Interview: Alan Morse Davies


How long did it take to produce Svalbard?

Not that long. Maybe three weeks. For me, a bad idea drags you down and requires increasingly large amounts of effort for less reward…a great idea flows fast and relatively effortlessly, generating its own ideas, spurs and sidelines as part of the process; then the only thing required is editing. I know it’s 3 hours long but it could have been a lot longer.

How and why was the Svalbard archipelago an inspiration to you?

Initially it wasn’t. I had done work slowing down 78s before, in a kind of dry process-driven way with The Last Summer, but finding 78s that can maintain interest throughout at whatever speed they’re slowed down to is a difficult challenge and simultaneously lazy. I felt that I was hiding behind a process rather than engaging with it, so I decided to treat the source materials as if they were merely building blocks to what I wanted to hear…stretch them, bend them, cut them, make them wear clown masks bend over and take it like jesus, like a pop record. Ahem. I was very bored with the world of worthy experimental music, also very bored with the predictable world of ambient so I decided to try and make something in the space between.

The first experiment was “Kvitoya”. Originally it had no name. It sounded like somewhere at the boundaries of humanity and I was looking for a title so I looked on Google Maps/Images and settled on Svalbard, when I saw more and more images of this place I thought that I could make a piece for each of the images, essentially trying to convey a sense of place rather than any kind of narrative, even though I’ve never been there.

How is this inspiration reflected in the instrument/sound choices, and in the music itself?

I don’t have any coherent answer to this. I have a preference towards reed instruments (including bagpipes), horns, strings and voices…these are the things that sound good to me. I used these sounds to make these pieces. If I was asked to make a piece based on the beauty of arteries or spiders I would probably still use these instruments.

Did you have an initial concept of how you wanted Svalbard to sound?

No. I had absolutely no idea, except that I wanted it to sound good and trusted myself to make it sound good. I distrust my own overarching concepts…if I had sketched this down on paper as pictograms like I have done before, I would have been trying to squeeze myself into these tiny concepts, not allowing the ideas to breathe and take form.

Are all of the instruments played by yourself?

I haven’t touched a single instrument since 1994…there’s no fun for me any more in that. This is probably a reflection of the long long years of analogue recordings where I played all the instruments…hugely frustrating and by my early 30s I had mild arthritis in my guitar picking fingers. When I started making music again in 2003 I promised myself that I’d make music entirely within the computer domain or get other people to play it for me.

How did you go about processing the raw sonic material into these compositions?

I usually start by listening to the tonal balance and melodic content, selecting sections that I like and slowing them down by various degrees. Once I’ve selected the right pace, I may then start pitch shifting the samples based on whetever they’re going to be layered against and playing around with their position, playing forward/reverse etc.

Once I’ve layered the samples up I may then cut the entire piece into sections and overlay those sections against each other. For mastering I often use a room simulator and sometimes tape saturation also.

What are the contents of the “old 78 records from the 1920s” that feature on this album?

There’s a bunch of different stuff. “The Three Sea Captains” by Sean Maguire, “Turnalar Turnalar” by Darulelhan Heyeti, “Wedding in Myjava” by Samko Dudik etc.

What would you say is the ideal listening environment for Svalbard?

There is no ideal listening environment – if it works for you, it works for you. Music for me is about communicating something down this really small twisty wire of perception and someone else getting it. That person is not me and may not be like me. I can’t dictate the terms under which they should receive it, nor should I.

What sort of environment (location, time of day etc) do you find best for composing or arranging your music?

I work best at night and I like to be drunk. 11pm-4am are best. I’ve tried being high also but it just makes bad music.

Do you ever take your music into the live environment? If not – have you ever considered it?

Yes I have tried it, and no I don’t want to with my music in its current form. I dislike men with laptops performing live, and unfortunately that would be me. If I did perform live it would be with some form of orchestra and a new composition.

How and why did the At Sea label begin?

I was a very poor kid at a very posh school aged 15 and I wanted to create something brilliant outside of that that could define me.  I had a very poor punk band called “Life Sentence” and we put out our music on cassette during the DIY craze, covered by NME and Sounds’ “Garageband” column. Through this I met other musicians, found some confidence, went from cassette to vinyl and put out a bunch of odd records that sold less with each release. At Sea was and is really the ambition of what I COULD do, and what I still aim to do.

What’s next for yourself and your music?

I have no answer. I never really know what I’m going to do next, and if I did predict it I’d probably be wrong! If you’d have told me in January that I would make Svalbard in March I’d have been quite surprised. I have quite a grand piece sketched out but it’s going to take a long time to put together and find appropriate musicans so it’s always on the back burner. Let’s see.


At Sea –