Hyper Realisation: An Interview With Ben Frost

Iceland-based electronic musician Ben Frost returns next month with his brutal, noise-scorched new album A U R O R A. Ahead of his London show this week and Sonar Barcelona in June, he speaks with Tristan Bath about the making of the new album, traveling to the DR Congo as part of Richard Mosse's The Enclave project, and composing by ear in an age of visual music

Talking to Lester Bangs sometime in 1979, Brian Eno once reflected that "for the world to be interesting you have to be manipulating it all the time". Few composers embody this ethos better than Ben Frost. From the silver-lined ambient guitar rumblings of Steel Wound back in 2003, to his latest and most aggressive recordings on new album, A U R O R A, he’s a composer and producer that’s constantly made the invisible visible, and twisted breathtaking music from the unexpected. Manipulation certainly lies at the heart of his modus operandi, as does sheer control of his own musical destiny. After forming the Bedroom Community in Iceland with American neo-minimalist Nico Muhly and Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson back in 2006, the Australian-born Frost has been involved in countless recordings for the label/collective. He’s also been involved in both Tim Hecker and Colin Stetson’s last two albums – the latter of which was in many ways a remarkable feat of modern production, with Stetson’s unique saxophone solos captured by anything from fifteen to twenty microphones at a time under Frost’s guidance.

Ben Frost’s last proper solo album – 2009’s pivotal By the Throat – got him chosen for a year of well documented mentoring under none other than Brian Eno himself. The direct result of that year was a confounding reimagined score for Solaris (composed considering both Stanisław Lem’s book and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film) written with fellow Bedroom Community member Daníel Bjarnason. Since mentoring under Eno, Frost has completed several commissions, including a score for a piece by famed British choreographer Wayne McGregor, a score for Julia Leigh’s Australian drama film, Sleeping Beauty and a collaboration with experimentalist Oren Ambarchi on a score for Icelandic theatre director Erna Ómarsdóttir.

Perhaps his most vital collaboration to date however, was on video installation The Enclave – recently on display in London – with artist Richard Mosse and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten. Travelling to the war torn east of the Democratic Republic Of Congo, the team filmed using a decommissioned infrared Kodak film, rendering the landscape, local people and militant fighters in never before seen beautiful, shocking pinks and purples, while Frost compiled field recordings to later manipulate into the installation’s powerful soundtrack.

That trip also provided inspiration for Frost’s latest solo album, which was later completed with contributions from drummers Thor Harris and Greg Fox, and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. As a result A U R O R A is Frost’s most fully realised album. Gone are the chamber ensembles, prepared pianos and electric guitars, with pounding percussion at the album’s core. Processed synths drowning in noisy distortion, along with other dense source materials, are all irretrievably warped by the composer into a terrifying, harrowing, violent epic.

Ahead of his upcoming return to the stage in London this month, the Quietus spoke over Skype with Frost at his Iceland home, to discuss manipulating sound, recording in the Congo, and a generation lost in, as he put it, "too much fucking music".

One of the special things about recorded sound is how mystified its origins can be. Your music often makes quite a heavy use of this, blurring the real world origins of sounds beyond recognition. Do you think about this at all when composing?

Ben Frost: I think the simplest answer is that I don’t think about it a lot. The bigger question is more about whether or not the ‘real world’ origins of anything have more importance than something else –  maybe that’s the answer? Yes I work with real instruments, and I work with real people, and I work in a big studio with lots of microphones… I probably have a way of working that seems more ‘legitimate’ than that of a lot of people working in laptop-oriented music or whatever, but mentally it doesn’t change for me the fact that those sounds are… just not that important. The inherent nature of something is not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is the emotional fucking kick in the ass it’s delivering. That is paramount in all of the decisions I make.

I went to see The Enclave the other day in a Soho car park here in London, and it was absolutely brilliant. It lead me to think about the differences between emotions ‘re-imagined’ / represented, and emotions experienced first-hand. As you were actually in the Congo, you must have had quite up-close, real life experience of the emotions involved and the conflict itself, and then subsequently compiled a representation of it. Even within it there are scenes where fighters play fight for the camera, and so there’s a lot in there about legitimacy and truth. What are your reactions to this?

BF: I think with The Enclave the whole point was to kind of transcend the reality of the situation, and present something that perhaps shows the nature of the situation in a different way, and I think sound is a unique tool in doing that. The thing is that being there and sort of pretending to be a journalist – which a lot of the time is what we were doing – I’m standing there with a shotgun microphone and… well, I’m just trying to hear the place in a different way. For example, the pervasive drone of insects, it’s overwhelmingly loud sometimes. And I think that, were it an actual documentary, that would be the first thing you’d get rid of.

A director would say, "can we cut that please?"

BF: Yeah, and that’s also a kind of fakeness. There’s an illusory gesture in that kind of truth-making as well. So we tried to approach this from a different point of view, and for me it was very much about the normalcy of the space. I mean, there’s not just dead bodies piled up around you at every moment. 90% of the time it’s just life. A lot of people going about their daily business, but I guess what is there is this overwhelming feeling that something could change at any moment, like it’s unstable. There’s a tension. And that drone… it’s almost like the held, high tension tremolo of film music, but it’s not pretend – it’s just there, and part of that landscape. I think I was just trying to hone in on that.

Throughout The Enclave, people constantly react to the camera, and seemingly play up to it. Indeed there’s one memorable scene where a little girl clearly runs away from it. How did people react to your microphone?

BF: Well, a lot of the time I was just using an iPhone to record stuff, which was basically a way of circumventing that problem. But the thing you realise very quickly is that they’re not reacting to the camera or the microphone, they’re just reacting to the big white guy who’s walking through the landscape, and he doesn’t belong there. It’s not the object that’s foreign, it’s the person. Whether you’re carrying a steadicam or not, the reaction’s gonna be the same.  The reaction works both ways though – it was often ambivalent too. A lot of those Congolese children have probably never even seen a television, and so they’re not really aware of what it is that’s actually happening on the other end of this process, so it kind of makes a more honest reaction in way as well.

So how did you get involved in the Enclave project? How difficult was the decision to say yes to going to the Congo?

BF: That bit was easy. It made a lot of sense, for where I was at at the time with my work, and the interest I had with Richard [Mosse]’s work, the things I was interested in exploring. There’s a lot of reasons it made sense and felt very organic. It just felt like a bold move; the best way to get to what it is I wanted to get to. And it had a huge effect on the music I’ve written.

So did Richard Mosse invite you along? How did that bit happen?

BF: Yeah, he invited me along. We were conversing by email. The whole thing started basically with me sending him some fan mail. Turned out he liked what I do as well, and it just sort of happened. It all came together.

I was in New York in the Aperture Gallery when the first copies of his first book came in, and I’d never seen anything like it. At that particular moment, it fit in. I was exploring ideas for a new kind of music, and I felt it was kind of reflected in his images. It’s kind of hyper realisation of an existing space, and making something visible that was always there, but always hidden. So Richard really became one of the keystones of my work over the last little while, and the music I’ve now made, the new record, it’s inherently linked to what Richard was doing.

Richard Mosse: The Impossible Image from Frieze on Vimeo.

So the new album, A U R O R A was mostly written in the DR Congo. When you were there, how were you writing the album?

BF: Well I was just working on laptop, which is a whole new kind of set of parameters for me, because for the most part I’d been working in a pretty big studio for the period previous to that. It kind of forced my hand in many ways. In some ways I worked very quickly, and there were just simple, real world ramifications as to why that was – most of the time I was working off battery power, or working at points where there was a diesel generator I could connect to – it forced my hand in a number of ways. Working at odd times of the day and night, and working purely ‘in the box’, not working with anybody… The musicians I collaborated with came into the process a lot later on. The foundations of the this music were found primarily in the digital realm.

So everything except the drums – and I suppose there’s a handful of other instruments you can hear, like bells – everything like that was down by the time you came back?

BF: Well when I say ‘written’ I mean in the sense of the compositional structure of things, the harmonic information. It’s gone through several developments since that time, but the DNA of it was there very early on. In a way that actually became very difficult to get away from. It became quite a struggle actually to make it be anything else other than what it was demanding to be itself.

You felt like you no longer had control over it?

BF: Yeah. It was kind of a nightmare actually. I felt very dictated to at times, by that music. ‘Cause I sort of would write it, than step away from  it for say, six months of so, then come back to it and hear it with fresh ears and say, “oh god, this is really… aggressive!” – it was confounding to me how aggressive and dictatorial it was. It was like I created a monster. The only honest way to go with it at that point was to see it through, if it wants to go this way, then go this way. To push it in any other direction feels like a compromise. That’s largely why A U R O R A sounds the way it does.

Several songs on the new album feature Greg Fox [formerly of Liturgy, now Guardian Alien], Shahzad Ismaily [Secret Chiefs 3] and Thor Harris [Swans, Shearwater], and like you said, it’s often quite aggressive. Did you get them and their drums in because it was aggressive, or is it aggressive because of them?

BF: I knew that they would be involved from day one. I made a series of decisions very early on in the process of what would become this record, and they were decisions about the rules relating to my way of constructing music. I dispensed with a lot of things I considered to be crutches that I would lean on in previous work, and partly it was in relation to just ‘voices’, collaborators that I would get involved with for the album, that I knew would bring certain colours to the work that I could draw from and get something new, but also just kind of rely upon in just my way of thinking about music… not even necessarily in their presence. By even just knowing that at some point Greg would come in and work with me on the music, by knowing that at some point in the distant future Thor would be there for a few days and we’d work through a few things, it allowed me to make decisions very early on about what space could be set aside for them, or built to invite them into. It just shaped the way I wrote it.

There’s lots of moments where, even more so than you’ve done on previous recordings, it breaks some rules of recording in general, and that style of music in particular. The needle’s in the red, and the speaker’s almost exploding. I’ve actually read a note you wrote online before, telling producers to think when using compressors, “does it actually sound better this way?”

BF: Well this is a big issue today: musicians who are concerned with how their music sounds visually. That microphone’s peaking out the limiter, or it’s not peaking it out enough. The waveform’s too small, or the EQ looks weird. These are all really palpable issues. It’s a funny time to be making music, because we’re a generation of people who make music with screens instead of with ears. So every time you put the needle in the red, what does that actually mean? Does it mean that you are breaking the laws of physics somehow? That you’re gonna like blow up all of your listeners’ sound systems? Are you inherently doing something that’s wrong?

I mean that in all circumstances too, not just distortion – distortion’s the oldest trick in the book. Music today is far too clean as a result of people being afraid of that. If you listen to all those old records that your parents talk about as being the ‘classic’ records, a big part of that is harmonic fucking distortion! And not in a way that is pornographic, like a stomp box, obviously and overly blowing something out where it’s a palpable aesthetic choice, but just the subtle kind of breaking apart of the sonic fabric of a pop song. It’s why we’re attracted to you know, Jimi Hendrix, why those early Beatles recordings are held up as this Christ-like moment in contemporary music, because they’re not perfect, and there are choices that were made that would be considered to be outside the realm of contemporary sound engineering.

I come from Plymouth in the South West of England, a city of about 300,000 people that languishes in insignificance. While the nation of Iceland, with a similar population, thrives incessantly. What makes it such a fruitful place for creativity?

BF: I don’t know, is the most honest answer. I think there’s a lot of mitigating factors: the prevalence of music schools is definitely one, the inherent culture of music amongst the Icelandic people is another, the way that the population is kind of isolated has created a situation where diversity or diverging from the norm is something that is easier to do. I mean, even if there’s only twenty people that are into metal, they’ll still want a metal band, so there’s a kind of necessity there that breeds invention. Inevitably people fill the gaps, it’s nature you know? In any given ecosystem, nature fills in the spaces that are created for it, and I think in Iceland there’s a just a lot of space for a lot of different kinds of things and culture. In the absence of something, something is inevitably created.

So what was it at the time you moved there that made you want to move to Iceland?

BF: Well, I first came here well over ten years ago, and my reasons for living here have very little to do with music and never have done. It’s a purely personal decision. It just reflected the fact that I felt very at home here, nothing more complicated than that.

Well it just seemed odd to me, because Melbourne’s got a pretty avid music scene. And if you want isolation, there’s nothing better than popping into the outback…

BF: I dunno, I think the fascination with the geographical locality of music – mine or anybody else’s – it’s kind of… ugh, I dunno… it’s 2014! You and I are talking on the fucking computer, for Christ’s sake. I’m just not sure how important this is any more. It’s not to say that it’s irrelevant, but it doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to. I can hop on few planes now, and be in Australia this time tomorrow.

So there was actually quite a large gap between By the Throat and A U R O R A. You were hardly on a break though, working on several scores and collaborations. Firstly, do you see these as being part of the same canon? Or is A U R O R A definitely ‘the sequel’ to By the Throat?

BF: Well making an album is definitely a separate thing from being commissioned by a third party to write music. Entirely different things. I have big problems with the incessant need of some of my contemporaries to release everything they do… it’s not a way I want to work. I don’t feel a need to place everything that I do at the altar of my audience.

Like release a The Scores: 2010-2013 compilation or something like that.

BF: Totally, and certainly not in a way where it’s seen to be at a level of importance to me personally that’s on par with that of releasing an album like A U R O R A or By the Throat. They’re entirely different things. I feel that my work moves through periods of interest, where there are certain things that I’m drawn to for certain periods of time, then that interest fades and something else comes in its place. It’s hard to explain how that process occurs, but there’s nothing magical about it, no mystical underlying principle to the way I do things. All I can do is follow my instinct. I’m privileged that there’s a growing number of people that seem to find that interesting enough to buy my music or come to my shows or whatever. I make this music for myself, there’s not a lot of consideration there for meaning, other than it just needs to feel essential to me.

You did eventually release those scores you did on Bandcamp. Why was that?

BF: Well, I didn’t really want to release them. That’s why it took so long. It’s not really good from a creative point of view for that music to be heard in any other context than that for which it was written. This is what I’m getting at. I could’ve made some big press release, and made all this packaging and all this fucking bullshit… but that music was written for something else, and that’s not what releasing an album is about. So I put it up on Bandcamp because that way the people who really desperately wanted it – and there was a lot of them – could get it. I’m very thankful for the fact that people are that enamoured with what I’ve done to want to own it in that way, so it’s there, but it’s not important. It’s just more fucking music, and there’s… just so much fucking music. There’s too much. Unless you have something that really needs to be said, don’t fucking say it.

What about The Wasp Factory opera? You directed that and also wrote the music. Will that see a release – DVD maybe? Also, what drew you to the novel for source material?

BF: Well I was given carte blanche to work on something, and I was really interested in working on something with a text, and making work that was bigger than stereo music. Making something where it could all work together for the music. There have been so many circumstances where my music has been there to make something else work better, whereas I felt over the years this growing desire to make something where everything else would work for the music. That’s kind of what opera is about in a way.

As to the choice of material for that, I was just reading The Wasp Factory at the time, and I could just see it. There’s no definitive reason for it, other than I could see it as something I could make music for, and it came off the back of By the Throat, out of that period. The tactile nature of that world, the kind of organic quality of the primal animal space in its story just seemed to me to be something that I could write really well for. Having said that, by the time I actually got down to writing the music, my head was already sort of more in the world of A U R O R A. In a weird way it probably has more in common with this record than with the last one.  Sonically, there’s a lot of weirdly synthetic space in there…

Working with vocalists, and singing words that really need to be heard, must have been quite different for you. And were you writing actual notes on staves?

BF: Yeah, there’s a score for The Wasp Factory. It’s quote, unquote, ‘real music’.

So you’ve worked with Oren Ambarchi, who’s an Australian like yourself. It seems to me like Australia is going through a sort of renaissance in alternative music, something that’s putting it on the map for more than the likes of AC/DC and Cold Chisel.  Would you say this is at all true?

BF: Maybe it’s just because the Australian dollar’s worth so much more now as Australia sold its soul to China. It’s just cheaper to fly! It sounds ridiculous, but it’s kind of true. When I left Australia it cost considerably more in relative terms to get on a plane to Europe than it does today. It’s much easier to travel, and that’s just meant that more people that aren’t fucking Silverchair or AC/DC can afford to get on a plane and go and play shows that don’t pay a billion dollars. They can play these smaller festivals, and maybe that’s why Australian music feels more prevalent. I’m probably the worst person to answer this question, ’cause I haven’t been there for more than a third of my life!

Oren and I used to be in a band together, he’s a very dear friend of mine. I used to play in a band he had called The Husbands. That was many years ago though. Oren’s always been kind of an anomaly in the Australian musical landscape. He’s a remarkable guy, and he’s doing something that very much exists outside everything. I don’t even for a second purport to hold myself in the same realm of music making as him, he’s really working on a different level.

On that subject, you spent a year being mentored by Brian Eno. What effect did that have on your music, and how you hear music? What came out a year with Brian Eno?

BF: I learned a great deal from that man, and I continue to learn more from him. I don’t think we’re done, so in that way it’s hard to summarise it. He’s definitely challenged the way in which I go about music – in the setting out, and ‘designing circumstances’, setting up situations, limiting myself to certain things. His whole Oblique Strategy way of working, it’s pretty remarkable. There’s a lot of ways of falling into the trap of making the same choices, and I think that Brian is the world’s leading expert in making situations where you can get away from yourself. That was always probably there in my work, but it’s more present now than it was.

In the past you’ve done shows with everything from a chamber ensemble, to a setup with yourself plus two drummers, to solo laptop gigs. What can people expect from your current live show?

BF: Fox, Ismaily and myself. That collaboration’s definitely not done either. This show in London will the first time I’ve been onstage in a year, so it’s going to be as interesting for me as it will be for anybody in the audience. Hopefully in a good way!

Way back on Theory of Machines you wrote, ‘We Love You Michael Gira’, and then you worked with him on The Seer? What’s he like to work with?

BF: Look, my involvement with that record is pretty minimal. Michael is very much in control of everything that goes on in his records, and I felt very privileged to be part of that. He’s completely unflinching and unapologetic in everything that he does, and there is an honesty, a brutal truth in his music, which I find infinitely more inspiring than anything else going on right now, and I think he makes music that’s pretty overwhelming, in the best possible way. That’s everything I want from music – just to be owned by music. Taken over.

Ben Frost’s new album A U R O R A is out on 26th May via Mute.

Frost plays at the Village Underground in London on 26th April, as part of Convergence Festival 2014. Click here for details and tickets. He also plays at Sonar Festival, Barcelona, which runs from 12th-14th June – information and tickets here.

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