You recently returned from the front line of the civil war that is currently raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What were you doing there?
Ben Frost: I have been working now for the better part of a year in the DRC with a visual artist from Ireland called Richard Mosse [who is widely known for his conflict photojournalism]. We are in the final stages of putting together The Enclave (a multi-channel video and sound installation for the Venice Biennale).
That sounds like a new departure for you. How does it tie in with your other work?
I am trying to get close to something that is as out of control as possible- sticking my hand in the fire. Something happens when you push things to the limit of control, of safety, where the beautiful and terrifying intersect – I’m perpetually interested in that space.
I think I have been successful at creating those kind of extremes in the studio and on the stage: large ensembles, unstable software, and dangerous levels of sound and frequencies. My work with Richard provided me with an opportunity to work in a very unique and extreme situation, which I jumped at immediately. Beyond that I suppose it’s fed into my need to try and understand the world beyond BBC news-feeds, and specifically my interest in Africa and African music- one of the things that has really grown through my friendship with Brian [Eno].
I’m not sure a lot of people would associate Eno with African music.
On any given day of the week if you give Brian a choice of what to listen to, in my experience it’s very likely going to be some kind of early American gospel music, or something inherently very ‘black’. He definitely tuned my ear towards Africa.
Is it too soon to talk about an African influence in your work?
BF: The way music is reproduced in Congo was surprising to me – the ‘dirtiness’ of the sound there. The record stores in Goma all have these really cheap Chinese sound systems that are running on diesel generators that are sitting out in front of the store. And there seems to be this general consensus among the Congolese that a stereo is only working properly when the needle is buried firmly in the red, and that the music is saturated, profoundly distorted, and all the harmonics are blown out. That is inherently fascinating to me as it speaks to the nature of the listening experience. Perhaps its something about not being connected to endless silent electricity- that the music needs to overcome its power source, and that is finite- its like dylan thomas- 'rage against the dying of the light'. There is profound truth in that and it has had a great effect on my writing. And just the rhythms down there... the punishing, relentless physicality and pulsing hypnotic effect of Congolese music is really profound.
And there are other things, other impressions: the operatic staging of Eastern Congo, the Nyiragongo volcano looming over Goma; recording lions bellowing in Virunga national park at 4 a.m. I spent a lot of time recording accounts of massacre witnesses and victims of the conflict, which was hard. It has been deeply affecting. It was like bearing witness to the absolute darkest innermost sanctum of what it means to be human- the both sides of that, though. I mean the evil aspects but also the resilience of people, what human beings are capable of dealing with.
It sounds like a long way from Reykjavik. You have been living there for eight years now. Do you ever miss Australia?
My relationship with Australia is not negative, but I’ve never really felt at home there and I doubt I ever will. It is a mindset that is fundamentally deterministic but at a purely physiological level my blood mostly lies in the north of Scotland somewhere- and as a result I don’t feel that I belong there. But when I step outside here in Iceland my body feels at home.
You obviously value your ability to isolate yourself in order to work, and you talk about your need to write music for yourself rather than other people, but you constantly put yourself in situations where other people make demands on you or where you are collaborating intensively.
I’m interested only in the extremes. I don’t enjoy the middle ground. And the collaborative relationships that I have are always really tumultuous and intense and by the end of it I really can’t get far enough away. But don’t get me wrong, I really only ever work with amazing people. Before I went back to Africa, I had the pleasure of working with Falk Richter for the second time on his piece Büchner [Büchner is an ensemble performance piece that explores the links between Georg Büchner’s writings and his work as a scientist. It premiered at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus in October].
How did that go?
It is definitely challenging for me to work in a language that I don’t speak [the entire work is in German], but that limitation is interesting too. It made me focus solely on responding to the actors on the stage, to emotions, to movement and body language and to lighting. It’s actually a really powerful way to work.
So what’s next for you?
I'm finishing my next album, and I am adapting the Iain Banks novel, The Wasp Factory for the stage. It’s my first piece of music theatre, and also my first time directing.
That sounds like another bout of intense collaboration. You’ll be happy to get back to Iceland!
There always comes a point where I need to retreat and get back to zero and I do. I am here now in my quiet little studio in Reykjavík, and there’s still mud on my boots from the Congo. That’s just how I want to live.