CVLT Nation Interviews…
Dirk Serries: The Transmutation of Order
The Belgian musician Dirk Serries talked with CVLT Nation about the transformation of his musical style and the way he thinks about music, and shared with us his new projects.
It’s been just over 30 years since Dirk Serries – Belgian guitarist and composer, pioneer of electroacoustic ambient drone – published his first album. vidnaObmana (optical illusion in old Serbian) was the perfect name to describe his ambition to transmutate the sound of the ambient, industrial and drone music, taking these genres into twisted, abstract, unexplored and untamed places in those times.
From a sublime performance on guitar – the product of a seriously introspective and ouroboric state of mind – vidnaObmana unfolded over our ears with majestic beauty and deep sensitivity.
In 2005, more than 20 years after breaking the silence with vidnaObmana, Dirk Serries decided to make a radical change in his sound and begun publishing as Fear Falls Burning, an event that marked the dissolution of vidnaObmana. With this project, Serries sculpted themes of electroacoustic-oriented drone music while he was experiencing a more dark, sinister and even powerful side of music, bringing to us a perfect blend of post metal, industrial ambient and noise, while prescribing long epic themes with climactic moments allowing us to take a deep breath.
Before dissolving Fear Falls Burning in 2012, it was in this facet in were he worked with musicians of the post metal, black metal and drone scenes, such as Aidan Baker (NADJA, ARC), Justin Broadrick (Final, Godflesh, Jesu), Steve von till (Neurosis), Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, and with members of the Swedish band Cult of Luna, among several others.
Dirk Serries is a musician who works with the sound qualities of the electric guitar affected by media such as synthesizers, pedal effects and EQ racks. His method of composition is to create weaving layers of very long musical notes with looping techniques, resulting in complex and lethargic atmospheres with a kind of emotive effectiveness which seems to invite the listener to decipher some hidden arcana or dissolve him entirely, leading the being practically to nothingness.
Both as Fear Falls Burning and as vidnaObmana, he printed an indelible seal in his musical style and inaugurated a path followed by a large number of musicians. Currently, Serries is in the process of sonic experimentation that consists of risking all that was previously created to go into the terrains of the avant garde and free improvisations, moving into different styles, from ambient to noise, from drone metal to avant garde electroacoustic madness, making this possible with two interesting projects: Yodok III, an experiment of acoustic drums, attacked by the Norwegian drummer Tomas Järmyr, a processed tuba blown and twisted by the Norwegian musician Kristoffer Lo and guitar droning made by Serries trying to make the earth tremble in a state of telepathic sinergy. The other is an ensemble duet with Tomas Järmyr known as The Void of Expansion.
CVLT Nation interviewed this legendary musician pioneer in the drone metal and ambient/noise genres.
In your most recent times of experimentation as an artist, you have been involved in collaborative projects, some of them extremely interesting with extremely talented musicians such as Justin Broadrick, Aidan Baker, and musicians from the post metal, black metal scene and drone among many, many more… This has an impact on your style of playing and the sound of your works. We have seen this evolution; from avant garde in the 80’s, contemporary classical music, ethno ambient and dark ambient (in times of Vidna Obmana) to the terrains of drone, post metal, noise, dark ambient based on high levels of gain and distortion in this era.
What drove you as an artist to go that way of experimenting with those kinds of sounds and atmospheres, and led you into the field of experimentation in a more risky way? And how this shift invited you to explore that side of human expression? Is there something behind this shift in your musical style?
Dirk Serries: I have always aimed for progress and therefore always been keen on experimenting with genres, finding musical bridges between styles and collaborating with kindred spirits in order to persue that perfect blend in music. I originally started out in 1984 with industrial music and my love for the genre never disappeared, even when I moved with vidnaObmana through a phase of pure ambient music. Even back then, I always tried to incorporate new elements in my music in order to push the musical boundaries for myself and to keep it fascinating, evolving and transforming.
In the nineties, when I slowly moved into different terrain with my music as vidnaObmana, I could clearly see that the potential character of the genre started to be limiting and therefore I was restricting myself by expressing, experimenting and stretching the ambient genre. The genre was back then was quite conservative, so slowly but surely I started to move away from my profile as vidnaObmana, and when I got the unique opportunity to record a trilogy of albums for Relapse Records, I knew that this could be the momentum to grow beyond genres. My albums on Relapse Records connected me with several key players in the (post) metal genres and some of them became really good friends like Steven Wilson, Steve Von Till, Johannes Persson of Cult Of Luna and Justin Broadrick. Through some of them, I realized my music was quite respected, and opened up a lot of possibilities.
The exchange ended vidnaObmana in the best way possible, with the Dante trilogy on Relapse Records, and formed my next natural step in evolution. Fear Falls Burning became that entity in which I could collaborate with some of the Relapse connections. Apart from collaborations with Cult Of Luna, Justin Broadrick, Steve Von Till and Steven Wilson, I also was able to tour more extensively, and through the Conspiracy Records label a new platform for experimenting, exchanging and interacting became possible. Fear Falls Burning really paved the way for some of my most interesting fusions, collaborations and works to date. And even when I folded Fear Falls Burning after realizing an extensive back catalogue in just a couple of years, the connections remained to establish myself again as a solo artist under my own name. And while I feel it’s quite essential to keep expressing myself as a solo musician, the drive to evolve, move forward and collaborate with other musicians remains one of my main motives for making music. I’m convinced there is still a lot to be explored.
Regarding the project YODOKIII, how did you meet and decide to do something together? When did the idea of taking the form of an electroacoustic ensemble, avant-free-jazz-improvisation and drone-ambient arise?
Dirk Serries: This also has been the result of my work as Fear Falls Burning, and specifically my album Frenzy Of The Absolute, on which I worked together with guest musicians Johannes Persson and Magnus Lindberg, both from Cult Of Luna, and Tim Bertilsson from Switchblade. Tomas Järmyr, drummer of YODOK (at that time a duo with Kristoffer Lo) heard this album and felt immediately that we were speaking the same musical language.
In YodokIII as a trio; indomitable, and highly organic abstract landscapes are evoked, could you tell us about the experience of achieving such environments with these musicians, but especially in the experience of doing so with different instrumentation?
Dirk Serries: An invitation from Tomas (Järmyr) followed to record an album with them in Norway. What was still for me a big mystery was how our collaboration would sound, and what Tomas and Kristoffer would even expect from me; but the recording became magical and in just one day’s time we recorded the complete album. Completely improvised, it just clicked and confirmed Tomas’ expectation that our musical languages could blend and correspond. From there on, YODOKIII was formed and I truly believe, after doing several concerts and recording our second album last June, that this is just the beginning of what YODOKIII can become. I must admit that I personally am still quite flabbergasted and seriously impressed by how fluent and inspiring our sessions are, no matter whether they are live before an audience or in the studio. Nothing agreed up front, just all improvised and created on the spot. Most of the time we don’t even know who will start and what will follow. The movement of the music dictates the progress and process. Striking and sometimes even beyond my personal belief is how well my guitar structures work together with the tuba and flugabone Kristoffer plays. Combined, they almost become an orchestra, something that musically and sound-wise moves beyond the character of each instrument. On top of that, you have Tomas, who is there all the time, whether in silence or with the strong statements he brings with his drums. Utilizing the drums as a musical tool instead of a percussive kit makes the harmonic quality of YODOKIII stand out. Each of the three elements compliment each other instead of interfering, standing in the way of each other and clashing musically-wise. An extra asset is that both Tomas and Kristoffer studied at the Jazz Conservatorium in Trondheim, making them both extraordinary improvisers, musicians and human beings completely aware of the musical and emotional impact of creating together. Listening, anticipating and respecting each other in the flow of composing on the spot. Fascinating, and for me a wealth of inspiration to draw from.
Ambient music is a risky way of making music, despite its slowness – its a process of risk and a way of taking yourself into the depths of no return, this could mean a logical concatenation of sounds in a kind of a free-fall. Regarding playing along with a percussion instrument, like drums in The Void of Expansion, did you consider achieving an ensemble with the highly technical drummer Thomas Järmyr in this project a challenge or an evolution in your career?
Dirk Serries: I completely agree, and I’m glad you look at the making of ambient music that way. A lot of outsiders do think, because it’s so slow and minimal, that it simplifies the compositional process. On the contrary – ambient music demands immense concentration and most of all a will to anticipate, leave out notes on purpose and only interact when it’s necessary, and on time signatures that aren’t part of classic song writing.
But apart from making ambient music, I created over time a method of playing, performing and creating sound and structures that I’m able to apply to the fusion of genres and the collaborations. And while I was confident enough as a solo musician in how I’m able to construct and create my own signature sound and music, it was eventually only with YODOKIII that I discovered my ability to improvise on the spot. You see, in my years as vidnaObmana, or even Fear Falls Burning, I have been a perfectionist, a control freak, and this meant that anything spontaneous or improvised could easily have been transformed into something more sterile, carefully constructed and without the possible flaws of improvising. Just because I was such a control freak, I squeezed almost all the life out of many of the music I’ve done over the years.I creates a laboratory effect for myself in order to be able to fine-tune and edit every detail into perfection. Even when I worked with drums on the last two Fear Falls Burning albums, everything was scored into detail. When meeting Tomas and Kristoffer, they both offered me such an comfort zone to perform in, that improvisation became more than some of the jamming I did in the past. Improvising became a language between us three in which I could feel at home, knowing that both Tomas and Kristoffer would be there to support, accentuate and take beyond.
With Tomas himself, I was even able to take this one step further. Again, applying the law of improvising and forcing myself to rely on my ability as a sound artist to use to guitar as the tool to correspond with the fanatic and highly dynamic drumming of Tomas. But I’m sure it was YODOKIII that made me the musician I am now, or to rephrase: it was the trio that woke me up from a state of control and made me realize that improvisation was definitely a part of me. THE VOID OF EXPANSION became the next level in establishing myself as an improviser, but also to expand the exchange with a great musician.
In Void of Expansion, next to the drummer Thomas Järmyr, you noticed a more oriented ambient / noise / improv in your guitar works; you make much more dynamic figures in your composition and manipulation of electronic media. So, do you consider it a different type of communication as a duo than in other kinds of ensemble, such as trios or quartets? You feel that you were forced to have to engage in other type of communication with him, using resources that you never used?
Dirk Serries: Since THE VOID OF EXPANSION was going to be the duo between myself and Tomas, I really wanted to approach this slightly differently in comparison to YODOKIII. While I do have my method of playing the guitar, I felt that in the communication with Tomas’ furious drumming I needed something extra dynamic and punchy. Something that could switch from one timbre into another on the spot and correspond with the drumming. Therefore I treat my guitar structures with an external filterbank in order to tweak the sound fast according to what the drumming needs. The filterbank also gives me enough freedom to improvise and create on the spot, while boosting up the guitar signal to something that’s beyond the classic guitar range, transforming the guitar into something electric and organic. THE VOID OF EXPANSION resembles much more the free jazz genre than YODOKIII has done, and while both are improvised projects, the language couldn’t be more different.
So, If you don’t know about the work of Dirk Serries, take the time to experience the music of one of the most respected and original drone/ambient makers, and be prepared to be reduced to pure cosmic dust!