Christina Vantzou: Every step of the first record was like walking with my eyes closed and my arms stretched out
Christina Vantzou does not need any kind of introduction if you are reading this already (hopefully). Once you’ve heard The Dead Texan, you are submissively following the career of this talented graphic artist who quite recently turned to composing neo-classical ambient music. Among many other topics we talked about this artistic shift, the beginning of a new era and the afterlife of her new album.
You started your art career creating graphics and animations. Today you have your own audiovisual project. What made you interested in composing music and what made you shift from drawing towards directing moving images?
I didn’t go to a traditional art school, so while I was an art student I could jump from one thing to another. I started with painting and drawing, then I tried out photography, I did some printmaking, mostly screen printing, and I took a video class. I did a lot of animation experiments on my own and got really into it. I started my first audio-visual project after art school and without planning it I ended up in Brussels and started The Dead Texan. When it came time for The Dead Texan to tour, it was a necessity for me to play keyboards on stage, since Adam Wiltzie (Stars Of The Lid, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Aix Em Klemm) and I had to do everything ourselves. One day he said: “Look, you’re gonna have to play these parts…” This experience got me really into exploring midi and samples, so I started sampling and creating a library of sounds. When I get into something, I get really obsessed with it, so the sound library grew and grew and eventually I started composing with these sounds. I was busy with composing day after day, although I never played the music for anybody. Adam was around, and he would always see me doing this with the headphones on and he asked me if he could hear what I was doing. Months and months passed without me letting him hear anything. I never really counted how much music I had compliled… until one day I did an export of all the little tracks I‘d been working on and it was 30 minutes. When I figured that out, I told Adam and he just said that’s the minimum length required for an album. Then it was like ‘DINGGG! I will make an album out of this!’ From that day onwards I was thinking about it more as a collection of tracks that could become an album, but I was in no rush to finish anything. Slowly, the creative energy went towards the music instead of drawing.
So, slowly your music fleshed out. The next step was to get an ensemble to perform it. How did you find the right people?
I was very lucky that while touring with The Dead Texan, I met a lot of nice, talented people. So I had a lot of friends that I could ask advice from. When I decided to work with an ensemble, I asked Dustin O’Halloran for advice. He was aware that I was working on music but he had never heard anything. When that 30 minutes eventually became 40-45 minutes, I let him listen to it. I told him I wanted someone to help me do notation and record the ensemble parts, but it had to be someone who was willing to work in a non-conventional way. Dustin was very thoughtful and he understood what I was saying. He had worked with strings and different ensembles already, and he said ‘You know what? I know this girl in San Francisco, I have a feeling she’s gonna be a good fit for you. Her name is Minna Choi and she has an orchestra called Magik*Magik.’ I sent Minna an e-mail the same day and she got back to me really quick telling me that the project sounded cool, let’s do it. After our recording session, I asked her what was it that made her respond to that e-mail and she said that it seemed like a cool idea, she liked the music, but it was also the first time a woman had approached her to do a project.
Three years have passed between ‘No. 1’ and ‘No. 2’ – what do you think the main differences are between these two albums? Could you also explain the technical differences between them?
I learned a lot, every step of the first record was like walking with my eyes closed and my arms stretched out, because I’d never been through the process. For the second album I worked with Minna again, because our collaboration went really well the first time and I got to know her and her creative side. I felt like I could explore certain things a little deeper, because I trusted her. You might have an idea of how something would sound in your mind, and then it comes out different with real instruments. Even though I still could not write music and read music, I had a lot more insight into the instruments and their technical sound, so I felt like I could envision from the beginning a little bit better what instruments might be involved. I was sure that I wanted to have a few instruments on the record that weren’t on ‘No. 1’. There’s a little bit more melody on ‘No. 2’, because my composing style also evolved, and maybe it got a little bit more structured.
The Dead Texan was an extremely successful project of yours together with Adam Wiltzie. You’ve released only one album on Kranky, exactly 10 years ago. How come that was the first and the last?
The record was released in 2004, and we toured on and off for 3 years. We could pick up dates and organize things ourselves, so it wasn’t like we had to get a whole band together and rent a bunch of gear. We could just get into a small car and drive around Europe, we could do a handful of shows here and there. They are all very memorable. We were on an American label (Kranky), who in those days had a good reputation and were widely known in the US but not as known in Europe. We played some really tiny shows, it was not like we were feeling like we were exploding into this successful thing. But still, and this is the nice thing about music, it can lead its life independently. I think it’s one of the records on Kranky that people keep discovering and enjoying a decade later.
You have Greek origins, but you have lived in America and now you are based in Brussels. How do you think living in the Belgian capital influences your music? What do you like about Brussels the most?
Brussels is very laidback. It’s a big capital city, but the energy here isn’t like it is in a city like London, Paris or New York. I have a feeling when I go to those cities that people are walking fast, rushing around. Brussels energy is way more low key and a little less structured. Some people don’t like it, because the streets are a bit dirty. There’s kind of lawless feeling around, you can get away with doing things chaotically and everyone’s okay with it. You can get away with being a little bit late, the deadlines aren’t always so tight and it’s one of the cities where people don’t really worry too much. Also, there are certain cities where style is very important and how you dress and all that. Not in Brussels, here people are not too over-concerned with how looks are on the surface. This relaxedness about Brussels gives me the space to make time for music, to work at home. I don’t really have a life that demands that I rush around, so I can find space and time to cocoon myself and work on music for a period of time. I can find support here for recording, there’s lots of cultural funding, it’s very international…
As a visual artist, which film directors’ work do you appreciate the most? Could you give some examples?
I discovered French New Wave cinema as an art student, and a Belgian filmmaker called Chantal Akerman. It’s funny that later I ended up living in Brussels, where she shot ‘Jeanne Dielman‘. I really like minimal structural cinema. There’s Michael Snow who did a film (‘Wavelength‘, 1967) – it was shot in a room and it’s just a very slow zoom towards a window and a wall. I like the idea of very slow, abstract films. I didn’t see all of Warhol’s films, but I always liked reading about his screen tests, where he asked people just to sit in front of the camera. He had Dennis Hopper and all these famous and beautiful friends do screen tests… I like the idea of just putting something in front of the camera and letting it run. I love whenever there is an opportunity to see a real film projection on 16mm or 35mm, I enjoy going to the cinema, I go relatively often. There is a movie I saw last year, called ‘Upstream Color‘ (by Shane Carruth). The music in it is great and it’s just very unusual that he was in it and he directed, produced and even composed the film score for it.
Have you been watching the neo-classical, ambient drone scene? Who do you think we should keep an eye on as an upcoming talent?
I think neo-classical is kind of a mini-movement. It’s interesting that all at once there are artists that are finding their way into it. There’s Nils Frahm, Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ólafur Arnalds. My personal favourite is Jóhann Jóhannsson, he’s been a big inspiration for a long time. His approach is kind of minimal, so maybe that’s why I gravitate towards his work. He’s released a number of albums and also film scores, one of my favorite film scores is ‘Prisoners‘ (2013), it’s beautiful and really minimal, so simple. He is so brave to even go there, because it’s so simple, but it’s so well done. Also in graphic design I was always attracted to people that could do so much with one color and one shape, so I guess in a way that’s my interest in minimalism, being able to have a big impact with very few elements. Jóhann does that really well. I wonder what’s gonna happen in the next 5-10 years, because more people are hearing this music and more people might try it out themselves…
Who would you like to collaborate with and why?
I’ve been wanting to collaborate with Scott Morgan (Loscil), but he already knows that. He makes minimal ambient techno, and does a lot with really good subbass. I’ve seen him live a couple of times and there is something about this bass. I really like it and I really love it live. When I saw Ben Frost playing one time, even though my ears couldn’t handle the volume, it was really great, it was so loud and so bassy. The whole room trembles and it gets inside your body, it makes your organs vibrate. The way Scott does the bass is a little more subtle. He’s an expert in using just the right kind of bass in the room and getting it to shake the floor a little bit without pushing it quite as far as Ben Frost. I like the idea of being able to work with someone who’s such a bass specialist and who brings some vibrations into music.
What music do you listen to in your free time?
I listen to a lot of hip-hop actually. Wu-Tang Clan and all its side projects…I’ve listend to the new Drake album quite a bit and I’ve also been listening to Oneohtrix Point Never lately.
Are you touring with the new album? What are your future plans?
I played a show in Brussels (18th April) and I worked with a new ensemble. ‘No. 2’ was recorded in San Francisco with a 15-piece ensemble, and I played the Brussels concert with a 5-piece, so it was a whole other thing. I had to re-work the material with a third of the instruments, so the sound changed a bit. I decided to add a harp on stage, even though there was very little harp on the record… I transposed some of the instrument parts into harp parts… it was a journey in itself, figuring out how to rearrange all the music for this smaller ensemble, but it was successful. I found really wonderful musicians in Brussels, they enjoyed the sound and they brought a lot to the concert. We worked on it as a group, and we turned the set into something unique together. The tricky part about this music is that if I were to tour with this 5-piece ensemble, it would be incredibly expensive. What tends to happen with neo-classical music is that you can travel solo with all the sheet music and rehearse and play with local ensembles in each city….I did that for most of the touring of ‘No. 1’, and the same thing could happen for ‘No. 2’, but my attention was mostly on making this one Brussels show special. The idea of a typical tour, like a rock band would do, does not necessarily translate for this music, so I’m still figuring out what does work and taking it slow.
What is your favourite album cover?
If you could go backwards to recover that which was left behind, what would that be?
My dignity. (Christina is smiling)
There’s a guy called Terrence McKenna, he gives lectures on psychedelic substances, and in ‘Alien Dreamtime’ he talks about his idea that in this new age full of technology and endless choices, we’re really hungry for the way that people were at the beginning of the time, when things were completely different and simple. I listened to him a lot in the past and he wasn’t necessarily in the front of my mind when I was working on ‘Going Backwards’… the title didn’t come from him, but when I re-listened to his lectures recently, it kind of reminded me of him.
Who you would like to read an interview with on SOATC?
Christina also prepared an exquisite mix for the readers of Sounds Of A Tired City, consisting solely of film soundtracks (and a bit more). Enjoy!