By Cam LindsayMontreal is currently experiencing another artistic renaissance that has nothing to do with Arcade Fire. Thanks in large part to Arbutus Records (Grimes, Doldrums, TOPS), a new wave of artists both musical and visual have built a movement that has attracted a great deal of outside attention. Production duo Solar Year (Ben Borden and David Ertel) are one of those acts; they specialize in meditative sound collages constructed from pop, new age, Gregorian chants, ambient and electro influences. Their debut album, Waverly, is a definite mood piece where deep, brooding electronics and fluid vocals provide a hypnotic, often chilling atmosphere. Comparisons to the Knife are hard to suppress, but Waverly has a very consistent tenor that makes it a singular achievement, one that both creeps and soothes simultaneously.
You've listed "psalmgaze" as a genre on your Facebook page. What is it? Ertel: ChartAttack coined it in a post about our song "Brotherhood." Western religious music is certainly an influence in our melodies, from medieval classics to American shape note music and Thracian chants. I'd like to make a distinction that we're drawing not just from Gregorian music, which can be heard in new age music, but also from a variety of secular vocal traditions as well. Our friend was in a travelling choir called Village Harmony that sung a wide variety of traditional choral music, both religious and non-religious. He started an informal choir in Montreal for these types of music a couple years ago and I've been hooked on the stuff ever since.
Borden: For us, our music is really introspective and we're drawing from these old spiritual sources, but with a kind of experimental electronic look. There is a kind of similar vibe to shoegaze, even though I definitely wouldn't say that's the kind of music we make. But just in terms of the atmospheric, spacey, knob turning, I definitely get that comparison.
I read Resident Advisor describe your production as "lo-fi." Is that how you hear it? Borden: I don't really think of our music as "lo-fi," per se. I think we focused more on creating unique sounds that came about through experimentation in sound collaging. There is sometimes a fuzzy feel in what we do, because we're using a lot of organic samples, rather than something that is strictly electronic.
What made you self-release the album? Ertel: We were eager for people to get a glimpse of our music as soon as possible. Mainly, we just wanted to get it out there for our friends to hear; it was just available in an extremely limited edition homemade acetate-pak. We had a lot of fun getting to geek-out over the design of the packaging — all the CDs are labelled using this amazing '90s consumer technology called LightScribe. It's worth checking out the unnecessarily high-resolution example of a LightScribe CD on Wikipedia. But, in 2013, Waverly is getting a proper vinyl release in both North America and Europe, with some new material we've been working on at our recent live shows.
How tight-knit is the Montreal scene? Do you collaborate with artists regularly? Borden: The music, arts and technology scenes in Montreal are pretty intertwined and most of our friends are involved in really cool projects in all sorts of different media. It's been very inspiring working with people like Emily Kai Bock, Bobby Shore, the Sid Lee Collective and countless others. We're musicians, yeah, but it's been great developing these interdisciplinary ideas alongside the musical ones, in collaboration with some very talented friends. And it's not just collaborating on artistic projects either; we were recently at a show where Majical Cloudz were setting up the P.A. and Mozart's Sister was helping do the door even though she'd already paid to get in. Something really special about our friends here is that they really want their friends to succeed and they're truly happy helping out in any way they can.
Ertel: It's a supportive little hippy community. Lately, I feel like it's been all about mandalas, psychedelia, tie-dye and spiritual tweets, which I fully support. In making the album, we got tonnes of invaluable feedback from friends like Alex Cowan (Agor/Blue Hawaii), Devon Welsh (Majical Cloudz) and Sebastian Cowan (Arbutus Records). We recorded some samples from Katie Lee, which we use in our live set and our friend Claire Boucher [Grimes] recorded backing vocals on the album when it was first taking form. The very first time Solar Year played was at a little potluck-style show at Claire's house that she had invited us to perform at. I was very nervous because I had never sung in front of people before. But she's always been really supportive of our music.
How active are Solar Year performing live? Have you mastered your performance both visually and sonically? Ertel: The amazing thing about performing with a computer is that the possibilities are limitless; we have a lot of instruments and effects that we're able to switch on and off and reroute. Ben makes rhythms on the fly on his drum machine; we can improvise if we want. We're constantly evolving our live performances to fit either a more beat-oriented club set or a more meditative, chilled-out, improvised plainchant set in an art gallery or some kind of atypical performance space.
How difficult was it leaving the bedroom to perform live? Ertel: I've been performing all my life as an instrumentalist, but this is my first time singing. It's such a personal thing and feels very exhibitionistic to put your voice out there on stage for people to judge. But that's the rush: the feeling that you are expressing yourself in a very intimate way. While it was nerve-wracking to sing the first time, it now feels very comfortable.
Borden: It was tricky to transition from something very introspective and personal to performing in front of larger audiences. But overcoming that challenge has really helped shape the live sound we have now.
I saw the Waverly underwater sound installation on YouTube. Where did the idea come from for that performance? How difficult was it to pull off? Ertel: We came up with the idea with our artist friend Aleks Schürmer. While it was a bit trickier than putting on a normal show, it was surprisingly not too complicated. Small details like getting complex geometric conceptual T-shirts for the six lifeguards were even easier. Surprisingly, it was cheaper to rent the pool and pay the lifeguards than it would have been to rent a traditional venue.
What projects do you have lined up? Borden: We're working on an interactive music video for our new single, "Night & Day," trying to coordinate all the details of the tech elements and the filming in this rural Quebec fantasyland. We're currently trying to raise some money on Indiegogo to help cover the production costs. The seven-inch is getting released in December by new imprint Stratosfear, and we're really honoured to be their first release.