Deeper Underground: An Interview With The Haxan Cloak
, April 15th, 2013 04:54
Bobby Krlic's second album as The Haxan Cloak takes the spirit of his self-titled debut into synthetic and ethereal space, sending shivers up the spine in the process. He speaks to Maya Kalev about the pleasure of fear and unease
"I don't find darkness depressing. Actually, I find it quite uplifting and cathartic," says The Haxan Cloak. "There are certain points where I challenge myself and try and make myself feel as uncomfortable as I possibly can. And that doesn't come down to me being a dark person; it's like a kind of adrenaline rush. When I was a kid, I used to find the scariest, most brutal possible films to watch, and then when my parents would go out I'd turn off all the lights in the house, close the door and put my headphones on. That kind of isolation is terrifying, and the rush you get is kind of like going on a rollercoaster, but it can make you feel quite elated in a weird way."
Bobby Krlic is right: he isn't a dark person. It's clear after about a minute into our interview that he's friendly, voluble and genuinely passionate about his work. And theres plenty to talk about - he's about to release his second full-length as The Haxan Cloak, Excavation, on Tri Angle Records. His first, self-titled album, released on the small but terrific Aurora Borealis imprint, deployed a combination of conventional instrumentation and dread electronics to inculcate pure fear in the listener. The Haxan Cloak established Krlic as among a pantheon of graveyard musicians that draw inspiration from folk tales of the occult - to be filed next to Demdike Stare and Raime, perhaps, though closer to them in spirit than execution. While the former's roots stretch to dub techno and the latter's to jungle and dub, Krlic's music draws much of its bleak mystery from the torpid drones of doom metal. Made in the shed at the bottom of his parents' garden in Wakefield, and with every instrument - treated violin and cello, raw percussive elements and glacial drones - all played by Krlic himself, The Haxan Cloak felt like the work of an impressively fully formed, musically adept talent.
Excavation is The Haxan Cloak's musical inverse. Where Krlic's debut told the story of a character's journey into death and was heavy on acoustic instrumentation, its follow-up is far more synthetic: all looming caverns of space, underlaid with massive, undulating swells of bass and more indebted to the frozen spaces of Finnish minimal techno than doom metal. "The first record was very much rooted in earthy tones. It was about performance and from my perspective, so I didn't want to alter too much on the computer," he explains. "It wasn't very electronic, so I thought with this one, why not flip that, and try to represent ethereal space. A lot of it is field recordings and processed natural sounds. On the first record, I wanted to leave it quite natural, so with this I thought, it can be whatever I want. I can take whatever sound I like and just magnify it hugely and then break it down."
The record also marks the next stage in an ongoing narrative that began with The Haxan Cloak. Krlic reveals that, in the case of the debut album, "I didn't really know what it was about until I was assembling it all in the end, and then I kind of formed a narrative around this fictional character, about his descent towards death."
Excavation, by contrast, was written with the conceptual arc already in place: concerned from the bottom up with death, with its protagonist already having passed away. But rather than reductively splitting the afterlife into heaven and hell, Krlic takes a more nuanced approach in an attempt to evoke the path of the spirit. The idea of the tortured soul is at its most obvious in vocal tracks like 'Miste' where, against a veil of noise and a portentous bassline, vocal snippets are mangled and abstracted into yelps and gasps that have no direct meaning but resonate with panic. The spirit's journey culminates in 'The Drop', the final track on Excavation and its longest. With its title reflective of the spirit's descent from the astral plane, it opens with a protracted bassline and ominous synth passage that build measuredly for four minutes or so. Then a cavernous, nauseating bass thump, and another, and another, joined by a string section and sparse, organic percussion.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Krlic needed to effect a certain emotional detachment from his work in order to create such expressive spatial detail. "I'd have fourteen tracks going on in one song, and stripping that back to what was absolutely necessary was what took a lot of work. Seriously, it's awful!" he recalls with a laugh. "It's like every track is one of your children and you don't want to get rid of anything at all. But you just have to. It's never a waste of time, especially as when I take something away, I might be able to use it somewhere else. I've got hard drives and hard drives full of library sounds."
I suggest that the creepiness of Excavation's spaces and its all-consuming physicality owe as much musically to artists like Pan Sonic's Mika Vainio or Alva Noto as they do to Earth. Take 'Excavation (Part One)', whose massive bass thumps and cathedral-huge reverb, dotted sparsely with high-pitched drones, recall less the doom metal bands of his earlier influence, and more the eerie, frozen landscapes of Ø albums like Syväys. "Yes, I love [Berlin label] Raster-Noton," he agrees. "I want it to be physically as well as emotionally absorbing. I wrote the record with low frequencies probably not even audible to the majority of listeners with normal listening apparatus, frequencies designed to make you feel sick. You get down to 8hz and you get the same kind of sensation that happens during an earthquake."
Tracks like 'Excavation (Part One)' and 'Excavation (Part Two)' don't follow conventional build-and -release narratives, instead twisting and turning to unexpected places: you're as likely to hear screeches of feedback as you are a chilling vocal snatch or a creepy, infernal rumble. Though this meandering structure has an obviously discombobulating effect, there's more to it than that. Immersed in this lurching record, you accompany the spirit on its fearsome journey: a cathartic and exhilarating experience for both artist and listener alike. Both in concept and realisation, then, Excavation is a pretty draining experience - a fact that Krlic only became aware of during the mastering sessions. "There was a point with Matt [Colton, mastering engineer at Air Studios] where we were listening to one song over and over, and by the end of it Matt was gasping for breath, and was like, 'Can we just step outside for a minute, I'm feeling really weird.' And I thought, yeah, alright, job done!"
Though The Haxan Cloak seems a perfect fit for Aurora Borealis, I suggest that perhaps his music sits right on the fringes of Tri Angle's blackened pop aesthetic. He replies that his initial misgivings turned into optimism. "When Robin [Carolan, boss of Tri Angle] first approached me, I didn't know about the label or anything. I'd seen the name around, but had heard only oOoOO and Balam Acab. So I was slightly tentative, but then I checked it out and… it's not that I didn't like the music – I really liked the music – it's just that I didn't think I'd fit into it.
"And then I thought, you know what, it's really cool that Robin's into this music and he's into me," he continues, "because it shows that he actually knows what he wants to do. The fact that Aurora Borealis was willing to do something with me… well, I was flabbergasted. I love anything to do with Southern [Records, through whom he released The Men Parted The Sea To Devour The Water as part of its Latitudes series], and Aurora Borealis, and I think everything they put out is great, but it would be very easy to stay there. The people who generally like those labels would probably be into my stuff. I think it's better that someone like Robin takes me on. I can have my own corner, my own niche, and a load of people who would ordinarily never even think about listening to me would come across my music. If I could get an AlunaGeorge fan to listen to my music, and make them realise there's something in there that they can relate to, that's way cooler than having fans who have been listening to Sunn O))) for ten years. Not that I don't value those people, because I do, but to change the way people evaluate what they actually like, that's what I want."
But signing to Tri Angle, he admits, came with its own set of difficulties. "At the time I don't think I realised the gravity of signing to a label like Tri Angle. All the management and PR stuff that they have in place… it's proper. It did make me freak out because also it was really important that I didn't repeat myself at all. That would have been so easy, to make the first record again. I can play a lot of instruments and make computer music, and [on the first record] I kind of wanted to showcase different aspects of my abilities. [For the second album] I didn't want to do a dance record, but I also didn't want to do something so fucking leftfield that nobody would listen to it. So I kind of had a tough time working out exactly where it would sit."
Being exposed to a larger or different audience also exerts a different kind of commercial pressure. Could that be seen as being at odds with Excavation's deeply introspective nature? "Ultimately, I'm making something that for me is intensely personal," Krlic reflects. "Music is really the only way I can express myself. And it's so personal and so laboured and crafted, but at the end of the day you're giving it to other people and their job is to sell it. Of course they care about you and what you've got to say, but they also care about selling records, and that's a really big thing you've got to realise. That was a bit of a weird one actually. It's an interesting thing because if you're going to do it properly and make your living in music, you also have to realise that you're doing a job. Of course, you don't make records with the sole purpose of selling them. But I want this to be my life, so much, that I'm not just going to do something completely off-centre just for the sake of it, I'm going to do something that says what I want to say, but also that can fit into people's tastes."
This attitude feels very much in line with Tri Angle's approach - a label whose very first release, a sampler of Lindsay Lohan tracks as reinterpreted by artists like Laurel Halo, Oneohtrix Point Never and Babe Rainbow, embodied its founder's fascination with the interplay between pop and experimental music. In that sense, despite its enduring themes and permeating sense of unease, Excavation arrives at an appropriate time - when lines between popular and outlier become blurred, and when production on mainstream tracks is often willfully experimental. "I love Drake, I love Lil Wayne, all that shit. Kanye West is also amazing… The production [on Kanye's 'Mercy'] is weird for popular music," says Krlic. "I think that's so cool that someone's been able to take those super offbeat elements and craft them into something that so many people lose their shit over. And that's what I want to do. If I can be weird and people think that that's cool – why wouldn't you want to do that?"
Indeed, even though its physically emetic qualities are bound to win it a few detractors, Excavation plumbs emotional depths with such honesty and physicality that you suspect that people from both the worlds of extreme and popular music will lose their shit over it.