Yuri Landman made his name building instruments for the likes of Blood Red Shoes, Jad Fair, Lee Ranaldo and Liars. Travelling across Europe, he holds workshops for anybody who wants to make their own instruments (with brilliant names like 'Quickstep Kalimba 2.0', 'Home Swinger' and 'Empire state Rocker') to take home with them.
Last time we met, he explained that he likes pop music with something a little odd in it; and that aggression is more important to music than composition. You can see that in the way his instruments look; and in his musical tastes.
You can see it, too, in the music he makes. This, perhaps, is the material that gave birth to Bismuth.
You've spoken about your instrument building in terms of a punk aesthetic. How important is punk to Bismuth?
Punk music strikes me, in lot of respects, but I think my own output is less political. It has a more 'avant-garde 'motive.
Bismuth, that is, Arnold van de Velde and I - we're not natural provokers. We're not like Iggy Pop, or Johnny Rotten, or Pussy Riot, or any of those guys. And if we tried to be, it'd feel unnatural.
The avant-garde isn't activism. We're trying to explore the possibilities of sound experimentation, and trying to widen the borders of art that way. Not very suitable for a big audience, I think. We're primarily working for other musicians - maybe free thinkers? - who, in their turn, can use our concepts.
Put it this way: apart from the workings of the lead singer, The Sex Pistols were basically a lame band making clichéd music. I'm a huge fan of the Sex Pistols, and that political side of, say, Minor Threat and Pussy Riot, for sure. But my fascination lies within more experimental punk: Throbbing Gristle, no wave, early Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Melt-Banana. That kind of stuff.
Are you composing Bismuth's music or refining improvisations?
We practised twice and created a series of six improvisations with simple rhythmic structures as the grid for the tracks. So it wasn't completely random, and we had the idea that we've have one song with a slow beat, one with a continuing kick drum, one with a breakbeat and ABAB structures, one with a...
...and so on. That got samey quickly, so we decided to make it a bit more structured - with composed melody patterns. Arnold made most of those fundamental melody lines and I added layers on top of it. Those sounds evolved out of rehearsals.
When we started I outlined the direction for Bismuth to Arnold. I told him that I wanted to make music that was as rhythmic as dance music, but with our own gear and no computers involved - because I find the way DJs and many electronic artists perform pretty boring to watch.
Rhythm is such an important factor for me as well as for Arnold. Neither of us really likes free improvisation. Great for three minutes, but then I'm going for the beer at the bar.
Now, don't get me wrong: when it first occurred in the '60s and '70s, free improv was important to art and music. But it's boring as hell now. Cage, Feldman, Harrison and the like have defined the borders of what music is, and it was useful then. I prefer to make music that has a good amount of the raw edge they've outlined, but it also has to have a good amount of simplicity in it. That might be the link with punk music.
How did you meet Arnold come to form Bismuth?
Arnold and I have worked together for a few years. I started doing instrument building workshops in 2009, and I was asked to play at a festival and show off the gear I'd built. I developed two big written compositions that are very easy to learn - for any musician, even if they're not very skilled - and began to perform. That grew into a 40 minute performance.
For big shows, to have a bit of security, I asked a few friends to support me as a backline band. A guitarist and singer named René van Lien, and Arnold, often joined my ensembles. Arnold is a multi-instrumentalist - so he did whatever was necessary at each gig.
Arnold and René have a recording studio so we decided it would be good to record the piece along with a few other tracks. An album, That's Right, Go Cats, was published in 2012. It had Jad Fair of Half Japanese on one side of the record, performing a spoken word section over the top of that main ensemble piece I'd written.
These ensembles, they're quite a nightmare to organise when I'm not attaching one of my instrument building workshops to a performance of the music. Getting 15 people together is complicated - and paying for their train tickets is expensive, too.>
For a while, I'd wanted to work with a simpler line-up. I suppose I was making plans for that to happen, but Bismuth basically started completely out of the blue. I asked a befriended promoter if I could do an ensemble performance with 15 people, but the space was too small, so it couldn't take place. Then I bluffed that I had a 2 piece as well and could do a smaller set.
I called Arnold and told him we were a band.
Is Bismuth exploring a particular musical idea?
We're trying to make our music as rhythmic as possible - and that's a new experience for me. We're looking at timbre above tone. Basically, I'm mainly interested in timbre, what with my work as an instrument builder, but to keep things musical it's got to have a melody or a beat. So with Bismuth we create a beat and simple melodic structures, and try to get them to sound as odd as possible.
Sounding odd is cool of course, but I think the power of Bismuth lies heavily in how it looks on stage and how we make music with alternate instruments. A visual experience.
How does the project fit in with your work as an instrument builder?
It fills the gap in my other work perfectly. Bismuth is an excellent way to showcase what my instruments sound like and how you can use them to make music.
Because I'm (a bit) well-known as a builder, I'm being asked to play. When I play, more people see my instruments. So it's a win-win and it's great fun to do as well.
The Home Swinger was a huge hit as a workshop. After the Home Swinger I developed seven other workshops, of which the White Eagle and the Triochord also do well, but there isn't really a need for any more. It's a good series as it is. Occasionally I develop a new instrument, one that could be a workshop model - but it's not my focus anymore.
Since Bismuth is working so well, my instrument building plans have shifted towards what we need for Bismuth.
What does Bismuth compare with?
There are a few, rare references. Sonic Youth's debut EP has the track 'She's not Alone', which is a big reference point for me. A couple of years ago, a previously unreleased album by Interference came out, featuring David Linton in the line up. There's a marvellous track on it, called 'Excerpt #1, Version 1'. That's a big inspiration for the direction I had in mind with Bismuth.
Like those tracks, I try to incorporate the timbres of gamelan music in the music of Bismuth. I'm also keen on the sounds used in Looney Tunes animations. Slide whistles, wobble boards - those acoustic sound effect-making instruments. I've made a few electric instruments lately that go in that direction.
There's an element of dissonance in Bismuth's music that might, perhaps, be taken further...
We're not specifically looking to become a loud, noise band. There are other good bands that are much better at it than me. Guys like Merzbow and Keiji Haino have reached the borders of that research already. Approaching nearly white noise, basically.
I use dissonance sometimes, as an effect, but with my instruments I primarily try to emphasize the bright harmonic spots that can come out of chaotic noise. Our challenge is to make odd music instead of abrasive music.