The wordplay in the title is self-evident but what is not so apparent about Kody Nielson ’s new album, ‘Birthday Suite’, is that it is indeed a collection, a suite indeed, of musical tracks written to honour the individual birthdays of a bunch of friends and family members. Take a cha-cha-cha-chance, as The Beatles memorably advised. Sam Carswell talked with Nielson ahead of the album’s launch, which itself takes cues from the artist’s birthday calendar.
Ever have those moments where you feel surprised about something, but at the same time kind’a know you shouldn’t be?
One of those moments where you can put all of the pieces together in your head – where everything should make sense – but regardless, the reality of those few seconds existing in some physical, real way seems to just… floor you? I had one of those moments when first listening to Bic’s Birthday, the first track of Kody Nielson’s upcoming record, ‘Birthday Suite’. Then I had it again during the second track. And the third too.
You get where I’m going with this? This is a surprising album, even after I convince myself it shouldn’t be.
The cover of ‘Birthday Suite’ pretty much tells you all you need to know. Mechatronic Bach caught mid-breakbeat. ‘Switched On’ by Wendy Carlos and taught to determine copies of ‘Bitches Brew’. That does seem disparate put into words, but the sound of the record is anything but. It sounds perhaps more like formerly disparate pieces of Nielson’s sound coming together in a strange union of technology, baroque compositional devices and funk. A surprising combination, for sure but, when considered, not particularly out of place with his previous work.
There was a distinct baroque sense of harmony and melody coming through on records like the Mint Chicks’ Bad Buzz, or Kody and Bic Runga’s Darkness All Around Us. Filter that through the paranoid electro and funk of Nielson’s last project Silicon, or the instrumental format of his last solo release ‘Devils’, and it becomes easier to see ‘Birthday Suite’ as the next link in a chain.
In fact, you could arguably see it as a blip in a much larger history of interactions between electronic music, ‘classical’ music and jazz/funk – one that includes records spanning Carlos’ ‘Switched On Bach’, to Miles Davis’ work with Gil Evans and Teo Macero, to Sun Ra. The point is this isn’t the first time such reference points have been combined in a historical sense, or within the history and context of the artist.
So why is ‘Birthday Suite’ so confounding? Much of it, I’ve decided, comes down to execution. It doesn’t really sound like anything else, but it still feels coherent and fully realised.
“I was getting a bit inspired by something about Wendy Carlos’ soundtracks and I wanted to make a sound that was original,” Nielson explains about the album’s inception. “Something I’d never heard before, but I wanted it to be familiar… but also not derivative.”
There are definitely echoes of Carlos, with weighty synth timbres and Bachian counterpoint. But Nielson’s distinctive drumming style underlines each track with jagged grooves that completely re-contextualise the melodies, bringing a displaced edge to them. Bic’s Birthday is a great example. Perhaps part of the reason these seemingly contrasting ideas could gel together so well is due to the composition process. The album came together over what he describes as a fairly solitary, year-long process.
“I was just making music pretty much every day last year… I was making those tunes in a similar style, I suppose, or working in a similar way with all those pieces, because I was trying to write a piece and then record it, and just multitrack all the parts. Almost influenced by the arrangements of classical music, but I wanted to change it up a little bit and make it a little bit more like electronic music, I guess. But not programmed or looped or anything… So every time I was working on stuff I had a few of those ideas in mind, to keep it cohesive.”
Working almost entirely out of his home studio (surprisingly with not much more than a Korg Arp Odyssey, a couple of Roland Boutiques, mics and a drum kit), Nielson wrote, arranged, played, recorded and mixed every part on the record. The only external input came in the final stages with mastering by Brian ‘Big Bass’ Gardner, the cover photo taken by Bic Runga, and a series of videos, collected into a short film, directed by Sam Kristofski.
Cohesiveness doesn’t just come as a by-product of working alone, though. There’s a process behind the pieces that allows room for them to breathe without sacrificing the through-composed nature of the work.
“I was basically writing pieces on piano and coming up with structures, I guess, and the melody and the harmony – all the different parts – and then putting the arrangements together after that. Then I’d kind’a start recording them, starting with whatever part I felt was the strongest and then just, like, layering them. I would end up doing drums at the end, ‘cos they were mainly based around the ‘piece’, I guess.”
Repeating this process, Nielson began to find a large volume of work building up.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do with [the songs]. It wasn’t intended to be an album or anything, it was just the work that I had been doing, y’know? By the time I had enough songs, it just seemed like they were kind of in a row. And the way that I’d been making them was kind of flowing in order, just because of [the process], I guess. And then I thought, ‘Oh yeah, cool, I could actually make it into an album.’ I only thought that at the end.”
Working nearly every day means time starts to become subdivided through the work – say, for example, a year.
“I wrote some pieces for [close friends and family] on their birthdays last year and then I thought that I’d put them together and release them as the album, this year, on their birthdays… I was just making music every day and ended up working on these birthdays and stuff, as well. I’d meet up with my family and have the birthday, and then I would come and work on music again and sort of just start writing the piece and recording it… I was naming them working titles, like Bic’s Birthday, James’ Birthday – whoever’s track I was working on.”
Listening back on the year’s work something stood out about the birthday tracks.
“As they built up and I got a few more of them… it just seemed like the birthdays were the best vibe days of the year… like it was just a happy day working on that music. All the birthday songs had the working titles and I thought I’d change them – I thought I’d change the songs and give them proper titles. But then when it came together towards the end of the year, I thought that they were quite funny as a set because they sort of sound the same.”
The firmed-up idea for a birthday-themed record came last December, along with the idea to release each track on its namesake’s birthday, culminating in the full record being released on Nielson’s own birthday – May 9, 2018.
Compounded by the fact that at the time of approach many label personnel were on holiday, the quick turnaround end-of-cycle proved difficult for most of the record labels that he approached.
“The only label that was keen to do it and could do it in time was Flying Nun. They were the only label keen enough to make it actually happen in a couple of weeks.”
It’s not so difficult to understand why the concept would be a difficult sell. An instrumental record with a ‘creative’ release schedule, and an extremely short amount of time until the first release doesn’t exactly sound like the most sure-fire way to get big returns. But so much of that tough sell is imperative to the ‘point’ of the album – and to Nielson’s mentality about this music – that the ability to release it this way rounds out the theme of the record in a perfect cadence. That is to say, Nielson’s not particularly worried about whether or not ‘Birthday Suite’ could be a commercial hit.
“I didn’t want to have to make music that was aimed at anything or commercially ticking any boxes to get played on radio and stuff like that. I just wanted it to find its own way. And if it was going to have its small niche audience online, then so be it – that’s the way I saw this music would fit in.”
This idea seeps into his approach to the album in a very holistic way as well.
“That’s what the cover was supposed to look like – one of those old albums that I’d find at Real Groovy in the $10 bin ages ago, like back in the ’90s.”
Needless to say the music exudes this personality too. It sounds like it’s never concerned with how closely you’re following it. Halfway to what a lot of listeners would understand as ‘background music’, but too exciting for that when you focus on it, the instrumentals feel both personal and universal at the same time.
“I feel like it has quite a transporting quality to it that seems kind of open to go in any different mood”, he says of the classical music he loves, and similarly ‘Birthday Suite’ seems to take on multiple personalities, morphing to fit different moods.
“I want people to just hear it or for the music to sink in – even subconsciously, in the background. To not so much be focused on it, or ‘listening to it’. I just want it to affect, or for them to feel it somehow if they actually do end up hearing it in the background. I want it to be this kind of music where you don’t have to be hearing exactly the details. Like you don’t have to hear it really clearly and perfectly to feel any effect from it, ‘cos it’s melodic music – it’s not lyric driven, I guess.”
Working within this format provided different ways to look at music.
“Almost like Brian Eno’s attitude towards painting; if you pay attention to it, it should have details. But it should also look kind of aesthetically pleasing, or ‘good’, in your blurry peripheral vision.”
An absence of vocals made space for new possibilities within the compositions and allowed for a shift in the focus of the music.
“A lot of the time you write the song around the lyrics or around the vocal parts or ideas. It’s kind’a the main focus of that sort of music when you’re writing and it’s good to keep it in mind. But with this stuff, it was just pure harmony and melody and arrangement… I felt like it was open to be storytelling music. If I wasn’t going to be focused on lyrics or the literal storyline of the song, then I kind’a wanted to be able to make music that can take you on a bit of a journey.”
For Nielson, this idea stems from a certain worldview. One that arguably encompasses a lot of music he’s made, including many of his contributions to pop.
”I thought that the influence of ‘classical’ music and ‘classical’ arrangement is kind of an influence that a lot of music doesn’t seem to have any more. It’s almost like modern music is listening to modern music. Or, like, people who make music now are listening to pretty current music and it’s sort of lost touch with a history, or a possibility for what people are capable of making… I just think there’s a lot to be learned and it only enriches the music.”
So perhaps ‘Birthday Suite’ shouldn’t be a surprising record, given that it’s drawing from so much history, so many histories. But the fact that it is surprising says a lot about the musician behind it – about his ability to mould that history and influence into something idealistically ‘new’.
Understanding, absorbing and interpreting the past as a way to construct the future – as Nielson puts it, a degree of “…looking back, in parallel, as we move forward.” In this sense, Kody Nielson and his new album have these fascinating, near-paradoxical multiplicities: old and new, minimally maximalist, in the background and the foreground, at once everywhere but nowhere to be seen.
“I’m not trying to force this music on anyone, if you know what I mean? I’m just trying to do some of the best work that I can do at the moment.”