Abrahams is also the figure behind house and techno’s most intriguing split personality: Portable aka Bodycode. As of this month, he’ll add another accolade to his list of achievements, as he follows in the footsteps of Ricardo Villalobos, Wareika, Margaret Dygas, and Shackleton by releasing an album with celebrated German imprint Perlon.
Into Infinity is Abrahams’ 5th album as Portable, the vocal-based abstract house persona that has seen him linked to labels like Karat, Musik Krause and scape, with poignant compositions that fuse raw percussion with dream-like distorted vocals. As Bodycode, his mostly instrumental techno-influenced alias, Abrahams has notched up 12”s and albums for Spectral Sound, Yore Records and Naif.
Abrahams’ exclusive live recording for Meoko captures his improv spirit and his unique sound signature. Now he talks to us about his formative years in South Africa as a singer and budding producer, through his longtime friendship with his Sud Electronic partner Lerato, and explains how science fiction, his African roots, and being in love have inspired his new album.
What was the inspiration for the title of your new album Into Infinity?
I read of a lot of science fiction books, a lot of my titles are from there – Handsfree Computer Interface, Gene Patch and Conservation of Electric Charge – so it must have come from something I read. But I also wanted to make a set of tracks that are consistent with where we are now, but to be able to listen to them at any time in the future and have them still not sound dated. To have that quality of being able to step out of time and in so being infinite. I hope I can achieve it!
Have your previous albums been the same thematically, linking to the titles you’ve chosen?
All of them have a kind of sci-fi theme, but this album is more personal. That’s why I included more vocals because I am a bit of a love puppy at the moment. There are some love songs in there, songs of love and loss basically.
Is Into Infinity mostly inspired by this particular relationship, or is it a broader approach to love and loss?
A bit of both. The theme track “Making Holes” is completely about the relationship I’m in right now; “Island of Thought” is about other relationships. The whole album is about relationships in general, but the whole album is not just about relationships. There’s a track on there called “01” which is about technology and how it will be an answer for many of the world’s problems. There’s another track on there which I collaborated with Efdemin on called “One Way”, and the theme of it is that life is just one way, you can’t go back, it’s just the direction of life. The music I listen to the most is music that inspires me in a personal capacity, so that’s what I set out to do in this album.
What were you listening to when developing and producing this album?
The album took two years to make, some of it in Portugal, some here in Berlin, so it was a mix of different things. The tracks I made in Portugal were very much inspired by nature, and a lot of traditional African music.
Have you always listened to traditional African music?
My whole background and my angle in this comes from my African roots, and it’s all about sticking to my roots and incorporating it in the way I am at the moment.
A very distinct type of African percussion has always been very distinctive in your productions. How early on did you realize this was going to be a feature for you, and how do you achieve that sound?
I always start any kind of production with the rhythmic patterns. When I listen to music that’s the first thing that attracts me. Now where I’m at is not sampling the drums, but actually doing the drums, reprocessing them with digital software and then cutting them up again, and using the old patterns and reinterpreting them and making them into new patterns. By using the same kind of idea and reinterpreting it into a modern context.
So your percussion sounds are sampled?
The drum sounds are taken from different older records, the loops aren’t actually sampled. Nowadays you can get loops of pretty much anything, but they’re not that at all. The original sound is sampled but I make up my own loops and rhythms. I started making music when this technology came into fruition and the midi composers used to sample a lot of things and just reuse the same thing. You can always hear how much effort is put into a track. I mean the minimal thing is kind of over, but you can tell if a track is just made of fruity loops or something that is completely lifeless. There’s something that you can always distinguish.
What was your studio setup when you started making music in South Africa, and how has your production process changed since then?
It must have been twenty years ago or something. I mean, I started making music even before computers! That was the same time as the first Cubase and stuff like that. The first instruments I used were sequencers. I used the Roland W30, which was a sampler sequencer, and that thing had something like an eight-second sampling time or something ridiculous. That was like ‘wow, modern cutting edge technology!’ The evolution of the computer went so fast that in a blink of an eye I was just using computers. The first gigs I did in London were with a desktop computer! It’s crazy. Then I went back to hardware, and now I’m in a phase where I use both. Because just using hardware or just using computers is lacking in certain ways.
What do you use when you’re performing live?
It’s a bit of a mix and match. I’m using my computer for sequencing, but the main instrument for my live set at the moment is my vocals, because it changes every time I do a set. I have my mic, my vocal effects unit, my three controllers and sometimes I use a handmade theremin that a friend from Italy made for me, that I sometimes use as my intro. I found with recent live sets, because I’ve been doing proper improv vocals for three months or so, that it’s just so much more interactive because people see you singing there. I’m not singing with the backing tracks, I’m doing this live. It is intense and it’s going brilliantly, it’s being received well everywhere. The songs are released but since I’m singing live, it becomes quite different than the originals, I premeditate some things, but I just sing what comes to mind at the time. I love it because the effects unit I’m using is a new one especially made for live vocals where you don’t have a sound engineer at the gig so it makes your voice sound brilliant, because it enhances your voice to makes you sound like you are in the studio. It’s easier and I am much more confident doing the live thing like that. I’ve never had any boos (laughs). People have been crying! Last week in Copenhagen I was singing and it was just euphoria afterwards.
What’s driven you performance style?
When I look back at my history, I was really influenced by the DJs in South Africa with the first early house music, before you had the superstar DJ culture: when DJs were there to just play good music. Of course we had DJs that were popular but there wasn’t this superstar crap you have today, where it doesn’t matter what you play because it’s just who you are. That really influenced me quite a lot and when I’m performing live I am always keeping that in mind. I want to keep this as vibrant and interesting as possible, and I wont enjoy it if it’s lackluster with no real effort put into it. Even though adding live vocals makes me more nervous, it’s always well received. People always take kindly when you want to share something, so that drives me. To have enjoyable dance floor moments.
It seems like you’ve literally become clearer and clearer as a vocalist, with less processing and more access to your natural voice.
My voice has this new wave element, and a lot of people that are into proper electronic music come from that background, so it’s kid of merging that together. I also wanted to do something different as well because of course there is firstly so much competition and second there is so much crap. I wanted to do also come from my heart you know. It’s a natural kind of progression because when I started making music ages and ages ago the first thing I did was singing. I was a singing group. We recorded an album but it was never released, then I left that idea and started making electronic music. So singing has kind of come back full circle.
Tell me about your relationship with Lerato
I met Lerato in Johannesburg around 20 years ago at a house party, I was living in Johannesburg at that time because I was recording an album with a group I was in, and we just instantly got along and shared the same ideas about music. I moved to Cape Town and she moved there as well and then we eventually moved to London more or less at the same time. While in London we really wanted to do something distinctive with our sound, being from South Africa, and that’s when we started Sud Electronic, to have an electronic music voice from the south. Then we started doing the label and then the Sud Electronic nights, which is in the eleventh year, and Lerato continued doing it on her own. We were best friends at the same time and the working relationship just complemented it. Then I moved to Lisbon and she kept doing the Sud Electronic parties and then she started her own label Uzuri for more house influenced stuff and her own booking agency as well. She is actually representing me as a booking artist. It’s kind of full circle again, the last Sud Electronic party will be in London in November and then she is moving to Berlin. We’re relaunching Sud Electronic next year, we’re actually doing a re-release of one of my tracks “Albatross” with a few remixes.
Were there any other artists from South Africa that were an influence for you especially with electronic music?
It was something not really done before in South Africa. The people that influenced me were from the older generation like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, but there wasn’t any electronic music from South Africa at the time. Now you have Kwaito house guys and stuff like that, but that’s another genre. But there is no one I can think of in the electronic music world.
It’s interesting that you have these two personas, Portable and Bodycode, but the separation between them has been getting murkier and murkier. What does that mean going forward for both projects?
That has been a very natural evolution. I started making Portable material really as a sort of spin-off of dance music at the time. It would be music – although taken from the dance world – that that’s much lighter, and that you could listen to in any environment. Then while I was touring in the United States, Ghostly International came to one of my gigs, like Sam Valenti and all those guys, in Detroit. I was booked mostly in clubs for the Portable stuff live so I made it more house-y and dance-oriented, and they really liked that angle of it and asked me to make a project for them. Then I created this Bodycode project that was just a dance project, experimental dance, but with sights on the dance floor. I did a Bodycode album, and then clubs booked me for both Portable and Bodycode. I would always try to figure out what they wanted but it would always be ‘Portable aka Bodycode’ so it became a mix of the two. There is definitely a merging of the two different styles together, so for the future there will be more Bodycode, but I would say the distinction of the two is the Portable is mainly vocal-based and Bodycode is harder and more instrumental. But I’m not really so keen to make a distinction between the two, because initially there wasn’t meant to be such a distinction. it was just supposed to be different sides of the same element. The dark side of the moon!
What are your favorite tracks off Into Infinity, and why?
“Making Holes,” “Islands of Thought” and “Fade Away”. They all make reference to important parts in my emotional life. “Making Holes” is about my relationship right now, “Islands of thought” is about a relationship before and the situation of being in between two relationships, and “Fade Away” is just about being in the flow of life.
Do you have an overall favorite track of your own? Something that you are especially fond of?
I’d say the first album I did for Background Records, Futuristic Experiments #005, I listen to it a lot now, the technical production is so bad, but the ideas are still very relevant right now. When I was l working on this new album, I was listening to that one quite a lot because I wanted to think about why I was making things as Portable. That album is very special to me, because it has the seed of everything that eventually happened from, because a lot of it is very experimental and a lot of people tell me they play a lot of those tracks even still now. You can almost see the potential.