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Fractal Architect [Interview]

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With Fractal Architect's new 'Oumuamua' album landing this week on Cinematique we had a chance to catch up with the British artist for a chat about the album, production process and much more. Enjoy!

Hi Dan, thanks for joining us. What is your current mood and what was the last piece of music you listened to?

Hey, good to meet you. I’m feeling pretty good right now thanks. The album has been out on promo and I’ve had some amazing feedback. It’s so nice to know that people are feeling it.

The last piece of music I listened to was from one of my all-time favourite bands Röyksopp… the wonderful 'If You Want Me' featuring the unbelievable vocal talents of Susanne Sundfør. Breathtaking and timeless music that defies categorisation.

What are your plans for the coming week?

I’m busy promoting the album this week, counting down the days until release day. I am also busy with my landscape architecture practice.

How has your year been so far? What have been some highlights for you?

Like many people, I am still adjusting to life post-Covid. My wife is immunocompromised, so before we had the vaccines, Covid was an existential threat to us. During the first lockdown I started working remotely and I’ve not been back to an office now for over 2 years!

We have been making the most of life returning to ‘normal’ this year. Spending a lot more quality time with my wife and kids (I have 4), has been a highlight for me! Work really should be something you ‘do’, not something you ‘are’

When you were first getting started in production did you have someone help you or are you completely self-taught? And what would you recommend new producers do to help with the learning curve of production?

When I started out in production, it was in the early 90’s. There were no DAW’s back then and I used an old Atari ST and Steinberg Pro 24 to power my little studio. I had a friend who was a hip hop DJ and we kinda egged each other on with our early efforts at production. There was something wonderful about having so many limitations as it meant you got the most out of the equipment you had.

My recommendation to new producers would always be to try to write whatever you feel, rather than following a formula or particular genre. I’m not sure if this is good or bad advice, but it’s honest! It’s a saturated market out there and it’s all too easy to get lost in the crowd.

Modern studios are hugely complex and the musical possibilities are almost limitless, which can be overwhelming at times, particularly to someone who’s starting out in production. My advice would be to learn the basics of how to structure a track and some of the fundamentals of music theory before delving deeper into the more complex aspects of production.

Your debut album ‘Oumuamua’ is coming out shortly on Cinematique, please tell us about the release, more specifically tell us about the album’s title, what does it mean and how does it relate to the entire sixteen track collection?

Oumuamua was an interstellar comet that passed through our solar system in 2017. Many people in the scientific community thought that this strange and distant object might be of alien origin.

This got me thinking about how a distant visitor might view the custodians of this planet, driven by fear, greed and short-termism. Each track on the album attempts to convey a feeling or situation associated with this concept.

By the sound of the press release the majority of the album was written during the pandemic. Was there an initial goal of writing an album prior to this or did it happen organically once the world essentially got shut down?

It was an organic process. I wrote the title track first of all, right at the start of the first lockdown, which set the scene for everything that happened after that. I knew after the first track I would be working towards an album; It just felt right and the creative process was very enjoyable and incredibly fruitful.

The album is quite varied in terms of style but there is an underlying emotional quality which resonates through the majority of the tracks, tell us how that feeling relates to the idea behind the album which is very thought-provoking.

There is an introspective feel to the album which reflects a sense of isolation and contemplation of an uncertain future. I think this comes through in every track, but there is also a sense of hope and acceptance there too.

I’m wondering where does the impulse to create something emotional come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

Politics is a massive driver for me. Watching how the world has lurched to the right in recent years and the spectre of rising fascism is truly terrifying,

How did you end up with the album’s final track selection and how did you go about cutting stuff out? There must be a point where it becomes quite difficult letting go of certain pieces?

The final cut is always painful…  Each track has a deeply personal meaning and is a chapter in the story I am telling, so it’s unbelievably difficult to decide which ones make the cut. The fact that there are 16 tracks on the digital release is an indication that the edit was challenging to say the least! A few tracks didn’t make it… I’ll probably give these away sometime in the future.

How difficult was it deciding on the flow from a listener’s perspective?

This was so much more difficult than I thought it would be. I had all the chapters of the story, but couldn’t settle on a running order. At this point I relied on my good friend Robin De Lange at Cinematique to make an objective decision on my behalf. I’ve worked with him for nearly 10 years now and his experience has been invaluable in so many ways. This album would never have been possible without the support of an open minded label like Cinematique and the Manual Music family.

What does your studio set-up look like? Do you favor physical gear over digital? 

My studio is a mixture of digital and physical gear. I’ve collected quite a few nice devices over the years. I used Cubase for many years, but switched to Ableton for this album. I wanted to create a particular feel, so I utilised some of Ableton’s unique probability based devices, which contribute to the overall loose and organic feel that characterises the album.

And what studio tools featured heavily in the writing of ‘Oumuamua’?

The Behringer Neutron features quite heavily, those Curtis 3340 VCO’s are just so rich and powerful, I found myself using it in almost every track. I have to hand it to Behringer, they have done some incredible work cloning the classics and are undoubtedly at the vanguard of a full-on analogue revolutionLong may it continue.

Let’s continue talking about production as it relates to the album for a moment, for you to get started on a track do there need to be concrete ideas in place – or what some have called ‘visualizations’ of the finished work? I would guess on some pieces, perhaps moreso the vocal ones you do have an end goal in mind but generally what does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

I don’t have any particular routines that I stick to, as I like to keep the whole process as free as possible. Sometimes it’s a new piece of kit that triggers an idea, other times it might be something I’ve read or seen that gets me into a train of thought. Vocal tracks do tend to be slightly different as they are generally more tied to a particular idea, but having said that, the underlying music doesn’t have to follow any rigid framework. I have been leveraging the amazing probability and chance potential in Ableton quite a bit in this album, which has fitted in with the whole loose approach really well.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

Finding time to spend in the studio is one of my biggest challenges. Music production is inherently time consuming and that is a commodity I have little of, so I need to be able to get my head in the right place quickly. I usually like to grind some fresh beans and make a nice frothy coffee, that usually gets the ideas flowing.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite, I think. What marks the end of the process for you? How do you know when a track is done?

This is a trap that I have fallen into so many times over the years. Knowing when to stop is largely down to experience.

Writing this album has been refreshing for me in many ways as it’s not really aimed at dance floors, this might not be what people are expecting from me, given my usual production style, but I’ve been moving in this direction more and more over the years and I do find myself listening to a lot of more downtempo music in general. Writing in this way lends itself well to storytelling, so there does tend to be a more definite start-middle-end process to the workflow, which helps when it comes to knowing when a track is done.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?

I usually complete a ‘draft’ version of the track, at this point I might not have all of the sounds finalised and certainly not all of the fx routing and automation will be applied. I usually run off a quick render and chuck it onto a private track on Soundcloud, so I can listen back to it. This is an iterative process of listening and re-listening to see how everything works together, often singing along (much to the annoyance of my kids) to try out harmonies etc..

I find this process is useful to test out the longevity of parts of the track, as if I’m bored listening to it during production, that’s probably an indication that it’s not my finest work!

Once I’ve settled on all of the parts of the track, I finalise sound design and FX routing etc and add compression to get a balanced mix. Then I’ll export a first pre-master. I usually add a quick master bus to it so I can hear the dynamics too. This is the ‘last chance saloon’ to make sure I’m happy with everything. I usually listen to this over a couple of days on a range of speakers and headphones to get the best results I can across a variety of sound sources.

Next I really focus on the detailed levels in the mix and go for a final mix down before exporting a pre-master.

That’s it! Repeat until the album is done…. Easy 😂

Walk us through the production process on one of the album tracks, whichever you feel might be the most interesting.

The final track on the album ‘If’ is an interesting little tune. It’s about trying new things, challenging norms and expectations, so quite cathartic in terms of the overall approach to the album. The track features some binaural field recordings I did whilst on holiday by the sea with my family.

I used two dictaphones and recorded about 15 minutes of the sound of the sea lapping against the shore and gulls fighting over scraps of food. I took this back to the studio and edited the bits I wanted to create a foley bed to build the track around.

Natural ambience adds such atmosphere to music, it’s used extensively throughout this album, sometimes it’s almost inaudible, but it’s always just there in the background. It adds so much feel to electronic music.

I would guess the writing of the album was a long process, now that it’s done what are your thoughts reflecting back on the process?

I really enjoyed the process of writing Oumuamua. It’s been incredibly liberating to just write whatever I feel at the time, rather than conforming to any particular genre. It has been a long process, with so many aspects to it beyond just writing songs. Organising remixers, creating artwork, building a release schedule, creating promo videos, promotion…. the list goes on.

How would you feel about these tracks being remixed? And are there plans for this?

Two remix EP’s featuring some of my favourite artists will follow the album release at the beginning of 2023. There are a really diverse set of styles, ranging from lush downtempo to drum and bass.

Do you think the digital era changed the way we perceive artist albums? Do they still carry the weight they once did or should? Is this something that perhaps depends on who (record label) is releasing it as well?

I think the dominance of streaming has meant that albums have become less commonplace, with artists often releasing singles and following a cyclical pattern to trigger the Spotify algorithm and catch the eye of playlist curators.

What is one superpower you would like to have and how would you use it?

I think I would like the ability to have more time. So that I didn’t feel that one area of my life was suffering because of another. I guess that’s universal really.

What’s a book you’ve read or film you watched that has left an impact on you, and why?

I recently watched the remake of Dune. I was always a fan of the novels and the original David Lynch film, but I have to say the Villeneuve version totally blew me away. The cinematography and sense of scale is incredible. The score is unbelievably good too.

Apart from music, what makes you happiest?

The time I spend with my wife and children and I also enjoy drawing and baking artisan sourdough bread.

What does the remainder of 2022 and on into 2023 hold for you? Anything you can share with us?

Well, the album comes out at the end of October, so there is a lot of promotion around that and a couple of live performances too. Then the remix EP’s follow in 2023, which offer a totally different set of interpretations from some of my favourite artists and long time friends and collaborators.

Beyond that I have releases on Manual Music and Sound Avenue in the pipeline.

'Oumuamua' is out now via Cinematique: https://bit.ly/3sJMRz4

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