I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Björk Volta concert in Tokyo, on both nights to met up with and interview Damian Taylor, the musical director and band member, watch the show, take photos and find out more about the tour and instruments. Unfortunately Björk couldn’t do an interview herself, as she needed to save her voice between shows, but still got to meet her and the band and hang out and even went karaoke with them all- of course Björk didn’t sing, and had to instead endure the likes of my terrible drunken efforts of some song I didn’t know! What a great time I had and more importantly what fantastic gigs.
Damian really looked after me during my visit and showed me the ins and outs of their touring life and is such a wonderful global gentleman, who grew up in Canada, New Zealand and England, and has spent the last decade working along side some of the biggest names in Music. Mixing up, engineering, producing and writing with The Prodigy, DJ Shadow and Talvin Singh just to name a few, and is now a major mixing force behind Björk’s latest album and tour, Volta.I sat and watched the sound check and saw Björk listening to the Sumo Halls acoustics and deciding which of the bands 42-song repertoire to play that night. Each gig is different and keeps all the band members fresh and on their toes. Damian chatted with Björk by walkie-talkie and gave instructions to the other band members. He has quite a commanding yet super friendly presence at 8 feet tall.
After the sound check Damian showed me around the stage before the gig and I got to have a look at and try the Reactable, a Spanish touch sensitive, illuminated interactive tabletop instrument, that reads the block-like objects placed on it and senses movement and translates that into sound along with an impressive light show. All the waveforms are displayed and the players can literally ‘see the music’, and how each block is interacting with the next and so on. There are limitless possibilities with that machine. We even had a look inside at the workings and Damian shared some of the troubles they have had being the first to take it on a world tour, all of which are ironed out now of course. What an amazingly interactive and futuristically dynamic instrument.
The Japanese artist, designer and creator of the Tenorion, Toshio Iwai was there on the next night and I got to ask him about his invention, another incredibly advanced next generation musical instrument, which take the user-computer interface to the next level.
We got the call for the doors opening and so quickly went backstage to relax for a while before the event and picked up our seat tickets. We noticed that there was a 200Yen donation to Unicef on each ticket sale, which was a nice touch! 15 minutes before the show began I took my position in the press pit and prepared to take some photos. The hall quickly filled up to its brim very efficiently and the lights dimmed and it all began. The Icelandic all girls brass band, marched on playing, all wirelessly miced up, and dressed like pagan jesters from a medieval jousting festival. Then with a huge cheer from the extremely well behaved and orderly crowd, Björk made her entrance in her Bernard Willhelm designed rainbow dress. Brilliant.
*For the first three songs I was snapping away and kind of missed the music! So then I made my way to my lucky prime central seat.I was in heaven, the extreme marriage of analogue and digital. Icelandic Chinese harpsichord player Jónas Sen tinkling away with the girls brass on one side verses LFO Mark Bell’s beats and bass and Chris Corsano live percussion on the other and all mixed together by Damian from his star trek like control deck in the centre, adding his touch of electro wizardry and skipping round to the Reactable from time to time, which was beamed live to big screens for all to enjoy. It gelled so well. Her vision. What a great band and such a friendly and down to earth bunch.
I read stuff about this being about feminine power and shaman this and that, but none of that came across in a deliberate or cheesy new age way, but something powerful was certainly expressed and I was kind of magically entranced for the entire show. Maybe with the strange druid-like instruments and female blowers and flag bearers, and the strange eclectic harmony of different cultures and styles and musical traditions, I was entranced for the entire show! Maybe it really is modern day shamanistic healing that crosses boundaries, merges styles, peoples and cultures?A few times I could hear some awesome beats and bass coming through, but they never actually did come through until the grand finale encore and easily my favourite Björk track ever, the techno-y “Declare independence – (don’t let them do that to you)” came pumping out! The very well behaved crowd finally let loose with hands in the air and random cheering! I was so happy.
After it finished, we made our way back stage and into the communal dressing room for drinks and party. Björk came in with a bottle of champagne and greeted friends and guests, and then plugged her ipod into the wedding party-sized system in the corner. And started to pump out hip-hop tunes and started to dance. I actually was pretty into what she was playing and started to kind of dance too, but felt a bit shy with just me and her at that end of the room. Then my half awkward half amazing opportunity moment was saved/ruined by some weird Icelandic tune that came on and a rush of about half of the girl brass band excitedly bouncing along to join in the fun and games. There was only half a dozen or so others mingling around drinking and chatting. I heard it mentioned by about 3 different band members that that was the quietest 10,000 people they had ever played to and one girl even said at times it was like playing to an empty hall, quite spooky!
Björk then had an idea for us all to go to karaoke, and so we bundled in a mini bus and headed off, what a crazy adventure. With a quick stop at their Roppongi hotel on the way, and passers-by mistaking another band member for Björk, whose name is also Björk! Very funny. Hanging out in the hotel lobby with Björk and some others, I never would have thought anyone was famous, maybe the remnance of face paint gave something away, but apart from that, we were just one merry bunch of foreigners out for fun and games. The energy of the girl brass band is amazing, and what fun it must be to tour with them.
Man Behind Björk – Interview with Damian Taylor
HESO: What’s your current position and role in the band?
Damian Taylor: My official title is Musical Director, and basically that means I am responsible for the band being able to play music, but in simple terms it means that I am the liaison between the crew, production, management, Björk and the band. Björk is incredibly involved in everything, she’s not like some artists who don’t turn up until the start of gigs, so it’s more like facilitating everything she needs but on a very practical level. One way of describing it is that I use a spreadsheet, so when we started rehearsals, I knew what songs we had to rehearse, who had parts and which ones had arrangements. On the sound check I have a walkie-talkie and I speak to the front house guy. So it’s also that I am a ridiculous geek, keeping track of details and that kind of thing. In a way I think that I was hired to be versatile and to glue everything together, whereas everyone else in the band was specifically hired for what they do as artists, if that makes sense. So I kind of had to figure out what else needed to be done once everyone was doing their thing. That’s how what I do ended up evolving, so to speak.
HESO: How did you get the position?
DT: I was doing Björk’s record with her and we were finishing it. She asked me if I wanted to come play live and I thought that would be nice change of scenery after ten years in the studio basically. So she invited me and I thought about it for not very long and said yes. So the irony is that this is actually my first tour. I played music in bands and stuff when I was younger, but this is the first time I’ve done any touring in an official capacity.
HESO: What’s it like to be on the Volta tour?
DT: I think as far as tours go this one is a very kind of family-oriented tour. There are about thirty of us on the road and it’s actually been very civilised, and I mean that in a nice way. It’s much more like having a huge crew of your friends with you as opposed to all these motley crew kind of stories you hear about four guys going and taking far too many drugs and getting into all kinds of trouble. We’re much more into hanging out together, and its pretty low key. But also we do a month on the road and then a month off, so that keeps it pretty sane. If we do more than two or three gigs a week Björk loses her voice so the schedule is pretty relaxed as well. But that winds up being good because it means every time we play a gig it’s really exciting and fresh. We have got 42 songs, maybe 43 in the whole repertoire and Björk figures out the set list right before we play, so every concert is special and unique and I think that sets it apart from a lot of other tours that are going on at the moment.
HESO: I noticed on Björk’s website that some of the album was recorded at ‘Damian’s place’?
DT: Yeas! (Chuckle)
HESO: Which bit? Can you tell us a bit about that?DT: Basically a lot of the record or a lot of even Björk’s writing process was done when she was sitting, editing at her computer, so the bit at my place was using my Pro-Tools rig in-between doing some mixing in London. She would come over for an afternoon and sort through some parts or if she had been sent some stuff over from anyone then she’d sift through it there and if she needed some help then I’d help her out. All that, maybe five or six days (a week), just in the afternoon, she would pop over and hangout and work on a few bits.
But that’s the same as a lot of places, like all the hotels and cabins and all these places where we’ve just set up anywhere, even on a boat as well.
HESO: So you were shacked up in cabin in Iceland for a while as well?
DT: Yeah, we did three weeks out by a lake in a national park called Thingvaleer, as Björk’s got a cabin out there. It’s kind of an Icelandic tradition that you have a summer home somewhere to go and hang out in for a month or so. A friend of hers said that her family had one that we might be able to rent and it wound up being literally next door to Björk’s. So we had all the Pro-Tools stuff and me in one cabin and her and her family in the other one. That was kind of amazing because we only had electricity up there, and in my cabin there was no shower and it only had an outside toilet. Luckily Björk’s had a shower, so I would pop over there in the mornings for a wash. (Laughing).
It was an amazingly quiet and quite a trippy place and I think we did quite a bit up there. It’s funny, actually just looking back at the amount of the world that I’ve seen working with her on her record is one thing, and now touring is yet another.
HESO: Do the album and the Volta tour have a deliberate message or theme?
DT: That I think that is probably more of a question for Björk than myself, but I think in terms of my conversations with her, Volta was a record that she made with the tour in mind and she was deliberately having a bit of an adventure with it; with making the record and also with the touring. There’s all kinds of themes and more specific emotional things, but I think overall she has said that it’s an extroverted record, so its more about making a lot of noise and going out and being very spontaneous. I wouldn’t feel right commenting on her individual intentions on each track, but I have read somewhere where she said that the album was almost like a dry run, like a dress rehearsal for the tour and I think that is actually very accurate. The album was a lot of experimenting and messing around, and now that we are actually playing it live I think those songs have come alive. I think they work far better live than on the record for me. The fact that there are all these neon colours and big bass drums and stuff on this record and on the tour, sums it up more on an energetic level as opposed to a specific interpretive level.
HESO: At your concerts, that there seems to be a lot of ultra modern digital instruments like the Reactable and the Lemur mixed with more traditional harpsichords and a brass band. How did that come about?
DT: Björk definitely likes to use unusual instruments, so I think that’s where getting the harpsichords and clavichords and stuff that are on the album come in, but they are also instruments of a strong pedigree. Björk also likes marrying technological innovation and innovators with virtuosi musicians, so that’s Jonas now, our virtuoso keyboard player. If you look at different incarnations of Björk’s bands, she’s tended to have someone who’s served that func
tion. People who were all top line classical players, like Guy Sigsworth who was in her band ages ago and is kind of similar to Jonas in that he is a virtuoso keyboard player as well.
In terms of the technological stuff, she just seems to get a kick out of it, (laughing) you know, whatever’s new and fresh, but the Reactable and the Lemur, those were actually things that we saw on Youtube when we were mixing the record at the end of 2005. So especially with the Reactable, after seeing it, Björk said that would be fun to take on tour. Because she understands and I understand and a lot of the techno people understand that when you see a guy standing there hunched over a bunch of equipment, they are doing something. But from a normal audience’s point of view they might not necessarily connect that person with the sounds that are coming out of the speakers. With the Lemurs and Reactables on this tour she wants people to understand that we are actually doing something.
HESO: How do you see these electronic instruments and interfaces developing in the future?
DT: I think that the way the Lemur and the Reactable is going is brilliant because they allow for a greater degree of spontaneity. The Reactable is its own instrument with so many different permutations, whereas the Lemur is a cross between a technical tool and a performance tool, as it is set up to use open source code, which means that you can make the Lemur do anything. So just to take a quick tangent, the Reactable is an instrument itself that makes a sound- it’s got an interface and a sound generator as part and parcel- but the Lemur is just, and I mean that I the best possible way, a controller. That means that it can talk to anything, so it’s fully conceivable that on one of the Lemur’s screens I could have it speaking to Ableton Live on my laptop, I could also make it run onto a bank of lights, into three other synthesizers and I could make each of those things serve a different function with a different piece of equipment. So far we have probably used about 2% of its capabilities, so I have got a lot of hopes for that company and what they are doing there.
The Reactable is really the show stopper because its such a crazy fresh thing, but the reality is that we have trucks and a huge case that it goes in and it’s very difficult to set up. Whereas the Lemur is something that anyone can actually buy now on the street, throw in their backpack and start using. So I think that the Lemur will have a grass roots impact that’s huge and it will be interesting to see where the Reactable goes in terms of if it can get into other peoples’ hands.
But for me personally, just on the big picture of where things are going, I have been pondering this a bit recently. What’s really exciting me at the moment are molecules vibrating in the air. So I am keen on trying to figure out how you can go further into marrying sound synthesis with acoustics, which sounds trippy, but more like could you create computers that are actually physically linked up to physical oscillators, like you would have in a pipe organ or something like that? And are there ways that you could manual manipulate the things that the sound travels down? That ties up a lot with me being an audio engineer and I’ve spent a lot of time working with computers and increasingly more and more I want to use microphones on stuff. I like the precision and the power that you have with electronic stuff but I like the subtlety and the nuances that you get with acoustic things.
About the Author
- Daniel Griffin is a photographer who spends much of his time in Tibet.