“Obviously it’s a mess making any kind of art.” That one, seemingly throwaway line, perfectly encapsulates South London based producer and DJ, Rival Console’s, approach to his intelligent, atmospheric and emotionally evocative electronic music.
Since releasing his first EP as Rival Consoles, The Decadent, way back in 2007, Ryan Lee West has steadily developed into one of the most exciting electronic artists around. Sharing an avant-garde, experimental sensibility with fellow Erased Tapes Alumni Daniel Brandt and Nils Frahm, West is able to dig right into the soul of the listener as he maps out huge, intricate sonic landscapes.
With a mix of analogue synths, warped acoustic instruments and an unmatched passion for effects pedals, West has produced easily one of the most vivid and soul-stirring electronic albums of the year with new album Persona. At times wildly kinetic and at times purposely languid it’s a constantly intriguing album that invites the listener to question the very idea of themselves that they present to the world.
Speaking to PopMatters from his studio in South London, West goes into detail about how he encourages the chaos of creation as well as how a directorial genius inspired the concept behind the album.
While many producers journey into the world of electronic music may have begun when introduced to their first piano or synth, for West it all started at the age of 12 when he picked up his first guitar. It was through the guitar that he first learnt how to make the music that would eventually become Rival Consoles, as he explains. “I would have basically learnt how to play thousands of songs over the next ten years and basically all of my decision making with electronic sounds like chords and melodies is just informed by that kind of perspective.”
Eventually, the guitar became too limiting for the music West wanted to create. ” I feel that I didn’t write interesting music with the guitar even though I am way more competent on the guitar than I am with piano for example.”
West has used that lack of competency to his advantage throughout his career to date. “I basically allow an amount of naivety of the playing aspect of electronic music. I think it’s all to do with being surprised and listening rather than owning a talent to such an extent that you can’t be surprised. This is why electronic music probably works for me.”
There is a deceptive purity to West’s music as Rival Consoles, something that he has always been keen to foster. “I don’t like over labored or overly technical things but at the same time, it’s not about trying to do the easiest, most simple thing. It’s more about the blurry lines between those worlds that are interesting to me. I prefer to say more with less if it’s possible.”
Since the release of the understated, atmospheric techno of 2016’s Night Melody EP, West has been hard at work on the songs that would eventually become new album Persona. “Basically for a whole year I was working everyday for many hours. Some days a huge amount of hours. Some days a few. Some days ten hours of just exploring stuff often re-listening back to material and trying to make sense of it.”
For West, every project is a lengthy, all-consuming affair but with new album Persona it took time for him to see that what he was working on was beginning to fit into some sort of vaguely uniform yet abstract framework. “Around the halfway point you get four or five pieces things start to come together to some extent. After six months of exploring ideas, I have some conceptual ideas but I don’t like to force things. I like to keep it loose when I’m starting out and then I start making sense of things when I’m in the mess and then I just try to build on that.”
On Persona, West has succeeded admirably in corralling those ideas to create a unique sonic soundscape which encompasses everything from the beat-free, ambient ripples of “Untravel” to the coarse industrial beats of “Sun’s Abandon”. Each song articulates a very definite mood that slowly seeps its way into the consciousness. In that way it is probably his most nuanced album yet and one which involved him embracing different instrumentation.
“There’s lots of subtlety across the record that excites me more than something that is loud or more intense. There’s a lot of bowed double bass. There’s something in the way I use synthesizers that a double bass or a cello bowed almost come together as one. There are a lot of real drums on there which I’ve kind of hinted at on earlier stuff.”
By incorporating more organic drums, West really tried to explore one hitherto neglected aspect of his music on Persona. “There’s definitely an intention to explore drums and rhythm more on the record, in a way that I haven’t done before. I always feel that my music is harmony, melody-based so I neglect rhythm to some extent so this album I tried to.”
One of the key songs on the album highlighted this approach. “The perfect example is on ‘Unfolding’. To me that’s just about rhythm because everything starts off in union and then by the end every single part has got independent rhythm. Basically running from order to chaos but I’ve not really done that before because I have to concentrate on a sort of tonal quality.”
West admits that with working on a project for such a long time there is always a risk that he will inadvertently end up vandalizing his own work. “If I spend too much time exploring stuff, I end up sabotaging the idea. There are so many different avenues that you can go down at any one point so I’m just trying to balance between something that’s interesting. I don’t want to spoil something that sounds interesting because I think that sounds crass.”
This, in itself, involves embracing risk for the benefit of the music as a whole. “You can easily make a mess and there is a lot of mess in the record and in a lot of my music but I’d rather it have that and be a problem than make a safe, standardized record so I just sacrifice an amount of that.”
This is certainly evident on Persona where the result of aggressive rebellion against comfort provides the very backbone of the album.
“If you look at the tempos across the record every single piece is at a vastly different tempo so it means that I’m undermining the continuity of the record rather than making a very consistent record where everything runs from track A all the way through to the end.”
Despite this constant urge to subvert himself, there is always a point where West has to exert a certain amount of control. “Towards the end of the record making process, there was a sort of taming of the chaos because some of it was out of control at different points and that’s all to do with the more and more you listen to an idea you become more sensitive to new things. I guess it takes everyone a long time to make sense exactly of everything that’s happening”
West confesses that the album that you hear could have been a whole lot wilder. “I definitely tamed 5 to 10% or more of the sort of more wild parts but allow the wild parts to breathe.”
The central idea behind the record came to West when recalling the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona. The acclaimed Italian director’s masterpiece begins with the viewer observing a montage of still and moving images seemingly from the inside of a projector. These include snippets of animation, an enormous tarantula and one passage in particular that has stuck with West for years.
“I actually studied it a little bit at university and it’s been in my mind since then, especially the opening sequence which is really out there and something that’s always stayed with me. The thing that struck me the most was when the boy is making contact with his hand against this projection screen and this woman’s face is two faces and this is obviously about a split personality and the psyche.”
With that image replaying in his mind, West began to question, not only himself but what his music revealed about his own personality. “You start to ask yourself, ‘Do you know you?’ It’s the same with art. You can make something and it resonates with you but you have to hear it or see it to find out what it is revealing about you. Art is obviously a lot of the time trying to reveal something about the self.”
With such an intellectual concept underpinning his music, West was still concerned that this concept could be alienating for the listener. “It is quite a deep point. My worry about the title was that it was too pretentious but actually I think that’s because a lot of the time that’s because words like this get ruined. It’s such a simple, powerful word. In the end, I sort of decided to go through with it to see how it would carry.”
It wasn’t difficult for West to see the correlations between the music he was making and the concept of “persona”. “My music is quite polarised across the spectrum and often within one piece but I guess this is the central reference to this word “persona” is this polarisation or spectrum.”
Despite wrestling with his own understanding of his psyche and spending a year spooling the disparate sonic threads that threatened, at times, to spin off out of control, West seems genuinely delighted with the way the album turned out. “I don’t think a record turns out a hundred percent how you want to because you can’t help but sabotage your own ideas in the process unless you’re some kind of genius. I think there are many examples of things that turned out as perfect as I could have made them according to my intention.”
What may sound like a difficult, often tortuous process, ultimately makes the results far more satisfying. “It’s a little bit challenging. The thing about making good work is that you have to make mistakes and be criticized in order to get better at something or to see the bigger picture. At lot of the things I’ve been criticized for in the past, I’m already aware of and probably even agree with a lot of the time. It’s not that it’s a weakness it’s more about learning and trying to get better. It’s essential for making good art.”