Atonal interview: SUMS (Kangding Ray and Barry Burns of Mogwai)

Atonal interview: SUMS (Kangding Ray and Barry Burns of Mogwai)

September 15, 2015

Written by:

Simona Mantarlian

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Atonal meeting

We recently got in touch with the pair of musicians behind the new music project called SUMS, which had its world premiere during this year's edition of Berlin Atonal.

SUMS is David Letellier aka Kangding Ray (an electronic musician signed on the raster-noton and Stroboscopic Artefacts labels) and Barry Burns (multi-instrumentalist and composer active in the Scottish band Mogwai). On the one hand this collaboration evidences the growing influence of electronic music on Mogwai (particularly on their last album Rave Tapes), and on the other, the ongoing presence of rock (usually associated with a prefix, whether it’s post, punk, or art) in Kangding Ray’s music.

The specially commissioned SUMS project involved these two genre-leading artists on a range of electronic and amplified instruments, as well as drumming wizard Merlin Ettore and contra-bassist Robert Lucaciu, to create a soundscape that blends elements of both their musical legacies.

How did you two get in touch? Did you know each other already? How did the collaboration come up?

Barry Burns: We met through a mutual friend of ours. David was asked by Atonal to do a performance, and for some reason, he chose me (laughs).

Which reason?

Kangding Ray: Atonal approached me and they told me “we want you to do something next year, something big, that it would fit the space”. I played at Atonal two years ago and this year I had a carte blanche to do something really special. I didn’t want to do something only on my own; because that would have felt rather egocentric and I also wanted to explore working with someone else, doing collaboration. I wanted to involve someone who is a bit outside the techno world where I’m playing usually, outside of the club sphere but also one that can link to the roots where I come from, before doing electronic music, so Mogwai was the first on the list.

What was your connection to the post-rock scene, before doing electronic music?

KR: For me that was the music which changed my vision – the fact that bands like Mogwai would do ten minutes long tracks, breaking the typical verse / chorus theme, breaking the structures and concentrating more on the atmosphere and the instrumental aspect, being not only about the voice – this opened a lot of doors for me, and that’s where I started to be interested in this other approach to music. I think there are a lot of connections between this and electronic music; same sort of attitude and same sort of concept behind, actually. It’s just the instruments that change.

It is true, thinking that a similarity of the work that each of you does is that, the music is very deconstructive.

It was nice to join two separate things together. You never know until you try. There is no way we would have known what we would have come up with until we got together and played it was an experiment.

Playing records

Barry, I read somewhere that you also DJ sometimes.

BB: (pointing towards David) He does. I sometimes play records for people to listen to, but it’s nothing technical; I like playing music, which I think is good to other people, but that’s not like I’m a DJ. Hobbyist but that’s it.

So when you play records for other people to listen to, what do you play?

BB: There’s a club in Glasgow called Optimum and (I mean they are proper DJs) but they would play any kind of music, didn’t matter: you have Turkish psychedelia and so on - that what I like to do, I never play the same kind of music, it’s always completely different but as long as it sounds good in a club, then I play it.


Could you tell us a bit about the criteria by which you chose the instrumentalists that joined you here, on this performance?

KR: First we had an inflated version of what we had in the end, we had French horns and all that kind of an instrumentation, but we realized that we really didn’t need much, we just wanted something bass­ey and some percussions because the samples on drum machines don’t sound very good so that was a natural choice to have a percussionist and a base player that you know, embellishes the sound.

BB: We reduced a lot from what we thought at the start, the first idea was to have a lot of crazy instruments, violins, two cellos. It was intense, like for 15 people or so. But we actually wouldn’t need all this.

How did this performance that you had at Atonal change in the original composition - if it did - in any way? Did you have to modify at all the studio version, depending on the acoustics and the proportions of Kraftwerk Halle?

BB: Well, it was written for this hall. We would always write some music and then take it back a little bit or make a gap because it's such a hall... I remember when we had the sound check a few days ago and our drummer had one of the tones blasting for like 10 seconds and we were really happy that we wrote the music according to the acoustics.

KR: The first thing we talked about with Lawrence and Harry when they proposed me to do something was 'write something that fits this space'. Of course we will be able to play it again.

So, what was your workflow, how did you collaborate?

BB: Occasionally we would meet up, but because we were both very busy with other things we would send each other files where we kept work together and then for a few more days we would come at the studio and decide what songs we wanted to work on most, but it was a real race to the finish. There was so much work in the last three weeks, especially on the programming stuff .

KR: We started working in December, or January. From January on, we would send really little things every week and then it just grew. Then we would meet twice a month or so in my studio and just share the things we've worked on. We wrote a lot of things that we just threw out; basically it was a selection process.

I read that you usually do a lot of versions until you get to the final result, about 30... I was really curious how this went in collaboration.

both laugh

BB: Neah, it was fast.

KR: What we wanted was to write some music, so we needed some proper song writing. It is still experimental. Very narrative.

BB: Somehow we had a feeling that we wanted properly written things, so the selection was about fitting in the atmosphere and the identity of the project.

Did you have a certain concept when you started working on this?

BB: Pretty much, yes. It's not something that I've never really had before. In Mogway I never really had that thing, so it was good fun to try that. The music was definitely not going to be happy but, of course, that is not a concept. It was going to be something darker - you know - because of the space. I don't know if I can give it a word...

KR: It had to be dark, but sort of emotional at the same time. We saw it as something that speaks to everyone in a really simple way; we wanted a direct, honest thing.

You didn't have screenings; it was just the music...

BB: We knew that everybody else was going to have screenings, so I thought ''I never done stuff like that before''...

KR: I do AV for my shows sometimes, but it's a thing that makes sense when you're little on the stage behind a laptop and you want to feel the stage a bit, but we had a truck of synthesizers. So we could feel the stage, there was presence. We didn't feel the need for visuals. It would feel like too much.

What are the different things that you bring to this project? What do you think differentiates you and it can be found in the collective effort?

BB: I don't know. The question is good, but the answer will be really bad. I don't really know... I think it was just interesting for two disciplines to meet like this, because we spoke about it before and said that if David just wanted to work with another electronic musician it wouldn't be pointless, but it would be less interesting than to work with someone from my background and to have that sort of guitar based stroke. So it was nice to join these two things together. You never know until you try. There is no way we would have known what we would have come up with until we got together and played it was an experiment.

KR: Yeah, we had no idea... I guess in terms of approaching music I think we are very similar. We never worked before together, but I had the feeling that 'it might be like this'. But, in fact, it was kind of simple. We just judged things; we are not very sensitive. If one of us writes something that is not good, we can just say 'that's rubbish'. Barry pushed the harmonic aspect really far, because he is a skilled musician and he can properly write music, which is something I can't do.

BB: Actually it was really fun to work with someone who doesn't come from a trained background; some people in my band aren't and that's what makes the music fun. They're just touching something and it works because their theory doesn't exist, they do it instinctively.
Berlin Atonal 2015
Berlin Atonal 2015


But how did you manage to go through musical studies and still not be precious about things?

BB: I think it is insane to think that every single thing you're going to write is going to be good. Of course not!

KR: Or think you're Mozart...

BB: I know that a lot of stuff that I write is terrible; is really bad. (both laugh). But then I realize I just can't hang on to stuff like that and I think that's the downfall of many bands, when someone goes like ''but that's my part!''. Who gives a shit? It's rubbish... you have to be really selective, filter out the rubbish and keep the good stuff.

So it's simple...

BB: Mhm, it couldn't be simpler!

I was also curious whether you are going to release this project. Would you release it as a live project or as a studio recording?

KR: We haven't listened to the recording, but I kind of like the idea that it stays a live project. So if we are going to release it, I have a feeling it should be a live recording, maybe a little bit of editing, fix little things that sound bad. I don't want to go for three months in the studio. We have to listen to the recording first so we can decide whether it's going to be a good record or not...

Are you going to play it some other time or was it exclusive?

KR: Not tour, just selected shows. We are going to play a few shows in Europe and Australia. We are just going to wait for some requests. But maybe nobody wants us, we’ll see. (laugh)

How did you find the audience at Atonal, did it surprise you?

KR: I was excited, because we planned to do it almost like a continuous DJ set, with no breaks between tracks, there was just before the last song a slight stop and people started going wild. The start was pretty ambient and people don’t go too crazy and then as soon as this song where the straight drum hops in, ppl are dancing.
We always say that’s the stadium track.

I wonder what names did the tracks have...

BB: You don't want to know...

KR: If we ever do a record we have to change the names, so it won't be embarrassing. I mean we have a song called 'Mosquito'. We had some mosquitos in the studio.

And you actually recorded that...

BB: No, no - one of them landed on his head one day and it was like 'that's the Mosquito song!' But at some point we’ll find a proper serious name.

Still good to know one of the working titles already, thinking how the titles from Mogwai are very elaborate.

BB: I quite like that. Sometimes we get asked about the meaning of the title, if it’s this what we were trying to do - for us it’s the same, the title was there so we could remember what the song is in the set-list. It could be anything.

KR: It's not like we actually try to say a story, that's too pretentious. I mean, if there were some lyrics, it would have worked, but for instrumental music it's a bit pointless.

Pretty done with the questions, is there something else you would like to add?

KR: I’d like to make this noise, you can sample: playing a rhythm on the table / samples lighter noise

Will do.

*photos courtesy of Berlin Atonal // credits to Camille Blake
**read also our report on Berlin Atonal HERE

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