In Conversation: Daniel Blumberg

An audience with the restless, extraordinarily focussed talent...

“If I don’t have a kitchen, can I still call this a kitchen table?” asks Daniel Blumberg.

It might sound like a subjective idealist question born of Søren Kierkegaard or George Berkeley, but his enquiry is actually a practical one: though we are sat in what is – currently – Blumberg’s kitchen in his North-East London home, he barely lives there, and certainly never cooks there, and so he’s considering ripping out all the units to allow the space to become more akin to a studio.

He gestures at the tarnished Bialetti stove-top espresso maker on the hob and admits that this is really the only thing he uses in the entire room, apart from maybe a corkscrew and some glasses. But this kitchen table, in this room, in this house, is the nucleus of Blumberg’s creative output while he is in London.

To reach the kitchen you pass through what would, in most terraced houses, be a lounge; instead it is filled with vintage amps, an upright piano, boxes of CDs from his record label secured with branded tape, all arranged and organised neatly, Blumberg’s own drawings pinned to the wall alongside a map of Orkney.

From there you walk along a narrow corridor, on the left a bedroom, its bed carefully made, on the right a bookshelf with books on art, film and poetry, Moleskine notebooks – each one representing a single month’s worth of drawings – and, just before you reach the kitchen / non-kitchen / studio, shrink-wrapped copies of Blumberg’s debut solo album, ‘Minus’, an album upon which has been heaped astonishingly lavish praise, every word of which is entirely justified.

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Blumberg is no stranger to the music world. Despite not yet having entered his thirties, he has been performing in bands since he was 15, spending most of his formative years within bands like Cajun Dance Party and Yuck. Yet ‘Minus’ is immediately, unswervingly, vehemently different from anything Blumberg has done before. If you dive in and out of his back catalogue there is nothing whatsoever that might hint at the genesis of this broadminded album; the angelic, plaintive voice is there, certainly, but it never quite takes on the vulnerability of the Daniel Blumberg you hear on ‘Minus’; his guitar and piano playing is there too, but ‘Minus’ has a manifestly different feel – less rock and more free; looser, less regimented; tender, yet anguished; open and exposed for all to see yet intensely and impenetrably personal.

The catalyst for that radical change in direction lies within the Dalston arts epicentre of Café Oto, best known as the home of East London’s improvisation scene. Improv is a strata of music that you either get or you don’t, and it’s rare – though not unheard of – for musicians from more mainstream quarters to integrate themselves into this scene. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are two converts; Steve Beresford from The Flying Lizards another; Daniel Blumberg is yet another.

“I first went to Oto in 2011 or 2012,” recalls Blumberg. “I really hadn’t seen music like that before. Up until that point, I’d got into music from playing in bands. No one had recommended an improv record and I hadn’t had any experience of improvised music. But I’d really stopped what I was doing musically at the time because I’d started to focus instead on drawing. Going to Oto and meeting all these people was a real epiphany for me. “It was a really weird, but important, period in my life,” he reflects.

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I really hadn’t seen music like that before…

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“I’d watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s films for the first time, and I read ‘Sculpting In Time’, which was his book explaining his processes in detail. I thought, when I put it down, that all of my whole processes, the way I was working, and the things that I was doing were a total contradiction to what I think art is. At that time I felt like drawing was much more representative of what maybe I would like as a listener, or a viewer.”

That process of unshackling himself from how he had perceived creativity up to that point led him to develop creative relationships with various Oto court musicians and regulars. Some of those musicians would end up playing with him on ‘Minus’ or in various evolving line-ups for live shows over the past five years, specifically bassist Tom Wheatley, violinist Billy Steiger, percussionist Terry Day, cellist Ute Kanngiesser and saxophonist Seymour Wright.

“Someone like Seymour comes from a totally different background to me,” says Blumberg. “He’s known improvising musicians like Eddie Prévost for something like 25 years, since he was a kid basically. He grew up with jazz and his parents are into art. My parents aren’t music enthusiasts or anything like that. Seymour and I met up in Oto and just talked and talked. He didn’t know who I was or what I’d done before, and we talked mainly about literature, because that was our common ground. But then we’d start talking about the process of how he made music, and it seemed like that was more similar to the way I worked with drawing.”

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Blumberg admits to never being one to merely dabble in things – for him, he is either fully invested, or not interested at all. To do that with improvisation, he first needed to understand and consider it properly. “It’s about harnessing your instincts,” is his take on it. “You can talk about working with complete freedom, but there’s a lot of limitations you set up for yourself when you perform at a gig – you’re on a stage, you have a violin, you decide to plug that violin in, you mic up that violin, you’re focussing the sound from that microphone and if it’s on a lead then you can’t walk around. Whether you meant to or not, you’ve given yourself boundaries and parameters to operate within.”

Another influence on what would become ‘Minus’ was the American film director Brady Corbet, whom Blumberg counts among his close friends, and who wrote the text to accompany Blumberg’s ‘GUO2’ release with Seymour Wright. “I met Brady while he was filming his first film, ‘The Childhood Of A Leader’, which Scott Walker did the music for,” he says. “I went to the recording sessions for his first film, and that’s how I met Peter Walsh, who produced ‘Minus’. Brady’s making a new film and he’s obsessed with every part of the process – he’s at the recording sessions, and he’s basically producing the soundtrack himself. He’s someone who likes to have his hands in everything he’s doing, and I see myself like that too.”

Corbet and Blumberg’s careers have followed a similar path: both started out very young, Corbet as a child actor and Blumberg thrust into the limelight with Cajun Dance Party while barely into his teens, and both now find themselves much more in direct control of their own art. “At a certain point Brady started saying ‘no’, which is quite important. I’ve noticed that being able to saying no is an interesting thread between certain artists whose work I respect and enjoy.”

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I think I was very fragile emotionally around that time…

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‘Minus’, then, is Blumberg saying ‘no’ to those who would have him repeat himself, an opportunity to take his music in a direction that has a greater connection to his personal artistic vision. To emphasise this, he talks about an Italian winemaker whose wine Corbet and Blumberg are both fans of, who destroyed his entire vineyard and disappeared from view while researching a radical way of producing wine he had learned from Georgia; the wine was initially derided, with critics suggesting he had perhaps gone mad, before being accepted and ultimately lauded.

It may be allegorical, but substitute wine for music, Georgia for Café Oto, and it is not dissimilar to the way that Blumberg has re-learned his craft; the only difference would be that no one seems to have remotely questioned this volte-face in his approach to music.

Though ‘Minus’ has its origins in the improv scene that Daniel Blumberg had willingly immersed himself in, it was intentionally not a fully improvised album. “I’d done shows in the last five years with improvised lyrics, because I really liked the idea of that,” he says. “The thing with me is that if I’m drawing, I don’t think, ‘Oh I’m going to draw a tree,’ and then draw a tree, because that’s translating it into another language and then back into another language. But with the song elements, and the lyrical elements of the songs, I’ve always felt that it didn’t feel as natural to improvise. It felt too stagnant, and that process just didn’t work for me.”

To compose the lyrics, Blumberg ensconced himself in the home of his artist friend Brendan Colvert on a remote part of Orkney, making his first trip there in 2013. Colvert’s approach to his work and an ordered daily routine – a morning spent working on his house, an afternoon working on his art – created a highly productive environment for songwriting.

“I think I was very fragile emotionally around that time,” admits Blumberg. “After spending years moving away from songs and language, there was a moment where the idea of the love song suddenly came back to me. I got back into listening to Townes Van Zandt and I began to really value how powerful songs can be again.”

Though they may have been informed by romantic notions, the lyrics throughout ‘Minus’ are opaque and mysterious, like journal entries in a language known only to their author. “I think of the lyrics as being totally explicit,” laughs Blumberg, slightly surprised at his themes being difficult to fathom. “They were all very focussed, they’re from a very specific time, and they’re totally cohesive, at least they are to me. I think there’s a lot of oversharing in the songs. But at the same time I’m much better at talking around the lyrics in a way, rather than trying to explain what they mean. I mean, if I wanted to communicate only in words, then I’d write poetry rather than draw. When I’ve got pen and paper I tend to draw rather than write lyrics.”

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The result of his songwriting on Orkney was a suite of nine songs, seven of which made it to ‘Minus’, each carrying a devastating emotional weight. The centrepoint of the album is the affecting, twelve- minute ‘Madder’ which dives headlong into that fraught sense of emotional fragility that Blumberg speaks of, while never quite revealing itself fully. Blumberg, Tom Wheatley, Billy Steiger and Dirty Three drummer Jim White recorded something like nine versions of the song, each one of different lengths and each one containing different points of emphasis.

In the version presented on the album, the track also serves as the embodiment of Blumberg’s free-but-composed aesthetic; there’s a scratchy, inchoate, dissonant quality to the music on the verses, with White’s drums being fully improvised down delicate percussive avenues; as Blumberg’s vocal signals the start of the chorus, the musicians immediately snap into line, before once again following their own idiosyncratic paths as the chorus once again recedes into a meditative piano refrain.

“I wanted the record to have an exchange of voices,” offers Blumberg as an explanation. “Things have to meet, somewhere. I mean, Tom’s double bass playing is mostly improvised, but how can I play guitar on a record with him if I can’t meet him somewhere in the song? I wanted us all to come to the songs mutually.”

‘Minus’ found Blumberg being compared to everyone from Neil Young to Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, something that might have otherwise inflated the ego of its creator. Blumberg brushes it off nonchalantly. “That type of thing started when I was really young,” he says. “My first band were compared to The Smiths, as if we were the new Morrissey and Marr. I mean, I’d never even heard The Smiths at that point. When the record came out, it got really bad reviews, so that was a good learning experience for me. I’m not dismissing the praise or comparisons, but I personally don’t read music criticism at all anymore. It’s just not part of my life.”

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I wanted the record to have an exchange of voices…

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As if to consciously emphasise the collaborative nature of the record – despite being formally credited to Blumberg alone – the reverse of sleeve presents the four players as equals and the initials of Wheatley, Steiger and White nestle immediately below Blumberg’s own name on the front.

Taking this egalitarian concept further, a special edition of the album released through Rough Trade shops came with a bonus CD of radical solo interpretations of the songs from ‘Minus’ by those on the record, or musicians that Blumberg has performed the songs with, like Terry Day and Ute Kanngiesser. Though ‘Minus’ was recorded by a group of musicians, it is not what might be described as a traditional group.

“I had considered making a new band, but also I’m not really interested in the nature of how that works anymore,” says Blumberg. “I wanted the focus to be on the song, and those songs were all instigated by me. It’s personal in terms of the lyrics and stuff, but Billy’s voice as a violinist, for me, is just as hard-hitting as the vocals.”

Steiger’s voice comes fully to the fore on ‘Gleaning Truths’, a track led by his violin which was recorded with Blumberg and Tom Wheatley for the trailer promoting experimental film-maker Agnès Varda’s Curzon retrospective. Café Oto’s in-house record label released a live recording of Blumberg from February of this year, his ensemble for that date consisting of Steiger, Wheatley and Ute Kanngiesser, which presented some of the songs from ‘Minus’ in a completely alternative way through the pairing of two string players and no drummer.

The album also included a live version of the powerful, delicate-but-noisy, world- weary song ‘Family’, one of the unused tracks originally recorded as part of the ‘Minus’ sessions with Peter Walsh and which is now being given a proper release. Different dynamic arcs emerge from the performed renditions of the songs, making them both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

The live album underlines Blumberg’s entire approach to performing this body of work. “The songs represent something to move around in, and that frees you up,” he says. “We never have a set list, which means the performance can flow naturally. At a show in Berlin recently, we played ‘The Fuse’ twice. We finished the song and then played it again straight after. I just felt like it. It’s been quite interesting playing the same songs night after night, and losing that idea of having to think about improvising new songs constantly, but at the same time I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to play this record for, because it’s slightly draining, in a way.”

“People don’t applaud at my shows,” he continues. “But that’s because I don’t leave space for applause. I find it really inappropriate. The way we play, applause can be really distracting. We’re on stage, making sound, and then suddenly the audience make loads of sound, and it feels like that interrupts the playing. I really don’t understand the exchange between the performers and the audience.”

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Perceived wisdom states that dead air in an interview, just as on radio, is potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable, those moments suggesting a lack of fluidity in the conversation. My interview with Daniel Blumberg is riddled with moments of dead air. That’s not because he is being evasive, or disinterested, but because throughout our conversation he is drawing constantly in silverpoint.

Silverpoint is something he took up three years ago because of its durability when travelling when compared to graphite pencils, and during the interview he only ever pauses to reflect on a question I’ve asked, or to take a sip from his glass of wine, or to show me a book, or to point at the location of Brendan Colvert’s house on his Orkney map, or to give me a demonstration of the cheap device he uses to write lyrics.

It is always a huge privilege to talk to someone about how they create their art; it is something else entirely to witness someone making it right in front of you. At the time of our conversation, Blumberg still felt like he was experimenting with silverpoint, and wasn’t yet comfortable showing these drawings to the world. He enthusiastically shows me images pinned to his bathroom wall, where the moisture there was causing the silver etchings to oxidise toward their final state.

Blumberg sees drawing as his other principal medium of expression, but one that is fully intertwined with his other position as a musician and songwriter. Extending the ‘Minus’ album yet further, the newly-launched Rough Trade Books imprint issued a collection of his drawings alongside the record entitled ‘Drawings Of Minus’. These images have both a coded, indecipherable quality and yet a vivid openness – qualities that are not dissimilar to his approach to lyric writing.

“I do actually spend a lot of time trying to work out how I can continue to draw all the time,” he ponders. “If I go on tour or I go travelling, I have to work out how the drawing can fit in, because it’s something that centres me. I can draw when I’m listening to music and it’s a good way to think about stuff without directly thinking about it.”

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If I go on tour or I go travelling, I have to work out how the drawing can fit in…

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Blumberg’s enthusiasm for drawing came, in part, from songwriting. “I used to write lyrics a lot in these notebooks,” he explains, gesturing at the rows of black Moleskines on the shelf. “You can kind of see that I was writing stuff and then suddenly there’d be like a little scribble and then the scribbles just took over from the writing, really. I then slowly began to commit to drawing as a language much more than I had with words.”

Despite the fervour with which he is continually sketching, Blumberg cannot conceive that he would ever ditch music entirely to focus on art. “I was quite surprised when I started writing songs again,” he admits. “I’ve realised it’s something I lean towards naturally. I’ve been writing songs now for thirteen years in whatever form, so it is definitely part of me as a person. I have completely removed myself from music at certain times. I studied drawing for a year and a half, full time. I’d do ten hour life classes, and then come home and just want to play loud, angry guitar. It’s quite instilled in me, and I think it would be quite difficult to stop doing it now.”

Toward the end of our interview, Blumberg retrieves a ruler from somewhere on the table. He proceeds to draw a series of straight lines at an acute angle on a new piece of the special paper he uses when drawing in silver. Slightly to one side of the straight lines he sketches what might be a person, or a tree, or nothing in particular.

He talks about how much he loves using rulers in his drawing; he explains how using definitive straight lines seems to emphasise the curvature of the freehand work, while the freehand work seems to emphasise the boldness of the straight lines. Once again, like his earlier explanation about the winemaker who uprooted everything he had ever grown to follow a new path, Blumberg is talking allegorically.

This interplay between the straight lines and the curved is mirrored in his songwriting, the straight lines being composition and the freehand being the appeal of pure improvisation; they represent the two fully interconnected sides of the prodigious, restless, extraordinarily focussed talent that is Daniel Blumberg.

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Watch Daniel Blumberg's new video below…

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'Minus' is out now on Mute.

Words: Mat Smith

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