During Summer 2010, Balam Acab became the artist to introduce the hazy, brooding, beautiful sound of Tri Angle Records to audiences worldwide.
His debut release See Birds was an ideal summary of what the label would continue to champion; a melted, blurred mix of multiple contemporary influences into something individual and quite otherworldly. Justifiably lauded by critics, featuring prominently in summaries of the best releases of the year, and now even featured as the bed for Beyonce’s latest L’Oreal advert, producer Alec Koone’s own presence has been largely absent from any of the flurry of activity surrounding his music. Providing a mixture of straight talk and humility, he recently gave FACT the opportunity to talk with him about music education, influences and future plans.
Hi Alec, how are you?
“Pretty good, a little sick but other than that good. I was visiting friends and they’re all at school which is always a huge haven for germs and whatnot.”
You’re at uni yourself, right? Studying music at Ithaca College, New York.
“Not right now actually. I’m living at home in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I’m taking this semester off. I still don’t know how I feel about the whole thing.”
Was it a classical music course?
“Yep, all classical. I chose to major in music education – basically a performance major with a little less emphasis on performance. That part is replaced by the education aspect, learning how to become a teacher. You learn to play a lot of instruments, conducting and stuff like that, the psychology behind education. You’re able to be a music teacher when you finish. Music is an intense degree to take, and right from the beginning I pretty much had a set path to follow for the course.”
Do you have a classical background?
“Not too much. I play guitar, have taken piano and voice lessons, and can play the drums fairly well. I’ve always been into the creative aspect of music, making music by myself or with friends, so I thought it would be cool to do music in school. But I didn’t really know what it was about. I took classical guitar lessons for about a year before auditioning, then I had a year and a half at college, so i don’t have much classical background. I knew a lot of theory before I went to school for music though.”
What has turned you off from it?
“The course was nuts. I would be non-stop busy from about 9am until, like, midnight almost every day with school work. I would take about 12 courses a semester or something like that. All my work was basically drill and practice, constantly. It wasn’t like reading a book and then understanding what you’ve read; it was sitting in front of a piano for hours until you’ve mastered the music in front of you. It just wasn’t interesting to me really, I didn’t really enjoy most of it. I liked taking guitar lessons, but it was very restrictive. It’s anything but creative, studying classical music in school. And very competitive, and competition and music don’t really make sense together.”
So was See Birds written outside of your course content?
“They were made in my own time. Although I did make three out of the five tracks on the EP while I was at university.”
How is your home town?
“There is good nature around. I find nature very inspirational. But it’s pretty much typical suburbia. Just a lot of neighborhoods connected by roads. Wal-Marts…places to eat…places to shop…car dealerships…not much else. I don’t really live in a ‘town’.”
“Competition and music don’t really make sense together.”
Are you working at the moment?
“Right now I’m just making music.”
It’s a really cliched interview question, but do you think this environment has played a part in your creative output?
“Well… I’ve met a bunch of cool people in my town who have inspired me a lot, which you wouldn’t really expect from the suburbs. But really I think living in the suburbs has forced me to create things on my own, as there really isn’t much to do here. My friends and I would always make music together, or I’d be making it alone. At the time we were all really into post-rock music and after that it just spread. Noise and drone music on tapes was what was in, so we were all into stuff like Robedoor and Pocahaunted. I’d say Animal Collective have been a big influence too. It’s really funny because my friends and I were able to create this tiny scene in high school where we played noise music and stuff. It totally didn’t fit in with the area at all, but we just did it because there wasn’t anything else.”
What’s your music set-up like at the moment?
“My gear set-up is very bare bones. I pretty much use my laptop when I’m making music. I have a MIDI keyboard, but most of the time I just write out any synth parts I want in the music and program them in. I haven’t really developed a live set but I’ve got a controller with buttons/knobs/sliders for that when I do.”
I think a lot of people have focused on the reverbs/delays/pitched voices for the dreamy character of your songs, but I find the instrumentation really intriguing. It’s approached more like a band or small ensemble than a produced track, and a distinct grip on the a balance of dry versus wet timbres.
“Yeah, I know what you mean there. With the new stuff I’ve been making I kind of separate the sounds into “real” and “not real” in my head. I think the most important part of my music is the textural sampled stuff of just odd sounds found in the middle of field recordings and whatnot.”
Do you make your own field recordings?
“No, though I might consider it some day. I find them by searching all around the internet.”
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What is it about the textural element that is most successful for you?
“I really like using textures for rhythm as opposed to only using drum machines. I think using textures is a way to make the sound of the music more original, I guess, because you’re hearing very specific sounds in my music that you probably won’t ever hear exactly anywhere else, in comparison to a sine wave from a synthesizer or something. I think it’s cool that, aside from water samples and such, people will just perceive them as a part of the music and have no clue what the sounds really are. When you put a bunch of textures together from different field recordings into a loop somehow its like you’ve created some monster of your own kind.”
Are the vocals your own?
“[laughs] No. More internet scavenging.”
How do you see your sound developing?
“Well, I’ve actually got about half of the LP done and I’d say the sound has developed a lot. With the EP I was kinda stuck into the way I produced it, since I wanted to include some songs I had already made, and it would be really weird to change production style mid-album. With the LP it’s produced in stereo and is slightly lo-fi, but not really. It’s very big and deep, sounds best with subs and big speakers, really loud. But I think it still sounds like its coming from the same person.”
Is the tempo around the same in your new tracks?
“[laughs] It’s a little slower. Some songs are at like 48 bpm, 50 bpm. If my music was fast you’d have trouble percieving all that was going on.”
What kind of environment do you picture your music being performed in?
“Well with the music from the EP, I’d describe it as small big music. like it sounds very small, due to how it’s produced, but within the boundaries of the production it’s big. So with the EP I guess in headphones, laying down by yourself just absorbing it. With the new stuff, definitely big speakers/subs is best for it. I think you could definitely dance to my music if you wanted to. If I was performing it live, I definitely want a prominent visual element to go along with the music. I’ve actually been working with a friend who lives in my hometown to develop a live set with visuals. I pretty much trust everything he does. Something hypnotizing, textural, immersive. Visuals that work with the music to take you out of your reality into the space that it’s creating.”
See Birds showed a mix of live and synthesized instrumentation; does live instrumentation interest you at all for performance, perhaps like your earlier collaborations?
“Not really, I’m definitely always going to keep Balam Acab as a one person thing. I’m debating if I even want to be visible during live shows; definitely no lights on me, no attention drawn to me, so the focus is on the music and visuals.”
Are there any main influences to your sound as Balam Acab that stand out for you? Not necessarily audible ones, but personal ones?
“Everything! I know it sounds cliched. There is such a huge range I try to just incorporate elements from so many different styles into one to make something unique. From hip hop, to drone, to folk, to noise, to pop.”
You manage very well, I think it’s one reason why See Birds got so much critical acclaim.
“Thanks. I’m really excited for people to hear the new music.”
How about Balam Acab as ‘one of the semi Gods of the Mayan pantheon’?
“[laughs] I learned about Balam Acab in Spanish class in high school and kind of arbitrarily chose the name for one of the many musical projects that I would always be creating back then. I just liked the name. When I made the first few songs for the ‘new’ Balam Acab, I just decided to clear the old MySpace page out and use the name because I still liked the sound of it, instead of making a brand new page and coming up with a new name. I guess it just stuck.”
“When you put a bunch of textures together from different field recordings into a loop somehow its like you’ve created some monster of your own kind.”
Does the music come from things more personal to you, such as emotions, memories, like a lyricist might, or is it more of an objective thing, where the music is its own entity?
“I guess the latter. It’s funny because a lot of the artists I’ve talked to say the same as me. I don’t really go in with an idea to recreate an emotion or a memory, but somehow, subconciously, things always come out. And it takes a while for me to even realise it. But I think my music evokes thing, due to it being its own entity. People can have so many different reactions to it; listeners play half the role, because they bring their own personal things to the music which reacts with it. It can evoke different things even for the same person, depending on what they bring to the music at the time they’re listening.”
Do you think this is a trait of certain musical elements? A lot of music that is being featured through Tri Angle features similar approaches to vocals and tempo, for instance, and could be described as ‘dreamy’.
“Not necessarily. I think a lot of music does that, creates its own world. Well, at least to me. Dreams influence me a little maybe. Day dreams, moreso than real dreams though.”
Are you in touch with the rest of Tri Angle’s roster and associated friends?
“I’ve talked and shared music with oOoOO and Stalker via email, but haven’t met any of them in person.”
When do you predict the new album will be emerging?
“I guess as early as I can finish it. I’m kind of bummed that I got sick, because that means I probably won’t be working much. Like yesterday, I couldn’t hear out of my left ear due to congestion! [laughs] But I have been working pretty quickly, I guess. The latest would be end of the year, but it could very well be earlier.”
Do you think you’ll be going back to university?
“I’m thinking about social studies and library sciences. But I’m not going to be continuing with music education, wherever I end up.”