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Interview: Jakob Battick / Afraid

It’s been some time since we last heard anything from the usually prolific Jakob Battick. His last public performance was back in June, performing at Red Medicine’s farewell show with post-punk hybrid Captain Hollow (who have yet to release their long-delayed debut). And aside from a few odds-and-ends releases including a ghostly Primal Scream cover and a handful of instrumental deconstructions of Top 40 hits — Battick hasn’t released a proper collection of material since Jakob Battick & Friends’ swan song Bloodworm Songs in March.

Interview by Kevin Steeves.

Fortunately, the unusual dry spell of material from Battick ended earlier this week with the release of EMF: a digital split album with the similarly dreamy, minimalist work of Portland’s Jared Fairfield, and the the debut of Battick’s newest solo project, Afraid.

During this quiet period that was marked by a lack of new material from Battick and the release of Afraid, the Portland mainstay went through something of a musical reboot. Disenchanted by his previous output, the catalyst of the new project came from an unlikely place given Battick’s former affection with American folk music and 80’s goth — the 1992 gangsta rap classic The Chronic by Dr. Dre.

“Somehow a copy of The Chronic made it into my car stereo,” said Battick. “The rest just happened. I couldn’t take it out for three or four months — maybe more.”

The influence of The Chronic and hip-hop as a whole is apparent even during a preliminary listen to EMF, as chopped-up and repurposed samples of Top 40 hits from the last few years make-up the bulk of the backing-track, with Battick’s morose drone imposed — and at times just as over-processed as the backing track. The result is that EMF is just as haunting and surreal as his previous work, but with a much more contemporary influence compared to his prior neo-folk output.

HillyTown recently caught up with Battick to discuss the creation and evolution of Afraid, the influence of visual aesthetics upon the project, and what exactly we might be able to expect when the project hits the road for a hopefully upcoming string of live shows.

HillyTown: What do you think drove you towards move more into a hip-hop/production direction with Afraid? Your previous work was pretty well ingrained within the rock/folk tradition.

Jakob Battick: It was a lot of things. Too many things, really. I started listening to The Chronic in my car all the time, and I mean all the time; it became a total obsession. One day I woke up and realized I had been trying to pretend I wasn’t here in the present and I was making this utterly miserable music with no light and no rhythm, and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable with that. I wanted to make something someone might conceivably dance to, or something that might be nice to put on late at night and melt around to, by yourself or at a party or with another person. That was the only way that I knew to fall back in love with music. 

HT: What is the process that went into creating music for Afraid? Did you have an idea early on as to what you thought the process would actually be, or did it transform as you became  accustomed to the actual creative process?

JB: In the beginning I had only a fuzzy idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to use autotune, wanted to chop and screw my voice, basically make my own version of Top 40 club music, as fucked up as that might end up sounding. I knew I wanted to sample Alexandra Stan somewhere, and I did, although you might not hear it. A lot of ideas I had about songwriting needed to be lost along the way, ways of working and things I valued in music. Garageband became my main instrument, and I just spent a year making sounds, sampling things, playing things for close friends, testing ideas.

HT: The final product, while it does obviously sample a lot of contemporary music, like you said is pretty chopped/screwed up. It still has a considerable amount of darkness to it as well. Was there a deliberate pullback after a certain point? Like: “Oh this is too much like the original” or “this is too far removed.”

JB: I can’t help but make music that has a certain amount of darkness to it. I’m a fairly melancholic guy. Even when I try to write totally happy things or purely shiny things, and I do, they always come out kind of messed up, or with a bittersweet undercurrent. It’s just my nature. To add to that, I’m rarely satisfied with things. So, the songs on EMF all went through several drastic transformations before arriving at their current states. They’re almost like remixes of my own original work, in a lot of ways.

HT: Was it always your intention to have Afraid come into fruition as an actual collection of released music? How did you come to the decision to release it as a split?

The five tracks I contributed to EMF are literally the first recordings I finished as Afraid. They’re the mission statement, as it were, the outline for what might come down the line, me fumbling around inside of my new direction. Jared and I were living together on Washington Avenue in a house we call Sissyhäus, watching Rihanna videos on Cool TV and recording in almost all our free time. We just started finding similar sorts of inspirations at the same time and we very drunkenly decided to do a split record that showcased both of our new directions, since they seemed so parallel from what we had both been doing before.

HT: It’s been awhile since people have actually heard anything from you. Why did Afraid take so long to complete?

“Tearing the Tongue” [from EMF} was recorded in May of 2011 and it feels like ancient history to me. I am at a point in my life now where I refuse to let myself release something that feels half-assed. This is why it took so long to have anything ready. Honestly, it was beautiful spending all that time secretly making music for myself and no one else. I have to say though, that since the recording of EMF I’ve already come six or seven levels up and away from there. I’m always learning new things, getting new equipment. So the things I’m doing now are much richer in terms of atmosphere and rhythm and the rest, though who knows when the next release will happen?

HT: How important are the visual aesthetics of Afraid to the overall project? Before any music was actually heard by the general public the violet palate was pretty widely used in what little promotional work was done, and the Afraid typeface seems like a very deliberate choice on your part as well.

JB: I’m a hugely visual person. If I put a picture up on the wall of my studio, it will leak into the music I make there. Purple and pink sort of came to me. DJ Screw blew the lid off of my musical sensibilities and then I saw Spiritualized in Boston and everything I loved about them in high school came rushing back to me in this really incredible way. Then there was Purple and Pink music. Prince, Air, Serge Gainsbourg, Slowdive, Marvin Gaye, all of these things. I don’t want to say too much on the subject, but I want to make music that floats, shimmers, melts, music with sweat and sleaze but also music with warmth and waves of euphoric feeling. This is the kick I’m on now, and this is why the colors I use and the images I use are there. They just came naturally out of the music.

HT: People are pretty quick to throw around the title of Postmodern hip-hop and postmodern rap with Afraid. Do you see this as an actual thing? There was a point when nearly anything looking progressively forward — Kanye West’s last two albums, Death Grips, Oneohtrix Point Never — was considered “postmodern hip-hop.”

JB: I don’t know if I would put any stock into any genre tags anyone throws around anymore. The old boundaries all disappeared a while ago and it’s less clear now with the internet being such a central hub for music itself. I think of things much more personally. There’s airy things, big booming car stereo things, sad rainy day things, and all the rest. I certainly listen to a shitload of rap music, and that comes through in my music, but I don’t think I would be comfortable aligning any of it with any sort of ‘ism’ or ‘post-blah blah blah.’ It’s just my music. Call it whatever you like.

HT: You’ve mentioned how excited you are to start playing shows with Afraid, how exactly is that going to work? Do you see at as more of an overall experience/atmosphere than an actual ‘lets watch music be performed’ thing?

JB: Oh, it will definitely be more than a ‘let’s watch music be performed’ thing. Lighting and sound ideas are all in my head all the time. It’s going to take time, and a lot of practice, but it will happen one day. Playing music live, and traveling to play that music live, is one of the only things that’s certain in my life at this point. It’s been too long since I’ve played regularly, and in that time I’ve definitely started to go a little crazy.

But yes, I often find myself disappointed now in shows where the vibe is too polite, or where the audience treats the performers with too much reverence. I look back on the way I used to approach the stage in total embarrassment, but that’s not to say that quieter, more formal shows can’t be fantastic. My perspective has just shifted. The best shows are like parties, or they’re totally overwhelming collections of sound and light waves. One or the other. That’s where I’m headed.