Irish producer J Colleran first burst on to the world stage as Mmoths in 2011, garnering attention as much for his age (he was 17 at the time) as his beautifully rendered electronica. Still a teenager, he soon found himself playing alongside Aphex Twin and supporting At The Drive In in the UK. He released a series of EPs as well as an album on Because Music. After a long period writing, he’s just completed his first album away from the Mmoths name, a short but perfectly accomplished entity entitled Gardenia. It strikes a balance between lush, expansive strings, heart-rending piano and impossibly digital melodies. We caught up with Colleran in Dublin’s Wigwam to discuss writing for strings, the meaning (or lack thereof) behind track titles and how in another life he may have been a florist.
Hi Jack! What have you been up to? “Trying to get the electronic elements and magnify them for a live setting. Eventually, what we’ll do in the next couple of months is figure out how to extend the record into a live setting with players. Initially it’ll just be me by myself.”
How did the album come together? Was that with the players or synthetic strings? “I wanted to write for strings for a long time but I’ve never been formally trained and it felt like this massive task. So I started writing with synthetic strings, then translating on to notation and scores, and we recorded it over two days in The Meadow with four players. It was just a lot of trial and error. I’m very aware that strings can be overly romantic, I really wanted to make a fine balance between having these cold or intensely digital textures and sounds and balance that with the strings so it wouldn’t fall too far.” You don’t want to sound like a rom-com. “Yeah exactly [laughs]! It’s a difficult thing to balance”
So it took two days – how long do you reckon it took to compose? “Probably six months. Six months of trial and error. I don’t really write in a linear fashion, so I’ll write something and then pull something from a different project, and it’s always being interchanged into a different chain, so it could be 40 tracks and then it comes down to 10, but it’s always interchangeable and changing. So it takes.. a while.”
I hope you don’t mind me bringing this up but when you first appeared, there was that whole thing about how you were stuck at home during the snow, and you made some tracks – were those early tracks more instinctive – have you gone from a position of making something and being done with it to tinkering and labouring? “Yeah well, I think at the beginning there was no period of reflection, it was ‘make something and upload it online’, or ‘that’s the thing done’. Now, I could sit with a piece of music that I think is finished for six months and then decide to listen to it maybe twice a week. I got into this whole thing of living with the music as it is, and trying to understand it best, what way it should go – that sounds really clichéd, but being so familiar with it that you have to live with it and figure out what way it wants to go itself, rather than just banging something out.”
What are you using? “Ableton, Max/MSP. A lot of the piano stuff is arpeggiated – some of the stuff is played by me but it’s altered within the DAW, setting parameters for it to control itself, letting the computer decide what the piano melodies are. Often then it will sound totally synthesised and then trying to get it to come back so it sounds like someone’s actually playing. So… it takes ages.” It works! It doesn’t sound like you’re describing it, it sounds like an orchestral suite with someone playing piano on top of it! Which is obviously the intention. “Yeah, well trying to bring it back, I don’t want anything to feel overly organic so even when it does sound organic that the process behind it is still synthetic. I think that’s interesting in the sense that it’s not fooling people, but it kind of is. It’s physically impossible to play most of that stuff. I printed out notation, I can’t really read notation very well but one of the tracks, I think it would require three pairs of hands.” Not just three hands, three pairs of hands. “But then also trying to keep things as simple as possible. I think before I was always very into the idea of layering sounds, especially on the last record, having this dense thing, but now I was more interested in stripping things back as much as possible and having silence be kind of an important element. This is all boring [laughs].”
Some people like the technical stuff! Some people like the stories of track titles. What are some of yours? “When I’m writing the record I just have a thread of words that I like. A lot of it is just stuff that I’ve taken down so I can’t really remember where that actually came from. A lot of them are file names. Just numbers or whatever. They don’t mean anything to me, but I don’t think it’s about that. I make up words all the time. “Bera” was just a file name.”
What are you listening to? “I’ve an NTS mix coming out on Friday, so I’ve been listening to loads for that. Huerco S, Dada Ques, Terekke, Kareem Lofty is amazing. Tourist Kid on Melody As Truth.” NTS-friendly? “Oui. And Autechre at the end.”
What shows are you playing in the near future? “I’m doing All Together Now, it’s the first year. One show in Dublin in July.”
Tell me about Red Bull Music Academy! “Well I haven’t been there yet so I don’t really know! It’s the 20th anniversary. I love Berlin, I’ve never spent longer than a week there so I’m looking forward to spending more time there.”
Lastly, what gets you going? “I really like flowers. I think I’d be a florist if I wasn’t doing music. I don’t do it enough but that’s my thing that I’m really into. I don’t know what else to say about that.” What’s your favourite flower? “Peony, probably. Gardenia is actually a flower and I didn’t know.
J Colleran – Gardenia is out on June 29 on Because Music