Stylin’ Down Under

Ennio Styles

“I never set out to do a label that was focused on Melbourne or Australian music. It just so happens that, in my opinion, Melbourne right now is stronger than ever. There’s so much happening in all the styles I’m into, and we’re seeing people conquering the world.”

Australia has, in recent years, become a recognizable hot spot on the world’s map of electronic music. Major cities like Sydney and Melbourne have grown healthy scenes that took inspiration from America and Europe and added their own local twist. Australia is now a common stop for bands on tour, and homegrown artists like Sydney’s Flume and Melbourne’s Chet Faker are quickly becoming household names.

For local Melbourne lad Ennio Styles, music discovery began in the 1980s with hip-hop, house, and techno. Soon he began to mess around with production and sampling, which in turn sent him down a crate-digging rabbit hole into the worlds of jazz, soul, and funk. “There was a store in Melbourne called Central Station, which was an influential dance music and hip-hop outlet, and a lot of the oldest records in my collection came from there. But I soon realized my local shop wasn’t going to have all the music I was looking for, so I needed to find another way. I did a lot of mail ordering from Germany and the UK, and it was all done by fax. The stores would send me faxes of all their new releases and I would choose. You couldn’t hear anything. You’d go off artists, labels, things like that. It’s fair to say I probably bought a lot of stuff that wasn’t quite as good as it looked on paper!”

Ennio Styles
Ennio Styles

Taking on the artist name Blackout, Styles formed a hip-hop group called Code of Ethics, influenced by the Native Tongues, X-Clan, and Eric B & Rakim. They recorded to cassette in bedroom studios, and while they never had an official release, they did go on a few tours. It was at this time that Styles also began to familiarize himself with the world of radio as he would bring cassettes of their tracks to air on Triple R, the local independent station. Years later in 2002, he would begin his musical career proper on RRR when he started the weekly Stylin’ radio show.

“In a lot of ways the show hasn’t changed much from when I started,” he explains. “I play anything soulful: electronic, hip-hop, latin, jazz, gospel, disco, afro, boogie. There are times I wonder if a person who liked the last track might enjoy the next one, but I can only do me and be true to that. I think there are a few people who appreciate it, and maybe some who will come back to it later.”

As Styles reached his 500th show — also the broadcast’s 10th anniversary — he decided to celebrate by putting together a compilation of unreleased tracks. “I play a lot of new music on the show. I like to dig for new artists, stuff people aren’t up on. I was blown away by the response [to the compilation], and it became a three-part release.” Styles started his own label, Heard and Felt, to release the Stylin’ 500 compilation. He had already been involved with a small label in the early 2000s, around the time he started the Stylin’ broadcasts. And while that experience was short-lived he still felt that running his own operation would be best. Another compilation, Stylin’ 600, followed and this month sees the release of Cy Gorman’s Carmen – the first artist album release on the label. “In some ways this is the first proper release. The others were all download-only, with no other form of distribution. Times have changed since my first label experience, so there was a lot of work and care put into this one.”

Cy Gorman
Cy Gorman

Gorman met Styles back in the mid-1990s. He would accompany Styles’ DJ sets at the Lounge in Melbourne with percussion, keyboards, and sax. “We got to know each other through that. Over the years he’s made a lot of music that he just sits on and he’s one of those guys who can make just about any style of music that I’m into. This record explores jazz and beats, with a little electronics. I’ve also heard him do amazing acoustic jazz with a quartet, as well as house and techno. He’s a phenomenal talent and a natural choice to start things off.”

Across eight tracks, Carmen displays what Styles refers to as Gorman’s talent for immaculate production, regardless of genre. “We worked together on the track listing, in order to theme the release. Even though Carmen might sound diverse, it’s still only a small fraction of what Cy does. We wanted to put something together that would make sense thematically as a single work.”

Cy Gorman
Cy Gorman

Looking to the future, the next three releases for Heard and Felt are already lined up, along with the next compilation, which celebrates 700 shows. The next act is also from Melbourne — a young jazz guitarist called Juxtpose who, fittingly, started making techno after he heard Styles interview cult Detroit techno crew Underground Resistance on Stylin’. With some pride in his voice, Styles refers to the Juxtpose record as some of the “best Australian techno ever.” He is also quick to insist that the label is in its early days and any perceived musical focus is purely accidental. “I never set out to do a label that was focused on Melbourne or Australian music. It just so happens that, in my opinion, Melbourne right now is stronger than ever. There’s so much happening in all the styles I’m into, and we’re seeing people conquering the world. So, even if I’ve always had a strong interest in music from all over, especially America, the first three releases are going to be Melbourne artists. I still plan to work with international artists in the future, from remixes to releases.”

Sufjan Stevens: Intimacy Unmoored

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

Seven of the 11 songs on Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell—out now on Asthmatic Kitty—end with ethereal postludes, in which the singer-songwriter’s vocals are subsumed into gorgeous, abstract textures. The wistful opening track, “Death with Dignity,” concludes with an electronically manipulated, bending, wordless chorus—a brief and almost Bon Iver-like moment.

I bring up this bit of trivia not only to point out an intriguing continuity across Carrie & Lowell, but also to situate this release in its author’s broader trajectory. The songs of earlier albums, such as Age of Adz, Illinoise, and even Seven Swans, might give way to a postlude, but it would be sprawling, a communal bacchanalia in which the giant band comes to the fore, complete with a gaggle of extra voices and the requisite smattering of strings, brass, and synths. Think of the ecstatic climax of “Chicago,” the twitchy flutes and electronics of “Too Much,” or even the slow burn of “Seven Swans” itself.

On Carrie & Lowell, though, songs close with a reticence in line with the album’s deliberate intimacy. Sufjan is joined only by only a handful of collaborators, including Laura Veirs, Thomas Bartlett (of Doveman), and Bon Iver’s S. Carey. The longest tracks are barely over five minutes. There isn’t the sense of large-scale exploration that marked the past 12 years of Sufjan’s development—the sonic arc traced from Michigan’s “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!” to the Mahlerian heights of Adz’s twenty-five minute “Impossible Soul” freak-out. Carrie & Lowell’s outros, if anything, are fleetingly experimental flashes, harnessing Sufjan’s production-heavy past toward the confessional seclusion at the core of the album. Those uncanny last fifty seconds of “Death with Dignity” balance out the rest of the tightly wound song: the way in which each verse terminates with a pregnant pause, the bare effortlessness of the lyrics (“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you”), the elegant ease of the piano solo.

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

Or take the dusky “All of Me Wants All of You,” emblematic of Carrie & Lowell’s careful attention to creating variety from simplicity. In the first chorus, Sufjan’s singing winds upward, tailed by an echoing instrumental line. When the chorus returns, as Sufjan intones “Landscape changed my point of view,” it is followed instead by layered backing vocals, Sufjan’s voice chasing itself. Again, the music begins to become unmoored in its final moments, as the vocals and instruments quizzically blur together, suddenly snapping back into place before the next song.

That avoidance of vastness is guided by the album’s autobiographical premise. Carrie & Lowell is a powerful meditation on the 2012 death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, and her relationship with his stepfather, Lowell. Every Sufjan album has its own mythology—from the epic depiction of local lore in Illinoise and Michigan to the sci-fi trappings of Adz—but here, myth is turned inward. As Sufjan told Pitchfork in a definitive interview, “It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”

We are not far from the realm of Björk’s recent Vulnicura, in which personal trauma is projected outward into monumental musical offering (and attendant global media event). So despite what Sufjan says, we should take into account that Carrie & Lowell certainly represents an art product for its listeners, and that its intimacy can be considered not only in terms of its autobiographical content but also its creator’s artistic evolution. After all, the interior turn here is likely appealing for longtime fans that ache for the folksy, banjo-inflected Sufjan of yore after the avant-garde of Adz (and that banjo is quite prominent on Carrie & Lowell, meticulously plucked but also meticulously layered into instrumental textures).

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

At the heart of the album is “Fourth of July,” a song that if it appeared on Illinoise would probably depict a childhood summer night spent staring at the sky. But here, the title is posed as a question of significance to a departed loved one; its rejoinder is “We’re all gonna die.” The song is simple and bleak, with a wash of electronic murmurs in the backdrop of an unadorned chord progression, as Sufjan sings directly to his late mother of the rituals of death: “Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth/Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?” The song concludes with incessant reiterations of “We’re all gonna die.” It is perhaps a distinction from the earlier Sufjan: repetition as emotional burden rather than sonic splendor.

Listening again to those prior albums, one gets the sense of Sufjan not only embracing his own eclectic vision but also carving out a space for a new kind of musician, one who could harvest both the familiarity of indie-folk and the expanse of minimalism. More recently, that mantle has been taken up by composers like Nico Muhly and ensembles like yMusic, who have stamped minimalism’s sonic print onto bands including the Dirty Projectors and The National (not to mention composer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane, who has further developed Sufjan’s polyglot prototype). Perhaps in Carrie & Lowell Sufjan has happily ceded ground to that developed scene. After all, he has plenty of time to explore that world in side projects, whether the BQE symphonic suite, the Planetarium collaboration with Muhly and Bryce Dessner, or most recently a live score for a rodeo documentary. These other endeavors have percolated into the sound of the new album as well; those otherworldly postludes are a direct echo of “Alcohol,” the final track of Sisyphus (with Serengeti and Son Lux), in which Sufjan screams “I am not my father” into an electronic maelstrom.

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

The intricacy of Carrie & Lowell’s songwriting is best on display in “Should Have Known Better,” at once breezy and dark. Atop layers of banjo and guitar, Sufjan describes how he should have grieved, were he not choked by his “black shroud.” There is a humble beauty to the music, with plainspoken verses and a translucent gauze of backing vocals. At its exact midpoint, the song brightens and opens outward with an instrumental interlude. Sufjan declares that the past is the past, and looks instead toward the future (“My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination”).

The unvoiced tragedy of this song, though, is how early it appears on the album; there is much more pain to come. I think of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a song cycle in which the narrator lingers on lost love, pretending to have moved past his heartbreak but still taking another 11 songs to fully process his anguish. The craft, too, is comparable: bold artistry in simple, sorrowful songs.

Photography by Emmanuel Afolabi

 

Love and Light

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

“The last album is night and this is day… I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.”

U.K. avant-jazz outfit Polar Bear have released their sixth album, Same As You, exclusively on Bandcamp. It’s something of a natural progression from In Each and Every One, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Mercury Music Prize. It is also a distinctly more optimistic and uplifting offering. The album features lauded saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (who has also played with Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors, Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, and Melt Yourself Down), as well as spoken word from London shop owner Asar Mikael, vocals from Toronto-born songstress Hannah Darling, a fully formed choir, and drummer/bandleader Seb Rochford on the very catchy crossover “Don’t Let the Feeling Go.” I caught up with the latter to discuss his influences, his method, and the making of the album.

Bandcamp: Same As You feels like a particularly optimistic, direct and personal album, almost as if it represents moving from dark into the light. Is there some truth in this?
Seb Rochford: Yes, the last album is night and this is day–the moon and the sun—because of certain situations in my life and all of the heightened war, greed, racism, and prejudice in the world today. I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.

BC: There’s a kind of serenity and feeling of being at peace on this album. How did the place you recorded the album and the people you recorded it with influence that atmosphere?
SR: This album was very much influenced by the desire to share positivity and love, but also by my experience in the Mojave desert, where I found amazing inspiration and perspective. The vastness of nature there gave me a heightened sense of awareness. The album was mixed by Ken Barrientos, an amazing producer and musician from Los Angeles. We spent a couple of days at his place and then headed to the desert for a week to mix at Red Barn Recorders, a studio in the Morongo valley. I think Ken really captured how the desert feels, and being there was a hugely important part of the sound of this album.

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: The album also has an almost classical feel, like every track is a movement of a more cohesive body of work. Was this intentional?
SR: I thought a lot about how we could deepen the communication of what I wanted us to express and give to people on this album. Feeling it as a whole was important to this process, and at the same time, if people want to listen to one track in isolation, then that’s their free choice. Each track on this album holds the emotion of the album as a whole—this was my intention.

BC: Following on from this, how relevant is the idea of “the album” to you?
SR: Personally, there are some songs I love to listen to in isolation and some albums I love listening to as a whole. For me there is room for both, and I’m sure both ways of listening will continue to coexist. One of the beauties of music is that there is no right or wrong way—everyone’s expression is valid no matter what. I don’t feel the need to lock down where I think a certain music trend is going. There is always an exception to the rule and, as someone who creates music, this is an integral part of my growth.

BC: Same As You is your sixth album in just over a decade. With the output of contemporaries Melt Yourself Down, Roller Trio, Matthew Halsall, and more recently, Mammal Hands, Sons of Kemet, Zara McFarlane, and GoGo Penguin, would you classify this period as being somewhat of a “golden age” for British jazz—be it improv, avant-garde, vocal, or otherwise?
SR: I feel like this is not something I can comment on since I’m involved in some of these. But U.K. music, in general, seems in a very healthy place to me. If you look in the right places and see music as one, then it’s always a “golden age.”

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: How have the previous generations of British jazz artists, from Courtney Pine back to Ian Carr and Tubby Hayes, influenced your take on the genre?
SR: I’ve seen Courtney play and consider him to be a master of his instrument. He could play for days and never run out of ideas or energy. I think the most influential people for me, in terms of U.K. jazz, have been Django Bates, Julian Arguelles, Stan Tracey, Steve Buckley, Martin France, Gene Calderazzo, and the people I play with. From the little that I know, we, like generations before, have mixed influences to make our own flavor of improvised music.

BC: Do you think there has been a more open-minded stance to jazz from the mainstream music press, and the music industry in general, in recent years—especially in light of the Mercury Music Prize nominations for both GoGo Penguin and yourselves?
SR: Open-mindedness is always a positive thing in my mind. In these times I’m aware there seems to be a promoted leaning toward closed-mindedness and prejudice, which is reflected in some of the music media, but also I feel there is a big move toward being open-minded, which is also reflected in the music media. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel both. I do feel that younger generations can sometimes have less stigma attached to jazz and are able to just like what they like.

BC: Did the nomination for your last album ramp up the pressure on this one? If so, how did the musicians around you, and your label, help alleviate that? Did you feel it was important to get this album out quickly?
SR: We had already recorded the next album by the time we found out about the Mercury Music Prize, so I didn’t feel any pressure at all. My relationship to writing the music for this band is that I can’t force it. We make albums when it becomes clear to me what I wish to express.

BC: I’m sure you’re already planning album seven. Any clues on what we can expect from your next opus?
SR: I know what it feels like and have some colors, even a couple of tunes, but it’s still forming in me.

When he’s not running the excellent Wah Wah 45s label, Dom Servini also writes for Echoes.

Photography by Jacek Zmarz

Better Late Than Never

Stratford 4photo by Bart Nagel

“The album was a very obvious elephant in the room for the band and I think it’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’ It would be harder to not talk about the album, really.”

For any resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, the idea of voluntarily going to the East Coast in winter is insane. You need a pretty good reason to ditch the sunshine for the arctic chill. The Stratford 4 found one: getting to record their major label debut. In January 2004, the four-piece headed to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village to record what would become their third album, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight, for Elektra Records. Hot on the heels of their feedback-drenched, gloriously messy Love and Distortion, the band had caught the ear of Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, who signed on to produce the album. Throughout its 11 tracks, their mix of frontman Chris Streng’s nonchalant singing and distorted guitars finally came into sharp focus. The melodies cut through the feedback and the guitars rang with fervent energy. “We really nailed it,” Streng said at the time. Nothing could derail their career, it seemed. And then their label fell apart.

Stratford 4 by Anthony Georgis
photo by Anthony Georgis

In the same breath that The Stratford 4 struck gold, Elektra went under. Ocasek was able to return the album to the band, but unsure of their next move and plagued by internal tensions, they split up. They got jobs, had kids, and settled down. As bassist Sheetal Singh points out with a laugh, their time as rock and rollers became “cocktail party fodder.” Like Tolkien’s One Ring, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight disappeared from sight. But it wasn’t quite forgotten.

The Stratford 4 formed in San Francisco in 1999, solidifying their lineup in a rock club on Valentine’s Day. Streng says he wanted to make a record that “sounded like My Bloody Valentine produced by Wilco.” The band’s resulting debut LP, The Revolt Against Tired Noise, wasn’t too far off the mark. Surging layers of feedback and distortion were balanced by Streng’s nimble vocals. Over and under his Lou Reed-affected voice, songs sprawled and spiraled, walking a line between straight-ahead rock and roll and something more mysterious. It brought to mind the trap doors and sharp turns of Wilco’s experimental breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Love and Distortion followed in 2002, picking up where their debut left off, and the group toured with Beulah and the Walkmen. Ocasek stumbled across the record and signed the band to Elektra, where he was then working to find new acts for the label. During the recording sessions for KYCHOS, Streng likened Ocasek to an airplane pilot; he took the controls, allowing the band to concentrate on the music, and navigated them to what became their strongest record to date. And yet, it was a record destined to be heard by no one.

Stratford 4
photo by Anthony Georgis

This January, on her way home from a family vacation, Singh met up with Streng. They hadn’t seen each other in years. “The album was a very obvious elephant in the room,” Streng explained. “It’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’” That’s exactly what they did. After talking to drummer Andrea Caturegli and guitarist Jake Hosek, the band decided the time was ripe to give the album a proper release. When asked if the record had been on his mind in the 10 years since recording it, Streng deadpanned, “Not that often, only every day.”

On the tender opening track, “Purple and Gold,” Streng picks a spare acoustic guitar figure over a woozy synthesizer. “I’m going to see my babe, I swear to God I will,” he states elegantly before the song moves gently forward, floating weightless like a magic carpet. But in the blink of an eye, the churning guitars and the cracking snare on “Just Sad Really,” the album’s walloping second track, shatter that tranquility like a wrecking ball. Later, on “Cracking Up,” the influence of less-distorted contemporaries like Belle and Sebastian gives the song a levity that helps distinguish it from the unrelenting guitar attacks on tracks like “Blissend” and “Summer’s Over.”

The band always had a knack for balancing Streng’s nonchalance with the fury of pounded drums and overdriven guitars. Yet while their previous albums found Streng’s voice buried a little deeper in the mix, Ocasek’s magic touch throws it in sharp relief. Streng’s even vocal cuts through the fireworks of noise exploding around him. On closing track “Drive Asleep,” guitars rise and fall while he sings simply, “I was dreaming / I was driving you home.” After the dense instrumentation and fast pace of the album, it serves as a resolution, a return to the calm established in “Purple and Gold.”

The Stratford 4 talk about getting back together with the eagerness of teenagers ecstatic to play their first high school battle of the bands. “I missed playing music,” Singh says. “I had this change where I went from not thinking about it to thinking about it all the time.” Will there be shows, a tour, a chance to make even more music? Only time will tell, but Streng is undoubtedly positive about it. “The whole project ended so abruptly,” he says. “Even this long after the fact, I feel like we still have something to prove.”

Stratford 4photo by Bart Nagel

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