Top image: Photography by Gonçalo Alexandre / fashion by Tiago Nicholas
Although he’s now based in Portugal, Irish electronic musician Olan Monk honed his synth skills when sharing a house in London with artists such as Lugh, Michael Speers and Xao, and what began as a series of bedroom recordings and a subterranean performance series has evolved into a record label, C.A.N.V.A.S..
Having worked with the likes of South London producer Actress (Darren Cunningham), Olan moved from being in bands to creating music as a soloist, but found a truly rich and rewarding experience in the collaborative process. C.A.N.V.A.S. is a ‘drop in and out’ collective of sorts who span genres and locations, making it an immersive project that thrives off constant learning and growth: it’s view is boundless and also sentimental – connected through their ideas, progression and voices – their geographical position holding no prominence to their output.
This is something Olan tuned into for the label’s first release, his own EP INIS (premiering below), written across free moments Olan found during transit and recording in a variety of studios. His sound is haunting, at times loud – meditatively so –, and borders an orchestral meets digital sound that reflects Olan’s influences and state of being – wherever that may be.
Clementine Zawadzki: Did you start out electronically or with something more traditional and classically based?
Olan Monk: I don’t come from electronic music; it’s been a segue. It’s been a slow journey if anything… and somewhat a subconscious or unconscious decision. I didn’t really choose to become an electronic musician, it just kind of became the most realistic or most accessible means of realising what I wanted to do. I’ve been making music since I was quite young and I grew up playing in bands.
CZ: What sort of bands?
OM: Between genres. Messy, I’d say. In the west of Ireland it wasn’t so much garages as it was people’s living rooms.
CZ: Was the move to London to do with music?
OM: It wasn’t a clear career decision, but it was definitely following an instinct. I think a lot of people float towards London if you’re kind of loose or attracted to loose things. I think as a musician in the west of Ireland, it didn’t really seem like it was possible to experience or nurture what I was interested in or where I was going, it just didn’t fit with the landscape. I think being set apart in some way, London is the kind of place that’s a magnet for loose ends. I lived in Belfast for a few years, so London wasn’t my first stop.
CZ: It’s such a transient place.
OM: That’s true.
CZ: Did that lend itself to forming an artist collective or was it more difficult given the nature of people constantly flowing through? How exactly did the label C.A.N.V.A.S. get off the ground?
OM: The label wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the time I spent in London. I think what was crucial there is that it wasn’t just me; it was all about the people I met. I talk about drifting or being loose from somewhere; you’re not really looking for a place, you’re looking for a community, and that’s what I found. It was a ‘classic London experience’ – a few of us were living together in a shared apartment with a studio setup in every room. At first it was a performance series, we wanted events, we wanted an outlet, and we were all making music on our own, so we wanted a way to pool that energy. It’s more a community of practice than of place, so the idea being that we all drifted to London at one point and now we’re drifting elsewhere feels like a label for what is becoming a more and more dispersed group of artists, it’s a good way of maintaining that.
“I didn’t really choose to become an electronic musician, it just kind of became the most realistic or most accessible means of realising what I wanted to do.”
“…I realise ANAM wasn’t exactly easy listening, but for me it was a headspace, a zone, and for me that’s what meditation is about. I was making music I could listen to walking around London.”
CZ: Is this concept maybe more common in electronic music or more of a constructive way to create?
OM: Maybe how as we’re becoming more and more individualised – especially in electronic music – you think it’s basically a world of lone producers working on their own out of bedroom studios, it’s just kind of become the norm, and more inspired and influenced by working with other people. Collaborations are really essential. If anything, the release speaks for the label. It’s not just me; there’s a lot of people on that.
CZ: Tell me about these EPs. There’s ANAM, which was released late last year, and you’re just about to release INIS. Are they thematically interlaced?
OM: They definitely relate. I went through a long period of making music on my own, songwriting, coming out of this experience of playing in bands, and the first release ANAM – if anything – is the most insular thing I’ve done. I think INIS the follow-up is a way of coming out of that because influences have been brought to the fore. I was trying to work more abstract material into something that had a human element, and I was bringing the voice back in.
CZ: How does meditation fit into the releases?
OM: When I released ANAM it was more explicit. It was originally titled ANAM (meditation tape). I had an actual meditation tape; a cassette from the 80s that was passed through my family by Jan Prinz called The Still Way. For a while I was listening to it every morning to get into this headspace, and I realise ANAM wasn’t exactly easy listening, but for me it was a headspace, a zone, and for me that’s what meditation is about. I was making music I could listen to walking around London.
CZ: Is meditation something that’s always been a part of your life or has it become part of your routine?
OM: It’s been something I’ve been interested in since a young age, but I don’t think it’s an easy thing to engage with. I don’t think I’ve figured that out either. For me, music is the closest thing. You can be at a club night at 3am and listen to extremely loud music and that could be a meditative state for you, I don’t know. I think that’s totally relevant. I think people are misunderstanding the concept of meditation if they think it’s just sitting cross-legged in a room, that’s what I was trying to explore. The response from a lot of people was, “I listened to your meditation tape and it just freaked me out.” It’s good to change it in a way. I don’t think it’d be interesting for me to do something that as so literal, I guess.
“The response from a lot of people was, “I listened to your meditation tape and it just freaked me out.”
CZ: Who’s been instrumental in helping you carve your way?
OM: Honestly, I think I could do this whole thing paying tribute to the people who have helped me as a musician, and that’s really important to me. Especially with these two releases, living in London it was really about the people and I was lucky to come into contact with. That’s probably informed the music more than anything. I was working with Actress (Darren Cunningham), who is a producer in South London, for the last year and he’s kind of been instrumental in me starting this. It was through him that I came to understand electronic music as its own process of creation, beyond production. Something he talked about was “crystallised sound” and I took this literally as a process of always moving forward with recordings, like a painter applying paint and not going back in to change the elements, instead layering and sculpting them into something else if they needed to be changed.
CZ: What about with these releases? I understand your process is very collaborative…
OM: There are two featured artists on the releases; Maria Somerville and Elvin Brandhi on INIS. But up until then there’s been Ashley Paul, who’s an American composer and improviser. I started working with her a few years ago and played in her live band. She’s been a huge influence; the way she deconstructs song and completely obliterates everything I thought I knew about how a song occupies space or works overtime. She put out a tape for me called MONK a few years ago, and that was the start of this project as I’m concerned. I see it as a project.
CZ: Are you interested in the production side of things?
OM: Definitely. This is the only release I’ll do with the label for a while. It was opened as a statement of intent. The idea is that myself and Lugh, who is a producer based in Berlin, we’re running the label between us. We started this night about four years ago and since then we’ve been talking about this. I’m doing the first release, Lugh is doing the second with an EP, and following that we’re opening up the platform to other voices.