Photography: Lex Vesseur
After an explosive two-year saga of trips to the most Outer of Edges, 2018 was ostensibly a quieter year for Dutch doyens Noisia.
But behind the scenes they were as industrious and ambitious as ever. In all kinds of directions, too… Not just the high profile remixes of Pendulum and Camo & Krooked and standardly heavy headline tour, but also as individuals.
Thys, in particular, enjoyed one of his busiest and most creatively challenging years in his career as he scored a full contemporary ballet, Sleeping Beauty Dreams. An experimental performance that incorporates intense digital projections, it was premiered in Miami in December 2018, receiving critical acclaim from the ballet world and pushing the 36-year-old into a whole new creative realm.
The project came as no surprise to Noisia’s most attentive fans who’ve been following his solo work. Four years ago, he collaborated with his local orchestra the North Netherlands Orchestra while in 2017 he scored Tetris Mon Amour for contemporary dance company Club Guy & Roni.
In fact Sleeping Beauty Dreams came about as a result of the success and clear innovation of Tetris Mon Amour… But Thys wasn’t prepared to wait for another composition/non-dance music project to come about with such serendipity. So he made his own fate and developed his latest endeavour: Three Reflections for String Quarted and Electronics.
A collaborative project by Thys, Nicholas Thayer (who breakbeat heads and OWSLA followers may recognise from his days in the bass hinterlands) and experimental composer Setareh Nafisi, Three Reflections fuses classical instrumentation and composition with contemporary audio/visual electronics in a unique way: It comprises three compositions written specifically for string quartets and live electronics written by each collaborator. Each composition will have its own accompanying film and the three will be performed live at an audio/visual concert that should be expected to happen around summer.
It’s yet another bold leap for the producer who seems happiest when he’s faced with challenges to consider, puzzles to solve and boundaries to blur. Thys is already deep into his own composition and is tentatively storyboarding the movie with working with film maker Lex Vesseur who also made the video for Tetris Mon Amour and videos for Division artist Sofie Letitre.
Whether we get to experience what Thys and his Three Reflections collaborators will create, however, is another thing. The project is currently at Kickstarter funding stage with a little over two weeks to raise its target of €8,430. Not only is this one of Thys’s boldest manoeuvres it’s his most DIY with him very much hands-on in every aspect of the project.
You can find more about it and consider backing the project here. But first, find out a little more and understand how this project came to be and why Thys is doing it. Contrary to the rumours that his solo work hints at a potential departure to the D&B trio, these experimental sabbaticals are actually beneficial for Noisia’s future output. To put it simply; Thys is inspired in all directions. Here’s why…
Let’s go back to the the start of this path. North Netherlands Orchestra, four years ago, right?
Before that I guess. It was the music I grew up with. There’s a big piece of me that was made being exposed to this sound and it needs to be respected and needs to come out and be explored. I can’t keep this shit in. But it’s not completely sympathetic to Noisia or the Noisia audience. So I need to build a secondary career that doesn’t need to be sympathetic or reliant on Noisia. I wanted this project to be fully myself and my own work.
Should we be worried about this? There are rumours of you quitting Noisia altogether…
Haha, yeah I get it. I’ve been pretty clear that this rumour is pure bullshit every time someone mentions it to me. But I’ll explain a bit further. For a while I was trying to channel all of my creative aspirations into Noisia. Like it was the only project I’m in. Now I’ve added more projects to what I do but Noisia is still a huge part of my life and it’s a great project to be part of. We get to play lively clubs all over the world, go to places like Japan with The Upbeats, I sailed the Holy Ship to the Bahamas, we do summer festivals in nice places (I’m in love with Croatia). We get to do tunes with our friends. We are recognised as one of the best D&B collectives in the game right now. We are still pushing ourselves further in sound, and now also with the audiovisual shows we’re opening a new exciting window of possibilities.
We have a position where we can release tracks like Pleasure Model and Dzjengis side by side with tracks like our Hold Your Colour remix and Asteroids Remix. We have built an amazing bubble of creativity around ourselves, employing a number people that help us do what we are good at and do what we want to do, and they do this day in day out with a lot of love and care… So shout out to the neutje crew! I am deeply grateful for this, and very proud of this.
That’s good to hear!
There’s more to this… Our collective success also gave me the opportunity to take on projects that don’t fit the Noisia profile. There’s a lot of things I want to do, that I think are better off done under a different name. And they’re probably also better off without the inherent compromises made in a collective where each vote is weighed equally. I can’t do some of the stuff I want to do in Noisia, because Nik and Martijn aren’t into that stuff. That’s cool. I now found a way to still do those things, and not force them onto Noisia. This way Noisia can grow and develop in its own way more organically, without me and all my musical needs and wishes pulling all of Noisia in a specific direction that I feel I personally need to explore. And all the things that I’m exploring I can bring back into Noisia anyway, to throw into the mix of what’s to become Noisia next year, and the year after, and the year after.
Awesome. So let’s focus on you now. You’ve gone from working with an orchestra to a string quartet…
There’s something very fulfilling watching an orchestra: a large group of people who are so studied and focused and talented all working together. Watching 80 people moving, reading, playing, interacting is very intense. But orchestras are also highly hierarchical molochs, they plan ahead and are not easily steered in a different direction. Orchestras are huge, sometimes more than a 100 people, not everyone can have an artistic opinion. So in this project, I wanted to work with four players so they could have artistic ownership of the piece and hopefully want to give something extra and not want to clock out on the dot.
I also wanted to keep it small so it’s manageable. All of these players will have played in quartets before, they’ll be comfortably sliding into their roles. The electronic part and audio visual part are going to be challenging enough.
I think it’s interesting; the translations between each stage from them improvising to you writing to Nick arranging, back to them playing the piece. Right now you’re at the writing phase, right?
Yeah I recorded them improvising and spent days playing around with them in the sampler looking for sweet spots in their performances that give me ideas where to take it next. I perform better if I react to things presented to me. If everything is possible I do nothing, so I need something for a starting point. So I’ll take their recordings and play around with it, and then we’ll arrange that back into notes they can actually play.
Did you give the quartet anything for inspiration to improvise to?
A whole piece of music I wrote in advance. I made six sketches which all work together. I gave them music, they played on top of it and then the next player played on top of that. Whether I bring those sketches back, I don’t know. I’m kind of excited about just starting over with the new recordings as the absolute starting point, not some preconceived tunes I wrote..
Are all three of you working in such an improvisational way?
Nick is composing in much more of a classical way but I know Setareh is composing from an improvised perspective. That’s what she’s researching in her masters; improvisation in a classical environment. That’s a whole topic in itself; in conservatories, improvisation was once encouraged but this is more or less an exception these days.
So no room for creativity?
I think in the middle ages there was no room for personality, so the composer of a piece wasn’t a holy figure, only God was holy. Renaissance brought the person back and as personality and reverence of genius grew, people started glorifying the individual which eventually made it sacrilege to change a note. So many pieces are now written in stone, which is a shame because they weren’t written to be followed so rigidly. So for classical musician nowadays, to follow creative impulses you either work in a smaller group where you have a voice in the ensemble or you become a composer yourself.
You like challenging things don’t you? I’m not sure if contrarian is the right word…
Yeah I like it. I get bored! People get better and better at doing the same thing. For me it’s like ‘wow, nothing much to gain from here then…’ Many people can do the perfect snare now. I can’t even be bothered to do it myself anymore these days. I’ve come a long way technically but it’s not interesting any more. A technical challenge? Yes. But not a creative one.
That’s when it becomes a real job. Has it ever done that for you?
No. But that’s because I tend to avoid things that become a chore, instead of persevering. For me to progress creatively within D&B, I’d like to see a new technology that opens new opportunities. Exploring music tech is like a game but right now it feels like it’s Mario Kart which we’ve played too much, I’d need a new game to get excited again.
Your RIP Genre set at Let It Roll Winter fits into all this…
Totally. I think in drum & bass generally, especially in the neuro neck of the woods, the progress has become smaller, and less rewarding. We can make it harder, sure, but that’s not really nice if it’s too hard. So where do we go? A part of this is naturally happening with the resurgence of jump up; it’s reminded us of other ways of doing this. But, DJ wise, for me that wasn’t enough. I could play a Noisia set with jump up in it. But I wouldn’t feel I was exploring an exciting terrain. I’d like to show people there is more out there…
I’ve spoken to dBridge about pushing different sounds in your sets. He said he’s happy to be the bad guy if it means progress…
I’m totally down with that. The difference between Darren and I is that I’m in a collective and I do shows in the name of the collective. I can’t welcome being the bad guy because that affects Noisia. But there is an inherent value in doing the unexpected and flabbergasting the crowd for 10 minutes so they’re like what the fuck just happened? And THEN come back to the comfort zone but with a new angle and perspective on that comfort zone. But I also just don’t agree with the current standard of 60 minute neuro sets. I won’t play that full-on energy fo sixty minutes. That’s not DJing. Well, it is now but I vehemently disagree that this should be the norm. Playing unexpected and more weird stuff makes the expected hard stuff so much more exciting, it’s a context that I personally just need to make sense of the kind of peak energy that Noisia delivers.
Amen! Let’s chat about another cultural niche… Ballet. Tell me about Sleeping Beauty Dreams
It was off the back of the Tetris video. A Russian promoter who knew the director saw it and realised what I was doing would work within the project. I ended up writing two albums worth of music for it. It was a lot of material.
How does it work, are you shown the choreography beforehand? What are you reacting off?
Essentially, I worked to a script. The story is that Sleeping Beauty sleeps for 100 years but what does she dream? She’s facing her demons, she’s growing up, a girl becomes a woman and it’s a rite of passage. Her movements are tracked live to an alter ego on huge projection and LED screens that she’s battling and running away from. But all of this started as a few lines in a script and that’s what I wrote from. I just wrote the sketches freely and later asked which goes where. I prefer that process, I enjoy the puzzle that if you make one choice it will have a consequences later on in the narrative. I need that puzzle, like I said, I need those limitations because if anything is possible I do nothing.
How was the premiere last month?
It was cathartic. The first one was stressful, there were a lot of technical issues and last minute fixes. But the second one was more enjoyable. They’re a beautiful group of people and Diana Vishneva is a superstar. She is one of a few great dancers of this time.
She’s the Noisia of ballet?
Maybe a little, I guess… She’s in a world that’s set in its ways, she’s always trying discover what is possible, still keeping her footing in the tradition and never losing touch with her craft or audience.
Parallels! So this must have taken up all of 2018 for you?
Totally. I got a licence from Nik and Martijn to do this. A lot happened that year.
And all the while you were sowing the seeds for the 3 Reflections project?
Yes, from September. Nick moved to Groningen to do his masters and we’d been making plans to do a podcast on philosophy and existentialism but this came in its place. I had predicted that after Sleeping Beauty Dreams that there wouldn’t be an immediate follow up in the same way Beauty came after Tetris. And I certainly wasn’t going to wait for the next project to be offered. So I needed to do it myself. Also, the experience of producing a show; I wanted to be exposed to the dirty work of a project. I think it’s something artists can take for granted so I’m doing most of it myself, organising things like photoshoots and promotion and things I don’t usually have to do as part of Noisia because we have a strong team working with us on that.
And additional challenge to the musical challenges you’ve already set yourself with this project…
Yeah I guess. I mean, doing solo electronic music is fucking scary from where I’m sitting. What could I possibly achieve in that world compared to what we’ve done as Noisia? “Achieving something” is not the right challenge for me. It’s about exploring. I’m a curious person, and what works for my creativity is exploring that curiosity. I’ve made electronic music all kinds and tempos but I haven’t quenched my interest or curiosity in the composition world.
I’m intrigued by the demise of popularity of classic music. Concert halls are empty. Ticket prices are super high because no one can fund it. Government has cut a lot of investment in the art. The advent of guitar and drumkit and computer radically changed music, but there’s still an inherent quality to work with orchestras and classical musicians, and it’s cool to be a small part of seeing how we can bring all this skill into the future. And also incorporating visuals into it in the way we are. It’s something we have also discussed as Noisia; imagining the next album not as music not to impress people but an audio visual show to impress people. This is what I’m doing now too; making music for film and a live concert for four string players, a keyboard player and projected visuals of the films.
You’re asking for €8,430. That’s a very specific number… And not a very high one considering the scale of this production.
Any budget is always an estimation. But yes, it’s not a lot of money for what we want to do. We’ve found people who have an affinity with our music and have something they want to say, so they’ll do it way under market price.
What happens if this doesn’t get the money? Feels like you’re in too deep already…
I guess the films won’t be made. Which means there’d be no touring concert. There would be one performance, but it wouldn’t go much further. A big part of this ambition would be cancelled.
Fingers crossed then!
Fingers crossed. I have to say I underestimated how much it affects me that I’m so dependent on reach and conversion rate. I knew it would be hard, but thought I’d be cooler with asking for money than I am. But by doing it DIY, I’m also giving myself to licence to fail here. It’s cliché artist talk, but the more popular you get, the harder it is to be free and creative because of people’s expectations.
If you start thinking ‘what am I going to make to please the people who already know what they want?’ it’s very hard to do something new and creative. But if I do this DIY and independently and it’s a shit film, it doesn’t matter. So I made a fucking movie, what did YOU do? It doesn’t have to be great, I’m just making something. Or this is what I’m saying to myself; I’m trying to Jedi mind- trick myself out of the pressure, convincing myself I’m just doing something because I feel the need to make something…
Just enjoying the creative process. Did you ever lose that with Noisia?
No, but I did start to lose the joy I used to get from playing the music people expect me to play. If I don’t do something different, out of ordinary or out of the blue, I start to question ‘why am I doing this?’ I’m no longer asking those questions of myself because projects such as 3 Reflections and Sleeping Beauty Dreams have allowed me to explore things that don’t fit into Noisia. I’ve expressed them now. I’m more free; I’ve lost the urge and pressure. Which is good because we’re spending at least two days a week back in the studio again.
Yes. We’re actively ‘bringing back the band back together man’ after a year with a lot of time spent apart. I’ve had my rumspringa, my rite of passage and I’m really happy this has happened in this way.
You’ve got the compositional monkey off your back. Or found another house for it….
Yeah and I know where that house is. I know I can do these projects back to back with Noisia. I’m actually more inspired by making drum & bass than I have been in a long time. We had Florian Phace round and I got really into the process, just fucking around with synth sounds and having fun. I hadn’t felt that comfortable working on drum & bass in a long time. It felt pointless for a while like ‘it’s just drum & bass’. I really needed this gap and that air. It’s not just drum & bass, it’s really good music… And a very important part of me and will forever be.