In Conversation: A Winged Victory For The Sullen

In Conversation: A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie reflect on their Ninja Tune debut...

It’s been eight years since composers Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie joined forces to form A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Best known for their stirring ambient output, the duo have cultivated an eclectic body of work, comprising of their 2011 self-titled debut, 2014’s 'Atomos' - a musical companion to a dance piece by choreographer Wayne McGregor - and its accompanying EP, as well as two film scores.

That’s no small feat for any musical outfit, but given their extensive output as composers in their own right - with Wiltzie perhaps best known for his work with Stars of the Lid and O’Halloran for his intimate piano compositions and film work - it’s perhaps even more impressive that the duo’s collaborations continue to elicit some of the most distinctive work of their respective careers.

Their latest LP, 'The Undivided Five', is no exception. Building further on their foundations in neoclassical and ambient soundscapes, here they have sought to tap further into the DNA of the music, sounds and influences that have informed their work to date.

Wiltzie, who based in Brussels, and O’Halloran, who is currently in the process of relocating from Berlin to Iceland, cultivated the project over the course of a year. It was an undertaking that ultimately saw them working in six different locations around the globe, with each setting playing a unique and important role in crafting the overall sound of the album. The result is a stirring and often deeply moving work, which stands as one of the year’s very best ambient offerings.

Paul Weedon recently sat down for a chat with the Wiltzie and O’Halloran to discuss their work on the new album and daunting prospect of taking it on the road.

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You guys live and work in two different countries, so talk me through the creative process behind the album. How do you guys tend to work together - remotely or in the studio with other?

Adam Wiltzie: I mean, there’s always a little bit of both. I would say on this record we had a little bit more separation than we usually do. For the first record and also on 'Atomos', we were together for pretty much the whole process. On this one, Dustin had just become a father and for other extraneous reasons we had a little bit more separation.

We still worked on it together very intensely, but there were a few moments where we couldn’t really get around it, so we did a little bit more on our own, because we were also a little stricter with time. We really wanted to finish by a certain date, so we didn’t really have a choice.

Dustin O’Halloran: For most of the creative writing work and the real birth of the ideas, we try to be together because there’s just something that happens when we’re both in the room that’s kind of unexplainable. We hear different things and songs just sort of follow a stranger path, which sort of leads us to where we end up when we’re together.

Some of the production work and carving out some of the sounds and the arrangements happened later, but we try to be together for the initial ideas, rather than me just coming up with an idea and just sending it to Adam – that kind of thing – we try to stay away from that.

Both of you have had major solo projects in the intervening years and this album follows various collaborative projects in film and TV, as well as stage commissions. Why a conventional studio album and why now?

DO: Well, I think we never really started out to be a group that was going to get commissions. Those were really just collaborations that happened – the first one with Wayne McGregor, we just really loved his work and he gave us a lot of freedom. And we thought it would be really nice to try a film score, which we did, but I think at the end of the day, just us creating music the way that we did our first record was just something that we wanted to get back to and just have no constraints and time constraints, no third collaborator and to just see where that would take us.

AW: Yeah. And there’s also the elephant in the room, which is Ninja Tune. They came in to the picture, so we had a sort of new financial backer in a sense. So this was a new avenue and a new lease of life.

What does it mean for you guys to be involved with the label?

AW: Oh, it’s great. All labels have their pluses and minuses and little things that they do well and there are some times in life when windows open up and you can choose to go through them. I mean, Erased Tapes and Kranky were absolutely fantastic labels to work with, but there’s not really a deep-seated reason for it - it’s just that these moments happen and we decided to go through that window.

DO: And I think the other reason is the fact that the label is so eclectic. I think, for us, it felt like a way to escape being pigeonholed into genres, because I actually don’t feel that we are really sitting in one space. There’s a lot of influences and a lot of things that we’re pulling from, so it’s kind of nice to be on a label that maybe just kind of keeps away from that a bit.

I think, whether we like it or not, the press always tries to push people into certain corners and categories on a label.

I’m probably guilty of that.

AW: I think most people are actually kind of shocked because they think it’s the last label on earth that would want to put out our kind of music. But yeah, we hope that it’s going to expand our gene pool and hopefully we’ll get to work with some new people too.

Actually, that’s kind of an interesting point. As multi-instrumentalists, where do you guys feel most at home in a musical sense. Is it this more ambient sound that Winged Victory is best known for? 

AW: I don’t really think about it that much… It’s just music. I don’t really get bogged down in that too much. I mean, in a sense, this is your job. You have to categorise things or else everyone gets lost, but for me as the creator, we’re just expressing ourselves.

I think it’s becoming increasingly harder to pigeonhole artists and define where they actually sit. That’s arguably a good thing, I guess.

AW: But it’s understandable. I mean, you have to classify things. It’s normal. But for me, I guess I just don’t think about it. For example, this sort of neo-classical movement that has popped up - we’re really only associated with that, as I see it, because of Erased Tapes. But actually in North America with Kranky, any time we get reviews, no one ever really mentions neo-classical because Kranky doesn’t really have anything to do with neo-classical.

It’s interesting. Two different countries and two different descriptions. I don’t really know.

Just how much did the different cities and locations that you recorded in impact the overall sound and feel of the album as a whole?

DO: Well, I think, inevitably, different locations [mean] working with different people... and I think being away from your own environment puts you in a different headspace.

I think, for me, one of the biggest surprises of the record was all of the recording that we did in a church in Brussels because it was such an incredible acoustic space and it was something that we’d never really done before. That just made a huge impact on the sound and created a space that could never be found in a studio.

AW: Absolutely.

DO: So that was really one of the biggest things – just physically being there in the space.

AW: It almost feels like it’s another person... We’d also recorded some strings in there and it’s almost as if the sound that’s created feels like another member of the band who’s joined. The things that we were doing by blasting sounds and creating our own reverb within the church… Reverb is reverb, but when you’re sitting there in the middle of it and listening to it, yeah, it just has this three-dimensional, overwhelming transportation that it takes to you.

And I’m so glad we did that. It really sort of was at the end of the record, just before we started mixing and it was the thing that we realised in that moment, “We’re there. This is ready to be mixed. We can let go now.” It was a really beautiful moment.

And I guess some of those elements are things that you really can’t plan for.

AW: Oh, yeah. Definitely. We had an idea. We were hoping that it might work out like that and sometimes in life things go better than you planned. DO: And one of the other elements of Brussels – and I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about it – Brussels has been this place that’s been part of our music since the beginning and the city, strangely, is connected to our music. I mean, just this sort of atmosphere of the city and the nights that we’ve spent there... We were just in Brussels shooting a video and I realised that, just all of the friendships we’ve made there and the way we’ve spent our time there is a big influence on our music – way more than any of the other cities that we’ve recorded in.

How long did the production process for the whole album take?

AW: About a year. We had a little hiccup at the beginning, but in general it was just one year.

Is that pretty standard for a production of this scope?

AW: I don’t know if there’s a standard. I mean, the first record took two years. We did Atomos in three months, but honestly it was tough, with everything going on in our own personal lives – it was good, it was rewarding.

DO: I mean, it’s always nice to have a little more time. We’re just much busier than when we started our first record.

AW: One thing that Dustin and I were talking about was there were a couple of little songs that we were thinking that maybe we could keep working on them a little bit longer. And obviously they would sound a little bit different, but would they be better” That’s a thing you get to at the end. When is a song really finished, you know?

Can you expand a little more on the meaning behind the name of the album, 'The Undivided Five'?

DO: Well, it has a few different meanings. Naming a record is always complicated, but it was sort of born out of the fifth – the harmonic fifth – has always been a really big part of our sound and it was something that we’ve been a bit dogmatic about. It’s sort of built the foundation of our music.

The Perfect Fifth has this very pure sound and it’s a very old interval from a lot of early music. That was sort of the early idea that sort of propelled me to this group of spiritualists that originated from this painter, Hilma af Klimt. They were called ‘The Five’... they would get together, they were spiritualists and they were meant to be receiving messages from beyond and that’s how she did her paintings.

There’s this weird mysterious thing that happens between me and Adam where we end up with music. We can’t really say that either of us wrote it – it’s like there’s this element that really comes through and ultimately if you end up channelling something, that’s what I hope to feel. I mean, of all the music that I make, it’s the only records that I can listen to because I don’t hear as much of myself in it.

So we just gravitated to this idea that the music is something bigger than the sum of Adam and I and we hope that it’s a way to communicate beyond.

There’s a quote from Adam in the press notes in relation to ‘The Rhythm of a Dividing Pair’ where you mention the ‘jamming’ elements that you guys employed on the album. You noted that there’s a slightly contentious attitude towards this in contemporary classical music. Why do you think that is?

AW: Honestly, I think I was being a bit tongue in cheek, but yeah, we just don’t really jam that much. It’s always been a little more deliberate and exact about what we’re doing, so obviously there are moments when you’re fumbling around together finding sounds, but there was a randomness to that piece that just clicked. And it’s almost connected with the particular sounds that we were working in and the instruments themselves.

We got lucky. It was just a beautiful moment of simplicity. Speaking of ‘jamming’ in the contemporary classical world, I’m not so sure. Maybe everyone really does secretly and they just don’t admit to it. Who knows?

DO: I mean, I think Adam and I really enjoy the process of carving things out in detail because we’re not really using that many elements and we’re not using that much harmonic information… The intention isn’t to make it sound like we just threw this down. We go to great lengths, even with such minimal harmonic information.

Yeah, I get that. You’re not jamming like a 20 minute long Red Hot Chili Pepper’s jam.

DO: [Laughs] Oh, we know people who jam. That is not us.

AW: Maybe that’s why we we’ll never be super famous… because we don’t jam enough [Laughs].

You guys contributed a remix to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englaborn and Variations album last year. Dustin, you mentioned that this ‘unlocked’ a new process of working for you guys. Can you elaborate on that a little?

DO: I guess I’m kind of revealing a little bit for the first time to you about that process. When we worked on that, we just had stereo stems of the quartet. There were no separate tracks. Doing a remix is really about how do we take out the DNA of the music and recreate it and give it something new? And we basically took out the notes and we started to rearrange from actual notes of the music and recompose from the core DNA – not from the sounds themselves. There are some of the sounds from the quartet there, but it was really about pulling from the actual music itself…

It’s not really a remix in the sense that we were chopping it up and adding things… One of the first pieces that we worked on for the album was ‘Our Lord Debussy’, which is basically taking that idea and taking a single measure of Debussy and getting into the DNA of what that was and just stretching it out and deconstructing it. And, for me, it was an interesting way to start something, because it’s like a remix, but you go much further with it and I think it’s a kind of beautiful way to take a seed of another piece. It’s sort of an old tradition that goes back to the classical period. I mean, Chopin used a lot of little seeds of Bach and a lot of composers of these eras took these little small seeds as references in their music. It’s that sort of age old way to do it.

How did Jóhann respond when you first shared it with him?

AW: He loved it. We were all good friends so we were definitely all very supportive of each others music and we were all fans of what each other were doing, but he particularly loved this piece because it didn’t sound like his work. It’s pretty hard, at least until you get to the end where you can hear the obvious sound of the piece, but he loved it. DO: We were really grateful that he got to hear it too. That means a lot to me too.

What can we expect from the live shows?

AW: [Long pause] We don’t know yet. [Laughs]. We don’t start rehearsing until February.

DO: It’s going to be like massive group hypnosis. Everyone will forget their names. [Laughs]. AW: We’re just going through all the songs and just saying, “How the hell are we going to play this live?” So there’s a lot of head scratching going on at the moment, to be honest with you. We’re going to scratch our heads for the next couple of months and then, hopefully, something’s going to come out of this.

Some of these pieces on the new record, we’re going to have to re-envision them again to work with our ensemble live because we can’t take a large string orchestra with us, unfortunately. How much does the prospect of performing something live actually factor in to the studio process? I’ve always kind of assumed that they’re very separate processes.

AW: For me they’re two separate things. Dustin, is that something we’ve ever thought about? I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it whilst we’re composing it.

DO: I mean, I think I’m sort of fearing it less because I realise that you just have to sort of reinterpret things live and give them a new life and I think that’s part of the excitement of being able to see the show. Maybe it’s just more dynamic. There’s something different about it… The listening experience at home and live is always different so we try to be aware of that and make sure that we also enjoy playing it live and that it’s dynamic. 

AW: There’ll be a bunch of people on stage with us and there’ll probably be a little bit more than we’ve normally had on stage, but it’s a few months away, so God only knows what’s going to happen… I’m not trying to keep secrets, by the way. We’re just kind of brainstorming right now and trying to figure out what we’re going to do because the new pieces have kind of thrown me for a loop because they’re not really that easy to just pull out and play live [Laughs].

'Atomos' was a lot easier because, I guess maybe we were thinking about Atomos because we knew that we had to perform that thing live, so a lot of that went straight in to the orchestra and we were just able to sort of play it, but even that took a lot of rehearsing to do. There are a lot more people on the record, in a sense, so we have to find a way to shrink it, but not lose that big sound.

What do you guys have planned beyond that?

DO: Well we have a lot more music in the works, because we wrote a lot more than we needed for this record, so we can promise that there will be more music coming.

AW: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Invisible Cities score that we worked on for the Manchester festival? That’s in the bag and that’s going to be coming out some time next year so there’s definitely more coming.

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'The Undivided Five' is available now on Ninja Tune.

Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap

Catch A Winged Victory For The Sullen at the following shows:

26 Bristol Trinity Centre
27 London Round Chapel – night 1
28 London Round Chapel – night 2
29 Birmingham St Paul’s Church

1 Glasgow St Lukes
2 Manchester St Philip's Church Salford
3 Dublin National Concert Hall
4 Belfast St Rosemary Church
5 Brighton St George’s Church
6 Liverpool Unitarian Church

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