A truly singular talent, Ben Frost is a musician whose work doesn’t sit easily into any of your typical categories. It’s instrumental fare that challenges yet embraces, coming on with hostility one moment but a real warmth the next. At least, that’s how ‘A U R O R A’, his new album (and first for Mute) feels. Previously, his ‘By The Throat’ LP of 2009 was a more metallic manifestation, while collaborative work with Daníel Bjarnason on 2011’s ‘Sólaris’ emitted a more delicate resonance.
The Iceland-based, Australian-born composer has realised his greatest solo album yet with ‘A U R O R A’ – it maintains qualities that have taken him to cult appreciation while expanding his sound-set to envelop even the first-time listener. It’s a record that demands to be heard as a whole – each arrangement grows or fades into the next, the effect hypnotic, transporting any weary commuter to a place where neon dances across black slate, ballet-like and swollen with fire. It’s glowing red dwarves, against an expanding endlessness, colliding in choreographed magnificence.
It’s whatever you want it to be. And it follows some interesting projects between studio LPs: Frost worked with photographer Richard Mosse and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten on The Enclave, details of which are here, and he also produced the music for Julia Leigh’s 2011 movie Sleeping Beauty (trailer). And much more beside – the man doesn’t know when to take a break.
Frost picks up Clash’s call the afternoon after a set at London’s Village Underground. He’s still in bed. We’ll let him off. This once.
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Ben Frost, ‘A U R O R A : I’
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You’ve been keeping yourself busy between your albums ‘proper’, what with all the soundtrack stuff, and the theatre work.
Well, I mean, my life is a joke. I can basically keep a roof over my head, making very questionable music. There are people out there who do very important things, who work far harder than I do, who get up before 2pm on a Sunday to do an interview. But this is just f*ckin’ white peoples’ problems. Did you come to the show last night?
No, alas not. I tend to stay down in Brighton. I’ve got these things called kids that tend to eat away at my gig-going funds.
Oh really, how old? I’ve got a three-year-old.
I’ve one of those, too. A menace.
But fantastic, right?
Yeah, that too, some of the time. He actually saw the photo of you that’s on Wikipedia earlier, and asked me, “Why does that man looks so funny?”
Yeah, my daughter asks me the same thing. I’m not sure which picture is up there, actually. Is it the one of me where I look like Charles Manson?
It could well be. But we should probably discuss ‘A U R O R A’, right?
What do you make of it?
Well I really like it (review). I think my immediate impression of it was that it feels a lot warmer than ‘By The Throat’, even though it’s just as propulsive, as menacing. It conjures these oranges and reds in my mind, whereas ‘By The Throat’ was more steely blues.
I am perpetually fascinated by the lack of, sort of, due credit given to audiences, generally speaking, by – I suppose – contemporary film and music makers. I think there’s a lack of trust in basic human perception, and instinct, in the realm of storytelling in particular. And a distrust of people to read into something, and listen to their own emotions and find the truth in what they’re being subjected to. Which falls outside of the didactic, really expositional way of having something explained. Y’know, like, you walk into a big arts institution, and the descriptions of the work can almost be as big as the works themselves. And it becomes this thing, where it informs people as to how to look at the thing, or listen to it.
And I really… Well, I’m so impressed and grateful to see the way that people find their own ways of looking at my work, and reading between the lines and finding a language to describe how they feel about it, which is so often so accurate. It’s never, exactly, what I felt, I suppose, but more often than not it’s spot on. I think in many ways that’s, more than anything, what makes me feel that something is a successful piece of work, or not. Y’know, getting back to what you’ve just said, with the warmth and the colours, I mean, that kind of shit is exactly what I’m saying. ‘A U R O R A’ for me is fundamentally about light, and its colour palette is just anything that glowed, which could be garish or neon. The influence of Richard Mosse in the work is a huge part of it, of course. And it isn’t a record that deals with shadow. It’s very much about intense luminescence – that’s what I want it to be.
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Ben Frost, ‘A U R O R A : II’
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I wonder if just being in the Congo with Mosse, working on The Enclave, had any effect on this music coming out the way it did – if that brightness we hear came from simply escaping the skies of Reykjavík?
Well, I don’t think that climate is much of a conduit for music making. It’s more just about emotional spaces. I think where I’ve been for the last couple of years, is looking for a way to write music that I want to induce a euphoric, blazing light feeling. I would say that – how do I put this? I feel that it’s unjust that music that deals with, I suppose, more visceral sides of human nature is something that’s reserved for the ‘doom’ set. Like, you can only deal with the darker side of humanity through darkness – I think that’s an injustice, which I am perhaps trying to fight against.
I like how you use the word ‘euphoria’, because as the album progresses towards its climax, ‘A Single Point Of Blinding Light’, it does have that rush to it, that feeling of momentum building to a peak where you just completely lose yourself in a moment, in the music. It’s not quite a dancefloor banger as such, but it’s skirting the periphery.
Well, it’s totally a rave. And the way that song snaps to silence, I like to think of it as moving beyond the spectrum of seeing and hearing. It hasn’t stopped – it’s just that it’s moved beyond perception somehow. Like, in the same way that a dog whistle exists, yet humans are unaware of it. But look, I have no problem with people hearing rave music in this work – it’s definitely something I was thinking about. And what does ‘rave’ really mean today, when it’s been so consumed by popular culture, and has become almost passé. The emotional truth of that time, of that culture, it didn’t synthesise out of nothing – it was born out of a need. It was a release. And I think that need still exists – it doesn’t have to be constrained to a time or a sound. The same ideas are there.
But the whole thing is creating and juxtaposing seemingly unrelated objects against each one another, sonic objects, and making this kind of space within which I don’t think any one single element has to be compromised. They form a language between themselves, which collectively makes an image. It forms a collective, an experience, which I hope is something new. Even if this is unusual… Well, I hope that it is! But I hope there’s nothing in the music that gets in the way of relating to it on a level that exists below that conscious reading of it. It can be something that you react to in your gut.
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My relationship with Eno, it’s about ideas and commitment to them. His influence on my work is very profound, but in a way that’s difficult to quantify...
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I think the album’s got those qualities – on tracks like ‘Nolan’ and ‘Venter’, which really deliver that punch. In terms of possessing a narrative, across the whole LP, I think the record succeeds that way, too. I find it hard to begin the album and not see it through to its end. Actually, that’s the only way I’ve experienced it, so far – without skipping to select ‘highlights’. It has these story beats to it…
Totally, and one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the way in which a press release, or a manifesto of any type of work, can influence the way in which the audience reads the work in question. If the label had put something out saying that this album was concerned with the plight of Armenian basket weavers or whatever, or that it’s a tribute to the dolphin hunters of Japan, constructed inside an emergency hut in the north of Greenland, would that push a narrative to the audience? Would such an approach alter peoples’ opinion of the record?
The way you read it is… Well, the first thing I would say is that this kind of scene setting is largely unnecessary with this kind of music. The way people have constantly made the connection between my work and film music, I really fundamentally reject that. Film music’s job is to play this collaborative role with a series of other elements, which collectively drive forward a texture, and a narrative. If I have a relationship with film, and I do, it’s with the nature of film itself, and nothing to do with its music.
The way of building a world, and constructing a narrative space, informed by all kinds of elements – like the people I work with, the f*cking star actors or however you want to put it, like Richard Mosse and Trevor Tweeten, to get across these ‘art department’ ideas. And then working with all of these elements, it becomes like the production of a film, if you understand what I’m getting at. I’m not wholly sure what my point is…
I suppose it’s easy to see why people connect you to film, though. After ‘By The Throat’, you worked on the Sleeping Beauty soundtrack, and an interpretation, if you will, of Sólaris. But equally, your own music doesn’t have those ‘cinematic’ dynamics to it – it’s not so regimented, as boxed as that, as reactive to outside powers. It’s more intimate. But when commissions do come in, is it easy to define in your head what’s your work, and what’s to accompany someone else’s?
Yeah, and it’s increasingly easier to do that. There are two aspects to this. Like, I love collaborating with people. I enjoy it a great deal. And I especially enjoy it when those people are working in another medium, so I really like working with choreographers. People like Wayne McGregor and Akram Khan, I mean, those guys are at the top of their games, and it’s such a joy to work in that environment. I really enjoy it, and get so much from it. I love that I’m thrust into this position of having to respond, musically, to a set of ideas that have nothing to do with me. They’re outside of me. And it’s a challenge. And to a lesser extent, I do enjoy writing music for films – I do enjoy responding to another narrative. But like you say, that type of music is a response, it’s not a synthesis from zero. It’s a reaction to something else, and on a pragmatic level that’s how it survives. But lord knows I’m not making money out of music right now. But it’s a brave new world, I’m not complaining. It’s fine. It’s what I do.
But in commercial terms, you are getting by doing what you do, or I guess we wouldn’t be talking now. And you must think that going to Mute will widen your potential audience?
Yeah, sure. I don’t have any particular expectations, though. I can put those to one side, at this stage. It must be difficult for people who are just starting out now, into this intense scrutiny. So much of it has nothing to do with music, too. There’s this social media nature to music making now, which must be so tiring. I can’t imagine what it must be like.
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Ben Frost, ‘A U R O R A : III’
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You’re pretty good on that Twitter, though. Some people – some musicians, anyway – use Twitter as an extension of their brand, I guess, but with you there’s very clearly a personality there, a person behind it.
I love the interacting with an audience element of it, certainly. But I hate the incessant self-promotion you see some people using it for. But you’re right, I do feel incredibly privileged to have an audience who seem obscenely dedicated to focusing on what I’m doing, so the least I can do is reciprocate, and write back to them.
I’ve got to mention Brian Eno, because you’ve worked pretty closely with him in recent years, haven’t you?
I think one of the most important things that you can ever get from somebody, as an artist, is the validation that what you’re doing is a good choice. If somebody who you respect, and whose work you respect, is saying to you, "This is interesting, keep going down this path," that is far more valuable than a dictatorial schooling, receiving someone else’s ideas. The mentor relationship that I have with this older, experienced individual, it’s not so much about passing down specifics or technical information as it is about things that actually have very little to do with music. My relationship with Eno, it’s about ideas and commitment to them. His influence on my work is very profound, but in a way that’s difficult to quantify as I can’t point to specific things in the music.
I would say that what he gives me is a challenge, rather than confidence. His influence has pushed me to go further, to not stop. It’s more of a feeling than anything else – someone to stand behind what I am saying.
And ultimately, as long as people are getting something meaningful out of your music, then I guess you’re happy for them to call it whatever they want – be that ‘film music’ or whatever. I read a comment on YouTube that described your work as the “ambient music equivalent of battery acid”. Makes little sense to a lot of people, but clearly it’s resonated with that person, in their own way.
I don’t even know how to describe this music. I really don’t. The enjoyment thing is interesting, as seeing people come to see me play, I’m aware that the music is quite confronting. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a comfortable experience. But then, some of my favourite music is exactly that, and I aspire to create music that forces a strong reaction. I’m not sure what that reaction is, but it should be very sure of the fact that you’ve experienced something. And what that is, it isn’t for me to say. But I can tell you that I feel exhausted after my shows, and in a different way I felt exhausted after making ‘A U R O R A’. It feels like there’s a catharsis in there that’s real, and I don’t know what that means for me yet.
Sorry, it’s a good thing we’re wrapping up as I’ve just been invaded by Son Number One…
I can hear that, yeah. I can imagine a slobbering human being jumping up and down on you, right now.
Son number one, into the phone: Hello?
Son number one, looking at the Wikipedia image: He has hair there, on his chest, and there, and there…
(Laughs) I should get a haircut, shouldn’t I?
Son number one: Yes. Bye!
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Ben Frost, ‘Nolan’, from ‘A U R O R A’
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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Börkur Sigthorsson
‘A U R O R A’ is released by Mute / Bedroom Community on May 26th. Find Ben Frost online here.
Related: Clash’s review of ‘A U R O R A’