TEN QUESTIONS WITH: BODYCODE
Alan Abrahams is currently more familiarly known by his Portable alias but that may change soon with the release of his superb Bodycode album The Conservation of Electric Charge. The new disc finds the South Africa-born and now Lisbon, Portugal resident intensifying the ritualistic dance dimension of his Portable sound without sacrificing its remarkable fusion of Chicago house, techno, and traditional African sound palette and rhythms in the process. Regardless of the name attached to it, Abrahams' hypnotic and instantly recognizable material marries sophisticated compositional design and sensual rhythmic exuberance. On the verge of the album's release, Abrahams generously found time to speak with us about his professional personae, life in Lisbon, Süd Electronic, and assorted other matters.
1. First things first: I'm given the impression that you created Bodycode as a way to differentiate its more dance-oriented sound from that of Portable, yet the musical differences between the two don't seem so great that the Bodycode material couldn't simply have been presented as the next stage in Portable's evolution. So, if it is the case that the stylistic differences are subtle, why the Bodycode persona?
The Portable persona was born from the need to convert dance music into a more listenable medium—dance music that you could listen to at home. My next Portable album will delve even further into this field, incorporating even more instruments not normally associated with dance music and even moving even further away from this field. With the Bodycode persona I'm aiming to do exactly the opposite: I want to dig deeper into a kind of dance music where sounds and feelings really matter. They're both coming from the same starting point but moving in opposing directions. The origin for the Bodycode project is again early Chicago house but with everything else that has evolved in dance music since then incorporated also; I'm trying to create a dimension where that sound never really died but evolved and still is a code for the body. So I guess what I'm attempting to do now is to establish a point of origin between the two so that, with future releases, the distinction will be clearer.
2. I recall reading a while ago that you built your tracks, at least in part, using samples of African sounds recorded years ago and that you typically drew from this archive or bank of sample material that you had collected.
My African samples originate from an archive of field recordings that were recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s and that I gathered from old vinyl, mostly from the public library, while living in South Africa. A lot of these tribes don't really exist anymore, some having been displaced by war or by general economic progress. I'm using the samples less than before but they are still an important source; recently I've been scouring the web for more public records of ancient African sounds.
3. Are you making an overt nod to Kraftwerk in “I, Data” (the “Am I data?” query seemingly pays tribute to the German group's 'Man-Machine' concept)? In general, was Kraftwerk a big influence on your musical development, and who else was a heavy influence?
In fact, before you mentioned it, I didn't think of Kraftwerk as an influence. Of course, they did play a role in what I listened to while growing up but the main inspiration for “I, Data” was actually novels that I read by people like Stephen Baxtor, Philip K. Dick, Greg Egan, etc. While growing up, my influences were Larry Heard and other early Chicago house pioneers. But like life in general, things change, including your influences.
4. You grew up in South Africa and then moved to London and now live in Lisbon, Portugal. Until what age did you live in Africa and did you grow up absorbing the sounds of artists like King Sunny and Fela, or were there others? What prompted the move from London to Lisbon?
I lived in South Africa until I was 24. I grew up absorbing sounds like Fela, of course, but also local artists such as the late Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and Miriam Mikeba. I had been living in London for 10 years and thought it had served its purpose, and needed a change. Last year I came to play live in Lisbon a few times and the response from the people was simply overwhelming, and I met friends who I knew would be friends for life! Plus there's the constant sun, the close proximity to the sea, and its similarity to Cape Town where I grew up. The weather is the same and they both are the Southern-most points of their respective continents. I've been here six months already and feel that it's been a great decision. At this stage in my life, I find big crowded cities too stifling, and crave the open space to create and live.
5. One of my favourite MUTEK moments remains your Portable performance a few years ago. Are there any particular concerts that stand out for you as particularly incredible or significant?
Funny you should ask. I just played at a sold-out Sonar show last Saturday night at 1.30 am. Not only did I play after Isolée but also with Audion and Ryan Elliot, and after us Ricardo Villalobos and Richie Hawtin performed. I have never played to so many people before, and was a little nervous but once I got started the crowd went ballistic! Some of my friends from Lisbon came too and I could see them cheering me on in the front row. There must have been close to 20,000 people there and the response was phenomenal!
In terms of a concert-related turning point, one was definitely the MUTEK show that you saw. Only a few people knew of me then and after the show I got offered my States tour, which in turn introduced me to the Spectral/Ghostly crew, which in turn gave birth to Bodycode!
6. You've recorded albums for Background Records (Cycling) and ~scape (Version) and now find yourself on Spectral. What prompted you to issue material on three labels as opposed to one, and what has been different about the experience of recording for each?
There was no real prompt; nothing was really calculated, things just happened that way. I started recording for Background Records; after a few releases, ~scape wanted me to record for them. While on my first tour for the States, Spectral heard my more pumped-up live material and proposed a project and, based on that, Bodycode was born. The main difference between the labels I would say is really just typographical. ~scape and Background Records are based in Germany , and are better known there. Spectral, on the other hand, is in the States and so opens more US doors for my sound.
7. The Conservation of Electric Charge clearly emphasizes a fundamental body focus and thus a sexual dimension too (in the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, Abrahams was quoted as saying “the most primal communion we have is a sexual one, with dancing a precursor to that”) so I'd like to ask about that, especially with reference to your own sexual orientation. (In a January 2006 textura article, 2005 Artist Picks, Abrahams said, “I also listen to a lot of Cocteau Twins, especially their earlier works, primarily as their music reminds me of my ex-boyfriend of eight years and now best friend.”) Issues of sexuality go largely unmentioned in 'electronic' music, with only a small number of musicians—Matmos's Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt, who are openly gay, and Terre Thaemlitz, whose music regularly explores issues of transgenderism and sexual politics, come to mind—explicitly referencing such matters in their music. When did you come out, and did you encounter any music-related resistance or difficulty as a result of doing so?
First, you must realize that the acceptance for being gay in South Africa has always been pretty open. We had equal rights for gay partners in our constitution as far back as 1996—more than we can say for the US 10 years on. Süd Electronic (co-managed by Abrahams and Lerato 'Lakuti' Khathi) is essentially a gay-run label, and I suppose I chose to bring that out in the open because I feel it's important for young gays to realize that there are people out there who are not Madonna and Britney cheerleaders. I came out pretty early—I was 17—and, aside from some initial struggles, it was the best thing that could've happened to me and brought me a freedom that I feel must be encoded in my music somehow.
8. You established Süd Electronic in 2002. What is its current status and why have you opted not to issue Portable and Bodycode material on Süd?
Süd Electronic is about to release Particle EP, a 12-inch by a new Japanese artist called Kai, with a further release planned from another Japanese artist called Waterprotection. Süd Electronic was set up as a platform for new and exciting electronic music but not my own; Portable and Bodycode already have a home.
9. With so many artists using identical gear, a given artist must work ever harder to differentiate his/her sound from the styles of others. By contrast, your African-microhouse style is immediately identifiable as uniquely yours.
It has taken me years to come up with a compositional framework, most of it constantly changing, to go along with the technology. I feel that it's each composer's responsibility to find his/her own route to the end result, and that really good artists are always true to their roots and their influences. I happened to grow up on the African continent and so want to lay down a document of African music that's not 'world music' but more music of the world via Africa.
10. What music are you currently enjoying and what lies ahead for the remainder of 2006?
At the moment I'm listening almost exclusively to Glenn Gould's Six Partitas [Johann Sebastian Bach's Six Partitas BWV 825-830] and Brian Eno's new album Another Day on Earth. I'm currently completing a new Portable album for ~scape due out later this year and then I'll be working on the follow-up Bodycode release, plus there's a US tour coming up in August.