweather fans.
24 hours later, TV screens are filled with images of gangs roaming England's streets and ransacking high street stores, of broken glass strewn on the streets, of blue lights flashing in the foreground and orange flames licking the skies beyond. Thanks to its presence on the stereo that night, In Dust will always, for this journalist at least, represent the night that a twisted vision of the future as envisioned by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner collided with the gritty, topical apocalyptica of John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13, the moment that dystopian English society saw its slick, bright neon-lit façade torn apart by nihilist violence.
That's not just due to the portentous nature of the teaser film, the accident of its timing, or the sound and production that permeate In Dust, both of them recalling the soundtrack work of Vangelis (Blade Runner) and Carpenter (Assault On Precinct 13). It's also because In Dust is one of those records that arouses the same sentiments as the riots did: fear, disgust, alienation, a need for a sense of belonging and a primitive urge to commit violence, whether it be alongside the rioters in some inarticulate expression of deep-seated resentment and anger, or in wishing to punish those who have threatened the delicate stability of our existence, one which we cannot afford to admit may be entirely meaningless and unjust. It's also the sound of humans trying to find the heart in the machine, strangely gripping and yet simultaneously chilling, compellingly futuristic and still undeniably nostalgic. For all its bleak augury, In Dust convinces us that, although its creators have allowed it to be created mechanically, they're constantly pulling at the levers trying to ensure that it maintains some sense of humanity.
Roll The Dice are a Swedish duo based in Stockholm featuring Peder Mannerfelt, a musician involved with Fever Ray who also works as techno artist The Subliminal Kid, and Malcolm Pardon, a film and TV composer who, bizarrely, has also co-written tracks with Kelly Clarkson and Joey Tempest of Europe. They speak, inevitably, as a unit, refusing to answer questions alone. When asked why humanity always seems to imagine its future as bleak, their reply is simple: "Well, just take a look outside the window. The world is a pretty grim place at the moment, isn't it? You can say that we work in a long tradition of pessimists."
Their decision to carry out this interview as one is indicative of the way they work. As separate entities, their work pursued different avenues, but having shared studio space together for some time, they decided it was time to pool their talents in an especially collaborative fashion.
"We feel that we both have to think as a duo in a band," they explain, "trying to find common ground in the way we improvise our ideas, etc. So therefore it's not so much sticking to our individual qualities and skills, but bringing them together, and therefore making something new for ourselves. It was purely out of curiosity that we thought 'Let's try doing something'. But we also decided that there was really no point in doing something similar to what we both were doing individually, so therefore we needed a different angle."
Their approach, which demanded the use of only analogue equipment, also insisted, subconsciously or otherwise, upon them working in a somewhat industrial fashion, imposing basic rules that controlled how they operated. "That [different angle] turned out to be improvising our ideas," they elaborate, "[but] not allowing too many overdubs etc, and having a finished track after each session. To add to our 'dogma', we also did not allow any changes in the songs after the session was completed. The only goal was to allow the song to take any direction it needed depending on the mood of the session. The name 'Roll The Dice' came out of that 'see what happens' mentality."
'Roll The Dice', as it happens, is also the name of a work by Charles Bukowski that calls for full commitment to a cause, something that seems more than applicable to a duo whose music is so uncompromising.
"if you're going to try, go all the way.
otherwise, don't even start.
if you're going to try, go all the way.
this could mean losing girlfriends,wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind."
This poem's existence, it turns out, is news to Mannerfelt and Pardon. "For us Roll the Dice actually only meant to allow ourselves to let the music be improvised and random, and not have too many preconceived ideas. Let the moment decide, basically." They seem tickled by the poem's existence, however. "Having said that," they continue, "the Bukowski take on it is also something we can subscribe to, as Roll the Dice (the band) started as ourselves just getting together making music for our own pleasure, but then turning into something larger than us individually, and therefore a proof of the Bukowski thesis."
The results are inevitably tangled up with the work of early German electronica proponents, but they deny this was in any way deliberate. "There is no particular appeal for us as such," they say of Krautrock pioneers like Cluster, whose cyclical melodies In Dust recalls, "but by combining our musical approach, and also the way we set limits to our outlet, the end result came out as minimal and electronic. But we did not have any particular musical references in the process."
Other acts for whom they profess admiration include those at the more ambient end of the spectrum - Aphex Twin, Debussy, Svarte Greiner, Burial Hex, Brian Eno and Isaiah Tomita – but inevitably they also admit a fondness for John Carpenter, whose spirit permeates the entire album.
"His music has always been relevant because of its minimalistic and stripped down qualities," they admit, though they then go on to add that, "We have not taken a conscious grip on any of the artists that we sometimes get lumped together with. For us, artists like Basic Channel or Steve Reich or certain film scores are more relevant than, for instance, Tangerine Dream or Cluster."
Asked if they deliberately set out to foster a retro sound by employing the equipment that they do, they seem to bristle. "We don't consider our music to be retro in any way," they argue. "We just like the way the instruments we use happen to sound and feel in the process. Obviously you wouldn't consider, for instance, asking a guitarist using a '67 Stratocaster if he's retro, just because he uses an old instrument?"
And, to be fair, it's often association with particular sounds rather than styles that cause us to draw lines between artists. The roiled, eight minute 'Calling All Workers' recalls the work of Cologne's Hauschka, Eno collaborator Harold Budd and Andy Weatherall's Sabres Of Paradise project, but this rarely has much to do with those who have influenced Pardon and Mannerfelt. Mostly it's because they have employed the sound of a piano whose strings have been tamped, just as Hauschka does, or have draped reverb effects over another piano, as Budd did. They do admit, though, that the synthesized sound of a bell, pitched even to the same note, is "kind of a homage" to Sabres' timeless 'Clock Factory'. So, indebted they may be to their predecessors and the instruments they used, but Roll The Dice needn't cause concern for neophiliacs: they're playing old instruments, to riff on Eric Morecambe's classic line, but they're playing them in new ways.
That said, the air of nostalgia is hard to disperse, as In Dust often works in the same way as some of the classic films of the 1970s: the aforementioned Assault On Precinct 13, Alan J. Pakula's curiously forgotten Klute, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now. These directors weren't afraid to build tension over long periods of time and seemed in no rush to give in to people's naturally low attention spans, instead making them wait for action. Similarly, seven of In Dust's tracks are over six minutes long, and Roll The Dice betray little sense of impatience as they meander towards their goal.
"We felt when we started, even on the first album," they acknowledge, "that we always would allow the song to take its own course, either as long as needed or as short. And the meandering, as you call it - or, as we would like to put it, progression - is an integral part. And for us the longer you wait with layering the sound, the more of an effect it has when it finally appears."
Consequently, each track, and indeed the album as a whole, seems infused with a sense of narrative. Opener 'Iron Bridge' drones ominously for a good two minutes before a bassline starts bubbling towards a surface that it refuses to break, while 'Maelstrom' thuds gently as a piano melody ripples increasingly prominently amidst an initially placid synth drone that grows ever more colossal. They employ similar tricks over and over, refusing to defuse tension, always pulling up short before a predictable climax of sheer volume, even on the epic, almost uplifting, eleven minute long 'Way Out'. On the evidence of their Live In Gothenburg EP, they do occasionally give in to the need for a noisy payoff. But those who like their music to follow recognisable formats, where they can trace their fingers along the outline of a song before even hearing it through, where resolution is always anticipated, may find In Dust frustrating, even unfulfilling. Roll The Dice's goal, though, was never to comfort.
"The first album had an openness and feeling of wide spaces, almost natural ambience if you like," they say, "(but) In Dust has more of a alienated feeling and a sense of loss. We always try to have some sort of a mental picture or narrative for the album in process, and In Dust for us was to capture the moment of transition between the world of high expectations into the word of conformity, and maybe the struggle of everyday life."
It certainly straddles that divide, driven by a relentless force that looks always upward but remains constantly restrained. Though it's never especially atonal or abrasive, and while it fails to cut off the circuitry of sentiments, In Dust's overriding qualities are dark, sinister and forbidding. Armageddon has taken a rain check, but the world remains anxious and irritable. Roll The Dice, meanwhile, are working on the score.
"The idea was to make an album with these qualities already from the start," they conclude, "and judging by the way things are going in the UK with the riots, declining world markets, famine in Africa etc, this album makes a pretty good soundtrack."