ML Buch Made a Masterpiece of "Drifty Music" — Now She's Figuring Out What It Means

"When I go into my teenage poetry-making mode, I feel it as a portal into some other world," she says of 'Suntub'

Photo: Ani Liv Kampe, Agnete Hannibal Petri, ML Buch

BY Kaelen BellPublished Nov 3, 2023

"People are sending me pictures of the ocean," ML Buch says, calling Exclaim! over Zoom from her home in Copenhagen. "They've gone out into the world and they're drifting about a bit, listening to the music."

Tap through Buch's Instagram stories over the last few days and you'll see what she means — reposted clips of glittering waves, sand gathering against the tide and pixelated harbour fronts, brown puddles  shimmering with oil, stalks of grass stooping in the breeze; these are the images that fans are choosing to accompany Suntub, the Danish composer and producer's mesmerizing sophomore album. 

"I'm interested in how it's [being] received by the other. I'm really, really curious," she says, looking to the ceiling. "It makes me happy, because it's some really drifty music, right? It's music you can hang out inside."

That "drifty" nature is what makes Suntub so astonishing, though its slow channels of movement are charged with determined electricity — its flow is transferral, sublimating Buch's consciousness and physical form across a dream landscape. The wordless ballad "Dust beam" sees Buch scaling steep angles of light only to lose her footing, a mote wafting in the slipstream between window and floor; stuttering opener "Pan over the hill" finds her "splattered on the film of sky" as her face is turned to streamers, flapping in the warm sun. 

Speaking about Suntub with Buch requires some long pauses and a few considered retractions — she herself is still wrestling with what exactly the record means, in the traditional sense. What she does understand is its undeniable essence, the way wind and flame and light and sound travel through this world she's built from guitars and MIDI plugins; She understands how it makes her feel.

"I feel like it's very much about the need for calm, peace … and the need for intensity. And euphoria, and fire," she says, choosing her words carefully. "And then it's about feeling solid or assembled, and then falling apart. Or dissolving into light, or goo." 

Over the latticework of MIDI guitar — which Buch reamped through her car's stereo, fusing a muggy atmosphere to the synthetic tone  — of "Flames shards goo," Buch sings of temporary bodies whose nails pop off like dropping seeds, pillars of mosquitos and bright oak trees heavy with light; leaves wave in the breeze "like flesh on air," skulls open and rabbits unfreeze. 

Like a Dalí landscape suffused with inescapable sunlight, Suntub is familiar until it isn't, a fantastical pastoralism that dissolves the barriers between flesh and earth and new and old. 

"I look forward to experiencing the whole piece now that it's done. Because, luckily, there are a lot of things that I don't know about it," she says. "I definitely have a lot of threads that I see, and connections and motifs reflected in the music. But I look forward to experiencing what else [is there], you know?"

The sky and ocean are never far away on Suntub, constantly shifting and swelling in the record's periphery. Sometimes, like on the surging rock song "River mouth," the ocean is a thundering maw, the place where a present state of being can crash into the future. Other times it's a distant, inaudible rumble, a density of silence. The majority of Suntub's vocals were recorded in Buch's car, parked "by the ocean as close as I could get."

"I don't think I'm the only one who feels some sort of freedom, or some sort of lifting of the chest [by the ocean]," she says, hovering her hands over her ribcage as she puffs up toward the ceiling. "When I go into my teenage poetry-making mode, I feel it as a portal into some other world. I mean, the whole sky is the craziest landscape, ever changing. I feel like I can breathe better by the ocean.

She continues, laughing: "This is very dreamy, I recognize, but the music is really dreamy, I guess. I'm inspired by when the sun is reflected on the ocean — it creates a glint, and all the glints form a road. I could stare at that for a very long time. It will be one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, forever." 

That highway of light is what led Buch to Suntub following the digital heartache and synthetic sensuality of her breakthrough debut, 2020's Skinned. It was a relatively long journey, but Buch says she savoured the wandering.

"[Suntub took] five years to make," she explains. "But I was taking the time it needed — it's not like, 'Wow, it's such a long time for album making.' It took the time it needed."

Three years of that time was spent living in the countryside by the ocean, "away from the city and the different communities that I'm part of," she says. "I had a big need to be on my own to make this music. But at the same time, it's all about connection."

The connections on Suntub differ from those on Skinned, where computer screens and social media profiles acted as barriers to deeper feeling, facilitating factors that are entirely absent from her latest. There are no barriers on Suntub — it's about dissolve and transformation and viscosity and sensation; this is music you can touch and ingest and climb inside. 

"I was just not interested at all in phones or computers or any of that," she says. "[Suntub] is describing bones, and… what would you call it? A magic nature, some sort of open world game — nature, warping.

"I started out by writing 'Working it out,' which is the last song on the record. And that song started the whole thing out — I knew that I was going to have fun making music, and that I wanted to play guitar," she explains with determination, leaning toward her screen. "And it became a very guitar-heavy album."

Despite its occasionally alien textures and synthetic sounds — all of which were played, recorded and mixed by Buch, save some drum recordings aided by her friend Tanya — Suntub is first and foremost a guitar record, a moving example of the instrument's still-boundless possibilities. Buch's playing isn't particularly showy (though at times her open-tunings and fluidity recall the quicksilver genius of Joni Mitchell; the distinctive road songs of Hejira are a clear forebear), but, through a series of intuitive processes, she's managed to create her own inscrutable guitar-based language. 

"[It was] a process of exploring different ways of working with guitar," she explains. "Emulations and synthetic guitars, VST guitars and tablet guitars, open tunings.

"I've done a lot of translating audio into some sort of MIDI, and there are plugins that try to simulate and emulate human ways of playing, but oftentimes it misunderstands," she continues. "And the interpretation of my human audio is way off — that's the fun and surprising part of making music." 

Buch describes the process of creating Suntub as joyful and regenerative, a long journey of trial-and-error that found her reamping her guitar in fields of tall grass, recording rustling leaves (different trees, at night and during the day) and capturing the humming momentum of a creek, gathering "audio that could function as some sort of glue, something that you could feel — maybe you can't hear it, but you can feel it."

She laughs as she pulls off the rose-tinted glasses momentarily. "It's also been completely, insanely tough," she says. "I mean, it just [wasn't easy] at all. I've spent almost two years noodling, mixing the music — it's been a lot of music."

She reflects, "Recording vocals in a small car with glass all around you [isn't easy] — with some pretty cheap gear. I had to put frozen peas underneath [my laptop] because it was too hot and noisy. But it's also part of the charm, I guess. It's part of the sound of everything. And I think it sounds how it's supposed to sound — I don't think it should sound different."

You hear that effort and discovery in every note of Suntub, its sounds woven into the DNA of the places and sensations that fostered them. It has a magical sense of onomatopoeia — you'd swear you could feel the wind billow against your skin in the deep ruby glow of "High speed claim air tonight," following the road that "opens warm and wide / Strung up in a red sky." 

The gentle "Whoosh" does exactly that, opalescence gusting around your head as small rivulets of guitar spiral into the darkness. Rarely does a record's affect feel so molecular, but Buch's songs feel capable of dissolving and reforming you — a human body stretched out on wavy spines, a crow's cherry eye, a glass towel draped on a rock. It sounds like total fantasy, but Suntub speaks to something deep and inescapable about the human condition: the need to transform and give yourself over, the unending search for something beyond our bodies. 

"I guess it's just my way of reflecting on the times we're living in and being a human being right now. It sounds big, but that's what it's like to take in the world and try to have an output of some sort," she says. "Writing music and composing is my way of existing, basically. I love the sense of discovery — if I can have that while writing music, that's the best. The best thing in the whole world."

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