by J. Hubner
Photos by Jonas Munk
When words like “ambient” and “atmospheric” are brought in to describe a band’s music you may have the urge to yawn, stretch, or leave the room. Visions of purple clouds, slow motion shots of a falcon flying in a dusky sky, or Tibetan streams running along wooded views accompanied by a Yamaha DX-7, gated reverbed electronic percussion, and maybe some muted “oohs” and “ahhs” may begin to form in your mind. Please erase all of that from your brain because what we’re about to talk about invokes none of those new age-y tropes, but you may just elevate to the astral plane just the same.
Billow Observatory is a transatlantic music duo that consists of Auburn Lull’s Jason Kolb and Causa Sui’s Jonas Munk. Their music is very meditative and, well, atmospheric, but in a really trippy, hallucinogenic way. It’s electronic music that gives you the feeling of falling slowly through space or internally like some existential trip to find oneself. Both guys have chartered similar territory in their main gigs(see Auburn Lull’s Cast From The Platform and Jonas Munk’s Absorb Fabric Cascade for wonderful examples), but in Billow Observatory they find this beautifully positive space to let the music grow and expand to epic proportions. There’s elements of Eno-esque drone, but there’s also a shoegaze-y element that brings the music to earth.
Kolb and Munk released the first Billow Observatory long player in 2012 and have just released that album’s follow-up, the excellent II: Plains/Patterns on Azure Vista Records. I threw some questions at Jason and Jonas and they were happy to lob some answers back at me.
J. Hubner: So give me a little background on Billow Observatory. How did you two start this transatlantic musical partnership?
Jonas Munk: It all goes back to a post-surf hangout in Oceanside, San Diego 13 years ago. I was chilling poolside, having some good tequila with James from Darla Records (home of Munk’s past ambient project Manual and Auburn Lull) and Jesus from Spanish label Acuarela Records. We were all talking about how good the latest Auburn Lull record (Cast From The Platform) was – in fact it’s still one of my alltime fave records – and Jesus suggested we did a Manual/Auburn Lull 10” split EP for his label. The split EP never happened but it did get me in touch with the band and we started working together in 2005, if I remember correctly.
J. Hubner: What is the inspiration behind the ambient electronic tones you two create? Are there any particular albums you guys are pulling influence from?
Jonas Munk: I can recognize aspects of a really wide range of stuff in our music, but on this new record some of our all time fave ambient, minimalism and shoegaze albums have definitely had an impact on the final result. Eno’s more melodic collaborations (Evening Star, The Pearl, Apollo), everything by Roedelius, Cluster, Slowdive’s Pygmalion, Aphex Twin’s SAW II and Stars Of The Lid. All the classics we’ve loved for decades basically! But also more modern electronic music (at least ”modern” 15 years ago) such as Pole, Jan Jelinek and the whole Scape catalog is something I’ve been listening to a lot for the past few years while working on this album.
Jason Kolb: In addition to everything above, I’ve been through a few pretty intense Kompakt and 12K phases in the last few years. I also re-discovered and became totally obsessed with EAR’s The Köner Experiment, which may have subliminally influenced me a bit on this record. Some of my earliest big influences were Nick McCabe (early Verve songs like Endless Life), Slowdive, and Eno’s Discreet Music, so those types of sounds always seem to creep in to whatever I’m doing.
J. Hubner: It’s been a little over four years since the debut Billow LP. With II: Plains/Patterns, there seems to be a little more light shining in than the last time around. Did you two approach this album differently? Was the writing/sharing/recording process ongoing over years?
Jonas Munk: It was a little different this time around. First of all Jason suggested we started working with rhythmic elements – whereas the first album was produced without any tempos at all! That is, we didn’t sync anything to a grid. We also discussed adding more recognizable synth patterns and a wider palette of sounds in general. The first track we worked on for this album was Plains, and that really set the ”tone” of the entire thing. It just felt like a really inspiring starting point for a different kind of record.
J. Hubner: Can you walk me through the process of creation between you and Jason Kolb? How do these pieces usually start? Are you both playing guitar and synth, or are you to delegated to a single instrument? Maybe you could talk a little about the process for the track “Plum”, which I absolutely love.
Jonas Munk: For pretty much every single track Jason would send me some guitar loops and different manipulated sounds and I would add to that and start building around those ideas and eventually send them back to Jason to add more stuff on. Actually I don’t think I’ve touched a guitar while making this album, I’ve mostly been adding sequences, rearranging things, added electronics and the occasional bass line. This actually is a bit unusual for us and for me personally as well – which is probably why this feels like such a fresh record to my ears. Usually I compose and play guitar a lot, no matter what project I’m working on. “Plum” is actually an exception since that’s the one track I started and Jason added guitars on top of that.
Jason Kolb: For this record, it felt like I was doing a lot of “send it and forget it”, where I’d send some some unpolished fragments and then Jonas would turn them into something nicely sculpted, structured, and musical. I don’t have any strict rules about instrumentation, but it’s usually easiest for me to start with guitar loops and then occasionally add some subtle synth or treatments here and there.
J. Hubner: What sort of equipment are you guys using? Both analog and digital synths? Do you guys get together for the mixing and sequencing aspect of the album?
Jonas Munk: We hardly did any work while being in the same room for this one. In September last year we spent some time driving around Detroit listening to everything and discussing the mixes, the sequencing and stuff – which also explains why most of the tracks reference Detroit street names – but we actually had most the album down at that point already. As for equipment I use everything really: analog synths, plugins, guitar pedals. I did a lot of analog filter sequencing for this album, playing around with my Moogerfoogers and my Waldorf and MFB filterboxes. And software sampling always plays a big role for me when working on Billow material, cause there’s always quite a lot of drastic sound processing going on!
Jason Kolb: Pretty much anything goes as far as equipment is concerned, but I tried to use more filtering pedals and plug-ins that would add some subtle pulse and pop on this record. I specifically used a Moogerfooger Murf quite a bit with various reverb and delay pedals. I also found that running huge reverbs into vocoder plugins can be pretty interesting! I really wish we could get together more and work in the same room at the same time, but we’ve been pretty lucky with the way things have worked out so far with trading files.
J. Hubner: Have you guys ever performed live together? Is it a possibility?
Jonas Munk: Not so far. But could be interesting. It’s always quite a challenge performing with this kind of music, since processing and editing plays such a big role. But actually some of these new pieces lend themselves more easily to perfomance than the first album.
J. Hubner: So Jonas, this is the second release for your newly minted record label Azure Vista. The debut album was ‘Passage’, your second collaboration with Ulrich Schnauss. You seem to be off to a great start. Two beautiful and rich albums filled with all that analog good stuff. Can you tell us what’s next for Azure Vista?
Jonas Munk: Thanks! Actually it was a bit of a last minute decision to start another label, but we needed a home for ”Passage” and the Billow Observatory was actually being finalized at that point and we wanted to release it as soon as possible – one of the major benefits of having your own label is not having to wait to fit it into a label’s (sometimes very busy) schedule. And Jakob (Skøtt) had time to help out with the artworks, he’s super quick and his skills are absolutely unparalelled. So everything materialized super quickly and now it seems there’ll actually be at least three more releases this year. Not sure I can reveal the next one, but it involves a LOT of gorgeous synth and will be out early summer!
J. Hubner: I know it’s rather premature to ask, but is there a possibility for another Billow Observatory album in the next couple of years? With a dedicated record label for just that kind of blissed-out ambient music, will it make it easier to get music out to people?
Jonas Munk: We actually worked on some new stuff in Jason’s studio in Detroit in September, so there’s definitely new music happening. Whether it’s gonna be for an EP by the end of the year or another full length five years from now is impossible to say at this point.
J. Hubner: I hope this album really catches on as it’s a beautiful musical experience. Art of the highest order. Hopefully Azure Vista can get this kind of music into more ears.
Jonas Munk: I hope the label will generate enough attention to make it possible to build a small, but important catalog. This kind of music is not like super hip or anything, so it’s not really that easy selling a lot of physical copies – which is needed for a proper financial flow. There’s always a fine line and I need to pay attention to how I spend my time – if a record only sells 150 copies and the expenses doesn’t recoup it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of working hours on it. But we’ll see. Electronic and ambient music has suffered terrible sales for some years, whereas the rock/psych/stoner crowd (which is responsible for a big part of the El Paraiso catalog) are super loyal to the bands they follow and to physical mediums in general. While ambient music and, say, shoegaze has been off the radar for a while, it never disappears completely and I think there’ll always be people looking out for really personal, innovative material of high quality. I think labels are more important now than ever, since the internet is just flooded with music all the time. So the best way for listeners to navigate through the ocean of sounds is to have some really trusted presences that present things in a really focused way – ie with a narrow attention on specific genres and aesthetics.
J. Hubner: I think that could be an entirely different but important conversation to have at some point.
Jonas Munk: I could go on about the internet and the state of music for hours, but let’s just say it’s both a blessing and a curse! All in all I’m extremely thankful that I’m still able to make a living creating music and selling records. Considering the amount of (free) music out there I actually consider it a small miracle, and these days I’m absolutely enjoying every second of it!
Billow Observatory’s II: Plains/Patterns is available now on Azure Vista Records. Pick up a copy here. Look up Jason Kolb’s band Auburn Lull here, and check out Jonas Munk’s solo endeavors over at El Paraiso. If you like it, buy it.