There's lots to love about Barcelona via Bristol producer Zoon van snooK's new album The Bridge Between Life and Death not least of all the story behind its production. A haunting collection of electronica tinged folk, or folk tinged electronica depending on your point of view the album was created from found sounds and field recordings snooK made on a pilgrimage to Iceland.
With everything from the waves of Reykjavik Bay to an erupting geyser used as a sound source and contributions from some of Iceland's leading artists we wanted to find out a bit more about how the album came about. As it happens snooK was not only happy to chat about the album's production but also found some of the original recordings made in Iceland which you can listen to, along with his new single, as you read what he has to say about it all.
So your new album The Bridge Between Life and Death was in part recorded in and inspired by Iceland what was it that attracted you to the country?
My first insight into Icelandic folklore was Björk talking about 'hidden people' in the early 90s (something that I think most Icelandic artists point-blankly refuse to even utter nowadays, due to the barrage of lazy journalism: "So, you've got a new album out; tell us about the elves".)
But it was Sigur Rós's Ágætis byrjun that properly transfixed my attention and led to my love of Icelandic music and culture. I had known and loved Debut and Post by Björk, but when Vespertine was released I finally realised how important she was to me. The following year, perhaps my biggest Icelandic inspiration, Múm, released Finally We Are No One and this was a game-changer for me.
So when did you finally get to go out there?
I had finished writing and recording my first LP (Falling from) The Nutty Tree in the summer of 2009 (after losing 80% of the original version to a massive HD failure) and had sent it to a couple of my favourite labels in the UK. After not hearing anything I decided to crack on and start the next project. I had desperately wanted to visit Iceland for the best part of 10 years, so I thought I could try and combine the two things: visit Iceland and take some field recordings from which to build an album.
We were there just under one year on from the protests and they were still in the middle of agreeing new constitutional change after the recent enforced elections. Lots of the people in Reykjavík that I spoke to seemed invigorated by the situation and spoke at length about the country, its inhabitants and the burgeoning political change. It felt like there was an added electricity in the air (although sadly not the kind required to see the Northern Lights on our two failed attempts!).
What's the significance of the album's title?
The title fell into my lap within 30 minutes of landing in Iceland. The taxi ride from Keflavík to Reykjavík takes you through a place called Kópavagur and the driver pointed to a bridge as we went under it and told us that the locals call it The Bridge Between Life and Death because it has the nursing home on one side and the cemetery on the other. This immediately became the title of the album, taking the theme of the insuppressible march from cradle to grave.
Each song on the album has a related sub-plot, within the overall chronological narrative: 'From the Cradle' (Track 1 and a nod to the field recording that the song is built around - me playing a big wooden stringed throne called a Sound Cradle) to 'The Gaits' (Track 12 and a play on words related to the the 'gates' of Heaven and also the special extra gaits that Icelandic horses have).
The album is comprised of found sounds and field recordings you made out in Iceland, what inspired that?
I had used a few field recordings for the first album, as well as some music concrète (recording everyday objects to create rhythms and melodies e.g. sewing machines, matches striking etc) which I absolutely loved and still do and so I thought that I'd like to create a whole album from recordings based on a theme.
I had been using old interviews and recordings of drunk people shouting outside government buildings in Russia, but I wanted to create something that was cohesively linked together with a motif.
How did you then turn those recordings into the songs that featured on the album?
I came back to Bristol and started writing straight away. The initial few songs/progressions came really quickly having just had my inspiration gland tickled to near epileptic proportions. The rest came throughout the year, having had to balance it with my teaching job at a music college in Bristol. In the middle of this, my first album got signed to LA label Mush Records, who I had contacted before I went away because I loved their roster: Daedelus, Bibio, Boom Bip etc. So I was touring the first record whilst writing the second.
Oftentimes I would have the field recording looping in the background and then write the piano progressions over the top. Other times I would have started with a lyre, ukulele, harp or guitar melody that I had recorded and then layer the field recording over the top. Most of the rhythms on the LP are created from manipulating and chopping up the unintentional things that the mic picked up like static, clipping, noises in the background etc. I love picking through old recordings and finding natural rhythms that occur all around us.
And you also got to work with several Icelandic artists in the making of the album, who was involved in the end?
The day I took the recording of the geese for the track Tjörnin Side, we went to see Múm and Seabear at the Iðnó theatre next to Tjörnin (the big pond/small lake in the centre of Reykjavík). I had a vague idea that it would be great to collaborate with some of my favourite Icelandic artists on the album and this gig solidified the idea. I met Jónsi at that gig as well actually, but sadly he was too busy with his solo album at that time.
When I got back to Bristol I messaged Sindri (Seabear/Sin Fang) and asked if he would be up for collaborating on a song, which he was really kind and enthusiastic about. He sent me an instrumental 8-bar loop that I chopped up and created a new progression from - this is the first thing you hear on the track The Gaits. Halldór from Seabear also ended up doing the artwork for the album and two singles.
I also contacted Amiina who contributed lots of instrumental one-hits on the harp, cello, metallophone, etc. which I used to create the song 'The Potter's Garden'. The key of the one-hits coincidentally fitted with the recording of the children playing the huge pipe organ in the church (Hallgrímskirkja) where I was taking recordings.
I had done a remix for one of Benni Hemm Hemm's singles earlier in the year and when I asked if he would like to contribute something, he kindly gave me a field recording of his own, which was of himself and his family in the snowy countryside. All of the adult and child dialogue on Thufur Thoroughfare is from this recording.
Ruxpin came on board later with a special remix of Tjörnin Side for the digital version of the LP release, which is just a stunning piece of work that I love immeasurably. I particularly love the added vocals from Olena.
I feel honoured that Gunni of Múm is working on a remix of LP track Magret the Outlaw at the moment - because without them perhaps none of this would have transpired.
If you add to that the special remixers that have contributed to both singles, firstly Isan and Sir Doufus Styles and then Ulrich Schnauss [and Paul Hartnoll - then I count myself very fortunate to have embarked on this project.
So having ticked Iceland off the bucket list, what's next for Zoon van snooK?
I'm working on the live set for The Bridge... as we speak, not easy given the multitude of acoustic instruments that are layered up on the record, but I like a challenge! So I hope to be touring that for a while, hopefully in Europe and Australia.
Then I would really love to make some new recordings in Japan; I'm a big fan of Susumu Yokota, Cornelius, Ryuichi Sakamoto etc. so would love to go there and be imbued with some new inspiration. The Catalan dance record can wait, for now...
The Bridge Between Life and Death is out now on Lo Recordings. The Gaits, featuring remixes by Ulrich Schanuss and Orbital's Paul Hartnoll, was released on August 12th.