Boundless Sounds: An Interview With Solar Bears

The experimental electronic music duo tell DJ Pangburn about creating a sonic collage of micro-samples from all around the world on their latest record, Advancement. Plus, we get a first look at the video for Wild Flowers

Photograph courtesy of Dorje de Burgh

As a creative capital, Dublin has spawned its fair share of luminaries. An incubation chamber for challenging, mind-bending writing, it stands beside Paris, New York City and London for the sheer variety of its scribblers, from the expansive, labyrinthine fictions of Flann O’Brien to the dark, claustrophobic existential absurdities of Samuel Beckett. But beneath the ever-present shadow of the city’s most famous literary icons, Dublin is quietly, in very workmanlike fashion, producing music to rival the output of Belfast. Apart from the melancholic dance rhythms of I Am The Cosmos and the many-hued electronics of Sunken Foals, few of Dublin’s bands have established as strong a sonic identity as Solar Bears.

Long before coalescing, the band’s John Kowalski and Rian Trench met in Dublin while attending an audio engineering college. Years later, they re-entered each other’s orbit to take a stab at writing and recording a track. At the time, as Kowalski explains, there was "no plan in place" when recording, but a lot of ideas were ricocheting through their minds. This session led to the recording of ‘Trans Waterfall’, a track that appeared on Inner Sunshine, an EP that proved that the two could synthesise their influences, which ranged from Krautrock sounds to electronic music scores, science fiction and Alejandro Jodorowsky, into something singular but kaleidoscopic. In the years since, Kowalski and Trench have released two albums, She Was Coloured In (2010) and Supermigration (2013), records on which they explored both the nostalgic and frontier sounds of electronic music.

The duo’s latest, Advancement, sounds texturally like a Solar Bears album, but also like a band that is in some ways blissfully ignorant of its methods. Where past recordings mixed synthesizers with deft live instrumentation, Advancement finds Kowalski and Trench layering micro-sample collages atop complex and often aggressive tribal rhythms. The record is, from start to finish, the work of a band finding how sonically and conceptually expansive they can be with the extreme limitations of gear and recording space, which they told me about over a series of recent chats.

In listening to Solar Bears, there is the sense that you guys really take care about what the listener experiences. Ideally, what do you feel that the best music should do?

Rian Trench: Simply to be communicative in some way, though one wouldn’t use the word "should" in this context. I enjoy all perceptions of sound, and style rarely makes a difference to my interest in what something is conveying. There is always a message in a composition whether it is conscious or not. My favourite listening experiences are fleeting. I’ll hear something that corresponds or compliments where or how I am at a certain time. Those experiences usually only happen once with a piece of music.

John Kowalski: The best examples of music or albums that got to me the most were XTRMNTR by Primal Scream and The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas. At the time I was roughly 19 or 20, but it planted a seed that actually took a long time to come to fruition. Just the idea of making music or albums that didn’t have to follow any line, or that could follow very disparate tangents from track to track and remain coherent.

Video directed by Michael Robinson

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker calls music "auditory cheesecake" – something exquisitely sweet for the ears but with no biological function, and so it couldn’t possibly have preceded language. Do you put any stock in that idea?

RT: I can certainly believe music preceded speech. Everyone understands music. You really don’t have to have any musicianship to communicate with it. Babies will sing and dance lucidly before they learn the language of their parents. In relation to our music, I’d say that you are accurate, yes. We often feel like we are discovering this music more than creating it together. Sometimes in a session a direction will reveal itself to us and we’ll spend the rest of the day trying to stay out of its way so it can move freely.

JK: Most of the music I listen to is instrumental, whether it’s modern music, soundtracks, classical music, soundscapes or experimental works. I feel sometimes that vocals can get in the way, or dominate the way you feel about the music underneath. The first two albums that we made make far more sense to me now than they did at the time, and that’s something that can’t really be articulated. I find language quite limiting in most senses. In terms of what you’re trying to communicate with song titles and album name, sometimes that’s just decided on with discussions we’ve had or experiences we’ve gone through, or things that we kind of fear happening in the future.

What do you fear will happen in the future?

JK: Without going into details, if anyone reads the stats there is going to be a genuine worry about the direction the human race is heading in. That used to be quite inherent in science fiction, but it’s kind of "science fact" now with the dangers of sunshine, water levels, disease and the food industry being manipulated.

Where did you record the album?

JK: We had a small set-up in an arts complex called Block T with just two pieces of equipment, which is why it may seem claustrophobic and locked in. [Solar Bears did most of the main recordings at The Meadow in Wicklow, just south of Dublin]. I did about two months of sampling every day. A lot of it wasn’t used, but a lot of it was. It’s just a way of making sure the sound keeps morphing.

Solar Bears are known for using synthesisers and live instrumentation, but you mixed it up sonically this go around. What role did sampling play in Advancement?

JK: The thing that we wanted to try this time around was use micro-samples, and the type of samples are qutie different than in the past. We used seal sonar, recordings of icebergs underwater or Siberian throat singing – anything you wouldn’t expect on an electronic album. It’s less based on hooks this time and more about settings. And in order to create those settings there have to be more sound sources. A lot of the tracks were built in one sampler, the Elektron Octatrack, but we also used the Dave Smith Tempest drum machine.

RT: There are huge amounts of heavily layered background noise moving constantly throughout the tracks like forest and ocean sounds, animals, radio static, orchestral and indigenous music, speech. Elements from this background noise emerge to the fore randomly. They were all tuned to the base composition so wherever we choose to bring them in will work harmonically. Then you can improvise with these textures and record them as a performance. We had fun with degradation also.

How did you degrade the sounds?

RT: Many sounds were taped on a variety of machines. Signals were deliberately weakened by broken equipment. We uploaded a loop to YouTube and then downloaded it at super low quality to get intense digital degrading. A lot of the higher pitched drum programming was algorithmic, to the effect that I would program parameters for the machines to operate themselves within. They would compose automatically within this guided system and then we would choose the patterns we liked out of their compositions. The drum arrangements are kind of a recurring theme on Advancement. They are designed to simulate something that is vast in size but moving extremely fast. These vast objects at slow speeds through relativity are much faster in human perspective. It creates the sense of a huge event taking place.

You talked earlier about making settings for Advancement. Is that also to be understood as establishing certain locations?

JK: It’s actually the opposite: we don’t want it to be pinned to anywhere. We don’t want it to be pinned to Ireland, Europe, North America or Asia. That’s why we keep seeking out different points of references and ethnic instrumentation. There are a lot of sounds we haven’t used before. It’s not just the new synths we bought and utilised. Sampling is often the best way to change things.

I like to think of this album as akin to a book of short stories. Not a series of fictions, but a different array of sounds, themes, rhythms and so on. Is this how it exists in your mind, or is the formatting something different entirely?

RT: I love how you hear that in it. Advancement truly represents an adventure. This storyline can’t be looked at head on because that would really destroy its power. The sounds are only representations of what is truly behind them, generating them, feeding them. The emotional qualities of this adventure are where we place our interest in terms of musical composition. Fear, pain, suffering, hope, excitement, love all have to be there in order for the experience to blossom fully. For me this is ultimate fantasy. It’s one singular piece of music dedicated to this experience.

JK: In terms of the format, one thing that kept cropping up was heat, whether it’s volcanic, sonic or atmospheric. But I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to explain it. Overall it’s quite cryptic. It’s more of a semi-lucid thing than something that’s finite, and we’re very pleased with that fact. It definitely feels that it’s hinting at something seismic or some sort of event, but in terms of describing that, I wouldn’t be able to do it – at least not yet. But it does feel that the first half of the album is kind of like a horror soundtrack, and the second half is kind of dark psychedelia, but that was more of a case of arranging it after the fact.

The tracks ‘Man Plus’ and ‘Scale’ both have very dynamic rhythm, maybe more dynamic than any Solar Bears song I’ve heard. ‘Scale’ sounds as if it has a tribal drum sample. What motivated these percussive sounds?

RT: The percussion throughout is coming from many different sources. Drum machines, samplers, live drums, synths. ‘Scale’ was purely technical experimentation when it started and it started with those drums. It’s an example of that algorithmic programming I described. The samples is actually taken from an old ’70s drum machine that’s built into an organ. It was resampled and bit-crushed several times before being programmed. We love that texture. It sounds like something tearing itself apart.

JK: One of the instruments that Rian plays is drums, so he has really good ideas on rhythm. We wanted to make the tracks a bit busier on that front. ‘Man Plus’ was a track that was initially started with a rhythm. ‘Scale’ was initially started with a slowed down drone, but rhythm would be the main focal point.

In the press release, you guys speak of Advancement as soundtracking the primitive beauty of existence, among other things, which is interesting because humanity is very much in its technological infancy, which often involves ignoring the primitive beauty of existence. Do you have hope that this can be reversed?

JK: According to the ancient Vedic calendar, we’re right in the middle of the age of dangerous stupidity. If the word primitive is described it’s because we’re trying to tap into base level feelings. Again, it depends on your viewpoint: you could argue that human beings are extremely primitive or that we’re spiritual by design. I don’t know how people will actually interpret the meaning of an album title, or if it has any bearing on their experience. But sometimes it’s just as important to raise questions as it is to give answers. That’s not an attempt to be oblique or aloof, it’s just how I actually feel.

RT: There are always primitive elements in everything. Fundamentals, and I think that is what the statement refers to. I really don’t know what will happen to humanity but I’m optimistic, yes. Hope to be very old because I’m excited to see what the world is like 50 or 60 years from now. It would be great if we could write a Solar Bears record in the last phase of our lives.

Advancement is out March 18 via Sunday Best

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