Stray dogs is an uncommon project in the sense that, in a good number of the cases, it will be necessary to include a visual aspect to appreciate and/or to be able to understand the whole of the project.
It is difficult to assign a permanent style to the work of Koenraad Ecker (Cello, Guitar, electronics) and Frederik Meulyzer (percussion, electronics). Because in my opinion, they will always grant all freedoms, as long as the relationship between their sound and the visual or their environment will be in harmony.
This is, therefore a Belgian duet. But personally I associate the visual aspect that composes the majority of their projects, cautiously in the entirety of the project.
Therefore, other names will appear in the follow of the Interview.
The first Stray dogs production, “intangible states”, was born in 2010. Koenraad and Frederik developed the project with a Swiss video artist in order to present it to the audience during a performance tour that took place between 2011 and 2012.
Yannick Jacquet, aka Legoman/Antivj is one of the person with whom I associate this project. Yannick will work with them on several other occasions.
But Stray dogs does not end there. In March 2012, their production “Animal” see the light of day.
Now, the visual aspect occupies more and more space within the project. Considering that, this time, their compositions are articulated around an equestrian choreography, directed by Arnaud Gillette.
They develop together and still accompanied by Yannick Jacquet, a performance which they will offer the audience, gathering equestrian art, music and video.
Stray dogs will literally take off and become more well known through their next two albums.
“Wasteland”, released by Icarus records in 2013 and “And the days began to walk” released in 2016, by the excellent Kvitnu record label.
“Wasteland” approaches another aspect and one that interests me very much, Stray dogs and its environment. But we will return to this during the interview.
But the album released by Kvitnu is a new encounter!
Stray dogs now invests in a collaboration with a Norwegian contemporary dance company, directed by the choreographer Ina Christel Johannesen.
What a peculiar way to present us some sound! A way that woke my attention, and is the reason for which I now wish to let the 2 artists express themselves on their common project.
Frist of all, hello Koenraad and Frederik and thank you for the time you have given us in order to answer a few questions. Your musical projects are not based on around traditional concepts. I am certain that our readers will realise this through the course of this interview.
Was it clear from the beginning on that Stray dogs were going to develop a visual aspect, or was the project only musical in the beginning? Please tell us about the birth of Stray dogs and about your encounter with Yannick Jacquet.
Koenraad : We started as an impro-duo playing guitar & drums in seedy bars in Belgium – it was only much later that we started using electronics & thinking about integrating video in our performances. I think it was around 2008 that I first saw Yannick’s work with AntiVJ and I was really in awe of what he was doing. Fred and me gathered all our courage and contacted Yannick via email and luckily he was into the idea of collaborating.
Frederik : Yes, in the beginning were just trying out musical ideas we couldn’t play in other bands. Mostly drums and guitar and a lot of effects. The project with Yannick, Intangible States, was our first audiovisual project. We went from the grungy bars to very nice theaters and festivals ;-). But I feel it’s time to do some concerts again… just music.
Your first production, “Intangible States”, is split into 2 very distinct parts. A very narrative and experimental part based on linear structures, and the other clearly much more Alternative – abstract / Dub-trip-hop (I did my best to define this second part). A style you will leave afterward, and this is the reason why I have chosen to play it now.
Now, “Animal” showed me a turning point in your compositions, exploiting the more narrative part which would go on to characterize your future compositions.
When I listen to “Animal”, I have the feeling that your narrations have found a much more structured support and showing us the rituals aspect of your forthcoming productions.
Is it the contact with the animal (if I can express myself in this way) and the synchronized choreography by Arnaud that allowed you to develop your narrations in this direction?
Frederik : I think it has more to do with the way of working. When we started working together we were still studying music at the conservatory in Leuven (Lemmensinstituut). There we focused mainly on jazz and improvised music. This involves a lot of hours practicing our instruments (in my case drums). Of course we were interested in other musical styles/forms (electronic music/indian classical music/…). This mutual interest got us together. But of course we still held on to our instruments in a more ‘traditional’ way. I mean: the conventional setup of my drumset still pushed me into a certain way of playing. When we started working on Animal, I was experimenting with different ways to setup my drumset to rethink my way of playing. Also the way of composing changed. When we started with Animal, Arnaut and Yannick already worked a lot on the project. So the actual content was already there. We had to compose music for a show that was already developed before. So we spent more hours behind the computer and recorded only bits and pieces of instruments. We were already on this path before… in the same period we recorded most of the sound material for Wasteland. That is why Animal and Wasteland are soundwise somewhat similar to one another.
Koenraad : Exactly : where Intangible States was for the most part still a document of a band that plays live shows, during the Animal-process the borders between playing, recording, processing, re-performing and re-recording that processed material, … had become very porous. During the recordings for Animal Fred had this great idea of completely re-organising his drumkit, to break out of his motoric habits. This approach has had a big impact on the development of Stray Dog’s sound – and is a « technique » that we continue using and apply to different instruments. Ever since that discovery, I am intimately aware of the influence of the « interface » (body and/or machine) on the produced sound.
Please tell us about your collaboration with Arnaud Gilette. Up until this point, improvisation was part of your way of working together. A look exchanged between you was undoubtedly enough to allow new ideas and new compositions to be born. In the case of this collaboration with Arnaud and his horse, I assume that there had to be constraints due to the choreography. It is a different approach to that of composition. How did you approach this in order to take up this challenge?
Koenraad : For such stage performances the music usually has to be much more composed and fixed compared to a music live-performance : both for dramaturgical reasons as well as for technical reasons. You’re making a performance with video, lights, music and a 1-tonne animal on stage – so there’s little margin of error in the timings. We did a couple of intense 2-week residencies at Arnaud’s place, in a small village in France, in which we would be composing music, while Yannick would be creating video material in the adjacent room. We’d be constantly going back & forth between each other’s ideas, and speaking to Arnaud who’d be a floor above us. I have very good memories of that working process. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons nothing ever came of this project after the premiere was finished.
Frederik : The working process indeed was very nice. We were isolated in this nice house in a small French village, making music from the morning till the evening/night every day. The choreography with the horses was already partially developed, so the music and video was adapted to it. Even so, we could start from an improvised idea that we polished until it fitted. It is at that time I guess that our way of composing and working started changing a lot.
Let’s talk now about “Wasteland”, an album that I really enjoy each time I listen. That exploits a very interesting aspect, Stray dogs and its environment. Which you will continue to develop afterwards. The project is conceived at different moments. But the starting points are the recordings of percussion, of guitar and of cello, exploiting naturals reverb in different sections of a church in Antwerp – Belgium. From this album on, I really feel that the different components which characterize and unite both of you are combined in perfect harmony.
How did you go about creating these compositions? More specifically, I mean the recordings performed in the church. Did you go there with precise compositional ideas in your minds, or did you operate on the recorded material in a more random way, at a later date?
Frederik : When we started recording in the church, there were of course already some musical ideas. But the natural sound of the church was so inspiring, that we had recorded much more sound material there. We spent hours and hours recording single hits with wood, metal plates, throwing stuff around. The drum parts (like riot, vultures) were mostly recorded in ‘traditional’ studio’s and at different moments, so a lot of time passed whilst making this album. It was with this album the way of working started to change. Some parts were there, others were composed in the studio behind the desk. Then when we had to perform them live, we had to practise the recorded music. This gave us a totally different approach to playing your instruments.
Koenraad : Indeed – in my memory we approached those recordings very spontaneously : we recorded hours of sounds made with our instruments and with pretty much anything we could find in the church’s basement (wooden beams, a supermarket cart, broken bricks) in different spaces in that church complex, without much planning. I think this is the point where we both « discovered » the wondrous world of sound-design. Simply – hey how would this sound when i play it like this in the basement and we place the mixc like this? I think it was the first time I realised the potential of recording in spaces where the past still lingers, where the soul of the room transforms the sound and the performer : that a nice studio with expensive gear is not necessarily the « best » recording space. But most of all, we had a lot of fun during those recordings, I mean, how often can you run through a church with a Lidl cart while your best friend is throwing around wooden beams ?
Let me now turn to “Kalkar”. An electro acoustic performance which spotlights, once again, the close relationship between you and your environment. A performance that took place in August 2014, in a disused power station in West Germany, more accurately, in its cooling tower. You confided with me during our exchanges that the inspiration for this idea came from Paul Michielsen, a Dutch architect who was writing his doctorate on architecture and extreme acoustical spaces. You went to the site for a first time in 2011. But not knowing what to expect, you could not achieve what you wanted. You went back once again in 2014, but more prepared.
What do you mean by “more prepared” and what were your expectations over there?
Koenraad : In short it means that in a space with a 23-second echo you can’t simply play the music you usually play. Back in 2011 Fred and me were still very much stage-musicians doing jazz/impro related stuff: we had very little experience in field recording or in performing in spaces which are far removed from a normal stage environment. In 2014 we felt we needed to revisit that space, using the additional knowledge and ideas we had gathered in those 3 years. Technically it means which mics to use, where to place them, how to protect them from the strong wind in the cooling tower, etc.. From a musical perspective it meant developing musical ideas beforehand that could function in that space. And lastly, because that cooling tower is, believe it or not, surrounded by a theme park where people go on holidays, we had only 5-or-so hours between the closing of the theme park and the time people want to go to sleep. We had to unload, setup, record and pack in such a short time that we needed to be as prepared as possible.
Frederik : Another thing is that the first time we went, it was with other people and for other people. So when we went back we knew what to expect, but we didn’t have to deliver anything. We could explore the extreme acoustics even more because we were very well prepared.
The full 12 minutes performance is available on Bandcamp via this link : https://straydogs.bandcamp.com/album/kalkar
What attracts you to the acoustical exploration of architectural spaces? What do they offer that a studio, even one of high quality, cannot offer?
Frederik : These are two complete different this. As in a studio, you have the ‘advantage’ of having a dry sound that is easily adapted to any needs afterwards. This gives a lot of possibilities, but is also a disadvantage as you have too many options. Sometimes it’s just better to be limited. When you use a dedicated place, like a church or a cooling tower (Kalkar), you are very limited in options. Kalkar in that case is the most extreme example. With a reverb of approximately 23 sec, it is the space that dictates the ideas/options. Also the vibe of being in a special place gives a lot of inspiration. The Kalkar sessions were recorded by night, because during day time it’s an amusement park for children. Strange vibe.
Koenraad : Exactly, depending on the circumstances, the recording studio as a « neutral » space can be both a blessing or a curse. What special acoustic spaces give you is an immediate sense of presence, of context – you document the environment in which the sound you make, intimately linked to the state of mind you are in when producing that sound. This is something that is absent when working in a recording studio, so you are obliged to create fictional rooms and acoustic context after the fact. What Fred said about the space dictating some of the constraints is very true : you’re obliged to make a whole range of artistic decisions before you press record, rather than making the most neutral recording with the option « to change everything » in post-production.
“And the days began to walk”.. Imposes upon you, yet again, the constraints of choreography. I assume that the choreography is prepared and finalized at the time you accept the task of creating the musical compositions to accompany Ina Christel Johannesens dance company. Do you think that, now after having worked with dancers, the movement could be a source of complete inspiration for musical compositions?
Koenraad : Actually, when working with Ina, usually the music is developed much earlier than the choreography. She often builds the choreography on bits and pieces of music, rather than the other way around. From those primary musical sketches we then build a musical framework with the choreography, the lights and the scenography. It’s quite a fluid, porous way of working – very little is set in stone before the lights go on at the premiere. To answer your question about movement as inspiration : for me seeing a performer embody our music is an extraordinarily inspiring and moving thing. The influence which a performer, a movement, a gaze can have on the perception of a sound is fascinating. We’ve learned a lot through working with Ina about which type of rhythm, sound, texture is conducive to a dancer’s imagination and which aren’t.
Frederik : As Koenraad describes, we learned a lot about composing for dance through working with Ina. But for me the biggest impact was performing live with dancers on stage. The energy is so high and every little gesture has a very big impact on what and how you play. It was definitely a source of inspiration!
In September 2017, you announced the result of a new collaboration with the choreographer Ina Christel Johannesen for the project “frozen songs” via a teaser video on Vimeo.
Can we expect a new Stray dogs album this year?
And if so, would you like to offer some words about it?
Frederik : There is certainly enough material for a new album! Not sure if it will be released this year or next year. We’ll keep you posted. As this piece was inspired by the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, we were lucky to had the chance to fly over there and make a lot of field recordings. The main focus of the music is contrast (big vs.small, soft vs. loud, energetic or vibrant vs. Slow growing, close by vs. Far away,…). I’m very happy with this way of working for this music. We found a way of improvising drums and effects in a very ‘organic’ way.
Koenraad : We are at the stage where we are converting this material, which was made for a dance performance, into music for an album to be listened to without the visual and performative elements, which is a tricky thing. If all goes to plan this music will be out within the next 12 months.
A much more pragmatic question now. A question that I will doubtless ask other artists because the subject is worth discussing.
The record industry is no longer what it was, compared to 10 years ago. It is more and more difficult for artists to earn a living with music today.
What do you do to live from it?
How do you see the future of the recording industry? (physical or digital)
And do you think that the music has a better chance of survival if it is combined with visual projects such as the movie industry or theatre for example?
Koenraad : Both Fred and me are involved in a variety of projects, music, theater, dance, film to be able to make a basic living – betting on multiple horses so to speak. Being selective about which projects to take on also means that sometimes you have to do precarious non-artistic work on the side to bridge a gap. Living from making records & playing isn’t possible anymore as an independent music artist, and probably won’t be in the near future. The main evolution I see, which isn’t limited to the music business, is a gross redistribution of wealth upwards and accumulation of monopoly and profit under a number of guises and smokescreens. Supposedly making everything « freely available », though there is only a very select group of people reaping the benefits of this type of « sharing » – it’s tragically funny how the concept of sharing has been turned upside down, in plain sight. One of the remaining ways of rendering recording, performing, etc. financially possible is to find other avenues of revenue – licensing for instance – or to work in environments in which there is still a trace of the idea that culture can be supported by public means, and does not have to strictly behave according to the primitive laws of neoliberal zombie-economics.
Frederik : As Koenraad said, we have to play in or compose for a lot of different projects. I am very lucky to tour a lot with the theater show Pakman right now. This gives me the freedom to do other (less well paid) things. About the record industry… wow, that’s a tough question. I love being in the studio and recording, but I’m not a big fan of making records. So much energy and money and most of the time you end up with a lot of cardboard boxes on the shelf. But as it is a necessity to release records in order to be able to play live, I like to release on vinyl.
Thank you to both of you!