Few artistic comparisons get at what Frost does exactly. There's no beauty hidden beneath the surface ala Fennesz or Tim Hecker. It's right there next to the screeching static, ready to be embraced immediately. Indeed, what makes Frost's music so powerful is that you're confronted with everything. Terror, beauty, all at 120db.
Frost's most recent album for Bedroom Community, By the Throat, was ranked among RA's favorite albums of 2009. But it's in those 120db live shows that the full power of his music becomes apparent. He's become a regular on the international festival circuit, and it's where (in an ideal world) he'd like you to experience his music first as well. We caught up with Frost via e-mail over the past three weeks to talk about his live show, Ghostbusters and his up-close-and-personal experiences with a certain Icelandic volcano.
A friend once told me that after listening to By the Throat for the first time, he felt sick. To play psychiatrist for a moment, how does that make you feel?
It's increasingly more difficult to get that kind of reaction from people, so I guess my immediate reaction is [that] it's a positive thing. For all our grandstanding about the heightened level of evolution we have apparently achieved, the idea that my music can invoke a physiological reaction in a person says a great deal about that illusion.
It touches on the thing I was most fascinated by in making that record, that being the collective aural memory of the human experience and our fascination with the malevolence of the natural world. By the Throat was always about somehow channeling those ideas, because they are powerful, musical weapons: rumbling bass, explosive distortions and growling, howling strings. It's simple synapse—our brains hear music but we hear earthquakes, volcanoes and fear of predators in dark.
About an hour's drive from my house right now there is a volcano exploding. It's the hottest (no pun intended) ticket in town. Everyone wants to get close to it, and to be afraid of it. I guess the same could be said of anyone who wants to get close to my music. It's masochistic. I don't see much of a line between enjoying the experience of my music, and the guy who pays a hooker to walk on him in six-inch stilettos while he rubs one out.
when it's coming at you at 120db."
You seem to be saying that people that genuinely enjoy your music are perverse.
I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I mean there is an inherent level of masochism involved in making the kind of music I make, so I can only assume that to listen to it is to feed the same need. The issue of "necessity" in art is an interesting one.
I read this interview today between Nico [Muhly, labelmate on Bedroom Community] and Jonsi [Birgisson, lead singer of Sigur Ros] talking about [Jonsi's new album] Go, where Jonsi was saying he limits what he listens to in the same way he limits his diet to raw vegan food. While I crave red meat and couldn't dream of being a raw food vegan, my approach to music and film and literature is very similar. It's not that I hate music as much as I know I just don't need 99% of it. I don't need to hear every half-baked rehash hipster band Pitchfork is trying to ram down my throat, just like I don't need a fucking quarter pounder meal.
But conversely, submitting myself to an hour of like, Darkthrone, is in a way overstepping a naturally occurring inclination to not consume that music and to not submit myself to that sound and that volume. It's more like forcing yourself to go for a run to get rid of the hangover instead of staying in bed. There is a physiological reaction to the experience that translates into this big release of endorphins. It's punishing, and that's the point I think. It's not supposed to be enjoyable in itself, it's a submission. You can't ignore the Norwegians, and I wish more music commanded that kind of commitment.
Until recently, not a lot. Having said that, right at this moment I am again listening to Burial, and you can dance your fucking ass off to that. If all dance music sounded like that and, more importantly, felt like that, I would never have touched a guitar I don't think. That music makes me feel just downright lethal.
The thing I have come to realize that I like about dance music as opposed to "rock" music, I suppose is the way in which the performance of dance music is much more experiential rather than a personal spectacle or a demonstration. I can see my work has become, and is becoming, less and less about narrative and much more about providing a space for it to occur. Despite my increasing use of acoustic instruments and continued firm grip on a guitar, that is an idea that has far more in common with dance music culture than with songwriting...which I suppose is interesting when you consider how many times I have publicly stated that I have no interest in electronic music. It's important though, I think, to make a delineation between dance music and the tools usually used to create it.
I'm not sure what you mean exactly by that last line. Can you explain a bit more?
What I mean is that you can make dance music with acoustic instruments, but you can't make electronic music without electronic instruments...and I am interested in the experiential aspect of dance music culture—the way the performance is about the space rather than the artist. I am also interested in the power of electronic instruments to create or affect sound and music, but that the two are infinitely separable entities and—for the most part—when the two are combined as in dance music the result is usually very uninteresting to me on the whole.
AllMusic Guide called you a composer in their review of By the Throat. Is that what you'd call yourself?
Sure, I mean I've tried all kinds of hats. They're all equally stupid, but of all of them "composer" seems least ridiculous. You say "musician," you are another guitar-slinger, you say "sound artist" and nobody outside of a handful of hardcore Wire subscribers has any interest in what you are doing, you say "artist" and God help you at US border security—you'll have some guy's fist up your colon so fast...
Ultimately, I would prefer that my music comes through the door before I do, or that it's experienced live first. Nobody cares what I call myself when it's coming at you at 120db.
I do remember that show in Barcelona was kind of remarkable, because the soundcheck was excellent, and I was extremely happy with the whole set up. In fact, that's probably the closest I have ever gotten to perfect sound actually, but somewhere in the 30 minutes between soundcheck and the show itself one of the DI's crapped out and the whole thing was a shadow of itself. Under normal circumstances that would actually be fine, but nobody on the technical side of the festival did anything. And so it wasn't until I started yelling that they realized it wasn't actually supposed to sound like that.
I guess I am just hyper-aware of the potential of my music sonically, and how it works as a result emotionally. When it doesn't achieve it, I am a fucking pain in the ass for anyone in the vicinity. Cold dressing rooms? Fine. No booze? Whatever. Piano out of tune? I'll work with it. Lighting rig fucked? OK, I play in the dark. But if your sound system is a piece of shit—or the people running it don't know what they are doing—it'll get ugly quickly.
Why do you play in the dark?
In the same way, I don't want to make didactic albums, I also don't intend to perform didactically. That's one of the principal reasons I loathe the element of video in music performance. Telling your audience what your visual image your performance is supposed to evoke is frankly insulting to an audience. This postmodern obsession with turning every live concert into a cinematic experience is just fucking insulting to me as an audience
When you use video in a live show you are effectively saying to me two things. One: You are completely and utterly incapable of engaging me in your performance and are compensating. Two: You think I am a moron, and have no imagination of my own.
That said, I played at a festival the other night with Kanding Ray and he had "video"—but what was interesting about it is that there were no images, barely any colour. It was like a swarm of pixels that backlit his band and, occasionally but not always, made these synesthetic gestures of syncing with the beat—making very powerful kinetic relationships. There was no lighting and, as a result, it was lighting design rather than film. And I really, honestly loved it.
You obviously know (on some level) that there are images that are associated with your own ("earthquakes, volcanoes and fear of predators in dark") that most people already have in their minds when they approach your work. Does it bother you that potentially all people get is the dark stuff?
Contemporary music is going the way of the James Cameron school of storytelling: Remove any element of suggestion or subtlety and replace with a fucking sledgehammer. It's like: YOU. WILL. FEEL. THIS.
I suggest things in my work, and my records certainly have an angle. I draw on everything that I absorbed while creating a record. They allude to images, texts, ideas, and I do try to frame what I've done...and obviously I see things in a particular way, which I can try to visualize on the cover of my record. I mean, it's my record, right?
I knew from day one there would be wolves on the front cover, and I knew there would be that golden light, and that blood red. But how those things came together—how it ended up with me standing in a snowstorm with those dogs in the north of Iceland with an old ambulance behind me flooding the place in light—I could never have really imagined that. I think if you have strong ideas, there is no need to orchestrate the way in which they come together. The concept will reign.
I would like to think I respect the intelligence and—moreover—the imagination of an audience to draw the lines between things, dramatically. The void is far more fascinating than anything I could fill it with. I just want to map out my territory, and piss in the corners so you know where the edges are. You can work out—and make up the rest—on your own.
no need to orchestrate the way
in which they come together."
Theory of Machines, your first album, was composed of a few very long tracks. By the Throat, for the most part, was composed of relatively short compositions. Was that a conscious decision?
"Killshot," "The Carpathians" and "O God Protect Me" are all a single work, and they were composed that way from the outset. That is mostly always the case. The track markers only went in at the very final stage, literally splitting the waveform only as a final, stereo master. In a perfect world iTunes would read By the Throat as a single 45-minute piece of music. But Steve Jobs fucked that up for everyone when he made a "song" cost 99 cents. So I, like everyone else, is now Steve Jobs' bitch. I do appreciate very much the space to play with text though... those titles were almost as labored over as the music.
I'll ask you only about one: "Peter Venkman"?
I hiked up to the edge of the volcano last week. I walked in the middle of the night, and arrived at the lava flow around three in the morning. Walking towards it through the mountains, in the darkness, in the snow, in the silence—hearing the exploding lava getting louder and louder, and watching the lava spitting out in deep glowing red against the clouds—I was genuinely filled with fear, and it was a real fear, not rooted in politics, or faith, or some kind of logical analytical fear. It was a fear that predates modern man. There was actually nothing to think about.
And that kind of goes back to what I was saying before, that we seek experiences that fire our primal emotions. This is why we have bungee jumping, amphetamines and self-asphyxiation... Something changed in the late 20th century, where the supernatural stopped being fascinating and awe-inspiring and [instead] became threatening. If Ghostbusters had been written today, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man would have come to destroy us because of our destruction of the planet through global warming, or he would be at war with our "freedom," and it would be about the Ghostbusters liberating us from our own conscious, human mistakes. That is not fascinating, it's depressing and it's boring.
Gozer was just there to fuck shit up. It was that simple. There was no explanation, and there is no discussion to be had with Gozer the Destructor. And Peter Venkman realized that. I suppose what I am getting at is that we have cerebralized our fears and that By the Throat does not work like that. In fact, none of my music works like that. I don't want you to think about what I am doing, I just want you to be affected by it.