There’s a few things we all know about Thijs de Vlieger, better known as Thys, who is one third of the legendary Dutch D&B and bass music trio, Noisia. We knew that once the Noisia boys announced they were going solo, Thys would put out a load of weird and different music (read: Music for Sleeping Beauty Dreams, Et al.). We know he loves talking about synths and mods (read: below) and we knew more collab work with him and Amon Tobin would be coming out. At the intersection of those three Thys facts is where we found Ithaca, the latest EP from the tech-obsessed pair which released in late November.
The ambient yet theatrical sonic story that is Ithaca is an EP that’s been about ten years in the making, according to Thys, but fans shouldn’t think of it as the culmination of his and Amon’s work together. but more of an ongoing timeline. This is good news if you like the direction the two producers have been taking. Weird, experimental and definitely synthed out, we sat down with Thys to talk about the project, behind Ithaca the tech, where he’s headed next and, of course, those glorious modular synths.
It’s obvious to any fan of both of you that this collab was bound to happen, but for the sake of record, how did the two of you decide to work on an experimental project like this?
There was not really a decision to work on this record. There was a decision to finish it though. Ithaca is a collection of music that we’ve been writing in sessions spread over almost 10 years. Ghostcards came out of these same sessions, as did “Dzjengis” and “Charlatan” (with Amon Tobin as Two Fingers). The music was written without any preconceptions, just out of love for music and sound, really.
How did you decide which tracks to release when?
From time to time we’d revisit all our sketches and imagine how we would eventually release them. That’s where the family (of tracks) gets separated, and pieces of music from one session end up on different EPs that can be released with months or years in between. For us songs like “Djzengis,” “Ghostcards” and “Somewhere Else” are really related; they were made in the same week, in the same room. When we re-considered them, (we thought) how can we present these tunes in packages where they all compliment each other? Putting a track like “Charlatan” or “”Dzjengis” on the Ithaca EP would have thrown the whole thing out of balance.
At some point, you start putting tracks together in a little playlist, and together they start to tell a story. That moment can be crucial. At least for me, when tracks start telling stories, that’s also where I know how to finish them. A sketch can still go anywhere, but there’s a magical moment where these things start demanding how they want you to finish them.
Sounds like they take on a mind of their own, just like a good story. Switching focus to Ithaca, this EP is a great study in synth science and sound oscillation. What kind of synths and wave forms did you use and what did you end up creating from scratch?
Years ago, I infected Amon with the modular bug and it really stuck with him. I’m really happy that happened, because he’s been getting amazing results from mods; they’re all over his more recent work and I really love everything he’s been putting out. There are lots of sounds on Ithaca I brought from recording sessions with my modular, there are sounds he recorded on his, and there’s a lot of the two of us just tweaking his modular on top of a tune to record another layer. The tracks “Somewhere Else” and “Ithaca” are 100% based around playing the incredible Haken Continuum keyboard. “Somewhere Else” starts off with something I recorded with it while Amon was out running errands.
“Ithaca” is actually 90% a one take improvisation we did, luckily we hit record for that one. It’s me playing the keys, and Amon constantly changing the modular patch. It starts as a drone, morphs and morphs and becomes a quite dark arpeggio. We’d had a lot of mezcal and weed when we recorded this, and to be honest we literally forgot about its existence for months. Imagine how happy I was when I found it back during a session of playing sketches to my friends.. I emailed Amon the same day like “Hey Amon, shit, do you remember we did this? this is fucking amazing!”
Besides both our modular setups and the Haken Continuum, additional honorary mentions go out to my Teenage Engineering OP-1, my Gamechanger Audio Plasma Pedal, Amon’s Mellotron M4000D, Strymon’s El Capistan (I made Amon buy one too) and Deco, and my DSI Prophet REV2.
Was the EP mostly synths and mods or did you do a fair amount of recording odd sounds to play with and mod out?
Very few microphones were hurt in the production of this recording. We did both do a bit of singing, but most of the sound was recorded from our outboard synths.
There’s a lot of analog-sounding instrumental work here but it’s blended so well it’s hard to tell if you had actual orchestral accompaniment or if it’s all digital. What’s the scoop there?
I used a lot of orchestral libraries for this project, something I’ve been getting better and better with throughout my projects the last few years, even amounting in me writing a piece for a full symphonic orchestra! I’m really enjoying that. The record was finished during the COVID pandemic, so going in to record these parts with actual performers was a bit of a problem. They are covered with synths enough to really shine too though, I think. Also for the vocals I used a few libraries besides recording our own voices. Library-wise, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of Berlin Strings, Winds and JXL Brass, and the Metropolis series when I want control over the melodies and articulations. Somehow, after years of drifting around, first not making music at all and then focusing solely on electronic music, now coming back to classical music by ways of writing it myself really feels like coming home.
The most orchestral or string accompaniment comes in “Turning Point” and it really is a literal turning point in the EP. Do the strings have to do with SleepNet? Who is this mysterious collaborator?
(laughs) No, I wrote and programmed those string parts. Sleepnet, the mysterious collaborator, wishes to remain mysterious.
It’s clear that the name of the EP Ithaca is inspired by or is a reference to Ithaca in Ancient Greece and it’s being the mythical homeland of Odysseus in The Odyssey where he is desperate to return home. Did this EP represent a type of musical homecoming for the two of you or perhaps a spot on the horizon you’re hoping to get to on a journey of musical discovery?
This time, and it doesn’t happen to me often, the concept was really derived from a pure feeling I had while listening to it. It was all still a collection of sci-fi, synth-heavy, melody and harmony-drive, film-score-esque music with just funny working titles and no concept. They were just tied musically. I was listening to “Ithaca” (the track) on a walk back from the studio on a very nice, sunny day, with the super familiar Dutch sight of seagulls gliding by set against a really blue sky. In the music, it was the moment the high synth comes in about a third in, that tone of blue only the Dutch sky can have, and the seagulls, really made me feel home. And I thought “This is what it feels like to come home from a long tour. Maybe this is what Ulysses (Latin trans. for Odysseus) felt like when he finally recognized the familiar hills and birds of his home island, after those years and years of being away.”
The music is also very futuristic, so we didn’t want it to be literally about Ulysses. The music is not about spaceships either, and definitely not about laser cannons or fighting robots and aliens. It’s about setting off into the unknown, finding difficulty and unfriendly surroundings, pulling through, plotting your course back, and finally landing home. We wanted it to be a celestial voyage, really. More Interstellar or Blade Runner than Troy, to put it in blockbuster terms.
You’re both probably just enjoying having finally released this piece of work but obligatory future question: any plans to work together again in the works? What do you have coming up?
Amon and I have a very fruitful relationship professionally, and a joyful relationship as friends. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will make more music together. We both would love to score beautiful movies, whether together or separately. I’ve even been working with a private teacher to learn more about the craft of film scoring. I was going to spend a lot of time in LA in 2020, but COVID threw a big old spanner in the works. The time will come. Speaking of movies, I’ve just composed the music for a short film commissioned by Iris Van Herpen. That was a great experience, to be part of a team that realizes something like that. The rest of the year I’m pretty set, I’m gonna enjoy a time of no pressure or deadlines. I’ve got some remixes to work on if I want to, and I’ll be scheming on my next big projects. And hopefully, in 2021. I’ll be able to give Noisia a worthy farewell with a version of the tour we had planned for 2020!
Ithaca is out now on Noisia’s Vision label. Stream or purchase here.