Elizabeth Bernholz first appeared in the experimental electronic scene with her debut record The Entire City. The ethereal presence of the record and the investigative process for sound design showcased the spirit of a restless producer, who would then harness this energy to produce a completely different performance in her sophomore album Unflesh. Urban environments and heavy electronic influences fueled the record, as Bernholz continued exploring the darker edges of electronic music.
Now, Bernholz returns with her new album Pastoral, and she once again turns the tables, producing an intriguing work, where experimentalism meets with an early music perspective. A record highlighted by both personal changes, a move away from the city, as well as the explosive political climate have fueled Bernholz’s creativity and produced a record that acts both as a critique of the current state of affairs, but also as a personal effigy.
Through this interview, Elizabeth further details the beginnings of her creative journey, before and during the inception of Gazelle Twin, the influences for her signature personas and especially the mystique surrounding the jester figure. Immersive concepts, audiovisual performances, David Lynch, J.G. Ballard, historic dissonance and production techniques are just some of the subjects touched in this lengthy interview.
Before Gazelle Twin you were composing music for small-scale concerts and were trying to get into film scoring?
Yeah, I was fresh out of university really. Not much was happening really, it was not on any grand scale. It was still much like a side job really to sort of earn money for my keeps. At the time I was member of various composer groups and there were a couple of things that used to support new composers and new compositions, very specifically like classical music. I did not think I did anywhere near as much as I would like to have.
So what made you switch from that side of composition and venture on your own with Gazelle Twin?
I think I was getting more and more frustrated with traditional concert hall practice and that came with lack of opportunity for me as a female composer but also my age group, and I do not know, it seemed unless I went to a conservatoire or I really knuckle down on music academia I did not really see a way in so I just got a bit disgruntled. I also felt a growing desire to perform again and I always composed with my voice mostly, but I had not really performed for a long time when I was trying to vie for a career as a composer. So, I felt like a calling back to that and just go back to basics again and not really think too much about the theory and the academic side of music. I kind of just wanted to get back to the feeling and to improvising, because I had always done that really. I had always done that before learning and studying so it was more natural to me in a way.
So how did you start in music? Do you have a classical background?
Yeah, it is quite longwinded. I did not study any music formally at secondary school, so between the ages of 13 and 19. I did not do all the grades in music even though up to the age of 12 or 13 I had various instrument lessons. So when I was 18 I had to get back to study again so I could get to university, I had to get my A Levels. I was really dead sound classical stuff and then did a degree, a Bachelors of Music in 20th-century classical music.
That is cool, did you find it as a useful knowledge to have?
I guess so; I do not know if it was really a requirement of what I ended up doing.
But the knowledge you are gaining, even if it does not appear applicable it must aid you in the compositional aspect.
Definitely, yeah. I was never brilliant at theory or thinking about things in a critical or almost mathematical sense, but on the other hand, there was some really important exposure to music I never heard and understanding things like graphic scores and performance and history. The history of music is more interesting to me than anything. I cannot say that it has not shaped me but I do often look back on my uni days, mostly out of guilt because I probably did not put in as much effort, but I sort of did it my own way in the end. On the other hand, there is definitely a lot there to keep drawing from.
I have read in multiple places online that the idea of the project was conceived when you saw a live performance of Fever Ray in 2009.
Yeah in part.
I just see this stuff floating around on the Internet, so I just pick them out.
Yeah, you know everyone does that and it is one of these things that has kind of become the fundamental of my starting point. But really it started a long time before that, the intentions and the ideas. But, I think it was that this performance cemented the problems that I thought I had, it answered the questions, and it solved this problem. It was an epiphany at that moment definitely, I will not deny it. But, I did conceive the project a long time before that, it is just that it kind of gave me the confidence to see through what I wanted to do, which was to find a way to push the themes of my music into the performance and to make it fully immersive, that was the key thing.
So when did this idea form for you? The presentation of Gazelle Twin, not just the music but the use of costumes and the different personas?
Before that when I used to perform by myself I really felt like I needed to do something different with myself. With my face and with my body and it never really felt right putting on a dress but even so I did not want to be linked to fashion, I did not want to be too prescriptive of a time or a style, so I found that really problematic. So, when I started covering my face up, just with bits of fabric and stuff, it felt as if suddenly I was able to come alive a little bit more and over quite a long time. Because initially I wanted to alter the shape of my body really, be almost like a silhouette or like a shrouded figure and almost like a ghost, I did not want to be anything in particular. I was always experimenting with ways to do that and it went to some really bizarre ideas and I think they probably reached their most pure, their most fundamental in the blue costume for an album called Unflesh.
So that felt like it was a perfect marriage of something really really personal, but also giving me the ability to transcend my present state. That was what I really wanted and for some reason even though it was a costume, a clothing, that I initially felt very powerless and weak in wearing these clothes again in a different way, I felt like I just sucked the power in and it was something really transformative and amazing. We did [Elizabeth and her husband] like 75, maybe 80 shows, in that costume and I always felt amazing when I put it on, I never go tired of it even if it got very sweaty and hot. I never got tired of that feeling of being able to transform and it definitely is like an addiction.
It is like a method that allows you to sort of reshape your identity. Do you feel like that at least for those two hours that you are on stage you are a different person, not entirely yourself or is it a different version of who you are?
I think it is more like a very raw aspect of who I am. It is like a concentrated version. You are spewing out your deeper stuff and then there is the adrenaline pumps, and that eggs you on to push yourself. It is physical as well, it is not just the emotional vocal side of it, it is the physical side. I remember when I first really got into doing the Unflesh show, I started to move in a completely different way and I developed these movements that none of them were choreographed. They just came, they just erupted and I always find that really fascinating. It was like allowing myself to be possessed but by an altered, concentrated version of myself.
I guess that it also helps with being in the spotlight, in that you are not fully exposing yourself but a different aspect.
Yeah, I definitely find that to be the case. I think it is being listened to and be given time, because as a person, and maybe for people that were bullied in childhood like I was, have often felt that type of stifled feeling of being ignored and not being listened to and to be able to perform. Obviously, there are many other things going on with performance as well, but for me with that show especially I felt like I was able to let rip and roar. I could really be heard, and it is just a wonderful feeling.
I felt that your first record The Entire City had an ethereal characteristic, which has been presented sparsely in your later works. What was the influence for that perspective?
With The Entire City, I call that my landscape album really because I felt I was illustrating places and times and alien landscapes, but warped memories too and it was all very ghostly and ethereal. This was one of the first things I ever produced so I was using software that I never used before, and I think that maybe the electronic aspect maybe shows that in some way.
What software were you using?
Well it was Ableton 7 I started on, and I had that for quite a few years. Before that I used Cubase, and I did not get along well with that.
Yeah, me neither.
No, it is just so, so convoluted. I had the opportunity to study Logic at uni but never did, because at the time I was never that into production at all, so I would probably be using that now. So it was Ableton, but I did not vet the sounds too much on The Entire City, so when I hear it now personally I kind of think there is a lot there I would change, and I probably redo or change instrumentation a bit. I was living in the city, and I felt that was a reflection of city life and getting into electronic music quite late in life too, so a lot of the synth stuff in that is very classic synth influence. I am talking about ’70s and ’80s type of music, so I think that maybe that was the main influence, as to what you are referring to for that album.
And for Unflesh?
For Unflesh, I think some time had passed between The Entire City and Unflesh, in between I made an EP called Mammal. In that I think I was starting to use heavier beats. I always loved quite dark, masculine music. I say masculine as in music who is mostly made by men, just cause. Dubstep was obviously at its peak around 2011-2012, so that was in the air. I also loved hip-hop, I always loved hip-hop, and I always wanted to somehow find a way to harness the power that I felt from that and the danceability factor that I really enjoyed in that music and some pop music too. So with Unflesh I did actually want to make a quite danceable [album], an album that had some good grooves, felt like it physically made you want to move. But, I also wanted it to be dead simple and to be the most minimal, sparse version of that. And I think I achieved that.
For the track “Belly of the Beast” you used a sample you recorded from the automatic checkout at Sainsbury’s. Do you tend to record a lot of environmental sounds and use them in your music?
Yes, I do, but I do not usually use anything better than an iPhone. Because it is usually not something that I think of, so until I have heard something and I think “Oh shit, I need to record that”. Probably should get a recorder. Maybe [I should] film videos and get the sound off that later. But I like that lo-fi stuff anyway, but I do sometimes look for sounds, try to find stuff on websites like FreeSound.
In between Unflesh and your new album Pastoral you moved away from the city and into a more rural area. How has that change in environment affected your creativity? Because to me it is almost an opposite of Unflesh and its urban sound and it sounds more folky, if that is accurate statement.
Definitely, it is a deliberate element and one that has been knocking around in my own music making, pre-Unflesh and pre-The Entire City days anyway. I wanted to try and bring in a new element back in from my own personal history, but it felt like the more that I was becoming immersed in this new very different life it kind of felt right with the ideas that I was having, to bring that [aspect] back in. But for very much work it in, in a way that allowed to sample and make it feel part of a production that is hopefully quite unique. I did not really know how [the change] would affect me musically, I did not think it would because I always made music in a tiny bubble, on my own or on my computer and not really thought about anything while making it. But, I guess it just happens naturally, and I think the biggest influence was the mood of the country as a whole. Shortly after we moved we had the referendum and the Trump stuff was rising, and we experienced a terrorist attack in Paris when we were gigging.
Which attack was that? The Bataclan?
Yeah. We were not in there, we were performing at a venue about a mile away. But we felt all the effects of it on people that knew people in the venue and they were working on our show. The atmosphere changed for our gig and because we were living rurally at that time and I was also pregnant at the time, we just felt like things were closing in very, very, very scarily. And living rurally and then seeing things on a mass scale happen politically and seeing them first hand, but also seeing them through the eyes of people that are very different to us, and have very, very strong views and very xenophobic views. Being like your neighbors, we started to feel quite threatened and I started to see what I thought would be a very peaceful, very, very light relieving type of existence quickly shift into a feeling, a bit like The Wicker Man, and be like “We get to get the fuck off this island right now”. Because everyone is going to kill us eventually. That was kind of the feeling for a while.
You experienced that sort of change because now we see that urban environments tend to be more progressive, more moderate and then it seems like the rural areas are tilting towards the political extreme. So, was that your experience? Is that what you saw in regard to the people there?
Yeah, it was just a realization. I do not think this is a new thing. I think it has always been the case, because rural places often are a class between people on the low income, like farmers, and people working in agriculture or factories to very wealthy people owning a lot of land. And I kind of feel like still, where we are particularly, it feels very “lord of the manor” and his land and his peasants, who kind of live in the land as a privilege and he gets to make all the decisions. It kind of feels a lot like that. That was part of this feeling; this has not changed for centuries.
This also ties in with certain themes on the album highlight the dissonance between people’s perception of the past. You mention for instance the image of the village square, which today makes for a nice postcard theme, but that was the scene where public execution and torture used to take place in the past. But people have a wrongly derived idea of what it is that it represents.
Definitely, and it is just symptomatic of human nature. But, and maybe I am wrong here, I think it is a very English thing to do. Maybe it is a couple of war time generation type of attitude, to sort of very swiftly moving on and forgetting about all the horror. It did not do it on my own until I spent enough looking at it and thinking “Oh yeah, I did not think of that before, that is what that is, those armholes”, that just stop someone from…
So that they die or get tortured, or raped or God knows what. Not nice to think about really but definitely true.
You also mirror this very nicely with the folk element and moving between two themes, on the one hand, you have the experimental electronic stuff, and on the other, you have those early music influences and a bit of this medieval theme. And it sort of performs an exorcism on the ideas that this time represented, of the Old England or Merry England?
Yes, that’s it, “Merry” or the “Ye, olde”. Yeah, I wanted to draw out those cliches and what I was saying about the “lord of the manor” stuff. It felt like thinking about the entertainment of that era and what it looked like and what it did. So, the court jester became like the perfect vessel to caricature and hop between different characters and to make sarcastic jesters about it all, because it is all in that spirit of the era but also with all that horror.
So this is where the jester persona comes in.
Yeah, the music of the court. It is a mixture of things, it is a jester but it is a hooligan, and it is a Morris dancer, and it is a devil. The main thing it is is a narrator. It is different voices, and it is different jokes.
When I make a comparison between the jester and the previous personas, in the girl in the blue costume from Unflesh or your presence in “Changelings” from The Entire City. Those personas felt more personal, while the jester character feels like a mirror of society.
Yes exactly. The traditional theme of the jester is to perform caricatures and do voices and take this almost Shakespearean roleplaying of being a nagging woman or a gent. So I thought, what I do in everyday life, I do caricature of people. I come across some intense character earlier in the day I will do an impression of their voice or something, and it kind of find myself doing that quite a lot. So, it perfectly worked out really well with that character. It is kind like an effigy or scarecrows, you know how we have the tradition of scarecrows in this country and of Guy Fawkes, dummies of people that we love to mock really and then burn them. I wanted to embody that idea as well, there are loads of voices in that.
It also mirrors in your voice, because you have an insane range of impersonations in the new record.
Thanks. Does insane mean good or …?
It definitely means good. I am bit disturbed but I guess that is the point.
There is definitely something devilish about it. Something that is possessing and that is hoping around possessing different characters.
While the persona depicted on the record does not display the same personal characteristic that the girl in Unflesh showcased, there appears to be a more personal touch to this work.
[…] There is still a personal aspect to this project. The personal aspect is there, but it has shifted on where it sits. There is a personal connection to the recorder, which is my first instrument as a kind and something that I kind of felt I needed to bring back in my life but I could not think of a way until I made this pied piper character. And also, even the theme of medievalry is something I was a bit obsessed with as a kid too. So there is a couple of things there, but also some of the songs, they are about feeling a sense of total fatigue with politics and modern life. It is very, very subliminal really.
What was the artistic influence behind the jester costume? The first time I saw it, I just saw it as a simple jester costume but then you start to look a bit closer, and you see it as something more evil and menacing. The one thing that strikes me is the smile because it is constantly there and it reminds me more and more of BOB from Twin Peaks. So do you find influence in another art form for these characters.
Oh, definitely. Lynch is probably the most obvious one really. It was not a conscious thing but these things never are, are they? I think the smile was not there until I had the whole costume down and I set up on the front room with my husband to take the first press shots. When I cut the mouthpiece out of the red face covering tights, which is exactly the same process I did for Unflesh, I thought it needed some sort of teeth, it needs something human. It obviously cannot be a growling mouth and then I kind of felt with the cap and the jester figure, it just got to be a smile but of course without seeing eyes or the shape of someone’s eyes or their cheeks you can’t tell what that smile is doing. It is not friendly, and it just becomes very frightening, [it is a] mocking, demonic thing. And it just instantly worked. But, I think of all those Lynchian characters the way he directs them to act, in a very silent movie type and way, where they are kind of freeze-framed in one expression and then maybe another one in the next frame, it has an uncanniness to it. It is hard for me to describe but he obviously got Bob to do that for that reason, because “OK we can be scary and be serious faced scary”, but there is nothing scarier than a very big grin.
That is the key part, that takes it over the top.
Yeah, it is fun doing that on stage too. I think times I have smiled on stage previously are quite small, quite thin.
I also really like it in the video for “Hobby Horse”, because there it is absolutely perfect. Especially when you also see this other person, representing the xenophobic, nationalistic type and you have the jester dragging him, and the jester constantly smiling as the other person is being moved around.
The man, I do not know how much it comes across, he is a stereotype, but he is also a scapegoat. He is a pawn, so it was not so much this type of bloke that is doing it. It was more like this is the type of person that I am actually very afraid of, but it is also very conveniently used in that role.
The boogeyman role.
Yeah, exactly the boogeyman role.
How did you approach the production on the album? What was the sonic environment you wanted to create.
There are many different styles going on. I think initially I wanted to take leave of tracks like “Belly of the Beast” and the title track from Unflesh, which were quite repetitive and mantra-like but also quite demonic. I wanted to follow on from there but make something that was ramped up even more. Very tribal in the sense of being working up into a frenzy and [being] trance-like, so there are aspects of that, which ended up after a while becoming quite psychedelic, which in the end it fed into the whole theme. It is just a weird marriage of folk and techno, with the result ending up being a quite psychedelic sound, which is not something I have done much before. I knew I wanted to try and have a period feel in it, obviously the recorders and harpsichord but sampled in a different way.
How did that effect the vocals and the beats of the record?
Vocally I wanted to draw religious music, choral music, hymns but I still wanted to have that electronic aspect driving the tempos and the beats. I have used a lot of percussion and standard bells and tambourines, woody, sticky drums, snare sounds. I wanted it to have that feel of something folky but still within that context of kind of dance music really. There is always several things at the core of everything I make, it is just that one thing often sticks out more than another. Even ’90s house aspects, which is not something I have spent any proper time listening to, but a little bit of it filtered into my childhood. I was born 1981 and I had teenage brothers and sisters in the ’90s who were going to field raves and stuff. I used to hear their pirate radio cassettes and stuff they would find or bring back from boyfriends or girlfriends, and I remember being really terrified of it. It was music that really scared me and made me really frightened, because it reminds of drugs and being out of control and lost. I really wanted to include that, because that was part of my childhood which was rural and it was almost through the eyes of my siblings but at the same time it did have quite an impact on me.
You also play with the early music and electronic divide in the album cover. The background looks like the cover of Beethoven collection, but you throw the jester on the side.
That is exactly what I sought out to do, looking at old classical records and the covers and the design and the pastoral symphonies especially, which is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. But all the sort of CDs and LPs you can buy, they all have that same type of italic font and a nice painting on it. It is very much the kind of thing you will find at a car boot sale, and I was thinking of the mainstream side of classical music in our current generation and how stuff is branded with classical music and maybe have such a disparate meaning originally. I was thinking of all that stuff and the role of classical music and the graphic design very familiar with that. I got a painting as a stock image, edited it myself and put in the jester, and then worked with Jonathan Barnbrook in London. He worked on Unflesh with me too, he put in the yellow glitch aspect and worked on the typography and it just brought it alive, it was perfect.
That glitch works really nice as it enhances the feeling that the image might be looking nice, but there is something slightly off about it.
Exactly, I think we both discussed when we were making this. The idea being that you might spot it from a distance and think “That is familiar” because it is a design that is very familiar by the classical label that most people would know.
We are talking about Deutsche Grammophon?
Yeah. But the idea is to maybe see it from a distance and think “What is that doing on that self on this record store on the experimental electronic section?” and then get closer and be like “Oh, OK yeah”. It has been really fun playing with that too, I love being able to transmit the same ideas and jokes in all aspects of a release because it is so fun being able to do that, carry it on as much as you can.
In 2016 you did a stage performance for the last novel of J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come. How did it feel to go to the previous space of film scoring and the straightforward composition aspect?
I think it felt really good, because I do not feel the pressure so much of having to be really personal and having to think about performance. It was quite liberating to open up my scope a bit more, to involve other people and other ideas in terms of the performance. And also to draw on what you just said, which is the large-scale instrumental landscape type of approach to composing. Because I obviously have that in me and do not have very many opportunities to get that out, because I am always thinking of albums and then I am thinking of three- to four-minute tracks. So, this was a chance for me to create something much more cinematic, because it was always the case that it was going to be live filmed performance.
I found it very liberating and I want to do something similar again, and obviously a very different theme and in a different way. But I like the idea of writing for a Gazelle Twin proxy and for having a Gazelle Twin thing is an aspect that is not always the be all and end all of my output. Because, just like a traditional composer would do, and compose an opera (and I am not comparing it to an opera), or a writer would do a stage show and then would tour, it was from that perspective and that kind of stuff does not happen that often from my side of things, from the producer in electronic, art type side of the music world it does not seem to work that way, it is quite confusing to people.
The idea of writing music that is performed by someone else, so I found that to be one of the most enjoyable projects, partly because the pressure was off me to perform it or tour, but also because I felt like I could take myself out of it more.
What was it about Ballard’s book that made you interested in putting together this performance?
It was not about the book alone, I have always loved Ballard and around the time of making Unflesh I was reading quite a lot of his stuff. I read High-Rise, which probably has more influence than Kingdom Come on that project, but it was the picture he built up of suburban London. And his anthropological eye on seeing the animalistic and tribal tendencies of humans, but obviously in a kind of capitalist, very comfortable setting. There is another book called Millennium People that he wrote, which is almost the same theme again, of a middle class riot and people setting their subs on fire. Just really funny jokes, but really, really telling of how things can and probably are going to go with ourselves. And I kind of felt like the characters in High-Rise especially, but also the visual imagery of Kingdom Come, which was very much like a type of temple, with the religious architecture in a shopping center context, a Mecca for people to get caught up in and start acting out violent deeds on behalf of it. I felt this imagery was crying out for some sort of freakish characters to actually bring it to life and I was very lucky to have a chance to do it. And I could have done so much more, originally I wanted seven to eight performers to have a chorus and have them all on treadmills and going absolutely mental, but there was bound to be restrictions.
Is this performance still going?
It is still going. I have been amazed actually, it exceeded two years now. There is one more show and that is going to be in Warsaw on the 3rd of October [New Theatre, Warsaw PL]. That will probably be the last one if there are no more bookings. It has done amazingly well.
What are the future plans with Gazelle Twin?
I am keen to get started on something for next spring maybe, but I do not think it will be too far away from this theme. I always quite like doing off-shoot projects from my main one, because it is always stuff I can get into more detail on like I did Out of Body for Unflesh. So, I am hoping to find some opportunities there.
Any remixes for Pastoral?
I’d really like to, I have not made any plans yet, and usually that comes with the record being made, we usually organize that straight away. But, this time around we have been so, so busy with getting just the record done, that it has not been something on my mind. I got a couple of people that I would love to remix stuff but there is no budget, and it is always a really long, lengthy process because we cannot outright commission them. But, I think probably at best an EP I’d imagine, unless it really finds traction and we get a lot of interest.
22 Sep – Station Narva Festival, Narva EE
27 Sep – Rough Trade East instore, London UK
5 Oct – Soup Kitchen, Manchester UK
16 Nov – Somerset House, Lancaster Rooms, London UK