When Tyondai Braxton touches down in Australia in January, it will essentially be the start of a new chapter. His last venture here was in 2009, when he performed at the Sydney Opera House with his then-band Battles. In the years that followed, he departed from the group and ventured full-time into making music under his own name; taking his love of the experimental to what The Simpsons’ Barney Gumble might describe “strange new levels”. Despite a very public split with his former band, Braxton bears no ill will these days – especially when discussing the band’s memories of Australia.
“It wasn’t a split decision – it wasn’t one thing leading to another, and that was it,” he explains of his decision to leave Battles and focus on his solo work. “It was more this long-standing… divide, if you will. It was creative and personal differences – it’s kind of like the deterioration of a relationship. It was a gradual thing; something that grew more apparent that it was the case. It was still no less surprising when we all came to that realisation that it just wasn’t going to work out. Still, when we were in Australia, none of us were harbouring any negative thoughts. Being hosted by Brian Eno [for Luminous Festival], playing at the Sydney Opera House… I mean, that was seminal for us.”
Braxton, now 35, has been keeping extremely busy since releasing his solo album Central Market in 2009. A quick highlight reel includes performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, having his works adapted for ballet, and collaborating with the legendary Philip Glass at I’ll Be Your Mirror, an offshoot of All Tomorrow’s Parties held over three days in Braxton’s native New York City. It sounds like Braxton is still buzzing from the experience of the latter.
“It was like one of those markers in your life – one of those milestones that you never truly think you’re going to achieve until it actually happens,” he says excitedly. “It was such an honour – I was honestly blown away by the whole thing. Besides Philip being someone whose music I have always admired, he was such a kind guy and he gave me so much insight into how he works. He was very warm and very inviting – it was surreal, actually.
Braxton has spent the better part of 2013 working on a brand new live work that is part installation, part performance art. Entitled HIVE, he’ll be performing all-new works and compositions alongside four other musicians in a thrilling audio-visual environment. It’s unlike anything that Braxton has ever done before – and he traces its origins back to a few key inspirations.
“I began getting really obsessed with early 20th century modernist composers,” he explains. “Particularly Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xenakis from Greece. I was wondering what their work meant in relation to music today. I also wanted to take what I was doing and give it somewhat of a visual element – to make my performances less like a live show and more like an installation. I’ve just been trying to glue all of these ideas together into something tangible. If I’m being honest, part of me is still trying to figure out exactly what this is. It’s started to solidify over the first few performances, though – I can’t wait to see what it ends up like when it gets to you guys.”
The new material that Braxton has been hard at work on – both for an upcoming album and for the HIVE project – was also greatly influenced by his newfound interest in a process known as modular synthesis, which uses wires and matrixes to create what is called a ‘patch’. It’s a laboured and technical process, but one that can deliver truly remarkable sounds when executed correctly.
“It was a whole new language to learn,” Braxton says. “It’s one thing to get through all the manuals and have an understanding of what you’re supposed to do, but another thing entirely to actually be good at it. This new music has really been a combination of two things – as interested as I am in modular synthesis, I’m even more interested in fixed composition. The challenge, then, for me when I’ve been writing, has been trying to sculpt a lot of these ideas in a way that makes them appear to be fixed and a lot more obviously composed.”
Along with touring HIVE internationally in 2014, Braxton also confirms that we’ll hear this new solo record next year – hopefully, within the first half. He says he has been “working on the new album quite a lot” of late, and that his perfectionist side had often got the best of him while in the creative process – hence what will be a five-year gap between albums.
“I ended up doing a lot of music and then scrapping it. I think I kept getting distracted by HIVE, and it meant that I wasn’t completely focused on creating new material. That’s the main reason that it has taken a lot longer than it should have. Rest assured, though, it is coming. When it’s finally done, I’ll be able to get back to touring and getting myself back in the saddle, so to speak.”
BY DAVID JAMES YOUNG
Tyondai Braxton performs HIVE for Sydney Festival at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, on Tuesday January 21 alongside Canyons & Daniel Boyd’s 100 Million Nights. Braxton will also perform at Paradiso Lates at Town Hall alongside Ben Vida, following Kurt Vile & The Violators on Wednesday January 22.