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