Finding The Sound : Jonas Munk Talks ‘Altered Light’, Ambient Music, And Collaborations

I feel I owe Jonas Munk a debt of gratitude. Ever since discovering Jonas’ work with Causa Sui, his solo work, as well as the whole of Jonas’ record label he runs with Jakob Skott(Causa Sui drummer, graphic design guru, synth noodler) I’ve found this vast sonic world where I’ve spent a good portion of my time soaking up the vibes.

I’ve always been a music obsessive, but finding El Paraiso Records felt like opening a portal to another dimension. This glorious library of forward-thinking rock that touched on psych, Komische, experimental, space-y folk, and everything in-between. Finding that world gave me something to look forward to. A library of sound that its sonic delicacies were endless.

In 2017 Munk started a label on his own called Azure Vista Records. It was a spot where he could put out more ethereal work from artists like Auburn Lull, Carl Weingarten, Billow Observatory, Quaeschning & Schnauss, as well as his own solo material. Once again, he built another roster and sound world to get completely lost in.

2020 saw the release of Jonas Munk’s Minimum Resistance, an ethereal record bathed in heavily-effected guitar and electronics that to my ears sounds like modern new age music. New age bathed in ambient and technicolor psychedelia. Jonas just released his latest album, Altered Light. There’s a continuity between last year’s Minimum Resistance and Altered Light as each share that dizzying air of high atmosphere and pink-hued clouds. Hazy sonics and swaths of candied noise which lulls you into a place of peace.

I recently sat down and talked to Jonas about the new record, as well as the new Billow Observatory album that’s coming out early next year. We also talk about his latest album with Ulrich Schnauss called Eight Fragments Of An Illusion(one of my favorites this year.) We also talk about the appeal of ambient music, working with Felte Records once again, and playing live.

J Hubner: Hey Jonas, it’s great to talk to you again. It’s been a pretty strange couple years since we last spoke. I want to get into the new solo album ‘Altered Light’, but before that I’d like to talk about your last solo album ‘Minimum Resistance’ from 2020. I feel like that album and your new one are connected both sonically and in spirit. So what was the process in creating ‘Minimum Resistance’, both in creating the walls of ambient sound and the headspace you were creating in. What was the inspiration in creating this new age/ambient record?

Jonas Munk: Generally I’ve been trying to strip down and simplify things a bit with these two records. Some of the records I work on are big projects that stretch over years, and demand an endless amount of work. But with these rather minimalist albums – or let’s just call them what they are: ambient albums – I usually take a more relaxed approach. I remember reading an interview with Japanese author Haruki Murakami once, where he talked about how easy and enjoyable it was to write short stories compared to novels – how he’d usually work on a story for 3-4 days and that’d be it. I feel much the same way about these ambient pieces: I work on each track for a few days and try to maintain a nice, enjoyable flow in the working process. I tell myself I don’t have to prove anything, or whatever, and try to take more of a listener’s perspective. I don’t feel obliged to use my ”bag of tricks” that I’ve learned and built over the years on these pieces – those tricks just seem to get in the way of the music anyway, when it comes to this kinda material. Of course, creating something interesting out of such simple means is in itself a kind of challenge, but a different kind of challenge than making a record with Ulrich or a Causa Sui record.

J Hubner: Is there any sonic connective tissue between what you’re doing within ‘Minimum Resistance’ and ‘Altered Light’ and your work with Jason Kolb in Billow Observatory? I definitely hear more Slowdive and shoegaze in the B.O. albums, with more straight up Windham Hill/Private Press vibes in your solo work. 

Jonas Munk: Sure, they’re definitely connected stylistically, but I think Billow Observatory is open to a much wider range of sounds and influences. Like you say, there’s always a heavy influence of shoegaze and dream pop music, but in recent years we’ve also found a lot of inspiration in minimal techno and dub music. We’ve got a new album coming out early next year and in my opinion we’ve managed to condense a lot of different sounds from different eras into those tracks.

J Hubner: So tell me about the new Billow Observatory. You’re releasing with Felte Records again? What made you two decide to release with Felte, as opposed to Azure Vista?

Jonas Munk: Felte offered us to do a few releases and we kinda liked the idea of shaking things up a bit, after two releases on my own label. After all, there’s a geographical difference – Felte being based in Los Angeles and Azure Vista here in Denmark – so there’s a potential to reach a different, and perhaps wider, group of listeners. It feels right to try and spread things out a bit! Besides, the prospect of letting someone else handle promotion, administration and accounting for once is a tempting one. Running two labels – even though rather small ones admittedly – occasionally builds up quite a lot of administrative work, and exchanging some of that for studio time is attractive.

J Hubner: So then we go to your newest release ‘Altered Light’. I find much to love about this album. There’s a peace in these tracks. How long had you worked on this album? 

Jonas Munk: This was done very quickly. I did the basics a few tracks in early summer, while I was deaf in one ear due to an ear surgery – maybe one more reason why this material is so stripped down – but I did most of it in late summer and autumn, actually. I finished the last pieces in mid-October, just weeks before the release! So this is definitely the quickest process ever, from mixing to release, which was of course
only possible because I decided not to do any physical releases or any promotion. I must say it feels very satisfying getting the material out while it’s so fresh.

J Hubner: I can only imagine it feels great to put music out that is still so fresh in your mind. I know 2020 and the pandemic really put a damper in allowing physical releases to come out in a timely manner. Could you see yourself putting more work out digitally ahead of physical releases? Or just eschewing the physical release altogether in order to get your work into ears quicker?

Jonas Munk: Yes, with the ambient stuff it makes sense, since the vast majority of activity is digital anyway. With an album such as last year’s ”Minimum Resistance” I only sold around 700 physical copies but it has a couple of million streams on streaming services. With most of the El Paraiso stuff it’s the other way around, so in that case it wouldn’t make any sense to forego a physical release. I could imagine putting out more solo work straight to digital and eventually compile it on a nice CD box or a vinyl set, or both, at some point.

J Hubner: For you personally, what’s the appeal of new age/ambient music?

Jonas Munk: One thing that often strikes me is just how different it is from everything else. Sometimes it feels like opening a door into another plane of existence or something. From a more philosophical perspective there’s something very attractive about art that takes its time and goes nowhere these days – we’re living in an age of acceleration and distraction, after all. It’s almost as if this kind of music is in direct opposition to the dominant forces of our current way of life: when everything is loud, aggressive and competitive, the act of slowing down and paying attention becomes quite radical. And in a hyper-productive age where lack of motivation is a sin, melancholia takes on a weird luxurious quality. Perhaps I’m merely projecting my own feelings out on the world but honoring stillness and attention just seems more important than ever these days.

J Hubner: So another album you released this year on Azure Vista Records was ‘Eight Fragments Of An Illusion’ with Ulrich Schnauss. This is the first release with Ulrich since 2017s ‘Passage’. What was that experience like? It’s a fantastic album, and a great addition to yours and Ulrich’s rich collaborative history. 

Jonas Munk: I’m extremely proud of that record, and I think both Ulrich and I agree that we sort of ”found our sound” on this one. With the first two records we were always experimenting with a different sound from session to session, and not necessarily being overly concerned with the overall aesthetic of the albums. Whereas ‘Eight Fragments…’ was really focused from the very beginning on this sound we’d occasionally touched upon on previous albums, and often talked about, but never really explored in-depth: a kind of ambient music that isn’t really ambient at all in a traditional sense, where there’s much more going on harmonically and compositionally. I think that middle ground is really interesting to work in, and it was a challenge not relying on beats or big arrangements, as a lot of our previous material has.

J Hubner: Can you tell me a little about the process of writing with Ulrich? How do songs come together between you two? And maybe tell me a little bit about how you two came together as collaborative writing partners.

Jonas Munk: Well, we were familiar with each other’s work since we were both part of the electronic scene surrounding Morr Music and City Centre Offices in Berlin, and we both admired each others work a lot. I absolutely loved Ulrich’s two albums on City Centre Offices, and the idea of adding guitars to his sound was really exciting. And I think he’d been playing with the idea as well, since shoegaze and dream-pop music was such a big influence on him in those days. Back then (around 2005) Ulrich was living in Kiel in Northern Germany, just a three-hour drive from Odense where I live, so it was natural to get a collab session together. Initially our idea was to record maybe a handful of tracks for an EP or something, but we ended up collaborating on-off over the next 15 years!

J Hubner: That’s quite the musical history together.

Jonas Munk: In the past I’d often bring an idea or two to the party, or Ulrich would have a loose sketch for a track, and we’d take it from there. With the new album it was quite different cause with these tracks we’d start out with an improvisation – Ulrich on his Oberheim OB-8 or Prophet-12, me on guitar – and we’d try to find an interesting harmonic framework to work from. So this album was truly collaborative in every part of the process. We’d also try to limit ourselves to fewer parts and layers this time around. For example, instead of recording 5-6 guitar parts for a track I’d try to come up with just one or two parts that were strong enough on it’s own to carry a lot of weight. And Ulrich approached things much the same way. In the past we’d often be looking at the project window in logic and there’d be 50 audio tracks with stuff. This time around we were aiming for 7-8 well-recorded tracks – trying to create uncluttered, well-written
arrangements, where each sonic component contributes something important to the whole.

J Hubner: Before I let you go I wanted to ask you about playing live. With live music returning somewhat, how do you feel about gigs and touring? I feel like your sound has become more nuanced and a product of studio artistry and experimentation, and less something for the stage. As you get older, is the studio more your comfort zone as opposed to the stage? Or is that like comparing apples and oranges?

Jonas Munk: They’re definitely very different. To be honest, I’ve never been much of a performer – I always do my best playing in the studio and in the rehearsal room. Live, there’s always some kind of issue or other with the sound, the songs are played too fast etc. I know people like to romanticize the idea of live shows as something where the artists really ”gets to work” and pours his/her soul out to the audience, or whatever. ”The Real Thing!”. And I just can’t relate to that idea at all. For me, the studio is where the creative action happens, it’s where all the experimentation goes on and all the important decisions are made. Live shows can be fun and entertaining, though: the beer, the energy, the occasional sense of connection to the people to whom your work has some kind of significance.

Jonas Munk’s ‘Altered Light’ is out now. Buy it here from Azure Vista Records. Preorder the new Billow Observatory album ‘Stareside’ from Felte Records here. Jonas Munk and Ulrich Schnauss’ ‘Eight Fragments of An Illusion’ can be found here via Azure Vista Records.

4 thoughts on “Finding The Sound : Jonas Munk Talks ‘Altered Light’, Ambient Music, And Collaborations

  1. I came here for the excellent interview and stayed for the reverb on that track oh baby. Also, I agree about the live vs studio thing. I’d feel just like he does about it, in an alternate universe where I was in a position to make music folks wanted to hear lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always been more interested in the writing/recording process than playing live. The album is what got me, not how well it’s played live. I love seeing shows, but not like falling for what’s been recorded.

      Like

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