Stream the drummer and composer's latest studio project ahead of its release on new label Float
Following a string of collaborative performances, Italian Berlin-based musician Andrea Belfi presents his seventh studio album Ore. The record – out 26 May via new label Float – is a mix of improvised drums and electronic programming intended by Belfi to have the feel of a live performance.
Belfi took some time to answer The Wire’s questions about the new release. Interview by Meg Woof.
Has your time as an art student fed into this album at all?
Anything that you immerse yourself into at 19 or 20 is inevitably going to shape the way you approach your work and life, so yes, absolutely art school – the good and the bad of it – has been one of the many influences of this record. I would say mostly it is a matter of research: art school has put me in contact with many artists and movements, but also left me wanting for more. I think in a way I always try to deliver that ‘more’ when I work on a new album.
Where do you have to compromise when you play in a group like Medves?
Funny you should mention Medves among all my other collaborations, as it was a band that lived for a just a few months 13 years ago, and it was one of my first attempts to play drums in an improvised music context. That was challenging on all levels (we were barely 20 at the time!) but I flatter myself into thinking I got better at juggling the different demands working with a group poses. You should ask me about my last US tour with Il Sogno del Marinaio (featuring Mike Watt): 53 concerts in 53 days, that required some good compromising skills!
At the cost of being obvious, compromising is hard work. Fact of life. But this does not make me a control freak or a want to be control freak, on the contrary. The ideal setup for me is playing in a group where there is no alpha dog or big personality. I find time and again that this brings infinitely more to the final piece than if I had stirred the whole process in the direction I envisioned.
Are you coming at music making from an entirely experimental approach now, or do you still feel the influence of your time playing drums in bands?
I would say that as a musician I am constitutively at the intersection of these two worlds – the experimental and the ‘rock’ one – and, while sometimes it makes it harder for people to put a label to my work, it is an actual advantage for me when I compose as I can pull tools from both worlds and also contaminate the different musical sensibilities.
Most of all, I try to steer away from the cerebral approach people ascribe to experimental musicians. When I was a teenager and really into punk and hardcore I couldn't conceive going to a show that did not include a certain amount of physical engagement (stage diving etc). Similarly, when I play and even when I compose I want to induce this rush of hormones and endorphins in the audience.
Are you interested in exploring other specific genres of music through your work?
I would love to compose for small ensembles, a choir and percussion ensemble for example. Something out of my comfort zone.
Have you ever composed with the intention of producing dance music?
I've been tempted many times to make some danceable music, the way Arthur Russell did. I have the feeling it will happen soon.
What was the thematic driving force behind this particular album? How did it develop and challenge you as a composer and player?
The album was built around a raw basis of recordings (hence the title Ore) made of drums improv and electronic patterns. Upon them I layered the songs structures, themes and the textures, enhancing and refining the raw material – but only up to a point.
The biggest challenge for me was that I was determined to infuse the album with a compelling live feeling and avoid having it sound too much like an electronic record.
I set out to achieve this first by operating a few crucial choices in the drumkit and electronic devices I used. While in the studio I used two different drums and electronic setups. One was that with which I had travelled in the past two years and it was comprised of a Ludwig Superclassic 1967, a sampler and a Nord modular synthesizer. The other set was made of a Saari drumkit (a Finnish drum company that makes drums with only a handful of metal elements. The drums have a beautiful orchestral feeling to them) and some prepared loops. I alternated between the two set-ups across the pieces.
The second important choice I made was to, save for a few prepared loops, play all the electronic bits live in the studio. This made the album an enhanced live concert. The challenge in such a case was to find the sweet spot between these live parts and the production choices that came during and after: it is, after all, an album, so spontaneity and studio work must merge and yet still sound organic.
Lastly, I would say that to pull off this kind of enhanced live experience, I had to find the right people to work with me at all stages of production. In May 2016 I recorded all the basic material with Matthias Hahn at the Saal3 in the Berlin Funkhaus. Then I did the mix with Francesco Donadello at Vox-Ton. Nils Frahm mastered it at his Durton studio and by February the master was ready to be cut on vinyl by Andreas ‘Lupo’ Lubich at Calyx.
These guys are all tremendous artists in their own rights and all of them have helped me keep the electronic factor at bay and play up the drum textures. I would add here that the album is still posing challenges to me, as I am still fine tuning ways to bring it on the road.
Do you visualise your compositions?
Yes, I often have specific visual ideas connected to the sounds I work with. With Ore I had these imageries of raw material, hidden treasures, hard labour, concrete objects to play with, carve out. I do have a soft spot for music concrète, cinema pour l'oreille.
How do you think about space when all the sounds come from yourself in a close knit setup around you?
While it is true that I can seem somehow confined behind my setup, the space that my music inhabits can expand and retract depending on the song and the venue – and I mean venue both as mere physical room and as emotional place.