Published on October 29th, 2016 | by The Beige Baron0
A Four-Album Guide to Nadja
The best and the worst thing about discovering an interesting band is finding out they’ve released 100 records. On one hand, it’s great to have so much music to explore, but on the other, you don’t want to get turned off by the “wrong” record and potentially miss out on some great ones.
Critical opinion about “essential” albums can also be misleading, in that while certain albums might be considered “classic” because of their influence or importance within a broader context, they can often cast a shadow over objectively “better” records within an artist’s discography.
Nadja evoke different things in different people…
Of course, it’s always a more meaningful experience picking out a record on your own and feeling that rush of excitement, that sense of discovery and ownership, but it’s also great to have someone point you in the right direction before diving into a vast catalog.
It was with this idea of assuming the perspective of a curious listener that we approached Aiden Baker of Nadja to ask if he’d pick out and discuss four albums from the 58 he and partner Leah Buckareff have released over the last 15-odd years. (That’s 58 full-length records, not counting dozens more EPs, singles, compilations, and appearances.)
By nature of its compositions — long-form pieces that need to be experienced from beginning to end — Nadja isn’t a band that gives up its gifts cheaply or easily. Yet the payoff is almost always worth it.
That’s part of why Nadja is so good, and why the band has stayed relevant for so long in a sea of “heavy” two-piece bands: they evoke different things in different people. Elements that first appeal can often dissolve as new and exciting layers emerge in the waves of noise, like paint stripping off a canvas to reveal an image even more beautiful than the first.
With two new records already released this year — a CD digipack called Sv for Brazil’s Essence Music, and the digital-only live set 2010-04-03 Diksmuide, the band is gearing up for the 180-gram vinyl release of The Stone Is Not Hit By the Sun, Nor Carved By a Knife for Birmingham independent label Gizek Records on November 4, now’s the perfect time to see how they fit into the wider Nadja story.
Touched has an interesting history in that it was originally released in 2003 as your first solo work under the name Nadja on a proper label. But you’d actually been experimenting and recording music on CD-R yourself for some time prior to that? Can you explain how the original concept, the distinctive sound of Nadja, first gelled?
I started making music of a more ambient and experimental nature, based on prepared-guitar techniques and electronic processing, in the late ’90s, and started releasing it under my own name in the early 2000s.
This was largely minimalist ambient music, but I also listened to heavier, noisier music
This was largely minimalist ambient music, but I also listened to heavier, noisier music—like Swans or Godflesh and noise artists like Merzbow, for example.
I wanted to explore my interest in that style as well, so essentially took the approach and technique of what I was already doing under my own name and adapted it to maximalism, combining the ambient, experimental textures with noise and heavy industrial rhythms.
As such, the concept of Nadja was more or less fully formed, but putting it into practice of course was an evolutionary process.
And of course, when Leah joined in 2005 and we took the project out of the studio and started playing live, it changed again, and more definitively assumed what we consider the project’s signature sound.
Japanese musicians like Merzbow, Aube, and Masonna, were influential…
This is also your first work to be distributed on the Japanese label Deserted Factory Records. That infant label was just gathering steam around that time, and grew to release some really essential music. What made you decide to go with a Japanese label?
I don’t remember how or when I first heard of or got in contact with Deserted Factory… but certainly Japanese musicians, like Merzbow and other artists like Aube or Masonna, were influential to what I wanted to do with Nadja, so the opportunity to release something in Japan was certainly appealing.
Fast-forward to 2007 and you re-released a whole bunch of records on Alien8. Touched is unusual, if this is correct, in that it’s only one of two older records you re-recorded with Leah. Why did you decide to re-record it?
We re-recorded (or at least re-worked) several albums, actually: Touched, Skin Turns To Glass, Corrasion, The Bungled & The Botched, and Bliss Torn From Emptiness, as well as the individual track I Have Tasted The Fire Inside Your Mouth.
The re-recorded versions are truer to the sound and aesthetic we wanted to express
We did so for mainly for two reasons; firstly, I originally recorded these albums just by myself and we wanted to re-record them with both of us contributing to properly represent the project as a duo; and secondly, the original recordings were all recorded on a cassette 4-track and were rather lo-fi, so we wanted to re-record the songs with better equipment, give them higher production values, and make them more listenable.
We essentially think of the original releases of these albums as demo versions, and while I know some people think they have a certain “charm”, or lo-fi sonic appeal, the re-recorded versions are truer to the sound and aesthetic we wanted to express.
In the period between 2003 and 2007, when you were establishing a sound, your audience must have been a lot smaller. Did you ever have any doubts about the direction you were taking musically? Did you always have confidence that Nadja would be appreciated beyond your immediate circle, and at what point did you think, “Finally, people are starting to get what we’re doing here?”
I would still make music just for myself, even if no one listened
I never had any doubts about my musical direction. Of course, it is rewarding if other people listen to and appreciate the music I make, but that was never my primary motivation… I would still make music just for myself, even if no one listened. I think when we first signed to Montreal’s Alien8 Recordings in 2005, and we finally felt we were getting some recognition and encouragement for the project.
And certainly, working with Alien8 did a lot to boost our profile and take us out of the underground, allowing us to record more and take on bigger tours and perform further afield.
Touched is pretty amazing musically and sonically. In some respects, the programmed drums give it an industrial feel, similar to Godflesh. Has Justin Broadrick’s work in Godflesh or Jesu been an influence, or did your ideas sort of develop in parallel? I am also reminded of pioneers like Terry Riley in that, on some of the songs, like Mutagen, there seems to be a looping effect that occasionally slips out of phase…. What musicians or styles exerted an influence on that album?
I already mentioned Godflesh, so yes, they were certainly an influence on me. Jesu was a bit more of a parallel influence—Heart Ache came out after I had already started recording as Nadja, but I liked that album a lot when I first heard it (it’s still my favorite Jesu release), and I heard in it a certain similar approach to what I was trying to do.
I also took inspiration from bands like Boris, Khanate, and Sunn 0))), who were exploring similar sonic territories around the same time. I did specifically want that mechanical, industrial sound of the drum machine to be part of our sonic aesthetic, which influence might have come as much from Big Black as Godflesh…
Loop-based music and minimalistic repetition were a big influence on my solo work—artists like Riley, Steve Reich, Arvo Part—so certainly that influence can be inferred in Nadja’s music. Though I think with Touched, the electronic influence came less from minimalist composers than industrial or experimental pioneers like Throbbing Gristle or Nurse With Wound.
On songs like Stays Demons, it’s easy to see where the “shoegaze” association came from: you seem to have a knack for using melodic structures to give the music a strong emotional pull and a cinematic quality. You don’t seem to be particularly concerned how people describe your music, but have you ever found that an association with a genre has been an asset or a liability?
“Our nebulousness opens people up to other genres … which is an asset.”
Even if we usually get relegated to metal, our sound is nebulous enough that people tend to hear what they want to hear in it and bring their own labels to it, depending on what scene they came from. Which I think is good—music is subjective and one shouldn’t be constrained by genre or labels.
Conceivably our nebulousness opens people up to other genres, such that if one comes to us through metal, we might lead them to ambient music, and vice versa, which is certainly an asset, I think.
How was Touched received initially? Did that initial reaction change upon re-release? Any thoughts on what reviewers might have missed on this work since almost a decade has elapsed?
I don’t really remember the initial reaction, specifically, but I guess it was positive enough to encourage me to continue with the project. The Deserted Factory version of Touched was only a release of 100 copies, so probably not that many people were able to compare it to the re-recorded version.
I’m sure it is easy enough to find as a download now, but it sounds pretty bad to my ears now, and I would much rather people listen to the re-recorded version.
Radiance of Shadows
This album was also released in 2007 on Alien8. Again, it seems a conceptual album, with the cover image reflecting the intense cold of the sound. Would it be accurate to describe Radiance of Shadows as one of your more experimental works in terms of the scope and composition of each song? It seems to be music in search of a narrative, visual or spoken… what was in your mind when composing? The second track in particular made me think of Nurse With Wound or maybe Oren Ambarchi, and those artists’ ability to build an intensity of feeling with very minimal structures. Was that idea present in this work?
We wanted to make an extreme album, one that embraced contradictory elements like lightness and darkness…
Radiance… is something of a concept album with an overlying narrative conceit about nuclear weaponry and post-nuclear holocaust, as influenced by a few books we were reading at the time. The opening track title is a reference to Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita after the Trinity test (the first detonation of a nuclear weapon).
We accordingly wanted to make an extreme album, one that embraced contradictory elements like lightness and darkness, hot and cold, quiet and loud. We attempted to express this not only sonically, but also by extending the tracks to fill the entire capacity of the CD.
This is meant to be an overwhelming album, and duration is part of that.
Were there any differences in approach between this album and Touched? Sonically, it’s incredibly clear and spacious and suggests you found ways to pack more into the audio picture without sacrificing that sense of spaciousness.
Certainly we were more familiar with our gear and recording equipment by this point. That would really be the only difference in approach, as we were not using any new gear or techniques, in particular, for the recording of this album.
Plotkin’s ambient guitar work was also a big influence on my guitar playing…
Was this the first time you worked with [guitarist in Khanate/OLD, music producer] James Plotkin? How was that connection made? What was it that clicked with you guys that kept you working together for so long afterwards
Plotkin also mastered the re-recorded version of Touched—that was the first album he worked on for us. I have been a fan of his music since his OLD project on Earache Records back in the ’90s.
His ambient guitar work was also a big influence on my guitar playing—his collaboration with Mark Spybey A Peripheral Blur is one of my favorite records.
We first met in 2005 after signing to Alien8 and opened for Khanate in Montreal and Toronto. We have since shared a stage several times with various projects, and he has mastered a lot of Nadja and my solo albums.
This could be my imagination, but there seems to be a reference to early Norwegian black metal in this work. The guitar tone is teeth-buzzingly abrasive and gritty; the texture sounds like those first Burzum records. That lo-fi element contrasts with other crystalline elements in the mix. Also, the sense of isolation reflected in the cover art, the iconography of frozen northern forests…
Actually I have never been especially fond of black metal. I do appreciate the washiness of the black metal sound, but I really dislike the absence of bass and low frequency in most black metal releases.
The contrast of low- and high-fidelity sounds is another dichotomous aspect…
The sense of isolation and the photography has more to do with our theme of nuclear winter than black metal… and the contrast of low- and high-fidelity sounds is another dichotomous aspect of this album, though I think that tends to be usual element of our sound, and not exclusive to Radiance.
It has proven to be a popular release, it’s been re-pressed and re-issued a few times, most recently on your own label. Why do you think it’s kept its appeal so strongly with fans of your work for so long?
Maybe the extremity of it… the fact that it challenges and makes the listener work to appreciate it, such that listening process becomes something of an achievement.
Another from 2007, but this time on aRCHIVE—was that connection made through James? I see his band Khanate was released on that label, and there’s a lot of Japanese bands as well, from BORIS and Up-Tight to Keiji Haino, LSD March… not to mention SunnO))) and Bardo Pond from the USA. What was the story behind issuing the record with Scott Slimm?
I’m not sure if we first met Slimm through James—quite possibly. I’m pretty sure we first met at a show in either New York or Philadelphia, which might well have included James on the bill.
We certainly appreciated a lot of the aRCHIVE releases, both the more “metal” albums and the more abstract, experimental/noise releases. I don’t know that it necessarily changed anything in our methodology or approach, but we were pleased to be included in the company of a lot of aRCHIVE’s bands.
And I’m sure being released on the label opened us up to a wider, more receptive audience, even if the label was quite underground.
This album seems warmer, slower, almost earthier in ambience (compared to Radiance of Shadows), and it unfolds over one long track, yet it’s also one of the most colossally heavy works you’ve done in terms of density. Or at least, there are movements within the whole that are…
A big inspiration behind the recording of Thaumogenesis was Corrupted’s El Mundo Frio, which is also an extended, one-track album that moves between heavy and quiet parts or movements, and has something of a more “symphonic” approach to the composition.
There are two main motifs, structurally speaking, to the piece…
How much can you “edit” something like this, a single piece? In terms of the way you work after tracking is done, how free are you to add or subtract elements, and how do you know when to stop “adding”? For something as long as this piece, do you have an idea of structure or movements/structure before you begin composing or does it unfold that way when you start playing?
We had a rough structure in mind, yes. There are two main motifs, structurally speaking, to the piece, the skeletons of which we recorded first and then overlaid atmospheres and textures to join them up into a single piece.
This is how we compose/record most of our albums, actually, laying down a minimal backbone of drum machine and guitar-and-bass riffs and then adding largely improvised textures over the top. Thaumogenesis is perhaps a bit different from other albums of ours in that the focus of the album is more on those textures than that backbone of the song… less focused on the riff and more on the atmosphere.
I think the nature of the composition itself allowed Leah more space to experiment…
I don’t know that I can articulate how we know when we are complete… it is an intuitive process that ranges variously from several successive, minutely arranged, or arranged and processed takes, to just one entirely spontaneous take that simply works.
There’s less percussion, and the bass is really becoming a more dominant force—maybe the tone from that is giving the sense of earthiness. Did Leah have more of a role in the production here?
I think the nature of the composition itself—with the focus on atmosphere rather than riff, as I mentioned—allowed Leah more space to experiment with ambient textures on the bass, rather than limiting herself to a simple repeating bassline.
The album also came out later on Important Records, and has since been re-issued on your own label. It must have been hard to promote the re-release as one long song, though, right? Did you feel like you were at a point where fans were willing to buy a CD or LP of yours without hearing a sample first? Do you think the ability to dip in anywhere via the Internet, has the effect of netting a wider audience, or do you think it’s detrimental to sales?
We never have and probably never will be a “singles” band, so I don’t think a one-track album was much of an issue for us, particularly in the “ambient doom” genre where long tracks and albums were something of a given.
And people were getting to know us and were willing to buy whatever we might release—especially something on a cult-ish label like aRCHIVE, which already had a lot of collectors following their activities.
We would not be as successful today as we are without downloading and online sharing of our music.
All that said, I think that we would not be as successful today as we are without downloading and online sharing of our music.
We have never worked with a record label that could afford tour support or big budget promotional campaigns, so really the Internet has helped make our reputation. Even if we don’t necessarily see any money from so-called “piracy”… though, arguably, this can encourage the purchase of physical media, at least amongst collectors… we certainly would not have been able to tour in places like Russia or South America as a DIY underground band.
I could tell by the cover art this one would be different even before listening! I was reminded of Earth’s The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull, how that organic natural artwork reflected that band’s reflective folk interpretation of drone. Similarly, this seems to be one of your most accessible in terms of more “song-like” structures and melodies, such as the opening track Dark Circles. It’s still unmistakably Nadja, but the tones and colors have changed. The buzz and fuzz, like a haze, is there, almost like Flying Saucer Attack, but there is a delicacy and fragility in the music… there’s a sense of renewal in the sound.
We specifically recorded Queller for Essence Music to release in conjunction with our Brazilian tour… and we had been working on another album entirely for quite some time, and it was just not going anywhere or turning out satisfactorily.
We wrote and recorded Queller in the space of a weekend
We ended up scrapping that album entirely and wrote and recorded Queller in the space of a weekend, so there was an actual sense of freshness and spontaneity and immediacy in the process of making the album that presumably is reflected in the music.
And while it has something of a different quality to the sound and is a bit more “catchy”—I somewhat facetious refer to it as our “new wave” album—structurally, Queller is pretty similar to Touched and, in my mind at least, should be considered something of a companion album.
Why did you move back to Essence music for this release?
After Essence released Autopergamene in 2010, they expressed interest in releasing a second album with us. Which, as I mentioned, we had been working on, if unsuccessfully, but with the hope of releasing it in conjunction with our 2013 South American tour.
In the end that tour release ended up being Queller—although we went on to release another, less-limited album with Essence this year called Sv, which has been described as “apocalyptic dance music”.
One of the main reasons we appreciate working with Essence is for their design aesthetic
We wrote that album for a pair of festivals we played one summer in Berlin, one an experimental/noise festival with a post-apocalyptic theme, the other an outdoor rave festival.
One of the main reasons we appreciate working with Essence is for their design aesthetic, in particular the special edition box-sets they do with most of their regular releases, and, in the case of Queller, the design and hand-screenprinted covers they did for the LP version.
This record bookends a period of very wide collaboration for the two of you, and by now you are established and doing music full-time. How would you say the experience of collaboration with musicians of other nationalities has affected your own approach? Can you describe how that has made you reassess how you listen or make music, for both you and Leah?
While we have always been willing to experiment and try new things, I think working with different musicians of different nationalities and places has made us more comfortable with the actuality of experimentation.
I consider it an album which looks backwards, to Touched
This idea of comfort applies equally to amount of travel we have done and the number of concerts we have played, how we approach artistic projects, how we live our lives. Which isn’t to say we are complacent or coasting, but rather we seek our challenges in other things, different places…
Of the many records you made between 2007 till now, what made you select this one to examine?
Largely because of its popularity, I suppose. Also that I consider it an album which looks backwards, to Touched, at least in part, while the majority of reviews have described it as forward-looking and sounding new and fresh…
You’ve managed the difficult task of maintaining a core “sound” while still evolving; I think maybe Queller is the most diverse so far. How do you view what you’ve achieved up to now, and what new directions can we expect from Nadja in the future?
We have a new album out in November 2016 with Gizeh Records called The Stone Is Not Hit By The Sun… which, to my mind, combines something of a more angular riff approach with a more shoegazery sound than some of our previous albums. It is a bit more-structured, like Queller, but also includes some freeform ambience/noise like Radiance of Shadows.
At the moment, we don’t have any other Nadja recording projects on the go, so it is difficult to say what we will do next.
I always think I/we can and should be doing more, whether that’s playing more, travelling more, recording more… all of the above. I don’t want to ever run out of ideas, or ever stop hearing songs waiting to be written in my head.
Limited Nadja discography is available at Nadja bandcamp and the band’s label, Broken Spine, in a variety of formats, as well as from good physical and online music retailers. Follow the band on Facebook for tour and release information.