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OLIVER COATES - ELECTRONIC RENAISSANCE

A cellist, techno, electronic and classical virtuoso. His experimental sound encompasses indie, house, folk, contemporary classical with experimental cello loops. He has collaborated with Massive Attack, Jonny Greenwood, worked with Mica Levi on the recent soundtrack for ‘Under My Skin’ and his work as part of the London Contemporary Orchestra—has formed the backbone of the new Radiohead album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. His name is Oliver Coates. Although graduating from The Royal Academy of Music with the highest score the institution has ever seen, and joining forces with the likes of Brian Eno collaborator, Leo Abrahams—to see Coates on stage one witnesses a humble and appreciative demeanour. His debut performance took off at Le Poisson Rouge and since this he has performed solo in China, Russia, Brazil, Egypt and Australia and was the winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist Award in 2011. Frequently compared to Arthur Russell and his legacy—Coates bestrides a realm of his own. Soso magazine caught up with him briefly after his Fuchsbau Festival appearance to reflect on what has been and what will be—in his time.


I’m personally interested in the title from your latest album, ‘Upstepping’—‘Memorial for Hitchens’, could you explain the track musically and the link to Hitchens, I immediately tie it to Christopher Hitchens’ death in 2011, was this made after his death and with him in mind?


Thank you for picking up on that. I think the meaning is in between the track name and the music. If I could explain that track in words then it would cease to exist for me. I sequenced some layers of cello harmonics, transposed them down and added processed samples of a singer (chrysanthemum bear). It is called Memorial to Hitchens because yes it is exactly that, a memorial to CH, an ambient track - I enjoyed the strength of his persuasion. I like the principle that how you think is more important than what you think.


How did the collaboration with Johnny Greenwood first come into fruition? I read that you were going to Radiohead concerts at 15 and were inspired by them, it must have been surreal to then be working on their album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’?


It was the London Contemporary Orchestra gig and I can't talk about string sessions for Radiohead (Illuminati stuff). I can say that working with Jonny Greenwood is one of the great joys in life and I was recording for him this week. We were messaging this morning about ear melting scales cos I had sent him the Wilsonic non 12-TET tunings app.


I saw your performance at Fuchsbau Festival and was really moved by it, how is the experience of performing for you? The gig before this was opening for Radiohead at Manchester Arena, do you have a preference for a more intimate setting?


Thank you x 100. I also loved playing at Fuchsbau. It was a disorienting situation actually because there was no real soundcheck in that warehouse space on the day. The audience had already gathered and were watching me set up. Therefore I couldn't rehearse any sequences. Plus I like checking levels and quality of sound over and over. I hate people receiving bad quality vibrations. I tend to want to get into a collaboration with the engineer about mixing the show, like to get them playing the desk creatively. It's important that sounds are tuned to fit the frequencies of the room and that the levels are right, that you can listen entirely in comfort and still be overwhelmed by the sound.


I was thinking on my feet and recomposing the set, testing different zones of cello and electronic writing. It put me in a new headspace, building things up and I loved the feeling I was getting from the audience so I feel it was an important gig for me. I am surprised how much a single performance in a space feels like a game-changer, how you learn a lot, then want to go away and organise live performance in a new way again.


Manchester stadium was a huge space and I was playing a 30-minute support slot for them. This was something I rehearsed and wanted to leave no room for error. And to be sending 8 channels of cello, synths and electronic percussion was fun so my friend could mix the elements - I played classical music by Laurence Crane and moved onto sons tracks with a hard 4/4 kick and a large breakbeat because I wanted to feel the transients bounce around the stadium against the cello layers. To be honest I treated it a bit like an experiment for some new tracks I'm masking. Hearing your sounds through a PA that size is wicked.



























Also was the videography used for the Fuchsbau performance was incredible the projections were really fitting to your sound in this instance. Is this someone that normally works with you touring? I wondered if it was the same artist who did the graphics for the ‘Upstepping’ Album cover?


Same person. Lawrence Lek. He's a great artist and we've worked together quite a few times now. I feel he's a filmmaker, like a great director only his vocabulary comes from the art world. He's a total movie maker, he writes his own music too. His method of enquiry is perfect for what I do, we sort of contribute work for each other but more importantly we sort of get on really well without talking about it too much.


Did you get to spend any time at the festival pre/post your gig? How did you find the other performances and the art this year?


I really enjoyed Laurel Halo after me. It was like we were the insects in an enclosed environment and she was controlling the ecosystem with her sounds - she was looking through the perspex. I'm also making string stems for her at the moment and she's friends with Lawrence Lek so it felt good to be on in the same space.


In an interview with FACT magazine the author described how you as a child “found the didactic structure of music lessons uncomfortable, and moved through teachers at a startling rate, doing his own thing and never waiting around to be told what was acceptable.” I read this and then saw you completed your studies at The Royal Academy of Music in London, which I imagine to rather structured. Could you reflect on your experience? What did you appreciate and resist at this institution?


That's kind of strange what the journalist wrote, don't you think? I certainly never said that. If you were someone who taught me music when I was young wouldn't you feel reading that above line that was somehow unkind, as if I had been rejecting something? I implied I devoured music and taught myself lots of stuff. It's true that you have to figure out your own levels of quality and satisfaction and not wait for someone else to anoint you as a musician. Kindness is what we should focus on these days when paraphrasing or retelling other people's' lives.


I don't recognise that version of my musical upbringing because it's too simplistic, too totalising, too much like a convenient story/narrative. Well-formed structure is a great thing don't you think? It's simplistic to think of structure and freedom being on opposing sides and somehow contradictory. If you like a track or a performance it's probably the many properties - the sense of openness against some limiting cohesion - which make it satisfying.


Do you like to have to have a boogie to electronic music? Does this come into your composing process, thinking of your audience dancing—and work with this notion?


I like the idea of losing control or raving or bypassing the intellect. I like watching the videos of old warehouse raves with everyone going all night, dancing on the PA system, or inside it. That's probably for half the music I make. The other half should be more like a conversation between sounds, language, musical traditions and the future. Maybe that's much quieter and more still, like listening to birdsong or the wind, where you have to continuously increase your concentration through listening to delicate sounds.




























You said in an interview that the there is so much music talent out there that is undiscovered, not yet in the mainstream—do you have anyone in particular you appreciate and want to share?


Andrew Hamilton the composer, Chaines, Laurie Tompkins... there's more, Sophie Crawford the folk singer who I've started to work with—I'm recording her songs at my home because it's amazing and future generations are gonna benefit. There's a bit of a weirdo musical family I have in the UK for whom kindness and always listening and supporting each other's new directions is part of what keeps me going really, week by week. They are amazing musicians capable of anything really in many forms and living outside the current mainstream of the music industry. Mostly though it's about being truthful in the music, that's what connects us.


What is next on the horizon for you? What would you like to be your core focus for the rest of the year/next year?


I'm practising cello, debating with the insurance company about a recent accident that happened to one of my cellos. Producing and sequencing electronic tracks like normal, working with a wicked label. Concerts in Denmark and Czechoslovakia I'm looking forward to. Listening to Elseq (Æ) and reading Donna Tartt.



Words: Kimberly Budd | Photography: Gaelle Beri

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Graham Caldwell

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