Copenhagen-based experimental rock band Town Portal released their sophomore full-length album titled “The Occident” a few days ago, and it was a great opportunity to talk with guitarist Christian Henrik Ankerstjerne about the band’s newest opus. Make sure to get the album from the band’s Bandcamp. It’s available as a digital download and black 155r vinyl.
Define the mission of Town Portal.
Maybe something like… chasing and capturing little glimpses of something truly amazing. Something we can’t touch in any other way in our daily lives.
Tell me about the creative process that informed your most recent album “The Occident.”
This was an album characterized by a very democratic and collective song-writing process. Earlier on, I would write a lot of the parts and bring them to the band, and we would finish the songs and rework things (or they would get rudely rejected). This time around, none of us would ever bring more than a couple of chords or a simple concept for a beat from home – so it is a record that has been shaped through jamming and experimentation more than anything else.
A combination of shitty demos on our phones and once in a while a more ambitious demo setup in our rehearsal space. Demoing things has been very important, as we would simply not have been able to remember all the details in the songs without documenting things along the way. All the demoing of unfinished songs and parts does have some downsides to it as well. But it got us to the finish line.
Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected or is it an organic outgrowth of performing them together?
I would say – the individual riffs and parts are a product of collective performance and playing off one another in a very intuitive way. The songs as whole bodies are more consciously constructed and assembled.
Describe the approach to recording the album.
We basically wanted to record with Jacob Reichert Nielsen, like the last album (Chronopoly), but we ended up being quite inflexible in regard to planning, and we couldn’t make our calendars meet. Instead we spent some money on gear, to be able to do the setup we wanted, and I recorded everything. In the end, musically it was probably a good choice though. We are definitely not the most schooled musicians or engineers, but we know what we like, and this way, we had the freedom to do things in our own way at our own pace.
How long was “The Occident” in the making?
We started writing songs for the album back in 2012. So it has been on its way a while. We spent almost two years writing parts, and then maybe a year compiling and tweaking the songs. I don’t think any of us realized how long a process we were going into when we started. And maybe that’s a good thing. I am not sure I would have signed up for it, ha.
Provide some insight into the group’s chemistry that allows this music to emerge.
I think we have a group dynamic, where we accept each others’ weaknesses and weird sides, and generally give each other a bit of space. But we’re three big egos – so we do get into some power struggles once in a while. We usually make it through on friendly terms though. Musically, I would say that we operate from three quite different musical backgrounds, and at times, the musical identity of Town Portal seems not so much a conscious choice but as the only option – I mean it is the only little area on a musical map, where our three respective realms overlap – if that makes any sense.
How do you know when a piece is complete?
Often we don’t really. For the Occident, I think we had a general feeling of having written the skeletons of the songs, when we started recording. But I personally expected to add a lot of production layers. However, when we had bass, drums and guitar down, and started playing around with new layers – there just wasn’t a lot of space left, and I think we realized that the tracks were pretty much done after all.
Which bands or artists influenced your work on the album?
We always listen to a ton of very different stuff, and like I said we bring very different influences to the table. But some specific musical influences that I remember talking about for different reasons during the process of writing are Meshuggah, Helms Alee, Feast of the Epiphany, Self-Evident and Kowloon Walled City. At the same time, I think we are also often influenced by books, movies, theories, conspiracies etc. that we come across in our respective lives. Anything we find absurd or interesting. Specifically, we have song titles on the new album referring to David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and Franz Kafka’s “The Castle”.
How would you describe what you create to someone who didn’t hear you before?
I usually try to avoid genre-labels. Usually I describe our music as instrumental music that explores rhythms and harmonies with the goal of provoking some sort of intuitive awe or fascination.
What kind of gear do you use for recording your music?
We recorded our newest record through some relatively inexpensive gear. I mean it’s not cheap crap, but it’s tried and tested stuff that most people could get hold of. We actually recorded everything in our rehearsal space too. For me the important thing is that I know the gear and the room and that I don’t have too many lights and buttons distracting me from using my ears. I believe that the biggest bottleneck in recording (if you’re not Steve Albini or a wizard) isn’t thousand dollar pre-amps or microphones. I like to spend a lot of time on microphone placement, and making sure the phasing between microphones yields a result that is loyal to how the instruments sound in the room.
What is your view on technology in music?
I don’t really know quite what to say to this. It’s kind of a big question. I would say – as a consumer, I am in no way a purist. In my daily life, I listen to mp3s all the time. I have done lots of A/B testing on expensive monitors, and while I can tell a difference, it’s not a difference that matters to me if I’m riding my bike and listening to music on my headphones or whatever. As a musician I think technology is wonderful. I find that It’s often a great way to introduce some sort of foreign randomized element into your creative process – something that can surprise you and transform your input into something you couldn’t have come up with. I do think that sometimes too much technology can make me lose sight of the song itself. So for example regarding something like guitar pedals, I try to keep it really basic. I find that even adding a single new parameter to my setup can open up tons of new options in songwriting.
Do you see the band’s music as serving a purpose beyond music?
Not really. We have opinions about lots of stuff, but we really try not to mix that up with our music. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are people doing amazing art that is political or autobiographical, but I can’t really see how we would fit those things into our musical universe without somehow restricting it. For the three of us as people, our music has taken us to a lot of amazing places and brought us in contact with a lot of fantastic people.
What advice or philosophy might you impart to other musicians, be it in forms of creativity, technical stuff, the business side of it, or anything else?
I can’t really think of anything that’s not a big cliché. I like to sometimes think that what we do musically has to feel mind-blowing and fantastic to us. I mean – we basically get to tailor the music to our exact tastes, so if it’s not amazing to us, it probably isn’t to anybody else. So we try to make every second of every song have some sort of amazing quality. I realize that sounds a bit megalomaniac, but I think it would be pointless to strive for less.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now we need a little bit of relaxation. It’s been a long haul to get this album done while juggling University, jobs, other bands and personal lives on the side. But we are slowly starting to plan a European tour and maybe even a US tour – and personally, I don’t think it will be long before I’ll be itching to get back in the rehearsal space to continue chasing those little fixes of something fantastic.
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