Interview: Gideon Wolf

Year Zero is always swirling, contracting, expanding, thinning, like dehydrated plant matter kicked up on the wind, tossed back and forth over the cracked earth. Much like the latter work of Talk Talk, Gideon Wolf’s latest album was created by collaging individual recordings of strings, voices and electronics, each adherent to a tonal theme but allowed to move freely within the overarching structure. It’s strange to hear these rich string arrangements dancing so weightlessly, unbound by the conventional configuration of the orchestra, murmuring phrases that peel away from the harmonic mass and slip elegantly back inside. There’s a sense of unity, but it’s brittle.

You can stream/buy Year Zero on Bandcamp. Physical editions are currently sold out, but I implore you to go and marvel at the pictures of the Fluid Audio package anyway. It’s beautiful. As noted below, a vinyl edition should be on its way soon via Aurora Borealis. Below, Gideon Wolf and I discuss family, Scottish landscapes and the presence of movement.

The “release info” file I receive alongside digital records is usually a functional document. I read it to understand the context of the release. In this case, this took the form of a “thank you” letter directed at your collaborators, your label, your family and the listener. I enjoyed having this impress upon my first listen to the album, as immediately I felt more aware of the creative negotiation between you and your collaborators. Is this expression of gratitude indicative of your attitude in your day-to-day, or is there something about the process of creating of Year Zero that made you particularly grateful?

I think in any walk of life, but certainly within a creative exchange I have always felt it is imperative to recognize the input of others in the work I do. I think in this case I also felt that in such a niche underground world of music like this, where no one is making a penny, the love to all involved, musicians, family and record label, is massive. It gets out into the world only through the sheer will of everyone involved, and in the case of a label like Fluid/Fracture, it is a belief and an investment in your work that has someone like Dan (and Jess) putting their own money and time into a process that has such a limited exposure (run of 250 CD’s) that you just can’t help but be thankful!

You worked with a number of collaborators for this release, including members of your own family. How did you go about assembling the lineup for Year Zero, and how did you find the process of working with them?  

Its not often you get the chance to rope your family in on an album, and as my daughter (Neath) and partner Rachel are both strong singers it made perfect sense. Rachel is also my (secret) editor when it comes to all music matters (good/bad, too long, too short, etc, etc..) so I just wanted to make sure everyone including my talented close family got a mention…

How much preparation did you conduct before bringing in your collaborators for Year Zero? Did you start with a central vision for the record ­– either thematically or compositionally – or did this materialise through working with the other musicians? Both, perhaps?

I guess you might say I work in an unusual way, certainly in regard to more conventional ways of composing music. The process on this album followed a similar route to how I normally work apart from this time I knew I wanted more strings.

The process for me is about recording musicians. I don’t for example write music or work with musicians collectively in a studio or rehearsal space. I work initially on textures/colors, drones, particular phrases or feelings that I want a musician to play to and then I get them to either play to these simple pieces I have made, or listen to it beforehand and then play to it. In its simplest form then these sessions might be about recording a repeated chord or note, a rhythm or long chord on a particular note or a set of notes on cello and violin. In some cases I might then ask them to experiment with these notes, phrases or tempos. Basically as I don’t read or write music these sessions are about providing me with notes and phrases that I can create with. I guess you could call them notes on a page but in no particular order. Where this process differs slightly is when I work with piano and rhythm by myself or analogue synth textures and colors gloriously played by Gabi ‘Moog’ Matzeu. These sounds and sections of music come from live studio sessions at a studio called the Fish Factory in London where we basically press record and jam/improvise until our arms fall off!

I work on the material, often creating pieces of music or outlines for these works that are very different from my initial ideas and also the material the musicians have played. This might then lead to more recording or expanding on these ideas and playing with the material through further (secret!) techniques. I like to manipulate, process, mix and formulate ideas with the material I use in the moment. I work in this way for different reasons, most of which are just instinctual and part of how I have always worked, but I guess one reason is perhaps to show a process and a sense of the instruments and the music being played for you, the listener, live and in the moment. People have spoken about the album in terms of it being played by a band or quartet and I take this as the highest compliment!

A good example perhaps for this way of working and how this album was made might be DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing, as he constructed that record almost entirely from samples. In the case of Year Zero the process behind it is a very similar premise, although I guess I am also making the samples too.

YEAR ZERO – BREATH

YEAR ZERO – BREATH

You’ve included a number of pictures with the record, with rivers, mountains and empty roads all set against a rather arid landscape. Where were these pictures taken, and how do they fit into the world of Year Zero?

The initial inspiration for the record was a kind of dystopian idea about the future. However I often work closely with Dan at Fluid on the artwork and how the CD/release will look and he felt inspired, after hearing sections of the album, to head off to Scotland in his camper van to take photographs. The resulting photographs are obviously great so you could say the album has a dual existence as an album set in a dystopian future and one set in these melancholic empty Scottish landscapes. I think both probably do inspire each other and these landscapes could easily relate to a dystopian future too…either way, I am happy for others to be inspired and run with these inspirations. I feel like I am breaking down the Gideon Wolf forth wall here!

There’s a great sense of space and naturalistic movement to the instruments on this record. They seem to drift freely like currents of water, overlapping each other and deviating and realigning, while all ultimately adherent to a single directional flow. Is this indicative of the way you worked with the musicians on this record? Was your vision kept loose so as to allow the personal nuances of the players to bleed into the music?

I think the elements you pick up on, particularly the presence of naturalistic movement throughout the album, is a motif/style that runs through all my work. In essence because I work in the way I have described creating a sound that feels naturalistic, live even, is really important. It’s not a case of creating an artificial sense of naturalism, but to work in a way where all the elements have to be reconfigured and manipulated to fit a sense of arriving to the listener in the moment is really difficult to achieve, but for me is the criteria with which a piece of music either works or doesn’t. For me, movement must always be present. I remember first hearing “Ole” by John Coltrane and being mesmerized by the movement in the music.

In essence it’s this notion of grandeur or of a piece of music sounding cinematic, and perhaps becoming larger than the sum of its parts that most appeals when wanting these pieces to constantly ebb and flow and immerse the listener. I wanted the album to feel as though it was in a constant state of flux where the melody, rhythm, and balance between the strings and the more ambient, noise, drone elements constantly repeats, dissipates and then resolves again. When manipulating the string sections on this record I try to experiment with mixing and processing material in live mix sessions in order to create a situation where mistakes, or more accurately patterns/structures created by the strings interacting with each other in these live mixes, form happy accidents that in turn create moments of clearer fluidity and naturalism in the playing.

It’s not always an enviable task trying to form a quartet of sorts from sometimes such disparate material, but at the same time moments of genuine excitement for me can come from a controlled live mix where elements of material that have, in a rudimentary sense, been thrown together, start to create surprising and exciting results. I tend to work retrospectively once I find ideas and structures that work for me. It’s really a case of making sure there is plenty of freedom in the making process for me before I start to then meticulously piece these ideas together into pieces of music. I have tried working in a more formal way, but I always come back to this feeling of wanting to mess everything up again or throw it all in the air to see where things might land/sound.

I’m also aware of constant undulations in the placement, shape and proximity of the instrumentation; occasionally the sounds feel like they’re cradling my head, while at other points they seem to be stretching into the distance. Was mixing a particular “active” part of creating this album?

The placement of particular instruments or sounds, as you have highlighted, is also a big part of how this live mix works. Along with a fluidity and movement in how instruments and sounds interact and react with each other, I think I also really enjoy spending time moving sounds around the stereo spectrum in almost a binaural way. This often happens during a live mix as it’s less of a meticulous placement and more of an intuitive reaction to how the mix might be progressing. I guess you could also say that it allows the sound to appear more cinematic and potentially immersive within these stereo parameters.

YEAR ZERO – MEDWIN

YEAR ZERO – MEDWIN

What can you tell me about the piano near the end of this record? Compared to the fluidity and complex harmonies of the record elsewhere, it feels like a moment of declaration and clarity.

The piano in the final track on the album, “Nova”, is from a session at the Fish Factory, where I recorded several hours worth of small motif driven improvisations on piano to accompany some string and drone pieces I was working on for this album. I wanted the piano to give this track a moment to breath, and once the rest of the album had been finished it also made sense to place this track at the end. This “stability” allows the album to take a moment out from its constant swirling movement and resolve for a brief moment before moving off again.

This particular piece of music is also one of my favourites from the album and is named after my youngest daughter, who actually arrived after the album had been made and released but is now very much here with us. I guess you could also say it’s a good job we stuck with the name!

What other music have you been listening to recently?

In between feeds and nappy changing I have been trying to catch up on some listening, as making music often seems to mean you get the chance to listen less to what other people are doing. This playlist is a mix of old and new(ish)music with more than its fair share of film soundtracks:

Jackie (Mica Levi), Vaudeville Villain (Viktor Vaughn/MF Doom), Spiderland (Slint), Mustang (Warren Ellis), Buffalo 66 soundtrack (Vincent Gallo), Creator Spiritus (Arvo Part), At Action Park (Shellac), 1986 (One Last Wish), Daydream Nation (Sonic Youth), Doomsday (MF Doom/Grim), The Unanimous Hour (Lungfish), A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead), The Revenant (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto), Skeleton Tree (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) plus some random batches of early-to-mid-90s New York hip hop in an attempt to re-live my youth!

What’s next for you and your music?

Next is a re-press/re-release of Year Zero on vinyl with Aurora Borealis and this will hopefully be out in April/May this year. This will be the first time I have released music on vinyl, so as an avid collector when I was younger, it’s a particularly exciting moment to finally have Gideon Wolf pressed onto wax.

At one stage I would like to work with someone to transcribe works from this album so that they can be played live by a quartet or small ensemble…I am totally open to offers!

One aspect of making music that I would like to develop moving forward is creating music for film. I’m an avid film watcher and take a great deal of inspiration from watching film – in many ways, and more so than all the other arts (including music). So if the opportunity arose to score a film in the near/ not to distant future that would be great.