Ben Frost

Ben Frost

Australian-born composer Ben Frost has just returned to his home in Iceland after a show in Moscow, part of a piecemeal world tour for his latest album Aurora.

Frost’s plan for today is something we don’t have to worry about so much in Australia: changing his Jeep over to winter tyres. “I’ve been away so much since the summer, it’s still on the summer tyres,” he says. “Now it’s definitely not summer. There’s fuckin’ snow and ice everywhere and I’m sliding around town.”

I like this image of Frost, hooning across Iceland with dangerously inappropriate tyres. It fits my impression of his music, which is uncontrolled and wild – his album By The Throat made excellent use of samples of howling wolves, while Aurora alternates between squalls of noise and quietude like a storm at sea. It makes me wonder how he’ll go about performing at the Sydney Opera House. Frost will be playing there as part of Sydney Festival, in the kind of performance space that brings expectations of elegance and tasteful calm.

“I’m quite curious about playing that venue,” he says. “It’s austere. It’s a venue that I think imposes itself, a sense of grandeur, on whatever occurs in there. I definitely want to cut against that as much as possible.”

That said, it’s also where Rob Schneider performed, so it’s certainly not mandatory that the place always be associated with classical music, black-tie dress codes, or taste. And Frost has experience taking his music to all kinds of places. “I play everywhere from 2,000-person stages to indie music festivals to tiny basement clubs in Croatia. You can’t be fixed; if I want to get into the ears of people outside of London and New York you have to be flexible. I have no problem with making the thing malleable and working within parameters that suit the space and the time and the place. As long as it sounds right, I don’t give a fuck about anything else.”

One place he doesn’t play is in Iceland, oddly. “It’s very rare that happens. This is where I live, not where I work. Nobody gives a fuck who I am here. I’m just another guy with a beard.”

On the subject of keeping his music malleable for the sake of live performance, Frost is adamant that the live show be a vital, living part of his music rather than a dry recreation of it. “The process of playing this music live is more of a continuation of where I finished with the record, which is to say it’s homing in on those ideas and extrapolating further, abstracting further. In a way, the making of a record like Aurora, the actual physical album – it’s not a finishing point to that period, it’s more of a halfway point and then the touring is where the thing really finds itself.”

In the past Frost has performed in various configurations, which memorably included improvising guitar flourishes to the accompaniment of a string section and a piano filled with nuts and bolts when he re-scored the Andrei Tarkovsky science-fiction film Solaris with Daniel Bjarnason. Aurora is free of guitar and piano, however. There is a strong emphasis on percussion, with various drummers – including Thor Harris from Swans – roped in to help. Sometimes Frost has live drummers fill those parts onstage, but at other times he performs alone. He says it’s not as hard to pull off as it sounds.

“Technically, there’s tonnes of amplifiers onstage and all manner of synths and it’s a pretty traditional set-up in many ways. I just work with a big mixing desk and push everything back in on itself – a lot of compression relationships that I play with. The thing is quite volatile, it’s not entirely within my control, which is ultimately what makes it interesting for me to do it every night. Because otherwise I’d probably fucking shoot myself, to be perfectly honest.”

At Sydney Festival, Frost will be sharing the stage with Tim Hecker, a composer he’s worked with and been compared to in the past. All instrumental music that isn’t dance or post-rock is going to get tagged ‘ambient’ at some point, but it’s a label that comes closer to fitting Hecker than Frost, whose music tends towards hazy electronic drones.

“Tim and I have a habit of getting involved in each other’s music, but generally speaking that’s not a live thing. We’ve tried that before, just because on paper it makes a lot of sense – on paper it makes perfect sense that him and I should be able to jam out onstage and it will all work and it will be the sum of its parts – but actually, when you get into it, when you dissect his music and approach to it, and the way I work as well, they’re quite at odds with one another in many ways. On a technical level that’s also true. The best way I can describe it is he’s pulling forms out of the fog, he’s sculpting some amorphous gas into recognisable forms, whereas my approach is probably almost the opposite of that. It’s like a deconstruction of hard physical shapes. We’re both climbing the same mountain but coming at it from different sides.”

Aurorais out now through Mute and Create/Control. Ben Frost will be playing at the Joan Sutherland Theatrein the Sydney Opera House on Sunday January 11 as part of Sydney Festival. Tickets are on sale through the Ticketmaster.

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Ben Frost

Ben Frost

Nearing a decade residing in Iceland, Ben Frost has steadfastly established himself as one of Australia’s premier electronic exports, pushing boundaries on record, onstage, and in extracurricular artistic pursuits. Latest recordA U R O R A, Frost’s first since 2009’sBy The Throat, needles confronting frequencies into all-obliterating leviathans of noise.

“I wouldn’t say that they are the noises going on inside of my head, as in, ‘This is what the inside of my head sounds like,’” Frost explains while ordering coffee near his Icelandic home. “But there is definitely an element, more often than not, of trying to realise something in an external form that I’m able to hear and want to exist outside of my head. It’s a weirdly visual process as well; often they’re not specific sounds in terms of where they’re coming from or what their inherent nature is – they are these sort of shapes. It becomes about mediating between the idea in my head and what’s coming out of the speakers. Trying to balance the relationship between those two things. There’s a definite element of reaching out for an idea.”

It’s easy to attribute the extraordinary scope of Frost’s aural constructions to a geographical standing in the isolated realm of his adopted home – a fallacy, especially seeing A U R O R A was primarily composed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I really wonder about this romantic notion of the geographical locality as a driving force,” Frost says. “The music I’m striving to make, [though] often these attempts end in failure – my career is a ten-year document of different kinds of failure – they’re all attempts at ecstasy of some kind, a kind of euphoria, a kind of oblivion, somehow. That’s what I demand of all art. Anything that affects me is going to be doing that on some level. I think that’s what we’re drawn to. Rooting that in a fundamental realism, saying, ‘This occurred in that place,’ I think that’s effective at selling records, but not really effective at affecting the listener.

“I remember vividly the months of fallout after my album Theory Of Machines [2007] –we were bombarded with these ‘glacial landscapes’, fucking, ‘windswept polar Bjork-inspired blah blah blah’… all this clichОd bullshit about Iceland, when the truth is I wrote most of that record in fucking Queensberry Street, Melbourne, Australia. I’m not saying those things are not true, I’m saying the truth is actually a subjective thing. It’s less glamorous to put in a press release that you wrote most of an album in a British Airways business lounge. It just doesn’t sound as cool.”

The ‘drop’ is an intrinsic element to EDM, found all over the airwaves and huge festival environments. The dynamic can be found on A U R O R A, but instead of a cheap ploy to stoke gurn-faced fist-pumping, A U R O R A instigates teeth-shattering terror.

“That avoiding clichО, circumventing the pitfalls of uninteresting music, is often a case of pushing harder and further into the idea that scares you, the very idea of that ‘drop’ of the big chorus, the big chords, and in the case of A U R O R A, the light. I’m very hopeful people will hear a radiance in this music that I’ve never really attempted before. This isn’t a record that dwells in the shadows and deals in darkness as currency. It’s a record that is concerned with light, this blinding luminescence. It should feel alive.

“A track like ‘Secant’, one of the images that was forefront in my mind was what has been achieved in the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] in Switzerland, that striving for attainment of a higher understanding, reaching out into the dark – taking something from a finite point and exploding outwards in a shower of energy and movement. In a small way, what I’m aiming at with this music is a breaking up of these ideas. Maybe even some of those clichОs. I don’t want to be a musician who’s afraid of being uncool. It’s a strangling, horrible place to be. Worrying about how something is going to be perceived is the first step in ensuring it’s shit, basically.”

As for the challenges in finding avenues to release music that is by no means conducive to laptop speaker listening, Frost’s resolve manages to conquer such obstacles. “That’s the part of me that is very Australian, and will always be: fundamentally, I don’t give a fuck. I will find a way, and I always will. There is always a way.”

A U R O R A out on Friday May 23 through Mute / Create/Control.

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