Interview: Solar Bears

Interview: Solar Bears

We talk to Solar Bears’ John McElheron about Alejandro Jodorowsky, automatic writing, synesthesia and the vocal beauty of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan.

Tell us about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s influence on Solar Bears’ music and visuals. Are you intrigued with his interest in tarot, surrealism and alchemy—that sort of stuff?
Both of us are really into his filmmaking, and both are fascinated by him as an individual as well. He’s an intriguing fellow. Both of us research endless topics, cherry-picking ideas, philosophy and methodologies to do with music. Anything to do with culture and how it effects each individual. A lot of these break-away directors, they’re often kind of pivotal figures. I’m pretty sure John Lennon was a fan as well. It’s no accident, these type of people, they’re kind of free thinkers and they gravitate toward each other like birds of a feather flock together. I would really like to have seen his version of Dune.

I just read something about that recently.
I think he was violently ill. He wanted to make it so much and when he saw David Lynch’s version he had a complete turnaround, his health improved rapidly ’cause he was so happy it wasn’t a successful film, and it wasn’t what Lynch wanted either. We have a studio track called “Bear Mountain” which is named directly after Holy Mountain.

It seems that Jodorowsky and someone like Jim Jarmusch sort of have their own side-genre, of philosophical and psychedelic westerns. Acid westerns. El Topo with Jodorowsky and Dead Man and The Limits of Control with Jarmusch.
What I like, say, about both of them is that they don’t follow the crowd at all and they don’t really care about what’s popular, and they don’t adhere to expectation. If you’re aware of these people and you watch their films, you soak it up and you let it filter through. What happens is that it does tend to effect your work. I have a big problem with formula. What we try to do in the studio is go against what’s expected and literally go against ourselves. If we have a certain track we’re happy with, we try and do the exact opposite the next time. It allows different colors to filter through. We see music and color as interrelated, and it’s kind of to do with the album title (“She Was Coloured In”). Color is an actual element.

Similar to synesthesia: sound will conjure a color or color will conjure a sound.
Absolutely. I think a lot of music fans feel that where they have visuals or visions that are definitely color-coordinated. Each sounds represent a color, each texture. That’s why we tried as best we could, even though we had limited resources, to keep changing the color and keep changing the timbre. We didn’t stick with analogue, we didn’t stick with digital. We tried to use different keyboard and guitar sounds every time.

What sort of equipment did you use for the recording?
The one that we released, there was a lot of overdubbing with VHS tape, cassette tape. And then Sony handheld recorders that date back to ’86 or whatever. It was, literally, to change the production values to get us away from the norm. It was to change and manipulate what you’re hearing and how it travels. We overdubbed some of the synths with VHS, then overdub entire tracks onto tiny cassette tapes via very small dynamic microphones, then feed it back in and mix the two of them together. Then we’d do it differently the next time.

Continuing with that thought, not only would you be using those techniques, but one minute you’d sound a bit like Boards of Canada and the next moment, you’d sound totally different.
Again, it’s just dating a recording to get away from a pristine sound. In terms of, say, Boards of Canada, who we get compared to a lot—I don’t think anyone can really be compared to them, to be brutally honest. I mean, what they’ve achieved, it’s kind of unparalleled. They’re as influential as the Beatles or Talking Heads or Pink Floyd. Their music is their own, their consciousness, their experience, their viewpoint, their sorrow, their joy—it’s literally them as people. There are a lot of imitators, but there will never be a match. We listen to loads of Krautrock, electronic music, folk as well. Bands like Death In Vegas and Primal Scream would be far more embedded in my psyche in terms of repetition and kind of how they mix it up. They’d have jazz, techno, or eastern music—it’s literally never limiting themselves. It’s beautiful music.

Speaking of Krautrock, one of your songs actually reminded me of a song called “Notre Dame” by Harmonia—have you ever heard it?
Yes! That’s one of my favorites. I wish I wrote that. [Laughs] That’s literally the biggest compliment you could actually pay either of us. That piece of music—I remember, I went to see Fuck Buttons in New York, and they had music playing in the bar, and “Notre Dame” came on and I was in my element, I was in cloud nine. Michael Rother is a total genius. Again, I’d have to say Neu is probably one of the most influential bands. If you listen to the last Horrors album or Portishead, you can hear it in large quantities. It’s a strong, widespread influence.

The first time I heard Fuck Buttons’ song “Olympians” off their latest album, I was in a car and it blew my mind.
The layering and when the major riff comes in, it’s mind-blowing, really. They’re fantastic live. I think they’re probably in the top five bands in the world right now. They’re just as adept on stage as they are in the studio. They’re just really gifted—they don’t get anything wrong. Every single layer they use is on point. That track works really well in their live gigs.

Is there a tour in the works for Solar Bears?
Well, we just signed up with Little Big, a booking agency in Germany. They handle Aphex Twin, Chris Clark, Squarepusher and a lot of the Warp acts. It’s just a case of getting back to all the people who’ve asked us over the year. We’re playing a festival here called Forbidden Fruit. I think Aphex is on the bill. We’ve been asked to play in the States many times. We’d really like to come over and do a two or three week tour. We’ve got a lot of fans from the States. It goes down really well in America. It seems like most of our fans are from New York City and Los Angeles. We’re kind of just building up the set right now. It’s a learning process because we’ve never performed in an electronic band live. We’d really like to work with visuals as well because obviously we’re really big cinema fans.

What sort of visuals?
We’d want them as good as possible, so there is a certain visual artist we have in mind. But, it might be a case of building a big fund ’cause it would be very expensive. And, obviously, they’d have to want to work with us as well. Certainly, live acts who have a strong visual element, it’s as if you’re killing two birds with one stone.

A band that had a really great live show with great visuals was Broadcast. I was able to see them last year, and it’s really sad now because Trish Keenan passed away recently.
Right, Jesus. I was pretty devastated to read that. My friend Bibio told me. He was very upset as well. Not just because of their back catalogue or what they were creating at the moment, or what they were going to create. He’s just a really good soul. Her harmonies were really angelic. She was someone I really looked up to. I thought her lyrics were pretty much the best around. She did a lot of automatic writing, and she’d go back and edit out the best parts. That’s something I do for song titles. The ones that’s are film references are from automatic writing. I wouldn’t have even been aware of that if I wasn’t a Broadcast follower. Like “Perpetual Meadow,” I don’t even know what that means. [Laughs]

It’s not very often you hear bands talk about automatic writing. I’m interested in that as well because of an unhealthy interest in surrealism—the writing more than the art, although much of the artwork was brilliant.
Yeah, I used to write poetry in college. I just tried it out around that time to experiment, and got three poems written in a half hour. You’d read it back and some of it would be gibberish and some of it would be really interesting.