The Horseman's riled and ragged aesthetic has lent itself perfectly to the imagination of the29nov films crew, who have picked up several of his releases for their unofficial music videos. That's helped to bring the Horseman's imaginary world to life, amplifying the cinematic qualities that have been present in his music from the start. The rest he's done on his own, through cerebral live performances and now an album that's fleshed out his sound.
Headless Horseman first performed (live, as always) at Berghain in 2014, with just a handful of self-released white labels to his name. Since then, he's returned to that hallowed hall another three times, has toured Australia, the US and Japan, played gigs in Russia, Canada and just about every high-profile club in Europe. But not all venues are quite fit for purpose, and his show requires something of an open mind. (See for yourself at RA's fabric takeover in London this weekend.)
The Horseman is always masked and shrouded in secrecy, and so tentatively I approached him one dark and windless night, when the moon was just so, to try to debunk some of the mystery.
Where did Headless Horseman come from?
There is a wonderful work of fiction by Washington Irving, written in 1820, that tells the tale of a Hessian soldier who got his head dismounted by a cannonball, as well as a man who mysteriously vanished—his soul departed from the physical world. Love, conflict and deceit are central to the story. The symbolism can easily be adapted to our modern age. I read this magnificent piece of literature in my youth, and the innocent child in me took a strong liking to it. Irving's words instilled a lifelong love of storytelling in me and sparked wild emotions that until recently have lain dormant. He chose pen and parchment to realise his fantasies; I've chosen electronic instruments.
Can you tell us about some of the instruments you ride with?
The carriers of sound tend to vary from performance to performance, but generally it involves a drum machine, multiple samplers, two synths and a few effects—basically, whatever fits in the saddle bag. It took some time to come up with a system that could retain the power of the studio while utilising portable machines versatile enough to bring the message across in the live situation. Having full control and separation of timbre increases improvisational possibilities and allows for some pleasurable sculpting of sound.
So most of your shows are improvised?
The improvisation and spontaneity of the live show is akin to walking down a dark, narrow and winding path alone after the sun has vanished for her evening rest. Your only guide is moonlight, but other than that you are lost and alone. Fear and excitement may be felt concurrently, but as you put one foot in front of the other, the sense of worry recedes. Hyperventilation transforms into deep calming breaths.
These man-made machines are controlled by our hands but have a small piece of a map that prevents them from getting too far off the path. I do enjoy getting lost on the trail, retracing my steps and having the possibility to choose a new direction. The most important part is not knowing where the road will take us next. A new palette of sound may await behind the next corner.
Are you also trying to create this feeling in the studio?
The possibility of fabricating sounds in the studio are limitless, and sitting by yourself renders a completely different feeling from being surrounded by others. The composition process takes a lot of time, and I feel no reason to enter the gates unless an idea has been spiralling beforehand—otherwise the focus and intention get lost.
As easy as it is to lose sight of the initial motive behind a composition, I'm accepting that getting side-tracked is not necessarily a negative thing. Electronic music is full of happy accidents. These rare and magical moments happen few and far between but are warmly welcomed. Furthermore, learning to accept failure during the creative process has been very liberating. Throwing away sketches is a part of the creative process we must accept and not be scared of.
There is a certain amount of frustration in trying to transcribe an idea from your head into a melody, noise or abstract sound; the technical and creative aspects don't always harmonise. With that said, the battle is worth it for those few moments when what you envisioned earlier in the day materialises into a comprehensive piece of work.
What prompted the first Headless Horseman release?
The first release shined light on a difficult personal situation in my life at that time and gave me new hope and purpose. It didn't put a blanket on my emotions; it gave my mind and body a feeling of self-worth. It literally came together in a few heartbeats. I was fortunate enough to enable the record button as the machines sang their hymn. I then became conscious that opening the creative portal was a natural form of self-medication and has continued to be so.
Is writing music a form of therapy for you?
I consider making music something akin to throwing paint on a large canvas. There are so many colours and brushes to choose from. Some strokes are fluid and some are full of artefacts, droplets of paint and smudges. There is a strong connection between the audible and visual domains. When I compose, I try to picture physical objects—human objects and other entities we can't speak of.
What are some of the creative challenges you face?
The challenge exists in attempting to capture the essence of these colours and textures and transform them into something listenable. We may all perceive the cracking of a tree branch the same as our counterparts do. Yet as we grow, our perceptions change and our memories distort what was once second nature. It's a struggle to paint a coherent picture that is well thought out but possesses its raw and natural feeling. It's easy to overproduce something to the point at which the sounds are aesthetically pleasing to the ear, but there is simply no meaning to the track as a whole.
How did the album come about?
I wrote a collection of short stories prior to writing the album. These stories directly reflect the track titles and the meanings behind them. The intention was to create a soundtrack-like setting. There was a lot of ground covered relative to the subject matter that spawned the first release; it required the duration of an album. This opened up the gateway to fantasy without boundaries. I started to visualise fundamental characteristics of sound as different shades of colour, and strived to transform them into something stimulating inside the audible range. The colour spectrum is as wide as the audible one. This is the soundtrack to a film that has not yet become reality but is in the making.
As well as narratives, what else inspires a Headless Horseman release?
The short pieces of text that fuel inspiration for the tracks act as a guideline for what should follow sonically. The creative wheels are always turning and there is no way to make them stop. I see that as a blessing, not a hindrance. Simple things like tree branches, their swaying in the wind and temporarily assuming new forms, can trigger a memory that implants a mood that potentially could be transcribed into audible form.
Being far away from a familiar place can also rupture the creative thought process in productive and interesting ways. New surroundings, energy and people can easily become the catalyst for new ideas. It's rare that these unplanned moments turn immediately into musical compositions; the seed of an idea has been planted and will grow continually in the subconscious.
Has this project been a long time in the making? I'm curious to know what finally brought you out into public.
The love of musical instruments—electronic and acoustic—and organic sound caused by nature melded together at one point in my thought process. Although the passion was present, there wasn't a clear goal. I spent a lot of time in solitude waiting for the emotional window to open. The fog rolled in and covered any ounce of sunlight for what felt like an eternity.
Not observing the world around you for an extended period of time can be very damaging to the psyche. As someone who felt hopeless and lost for a while, the music has been solely responsible for loosening the rusty latches in this large metal door. Learning to open and connect with others has shown me that humans have a way to them that is indescribably beautiful. I'm everlastingly grateful that this fragile egg slipped off the ledge and allowed the light to start shining through a hairline crack.
Why do you wear a mask? Surely this inhibits you being able to connect with people.
The facial covering allows me to focus deeply on my inner spirit and transform that energy into coherent music. There have been many occasions on the dance floor when I've observed the bulk of the audience with their eyes closed. When one sense becomes less, the other becomes stronger. One could see this as a method of detaching from the surroundings, or as a way of tapping into a greater sense of hearing.
There is no harm in finding a small gateway to assist with escaping the pressures of the everyday routines life forces upon us. I want the audience to focus on the sonic aspects, not the deliverer. We often go our own ways and find each other again on a different passageway throughout the evening. I can't see the audience but I feel them in my bones.
It all sounds ritualistic. How do you mentally prepare for this? Do you have any pre-show customs?
It's not always possible to find a quiet place in the hectic atmosphere of a venue. I enjoy a short hibernation for a few moments if it's possible—a place to sit back momentarily and collect my thoughts before entering the cage of instruments awaiting to sing their disharmonic symphony. I take a moment to be thankful that I'm able to express this creative endeavour without compromise. Then I saddle up, engage the machines, kick the horse in the rear and hope he doesn't buck.
Have you found that some venues are better suited to what you're trying to achieve?
Because of the theatrical element, I find that abnormal venues and one-off locations can be very invigorating. Those with crevasses, oddly shaped corners and maze-like structures are pleasurable to creep around in and make you feel like you are trapped in a fairy tale. Lighting and visuals are two very significant aspects to the show, but the A/V has only happened a handful of times to date. At the end of the day though, four sweaty walls and a finely tuned soundsystem is all we ever need.
Have you ever had problems bringing such a show to life?
The live show is driven solely by the setting and the moods of the audience. It's a healthy challenge to keep the show fresh and entertaining. It's easy to lose half the audience when tapping into more experimental territories. If I'm not feeling anything from it, then the audience won't either. I'm aware that this is not a prime-time rave experience for most; often I hear distant whispers that some people didn't "get it."
And how does that make you feel?
Maybe not getting it is relative to the bigger picture. I don't consider the story to be so obvious from the first read. If someone doesn't grasp what it's all about then they are welcome to skip to the next chapter, or put the book aside for a while. There is always another page. We are all open to our own interpretations. That, I feel, is the beauty of life.
What do you hope to impart?
My only hope is that those who experience a show or listen to a record can find something to latch onto from the music, no matter who is playing. I do hope I'm able to contribute to people's sense of freedom to be themselves, whether that is for a minute or a lifetime. I focus on my journey and tell my story for the duration of the set. My little fantasy world is open to all and you are welcome to come for a visit. There are too many brilliant minds that far exceed the norm and never get the slightest chance to present their works. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to take the stage and put my art on display.