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Escape Velocity

Iridescent Curiosities: An Interview With Empty Taxi
Tristan Bath , February 25th, 2015 15:28

Brussels-based producer Zoë McPherson's debut cassette/EP signalled an ascendant voice in electronic music, shifting through vocal-lined techno and ambient with shades of Muslimgauze, Vatican Shadow and Gazelle Twin. Now, she tells Tristan Bath how Irizajn was the result of pygmy vocal samples, ethnology tomes and technical experimentation

Photograph courtesy of David San Juan

Pop and electronic music no longer overlap so much as wholly engulf each other. The influence of the latter's digital methodologies surfaces in the near-identical components that many new, more song-oriented producers and singers are drawing on, the same cuboid blobs in programs like Pro Tools, Logic and Ableton, repeatedly synthesising the same base materials into 4/4 songs. Even in spite of this, though, fresh talent reveals itself in new forms every day. Having barely existed for two years, Empty Taxi is one such project that instantly stands out, familiar and alien all at once. Her single release under the name - the five-song Irizajn cassette/EP - is a broadly varied set of vocal and instrumental pieces, ranging from the darkly pounding techno of 'Bending' to surreal instrumental hip-hop on 'Efé Forest' and long-form ambience.

Zoë McPherson, the French/Northern Irish producer and vocalist behind Empty Taxi, is only over in London for a couple of days from her usual base in Brussels, where she manages Belgian jazz musicians, the remnant of a teenage love for playing jazz herself, and I leap at the opportunity to meet up and discuss her pop-tinged electronic project. I've become somewhat temporarily obsessed with the EP, enamoured by its curiously organic approach to digital song-making. McPherson's deep and unassumingly powerful voice atop the murky synth chords of 'Brainsculpt' brings to mind recent Quietus albums of 2014 list-topper Gazelle Twin (admittedly in something of an unusually upbeat mood), while the jazzy cymbals, absurdist lyrics and ascending atmospheres of opener 'Eskimo' invoke the spirit of Björk and Bristol in the 90s. Irizajn closes with the utterly unexpected 'Bars In Ljubljana's Castle', a long-form blend of spiralling ambience and disjointed hand percussion, bringing to mind a daylit take on the ritualistic invocations of Muslimgauze and Vatican Shadow.

How did you end up moving from your teenage experiences of jazz to producing more electronic stuff and starting Empty Taxi?

Zoë McPherson: In France, where I grew up, I got more and more into electronic music, and wondering how it works. I didn't know anything about how it works, and how you do it: the software and the hardware, the mix of both... I didn't even know what a sound card was and all that, and just had to figure it out. But now it seems that you can check out some basic stuff online very easily - it's a bit too easy I find now! It took me like two years to understand what I need to buy and all that, then I got a keyboard and a microphone.

There's a good mix of MIDI-controlled and acoustic stuff on Irizajn. What about the drums?

ZM: I do actually record the drums a lot. I have percussion and cymbals and I record them with a H4 [microphone]. On 'Eskimo' there's a cymbal I played myself. I could use virtual kicks and sometimes snares, but I could also record real snares and try to mix things together to get a new sound. There's something about the cymbals which needs to be organic though. I find, when you get to know the library that exists, I sometimes hear a song and recognise the sound, and it's boring, you know? It's not very interesting, and it's nicer to create. Otherwise, what are you creating?

So what samples were used?

ZM: So on 'Efé Forest' there are vocals, which come from pygmies, from a sociological album I found, singing about the Ituri forest in the Congo.

The music you make on the EP is quite varied. The artist who made vocal tracks like 'Eskimo' and 'Brainsculpt' could be a totally different artist to the one behind the instrumentals.

ZM: Yeah, I know, that's a critique I make myself. I started not so long ago, and maybe after some time I will do always the same thing; I hope not, but it's true! I hope it still has the same universe. I make a lot of songs all at the same time, so that I can switch over if I get bored of working on one for too long. And I feel inspired by all of these different types of music too.

Your voice is incredibly striking, it's one of the things that really got me when I first heard your tape. When did you start singing and writing songs with vocals?

ZM: Just there. I never really sung. I don't want to be a singer actually! I just thought it was nice to just play around with the vocals, and easy to create the melodies. At the beginning I was just like anybody - playing around with the effects, and then finding, 'Oh that's nice' and then doing some vocal tracks. Then you find something you want to say, and you find those words that really make sense. I think it's really difficult to be a songwriter actually. Maybe the most interesting theme to write about for me is the absurd.

It's almost Dali-esque how you focus on inanimate objects, such as the fish that inspired 'Eskimo'. On your SoundCloud page, too, there's an image of a different object for each song.

ZM: The visual aspect was something I wanted to work on. Maybe it's always linked - when I was in high school I did visual art, and now I do music, and I think it's nice to now put them together. The name of this EP is an Esperanto word; it's pronounced 'eerie sign' and means 'iridescent' in English, and reflects something I was sort of obsessed with and became a theme in this EP. That sort of shiny, petrol colour. I chose to use the Esperanto term simply as I liked the way that version of the word looked.

So all of the pictures actually represent something which is iridescent - the fish, the shell, the stone, the beetle - and it's all linked to the theme of each song. The beetle went with 'Bending' as it's a bit rough, and the fish goes for 'Eskimo'.

So what is 'Eskimo' about then? An eskimo?

ZM: Yes, actually. I was going through my grandmother's old books, and she had this old sociological/ethnological book on eskimos from the 70s. I thought it was amazing back then, as it was back before mobile phones and everything, and the book is narrating this amazing encounter with this culture and tribe that is so different and has different values. Now even the eskimos, or inuits, all have their mobile phones too!

The song's about a lot of contradictions, in this case between folklore and technology. And I'm very into Nordic stuff. I really like all that somehow.

What inspired the track 'Bars in Ljubljana Castle'? It's the long finale track, and reminds me a lot of Muslimgauze - very full of meaning, even though it's little more than a ceremonial-feeling instrumental.

ZM: Well firstly Ljubljana is just one of the cities where it was made. The percussion I made on a pipe in Ljubljana - the metallic pipe you hear at the start - then the rough ambient thing is from an oscillator in Budapest which belongs to a friend, just fiddling around. Then a day in Berlin, which was more about the kicks. So that's it. I was actually making it and listening to it while walking - it's really good to do that, to start some parts and then really think about it before adding more. That's how I made this one.

How have you been doing things live?

ZM: A very long way… That's a question I'm always very interested in with all of these electronic musicians. I'm always very concerned with making it an actually 'live' thing. I have several controllers, including Ableton Push, keyboard and microphone.

Are you looping stuff?

ZM: Not yet actually, I need to get a looper first! I will in the future. I really don't like the Ableton looper at all. I recently saw tUnE-yArDs at this festival in Utrecht and she is fucking good! She does her live set very well. She has two super energetic backing vocalists, the guy on bass is her mate, and a girl on percussions - and she's just super good! She's very good at using loopers, but she doesn't use it as much as she used to, as she now has all those musicians with her. I actually started to fully understand what her latest album [Nikki Nack] was and why it was constructed in this way by seeing it played live. The album is clearly specially designed for live performance. So you have to think about the live show when you produce already, otherwise you're fucked, you know.

We're seeing more and more female solo artists in the 'underground' end of electronic music. Do you sense a significant change, or am I wrong?

ZM: In certain areas, I think it's still difficult to get accepted. I think some guys may not believe that you produced it for instance. 'So who's producing?' and I say, 'It's me fucker!' Or they might come up and say, 'I'll give you some tips.' That didn't happen to me though and I hope it won't but I've read a lot about women's experiences in electronic music. Grimes, she said that after a show one guy came to her saying, 'I can give you some tips' and it's like, fuck you.

And finally, any favourite recent artists in Belgium?

ZM: Different Fountains. They've been doing electronics for quite some years. I forgot the name of their latest album, but you can find it online [Shrimp That Sleeps]. They're Brussels-based and very DIY-type people, and now they're really getting to a good level of attention now. They're humble people too, and they're making really great music.

Irizajn is out now via Bandcamp. Empty Taxi plays the following:

FEBRUARY
Thu 26 - Madame Claude, Berlin, Germany

APRIL
Thu 16 - Radio Panik live session, Brussels, Belgium

MAY
Sat 9 - Nationa(al) Festival, Brussels, Belgium

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