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Since 2003, drone metalers Nadja have been consistently outputting, effectively cementing their name in the lineage of the drone subgenre. Throughout their discography, Nadja demonstrates a preference towards experimentality, be it in their means of composition or their conceptual approach to each record. This is somewhat more true for Aidan Baker’s solo works. No less prolific, the range of experimentality in Aidan’s work is wide. Given this context, I was curious to learn more about Aidan’s process and approach to composition, both with Nadja and in his solo work.
Ahead of Nadja announcing their upcoming record, Labyrinthine, I had the opportunity to connect with Aidan on these topics, as well as impenetrable Bandcamps, his connection and proximity to Ukraine, and Nadja’s upcoming European tour.
Drew: I’ve been listening to Nadja and your solo work leading up to this and I’ve noticed a pretty consistent throughline throughout the body of work, which I think boils down to the word ‘texture’. Specifically, very textural drones. Given my particular interest in the subject, I really wanted to ask first what is the appeal of drone music to you?
Aidan: I think my interest in it came out of a response to my classical training, actually, because I studied classical flute as a teenager for a long time and found myself very dissatisfied or frustrated with the limitations of A) classical music and B) playing classical flute, which has a very narrow sort of repertoire and setting possibility. You always have to play with an orchestra or accompanist or some sort of ensemble. So I felt very constrained by that and one of the reasons I picked up guitar at the same time was precisely to be able to play something by myself where it could be a self-contained thing, like a song or a piece or whatever. And I didn’t get into drone right away, of course, but, I think it was kind of a natural extension of how I taught myself guitar in a sort of semi traditional way, and sort of finding the little textural sounds that the guitar can make and exploring those directions and bringing that into a sort of a drone context. So I think the big appeal for drone then for me is the self-sustainability of it all.
Drew: One thing you mentioned that I thought was really interesting is how it’s a response to your classical training. With a lot of drone work, it branches away from the equal tempered kind of rigidity. And guitar is obviously a little limited in that way, also just by nature of the construction of the instrument. How have non equal tempered systems played into your compositions over the years?
Aidan: Not so much. I was less interested in that sort of academic approach and more about exploring the instrument as a tool more than an instrument.
Drew: This makes me want to ask about extended techniques with the guitar. I’d love to hear a little bit more about whether there’s some interesting ones you employ. Are there any recordings you can point to as an example?
Aidan: Well, obviously I used a lot of effects that quite apparent, but at the same time I don’t want to be completely reliant on the effects and I know a lot of experimental musicians or ambient musicians are reliant on their effects, which I’m not going to critique them or fault them for it, I understand. But with my own personal approach, I want to be able to have a physical technique that can create a sound that would be construed as experimental, ambient, what have you and doesn’t necessarily need an effect to make it. So I’m trying to use the effect pedals to amplify those different performance techniques rather than relying on the pedals to create the sound. And probably the best example in my catalog of this is an album called Dry. It has no effects at all. So it’s a live recording using only different performance techniques. And it’s pretty experimental and pretty abstract and drier than most of my stuff. So a less textural direction, but a deliberate attempt to step away from the pedals and see what could happen without them.
Drew: That’s appealing in a deep listening context where you really have to listen to the nuances and intricacies of the physicality of a person playing a thing.
Aidan: Yeah, exactly. Like when I was a teenager, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were bands that I listened to a lot, and they definitely pushed me in this direction. But a lot of the times, like with Dinosaur Jr. especially, it was the little weird sounds J would make on guitar as an intro or an outright and [thought], “Oh wow, that’s really cool. I want to figure out how he did that.” So less the songwriting on Dinosaur Jr., but more the textural sounds that he created pushed me in a more drone/experimental direction.
Drew: Would you say bands like that and your first exposure to them are kind of your ‘a-ha’ moment in the context of you being steeped in classical training and you hear groups like that go, “Oh shit, there’s like a whole other world out here.”
Aidan: Yeah, I think that’s fair. Yeah. [laughs]
Drew: [laughs] It’s really interesting to hear every musician’s different entry point into the weirder stuff.
Aidan: I mean, I think actually Big Black was probably something that I listened to before Sonic Youth, and definitely Steve Albini‘s guitar on that is very textural and it’s such a weird guitar sound that you automatically lock into it and say, “Oh, how is he doing that? How is he getting that sound?”
Drew: All very formative bands for me as well. So, thinking more about breadth and body of your work – I was listening to The Evelyn Tables, which has great sound design on it and wonderful atmosphere, and I was curious to know how much cross pollination occurs across all of your projects? Are there any examples?
Aidan: I mean, some ideas come along that I think are very specific to a project. And often I should decide in advance whether it’s going to be another album or solo album or some other whatever, some other group. So I guess in a way, there’s not a lot of cross-pollination. But that’s more in the planning stages, going into a project saying, “okay, I’m going to do this and it will be this.” Sometimes it changes depending on what happens. So it’s not unprecedented. But generally speaking, I guess not.
Drew: I am curious to hear more about the planning stages. Are you collecting these ideas as you go on and have a huge backlog of these things built up?
Aidan: To a certain degree, yeah. With solo work, it’s much more exploratory. So, that can be maybe a bit more spontaneous in a way. I’ll just sit down and start playing something and see where it leads, or I have a sort of specific sound or style in mind that I want to try and capture and express. Yeah…so I guess also with solo it goes both ways [laughs]. It can be very specific, [it] can be very abstract. Like a couple of years ago, the album Delirious Things is kind of like the shoegaze synth pop stuff and that had a very specific aesthetic going into it. So that was less about exploring and more about trying to capture a certain atmosphere or even the genre in a way.
Drew: Do these things ever change mid-project?
Aidan: Oh, sure, of course. And, you know, like the work it forms itself. So, as I’m working on something it can become something else entirely.
Drew: What in the catalog do you think is a really shining example of that?
Aidan: Well, the Nadja album Flipper. That started out [where] we actually wanted to kind of do like a grunge rock album with those songs and it just didn’t work and we ended up stripping it down and doing kind of the opposite, a much more minimal slowcore kind of record with that.
Drew: Interesting, because I did have another question about the self-editing process and how these determinations going into a project impact the later phases. So you’re not afraid to say, “you know what, this concept didn’t work.” and burn it all down, so to speak.
Aidan: Yeah, not at all. I mean, it can be a challenge, of course, especially if you’ve worked on something for a long time and think, “Oh, I really like this, but it’s just not working.” But, I mean, that’s part of the process, is knowing when to continue and when to abandon something.
Drew: Is that something you still struggle with?
Aidan: Sometimes, yeah. I’m working on a solo record right now that’s kind of a lo-fi, ambient grunge thing that I had this kind of specific idea for and the first pass didn’t work. Second pass kind of fixed it, but not really. And now it’s sitting in the third pass waiting to be either finished or abandoned because I can’t decide whether it’s worth working on anymore. [laughs]
Drew: I think folks would be curious to know what are some solo works of yours that you’re particularly proud of? Or maybe you go back years on and kind of surprised yourself like [and think], “Oh shit. I really hit it on this one.”
Aidan: I can’t say that I’ve actually listened to any of my earlier works [laughs] recently to remind myself, but Letters, I guess was like the second album I did, and I still like that one. And that’s a very kind of ambient, experimental one. Already Drowning I like still with guest vocalists. More post-rock. Yeah. I don’t know. It’s hard to pick them out sometimes. Because I don’t necessarily have a clear memory and would have to go back and re-listen to say, “Oh, yeah, that one. Sure.”
Aidan: We’ve known Alan for a while. We were lucky enough to play with Khanate when they toured in Canada back in 2005 or 6 or something. Five, I guess it was, and that was the first time we met those guys. But we’ve kept in touch and worked together or played together a few other times throughout the years. And even though Khanate is a very menacing band and pretty dark and evil, those guys are actually kind of funny and weird, which is maybe not what people expect, but definitely good senses of humor from all of them. So it is actually pretty easy working with Alan. We didn’t record together because he’s in New York, so we just sent him the files and said, “Okay, you have free rein, do what you like.” And he came back with what he did. And yeah, it definitely fit the mood of the song and we didn’t really do anything to the track. That is as he performed it pretty much.
Drew: Oh, wow. That’s great. And that’s cool context to kind of go back with and listen to it again. Would you say that’s the approach for the rest of the album with the other guest vocalists?
Aidan: Yeah, we gave them some text to use as they saw fit and gave them free rein with the music and the songs changed structurally a little bit from the original demos that we gave them. But with Alan’s the timing changed a little bit, but otherwise his vocal performances as he sent it. The track with Lane from Elizabeth Colour Wheel we layered her voice a little bit here and there because she gave us multiple takes and said, “use what you like. Take what you want.” and we ended up making these collage sounds that fit in with the noise.
Drew: I was really excited to see you guys sharing some dates on your upcoming tour with My Disco. How did that pairing come to be? Is there a collaboration we could maybe look forward to?
Aidan: We’ve only met Ben before, because we played a couple of shows with him when we were in Australia in 2010 I guess it was and I can’t remember the name of his project. It wasn’t My Disco. It was one of his other projects. So we met him then, and we’re both fans of My Disco and seen them play a couple of times here in Germany, but he just emailed us and said, “Oh, we’re planning a tour. Do you want to team up and do it together with us?” Which is actually a return to old methods for us. Lately, we’ve just been touring by ourselves and not as a package for a variety of reasons. So this is kind of revisiting some old tour methods. Teaming up with another band and doing dates together like this. So yeah, it will be interesting to see how it goes.
Drew: What can audiences expect from the European tour?
Aidan: I don’t know yet [laughs]. We do need to figure out how to play the new songs from Labyrinthine without the vocalists. That’s something we still need to decide on how we’re going to do and how we’re going to present those songs. Since I personally don’t want to try to emulate their voices because that doesn’t seem true to the spirit. So we’ll probably do instrumental arrangements for those tunes, at least present something from that album.
Drew: No surprises like guests dropping in?
Aidan: It depends. I don’t know that we’re going to any cities where any of these people are. Yeah, it’s probably unlikely.
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Drew: Fair enough! Recently, you released a Nadja Live in Kharkiv benefit album, with proceeds going to various Ukrainian based causes and charities. What were you guys able to achieve with that release and those donations?
Aidan: We gave an initial round of funding to the Kiev Independent, the English language newspaper in Kiev. They say that they’re one of the only truly independent newspapers there, that isn’t under any sort of mandates or control by some sort of agency. So one of the truly free and outspoken forums for journalism there. I don’t remember the total that we gave, but we gave a decent amount and once we gave that first one we changed the charity to a local Berlin agency that’s helping with resettlement and the refugee issues. And we haven’t yet made a donation to them, but we’re accruing downloads and payments now, and we’ll make one probably over the summer.
Drew: That’s fantastic to hear and great to see musicians supporting Ukraine with their talents to do something about these larger issues that the powers that be force upon the rest of us.
Aidan: It’s shocking and appalling for everyone. But we were just in Kharkiv last October, not even a year ago. And that’s when that show’s from. And it’s pretty crazy to see some of the places where we walked or the train station where we got off the train and walked to the venue on the news being shelled and destroyed in less than six months later. So that really had an impact on us and we really wanted to do something. I mean, there’s not much we can do except something like this, like offering donations to charity through giving people music.
Drew: The issue of press freedom. What does it mean to you guys and why was that what earned the initial round of funding from you guys?
Aidan: Because we’ve also toured a lot in Russia and we know a lot of people in Russia that this idea of the war there being justified by Russians seems completely impossible or foreign to the people that we’re friends with that we know and have worked with over the years. But the whole freedom of information, freedom of speech is nonexistent there. So even if they thought that they don’t have a voice to say it or if they protest they are in danger of arrest and all that. So it seemed really important to us to be able to help fund people saying factual information, to clarify their own opinions and opinions of people who were not representative of the government or the powers that be.
Drew: You also mentioned that you changed where you were going to donate for the second round, which is more of a localized Berlin charity or organization. Here in the U.S., the Russian invasion of Ukraine is constantly in the news cycle. But we’re very far removed from it. So very curious to hear about how the war has affected you guys living in Berlin?
Aidan: Berlin is weird because it’s kind of the first major city coming west from Ukraine, if you don’t stop in Poland. Trains come to Berlin. So there was an influx of something like several hundred thousand refugees here over the last several months. So there was a very immediate impact in the first weeks where people were fleeing Ukraine and coming here. And Berlin as a city is already kind of challenged bureaucratically. So this sudden influx of people was a real challenge for the infrastructure and for the bureaucracy. Any kind of official government stuff that these people have to deal with was immediately backed up and quite difficult to handle. So a lot of people were advising to not stop in Berlin, come here and then go somewhere else in Germany where there’s another city that can help take you or settle you. So they were more focused on this redistribution here. So people would arrive at the main train station and there were lots of agencies or volunteers that were organizing where people could go and where people could find a place to stay. And some people did stay in Berlin. I think it’s like 60,000 refugees here right now. I don’t remember the exact number, but something like that. And then other people were distributed around to other cities in Germany. So that was a very immediate crisis in the first couple of weeks that was very apparent to people. One that was less apparent, is that Germany gets almost all of its energy and fuel from Russia and still is. But in the first few months, a lot of Berliners were choosing not to heat their apartments because the heating came from Russia. So, yeah, March and April we didn’t have any heat in our apartment because, this is one little thing we can do to not fund the war machine, right? We can suffer through the cold. Whether it’s an actual help, whether it makes a difference or not. Hard to say, but it’s something.
Drew: Exactly. But I think it’s great that you guys saw and felt the impact and were directly impacted by this and not only donated to folks in Ukraine, but are now turning those efforts back home.
Aidan: It’s a new experience for us definitely to be this close to conflict like that. The conflict itself is shocking, but the closeness and the relevance of it also. And coming from Canada, especially where, you know, not very much happens [laughs]. A few disputes with the U.S. over wood or something like that. It doesn’t really compare. [laughs]
Drew: I don’t know if you feel this, but it seems to me drone is having a moment right now or rather is reaching a level of popularity that I think hadn’t been so in decades past. For example, here in San Francisco, I went to see Kali Malone and Stephen O’Malley perform at Grace Cathedral and the line was around the block, which completely surprised me. So, if you agree, what do you think contributes to this gradual shift in people’s tastes and interests into more adventurous left field music?
Aidan: I mean, everything is cyclical, of course. And I think there was a real sort of heyday for drone and ambient electronic music in the early 2000s, and that seemed to kind of die away a bit, at least here in Europe. And it’s hard to say whether there’s a resurgence in it right now, but I guess there is to a certain degree. But yeah, I’m not sure why that’s happening or whether it’s just the way trends work somehow. I suppose there is a certain level of maybe practicality to it in that it’s not a full band. They don’t require the same kind of technical support that through the pandemic has been impossible for bands to tour and play live. So if you’re a solo musician or a duo with more limited tech requirements, that practicality can lead to more opportunity for them.
Drew: You think that extends to the way making music at home has been very democratized in recent years?
Aidan: Yeah, definitely. And definitely through the pandemic, people were making music at home. And now that things are lighting up a bit and people can tour again, it seems like a lot of people who are doing solo stuff or more self-contained music are now trying to present it in public.
Drew: Do you think this year and a half, two years of isolation as a response to the pandemic, maybe forced people to get a little more introspective or gave them enough time to seek out and dig a little deeper into subcultures and subgenres?
Aidan: It’s possible. It seems to me it could go both ways that people looked for something more, something new to entertain themselves or to broaden their horizons or they retreated into what was their comfort zone. So that’s kind of interesting that there seems to be less middle ground in a way, artistically speaking, right? So there’s these more sort of extremes between exploration and the opposite of that. Turning inward or something like that.
Drew: What are you listening to a lot of right now?
Aidan: I just picked up some records. I got a Lester Bowie record, a Lungfish record and Sonic Youth record [laughs]. So, yeah I mean, they’re all old albums from the nineties or the seventies, even. It varies. Depends where my head is or what I feel that I need. Just been listening to Blurt a lot. They reissued one of their early records and have been enjoying that.
Drew: Very nice. Well, I appreciate your time, and thanks for the continued output over the years. it’s been massively influential not just on me and my own stuff, but tons of people. So, a sincere thanks for that, and for taking the time to speak with Discipline Mag.
If you would like to support Press Freedom in Ukraine and help counter the Russian propaganda effort, you can so by following this link to the Kyiv Independent website.
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