(The following article was originally published in May 2013 by Immersed Audio, an online music site that has since been closed.)
Found Sounds From The Land Of Fire And Ice
Could this be the first ever record spawned from a Bristol to Barcelona journey via Iceland (the country, not the shop), and named after a bridge? Call it a hunch, but I think it might be.
Zoon van snooK, Bristolian oddtronica producer, musician and composer, now based in Barcelona, is set to release his second studio album (on Lo Recordings). This follows his 2010 debut album (Falling from) the Nutty Tree (and the remix album that ensued), released on Mush Records; and an earlier EP, Interviews and Interludes, released by Brighton’s givers of electronic joy, Cookshop.
The new album, The Bridge between Life & Death, is inspired by Iceland. Its title is the local name for a bridge in Kópavogur which has a nursing home on one side, and a cemetery on the other. Heavy!
Each track on the album is based around a field recording made in various Icelandic locations, taking the listener from cradle to grave in the form of an intricately woven, glistening and glorious composition. It is a heartfelt, kaleidoscopic journey of multi-layered sound and meaning. As soft and as edgy as life itself.
These field recordings include the sound of somebody snoring on a failed coach trip to see the Northern Lights…tourists shrieking at a geyser…an Icelandic tour guide and geologist talking about a yellow ghost dog that appeared to him as a child(!)…and a recording from a stringed wooden throne, known as a sound cradle, in a Reykjavík music shop. Sound like fun yet? It is.
I was lucky enough to meet with this ‘found sound’ artisan, Alec Snook (aka Zoon van snooK), when he was back here in good old Bristol for a Christmas visit.
Hello ZvS. I understand that you were already inspired and intrigued by Iceland before your visit, but at what stage did you plan the field recordings and have the idea to create a whole album themed around it?
I don’t know if I can remember thinking: ‘I know, when I go to Iceland, I’m going to take recordings, and make a song out of each one.’ I had my new MP3/WAV-recorder, which Kim [Snook's long-term partner] had bought me, and I had been using it and taking field recordings everywhere we went. There were some on the first album, and I thought I might as well take it to the next level and do all of it like that. I just thought: ‘Alright, I’m just going to take loads in Iceland and see what happens.’
And you were already influenced by Icelandic artists and musicians?
Obviously I knew about Björk, and loved Björk. Though it wasn’t until Vespertine that I thought: ‘Oh my god, you’re a genius!’ But it was that second Sigur Rós album for me. Yes, I was inspired by Björk, but I had never heard anything like Sigur Rós, and still haven’t to this day. Some people call it post rock, and loads of people do post rock, but not like that. It’s the vocal, and the bowing…all of it…it’s celestial. If there is anything else anywhere [meaning other than this life we know] then that’s what it sounds like. [Snook later added that Múm have probably inspired him most practically with their mix of multi-instrumentals and soft glitch.]
So it seems The Bridge between Life & Death was an unintentional concept album, and it was really just a case of: ‘I’ll go to Iceland, take some recordings and see what happens.’ Can you explain more about how things happened and came together?
I finished that first album, and thought: ‘I probably won’t be able to write any more songs, I reckon that’s probably all the ideas I’ve got.’ [After signing to Mush Records in 2010] I was thinking: ‘Fucking hell, I’ve got to keep going now and write more; maybe something will come out of the Iceland trip.’ And it did. I just came back, and it was one song after another.
Had you ever thought about making a concept album previously?
Normally it’s a bit wanky to do a concept album, but Nutty Tree is about our Paul [Snook's late uncle who took his own life] and the tracks tie in together, as there were parallels between his life and my life, and it was always going to be called that. [Nutty was the name that Paul was known by, and Snook's debut LP title was paraphrased from an obituary for him in the newspaper.] It made sense to me and was linear, and there are little bits that fit [the narrative] in each one, but it was nowhere near as coherent [as The Bridge...].
The two albums are both themed around heavy subject matters such as mental illness and death. And yet your music is often joyous and uplifting, bringing attention to the fine line between sadness and joy.
Yes, that’s life isn’t it? Tightrope walking, our pole constantly dipping into each side – happiness and sadness. Tunng do a good line in really joyous uplifting songs, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s about people dying in the woods and stuff, and that’s lovely, I think, having the both. It’s multi-layered then, rather than just ‘good things’ or ‘bad things’. I prefer combining the two, which is more difficult to create without lyrics obviously, as you’re trying to use instruments, melodies and chords to make it happy and sad at the same time. But that was the problem with the first album: people listening to it, or reviewing it, didn’t get it. The fact that one minute I’m here, next minute I’m there, one songs starts here and then turns into something else…some people have a problem with it, but I prefer it to be like that.
Did the visit inspire you to delve into the culture and folklore of Iceland even more?
Yeah, because it was Christmas, which was lucky because they’ve got the elves and the forest people that Björk talks about…Björk is sick of talking about, in fact [laughs]. They have the special magic elves, and then the 13 Yule Lads at Christmas time, and they all come down from the hills one by one, a day at a time, I think from the 12th onwards. Each day will have a different Yule man who’s nice and Christmassy and all of that, but they’ve got an edgy side to them as well. [These Yule Lads are well worth checking out by the way; some excellent darkly comic characters. Just to give you a taste, there's one who harasses sheep but is impaired by his peg legs, and one who hides in the rafters waiting to swipe sausages whilst they smoke. There's also one that steals and licks wooden spoons who is extremely thin due to malnutrition...festive huh!?] There’s so much of that kind of folklore. Subsequently I started reading the Icelandic sagas, I think there’s about fifty or so, and I read Egil’s Saga, which is one of the most famous ones…I’ll get through them all eventually. It’s a lot like epic poetry, and I’d been reading Homer just before. It’s written at the start of the 13th century, but the period they are writing about is much earlier. So it’s fascinating. Like the Greeks, it’s real people – they did exist – that is where they lived – that is where they sailed to, from Norway etc., but you know, they’re a bit bigger than normal, and they do these magic things.
Did you know of the bridge before you visited?
No, that was down to the first person we spoke to when we arrived – the taxi driver. He was so friendly, he picked us up, drove us and was chatting and quite soon said, “That’s where I live, over there, this is the bridge we call ‘the bridge between life and death’ because…” And I thought: ‘We’ve only been here 10 minutes and I’m completely spellbound, there’s magic already, I’ve already seen some magic.’ [Laughs.] I knew the moment he said it, it was just so poetic; he wasn’t trying to be poetic, it just was.
The album also features collaborations with [Sigur Rós string section] Amiina, Sin Fang [Seabear], and Benni Hemm Hemm. Could you talk a little about the experience of working with all of these Icelandic legends-in-the-making?
I sent out messages to a number of Icelandic artists…I said, ‘I’m writing an album, do you want to contribute a sound – or a word – or a lyric – or you hitting a fireplace – or a drumbeat…? Just contribute something, give it to me, and I’ll build the song incorporating the contribution.’ So, with Amiina, they sent me harp, metallophone, cello…about five different instruments, but just one-hits. So really with them, I wrote it in a day basically, one of those ones when it just happens. I think I probably played the field recording and then just played the music over the top of it. Sometimes I find that, if there’s a field recording playing, whatever I’m playing sounds amazing because I’m more interested in the field recording. If it’s a genuine response to the field recording I’ll leave it in there, even if it’s not perfectly in time or something, it doesn’t matter because there are other things going on, it works and it’s done. There are ‘mistakes’ all over the album, which I wouldn’t have necessarily put there, but thought: ‘That’s staying there now.’
How did it work with Sin Fang and Benni Hemm Hemm?
Sin Fang sent me a four- or maybe an eight-bar loop; it sounds like about four instruments. It was really difficult to pull it apart, but I just chopped it into bits, rearranged the chord sequence and then played the string parts over the top. And the Benni one is him and his family in the mountains, and he’s just done a field recoding for me. You can hear them talking and they’re messing about in the snow; the child you hear at the end is just from that field recording, which is amazing. So it’s a little bit of everything really.
Do you have a favourite piece on the album? And if so, which one, and why?
Oddly enough, I think it would be the three collaborations. I don’t know why, although the last track is really personal. But the sound and the production and the melodies of the Benni one and the Amiina one, they were the least amount of effort, and have the most pleasing melodies and rhythms. Yeah, I think those two are probably my favourite ones.
You are no stranger to having your music remixed by your heroes; your last remix album included tracks by Daedelus, Tunng, Yppah and Kirkland (aka Cian from Super Furry Animals). SFA are well known to be one of your all-time favourite bands; how was that experience for you?
Pretty surreal really, still even now. Sometimes it comes on ‘shuffle’ and I hear him playing the chords that I wrote. He is my hero, there’s no two ways about it. I properly blubbed my eyes out when I first I heard it, his keyboard sound playing my chords. You couldn’t ask for more. To have just met him, and said, “Thanks for all your music mate,” would have been good for me, but he’s actually had a bash at one of my tunes. Then that end string-section [that he arranged], which is beautiful as well, I went on to use for my live set.
Was he hard to pin down and get hold of? You didn’t have to stalk him too much or anything?
I didn’t have to stalk him too much [laughs]…I thought: ‘Fuck it, I’ve got to find some kind of email address and contact him,’ which I did…he just said, ‘Send me something and I’ll have a listen.’ And again, it would have been good enough for him just to have a listen, but then he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do one.’ For me, you’re not going to get too much better than that. There are a few people I’d like to work with one day, which may or may not ever happen, but probably won’t get anyone who has influenced me more than him.
So that one probably is your favourite remix; are there any other favourites?
Yeah, that one, for the reasons we’ve discussed. Then, in terms of quality and [a] song [that] I love, the Grasscut one is amazing. They’re so good, playing-wise and production-wise, it’s just a bit of a different level to a lot of the things I listen to. Oh and the Daedelus one is amazing. And the interesting thing about that one is that it was part of the first album that I lost most of [due to a massive hard-drive failure]; he selected the only one I didn’t have the stems for. I said, ‘I’m really sorry mate, but I haven’t got the stems,’ and he said, ‘I don’t want the stems, I remix from the whole WAV, it’s much more honest that way.’ What are the chances of that? So I sent him the WAV, and he’s just chopped up the whole WAV – no separate bits or anything – and made his remix out of that. And if you listen to it, you just think: ‘How the fuck has he done that?!’ Yeah, he’s a different level as well.
You’ve done quite a few remixes for other people now too; what’s your favourite of those?
I really like the one I’ve done for Benni Hemm Hemm, and the Broadcast 2000 one. There’s a James Yorkston one, which I hope will come out this year. I like the way it turned out and we’re kind of harmonising at the end. It was the last one I did at home in the studio in Bristol before moving to Barcelona. I’m hoping this will be out around the same time as the album.
So what else is happening in addition to the album, and what’s next for ZvS?
There’s an extra track that will be going out as a bonus album track; it just didn’t fit in to the story or have a place on the album. It’s called the Land of Ice and Fire, which is what Iceland is sometimes called. It’s based around a lady talking about the volcanic eruptions and the birth of land in Iceland, which was lovely, but it just didn’t fit in. There’s also going be two remixes as extra give-aways with the album for download sites etc. including one from Múm. Then some live shows to follow, hopefully. A few Japan dates are a possibility, but only a possibility at this stage.
Thank you very much Zoon van snooK!!
The Bridge Between Life & Death is released on 3rd June 2013 on Lo Recordings (!K7 in Germany). The first single The Verge of Winter is out now, and includes remixes from Isan and Sir Doufus Styles (Flaming Lips, Neon Neon, Super Furry Animals, Cate Le Bon).