Posted on Feb 5th 2012 05:30 pm
In the fifteen years since they formed Alog, Norwegian musicians Espen Sommer Eide and Dag-Are Haugan have released some extremely original and fascinating records, made from a vast array of acoustic and electronic instruments, most of which they build themselves, With their new album, their fifth, they have worked with a number of other musicians and involved them in the creative process. In its complete version, the album stretches over four LPs and 2 and a half hours. Here, Alog talk about their formative years, how the new album came together, working with collaborators and how playing live has to be approached very differently.
It’s been quite a while since your last record was released. Besides working on the new album, what have you been up to?
Espen Sommer Eide: It is not important for us to release something every year. We like to take our time, and also like to bring some fresh ideas and directions before we are ready to release something. This of course often means that we need to program new software, build instruments and experiment from the ground up before we are happy.
What are your respective backgrounds? Did you grow up in families where music was important? How did you start making music?
ESE: Well, I definitely grew up in a musical home. My father played in the Norwegian prog rock band Popol Vuh (actually got into a lawsuit with the German band over that name…) and my aunt played classical oboe, and during my childhood, she taught me how to play various medieval instruments (she was an enthusiast for re-creating original instruments of the era).
Dag-Are Haugan: I did not grow up in a musical home. At least no-one in my family played any instruments. The interest in recorded music didn’t go any further than the top of the pop charts. I never learned to play any instruments when I was growing up, and I still have a love/hate relationship with instruments. I guess I have a more punk-attitude towards them.
You formed Alog in the late nineties. How did you meet, and what made you decide to start working together?
D-AH: The story goes: In Tromsø in the early nineties, in the middle of a concert with my shoe-gaze band Kant, a stranger from the audience jumped up on stage and started playing along on synth. He was immediately thrown off the stage by the strict band leader. This stranger was non other than Espen. Later on he got in touch to try to explain his strange behaviour and we started working together. I guess we were both fed up with the music we were playing in various bands at the time so we wanted to make something fresh, something freer. It was just for the joy of the experiment, we had no intention of releasing anything, but when Espen released his first album as Phonophani on Biosphere’s label (ed: Biophon) in 1998, Rune Grammofon’s Rune Kristoffersen got in touch and wondered if he had something else going on that might fit his newly started label. So we sent him a demo and it became Red Shift Swing.
Right from Red Shift Swing, your sound has combined acoustic sounds and electronic processing. How did this develop? Was it always what you wanted to achieve?
ESE: We didn’t have any plans for it to turn out this way. Often in hindsight it may seem that way, but one always has to remember that the development of a certain ‘sound’ and method is a very organic and complex process. For example when Alog started out, the possibility to manipulate sound through software on a PC (of the cheaper kind) was just starting thanks to advances in technology. Previously you had to either use expensive synthesizers, analogue equipment or samplers with limited memory etc. So it was all new territory at the time, like a whole new field of art opening up to everybody working from their bedroom studios. This new creative freedom was a great attraction to us at the time. So we collected all our instruments, the big-band record collection of Espen’s dad and other sound-making toys in a room (actually the basement of a kindergarten we could borrow) and started experimenting. We did not, as many others at the time in Tromsø, use synthesizers and electronic sounds as a starting point, so that is one reason our sound was a strange hybrid from the start.
The new album was recorded over quite a long period of time, and in a very different way to previous records. Did you have a preconceived idea of what you wanted to achieve with it, or did it develop in a more organic way?
D-AH: The only idea we had before starting making the new album was that we shouldn’t have any preconceived idea with it except make it as loose as we could and painting with the largest brush-strokes, making it a contrast from previous more homogenous miniatures made with the tiniest hairs of the smallest brushes. And we wanted it big – not modest in any way. We like to think of Unemployed as having been assembled, like on an assembly line in a factory. We asked some musicians to compose complete pieces for our album (without any tinkering from our side except mixing and mastering) and to make sounds together with us. Or we made tracks ourselves, either as a duo or individually. Actually it’s in line with an old Alog idea of having no hierarchy amongst sounds and sound sources, meaning it doesn’t really matter where the sound comes from, if it comes from some instrument (ours or other’s) or from recordings from a horse-race or some movie as long as the sound serves a purpose in the composition. So we had this vague ‘theme’ of work and non-work, rules and freedom, employment and unemployment as a guide.
Still, the (4xvinyl LP) album is absolutely meant as a cohesive long-player, as one piece. Each record form a thematic or formal unity that we also think connects with each other. The one record that stands out the most as a separate piece is the ‘black one’ (the other three are white vinyl). This record-within-the-record is made using reel to reel tape-loops, somewhat an homage to pre-digital electronic music pioneers like Arne Nordheim. In general we look for hidden family ties between tracks, so that even if they at first come across as completely different and eclectic they have a distant relationship that will become apparent after some time. This relationship is of course not always harmonious…
You have collaborated with a number of musicians on this album, some of whom you, Espen, had worked with on your last Phonophani album (Sigbjørn Apeland and Jenny Hval), others, like Sheriffs Of Nothingness and Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk you hadn’t. How did these collaborations happen?
ESE: Unemployed was assembled over a period of three years. Some recordings were done with a long-time collaborator of ours, Sigbjørn Apeland who happened to have an enormous collection of vintage harmoniums and other keyboard instruments in a disused church in Bergen. Sadly the local municipality was in the process of throwing him out of the church, so we had to go there and put up our microphones before it was too late. We also recorded the minimalist fiddle improvisation-duo Sheriffs of Nothingness (Ole-Henrik Moe and Kari Rønnekleiv). And we asked Signe Lidén (resonating everyday objects), Jenny Hval (vocals) and the legendary Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk (vocals) to send us some material. In these cases we often started by giving the artists some rules: we told them what we wanted from them structurally, harmonically, particular ways of singing etc. Then we received a lot of raw material they have made according to our instructions in our Dropbox, and then we built our track around that, or incorporated their material into our music. The collaborations often happened because we asked different artists to work with us, people that had something unique on their sonic palette that we thought we could integrate with our aesthetic.
On the album, you’ve used some old recordings which were taken from a collection of 78 RPM records that you apparently found while touring. How did you come across those, and what type of records were they? How did you incorporate them in your recordings?
ESE: Being record collectors we get hold of records all the time, so it is not easy to pinpoint in the end exactly where all the bits and pieces we sample come from. To finish up the new album we had to isolate ourselves, so we chose to travel to the far north east of Norway – Kirkenes, a mining town on the border with Russia. Espen’s family is from that place so they have a summer house there, near the huge artificial lake and mountains of small rocks created by the mining blasts. In that old workers’ home, there was an old Gerrard 78RPM player and a selection of old Norwegian and Swedish records (stone-cakes as they are called in Norwegian), which made it onto Unemployed, here and there.
Do you think that the way you’ve approached the new album has changed the way you will work in the future?
ESE: Yes, it is always like that. Either a future album will be a reaction against this one, or it will further develop on it. In a way our last three albums – Miniatures, Amateur and Unemployed, feel like a trilogy of sorts, and somehow Unemployed is the end of this cycle. But it is too early to say for sure.
The vinyl version of Unemployed contains almost eighty minutes of music not available anywhere else. Why did you choose to keep almost half of the project for this very limited release and not make it available elsewhere or on a different format?
ESE: For this album we decided not to be too perfectionist in our compositions and rather exhibit the compositional process, the experiments, the rough sketches and the stream of ideas that went into it. And therefore this album is quite long; 2.5 hours long over four full-length vinyls. Early on we wanted to do a quadruple album, but at the time it seemed like a megalomaniac idea that we didn’t think we would achieve, knowing our perfectionist attitude and also the general direction of the music business towards easy consumable packages. But gradually we started putting it all together and in cooperation with Rune Kristoffersen at the label we started to see how it could all come together as a 4xLP. Of course it is still quite a strange format, and such a long album really does not fit either CD or download in our minds. For example: You have to spend some time with a vinyl record, listening to one side after another. We imagine most people will enjoy a side better and maybe just keep playing that side over again a few times. Then you take a break doing something else, and when you return to the record you flip it over and start the next side. Twenty minutes is such a nice and ‘human’ length for a listening experience, also allowing full concentration. These kind of obsolete interactions with an album are really not possible on CD or MP3s.
Still we agree it may seem a bit odd and backwards not to have any download option for the full album, but for now it is an experiment. What is an album like in the 21st century? Is it at all viable as a format anymore? Maybe we will change our minds later on. And of course we are really happy with the tighter, digital version of Unemployed also. It’s just a different experience.
You have often worked with vocalists in the past, or used vocal components in your music, and you have a very particular way to treat the human voice. What does it bring that other instruments don’t?
ESE: Earlier we treated vocals like an instrument, putting in inside the mix like any other sound. But lately we have been experimenting with giving it more space, pushing it to the front. Unemployed is even the first album where we feature lyrics on the cover! What is going on? We asked Nicholas Møllerhaug, also a long-time collaborator of ours, to write some lyrics around the theme of work. We asked Jaap Blonk to sing the text and the challenge was of course that the text is in Norwegian and he didn’t quite know how to pronounce all the sounds. But he did a great job trying! We always enjoy moments where you can hear someone trying and exploring a given situation better than finished perfection. In the background we put a sample of a Saami church choir (recorded in northern Lapland) to give this road-workers’ anthem some ritualistic and holy feel. The result became Bømlo Brenn Om Natta, a song about road-workers putting down asphalt on the island of Bømlo.
There’s currently a double live album available on your website which documents two identical sets recorded in Osaka and Tokyo. Can you tell us more about that particular project, and how your live sets compare to your studio work?
D-AH: Our latest release, Twin concerts, is, as the title suggests, recordings of two concerts. They took place at AD & A Gallery in Osaka and at Super Deluxe in Tokyo in October 2008. This is a very special release that we made in a DIY fashion. We wanted to release fifty copies of the two concerts on CD, so we asked Junko Harada, a Manga artist to draw a fifty frame story for us called Tokyo Heaven and she drew every square of Manga-magic by hand directly on each sleeve. Even all the liner-notes are handwritten by her on the sleeves. So each CD is a unique artwork. You can still order it from our web page but be quick about it!
I’m not sure if it is our way of working in the studio that influences our live sets or if it’s the other way round, I guess it is feeding both ways. For instance my reel-to-reel tape loop contribution on Unemployed is a direct result of a live set we did at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam last year. We also played live with the Sheriffs Of Nothingness before we invited them to the studio. We have never made it easy for ourselves when it comes to live work. Using an unpractical blend of acoustic instruments, home-made instruments, electronics and computers. We have always acknowledged the fact that live and studio are two very separate things and have tried to bring another kind of concentrated energy to our concerts. When we play as a duo we have to be creative to find a way to present complex material, without relying too much on pre-recorded backing tracks. We’re not particularly impressed with musicians who looks like they have a daft day at the office sitting behind those tables covered with black cloth, with their Macs on toop when they perform live, even though their music can be interesting. If the studio is an elephant, that works slowly but has a gigantic eye for details and a great memory, then the live set is a cheetah that moves fast, is super-focused and hopes to bring home the gazelle.
Are you planning to tour following the release of Unemployed?
ESE: There are plans for individual concerts, but nothing set yet. In the course of our touring with the Amateur album a few years ago our setup for live shows grew out of control and became a huge theatre of strange musicians and homemade instruments. It also became increasingly difficult to travel around with the show, in terms of logistics and costs. So we are not sure about doing a full blown tour again. We like the idea of having our concerts be special and unique events and need to develop them individually to achieve this.
Back in 2005, you released Catch That Totem! on Melektronikk, a compilation of previously unreleased material which also included three remixes I believe. Why did you release this on Melektronikk rather than Rune Grammofon? You have also released music on quite a few other labels (Creaked Records, Fat Cat, En/Off), often for very limited releases. Is this a way for you to explore different sides of what Alog is?
ESE: Not all kinds of releases fit Rune Grammofon, and also it is nice to cooperate with different people and audiences on other labels from time to time.
Espen, you also release music as Phonophani, and, as with Alog, you have increasingly been working with other people (Nicholas H. Møllerhaug, Maja Ratkje, Jenny Hval, David Grubs…) on your recent records. Is the way you approach your solo work very different from your work with Alog, and are you actively seeking collaborators for that project?
ESE: I don’t see the two projects as completely separate or different, very often I have released a Phonophani album at almost the same time as an Alog release. So I often experiment with ideas as Phonophani that make it into Alog and vice versa. The only difference is that I have the last say in Phonophani and don’t have to listen to Dag-Are Haugan, the last great European dictator!
Dag-Are, you released a solo album some years ago which was only published as a limited edition of just 500 copies. Would you ever consider re-releasing it to make it available to a wider audience, and do you think you will follow it up with another record?
D-AH: Actually, at one point we had the idea that the ‘black album’ in Unemployed was to be the follow-up to my solo-album, included in the Alog assembled package, but in the end we chose not to label it as such. But the track titles have a direct link to my album 9 Solitaires as they are called Solitaire 10, 11 and 12. A great part of the work on the ‘black album’ was done with me using mainly reel-to-reel tape loops in a similar aesthetic fashion as my solo LP. So in a sense that is the follow-up album. I actually have thought about re-releasing 9 Solitaires but I’m not sure how or if there is a need. Maybe it’s better to do something new. An upside to working alone is the absence of the other great European dictator breathing down my neck.
What is next for Alog?
D-AH: We don’t know, we are both a bit drained after the massive quadruple project.
If you had to name five records, books or films that have made a lasting impression on you as artists, which ones would they be?
ESE: We are not big fans of lists.
Email interview January 2012. Thank you to Espen Sommer Eide, Dag-Are Haugan and Jim Johnstone