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Solarference interview part 1

solarference, lips, of, clay,

Armed with laptops and instruments both traditional, and frankly weird, Solarference may be unorthodox but prove the flexibility of folk form in their own unique way. Since 2008, Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen, have been re-tuning audiences ears to waves of cutting edge music, now they've captured the inspired sounds on their debut, Lips Of Clay. Here the Bristol based duo discuss the technology, their recording process, and what inspires them.

Let's start with the obvious: why laptops? And how did that start?

Sarah: Essentially, we use our laptops as instruments, to accompany songs. The idea is to create a sound-world for the song to come to life in.
Nick: Exploring that idea started quite a few years ago. I've always been into electronic music, and I've written songs and messed about with computer sounds for as long as I can remember. When we met, Sarah was studying studio composition at university, making a lot of soundscapes and sound collage pieces using computers. Visiting her in a fully-equipped studio opened my ears up to some of the craft and the vast creative scope of electronic sound. I really wanted to explore that big space.
Sarah: Sitting on my own in a darkened studio behind a bank of equipment was one way of making the sounds that I wanted to hear, but I always struggled between the detailed vision you can achieve when composing like that, and wanting to sing and perform. So we came up with a way to use our laptops as a kind of instant, portable version of a studio.
Nick: Our performance involves a pretty hefty amount of manipulation and processing of sound, all in real time, not pre-recorded, so it's something we couldn't do live without laptops at this point.

What sort of reaction have you had to that element?

Nick: I know people can have preconceptions about "electronic music": straight beats, metallic sounds, inorganic, synthy music... That's one particular electronic aesthetic, and we really appreciate it, but it's not the main thing we're aiming for with our music. Sometimes people seem slightly wary when they see our laptop stands set up, but once we start playing, they can see and hear that the computer processes are really integral to the music we're making.
Sarah: Combining the technology with folk song really highlights its capacity as a tool for human, heartfelt expression. And people have been really positive about that new mode of expression, and the new palette of sounds that we bring to these songs.

Do you have stage hands and sound techs scratching their heads?

Nick: From their perspective we're quite simple, because we do our mixing and balancing ourselves, on stage. We're listening and responding all the time, adjusting our sounds, so the mix is constantly shifting and changing. Things like morphing a sound's tone or timbre through EQ, gradually changing a reverb or just changing a volume, they're all part of the music. So in that sense, we're a band and mixing desk in one.
Sarah: We've performed in people's front rooms, where we bring four identical speakers, point one pair to the audience and the other back to us for monitoring, and go. And these have been some of our best gigs, because we're in the same space as the audience, and we know that they're hearing what we're hearing. When we play bigger venues, what we do appreciate techies for is for their knowledge of the quirks of a place - how the room and sound system react to different types of sound, or how the sound in the monitors on stage differs from what you hear on the floor. And they're the first to cotton on to what we're doing with the live sampling and the software, so often they appreciate it on that level as well, which some people aren't immediately aware of.

Apparently you use your own software? Tell us about that.

Sarah: We created this software in Max/MSP, to let us transform sounds live on stage, in real time. We made our own because there was nothing out there that did this in the way we wanted to. I'd been to a lot of electronic music performances which were quite alienating because I may as well have been listening to something entirely pre-made - I had no way of knowing or connecting with what was happening in the actual performance. So partly we wanted something that would let our process be transparent to the audience - you can see us making the original sound we sample, and follow it on a journey of gradual transformations.
Nick: Most live software seems geared towards looping, which is like having a tape recorder but only being able to press PLAY on the same sound over and over again. We try and avoid using looping in that way: our software is like a crazy tape recorder with all kinds of different PLAY buttons, which all play back the recorded sound in different ways and patterns. Some would chop up the tape into tiny pieces, throw them all up into the air and mix them up, and then stick them back together again, with some pieces overlapping or others with gaps in between, and then play that back. Or other PLAY buttons can magically change the speed of the tape without changing the pitch, and play some parts fast, some parts slow.
Sarah: Building our own home made software has given us the amazing luxury of being able to say things like - I want to be able to wind this music box up, let it play, then stretch bits of it out to make drones, or, what would it sound like if we just played staccato fragments of it in a different order? Or what if we did that with rustling tin foil, would it make a beat? We've been developing it for a few years and just keeps on changing and morphing as we ask more questions like - could we make a sound do this? It given us the control to really craft our own sound and aesthetic.

When performing entirely live, as you do, does this present more pitfalls than a traditional setup?

Sarah: We're frantically piecing together the track as we play, so it's always quite demanding. But I think of it sort of like cooking an endless curry, with a gradually shifting interplay of dozens of ingredients and spices, which we're always tasting and reacting to with a pinch or this, or a little more of that. It's like having another person in the band, to listen and respond to.
Nick: The software definitely has its own voice. We like quite a rough sound, not too neat, so we've designed it with a lot of flexibility and 'looseness', which means we can't ever dictate exactly what comes out of it. We can steer it in a direction, like a boat, but there's a certain amount of unpredictability that we get to bounce off. We try to see it as an opportunity rather than a pitfall!

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The Insider

This column on Spiral Earth concentrates on the current and emerging artists that have caught our eye.

Dave Kushar has been writing for Spiral Earth since 2008, his tastes range from Billy Bragg to Fugazi.

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