Bas Mantel spoke with Nat Hawks about being drawn to emotionally weighty material, finding freedom in outdated technology, bringing found sounds into the act of composition and the meditative process of translating physical objects into sound.
Because I am only a mediocre musician, I’ve developed an aesthetic in which my mediocrity can flourish.
We know each other from our collaboration on your previous album Alku Toinen, translated in English as A Second Coming. For me, it’s still a very special and precious release. You told me that your goal is to make sad music with all manner of tools. How would you like to describe this album?
First, I’d like to talk about “sad music.” Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to ballads. I loved the cheesy ’80s ballads of my youth, then the ballads of R.E.M. and The Replacements as I got a little older. I remember thinking “What if all the songs on an album had this heavy, emotional weight? Wouldn’t that be grand?” Maybe that’s what I’m trying to make.
Making “emotional” music can be dangerous territory. To just focus on happiness oftentimes sounds too cloying and sickly-sweet. Ambient music that only focuses on pure joy typically tips into corny sentimentality quickly. It’s so critical for the emotive quality to come off as honest. For me, purely positive ambient music often reads as disingenuous. But this is also genre-specific. J-pop can be as happy as it wants to be; the genre fits the mood. For me, the ambient genre is best fit to explore the overlapping, nuances of emotions. That is what we experience as humans.
For example: a melody pulls towards a hesitant positivity, while a drone in the background suggests a troubling, minor memory that might get in the way. That’s what our experience is often like, and ambient music is well suited to replicate that experience. That, for me, is the functionality of ambient. To play rock music is to blast the listener with bright, primary colors. Happy! Angry! Ambient, again, is an opportunity to explore and reflect on the murky waters of our minds.
So, sadness. Anger isn’t an emotion I’m drawn to or know terribly well. A mixture of happy and sad is where I’m most comfortable sonically exploring, which is likely a reflection of my own day-to-day happy/sad state. I probably just mean “melancholy,” but that descriptor feels a little overused these days. I’m not clinically depressed, but I feel depressed from time to time just like everyone else.
Funny enough, I’m working on an album right now which I’m considering titling Sad Songs Say So Much, stolen from the ’80s hit.
I’m interested in the idea that I’m oftentimes making music about what I want to feel, not what I necessarily feel. Music, like anything that we allow to enter our body and mind, changes us. If one wants to feel happier, one can try to play happier music, and that music, hopefully, will have that desired effect. Possibly, when a future listener hears what was recorded, the same effect might happen. I would like to think that the original composer’s need for the music is something the listener might connect with. A song can be a relic of a musician’s process of creating a talisman in an attempt to change a mood. The song is the talisman, but the process and the need for the talisman is embedded within.
The album has a low-tech sound containing samples, found footage, field recordings and gear that you can find and buy in secondhand stores. Can you tell us more about how you come to your quirky Padna sound? Is it possible to describe the Padna sound philosophy in words?
First, the tools. Since I started doing solo recordings seriously around 2000, I’ve always prided myself on my low-tech set up. For Alku Toinen, it was recorded onto a very basic, cheap old version of ProTools I bought from a friend. That is the only software used, really just to record and mix. This was the last album made on a 13-year-old G4 that died shortly after this album was done — thank Lord.
The centerpiece instrument for Alku Toinen was a home church organ I found locally in Brooklyn for $100. I also used electric and acoustic guitar, old Casios, voice, children’s music toys, etc. What I’ve learned from using the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach is to focus on the sound, not the means. If rubbing a contact mic on the floor through an old distortion pedal does the trick, then done!
Oh, one of the secret weapons for this album was a strange guitar pedal a friend made. He had built it incorrectly so that the instrument became an extension of the pedal, like the guitar knobs take on different roles — bending pitches and such. I bought it from him for this specific quality. Very strange things happened with this pedal!
Second, the Padna sound philosophy. Because I am only a mediocre musician — I have trouble keeping time, playing something the same way twice, etc. — I’ve developed an aesthetic in which my mediocrity can flourish. A liberating epiphany I once had was the simple idea that if I make music that doesn’t need virtuosic playing, then the only thing separating myself from the “greats” of the genre is decision-making. What sound should come next? How long should it last? Should the sound be quieter or louder? That’s all it is. Very liberating!
I have to work quickly and I like to work quickly. I write the song sections in the moment, record, and never play them again, typically ever. I try to always make the first take work when I can. I very much use a collage technique in terms of how I layer sounds. I like the rough edges, like a collage where images have visible rips. I like that you can hear how the song was assembled. You can see a bit of tape sticking out here and a glob of glue oozing out there. This both fits me — I’m a bit sloppy with things — and is the aesthetic I’m drawn to.
This ‘unfinished’ quality also has an interesting effect on the perception of the song. It’s like a sketch in a gallery. It is “finished” because it is framed and hanging, and while it clearly could have been explored more, the creator thought “That’s enough,” and then it was.
I work very hard at my music, but I don’t get to spend much time with it. When I was recording Alku Toinen, my wife was pregnant with our first child. We had also just moved and I had a dedicated music room for the first time in my life. That summer was magic. I would work from early to late nearly every day. I wrote and recorded the entire album within five weeks. I would often forget to eat until dinnertime.
What does your studio/workplace look like? Can you describe the places where you have recorded sounds and field recordings for Alku Toinen?
First, the workplace. I am a mess, so it is a mess. Cables in piles. Dead batteries scattered. It can be a real headache, but I love it like that for whatever reason.
Secondly, field recordings. From when I first started, I’ve always enjoyed incorporating sounds from my environment. There are some fun, strange psychological effects of utilizing field recordings. One would be that the listener spatially experiences the time and place the artist was in while the song was being created. For example, while recording, my hard drive starts making a strange sound, which I then mic, put through effects and then back into the track. It doesn’t always have to be the obvious birds-in-the-background stuff.
Another interesting effects of utilizing field recordings is that they expand the boundary of the song’s borders. Take a tight rock song, for example. You can feel the borders of the track. They are sharp and defined, as they were meant to be. It is an enclosed space. Field recordings are a way to expand and blur the border of a song. It is suddenly unclear where the “edge of the song” lies! Field recordings are also very suggestive of memories, which are subsequently suggestive of dreams. Dreams are important to me. I have very detailed, strange ones. I would like to get better at lucid dreaming and compose in my sleep.
Sometimes I come up with field recording and track pairings while walking around listening to song demos on headphones. If I remember, I will take out a handheld recording device, often my trusty tape recorder, in case I need to record anything. While listening to the tracks on headphones, the ambient, local sounds bleed into the experience. The brain works to incorporate everything into a seamless vision. I was once on such a walk and a Styrofoam cup blew by in the wind, striking the pavement repeatedly. It was perfect. I immediately went home and recreated it and mixed it into the track. By including such field recordings, the listener’s mind also must work to make sense of the collage. If properly placed, a field recording does not push the listener out, but draws them in. This is something I’m still working on.
Now, in terms of samples, I have always taken freely from YouTube and Freesound.org. This has always been a part of my collage approach. Why wait for a thunderstorm to record when I can use someone else’s?
Some specific samples from Alku Toinen: In ‘”Horse.” the neighing is from an amazing scene in the film Black Stallion. After a shipwreck, a boy tries to free a majestic stallion from constraining ropes as the horse goes mad. It’s a powerful moment that contains, I think, powerful sounds. Animal sounds are a great way to comment on human emotions while avoiding the potential pitfalls of overly using human vocalizations.
On the track “Wolhee,” all of the little clinking sounds came from recordings I made of my late aunt’s (who the song is named after) meditation tools she had scattered around her home in Woodstock, NY. The weird animal sounds were recorded at a friend’s farm, they are baby goats. The white noise sound is from a dry seedpod I found in a tree while on my building’s roof.
The music at the end of “River Divination” is a recording of some medieval musicians at a Renaissance Fair.
The thunder at the beginning of “Threatening Weather” was the first sound I had hallucinated for this album. It was originally going to be the opening track. I think I grabbed that from YouTube. The second half of this song has Israeli prayer sirens. This is not a political inclusion; I had read about them and decided to include them. There are videos of all the cars on a highway pulling over while the alarms sound. I’m not sure of their exact purpose.
In “Piano,” the creaking sounds are spinning vents from our roof. The digital distortions are from a series of sunset photos I took that I then converted to sound files, a nifty trick I picked up along the way.
I play all the piano and guitar and organ, but I have no problem borrowing sounds along the way too.
I take inspiration from the details of my day that have to do with the natural world. Light is coming in through the window. That cloud is very high in the sky. There is a cold wind.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Is there a typical state of mind for you when you are creating music? Could you describe this state of being for us?
I will try not to be cliché here, but it might be difficult. I take inspiration from the details of my day that have to do with the natural world. Light is coming in through the window. That cloud is very high in the sky. There is a cold wind. I live in the city, so maybe these moments stand out more here.
It can be tough now, with a kid and a demanding job, to “get in the mood” to make music. My free time often begins an hour before I must fall asleep. Beer can help sometimes to create the mood. Ideally, I wake up on a Saturday with absolutely nothing to do. Make some coffee. Work for four hours. Have a bite, step outside, work for another six hours.
There’s a theory that parallel worlds and universes do not evolve independently of each other but influence each other by means of repulsion, the phenomenon in which certain objects exert a force on other objects. According to some scientists, this interaction can solve all the mysteries in quantum mechanics. The universe we live in is part of a huge amount of worlds. Some are almost identical to ours, while others are very different. All these universes exist according to science and have definite characteristics. All quantum phenomena arise from the universal force of repulsion between “nearby” worlds. What do you think these worlds would look like if you did not describe them from scientific theories?
This stuff sort of freaks me out. I love science fiction, and I love thinking about this stuff, but I don’t think my puny Earth-mind could handle the real deal. Like, what if we actually find and observe a place where our own physical laws break down? My brain would melt!
Every night when I go to sleep, I try to translate shapes into sounds. I rotate and expand and contract the shapes, the sound along with it.
I remember that I would very much liked to be invisible around the age of eight. I wished to sneak into other peoples lives at home — a sort of spying, voyeuristic thing maybe, but this wish was driven by the fact that I was very curious about situations that I had not yet known. Do you have memories to your childhood wherein wishes or longings as such crossed your mind or became reality?
I was the kid that sat in his room for hours by himself playing with action figures. My mom has recordings somewhere of me just making sound effects for an hour. I remember so many TV shows portrayed “imaginary friends,” and I loved the concept and tried it out, but I just didn’t believe. I was totally faking it. It was a total disaster!
Some scientists have suspected that our visible world is a phantom, an illusion created by the sensations that visible force fields activated. Signs of invisible activity, the operation of forces and processes we could only glimpse indirectly — via shadows on photographic plates, dark voids in carved light, glowing glassware, noises, voices. In the Renaissance, exploring new worlds had demanded a voyage into the unknown. Where are your thoughts on the unknown when you demand yourself to discover new worlds?
The older I get, and now with a child, I feel I’m going into protect-the-shelter mode. The only voyaging I usually do is in the mind. Every night when I go to sleep, I try to challenge myself to design a new sound situation. Sometimes this is trying to translate shapes into sounds. I rotate and expand and contract the shapes, the sound along with it. I practice moving the sound object around me. I imagine what it would sound like if the object multiplied once, twice, three times, etc. I have the sound object move very far, then very close. By that point, I am usually fast asleep.
Curated by: Bas Mantel
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: December 20, 2017
Total questions: 7
Word count: 2488
Reading time: Nine minutes
Aagoo Records, ambient, ballad, Bas Mantel, battery, bombast, Casio, cliché, depression, disaster, disingenuous, divination, effect, epiphany, Freesound, glassware, happiness, horse, inspiration, law, light, melancholy, Nat Hawks, noise, Padna, physical, ProTools, psychology, R.E.M., Rev. Laboratories, river, saturday, seedpod, shape, stallion, The Replacements, threatening, translation, unknown, voice, voyage, water, wind, YouTube
About the curator
Bas Mantel has worked as a graphic designer for music magazines, record labels and cultural institutions since graduating from HKU in 1998, He works with various media, from print to stop-motion animated movies. His graphic design is characterized by the combination of old-school skills combined with modern technological techniques. Bas Mantel runs also the small record label REV. LAB. Records, which finds its inspiration in electronic, ambient, experimental, cinematic and abstract soundscapes.
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