Kat Vinter talks one on one with Esben Valløe of Antonio Gram, about musical re-invention, Berlin’s immersive club culture, and the advantages of ageing in the music industry.
K. I can definitely relate to the experience of changing musical direction and starting a new project from scratch. What’s your experience with moving from one project to the next aka from ‘Reptile Youth’ to ‘Antonio Gram?’
E. For me it wasn’t one day to the other, it was more of a gradual process, where first of all I found myself being very preoccupied when we had to do things together as a band. That sounds very selfish but it was because I was working on my own stuff. It was very much about finding out that I actually wanted to work on electronic music and I wanted to work with different features. I just got bored of doing the same thing, and I think I wanted to get closer to my roots and inspiration. The lead singer of Reptile Youth has continued working with the band, so its given both of us a lot of new freedom.
K. I think it’s a condition of having an active creative personality, that having one project often doesn’t feel like enough, especially if you’re looking for a constant stream of stimulation and freedom. There’s an expectation put on musicians that if you find success in a band or project that there’s no justifiable reason to move on from that. Fans of established bands are always lamenting the break up of their favourite acts for example. If anyone is in a job for 6 years though, it’s common to want to try something different. When I came to see you live I realized there’s a lot of female features in your new music. Is there a specific reason you decided to incorporate the female voice into your music now?
E. A very interesting question… Women are hardwired, to look for a higher pitch in the music and naturally sing at a higher pitch, which can sound louder to our ears. That’s the technical or scientific description, and there’s another one about the experience of going into a creative symbioses with someone. I think in a lot of collaboration, a balance between gender is very beneficial. It turned out that I felt like bringing in a lot of women into my new project. There’s also a lot of nice men that I work with. Black Prince for Example, who actually came to my studio to work together on a track. I like working this way because you end up with a verified edit. It’s much better to have two people feeling the song is coherent, rather than being on different ends feeling insecure about what style and what sounds should be used. I think humans are very social creatures. We have to get together and do stuff.
K. Now that you’re doing a lot of features and working with different people, I guess you’re going to have a lot more varied collaboration and experiences writing.
E. At a very early point in my old band, we started to bring in co-writers, which was a great thing. What I missed eventually was that we used to blend up and mangle influences. Then we fell into the same patterns and started using the same processes for writing songs. With my new project I really like choosing to work with somebody else on each track. It’s like grasping all the fragments of a very fragmented world and putting it all together, like when you were a teenager in your room making mixtapes with all kids of different genres, and it all made so much sense because that was you, right there, at that very moment. Right now it’s very much me experimenting with both songwriting but also with electronic music. These are the two things I really want to bring together. I also want to make more instrumental stuff.
K. When I saw your live show the energy on stage was really being reflected in the audience watching and listening to you. If you can make a Berlin audience move around like that then you’re doing it right! I read a bit about your previous band. The live energy is something that was discussed often. Do you feel like it’s still playing an important role in your new project?
E. I think I’ll have a very different live identity from my last band. Reptile Youth is a rock band with a crowd surfing lead singer. I think this project is going to have an energy that is a catalyst for what is happening in the room more than a situation where you are looking at your idol. That’s why I have chosen to work with many lead singers. I’m a bit withdrawn with my role on stage and that’s how I like it. I imagine the stage as a playground.
K. Right I get that. It’s not the same situation but I’ve tried to set up my stage quite democratically, which is different to what people often expect. I’m not standing out the front as the centre of attention, even though it’s my project. I’m playing instruments and samples alongside my band, as well as signing. People seem to expect me to assume the role of the ‘goddess’ figure standing out the front commanding all the attention. I ignore the advice because I really like to play bass and samples…it’s interesting for me. I used to just be a lead singer so I enjoy having the extra layer of performance.
E. If you can do both charismatically then you should do it like that.
K. So you’ve been hanging out in Berlin for the past 6 months. What made you come here? Did you need a change of scenery to change things up creatively?
E. Musically it’s a very appealing city. I was in the process of rediscovering my roots. I had the hunch for a long time that I had to go back to electronic music. I felt like immersing myself into the deep end of electronic music. There is nowhere else as deep as Berlin in that sense. The club scene consists of a lot of party-goers of course, but also in these Berlin clubs, it’s very much about the music and not just about getting drunk and finding someone to take home. The climax of your night is more about the sound in the room, and the vibe in the room, than it is about drinking until you die.
K. Who made the video for your song ‘Demons?’
E. A very cool guy called Willina Reynish. He studied animation and film direction. He’s a Swiss army knife. He can take a video all the way from the broad strokes of an idea, and take it through all the technical work necessary to pull it together. The girlfriend of my drummer is dancing in the video, we put small silver mirror balls on her outfit and she danced around with one of her dance colleagues in this mapping arena. William was able to make these dancers into the statues in the video. The story is quite funny. We weren’t even allowed to be in the video arena where we made it… I’m very lucky that William wanted to work on the video. He’s starting to work with some really big acts, after working on underground music videos for so long. You know I just turned 30 in January. What I like about maturing is that, of course, my creative friends are also maturing and they’ve become really good at what they do, opening up opportunities to do great work together. We’re not just confused teenagers running around anymore. I saw Grace Jones recently at a festival and it just challenged my perspective of youth. She’s this amazing tribal statue climbing around at 63. It’s totally amazing…she’s challenging all the norms in society.
K. This industry can be really ageist. We’re obsessed with teenage prodigies…which is great but making great music can happen at any age… we assume that getting older means we’re falling out of touch with pop culture and especially as a woman in this industry you really feel the pressure to stay sexy and young looking, and that’s where a lot of the focus is.
E. Our youth striving society is here to stay but I also think it needs to be challenged. As long as we have capitalism, we’ll have commercials wanting us to be fearful of aging. We also live in a very narcissistic world and if we want to be successful we have to go down where the crocodiles are. We’re struggling to retain people’s attention, and that’s a really big part of what we do. I’m not a big fan of doing social media, it can be very shallow for example, but I’m also not a fan of doing my tax accounts. What we should talk about, is how to get the most out of it. What I do like about social media, is that it’s an opportunity to continuously build a mood board for the universe. Not only creating your corporate identity so to speak, but also your inspiration for the next music video, it can become a library.
K, Where do you see yourself taking this project? How do you describe the Antonio Gram of the future?
Es. It’s hard to describe, somewhere between Calvin Harris and PJ Harvey. That’s so difficult, because there are so many associations with other artist’s names. Lets say I want to have the quality and calm of PJ Harvey, with the ability to bring the music to a very wide audience. I think that is quite a beautiful vision.
Find out more: