Alka’s Bryan Michael, Todd Steponick and Erika Tele were interviewed for the Gated Canal Community website for a special track-by-track guide to their brand new VeryRecords album Regarding The Auguries which you can read here.The Regarding The Auguries album is available as a limited-edition CD or as a high quality FLAC download from the online shop, and as an MP3 download from iTunes and all good online retailers.
Tag / Interview
We are thrilled that Alka’s brand new album Regarding The Auguries has been picking up reviews and media attention.
There are reviews worth checking out on THE ELECTRICITY CLUB website (“For those who like darker electronic textures from outside of the pop spectrum with contemplative aural concepts that capture the zeitgeist of uncertainty”) and in the new edition of ELECTRONIC SOUND magazine.
Alka’s Bryan Michael, Erika Tele and Todd Steponick have also talked about some of their influences through picking five of their favourite albums on the FURTHER. online blog.
You can also read an interview with Alka founder Bryan Michael on the SIDE-LINE website.
Brook’s debut album Built You For Thought is released today and to celebrate our friends at Soundthread have published an interview with the duo in the form of a track-by-track guide to the album which you can read by clicking the button below.
We are delighted to bring you this video of VeryRecords label boss Vince Clarke interviewing Reed Hays (of VeryRecords recording artists Reed & Caroline) about his vintage Vako Orchestron synthesiser…
Reed & Caroline’s second album Hello Science was released via digital download and as a limited-edition CD on July 6th 2018. In advance of the album release our friend Mat Smith sat down with Reed & Caroline’s Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz, to find out more…
May 24, 2018: at a tiny concert space tucked away at the back of Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side, Caroline Schutz and Reed Hays are performing songs from their second album.
From the opening ripples of ‘Buoyancy’, Schutz’s plaintive voice drifts across the venue like gentle waves, a siren among the curious stew of electronic sounds and melodies that Hays is coaxing from his Buchla system. Hays switches occasionally to furiously rapid cello playing, his technique with the instrument all the more watchable for knowing that he’d had to quickly glue the bridge back on after it snapped off during the soundcheck.
That Hays is able to make the Buchla sound so accessible – this being a machine, after all, that was designed by Don Buchla without keys to dissuade a user from settling into some sort of wearisome classical tradition – should be no surprise. After all, the first Reed & Caroline album, 2016’s ‘Buchla & Singing’ displayed a talent for wringing unexpected synth pop sweetness from Buchla’s invention, a far cry from the box’s purported original uses within the fabled Electric Kool-Aid Acid tests.
Seeing the duo perform these songs at Pianos is strangely fitting, as the tracks had their origins in an earlier performance right here. “We’d just performed our first ever show when we were told we’d need to round out our set list with more songs because we’d be going out on tour,” recalls Hays. The impetus for this burst of creativity had come from Vince Clarke, one half of Erasure and whose VeryRecords imprint issued ‘Buchla & Singing’. After that first show, Clarke had dropped the bombshell that Reed & Caroline would be taking the coveted support slot for Erasure’s 2018 North American tour. “We didn’t know exactly when it was going to be when he told us we’d be supporting, so I frantically set about writing new material in case it was only going to be three months away. A lot of second albums are the leftovers from what didn’t make it to the first album. I didn’t have any of those!”
The result is a body of work, ‘Hello Science’, originally conceived merely as songs to be performed live in front of concert-goers shelling out their hard-earned dollars to watch Erasure. Sidestepping the hoary cliché of a difficult second album, what began under extreme time pressure has become a solid collection of poignant songs that cements Reed & Caroline’s position among electronic music’s long history of synth duos, with twelve songs that appear to be entirely about science. Nothing else. Nada. Just science. Got it? No? Then try this lyric for size and then report back your findings to the class.
“Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts – it’s science! It’s all about science!”
— Reed & Caroline, ‘It’s Science’
For an album so confidently, and boldly, about science – and one that is so richly researched and detailed – it may come as a surprise that its themes led Reed Hays into a state of doubt and panic. “I had a massive identity crisis about it,” he says with a sigh. “I’d written a bunch of these science songs, in a relative hurry, and while I was recording Caroline singing them she was like, ‘Is there anything that isn’t about science?’ We started second guessing ourselves, I guess. We’d also seen an interview promoting the last Erasure album where they were talking about the need for optimism today. Then I remembered when Vince first heard the initial Reed & Caroline stuff he’d said ‘I really like the optimism that’s in here.’ We thought ‘Oh gosh, shouldn’t we write some things that are more spiritual and optimistic?’ Somewhere along the line I realised that my love of science is something spiritual and optimistic. In these troubling political times, people are putting science into question. It’s almost like a faith that’s being outlawed. Because of that, what ended up as ‘Hello Science’ became really personal for me.”
Listening to Hays’s lyrics, covering such wide-ranging topics as Kepler’s theory of Platonic solids, how unsung female African-American ‘computers’ supported the likes of NASA’s space programme, or ruminations on the importance (or otherwise) of dark matter, one would assume Reed Hays had spent his entire education with his nose in a science textbook. It was anything but the case. “I was too busy practicing the cello to even take college-level chemistry classes,” he laughs. Nevertheless, the heavy research effort put into these songs belies the speed at which they were written. “I think it comes from the idea of science saving us all. It’s all very Star Trek on one level, but also any of these facts are just really interesting to ponder, as well as being mind-blowing.”
If his education wasn’t exactly filled with science, his upbringing was. Hays grew up in Huntsville in Alabama, a city where rocket scientists were relocated to from Europe after the Second World War, and science was literally all around him every day of the week. “My father was a social scientist who taught ethics to engineers,” he says, noting the puzzled look on my face. “I’m serious. He was a social psychologist. I still don’t know what that is, but he started an engineering ethics department at the university down in Alabama. He dealt with everything from environmental concerns to the actual ethics of whether an experiment was going to help humanity or screw it over. This was in the early days of AI, when no one was sure if it was going to happen tomorrow or in a hundred years. He would lay down the moral and ethical groundwork for dealing with something like that. We’re only just starting to see the importance of those ethics now.”
Given how naturally Caroline Schutz’s voice blends with Hays’s music, it’s perhaps a surprise that she doesn’t share Hays’s enthusiasm for all things science. “Caroline grew up in New York City museums,” deadpans Hays. “Reed writes the lyrics, so that all really does come from him,” agrees Schutz, “but I know he uses science to get at deeper issues. Reed really uses science as a way to cope with those things, which I think is interesting. It’s a way of making yourself feel better about those issues by looking at them from a scientific perspective. That’s the way that I can connect with the songs.”
So at the outset I said this album was all about science, but I lied. It might appear so, but it’s really not; ‘Hello Science’ is just as much about human issues. A track like ‘Before’, which opens the album, might be breaking down the interconnectedness of the past, present and future into a hymn-like song, but it’s just as much a mournful reminder of the finiteness of our earth’s resources and our very corporeal impermanence. “That song is both scientific and philosophical,” reflects Schutz. “Reed is good at using science as a parallel for other profounder issues, dealing with death and that sort of thing, but presenting them in a really simple, accessible way.”
Getting under the skin of these twelve songs reveals themes of loss (‘Entropy’), sexual inequality (‘Computers’), squandering our planet’s legacy (‘Another Solar System’), the darker side of internet-enabled home appliances (‘Internet Of Things’) and data proliferation and theft (‘Digital Trash’). These are big, often terrifying topics, things that could prompt an existential crisis in all but the most inured soul, all packaged and presented through the prism of scientific endeavour. “Caroline and I spent a lot more time together on this project compared to ‘Buchla & Singing’, where a lot of the songs were instrumental,” reflects Hays. “We had a lot of deep philosophical conversations about what these songs were about and how they should be presented.”
Although electronic instruments like the Buchla have an almost limitless capacity for making moods, one of the reasons that Reed & Caroline’s music works so well is precisely because of Schutz’s distinctive vocal, a humanising factor when twinned with Hays’s alien sounds. “I think the reason Reed always liked my voice is because it is kind of plain, it doesn’t have a lot of vibrato, and it doesn’t sound like I’m singing show tunes,” says Schutz. “It’s always straight and unaffected, and so in a way it goes well with the robotic things he creates, but I guess there’s also a certain breathiness about it that definitely makes people connect to it. I think the other thing about not having that singer-y vibrato is that it’s a more approachable voice for people. Listeners definitely picked up on that before I did.”
One immediate difference between ‘Hello Science’ and its predecessor is the use of cello on tracks like ‘It’s Science’. “The cello and the Buchla are the two instruments that I play,” explains Reed Hays matter-of-factly. “They are the only two things that I can touch and convey part of my soul. Antonio Stradivari, in the 18th century, was sort of a Don Buchla character. He was constantly perfecting ways to make the cello more expressive and efficient. Until Stradivari, cellos were all different sizes, some of them were as big as basses and people really used them primarily to play the bass part in church.”
Under Hays’s honed playing, the instrument proves to be a perfectly adaptable foil to the electronics. “Well, it’s like another voice,” says Hays. “It’s a tenor voice, and the only thing you have to be careful of is not to get too sad with it.”
Adding cello to the album had its origins in an artist friend asking Hays to sit in a corner and play cello at his gallery opening. “I brought a Buchla along and made this really ethereal patch,” he explains. “I improvised for about three hours and people seemed to like it, so I went back into the studio and I recorded a much shorter thirty minute version. I played it for Vince and after that he was always nagging at me to put cello on a couple of things.”
The other addition to the kit used on ‘Hello Science’ was a Vako Orchestron, manufactured by a Mattel subsidiary as a portable alternative to the Mellotron, the tape-loop playing keyboard beloved of Barclay James Harvest and countless other prog groups, John Lennon and Jean-Michel Jarre. Instead of tapes, the Orchestron used clear plastic discs where each concentric groove on the disc represented a different note.
Hays picked up his Orchestron at the fire sale when Sound City, the venerable Californian studio used by everyone from Neil Young to Tom Petty to Nirvana, went under, attracted by its signature deployment by a certain set of German synth luminaries. “Kraftwerk used an Orchestron on three of their albums,” he gushes. “It creates a very scratchy, low-bandwidth sound. It’s the source of the strings on ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and the choir on ‘Radio-Activity’, both of which are very unique sounds. They were the only band to really run with it. The Orchestron company made this giant one for Yes. Patrick Moraz tried it once and said ‘This thing’s never gonna work,’ and never used it again. I told Vince about it and he thought I was completely insane, like ‘Can’t you get samples of all that instead?'”
Serendipitously, Hays was connected to a cousin of a friend, Pea Hicks (Optigan.com), who had inherited the machinery to manufacture the clear plastic Orchestron discs. “For ‘Hello Science’ Caroline sang every note on the keyboard, and Pea made a bunch of optical discs from those recordings,” continues Hays. “That opened up all sorts of possibilities for adding really interesting vocal sounds to some of the tracks by reducing Caroline to little optical floppy discs.
The first song where Hays used the Orchestron was on the geometric otherworldliness of ‘Metratron’ that closes the album. “I was basically just playing around on the Orchestron with a choir patch. For a moment I felt like an actual keyboard player, which is scary because I can’t really play keyboards. I put this thing called the Buchla Music Easel on top of the Orchestron and I played one melody on the Buchla and another on the Orchestron and just kind of cooked up the track that way.”
The combination of Buchla, cello and Orchestron gives ‘Hello Science’ a slightly off-kilter quality, a sort of Wes Anderson oddness, like music for children played by adults. At least in the first half of the album there’s also a nod to 1981-era synthpop, something that wasn’t immediately evident on ‘Buchla & Singing’. “Vince had a little more influence on the shape of the sound of this album,” explains Hays, “and he stopped me from throwing songs out when I thought the whole project was a dismal failure. Sometimes I would play him something, and he’d say ‘Try an instrumental countermelody here,’ or ‘Maybe do something quirkier and sparser with the percussion,’ and suddenly the song worked. I don’t think it was to the extent that these tracks sound like Yazoo songs, but clearly this is a man whose sensibility was forty years in the making. The second half was where I went, well, there’s still a Buchla so I need to let it do its Buchla thing.”
Among the tracks in the second half is ‘Ocean’, were the central melody was written by Caroline Schutz’s pre-teen daughter Amalia, something that prompts Schutz to laugh. “She’s like, ‘Where are my royalties?’ I’m like, ‘You don’t even get an allowance!’ Our household’s pretty musical – my husband’s a musician, and both our daughters play instruments. Amalia plays piano but she also has a keyboard in her room, and she was messing around on that one day and came up with this nice intro that I really liked, and that became the intro to ‘Ocean’.”
Despite living on different coasts – Hays in New York and Schutz in Berkeley – one of the reasons that ‘Hello Science’ sounds so natural is because it wasn’t realised as a file-swapped distance collaboration. “It’s literally Reed and Caroline going back and forth, coast to coast,” explains Schutz. “My mother lives in New York and so I come in a lot, and Reed comes out to California a lot. You kind of get used to that flight after you’ve done it so many times. Whenever I come to New York I set aside a certain amount of time to go and record with Reed. We record pretty fast – I’m not sure why, but we do – so we’re able to get vocals done for a couple of songs usually in a day. And then we have a little guesthouse kinda thing here in Berkeley where we have some musical equipment too, and Reed uses that when he comes out West. It just works.”
‘It just works’ is, in its own succinct way, a fitting description of Reed & Caroline.
Like a lot of duos throughout the last forty-odd years of synth music, this is one that, on paper at least, simply shouldn’t work. And like its creators, ‘Hello Science’ is an album rich with contradictions, where contemporary concerns are executed with decades old (and centuries old) musical equipment, and where songs that celebrate women computers and songs that reminisce about the perforated printer paper you drew on as a kid can happily coexist.
It might be all about science – but it’s also human too.
Interview: Mat Smith
ORDER ‘HELLO SCIENCE’
The limited-edition CD format of ‘Hello Science’ is available in the online shop while stocks last.
Alka’s The Colour of Terrible Crystal, the third album release from Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords, will be released via digital download and as a limited-edition CD on October 13th. In advance of the album release Mat Smith sat down with Bryan Michael, the force behind the Alka project, to find out more…
“It felt a lot like angels were presiding over the recording sessions for this album,” says Alka’s Bryan Michael, whose third album The Colour of Terrible Crystal will be released by Vince Clarke’s Very Records in October. “My collaborator Todd Steponick, who I worked with on the album, had just lost his mother and a close friend and it seemed to us like angels were all around us at that point.” Whether or not you believe in angels yourself is more or less irrelevant here; the point is that the notion of celestial beings circling Michael’s studio space opened up the creative channels required for him to complete this album, his first in eight years.
Since the release of 2009’s A Dog Lost In The Woods, and his programming work on Cure keyboardist Roger O’Donnell’s noodling Moogfest Songs From The Silver Box, Bryan Michael has busied himself with endeavours such as restoring vintage synths (he’s presently repairing a 1984 Emulator II) and restoring a 120-year-old Victorian house just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. “It has been hard to find the time for making music these past few years,” he admits. “I had so many ideas and I had started so many tracks, but I could only etch out a little bit of time here and there to finish things off. I knew I was getting to this point where if I didn’t pick it back up again, it was just going to go by the wayside. What really helped with this project was that I enlisted the aid of some of my fellow electronic musicians in the Philadelphia area, so it became more like a collaborative effort, and that really helped.”
Those collaborators – Steponick, Erika Tele and Audra Harley – and the renewed energy with which he approached what would become The Colour of Terrible Crystal have allowed Alka’s music to develop something of a borderless, genre-neutral quality that moves Bryan Michael’s style a considerable distance from the melodic IDM that had been the mainstay of his 2007 debut The Principles Of Suffocation and A Dog Lost In The Woods. “It happens with music in general, but specifically in electronic music – people get caught up in this strict need to identity something with a specific genre. That’s good in some ways, but I always prefer to hear a much larger cross-section of things,” he says.
The effect of Michael embracing so many styles and variations is like listening to a museum curator carefully nurturing his collection of exhibits. The appeal of such diversity is one that the curator himself has struggled to fathom. “I’ve been trying to piece that together forever,” he laughs. “Like, how do my interests mesh together in this way? What I’ve realised lately is that I’m friends with a very esoteric group, and we’re just naturally intrigued by a large variety of topics and interests. With the music I’m making right now I want to have the same broad approach, but not forcibly so. I don’t want to get to get stuck in too strict a pattern because I’m influenced by a lot of different sounds, and I just try to incorporate a large cross-section of those into my music. It’s a bit like a good library collection – you want to have a little bit of everything.”
“… and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. They move through the firmament which is the colour of a ‘terrible crystal’, and around a throne like sapphire, on which sits Metatron, suffused in the radiance of the rainbow.”
Peter Lamborn Wilson, Angels (1980)
Books are an important influence on Bryan Michael, and in the case of his latest album, he owes its title to an obscure work by the alternative philosophy writings of Peter Lamborn Wilson, best known for his espousing of the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or social structures that evade formal control – something that the stylistically elusive music of Alka might well be a reflection of. “It was just one of these synchronistic moments,” he says. “I was reading Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Angels, which is a beautiful, beautiful book about angels in different religions and in mysticism, and that quote jumped out at me. It just resonated, and I thought it represented the various pieces that make up this collection of songs. It also came at the same time that I had found this very strong image which a Chicago glitch artist I had befriended – Sara Goodman – had come up with. It was this really beautiful piece of art which, to me, looked like this mysterious figure holding this glitched crystal in her hand as a sort of offering. It just connected everything that I had been reading at the time, and that reference to The Colour of Terrible Crystal fit the pattern of my other releases, where the titles are quite prose-y, and the image resonated so strongly that I had to use it.”
Metatron is Hebrew in origin, but is believed to be derived from the Latin mētātor, meaning ‘one who metes out or marks off a place, a divider and fixer of boundaries’. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of the music that Bryan Michael delivers on The Colour of Terrible Crystal, where boundaries are anything but fixed. This is a record that moves fluidly between almost-pop, the kind of post-John Carpenter early Eighties horror soundtrack favoured by the Burning Tapes label, jerky electro beats, glitchy electronica and even a nod to the earliest experiments with electronics.
Despite suggesting that Michael the musician is every bit as well-read as his literary self, he is relatively coy about his influences. “I always try to create what is happening at that moment with the programming, with whatever sounds come out at that particular moment in the session,” he explains. “But I try to not be obviously influenced by certain sounds. I’m not trying to be pretentious by saying I’m not influenced by anything – of course you’re influenced by everything, either consciously or subconsciously – but I try not to let anything influence me too much.”
Over a couple of beers in a British pub in Philadelphia, we talk about bands that Michael grew up with in his formative years, many of whom were the jumping-off point for many electronic musicians – early New Order, Depeche Mode up to and including Violator, Nitzer Ebb, Skinny Puppy and so on. If you listen to The Colour of Terrible Crystal closely, you can just make out the tracest echoes of some of these bands, even if they are elusive and fleeting and refracted through Bryan Michael’s own lens; it’s not that Michael is necessarily trying to obfuscate his influences, just that the sheer volume of ideas he comes up with allows for a complete freedom of passage between them.
Questlore is a track on The Colour of Terrible Crystal that seems to perhaps more overtly convey Michael’s influences, being set to a classic Mantronix-esque electro beat that tricks the listener by skipping ever so slightly just at the point you’ve settled into it. “It’s just stuff that happens,” shrugs Michael, casually. “It’s almost a Brian Eno Oblique Strategies sort of a thing. I didn’t intend for it to happen. It’s a happy accident. My older material always tended to be more melodic, a little more light, but I’ve always been drawn to the heavier kind of backbeat that would drive a track along.” The title of Questlore, reminiscent of the game World Of Warcraft, does not in any way indicate that Michael is some sort of gaming nerd, though he does confess to a subtle awareness. “It’s nothing that I know of – it just made sense at the time,” he insists, “but it does play on that sort of fantasy adventure type thing, almost like this song is a fantastic sort of journey.”
At one extreme of the album is the track Melancholy Lasts, complete with Michael’s own heavily vocodered voice. The song is a deft Alka homage to some of the synth pop that he grew up with, but something of a big departure from the style listeners would have been accustomed to on his first two albums. “I was trying to break through from a traditional sort of IDM kind of genre trap,” he admits. “In attempting to break through that I did start to do a little more of this traditional pop song structure type stuff, and it was refreshing.” Michael also says that working with Vince Clarke’s keen ear made that foray into more pop forms slightly easier than if he’d just been trying to achieve it on his own.
“I like to play with vocoders a lot,” he continues. “When I started experimenting with a pop structure I started to incorporate a few more vocal elements. You can hear Erika and Audra singing on a few of the tracks. I guess I just wanted to incorporate a little more of a vocal element on this album, but I’m never going to sing. I wanted my voice to fit with the music. That’s where the vocoder came into play.”
Some of The Colour of Terrible Crystal‘s most surprising moments arrive at the album’s other extreme, on Over Hills And Vales and Under Waves And Seas, two companion pieces that seek to tap into the legacy left by some of the earliest electronic music pioneers. “I really wanted to get to the roots of what electronic music was doing back then, in the late Forties, early Fifties, into the Sixties,” says Michael. “It was more experimental. When Wendy Carlos released the Switched On Bach album, electronic music creators and aficionados at the time were pulling their hair out because the synthesizer, with this endless range of possibilities, was being confined to this classical music tradition. Those two tracks were a direct connection to that earlier electronic sound. I was trying to get back to the question of what electronic music is, and how we can avoid getting stuck in set genres. To do that I decided to look and see how it all began, and that was really refreshing to get that out of my system and to make those songs.
“I think they hold up pretty well as soundscapes,” he continues, “but they’re definitely difficult listening.” With scratchy, slightly unnerving sounds, it’s possible to see these two pieces as akin to the fear-inducing soundtracks to particularly unnerving psychological horror films. Bryan Michael was slightly surprised that they appealed so strongly to Vince Clarke when they were selecting the tracks for inclusion on the album. “I mean, I love them, but I didn’t think that they had much appeal outside of me just messing around with these soundtrack kinds of things,” he laughs, with evident self-deprecation, “but he heard something in them, and he’s said that what he loves about my music is that sort of cinematic quality. He said a few times that you could put any kind of visual element to those two tracks in particular and you could just be transported into this other world.”
The Colour of Terrible Crystal is an enigma of an album, made by a quiet enigma of an artist. This is a body of work that is fully and beautifully untethered, able to go wherever it wants like the angels that may have been watching over the sessions, and broadly influenced by everything and nothing simultaneously. This is music where contradictions, left turns and unexpected moments find a place to meet and hang out, a record that both respects the electronic music of the past and yet presents it in an utterly original contemporary fashion; where occluded crystal can sparkle with the perfect clarity of diamonds.
The limited-edition CD format is available in the online shop while stocks last.
• Singularity (We Bond)
• Washing Machine
• John and Rene
• Henry the Worm
• Rene’s Red Room
• Harmonic Generator
• Oh My Dog
• Talking Blanket
• Singularity (We Bond) [Bright Light Bright Light Remix]
• Electrons [Vince Clarke Remix]
Online magazine The Fader have today premiered a track from Reed & Caroline’s Buchla and Singing, VeryRecords’ second album release, which is released tomorrow (October 14th) on CD and via download.
The stream of the track Harmonic Generator is accompanied by a short piece which includes interview material from VeryRecords’ Vince Clarke as well as Reed & Caroline’s Reed Hays.
Even more interviews, features and reviews have been revealed since the release of Vince Clarke and Paul Hartnoll’s new album collaboration 2Square.
Swedish electronic music magazine Stereoklang has published a new interview with Vince (in English) about the project, and both Soundblab and Uncut have run excellent reviews (the Uncut review isn’t available online but the magazine gave the album 8/10, saying “everything is rendered with a depth and richness you’d expect from two men who know their machines inside out”).
Still to come are more reviews and interviews including Mojo, Electronic Sound, The Quietus, Classic Pop and The Playground…
The ‘2Square’ album is available now from iTunes and all good download retailers.
The first VeryRecords album release, Vince Clarke and Paul Hartnoll’s album 2Square, has attracted various media attention since its release on Friday June 10th including reviews in The Guardian, the FT and This Is Not Retro.
The ‘2Square’ album is available now from iTunes and all good download retailers.