Two years ago, the then-unknown Sohn emerged with an EP called The Wheel. Before long, the EP’s title track was making the rounds on the blog circuit, which led to radio play and praise from media outlets the world over.
But the question loomed, who was behind this release of soul-dappled electronic pop? A bit of detective work revealed the mysterious moniker belonged to British tunemaker Christopher Taylor, who’d previously gone by the name Trouble Over Tokyo.
The strength of The Wheel nabbed Taylor a release deal with UK indie luminary 4AD (home to the likes of Bon Iver, Grimes and Ariel Pink). A few more singles followed, which boosted anticipation for Sohn’s debut long player. Titled Tremors,when the record landed in April it debuted at number 31 on the UK albums chart.
Taylor recorded Tremors while living in Vienna. In order to completely submerge himself in the process, he operated entirely alone. “I can work and not even think about eating for 24 hours,” he says. “I close every blind and every window. It’s night at all times when I work, basically.”
Making music can be an effective way to escape from everyday stresses. When working in intimate solitude, creative exploration is also likely to provide insight into one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to some useful discoveries made during the recording of Tremors, Taylor is uncertain about persisting with the solitary studio approach in future.
“[Being alone] definitely was important in the making of the album,” he says. “One of the bad things about working alone is you can get too obsessed with things which actually don’t matter at all. Basically, I want to loosen up a bit creatively. When making the next album I want to have more of a turnover of people coming in and out.”
Tremors isn’t over-stuffed with production details, but it’s certainly an intricately constructed work. The crafty layering and mutating of voices, synths and percussion indicates that Taylor’s in-studio seclusion leads to relentless tinkering. But perhaps he’s not as pedantic as you’d think.
“I’ve met people who produce – particularly electronic music – who work on something for months and months before it will even get heard,” he says. “I’m quite good at making sure that I let go early. I’m really focused on what I’m doing and then every now and then I have a little wake up call and think, ‘No-one gives a shit if that snare drum needs to be one dB louder or not.’
“I am actually at heart quite a meticulous perfectionist,” he admits, “and I don’t like that about myself particularly. So I quite often try to stop myself from doing that.”
Not long after he signed with 4AD, offers started coming in for Sohn to perform all over the world. As a result, Taylor has spent the majority of 2014 on the road – including a mini-Australian tour in June, as well as stacks of US and European festivals. There’s a round-the-clock social imperative tied up with being a touring musician, which means Taylor’s undergone a major lifestyle change. Here again, he’s reached a better understanding of what does and doesn’t suit his personality.
“I don’t really like to go out to the crowds and stuff after [shows],” he says. “It just gets bizarre after a while. You start to lose contact with actually being yourself. People want you to come out and say ‘hi’ or to take a picture, but it’s quite easy to lose yourself if you start doing that too much. I have to be mindful of that.
“I’m quite aware of what’s going on with myself. I’m quite aware of the mistakes that I generally make anyway. It’s a bit like when you know that you’re a forgetful person, you have to get used to making a few routines to make sure you stop forgetting things.”
The opportunity for Taylor to travel around the globe to perform the music he’s created is an absolute privilege. However, the tour bus has basically become Taylor’s place of residence, which inevitably took some getting used to.
“I’m still loving getting to go to new places and I’m still loving discovering music and making music,” he says. “So there’s a hugely positive side to it, where basically what I get paid to do right now is to just be me. The one thing which is really gruelling is the fact that you don’t really have a home.
“I try to keep slapping myself out of those thoughts,” he adds. “Every now and then when I think, ‘I’m so exhausted, but I don’t have a home,’ I’ll slap myself in the face and say, ‘Come on, get on with it.’”
Taylor’s acute self-awareness and ability to curb his own pessimism is reflected in the emotional range of Tremors.On the one hand, the record rumbles with downcast tones, accentuated by emotive vocal wailing, but it’s also dressed with its fair share of relatively sprightly moments. Given that several songs on Tremors are steeped in honest feeling, a successful live performance depends on how effectively Taylor can communicate these emotions with an audience.
“The songs themselves sort of trigger a memory reaction when I’m singing them live,” he says. “In many ways, it’s the same thing as putting on a play or something. Of course, you can’t just switch on this same feeling that you got when you were alone and quite vulnerable. But what you can do – in the same way that an actor does – is get your head into the space where the words that you’re singing mean the meaning to you in that exact moment.
“You just have to find a place where you can mean it without having to feel it in exactly the same way. You basically have to remember that you’re a performer, but at the same time, get into a place where you can mean the words that you’re singing.”
Along with establishing a method for delivering songs convincingly, Taylor’s relentless touring schedule has brought home another insight, which will assist in his creative decision-making going forward.
“The tour has revealed which [songs] definitely are the strongest,” he says. “The ones which every single time will get some sort of reaction, and it’s not based on people knowing the songs. It’s based on the energy of the songs themselves when you play them. It’s normally quite heartening because it’s normally my favourite ones and I think, ‘That’s good, because that means I’m going in the right direction,’ in terms of when I’m trusting myself and letting myself do whatever comes into my mind.”
Following up on his brief midyear visit, Taylor heads back our way for next year’s Laneway Festival. Nestling into his own home might still be a distant prospect for the thoughtful Brit, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.
“All of the other bands that I know who’ve been already, they get kind of glazed over, sugary eyes when they say, ‘Oh Laneway, I wish I was going back there,’” he says. “I loved the last time I came out to Australia, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Tremors out now through 4AD/Remote Control. See Sohn at Oxford Art Factory on Thursday January 29, tickets online. Also appearing alongside Banks, FKA Twigs, Jungle, St. Vincent, Flying Lotus, Little Dragon, Mac DeMarco and more at Laneway Festival, Sydney College of the Arts, Sunday February 1, tickets online.