Alexander Leonard Donat - The Complete Package
What is being an artist? I guess it is making something in order to express yourself. Some people just have a lot to say. Take Alexander Leonard Donat, musician, record label owner, artist, writer.
Noise Artists had to take a moment to get to know the man better.
Opening up for other artists’ releases
This year my label Blackjack Illuminist Records turned 10 years old which was a unique occasion to celebrate with a compilation which consists of exclusive songs by artists and bands that have crossed my way in the past decade. For years I haven’t recognized how good it feels giving other artists a home. A turning point occurred when I met Paul Lopez on Twitter. Under the name of the “Shoegaze Collective” he told me that “This needs to be released” pointing at “Prince of the Air”, an album by Sana Obruent. At first I didn’t know it was his music but it didn’t matter anyways, I loved it right from the start as it was the kind of guitar Ambient/Drone I enjoy the most. Some months later I put “Prince of the Air” out on CD and cassette and it totally felt like opening a new door, like expanding. As with my own music I put all the possible promotional effort in this release and was super excited and happy when people positively reacted to the album and purchased it. So far I’ve been releasing three Sana Obruent albums, with “Dyatlov” being my favorite, and there’s more to come.
Besides Sana Obruent I released the debut album of the Japanese pianist Oneechan Nanashi whom I also happened to meet online. Her Ambient induced underwater piano Post-rock fits to Blackjack Illuminist magnificently as she, too, embraces the idea of having her music recorded in a rough and direct style. I am not too much a fan of shiny productions although I understand that certain genres, especially if they are pretty technical, need a clearer mix.
As nearly 90% of the label’s releases contain my own music it was high time to get more artists involved. In 2018 I will continue releasing other artists’ works among my own.
Tell us about the artists you have worked with
My first band Jet Pilot put aside it took me some time until it felt right to work with other artists. Let’s not forget that there’s a difference between working with someone and actually releasing the songs as a result. So let’s narrow it down to the latter. In 2016 several collaborations resulted in EPs with Vlimmer. The first was a 5-tracker with the Oceaneer released on the Canadian label Paracelsian Productions. I sang to already existing songs of Oneechan Nanashi and it was something different for me as there are no drum patterns or synthesizers on the record, something which is elementary in the Vlimmer universe.
Next was a 6--track EP with the Chilean Thanatoloop which was released on Templo Sagital. Michel Leroy approached me and asked if I were interested in a collaboration. Usually I don’t decline inquiries when I see at least one parallel and so I agreed. This one was more of a challenge as we both did something new. I sang on more or less loose ambient soundscapes in a couple of songs and I wasn’t sure if it worked. However, we easily agreed on a tracklist and suddenly everything made sense. This record is so dark and coherent which cannot be taken for granted as Michel sings in Spanish while Vlimmer is bound to German.
Thirdly, I made two tracks with the French band Mad Masks when I was asked by the Swedish label Repartiseren if I wanted to take part in a collaborational series. Did I say the Thanatoloop EP was dark? Well, check out “Maskenränder” and hear for yourself, it gets even more sinister, I placed some Black Metal screams in the background which are accompanied by broken violins.
Finally, I sang on a epic track by the American electronic project Volkanos. It will be part of an album which will be out some time soon, but you can already listen to it on Soundcloud.
All of these collaborations have in common that I worked with people who come from different genres.
So far it only happened one time that I worked with someone who is at home in a very similar genre: I asked Krissy Vanderwoude from Whimsical to sing on three songs of my latest Fir Cone Children album “No Gravity Girls”. As she is a Dream Pop girl I was confident it would work, and it did! Later she revealed that it was something new to her, which surprised me a bit as I have always seen this project as something very close to Dream Pop, just harder and faster. In the end it shows that other artists most likely have a different take on stuff that is familiar to oneself, that again shows that collaborations include a good deal of surprise, a fair portion of unexpectedness. The stuff that seems logical and obvious for one party might not be for the other. That’s maybe the essence of a collaboration that aims for synergy.
What are your goals as a band, artist, record label owner, artistically/commercially ?
As an artist: I want to evolve, never repeat myself, try new stuff and collaborate with other artists.
As a record label owner: Building a kind of home for artists and a place which listeners like to return to frequently. Hopefully, the music on Blackjack Illuminist Records will always be diverse and coherent at the same time.
Who would you want as a dream producer and why?
So far I haven’t had the best of experiences with producers. Not that the ones I worked with were incapable or unprofessional, it’s just that I’ve never been satisfied with the mixes of them. Why do so many of them tend to mix songs in a way that makes everything sound clean, tidied up and artificial? Sometimes I have the impression that secretly most producers try to sound like one another.
If I could choose, maybe I would try Steve Albini or John Congleton for a Fir Cone Children album. Certainly, I would give Nigel Godrich a shot with Vlimmer. He would probably say no because it’s totally different to what he’s used to work with but he’s a master of dense arrangements and I would love to find out what advice he would give me.
There’s a lot of difference between the indie/punk/new wave of Jet Pilot, the gloomy/coldwave of Vlimmer and the cute noise pop of Fir Cone Children. Can you explain why?
If I sounded all the same in all projects it wouldn’t make any sense to have more than one band or project. Jet Pilot were my first real band, it’s also the least atmospheric project of them all, obviously. As the songwriting was a process of three people I won’t compare it to my solo projects.
Shedding light on the difference between the style of Fir Cone Children and Vlimmer might explain pretty much what kind of a person I am. I consider these two to be my main projects, writing songs here flows naturally, without thinking too much, it’s also the reason why I release so many EPs and albums with them. Fir Cone Children is about voice, guitars and drums only, with the strict rule that a track’s length mustn’t exceed 2 minutes. This automatically results in fast songs that have a punk attitude. As there aren’t too many really fast Shoegaze bands out there that make sunny music I felt the urge to fill the gap. Vlimmer emerged around the same time. I didn’t do it on purpose, at least that’s what I think, but I assume both projects are an answer to the other one respectively. With Vlimmer I had this one goal: writing dark and hypnotic Shoegaze tracks with a focus on motoric drums and the use of synthesizers. It became the project which would be best received of all my projects, and that totally took me by surprise, partly because I’m not sure how many of my listeners really understand my mother tongue.
You sing in German and English. What’s the difference? Why? How do you decide which project/song will be in which language?
The decision is solely based on what project the song I’m working on is meant for. I’ve never questioned it so far and find it difficult to think about a reason why I choose English here and German there. Anyway, I don’t use German lyrics for anything else than Vlimmer. Fir Cone Children and Leonard Las Vegas songs will always be sung in English as writing lyrics in that language sounds best here, German would kill the vibe for me. My other projects include an invented language called “Terbansk” (Feverdreamt) or no words at all (Leonard Donat). It’s funny, until now I actually didn’t realise that my four current projects, Vlimmer, Fir Cone Children, Feverdreamt and Leonard Donat, all use a different kind of language.
You produce limited edition packaging. It probably takes you a lot of time. Why not produce normal cds like some labels do? Is it viable financially? Do you care? Is the quality of the product more important?
In the beginning it was the only way I could handle things as I simply didn’t have the money to have anything pressed or fabricated. At the same time it didn’t feel like an emergency solution at all. I’ve been a fan of the DIY culture ever since, I love it when bands or labels use their own hands to create something unique, even if it’s only a stamp on a CD or a polaroid on a record cover. I decided to glue several strips of paper in all sorts of shapes on CD covers and had stamps made. It’s what I did on the first 13 releases on Blackjack Illuminist Records. After that I started working with photos which are glued on blank sleeves to achieve a satisfactory middle way between professionally fabricated and handmade products. More than ever I am convinced that music listeners these days value bands and labels which are not only offering downloads but something that is done with a lot of effort, love and pleasure in the form of something that you can touch.
Which of your products are you the most proud of? Why?
Probably I’m most proud of the boxes I paint for the Vlimmer EP series. So far, I’ve painted 80 of them for five different editions and apart from one copy of the Easter box they all sold out quickly. Maybe I went too far with the artwork: cute Easter eggs next to the Vlimmer symbol. Ha, take this, genre police!
In 2017 there is no new or old music to a 17 year old with internet access. Discuss.
Interesting thesis! I would go further and say that this 17 year old would have had almost the same possibilities 20 years ago. I was a teenager when Napster had its peak, and I absolutely loved downloading just everything I wanted. Certainly, today it is easier to consume music because we can stream songs instead of downloading them but it’s similar to the late 90s as you still need to know what you are looking for. Do today’s kids open Spotify and just listen to anything that happens to disappear in their player? I guess not. They pretty much know what they want to listen to, therefore I think they do know whether their favourite songs are new or old. The question is: do they CARE about how old the songs are? Are they interested in anything else than the song? Do they care about the artwork? Do they care about a bit of background knowledge? Music history? With your thesis you probably aim at the type of listener that consumes music like junk food, someone who doesn’t value all the effort that musicians put into their work. On the other hand we might ask: does it really matter how old the songs you listen to are? Does it really matter who influenced whom, and who was first? The way you consume music is totally everyone’s choice. Music is all about emotions, music is an art, and art is subjective. I just wished people wouldn’t take music for granted. They pay for exotic food, expensive long drinks, drugs and overpriced movie tickets, why the hell then is it so difficult to pay that one dollar for that song you love so much?
Why do you make the music you make? Is it in you? Is it a choice?
That’s similar to the question of “What made you the character that you are?” I guess it’s a mix of your genes and your environment. I like to believe that the big influence of my parents who are big fans of classical music had an impact on me. Genetically speaking this is supported by the fact that after my grandfather and my father I’m in the third generation of making music, with the huge difference that my music wouldn’t be considered classical music. Still, I think my sound probably has inherited some aspects of that very genre.
Describe your palette of sound.
Classical music is often about sounding big and orchestral, and I definitely prefer atmospheric music, orchestral in a way but with different means. My love for atmospheric genres like Shoegaze, Drone, Ambient, Postrock, psychedelic music in general might be a result of my childhood or my genes. Then again I remember how my grandfather couldn’t get his hands on my music, it seemed so far away for him. Maybe he wasn’t open for anything else than classical music. At least, I don’t remember him listening to any other records outside his genre. He just didn’t have any, just like my dad.
Anyway, this aspect of atmospheric music can be found in all of my music no matter what project.
What are you trying to avoid as a band, artist, label owner?
Something I definitely try to avoid is releasing music that is redundant or music I am not 100% convinced of. As long as I can trust my gut this won’t happen. Personally, I try to avoid not expecting too much of the listeners and their buying habits. I tend to think too much about stuff like this when the sales stagnate but then I remind myself to be proud of what I’ve achieved. It’s much more than I’ve ever expected.
Explain your songwriting process, who starts? How does it evolve, is it organic? Is it discussed?
Usually, I haven’t prepared all song’s parts before I hit “record”, no, I start with either an idea that just popped up in my mind or I experiment with a certain instrument and a certain sound. If the start goes well, I record that part and mostly continue with what I hear in my head. It’s finished once it feels like it. Okay, that’s vague, huh? As I know what I want my songs to sound like I am happy to rely on my songwriting skills. No writer’s block so far, yay!
Where to find your work?
You can listen to all of my music on my label’s Bandcamp . Additionally, most Vlimmer and Fir Cone Children songs can be found on the usual streaming websites and digital music stores.
Your presence on the web
You can buy Vlimmer and Fir Cone Children albums and EPs on iTunes, Amazon, Deezer, Google Play etc.
Extensive interviews I enjoyed:
Reviews I like:
Fir Cone Children – “Everything Is Easy”: www.attnmagazine.co.uk/music/9095
Leonard Donat – “Deer Traps“: www.thisisdarkness.com/2017/08/02/leonard-donat-deer-traps-review/
Vlimmer – “IIIIII / IIIIIII”: http://mithratemplezine.com/chronique-vlimmer-iiiiiiiiiiiii-ep-2017/
Fir Cone Children – “We Will Never Die” song review: http://www.thrdcoast.com/read/2017/6/21/premiere-fir-cone-children-we-will-never-die-feat-krissy-vanderwoude
Make sure to check out these artists, it’s my current top 20 of this year’s records (ratings from 1 – 12):
1. Arcade Fire - Everything Now 10,615 Indie/Disco/70s
2. Ex Eye - s/t 10,5 Post Metal/Black Metal/Jazz
3. The Hirsch Effekt - Eskapist 10,167 Experimental/Metal/Indie/Math Rock
4. HEALTH - Disco3 10,136 Electronic/Noise/Pop/Remix
5. Do Make Say Think - Stubborn Persistent Illusions 10,125 Post Rock
6. Sana Obruent - Dyatlov 10,083 Dark Ambient/Drone/Neoclassical
7. William Basinski - A Shadow In Time 10,0 Drone/Ambient
8. Love Theme - s/t 10,0 Ambient/Jazz/Electronic
9. Self Defense Family - BBC Session 9,875 Postpunk/Experimental/Repetition
10. Casper - Lang Lebe Der Tod 9,8 Indie/Hip Hop/Electronic
11. Feist - Pleasure 9,773 Indie/Singer-Songwriter
12. British Sea Power - Let The Dancers Inherit The Party 9,667 Indie
13. Sorority Noise - You're Not As ____ As You Think 9,65 Emo/Alternative Rock
14. The xx - I See You 9,65 Dream Pop/Dance/Electronic/Light
15. Algiers - The Underside Of Power 9,625 Postpunk/Gospel/Experimental
16. Beach Fossils - Somersault 9,591 Indie/Dream Pop
17. Drab Majesty - The Demonstration 9,556 Darkwave/Shoegaze/Synthpop
18. Priests - Nothing Feels Natural 9,55 Punk/Postpunk
19. Blanck Mass - World Eater 9,5 Electronic/IDM/Noise/Psychedelic
20. The Drums - Abysmal Thoughts 9,417 Indie/Pop/Rock
Thanks to my mother’s womb for having me and preparing me.