THE POWER OF POP INTERVIEW – THE OBSERVATORY
What made you decide to record in Norway with Jorgen Traeen, rather than bringing him down to Singapore?
Dharma: Jorgen came here for the previous album so we felt that for this album it would be nice to actually record in Bergen for a change. The change in recording environment would work well for the material in this album. Also Jorgen could record us with the gear he has over there, which he is more familiar with as well.
How long were you in Norway? What was the process like? How much of the song arrangements were complete before the recording?
Leslie: 3 weeks. A usual day would be morning breakfast; we would take turns cooking. Then off to work by foot to Duper. The walk takes about 15 minutes. Then we would start off the day by tracking a song. Then maybe break for lunch after we got a good take. After lunch, we would normally do some overdubs or additional arrangements followed by vocals. If everything went smoothly, we would have a track done by the end of the day. This went on for a week and a half. By then we had all the songs down and were ready to mix.
Most of the songs were arranged before we left for Bergen. What Jorgen did was to make the album sound cohesive. He achieved this by linking the songs with a recurring ‘seasick’ sound. This would be the varispeed tape effect that appears on some of the songs like Invisible Room and Incastrate.
Another would be the cacophony that resulted in Lowdown. Jorgen was referencing Steve Reich on that one. We all have this huge admiration for Reich’s Music for 18 musicians. So it’s really a tribute.
Why have you teamed up with Jorgen Traeen again? What does he bring to the Observatory sound?
Victor: Jorgen has a very unique way of working. He does not follow the norms of making an album. He provided very good counterpoints to our material, making us rethink some of our ideas in a different perspective. His style of work, his techniques and his quirky personality draws us to him over and over again.
The artwork of Justin Bartlett gives the album design a dark metal look, why was this the art direction you pursued?
Evan: We were listening to a lot of dark music at that time, particularly a lot of doom metal and cross platforms of black metal and other genres. This inspired a lot of the aesthetics of the sound you hear in Dark Folke. As you would know, black metal had always had this genre of drawing in an old style of ink or charcoal, black vs white kind of style. So naturally, we thought we would have our album art in that direction. The band actually voted me to draw something and see if it would work out. I am not an illustrator but had doodled a bit in the past and the band had seen it so they thought if I can try and see if I can do it.
Leslie pointed me to the art of Justin Barlett for inspiration. It took me a few crash courses on youtube and a long time to figure out what to draw. In the end I told them that maybe if we like Justin’s art so much, why don’t we write him and ask if he’s willing to do it as I was feeling a bit insecure about my amateur drawings. Justin was cool about it and started work on it. Somehow, through communication with Vivian, it turned out to be the book which you see now. Then we thought since I had drawn a couple of pictures and it looked somewhat decent to them, maybe we can put it up on the website, which we did. I was honoured that Justin actually wrote to Viv encouraging me to draw more stuff.
Do you feel that Justin’s artwork reflects the music of Dark Folke?
Vivian: It was a strange hookup I must admit.. Justin Bartlett, artist du jour for so many heavy, drone and metal bands with the Obs. But we started noticing his drawings in so many of the albums of bands we were listening to about a year ago and it always jumped out at us. I’ve personally got a nice print of his art for a band called Moss. It’s just amazing how much detail he puts into it. But you know, Justin is an artist first and forement, and a designer second. He doesn’t care about money. He just wanted to listen to our music before saying yes. And when he did, we left them entirely to his own interpretation. We didn’t even have the album title until a few emails later. The only request we made was, no goats, pentagrams and upside-down crosses please. He said no problem… and went straight to work. All the twisted stuff you see inside the black book is his.. we just had loads of conversations on Gchat about what we liked, shared music, shared animation vids, vintage illustration books, talked a lot about Depeche Mode and The Cure and not much about work… the most we communicated rgd the design of Dark Folke was when I suggested we do it as a picturebook. It was initially intended as a 7-inch package but for CD. I felt there were so many nice drawings it’d be best showcased in the form of a book. A wicked little evil picturebook. Hahah..Yes. I think Justin Bartlett totally got the vibe of our music. We didn’t have to tell him anything much. He was just a new friend we got on with instantly and without any effort whatsoever.
What is the concept behind Dark Folke?
Victor: Loosely, Dark Folk relates to all of us in general. It could be about the darker side of humanity, the less than kind things done in this world.
Vivian: It could also very well refer to marginalised people in different societies, people who exist on the fringes, off the grid so to speak, folk who are frowned upon, misunderstood, subjugated or unaccepted simply because they lack the ability to conform or function as ‘normal’ society would have you be.
Victor: It reflects the mood of the album. Justin Bartlett was working on the artwork of our album and actually suggested adding an ‘e’ to the ‘folk’ to give it an old English feel to it. We all thought it was appropriate and went for it.
The music on Dark Folke is highly reminiscent of the folkier aspects of the 70s progressive rock of bands like Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull. Is that what was intended? What would you say influenced the music on Dark Folke?
Dharma: It’s not something consciously intended although we do listen to those bands. I felt A Far Cry from Here (the previous album) had more of that prog sound but maybe not so much the folkier aspects though. For Dark Folke, as usual all of us had been listening to many different things. It’s us coming together and putting our conscious and subconscious influences through the unseen ‘Obs dynamic blender’, hence this final result. Somehow the first few songs we were working on turned out gloomy and we were quite happy with it, so we continued on that path. Also the fact that some of us had been listening to quite a lot of drone and doom metal had something to do with this as well.
There is a sense of incarceration about the lyrics on Dark Folke, an imprisonment. Is it the shackles of fate? The fatalism on songs like Blood Rising (“GIve it all”), The Boring (“I won’t make it”) and Mind Roots (“Will you let me live longer than mum”) is palpable. Is that the central theme of Dark Folke?
Leslie: Yes. I think you got it, my friend. It’s all there. There are other ways of looking at it as well. But I won’t even know how to explain it properly. When I was younger, maybe I thought I knew my thought processes well enough to talk about them. But not anymore, I’m afraid. The ability to be cocksure eludes me. Every fragment of lyric or phrase seems to mean a million things to me at the same time. All in we all. What the hell does that mean? It means everything and nothing to me. The All is in us. What is The All?
The process can be described though. The lyrics were written phonetically first. Then the sound was altered to find a suitable word with a suitable meaning. I read somewhere that Mark Hollis does that with his writing. And me being my impressionable self, just had to give it a try. A lot of it was labored over and finalised in my Bergen bed the night before the song was recorded. So if you would dig into our Observatory archives many years from now, you would find wordless vocal versions of Dark Folke songs.
The Observatory has been releasing an album almost every two years now, what keeps you going?
Evan: We have always shared our interest in different music amongst one another.
Each time we share something, we would get curious and see if we can come up with something for ourselves. We would talk a lot about what really grip us and try things out. In short, I would say that our curiosity, passion and interest in the vast area of progressive music around the world via the internet stirs us to do something .
It’s like we have this common mission of trying something new and since we have this group of people hoping to achieve just that, why not ? Personally, I think our unit is the best I’ve ever had in terms of sharing common goals and daring to try out new things. myspace rocks ! It showcases a lot of stuff that’s either not released or distributed but some are really good stuff.
What do you hope to achieve with the new album? What are your plans to promote the album?
Vivian: Not to be cynical or anything, we want as many people as possible to like Dark Folke but we’ve done three albums already, enough to know the odds and be realistic. That certainly won’t stop us from making music but there is always a desire in us that music listeners would be open-minded and non-judgemental. That they leave room for a band to take risks, to develop and change. We’ve lined up six gigs called HEXA and are petrified and excited at the same time about performing our new material. Other things in the pipeline include some hook ups with US labels. We’re currently sold on Wayside-Cuneiform and will soon be available on Utech Records as well.
What does the future hold for the Observatory?
Leslie: The immediate future would be our HEXA gigs. Beyond that is darkness.
Evan: Since, for some band personal reasons we don’t have drums in this album, The next album will feature 3 drummers so we can compensate that. hahah
Dharma: Not sure about the future but I can say what we hope for ….which is as usual, to be able to do this full time and have total artistic control over it.
The Observatory’s excellent new album, Dark Folke, is out now.