Last week, on the eve of his debut album release and a looming trip into the heart of SXSW, we were lucky enough to have a late night, in-depth chat with SOHN. We had 20 minutes with the enigmatic musician to discuss everything from his progression into the electronic realm, crafting his hypnotic live show and why he wants to work with Tyler, The Creator. It’s the latest in our feature series – check it out.
I OH YOU: Hello! Thanks for taking the time for chatting to us!
SOHN: You’re welcome. Absolutely welcome.
I OH YOU: Let’s start by talking about your early career! I read that you began experimenting with more traditional instruments such as piano and guitar before you moved onto the electronic side of things. How did those two avenues merge into the current state of the SOHN project?
SOHN: I think the fact that I did learn guitar and didn’t start out loving electronic music probably informs what I’m doing now quite strongly, because I think that in it’s core it’s not electronic music, even though there are a number of electronic instruments and elements being used to make it. There’s definitely a kind of singer/songwriter vibe to what I’m making which runs through it quite strongly I think..I got to a point where I was just trying to record when I was young and in bands and through trying to record those bands I got into computers. Of course, what happened from there, is that you’re a kid and you have no idea about how to record things and it literally never sounds as good as you think it’s going to sound. After that I found my way into electronic sounds because those sound good right away. It’s instant. It’s not like when you’re trying to record your drummer and it sounds terrible not just because your drummer probably is terrible (laughs), but also because you don’t know how to record it very well.
I OH YOU: Following the transition from instruments to software, did you develop a desire to work with real hardware again?
I started to get into software stuff and then over the years as I’ve refined what I’m doing – what’s happened is that I got out of software stuff and now I’m much more inclined to use hardware and synthesizers and that’s opened up a new relationship for me with electronic music. It’s not a kind of grid-based and designed world for me, because that’s something which I really don’t like about electronic music. It’s that feeling like it’s all created on a grid, it’s all copy/pasted, it’s all transitioned into one piece over a long period of time. About 3 years ago somebody let me borrow an old Juno and suddenly my eyes were opened like ‘oh shit – if I touch this then it goes all weird..I don’t know how to work this thing’ and that was a big part of creating SOHN; that I’m using real instruments to make it. From that point of view, it’s got a certain scruffiness and allusiveness to it.
I OH YOU: Aside from you warming to the electronic elements of making music, what do you think the key turning points have been along the way for you in terms of refining things in a creative sense?
SOHN: A big part of why I sound the way I do in terms of being SOHN is that there was a decision about 2 years ago when I made the first track. I decided to somehow try and condense it. I’ve made music throughout my life and it’s always been very much hit and miss. I think it’s because I wasn’t at peace with everything including my voice and my writing. The first piece of music that I wrote for SOHN was driven by the idea that I would sing half as much, be more minimal in the writing. This was a massive turning point for me because I realized that through being more calm and confident in my own instincts, it was much more effective. It may sound quite full on but it’s changed a lot of things in my life for the better. When you make music which is more stripped down and quietly confident, you become those things and that breeds an expectation that it’s who you are, as well. I’ve definitely found peace within myself through that interaction with my music.
I OH YOU: I had a listen to your LP Tremors the other day and the use of space was definitely something which was notable and created an distinct atmosphere throughout. It’s interesting to hear that sense of purpose which has developed into something so organic for you now.
SOHN: Absolutely. In the beginning I was forcing that space and I was making a point. Now it’s become much more of a natural want to hear that space than it was at the beginning, for sure!
I OH YOU: I couldn’t help but feeling that your music exists somewhere between a bedroom and a dark, smoky nightclub at 4am. How do you see your music falling into the overall spectrum?
SOHN: I think the music which I’ve always loved has been headphone music. First and foremost, I think that the music I create now and into the future will definitely be geared that way because what I get out of music personally is in an introspective nature, not the extroverted side of things. I’ve never really been one for going to clubs or enjoying music in a big communal way. There’s an element to the album where the extrovert elements are much more sparse and so the impact can be more dramatic.
I OH YOU: It was surprising to hear that you played at Berlin nightclub Berghain recently. Is it an organic thing for you to be playing shows like that especially given that you haven’t been experiencing music in that setting whilst growing up?
SOHN: It’s funny because the live show lends itself surprisingly well to those settings I think. Initially when I was putting the live show together I was really worried about whether it would work or not. In terms of vocals, I don’t think that I demand much attention and the same goes with the larger elements of the music due to the space which we spoke about. I thought people would just be talking throughout what I was doing but it doesn’t work that way. The live show is a big wash of sound and that’s quite overhwelming. It’s got a more club-ready type of Sigur Rós type of vibe to it which has a lot of power but in a very different way to how club music has power. There’s nothing in the relentlessness of the rhythm, but it has power in the relentlessness of that wall of sound.
I OH YOU: There are plenty of live videos that show you playing with a full band. Did those initial ideas and insecurities lead you to enlist more people to create something which you could tour?
SOHN: I knew the two guys that I wanted to be on stage with and basically we started just experimenting. We got to the point at the beginning where we made everything 100% analogue. Things like drum machines and synthesizers were littering our rehearsals and I realized that we all just had way too much to do in order to just create the sound. There was no time to think about what you’re putting into the performance. The drum stuff is now just samples and as a singer that’s preferable because I don’t have to worry about whether the cut-off needs to be altered or not.
I OH YOU: That’s certainly an interesting facet of a current, more widespread discussion on live electronic music. How do you go about transposing your music into that setting?
SOHN: I don’t see it that way but I can see why. The thing is, it’s a bit like when you see a theater show because everything is magnified as you don’t have someone there listening to you on headphones. You’ve got like 1,000 people standing there in a room drinking (laughs). I try as best as I can to manipulate the presentation of the set in order to bring people back to that introverted listening zone. I want people to have their eyes closed and be aware of the sound which is reflected in the way we light the show as well! I throw a lot of light at the audience in order to achieve that.[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T9xZCom34U[/youtube]
I OH YOU: There’s a vivid cycle of depth and rejuvenation throughout your forthcoming debut album Tremors. Moving past sonic influences, what visual inspirations had an impact on you when you wrote this record?
SOHN: That side is massive and it’s been a common thread through everything that I’ve done. Visually there has to be a perfect match to any release as well. I didn’t see the image that is now the album cover (pictured above) until after it was made and that was huge for me to finally find it. It was getting quite late and I began to panic, purely because of how important that pairing is. I think because the album is quite diverse in it’s mood, it’s important to pay tribute to each element. I knew exactly the colour tone that I wanted it to be – vivid red and greyish blue throughout a predominantly white image was my feeling. Can you imagine how hard that is to find? I’m sure one day there will be a Google search where you can enter colour tones but unfortunately today isn’t that day (laughs). Those tones sum up so much about what the album can mean. I was shitting myself that the artist wouldn’t license the use of the photo.
I OH YOU: Did the move from London to Vienna inform the way you felt about beginning such a large project?
SOHN: It’s informed the music to the nth degree. Everything in Vienna is so slowed down whereas in London it’s like this very fast moving river of communication. In England, everybody flirts all the time with everything they say. I found it was making it’s way into the music I was making whereas now I’m confident that I don’t need to hit that speed to create something or to interact.
I OH YOU: So the album represents the whole process of this transition, or perhaps just the end?
SOHN: I think you’ve always got a whole backlog of experience behind you and that’s no different with this album. It encapsulates a period of change.
I OH YOU: Let’s talk about productions and collaborations – It’s been a great fit on previous works such as those with Banks and Kwabs. Do you see that as an extension of your own project or something quite separate?
SOHN: It’s a funny one because it started very naturally in that I was in London at the same time that BANKS, was following a remix I had done of one of her tracks. We just thought ‘oh let’s just try something out’ and that became ‘Waiting Game’, so suddenly I had become a producer (laughs). The first session with Kwabs was that same week and it was approached in a very natural way. Now I’m being requested as a producer and a songwriter which enables me to tap into another side of something I can do – but that doesn’t necessarily tie back into any of the SOHN material. I don’t think ‘Wrong or Right’ (below) with Kwabs ties back into anything which I’ve been responsible for in my own project but it definitely is something which I loved making. It’s a bit like a second side to what I’m doing rather than a piece which directly relates to the solo work. I want to be involved with working alongside these voices to gain new influence and to use influences of the past. There’s a lot more in the pipeline.[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYDrC25kAS0[/youtube]
I OH YOU: You recently mentioned your desire to work with Tyler, The Creator and I began to wonder what that might sound like.
SOHN: I’m glad you saw that! I’m hoping he does, too! If someone is doing something which I find interesting then I’m up for working with them. I try not to think too much about what the result could be because I have no idea. It would be so out there to make something with him because of his distinctive sound and creative style. He’s got a lot of amazing sides to him. Even things like his video making are mind blowing to me. Who knows what the future holds, we’ll have to see.
I OH YOU: It’s been a pleasure to chat! Good luck with the SXSW shows and hopefully we’ll be able to experience the live show first hand soon!
SOHN: Anytime, fingers crossed!
SOHN will release his debut album Tremors on Monday, April 7th 2014 through 4AD/Remote Control Records.