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Escape Velocity

A Lore Unto Themselves: AG.R97 interviewed
Daryl Worthington , November 14th, 2022 08:37

Portuguese duo AG.R97 speak to Daryl Worthington about building their own video game inspired lore, the community of musicians around the Turva label, and why humour is a powerful thing in experimental music

“We had an idea to film me jumping into the Douro River and swimming away,” says Luís Neto from AG.R97 as we’re driving to visit the band’s studio in Gaia, a city just across the river from Porto. “We had it all planned out, where we’d film it, what it’d look like. When we got to the location, we had no idea how deep the water was or what was underneath. It suddenly seemed a bit too dangerous.

“It’s also illegal,” adds Pedro Pimentel, the other half of the Portuguese duo. “We’d probably have got arrested.”

Had it been made, the video would have accompanied ‘Fuga De Gaia’ (Escape from Gaia), the seventh track on AG.R97’s new album, Painwave. “The idea was to further develop the story around the entity that surrounded the studio, in the end I would cross the river swimming and it would be revealed that the entity was in fact us,” Neto continues.

That mysterious entity Neto mentions is all part of the DIY fantasy world the duo have built, inspired as much by gaming as their shared love for the absurd and the uncanny. It’s hinted at in the two videos accompanying their new album, both conceived by the band themselves and recorded on a shoestring budget with a close-knit group of collaborators, including Daniel Martins and Inês Baptista. “We did the video for ‘Foi Azar’ using five euro lights meant for construction sites, we recorded it in the woods near Gaia,” Neto explains.

The duo’s music on Painwave follows its own set of rules, Pimentel saying composing came from a headspace akin to a roleplaying game. Jagged key motifs reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween soundtrack weave through synthesized medieval soundscapes, metal heft, and brief flashes of glistening pop which are so out of place they become sinister. It’s a world where trancey synths flip into planet consuming drum breaks, doomy growls bleed into autotune anthems, and flourishes of fretless bass and hypnotic rhythms akin to a digitalized Mkwaju Ensemble emerge in the most unlikely of places.

Speaking to the pair, it’s clear the extremes in their music are an attempt to take something magical and unpredictable out of their surroundings. This quest started with them building their own studio, in an unlikely setting, the third floor of an apartment-come-office building (since recording Painwave they’ve relocated to the fourth floor).

“The building has a very odd vibe, an old office in the weirdest place possible,” explains Pimentel, who also makes hyper vivid dark ambient as Wordclock. “A concrete jungle in a residential area. The building is half empty, the other half you’re not quite sure what’s happening there. There’s accountants and next to them is prostitution. One of our neighbours told us occult things happen in one of the rooms – it’s bizarre as it’s the most unassuming place you can imagine.”

Although both Neto and Pimentel express some skepticism as to how occult those goings on reported by the neighbour may have actually been, it nevertheless points to surroundings that perhaps contain more than meets the eye.

“I love Gaia but Gaia is ugly as hell,” adds Neto. “Now, when you’re on the studio’s balcony, you have this ultra-panoramic view of Porto and the mountains. It feels like the only beautiful place in Gaia. But, when we were on the third floor we couldn’t see it properly. All we could see was a church in the distance, it was illuminated at night and surrounded by trees. It was our monolith, it felt like the centre of everything.”

“We started making our own lore, these imaginary characters and stories” explains Pimentel. “It was the intense mood of spending entire days there. We started feeling alienated from the real world. We just saw Gaia all around, and this fucking building. The vibe was very odd. Then at night, we’d see the lights in the distance, the view. We’d drift off and build a mythology around this building and this place, it was escapist.”

“We have a backlog in our messenger chat of this lore we made – you could write a book from it,” says Neto.

“Like, some hermit in a cave having some revelations and writing it down,” Pimentel adds.

Gaming is integral to the duo’s music. Pimentel admits AG.R97 wouldn’t have happened without Age Of Empires II, over which the two initially bonded. He also mentions Diablo II, arguing Matt Uelmen’s soundtrack to the game is the best-ever recorded. It’s a subject which Neto later picks up with me over email, explaining both games were “formative and heightened our imaginations.”

More than a sonic influence, gaming as a mode of escape, as an opportunity to enter a multisensory aesthetic that blocks out the tedious everyday, is an idea that pulses through AG.R97, whether in their music or in their videos. “We were making insane stories, playing games for hours, just trying to make something happen,” recalls Pimentel. “AG.R97 started there, creating ridiculous scenarios in Age of Empires II, it wasn’t about playing the game well. We were just doing silly things, having fun, eventful, stupid experiences inside the game. It took us somewhere else.”

“Playing the games is the same as the church we can see through the window,” speculates Neto. “You’re young, in your house, you have nothing to do. And you’re lost in this amazing, beautiful world. How can I extract something from this to my life, because I love it so much. It’s the same with music.”

The whole project is a DIY affair made with a close-knit group of collaborators. The album is being released on Turva, an audio-visual label Neto co-founded with Alexandre Alagôa. “I met Alexandre a few years ago – he was an awesome metal guitarist playing covers on Youtube. I sent a message, we became good friends, some years later our paths crossed and we started Turva,” says Neto. The label provides a fascinating lens on Portugal’s electronic underground, Vasco Lé’s spectacularly titled You Know, Everybody Wanna Say “I Do This, I Do That” Everyone Acts Like They’re Hard As Shit But Just Stop, is a beguiling mix of housey pads and plunderphonic collage. That in itself is perhaps not unusual, but its beats see drum and bass pace collide with an elastic, free-jazz sense of non-gridded space. It’s music as mind-blowing as it is difficult to place.

Funcionário’s album Shichishito, meanwhile, sounds like Burial created a soundtrack for a Final Fantasy game. Sped up voices flicker into choral drift, underpinned by a bed of esoteric percussion, stringed and wind instruments. It’s ambient music firmly directed towards firing the imagination rather than curating background.

For Neto, the label is a way to shed light on some of what’s happening in the Portuguese underground which perhaps gets overlooked by normal supporters of experimental art. “With the arts scene, I became aware of funds and grants, but if you’re a nobody it’s really hard to get unless you’re doing something really relevant to the region. We’ve funded the label all from our own pockets, but it’s bittersweet. It’s hard when you’re struggling to pay for other people’s music. Even if you have a €1000 budget for a record, that won’t even get you a vinyl release.”

The label is propelled by a belief that adventurous music evades fashion. Many of the releases, as with AG.R97, seem specifically designed to escape sleek minimalism and austere production. To challenge the idea that there are specific guidelines which determine what counts as experimental. “We feel part of something here. It’s weird, in Porto everyone knows each other, artists are constantly releasing amazing stuff, you play in the same spaces, that’s life here,” explains Neto.

The label strives to unearth the exciting music happening on their doorstep, however extreme it may be. “I lived in Ghent for a while, it was fun, but when the novelty stops, it‘s the same everywhere you go. You’re alone with your thoughts in your room somewhere and the rest is noise – whether good noise or bad noise. I realised my friends, my environment, what we built here was important to me. Eventually, I decided, maybe I should take the money I made working in a warehouse, and fuck off back to Portugal and use it to make music,” says Neto.

Pimentel, who spent a year working as an intern in the UK, shares the sentiment. “I felt alienated in London. I asked myself: ‘what do I want, do I want to stay here because it’s London? What’s important for me in my life?’ I didn’t think it was worth it, so I just came back. It was hard to be alone there, to try and relate there… just because it’s London doesn’t mean it should be a goal.”

There’s a sense of playfulness across Painwave. A feeling that the unexpected or the illogical could happen at any point. On ‘Foi Azar’, doom-laden growls fall into autotuned pop, all underpinned by an off-kilter bed of flutes. On ‘Visconde Sermonde’, the album’s second track, meditative new age flips into synth brass propelled medieval soul. If their aesthetic resonates with anything, it is perhaps the most dungeon-synth adjacent side of the Avon Terror Corps catalogue. As with the Bristol collective, for AG.R97, embracing fantastical extremes with utmost conviction is a crucial part of what they do.

Neto is intrigued by artists such as Aphex Twin or Frank Zappa, who combine fierce experimentation with a warped sense of humour. “But even someone like Woody Allen, if they weren’t so funny their art wouldn’t be so dramatic. I feel like the contrast is what makes it interesting. It’s an instinct to laugh when everything is going the worst it can go - how can we detach from the anger, depression, everything that’s bad?” Neto asks. “I really believe comedy is one of the most important vehicles for transmitting ideas in a digestible way. I love people who can make someone laugh, by doing something that’s dumb but also super profound. I don’t see them as jokers, I see them as philosophers.”

The view from AG.R97's studio, courtesy of Luis Neto

Both of AG.R97 suggest that a sense of humour, a willingness to not take oneself too seriously, is crucial to art’s expressive potential. This isn’t to suggest that Painwave is a comedy album, but in its sonic extremes they engage a plurality of experience that cannot be captured with austere sounds. It needs huge jumps to really make sense. It’s there in the videos accompanying the album, which see the pair dressed in the chainmail that adorns Painwave’s cover. Neto and Pimentel stress it’s meant to be bizarre – the chainmail not there to directly reference war or the medieval, so much as for how out of place it is. To put it another way, artists are increasingly pressured to present a carefully curated image, AG.R97 push it to the wildest extremes they can.

Pimentel: “There’s something strange about presenting yourself as the most serious thing in the world. It’s unhuman. It’s unrelatable, it’s not real experience. For the longest time that’s what I thought I had to do. I had the instinct that if something’s humorous, it’s wrong, that I can’t do that.

“Everything we’re talking about can stop making sense in two years,” suggests Neto. “The most important thing is letting go. Not looking at the past. There’s something bittersweet about nostalgia. The past can be beautiful in your head. We have a word in Portuguese for this, “saudade”, nostalgic longing that’s across everything in Portugal. But I think letting go is evolving. If you’re always OK and nothing is changing, you’re either crazy or afraid of change. Life is hard as a musician, it’s hard as an artist. The least you can do is create some chaos, some interest, something to look forward to.”

AG.R97's new album Painwave is out now via Turva