On first glance, Blackjack Illuminist Records feels like an intimate and diverse artistic collective. There’s the child-like jubilation of Fir Cone Children; the blurry, inescapable krautrock mazes of Vlimmer; the translucent drones of Feverdreamt; the jagged indie rock of Leonard Las Vegas. Like all good labels, there’s a common aesthetic thread running through the disparate collation of styles. Unlike most labels, 90% of the artists are alternative pseudonyms of one man. It took me a while to realise this. Berlin’s Alexander Leonard Donat seems capable of channelling very specific strands of his personality into his projects: Donat the extrovert bounds care-free into fuzzy garage punk, while Donat the contemplator prises apart individual loops into spectacular swirls of head cinema.
2017 will see him continue his 18-EP series with Vlimmer, based on a German book he wrote and released last year titled “Jagmoor Cynewulf”. Below, Alexander and I discuss blastbeats, the influence of family and how music helps maintain personal equilibrium.
While it’s a shame that our interview for last week was postponed, part of me was actually relieved. I’d been digging into your various projects and releases, and every new album I heard subverted my impression of your artistic personality. The extra time has been very useful.
I’d imagine so, yeah. I wouldn’t want to be you right now. [laughs] I do so many projects and music isn’t even my job.
I first heard your music via your Fir Cone Children project, and then was introduced to Vlimmer when you contributed to my recent compilation, BRINK. From my perspective, there’s a big contrast between those two projects: the former feels very outwardly energetic, where the latter is much more introverted…it’s interesting that you seem so fluent in both. Do these various projects keep you in balance somehow?
Balance is exactly the word. For me, they are totally different: Vlimmer is dark and almost claustrophobic, but Fir Cone Children is happy and child-like. Life is full of things in contrast and things that keep each other in balance, and I couldn’t do the one without the other. For the past 3-5 months I’ve been in my Vlimmer phase, which is pretty long. Usually I’m in a phase for 2-3 months maximum. This time I’m getting a lot of feedback to the things I’m doing right now, whether that’s a soundtrack for a German audiobook or my work with other artists all over the world in Chile, France or Sweden. I’m not getting out of the Vlimmer world right now – I’m not stuck or trapped, but…I’m in my Vlimmer cellar and I can’t find the key. I enjoy it! [laughs]
Are these phases driven by a prolonged internal desire to make a particular kind of music? Or are they perpetuated by the feedback loop of making music and receiving positive praise?
A bit of both, but the second one more so. When you get positive feedback, you think about what you’ll do the next time. This is a pretty difficult process for me. I recorded the first 6 Vlimmer EPs before I released the first one. I’m currently making an 18-EP series, and I just made six EPs in a very short space of time in 2013/2014. It wasn’t until November 2015 that I released something. In that time I hadn’t received any feedback except from my wife, who didn’t like it [laughs]. She said “it’s the project that I can’t access somehow.” She listened to all of the stuff before that – Fir Cone Children, Leonard Las Vegas – because there was a pop element in it, but Vlimmer was a bit difficult for her.
You think about this stuff once you start getting feedback, and you can’t work as innocently on the music as before. I think that’s something that every artist has to cope with. Will you change the way you make music or not? I have to say that the way has changed for me. I think it’d be darker than the music I’m making right now. The fifth EP was lighter and almost like 80s synth pop, although I’ve never listened to 80s synth pop so it’s my version of what I think everyone is talking about.
Why did it take you so long to release the first Vlimmer material?
Leonard Las Vegas was my only band for a long time. In 2015 I started making music as Feverdreamt and Fir Cone Children, when I finally thought: why do I need just one project? Why not just put out a different artist that is also me under a different name, and act like I have a record label with all these artists that are all me? If Blackjack Illuminist were only one or two bands then it’s not a proper label. Then I realised that I shouldn’t take so much time before I release something, as the latest Leonard Las Vegas album, Jagmoor Cynewulf, took me six or seven years. It was terrible! Now I’m just recording stuff within no time and releasing when my guts say, “that feels good”. At the moment I have four or five active bands I think.
You mention that feedback can often shape the way you make music. Is that in any way stemmed by the act of releasing it quickly?
That’s a very nice thought. I’ve never thought about that, but maybe it does help. People seem to like different songs on a particular EP than the ones I thought they’d like the most. I just accept that it’s not working like I want it to work. There are lots of surprises – mostly good surprises – but it shows to me that it all could be over any day. I could always lose listeners, but I could always gain listeners. It’s just a surprise every day, and I think that’s what life should be about. Admittedly, it’s easy to say that for as long as it’s working. As soon as no one is listening to your music, it becomes more difficult to talk about these things.
Would you say you get into states of flow, where the music comes particularly quickly for you? It seems that you’re releasing a lot of music very quickly at the moment.
Feverdreamt was a kind of beginning in this respect. I recorded this album, Terban Te Ban, for my father-in-law because he liked oriental stuff. It took two weeks. Since then I’ve been in an incredible and somewhat disturbing flow; whatever I’m doing right now feels good. It’s not stopping. I even get nervous when I got a single day without making music, or when I work on a song that doesn’t feel totally right. I know that it’ll end somehow. Or maybe not. I don’t know. [laughs] At the moment I’m enjoying it. It’s nice that there are people like you who are interested in talking about my music, because for a long time no one was interested in talking about it.
Is it still the case that you’ll be bringing Vlimmer to a close once you’ve released all 18 EPs? If so, what’s the thinking behind that?
Vlimmer is connected to a German book I wrote called Jagmoor Cynewulf, which I wrote after I recorded the Leonard Las Vegas album of the same name. I was trying to write something that was a lyrical version of dark ambient – it was all about living in between reality and dream-like states. It’s quite a dark book, but I liked how I was able to find words for what I wanted to express. For Vlimmer I wanted to use German lyrics for the first time, so I decided to use the 18 chapters of the book and make 18 EPs. I realised that I was pretty fast in making EPs for Vlimmer, so I chose to just read every chapter again and pick the best lyrics. I will complete these 18 EPs [laughs].
So how do you approach each EP? Is each one a self-contained creation, or does it feed heavily on the material prior?
I think it’s connected to the material prior. I can’t remember exactly how I made music back when I started Vlimmer. I just remember that I created a loop and then played something over it, and then it was pretty much finished. Nowadays it’s taking much, much longer, but it still starts with a sound that I create. I have a lot of effect pedals and an old Yamaha Clavinova, which is about 60 years old. I just experiment with it and create loops, and whenever I find the right sound by turning the knobs, I just start. This loop decides what will happen next. Vlimmer always starts like that at the moment.
I’m just thinking about whether to create a darker or lighter version, or a poppy chorus. I try to add pop ingredients to all the stuff I do, because I think it’s important for the listener to have some kind of hook and some phrases in the song that repeat. So this is how it works at the moment, and it’s working for me. [laughs]
Vlimmer is the project of yours that most directly appeals to my listening sensibilities. That loop provides a mantra-like quality to the music, but it’s juxtaposed by the chord changes that seem to be navigating the monotony.
Even before I was making the very loop-based stuff, people were saying that my music is pretty “driven” – once the song kicks off, it only ends when the loop ends. Sometimes I’ll turn it off and then press it back on again, but usually it runs all the way through. I hope you know what I mean?
Absolutely. It’s almost like the “road” you’re on as the landscape around you hurtles past.
Yeah, exactly. It just keeps on going.
I read in an interview that you didn’t have a guitar when you first started Leonard Las Vegas, and were essentially using keyboards in place of the guitars. Do you think this makes you more inclined toward more textured music, given that keyboards are more associated with “soundscaping” that guitars?
I’ve never thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense. There’s already a sense of soundscape within keyboards, and that may be one reason why my music is so textured. Another may be because my father and grandfather were musicians by profession. They are classical musicians, so that may be one influence. I don’t really like classical music apart from some soundtracks maybe, but I think it must be in my veins – it’s created something in me that I’m combining with my stuff right now. I just love music that fills the room and that’s flying around me, and that’s maybe pretty possessive. To me, that’s shoegaze. You don’t know where the guitars start and end, and when you add keyboards and voices there’s this layered sound from which you can’t escape. Even with Fir Cone Children, I’m trying to do something that’s very layered and dense. That’s maybe the thing you can find in all my music; it’s very atmospheric.
Out of interest, what do your father and grandfather do as professional musicians?
My grandfather doesn’t do a lot any more. He was one of the biggest classical musicians in the GDR. It’s pretty incredible to see what he earned and medals he obtained. It’s totally not my music, so I wasn’t into it until he died. After my grandmother died we had to clear her house and we found a lot of stuff there too. It’s sad that I wasn’t able to talk to him about it before he died, but I think that he wasn’t able to enjoy my music. It wasn’t really his style.
My father is not as successful as my grandfather was. He works at a university doing musical composition and aural theory. It’s a bit sad – he never really learned how to use the talent he has. He’s an incredible music-maker. We’re trying to turn Vlimmer into a piano and vocal piece right now, because I haven’t been able to do any gigs in the past three years. I told him that I want to do something on stage again but I don’t know how to do it, and that I love the idea of putting Vlimmer on stage. I gave him a CD with 10 songs, and told him that if he liked it we could try to turn them into piano pieces. We’ve already worked on three existing songs. It’s really wonderful to work with my dad for the first time. It’s still sad that he isn’t able to make a living from his own stuff, I wished he was more confident about his talent which is truly a gift and more optimistic in his way of thinking.
We tried it for the first time at the funeral of my grandmother. We also did a seven-minute video of the song “Erschöpfung” starring my dad. He was at the hospital at that time and I said, “I like the location here at the lake – let’s shoot at video”. He immediately said yes. We shot it in an hour and a half. It was incredible. At the end he’s lying at the lake and disappearing into nowhere…it’s a pretty depressing video but he acts very well. You almost think that he’s the person suffering from some kind of depression.
It definitely sounds different at piano and vocals. If we managed to put it on stage, we would have a different audience to the one I’m having right now. That’s exciting. Although how can I talk about audience when I’ve never had a gig with Vlimmer? [laughs] I can only imagine what it would sound like.
Speaking of piano and voice, you recently provided vocals for a collaboration with Oceaneer. The production has got this amazing “sunken shipwreck” quality to it. How did that collaboration come about, and how did you go about crafting the sound of that record?
I meet a lot of people online, and I always try to talk with them when I have the feeling we could do something together. I love the idea of collaborating with as many people as possible. Whenever someone says that we should do something together, I always say yes. I’ve never declined any offers to collaborate. Well, only once – there was this rapper who asked about collaborating, which just felt wrong [laughs]. Oneechan Nanashi [Oceaneer] and I have never met in real life, and in fact I’ve never met any of the partners I’ve collaborated with. It just works.
When we went to do this collaboration, Oneechan’s songs were already finished. She said, “let’s try to do a different version of these songs where you do the singing and we’ll see where we’re heading.” It felt totally good, although I know that it’s very different to the stuff I’ve done before. Even now, I’m not sure whether that’s what the people want to hear from Vlimmer, but I want to try stuff and take the risk of losing listeners. When you decide to do something only for the listeners, you fail and you deserve to fail I think [laughs]. Generally you should just do stuff for yourself, but as we’ve said it’s not really possible. I’m really proud of this one. We will also record another EP of five more songs, and this will probably surface in a year or so.
I was also listening to the new Sana Obruent release, which is a lovely record. Is this indicative of a move to start releasing more music by projects other than your own?
This is the start of a new phase where I incorporate new artists. I love the way this is working right now. Paul Lopez [Sana Obruent] is so thankful, and it’s incredible to see that people are happy about the stuff I’m doing even when it’s not connected to my own music. I will definitely do it again, but I’ll just need the correct feeling; there must be an urge to release something. It’s been seven or eight years since I last released another artist.
How did you meet Paul?
Paul is also in a Facebook group called “The Shoegaze Collective”. I think he started it actually. He did an anonymous Twitter post that said “This record, Prince Of The Air, needs to be released”, and I said “okay – let’s see”. I don’t listen to everything that people are telling me to listen to, but after the first few seconds I knew that it felt good and that this would be a good opportunity to release something from another artist. I didn’t actually listen to the whole album before I said “let’s do it” – I had an initial opinion about the whole album and I wasn’t disappointed. I think it took four or five months before I finally released it, and it’s so overwhelming to see how thankful someone can be. I want to do it again. I just hope that I meet people with music that I want to release, because I’m getting more and more emails from bands and artists that want to be on my label. I could say that I’ve already planned all my releases for the next year. But I could also omit one and release another. It’s always possible to change the schedule for them – I can be spontaneous.
You also put out a couple of Fir Cone Children releases this year, which are much harder and dirtier than Everything Is Easy.
I’ve always been thinking about a sentence you wrote in the review for the last album: when you said “Will Fir Cone Children be able to create another Everything Is Easy? It doesn’t matter.” It’s stuck in my head. If you compare the two records, which one do you like more?
It’s difficult to say as I’ve spent so much more time with Everything Is Easy. I felt an instant attraction to Firconium though. It reminded me of the music in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.
[laughs] That’s really funny – I had that movie in mind when I wrote some of the songs! The music in Scott Pilgrim was very bass-influenced, and I had the idea to create a similar attitude to music: very fast, noisy and limited to two or three minutes. People have a short attention span. That should suffice: repeat the chorus once, part C and that’s it.
It feels like you’re saying, “alright – let’s cram all of the energy I would have spent across four minutes into two minutes”. Especially with the blastbeats!
It was so ridiculous in a way [laughs]. I tried that because I got so into Deafheaven. They have this shoegaze component, although their songs are often 10 or 14 minutes long. I just thought, “I like blastbeats and I like short songs. Let’s try something!” I couldn’t do the whole album with just blastbeats as I think that would be a bit boring. Initially it sounded too hard – I thought, “Jesus Christ, what’s happening here?” It was so different from the first album but I wanted to try something different this time.
I also put out this EP called The Age Of Blastbeatles, and the first song is the hardest, blastbeat-fuelled song I ever did for Fir Cone Children. I couldn’t put this one on the record even though I like it a lot. There’s none of that fair, child-like atmosphere in it. That’s why I decided to make another EP of the songs I didn’t use on the second record. It’s a bit darker than the other Fir Cone Children releases.
I think the blastbeats work really well. I can’t recall hearing them in this sort of context anywhere else.
I recognise that vocal harmonies can soften anything. The band HEALTH started as a noise rock band, and they’re now a poppier synth rock band. The vocalist used to scream and shout, but it was never hardcore-like – they used it as a way to texture the sound. But yeah, I just thought I’d try to make a pop song – something like The Beatles – over the blastbeats. I’m not sure I’ll do it again but it was a lot of fun.
I remember reading a review from Norman Records, where the reviewer said he was expecting something different from a record called The Age Of Blastbeatles although he enjoyed it anyway. I have to laugh about it.
That’s another advantage of working quickly. When you spend too long on music, you can often end up scrutinizing it until you strip all of the stranger and bolder elements away.
Yeah. You can end up overworking it and it’s not that “naïve” anymore. I think that a lot of good music is naïve in a way; you don’t put too much thought into it. Because I’ve got at least four primary bands, I know that I can’t waste too much time on thinking because I want to do different stuff in, say, a month’s time when I have my Fir Cone Children phase again. You just have to be confident in the stuff you do, and I’ve learned to accept that some things do or don’t work. Whenever I go down into my “cellar” and surface again, I usually have something I can put on the internet. As long as I have these phases between three or four different bands, I think I’ll keep making music. I hope I’ll always be confident in the stuff I do, because if you just trust yourself and just release it…I mean, you can’t make it right for the listener anyway. You’ve just got to accept that.