It is bemusing in a way that Sjaak Overgaauw was berated for using a picture of himself in the inner sleeve of the digipack to “59 Airplanes waiting for New York” (his debut album under the Premonition Factory moniker) in a recent review. Aren’t we, after all, finally entering a phase in the development of Ambient, Drones and Minimalism, where these genres are evolving beyond their faceless imagery into a new era of personal expression? To Overgaauw, who also runs and curates the Antwerp Live Looping Festival, at least, it was essential to come up with a work which would not hide its inspirations – ranging from Robert Fripp’s early forays into live-looping to Dirk Serries’ more recent and highly atmospheric microphonics-project – but could also take these into an intimate and unique new space. The result of a two-year period of conceptualising and four intense months of improvising and recording, “59 Airplanes” miraculously achieves just that. On the one hand closely aligned with the purity and floating qualities of Guitar drones, on the other extending its borders through a slightly more eclectic instrumental set-up, the record has turned out a concentrated effort filled with a plethora of golden references and marked by an instantly recognisable voice. Overgaauw has an ear for subtle but hypnotic melodies and knows how to turn even seemingly unspectacular themes into spellbinding tales. Most importantly, he is able to work with mood without lulling his audience to sleep. Take this album with you on a nightdrive or play it instead of watching a movie in the evening and you’ll know what we mean: Overgaauw’s picture deserves more, not less exposure.
You’ve just concluded the second edition of the „Live Looping Festival“. How did things go?
It was a great festival this year, for several reasons. Compared to last year, we were able to find a much bigger audience, who were really interested in the kind of non-mainstream music we are offering at the live looping festival. Second, we slightly changed the formula compared to last year: 6 instead of 8 artist and 2 breaks during the evening to give the audience the opportunity the “digest” the music and reset their minds. It was therefore a bit more relaxed for myself and sound engineer Ronald Mariën to get everything properly organized. We didn’t have a single technical problem, which is quite an achievement, considering the amount of instruments and pedals on stage.
Third, we had a fantastic and diverse lineup again: Signals under Tests, N, Luis Angulo, Dirk Serries, Steve Lawson and Premonition Factory. From pure minimal ambient and drones to acoustic guitar and experimental ambient jazz. We got many positive reactions from people who attended the festival, so we are clearly going into the right direction. The next edition is scheduled on Saturday March 5, 2011. Btw: Theo Travis (Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Steve Wilson, Porcupine Tree, Gong, Cipher) will be the headliner.
You also recently released your debut album as Premonition Factory. To me, it is exciting to see a project which eschews obvious classifications and opts for a more multifacetted approach. Is this project, in a way, an outlet for all your different ideas to come together?
It all started after I visited a similar festival in Cologne in 2008. It was at this festival that I met Dirk Serries (Fear Falls Burning, Microphonics) and where I got infected with the experimental music virus. Looking back now, the Cologne festival actually was the trigger for the Antwerp loopfest and indirectly my solo album as well because I had received some positive feedback on demo material I recorded in 2008-2009.
After the 1st loopfest, Dirk and I had some good discussions about my own performance at the event and at the end, Dirk suggested I start working on a solo project, record an album and release it on my own. And so it happened, the release date of the album was set for Feb 2010, the recordings did take place between Sept-Dec 2009, 2 promo gigs were scheduled, one with Dirk Serries and the Antwerp loopfest itself.
Combining the 2 projects was a logical thing for me: I’m a very focused person, I like challenges, doing new things. It’s a pity there are only 24 hours in a day ;-)
Why the fascination for loops?
I have long been inspired by the magic that the use of live looping technology can create. Back in the 80’s, I always loved the sound of guitarists who excessively used delays systems to create interesting rhythms and textures. An album which really influenced me was “Gone to Earth” by David Sylvian (1986). This album contains both beautiful ambient sounds and a lot of small guitar fragments by Fripp. But the funny thing is that it took me 15 years before I realized that a significant part the album had been created with a looping system (which Fripp himself called Frippertronics at the time). Anyway, the next thing I did next was drive to a music store where I bought a delay pedal myself! :)
The traditional way to record an album consists of recording, editing and mixing phases, usually executed by different people and at different moments in time. With interactive live looping, you are recording, processing sounds in real-time. In other words: you are a musician, composer and producer at the same time. It’s interactive because you have to listen very well how your musical piece is developing itself.
You’ve described your technique as „Interactive looping“ …
So it’s a technique to keep surprising yourself?
Yes, correct. I use it strictly as a compositional tool and not as a one-man rock band.
Where did the title of the album, „59 airplanes waiting for New York“ come from?
Well, I have never been to New York, but this city somehow attracts me very much. It’s a city with a harbor, as well as Antwerp where I currently live, as well as Rotterdam where I have lived for quite some time and where I often visited a very nice place called Hotel New York to relax and meet friends.
The album was originally 7 tracks and 59 minutes long, but only 6 tracks made it to the finish line so that’s where the 59 comes from.
Regarding the airplanes… I didn’t want to use a typical ambient album title but something original. The title finally just popped up, out of nowhere. I still like it, it attracts people’s attention, which is a good thing.
There also seems to be a delicate theme of flying in the second half of the record …
I think that’s a coincidence because Dirk Serries actually determined the order of the track on the album, not me. But yes, making music is the perfect way for me to forget about almost everything. It makes you feel more relaxed, one of the healthiest drugs on earth ;-)
Why did you decide to go for a pretty limited timbral palette on the album?
It’s a cliché but “less is more”. A minimalistic approach works better for ambient music. It allows the listener to focus solely on the music rather than being distracted by too many notes or different instruments. I see each track as a soundtrack to a particular scene in a movie, and I want to leave room for the listener to fill in the empty spots, stimulating the brain to visualize the scene.
How do you arrive at these timbres which are no longer „typical synthesizer sounds“ any more?
The sounds I use are heavily processed with effects and resonating filters up to the point where you don’t recognize the original sound anymore. So it could be that I start with a bright string or piano and end up with very dark and spooky sound as on “To the dark place where it leads”. I don’t use presets very often.
So choosing your sound-palette is as important to you as the actual performance?.
Yes, programming sounds for a track is an essential part of the way I work. It happens that I spent hours and hours on a sound before I’m happy with the result. A sound comjurs up thoughts, feelings and a certain atmosphere so whenever I ‘m able to create an interesting texture or loop with it, that often is the birth of a new track.
A lot of artists are playing live to take an album to the stage. „59 Airplanes“, on the other hand, sounds as though you’re rather trying to reproduce the spirit of your live performances in the studio …
It’s not only reproducing the spirit of a live performance but also trying to record the magic that can happen when your improvising, composing and recording at the same time.
Everything is 100% improvised. The original recordings are between 15 and 30 minutes long. Each track on the album is a snippet of these recordings. I only applied a fade in and a fade out. Nothing has been added, overdubbed, or remixed. It’s all recorded in real-time.
To me, a lot of the material on „59 Airplanes“ is marked by the absence of a typical urge to „develop“ the themes. Rather, it feels like the music is shifting laterally, more like clouds on the horizon. Is that also how you see some of these pieces?
I know what you mean. They have themes but due to extreme long delay times I have used (loops), sometimes up to 50 seconds, and the fact I often use multiple loops of different lengths, you won’t discover them the first time you listen to the album because it’s difficult to recognize the beat and repetitive patterns, especially because I constantly add new notes while fading out others. This is what causes the mesmerizing vibe, it’s a slowly moving but dynamic system so comparing it with shifting clouds on the horizon is a good comparison.
You’ve already admitted to the album being dark in a way, but to me, already a title like „the future will be whatever we make it“ suggests that there is a more subtle message at work here. How would you describe your emotional input into the album?
I’m the type of person who likes to philosophize about daily life, things that have leave an impression on you. And I like cryptic messages ;-) “The future will be whatever we make it” refers to the idea that each individual can influence his own life much more than he or she thinks. If you have a dream, something you like to achieve in your life, take the initiative and don’t wait for a miracle to happen.
Interview by Tobias Fischer (07-apr-2010)