As one of the most intriguing contemporary composers, Toronto-born and Berlin-based Aidan Baker’s path could be summed up as perpetually challenging; whether releasing under his own name, or under the moniker Nadja (which started as a solo project and later evolved into a duo with bassist Leah Buckareff), each record can be treasured not just for its own value but as part of a bigger quest for sound sculpting and, ultimately, for approaching the very idea of music. A quest which can get strangely playful as well, as with Nadja’s 2009 cover album experiment, “When I See The Sun Always Shines On Tv” (End Records), which submitted and tamed to a doomy treatment songs as diverse as A-ha’s The Sun Always Shines On Tv and My Bloody Valentine’s Only Shallow; the record also marked a fruitful collaboration with illustrator Matt Smith who conveyed a sense of exploration and mystery to its visual side. The pair return to work together on Aidan’s latest project, “The Spectrum Of Distraction” (Robotic Empire), a two hour and 96 tracks journey, originally intended as an experiment in xenochromy (a random juxtaposition of independently recorded tracks), which evolved in a study on randomness within the album and the songs themselves. With a choice between casually shuffling through the record or building an intentional musical narrative, Matt was called to create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” booklet. The result, for the audience as well as for its creators, is incredibly freeing and empowering.
We got Aidan and Matt to discuss the project together.
Chapter 1: Manners first. Allow me to introduce myself
Aidan Baker: I grew up in the country outside of Toronto, Canada in a musical family and was somewhat compelled to take up an instrument. I began with piano at age 5 and shortly thereafter took up classical flute which I studied for many years. As a teenager, I started playing jazz saxophone in school and teaching myself to play guitar at home. I started my first rock band at the age of 14…it was pretty bad new-wave (or maybe no-wave) and over the years morphed through various shades of punk rock and/or grunge (think Devo to Jane’s Addiction to Black Flag) until we all graduated and the band split up and separately went off to university. I studied English Literature in Montreal and, while I still played music, I focused my attention more on literature and creative writing. I dived into the post-modernist writings of authors like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borge, Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem and explored industrial and experimental rock like Throbbing Gristle, Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, and The Birthday Party.
After university, I moved briefly to New York City and got heavily into artists like Swans, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, and Rhys Chatham whose influence spurred me to create more experimental, ambient, drone-based guitar music. Upon returning to my native Toronto I began performing this style of music live, both solo and with the trio ARC, and recording and releasing music in the burgeoning undergound cdr label scene. Lacking an outlet for my interests in heavier music, I began Nadja as a studio project in 2003 and after releasing a few demos, my partner Leah joined in 2005 in order to bring the project into the live arena and we signed with Montreal’s Alien8 Recordings. Our first two shows were opening for Khanate in Montreal and Toronto and we have since released numerous albums and toured around the world.
Matt Smith: I grew up north of Boston, Massachusetts. I recall constantly drawing. Early influences came from the usual sources, monster/space movies and comic books. I think most every illustrator I admire mentions being thankful for parents who allowed them to draw robots and monsters endlessly and I feel lucky to have had the same deal. As far as going beyond the usual youthful drawing phase, I have to give a lot of credit to my highschool art teacher, Mrs. Paradis. She instilled the confidence to take it more seriously. Unless you are some kind of prodigy, or maybe just confident as a kid, it’s easy to stop drawing early on. Having someone, whose opinion you value, say “hey, you could do this thing” can carry a significant amount of force. So be careful, highschool art teachers, you might unintentionally be sending some waffling kids down a long road of financial hardship. Ha. After that, art school, then a looooong string of unrelated day jobs, late nights working against deadlines (with good albums), a hideous amount of coffee and now currently a full time illustrator.
Chapter 2: You wanna hang out?
Aidan Baker: Matt and I first ‘met’ online on an internet forum dedicated to Godflesh and Justin Broadrick projects — I think we first met in person was in 2008 at a Nadja show, along with Bloody Panda and Tombs, in New York City. At some point, Matt started designing avatars for the users of the Godflesh board and I asked him if he would do one for Nadja, which he gladly did (see here). When we started working on our covers album “When I See The Sun Always Shines On TV” we thought Matt’s cheeky, cartoonish, but still dark style would perfectly compliment the album. Initially, we talked about having the album artwork be presented as something of a graphic novel but this changed to more of a children’s book illustration style with a panel image dedicated to each song that we covered.
Matt Smith: It was the Grails/Nadja show where we met the first time. I remember it well, as after enjoying your set, I headed back home–not having any idea who Grails were. Of course the next day I listened to them and cursed myself for being a man who likes an early bedtime.
I came to Nadja’s music on the Avalanchers message board. I’m not sure I was even quite aware what kind of music it would be when I ordered “Guilted by the Sun”, the latest Nadja release at that time. My thought then being that there was (and very much still is) a great wealth of talent on that board and I should start sampling some of it. “Guilted” completely sold me on Nadja. It has the weight and space that I liked so much from Godflesh, but while being something totally of its own. From then on I tried to stay on top of whatever these guys were doing.
Coming from the children’s illustration field, my opportunities to combine the music I enjoy listening to with the style I enjoying working in are fairly rare. I find parallels in my favorite children’s books / graphic novels and heavier, experimental music releases–both get my imagination in gear and tap into some kind of sense of… exploration? I’m not sure if that’s the right word or if I’m making sense here. Let’s just say I’ve often had Nadja on while drawing. Having drawn the avatar as Aidan mentioned, I was emboldened to ask if he’d consider using my artwork for a Nadja release at some point. I was happily surprised to find he was open to the idea. I had done a handful of comic strips for the message board of fictitious adventures of Justin Broadrick from Godflesh that parodied the style of Herge (see here). This might have been the direction Aidan and I had initially talked about for the Nadja covers album–but without dialog, sort of a surreal sequence of panels. Somehow it changed over into the children’s book thing. Exploration is the right word for the approach on that cd booklet. The idea is that Aidan and Leah are searching for the songs, guided by a caged raven.
I’ve found there’s generally a handful of looks to heavy drone type of releases that isn’t deviated from too often. Maybe that’s an unfair generalization–but I’ve seen a lot of grim muted photography and sparse design. Granted, this is a good look for the style of music. There’s not a lot of illustration to be found there (as opposed to music that is more definitively “metal”) and certainly not much that has a cartoonish look about it. I wasn’t sure it would be well received, but a cover album is already a separate thing from other releases and so it seemed like the place to try it out. I’m still not sure it was well received, but I definitely enjoyed working on it. It didn’t hurt that I was able to hear the covers early while I was working on the drawings.
Chapter 3: Hey, I like you!
Aidan Baker: When I started working on my solo album “The Spectrum Of Distraction,” I thought it had a similarly cheeky/dark attitude behind its concept and asked Matt if he would do artwork for this album as well. Because the album is designed to be played on shuffle, I thought it would be amusing to base the song-titles and artwork around the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series of which, as it happens, Matt is also a fan, both graphically and literarily (if one can consider those Choose Your Own Adventure books literary…).
Matt Smith: There was a direct link from the covers album to Aidan’s Spectrum album. At one point Aidan mentioned having considered covering the Pixies but they didn’t made the final list. Next to Godflesh, the Pixies are one of my personal favorites. So I began to scheme on how to get this Pixies cover recorded and released. I had thought about trying to put it out as a 7″, which Aidan and Leah didn’t seem completely opposed to, but I lost the momentum on getting that together. So when Aidan approached me for the Spectrum art I saw my chance and named the Pixies cover as my fee. Now I’m not sure if he already had it recorded at this point or if my request put it in motion, but the end result was that I got my Pixies cover and couldn’t have been more pleased. There were a number of other covers on the cdr, including one of my very favorite songs of any band–”Don’t Bring Me Flowers” by Godflesh. I would actually still like to put out that imaginary 7″ with the Pixies track and the Godflesh track someday, as it would clearly be the best 7″ ever pressed, but who knows…
The Spectrum of Distraction is now available on the Broken Spine Productions webstore
North Americans can order it direct from Robotic Empire