There’s truly some magic coming from Denmark. There’s this sort of otherworldly power the emanates from the ground and spacial shores that outline the Baltic Sea, Kattegat, Skagerrat, and The Lakes, Copenhagen. Proof of this? Look no further than El Paraiso Records. In part one of this record label series I discussed El Paraiso and all the forward-thinking artists that have been curated and involved with the Danish label over the past few years. You can thank label heads Jonas Munk and Jakob Skott for that. These two are prolific musicians in their own right, and know heady music when they hear it. There hasn’t been one single release from El Paraiso that didn’t up the ante just a little bit when it comes to psych, stoner, Krautrock and anything else that might melt your frontal lobe. Causa Sui’s Pewt’r Sessions records alone are like walking into an LSD-drenched “Electric Miles” session in 1972, just on the cusp of breaking thru some psychic tear into another dimension.
But it’s not all buzzing feedback and skronky fusion that fills El Paraiso’s record collection. There’s a keen understanding and love for more otherworldly, even transcendant sounds. So much so that co-label head Jonas Munk felt the need to start a new label for more ambient, komische textures. Digging back into El Paraiso’s album releases one can see that toes have definitely been dipped into ethereal tones. Bands like Shiggajon, Brian Ellis and Brian Grainger, Nicklas Sorensen, Landing, and Astral TV have put out albums with El Paraiso that appreciate the cosmic, new age vibes that Munk felt needed their own outlet to truly bloom.
Enter Azure Vista Records.
Since the beginning of 2017, Azure Vista has concentrated on brittle electronic, cosmic ambient, and even shoegaze sensibilities and has put forth six incredibly diverse and masterful LPs up to this point(the most recent being a reissue of Carl Weingarten’s underappreciated ambient/new age masterwork Living In The Distant Present.) Azure Vista Records, much like El Paraiso, holds aesthetic in high regard. With each release there’s a sense that you are indeed listening to an Azure Vista Records long player. From album design(courtesy of graphic design maestro Jakob Skott) to the quality artists to the impeccable mastering of Jonas Munk himself, each record stands uniquely on its own, yet feels like a continuing chapter of the previous Azure Vista release.
Regarding label head Jonas Munk, he’s been very engaged with forward-thinking music for a long time. Before El Paraiso and Causa Sui, he was putting out records under the moniker Manual. Electronic music very much in the vein of Boards of Canada, Tycho, and some of the more ethereal electronic music of the mid-to-late 90s. I would imagine if label head Jonas Munk would’ve heard Manual he would’ve signed them up in a heartbeat. Point is, if there was ever someone to put ambient and new age music in a thoughtful and provocative light it’s Jonas Munk.
I recently sat down with Jonas for a long chat about Azure Vista Records, where his love of ambient music came from, and where he sees the label heading.
J. Hubner: So let’s talk about ambient music for a bit. What’s your history with ambient and new age music? When did you first get into ambient?
Jonas Munk: It actually goes quite a long way back. The first album in my catalog that I would categorize as ”ambient” would be my collaboration with New York artist Alexander Perls, a.k.a. Icebreaker International – released in 2003 as Icebreaker International & Manual: ”Into Forever”. Around that time I also started writing very minimal solo material based on guitars and samplers that would result in ”The North Shore”, released under the Manual moniker, an album that was released in 2004 as part of Darla Records’ long-going (and absolutely brilliant) ”Bliss Out” series – a series dedicated to ambient music. Pitchfork gave it a horrible review and described it as ”meandering new age dreck”, if I remember correctly. So I knew I was onto something! It really was the most uncool type of music you could devote yourself to back then. Eventually that album would be part of a trilogy of sorts, with two other Manual albums: ”Bajamar” from 2006, and ”Confluence” from 2008. I consider that trilogy of albums some of my best work ever.
J. Hubner: Who were some of the artists that drew you to the ambient world?
Jonas Munk: Some of the music that influenced me early on and led me on a minimalistic path – and this was in the late 1990s when I was still in my teens – was stuff such as Labradford, Windy & Carl, David Sylvian’s ambient works and of course Brian Eno – especially his collaborations with Daniel Lanois, Robert Fripp and Harold Budd. I also spent quite a lot of time browsing Amazon’s new-age section and would buy lots of Cds from Steve Roach, Mark Isham, Michael Stearns and Tim Story – the more ”classy” side of new age music, I guess. And that was also something I had in mind when forming the Azure Vista aesthetic; trying to incorporate the minimalistc elegance of labels such as Windham Hill and Innovative Communication into the visual identity.
J. Hubner: How has new age and ambient music influenced your own work? Your work under the Manual moniker does have some resemblance to the genre.
Jonas Munk: Yeah, it’s definitely a key-ingredient in the Manual and Jonas Munk albums that most people are familiar with. But like I said above I’ve actually been working on pure ambient music for 15 years now, and my collaborations with Jason Kolb under the name Billow Observatory would also fall strictly in that category. So when you add all those together ambient music actually takes up as large a chunk of my catalog as any other genre, if you set aside all those records that have my name on it as a mix- or recording engineer. For the past year, and probably the next one as well, I’m dedicating by far most of my time to work on music that could be categorized as ”ambient” one way or another.
J. Hubner: Very true, from Manual to your solo records Pan and Absorb Fabric Cascade there’s always been a very dedicated line to the world of ambient. Even Causa Sui have been known to get very esoteric and ethereal amid the storm of guitars and skull bruising.
Jonas Munk: One could also argue there’s always been something like an ”anti-rock” element present in Causa Sui – a band which is, of course, very much a rock band. I think even from the very beginning there was an intention to incorporate slight hints of vagueness, ambiguity and a certain dreamyness that one would normally associate with shoegaze, post-rock and ambient music. Something that would feel very unfamiliar (and uncormfotable) to the stoner rockers! Similarly I’ve always enjoyed incorporating traces of rock music in the electronic music I’ve been working on, especially when it comes to song structures. So it’s a dynamic that works in both directions. 15 years ago you could really piss of a lot of people playing a guitar at Sonar Festival, or something like that.
J. Hubner: So what was the driving force behind starting Azure Vista Records?
Jonas Munk: Well, I had a couple of releases that needed a home: my most recent collaboration with Ulrich Schnauss and the second Billow Observatory album, as well as the Dorias Baracca record I’d been working on several years earlier. Instead of trying to pitch them to other labels I was enamored with idea of being in control of the timeline, promotion and the packaging. And the idea of building a small series of albums was an appealing one too. And since I could basically use the same distribution setup that we’ve been using with El Paraiso for several years, the decision was an easy one. It seemed like the right time to do it.
J. Hubner: To your ears, what distinguishes an Azure Vista release from an El Paraiso release? I feel like all of you in Causa Sui separately have released records that could’ve landed on either label. Skott’s ‘Doppler’, Rasmus’ ‘Aerosol’ and ‘Astral TV’, and your ‘Absorb Fabric Cascade’ all feel close to the Azure Vista aesthetic.
Jonas Munk: In fact I do believe there’s some very important distinctions between the two, and I’m sure that difference will be augmented as the catalogs progress respectively. For me, if El Paraiso Records represents ”earth” then Azure Vista Records represents ”sky”. If El Paraiso has an organic, handcrafted quality to its aesthetic, then Azure Vista is more modern and methodical in nature. The El Paraiso aesthetic is rooted in the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. Generally it’s raw, fuzzy, intense and, at least partly, improvised. And almost every release has bongos on it!
J. Hubner: It always comes down to the bongos. Synths seem to be thru-line as well with both labels. Or keys of some sort.
Jonas Munk: If there’s synths on an El Paraiso release they tend to be analog and extremely simple sonically. On an Azure Vista release I’m happy to explore the possibilities of digital synthesis, glossy digital reverbs and so on. If I were to exaggerate the idea a little I’d say that Azure Vista has more focus on melody and harmonics, and less on rhythm and improvisation. And perhaps more rooted in the 1980s and upward. It’s a cleaner, more modern aesthetic somehow.
J. Hubner: I can see that. There’s a tighter feel to the music. More sequencing and planning. I can definitely hear the digital synthesis.
Jonas Munk: I guess you’re right when saying that an album like Absorb/Fabric/Cascade is very close to some of my ambient material, and in a way, also quite modern sounding. But for me there’s still an element of roughness and improvisation that places it firmly in the El Paraiso part of my brain. There’s hardly anything going on melodically on that record – it’s all rhythm and texture. But I don’t know, perhaps all these distinctions mean more to me than they do to the listeners…
J. Hubner: Putting it into the perspective that you have, I can definitely get how A/F/C would fall into the more El Paraiso camp.
Since 2017, the label has released a consistently amazing collection of albums. You opened Azure’s doors for business back in January 2017 with ‘Passage’, you and Ulrich Schnauss’ second LP together. Your most recent release was this month’s reissue of Carl Weingarten’s lost ambient/new age classic ‘Living In The Distant Present’. In-between those, there’s been some classic records put out by you and Azure Vista.
I know it’s like asking to pick your favorite child, but what’s one of your favorite experiences putting out an album with Azure Vista up to this point?
Jonas Munk: Wow, that’s impossible. First of all, the records I haven’t worked on myself tend to mean more to me, and they are the ones I can enjoy as a listening experience, cause they haven’t got that same degree of doubt attached to them. Quaeschning & Schnauss’ Synthwaves completely dropped out of nowhere and was a total surprise for me. I love every second of that album. And Auburn Lull has been one of my favourite bands in the last 20 years. Their albums are literally desert-island discs for me, so getting to release Hypha was huge. Their sound really hits a special place for me. Carl Weingarten was like finding a lost treasure somewhere, and I feel really proud exposing that to the world. Unfortunately I can’t take credit for finding it, that was the work of Ulrich Schnauss! He’s an expert when it comes to exploring rare synthesizer- and new-age music and he goes to great lengths to buy hard-to-find CDs directly from artists online.
J. Hubner: How do you decide what you’re going to release on Azure Vista? With the exception Weingarten, you’ve been relatively close to each release (either working on the albums or knowing the artists firsthand.) Before the label, did you have a bucket list of artists you wanted to work with and help expose to the world?
Jonas Munk: So far it’s been evolving very organically. It’s mainly an outlet for my own projects and the circle of musicians I work with. I really don’t have any intention to build a huge catalog of releases. But I guess we said the same with El Paraiso seven years ago – and now we’re preparing our 50th release!
J. Hubner: Well let’s say 50 releases with Azure Vista Records is a possibility, are there any artists that you would absolutely love to work with?
Jonas Munk: I really haven’t thought of that. My main focus is to release the music that feels absolutely essential and is a genuine contribution to the world. The internet is already flooded with poor electronic music, and it’s very important for me not to contribute to that quantity. Generally I’m very interested in stuff that is not only interesting from a sonic perspective, but also from a harmonic one.
J. Hubner: What is lined up next for Azure Vista Records? Have you added anyone new to the roster? Can we expect another Azure Vista release for 2018?
Jonas Munk: We just finished a new Billow Observatory album which will probably be out in January, if all goes well. There’ll be a couple more releases in the first half of 2019 that I probably shouldn’t reveal just yet.
J. Hubner: I just want to say that there hasn’t been a singe release I haven’t loved. Quaeschning & Schnauss’ ‘Synthwaves’ might be one of my favorite albums, period, in the last five years. I love the aesthetic of the label, much like the aesthetic of El Paraiso. I feel like Billow Observatory’s ‘II : Plains/Patters’ and something like Mythic Sunship’s ‘Upheaval’ are just two sides of the same coin. Both are mind-expanding, dense listens. They just go about the expanding at varying degrees of subtlety.
I think Azure Vista Records is an amazing label and I hope there’s years music still left to come. Where do you see Azure Vista in five years?
Jonas Munk: Thank you! As for the aesthetic of the packaging Jakob Skøtt of course deserves most of the credit, since he’s designed every sleeve so far (he’s also done every El Paraiso ever of course). We’ve been collaborating on artworks since Manual’s ”The North Shore” 15 years ago – and several demos and prank projects in the years before that – so if I describe something to him that would sounds totally vague or contradictory to others, he’ll immediately know what I mean and be able to carry it out. I’ve heard other people mentioning the similarities between repetitive, out-there rock and ambient music. It doesn’t really fit into my mental categories, but in some way it makes sense! After all, a lot of the spacy electronic music in the 1970s grew out of prog-rock or psychedelic rock bands – just think of Vangelis, Göttsching, Froese and so on. Or the connection between spiritual jazz such as Coltrane (Mr. and Mrs.) into the classical minimalism of Steve Reich, and later repetitive electronic music. When you look beneath surface all this stuff is connected.
I really have no idea where Azure Vista is in five years. So far I haven’t been looking more than six months ahead.
Keep up with Azure Vista Records over at their Bandcamp page and start hitting the “buy” button on every release. You won’t regret it.
Below is a tasty sampler platter of what Azure Vista has to offer, curated by Jonas Munk. Hit play and get lost for a bit.