Please could you introduce yourselves to our readers who may not be aware of what you do?
We are a collective of musicians that perform live and improvised techno and related influences using classic drum machines and synths, stringed instruments and vocals.
Playing mostly at clubs, raves and warehouse parties we have released three physical records and a few digital-only releases as well as some full improvised live sets over the last 5 years.
Last year we toured in India and had our first tour in Europe where we played at the Fusion Festival as well as Berlin Clubs etc. We have played extensively in NYC and on the U.S. East Coast with emphasis on underground warehouse parties as well as certain clubs we have really connected with like Flash in Washington DC, Mono in Mexico City and the now-closed Output in NY.
How did the three of you first meet? What made you decide to team up as a band?
We met in college about 15 years ago. Since then we have collaborated with each other in various functions and formations. Our love for electronic music, parties and improvised music brought us together to form N/UM in 2015. It started with jam sessions with electronic gear and evolved into this project that is very dear to us and has brought us to so many places and is making people happy through music. For years we were all very focused on improvisation, mostly through the jazz idiom because this is where the improvisation game was mostly confined to or at least was strongest in that realm. However, we always had a feeling that there was a need to break with the set and settled stylistic traits, the defined sound and general approach in musical interaction that the jazz tradition always seems to carry with it. This holds true even though we all have a deep love for Jazz still and in fact, still do a lot of our work in the jazz world. We also often go out to let ourselves soak in the music from the incredible scene that continues to exist in our city for jazz. There are a lot of amazing artists that really push the boundaries of the style. Starting N/UM was a way for us not to keep pushing the limits of the style but rather leave the style all together while keeping the sensibility and notion of a kind of musical telepathy which the history of jazz has brought to such a high level of development.
Band members tend to have more clearly defined roles. How do you split up your responsibilities? Does each of you bring specific skills to the table?
For the most part, it is very even. Of course, musically we all bring a very personal style and taste to the table. It has been very interesting and rewarding to combine them into a cohesive whole that is bigger than its parts. Since Jeremy is an incredible engineer, he is doing the mixing and mastering (with input from Emil and myself). I feel when one of us makes a particular connection or gets passionate about a certain thing they might take the lead on that. Many of the skills needed to play in this very interconnected and technologically complex context we had to learn together as we went along and bit by bit developed our setup and technique to what it is now. It continues to evolve and change as continually experiment and as we change as humans and as musicians, learn and gather inspiration. It all goes into a process.
Can you tell us more about your live set? Which equipment do you use and why?
Elias: Our live sets are totally improvised. We tried in the beginning to recreate ‘tracks’ that we liked, but we found out that the pure improvisation feels most alive and groovy. There is something really beautiful about having an experience with an audience that is totally original and in a way not repeatable. You had to be there!
I’m playing mostly guitar that I feed first into a 2 track looper that then goes into two different effect chains. One effect chain is the guitar sound processed with pedals like Red Panda’s Particle and Tensor, a freeze pedal, an octave pedal, delays, reverb and a Frostwave Resonator Filter pedal. The other effect chain is a Meris Enzon guitar synthesizer with an Erika Acidbox III filter pedal and a delay. Since the loop is before the effect chain, once I have set up a loop I can freely use my hands to extensively morph the sound with the effects. The two tracks are completely independent. Everything gets clocked by a master clock.
Jeremy: I use mostly 3 drum machines, the Roland Tr-909, I love playing it!! it sounds incredible on big systems, it’s very playable as an instrument. it’s an absolute classic, the same as a guitar player would cherish their vintage fender guitar. the second one is an analogue drum synth of any sort that I trigger with the 909, usually the Simmons SDS or UDS Marsh (it’s a vintage Russian drum synth) I love drum synths because I can make them sound however I want on the fly, I can turn a snare sound into a Hi-Hat, percussion or bass drum in a matter of seconds, it helps to have instruments that are dynamic in a free improvised setup. And the last one is the Elektron Octacapture, I use this mainly as a sampler, I have a collection of samples that I like to warp change reprogram, it gives me a more organic texture to the beat.
Emil: I use a wide variety of analogue synths, mostly clocking with cv in one way or another to control oscillators or filters in order to connect rhythmically to the rest of the trio. We always joked that we are three people playing one instrument. Of course, there are actually many units that go into the chain but the connectedness of the rhythm that drives the majority of our sound and the ways in which the instruments affect each other very strongly gives this feeling of one big instrument. In addition to synths, I use my voice a lot. I use looping and effects on both synth and voice to be able to layer elements and carve out fleeting soundscapes that can form either the thematic basis or a sort of ambient background for what sometimes is in the end perceived as songs or “tracks”. We never have any songs going into the improvisation but when things are flowing they appear out of the moment.
You’ve shot a video set in the mountains around Ri Kynjai, Lake Umiam in Northern India. Can you give us a little insight as to how the idea came about and why you settled on that location?
As mentioned earlier we were touring in India in early 2019. We performed at the ‘Nowhere Is Here’ Festival in Shillong on New Year’s Eve. The father of the festival organizer is the incredible architect Prabhat Dey Sawyan, who built Ri Kynjai. We spent some afternoons there and were mesmerized by the beauty of the architecture and nature. We had some free days and our friend and musician Hammarsing Kharhmar and his brother Larsing Ming Sawyan, who curated the festival, helped us to set it up.
The breathtaking surroundings in India were so inspiring, we felt the need to document our time there and to make an artistic testimony in some way out of our experience there. The 3 of us sat down and discussed if it was possible to realize or not, somehow everything quickly fell into place with the help of the organizers and their amazing community.
Can you tell us about who directed it and how you hooked up with them?
The video was shot and edited by The Hillspeople, a local video collective that also shot some videos for the festival. They were great! They had a team of just three people and made everything very seamless and focused. We had very little time to make the shoot happen and they were incredibly good at what they were doing so it was easy for us to just focus on taking in the scenery and the immense solemn energy of the place and give our best shot at turning it into music.
It looks like the location posed some unique challenges for a live set – how difficult was it to get set up for the shoot?
Well, we have the luxury of needing mostly power and speakers apart from the equipment that we bring ourselves. So once we had that setup, it was no problem for us to play. For the camera people, it was a little more difficult, since they had to film multiple angles at once and figure out on the fly (literally) how to stay out of each other’s shots.
As your performance was fully improvised – how much do you think the environment influenced the music?
Very much. Nature and architecture, as well as the fact that we were playing the three of us without an audience, influences the music immensely. I think it is definitely more relaxed and chill than what we play at 6 am in a dark warehouse. That is the beauty of improvisation that all these factors as well as how you personally feel that day combine into something new.
And did the thought that it was being filmed make you approach it differently?
Not much. We try to focus on the music. That is always paramount.
Some would say this is a bit of a dream location, but what would each of your actual dream locations be?
Emil: I think our dream location is really wherever open-minded people are willing to suspend expectations and run along with our risk-fueled approach to musical performance. It goes hand in hand with a culture that celebrates experimentation and alternative ways of thinking and realizing ideas over prefabricated, neatly packaged and marketed experiences.
Elias: The advantage to playing in a great club or festival (which we are fortunate to do in many places) is that the sound system is great, which is very important especially when you’re improvising, and that you get so much energy and feeling from the people who share the experience with you. The connection with the audience is the most amazing thing about playing music. But since we mostly need speakers and power I always had this dream to improvise in some unusual settings and places. Maybe a forest, in the mountains, in an old abandoned building… I think the vibe we would get from these locations could lead to some very interesting music.
Jeremy: The dream location for a party is not really about the location, but more about the people, the vibe, the decor the sound system and setup of the place, it could really be anywhere, the location can help to make a moment even more memorable but It’s even better when you get surprised by it!
Can you tell us about what’s next for N/UM? Anything you’re particularly working on?
We had a tour planned in Europe again this summer, but those plans are postponed for now for obvious reasons. We did two lengthy recording session where we spent days in the studio earlier this year, which yielded a lot of material that we are looking forward to putting out. We are going through that right now to decide what and how to release it. We also have some recordings from 2019 that we still have to release, which will be around the summer or early fall. Right now we are also trying to figure out if we can play remotely and somehow push the latency of streaming to each other to such a low level that we could perform being in different places. That would be quite fantastic but it has proven difficult with the complexity of the connections we have going. We’ll see if we manage in the coming weeks. We are working on another video project as well. This time in a very different way where we will not be in the video ourselves but instead have some very talented animators and film wizards work with their own creative freedom to form a visual world to merge with a recording of ours.
The current times are quite dark and in many ways tragic. The mood here is unusually heavy for NY, being that we are currently the centre of the crisis and don’t have much of an end in sight. We are doing our best to stay productive through and do enjoy the time allowed for introspection and seeking new inspiration and knowledge in books, films and music that we would not otherwise have time to delve into so deeply. That said, we cannot absolutely wait to be back out in the night playing together again surrounded by the irreplaceable force that is the energy of people, gathering around music and the collective experience.
Our best wishes to everyone. Stay safe and stay strong.
Words by Willy