Transcribing is generally a chore, but transcribing an interview with Exploded View’s Annika Henderson sure highlights the ‘trance’ part. It’s that voice; disembodied, husky, yet commanding and eloquent. Henderson could read from a phonebook and make it sound like pure poetry. No doubt her background plays a big part: born and raised in England, but spending a great deal of time in Berlin. Next to her life as a musician and sound artist based in Berlin, she is a sharp journalistic mind, one who’s curiosity more often than not gets the best of her. Though she initially wanted to become a documentary journalist, she’s resigned to an existence of continuous learning, experiencing, creating and traveling.
The title of Exploded View’s second LP Obey might suggest another hard-hitting, militant noise exercise. That, in some ways, is still the case: ‘Dark Stains’ and ‘Come On Honey’ creep and crawl with fraught, claustrophobic anguish. But Obey teems with a lot of sweeping, free-form noise-scapes as well. ‘Open Road’ is absolutely gorgeous with its quagmire synth textures, silky acoustic strum and Henderson’s sangfroid delivery. The title track’s swirling intensity is like standing in middle of a warm monsoon, with cutting winds purging the dirt from your body.
Stepping away from more structured, noise rock leanings feels like a natural progression from the band’s self-titled 2016 debut. After all, Exploded View did begin as something of a knee-jerk, organic affair. Henderson was looking for a backing band in Mexico City to perform songs from her debut LP Anika, which she recorded with Geoff Barrow’s outfit BEAK>. Musicians Martin Thulin Hugo Quezada and the now departed Amon Melgarejo answered the call. The chemistry between the four turned out to be immediate and infectious, and thus the alliance morphed into Exploded View.
Sacred Bones, who have a keen eye for headstrong, risk-taking artists, took a shine on the band. “They give us complete freedom and they are so patient,” Henderson weighs in. “I mean, working across Mexico, decisions sometimes take ages. They have been so sweet, and never put any pressure on us, never questioned the ugly artwork (laughs). It’s supposed to be the ugliest artwork ever, the combination of the inner sleeve and the pink vinyl. But it’s good anti-artwork.”
DiS: You recently performed this project called The Writing Robot. What did it entail exactly?
Annika Henderson: Well, I used to live with a computer programmer; one time I just returned from this festival called Ars Electronica in Austria. This festival showcases a lot of electronic developments over the past years, and also organized a few live shows. I played there in 2016 with Exploded View; having lived in Berlin for the past few years, somehow you’re a bit sheltered from advances like robot technology. In England, they had these electronic paying machines, so there’s a lot of a more robotic presence there. Whereas in Berlin, I once saw a drone sneak into a spa...
Very creepy and very illegal I’m sure… But anyway, his festival had all these crazy robots, and I was taken aback by how advanced this technology was. Then I went home and one of my housemates talked about the likelihood of her job being taken over by robots. I was listening to a lot of the chart music and realized it all sounded so the same. So I thought about the possibility of an artist’s job being taken over by robots as well. If artists continue to churn out these formulaic things, a robot could likely do so as well.
People would say to me my first record was just a bunch of covers. But that’s not that much different from all the people releasing music they didn’t write anyway. So I was speaking about it with my computer programmer friend Raoul Sanders; when he was 13, he created a robot that could write poetry. So I asked him if he could potentially adapt this to make song lyrics. So we ended up working for ages to make this massive database of old hits from the past thirty or forty years, and it works well! I mean, sometimes there was a bit of a glitch. I created some soundscapes during the last show. It was kind of funny actually: some of them were composed in different genres – like for instance, one rap track, just to showcase how a robot could write for each of them.
Makes me wonder if you could use the database to make an authentic William S. Burroughs-Bot.
We actually did feed the machine a whole book –The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster – during this performance. It was all done live – so we hooked up the algorithm to a printer. On stage, it would just be spitting out lyrics we started improvising over the top of the music. Once in a while Raoul would change it to the Forster thing, the algorithm came up with these crazy apocalyptic texts about robots taking over the world. It was amusing, but a bit stressful, because I had never seen these lyrics before. So I had to figure out the melody on the spot.
At its conclusion, it was about asking yourself what your role is as an artist, what do you have to say yourself if you’re just repeating the patterns of the past of these winning formulas? Then it means you can just be replaced by robots! But in the end, it’s about questioning the role of the artist nowadays. But it was also a fun project, a very good one to overcome this fear of lyrics as well.
You did a leg of solo shows last year, and you played Exploded View songs as well. Did you test out new material, or played songs that were already written?
Doing solo shows is obviously a different experience than to being in a band. You are very much on your own, if something goes wrong there is no one to catch you. You just have to keep going. Especially if you are relying heavily on electronics. If something happens you just have to figure it out and carry on. I once had a show where I had to do part of it a-cappella because my computer blew up.
Well, at least that’s something computers can’t replace yet: your voice. I always enjoy watching artists work around nagging technical problems in creative ways.
There’s that whole old-fashioned showman element, like ‘the show must go on’. And at the moment in the music industry, I feel this is being questioned. There are so many artists canceling shows these days. We just had it in Berlin with U2, there was a load of press about Bono losing his voice. I think it’s because artists are expected to tour so much, there is a lot of pressure on them to make money for everyone involved in the machine.
We had to cancel an Exploded View tour in its entirety a few years ago, because it became impossible to make it work. We would’ve been in the red so much; that was around the time Amon couldn’t handle the touring and had to quit. I had to make that decision. I usually would never cancel a show. I have shows where I’ve thrown up by the side of the stage, completely passing out afterward. And one where I had lost my voice for two days, and I managed to get it back just in time for one of the Exploded View shows.
Well, you put a lot of effort performing in situations where you need to push your limits. You wrote a brilliant, intense piece about a show you did a few years ago in Tehran, Iran. Those experiences tend to thicken your skin.
It’s strange, because I had such a great time. I met the most friendly, sweet and welcoming people. I didn’t find myself in any dangerous situation, apart from when I got this crazy fever. Which was just horrible, and the reason why the Gate of Words thing turned into this weird trip. I had seven days to compose this piece, and six days I was coping with this extreme fever. So I was trying to compose and perform under this fever, and it was bizarre.
But in the end, everyone does music for personal reasons. One of the most important reasons for me was to learn as much as I could. I used to want to become a documentary journalist, you want to get this trust of people, this access to groups. And share that if you can. The good thing about playing music is that you get this access; people are coming to see you, and what you notice is that you’re not working passively. I always try to give back as much as I can.
After one show in Iran, people would come over to say, “I realize I can do that sort of thing too, you know?” Especially in Iran, where they don’t get to see many live shows. And sometimes being a musician is this untouchable thing. So they put me in a situation that gave them an awareness. That’s exactly what I wanted to show. To make this a more human experience, to instill a curiosity in people to make them want to do it for themselves.
That’s encouraging to hear, because there’s a lot of talk now about art and music just being something you either blindly consume or share in a vacuum. Not as something that can change the world even just a little bit
I try to do it. It all depends on what your motives are. With the Iran trip, it was offered to me. I didn’t apply for it myself – I applied for lots of other residencies, but never got any funding. Then it’s always strange, because once in a while, out of the blue, things come your way. It was cool. They said, ‘”Do you want to go to Iran for three weeks?” and I was about to go on holiday for two weeks. They said I needed to start the visa process straight away. So I was like “Okay, why not?”
I had plans laid out, I was supposed to study actually. But I canceled that and just went because I thought: This such a time where there is a lack of understanding for other people, we create these monolithic evils, at the time Iran was indeed ‘one of those’ in the press. Especially in America, Iran is portrayed as this big evil that no one understands anything about. I realize now how much of a lie the reports we get are. It’s one big lie basically, a completely distorted picture of reality.
Iran was amazing, it was such a rich country in terms of culture, the beautiful colors. Before I went I was reading a load of books and trying to watch a load of films. It made me less scared of going, it made me more familiar. It’s such an interesting place. It’s so beautiful there, all the nature as well. I’m glad I could at least report and write a bit about it, to break down this wall. On the train I encountered these emo kids, wearing a long coat and a headscarf, trainers, drainpipe trousers and listening to Blink 182. I mean, it’s all sort of the same, you know?
Back to Exploded View: in the lyrics I noticed a lot more ‘you’. It seems more that these songs are addressing someone or something. Is Obey maybe less of an introverted record?
It’s so funny, some people interpret the songs quicker than I do myself. During the making of Obey, I was actually in this relationship for the whole time. I think we did three sessions that were spread out pretty widely, and this relationship lasted through the beginning, the middle and the end. So there are songs on the albums that are happy, slightly angrier songs and genuinely bitter songs. So I guess I am addressing a particular person. But that person also symbolizes what I was fighting against generally.
I’m interested in the happy songs. People tend to conflate noise-laden, discordant sounding music with darkness, nihilism, and depression. But those elements can be used to convey relish and joy too.
Everyone in the band has got strong emotions, and there’s conflict and making up. And even when talking about the band; we are all quite passionate. It’s like a family; you can strangle them sometimes, but then once you are all back together it’s fine again. I think ‘Open Road’ is supposed to be about freedom, about escaping. Or maybe running away. ‘Letting Go Of Childhood Dreams’ is a liberation too, letting go of things that previously held you back. Things that you thought you had to be. And realizing you should just be happy and yourself.
But ‘Letting Go Of Childhood Dreams’ doesn’t necessarily address the positive things, the things you aspire to be. And then realizing as you get older you don’t get to do it. No, it’s not that kind of thing. It’s more about the time when I was younger, growing up in England, there were certain imposed dreams,that made you feel like you had to fit in. Social pressure, peer pressure, parental pressure. All these things that make up a constructed reality; you’ll be a success, you’ll be happy if you achieve a certain thing at a certain point. Like having a house, this excellent job: “By the time I get to this age, I’ll be happy.” It’s more about letting go of these ideals. The illusion that life is rooted in this straightforward formula, which is primarily linked to consumerism.
Generations are generally like cycles, right? It’s more likely you’ll have more in common with your grandparents than your parents. People appear inclined to react against foundations laid by the previous generations.
Yeah, that’s a funny one with my family. They are all quite eccentric, and liberal in a lot of ways. My parents, if anything, I feel like they are part of a certain generation. But I also I feel like they could be my age, you know? They are probably, to some extent, as equally lost as my generation. I’m half-German, half-English so, I had German grandparents and English grandparents. And they were extremely different. My German grandparents were a lot older, they came from the war generation.
My English grandparents, my English grandfather was slightly too young to be fighting in the war, so he was just running wild in London. But because he dropped out of school at age thirteen, he figured out his own path. He did all types of different jobs; butcher, footballer, postman, boxer, electronic engineering. It’s been just the past few years that I spend a lot more time with him, because I understand now. You have to always figure out what you’re going to do next. My parents’ generation were often stuck in one job, they had a house and everything.
That’s a very interesting point, about the prosperity the baby boomers experienced. A lot of politicians in power now are from that generation. So maybe there’s a lack of empathy, more detachment towards people who didn’t experience that same kind of financial stability? Our generation appears to have pretty much given up on the ideals imposed to us through advertising or propaganda.
I think it’s also just about learning to be flexible. But once again, advertising and consumerism use this concept of flexibility against us – whether it’s with ‘flexible’ contracts of work, which is basically just exploiting people. But that’s not what I mean by ‘flexible’. I’m talking about flexibility in terms of being less attached to objects or possessions. When I first came to Berlin, this was one of the most liberating things.
There used to be no advertising; I remember at Christmas for example, I wouldn’t really know it was Christmas. I lived in Neuköln, which is mostly Turkish, so there was maybe one Christmas tree hanging off someone’s balcony. And that was it. One night I flew home on Christmas eve, I landed in Heathrow, and they’d suddenly be lavishly banging Christmas songs on the airport. I had a completely panic attack: “Oh shit I didn’t buy any Christmas presents! Oh god, what am I going to do?” My sister’s kids would be saying “Where are my presents?” (laughs)
So it was liberating to come live in Berlin and be away from the English cycle, that whole hamster wheel. But at the same time, living in Berlin initially instilled this complete distress of not being able to cover yourself over with stuff. At first I had to really look at myself with nothing – and just accept it, which was difficult as well. But it turned out to be something really healthy for me in the long run. Because you realize you don’t actually need a lot of possessions. Not to preach what is right or wrong, but I think that does take away this fear. We are so eaten up by fear now. A lot of advertising uses this main technique to scare you into buying something. “Don’t worry you’re not getting older, just buy this and you’ll feel young again.”
Punk rock used to be that force that mirrored that type of language against the oppressors. But it has now been usurped by consumerism as well. Even when people think they’re actually repelling it, consumerism trickles down subliminally. You only realize the extent of that shift once you find yourself in a completely different environment.
Yeah, and I don’t really know what to offer right now as a counter. Punk has become this consumerist thing; you buy the T-shirt, the trousers. It used to be a thing with certain subcultures when I was growing up. You had to go to London, to Camden Market to buy what you wanted, items and merch from a certain subcultures. You couldn’t go online and order it like mail delivery or whatever. There was a bit more of an “earning your stripes” trial to have a heart for subculture.
Making the first Anika record, that was one of the things me and Geoff (Barrow) discussed. We talked about almost this sort of anti-project, and at the time we didn’t use a MySpace page, a website or had a social media channel. We had the shitties pictures done and the worst artwork, as if it was a completely anti-album. And also with Exploded View, with Hugo and Martin, the way we’ve been recording and producing doesn’t lend itself well to advertising or sync-deals. It’s so awkward, you know?
For example, the video I made recently for ‘Sleepers’; we had a deadline and none of us had managed to get together. There were two days left. I found myself at the airport, on the plane back from Portugal, and I got a really shitty camera, so I’m going to try out this concept I always really wanted to execute, only with no budget. I ran around Berlin in the middle of the night, filming the U-bahn. A friend of mine has got a son, and the first thing he said was: ‘That not a GoPro camera, that’s some shitty 17 euro camera!’ And I was like: ‘Yeah, but that was the point!’ I mean, it wasn’t really the point. The idea was simply more important to me than the result, and I wanted to just express it. I think money doesn’t make an idea – it can make an idea go further, sure, but if there is no money to be spent, I still want to materialize the ideas.
Photo Credit: Exploded View