With his new album 'MNTNS Of SLNC', the artist formerly known as Digital Primate is taking the 'high concept' album to new, very literal highs
Once upon a time, he was known as Digital Primate, under which moniker he released two albums and a long string of EPs full of glitchy, minimal-leaning techno in the 00s, mostly on the Pro-Jex and Shock labels. But Christopher Coe's latest venture - the MNTNS Of SLNC album, released under his own name - is something altogether different.
Released a couple of weeks ago on Awesome Soundwave - a brand new label he's just set up with Carl Cox - MNTNS Of SLNC is an audiovisual homage to the mountains of western Ireland, where this now Melbourne, Australia-based DJ and producer grew up. The visual element is still to be revealed - more on that below - but even just the audio album shows Coe to be pushing his own personal creative envelope considerably.
It's still, at heart, a techno album, and tracks such as Headland or Mountains Of Groove would certainly sound perfectly at home on the dancefloor. But other cuts, such as They Walk The Mountain, with its midtempo broken beat and ambient passages, are much more home listening-oriented, and the sound of the album overall is, it's fair to say, a far more complex and immersive listening experience than Coe's earlier work, densely layered with field recordings and, as he explains below, resulting from many, many hours of intense sound design.
Plus, of course, it's not everyone that gets to set up a new label with the mighty Coxy! So naturally, we wanted to find out more...
The hype sheet says the album's inspired by the mountains "around his home in Co Mayo" - but I thought you were based in Melbourne? Please explain!
"That's correct, I'm currently I’m based in Melbourne, where I built a studio for Carl and where we work together on various projects of his. But I grew up in the west of Ireland and that's my spiritual home. Some years ago, when I was living in Amsterdam and visiting home (Ireland), I had the idea to create a sonic landscape based entirely on the landscape where I grew up.
"It was a crystalline vision, the sound of the mountains, I wanted to capture the majesty, the deep rhythm of these monoliths, the silence... so when I'd finished my project in Amsterdam, I moved back home to the west for six months to climb the mountains, film them and make the sounds, to try to interpret the landscape sonically. And to try to articulate the deep spiritual resonance I felt with that landscape."
All I've heard so far is the audio album, so can you explain how the A/V aspect works? Is it simply an accompanying film, a suite of visuals to be triggered VJ-style, or something else altogether?
"The original concept was (and remains) to create a live show, with live visuals on huge screens, wrapped 180° around the audience and set in industrial surroundings, like shipyards or a huge warehouse. The visuals would be comprised of film footage from the mountains and animation, all controlled, triggered and manipulated by the moves and changes I would make musically. In essence they would be mapped and synchronised with whatever I was doing to manipulate the audio, thereby bringing the viewer into this world through the sound and the visuals concurrently.
"The idea is to create something majestic and juxtapose this with the industrial setting within which it is performed. We're planning this now, and soon it will be realised."
I hear you did a fair bit of field recording for the album - what kit do you use for that, and what do you feel the field recordings bring to the record as a whole?
"I just used a simple Olympus digital voice recorder! I took it everywhere and recorded the sound of the wind, waves lapping against the boat as we pulled up the lobster pots, musicians playing in the pub, the drone of mourners' prayers as they buried a dear friend’s father on a wintery day, the wind howling and the rain coming at us sideways.
"I also used some condenser mics in my makeshift studio to record Frank O’Reilly and John Hoban, legendary trad musicians from the area. I then grabbed all these sounds, and with some I used the entire recording, filtered and processed as underlying ambience; with others I sampled and stretched and messed them up to create new instruments in Ableton - pads, hits and so on.
"You won’t hear the sound of a fiddle on the record, because I used these recordings as starting points. They're processed beyond recognition, but the texture they brought gave it a special feel - not to mention the inherent concept that all the source materials were recorded on location."
The album was produced in various locations - Ireland, Amsterdam, Sweden. Why so nomadic, and have those locations influenced its sound in any way, do you think?
"It was mainly produced in Ireland, but I started working on ideas and developing templates on a house boat in Amsterdam. Then I went to Ireland, and set up a small studio space in a friend’s old stable house. In factm it was the same room I used to learn art in as a kid, with my mentor and teacher Wayne - the man who instilled in me the idea that the creative imperative is the priority.
"After about three months climbing mountains, writing tunes, recording field recordings and the musicians, I took all that material to an isolated live-in studio in Sweden to continue the work uninterrupted. This studio had loads of guitars and pedals and amps and vintage synths, a drum kit, great monitors, and absolute quiet. I spent a month there on my own, pulling together all the ideas, recording drums and synth bits, putting a bass through a Marshall stack with seven distortion pedals, putting an old Casio through a tape delay and Fender amp. My friends Julien Chaptal and Arjan Hebly came to visit and we recorded the sound of the couch and made a kickdrum - that was fun!
"Then it was back to Ireland for another three months, where I used the studio of a dear friend on the northwest coast. Here I continued the work to fine-tune and hone the records. My friend Joost Swart also came to visit, and he played the piano parts... but I made him climb the mountains before he played a note!"
I'm told you've also been experimenting with A=432Hz tuning on MNTNS Of SLNC. Can you briefly explain what this is and what it involves?
"Well, to be honest... I started out with every intention to explore this concept, but the more I researched it, the more I realised it was a nice idea but actually meaningless. I couldn’t find any basis in science about it, and the conspiracy theories about the Nazis or the church changing tuning in order to control people just seemed like bullshit to me.
"I'd love to hear if there is any scientific evidence around this concept of alternative tuning having a deeper effect on our physical and emotional well-being, but after looking into it fairly extensively and consulting serious musicians and theorists, I decided to ditch the idea and just focus on making music. And actually, that was quite liberating - I remembered that what's important is the music, not the concept!"
The album comes on Awesome Soundwave, the new label you've set up with Carl Cox. The two of you go back some way - can we get a potted history?
"Coxy and I have know each other for many years. I used to put records out on Pro-Jex back at the turn of the century, and Coxy would play them - he was friends with my dear friend Charlie Hall, who ran the label. Carl and I collaborated a couple of times when he was working on his album All Roads Lead To The Dancefloor, and we’ve been solid friends since we toured together on the Big Day Out festival in the early 2000s.
"We’ve always made time to catch up whenever we've been in the same city, and when I told him about the MNTNS Of SLNC project he was so encouraging and suggested we release it together, and out of this came the idea to do a label. Then he asked me to build a new studio for him, which I did last year, and now we're working on many things."
What are your plans for Awesome Soundwave going forward? Will you be signing artists to the label or will it be purely a vehicle for your/Carl's own output?
"Awesome Soundwave is a special project: we intend to only sign live artists, and to only release albums. We want to give artists the opportunity to really explore their sound and push their boundaries, and we only intend to release a few things each year. It’s not a money-making venture: the idea is to support the work, give it time to breathe, and inspire the artist to go further than they have before.
"Most other dance labels are EP-based, which is great but it means fast turnover, and sometimes a pressure to make stuff that works to a formula. We want Awesome Soundwave to provide an alternative to this for electronic artists.The music can still work on the dancefloor, but hopefully go beyond that too."
Why did you decide to do this album under your own name, rather than as Digital Primate? Is it case of forging two parallel musical identities, or is Digital Primate dead now?
"Actually, I was originally gonna just release it under the Digital Primate moniker, but Carl suggested I go out under my own name and I realised he was right. This way I can start afresh with a new project and not have it attached to the history of what I've done before. I’m not hiding the fact that before this I released as Digital Primate, but this way seemed more honest and liberating. Carl was really strong about this being the way forward: he felt passionately about it, and I felt honoured that he would care so much, and realised it was really solid and heartfelt advice.
"It was difficult to let go at first, but now I'm proud of the fact that MNTNS Of SLNC is under my own name. I'll do my live shows under this name, but Digital Primate will still release the occasional dancefloor banger and do the odd DJ show. He's not dead, he's just hibernating!"
Finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Well, I’m off the carbs and trying to lose weight! I'm working in the studio with Carl as his engineer, and now I’m focusing on producing my live show, which will be a visual treat. in collaboration with Roy Gerritsen from Boompje Amsterdam, we're gonna make something really special, which will hopefully premiere in Amsterdam around October."
Words: Russell Deeks