An Interview with Orange Crate Art
Orange Crate Art is the solo project of Tobias Bernsand who resides in Malmö, Sweden. Along with his current project, he’s a member of the newly reformed The Emerald Down and finds his way into that 60’s and 70’s pop style ala The Beach Boys on his newest EP Circular Rays of Infinity Cells. Tobias was kind enough to answer my questions and delve into his writing style, history as a musician, and his current and future plans for Orange Crate Art.
Hello Tobias! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
I guess I’ll start with the general question about your beginnings in Orange Crate Art. How did you end up starting the project?
The official starting point was in the summer of 1995, when I bought a Fostex four-track, but I’d say the journey began in 1988, when I bought my first electric guitar (a Strat copy called Fame Hondo. The only other person I know that has owned one is Dan from Clairecords) and an amp. I couldn’t play a single note or chord but I was really into making feedback and noise.
I guess everyone who grew up in the ‘80s shares the same memories of bad TV reception, VHS tapes with bad tracking, mending broken cassette tapes… we all hated that, of course, but I also liked the sound of the imperfections, the side effects, the weird tape warps and glitches, like how a tape would go in and out pitch and speed… a warped warbly sound. That’s one reason why Boards of Canada are so big – they remind everybody of growing up with state of the art Cold War technology! My mother’s copy of The Beatles “Help!” LP was warped out of shape, probably due to too much sun exposure, so that was a hell of a psychedelic trip to listen to! It went in and out of tune and I think it had some weird phasing defect too.
I also really liked the sound of Jimi Hendrix. I still like his sound more than his songs, but he was really the first guitarist where I went “whoa! What the hell is THAT?” I once saw a portion of his Monterey Pop Festival performance on TV and I particularly liked what he did between songs, or between notes… I think he only bent the tremolo-arm while making feedback for like a second or so but that little moment really caught my eye. So when I got the guitar in 1988, all I did for a year was bending the tremolo arm, listening to how the feedback would change. I had an Ibanez wah with a built in fuzz that really could change the frequency and sound of the feedback. I did that so much that I eventually bent the tremolo arm socket out of shape! I have an unreleased album from 2008 with the stupid working title “Bendless Strummer” in reference to that.
Luckily, I taught myself to actually play chords by listening to the first Stone Roses album in 1989. That was my first big musical education, just listening and learning how to play along to the record. It’s really weird, the end result became playing just like Kevin Shields, before I had even heard of MBV! I bought “Glider” in 1990 and it was love at first sight. I found somebody who played just like me! How self-obsessed…I’m not comparing myself to Kevin or trying to sound original. He’s a sonic genius and one of the best songwriters of his generation and I’m just… some guy. I just happened upon a similar way of playing out of not knowing how to play at all.
There’s an instrumental on the next album, which, I now realize, writing the reply to your question, is totally like my earliest days in the way I play. I really play the guitar just like I did in 1988. Closure! There’s another song on the album that is kind of “OCA ‘88” with a really muted tremolo arm lead guitar going through a Mutron III envelope filter clone. It sounds like guitar feedback but it’s just really muted, muffled bendy notes. It sounds like a sea lion which has taken too many downers (I’m sure sea lions are under a lot of stress in today’s climate).
Actually, on a lot of songs I’ve released since 2015, I play the guitar like that. You hear a lot of single-note tremolo arm bending, like in “Men of Hen”. In part, that’s a necessity because some fuzz pedals don’t sound too good on chords. The clarity and definition of the chords get lost. So with pedals like Devi Ever’s I tend to go for single-note tremolo-arm guitar lines, just like when I tried to emulate Hendrix as a kid.
By 1995, I had begun to take a real interest in songwriting, but I was really fed up, post-shoegaze, with the whole Britpop thing. I loved the Too Pure scene, bands like Stereolab, Flying Saucer Attack, and Seefeel… and I wrote a ton of nice tunes but mostly, I wanted to explore that post-shoegaze, pre-post-rock (see what I did there?) era on the Fostex four-track, just making up more abstract, ambient guitar pieces. It was noisy as hell too. That is still sort of the OCA world… nice tunes (nice tunes, not Proper Tunes a la Noel Gallagher) and ambient noise. The noise is less harsh these days, though.
Since the mid-Nineties, I’ve recorded a ton of albums and EPs but I always shelved them. It didn’t really feel right to release anything until at the end of 2014, when I did the “OCA EP”. When the moment is right, I’ll go back and finish some of the old records. The 1997 album will be the hardest, as it was recorded solely on a four track without a click, so I might have to rerecord parts of it…. it’s really good though; with the best songs I wrote between 1993 and 1997. I guess you could say I gradually began to record more song-based music up until 2008, when I slowly began reverting back to the original way of aimlessly playing and recording whatever came into my head. Sometimes, the two modes co-exist. I still love half-playing the guitar while half-watching films, and I guess I’ll always make up nice little tunes for myself.
How would you define the music you make as Orange Crate Art?
I don’t! I’m not really interested in definition and I have no say or control over it anyway. Once something is out, it’s up to everybody else to define it. But of course, I’ve said a lot of things about it above, and…. I like to amuse myself by coming up with stupid catch phrases. Oldgaze is a nice genre name; I do think I coined that term! We’re not young and thin anymore, but we’ll blow you off the stage 🙂
I’ve used the phrase “Hypnagogic since 1995”, which is not only stupid but also inaccurate… I’ve had hypnagogic experiences since I was a kid and they have probably shaped my artistic outlook… I have a lot of inner experiences. I think they inform what I do musically as much as my favourite albums or films or paintings or… etc. It’s a sort of blurry but intense kind of feeling, like sleep paralysis and all kinds of weird lights, colours and shapes in the room… that’s sort of the sound of some songs. Information overload, sometimes too much going on, but sort of blurry. Shapes with see-through contours… I’m a pretty rational and cynical person, but metaphysically, I leave the door open to… other experiences. Even if it’s only happening in our brains. Some of the things people like Terence McKenna has said makes a lot of sense, though!
In terms of songwriting, the most important thing in my music is the interplay between the bass notes and the chords. I rarely play the same rhythm twice but the actual notes are important. Most of my songs tend to be centered around two chords. Burt Bacharach is probably the one who has influenced me the most, as a songwriter. I also love Jimmy Webb… that kind of songwriting appeals to me a lot. I’m a fairly traditional ‘60s head. I love all the SoCal stuff, The Byrds and The Millennium.. Curt Boettcher and Gary Usher stuff. Curt Boettcher’s music and productions for other people before he got into country is so cosmic. And the vocal blend between the group of singers he always used… I also love John Barry; over the years, I have probably listened as much to soundtracks as ordinary albums. The Italians were great, soundtracks like “Bora Bora” by Piero Piccioni.
Phil Spector, of course. Sonically, I prefer Phil to Brian Wilson. I love how in your face Phil’s productions are. They really are noisy and confrontational but once your inside the noise, it’s a very emotional experience. A bit like MBV live. “This Could Be The Night” by the Modern Folk Quartet has always been a sonic blueprint for OCA, even though I tend to shy away from letting reverb define the sound., Most of the LA music from that era tended to use a lot of session musicians, painting with more colours than a self-contained rock’n’roll band would. I like to use those colours too, adding vibes, flutes, tack pianos etc. I like having two tracks of bass; one clean and one distorted, like a lot of those “Wrecking Crew” recordings from 1966.
As an artist, what drives you to make music?
That’s a good question, and I wish I had an answer. I’m not sure…. I began playing drums on anything I could find at home when I was like 3… I remember setting up drum kits on my bed, using books, metal boxes from the kitchen, etc… not sure what I used for sticks. I’ve always made a racket and I don’t really think about it. It’s just something I keep doing.
It’s a non-answer but I just like to make more music, all the time, although I have been inactive in periods. It sounds terrible but I like to listen to my own music a lot before it’s released, and I keep recording new music so I’ll have something new to listen to. That’s probably the drive. I like to listen to half or nearly finished songs, leaving a bit of it left to imagination. Then I get bored and record a new batch of half-finished songs… that’s what I did historically, up until late 2014.
Once a record is out, I tend not to listen to it again. It’s painful, hearing all the mistakes! 🙂 But songs are living, breathing entities. They’re not trapped in the moment they were recorded. I’m really looking forward to bring some older songs into future live sets. I’m not really a Bob Dylan fan but I love how he constantly reimagines old songs. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. It’s a jazz or blues approach, really. I’ve been to all the shoegaze reunion gigs and I still love most of the bands, but some of them… why don’t they take any chances? Or rather, why are they playing the songs exactly like they did in 1990? Seems rather corporate to me… I’d rather be open to whims and go off into other directions, even though the arrangements might still be the same. And it’s easier to present something new with the tools you have at hand rather than recreate something sonically from the past. There’s a song from 2005 called “High Fich” which is 3-4 minutes on record, but live it’s going to be different, longer, more free. I like my bandmates to influence the present performance rather than playing along to a piece of history.
I’m not interested in making the best possible record ever, or changing the world, or making original music. I see myself pretty much like a traditionalist. I do my take on what others have done in the past. I don’t think of the most recent release as better (or worse) than the one before. It’s just another record. My music is more like a document of what was recorded at a certain point. It’s the Prince or Stereolab attitude of just throwing stuff out, rather than making big statements. I like that mundane attitude.
What is your first memory of music?
It has always been around…. not sure what the first memory is. I’m told I was really quiet as a baby, looking like I was always thinking of something…. I was probably making up noise rock tunes in my infant head back in the ‘70s!
When making your electronic tinged music, what do you use?
I tend to have an “anything goes” approach. Whatever I have in front of me, I’ll use. I’m very monkey see, monkey do 🙂 In some ways, I don’t think my approach has changed that much since the ‘90s. I pretty much use the computer as a tape recorder.
My pedal collection is mostly fuzzes. Apart from Burt Bacharach LPs and Beach Boys bootlegs, pedals are the only things I’ve ever collected. I’m not really into “vintage” or “analog”; a cheaper clone (digital or not) that sounds just as good as the original will do just fine. Although I spent way too much money on my Lovetone pedals… I like the Lovetone Meatball but their greatest pedal is the Big Cheese. Incredibe musical fuzz. My favourite pedal is the yellow Tone-Bender MkII with reverse polarity from Sola Sound. It’s gorgeous! I also love the sound of the Zvex Mastotron, which you can hear in songs like “Discovery of Inner Cosmos”. I have a ton of Devi Ever pedals. Most of her stuff are variations on the same circuits but she seems to come up with something different every time.
I also love envelope filters. I have five pedals and a bunch of plugins. I have my WMD Super Fatman set up so that it’s barely impossible to touch the guitar without the sound going into wild filter sweeps. I use that sound on one song on the next album, plugged into the yellow Tone-Bender. It sounds like bagpipes! A huge sound, yet I barely hit the strings.
But I’m awfully lazy and like shortcuts so it’s nice to have a ton of plugins, instead of hooking up pedals, re-amping sounds etc. I like the sound libraries and instruments from the biggest companies. Arturia, Native Instruments, etc. My favourite virtual instrument is probably the M-Tron Mellotron, and in the last couple of years, I’ve used Phonec a lot. It does all the analog tape warbly stuff I mentioned at the top of the interview. I really like the delays from Soundtoys.
I also use a lot of side-chain compression. Like all the stadium house guys. Unts, unts, unts. I love the rhythmic patterns you get from putting an organ or guitar through a compressor with the drums.
Otherwise, I’m slowly beginning to feel I’m a guitar-into-amp luddite. I’m slowly turning into one of those old rock dudes you see in ‘70s guitar hero documentaries, talking about the “purity of the tone” and how you only need a guitar and a tube amp… but when the amp is almost breaking up, it IS pure beauty! The 20 year old me would probably punch me in the face for writing that. I have a nice Vox AC30 but I’ve realized I’m more into tweed amps. I’m currently only using old Fender amp tones on the recordings. Such a warm, fuzzy and cozy sound. They handle distortion so well but the bulk of the next record is just the amp, slightly breaking up. I’m probably turning into Clapton. Somebody hit me hard in the face.
Have you ever played it live and, if you have, what sort of equipment do you use in a live setting?
We rehearsed OCA back in 2007 but it fell apart for various reasons. But as a matter of fact, I’m restarting the live band again, as a trio. The idea is half-rehearsed, half-improvised. I like to leave a lot of the experience for the band and audience as spontaneous. The trio is Paul from The Beremy Jets and Jens, who is probably going to release the best record ever made, one day, when he’s ready.
We all used to be in a band called LKWRM. We were almost giants. We even had our “Spinal Tap” moments, like not finding our way to the stage when we supported Einsturzende Neubauten. Which was nice. I didn’t write the songs for the band but enjoyed just being a live guitarist for a couple of years, not being in charge.
How did you end up creating the soundtrack for The Exegesis of Matt Marello? How did you go about constructing, recording, and shaping the tracks in reference to the film?
I’ve known the director Brian Chidester for nearly 20 years. When I stayed at his Greenpoint pad last year, he mentioned that he was going to do the documentary short. I just asked if I could do it. He has an ongoing documentary project about Eden Ahbez which is going to be awesome once it’s finished. He’s a real scholar with a lot of passion and energy. I like to listen and take in what he says. We talked a lot about art in general, Matt’s art, metaphysics, mystical experiences, the wonder of the universe, gnosticism… I listened and absorbed.
I also got to hang out with Matt a bit and see his works in progress. I got into a really inspired state from the trip, and when I came back home, I basically recorded the whole thing in a few sessions in June, without having seen any of the documentary material. It came together quickly. I spent maybe an hour on many of the songs. I felt like I tapped into the universe. Everything just flowed through me. It’s weird, I can’t actually remember writing any of it! It feels like somebody else did it, which might be a parallel to Matt Marello’s own mystical experiences and art.
The mainstream view is that the brain produces consciousness. There’s another view that consciousness is always around us, outside of our bodies, and our brains are merely acting as receivers for that consciousness. Mainstream science think this is pure bullshit, but I really like that concept… it makes a lot of sense to me. It even explains my writing process for me. These days, I don’t really write songs in the traditional way, even though some of the songs might sound traditional. I tend to literally record and write as the same time, in the present, pressing the record button without having written anything in advance. I sort of force myself to be as thoughtless or irrational as possible. It brings out the subconscious, the oceanic, the one-ness. It’s like time-traveling in a way; you’re completely in the now, yet another part of the brain is writing the next second of music while you’re recording in real-time. That’s one reason why so many of my songs changes keys a lot. The songs aren’t planned, they just happen and come together in the now. You’re sort of in a creative, semi-aware trance state and the songs form their own metaphysical directions and shapes.
As for constructing, recording and shaping, it’s pretty much the same process for me. Some of my recordings sound over-produced (and some have been over-produced) but I actually spend very little time on any recording. Apart from vocals, I’d say 80 percent of any song I’ve released came together in the first hour. I work fast and impatiently, because I have a short attention span, so I tend to throw tracks down quickly before I lose interest and record something else. The soundtrack tended to have one to three or four overdubs per song. It’s quite bare, even if it doesn’t sound bare. Several songs only have one track, no overdubs. In that sense, it’s a throwback to the four track days, when you had to be economical.
I’m really happy the marriage of music and film turned out so well in the collaboration with Brian. We’re going to collaborate more in the future. He’s the best!
Circular Rays of Infinity Cells is completely different from your prior output. What was the impetus for the change?
Long and short answer: it’s true but it’s also not true! I think my music will make a lot more sense when I’ve released all the half-finished albums and EPs from the ‘90s and onwards. The first song on the EP, for example, is a bit like a song from 2005 that will eventually come out (it’s from the same album as “High Fich” and “Malmö City Tunnel”, the latter which I’ve uploaded a 2004 mix of to Youtube). And the long outro to the final song on the EP actually contains a sample from a recording I did in 1995! So in some ways, I feel like I’m coming full circle.
Can you talk a bit about writing and recording Circular Rays of Infinity Cells and, if it is, what was different for this EP as opposed to your prior output?
Sure. Having said the above, the sole reason the EP came about was because I had joined The Emerald Down and Rebecca Basye, who really is that band, thought about doing a Christmas song. I had already written and recorded some 25 songs for the band and I came up with bright idea in September to make a Christmas EP. I actually did a Christmas EP back in 1997, which might be released one day. So anyways, I knocked out five songs in September, but the band didn’t have the time to work on them, so I decided to use four of the songs for OCA, adding vocals in November. Writing the songs for The Emerald Down might be the reason why it sounds different. I generally prefer dry production, but this EP was all about reverb. It has quite a lot of 12 string Danelectro electric guitar. I love The Byrds but I actually prefer Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner’s 12 string style. It’s quite punky and trashy. No jingle jangle. I also like how some of the ‘60s Los Angeles studio cats played the 12-string on hit record after hit record. I hadn’t really played it with reverb until this EP. That’s the basic sound, reverb and 12-string electric.
By the way, it actually stopped being a Christmas record when I decided to use it for OCA. All the songs are vaguely about the Son of Sam cult… but since the tracks were recorded, and I allowed myself to really get into the Phil Spector vibe, I guess it still has a Christmassy feel. I also had started listening to The Beach Boys “Smile” again, after a ten year break, and the sound of “Smile”, which is very much that LA 1966 sound, had an impact on the EP.
I like to ask bands about particular tracks on a recent release to get some more specific information on the writing and recording process of songs. Can you talk a bit about writing and recording “Deviant Psychotherapy Party” and “Mystery School in Hyperspace”?
“Deviant…” was the only song written in advance. I wrote it in my head on a train, just like you hear it on the record. I was surprised when I came home and played it on the guitar that it actually sounded good! It’s quite disjointed. I think Rebecca talked about wanting a waltz, so I just wrote a waltz on the train. It has that deep Los Angeles 1966 sound, like “This Could Be The Night” by the Modern Folk Quartet.
“Mystery School….” – it was recorded very quickly, like everything else. It’s a nice little waltz. It’s like a doo-wop waltz. I love “It’s Just a Matter of Time” by Brian Wilson, it had that feel to it, or like his “Love You” songs such as “Solar System… the song changes key several times, because again, it was made up on the spot. I let the song write itself. The final part, before the drone thing, I felt was a bit Bacharach-like, like something he would write for Dionne Warwick in ‘68 or ‘69.
What other projects are you currently involved in?
I’ve done some mixing and remixing for others, we’ll see what happens 🙂 In the future, I’d like to spend more and more time on making soundtracks for films and documentaries.
So what’s up next for Orange Crate Art? Are we going to see more releases like Circular Rays of Infinity Cells?
To answer the last question, probably not but who knows. I’m not changing much as a songwriter so you’ll probably recognize the music in the future. The next album, which should hopefully be out in April, came out of nowhere. I bought a J Mascis Jazzmaster, which is totally awesome, and I just recorded a bunch of loose ideas in January to try it out. Then I realised I had an EP… I mean album… it’s very loose and relaxed, like a band playing together in their practice space. It’s mostly a basic guitar-bass-drum-organ-vocals album. I like it. It’s not too far away from previous albums that haven’t been released yet, like “Phosphenes” from 2012 and the one with “High Fich” and “Malmö City Tunnel” from 2005.
What I really should do after that is finish the “Phosphenes” album, but before that, I’m going to make the next documentary soundtrack for Brian Chidester. It’s another really really interesting portrait of an artist. I have a pretty good idea of how the soundtrack should turn out. I might channel my love for Charles Ives, but… it’ll sound like OCA for sure. Once those two projects are finished, I need to continue to finish all the old albums from 1995 and onwards, but I have no idea when I’ll get around to it. I also want to have everything released on vinyl, but I’m as stubborn DIY as I’m lacking the funds, so that’s why all the releases are digital only at this point. I don’t see the point of letting somebody else release my music unless it has major benefits, like I get to play the Budokan or take death drugs with Hollywood celebrities.
Thanks so much for answering my questions!
Thanks a lot for caring.
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