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Interview with Olafur Arnalds II

img  Tobias

When I saw you perform live on your European tour this year, your setup was pretty minimal. What kind of Equipment were you using?
Yeah it was, but apparently not minimal enough, as we still always got charged overweight baggage at the airports… I put mics on the piano and run them through Ableton Live where I send them back out to an FX loop where I’ve got my Line6 loop pedal and a Digitech reverse delay. I also have some additional effects like delay, reverb and some filters on the piano channel itself in Live. Then I’ve got a small MIDI keyboard I use to control a very deep sub-bass Synth and a TriggerFinger to trigger my samples and playback as well as controlling the effects on the piano channel.

If a Grand Piano is not available at the venue I use my Electric Piano and run it through Ableton via MIDI and use Native Instruments Acoustic Piano to turn it into sound…  I don’t feel the need to have a bigger electronics setup because I’ve usually got both hands on the Piano so I haven’t got much space to mess around with the electronics more.

The concert I saw in Münster was the last one of an extensive tour. Were there some issues with the integration of live elements and pre-recorded material or with combining acoustic instruments and electronics earlier on?

Well I had more problems with some songs than others… But the problems were much more of a performing nature than making it sound right… For example in “3055” on the album there are 4 layers of piano and it was impossible to put them all on loops as the song is speeding up while they are playing… It took me a long time to figure this out and I ended up having to make some changes to the song. I’ve got a live-recorded loop going while I tap the tempo to synch Ableton in time with my loop and start the drums. Then I have to replace the live-recorded loop with a pre-recorded loop and play a new loop over that. Haha, it’s pretty stupid really that I am actually doing this... There are so many things in this process that can so easily go wrong…  and they have… many times!

Anyway… Making electronics sound well with acoustic instruments isn’t so hard when you are going for the contrast between the two worlds. But in the end it’s all just music, there is no actual physical difference between a sound that comes from a computer and a sound that comes from a violin. It’s all just sound waves fluctuating at different frequencies.

There also seemed to be some live-processing of sounds recorded during the concert or of pre-recorded sections of the same passages ...
Hmmmm... I never mess with the String Quartet (it’s on my to-do list though!), the main live-processing I do is on the piano. The reverse delay plays a pretty big part in my show and I use it very much to create background ambiances and passages between songs. On the delay return channel on my laptop I process it further with all sorts of other delays, filters and of course reverb. That way I can record a melody into the Reverse Delay pedal and loop it but keep the level down and then bring it in in another part of the song heavily processed as an additional layer.

At one point in the set I record the audience clapping, then when they stop clapping they can hear their own applause in the distance and it sounds like rain… and this rain plays a very big part in the next song. I’m actually using this on my next record (if you are curious, the particular applause I use to make the rain on the new record is recorded at the Palladium in Cologne).

There were some interesting changes in small details of your arrangements compared to the studio versions – such as, for example, the drum sound on “3055”. What are the reasons for discreetly modifying sounds and textures for a live performance and how do you usually go about it?
Well on the album “3055” has real drums. And I just thought it was a bit stupid to play real drums on playback… Like, either you have a real drummer or you don’t. I replaced them with electronic drums so it made more sense that I was just pressing a button to make them start. Also with the electronic drums I’m more free to make loops and changes in tempo, which is pretty important, especially when I mess up. To be honest I prefer the album version with the real drums and next year it finally seems that we are playing big enough venues so I plan to tour with a drummer. In smaller venues real drums just become too loud and it gets impossible to make the strings audible on top of them.

You’ve just started a new experimental techno project called Kiasmos. How are you composing the pieces with Janus Rasmussen – how did the project come about?
Yes I’m pretty excited about this actually, finally I’m making music people can dance to! I have to be honest and say that Janus is the main force behind this project, he has been involved with the electronic scene for a long time and he is the mastermind behind the Icelandic electro-band Bloodgroup. I have sound-engineered Bloodgroup a lot of times and that’s how we met and found our common interest in experimental techno. Seeing as we are both on tour very much with our bands we mostly work via email. He makes a beat and sends it to me and I add stuff to it and arrange it into a song, then send it back to him for further adjustments... Or the other way around. But whenever we are both in the same country we get together and make the songs together.

Is there a general distribution of “duties” with Janus or are you approaching the project completely intuitively?
He has much more experience than me with this kind of music so he usually makes the first sounds/samples or ideas and my part is more to structure the song and make the beats. But of course our “duties” vary and we try to mix them up the most we can and avoid getting into some sort of a routine where everything starts to sound the same.

In which way does the Kiasmos setup differ from the instruments you’re using for your work under your own name?
Well the Kiasmos stuff is all about controlling samples and loops rather than actually playing them on a Synth or something. This is mostly just studio work but we plan to avoid just doing plain DJ sets when we play live by keeping the whole structure free and basically structuring the songs all over again live using loops of different layer and a little bit of outboard stuff like MachineDrum and Octapad for some live-made sequences or hits. As this is a new project this is still evolving of course.

The new pieces you were premiering blended acoustic and electronic sounds to a degree where they became part of a single, flowing layer of sound. Do you see yourself going down this route for the next full-length?
Yes, most of the electronic sounds in my new songs are just heavily treated acoustic sounds, then I mix them with clean acoustic drums and this makes a very thick powerful sound. I’m almost finished writing my next full length and will go into the studio in the early months of 2009. There will be much more beats on there than on the last one but it’s more concentrated on the acoustic drums and the electronics are more layered on top.

By Tobias Fischer

This interview was originally conducted for “Beat” Magazine. Many thanks to Thomas Raukamp.

Eulogy for Evolution (Erased Tapes Records) 2007
Variations of Static (Erased Tapes Records) 2008
Found Songs (Erased Tapes Records) 2009

Olafur Arnalds

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