PROFILE: THE SENSUALISTS :: Unweaving the seams

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(01.04.06) OREGON-based The Sensualists (Anna Fidler and Philip Cooper) make electro-techno-pop that plays on polka and various references to bands as diverse as The Doors and Stereolab. The sound is alive, light and colorful, much like the flashy fine artwork of Fidler who is currently showing at Portland’s Pulliam-Deffenbaugh Gallery. The two have collaborated on a new self-released CD called Fajada Strands(with support from the Regional Arts & Cultural Council). In between holiday happenings I had a chance to catch up with the two of them, and by the sights and sounds of it they are creatively healthy as we get ready to turn the page that was 2005.

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TJ Norris :: I’ve spun your new Fajada Strands disc at least a half dozen times in the last few weeks and am just stymied by its sheer effervescence and playfulness. This is your second full release?

Anna Fidler :: Yes, and Audiodregs also released a remix album called Adaptations from our first album.

Philip Cooper :: We’ve always had fun playing together so hopefully that’s transmitted through the music.

TJN :: It certainly is. Would you call your work as The Sensualists pop music, anti-pop, electro-pop, alterna-pop, just plain poppy or… ya wanna burst the bubble?

PC :: Anna has always been more partial to pop elements and I fall for the more experimental, noisy stuff. We found a happy medium between our influences and went from there.

AF :: I think there’s some experimentation going on in our music within the realm of pop. The people we’ve played with over the years have had a wide array of influences from dub to soul.

TJN :: What kind of instruments are you using and what kind of training have you guys had?

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AF :: I play keyboards and program drum machines on the album. Over the years I’ve played many 70′s keyboards –the Fun Machine and Electricband to name a couple. I took piano lessons when I was a kid, but don’t rely on any of it today.

TJN :: The Fun Machine… can you describe that?

AF :: It’s an organ made for kids in the 70′s with flickering lights. We silver-leafed it which transformed it into more of a space-age robotic looking keyboard.

TJN :: Silver leaf. Sounds elegantly retro. And how about you Philip?

PC :: Old keyboards. Old drum machines. New sampler. Shakers and bells. Real drums. Lot’s of different keyboards over the years. I’m self taught. I love to discover new keys and combinations without knowing what musical notation they are.

TJN :: The older, more analogue synths are immediately evident, the sounds are just foreign and of another time, not dated, just unusual. Can you talk some about your musical influences? Who floats yer boat and what are you listening to these days?

AF :: I’m really into Ariel Pink. His lo-fi home recordings are in some ways similar to ours. Casino vs. Japan is great. I’ve always liked French dance music especially the Roule label, and also Arthur Russell, and Boards of Canada. I’ve been listening to My Bloody Valentine again.

TJN :: There’s a hint of Stereo Total in there somewhere too.

PC :: Arthur Russell, Kevin Ayers, Animal Collective, The Knife, Juan Maclean, Little Beaver, psychedelic soul. Yeah, Stereo Total have been a guiding light. Moving out to Portland from Chicago, I had been a fan of that prog/jazz stuff. West coasters have a lighter take and I’m still feeling it. My latest musical venture, LightWhite, straddles the introspective midwest thing with happy coastal melodies.

TJN :: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the Chicago scene and My Bloody Valentine were way ahead of themselves, huh? With a long list of such collaborations crossing media and genre (Gus Gus, Bjork/Matthew Barney, Godspeed you Black Emperor, etc.) how does a painter and a filmmaker end up collaborating as musicians?

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AF :: We started off playing music together in 1997 without really thinking about what it was we were doing. Everything evolved over the years beginning with Philip’s film and light shows that he’d show during our performances at clubs and parties. Our film Fajada Strands, like many of our projects, just happened spontaneously on a road trip from New Mexico to Portland where we’d stop every once in a while and film some of my felt installations in the desert landscapes. We liked the Super-8 footage, and decided to make a soundtrack.

TJN :: In the film, I loved the way the felt shapes just populated and animated the space, colorful, pixilated, non-linear. Site-specific, temporary sculpture.

PC :: Film projection has been a part of our music from the very first show. It all grew simultaneously, so Fajada Strands is just the culmination of years of experimenting in both fields, but with the addition of Anna’s felt installation. It’s nice to have our visual and musical ideas encapsulated into one DVD.

TJN :: Your sound (and art work, respectively) is hardly paint-by-numbers, but can you speak to the way they may interrelate and how you keep relevant within their own individual medium?

AF :: My artwork is influenced by whatever I have playing in the studio at the time. I often play the same two or three albums on repeat for the duration of a collage or painting. Music is hypnotizing and I can concentrate more when I’m spaced out.

In terms of relevance and distinction between mediums, I regard visual art and music as two separate entities. For me, I enjoy collaborating most with music while art is more of an independent activity.

TJN :: I hear ya. Sound is my muse also, I see the two fused and associated closely, simultaneously or not.

PC :: Film and music have always been bedfellows so it’s no great leap for audiences to open up to the combination in a live setting. I’ve been lucky enough to play in two TBA festivals here in Portland, which is the perfect venue for playing a live soundtrack and rocking out.

TJN :: Right on. I just love the airy floating sounds throughout your release, reminds me of Anna’s bogs, fjords, peninsulas and other cragged nooks in mother nature. In some ways there are instant similarities to the oceanic work of Vancouver’s Loscil (Scott Morgan). Do you know his work? Can you speak about the organics of your sound?

PC :: You’re right on, comparing those sounds to Anna’s artwork because she’s always throwing otherworldly bursts and gurgling synth lines into the mix. I’m into oceanic.

AF :: One of the songs on the album (a project by Philip and Roy Kettler called LightWhite) includes a beat made with frog sounds.

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TJN :: Cool blurps. LOL. There are so many lil’ references to retro genres like polka and even the melodic pulse that once was (and always will be) in the music of The Doors. Am I just imagining this?

AF :: Our music has some psychedelic overtones, but I don’t align the music to a specific band or moment in time. Some of our songs sound like they were recorded half way around the world and played through short wave radios though, but that’s more due to our recording techniques and instruments –4-track with tape hiss and Latin rhythm machines.

PC :: These old drum machines are interesting because they just have presets of classic drum patterns like bossanova and habanera, which are based on traditional afro-latin rhythms. Mix that with a classic electric organ and you have something. I’m not sure about the Doors, but that’s not the first time I’ve heard that comparison.

TJN :: Well, it’s in there somewhere, between the notes, under the melody. I know it’s there, a secret history. Do you plan to tour and play any festivals?

AF :: I’m more excited about soundtrack work these days. We’re sending the film off to film festivals around the world so in a sense our music will go on tour without us.

TJN :: Great idea, all good art needs to both break through its regions, maps, and have a life of its own. Though, I have to say, you really would be a stand out at say, Mutek.

AF :: I’m not opposed to playing live. It would be great to go on tour somewhere interesting. If anyone out there wants to send us to Europe I would have no problem what so ever.

PC :: I’m still keeping the European tour dream alive. Or Japan. Or…

TJN :: In your limited edition DVD the video portrays animatedly the placement of colorful felt objects into an otherwise monotone landscape. Given your recent residency, do you feel artists in the Pacific Northwest deal with the climate of color in the environment differently than those in Sunny California?

AF :: It depends. I’ve seen a lot of murky colors over the years here in Oregon. I’m typically drawn to brighter things, but I’d love to see some wildly dark and ugly things from California or Las Vegas.

TJN :: California is filled with ugly things. And quite spectacular things, especially the northern most coast, I love the shoreline around Eureka. What other types of ways do you see your collaboration evolving?

PC :: At this point it feels more natural to look inward again. I’m part of a film/music show at the Portland Art Center (now in old town) on February 18th. This time I’m on my own and that’s exciting. I’m thinking of calling it Omniself.

TJN :: Sounds very Lewis Carroll.

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AF :: I’ll always be interested in collaboration, but I don’t like to plan things that way. I’m a fan of spontaneity so we’ll both have to wait to see what happens next.

TJN :: Does this come to the way you make music… I mean, is it partly improv?

AF :: We often begin that way, but by the end there is a pretty tight composition. Sometimes we let the drum machine guide us, and lyrics come last.

PC :: Anna keeps the compositions pretty tight with her drum programs and vocal arrangements, but I revel in the breakdown where I can stretch out. Because I’m not using any digital equipment with presets, every performance is a little different. My mood dictates whether I ride through with a nice keyboard line or just let loose with a distorted wall of noise.

TJN :: Either way… just keep unweaving the seams. Any parting words?

PC :: Thanks so much. If anyone’s interested in our future events and showings, I’ll have it posted at www.diamondcraters.com starting in early 2006.

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Purchase The Sensualists’ music at Amazon.com

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