The point where the avant-garde, classical composition and electronica collide is fertile territory right now, and this Czech-British duo are exploring it with relish
Duos and collaborations litter dance music in the most positive of ways: take Daft Punk, The Hacker & Miss Kittin, Basement Jaxx or Disclosure, for instance. Add in the considerable talent of two trained musicians and what comes to pass is nothing short of musical nirvana. Floex and Tom Hodge are two such musicians, and their new album A Portrait Of John Doe aims to look for the human themes that connect us all.
Floex (real name Tomas Dvorak) is a composer, producer and multimedia artist from Prague who's released two previous LPs under his own name (Pocustone and Zorya), while Tom Hodge hails from here in the UK, and was previously best known for his work scoring the crime drama series McMafia. The two Toms' paths crossed in Berlin in 2014, and after discovering a shared love of both classical and electronic music - as well as the fact that they were both clarinet players - they immediately began working on the album that became A Portrait Of John Doe. Featuring the talents of the Prague Radio Symphonic Orchestra, it's one of the finer neoclassical/electronic fusion projects you'll hear this year - and it has to be said that 2018 hasn't exactly been lacking in them!
Following the release of three EPs - Wednesday (Is The New Friday), John Doe Arise and The Prelude EP, which featured remixes by Hidden Orchestra, Max Cooper and Deltawerk, respectively - the guys are now set to take the project on the road, with six dates in eastern Europe already confirmed and more no doubt to be arranged in the interim.
Before that, though, there's the inevitable round of press interviews that come with the album territory. iDJ sat down with them to discuss their collaboration, their musical inspirations and the human condition.
Are you pleased that the album's finally done and dusted, and in stores?
Floex: "Yes, it's really cool to see our project being uncovered."
Tom Hodge: "We're excited that after four years, we're sharing our collaborative music with the world."
Reading your bios, you’ve both had very interesting careers so far. Tell us about your personal inspirations - and if you've found you have many in common?
F: "Actually I think, our taste in music is pretty similar. It may not be expressed in concrete terms, but we share similar opinions and a general interest. For example, ‘musicality’ is a very important aspect for both of us in what we do. We also both like contemporary classical music and at the same time enjoy the electronic music scene too. When it comes to the real work, we have some favourites of course. For example, I'm more into production, and people like Son Lux, Jon Hopkins, Stimming, Max Cooper and Hidden Orchestra have definitely influenced my own style.
TH: "It's quite a natural fit, for sure. We both draw from a wide range of influences, but somehow it's focused through the same prism. Maybe it's because we both play that slightly unusual instrument in electronic music, the clarinet!"
Talk us through how you met. It was at a festival in Berlin, right?
FX: "Everything that happens with Tom seems to be very organic. In Berlin, I approached Tom after the performance by the band he has with Franz Kirmann, just to tell him how much I liked it and compliment his clarinet playing. It was the festival of our former label Denovali, so we kind of knew about each other. My own music is very deeply connected with this instrument, so he was making fun of me, pretending that he didn't know who he was speaking with, while cracking jokes about Floex. A few months later, we ended up in a studio in Prague playing duets on clarinet. This is how everything started."
TH: "Make jokes at Tomas’ expense? I'd surely never have behaved like that..."
Tom, I understand you worked with Max Cooper as Remnants. How was that experience? Did it inform how you’d write your own album?
TH: "I have an ongoing collab with Max as well. We've done a handful of EPs including Remnants, Fragmented Self and I contributed a few tracks to Emergence as well. The approach is quite different than with Tomas actually: it's almost more of a culture clash.
"I tend to focus on bringing lyrical piano melodies or occasionally strings, which are often simple, emotive lines that provide a sharp contrast to Max’s ultra-complex, detailed production processes. At least, so far anyway. With Floex, with so many common instruments and approaches, it feels like we are always finding our way to some giant, and admittedly complex, unison. Or at least the search might be for this - the answers that appear, might not necessarily be so!"
The album's taken a while to complete. Can you hear your sound developing over time in the tracks?
FX: "There is not really a change of view over time for me. It's because in the beginning we were trying to sort out a different level of the tracks than in the end. In the beginning it was all about the music - that's when the musical core of the songs was defined. So in this sense we just had to be sure that the music is interesting. We had some rough ideas, but not the definite versions of the songs at this stage.
"Later we added the orchestration. After that, we tried to finalise the form of the songs. In the end it was all about the production and mix. We spent much of the last year focusing on the production and making things coherent."
TH: "Yes, that sums it up! Each phase was a moment in time. The writing/inspiration phase in Floex’s studio, the arranging and recording of the orchestra which transformed the project, and the production phase which was pretty much exclusively Tomas chipping away. Obviously there is more blurring than that, but there's no sense that one song was four years ago and the other just a few months ago."
You’ve put a great deal into this project, working with the Prague Radio Symphonic Orchestra to achieve the album's cathedral-like sound. Was it important to you both to use ‘real’ musicians rather than rely on computer software?
FX: "We recorded lots of things live - not only in case of the orchestra, but also in the studio. It definitely helped us in the studio, working in an organic manner, and also incorporated this quality into the tracks. As for the orchestra, we actually had direct comparison since we originally composed the tracks with the sample banks. The live version makes a big difference, it just gave the music more soul, depth and character.
"There are also a few spots where we layered the orchestral recording with the sample banks. For example, the brass at the end of Machines Are Dancing. Here the brass needs to stay very firm and has to hold the growth of the final part. When mixed, the samples gave us this fundament and the live recording gave us the organic feel and the character."
TH: "I’m passionate about using real musicians, but it was an extra special opportunity to use a full symphony orchestra! What I find so unique about the particular process on this record is all the development of the sound after the recording, so that the blend of electronic and acoustic is happening at a very deep level. Often the temptation, when presented with pristine orchestral recordings, is not to touch them too much. They do, after all, have a magical quality as soon as they are committed to tape. But our process was to dig away at them, to make something that could really connect with the electronic universe."
FX: "We wouldn't hesitate to work with the orchestral recording further. We would often use some dirty old vintage equipment like the real Space Echoes, Vermona Spring Reverb, Moog filters etc. Our concept is often based on extreme polarities: this situation creates tension, which seems interesting for us. For example, very traditional orchestral sounds against cutting edge electronics, or old, dirty 70s vintage quality in a very contemporary sound design context.
"We also tried to not to overuse the orchestral parts. I think many records in this kind of style fail in this sense, because they're trying to show-off the sound of the orchestra - they're too excited about its powers. This was something we tried to be extra careful about."
The first single from the album, Wednesday (Is The New Friday), feels very theatrical in its sound design, with a very clear theme to it. How long did it take to finish?
FX: "As far as I remember, that wasn't a hard one. We came up with the theme pretty quickly, Tom playing the piano and me the melody on the clarinet. From the beginning, I really liked the idea of the different instruments playing the theme in unison, like from the Near East orchestra.
"We then had fun in the studio improvising on that, which helped develop the song further. The only challenge here was the beat - it was reworked several times. It's because the beat is 5/4 signature, not a very typical signature in electronic music, and we were also solving the question of how to make it sound more radical against more conventional orchestral parts."
TH: "5/4, my favourite!"
Talk us through some of your other highlights. Which tracks came together quickly and which took forever to get right?
FX: "It's really hard to decide if there are some favourite tracks. It changes over time, but I guess that's a good sign! For me, the most challenging track was Prelude. It's an epically evolving track, and also because it is the only sung track on the album. It was quite hard to find the strategy for the vocals across the whole track. We didn't want to make a typical song. It may seem so from the first few minutes, but then the track transforms into a different world.
"Another example is Resurgence - we couldn't find the solution for this track for some time. We had a theme based on Tom's beautiful, never-ending progression, but it didn't work as a song in our universe, and it didn't work with any beat in particular. We ended up changing the whole tectonic plate of this song completely - we changed not only the tempo but also the signature."
TH: "I was very nervous about Machines... when Tomas added four on the floor! So for me, the way this continued to evolve is a pleasing result - especially, again, with the blend of orchestra and electronics. I like to feel we added something new to this particular sub-genre of music!"
The album speaks to the human condition. Do you view that concept differently now?
FX: "Not really. The album is about ordinary moments in our lives, and the value we see in them as something which connects us as humans. This all actually came out very naturally - we started to see certain stories in our music. First of all these were our own personal stories, but later we realised they were universal stories."
TH: "Indeed. It's a celebration of the the common man, whoever that is! They're musical snapshots of someone’s life, I suppose - our lives, and anyone else’s life for whom the music resonates."
Tell us about your plans in the next few months. Are you touring the album? Can we catch you live somewhere?
FX: "We are planning the tour for the autumn. We have something special for the concerts which are ahead of us. From the start, we were solving the problem that it’s impossible to make the live appearance with a real orchestra. In November 2017, we did one very special concert in Prague with the whole Symphonic orchestra, and made a recording on 35 GoPro cameras. This material will be used for creating a virtual orchestra which should somehow bring the orchestral experience to the clubs and smaller places. We're working on this with the multimedia studio Initi Interactive."
TH: "Really excited about this. Tomas has a strong background in visual arts as well, of course, and is drawing in some amazing people and ideas to make what will hopefully become our virtual John Doe Orchestra! This I’m sure will be an organic process, too, which I hope will grow and grow. It’s nice to be getting started on this in the autumn. And of course I’d love to bring it all to London as soon as possible, too."
Before we sign off, is there anything we haven't covered that you’d like to mention?
TH: "Well, let’s just give a shout out to our amazing collaborators who haven’t been mentioned yet then - Kim Sheehan, our wonderful vocalist on Prelude and John Doe Arise, Chris Warner for all his help with the orchestra..."
FX: "...plus Marko Ivanovic for conducting the orchestra and Matouš Godík for his assistance with the mixing!"
Words: Simon Huxtable
A Portrait Of John Doe is out now on Mercury KX