Panabrite – Infinite Pulsation + Interview
May 6, 2011
Panabrite – Infinite Pulsation
Early in the year, Digitalis Ltd. released a tape collecting two early recordings from Seattle’s Norm Chambers’ dreamy electronic outfit Panabrite. Aside from being the ultimate introduction to the world of Panabrite, this album is also among the finest releases to grace my tape deck, and it confirmed Panabrite as one of the most exciting artists to watch in 2011. And Chambers’ newest tape, also out on Digitalis Ltd., shows that Panabrite is hear to stay and is hardly a one-trick-pony – exploring the world of synth pop in typically fantastic style. Needless to say, it’s a total masterpiece. I recently had the chance to discuss the tape with Chambers himself, and he had a lot of interesting and exciting things to discuss. A passionate music maker and fan, Chambers talks about his new album, his beautiful artwork, and his upcoming projects, including a new band that sounds like “Gainsbourg-meets-Goblin.” Click on to read!
What was the inspiration for Infinite Pulsation? It sounds very different from your previous releases – “bouncier” is the word that came to my mind.
I think this album was more directly inspired by my love of vintage electronic library music and more straightforward cosmic synth pop/minimal synth stuff. I sort of tried to fuse things together in an interesting way that wouldn’t necessarily hit you over the head, although a couple tracks sort of do, I guess. I love thick, buzzing analog sound, minimal drum machine pitter-patter and shimmering string-synths. One of my musical heroes is the French library/session composer Jean-Pierre Decerf. He made some really odd records in the late 70’s, many of which fused crazy combinations of disco, prog and weird electronics, but mostly wrapped up with an interesting pop sensibility. The track on my new album “Acceleration” sounds like a direct homage to his sound (even in name, since Acceleration is the name of one of his albums), but I think it came about more unconsciously. He also made some bad albums too, but I won’t go into that…
Nearly a year ago I made “Silver Limousine” as a one-off track, and then Frank from Hobo Cult made a really great looking video for it. A little bit after that, Brad from Digitalis was into it and wondered if I’d be interested in making a tape exploring more of this “synth pop” sound. From there I just sort of went off and tried to make something different than my usual material. I’m sure it’s potentially off-putting to some, but at the same time I don’t think it’s too radical a departure.
I’m always struggling with ways to get all these different ideas out in concrete form. I like so many different types of sounds and arrangements, and it’s tough to sort of narrow things down into a reasonable form sometimes. I love melody, texture, tension and arrangement almost in equal measure and don’t think something has to have a beat in order to be interesting or valid. On the flipside of that I don’t think lazy drone music is interesting either unless there is some kind of engrossing element, or something peering through the clouds to latch onto. I make a lot of tracks, often in order to get some idea or concept off my chest. Otherwise I go nuts thinking about it. If I get inspired to make something I’ll need to get it out, even if it is at odds with whatever else I’m currently working on. I’ll usually save it for another project. Although I have an extremely low-budget studio setup, it’s usually accommodating enough to see concepts through well enough.
I more or less grew up listening to indie rock and new wave stuff, but then in the early 90’s started getting into electronic music more and more, which led to a fascination with old synthesizers and then old synthesizer/electronic records. I guess one thing I’ve learned from years of music obsession is that variety is key. It’s great to have your mind opened, so you can take in all these amazing sounds and appreciate all the different approaches. I played in a couple of bands in the mid-to-late 90’s after having done many 4-track guitar and synth projects with various friends. I stopped doing music for about eight years because other things came up in life (such as moving to a different state, school, etc…), so I think the timing has been right for me doing this project over the last couple of years. It feels right to be doing this stuff now.
Is the direction of this tape one you will be pursuing on future releases or do you see it as more of a singular exercise in your catalog?
I’m pretty sure the next one will be different. There is an upcoming tape that has an aquatic/underwater theme, which is probably familiar to someone who knows my music at least a little. I have a somewhat weird, obsessive love of vintage aquatic library and soundtrack albums, which has led to me composing several of my own! These albums tend to be more on the ambient/drifty side, typically, and are certainly not anything like Infinite Pulsation. In general, I guess all of my albums tend to have some kind of unique but loose concept, enough to where they do seem different than one another, although there is an inescapable similarity at the end of the day. I will definitely do something similarly upbeat someday, but for now I have some other things lined up that are maybe less aggressive. I view all of these things as similar in a sense, because the ideas all come from the same place, it’s just that they tend to vary in execution. I mean, I’m using the exact same gear on everything I do.
Most of my musical heroes, such as Haruomi Hosono and Roedelius, have always maintained a nice variety of sound throughout their work, yet you can always hear a thread, a signature sound. I love that and hope to attain a similar trait at some point.
You work primarily with synths and drum machines on these tracks. I know you used acoustic guitar in some of your earlier works – are you less interested now in those more “organic” sounds?
Not at all. To me, having a stark acoustic guitar surrounded by electronics is like heaven. I don’t mean in a “folktronic” way either, but more in a sort of spaced-out ambient folk sense. I’m primarily a guitar player, but I’ve always been sort of bored with guitars – or more specifically – guitars as objects of affection or adulation. I usually think of it as another piece of the puzzle, rather than the center, or as some guitar shredding exercise. There’s something wonderful about understated guitar accompaniment, which is mostly how I like to use it. I have an electric guitar, but haven’t touched it in years. I find with enough distortion I can get a decent crunchy tone on the synth!
It’s funny, but in a way I feel like all these old synths I’m using are somewhat “organic” in the sense that they are fairly temperamental, and don’t always cooperate. I really love working with analog synths, but I’m not averse to digital by any means. Actually I’m hoping to incorporate some midi gear soon so I don’t have to keep playing everything by hand all the time! I’m no luddite when it comes to this stuff, but it’s all down to limited finances, and so I’ve been using the same four synths, effects pedals and drum machine for years.
For the upcoming album Omni Center, it’s sort of a mixture of all previous elements, with some new things thrown in. In a funny sort of way, I tend to view it as a wannabe-prog album, yet it’s too awkward to really be “prog” in the proper sense, which I prefer actually. The mixture of folk elements and electronics is really inspired by artists such as Faust, who would fuse together wild tape loops, synth noise and other incidental sounds with really pretty folk passages, just changing things as they went by, where you couldn’t really be sure what was next. Again the melody/tension dichotomy here is always endlessly fascinating. In the back of my mind I always wanted to do something similar and thought with these tunes it would work.
There’s a tendency of mine to view albums as movies, like a full experience: you have the intro, the ups and downs, the loud and the quiet, etc… and some “build ups” that inevitably lead to “pay offs”, but I guess it’s never necessarily laid out that way completely, it’s just a good framework to get my mind wrapped around in order to help inspire some ideas and direction. Also, somewhere in there I think I was excited to have an album out on a great experimental Italian label, so that likely fueled the more esoteric folk tendency to some extent.
You have done the artwork for all of your previous releases, this one included, and you have a very specific (and awesome) aesthetic for Panabrite. Can you talk a bit about the images you use to complement your music? And, specifically, about the drawings included with this tape?
I’ve been drawing, painting and sketching my entire life. I studied graphic design as well as fine art briefly early on, but I’ve always just done that stuff on my own anyway. Sort of like music, I view these things in a very unique manner, although they materialize very separately. There are various design aesthetics I love for various reasons. I love old science fiction comic illustrators like Jean Giraud (Moebius) and the future concepts of Syd Mead, or contemporary collagists like Julian House. I’m really into Brutalist concrete architecture. I’d say in the past decade the biggest influence on me visually has been the Superstudio and Archigram movements of the 60’s and 70’s. They were very forward thinking futuristic designers/conceptualists with amazing ideas… not to mention incredible graphics, which beautifully illustrate brilliant and absurd concepts, and often at the same time.
I definitely try to maintain a certain visual aesthetic with my releases, something that will be diffuse enough to remain mysterious yet hopefully match the music. I’ve always believed in minimal information on an album, just to let it stand alone and not necessarily be tied to any real identity. I think the listening experience is much more satisfying that way. It’s funny, but for album art I’ve long appreciated collage type compositions, and never really liked the idea of using (mine or others’) drawings or paintings very much. For Infinite Pulsation I figured that since the music was a bit different, it was time to try a new visual approach too. I have what seems like hundreds of sketch books from over the years, and it was interesting to go through and pick out parts that looked like they would work for a tape cover, and specifically to match this album in tone. I think for this tape, the audio/visual combo presents a sort of surreal sci-fi vibe, which I like but can’t really explain.
Finally, are there any upcoming projects you want to talk about?
Yes, quite a bit of things in the pipeline. I’ve recently started work on an LP for Digitalis, and there are upcoming tapes on Tranquility Tapes and Field Studies during the summer, and a CDr on Sturmundrugs sometime this year. I recently started working on a collaboration with Brad Rose, and so we’ll see where that goes! Also, I’m really excited to be working on a project with the insanely talented Montreal-based Christian Richer (Element Kuuda, Haiduks, SPACEKOM), called Soft Mirage, which showcases our shared love of spacey 70’s soft-prog. It’s still early on but is sounding interesting so far. This project has much more guitar and live drums, in addition to synths-a-plenty. Think along the lines of Gainsbourg-meets-Goblin perhaps, but with more electronics and less noodling. We are more or less working on two LPs simultaneously: one for Hobo Cult and one for Digitalis. I have no idea when any of it will be done, however, since we live very far away from one another geographically, and have been sending files back and forth. This method tends to take longer, but it will be worth the wait!
One more thing… I will be starting work soon on scoring a short film, which is nerve-wracking, but an exciting prospect nonetheless!