The Microphonics Project
Initially emerging from the Belgian industrial underground in the mid-80s, Dirk Serries would eventually go on to release beguiling ambient soundscapes under the moniker of vidnaObmana. Some of these, including The River of Appearance and his collaborations with Steve Roach, are today considered classics of the genre. In 2005, Serries shocked even his most ardent fans by replacing his electronic equipment with a guitar, amplifier and an array of stomp boxes to indulge in the raw drone power of his Fear Falls Burning project. Although it would garner international acclaim and expose him to a completely new audience of metal afficionados, the purity, which had originally sparked the project, was eventually lost, the solo line-up was gradually complemented by drums, percussion, additional guitars and bass. And so Serries, after a lot of deliberation, put Fear Falls Burning to rest and returned to the ambient minimalism of his early days. On his latest release of his new microphonics project, the improbably titled Mounting Among The Waves, There’s A Light In Vein. The Burden Of Hope Across Thousands Of Rivers, he seems to have arrived at the music he’s been wanting to make all his life. We spoke to Dirk Serries about his new approach to looping, playing live and looking back at the past without shame.
This album seems to have been incredibly important for you …
I feel that I had a very important breakthrough with writing this album and that’s why I think it has much more potential than anything I did in the past. At this point I’m not even doing any collaborations with anybody. I feel I have touched on something precious now so I have to give this album its due respect.
It really sounds as though you revitalised your approach.
The bonus I got from playing in the digital domain was to do with looping. About 80% of this new album is played in live with multi-tracking but there is hardly any looping going on at all.
That must have been quite a change for you because your personal looping technique has become so synonymous with your work.
I am still using the concept of looping, but playing it real time. This gives you the ability to actually edit small details in the performance you are playing where the loop doesn’t allow you to do that. A loop just goes on and on but now I can bring in some really intuitive things on the spot.
How does it feel to be working with a laptop on stage again?
It’s something I detested. But I discovered that it has suddenly allowed me to interact with myself much better. Because now I am not just looking at one loop, I am looking at combination of loops, which can be activated at certain points of the song. While it was also very liberating working with the original Microphonics stuff, it felt a little clinical live compared to now, because I was working with such strict limitations while trying to keep true to the original concept of looping. Whereas now I am interacting with what comes to me from the laptop, the loops and with what I am playing myself live.
In the early stages of Microphonics, literally after two or three minutes of each track, things became very complex. In comparison, this new technique seems to offer you a lot more control.
Definitely. The first Microphonics performances were indeed fed from the same single looping device. Essentially, loops were fed back into each other over and over again, creating may different layers, notes and timbres. I did the looping with an old reel to reel tape machine and the loops would mutate over time rather than just repeating say a four bar phrase over and over. So that means you have to be very attentive when listening to what is coming back to you. This makes things very difficult because you don’t know how the looping device is going to react. With the new setup I only loop one line and the rest is played live. It makes the music much more airy and spacey.
How did you cope with the challenge of replicating the deep bass foundation on stage?
I am using low tuned guitar and effects. By going directly through the desk you are able to get more sub in the sound but through a normal tube amp live, you can’t get this same quality of sound. I put the bass lines into a session on the laptop and make them available to be played back during certain times throughout the songs live. I also now only use a very minimal pedal collection compared to the past. Now I only use five pedals, three of which are different. I use three delays, and two distortions, so there are only two groups of pedals. Which is noting compared with what I was using with Fear Falls Burning or even Microphonics in the beginning. This liberated me, because I’m using much more of the original tonality of the guitar during live performances.
I’ve always thought Microphonics was more intense on the studio records than live, where it was much more cosmic and spatial. What are your thoughts on this?
The live version of the album that I am doing now I think is 100 times more dynamic than the album. Due to the fact that I am using the bass motives and also because I have increased the sub levels in the live versions, it sounds massive on a big PA-system. The original Microphonics concerts were very linear, very much about a single line approach in that they’d start very simply and gradually change over a long period of time. With the new material, I can play about three full songs in that same space of time and that’s purely down to the way I am doing things live now.
How long did it take to write the material for the album?
There were some demos of pure digital performances and I used those ideas to go back into the studio and worked on the four songs one after another. It still took me about four years to complete the album. Initially though, the structure of the songs was created pretty quickly. Mixing and the fine-tuning of the editing, that’s what took a long time. The songs themselves came about pretty fast.
How satisfying was this editing process? You mentioned that one of the reasons you wanted to close the vidnaObmana chapter was because this fine-tuning of tiny details was basically taking away the pleasure of making music.
This time it was totally different because the songs were always so strong in my opinion. With vidnaObmana, I had to do so much tweaking because the recordings weren’t as good, so a lot of the fine-tuning was corrective. Whereas this time I mad sure that the recording was good. With this record, the time was taken up mainly with the balance between the different motives and sounds. Overall though, it was a pretty fluid and less stressful experience than say with the vidnaObmana albums, where you’d have many different elements such as percussion, flute, synths and voices .
Has working on the vidnaObmana re-releases on Projekt been an influence on the album in any way? There seem to be references to your ambient era everywhere …
With this album, I’m glad you say that – whereas before, when people would say that about an early Fear Falls Burning album I absolutely denied it. This time I’ve allowed myself to put in those things I have within me. I love playing with harmonics and I love melancholic themes and they have existed in all of these previous projects. So this time, if the project was going to represent me personally 100%, then all these things had to be included.
So how was it revisiting your early years?
It feels like holding a mirror. I used to find it difficult to rate myself. But now I don’t feel as though I have to condemn my past. I can only learn from it and these steps were necessary in making me the musician I am now. This is the first time in years I felt so confident about the music I’m doing. In a way it was quite refreshing – and I have about 1000 hours of music still to come.
The confidence shows. The album certainly conveys the feeling of seeing the light after a long phase of hardship.
I can’t say it was all deliberate. It just sort of came out of me from when I started playing the first lines. I knew I had to turn the songs around towards the ends, still building it up but making shift a bit by adding more harmonic or melancholic elements in contrast to the more distorted elements at the beginning. I think there is a huge duality between sadness and happiness. I feel they are interconnected. I truly believe that sadness can be a form of happiness and happiness can be a form of sadness. When I play these songs live, I very much feel that way. I feel melancholic; I feel drained which I didn’t have in previous years. Previously I would feel drained from concentrating technically, but with this album I feel drained emotionally due to the fact the music has a very emotional effect even on me. It somehow does something to me.
Why do you think that is?
Because it is such a personal album. That is why it moves me so much.