Eskmo: The Power of Vulnerability

Making music can be a lot like navigating human relationships.


    Photo by Trevor Traynor

    “Vulnerability was a big part of it,” explains LA-based Brendan Angelides as he ponders the guiding principles of his sophomore release as Eskmo, Sol. Championing the more organic, downtempo realms of electronic music for more than half a decade, Angelides is nearly unrivaled when it comes to his sound design skills — tactics that he honed alongside Brazil’s Amon Tobin. Though he has established a comfortable footprint in Southern California, he’s made trips around the globe to clear his mind and reinforce the emotional motifs found in his new 10-track release. Before he takes the album on the road for 2015, he’ll play one last performance alongside Los Angeles’ revolutionary classical collective Echo Society. Not only has Angelides opened up minds to entirely new environments of electronic music, he is transforming orchestral music as a pivotal collaborator with the group.

    CoS spoke with Angelides about Sol, travel, and how making music can be a lot like navigating the intricacies of interpersonal relationships.


    Your new album, Sol, came out recently. Are you feeling some butterflies in your stomach?

    No, not really, to be honest. That already kind of hit me with the stream going out [via Dazed]. We are putting out a music video for “Mind of War” on Tuesday, so I am a little bit … not nervous, but excited for that.


    Have you released many music videos in the past? That is very much a dying art in the music industry.

    Yeah — have you seen “Cloudlight”? We made a couple about four years ago. There are a few main ones out there that came out in 2010 with the Ninja Tune album. Those got a decent amount of hits; one of ‘em is almost 3 million (“Cloudlight”) and the other is like 2 million (“We Got More”). There is a little bit of hoping that they connect with people in a different way, I guess.

    We are about five years removed from your self-titled debut, and from looking at the liner notes for Sol, it seems you have really taken that time to travel around the globe. Did you travel to places like Costa Rico and Egypt with the intent of discovering new sounds and techniques, or was it more about just opening up yourself to new experiences and inspirations?


    They were really just life experiences, you know? For me, the music stuff is an extension of my life instead of being the focal point. So it is obviously what I put the majority of my energy into, and it is my main discipline, but I feel that life expansion and being present in your life is really important, and music can kind of come through that. Those were all just those kinds of trips.

    It does seem that you really took the time to escape the grind, open up, and refine your artistic language.

    Actually, the Egypt trip very much wasn’t that. I had wanted to go there for a really long time, and it just happened to work out. That was really more a full on adventure. For the others, it was very much about finding my own language and getting clearer on why I am doing what I am doing and just staying present for what is happening in my life. Without taking it too seriously, it is easy to get caught up in the hustle of it, and you start to lose track of your actual life. I feel I almost went to the opposite side; I had to take a step away from the music stuff. And in retrospect, that was a really important thing for me to do.


    As a producer who explores the more organic, down-tempo realms of electronic music, do you ever feel trapped in the chaos of Los Angeles?

    My personal experience with LA is that it isn’t actually that chaotic. There is a buzz here, and there are so many things happening, but I genuinely don’t feel that it is very chaotic. I am five minutes from an amazing hike, 20 minutes from waterfalls, and a 45-minute drive to the beach. I mountain bike a lot and meditate all the time. It is up to you to take care of yourself within it, and there is actually a tremendous amount of nature down here. It is something that I do a lot, actually. I never feel trapped here.

    During the process behind Sol, how much time was spent capturing the sounds versus the rest of the writing, recording, and mixing phases?


    The majority of it was done in the studio for sure. The recordings, honestly, for the most part, came about spontaneously. I would bring my recorder and just grab stuff. That is usually how I work. I would say 90% of the time I just have it and record things; seldom do I have a specific thing that I actually want to go and record just for putting into a song. For example, on a previous release, one time I had knocked over a bottle into the tub, and it just had this curvature to it where it just kept on rolling back and forth, and it ended up just being amazing. So, I recorded that, and I ended up taking the little wire mixer normally inside a protein shake bottle, and then I just threw that around in the tub, and it ended up making like this really flanged-out kind of sound. I ended up just doing that for about 20 minutes. It was completely spontaneous. A lot of the time, I know that I will find some textural and cool things, like when I went to Costa Rica, I knew I would get some jungle sounds that I could use, but I wasn’t expecting to get the monkey sounds and the horses that I ended up finding down there. The majority of it is studio-based stuff.

    You described your debut album, in short, as experiments in sound design. What were some of the guiding principles on Sol?

    Vulnerability was a big part of it. I view my interactions with my music as a relationship. I think it is that way for everybody, whether they think about it that way or not. It is a relationship just like someone has with a love, family, or their job. I think allowing myself to be a bit more vulnerable and kind of raw and unapologetic with the ideas behind the album — and also the context, narrative, and the sonic qualities behind it — that was a really big goal for me. When I put out the ESKMO album, that was everybody’s first introduction to a lot of my stuff, and a lot of new fans came along, and I got associated with a very specific sound design-focused mentality. I think that came out of my relationship with Amon Tobin right before that album as well. I love sculpting sounds and everything, but that is just one piece of it for me.


    With this more recent stuff, I wasn’t just focused on doing that. It was more about the narrative as well as the melodic and emotional elements of it, and then sound design being put into that. For example, after the album was done, I played it for a friend who knows me really well; he equated the first album to an Iron Man kind of vibe. Like it was this robotic, big, kind of chiseled [-sounding] suit, with a little bit of human inside. On this one, he said I had taken that armor off and placed my heart on a plate.

    To circle back to the idea of music as a relationship, just as it is often difficult to know when to go to that next step — whether it be a breakup or marriage — how do you sense when a track is complete?

    That’s a good question, man. That is the thing that fuels me so much around creativity, art, and music. I am just a big fan of metaphor and symbolism in general, and equating it to those types of realms just energizes me. Just listen to it, like you would do in any relationship. If something is coming to an end, and you don’t really want to face it, but you are just trying to figure out what is best for you and what’s best for the relationship, you have to be honest with yourself and you have to be ready to let go of the way you think it should be. There is a balance, obviously, but you have to listen to what the track wants to do. And allow it to do that instead of forcing it into your preconceived idea of it.


    Did you supply all the vocals on this new album, or did you bring in some outside help?

    No, I sang everything, I wrote everything, played all the instruments, and produced it all.

    How many instruments do you feel comfortable playing? There are lots of keys here, and whenever I see you live, you always pull out some new, organic type of percussion instrument or something.

    To clarify, I actually did record a string ensemble for this album. I went to my friend’s studio and recorded a small ensemble, so there are actually live string players on it. Other than that, I did play everything else: keys, percussion, bass.

    Pointing to one track specifically, when you start manipulating the vocals across the bridge of “Mind of War”, is this for some pre-conceived result and feeling, or are you just experimenting to see what eventually comes out the other side?


    There are a couple different sections in particular [in that track] where I am saying, “shedding skin and the rough rough kind” — that is during two little bridge things just before the chorus — that is all distorted and kind of tweaky sounding. Specifically, I wanted that to feel a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit grating, because to me, that is a representation of part of the light and dark, the crazy-making inside the mind. The overall narrative of “Mind of War” is basically watching the craziness that happens inside of the human brain, the up-down-left-right comparative good-bad stuff. And then for me, it is the way of representing that in a playful song. It is being able to see that madness, and be like, “That’s funny; it’s the way it is.” Those little distorted sections and tweaking that out for me is representative of shedding the skin of the un-pretty elements.

    What about “Tamara”? Is that track dedicated to someone or at least representative of a former friend or lover?

    It is not dedicated to a person, but it is definitely about a person. That is something that came out of me the very day something ended. I went to a friend’s house and brought a field recorder and recorded his upright piano, so it is just me playing there. It was so distinctly from a very specific experience that I figured I would just call it by her name.


    I feel there is much more transparency in that track than much of the other album. Have you already played most of these tracks out? I imagine the response to “The Light of 1000 Furnaces” has been pretty illuminating; that is such a moving track.

    I have played “The Light of 1000 Furnaces” out one time, but it wasn’t what is on the album — it was an early version. I am very excited to, though, because I feel that type of thing is just — it’s obviously not dance floor stuff, but to hear it live, loud will be very impactful for sure.

    The first line from the Dazed article is a quote that really focuses on the cinematic nature of the album. Are album scores and more cohesive multi-sensory works something that you plan on pursuing?


    That is part of what I am doing down in LA now. I am part of a collective called the Echo Society down here, which is six other composers and myself. We have done two shows so far with a chamber ensemble mixed with electronics. We basically write an original song, which will be shown at the show, and our third one [happened] March 12th.

    This is a brand-new thing, so most people don’t know about it yet. The first two shows luckily sold out, and this one is looking like it will sell out as well. Amon Tobin is a guest at this next one. Essentially, this next one is with a 20-piece chamber ensemble, and we are doing it in a church. The other guys involved, for the most part, aside from this guy Deru who also does electronic stuff, they are all film composers. One of the guys [Joseph Trapanese] did the score for Tron; like, he worked with Daft Punk, and he did all the string stuff. He also worked on Divergent, Insurgent, and The Raid 2. And this other guy [Rob Simosen] did Foxcatcher, Moneyball, and Little Miss Sunshine, so they are doing proper big film, you know? So this is just a way for us to collectively get together and do events that are orchestral in nature, but also mixed with electronics for a newer generation of people that are open to this kind of stuff.

    I started doing that with them in 2013, and now I have started scoring my first film with one of those guys and designing sounds for some others. It is definitely a huge interest of mine, and one of the main reasons that I moved to LA.


    You mentioned that music is your main artistic outlet. Do you explore other mediums as well?

    I am painting right now. I actually just started to put it out. I have done art for a long time. I actually was making art before music, and music just kind of took over. Now I have gotten back into watercolors, and I am going to start selling those on Big Cartel or Etsy or something. It has been an amazing outlet, actually. Besides that, I do like pen and line art and some acrylic painting.

    Do you plan on releasing the visual work under your actual name?

    I was thinking about that recently. I have no idea. It would probably be smart to do it all under Eskmo.

    Once you’re outside of LA and that ensemble, how will you be promoting the album on the road?

    Oftentimes when a band releases a new album and they have a big stage setup, there is a lot of money that goes into it. Since I am not one of those guys that is out there [touring] all the time, it is going to be a gradual progression. I am going out with a really minimal setup, just myself and a couple keyboards, and then, ideally, selectively bringing in strings and a larger setup.


    Right now, only a handful of dates have been announced. Do you plan on hitting the road hard during the rest of the year?

    Yeah, I am definitely going to go out there.

    You live in a club mecca, but you make electronic music that is so removed from that atmosphere. Do you think that artists like yourself, Bonobo, and Slugabed are wired differently than the dance-centric producers? So many of the tools are the same, yet the output is so remarkably different.

    A lot of it just comes down to personality and goals. I don’t think any way is better than another; I think it just comes down to the individual and what they’re looking to do with their life at the moment. Some people just thrive on that tour and get stoked on partying and the whole thing. That just isn’t where I am at. I was into some hyper-dancey stuff for a while. I mean, I can still enjoy it when I go out to some specific event and I actually want to dance, like some avant-garde techno show. But in terms of the club mentality, it just isn’t something that I am currently stoked on.


    Sometimes I will still go out and do a DJ set of really dance-y music. It is not that I dislike it. I just don’t listen to it. Like, I was listening to Iron & Wine earlier. If I am at my house, I am likely to listen to some type of indie folk artist thing before listening to anything screechy or anything like that.


    Just as your friend Amon Tobin has his Two Fingers side project, you also have your Welder persona. What is the defining line between these two production monikers?

    I feel this Sol record is a good blend of both of them. When I made Welder back in 2006, I had this other material that didn’t sound like any of the Eskmo stuff, so I just made a new character. Then they just started to get more polar-opposite a while back, and I felt more disjointed that way. Just personally, it is all starting to get a lot more centered. I feel that I am taking the good bits of either one and putting them together. I know that I am probably losing some fans in that, but for me it feels genuinely authentic to who I am right now.


    Welder has never been a methodical thing. I don’t ever think about how it will sound out live or how the bass ever sits. To a degree, I am a little bit careful, but I don’t worry about frequencies or how it will sound on rig. I don’t worry about any strategic PR stuff or any type of anything. That is the place that Welder holds for me. It is an outlet for me to put stuff out that has no context to any other type of music out there. It is just a little emotive outlet. I have a feeling that if I am going to do another Welder one, it is going to be very gentle.

    Anything else you want to share?

    Just that we are moving the Echo Society to a bigger venue, and we are trying to get some larger friends to come be guests. For me, I am really excited by it because of the doors that it is opening up. In the classical realm, they are losing some of their audience and some of the older gray-haired folks. They are trying to find ways to link into a younger generation of people doing stuff. I feel that we are just organically linked into that, and I know that there are other realms of people doing it. There is a term “neo-classical”, which is people doing current classical takes. For me, it is a new, adventurous thing to get involved in.

    That brings up a very interesting point. I feel there is a lot of value in being an insular artist and developing a unique language, but that larger group also serves as a great asset to continually develop new ideas. I like the open-source idea of creating something new and then sharing it so that someone else can advance the language.


    Very much so, man. I have only recently begun realizing that. I have been pretty insular for a really long time. Like, I worked with Amon Tobin in 2009 and another friend called Antiserum…

    Wow, he goes heavy!

    Yeah, Antiserum is doing all sorts of different stuff now, but back in 2008, it was some very specific dubstep stuff [with him]. But I haven’t collaborated specifically with a lot of people. Like what we were talking about before with this being a relationship, [I should] collaborate more and work more with friends, allowing people to show their strengths instead of being so insular.

    Don’t wait until the white vinyl is gone — order Sol now. The Drop continues later this week as Derek Staples interviews Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza about his new solo EP.