en Frost’s Theory of Machines is a record whose horror reveals itself slowly. Like a car approaching a crash site, you can feel the impending terror, but drive directly into it anyway. Recorded at Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Greenhouse studios where Frost works, the album sounds like what might happen if Trent Reznor’s electronics met Mogwai’s song structures. The studio, along with having been home to the recording of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s The Letting Go, and much of Mum’s Finally We Are No One and Björk’s Medulla, serves as the homebase for Bedroom Community.
The imprint’s first album, released late last year, was a collection of classical music by 25 year-old composer Nico Muhly. After being followed up quickly by Frost’s brutal pop noise, Bedroom Community will also be home to the first solo release of Sigurðsson later this year
This weekend sees Frost, Sigurðsson, and Muhly all performing in New York. Frost will be playing a solo set on a bill with Sigurðsson on Sunday at Tonic, while Muhly will be performing as part of the John Adams’ curated In Your Ear Festival at Carnegie Hall on Friday.
Stylus caught up with Frost via e-mail earlier this year to talk about the record.
What role did Valgeir play in Theory of Machines?
I guess Valgeir’s role with this record could be defined with a few titles—mix/mastering engineer / A+R / producer—though none of those are really hard and fixed. His input was much more holistic than specific.
I think it’s easier to talk about what Valgeir’s role in my work is generally rather than specifically to this record. After going through art school and then a music school, I came out of both realizing that I’m far more suited to the Renaissance idea of education—the apprentice and the master idea. When Valgeir and I met in Australia around five years ago, it just started to become that very much of its own accord even before I lived here and “worked” with/for him in the studio.
Our core ideals about art are very similar, and on a less important level, our production values musically are similar. (As in, there is no set way to do anything. Only the best way.) I'm not learning to be him, but rather learning what he knows from him and also learning to be myself through him. Anything I do, in any medium, at some point kind of goes past Valgeir, and how he sees it allows me to gauge it for myself much better than I do on my own. We don’t always agree on something aesthetically but our argument (in the plural sense) and that clash of ideas has forced me to really examine my choices much more critically than I have in the past. I mean, there is no question in my mind that I am doing my best work now because of the dialogue I have with Valgeir.
How long have you been working in Iceland? What brought you there from Australia?
I’ve lived in Iceland for like 2 years now. I came here the first time I think five years ago, and I'd always wanted to come here. (From Melbourne it’s pretty well as far as you can go before you start coming back.) Then, as a teenager, I loved Siggi and Björk's (pre-Sugarcubes) first band, Kukl, very heavy post-punk, dark shit. I am quietly smiling every time I get to perform Theory of Machines live now, looking over at Siggi. It’s a bit of a fantasy to work with him.
So, when Valgeir and I met in Australia back when, and we got along so well, and the invitation was there to visit, it just made it ridiculous not to come here.
What sort of changes have you noticed from Australia in Iceland besides the obvious weather-type stuff…
You mean like the prevalence of elves or something? I don’t know, I mean, if you ask me if I can 'hear' the Icelandic landscape in my music the answer is no. Nothing like that. This post-Sigur Rós glacial-landscape metaphor shit just makes me want to cut myself. What makes a bigger difference, I think, is the influence of the lack of influence from the rest of the world.
Being here has, in many ways, allowed me more space to explore what my work is about—now that I have taken it away from its natural environment. (What is the crux of it, what can go, what has to stay, what it actually IS and means to me, etc.) I’ve certainly been processing a lot of those questions over the last two years and finding answers in Theory of Machines. I mean, for example, I know my work has been and always will be inherently aggressive, I know its 'dark', whatever that means, but through my time here it’s been interesting to feel that move towards a more focused point emotionally, without the angst, to become something I’m in control of, rather than being controlled by.
Perhaps I’m also shifting away from being the sum of my influences into something borne of myself. How much of that you want to pin on “moving to Iceland” instead of just “growing up” a bit I don’t know.
How does this stuff differ from your work with School Of Emotional Engineering?
Well, it differs a lot and also not at all. The first School Of Emotional Engineering record was effectively a solo record. I put it out under that name instead of my own as a way of trying to distance myself from the music somehow and make it about the music rather than about me. That didn’t work, but it was a good idea at the time. I then put together a 'band' as a live vehicle to perform that record, who then sort of became S.E.E. From that point on it became its own thing.
Before I left Australia we had worked up quite a lot of new material for a new S.E.E. album and it’s so different from the first album I can’t even explain it really. It’s vocally driven for starters, it’s incredibly aggressive, and I really don’t know what to do with it to be honest. I listened to the material just recently, and I like some of it very much, I think it’s really interesting, sonically in particular. In many ways, though, where I am creatively now has moved so far away from what I thought I wanted “School Of Emotional Engineering” to be not so long ago that I am not sure if I can engage with it in the way I did. Time will tell.
You've said in interviews that you don't listen to electronic music very much. I find this kind of odd considering that you're using the tools of most electronic musicians: Ableton Live. Can you discuss this a little bit?
Computer software for me is really quite secondary. It’s a tool, an instrument, just like any of the instruments I could play, only it has the ability to document itself and anything else that interacts with it. Like anything else, it’s not that I have a special affinity for Ableton Live, but rather that I am so comfortable working in that platform that it is transparent to me. I don’t see the program, I just see the music and look for ways to manipulate it. There is nothing more destructive than fumbling with technology in order to allow time to explore sound and music.
As for not listening a lot to electronic music, firstly there are exceptions to that rule, but overall it’s that transparency or the lack thereof that turns me off “electronica”—I just hear machines doing exactly what they’re built to do. I am more interested in visceral music, music that bleeds. I want to be infected. The long and short of it is that I just don’t feel a fucking thing when I listen to most music, particularly of the 'electronic' kind...there is just nothing there for me.
Are there many samples used in Theory of Machines?
No, just one actually. In the piece “Stomp,” I used a sample from the Swans “Red Sheet.” I spent weeks trying to get the sound of that particular Swans recording, and at some point just wrote to Michael Gira and asked if I could use it. I originally didn’t want to use a sample, but in the end it made perfect sense. Everything else on Theory is recorded, and for the most part the 'sound' is all actually pre-production. (i.e. The guitars, the drums, etc. were all processed on their way TO tape, rather than after or during the mix.) The record was “performed.”
Tell me a little bit about the cover art of the record.
It was originally inspired by a series of photos by an artist named Victor Boullet. The series— “Oblivion”—documented various aspects of the process of operating on a horse. I wasn’t fascinated by how strange this process was so much, but rather was astonished by its familiarity. The size of the animal, combined with the fact that most of the horses being operated on are race horses and are therefore worth a lot of money, commands a level of precision and care that is not unlike dealing with a human life. That said, the familiarity of it is offset by the scale of things, the operating table is horse size, there is a giant hydraulic crane to move the horse, and the floor is dirty shit covered concrete and kind of at odds with the clinical, surgery nature of the rest of the space.
I began to draw parallels between this and the music on Theory of Machines—use of a kind of legerdemain, revealing true form without drama, revealing the internal mechanical structure of a sonic object. The music makes it very obvious to the listener that it is about that revelation—it’s not something being created but rather just bought into focus.
I hope that the photographs we did for Theory of Machines do that same thing. Sure, it looks like a hospital and it feels like an operation but there is no cut, no blood, and no doctor. The body is hanging from the ceiling, the floor and the body are covered in piss and shit, the operating table is four times bigger than it should be.
What's was behind the decision to have a musicologist write the liner notes to the record?
Nico Muhly was insisting on having liner notes done for his album, which in his mind acted kind of like a “user manual.” Originally my reaction to this, at least from a label point of view, was that it was a stupid idea. You shouldn’t spell it out. Somehow, I thought, it cheapened the experience. Very quickly, though, I began to realize that this approach actually allowed far more people to find their way through music that is, for the average listener really hard to navigate. I also then started to contemplate the fact that on every other record I had done in the past I had always felt like for better or worse it had not been understood. That is not to say it hasn’t been received really positively, but I hate to see Steel Wound, a record composed entirely with guitars, filed under 'dance/electronic' in a record store—it completely misses the point.
So, I did a complete 360 and actually approached the same guy Nico used—a professional music nerd, a wonderful guy named Daniel Johnson, to see if he could put into words what the record is about, mapping out some of the points of reference, the concepts behind it, and help people to understand where it is coming from. We had never met, and I had no idea what to expect and was completely amazed by how succinctly he was able to frame Theory of Machines. He even helped me understand it better myself.
Ben Frost @ MySpace
Stylus Review of Theory of Machines