Under his Digital Primate moniker, Irishman Christopher Coe has one of the most diverse bodies of work you could ask for. From blisteringly hard techno to spaced out dub, Christopher has relentlessly explored his sound over many years and many locations. His new album, MNTNS of SLNC, the first under his own name and the first release from brand new label Awesome Soundwave, is his most personal work to date. From start to finish the album is dance floor minded techno, but with a beauty and ethereal character that transcends the conventions of the genre. I spoke with Christopher Coe for 5 Mag about how this album came to be.
photo by Mairead McHugh
Listening to some of your earlier Digital Primate work, it got me to wondering how you came to the sound of MNTNS of SLNC. It has a very haunting, spiritual sound.
Actually, it’s what I was trying to get to, so I feel very happy that you picked up on that. Thank you. I think with any artistic endeavor where one is trying to authentically express something it essentially is a kind of a spiritual practice in a way. Whether it’s overt or not, I think that it’s very much about connecting and trying to articulate a feeling or an idea, and trying to connect with other humans. I think that is the essence of spirituality. And connect not only with humans but our universe. In that sense I’m really happy because I feel like in some way I’ve maybe succeeded. Even if it’s just you who feels it, I feel like it’s a success.
I think I picked up on it because it’s what the work says. There’s something about your work that’s very connected to nature.
Maybe it’s only in recent years that I’ve become more aware of it even myself. I’ve always been interested in the bigger concept of an artistic practice, but also still very much connected to the dance floor, which itself is a way of connecting with people and the earth. But definitely with MNTNS of SLNC even moreso. It’s an overt articulation, for me especially, of my connection with the landscape in the West of Ireland or indeed any landscape that we feel connected to. And it is the combination of a long, long journey of self-discovery and connection with a spiritual awakening.
I practice Buddhism, I’ve been doing so for about eleven years now, and this has really come to life in the last three years. For a number of years, I was living and working in Amsterdam. I ran a studio there for Beatport and a company called SFX. So I was living in the center of Amsterdam, in the center of the dance music world, and it was great, I was really excited about it, but it finished up in 2016, a little bit unexpectedly. So I come from Ireland as you can gather and I went home to the West Ireland where I grew up, and my father who is actually Australian was visiting at the time. My mother is still in Ireland. It was the very first time that I had spent time with both my mother and my father in the same physical space. I’m 48, that was the first time that happened in many, many, many years. A long time.
In the layers of light and color I realized that I was looking at a soundwave. I was looking at a physical representation of sound. And I realized in my heart that I’d grown up amongst these mountains, this mountainous landscape and that’s where my love of techno came from. It felt like there was an incessant throbbing rhythm that is embedded in this landscape.
So we went on a road trip. We drove down to an area called Ballycroy, which is a national park in Ireland and it’s only an hour from my home. And I was walking across this hill towards the mountain range in the distance, looking across at the layers of light and color. It was a beautiful day but with clouds and light, and in the layers of light and color I realized that I was looking at a sound wave. I was looking at a physical representation of sound. And I realized in my heart that I’d grown up amongst these mountains, this mountainous landscape and that’s where my love of techno came from. It felt like there was an incessant throbbing rhythm that is embedded in this landscape.
You look at mountains from afar, it’s the shape of the soundwave when it’s graphically represented. I felt, “Wow, I want to make techno that sounds like what that looks like.” I want to make a project of my own that’s particularly embedded in what I feel and authentic. I want to find a way to express what I’m looking at in sound. I don’t mean in a technical way, just in a way that feels right.
So I decided then and there, this was the project I’d been thinking about for a long time, but it was crystallized in my mind. It was suddenly as if I’d already done it. And I went back to Amsterdam and this artist friend of mine, I talked to her about it. I said, “I got some really strong vibes.” And she said, “Ah, you have to follow them, because that is the very rare artistic moment that some people don’t ever get. You just have to do it. You have to drop everything and you have to do that.”
So I decided to move back to Ireland and live at my mum’s house, which is uncomfortable enough but fine. And pursue this project where I would climb the mountains. I had a little recorder. I’d record the sound of whatever, strange birds, the wind, going out on a boat, the water lapping against the boat, traditional Irish musicians – everything and anything. And I would set up a little studio in my old hometown and I would make a techno album based entirely on that mountainous landscape. Hence the name: Mountains of Silence.
And it is like silence to me. This landscape in the West of Ireland is, for me – I can’t even tell you. I get emotional when I think about it but it’s like such an incredible place for me personally, and I feel so much more at home there than anywhere else. It’s so loud in its silence. I mean, that sounds like a wanky way to say it, but it feels like the silence there is physical. It could also be claustrophobic for some people but it feels both overwhelming and expansive.
How big was the collection of sounds that you recorded for this?
I don’t really know to be honest. I recorded many hours of different things and decided to use the ambient sounds as the basis for making instruments and pads and all those sort of things, so basically the core of the sound of the album is based entirely on stuff found on that recorded material that was processed and stretched and messed with in some way. I even recorded hours of friends playing traditional instruments, but you would never hear it overtly on the album. I used bits of it and I stretched it, but the texture of the album is based on that core material.
What’s the technical set up for your show?
I’ve got a DJs modular light form Euro racks and set up, which is some modular stuff, and I’ve got an electro DigiTech’s drum machine sampler, sequencer, and I’m running an APC40, running Ableton with kits and effects and that’s the audio set up, and then that is linked via MIDI to another computer that’s running resolute which is a VJ software. And I’m collaborating with a visual artist in Amsterdam called Roy Garretson, and I’ve also collaborated with filmmakers in Ireland, Dane Vinali and Paul Meegan and Mick McLaughlin, and it’s with them that I’ve climbed the mountains and filmed the locations. Basically filmed the mountains with a camera and slowly watching the clouds go by, or using a drone and getting in deeper into areas that we couldn’t climb into – my friend Damian O’Malley has a drone.
So, there’s some amazing footage, and I brought all that footage back to Roy in Amsterdam and he’s been collating and processing that footage in sync with the music, and also creating and adding animations to overlay or to effect that mountainous footage. And the animations are initially based graphically on the ancient Irish or Celtic script called ogham, which is basically an ancient runic script that you’d see on rocks and stuff. It’s an alphabet, so it’s very graphical, just lines. So we used that as an inspiration for the graphical element of animations.
All of that is put together then in a live show. When I’m performing the music and doing moves with effects or changing the sound or dropping a kick in, that’s also sending MIDI out to the video stuff, which is laid out in multiple different clips and different options and different effects. I’m working here in Australia with an animator and VJ called Adam Jaffers. He’s running that side of it, and basically, it’s a live collaboration between what I’m doing and what he’s doing. So that it’s all in time and changes according to the changes I make musically. And then, ultimately this show needs to be shown in a really big setting with huge wrap around projectors in the middle of an industrial area.
Can you tell me a bit about how Awesome Soundwave came about?
Carl Cox and I have known each other for some time and we were having lunch and I was describing this project to him. And actually this project originally wasn’t necessarily an album. What I wanted to do was create a live audiovisual show. I actually filmed all the mountains and I wanted to have this really big show with huge projections of this landscape in an industrial setting with this music. That was the ultimate aim and it still is actually. I’m going to perform it on Saturday night in Melbourne for the first time properly, which I will be filming and hopefully it’ll be streamed at some point. So it’s a live event. Really that’s the project. And I was telling that to Carl, and I said first I have to get the music out and then build it up again and film some sort of resonance and then we can start to put on the show, and he said, “Right. Let’s put it out.” Just like that. And I said, “What do you mean” And he said, “Let’s put it out together.” I was so honored and delighted. Then he said, “Actually, do you know what? Let’s start a label.” And then it was, “Well actually, let’s start a label for live music.” And so it was Carl’s idea, actually. Kind of catalyzed by the fact that he was really impressed by the fact that I just put money where my mouth was, and fucked off to Ireland for six months and did it, and also liked the music, of course.
One of the most interesting things about your album and how it’s being discussed is the impact of location. In the writing of this, it’s described as you produced some of it in a houseboat in Amsterdam, a stable house in the west of Ireland, coastal studio property on Ireland, a lakeside studio in Sweden. Do you feel the like the various locations influenced your thinking and putting this together? Were there acoustical differences?
That’s a good question. There were definitely acoustical differences. The main focus to me was the landscape in the West of Ireland, so wherever I was, I was trying to connect with that in mind. It was very much an internal dialogue. When I started, I was actually living on the houseboat in Amsterdam. When I came back to Amsterdam in May 2016 from Ireland, I sat down and started the project, but I kept in my mind and my heart the feeling of the landscape. Being on a houseboat in Amsterdam is a very romantic thing. So of course it was just lovely to be able to sit there and work on stuff. And then get out in my little boat and go for a little ride around the canals which I did often.
Then I went to Sweden. Dave Capp recommended that I go there because I was telling him about the project. He said, “Right. You got to go to the studio in Sweden because it’s in the middle of nowhere.” And it was set up by a friend of mine, Robbie, who has a whole bag of equipment in this house in the middle of Sweden. Literally in the middle of pretty much nowhere. And it was very nice to go and be completely undistracted and work all night and crash whenever I wanted, and just work on new instruments, and new equipment that was there. There were drum kits and bass guitars and amps and lots of effects pedals and Olsen’s, so I just basically used anything. It was a really great experience to have the full free range of a creative space for a month without having to do anything else. That was amazing. I used to go for brisk, frosty walks in the morning along the lakeside or in the fields. There weren’t very many mountains in Sweden where I was, it was pretty flat, but it was still a really fresh and silent landscape.
And then of course Ireland, the old stable house, that was in the middle of my hometown which is Westport. And that’s interesting as a personal history for me there. That old building was the place that I used to go to as a kid to be taught how to paint by a dear friend and mentor, a man called Wayne. It was the man in my life who encouraged me to follow the creative path at all costs. He died many years later, but where I actually recorded most of the album was in the studio that he taught me how to paint. So it’s quite a personal journey as well. You know?
Sure. It’s interesting to me because I’m a New Yorker. So it’s fascinating to me to see the approach to this music coming from mountains and nature.
It seems incongruous in a way maybe. And most people would think of techno as a very industrial sound that comes from an industrial background. Berlin for example, or as you said New York or a cityscape. And most electronic music has spoken to the urban environment. But I really believe that this comes from somewhere far deeper. Somewhere far, far deeper. And I think if we look back into … And I don’t hold with being part of any tribal thing or whatever, but I do believe the human experience comes from that, and I think rhythm has played such a huge part in human gatherings, way before the urban environment was built. So, I don’t see it as incongruous. I think it makes total sense actually. Like I said, for me the rhythm of the landscape, I realized that that’s where I got my love for techno because that’s where I grew up. I didn’t grow up in an urban or industrial environment, as much as I’ve appreciated that sound. For me it was rural, it was a country environment. But it makes total sense to me.
Well, yeah. I think that there’s a lot of, in speaking to you about this, I think that there’s some things that are just beyond words about musical construction. I don’t know that a lot can be so articulated as I would like it to be.
The music says it, right? That’s the language. Ultimately, you’ve just got to listen to it and if you can feel something from it, then you’ve got it. It is inarticulate in rational language, but it’s completely sensible on a deeper spiritual or emotional level.