Ben Frost on Making an Album in DR Congo: “It was a way of stepping outside the holes I dug for myself.”

The Iceland-based composer explains how got his groove back recording with diesel generators in Central Africa.

May 19, 2014

How the Iceland-based composer got his groove back recording with diesel generators in Central Africa

When Australia-born, Iceland-based experimental composer Ben Frost journeyed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to work on a video installation with Irish visual artist Richard Mosse, he had to have guessed that the working conditions wouldn't be quite like they were at home. But it was a strange coalescing of the political and economic realities in that war-torn country that ended up laying the groundwork for his forthcoming LP, A U R O R A, out May 27th via Mute/Bedroom Community.

What confronted Frost when he arrived in the Eastern DRC were the booming stereo systems of fish salesmen, distorting and screeching to overcome the din of the country's ever-present diesel generators (made necessary by the lack of a government-run electrical grid). It was these same generators that both powered and limited Frost's work while he was in the Congo, both on Mosse's video installation The Enclave and on a new record of his own, his first since 2009's By The Throat.

Constructing the album on a laptop, Frost finally found a way to properly reject the "composer-ly" style that had driven much of his previous work and left him in something of a creative rut following By the Throat. Fighting the low roar of those generators, Frost cranked up the volume for a dizzying, ecstatic new LP that would largely abandon the chamber instruments that marked many of his past records, capturing the bodily euphoria of dance music without losing any of the beguiling abstraction of his previous work. Speaking on the phone from his Reykjavik home just before he launched the first round of touring for this new album, Frost detailed the physical and philosophical circumstances that dictated his new album, and explained how his time in the Congo, making music and absorbing the social and economic climate, changed his way of working for good.

You're about to head out on tour to support the new album. Is that an exciting prospect? I'm doing really important tasks before heading out tomorrow, preparing for the oncoming few months of living out of a suitcase. It's fraught with excitement, trepidation and some self-loathing in equal measure. I'm excited to start playing around with this material. The record is a static object in itself, but the ideas embodied in it and the space that those ideas are occupying in my head are not resolved at the fucking date of release. I'm looking forward to working it out of my system over the next year.

Do you ever get to a point where you feel like you've done everything you can do with a certain way of working? I definitely reach a point where I can see with some objectivity the flaws and the strengths of things in a more distilled way. I consider most of what I've done to be a series of failures in varying degrees. With By the Throat in particular, somewhere around the beginning of 2011, there was a series of circumstances where I really started to be pulled toward different colors and textures. The whole thing just started to shift in this almost imperceivable way. It wasn't this hairpin turn toward something. Maybe by the end of 2011, the ideas began to congeal and made me feel as though I was putting to bed the modes of operations that were inherent in a record like By The Throat. Sitting down at a piano and trying to do the "composer-ly" thing, I just realized that I fucking hated everything. I dispensed with that and allowed it to die, or forced it to.

And so you ended up writing this record on a laptop in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How'd that happen? I ended up in the eastern Congo in conjunction with my collaboration with the Irish artist Richard Mosse, who I had originally made contact with as a fan. Toward the end of 2011, I'd seen an exhibition of Richard's work and I was really drawn to it; over time, I realized that the thing that pulled me toward his work was something I was interested in exploring sonically. The idea isn't synthesizing something from nothing, but rather reaching into a familiar space and making visible a spectrum of light that had always been there. That idea, translated into music, is a really powerful image to work with. It was a way of stepping outside some of the holes I dug for myself.

"They were very practical things like the availability of electricity, the battery life of a laptop, or the presence of a diesel generator right next to me. All of these things created a series of impositions that forced my hand to work in a certain way."

I ended up in the DRC, and I was making undiscussed, fairly visceral reactions to the state that we found ourselves in and the kind of work we were making. It wasn't really a conscious thing, but I found myself in a lot of situations where the external circumstances were forcing my hand in various ways. They were very practical things like the availability of electricity, the battery life of a laptop, or the presence of a diesel generator right next to me in order to have electricity to work. All of these things created a series of impositions that forced my hand to work in a certain way. It wasn't in any sense that I was conscious of at the time, but I see now that it changed the way I worked.

Aside from the practical aspects that you mentioned, do you think your time there affected the direction you took with A U R O R A? The survival mechanisms of human beings and the technological byproducts of our society collide in places like Goma, where there is no government-run electricity grid. People run their lightbulbs and stereo systems and phone chargers off diesel generators, which are fucking noisy! If you have one outside your house, the thing is invading your space. When they're playing music, in order to overcome the generator, they're blowing out these speakers to the point of absolute saturation and distortion. It creates this perceived sonic affectation of "Oh, Congolese people like to listen to distorted music," but that's not a thought that's ever entering anyone's mind at all. That's simply what needs to happen. It exists outside of fashion or some kind of cultural choice. It's just life.

Talking again about that situation in the Congo, the most confronting aspects of the speakers blowing out was not so much the sound coming out of the speakers, but the 70-year-old guy sitting next to them selling fish. It wasn't being played by some shit-stirring hipster trying to get attention. It was being played by someone's granddad. It doesn't carry the same meaning in that sense. There's a sort of domesticity, a beauty in that somehow. There's a sort of life that it's born out of.

You don't think that idea shaped the record, then? Don't misunderstand me, it really did affect it, but in a way that I was affected by those circumstances rather than being inspired by them as an aesthetic choice. I was having to battle against those same generators. I was in those same huts. What became really interesting about that process was that by the time I got home and started pulling apart the things that I'd set in motion in those environments, the damage in those recordings was irreversible. It isn't an effect I can turn on and off. There is no clean, nice version of A U R O R A. I had to submit to it in the end and go with that current. I could only shape it or divert it, like water or electricity. You can make it work for you, but you can't fundamentally fight against it.

It's really striking that the aggressive aspect of the record came from necessity rather than a choice. Talking about the pure musical beginnings of this record, existing outside of any emotional context or any sort of social context, I think that some of my initial thoughts were born out of this childish, stupid idea of "play." I was trying to write against myself. I remember sitting there and thinking, "What would it sound like if I tried to make techno?" What is that process about? I was listening for the first time to stuff like Derrick May, and coming at that with a raw perspective. When you pull it apart, it's aiming at euphoria. That idea is something that I want from music. It's an unfortunate thing that distortion and heavy, bass-driven music is automatically perceived as aggressive.

That comes across on the record; it's uplifting despite being steeped in heavier signifiers. I think we're just all looking to lose ourselves in something, whatever that might be. That becomes increasingly more difficult as time goes on, and as a result, the means by which we do that becomes more extreme. It makes perfect sense to me somehow that there's this entire new audience of people that are discovering Swans. That's a music that can exist again now and it hasn't really since the early '90s. There's this cycle. There's a need for a genuine ecstasy. In spite of all the fucking bullshit we're bombarded with, people are incredibly perceptive when they allow themselves to be. There are genuine experiences out there.

Posted: May 19, 2014
Ben Frost on Making an Album in DR Congo: “It was a way of stepping outside the holes I dug for myself.”