Having won 2018’s West Australian Music (WAM) song of the year and introducing listeners to the improvisational intricacies of They Fed The Gryphon With Their Limbs, the drummer of experimental outfit Intenso, Steve Elkins, found time to chat with Grok on Intenso’s literary influences, creating experimental music and their upcoming album.
How was 2018 for Intenso?
2018 had been a good year for us, we have managed to get out two releases. We released an EP in August as well as a single a couple of weeks ago. That was on top of winning the WAM experimental category, in the song of the year contest earlier that year.
How did it feel winning that award? You guys have pretty much won it three years in a row now.
We have won it three time, the last two back to back. It’s been good, we love that competition mainly because getting nominated [is] to get some recognition of what we’re doing. Especially in the early days, we got nominated quite a few times before we won it. That gave us a bit of recognition in the music community, indicating we’re on the right track. The other people that got nominated this year, like Tangled Thoughts of Laving, Bolt Gun to name a few, they’re pretty big acts in our land, so it’s a pretty good thing to be mentioned with names like that.
Is there a burgeoning experimental scene in Perth?
I’d say if you start scratching the surface, there are quite a few ‘schools’ of experimental. You’ve got the more psychedelic types, instrumentals, and then you look at the tonalist crew where those players are doing experimental in different directions. Right now, that music, especially improvised music—instrumental music in Perth is really taking off at the moment.
Which school do Intenso sit in?
In some ways we started at the tonalist kind of crew style, but now I think we’ve moved towards something heavier, as our music has developed. In previous years we supported Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, they must have recognised that our sound was in their area as well.
When starting out, what drew you guys to playing experimental music?
I’ve done that music my whole life, in Perth especially. They’ve come in all different styles, but even my previous bands [were the same], and Intenso was a three piece, a fully improvised band called ‘Futurist’ in those days. This time I approached the drummer Toby and said do you want to do a duet, like improv. Basically, the premise was at the time, we just rocked up and just played. We’re a three piece now; we’ve got samples and modular synths which we are experimenting with. Which sort of give different layers to our sound. The whole thing is improvised on the spot.
We don’t have a pre-conceived idea of what the song might be, we don’t have a pre-conceived idea of what the style might be. We just let it happen.
Learning about music is very formulaic. At what point did you decide to throw out the conventional musical structure?
I used to write a lot of songs, but maybe I did have a moment where things weren’t really moving in the speed or direction that I was looking for at the time. I had a moment where I decided if I was writing songs and it was taking all this energy to craft these songs, [and] then it’s not really working, then why not just use your own musicality in the moment?
I had a listen to They Fed The Gryphon With Their Limbs; you can feel a structure to something that isn’t very structured at all. How hard is it to piece that together and create an audible story?
You need to be self-referring, remembering what you played thirty seconds ago to bring it back. You need to self-edit in the moment, where you’re focusing on your own sound as well how it is working with the sound of everyone else. Music, conversation-wise as well, we just must keep in the back our minds that we our trying to create a song. We’re very conceptual in our approach, but at the end of the day we’re trying to make music that we like.
If you know anything about music the songs are going to have a verse and chorus, an A and a B. They might develop, have a section and breakdown, a bridge, all those types of elements you could put into a song. We just deal with that on the fly though. If you play enough music, you can almost feel the need to go somewhere else now.
A lot is built by intuition then? It sounds like a musical conversation between the musicians and their instruments.
Exactly right, [it’s a] musical conversation like that. There is this build up over the years, playing together or playing music that is a bit more open. Whether its blues or funk or jazz or all these open styles where there is all this improve; but there is [also] structured improv. At some point you go, “this is boring, I’m sick of this structure”. It also means if you have structure people go, “ah, you’re just doing this because you’ve just done something that is an interesting critique of that style.”
Intenso cites literary influences like Cormac McCarthy and Hunter S. Thomson; how do you work those influences into an improvisational song?
Its kind of like setting up that atmosphere. If you think of some Cormac McCarthy books, like Blood Meridian or The Road, when we first started [for inspiration].
Intenso is our life in a way. Under what we do, we play Intenso, but we also live Intenso. That’s probably how some of the literary aspects come into it because it influences how you think about the greater world. As a result, when you go to play music, which is free, then those influences come to the fore in the music. There is a Hell’s Angels book that Hunter S. Thompson wrote, that was a very big influence for us in the beginning. That was the first time people called it ‘gonzo writing’; essentially gonzo was talking about being inside of what you’re writing. So, we took that step for music, we wanted to be inside of the music of what we were playing.
Therefore, if you structure it, there is no way you can change it. It had to be unstructured in that sense. You had to be inside of the music, we stopped using the term gonzo now, but in those early days it was something we were striving [towards] as a concept.
It makes the creative process sound porous; does Intenso draw a lot of influences from other media as well?
We like everything [laughs]. Anything that has a pulse; short films, animation. Adam the sample guy, he’s a sculptor and quite a good one. He’s had about three of four exhibitions this year, for his sculpture work. That’s an aspect of that artistic, creative thinking that comes into the fore. Toby himself is an artist as well, he does a lot of drawing and [has] a lot of different music styles. He’s currently in Ireland doing Irish music. All these things influence us, but really everything at the core of it, when we play you must leave a lot of that stuff at the door and you just let what seeps through, come through when you’re playing.
What can listeners expect from the upcoming album next year?
It was a bit of a risk we thought, but we wanted to do it anyway. Our first song Gryphon was a 14-minute track, but the album is five tracks and only goes to 40 minutes. Its very different to what we have done in the past, the rest of the songs are quite different to Gryphon as well. There is two-minute hard hitting one, a nice semi-orchestrated [one], a slower quieter piece that fits in there, which gives the album a bit of dynamism and contrast. Overall, we’re happy; it’s one where you want people to come, sit down and listen to the whole 40 minutes, because it all fits in together.
This came from hours and hours of recording, we don’t do takes because there is only one take of everything. Essentially, we just played and played and played, and had to sit down and work out how to get these songs to fit together to form a narrative.