November 04, 2006
Perhaps Adem Ilhan is still best known to underground music fans as the bassist of Fridge, an English trio whom this website’s editor jokingly but accurately calls “the Slint of IDM.” Over the course of four albums and a multitude of singles and EPs, Fridge made music that fused the tense repetition and deliberate dynamics of Slint with the sonic trickery of “intelligent dance music.” It’s telling that after the band went on hiatus at the turn of the century, guitarist Kieran Hebden made a name of his own with his electronic side project Four Tet. (While I’m on the subject, I have to add that Fridge recently reunited, and plan to release their fifth album next year. Be excited!)
On the surface, it seemed as if Adem took the exact opposite route with his own solo career. Homesongs, his 2004 debut, was a foray into singer/songwriter territory: its plainspoken paeans to love and friendship were constructed around the skeleton of Adem’s surprisingly confident tenor and supple acoustic finger-picking. Closing track “There Will Always Be” is one of the most heartrending expressions of loyalty I’ve ever heard. Shortly after the album's release, saw Adem open for noise-pop quartet the Double at Northsix in Brooklyn, NY. When he and his backing band started playing that song, I couldn't stop the tears from falling.
Adem’s new album, Love and Other Planets, is similar to Homesongs is that it examines relationships through easily understandable perspectives. Its first song, “Warning Call,” laments mankind’s inability to learn from the mistakes of the past. “Something’s Going to Come” and closing track “Human Beings Gather ‘Round” are expressions of faith and optimism despite trying times. Conversely, “Launch Yourself” and “Last Transmission from the Lost Mission” are expressions of abandonment and loss after the demise of a relationship. Last but not least, the title track is an ode to the simple pleasure of star-gazing with the one you love.
Where this album differs from its predecessor is that Adem takes more chances with production and arrangement, thus showing off more of what he learned during his time in Fridge. Adem’s vocal harmonies are lusher, and the addition of live drums give many songs a propulsive kick. Other songs de-emphasize acoustic guitar in favor of instruments such as cello, harmonium, kalimba and toy piano. The biggest example of Adem’s newfound boldness can be found on “X Is for Kisses,” whose lyrics form an abecederian acrostic. Adem arranges the background harmonies to match the first letter of each line perfectly. When Adem sings “beware,” the chorus behind him chants “buh-buh-buh”; when he sings “save me,” the chorus chants “suh-suh-suh.” It’s a percussive effect that would make Steve Reich smile.
I saw Adem live again on October 26th, when he opened for brilliant Argentinian songstress Juana Molina at the Parish in Austin, TX. Although he played solo this time, but none of the songs suffered from the absence of a backing band. In fact, the solitude freed him up to be more versatile with his instrumentation. When playing songs from his albums, he switched from guitar to kalimba; during “Human Beings Gather ‘Round,” he played both at the same time! At one point, he grabbed some toy bells and improvised a new song using lyrics from a children’s book that Juana had given to him as a gift; at another, he played a nearly perfect cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” on a ukelele. He complained at one point about having a sore throat, but it didn’t have a noticeable effect on his singing at all. The audience, which consisted of about 150 people, was appreciative and enthusiastic...and deservedly so!
Adem was kind enough to let me interview him before the set. You can read an edited version of our conversation below:
I read the diary on your website, and saw an entry from April 19th of this year in which you wrote about dancing to A-Ha at a bar in Austin, and having a really good time. I want to know more about that, and about your previous experiences in Austin. Were you here to play a show? Who did you meet? What else did you do?
Well, [the entry] was actually from a year before, but it slipped in accidentally and I quite liked it. I came to play South by Southwest. I was here with a bunch of friends, and I had a lovely time. I spent the whole of SXSW on the floor. I was on a friend’s floor sleeping, meeting loads of great musicians, and messing about with music. It was just a really nice moment when no one was cool. We were robot dancing to stuff, and then A-Ha came on, and we just had an absolute whale of a time dancing and punching the air when the lift came. I love it when that sort of thing happens, when all the pretense drops and everyone’s just being nice. It’s great.
Have there been a lot of moments like that on this tour so far?
I think apart from spending a lot of time with someone, which always does that, I think that having huge drives together --- stuck in a little minivan together, and suffering from sleep deprivation --- puts in the strangest situations...where you haven’t slept for 30 hours, and it’s four in the morning, and you’re in the middle of nowhere with a population of 40. [laughter] I think there have been some great moments like that.
What is the longest drive you’ve endured so far on this tour, or on any other tour?
On this tour, it was from Salt Lake City to Seattle, which was kind of a mission. It was like 15 hours, I think. That was quite a mission. [Tim, Adem’s tour manager, turns to us and says, “800 hours.”] 800 hours! It was pretty monster. The longest ever was probably about five years ago. I drove with Fridge, a band I’m in, from Seattle to Chicago. That was a serious drive.
Ouch. How do you manage to keep yourself entertained during long drives like that?
You’ve just gotta make sure the company’s right. With good company, everything flies by, and all the hardships and annoyances you endure, you endure them together. When everyone’s in the same place, and you’ve got an understanding, it’s great. There’s a familiarity to these long drives to me. When I was very young...my dad’s Turkish and my mom’s English, so I was brought up and born in the U.K. Every summer we’d drive to Turkey across Europe, and that’s a good 2,500 miles. We did that every summer.
That’s like driving from one side of the States to the other!
It’s close to that, yeah. It was kind of a mission, but really lovely.
When’s the last time you visited Turkey?
It was a long time ago. I haven’t been for many, many years now...but when you’re touring, every trip’s a trip like that, you know? Everything’s a mission. You get from one place to another, whether it takes two hours or 25 hours or three days. You come across the same things.
You mentioned Fridge, and I just wanted to say that my first exposure to anything that you’ve ever done was when Fridge played here at the Parish.
I was just reminiscing about that earlier to myself. I remember having a really nice time here.
It was a really wonderful show. I still listen to Happiness [Fridge’s last album]; I put it on last week to help soothe myself to sleep.
I recently heard that you guys finished a new album, and that you played a show at the Temporary Residence fest in New York.
We did, and it was our first show in five years!
How did that go? Was there a bit of nervousness?
It was a bit nerve-wracking. It was mad! When I was setting up all the equipment and plugging in my cables, I had a massive flashback to touring in the US before with Fridge. I must admit, I felt really OLD. [laughter] ‘Cause it was five years earlier that I had done this stuff, and about seven years before I had started doing Fridge, you know? It was a LONG time ago...but then I looked up at the audience, and I realized that it wasn’t an age thing at all. It was a generation thing, so everyone watching was the same age as me as well. They’ve kinda grown up with the music as we’ve grown with the music, so it was a bit of a relief there. ‘Cause I thought that this was music that the kids should be playing, this is where the energetic youth should be, really feeling into this and bringing new ideas. I kinda thought that maybe I was faking it. I realized that that totally wasn’t the case at all, and that wasn’t how it works. It’s a relief! [laughter]
I know that the two Adem albums represent the first time that you’ve sung and played basically solo. I’m pretty sure that it was a weird transition from playing in a band.
It was incredibly strange. It was the most amazing, uplifting and freeing experience. I could do whatever I wanted...but, at the same time, it was so lonely and depressing. It was really lonely not to have my best friends around me, whose opinions I trust inherently to say “That’s rubbish” or “That’s great.” Not to have those opinions to turn to was really difficult.
I read somewhere that Kieran assists you with the mixing of your songs.
I’m completely deaf in my left ear. I only have hearing at all in my right ear. I have no experience with what stereo is. I have no idea what space in terms of a mix is. I can only do so much mathematically, but there’s loads of detail that I want to put in there but just don’t have the physical ability to. So, I turn to Kieran, who’s got the best pair of ears in the business, and say, “I want to do this; what do you think?” He’ll have suggestions, and we try things together.
Was the condition with your left ear something that you were born with?
They think so. Basically, the nerve from my ear to my brain doesn’t work. It’s like a telephone wire that’s been cut, so nothing goes through. They found out when I was about two or three, but they think it was from when I was born.
Before I ask the next question, I want to say that --- in an odd coincidence --- the only time I’ve seen Four Tet live was last year, when he played with Jamie Lidell here...and Jamie’s playing here again later on tonight, after your show! I really enjoy both of those guys’ records.
Yeah, they’re brilliant.
Was the transition from playing solo to playing with Fridge again just as awkward as the reverse?
It was wonderful. We’re the oldest of friends. We’ve known each other since we were, like, 12. Because of that, making music with Fridge is an extension of hanging out with your friends. It’s great to have an excuse for three busy people to get together and hang out and mess about together and just make music. ‘Cause we’re all really busy --- Kieran’s got Four Tet, Sam the drummer is studying politics at Harvard at the moment --- we’re all really full-on, so for us to actually set aside the time and say, “We’re gonna spend some time together,” is brilliant. If that has to be an excuse to make a new Fridge album, then bonus!
When listening to Fridge’s material, I do get a pretty laidback vibe from it. I can visualize the three of you just sitting in a room doing that...
...and trying stuff out, yeah! Absolutely.
I notice that the lyrics to “X Is for Kisses” form an abecedarian acrostic. I wanted to know if that was difficult to do, and if you’ve tried any other word games in your lyrics.
It wasn’t hard to do. If it started to get hard to do, I really wouldn’t have done it. It would’ve sounded forced. I strongly believe that about all of my lyrics. If it feels unnatural or difficult or forced, it won’t translate and people won’t believe you. People won’t connect to it...so no, it came quite naturally. I like the idea that kinda flows through it. Yes, there are lots of other details and stuff across the album --- lots of playing with meter and with the flow of things. I like doing that. It’s part of what I really wanted to do with Love and Other Planets. Homesongs is really an album that has lasted over time. It’s something that just sticks with people. With Love and Other Planets, I wanted to make a record that develops with time, that grows with time. The more you invest into it as a listener, the more you get out of it. If you put time into it, you get more and more out of it. There are nice little word games and sonic games and things with the music and stuff like that. It’s all there to be discovered or interpreted, and some people have said, “Ah, you did this --- this is great! You did this, this and this,” and I didn’t actually MEAN to do that! [laughter] It’s brilliant when that happens. There’s lots of little stuff in there...lots of counting to be done.
I look forward to hearing you play the new stuff live tonight. I have to say that “There Will Always Be” on Homesongs --- I saw you perform that in New York City, when you played a show with the Double at Northsix, and when that song came on I boo-hooed like a baby. [laughter] Every single time I make a mix CD for a friend who’s down in the dumps, I always put that song right at the end. That song means a lot to me, as a statement of unconditional loyalty.
I agree; that’s how I felt when I wrote it. It’s so important to have that sentiment. With Love and Other Planets, I was scared that through being a little tricky with the production and the ideas, [the album] would lose that personal attachment...but it doesn’t. That’s the difficult thing: to get people to come back and listen to it three times. That’s when you start getting those details, whereas Homesongs was quite immediate --- you were drawn in. I wanted Love and Other Planets to grow deliberately. It’s a bit challenging to get into. I think that over time, it’s gonna really make it more worthwhile.
Did you use the same setup that you used to record Homesongs to record Love and Other Planets? I remember reading that most of your songs were recorded on a busted-up computer really early in the morning, when all of your neighbors were asleep.
I used the same equipment, but with two years more of experience. I deliberately wanted to push the production side of things, and challenge myself as a producer. I tried to get into recording new sounds, like drum kits, for this record. Yeah, it was definitely the same setup, but with a different head on...so it’s a completely different setup, in effect! It’s the way you use things that describes what they are.
That reminds me of a little manifesto I read written by a group called the Country Teasers, in which they chastised people for giving up their four-tracks to record in professional studios. How do you know that you’ve exhausted every possibility with what you have before you move on to something bigger?
Totally. I agree, but I also think that sometimes it is intriguing to get something that’s completely out of the ordinary, and explore that too. Get your four-track, but why not get a mad octave pedal and see what that does too? Just because you’ve got a guitar doesn’t mean that you have to play just guitar all the time. You don’t HAVE to exhaust all the possibilities of the guitar. The whole point is that you need to complement it and work with it. I understand where they’re coming from, but I would challenge them on a couple of points.
That’s good, and I appreciate that. What prompted your decision to write about “love and other planets”? It seems like every song on your new album has some sort of space-related metaphor. What inspired it?
It kinda just happened --- the same as Homesongs. Both of them are “concept albums.” That’s a dirty word, and for it to be a space-themed concept album makes the word doubly dirty.
Well, it’s not a prog album! [laughter]
But if someone tells you that they’ve done a concept album about space, you immediately imagine a ‘70s guy with long hair playing synthesizers. It’s not, though, and that’s the point. I wanted to get away from that...but I didn’t make the decision until a few songs in. [It was] the same with Homesongs --- I just was writing songs, and realized there were continuous things coming through. I decided that that was how I’d push it. I find that if I write one song about something, it gets my brain ticking, and I think very deeply about what I want to say about that subject. Three to five minutes just isn’t enough to say what you want to say. Love and Other Planets is about perspectives, and seeing things from various angles. In order to do that, having many songs about the same subject made more sense...
...with each song taking on a different nuance!
Yeah, another aspect of it...and sometimes, they counter each other or suggest counter-arguments, or support arguments, or look at it from a slightly skewed glance. I think that’s very important. As a result, hopefully, the album as a whole --- which I strongly believe in when making records --- will be coherent, not only through thematic links, but also through musical links.
That reminds me of the last interview I did, with a lady named Khaela who sings for a duo called the Blow. Her album is called Paper Television, and she writes about human relationships through various metaphors. One song uses economics as a metaphor, another uses the digestive system as a metaphor, and another song uses politics. There’s a lyric in it that says, “My love is a nation, but it cannot survive against your dissent.” She uses each song to say the same thing in different ways, and I think Love and Other Planets does that as well.
Some people think the metaphors are a bit tenuous or heavy-handed, but I don’t mind that at all. I think there’s enough subtlety within the heavy hammer blows to dissuade anyone from thinking that it’s not thought through.
Sometimes you’ve got to tap them on the shoulder, and sometimes you’ve got to whack them upside the head. [laughter]
It’s true! You don’t want to lose your sense of fun as well, and be totally po-faced.
I have two more questions, and then I’ll get out of your hair.
Oh, go for it!
How did you get the opportunity to get your music in a Levi’s commercial? I saw your cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” on YouTube, and I was surprised. How did that come about?
Very randomly. A friend of mine works in an ad agency, and he’d sometimes say, “Could you do some guitar on this?,” and I’d help him out from time to time. It’s never been used; it’s usually just demos and whatever. I kinda just did the male voice bit, in case they’d go for the male voice idea, and then they could think about it properly, and I did the production on the music. Levi’s turned around and said, “That’s it --- that’s what we want.” It was a really weird decision for me, and it was quite a challenge for me to think, “Do I really want to do this? Is it right?” In the end, I thought, “Well...I wear Levi’s jeans, and a whole bunch of people are gonna hear it.” I’m not gonna announce that I’ve done it --- if people explore it, they can find out about it. It hasn’t been officially announced, but people just find out about it from wherever. But yeah, it was completely random. It’s just the way it works sometimes. I’ve done music for movie soundtracks lost of times, and they do or don’t get used. It just varies.
My final question is: what is one thing that has excited you lately that has nothing to do with music?
When you say “lately,” how far back can I go?
As far back as you want!
Touring around America at this part of the year, when the weather’s gone crazy, has been completely, outrageously inspirational. Driving up New York State through autumn was fantastic, and then a few days later we drove from Toronto to Cleveland through that Buffalo snowstorm. Two-foot snowfalls...that’s insane! And then, to go to the West Coast and here, where it’s baking sunshine, has been quite shocking to the system. I really enjoyed that shock. Another thing is that I’ve read “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, which I recommend.
Have you caught cold driving through all of these extreme weather conditions?
No, but I’ve gotten really tired, and it takes a toll. We’ve flied a couple of times, and it takes a toll. Today, I’ve got a really sore throat from flying and not sleeping, so I’m gonna do some heavy warmups and drink lots of water...and gargle.
Good idea. By the way, what is “Cloud Atlas” about?
It’s about interlinking souls over various ages. You’re following six stories that kinda cut each other off, but link intrinsically to each other. I really recommend it; he’s a fantastic writer. I like the concept of a cloud atlas, because clouds are constantly changing and shifting, and actually trying to map them. He kinda relates clouds to souls, and he’s trying to map these traveling souls. It has a bit to do with reincarnation, or going back into other situations, and also to do with humankind or human folly, and how it repeats itself over and over again. It kinda goes from being a historical document to a political thriller to sci-fi, and the different stories are in completely different styles, but they’re all completely intrinsic to each other. It’s very, very subtle and very clever.
Well, thanks for letting me interview you!
Thank you very much. I’ve really enjoyed speaking to you. It’s nice to have someone who’s got informed questions and interesting ideas.