Aleph (Kai Maynard) has just released his debut album on Renraku: Ego Death. The versatile bass-music artist hailing from Burlington (Vermont, United States) consciously departs from appeasing the mainstream.
Known for Omen (400K plays on Spotify) and his collabs with the Bristol-based duo formerly known as Ekcle, Aleph’s spent a fair portion of time to get the details right. The result is something to behold. Glitchy, offbeat, technical rhythmics are seamlessly combined with dreamy, and emotion-evoking soundscapes – perhaps best experienced eyes closed, felt without distractions.
There’s more to the name, Ego Death embodies the cycle of a psychedelic experience – with each tune representing a sequential phase one’s consciousness goes through while dissolving and challenging the illusion of the separate ‘self’.
And there’s certainly more to say about how Aleph went about creating it.
Wisdom applicable for those plagued by the endlessly judgmental inner-critic. Specifically thanks to a timeless method, even more so relevant now while navigating the ceaseless cascade of stimuli.
We got in touch with Aleph to talk Ego Death, offering insights into his vision – also touching upon the (dis)functionality of the artist’s ego. Read on for the full story below.
Your debut album is out. Congratulations! How does it feel to finally share this with the world?
Really nice. I had to do some production business to make it sound like it does. The music was basically done a year ago, so it’s really strange to finally see it come out.
So the hard part was the polishing?
I don’t know if it was hard, it took the longest time. A lot of artists can relate, as much as it’s great and satisfying to really finish off and polish, making something new is exciting to jump into. I worked on other stuff and finishing up other releases, two in the meantime. Then came the process of sending the album out to different places, getting some feedback from friends, and then finally mastering it. It all wrapped up earlier this year, but the writing was done for a while.
Let’s go back a bit, please tell us more about how you started
I’ve been writing music for about thirteen years. Almost all of it being electronic music. I done a little bit of acoustic music. I can play sax amateurishly, but I don’t record it, since I don’t have a saxophone anymore. I used to play when I was a lot younger.
What genre(s) did you make initially?
Hip-hop, and I was really into garage music. I heard Burial in 2006 and was utterly in love with that sound. I didn’t think of making anything until 2009.
What made you decide then?
Electronic music, since I lived in America, started to become more mainstream around then. One of my friends gave me FL Studio 6 on an USB and I was like: ‘alright, I will mess around with this’. Around then the deeper side of dubstep, like Skream, Benga and Caspa, came to the States. It had been around for a while – it was a new take on a sound I already loved.
You mentioned a couple of influences from back then. Any other people, perhaps in other genres, that inspired you?
Yeah, absolutely. Noisia was a huge influence, especially early on. My friend’s older brother had a Drum&BassArena compilation CD. He would play (this) during our small get-togethers. I wouldn’t call it DJ’ing, we just had this playlist. I heard their stuff and also Spor. Mostly the heavy technical stuff on that compilation. From there, I was able to get into drum ‘n bass as a genre as well.
Back to the album: do you remember the moment your vision for it crystalized?
Yeah! It’s funny, because up until the end of 2019 I felt like I’d been trying to say something, but didn’t know what that was. I ended up going back and listening to the electronic music I fell in love with as a much younger person.
I remember hearing Rival Dealer by Burial. The way he constructs this statement of purpose – the three movements this song has – it all feels like he’s trying to express what his music is about. I thought to myself: ‘what if I try to do something like that?’
I wrote the song what would become Ego Death (LP title track). Rather than approaching it like a traditional songwriting format, I wrote different sections and tried to make the most insane sounds. Once the pandemic started it forced me stay inside, writing something that I knew wouldn’t be commercial in any way or DJ-friendly.
It was me trying to express what the Aleph project was about. It fitted perfectly with the idea of cataloguing a psychedelic journey with that single song. Meanwhile, going through this process of losing interest in the commercial-ness of the music I was making – it felt like my ego was dying, the name was perfect for it.
A rebirth as well
Absolutely, it definitely changed the way I approached writing music. Still to this day, but especially for this album. I focused on narrative, instead of whether or not something is going to work on a dancefloor or be radio-friendly. Which is a big consideration for my music prior to that time period.
What was the most challenging part about writing this?
I think the hardest part was really cracking each section of the album to fit the narrative in mind. Once I finished Ego Death, I thought: ‘this is cool, a ten-minute song that feels like only one piece of the story, so how would I go about bringing that into reality?’ That was the trickiest part of the whole process.
Given this is one of the last tracks on the album, you basically worked backwards from there – dissecting and introducing elements?
I wrote that one first and then every single song on the album – the track order is actually a sequence of how they were finished – from the front to the back.
Please tell us about the biggest lessons during this process
Instead of struggling and suffering because I wasn’t able to convey what was in my head perfectly, I leaned into the idea of taking what I already had. The first single for example, Polymer, is actually made of little snippets of every other song on that record. There was a skeleton of it done sequentially, but I realized that I wasn’t able to make the sounds fit. So I took little bits from every single other part. It actually is one of my favorite tracks on it for that reason.
Do you think ego is the enemy of creativity?
I don’t know, as I don’t have too many strong feelings if the ego is good or bad. For me it was necessary to break away from my conception of what I was supposed to be doing and who I was in order to write music. But at the same time it definitely is a powerful motivator and an aspect of many people.
Identifying with the music one makes, as an extension of who he is… a timeless theme in creating music and other arts. How do you go about detaching yourself from what you create?
It’s so hard, listening to the record now – man, there’s still things I could change, but at the same time it’s like: ‘maybe only I notice that little imperfection’. It’s the part that makes it magic. Approaching one’s own work from that perspective – as a reflection of where you are in the instant is a good way of removing it from your current – a way to absolve. I still struggle with that today.
It seems you’re someone who practices meditation
Yeah, I do meditate. I first got into it through Jon Hopkins, he talks about transcendental meditation. I try to meditate at least once, if not twice a day, twenty minutes minimum. Often that gives me time to break away from what else is happening in the world. Especially when I was writing the album.
Because it was during the pandemic, it was an interesting time where everything was shut down where I lived, somewhere really rural. Before I even thought about writing music, every single morning I would wake up four in the morning and walk around in the woods behind my house for a couple of hours. Just to get away from the computer and everything.
Soaking in the present moment and the scenery.
Exactly. That was a big part of the creation process – probably the most important part.
How long have you been meditating?
About four years now.
What has changed for you mentally as an artist?
It makes me a more positive and forgiving person. I learned to love the imperfections of my work. I am not a trained engineer and don’t have the perfect studio environment to record in. It used to really upset me, because my music will never sound as good as ‘this’. But realizing the little things that are unique about my sound – they exist because I don’t have this meticulously crafted working environment. Being able to reflect on this in a meditative space is a big part of why I have that philosophy today.
How do you go about receiving and acknowledging praise from others on the music you make?
That’s so hard. Ultimately I am making the music for myself and my love for electronic music. When someone reaches out to me with something positive to say about it – that’s very strange – because it seems like it’s this intimate thing, up until I put it out. I don’t know how to really respond initially, I have to take a step back and realize what it was to be the listener when you first hear the music you like – how magical that moment is – especially when it’s music that’s important to you and how thankful you are for that.
You are not your work. But how would you define that which inevitably has a substantial impact on your identity? Where do you draw the line, while still accepting this as a part of you?
I ultimately want to like what I’m writing and doing. We’re in this weird time in history where there’s so much fighting for our attention and emotions’ it’s really easy to get sucked into things that aren’t even real or don’t really matter. As long as I can continue writing and loving the stuff I do – that’s enough to be fulfilled and at peace. That was not my intention initially. A lot of people want to be rockstars.
Is the metaphor of being a vessel for ideas, perhaps not entirely yours in spiritual essence, something that resonates with you?
My sound is very much related to the music that I love. It was a big part of making the album. It’s very easy to get sucked into the mentality: ‘I have to be new and innovative’, because of how instantaneous everything is these days.
That can be a trap for your own creative process, because everything you make doesn’t fit into this insane criteria of what has to be, you’re not going to love it. It’s better to be respectful and include the things you love from other people’s music in yours.
The main thread of Ego Death is the psychedelic experience – can you explain?
Sure, obviously I had a few experiences that were transformative in my life. I’m actually completely sober now – it’s not that I had issues, but realized that substances don’t do a lot for me in terms of where I want my life to go or what I want to feel. When I was younger, at times I would use psychedelics as a way to look inside and try to figure out why I was unhappy or how to differently approach a problem I tried to solve.
Passion gets a lot of credit, despite the fact that the highs result in the inevitable lows. What’s your view on the pros and cons of being a passionate person?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I definitely am a passionate person when it comes to writing music. Sometimes I wish this wasn’t the case. If you’re able to detach from the significance of what you’re doing and the significance of creating yourself – it might make it easier to be okay when you’re not successful at writing. The lowest points of my life are when I am not able to write the music I have in my mind or I lost the inspiration for an idea I was previously excited about. The best parts of my life are when everything seems to be going well with the creation process.
What’s next for Aleph?
Hard to say. I have quite a lot of music done since finishing Ego Death, that I’d like to see come out. I am really looking at trying to build something that’s more multimedia-focused, but can’t talk about it too much just yet. I want to keep the idea flexible.
Anything else you want to say to conclude?
To anyone out there who’s struggling, learn to accept the things in your life that aren’t perfect. It will shock you how much it is going to make your mood and mental wellbeing stronger and more positive.