eith Kenniff records pleasing music. Don’t hold that against him. His hopeful ambient work as Helios is the inverse to Boards of Canada’s shattered psychedelia. His new record, Eingya is a striking mix of field-recordings, computer synths, acoustic guitar, and his own piano playing arranged to masterful effect. That piano-playing featured heavily on Kenniff’s 2005 release under his other alias, Goldmund. Corduroy Road was an exploratory record. It saw Kenniff eschewing the sonically complex Helios compositions for a stripped down approach: usually only him and the piano that he was learning to play at the time. Stylus recently talked with Kenniff about his recording process, his influences, and the new record in advance of the release of Eingya.
Have you always made music? What instruments do you play?
Pretty much. My primary instrument is percussion, but I play guitar, bass, and piano. I've only picked up the piano recently, and still am really working my way through the basics of technique, but the others I've been playing since I was a kid.
Have you been in any bands? What lessons have you learned from working in them?
I've always been in some sort of a band since I was 12 or so. I think every situation has provided me with a building block that has helped me in different ways, made me approach playing or writing in a way that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. The one shortcoming of working alone is that I can’t interact with anyone other than myself, but it also has its merits. This band I played in where we did old time-y country stuff (Carter Family, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline) helped me to acquire a lot of patience. Performance-wise I come from a jazz background where improvisation is the emphasis—the song is most often a foundation for interaction. Playing behind a singer in the context of that country material made me focus on how to serve the song, how to be an anchor, and how to really be part of a group, whereas often at school playing jazz I would often play with a rotation of different people every night.
I’m surprised to find that you've only recently learned to play piano. Your work as both Helios and Goldmund depends heavily upon synth and piano.
The first synth I used (and still use almost exclusively) is a standalone software synth (not even VST) that has been discontinued for years, it was made by an obscure small company. At the time I didn't have a midi keyboard, so I learned to play all the parts on my computer keyboard. I played chords with my left hand and melodies with the mouse, and recorded them live. Years later I started to play piano, and it was really a different animal. I just started going to the practice rooms at Berklee [College of Music (if you would go late at night it there wasn't many people in there), and enjoyed hearing the sound of the piano, like a little kid fascinated with the sound of a rattler. I started on guitar before piano, but I think the piano/synth is a far superior instrument. Writing on piano and synths also makes me write differently, so I tend to stick to that format because it's easier to get ideas out of my head through them.
Tell us a little bit about the origins of the first Helios release. Did you send out demos to record labels like M3rck?
During the time around Unomia there were a little group of us sharing music together, and somehow a few of my songs got through to Gabe, who runs Merck. Gabe contacted me and asked if I wanted to release something. It took a while for him to convince me to do it, but I finally said yes. I think I was afraid (and still am) of releasing things too soon or that the music is just so amateur that I'll look back on it and say, "God, what was I thinking?" So far I haven't sent out demos to anyone, it's just been kind of word of mouth.
How much composition goes into the Helios material? Is there any improvisation?
I think about half and half. Lots of happy (and unhappy) accidents. A lot of the melodies are improvised. The actual composing is done as quickly as possible, I don't really like to labor on things too long because if I start to overanalyze it, I'll just probably destroy whatever is good about it. The manipulating of the sounds that are recorded, though, is pretty meticulous and takes a while.
You mentioned that you study at the Berklee College of Music. How do your peers and professors receive the music that you have made as Helios and Goldmund?
To be honest I'm really shy about telling people about the music I do, so I don't think most of my professors really knew that I wrote this kind of stuff. One of my private teachers, though, was really into electronic and experimental music and I showed him some of my material and we exchanged ideas and gave suggestions on each other's music. He really challenged and pushed me, and managed to help me approach my playing in a fresh way. I don't even want to think what my piano teacher would have thought about Corduroy Road.
Tell us a little bit about the new record.
I find it hard to describe, because it probably sounds a whole lot different to other people than it does to me. It's a bit more guitar/sample manipulation orientated, and a bit less electronic. (Especially with the percussion, I used recorded sounds and played things live instead of sequencing everything this time around.) I also took my time a bit more than I did with Unomia, and made sure that I found at least one thing I was happy with in each of the tracks. A lot of Unomia was written at different times so I think it sounded rather uneven, but many of these tracks were written more closely together so hopefully that gives the album a bit more cohesiveness.
You mentioned happy accidents earlier. Any of them on this new record that you can point us to?
The choir at the end of “Coast Off” was from a documentary that I was watching at the time I was writing that track. I was working on the last section, getting really frustrated trying to figure out what to do to make it stand out sonically, and the choir just happened to be in the same key, so I looped that little section of them singing and just threw it in there. I had to mess with it a bit more, but it worked perfectly with the bassline.
What other kinds of found sounds have you used on your records? What do you think that these sorts of things add to the music?
A lot of the sounds I use are from around my apartment, a lot of field recordings, and nature sounds and whatnot. Most of the sounds I use for drum parts are taken from me sitting down and walking away from the piano or guitar before and after takes. It's nice not to plan out those sounds and just look for them afterwards and figure out, "Oh, that'll work nice as a snare, or a kick drum." I didn't do that a lot on the first Helios record, and it sounded a bit more cliché because of it. I think using found sound adds an individuality, or a certain uniqueness to a track—instead of just manipulating a program that has been written by someone else. Some people can do that very well, but it's hard for me to do that.
What feelings do you attempt to evoke with your music?
I don't know. I'm not really a fan of programmatic themes in music that instruct the listener how to feel about what they are being presented with. One person may have a completely different interpretation of something I wrote than what I thought about it when I wrote it (or after I wrote it, which is more the case), and I that's a good thing.
Do you consider yourself a romantic musician?
I suppose. I try and issue a lot of restraint in the material I write, but music is a way (sometimes the only way) for me to reflect on, or release, my emotions fully. I think invariably when I write music or perform there's this wellspring of feeling that I might otherwise suppress that desperately wants to come out. Although I admire a lot of composers and performers that approach music in a way that might be (for lack of a better term) clinical and calculated, I myself don't operate musically that way, although in other areas of my life I might. A lot of the art I enjoy is less based on reality and more on hyperrealism. I want to express things in music that I want to believe are true but are really not. Music for me is a sanctuary from reality so I need it to exist in another place—a place that is contradictory to reality.
There seemed to be a few ideas that you were working through on your Goldmund record. Do the Helios records work in the same manner?
I think both projects operate differently. The Goldmund record was about impulsion; writing the music then looking at it and trying to think "What was I trying to say there by doing that?" The Helios records, especially the new one, involves asking myself that question, but doing it while I am in the process of composing. So I will write a little bit, then sort of analyze it, and see where to go from there. The Goldmund record was all in one shot, and I think in ways it is much more liberating to do things this way. I'm not always in the mood for experimentation though, and I love structure and the perfectionist side of me likes the more meticulous routine of how I compose the Helios material.
How do you think the learning of new instruments has changed the music that you make?
Each instrument has its own character, and I think each instrument brings out something different in each person. When I sit down and play guitar I am prone towards particular harmonies and melody writing that differ from when I write with piano, or by programming. I think the ideas I am able to explore when writing for piano come to me much easier than writing things on guitar even though I've played guitar much longer. Perhaps that's due to the fact that I am still discovering how to play it. There is a bit less trial and error, because I'm not as afraid of the error part when I'm writing the piano material. In the context of the Helios material I may go through several drafts of parts, re-record them, spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right guitar part or melody line.
How important are mistakes to your music?
Pretty important I guess, because I make quite a few of them. But I like mistakes, I like when things don't go perfectly. I do have a tendency to want for things to be perfect and precise, but I have to also realize that a lot of things I like about music and art are very rough and impulsive, the slight imperfections that give something or someone a unique voice. Mistakes to me symbolize progress in the way that if I've made one, the next time I will remember and learn what I need to do to correct that. I think if one just accepts and embraces the fact that mistakes will happen then the fear of making a mistake is replaced, somewhat, by an openness that can allow for more ideas to flow through a person.
“Marching Through Georgia” on your Goldmund record Corduroy Road, was a nod to American folk music. Tell us a little bit about how you came into listening to, and loving, this type of music.
I just really love that time period in American history. The Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, which was so well done, drew me further into it. I started to get increasingly fond of the origins of American folk music, and I learned piano by playing those songs. They are harmonically very simple, but in that simplicity I think there is a lot of beauty. Something about the dichotomy of music as a function of propaganda in times of war, and in particular The Civil War, is just really fascinating to me.
Why the name Helios? Why Goldmund?
When I started writing the Helios material, I was working in a band, so I was up during the nights and asleep during the days. I would see the sun rise every morning, before I went to sleep, and it was the best part of my day. Since Helios is the Greek god of the sun, I thought it a fitting name.
Goldmund is a character from a book by Hermann Hesse called Narcissus and Goldmund. Hesse is one of my favorite writers and in the book Goldmund is a sort of restless soul, he lives on impulse, he leaves the cloister he grows up in and goes on a series of journeys of self discovery, trying to find out who he is. It's a common theme but Hesse really articulates this well, and I think the way I approached the piano was in the same way: impulsive—searching and feeling things out in the dark.
Can you tell us about some more of your favorite authors and books?
There’s so many. Just a few: obviously Hesse, Joy Williams, JG Ballard (especially War Fever), Tom Robbins, Pessoa, EE Cummings, The Rebel by Camus, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
Your biography on the Type website says that you’re also passionate about cinema. What are some of your favorite movies and directors?
That's a very long list as well. Film and film music is a huge inspiration to me. There's the masters, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ozu, a lot of newer directors like Michael Haneke, Hirokazu Koreeda, the Dardenne brothers, Thomas Vinterberg, Lukas Moodysson, and some more experimental stuff like Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren. I think my favorite film right now is von Trier's Breaking the Waves.
What is about Michael Haneke's work that you like so much?
I think he's just a bold and challenging filmmaker. The way he treats his characters and the stories that he tells and especially the way that he tells them are very unique. After every film of his that I see, I walk away from it somewhat tense, and it takes me a while to figure out what I just saw. The beauty of what he does is that he allows the viewer to interpret his films in so many different ways that it really breaks down a barrier that can be harmful to film so often. He doesn’t allow the filmmaker and the viewer to be separate participants, or the film itself to be dictatorial.
If given the chance, would you score a film? Would you be willing to allow your music (already made) to be used in a film?
Yes, absolutely. I'm enamored with film music, and during the past several years I've been investigating film composers, taken a few film scoring classes at Berklee, and been trying to understand how music interacts with film. I've been asked by a couple of people to use the Goldmund material in some films and documentaries, so that has been nice. I don't know if the Helios stuff would be particularly suited towards film, though. I suppose it would depend on the context.
I watch a lot of films, and I think visual things, art, architecture, inspire me to write more than music does. One of the Goldmund tracks, “Anomolie Loop,” was just used in a French documentary. I think the director did a really good job of placing the track where it was, but it felt weird listening to something I wrote in tandem with someone else's work, although it was intriguing to see a visual representation of someone's interpretation of the music.
Should we be expecting more aliases from you in the future?
Maybe, I don't know. I just did a 12" on Yesternow Recordings under the name Sono (Type offshoot) with a group I played a recital with at school. It's more a more traditional jazz sort of setup (tenor, bass, drums, guitar, piano, and harp on one of the tracks). That's the sort of thing I've been doing at school, and I'd like to do more of that. I write a lot of different kinds of music, so I guess it just depends if anyone will release it.
What are some things in your music that you’d like to improve upon?
Jeez, I could probably write a book in answering that question. I think the main thing is I would like to get to a point where I am more self confident in what I write, where I can look back on something I've written and be at peace with it in some way. I'm not at that point yet.
Buy Eingya at Forced Exposure