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Escape Velocity

Waving Not Drowning: Walls Are Explorers Of The Sublime
John Doran , April 27th, 2010 12:26

John Doran sits down with Walls to discuss the Shroud Of Turin, Ready Brek and the horrors of Stockport

Drowning is only distressing during the struggle. The second you accept your fate, after laryngospasm fills your stomach and then your lungs with fluid, the experience can be comforting, even enjoyable presumably. There is no physical trauma. No pain. Just massive release of dopamine. You don’t even register when your heart stops beating.

First hand testimonies written by the victims of cold water, sea drowning after being brought back round with CPR, often describe an experience which sounds almost alluring. Some fishermen even talk of being aghast at being roughly dragged back to consciousness by having the briny pummelled back out of their chest cavities.

Some said they would take the fishing boat out, the trawler, the canoe, the coracle or the dinghy and try and find the spot, late at night... searching desperately for the spot where they almost achieved freedom from angst.

Walls, the blissful new signings to mesmeric German house label Kompakt write elegies for these joy chasing, melancholy trawlermen... these unhappy death dodgers. They blend analogue and digital psychedelic noise with treated guitar and vocals, casting massive drag nets down into the deep, pulling up abyssal tunes, hypnotic and coral encrusted synth riffs, Atlantian hooks. This is not angry music for Dylan Thomas’s marching hordes of Welsh merchant sea men, striding back out of the breakers, clad in their Sunday best but for those who pressed their faces against the fizzing portal, those who touched the doorframe before coming back once more...

English Blogger Sam Willis of Allez Allez was introduced to Italian musician Alessio Natalizia of Banjo Or Freakout ostensibly to remix his first single, ‘Mr No’ but the pair bonded and formed the duo almost immediately swapping files, riffs and ideas, working towards something new and transcendent.

Where are you both from?

Alessio Natalizia: I'm from the centre of Italy. From a little fishing town Vaseo on the Adriatic coast opposite Rome. The sea and the beach are its defining characteristic.

How long have you lived in the UK?

AN: I've been going back and forth for three years but then I moved here two years ago. After Vaseo I was living in Turin. Do you know about Turin?

I guess I know more about the shroud than the actual town - they're putting it back on display again this month...

AN: Oh wow, really?

I'm interested in the Shroud Of Turin because even as a fake, it's still probably 1,000 years old. That gives it an immense amount of intrinsic worth I think. That people need to know Christ was wrapped in it to find it interesting reveals their essential lack of imagination.

AN: Yeah.

Sam Willis: The Turin Shroud is like a bootleg Beatles album!

AN: It's odd because normally people know Turin because of football.

I don't know anything about football. Well, I know that Sniffles The Dog stole the FA Cup in 1975...

AN: In this instance I'm happier to say that I know more about football than I do about religion.

While I’m willing to admit that football exists, I’ll always hold that religion is infinitely more interesting... There is enough heartbreak and disappointment in my life being a hardcore music fan without having to support some fucking appalling local football team as well. [Doran's local team is Arsenal, Football Editor]

AN: You know they are pretty much the same thing right?

Bar heavy metal, I won't really get into anything that's got a dress code. So that's the priesthood, Islam, Hasidic Judaism, the police, the free masons and being a football fan out of the window for me. And driving for Eddie Stobarts. But the Italians take football very seriously right?

AN: Well, yeah but so do you guys [the British], even if you, personally, don't. The UK is full of people who are currently dying to go to the pub and get drunk and watch a football match.

SW: Even though it's a bit of a stereotype, Italians generally tend to be slightly more vocal and expressive about day to day passions. We're probably of a similar level of intensity in this country but maybe not expressively so.

Where are you from Sam?

SW: Stockport

Stockport! Fuck me, I hate Stockport! But maybe I only saw the worst side of Stockport on a Friday or Saturday night...

SW: Nah, it is pretty fucking horrible. I was brought up in a middle class enclave within a sea of whatever. I was pretty lucky that I did most of my growing up at university in London because I wasn't hugely popular at school or college. Something that's carried on into my music has been the fact that I was obsessed with reading or computer games or anything that involved escapism when I was younger. London was where I started going out to gigs and clubs.

Greater Manchester and the surrounding environs have a big history for producing musicians, DJs and computer programmers who wear big rainproof jackets. It's the weather. You have to have a hobby that you can do indoors. That and the social make-up of the area as well.

SW: Completely.

You two met through a remix project then? What was the, ah, Bobby Moore with that then?

AN: What's the Bobby Moore?

That's what I'm asking you.

SW: It's cockney rhyming slang for score...

AN: I guess Banjo Or Freakout is a bit more pop than Walls, especially now. It started as a noise project but now I prefer to write real songs with a verse chorus verse chorus structure. [laughs] I started the band rather than talk to my girlfriend's flatmates! When I started to come to visit London to see my girlfriend I didn't really know anyone and I'm not really that social. And she had a laptop; I'd never had one in my life. And one day I was waiting for her and I opened the laptop and started to play around with it. It started with me just sampling stuff and using GarageBand.

Was it easy to pick up?

AN: Oh, it was so easy! I still don't know anything about laptops compared to Sam.

SW: But you could always play guitars...

AN: Ah yeah! I could play and I have always been in bands so for me it has always been rock or noise or punk rock... that kind of culture. So at first I was scared of getting into laptops but it is really easy. This is why there are so many bands who use them!

Do you have links to that kind of bedroom based scene that includes stuff like glo-fi?

SW: Yeah, totally.

So you met when Sam was remixing Banjo Or Freakout's first single?

SW: Yeah, Richard Onslow [Half Machine Records] heard some of my Allez Allez stuff and asked if I wanted to do a remix. He asked if I liked stuff like My Bloody Valentine and Arthur Russell and that noisy kind of stuff with melody. I love Kompakt Records and the Cologne sound and the more emotive end of house music. I think that's the important differentiation for me, a lot of the stuff that had been popular, like the Ed Banger and Kitsune sound and the noisier, aggressive side of dance music was coming from rock kids and a rock attitude toward making house music. And to me that always felt like a party I wasn't really invited to. I think my background was a bit more thoughtful and a bit more subtle perhaps. I'm 32. I know what I like now. That's why the Kompakt stuff sound suits me more. It's more subtle and mesmerising. So when I first heard Alessio's stuff I thought it would be interesting to take what I do and utilize his musical ability with it. I have synths and technology but I don't play an instrument. For me I was looking for stuff to work with. I worked really hard on the remix...

AN: I really loved it and said that we should do something together.

SW: It was really natural. I sent him about four or five quick sketches, about sixteen bars each and sent it to him and he worked on it and sent it back and worked on it again... We went back and forth via email for a few months but by the time we met up, the work became so fast. It was just completely... cool. Sharing different tricks and techniques and plug ins... With his knowledge of rock stuff and my understanding of dance stuff. It's all about codes in music. Reference points. Where a sound fits in, in the broader context of the genre.

So on the album, what are we listening to... a mixture of hard and soft synths, treated guitars and drum machines?

AN: It is mostly computer stuff and guitar and vocals. There are no drum machines. There are drum samples.

SW: We've talked about this before and wondered to what extent do we draw the curtain back on the process.

AN: It's amazing that sometimes we'll be talking to a professional producer who has worked with famous bands and he'll be like “Oh yeah, I can tell you've used this analogue source on this” and I'll actually be thinking “Well, that's actually my GarageBand keyboard...”

SW: A lot of people have said stuff about the analogue warmth of this record but most of it's done on Ableton. I think it's more about the attitude you apply to the production of the sound.

For sure. Of the two albums Walls reminds me of, in a very oblique way, Burner by Odd Nosdam and Music Has The Right To Children by Boards of Canada, they were received in very different ways because of their associations not just with different genres but with analogue and digital production. There is a value judgment made about soft synths and digital production now, which has now become shorthand for laziness or inauthenticity. Ironically, this is exactly the same sneering attitude that the guitar merchants had towards those with analogue synths back in the late 70s and early 80s. I guess we'll never reach a stage where we can ever just forget about the means of production and concentrate on what the fucking thing sounds like...

SW: I was watching this thing on You Tube the other day called Audio Myths and there was a lecture given by an audio expert talking about the science behind human hearing. They played some subjects the tape of a sentence three times and then on the fourth time blanked out one of the words but the subjects didn't notice because your brain fills in the gap. Your brain can be led like this. He had an experiment with a switch not connected to anything and a crappy transistor amp. Then he got ten audiophiles to take part in the test telling them that the switch would flip the source between a valve amp and a transistor amp and then asked which they preferred. Nine out of ten preferred the 'valve amp' even though it was no different. They claimed that it sounded warmer. One guy was like 'You're having me on!' But the other nine were trained listeners! Blind tests are the only ones that matter in these circumstances.

That brings us very neatly to the warmth of this record. It is very psychedelic. How chimerical is the process of getting 'warmth' on to a record. How difficult is it to create the atmosphere that you have?

SW: Me and him are kind of like brothers even though we've only known each other for a year or so and we clicked straight away. One of the things I learned from Animal Collective having worked with them for years doing PR at Darling Department for them was, yes, they may have known each other for years, but the thing that is important is that they are able to be completely honest and sincere with each other and there are none of the egos that come from the classic rock set up. Both of us are just working our absolute hardest to make something excellent... I think that anyone in our position is trying their hardest to transcend death [starts laughing]... you know, to make something that lasts. This is our attempt to do that. To create something that takes you out of yourself. To create something that transcends. And you say it's psychedelic but neither of us do drugs. This is our kind of escape. It's our version of astral travel, to create music that you can listen to on headphones.

I was trying to describe your music the other day and couldn't do it easily which is always a good sign...

SW: I liked the person who called it Oceangaze!

But what you're doing isn't quite glo-fi is it?

SW: Yes we're apart from them but there is a shared sensibility with the whole hypnagogic pop thing.

AN: I like Washed Out and I like Toro Y Moi but I don't really think we sound like them. I think our music is more 70s influenced than 80s influenced like they are. I think we have more of a Krautrock/electronische influence like Harmonia or whatever. Ours music is probably less fun than most chill wave.

Are you aware of the fishermen who are rescued from near drowning incidents who try and find the place where they nearly died because of the sense of bliss and peace they can re-experience there?

SW: That sounds a bit like our music. Being trapped in fishing nets. Tentacles from the deep pulling you slowly down...

Is your music narrative free? Are you just coming up with melodies and tunes or do you have narrative schema in mind when you write the songs?

AN: I don't think we come up with a narrative. It's more of a mood.

SW: And place as well. The song 'Austerlitz Wide Open' comes from the reverb setting we did the song in. This comes from an effects unit which takes reverb settings from different spaces and allows you to run different samples through it. They've basically gone through different forests and recorded what the reverb sounds like. Then you put your music through it. And Austerlitz is a German forest...

You used a Tuetonic Arboreal Reverb Device?! Goddamn it! Anything could have happened!

SW: Well, ‘Cylopean Remains’ (which used to be called 'Oblique Strategies') is a reference to HP Lovecraft, the snare, we placed inside a big metal tank, in the same way that Neubauten used to. Something strange could have happened then…

Why should people listen to Walls. I mean, I think they should but you tell me why.

AN: They should listen because you think they should listen. That is a good enough reason.

SW: It is an honest distillation of ideas, textures, melodies that we have created. It's almost like we're parents and we've spent ages getting the kids ready for their first day at school. We've got them ready and put their new uniforms on but they've headed off for school and it's out of our hands now.

They're like kids going to school but they're not really like normal kids. They've got strange Ready Brek glows around them.

AN: Ready Brek?

A porridge. On the TV advert in the 1970s and 1980s, the kids who ate Ready Brek would have an orange/red glow round them signifying how much internal heat and well being they were producing because of the cereal. It being the cold war people would always joke that they had radiation sickness.

AN: Ah cool! We had something similar in Italy but it was for AIDS, not porridge.

Walls release their self-titled debut album on May 10