‘Screen Variations’: An interview with GROK about their new album
With Ian Duggan
HUP: The songs on ‘Screen Variations’ are quite different to GROK’s previous albums. On the new album the songs are more soundscapes, and lack vocals, as might be expected from a soundtrack to a silent film. Many of the songs start quietly, and then build in intensity, which I guess is reflective of the scenes they were associated with. What can you tell me about the songs, and how representative are the songs on the album relative to those that were in the original performances?
SB: They turned out not to be too representative of the original ideas. We listened to the original improvisations before heading into the studio and at times may have latched onto a motif that worked. When we were in the studio we improvised two versions of each song. We didn't really plan to start quietly and then go loud - it's the movie we are following. I think maybe just one song follows this arc; in the others it's more that the mood changes from synth based to bass/guitar/drum based.
HUP: What films were you asked to provide soundtracks for? Had you watched the films previously, or did you go in to each unprepared?
SB: The Genesis gave us a pretty free reign in the residency. We would watch a few movies and then suggest ones to do. We watch the movie once together - just to enjoy it. Then we watch again and break it up into 'songs'. In the past we would improvise over the whole movie, but we realised pretty quickly that there needs to be variation in instrumentation and differentiation to add interest, and to mark boundaries between the scenes. So, we think of these as songs. After we break the movie up into songs, we categorise the songs and the action. We create a little flash animation so that when we are playing and improvising we can see that some increasing action is coming up, or perhaps a plateau of gloom. Rob [Talsma] and Chris [Ayles] do this and we have a process now. It takes a bit of work to categorise, but it's essential to have these guardrails when you are improvising. Otherwise, you could be preparing for an ‘Explosions in the Sky’ type section, and suddenly you realise things changed to a pastoral scene that you just forgot about.
All the soundtracks we did are on the website, except for Mocny Człowiek' / 'A Strong Man' — a great silent Polish movie — and David Lynch's Eraserhead, which we did in March. We have a few more coming up. We are just confirming them at the moment.
HUP: So, when you were doing the rerecording, were you re-watching the appropriate segment of the film again?
SB: Yes, we had the scene playing as well as the original flash animation running to see the peaks and troughs coming up.
HUP: How and when did you come to be involved with Genesis Cinema, and how did the residency come about?
SB: Rob's sister Amanda called in there one day and talked to the manager, who she had met before I think. We had previously only done soundtracks in pubs. We then went and had a talk with them. Following that, we played a couple of movies and they offered a residency, which was really great, but pretty full-on doing a new movie every month. We've been having a break this year. It was excellent - we learned so much. Our soundtracks are much more controlled now and we have added so many more electronic elements.
HUP: You look to be down to a three-piece now. Who plays in GROK now, and does being in a pared down line-up provide challenges?
SB: We have gone electronic... Chris plays guitar and has a hundred or so pedals over a two layer pedal board, and maybe three synths to go with that. He uses different ones each time. He has an MS20 and also his own drone synth machine that he designed and built, and many others. I have my bass with some synth pedals and a harmonic generator. I also have a Nord G1 modular that I use, with a Beatstep pro for sequencing. I have a Eurorack modular setup in a Doepfer road case: a couple of oscillators and voltage generators and sequencers along with some filters and other modules to mess with the sound. The modular is so much fun but difficult to improvise with. I need to have a few generative patches ready with options to change the sound based on the movie and the improvisation. Rob has his drums, a Novation synth, and a Roland drum pad with samples he's put in, and also a Volca sample. So, we have filled up the space by multitasking really.
HUP: Are the band still playing other gigs, or is silent films now your specialty? What is the future for GROK?
SB: We haven't played a 'normal' gig for a year and half (one completely improvised with our ‘wheel of chordal destiny’, to determine the key and lyric suggestions from the audience). We think we will do one shortly - we were talking about it. We will do a release party at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon in the next few months where we DJ songs that relate to films. We are also thinking about the next album, which will be completely electronic. No bass, guitar or drums. Let's see what happens.
HUP: Back on 2016, you reunited with the former members of Inchworm and recorded some new songs. Should we still expect those to see the light of day?
SB: Yes. It will see the light of day. We [— The UK-based GROK —] also have an unfinished album from 2013, which we were talking about making into an EP recently. One of those songs [The Thrill of Caucasus] went on the HUP compilation [Life Beneath a Gravel Streak (2016)]. The other album is quite nice and raw it doesn't need too much. I would just need to redo the vocals. We think it will be called ‘GROK Make Music With Friends Vol 1’, opening the door to a series of future collaborations, maybe. When you work with computers all day you can't really face hitting Pro-Tools in the evening. That's part of why I love the modular stuff so much; you can plug in cables and twist knobs and don't need to look at a screen. If it's a cold winter - I'll try and finish GROK ‘Friends’ this year.