The Haxan Cloak‘s self-titled debut album sure as hell doesn’t sound like a debut album.
Released earlier this summer on Aurora Borealis, it finds our eponymous hero – Yorkshire-hailing, London-based Bobby Krlic – boldly, and with astonishing success, moulding elements of modern classical, dark ambient, doom metal, drone, industrial and dub-attuned electronic music into a unique hybrid form that demands to be taken very seriously indeed. It’s rare that such heightened compositional, instrumental and production ability (not to mention maturity) meets in one band, let alone in one man, and while many other artists come to mind when trying to contextualise Krlic – the likes of Kevin Drumm, Tim Hecker, KTL, Sunn O)), Earth – few of even these distinguished giants can claim to have ever created a music as rich and nuanced as that found on The Haxan Cloak.
FACT tracked down Krlic to talk about his album, undoubtedly among the year’s finest, and find out why how Guns ‘n’ Roses, formal training and late night cinema Channel 4 helped shape its dark contours.
I’ve always been into quite bass-heavy music from being a teenager, although I don’t think I really realised why until much later. I remember being in my final year of my degree and I was conducting some preliminary research experiments for my final piece; I played different low-frequency sine tones through a woofer. I placed a variety of different objects and substances (wood, metal, jelly, water, plastic etc.) on top of the cone while the tone was being played. Depending on the material and the frequency, the tone could have a very visible effect on what had been placed on top of it. The sound had become not only audible, but it had become very physical. This changed my perception of sound and my relationship to music became very different subsequently.
“I don’t really know what to tell you about my approach to it with regards to my own music. The cello is a very deep, rich instrument, and I try to honour that through a fair bit of experimentation with mic placement, but in terms of my music, there’s no great technique really. I guess I’ve developed a very sensitive ear over the years. That’s the most valuable tool really.”
What’s your relationship to metal?
“I was born in ’85 and I have a brother who is seven years older than me. He shaped my interest in music from an early age. He was really into skateboarding and thrash and punk and grunge. He would always bring so much music into the house and I would sit and listen to it with him. He would play me Guns ‘n’ Roses songs that had the most ‘swear words’ in them as a kind of amusing rebellion against our Mum, as she told him I wasn’t allowed to listen to them, as I was too young. So I guess it was really exciting for me at that age and that feeling continued into my teenage years. I grew up listening to stuff like Pantera and Metallica. I went through the typical stuff as a teenager with bands like Deftones and Tool and stuff, then that kind of filtered out and gave way to hip hop and electronic music for a long time. I didn’t really investigate ‘metal’ for a long time, although I was interested in a lot of ‘dark’ music. I then very distinctly remember hearing Thrones, Kahnate, Sunn, Boris and Sleep at University and feeling very excited about metal again.”
“I remember hearing Thrones, Kahnate, Sunn, Boris and Sleep at University and feeling very excited about metal again.”
Noise and drone is a key component of your work, but it’s also highly composed and musical, with a strong sense of narrative. Was it a decision from the beginning of the project to approach things this way?
“It was a decision I made very early on. I love a lot of ‘noise/experimental’ music such as Wolf Eyes or Pedestrian Deposit or things like that, but that music has always seemed quite formless to me. In no way do I mean that detrimentally, but it wasn’t an avenue of music I really wanted to explore. I think I wanted to take the ethos of some of those kind of bands and treat it in an overtly compositional manner. I always have very distinct images in mind when I’m creating music and I think this is where the narrative aspect arises from. A lot of the time I’ll compose in a way in which I try to audibly depict something that I am picturing internally.”
Were you worried about employing the imagery and language of doom/metal etc in the presentation of you and your music? Do you think yourself as part of a “tradition”? Is it not difficult to avoid cliché?
“I don’t know if I have avoided cliche, but I would certainly hope so. I was conscious of the presentation not being overtly ‘doom’, yeah. I don’t really see it is a ‘doom’ project or a ‘metal’ project. Andrew and I spoke a lot about avoiding obvious cliches when we were discussing concepts for the design. We spoke a lot about Joy Division actually – particularly the covers to Closer and ‘She’s Lost Control’. We both really liked the ways that these covers suggested something about the music, but it was very ambiguous. They were very clean and concise and with very simple, elegant text.
I really must give thanks to my friend Richard Forbes-Hamilton for the photography on the release. He really helped me with the concept and completely understood the aesthetic straight away (at times more than I did myself).
“I guess I’ve developed a very sensitive ear over the years. That’s the most valuable tool really.”
How come you ended up mastering the record with Kris Lapke [engineer and artist associated with Hospital Productions, producer of the recent Prurient album and live sound man for the likes of Sonic Youth]?
“I first encountered Kris several years ago when I was supporting Cold Cave. He was their sound engineer and I remember being really impressed by him. I knew his work as Alberich also. I remember speaking to him after the show about a lot of stuff and he was a thoroughly nice guy. I was aware of Kris’s work for Hospital Productions, but also for Sonic Youth, USA Is A Monster, Kevin Drumm and others. I knew he was very good.
“When we were speaking about who should master the record, I was initially very nervous about handing it over to someone else. Also, I’d tweaked it and tweaked it so much myself, a lot of it was actually almost maxed out, so I was dubious as to what someone else was going to be able to do with it. I wanted it to have more power than it did, but I also didn’t want to have to go back and re-mix everything to give the engineer more headroom.
“We got in touch with Kris via email and he agreed to do it straight away. I sent him a very specific list of frequencies that I wanted to be clear at certain points in each song and he just absolutely nailed it. We would talk via online chat about everything. I felt like I was being quite obsessive about minute details, but this didn’t phase him at all. I would highly recommend him to anyone.”
Tell us about Mikahil Karikis and his contributions to the album. I gather he was your teacher?
“He was a lecturer in my final year of University. We had a very good personal relationship while I was studying, and this continued after I had finished. We would send each other music quite regularly and I remixed a track of his for his next album on Sub Rosa.
“I love his music. I think he has a superb ear for detail and a very interesting perspective on sound. I knew he would bring something special to the album and I knew that he would understand what I wanted to achieve. I sent him the songs as they were and included notes depicting certain tonal/textural passages that could appear and he interpreted this in his own unique manner. He sent me all the individual parts that he had written and permitted me to alter them as I wished. It felt like this was a true collaborative process. I’m very grateful of the musicianship he brought to the record.”
You have a small but visible online presence, for example you have a Facebook page. No crime in that, obviously, but I was wondering if you ever think your music might be better served by your being more cloak-and-dagger? I gather “honesty” is quite important to you.
“Honesty is important to me, yes. I’ve never really been drawn to people who play the role of the ‘tortured artist’, or individuals who place too much self-importance upon themselves to believe they should explain their art to others. Paradoxically, I do also at times think that the music should be the only form that represents the musician; it should say all that it needs to without further explanation. There is a growing urgency for deeper knowledge now and I think that is because music is received very differently than it used to be. Labels and audiences seem to have this need for music to have a physical personality attached to it. I mean, perhaps this has always been the case.
“That being said, I do think that there is a danger of being too earnest, or too forthcoming. I like reading interviews with artists and musicians I respect, however I don’t wish to know anything about their personal lives. If information has relevance to their output then I think it is interesting to read. I think I am accessible in a way that I like to let people know what is happening musically. I use the Facebook page to help promote gigs I am playing and to inform people about record releases. It doesn’t really ever extend any further than this.”
“Not particularly, but I don’t think it is unlikely. I’ve played with some astounding classically trained musicians in the past and their technical ability has been mind-blowing. However, if you were to give them some loose directions and ask them to improvise, they would be lost.
“I’ve had formal classical training and I did all the theory and examinations, but I was a teenager then. I first started playing guitar at 7, and had classical lessons from the age of 8, so by the time that was all finished I was 15/16 and lot more interested in hanging out with my friends than trying to retain everything I had just been learning.
“I think formal training helps in terms of things like extended techniques, but I think musical expression cannot be formally taught. It’s quite an obvious point to make, but expression can work in two ways, I think: you can either be a musician who feels a need to express your own voice through your instrument(s) or you can be a musician who uses another’s voice to express yoiurself, ie. a concert pianist or something. Of course there are exceptions, and there are people for whom the two are interchangeable. I definitely know people who are firmly in one camp or the other, though. I have friends who receive just as much pleasure and personal expression from playing other people’s compositions as those who I know that solely compose.”
“I’m quite voyeuristic in a sense, and I think that permeates the music I create.”
Are there any particular extra-musical influences – literary ,cinematic, whatever – that you feel have seeped into the project? Certainly your choice of titles and imagery suggests an affection for the gothic. Reverberations of a religious upbringing perhaps?
“I’m not really sure. It probably stems from an upbringing of having a VCR in my bedroom at a very young age and taping a lot of ‘inappropriate’ foreign cinema and horror films when I was a child. This was back when Channel 4 used to have really interesting foreign cinema seasons at 2am and things like that. I would just tape things I found descriptively intriguing and then, the majority of the time I would be so excited I would get up before school and watch whatever I had recorded. I was probably too young to watch a lot of the films I did, but then, even at that age I was drawn toward the material that was darker in its nature. Perhaps it was the excitement of knowing I shouldn’t have been watching. I’m not sure.
“I’m definitely someone who enjoys being scared; as a child I would watch things that I knew were going to terrify me, but at the same time it was this kind of perverse pleasure – I would keep going back to it, even though it was inevitably going to upset me.
“I wasn’t raised in a religious household, nor do I really practice any particular religion myself. I would say I am quite spiritual and open to suggestion, however. I’m quite voyeuristic in that sense, and I think that permeates the music I create in a way.”
How did you come to work with Aurora Borealis [the label that release The Haxan Cloak]?
“Aurora Borealis actually came to my attention through Alexander Tucker; I liked his music and when researching his artwork I was lead to Dwelling in a Dead Raven for the Glory of Crucified Wolves by Wolfmangler. Upon listening to this and other releases, I thought there might be a chance that AB would be into the music I was making.
“I was living at my parent’s house in Yorkshire at the time. I had a studio in the garden and I would just work all day, every day, making music. I hand-made CDRs and would send them out to labels. I sent out a lot and quite a few were interested, but I think I personally pursued Aurora Borealis more than the others. Andrew got back in touch after the first demo and asked me to send more. I just kept sending music and emailing and then we eventually met in a pub when I moved to London. I think the agreement that he would put out the record was sealed more because of a mutual love of weird, strong beer.
“I’m very pleased Aurora Borealis have released the record. Andrew understands it perfectly and I trust him completely. I respect him and the label massively and he’s put a great deal of effort into ensuring this project has been realised in the right way.”
“I’m really intrigued by the suggestion of opposition within music.”
Do you feel there are many like-minded artists in London?
“It’s not really something I ever think about to be honest. I don’t really think too heavily about how the music I make is perceived, so I don’t really see bands and associate myself with them in that sense. There are musicians here who I really respect and end up playing a lot of shows with, like Sunday Mourning or Alexander Tucker – it’s nice to have a little crew who keep playing shows together. I think we tread a lot of similar ground as people, but I’m not sure how similar or ‘like-minded’ our music is. There’s a lot of good music here though, and a lot of bands and musicians I like.”
You mentioned previously to me that Tim Hecker’s most recent album had blown you away.
“I could really geek out on this and start talking about loads of ‘studio stuff’, but I really shouldn’t…I just love the way he treats sound. He has such a great sense of drama and dynamic structure in his music, yet at the same time it is so textural and detailed. There’s a very romantic sensibility at work there, yet it can be completely abrasive, brutal and crushing at the same time; I’m really intrigued by the suggestion of opposition within music and that’s something I feel greatly when I listen to Tim’s records.”