Nicholas Coyne spoke with Farao about seeing music in geometric shapes, being funny without being humorous, tending to a farm of synths and what silver and gold sound like.
I was judgmental about it, but once I found this Soviet synth, it really opened up everything to me. Everything sounded real and alive and harsh and brutal.
What you get out of playing with the synth as a base of your work? It’s this seemingly unlimited and endlessly inspirational instrument. What is your relationship with the synth like?
Hmm, where should I begin? The first synth I ever bought was a Soviet synth called an Electronika EM-25, which I used a lot on my first EP from 2014. The studio I was recording in at the time had one, and the producer I was working with had spent some time showing me the synth. I was blown away by its capabilities.
What made you want to get one for yourself?
Well, I don’t think I really liked much synth music. It’s all very digital and cold and soulless-sounding to me. I don’t like that at all. I was judgmental about it, but once I found this Soviet synth, it really opened up everything to me. Everything sounded real and alive and harsh and brutal.
You felt like it was something you could almost fight to get a sound from?
Yes, yes. Now, I have a studio in Berlin. A synthesizer studio.
Perhaps a farm of synths to tend to. Is there a tactile pleasure to playing the synth that informs your work?
Yeah, I don’t like programming MIDI in Ableton and sending it to a software synth and not using my hands. I don’t have a shit-ton of synths, but I love the ones I have. I have about 10. I’ve only bought true vintage synths.
Does living in Berlin make it easy to live this synth-centric lifestyle? It seems like a place that allows a little more room to live closer to how you would prefer.
Yes, it’s a very synth-friendly city. It’s a very social place. I’ve lived in London and Oslo too, but Berlin is by far the most social place I’ve been to. Like, in the course of a week, you’ll meet up with friends like 4 of the 7 days. Everything is so cheap that you go out and meet up at a bar, or on the street. They have the spaetkauf, the corner stores, so you can just drink on the street.
Is there any push and pull, or frustration, about how to spend your time socially in a place that promotes social activity, versus personal development and writing your album?
Yes, I love being at home. Berlin is a very fun place to live and there is a great scene, but I think it happens to everyone where you realize you can’t go out all the time. I don’t feel like I’m hiding from people, though. You hit a wall eventually, so I started really recording this album and Berlin is really great with that too, where you can afford to live in a nice place and afford a nice studio to work in. My home in London was tiny, with mold in the bathroom. It wasn’t exactly for me.
I felt like I was kind of over serious music, which I know sounds silly. It doesn’t have to be so pompous and epic. I realized humor’s role in my love of music.
I think people understand the importance of living within your means financially. But when you see how much the expenses of your lifestyle can reverberate to every area of your life, especially creative inclinations, you can really get somewhere by being a little realistic with yourself. Does that affect your output?
Of course, and it’s okay not having much money in Berlin. I feel like when you’re in certain places, you tend to pretend that you have more money that you do and that things go unaffected by those factors. I’ve found people in Berlin are a little more frank about saying, “I’m broke and that’s that, for now.”
What was your intention behind making your new album?
I think my only intention was to not care about my own expectations and see what I can make if it just comes out of me. There were so many songs I started writing, not ironically or as a joke, but like I was writing from a place of humor or irony. I don’t think it comes across as funny to other people. The synth riff in my song “Melodiya” was just me intentionally playing around and being like, “What is possible to do here?”
How do you approach your time in the studio? How do you start finding the right place to building your ideas on synth?
I have all of my synths plugged in and ready to go, so I can tell myself that the chorus synth needs to be like this, so I’ll try it out on one synth and change some parameters. If it doesn’t work, I’ll move on to a new one, which is important to the process, having it all ready. I walked between synths and wait for something to feel right to the mood of the song. Lyrics always come last, I record the arrangements first. I feel like that influences the lyrics and melody lines a lot. The meaning of a song to me comes from the arrangements and then I try to describe it with lyrics.
When you fall in love with the instrumentation of a song, I feel like you are really appreciating all the ephemeral, hard to pin down aspects of music that people fall in love with; having all of these non-vocal pieces create something words can’t do justice. Does the synth pull that out of you?
What I love about synths is that it naturally feels otherworldly. I used to write more on guitar and write a little more folky, and I just can’t listen or hear it anymore. It may be this disconnect and this feeling of being one step away from the action that I really appreciate, in which it’s hard to get to the center of it.
When I ask myself, “What does this song need?” I’ll think, “This needs some yellow triangles in the corner.”
I don’t remember what song was playing on YouTube, but I love their algorithm. The song that came up next was this song called “Electric Alarm Clock” by Boris Tihomirov. It’s from a compilation called Sport and Music 1, which was all this exercise music commissioned by the USSR.
They hired all of these jazz musicians to record exercise music, because there were a lot of aerobics videos in the ‘80s and they always used analog disco and American pop music. I think they wanted a more Western influence, so they hired these talented musicians to make exercise music. That’s where it all started. It was so amazing to find.
A lot of it is just funny by how truly jazzy and easy it is to listen to. I just laugh, the synth sounds and melody lines get to me. I felt like I was kind of over serious music, which I know sounds silly. It doesn’t have to be so pompous and epic. I realized humor’s role in my love of music.
The lyricism within the album is not funny at all, though. You confront yourself and other characters and find new understanding. I think the humor may be found in finding a mood and going 100% into that.
Yeah, I think you just go for it. “Luster of the Eyes,” to me, is just completely sexy. I allowed myself to sing how I wanted to and how I was trained listening to R&B, like Janet Jackson. I used to feel too cool to not say I loved Destiny’s Child. I think, for a time, I was just listening to like, post-rock.
I know my lyrics are not funny, but they take a different meaning with a funny arrangement. Only one person has really caught on to this and I don’t love talking about the meaning of my lyrics, but it comes from the song, “Gabriel.”
It’s about this sex doll and this porn star who was in a relationship with one. The factory named it Gabriel and it was this very realistic, full-size sex doll. It’s the most sold sex doll in the world and the woman said, “I just want a dick who isn’t a dick.” It’s funny and sad and all of these things at once, and when I sing “Gabriel/too hard to tell,” I’m really just singing about his erection.
Was there anything about making this album that you feel helped you to feel better about yourself and your growth?
I think it made me just way more comfortable with my writing. I think I’ve always wanted to sing the way I do now, with this more R&B feel, but I think I had to go through this phase where I just listened to sad, depressing music at the beginning of my career because I felt it was some sort of marker of quality to make these things that I had to kind of force myself to make. I just was not confident enough to write something hopeful. My biggest shift was that I realized I just want to dance and have fun.
How would you describe your music without using musical terms?
I see music in geometric shapes, with a synthetic quality. I think the foundation of songs needs to be glass squares, and next, there needs to be these angular shops and up top needs to have some lush patterns. I find they all contain shades and it’s a little hard to describe. When I ask myself, “What does this song need?” I’ll think, “Oh, this needs some yellow triangles in the corner.” I see pastels in the music, but no childish pastels. There’s a lot of cross between silver and gold, the way the light hits those colors add another shade to the music.
Curated by: Nicholas Coyne
Conducted by: In-person conversation
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: November 30, 2018
Total questions: 14
Word count: 1628
Reading time: Six minutes
Ableton, alarm clock, alive, analog, appreciation, Berlin, Boris Tihomirov, brutal, childish, chorus, corner, Destiny’s Child, digital, disco, disconnect, electronica, ephemera, epic, exercise, factor, Fagernes, Farao, frustration, geometric, Germany, harsh, humor, influence, Janet Jackson, Kari Jahnsen, MIDI, mood, Nicholas Coyne, Norway, parameter, pastel, pompous, process, Reddit, soviet, studio, synthesizer, synthetic, triangles, unaffected, USSR, yellow
About the guest curator
Nicholas Coyne is a music journalist and member of the editorial staff at TIDAL. He is also a sack of flesh whose primary source of pleasure from life is found when enveloped in sound. He is so very interested all of you and hopes you lead lives that make you happy to be you.
Related conversations W