Hailing from Newcastle, ako – aka Simeon Soden – has become known for his production of electronic music that straddles a line between witch house, chillwave and several other underground subgenres. It’s a formula that’s seen him play at a couple of the region’s best festivals for emerging talent and that’s seen hype for his latest EP LXXXIX go through the roof. Ahead of the release of the EP, I talked to him about the music that inspires him, genre bending and, er, the best toast toppings.
Can you tell me a bit about this new collection of songs? What has inspired you to put this set of songs together?
LXXXIX comes from a few different places. It actually started as a sort of concept EP about dead bodies on Mt. Everest. Reportedly there are over 200 up there, and I think that’s striking, and what I never really considered is that basically nothing decays, and it’s too dangerous to bring them back down most of the time. So if you died up there, your body is pretty much just going to sit there forever, inert. Also a lot of people die up there, there’s definitely a sort of fatalistic romance to it really, I wonder if some of these people know this, and see this a sort of immortality. I also wondered if you could come to terms with this knowledge and how you’d deal with knowing that. That’s where High Altitude Burial and Carrion Flower come from.
In terms of musical influences probably the biggest current influences are Ic3 Peak, Zola Jesus.
That’s quite an interesting background to the release – does this mean that it’s essentially a concept album?
It was, originally it was four tracks with a sort of ‘alpine death’ vibe running throughout. But I have a pretty short attention span so I included some other ideas too. I think on one level it’s about exploring mood. Happy and sad moods are easy in music, ‘dark’ is much more nebulous concept in western music. A lot of people just go for the whole atmospheric noise or atonal thing but I think there’s a lot more nuance to be explored. Atonality and noise, to me, can be a bit too ‘easy.’ It’s also about considering our ‘use’ of music. Dance music is very much a purpose based form, it exists within some strict constraints to do with its context of being music for people to socialise and dance. Genres like witch house present an interesting juxtaposition of delivering music like dance, to be consumed in a similar context socially and musically, but really when you look at it, its content is the antithesis of what you normally find in dance related music. Its gloom in the key of misery but people enjoy it and have fun with it.
Haha that’s fine! When you say you added some extra elements to that “alpine death” theme, what ideas did you put in?
I took some cues from minimal wave which is a bit of a staple for ako. The ideas explored in minimal wave and early synth stuff is kind similar to what witch house is getting at because those are very ‘cold,’ ‘detached’ styles, with a lot of morbid elements. A continual theme for me is exploring the identity of the synthesiser as an instrument, exploring sound design and playing with the idea of ‘artificial’ versus ‘organic’ so I like to explore the processes that influence the music I make. I used quite a lot of stuff made by stretching out audio tape and putting stuff deliberately out of tune to add a sort of subliminal jarring. That’s what LXXXIX and Stretch are exploring.
A silly, daft question arises that I have to ask: why is it called LXXXIX? It’s a date but does it have some sort of meaning behind it?
I has a personal meaning for me, but it comes from a very aesthetic stance on music and meaning. I don’t think any instrumental music has a meaning beyond what you give to it. A piece of music to me is an aesthetic space, like a room. We fill it with our own thoughts, feelings, ideas and decorate however we see fit. I could tell you what I think it’s about but your own hypothesis will be so much more satisfying on a personal level than anything I could ever come up with. Basically it means nothing and at the same time it means whatever you think it means. Pretentious? I know, haha, but I think it’s less arrogant than thinking you write in some universal language that means nothing other than what you think it does and no one else’s interpretations have the same value.
Is that why you only do instrumental music? Do you think that adding vocals or lyrics would take away that sense that your music could mean anything to anyone, because it imposes some kind of meaning on to the song?
Yes, (well that and the fact I’m an awful singer). Although I think it depends on the lyrics, stuff that’s a bit more abstract/minimal can work because I think you can treat words in the same way sometimes but they just have a lot more inherent meaning attached.
So, not to pick on this theme too much because it’s obviously not the whole inspiration, but do you think people will pick up on the alpine death theme from the music? Or have you deliberately constructed it to be ambiguous?
Hmm, I hadn’t really written ‘alpine death’ down until now and I quite like it, might have to start a band under that name… I don’t know, it gave me alpine death vibes, so maybe others will get that too, are you getting them? I think maybe that’s why I’m into exploring mood because that kind of sets the context for our interpretations. Going back to the room idea, an empty kitchen generally would make you think of kitchen-y things, and empty living room makes you think of living room-(y) things. So I guess I’m trying to make specific types of aesthetic spaces to see what peoples’ reactions are. Creating a situation where people could come to the same conclusions as me but don’t have to.
For some reason I’m starting to think about genres when talking about this. You talk about witch house and dance in general a lot but there’s such a fluidity in electronic music and a lot of what you talk about kind of references that notion. Although there’s a definite mood to the album, even as a huge fan of electronic music of all kinds I always find it hard to pin down what subgenre people are aiming for. I guess I’m just wondering if you would ever pigeonhole yourself in a genre or if you hope you’re creating music that can’t really be categorised? Sorry that was properly long winded!
It depends how you make music really, some people like to write to a criteria and like rules, they like to stand in a field with a fence round it, which is comforting. Some people like to wander round a bit more and think of the genres later and I think I’m in the latter category. Although you definitely need to have a clear idea of context like any art form. Part of the confusion is the fundamental disconnect between ‘EDM’ and ‘Electronic Music’ with capital letters. EDM started in America as house and techno is an extension of disco and firmly rooted in ideas taken from traditional African music (quite far removed of course). Electronic Music comes from an entirely different cultural context of the European tradition, so even though on paper they should be pretty much the same and are pretty similar they aren’t siblings, they basically differ fundamentally in their ideas about rhythm, structure and melody and I like to mix that up a bit so that adds some confusion to issue. I like to try and take a long view on both.
It’s probably a clichéd question in light of this more intelligent conversation but are there any plans to do some more gigs as ako?
Hah! It’s got a bit high-brow like. None on the horizon, anyone want to book me? P.S. I demand a smoked salmon and caviar rider, I don’t like either but they’re expensive.
Hmm I’m sure someone will book you! What’s the plan for after the release in general then?
The plan goes as follows. Step 1: release EP. Step 2: who knows. Step 3: Cash. Nah, Ideally maybe a physical release on tape, that would be cool gig with the new material a bit.
I do have one last question but it’s nothing to do with anything and isn’t part of the article (if it was, you’d think I’d gone mental). A friend has asked me to ask you what your favourite toast topping is. Honestly.
HAH! That’s class, butter and fluff (that marshmallow spread stuff).
That question I was going to ask!
Actually, one last, last question… when you were talking about deaths on Everest, I started thinking about that new film that came out that was basically all about the problems with so many people trying to climb the mountain and the dangers that come with it. How weird is that? I know you’ve been thinking about it for a while but it seemed like a really weird coincidence!
Yeah it’s a bit odd like, I might sue! I think Reddit first got me onto it, so maybe the directors a Redditor, but if anyone asks I invented that shiz.
A shorter version of this interview was published in the November 2015 issue of NARC. Magazine.