Image via: Bennet Perez
Holly Herndon’s Platform is the first album of 2015 that actually feels like it was made in the year 2015.
In part, it’s because of how it sounds: a glitching, bewitching blend of electronics and choral voice that comes on like The Knife 2.0. In part, it’s due to how it thinks: its concept-driven tracks touching on the surveillance state, social theory, economics and activism. But overall, I think, it’s how Platform feels that distinguishes it. Much electronic pop music has striven to make a point of its slight distance from the human condition – think perhaps of the academic/pop tropes of the cyborg, or the fembot. But Herndon’s trick is to recognise, in an age in which our social lives intermingle imperceptibly with our social media presence and we walk around with a miniature supercomputer in our pockets, that the transhumanist age isn’t so much a speculative vision of the future as a hard fact of the present. Platform travels right through the uncanny valley and out the other side; it’s synthetic, but feels warm to the touch.
Raised in Tennessee and currently a doctoral student at Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics in San Francisco, Herndon broke cover in 2012 with her debut solo album Movement. While that was very much a solo work, Platform finds her working with a legion of collaborators – her partner Mat Dryhurst, the Dutch design studio Metahaven, and also figures such as Spencer Longo, whose “word sculptures” fed into ‘Locker Leak’, and Claire Tolan, who runs a Berlin radio show dedicated to the phenomenon of ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Herndon and Tolan collaborate on ‘Lonely At The Top’, a peculiar masseuse fantasy that counts as Platform’s oddest track.
Herndon is engaging in conversation, funnier than you might expect and despite her academic credentials, more interested in communication than intellectual prevarication. We spoke over Skype about her former life as a Berlin club kid, the legacy of Edward Snowden, and why it’s time to decentralise the internet.
“I had the feeling – what does this mean, what’s the next step? How can I make this more meaningful?”
How has the lead up to Platform been? Does being on a bigger label like 4AD change things?
It’s hard to know what is because of the label and what is because this is my sophomore album. I went on a press trip, which I’ve never done before. There’s a bigger infrastructure, a bigger team. More people ask me to do things, and there are more people I can ask to do things. I have to have my shit together.
I get the impression that a degree of self-reliance is important to you.
How do you mean?
Well, as an artist it seems to be a lot about you and a laptop. There’s a sense you travel light.
Yeah. My partner, Mat, and I are [laughs] nomadic, we don’t have a permanent residence, really. And we won’t do for the next six months. We’re going to be moving around. So I’m reliant on my laptop, external hard drives, an internet connection. But it’s not a totally one-woman show. I work a lot with Mat, and I work really closely with Matt Werth at RVNG, who is now managing me. I have amazing people who help me creatively and administratively.
Of course, the premise of Platform is that it’s about collaboration and communication.
Well, [debut album] Movement was very much about solo me, in this weird little rehearsal space in Oakland. These people wanted to start an art space, but they never got their shit together. So I was renting this super creepy corner of this empty warehouse, engaged in this very insular exercise, trying to sort out my process. That was a really important thing, especially for my debut album. But for Platform I really wanted to open the practice up and invite more people in. It’s conceptually important for the album as a whole, as well. There are all these other people involved in the creation process.
Did ideas pop up while you were making and touring Movement?
With Movement I was able to establish a language, especially vocal processes, and a palette that I was able to carry over and use. This time I was able to work more conceptually, without having to figure out my process, if that makes sense. But I’m always building and adding tools. Mat has developed a bunch of new processes that I use on the album. But also, touring – going from festival to festival and really embraced by a global touring community – that was really flattering, and also really eye-opening. So I had the feeling – what does this mean, what’s the next step? How can I make this more meaningful?
So Mat makes algorithms – that’s one of the things he does?
He does lots of things. He’s kind of like a Swiss Army Knife [laughs]. He does a lot of his own software, his own processes, and a lot of it is really conceptually driven. I don’t know if you saw his project SAGA? He’s really obsessed with this idea of self-hosting now – a lot of people are talking about changing the way the internet is structured, moving towards a self-hosting model. SAGA is really interesting – you self-host whatever video content you want to host online, instead of putting it on YouTube or whatever, and when it’s embedded anywhere you get a notification and you can respond to wherever it lands. So the idea is that artists create all this content, which generates revenue for websites [laughs] like FACT! – and generates eyes on the page. But as a creator, you’re kind of like a silent host. Your content is there to be consumed and you don’t really have any say on what’s going on around it. So with SAGA, and if your content lands on FACT, you can go – ‘Hey FACT, blahdeblahdeblah…’ and it won’t change all the other iterations out there. You can make these really specific interactions.
It’s all about creating new ways for people to communicate with one another, instead of being like, ‘I’m going to solve all the world’s problems with technology’. You’ll never solve all the world’s problems like that way, because it’s like Whack A Mole – another problem pops up. It’s more interesting to create infrastructure – new modes of communication – and problem-solve along the way.
It’s a decentralisation of the internet?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is – peer-to-peer, node based.
I read about the live visuals that Mat was doing for you – delving into the show’s Facebook event, clicking on attendees and poking around in their profiles…
[laughs] We were walking down the street the other day and he was like, am I best known as the Facebook dude? I was like, no you’re not. Although maybe he was right! But I really want to add him into the music side – to be playing the laptop, handling audio and video live. One thing at a time, though. We’re a team, but we’re a small, scrappy little team.
So what does that mean for Holly Herndon? Does the name become a persona, if you’re taking on members?
It complicates it, right? But yeah, I’m adding a vocalist for some shows, I’m adding Mat on some synthesis. I’m trying to learn how to not have to control every aspect. It’s really complicated, because I used my first name, rather than an artist name. But fuck it – we’ll figure it out somehow. Right now Mat is doing the visuals, but we’ve just worked together with Akihiko Taniguchi, who did the video for ‘Chorus’. He’s an amazing technical mind, an amazing creative mind. He’s created this virtual performance space where I can add people from the audience, and there’s gravity, so I can kick them around… it’s really absurd and fun. So Mat is playing that in real time. The Facebook thing is kind of about public awareness – like, ‘hey guys, your Facebook isn’t really that private’. The way that these platforms are built, they have this false sense of intimacy and privacy – but you don’t even own your own data on there, someone else has monetised it! So we use that as a way to flip the switch, put the audience onstage. It’s a fun way to engage people – you can hear the audience gasp when you hover the mouse over someone. But we don’t want to embarrass anyone. It’s not about finding a creepy bathing suit photo or anything. We’re respectful!
Did you see John Oliver interview Edward Snowden?
Yeah, I saw that one. I have to say I was little disappointed. I found John Oliver to be a little conservative. He takes these very absolute stances, and I don’t think he was trying to understand the greater purpose. He was saying, look, nobody cares any more – would it have been more meaningful if you’d have used dick pics? But I don’t believe in that kind of dumbing down. I don’t think Snowden’s actions have gone in vain. I think Snowden has dramatically changed the way that people who are clued in, who are policy makers or involved in designing the internet, think. You’re interviewing one of the important figures of our time, and you’re making a joke out of it. I mean, I know it’s his job to make a joke. I was like, come on John [shouting at the TV], you’re smarter than this!
But is his central point – that people at large don’t grasp the implications of government surveillance – true?
Well, making people understand the implications – that’s not Edward Snowden’s job. That’s my job as an artist, and your job as a journalist. It can’t all fall on his shoulders.
[laughs] Poor Edward! He’s done enough.
“There are moments of intimacy on there, where I’m not even aware that I’m being recorded.”
A lot of electronic pop music draws a line between humanity and technology. What I think I like most about your music is that it shows that line is porous – it’s not arid, like some computer music can be. You can hear the humanity in there.
Well, I try to combine concept and content. If I’m dealing with a concept like surveillance, as on ‘Home’, I’m going to surveil myself. There are moments of intimacy on there, where I’m not even aware that I’m being recorded. By melding those two things together, not keeping them separate, that’s what makes it feel fleshy.
Is every track on Platform concept-driven?
Some more than others. There’s always some kind of conceptual framework. Something like ‘Morning Sun’, the poppiest track on there – that’s something that was impulsively written, and later fleshed out on the production side. Some tracks start with concept, others start with a musical idea – or an atmosphere or emotional pull. But there is always some underlying concept.
Do you feel like a songwriter, in the classical sense?
You know, I grew up in Tennessee [laughs], so when I think of the world ‘songwriter’, I have a very specific image in my mind. And I don’t really see myself as that person. But like any of the terms people use, I feel weird about it – when people call me a composer I feel like I need to have grey hair and patches on my blazer, or something. Or like, artist feels weird. There’s no word that feels 100 per cent.
Do you feel like an academic, perhaps?
Not in the classic sense. I engage with the academy and I’m involved with the academy, but I’m certainly not… I don’t see myself as an academic in those terms. Some of the academics I study with, they’re [laughs] so academic, you know what I mean?
It can be cloistered, academia. People live their lives inside it.
And that can be a really beautiful thing. There are huge problems with creative fields being cloistered away, no doubt. But there is also something beautiful about people being able to dedicate their lives to obsessing over really niche things that don’t necessarily have a commercial value. It’s an imperfect system, but I’m glad that system exists.
Are you able to study at the moment – or has touring and recording taken over?
Well I was kind of doing both until about March. I was still living in the Bay Area and for the winter term I developed a new class for CCRMA with a fellow doctoral student called The Aesthetics Of Experimental Electronic Music Post 1980. That was really fun. We were given free reign to develop the curriculum together. But I would not have the time to develop that while touring this record. So I’m taking spring off, on a quote unquote “research” term – my advisor was like, you’re going to be touring and performing music around the world, and that’s something you can put towards your research. They’ve been really flexible.
What artists are on the syllabus?
Well, 1980 seems like not that long ago, but it was so difficult to narrow down. We wanted to cover dance music, but not just dance music… we started with industrial music, covered dubstep, techno, everything from academic to non-academic music. We wanted it to be a listening-intensive class, not necessarily giving students a full historical perspective of the period, but instead giving them the tools to listen something they’ve never heard before and be able to analyse it.
Did you put your own music in at the end?
[laughs] I was kind of conflicted about that. But I always feel weird when academics do that. You know, a lot of my professors do that. Brian Ferneyhough is one of my tutors – he’s a super famous fancy composer, so if we have a seminar with him of course we’re going to go over his scores, because he’s the genius and that’s what people want to do. But I don’t feel like I’ve arrived yet. Mat always says that people who wear ascots have to earn their ascot. [laughs] I haven’t earned my ascot yet.
The human voice is totally fundamental to your work. I know you sang in choir – why did you stick with it, when computers can do so much?
Well, the human voice is a really great data stream. It’s great to get irregular or organic input. But the origins are really in my growing up, how I experienced music as a child. I started out in church choir, school choir, competitive choir, and I think that’s just where I’m most comfortable. I played piano for years, played guitar and upright bass. But that’s all one layer removed. For me, at least, voice is directly connected to my brain. It was always something really easy for me to sketch something out with. Also, it’s really easy for audiences to understand and relate to. The laptop is still not widely appreciated as an instrument, even though it’s been around for a while. So the voice gives people something to relate to – it helps personalise, and provides entry points. I’m really interested in music as a communication tool. I want to reach people.
You lived for several years in Berlin. Was that your introduction to techno, and to clubbing?
It was my intro to clubbing, and I went full in. I was a club kid – I worked in clubs, all my friends worked in clubs. It was really fun, but also a different landscape back then – I don’t want to be one of those people who’s like, oh Berlins so over, but it was definitely more wild and gnarly. Everyone was really fucking broke, way more broke than today. People would go to thrift stores and put together cheap-as-hell crazy outfits and go clubbing for days on end. You’d know the person on the door so you’d get in for free, and all your drinks would be free… there was a real feeling of dancefloor camaraderie at the time.
“It was this gnarly noisy internet band, and I look back and think some of that was really timely.”
I remember seeing a music video you were in, this kind of EBM-ish thing. Was that from Berlin?
Oh, I’ve been in a million bands. Mat and I were in a band called, this acid thing. That was in San Francisco. That was a really cool project. I had this crazy old spring reverb mixer, it had this gnarly sound, you could do no-input mixer feedback, and I would gate that to a really tough kick. It was this British Murder Boys, super side-chainy sound, but with all this acid on top. We built a little browser thing where we could type in a word and it would cycle through these YouTube videos, and we would put the audio through these other side-chains – we were playing the internet, really. It was this gnarly noisy internet band, and I look back and think some of that was really timely. But of course it was happening in San Francisco, so no one ever knew about it. When things happen outside London or New York they sometimes don’t happen at all.
You’ve been on tour supporting St Vincent, playing to larger crowds who presumably don’t know your stuff. When faced with crowds like that, do you feel the need to communicate or make explicit the concepts in your work?
I’m OK if people just absorb it. I think we underestimate what an aesthetic can communicate subconsciously. I played ‘Home’ live last week, and ended up turning it into a rave jam. If people are listening and aren’t getting ‘oh, that’s about privacy politics’ that’s totally fine. I want people to have fun and enjoy the live scenario, and if there’s another layer there to peel back… music can be enjoyed in multiple ways, on multiple levels.
‘Home’ is interesting as you could decode those lyrics as being about a romantic relationship. There’s no red flag there that says it’s about surveillance – it’s about intimacy and discomfort.
Totally. And that was deliberate. Mat came up with the term ‘pop as a carrier signal’. And that’s a beautiful way of thinking about it. A carrier signal, that can spread like a virus, but be embedded with all these other ideas and thoughts.
You come over as someone generally optimistic about technology and its possibilities, and I was wondering – so many of our ways of conceptualizing the future veer dystopian. Is that kind of lazy? Or overdone?
I’m not going to say lazy, but maybe overdone. I love dystopian science fiction. It’s totally fun to revel in that. And it’s important to be critical of technology. I sometimes get this reputation as a total techno-optimist, and it’s not blind in any way – I think it’s important that we’re critical of the tools we use, and we don’t just use them because we have them. There’s this book To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov that makes a lot of important points. Technology isn’t positive or negative, but if we want to shape the future we need to work out how to use the tools of the day. There was a time where we were all super-depressed about capitalism, and receding into the shadows of the club was a sort of coping mechanism. I’m not ever going to say that wasn’t valid – maybe it was what we needed at the time – but now we need to join hands together and figure out how to make things better. Now is the time to be proactive. I worked with Metahaven on this record, and they’ve been able to seamlessly integrate politics into their creative practice. They fold in very strong political convictions into their artwork without making it pedantic, without making it preachy. Having email conversations with them really helped me flesh out the record.
One of the concepts you touch on in the record is Suhail Malik’s ideas of exit and escape. What would a positive exit look like?
I think that goes back to that idea of self-hosting, redesigning the internet to reference the originator. You see groups like Ethereum, who are working on that structural level – this group of nerds who go hey, people aren’t really getting credit for their creations online, huge corporations are making money off of our personal photos – what are the alternatives? Stuff like that makes me really hopeful. There are super intelligent people out there who can come up with ideas. We don’t always have to be, like – oh you know how Facebook is, things are always going to be like that. Facebook has only been round a few years – let’s fucking redesign it, let’s come up with better ideas! Capitalism is sucking the life out of everything, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Let’s come up with alternatives.
If we’ve learned anything from the internet in its fairly brief existence, it’s that everything is built on sand.
[laughs] Yeah, so let’s shift that sand. To a more equitable sandbar!