In conversation with Balam Acab
Interview by Shannon Lawlor
Alec Koone, aka Balam Acab is an American-born experimental electronic artist and producer now situated in Dubai. While studying Ithaca College in New York during 2009, Koone began experimenting musically with ambient textures within the electronic and post-rock realms – eventually dropping out to pursue a full-time career in sound.
Since 2010, Balam Acab has released numerous unofficial recordings, collaborations, remixes and singles and a debut EP titled See Birds, which gained the attention of cosmetics company L’Oreal where in 2011, Koone was commissioned to contribute music to a mascara advert starring iconic songstress Beyoncé.
Balam Acab’s first full-length LP titled Wander/Wonder, released in 2011 via Tri Angle was recorded entirely in his childhood bedroom in Pennsylvania. Fast forward to December 2015, after a lengthy hiatus, Balam Acab self-released his sophomore album titled CHILD DEATH, which was later pressed to vinyl via Orchid Tapes.
We spoke with Balam Acab on inevitable influence and personal growth:
For anyone unfamiliar with the aura and utter luminescence of Balam Acab, could you tell us a little bit about how you first formed the project?
I had been making music on a computer for years in high school; most of it was joke music, or guitar-based music recorded into FL Studio (the software I use to make almost all of my Balam Acab music). I’d make Myspace pages for all these little projects with like 1-3 songs total per project and then abandon the project completely for something new.
Then I forget how, but somehow I like read something or found something out within FL Studio on my own and learned how to make rip-off Madlib/J Dilla-style beats. I gave these beats a home on Myspace by starting a project called ETHEREA (originally BLACK ICE WATER BLOCKS). I knew they were okay beats, but obviously not very original, so I eventually made this mixtape called FREE ETHEREA after I had finally started to truly feel comfortable using FL Studio to make electronic music; by feeling truly comfortable with using FL Studio, I just mean I reached the point at which I could finally use the program to actualize what I was hearing in my head and make the music I truly wanted to make. I wanted to make FREE ETHEREA sound more original than the first handful of ETHEREA tracks I had made; I wanted to make more textural music and incorporate a wider variety of musical influences into the sound of that mixtape. FREE ETHEREA was the first album I made that I, in my opinion, thought was good enough to be heard and enjoyed beyond friends. It did end up getting a little attention from some blogs or whatever.
It was funny though, right after I made that mixtape, which I was really stoked on finishing at the time, I made the first 3 Balam Acab songs, and threw them up on an old Myspace page, kinda like how I did in high school with all the very short-lived projects I started and abandoned – those songs were just a sort of palate cleanser before getting back to work on more ETHEREA music at the time. Then, like within a month of putting the first Balam songs on Myspace, I was signing a record deal, I think because Pitchfork covered one of my songs on the now abandoned Forkcast, and then all the other blogs had to follow their lead and cover it as well. I got a publishing deal right away, a big synch (the L’Oreal/Beyonce one) at the start of my “career” – it all happened really fast. I said “yes” to just about any offer that came my way (except for a $7.5k synch offer to have the song “See Birds (Moon)” used in the TV show Skins – I was 18 and thought TV was really lame and had artistic integrity back then lol). At the time, having a career as a musician in the music industry was a dream I thought I’d never come close to living out, so it was all very exciting.
So essentially, Balam Acab started as an afterthought. I knew I was going to have to make See Birds sound like the first 3 Balam Acab songs I uploaded to Myspace; Tri Angle and I had already even planned to use two of them on the EP, and all the songs from that album are processed in a very specific way and are in mono. However, I took all the opportunities I could get, because I knew that, in the future, I would be able to expand upon the sound and truly make the music I wanted to be making (at the time, I didn’t hate making the songs on See Birds; I just thought the songs on FREE ETHEREA were way better than anything I had made as Balam Acab).
Your latest mesmerizing and bewitching album Child Death was released in December 2015, could you tell us about the recording process and how it may have differed from previous sessions?
Well, 3 songs from See Birds were recorded in my dorm room at Ithaca College, and 2 were recorded at my parents’ house in my childhood bedroom. Wander / Wonder was recorded entirely in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house.
Child Death was recorded in this house I lived in for 3 years in “in-town” Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania in a spare bedroom. I’d always refer to it as the “Child Death” room for the year I lived in the house alone and barely ever went in there after finishing the album. So it was made in a different place, physically, and I think that always has an effect on what comes out when you’re making music.
Also, my recording sessions were much, much longer, and I’d spend many more days working on all the tracks from Child Death compared to any previous albums. Most songs have 100+ different layers of sound in them. I always tell people I’ll give them $100 if they can pick out every single sound in any song off the record as a joke, because at this point, I probably could’ve even do that. I guess I would give someone $100 if they picked out every sound in a track off Child Death just because I’d be so stoked that they listened to it so actively.
When recording, I’d work for 24+ hours in a sitting sometimes, and spend like 10-14 days or so each working those long sessions when recording all the tracks. When I made See Birds, most of those tracks were made in a few hours, in one sitting. When I made Wander / Wonder, I’d work for maybe 8 hours a day max (taking way more days off in between sessions), and I’d spend no more than a week working on each track.
Child Death is also the first album that contains significantly fewer samples than past releases; I recorded a lot of the parts with my Juno synth and guitar, and I also recorded my own voice singing a fair on the album, as well as the voices of talented friends. My previous 2 albums were almost entirely sample-based, whereas Child Death is about 50/50, if I can remember correctly. I would also try to sample primarily from obscure tapes I’d buy at thrift stores for $0.49 a piece instead of looking for samples online; when using the internet to find all my samples, I can get to a point where I start re-finding samples I’ve used in the past, usually due to laziness and relying on the same websites for sounds. I always prefer using all new sounds/samples in all of my music, unless if I’m doing some dumb motif shit or something lol.
Oh, and I tried to stay away from water samples as much as possible lol.
As an American-born musician and artist now living in Dubai – in your opinion, could you explain how both music scenes may vary?
It’s beyond words.
Three favourite albums of 2017?
Hmm…that’s a tough question because I don’t really keep up with new music that well. I guess off the top of my head, and in no particular order?:
-bedwetter – volume 1: flick your tongue against your teeth and describe the present.
-KITTY – Miami Garden Club
-Planning for Burial – Below the House
Balam Acab’s music seems to incorporate many genres into such a rich, unique sound, from chillwave to post-rock, with even the inclusion of what can only be described as sound art. How do you find inspiration? And how much of that comes from musical influence?
I think all of my music is heavily influenced by other music. I think one of the most important things that I did as a teen was learn how to actively listen to music, and where to discover weirder music. It’s almost like learning how to meditate or something, but I was able to learn to appreciate a wide variety of music via active-music listening, and the influence from my favorite/most-listened-to music inevitably comes out in my own to certain degrees. I never sit down and think like, “Ok, I want to make this song sound kinda like [insert artist name here] mixed with [insert artist name here].” I’m never able to make music when I sit down with any intentions. But musical influences just naturally reveal themselves; I think most people aim to make music that they enjoy listening to themselves, so obviously you’re going to hear that person’s favorite musical influences in their own music because it’s what they listen to and what inspires them.
I also find not doing the whole musician thing traditionally to be…not inspiring…but enabling. First of all, I don’t have to do anything that isn’t fun, so I don’t get burnt out on making music ever really – I just don’t make it if I don’t wanna. Second, it let’s you live life without even thinking of yourself as a musician that more than a few people listen to; you’re not just always making music, or touring, or answering shitloads of emails, or doing press.
I don’t know how other musicians are able to play that game and not burn out or start to make really bad music after a while. It definitely becomes a full-time job when you play the industry game, and it’s actually a pretty limiting full-time job in terms of having new life experiences or maturing as a human being. I couldn’t stand being told (nicely) I needed to make a new record after I finished touring in 2012 because I just wasn’t feeling it. Also, the pressure to create when you don’t feel like it makes it doubly hard for me to make anything that isn’t awful. I don’t know, I’m probably just really lazy.
But when I played the industry game, all I did was sit in front of my computer (making music, or doing emails), go on tour (and get to see hotels and airports all around the world), and do press that I thought was super corny or redundant at the very least. I feel like being able to live life as a normal human being and not as “Balam Acab” has been super inspiring in terms of making music, just because it allows me to have real life experiences. I don’t live in this weird vacuum of beige isolation. If I was living there, I don’t think I’d be able to make music that could reach people. I probably wouldn’t be able to make music that I considered good enough to release. I really like having new experiences, learning new things, taking in new perspectives, just listening and being an alien observer. Without that, I’d be stuck in that weird vacuum of beige isolation, and it would be just as terrible as having some 9-5 job that I hated or something. So that’s all very inspiring to me, because it prompts personal growth, and without that, I feel like, I’d just churn out the same boring music over and over again if I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was wasting my time and energy on redundancies.
I also get bored really easily and quickly, so it’s hard for me to wanna have like contracts and stuff with other parties, because who knows, one day I’d might be like yeah I’m just gonna go drive around the US and check it out for a few months, so I won’t really be able to work on music or tour, sorry! And that doesn’t really fly in the music industry.
So far, what are your most memorable career highlights?
I guess maybe having 3 days off in Venice on tour once. I’d just go to the main part of the city or whatever and get lost. One of the coolest things was how quiet it was in most areas of the city because there weren’t any cars. Also, it was beautiful.
In general, meeting all the cool people I’ve been blessed to cross paths with through doing music has probably been the most rewarding thing about Balam Acab (a few other artists, but mostly just people who were initially just Balam fans). A lot of these people are now some of my best friends in the whole world who I keep in touch all the time, even if we don’t live close to each other.
I think this is true for most artists, but being critically-acclaimed (or PANNED lol), or getting co-signs (etc. etc. etc.) has never been satisfying for more than like a week or less to me; if I (personally) thought an album I made was bad, I wouldn’t release it (or I’d put an “unofficial” disclaimer along with it). If I made an album and I thought it was good, I would release it, and not care too much about whether or not it got good reviews on important websites. I’ve been lucky with reviews and such, but I wouldn’t all of a sudden not like an album I made if it got bad reviews or something – as I said, I would never put out an official release that I didn’t believe in and think was worth hearing.
As opposed to critical-acclaim, what’s always been wayyyy more memorable and special to me has been having the opportunity to play my music for my friends song by song as I work on albums; it’s a really cool experience – sitting in silence with close friends, eyes closed, totally focused on the music, and sensing their energy as they listen to it for the first time ever. And I’m a perfectionist, so I never show my friends stuff that I isn’t 100% complete (aside from mixing/mastering), which sometimes frustrates them lol.
Other than that, getting followed by Cat Marnell on Twitter was one of the most memorable career highlights I’ve had as Balam Acab. She’s probably my favorite writer. I freaked the fuck out when she followed me back. I doubt she knows my music or anything, but I’ll be really sad if she ever unfollows me.
In such an overflowing culture, what is your take on electronic music, and how would you change it if you could?
I’m not really into most of it. And I don’t know how I would change it, other than by encouraging new artists to make whatever they wanted and what they thought sounded good instead of making whatever is trendy I guess. There’s no longevity in trendy. I like style, not fashion. I don’t know. I definitely don’t listen to electronic music very often lol. I just make music (sometimes) and don’t really keep up with the music world. I think it would be funny if SoundCloud got deleted out of the blue or something, though. I guess that’s mean to say, but I think it would definitely make “electronic music culture” (if that’s even a real thing lol) less oversaturated and redundant.
There is a fair amount of collaboration going on in the realm of Balam Acab – if you could work with any artist, who would it be, and why?
I’m already collaborating with the artist I’d like to the most – my BFFL and soul brother Michael, who is in a really good band called Molly Shannon, Molly Shannon. We have a project called ivyaura, and we work slow, because we are busy people, but together, ivyaura has made some of the best music I’ve ever been involved with, in my opinion. Michael is just an amazing song-writer and for some reason it just works really well to have his voice surrounded by Balam Acab-esque, hyper-euphoric sounds. I’m excited to keep working on that project, especially when we are less busy people.
Do you feel there is any piece of equipment, hardware or software that may be detrimental to Balam Acab’s sound?
Lol, I don’t know. I feel like harmonica wouldn’t sound good or fit well with my music. But, uh, yeah, I don’t know, I know on a personal-level, I often self-sabotage, but I’m not really sure what I’d have to use to intentionally sabotage the sound of my music. I’m sure there are plenty of things out there though lol.
What does the future hold for Balam Acab?
Royalty checks. Very few live performances. $10 Soundcloud reposts. More behind-the-scenes type work, in terms of work that actually makes me money. Hopefully a new official release in 2018 sometime. Insanity. Death.
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