Joel Ebner, who you may know as the mind behind Alt Rising Act City States, has released a new album under his new project Contretemps.
He describes his debut record, Pronouncement, as "my debut as Contretemps and the second release via my new Chicago label Safety Records...a solo undertaking from me which expands upon the more adventurous instrumental moments from the first City States album. Fans of Oneohtrix Point Never, Fennesz, and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II will hopefully enjoy it."
We recently had the chance to talk with Joel about his new label and his ambient-electronic release. Read our interview below and get inside the mind of Contretemps.
I'd thought about starting a label for a long time, but hadn't seriously considered it until just before the release of the first City States record. A lot of it had to do with perception: critics and fans alike feel a twinge of amateurishness when seeing a "self-released" byline on an album. No hard feelings there: I get why people think the way they do about emerging, unsigned bands, and setting up Safety was originally just a small way to try sidestepping that problem. But now, nearly a year after the release of Geography and with this new Contretemps record on the horizon, having a label seems like a fun way to curate something.
As for the "forward-thinking pop and electronic music" descriptor: that's the kind of music I enjoy!
Currently Safety Records is composed of your three projects. Are you looking at expanding to new artists soon? What type of artists and projects should we expect in the near future?
Right now I'm not looking at expanding to outside artists for 2015, though it may happen in the future. I've heard a couple of unreleased recordings in the last few weeks that were pretty inspiring, so the possibility is bouncing around in my mind.
The indie/electronic-pop label Neon Gold has aimed to reformat the release process by focusing on singles and multiple small releases. How do you approach the release and promotion aspect? Do you think the industry should reformat into this small release format, or should there be a refocus on the album as entity?
I'm much more of an album guy—that's not to say that I don't enjoy a good single, but I get a lot more satisfaction out of an artist's songs when they're contextualized as a collection. That said, the LP format has some big challenges in terms of cost and overhead—worse yet, people just aren't buying as many records anymore—so it's not necessarily the easiest path to take.
But if you're asking whether labels and artists should consider alternative options when releasing music, I think they should. As much as I prefer physical pressings of albums, it seems like a foolish mistake to assume in 2015 that every recording needs one. Maybe labels and critics alike will start to look past the stigma of digital-only releases? In the near term, I sure hope so; it seems like a much easier path to take for emerging bands.
For your three projects, branding, in terms of name and aesthetic, are at the forefront of the creative process. Does this aspect of the creative process come easy for you? Did this contribute to you decision to expand into a label? Are you constantly conscious of the way your music is presented?
I'm a graphic designer by day, so communication, branding, and perception are things I think about a lot. That represents itself most readily with album art and packaging—I made the cover for Pronouncement nine months ago when the music was only half finished—but those considerations inevitably bleed into more big-picture notions of how people qualify the music I make, and it influenced my choice to start Safety Records.
I'm also working on two other solo LPs for later in 2015—the first is a Warp Records-influenced techno project, the second an experimental project called Modal Voices—and since the writing for all three albums has been happening in parallel since September, I'm thinking about them as a trio. That makes it even more fun to think about album art, as there will almost certainly be a visual theme running through the three record covers.
Tell me about your new project Contretemps? Hoes does it differ from City States? How did the name come about?
During the fall of 2012 I was trying to finish the song "Uncharted Waters" from the debut City States record, and just couldn't figure it out. The track was driving me crazy, so my friend suggested I set that music aside for a while and work on something else. I started messing around with a Korg R3 synth and some computer software, and within a couple of weeks I had four songs that wound up on the album. That was essentially the beginning of the project.
Overall, the process has been totally different from City States. Since I'm not writing traditional songs for Contretemps, I'm able to focus entirely on discovering sounds I like, rather than worrying about how something fits into an arrangement or honing the perfect melody. The end result is something a bit more free-form—not quite song-y, but certainly musical. My specific goal with the music on Pronouncementwas to play with the tension between noise, ambiance, and melody, and to find some moments of resolution between those perspectives.
You describe this album to be a "wordless statement of gratitude." This record goes beyond words with the incredible soundscapes you create, but I also find your track names to be very fitting. Talk me through your track-naming process. How did these tracks, both name and sound-type come about?
Going back to your previous question about branding: lot of noise groups make explicit reference to pain, horror, suffering, and darkness in their song and album titles, and I think it's actually a little unfortunate that the genre is tethered to those values. So I thought it would be fun to put a different stamp on this record, in part to implicitly poke fun at the fetishization of shock value in noise music, but also to turn the tables in my own small way.
To that end, many of the song titles on Pronouncement reference my favorite electronic artists—Masami Akita (AKA Merzbow), Zoviet France, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Eno's Music For Airports. I wonder if some people might see my track listings as shameless name-droppery, but it's definitely meant as homage: these artists are really important to me, and I thought it would be interesting to highlight the gratitude I have for them, rather than hide that significance.
We have talked before about your St. Vincent influence on City States, but I couldn't help but wonder if that influence carries over to this project. In her latest record, Annie takes on the archetype of "near future cult leader" with Digital Witness tackling the concept of our digital-technological obsession with image and presentation. I hear this same type of ideas in songs like Telemusik, Maximalism, and Tyranny of the Beat. Is this commentary on the digital world intentional? Is this record saying something about the music industry's current obsession with the digital and also the way indie/alternative music is headed into this era of new electronic music?
St. Vincent wasn't really on my mind while writing Pronouncement, however I thought a lot about someone she's worked with: Sufjan Stevens. Though he's best known for making orchestral pop and folk records, Stevens also released a great instrumental electronic recordback in 2001 called Enjoy Your Rabbit. I'm really sort of taken by the idea that this brilliant pop songwriter and vocalist created a thoroughly unusual experimental album, almost like some kind of statement of freedom, as if to reject the notion that his career needs to be shackled to a single style or genre. Brian Eno's discography is great for that. So is Jim O'Rourke's. And without making it seem like I'm comparing my degree of talent with theirs, I'm pretty inspired by that path. Personally, I got to a point about two years ago where I started wondering if I have more to say as a musician than what people have heard from me as City States. Pursuing that idea has been liberating for me, and I'm really enjoying myself.
As for your assessment of the record: though I wasn't overtly thinking about the digital world and technology obsession, I'm pretty sure that those themes are all over the album—especially on the first track "Maximalism", which plays with the idea of information overload.
Finally, for those not used to ambient-experimental music, how should one approach this album? Should it be listened as an installation piece, meaning experiencing the album as a whole, thought provoking journey; a provocative stimulation requiring full attention, rather than just some background music? Is this an escape or entrance into reality?
The album was conceived with a particular order in mind—lots of tracks flow into one another, and there are a couple of musical phrases that reoccur across several songs—so there is a suggested path to take through Pronouncement.
Your mention of the word journey is appropriate. It's not a mistake that the track listing takes the listener, via two Chicago airports, through song titles referencing artists from Japan, England, France, and Germany. If there's a central idea, it's that instrumental music has this strange ability to transcend verbal communication, and as a result, collapse the physical and cultural distance between people different parts of the world. That's not meant to be utopianist, however I do think it's cool that I can put on an LP by Fennesz—a musician who lives and works in Vienna—and experience a range of emotions that anyone on earth can understand without a single word spoken on record. That observation may be overwhelmingly clear to anyone who cares about music, but I still think it's really important.