Hailing from South Africa and currently based in Providence, RI, Emlyn Addison crafts deeply melodic and thoughtfully corrupted electronica. Self-released back in July, the It’s Not Too Early For Each Other LP contends with themes of apartheid and climate change. It will get a vinyl release by Castles In Space in early 2020. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Emlyn about his musical background, his relationship to his musical influences, and the creation of It’s Not Too Early.
Zurkonic: What's your background in music? Do you come from a live background?
Clocolan: No live background in electronic music; I studied theory/comp way back and did a lot of vocal performance but I've never been on stage with a rig for a paying audience
I've been poking around with electronic music since about 1989—the year before I left South Africa and moved to the US.
Z: And what was your first introduction to electronic music?
C: I was thinking about this the other day; I remember once hearing a track from Jarre's Equinoxe when I was maybe 7 or 8 and it stuck in mind enough that when I heard it again, around 1988 or thereabouts, I was like "Woah! what is that music? I remember that"
Z: What kind of music were you drawn to before getting into more electronic stuff?
C: Not much TBH. My parents are both very musical, a lot of classical/orchestral; my mother is a theater type and used to listen to the weird stuff—Penderecki et al. Maybe some of that seeped into my psyche because I like the psychedelic stuff :D
My undergrad was a fairly conservative/traditional education (a good thing, in retrospect) but I never really got the sense that anybody cared much about any music that wasn't at least 100 years old.
Z: So did you play an instrument?
C: I dabbled on the piano but my instrument—required for a degree program—was voice. For grad school I got into CalArts and that was totally different—eye-opening.
Z: How so?
C: Just really open-minded—a total 180 from my undergrad experience. In fact, I experienced a bit of culture shock when I arrived there; my mentor/professor didn't know how to write music and referred to it as "little black dot music". Pretty much sums it up.
Mark Trayle: a wickedly smart guy and a very accomplished artist. He died young :(
Z: Will look him up. It's interesting that your starting point was as a vocalist cuz now that you say that, I'm thinking, yeah, your melodies have a very lyrical quality to them...but in a melodic sense, if that makes sense
C: Yes totally; if you can hum it, it'll stay with you. The parts I remember of Schulze's music, for example, are the ones with a melodic contour. The rest is just noise carpeting...but beautiful noise carpeting!
Z: [Looks up Mark Trayle] Damn, I bet Trayle knew Carl Stone.
C: Yep, Carl Stone came to visit and do a presentation once. In fact, if I'm not mistaken he said something really interesting when he was showing us his work: he doesn't much like the music that he writes but somebody's got to do it. Isn't that interesting? That he didn't enjoy what he did but thought it necessary anyway?
I used to be in that mode of thinking but I eventually learned—forced myself—to start doing only what I loved. My favorite quote is from Peter Gabriel: "Do what excites you." Very little in my formal training excited me like electronica. I think there's an element of that—the newness and originality of an idea that drives you to create it and put it out there.
Z: And when you say formal training, could you also just explain what that entailed?
C: It's just a toolbox (a very expensive one); I learned to do things there that I likely wouldn't have learned elsewhere (easily). Counterpoint, canon, structure, complex harmony, rhythmic invention.
But it IS possible to learn all that on your own. Vangelis did.
Music theory and writing. Understanding harmonic functions, melody, instrumentation, performance limitations, textural writing, tonal balance...I only scratched the surface before shipping off to grad school.
Z: Man, I come from a philosophy background and that's always been my favorite way to think about it. Like, studying the history of ideas is just giving yourself a conceptual toolbox, which allows you to make new tools.
C: Yes, education gets a bad rap (mostly because of the financial element in this country, not to mention the anti-intellectual element) but it's just knowing about the history of musical thought and how it has been applied. It's up to the individual composers to go out there and do something with it.
A major part of what I found to be a turnoff about some of my experience in music school [was] venerating old art and artists to the point of obsession. I only encountered Glass/Reich in a few spots, otherwise it was the Old Masters.
That being said, some of the musicians and teachers I encountered were BRILLIANT at what they did. My 20th-century theory teacher at Arizona State was a bit of a revelation, as it showed that even kooky atonalists and chance music composers found a place in the repertoire.
Z: And on that note, so after you finished at Cal Arts, how did you go about starting to develop your own voice? Are you a professional musician?
C: I never really became a "professional musician." For years I worked in IT doing speech telephony and website development, some writing work too, but it wasn't until I started producing stock music that I found my old musical self being rekindled. I think discovering Radiohead, ChrisT., and Boards Of Canada was also a catalyst.
Z: Around when did you find them? And were you doing stock music for your website work or....?
C: A friend of mine played me Kid A and I was hooked. That was about 2001. We saw them live in Boston; pretty cool. I think I heard BoC and ChrisT. around 2003-2004. At first I thought all the tracks were corrupt until I realized their sound was intentional haha. That sort of brewed in me for a while.
Z: What do you think drew you to that sense of corruption?
C: I didn't really understand why the tracks I was playing sometimes sounded poorly recorded—like I had bought a bootleg and was missing the real thing. I had heard Aphex Twin's stuff back in the 90s—an "acquired taste", as I heard it described—so I was used to intentionally glitchy stuff. But poorly recorded? Wonky? Hiss, flutter? Why? But when it sunk in—the kooky melodies, odd beats, etc—then it was like "Oooooh. Wow."
Weirdly, you don't have to be older to appreciate that retro electronic sound. I once saw a comment on a BoC track, paraphrasing: "Man, this music makes me so nostalgic for the seventies. And I was born in 1992." Doesn't that just perfectly capture what the music does?
I think what BoC/ChrisT./et al did was frame an old style of music-making with modern instruments and beats—but presented as if it had always existed; and you, the listener, have just discovered it. They put some different elements together and created a new mode of expression. Pretty cool—a new genre.
Z: Well, and that brings us back to that sense of corruption, perhaps? Groups like BoC brought temporality/historicity into the equation in a new way. Suddenly, fidelity became an aesthetic variable.
C: It becomes another instrument, in effect. This one is hiss, this one is an old tape deck, this one is an overblown valve filter...
Z: And in developing your own productions, how have you oriented yourself in terms of coming at things in a kind of post-BoC way, while trying to develop your own approach? Cuz obviously there's a pretty strong homage element to your music, but it also sounds like you're trying to dig deeper into the sonic territory they helped discover.
C: Yeah, there's always that danger of just becoming another imitator—unfortunately, a label that is incredibly hard to shake. I feel most closely aligned with ChrisT., in terms of the mood he's going for, but BoC is an undeniable sound influence; just so much material to explore and understand. They've found something that speaks music in a slightly different way and that's pretty powerful.
But yes, the task is to take all these sound sensibilities rattling around in my head and to put them together in new ways—which was a big step in the new album: it's way too easy to just imitate (and there are a lot of imitators out there) so what can I DO with this sound? Where can I take it?
Z: And, as I haven't listened to ChrisT. in too long, what is that mood? it's a bit more apocalyptic, despondent if I remember correctly.
C: Yeah, whereas BoC is blowing the lid off a valve filter on some gargantuan chord progression, ChrisT.'s melodies are close and intimate; more personal and plaintive. Some of my favorite electronica are just odd turns and careful filtering of a single solo line.
Z: Where do you feel you are trying to take it? There's a certain poeticism to your music that I found quite refreshing and differently applied than from what BoC does.
C: Unlike the previous album, this one had a "concept"—something that I think needed the right vehicle. I'm an enormous fan of the early work of Jarre, Schulze, and Vangelis—their analog stuff from the 70s—and I had always wanted to produce music that bumped those up to another level (old made new again). A friend of mine happened to give me an old tape deck—a real piece of shit, this thing—but after testing some recordings I knew I had found the sound I was after: thick, grating, unsteady. Paired with the right instruments I knew I would find a direction.
But I think the most important creative development for me is adapting voice recordings and speech; many of my musical ideas start there now. Sometimes they're found sounds I'll cut up and reassemble, other times I'll produce it myself. Humans are just so fascinating, the way we talk about things in the abstract…scientists, gurus, prophets, oddballs… We're so desperate for our philosophy to be taken seriously.
Z: Well, and I want to get to the concept of the album, but since you brought up the tape deck, what kind was it and could you talk more about your music-making set-up?
C: It's an old Realistic TR-101D. From the late 60s. It only has one working channel (most of the time) so everything I recorded was several different takes that I then had to splice together manually. That accident actually led to a very wide dual-mono sound that I loved as soon as I heard it.
Another instrument that is featured on the album is the Alpha Juno-2; the little brother that doesn't quite get enough love. Not the greatest filters but that can be fixed in-computer. The Juno was paired with TAL's unbelievably great Noisemaker plugin, and the Repro-5 synth from U-He. I also made heavy use of the XILS 4; such an amazing instrument with a sound all its own
Almost everything I do, with the exception of the Juno and the TR-101D (and a newer Revox which I hope to use for the next album), is on the computer. There is just so much control and access to the sound.
I do record a lot of my own sound effects and percussion, but that's ultimately performed and mixed on the computer too.
Z: Which programs do you use?
C: Logic for the writing, a very old Sound Forge for mixing/editing. Not much else.
Z: And how do you go about creating those sound effects?
C: On the side I develop instruments for Kontakt (pornofonic.com), which began with setting up stereo recording for hand percussion and other percussive sounds from junk etc. I use the same setup for recording other sound oddities; for example, the high-freq grating on "Evolve to Extinction" is a rod dragged across sandpaper.
Z: Are you using drums or machines or both?
C: All plugins and samples—most often Kontakt, using bits and pieces of drum libraries and cannibalizing those with SFX or things I've recorded myself.
Z: And circling back to what you mentioned about making stock music earlier, are you much of a library music fan?
C: Hmm, don't know if I'm a "fan" of stock music; I think the composers who do it well are amazing—like seriously talented people who probably score films, or should be—but I always listen to it with the knowledge that it was written in a vacuum, divorced from the visuals. The same goes for my own work; a lot of it I'm not terribly proud of but people find it useful and it's some pocket money.
Z: Well, and that actually brings me to my next question cuz your track titles kinda make it clear, or I think they do, that your music does not exist in a vacuum, that it is very much responding to things in the real world in this very unreal present moment of ours.
C: Yeah if it's not drought it's flooding, if it's not flooding, it's wildfires or melting ice. I mean yikes WTF peeps.
I grew up in the outdoors—going way back to my childhood in South Africa—so yeah, the more I read about what's going on the more despondent I get about the future. What the hell is my kid going to get?
It's not a musical influence so much as a state of mind that I sometimes work to find when writing something; nothing new here. Many artists try to find elements that speak to the idea of "something greater than one's self" and I think being out in nature can often remind us of that. We are just puny hominids.
But the concept actually began with the idea of South Africa's racist past and how black people born into that society were pariahs in their own land. Trevor Noah touches on this in his "Born a Crime" book title.
But the more I was looking at that, and my own experience living as a white person during the apartheid years, the more I saw similarities with humans' place on the planet: young people are born into a world they can't control, hijacked by business interests, and if they resist, they're pariahs on their own land.
So, a lot of the titles point to that.
Z: Yeah, it's interesting because your music, on its surface, seems to have a palpable nostalgia to it, but the more time I spend with it, I hear more ambivalence of being torn between the past, present, and future.
C: I think that's inevitable; we exist in linear time etc. I do have great nostalgia for the past but I attribute that mostly to a land that I no longer belong to—the great diaspora from South Africa when the political stuff was turning really bad.
I visit fairly often now, and it has signs that it could work, but the political corruption is just so profound now that it's going to take a generation or two just to right the ship.
Z: Well, and what parallels do you draw to the sin/crime of apartheid and our current ecological crisis? this penchant for humanity to not be able to pull back from driving itself off of an obvious cliff?
C: "I am a slave of greed" is a line on "A Place To Die Again", which gets to the heart of it. Black people were essentially indentured servants to whites, and, likewise, young people feel themselves servants to corporatocracy: we're all debt slaves and beholden to their power. How did the black South African resist? How does the climate activist resist?
Z: Do you see your music as a form of resistance?
C: Nah, art can mostly only ever be a messenger.
Z: How do you approach finding an audience? is social media a tool you use? How have you cultivated your fanbase?
C: Well I'll start by saying that I got lucky.
I happened to create a track for an EP that just needed some filler, and then I wrote a second track that I posted to twoism.org, where I had sought out like-minded music people. (Why is there is no forum for ChrisT.?) Some very kind folks had nice things to say and an offer came for me to put together some additional tracks for an EP. (That turned out to be a brush with catastrophe because the guy was found to have been stealing others' material and selling it for profit—a really bad thing.) So I just kept it to myself instead, wrote more tracks, and shopped it around. n5MD's Enpeg label picked it up and promotion basically meant going online and spreading the word.
Fast-forward a month or so later: DJ Food picked it up and started promoting it—really lucky. Then Headphone Commute gave it a really positive review and the audience began to trickle in.
Short answer: lots of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Youtube posts.
(And it helps to make connections)
Z: Who are some labels/artists you're particularly feeling these days?
C: I just discovered Charles Barabé; mind-blowing. Some others are 1991, Pulse Points, and just recently heard Chris Child & Micah Frank's "Tape Pieces vol 1" which is really lovely.
I've been making some mixes and these are featured.
Z: What’s next for you?
C: Back to trying to earn a living: instrument dev, library music. But the vinyl will be exciting—it's being remastered by Antony Ryan from ISAN. That looks set for release early next year on Castles In Space. They'll also be putting out a lathe-cut pre-release EP with 2 new tracks to promote the vinyl, hopefully later this year.