Interview: Tangents plus track and playlist

The new track from Sydney-based band Tangents, ‘Terracotta’ is as hypnotic and mesmerising as their earlier EP ‘Stents and Arteries’ that I reviewed recently. I’m not sure if it’s electronica/dance music for the jazz generation or jazz for the electronica dance generation but somewhere in there there is a kernel of joy for all music lovers. Even three-chord indie rock lovers like me:


Each of Tangents’ parts is just as weighty as its sum, with the ensemble comprising multiple influential modern experimentalists: British electronic producer Ollie Bown (Icarus) is the group’s “laptoppist”; Adrian Lim-Klumpes (ex-Triosk, 3ofMillions) on piano, Rhodes, vibraphone and synth; Peter Hollo (FourPlay String Quartet) on cello & effects; free improviser Evan Dorrian on drums & singer/producer Shoeb Ahmad on guitar & effects (both from Spartak, latter also from Agency).

‘Terracotta’ is off Tangents’ forthcoming album ‘New Bodies’ out on 15 June 2018 and it is a sound that transcends all styles and tastes. You can pre-order the album here.

I was honoured to have a fascinating chat with the band about their intriguing genre and their eclectic tastes shown in the exclusive playlist they collated for Backseat Mafia (thanks to Liz from Special Interest for facilitating):

The band comes from quite a wide variety of backgrounds – how did you meet and start playing together? Where did the name come from?

Peter: It’s a lovely but totally true story we tell that we were all fans of each other’s work before we met. Shoeb & Evan went to school together in Canberra. Shoeb & Peter met as music fans online. Peter met Ollie as a fan of his UK drum’n’bass duo Icarus, and with Shoeb organised a tour of the duo to Sydney & Canberra. Adrian & Shoeb have recorded a duo album together, and all have appeared on Peter’s FBi Radio show Utility Fog before Tangents existed.

Our first performance together was a pair of improvised sets in a recording studio in St Peters, organised when Ollie was visiting before he moved to Sydney – and those sets formed the basis of our first album.

Tangents – what’s in a name? It obliquely speaks to our musical approach, and sounds super mathematical!

When writing together, what is your process? I imagine there are differing tastes and styles and this needs to be managed into something that is the Tangents’ definitive sound.

Evan: The process is really just to play until something interesting happens. Then hope it’s still interesting when you listen back. Sometimes it’s the spots you think won’t work that do… so it’s definitely a discovery process. If we play together well we make room for each other and the different “tastes” we bring with us. So we kind of collectively come to a place we all like that has some energy in it. We can also get to this place by post-processing / arranging / playing around.

Shoeb: I think this is the most beautiful thing about our music – the lightbulb moments that come up when playing live in a room or through self-reflection with distance from the original moment. It is both a boon and a distraction to have five very distinct musical voices in the group but we don’t think about managing each others tastes with intent, rather we take the opportunity to create tension and harmony through our interplay.
For the initiated – how would you define post-everything improvisation?

Ollie: we put that tag out there because it made a good mission statement; keep moving, defy genre, fuse and reflect on style. The name Tangents is of course connected to this. Of course, it’s a bit futile and some have criticised it as lofty. You’d be right for saying we’re not post-anything-at-all. But to ground it a little bit, we draw a lot on post-rock, but with the inclusion of jazz, classical and electronic elements. Although Ado and Evan are seasoned jazzers, our improvisation style is probably more grounded in rock than anything else.

I know one of you, Peter Hollo, plays in FourPlay which was renowned for covering contemporary rock songs in a classical style with a quartet. Would you agree that Tangents is similarly looking to break away from stereotypes and genres?

Peter: When we started FourPlay String Quartet we wanted to break out of the constraints of the classical performance and play rock music, certainly – but we also take in hip-hop, jazz, “world music” and anything else you’d care to mention, and it represents both a desire to draw from multiple genres and to break away from “genre”.

Tangents, I think, represents an even more deliberate disregard for “genre”. Across the five of us, we are able to draw from our experience playing (and being fans of) many types of music: classical, jazz, punk, post-rock, drum’n’bass, glitchy sound processing, and so on. So to follow on from Ollie above, “post-everything improvisation” is meant to indicate this feeling of being “post-genre”. Because improvising – spontaneous composition – is a big part of how we make music live & in the studio, jazz comes up frequently, but I’m not sure it’s ever the primary genre-idea in our heads!

Indeed – do you see yourself as having a target audience? Do you try and appeal to a wider audience than those who appreciate jazz, and, if so, how do you manage this?

Ollie: We seem to have found ourselves appealing to quite different groups, which is a nice situation to be in. I feel like we’ve done shows where we are the youngest people in the room and other shows where we’re the oldest. I think we do something that older crowds can get, with reference to jazz, fusion improvisation and a touch of prog rock, but that also clearly resonates to younger audiences in the resurgence of bands like Floating Points and BadBadNotGood that engage in instrumental long-form structures with electronics. We’re not really trying to target one audience or another, but we are interested in developing what we do in response to what makes people tick with our music. It’s awesome when you really press someone’s buttons.

There is to me a tension between jazz and electronic music styles – the former is organic, usually acoustic with no temporal or structural definitions whereas the latter is normally considered to be digital, predictable and precise. Classical music, in this sense seems to have more elements in common with the latter. Do you agree? How do you reconcile this tension in your music – you would appear to incorporate instruments from across all genres?

Adrian: I think the organic nature of jazz is apparent in our music. However, there are strict languages and structures in jazz music which require technical discipline, harmonic and rhythmic interplay and the ability to think fast. The interplay and movement in Tangents is certainly akin to jazz, and we improvise this way both in the studio and on stage. We are also aware of the instrumentation and we sometimes play in common jazz roles – cello bass lines, piano chords, guitar melodies, drum kit colour and rhythmic drive. There are so many jazz artists who now incorporate technology and affected acoustic sounds, we are just one of many who blur these lines.

Ollie: There’s an important distinction between the culture and process surrounding a musical genre and the sound associated with that genre, and this discussion of process forms a lot of our discussion. Peter can whip up a classical-sounding lick on the cello but he’ll be working in an improvised mode, meaning that it won’t go places in the same way a classical composition would. I think we all agree that one of the most interesting dynamics in the band is this kind of negotiation of process and style with competing forces; what is possible, what we understand, what works best and what we like.

Live electronic music performance has come along way but it is still a very different process to playing an instrument, and a different way of producing tracks in the studio. But there is now a really well established tradition of improvised electronic music, not just in the art music mode but in the domain of beats, clubs, long-form techno DJ sets. This is a tradition that I cut my teeth in; playing with a laptop in 1996 was definitely not normal, and there was no manual. We had to resort to programmer tools like MaxMSP to really be able to configure performance systems that were workable. Now I’m an Ableton addict like everyone (though I do also roll out my own software sometimes in Tangents). It’s a powerful tool that lets you focus on the creative process and the sound as much as possible. I think it’s getting harder to say that electronic music is predictable and precise (and maybe that was never a fair appraisal).

Following on from this, how do you reconcile between improvisation and recording in a defined and structured medium. How do you translate this into playing that same recording live?

Evan: We have to do both. Play things as we left them on the record and find new stuff as we go. There has to be some risk I think…and that’s why we have kept improvising live even though we do refine what we present on record. It’s important to us to get to new places every time we play, so things stay energised, but it’s also nice to hang off things we have refined that can anchor what we do.
You have a new album out in June – ‘New Bodies’ – can you tell us a little about the recording process and what listeners can expect?

Peter: The majority of this album comes out of one mammoth day session improvising together in a studio in Sydney. We took care to separate the instruments as much as possible, so everything could be pulled apart later, but many of the final tracks’ structures were there in the original raw form.

Adrian: This means we have moments of acoustic improvisation that morph into breakbeats. We have processed instruments that form a foundation for other melodies and drumming. The tracks were often selected from the parts of the improvisations that moved, turned faster, or had a clear cadence point. That meant the structure of the sometimes lengthy tracks remains intuitive and true to our initial playing.

Is there a deliberate theme linking the naming of the EP, ‘Stents and Arteries’, the new album and your musical ambitions (going back to the dichotomy between organic jazz and clinical electronica)? Or is this taking things too far?

Adrian: The title, New Bodies, seems at first, quite obvious. But once you mull over it, perhaps we meant another interpretation. A body of water, a celestial discovery, a new identity. We hope that abstraction is mirrored in the way a listener would feel after a few listens. Our ambition is to create music that can be freed from preconceptions and different from everyone.

‘Arteries’ was named first. We added Stents as the lead track on the EP after that. My father in-law recently survived a 6-way heart bypass. His stents really keep him alive. Our ‘Stents’ is out to support our ‘Arteries’. Both pieces are blood pumpers – they have a driving momentum and an inevitability about them.

Finally – is it possible for you to compile a list ten tracks that have influenced the band most?

Definitely impossible but we can try – let’s say “music we think of in a Tangents context” rather than perhaps direct influences? Consensus is rare, but all of us are mostly happy with most of these – that’s not bad is it!

Aphex Twin – Vordhosbn

The Necks – Drive By

Steve Reich – Music for 18 musicians

Tim Hecker – I’m Transmitting Tonight

Autechre – Laughing Quarter

Boards of Canada – Happy Cycling

Four Tet – And They All Look Broken Hearted

Supersilent – 6.2

Sonic Youth – The Diamond Sea

My Bloody Valentine – Loomer

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