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Ronan Skillen: Telepathic Euphoria

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: A number of your projects explore this electronic manipulation of sound. A.Spell and your duo work with Maxim Starcke spring to mind.

RS: A.Spell began during an artist residency through the Swiss Arts Council in 2009. I was introduced to a bass clarinetist in Bern called Jan Galega Bronnimann, who had been jamming with singer Nadja Stoller. I had never been to Switzerland, and everything was a bit unknown to me there. During my time there, Jan and Nadja arranged a jam session, and Jan suggested, "why don't you just play along and see if we can develop something?" Very quickly it was evident that we were gelling nicely. It just worked. It was one of those amazing, magical moments where three people meet musically who don't really know each other at all and just go, "Wow, this is great!" We got together a few more times and we started doing a few little shows in Switzerland, and then I had to leave.

But we continued that idea and decided our material was worth pursuing because of its unique sound: Jan playing bass clarinet, Nadja singing and playing accordion, me with all my percussion, and these incredible beats that Jan used to make on the spot. He had these shoe boxes with springs and pickups inside them that would go through a chaos pad, and a weird harmonizing octave pedal hooked up to his contrabass clarinet, which would play the bass line. It just went on and on without limitations.

Funnily enough, something I forgot to mention to you about Tonik, and the same thing with A.Spell, is that I was always playing entirely acoustic. I love being that component when meeting the electronic side, finding a way to make it interesting, and letting it influence me. With A.Spell, we recorded an album and toured Europe with it for four years in a row. We also made another record. On our last tour, which was a year and a half ago, Nadja sadly quit the band. In fact she decided to stop playing music altogether, which was quite a shocker to all of us. I respect her decision and there are no hard feelings, but it's a pity because we were really getting there. That sound was so unique.

AAJ: Comparing it to your work with Maxim Starcke, that particular duo has a much more atmospheric soundscape. How did it come about?

RS: Max and I first played together as a duo at a gig of his that he had organized. At the last minute he said, "Man, you're in town, don't you want to come and play with me? I'd love it if you just want to jam along." I thought, "Oh, okay. I was actually just going to come and hear you play, but sure why not? What do you want me to do?" He told me to bring whatever I wanted, and then asked if I could record it!

So I literally brought all my gear. I have a little studio set up as well. I remember going to The Forge in Kalk Bay, which is why that first album is called Forgery (Self Released, 2013). We took most of the day to set up the space and just pressed "record." The entire performance was a one-off improvised event. Max is not the kind of guy who has ever told me what to play or how. Our only common vision was to make music about the nature surrounding us in this place. That was the inspiration. That first album is an unedited performance of that event, with me going in cold, not knowing what he was going to do, and Max completely trusting what I was going to bring. We released it, and that duo was born.

We don't play much now. It's very rare that I play with Max, maybe twice a year. He has two kids and he is also teaching. So it's one of those passion projects that we revisit whenever we can. I really like it because it is a unique thing when you end up in a space in which you're listening intensely to whatever is required. Landscape music. The electronic side is never pre-programmed. In fact, nothing about it is pre-programmed. It's always live. Everything happens on the spot, which is always great.

AAJ: You made a comment earlier about providing the acoustic components and engaging with the electronic aspects of Tonik and A.Spell. In your solo project Didgi-Taal and its remix album componentVolume 1 -ixRemix (Self Released, 2018), there's a great deal that you set up acoustically that is then drastically altered in the remix. How did those projects emerge?

RS: The acoustic album was a tough thing to get right. I've always gone through phases of loving the didgeridoo and then really not liking it. It's such a difficult instrument to place into a musical context in the world at large, because you'll generally find that people will either associate it as an instrument for meditation—New Age crystals, dolphins, chakras and rainbows—or something for a bunch of people coughing around a fire in an infused state. I've always hated that connotation. For some reason, it's the ultimate "hippie" instrument.

I started teaching the didgeridoo a lot at a festival in Switzerland, which I attended again this year. They've booked me five years in a row to be a Didgeridoo teacher. Every year, I would bring whatever albums that I had been working on with Deep South, Ancient Agents, A.Spell, or whatever I had released. One of the women who had come to this workshop for the fourth time in a row said to me, "You come every year and it's really nice. You always bring new music, but there's never any didgeridoo on it. What's that about?" I thought, "She's got a point!" It's funny that she probably doesn't even know that [her comments] sparked an impulse in me to deal with it. I remember coming home and talking to my wife about it, and she said, "Well, why don't you try to record something and see what happens?"

I remember being in my studio space for about three months, and every time I felt inspired I would put something down, record it, leave it alone, record again, and leave it alone. I'd listen and record, and listen and record. Eventually, I realized that a solo project was happening where I was literally doing everything: all the instruments, all the writing, all the conceptualizing. I think I managed to get an offering of contemporary music right. It's not really a genre that fits in "here" or "there." I like music like that. I just put it out there, and it got a surprisingly good response.

Regarding the ixRemix and the electronic side of this project, a young producer emailed me and said, "I love that solo record you made, and I really want to remix one of the tracks. Would you be open to that?" I thought, "What have I got to lose? Let's give it a shot." He took the tune "Back When," which is the most drum-and-bass type tune on the acoustic album. About three or four months later he came back with this USB stick, and I remember listening to this remix for about an hour-and-a-half on repeat. I just couldn't get enough of it. I thought it was the greatest thing I'd heard in ages. It took me right back to my nostalgic roots of growing up with all that sort of breakbeat Bristol jungle scene. It was brilliant. I said, "Why don't I give you the stems for four more acoustic tracks and see what you can do with them?" We decided on which ones, he took the files and a year later we had this remix of five tracks. I had very little influence there. I mean, I did bounce around ideas with him about arrangements etc. but the sound design was him, which is great. I think it's such a cool marrying of the electronic and the acoustic.
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