Ben Chatwin…

Gianmarco Del Re caught up with Ben Chatwin to find out more about the new album ‘The Sleeper Awakes’…

After six years as Talvihorros, you have put your moniker aside for the latest offering, The Sleeper Awakes, out on the 4th of May. What prompted this and is it really the end of the road for Talvihorros? Also, did you feel more liberated or scared by such a move?

I hope it’s not the end of Talvihorros but I couldn’t say for sure. I’ve tried starting a new Talvihorros album a couple of times over the past year or so and its always ended up being shelved, so we shall see in time if new music is finished. Over the last few albums as Talvihorros, and especially with my last one (Eaten Alive), I’ve been growing as a composer and wanting to explore different compositional elements and tools to express myself. Composing under my own name gives me the opportunity to do this. And perhaps more importantly it gives me freedom to experiment and approach things with a clean slate – which has been a very liberating experience.

While listening to the preview track Mirroring, I couldn’t help but think of a few recent TV series such as Broadchurch, Fortitude, and Les Revenants scored by Ólafur Arnalds, Ben Frost and Mogwai, respectively. I know it is probably cliché to say so, but, to me, Mirroring has a distinctive “soundtracky” feel to it. I was wondering whether you are familiar with those particular scores, and how you view them in relation to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, which was quite influential to you, if I am not mistaken?

I’ve only seen Les Revenants and the first couple of episodes of Fortitude so I’m not sure how well I can answer this. But I think its fair to say that we live in an era of high-quality TV and, as a result music is being used in more interesting and unique ways than it has done previously (bar a few exceptions of course). I would say that over the past few years I’ve become more and more interested in how music is used in film and TV, not just scores but sound design too.

I would guess, if anything Angelo Badalamenti probably had slightly more freedom to create what he felt was necessary for the Twin Peaks series. I get the sense that the music used there, unusually, plays a major role, maybe almost as much as the dialogue/acting/set design etc. Although this may also be the case more than the norm with the series you mention, I think generally music tends to play more of a secondary, ‘supporting’ role and perhaps composers have a little less freedom than Badalamenti may have done. There is certainly a ‘language’ to film/tv scoring that many directors/producers seem wary to move too far away from.

Still on the subject of soundtracks, Cliff Martinez’ Solaris is a current favourite of yours. Did you draw inspiration from any particular film, or specific narrative while making The Sleeper Awakes?

One thing I did consider at the start was to soundtrack some of my favourite scenes from Werner Herzog films, but in hindsight, I’m not sure that was a good idea. The writings of HG Wells were a big influence on me throughout the record – I love this weird world that he creates – combining very specific science with fictional story telling. Due to the fact that time has played on the text, the science can seem rather naive and in some cases outlandish. Often future he predicts has been and gone so it’s kind of like looking back in time to a weird parallel world rather than the real one. It can be a strange feeling – so I wanted to capture that in the record.

I think its also tied into my own experience of growing up before the internet and mobile phones etc… and the promise of what a great world the future would be with these big technological advances that were happening. Although that is true to some extent, I think we’ve also lost something valuable too. I find it very concerning the way technology is fetishised in society currently along with the fact that money is valued above all else.

A big part of modern life is consuming more and more technology – which isn’t really any great improvement on what we already own but we still want the newest phone, the slightly thinner laptop etc. The real winners are the corporations that are selling us this stuff. Generally speaking, few of us seem overly concerned about what it took to get the latest mobile phone or laptop made: the negative impact of its component sourcing or assembly production or the tax avoidance measures of the corporations that make it.

You have stated that you wanted The Sleeper Awakes “to represent the idea of a future that has been and gone. Before the information and telecommunications revolution there was a beautiful yet weird, naivety about what the future might bring and it was this that I tried to tap into whilst making the record.” Without giving away any spoilers, did your sleeper wake up to a post-apocalyptic world like the protagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

I wouldn’t say its necessarily post-apocalyptic, more just a strange or alien world that exists in its own time. I think the album is actually much more positive than my previous Talvihorros work and covers a wide range of emotions. This is in no small part to the wonderful contributions of the guest musicians that grace the album: William Ryan Fritch, Maarten Vos, Joel Hanson and Sarah Kemp – they really helped to push the album sonically in new directions and it was their contributions that helped to shape the tensions that exist between the human elements and the electronic.

As you stated, you have sourced a one hundred-year-old Dulcitone (a kind of portable piano that was made for a short period of time in Glasgow at the turn of the Twentieth Century) for this album and you used it extensively, making it sit with modern electronics and synthesis. You’ve also said that the pairing of older, traditional instruments with modern recording techniques and processes is something that you are very interested in. Personally, I have always found the “retro” feel to some of your output, and I am thinking of “Some Ambulance”, for instance, to be highly effective. Is this a way for you to retain an analogue foundation to your music or an attempt to open up your sound by making two different worlds collide? Also, how do you avoid the trap of becoming indulgently nostalgic?

I very much enjoy using actual instruments and analogue processes. I think my guitarist roots lead me to like that push and pull you get from actually playing an instrument and it’s interaction with other instruments. Spending lots of time sitting at a computer acting more like a programmer doesn’t excite me in the same way so I choose to work with what interests me. The real fascination for me is when you have digital or electronic elements both balancing and fighting with the very human and acoustic – it is like two worlds colliding. Sometimes this can be a beautiful harmonious world and other times a conflicting and chaotic one.

I have a real fondness for analogue synthesisers and as you say the potential for nostalgia is a very real trap. Rehashing generics or other people’s ideas is not something I aim to do although I’m aware that when using synth arpeggios as a main element for example, it’s using a language that has a very real time and place in history. I just try to make music that comes from an honest place – and music that works in its own right. An element of nostalgia or familiarity can be an effective tool to use and being aware of what has gone before and referencing it is a good thing as long as I take it somewhere that is my own.

The Sleeper Awakes feels less abstract than previous works such as Descent Into Delta. Also gone are the drones of And It Was So. In a way, the whole album seems more streamlined, and with that I don’t mean less complex. It is less fractured and abrasive than Eaten Alive, unafraid of revealing its melodic pulse for want of a better term. Also, each track feels quite linear in its construction. How did you go about creating its structure?

More so than any other album I wanted to make this a collection of songs where each one was strong and worked alone. With Talvihorros I usually want to make a collection of tracks that work more as a larger piece where you have to listen to it from start to finish for it to work as intended. It was more a desire to try to do something a bit differently and push my work into new territory. I made many tracks for the album and then thought about how they worked together as a collection towards the end. This resulted in a few tracks not making the final cut to make the final running sequence as effective as it could be.

One thing I did this time around that was new to me was re-working tracks and ideas and taking pieces in multiple directions – often having different versions of the same track. Both In The Fire and Mirroring came from re-approaching and expanding ideas formed on Atoms Of Amber, it’s maybe this technique that helps to keep a uniformity and cohesiveness to the album. I learnt and really enjoyed how malleable music can be – having it exist in different versions. There now seems to be an endless amount of different possibilities for every idea I come up with.

The album has quite a rich palette, even if at first it sounds quite spares and maybe less processed than previous releases. It’s not quite as symphonic in its scope as And It Was So and starts off in a rather introspective mode with the double bass line (or is it cello?) on Sirius, the opening track. Having said that The Sleeper Awakes has a cosmic outlook. To me, it’s like watching an unpolluted starry sky in a remote part of the countryside. It combines the dead of the night with the pull of the universe, without wanting to sound too bombastic. The album eventually seems to take flight with the closing track Insomnia. How difficult was it signing off The Sleeper Awakes?

It strange that you should say that as I spend some time each evening looking up at the stars when I take the dog out. Insomnia was the last track that I made and the only one written with a specific intention, in this case to close the album. It being the last track I made it gave me the opportunity to try and encapsulate what I was trying to achieve with this record in a very direct and uncomplicated way. I wanted it to look back into the past but also to look forward, to be something of a contradiction. Perhaps because I had such a strong idea as to what I felt the album needed to close it, unlike most of the other tracks on the album this one developed quickly and was finished in a couple of days, so in that sense it wasn’t difficult at all.

From a technical point of view, when I’ve played a couple of tracks to Pascal Savy recently, he wondered whether you might’ve mixed the album in mono?

Interesting point that Pascal has raised – it wasn’t mixed in mono but close. I didn’t actually make the conscious decision to do this at any point but I did try to keep the mixing simple (mostly due to the fact that my mixes are quite busy for what they are) – so I used what’s called the LCR (left-centre-right) technique of panning.  Which is everything either down the middle or in stereo (hard panned left or right). I didn’t follow this to the letter so there will be a few things dotted around the stereo field on every track but generally this technique was used. For this album I think it helped to make the mixes work and keep the contrasting elements sitting together. It’s something I would like to experiment with some more and I now generally get my mixes working in mono before moving anything out from the centre position.

Considering that you have relocated to Scotland from London in the past couple of years, and at the risk of venturing into pop-psychology territory, I cannot help but to interpret the specific choice of a Dulcitone as a way embracing your new environment, of grounding your sound and laying down roots. Now that a few years have passed how would you assess your move from London up to Scotland?

It’s been generally a very positive experience, I now find myself about 10 miles outside of Edinburgh in a small town. Life is much slower and quieter than it was when I was in London but it allows me to focus on my work and I enjoy the Scottish landscape and the peace and quiet of the area I now find myself in. I also have more time and dedication to living a healthier and more sustainable life – something I always found difficult in London. My studio has grown and become more ‘professional’ over the past couple of years and I spend most of my time in there – experimenting and developing ideas. I can’t imagine moving back to even a quiet city like Edinburgh now, let alone London.

Have you got plans of touring the album and if so, how will you approach the live set?

There are currently no plans as of yet but I am open to the idea of it – I have no idea how I would make the tracks work in a live context given the heavy use of acoustic and old instruments but it would be an interesting challenge.

  • Photography by Jonathan Birch

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