Creature of Discomfort

Deep Sea Diver

“I’m deathly afraid of becoming comfortable in this world, kind of dull, a shell of myself.”—Jessica Dobson

If there’s one thing that drives Deep Sea Diver’s Jessica Dobson crazy, it’s when her husband, Peter Mansen, has his face glued to his phone, curled up and detached from the world. On one such occasion, Mansen, who is also the drummer in the band, suggested that his wife vent her feelings through a song. Feeling “very, very pissed,” Dobson retreated to the basement of their Seattle home, which doubles as their rehearsal space, and began to play what she calls “dumpy punk music.” She howled, “Notice me noticing you!” as she channeled the classic angst and vitriol of Iggy Pop or the Sex Pistols. “I was trying to be as offensive as possible,” she says. As her pointed words made their way upward through the floorboards, however, Mansen got excited. He made his way down the stairs, with some trepidation. “Do that again,” he suggested, and soon the couple had the seed for what would become the opening track to Deep Sea Diver’s new album, Secrets.

As Mansen is quick to acknowledge, Jessica’s frustration toward him is often at the core of the album, their second full-length, which follows a 2014 EP. While the group’s jangly debut, History Speaks, found Dobson singing behind a veil of imagery, many of Secrets’ not-so-secret narratives are written explicitly to another person, as she tries to shake Mansen “out of a slumber” instilled by the ease of modern living. Yet the things that exasperate her the most seem to be the things she’s most afraid of seeing in herself. “I’m deathly afraid of becoming comfortable in this world, kind of dull, a shell of myself,” she told me. Taken as a whole, Secrets becomes “a call to arms to address the things in our lives keeping us from our potential.”

To express that urgency and frustration, Dobson, who spent much of History Speaks behind the keyboard, turned to the guitar. In the three years since that album’s release, Dobson became the touring lead guitarist for the enduring, hyper-melodic, indie-rock band the Shins. “Being so close to [front man James Mercer] and seeing his songs come alive,” she explains, helped fuel the vivid tones of her guitar work on Secrets. (Dobson parted from the band on amicable terms, eager to get to work on this album, her “baby.”) “Wide Awake” begins with a piercing wail of feedback and a fiery mess of racketing notes that leaves no doubt to her frustration. “It Takes a Moment” is threaded through with “ratty,” shredded tones that Mansen cites as his favorite element of the album.

Deep Sea Diver

Dobson explains that she has no hesitation about venting her highly personal frustrations in front of Mansen, her other bandmates, or their fans. It was the songs’ sheer length that made her feel vulnerable. On Secrets, Dobson’s arrangements sprawl, often only revealing their grand hooks once they’ve pulled you into their grooves. “We didn’t want the songs to be purely linear, a zone that you sink into and nothing pops out. We’re totally about hooks, too,” Dobson explains. “Wide Awake” bounds along on a menacing, off-kilter bass line for almost two minutes before the first verse kicks in, and the album’s title track, clocking in at over six minutes, is chock-full of chugging riffs that erupt slowly into glorious crescendos.

Dobson and Mansen cite recording 2014’s Always Waiting EP as a tedious and exasperating process. “We really weren’t trusting ourselves and our own taste,” Mansen explains. In reaction to that, Secrets was written almost entirely before the band set foot in the studio, crafted in their basement rehearsal space with two new members, bass player Garrett Gue and guitarist Elliot Jackson. “What sounds good in the basement,” Mansen says, “let’s capture that.” The extended intros and instrumental passages of “Notice Me” and the sugar rush of “See These Eyes,” for example, feel organic and unrushed; they possess at once both taut, muscular precision and the looseness of a live performance. Much credit is due to engineer Darrell Thorp, whose past collaborators include Beck and Radiohead. He has stripped these songs of any fat and given each instrument space to shine.

Deep Sea Diver

If Secrets has a centerpiece, it’s “Great Light,” the album’s one unabashed love song. In the midst of so much frustration, it offers a ray of positivity—the moment when Dobson steps back to acknowledge the beauty and sweetness in her marriage. Over dual piano and synth lines that gently pulse and buzz as they swell and recede, Dobson sounds at peace as she sings “I still need your love and you need mine,” adding elegant lilts to the ends of her vocal lines with the delicacy and detail of an eyelash curler. Yet the song is not without its tension; as it burns out, it leaves us with no resolution, no big bang. Even in the midst of a love song, it seems, Deep Sea Diver’s Jessica Dobson still yearns to feel a little unsettled.

A Long Time Coming

Nonkeen

“We always met and played together without knowing exactly the purpose of what we would like to make out of it… It was just for the sake of playing together.”—Frederic Gmeiner

Two boys meet in elementary school, and discover a mutual love for tinkering with electronics. They play with old hi-fi equipment and tape recorders designed for children, and end up creating a radio program that documents the sounds and activities of their schoolmates. A third boy joins the pair, visiting from a city that—though only a three-hour drive away—represents an entirely different world. The trio remains close through their teenage years, transitioning from the recorded medium to playing together in a band. They reunite as adults and, despite the fact that they have found different career paths—with one of them skyrocketing to fame as a composer and producer—they continue making music. They meet regularly for jam sessions in humble rehearsal spaces, and occasionally leave a tape recorder running. Evoking that childhood fascination with technology, they occasionally upload the results to a computer and continue messing with it, overdubbing, processing. Perhaps unexpectedly, after years of playing together and remaining close friends, an album has emerged.

This is the story of Nonkeen, whose debut full-length, The Gambler, is out today on R&S. Nonkeen comprises Frederic Gmeiner, Sebastian Singwald, and Nils Frahm—the best-known member of the trio, a well-regarded composer and producer. They grew up in Cold War-era Germany of the 1980s: Gmeiner and Frahm were colleagues in a suburb of Hamburg in the West, and Singwald visited them on an exchange program from East Berlin in 1989. Even as Frahm’s musical career took off later in life, the old band kept meeting and playing. And now, after twenty-seven years of friendship and performing together outside the limelight, their side project is taking center stage.

Nonkeen

“This is also quite interesting, now, for us—what’s going to happen,” said Gmeiner in a recent Skype interview. Gmeiner and Singwald spoke to me from Berlin, where Nonkeen will perform at the arts space Radialsystem in April for two shows, which are already sold out. “We’ve stepped out from the hobby basement into the public, which is also really great and nice,” Gmeiner added, but noted that originally there was “not really a plan for what we were doing.” There might be something jarring about having a long-standing band with friends that, when it finally moves from the basement to the concert hall, already has massive platform due to the popularity of one of its members. But Gmeiner wasn’t terribly worried. “Until now it didn’t change so much,” he said with a laugh. “The only thing that changed is that we now have to talk about it.”

Neither Singwald nor Gmeiner could recall exactly what kind of music they made in those early, primary school years—“Nobody knows anymore so clearly, what we were interested in and working on at the age of seven,” Singwald told me—but their collaborations felt right. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the trio began meeting more regularly and formed a band as teenagers, which performed during the summers at a fairground owned by Singwald’s uncle. After a catastrophic incident—a nearby carousel malfunctioned and two of its passengers flew onto the stage, crashing into the band’s instruments—the group splintered. But they reconvened in Berlin in their twenties, and began making music once more.

Nonkeen

“We always had a rehearsal room together from that time on,” Gmeiner said. “Rehearsal spaces changed all the time, quite often—because sometimes we had to move out in the notice of a month. It was often very improvised stuff.” With Singwald on bass, Frahm on Rhodes and piano, and Gmeiner on drums, the band resembled, as Gmeiner called it, “a quite typical jazz trio.” They were informed by the 1970s fusion and prog of groups like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Soft Machine, evident on the spaced-out bliss of Gambler tracks such as “re: turn!” “We always met and played together without knowing exactly the purpose of what we would like to make out of it,” Gmeiner recalled. “It was just for the sake of playing together.”

Sometimes, Frahm would turn on a tape recorder—the shabbiness of the spaces where they assembled meant they weren’t willing to shell out for more expensive gear—and capture the sonic environment. Much later, the trio would go back and listen to the music in Frahm’s studio, picking favorite passages, saving them to a computer, and adding effects. They would often hear things that sounded entirely unfamiliar, either because they forgot about their improvisations or because they made mistakes with the recording equipment and accidentally shifted the pitch of the machine. “It was more like discovering or digging in an archive, with some distance also over the years, which made it very intuitive,” Gmeiner said. That spontaneity is audible in the beautifully meditative rumbles of the track “capstan,” which forms a prelude to the minimalist, looping groove of “chasing god through palmyra.” Only about one percent of the tapes they made actually ended up in the studio to be edited. Treating them like field recordings, rather than as drafts for an album, led to a more collaborative approach. “No one could really claim that someone wrote a song, or someone would throw in an idea and say ‘Hey, that sounds already quite nice but let’s try to have it more like that,’” Gmeiner added. “Because we couldn’t redo it: we had to work with the stuff that was on tape.” But the music gradually jelled into a record: The Gambler.

Singwald compared rehearsals to a kind of glue that held the friendship together; what kept them returning to these informal spaces was less the promise of a developed album, and more the desire to immerse themselves in each others’ creativity. And, perhaps, nostalgia for those early years of tinkering in the final days of a divided Germany. “We are well aware, also, that it’s for us most important to keep that up somehow—this freedom—and not to plan too many things,” Gmeiner said. “Because for us, it’s a lot about energy when making music together. This intensiveness, and being in the moment. It shouldn’t sound too spiritual, but it’s more this way of making music where you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, but you carefully have to listen to each other and basically be in the moment, and keep the thing going.”

Can’t Erase This

Erased Tapes

We’re super psyched that Robert Raths’ revered home to avant-garde and experimental music, Erased Tapes, is now on Bandcamp. The London-based label turns 9 years old today and is releasing a special (name your price) compilation to celebrate.

Rath’s own interest in the intersection between traditional and contemporary styles, and fascination with digital and analog techniques and sounds shines through the label’s adventurous repertoire, which includes music by Ólafur Arnalds, Dawn of Midi, Peter Broderick, Nils Frahm and Michael Price. Erased Tapes makes music to get deeply lost in – the kinds of tunes that headphones were invented for. Trailblazing musician, composer, and producer Frahm has described the family-like vibe of the label as “a wonderful place for creating music.” By way of an introduction, Raths has picked and commented on 10 personal favorite tracks from the label’s vaults:

Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm

“Back in 2012 Óli and Nils surprised me with their first three collaborative works, which they had secretly recorded, mixed, mastered and finished the artwork for. It was their 5th anniversary gift to me and it made me the happiest man on earth. Last year they surprised me with even more ambient improvisations, but a2 will always stand out for me. There’s something truly otherworldly about it.”

Rival Consoles

“Ryan had been producing imaginative electronic music for many years. But something happened when he finally got his hands on a real Prophet synthesizer. Odyssey was one of the first, if not the first track on which he made great use of it. We both had the privilege of meeting its creator, Mr. Dave Smith, in San Francisco last year. At SXSW I actually asked a cab driver to put this track on – again, and again, and again – much to the annoyance of Ryan.”

“Back in winter 2010/11 Peter told me about this crazy documentary film he had been scoring and recording in his kitchen – a gripping story about five unsolved murders in a river valley not far from where he grew up. He only had two weeks to finish it, and Peter was so dedicated that he even recorded the final piece on New Year’s Eve – when you listen closely, you can hear the fireworks of Berlin.”

Nils Frahm

“If I remember correctly, Nils first showcased the beginning sequence of Says live in a small club in Berlin called the HBC., and then it took more and more shape on our 5th anniversary tour. The arpeggiated synth theme establishes a subtle, hypnotic pulse that he improvised around throughout its 8 minutes. To me, this song is nothing short of celebrating life with all its ebbs and flows.”

“This piece by Daniel Thorne and Sebastian Gainsborough evokes the idea of narrative, but without being too prescriptive. It’s as suspenseful as a Hitchcock picture, playing with the sensation of chaos and the disjointed — not through chance, but with careful consideration. Seb’s ringing sine tone prevents the composition from falling apart whilst at the same time maintaining tension. There’s so much sonic color to be found in this, and it’s recorded masterfully.”

“By far one of the most powerful compositions I had the pleasure of witnessing Michael record, this was with a small orchestra all cramped into Francesco’s Vox-ton studio during a heat wave in Berlin. From the first notes played back through the old wire recorder, it has this sense of urgency about it, but also this feeling that it might endure us all.”

“I’ll never forget lying on the wooden studio floor at Vox-ton in Berlin whilst listening to Lubomyr perform this piece on the grand piano he fell madly in love with. It was one of those magical, one-take recordings impossible to re-create. It happened right there in that moment during the six days Peter, Nils, Martyn, Francesco and I spent capturing Lubomyr’s signature continuous piano technique on tape.”

Douglas Dare

“When I first heard this track, Douglas was telling me it might not even be fit for his album, that it could be more of a b-side, and I was like, “no way, it’s one of your best tracks!” I love its dynamics, how it actually has a bit of a submarine feel and sounds very isolated and peaceful in the verses, then rises in the chorus.”

Kiasmos

“I remember when Óli and Janus shared their pre-masters for the debut album with me, and this track slapped me in the face with all its energy and euphoria. It captured the essence of their live show, which is exactly that – energy and euphoria. It lets you revisit this moment when you lose yourself in the early hours of the morning – sleepless in Reykjavík.”

“Here Masa’s playing is most pure – so understated, so patient. Last time I saw him perform live was for our 9th anniversary the other night at Palač Akropolis in Prague. It’s incredible how he manages to take the audience from fast-paced, syncopated vibraphone playing to a state of such calm – you could hear a needle drop.”

In addition to the anniversary compilation and back catalog, the label has also posted two upcoming albums for pre-order: a new collaborative release from Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm, and a full-length from Immix and Vessel.

Embrace the Contradiction

DIIV by Sandy Kim

“Even though there’s a confessional quality to the album, it’s not a straight-up confession.”—Zachary Cole Smith

“I wanted the album to be as open and honest and transparent as possible,” says Zachary Cole Smith, talking about DIIV’s second record, Is the Is Are. Given that lead single “Dopamine” begins with Smith mixing “the white and brown” and getting so high “that I lost myself,” it’s not a surprising statement. But then, in almost the same breath, he says something that feels radically at odds with that: “A big theme of the record is being misunderstood.”

DIIV by Sandy Kim

It’s a confounding combination—is he being transparent, or trying to misdirect with his frankness? If it’s the latter, the impulse is understandable; three years ago, Smith and girlfriend Sky Ferreira were arrested in upstate New York. Smith was driving a stolen vehicle without a license, and a police search turned up Ecstasy and 42 decks of heroin. But rather than canceling each other out, Smith’s conflicting statements instead illustrate the complex nature of Is the Is Are. It’s an album that details—sometimes in painfully explicit terms—Smith’s troubled, highly-publicized past while simultaneously conjuring a strange, foreign world of smudged-out vocals and cinematic guitars. Instead of feeling excessive or gratuitous, the seventeen-track, double album simply feels complete. “I wanted to say what I had to say,” Smith explains, “and get out.”

Like the man who made it, Is the Is Are is an album of contradictions. For every explicit, diaristic lyric on the album, another is lost deep in the mix; Smith’s vocals often catch more for the intensity of his delivery than for what he’s actually saying. His words are more atmospheric than concrete, more impressionistic than narrative. “Even though there’s a confessional quality to the album,” he points out, “it’s not a straight-up confession.” On “Yr Not Far,” he draws the titular lyric out until it becomes an ominous and elusive phrase, shot through with menacing tension. Despite the gravity of Smith’s performance, the album’s real emotional heft comes from the stinging jabs of guitar, which jump in and out of the song, providing a visceral counterpoint to Smith’s anchorless vocals.

DIIV by Sandy Kim

Guitars were also at the forefront of DIIV’s 2012 debut, Oshin, but with its omnipresent blanket of reverb, that album felt distant and blurred, as if heard through the window of a deep-sea submarine. Is the Is Are, on the other hand, stares dead-on, with an urgency and immediacy that transcends its murky backstory. While Oshin was recorded by Smith alone, on Is the Is Are, DIIV has become a communal project. The crackling energy of its bold rhythm section—Devin Ruben Perez’s taut bass and Ben Newman’s tight, pinched snare—gives the album an extra kick.

In a recent Tumblr post, Smith fired off a lengthy, appropriately inconsistent list of descriptors for the record that included chaotic, peaceful, lost/found, and happysad—and it doesn’t take long to hear all of those feelings, particularly in the album’s brilliant range of guitar textures. Much like Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus or Beach House’s Alex Scally, Smith and Andrew Bailey’s melodic, impressionistic guitar work is in the spotlight throughout. “All our music is very deliberate, almost minimalist,” says Smith. That’s most evident in the elegant, plaintive chimes of “Healthy Moon,” and the hulking riff buried in closing track “Waste of Breath.”

Yet even with the heightened clarity of its guitars and rhythms, Is the Is Are remains a complicated piece of art. Like a Mobius strip, the four words of its title go round and round, never resolving. During our conversation, Smith acknowledges that “no matter how upfront I’m being, or transparent, people still have this weird idea of who I am.” Yet given that Is the Is Are is—perhaps deliberately—hard to decipher, maybe Smith shouldn’t expect any other reaction. Ultimately, the Zachary Cole Smith that people find “weird” is the same one speaking plainly on this album. He is chaotic and peaceful, lost and found, happy and sad. Is the Is Are is an invitation to embrace the contradiction.

Photos by Sandy Kim

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