His music has been described as “brutal”, “militant”, and “uncompromising”, and the work he has produced has given him the opportunity to cooperate on some key artistic projects, such as the rescoring of the cult film Solaris with Daníel Bjarnason and creating the soundtrack for The Enclave, a video installation about war torn Kongo. His beard causes faintness in girls and envy in boys, while his performances are an experience so intense that there are warning signs for those sensitive to sensory stimuli posted at the entrances of his jam-packed concert venues.
WORDS: ERVIN FELIĆ
He, of course, is Ben Frost, an Australian native with an Icelandic address, whom I’ve had the opportunity to talk to before his performance at Močvara. The above mentioned adjectives made me rather nervous while I was asking my first question, so nervous, in fact that the hand I was holding my pink voice recorder with shook visibly and my concentration dropped to zero when I realized I was sticking a pink voice recorder in Ben Frost’s face. However, I soon felt at ease, having discovered that the man behind the fierce music was actually a very pleasant and talkative guy with something of a sweet tooth, as he went through an orange, half a box of cookies, and two bananas during our twenty minute conversation about his work, the machinations of the music industry and the nature of art in general.
You’re Australian by birth and have been living in Iceland for more than a decade. You’ve often talked about how the island always held a very special place in your imagination growing up. What was it about Iceland that fascinated you?
Jesus I must have been asked that question 7.000 times. It’s just where I live. Some people are lucky enough to be born… home. They’re lucky enough to be born where they belong. They feel like they’re home from the day they were born. I never had that. And I think that the rest of us, people like me, just have to go and find home… And for whatever reason it just feels like home there. I don’t know why, it just is.
Since your relocation to Iceland, you have collaborated with a great number of artists, composing music for theatre, film, and video games, as well as working in production. How is your creative process different when you’re doing commissioned work as opposed to making music from an internal impulse?
Well I guess the thing is, when you’re making music for other people, it’s always as a counterpart to something else, you know? It’s not purely for listening to. It’s interacting with film or interacting with dancers. It’s about a space. And all of those things affect music. I think when music is either acting as a soundtrack for something or as a counterpart to something else, it’s not a fully formed entity. It’s why most soundtrack music is shitty music, you know? Because it’s missing something. Myself included. I’ve made available music that I’ve made as a score for other things, but by and large I don’t think it’s great work. Because it’s missing parts of itself. When you’re working for other people, ultimately your ideas are coming down to you. And when I’m working on my own, I’m not looking for guidance from somebody else or something else. I would like to think that it’s kind of, well, honest.
So would you say you prefer working on your own pieces than for someone else?
I wouldn’t say I prefer it, it’s just that I’m very clear about what I’m doing. I guess it’s the difference between a carpenter making a kitchen for someone else or making himself a piece of furniture. Like, if I’m going to make myself a chair to sit in, that’s a completely different thing to building someone else’s bathroom. And I think there’s a difference there and I don’t think enough people recognize that. You know, writing music for a video game is fun, it’s great and it’s really challenging and working with different people from different worlds is always really inspiring. But ultimately you’re a worker. You work for hire.
Your music has been described as fierce, militant, and powerful; combining minimalist electronics and explosive metal. Later on in your career, in Theory of Machines and By the Throat you’ve complemented this by adding a variety of recorded sounds, such as howling wolves and life support machines. A lot of the music you create seeks not to appease or entertain, but rather to unnerve and stimulate, delivering that “emotional fucking kick in the ass”, as you yourself put it. What is the function of that? What should your audience be feeling when listening to your music?
I don’t know, I mean… I think the only thing I have to offer as an artist is what I consider to be interesting and what I consider to be the way that music should sound.
Do you not consider your audiences at all then or do you think about the response you’re creating?
I really can honestly say I don’t think about the audience. I’m interested in how I perceive things. And often that surprises me. Sometimes things just feel better to me when they are not right. I can’t explain where that comes from. But, there’s a certain arrangement that I’m looking for in music, maybe in all art. The most honest thing I think I can do as an artist is to follow that and to push deeper into it and just trust that the uncompromised nature of it will find resonance outside of myself.
Is there a dimension of social and/or cultural critique to your work, especially in a world with “too much fucking music”, to quote you again, that is just so docile and similar sounding?
I would definitely say that my lack of output is a social critique in that way. I don’t want to make records all the time. And I don’t feel any need to compete in this kind of incessant delivery chain where it’s like one album then tour, followed by interesting collaborations into a new album which turns into a new tour. It’s like this 18-month album cycle mentality that you have to keep going, you have to make more Facebook friends, you have to keep your career alive somehow, you know, and that to me is extremely uninteresting and I really feel like I’m at the mercy of my interests, my interest in creating new work is something I can’t control, it controls me, if anything. And I think that, as I was saying, the most honest thing I can do is just to follow that. Whether there’s a loss or a gain, or anything in between.
You recently wrapped up a very intense project with artist Richard Mosse, the Enclave, a film installation that follows the ongoing struggle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but does so using an old decommissioned type of film that reacts to chlorophyll and presents it as bright pink instead of green, resulting in really stunning, beautiful images of violence. Mosse’s concept of manipulating fear and violence into art, revealing the beauty that is hidden reminds me of your own aesthetic. Would you agree? Is that why you wanted to collaborate with Mosse?
I think I saw something in Richards work that really resonated with me. I didn’t see myself in it, particularly. And when we first started talking there was no inclination towards working together. That actually was a bit of a coincidence. I didn’t know he was working with film, even at that stage. The most that I hoped for was that maybe we could end up working on a photo together or an album cover or something. But very quickly we made a connection together and a friendship that has gone far beyond the machinations of his work or mine. I understand what he’s trying to do and I think he, more than anyone actually, has a sense for my work. To paraphrase him when he talks about the project and these images of war torn Africa presented in a way that has this unique aesthetic beauty to it, when you’re confronted with beauty and violence in the same measure it creates an ethical problem for the viewer. And that ethical problem is interesting. It’s not so much what’s going on in the photo as in the way we as a viewer are able to marry these things together. We enjoy the image but we feel weird about enjoying it. I think that that’s a really healthy imposition for an audience to be put in, to exercise that kind of dilemma.
I read somewhere that you wrote most of your latest album, A U R O R A, in the DRC, during the Enclave project. I imagine working under those circumstances, with only your laptop and not even a wall to plug it in, must have been very challenging. And yet you persisted. Why is that? What was it about Congo that motivated you to write?
Kind of just being aware of the fact that I was having a lot of feelings about what I was experiencing. Being aware that it was a unique experience. I think I just wanted to see what would happen in that situation, trying to work in those conditions. What it would do to me and what it would do to the music. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I really noticed any of those aspects of the work, the fact that I was working mostly off a battery and I didn’t notice the presence of the diesel generator as this kind of opposing force in the work until much later on. Part of the process of record making is the reflective image of the end result, the hindsight of a finished work. You can’t have that in parallel with the creation of the work and if you can, then there’s also a problem there. It’s really only now, much later, that I can really have any kind of definitive feelings about that experience because in the moment it didn’t feel important and it didn’t feel like an album and it didn’t feel like something that’s going to end up in the Venice Biennale.
A U R O R A is arguably your fiercest album yet. It packs the same punch as your previous material, but it is bereft of any warmth in terms of instruments and the immersive melodies that are present in the earlier albums. It does, however, communicate a sort of urgency, especially in the drums of Greg Fox and Thor Harris, and the coldness left in the absence of other instruments actually brings forth a sense of clarity and purity. So what is A U R O R A really about? Could you tell us a bit more about what inspired you to write it?
It’s still pretty close. I mean the thing only came out like less than a year ago. That’s not a long time and I still feel like I’m in that space, processing that. That’s what this musical life is about, this kind of working through an ongoing process of trying to find the bottom of the record. The thing with records is that myth building process that’s needed in order to sell it. In order for people to feel connected to it, it needs a story. In this case the strongest story line was, I guess, connected to Africa and connecting to that space but I don’t know if that’s what it’s about really. I’m not sure if it’s for me to say.
I know what you mean, it’s kind of easy to make the mental connection between Africa and A U R O R A.
Well I think in a much wider context, the jury is out on what any of my music is really about. But maybe in like 50 years from now, 100 years from now, there’ll be some fucking university course on 21st century electronic music and me and five other guys who I’ve barely even heard of will be talked about as one kind of group or a movement or sort of a school of thought. Or maybe we won’t, maybe no one gives a fuck. But my point is that it’s with the longer view of history that you can make these connections between things and that you can look back on a body of work and see a bigger picture, a pattern.
I think that makes a lot of sense. You always look backwards on art because you never call a movement something until much later.
Yeah, exactly! Usually when people are dead.
You mentioned in an interview that writing A U R O R A felt dictated at times and you had little control over the process because the album would not be anything else than what it demanded to be, that it wrote itself through you, in a sense. It’s almost reminiscent of Frankenstein in that way, especially given the brutality and aggressiveness of the album. Did it ever feel like you were creating a monster? Was the process frightening at times?
It was only frightening in the sense that it felt like a very divergent step from where I’d been, which surprised me as much as anyone, I think. And the physical nature, the sound of that album was really embedded in the recordings and that’s not something I can dial back. It had this kind of white heat, a ferocity to it and you can’t really take that away, you know? In that way, I wasn’t in control.
Another project that you mentioned heavily influenced the creation of A U R O R A was The Wasp Factory, your foray into opera. You not only wrote the music for it, but also directed the piece. How did that feel, expressing yourself through manipulating movement and the body, as opposed to manipulating sound? Especially in a narrative as physical and violent as Ian Banks’ novel.
It felt like a really natural extension of what I was already doing. Working with singers, with people, it’s really not that different to working in a studio environment, where you’re manipulating people to get the best out of them. Manipulating in a good way, usually. Working as a director, 90% percent of it is just choosing the right people. And being in that position, working with the best people there are, a lot of that came about because I had the experience of working with the best people through other projects, like working with dance companies, theatre companies or whatever and just building a repertoire with those people and having the opportunity to see other directors working, some of the best in the business. It was my first shot at taking that role, it won’t be my last. I felt extremely comfortable in the position of the director. I had uncertainty, sure, but that for me is actually a really positive thing. Just to be kind of unsure. The one thing that’s guaranteed when working in this realm of computer based music is that you get bored and it gets easier. That’s why I feel this constant need to keep upping the stakes because you normalize, you push harder and you normalize to that level. So what do you do next time? It’s got to be bigger, more difficult, it’s got to have more restrictions, more rules, something harder you need to work against. I know I’m capable of doing that sort of work, and furthermore, because I was very luckily successful in what I’m doing and I had the opportunity to survive as an artist, as a musician, I feel increasingly that my responsibility is to use that privilege to push harder, not to make it easier. To keep upping those stakes, to keep challenging the threshold of what I’m capable of, to make it harder. That’s the kind of discipline in this work. That’s the only part I feel I owe to an audience.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to take on for your next project?
I don’t know yet. I mean, I have ideas, but, you know, the first ideas are usually the ones you need to get rid of, just get them out of the way. I do know I’m going to play some new pieces for the show here in Zagreb, just to see how they work, test the waters a bit.