Qua & Mountains in the Sky – Collective Clarity
December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: Cyclic Defrost, #21, December 2008.
Qua and Mountains in the Sky
By Dan Rule
The artistic journeys of Melbourne’s Cornel Wilczek (aka Qua) and John Lee (of Mountains in the Sky) couldn’t be further removed. Nonetheless, the two artists have come to develop are rare creative dialogue. Released simultaneously by the same label, their new records – Qua’s masterfully chaotic fourth album Q&A and Mountains in the Sky’s stunning third release Electron Suite – mark a new chapter in the pair’s artistic relationship. Over the last two years they’ve found each other as deeply involved in one another’s records as their own: conceptualising, counselling, troubleshooting, breaking down, mixing, even playing live. In the following dialogue, they speak to one another about inspiration, process and the importance of exchange.
On paper, Cornel Wilczek and John Lee are the classic odd-couple. They hail from polar musical pedigrees, employ entirely different methodologies and craft strikingly singular sounds.
Since crafting the shimmering ambient landscapes that comprised his debut as Qua, 2002’s stunning Forgetabout, 34-year-old Wilczek has created an electronic musical syntax unto itself. Crossing genre and stylistic orientation at will, the classically trained composer and instrumentalist’s hyper-fragmented, mind-bendingly intricate and densely melodic sound worlds utilise customised software patches, live instrumentation and an increasingly refined range of interfaces to render their strange beauty.
Conversely, the self-taught Lee came from a background in rock bands to plot a curious line through psychedelia and hip-hop, the 33-year-old’s sample-rich, beat-heavy instrumentals capturing both electronic intricacies and very human, band-like dynamics.
In person, too, they seem at opposite ends of the scale. Wilczek is already waiting at our meeting place – in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood – when I arrive ahead time. Lee, meanwhile, rolls in half an hour late, a guilty smile on his dial. Even as today’s dialogue begins, it becomes apparent that the two engage in contrasting ways. Lee meanders through the conversation, taking his time to consider his explanations and posing as many questions as he responds to. Wilczek, on the other hand, speaks at a hundred miles an hour, his rapid-fire articulations both elaborate and definitive.
Nonetheless, over the last few years the pair have been charting an ever-closer course. Whilst contrasting heavily in terms of sound sources, methodologies and individual aesthetics, their two new records – the crazily crowded electronic pop of Qua’s Q&A and the vivid, colour-soaked landscapes of Mountains in the Sky’s Electron Suite – engender parallel, almost sibling-like qualities.
Indeed, as Lee goes on to posit, the records’ co-release on Love+Mercy in October signalled something far deeper than mere label convenience. “I think why the two records have come together so much is because during the last year it’s become this kind of joint obsession,” he offers. “We were both really thinking about what our next record was going to be and always communicating with each other about what we feel is important and all that kind of stuff, so they have ended up really informing each other.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” responds Wiczek. “I think both of these albums were very conscious albums in terms of what we wanted, and the amount of discussion we had before we even started, well, I think we talked about it for as long as we actually did it.”
“Which is weird for me because I’d never done that before,” says Lee. “I’d never really had the opportunity to talk about it like that with other people.”
“I think it’s really important to have peers in your life as an artist,” Wilczek continues. “If you don’t have peers in your life, it means you can’t discuss the most important things in your life at the time of creating something like this, which is writing the album. Six months ago, our conversations were based entirely around certain songs on our albums that we were struggling with, or certain elements, and it’s really important to talk about your creative process and the fruits of it and trying to work out how it can be better. We’d literally be writing a track and sending it to one another.”
“Just the slightest little comment can have a huge impact on a whole track,” says Lee. “When you’re sharing stuff with other people, it’s almost like you don’t even need their comments; you just need a fresh pair of ears. As soon as you sit down and listen to something with someone, you notice all these things that you didn’t notice when you were by yourself. It makes you more of a listener rather than a creator.”
Lee’s approach to music has always been intuitive. He grew up in the satellite city of Geelong, picking up the age of 15. His first real musical break came with indie-pop band Honeysuckle, but it wasn’t until he moved to Melbourne and began hanging around with the guys from The Avalanches – before they had formed the group – that he really began to explore music. For Lee, the turning point was hip-hop.
“It changed everything,” he recalls. “I had really moved away from music, but this notion of sampling just opened up a whole new world. I started buying records from op-shops that I never would have listened to, and I started seeing the value and the worth in all this great stuff that people were just throwing away. It was no longer about technique, but kind of about listening and learning, you know, and hat’s when I started getting into experimental music.”
“I kind of love that thing of playing any instrument – keyboards, drums – that I haven’t really learned, because I have a naïve approach to it and naivety – this sense of discovery – in music is really important.”
His debut record as Mountains, 2005’s Celestial Son, echoed with such wide-eyed sensibilities. Filled with lush samples, farm animal grabs and flourishing orchestral dynamics, it proved as pretty as it was melancholic – its loose, flowing instrumentals weaving through a stunning array of minor key atmospheres and introspections. The more expansive, psyche-riddled tropes of Accipio arrived in 2006.
Wilkczek couldn’t have come from a more different backdrop. Hailing from Adelaide, he learned the classical guitar from early childhood and went onto play as a session musician in his early 20s. “I really took it quite seriously for a while and I made my living doing session work, but I really began to miss the compositional side.”
The Qua project began to take shape when he moved to Melbourne. “I’d never had a computer until I was 23 and then bought a one and was just blown away,” he smiles. “I just started really, really thinking about myself as a composer – what I wanted to do and what I could do that no one else did – and it was at that point that I found these old four-track sets that I’d had when I was 13 or 14. So I started listening to them and I was kind of blown away with how articulate some of these were and how I hadn’t heard anything quite like it and then used that as a starting point for the first album.”
“So I had my Mac Classic Plus, my guitar, my sampler and my Nord Mini Modular and I started creating all this stuff,” he continues. “It was based around recording performances and then cutting them up and restructuring them, then using synthesis to tie it all together. It’s really about performance cut up and abstracted and turned into something else.”
While Forgetabout fluttered and pealed with ambient texture and clicking rhythms, 2004’s masterpiece Painting Monsters on Clouds saw him merge more angular compositions and chaotic shudders of melodic and percussive material into a still largely ambient underlay. The record was celebrated throughout the experimental community and saw Wilczek sign to renowned LA experimental label Mush, who went onto re-release his first two records an internationally.
Wilczek and Lee’s musical worlds began to align on Accipio, for which Lee wired Wilczek as a mix engineer. He ended up playing synth and guitar on the record and helping Lee and live-collaborator Stu MacFarlane perform the songs in a live context. “Mixing is a really cool way to learn something,” says Wilczek. “It’s like suddenly you know it inside out.”
The pair began to discuss their future projects and directions only to find that their plans were all but parallel. The binding conduit was pop.
“Cornel and I are both into such a huge array of music and we really love so many different sorts of music that we sometimes get stuck trying to fit too much into one record,” says Lee. “We spoke a lot about the fact that we’re going to be making records for a long time and there’s a lot more time for making ambient music, like when we’re eighty and running marathons.”
“The big change in my album was when you were saying exactly that,” says Wilczek. “You said, ‘We’re not going to be young forever. Right now we’ve got a lot of energy so lets do pop-based albums and give it that youthful energy while you’ve got it’. That really turned everything around, because at one stage there were some tracks that I was going to throw away and I continued with them.”
“I was thinking about touring around and playing live, and you know, it’s not something that I necessarily want to do forever,” continues Lee. “So when it came to focussing my attention on what sort of music I wanted to make, I just thought that while I can still tour and travel around, it might as well be fun and be something I want to play live to people.”
Both records certainly fit this bill, both utilising an array of live instrumentation to expound their electronic accompaniments. From its opening volley of pulsing, psychedelic collages (the wondrous harp embellishments and driving grooves of Synaptic Cleft and arcing synth wig-out of Soundsistors), Electron Suite resounds with compositional vitality and vision. Over 11 cuts, Lee and his band of collaborators – MacFarlane, ex-Sodastream bass and saw extraordinaire Pete Cohen, Wilczek (who again mixed the record) and others – weave a tapestry of driving rhythm and ornate instrumentation, with layered analogue and sample-splashed colour offering different hues and punctuations.
For Lee, it’s been a huge educational curve. “I’m learning a lot more about sound,” he says. “The previous two records were sample-based and I didn’t know too much about how to adjust them or what to do with them. Plus I really liked that whole organic thing and I wanted to get a whole bunch of organic sounds and mash them together and do something entirely different.”
“Cornel has been a huge influence, not just musically but in terms of technology and learning how to use the tools that I’m using, which is really important, because if you don’t feel confident with the tools that you’re using, you don’t necessarily push them as far as they can go and you don’t know where they can go.”
“I’m your technology pusher,” giggles Wilczek.
“I knew that I wanted to make an upbeat record that was positive, and I thought that was what was important for me,” continues Lee. “A few years ago I made a decision to not listen to music that was depressing and it had a huge influence on my life. Not listening to Nico first thing in the morning made a big difference to my day,” he laughs. “So the idea was to inject something like that back into the world and not have such a negative and sombre influence.”
Q&A is similarly upbeat. The spiralling, top-end cacophony and thundering new-wave beat of manic opener Lapsang Souchong segues into a torrent of high-velocity pop playfulness – early 80s proto-computer contours and gleaming instrumentation trading nuances and phrases at will. The recorder loop-turned explosions of Goodmorning Sun and Dance of the Three Fours, and Laurence Pike’s extraverted drum assault on The Lion’s Flying Dream make for thrilling flashes, while the robo-break of The Magnificent Mister is one of the record’s most outwardly joyous moments. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same composer who in August released flowing improvisational mini-album Silver Red, let alone the comparative reticence of Forgetabout and Painting Monsters on Clouds.
“It was pretty much the simplest conceptual basis I’d ever come up with,” he says, “which was making the record really fun and really colourful. And I don’t want to sound vacuous but I didn’t want too much to be read into it. I just wanted to just exist and be fun. I really needed not just the music to be fun, but the writing and production stages of it to be really fun and really instinctive and free of all the stuff that I’d worked with in the past, which was quite laboured and quite emotionally draining.”
“This was really pleasurable to do and essence of these songs just happened so quickly. It literally happened in hours and I think by letting go of the shackles and trying not to do anything too deep, opened this very instinctive, very colourful world up.”
This sense of haste was something that informed both records. “One thing that we discussed a lot was working on our own the whole time and spending so much time isolated in the studio,” says Lee. “For me, using samples that are so labour intensive and Cornel’s processing being so labour intensive, it was really important for both of us that we just knocked the records out. I was feeling very isolated, just being alone for hours at a time in a little room.”
“I think that informed the records that we ended up making. I think the stuff we’ve done before has maybe allowed people to enter their own sort of space, but these seem to invite people in.”
Wilczek agrees. “Both these albums sound like albums that you would listen to on speakers, whereas our last few albums sounded more like headphone albums. Both have amazing qualities, but yeah, I actually wrote these songs without headphones and wrote them quite loud and mixed them quite loud and it was all about space and vibration.”
“I think the other interesting thing is that both of us did a lot of the writing standing up,” adds Lee. “Cornel read this interview with Brian Eno, which was discussing that whole notion that if you stand up you write more positive and energetic music than if you sit down.”
“Instead of looking at that linear playback head move across a screen,” says Wilczek, “you’re focussing on an instrument and focussing on the sounds that you’re making.”
But that’s not to say that the process of creating pop music was without its troubles. “What I found about writing this music that was really upbeat and happy and fun and not too vacuous was that it’s actually really hard,” laughs Lee. “I think there’s a fine line between what we do, which is writing a pop song to try and facilitate good vibes and writing a meaningless pop song to try and make money.”
“It became a really valid challenge,” urges Wilczek. “It offers a different focal point to the music you know. Everybody has that desire to hear something resolved in three or four chords.”
“I just found that so unbelievably liberating,” he says. “We all know the effect that good pop music can have on you – it can change your life.”
“All that said,” offers Lee, a cheeky smile creeping across his face. “A great deal of pop music just makes me want to vomit and doesn’t allow me to think of anything except how much I hate it.”
Q&A is out through Mush/Love+Mercy/Shock
Electron Suite is out through Love+Mercy/Shock