CFCF interview: “It was winter, everything was uncertain.”

02.08.12 Words by: Ruth Saxelby

‘Exercises’ is the extraordinary new record from CFCF, aka Montreal’s Mike Silver, that Dummy Records is proud to be releasing on vinyl on Monday. A set of eight movements, the arc of ‘Exercises’ maps a life from birth (Exercise #1 (Entry)) to growth (Exercise #3 (Buildings)), inevitable ageing (Exercise #5 (September)), toward death (Exercise #7 (Loss)) and beyond (Exercise #8 (Change)). It is a deeply affecting record, one that draws you close and comforts.

There is something medicinal about ‘Exercises’ that situates it in the gentle lineage of modern classical, recalling the sensitivity of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the weightlessness of Phillip Glass and the emotional timbre of David Borden. What Sakamoto, Glass and Borden have been painting for decades, Silver makes his first tentative reach for on ‘Exercises’: a way to articulate the soul, to transcend the pettiness of our existence, to find the poetry in the most base elements of life. 

Closing track Exercise #8 (Change) is perhaps the most emblematic of the record, hinting at the energy that runs throughout: that spirit reached for. It also plays on the never-ending lesson of life: that there is no finish-line in the real world outside of death, no happy ever after; we’re never going to have it all figured out and, actually, there is something undeniably soothing in that. “Yeah, you’re constantly searching, changing, trying to find something,” says Silver over Skype.

Searching is a theme that runs throughout Silver’s work, who, in his short 24 years, already has a considerable back catalogue to pour over. His releases often seek to map experience, from debut album ‘Continent’ [2009] on Toronto’s Paper Bag Records to ‘The River’ EP [2010] on New York’s RVNG Intl. However, where in the past his music strove to take his landscape-evoking compositions to more dancier territory, on ‘Exercises’ he let that all fall away.

“It was winter, everything was kind of uncertain,” he explains of starting the record in December 2010 while he was packing up his flat before a temporary move to Paris. “So maybe it was a reaction to that, trying to make something that was more structured and based around simple melodies and patterns. And obviously it had some relation to what I was listening to at the time: piano music and modern classical synth music.”

The relative simplicity of that music yet the emotional complexity it evoked was something that naturally guided his hand: “I was aware when I was making it that there should only be three or four, or five tops, things in the song. For example, the first track Entry has only three things – there’s a synth, another synth and a piano and that’s it. And with Building which is the one with the most elements aside from September, still when I’m playing it live it’s just two synths and a piano. It doesn’t really take a lot; it’s just a lot of different melodies working off each other, bouncing off each other.”

Because of its simplicity, Silver has been taken aback with the response ‘Exercises’ has had. “When I was making it I thought it was just a cast-aside thing, just because it was so simple to make. I’ve always worked on songs for so long, worked on a mix for such a long time, added all these elements and drums and washes and transitions, and this one was just so simple to make,” he explains. “With music that’s electronic-based but using these same sort of sounds, there’s an impulse a lot of the time to mess with them, sample them and make them sound weird or work with the room noise and turn the room noise into an instrument or whatever, kind of like how Nicolas Jaar does. But it’s weird because I don’t feel I want to do that, I want to do something that’s so much more classical and simple, and simply work with the notes or whatever; be more organic. That’s why I was surprised at the response because it seemed so simple to me and not current, as far as the current approach to this kind of thing is. I’m making the melodies and just leaving them there. I’m not dressing them up or making them experimental, it’s just trying to be a very simple and honest way of working. I feel like it’s very transparent; you can see where the seams are.”

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“I want to do something that’s so much more classical and simple, and simply work with the notes or whatever; be more organic. I’m not dressing them up or making them experimental, it’s just trying to be a very simple and honest way of working.” – CFCF

It was a fascination with seams, with unpicking the stitches, that first led him to an interest in making music as a kid. As the youngest of four siblings it was what they listened to that bled into his own subconscious, soaking up a love of rap and hardcore punk from his brother and an appreciation of singer-songwriters from his sister. As a kid he was into Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, and from there he got into trip-hop, but it was DJ Shadow’s seminal ‘Endtroducing’ that kickstarted his own musical endeavours. He was obsessed with the record and sought out all the samples, which was how he first discovered David Borden’s 60s synth group Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece as an impressionable early teen.

That opened the floodgates and Silver started to learn how to make music using computer software, emulating his hero DJ Shadow by using the same samples to try and work out exactly how he did it. Through that puzzling he learned about melody and key. In tandem, at school, he learned to play the trumpet and taught himself keyboard and guitar: “All the basic stuff,” he says.

His formative love for DJ Shadow, for the door that he opened to discovering new music, has never left Silver. “A lot of time I will consciously reference music from the past. I feel like it’s a thread that runs through everything I’ve done. Maybe it’s because I’m not consciously trying to do stuff that is next-level, I don’t know – I’m not experimenting in ways that are something you’ve never heard before. There are a lot of artists who do that very well but I never feel comfortable doing it. I like exploring the familiarity, certain areas that are familiar and try to make them my own. When I make music I don’t think about where it stands in time, and what it actually is, it’s really more of a self-satisfaction thing. As a listener of music I just want to be able to make that music; I hear music that inspires me and I want to do it, I want to try it.”

Why is he drawn towards the familiar?

“I think it’s just because it exists in our minds; it’s a compartmentalised part of our minds where we hear it and we can pinpoint a part of our life. It brings out a feeling in us. There’s a lot of music that does it and it’s a valuable thing to be able to evoke something that people have experienced before in music.”

What Silver is so acutely aware of is the limitations of newness; he is not held back by the idea that because something happened in the past it’s no longer valid. For isn’t music really a endless flow of dialogue? Which means that all those conversations that have already happened are still valid and maybe there are parts of that dialogue that we missed first time around. There’s value at coming at those ideas from a different angle.

“Exactly. Things drift in and out of fashion but I think there’s barely anything that doesn’t have a value in re-appropriating or bringing back or using as a touchstone. It really irritates me when anybody thinks that anything is cheesy because to me it demonstrates a lack of imagination, that you can’t situate yourself outside of this sound and you can’t picture a time or a world where it just is the sound that it is, and you’re not, as a listener, trying to make yourself above the music or whatever. Everything has a value, it just might not be fashionable.”

“I find the landscape has a real drama that as passengers on a train you tend to ignore, because we’re just on a train. [But] that landscape is right in front of us, we are physically there, it’s just that there’s this screen separating us.” – CFCF

With that in mind, Silver has two more very different projects on the go: a 40-minute new age record and an adult pop album which features him singing on the majority of the songs. The latter was inspired, as ever, by his love of landscape and familiarity.

“I was working on it on trains and buses and stuff, long distance rides that took about five or six hours. I was passing through forests and by rivers and great lakes, just looking at the scenery and listening to stuff like Peter Gabriel – stuff that had a kind of nature element in the music but also using synthetic sounds. I find the landscape has a real drama that as passengers on a train you tend to ignore, or a lot of passengers on trains will tend to ignore, because we’re just on a train. But we’re not just on a train, we’re actually here,” he says with emphasis. “That landscape is right in front of us, we are physically there, it’s just that there’s this screen separating us.”

And just like that, Silver hits the nail on the head on what makes his music so instant, so natural. CFCF is of the moment, in the moment, forever occupying that space where the past and future meet: a rippling present full of wonder.

Dummy Records releases ‘Exercises’ on vinyl on 6th August 2012

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