Pop Art

Melbourne’s all-improvising duo ii is a hard act to pigeonhole. Just don’t call them crunk, jungle or lounge, writes ADAM D MILLS*. With sunny park photography by **KATY STEVENS** and colourful triangle photos by *JODI SHANNON.

ii is comprised of two humans, Alex Nosek and Jon Tjhia, neither of whom are easily definable by neat musical roles like ?guitarist?, ?keyboardist? or ?drummer?. Indeed, the tools ii use to create their music – instrumental vignettes that themselves constantly elude attempts at succinct classification – are as varied as they are ultimately unimportant. ii are not a band to be dissected upon the operating table of critical assessment.

But the arrival, finally, of the duo’s debut full-length album [Landlakes](/releases/2000034)*, has drawn precisely the kind of fire ii’s music is so skilful at dodging. *Landlakes is a record that occupies itself, by and large, with the peripheries of sound: melodies flutter in and out at will, while rhythms (percussive or otherwise) twitch and twitter and layers of drone – sometimes dense, sometimes not so much – wreathes, writhes and finally settles around the music’s ankles like midwinter fog.

?Early on – like, three or four years ago – it was quite an issue with us that we had these songs that had math-rock elements, and then there poppy things, and then we’d have our droney things or whatever,? explains Nosek of ii’s eclectic nature. ?I was thinking about this the other day, and I’m pleased that Landlakes* retains that. Even though it was something I felt kind of insecure about – like, what *are we? – I like that the record retains that variation while not having really jarring clashes between the pieces.?

Indeed, for all its mood swings, Landlakes is remarkably cohesive. In just under 40 minutes ii dips their toes into a variety of musical waters, from the oddly melodic ?Momentks? and ?Oho? to the more abstract ?______ Services? and ?Conversing With Loverboy?. It is very much the product of a painstaking attention to detail, stringent quality control and a longstanding musical relationship.

Landlakes is preceded by a string of EPs, compilation appearances and live performances (some more bizarre than others, but we’ll get to that in a moment) stretching back a good eight or nine years. Tjhia describes the group’s origins as having unfolded ?pretty organically?, with the pair innocuously jamming together on guitar. As for when these jams solidified into what’s now known as ii, however, is lost to history. ?It was such a long time ago,? says Nosek. ?It wasn’t like there was this moment [when] we sat down and said, ?Oh yeah, let’s make something of this.??

Nosek and Tjhia do, however, remember the first shows they played together as ii. They were in September 2003, as part of a Melbourne Fringe Festival event called Reel Music (geddit?) which saw bands – including Because Of Ghosts and Tjhia’s other, now-defunct group Veils – providing live soundtracks to Super 8 projections.

?I think it was almost entirely improvised,? explains Nosek. ?[We had] maybe one vague idea that became a song down the track. I kind of cringe when I think about it. Now when we play there are ideas that kind of evolved into pieces on the record and there are other things that we fall back on and improvise around, but I don’t think we really had anything. It was kind of just amateur hour.?

While Tjhia describes the notion of providing a live film soundtrack as seeming ?pretty naff nowadays, in light of the subsequent decline and ridicule of post-rock?, but still, it’s easy enough to imagine ii providing a suitably delicate instrumental soundtrack to a succession of flickering super 8 images. Except, that’s not quite how it went down.

?We just ended up playing to Cannibal Holocaust* or something,? says Nosek. ?I don’t know what happened, but [the other bands] got super 8 footage, and we ended up just playing along to DVDs. We got *Cannibal Holocaust or one of those Italian cannibal zombie things. I just remember people being really freaked out by us playing along to a horrible Italian horror film.?

ii’s live shows have come a long way since then. A few more recent performances have seen them inviting extra musicians to the stage, adding a new dimension to the duo’s soundscapes. At the Melbourne launch of Landlakes, Nosek and Tjhia were joined by members of Aleks and The Ramps, Touch Typist and Y35.3, while the Sydney launch saw Seaworthy’s Cameron Webb lending his distinct guitar tones to ii.

?I hear our songs as pop songs because they’re short and they’re in some way melodic?.

With so much of ii’s music – although not all of it – being improvisational and in many ways the result of Tjhia and Nosek’s intuitive relationship, bringing one or two or four extra cooks into the kitchen can have its risks. To avoid spoiling the broth requires one of two things: the introduction of form and structure so that everybody (ring-ins in particular) have some sort of roadmap they can follow; or the ability to step outside of one’s own headspace in order to allow room for every player’s voice (figuratively speaking) to be heard.

?With the Melbourne launch, we were trying to recreate some of the album, so there were a couple of songs that were actual ?songs? with structure,? explains Nosek. ?But when we played with Cam [Webb] we just did whatever, and he did what he usually does.?

?We did play with Cam once before, at the Underlapper launch at Bar Broadway,? adds Tjhia. ?It was slightly different because it was more of a Seaworthy set. It’s kind of interesting picking up somebody else’s agenda. It depends how it’s built or who initiates the idea, but when we’ve done that with Cam it’s worked quite well when we drop our own agendas to fill the spaces in each other’s creative direction. I thought it was a really ace kind of experiment. It was a lot of fun and it worked really well. Cam’s music and our music really fits together well in some situations.

?All the Seaworthy stuff that Cam has done on his own is pretty much arrhythmic,? he continues, ?and I think a lot of the stuff that we’ve done, even though it’s pretty wafty, is pretty rhythmic as well. At least half of it has some element of that. So that’s probably why it works quite well.?

Of course, this kind of collective improvisation is a bigger ask for some people than others. It’s the reason there’s such a huge disparity between inspired/inspiring improvised music and the kind of directionless, bang-on-a-can clatter that gives improv a bad name. The need to subsume one’s own ego – at least to some degree – and recognise your role as part of an (albeit transitory) ensemble is crucial to the success of any such performance. This is as true when ii collaborate with other musicians as when they play together as a duo.

?The idea of improvised music is deeply rooted in the ego-driven, musical essence, special personality kind of deal,? suggests Tjhia. ?That whole argument is based on the fact that if you don’t have any songs, and you don’t have any kind of set path, then when you improvise, the quality of the improvisation and the reason people go out and see stuff like Sean Baxter improvising with Robin Fox or some shit is because they believe the core musical brain or engine of some individual is going to guarantee an interesting outcome.

?That’s definitely true of some people and situations, but for us there are a lot of times when we know what we’re doing and we know that we’re contributing to this whole sound, but in some situations we can’t actually hear what’s coming from who, and it’s actually really surprising when I think some noise is coming from Alex and I tweak something and it stops or it changes ands I’m like, ?Oh! that was me!? Or the other way around. For me, playing with Alex in ii is really not an ego thing, because there are no motifs to claim. It doesn’t work when people try to claim the limelight; it works counter to the whole purpose of it to get upset when something doesn’t go the way you want it to.?

Landlakes* represents the meeting point between ii’s improvisational methods and their compositional instincts. Far from being a meandering, pointless mess of unconnected phrases and random noise bursts, it comes across as a very carefully structured record. While there’s plenty of room left on *Landlakes for the incidental (and the accidental), ii shows an aversion to unfocused noodling and endless, nowhere-fast drones.

?I think in this regard there’s a huge difference between recorded improvised music and live improvised music,? offers Tjhia. ?In a live situation, I can kind of enjoy the fact that sometimes something really beautiful does happen when people just do shit that may be completely unmusical, it may be even pretty uncreative and just really incidental. But in a recording you’re asking for a lot more. Because you’re not just asking for 40 minutes or 30 minutes of somebody’s time. What you’re really asking for – at least if you care anything about the environment and you don’t want people to just buy discs and listen to them once – is some sort of sustained attention to things.

?I personally feel like it really pays off to be very selective about what you do, to have a strong sense of quality control. For us, constructing this record was a lot like applying that logic. Most of it is improvised or has come from improvised performances. [On] maybe a third to half of the record we just left something as it was played, so it’s pretty much straight through, one take, with a little bit of levels tweaking and stuff like that. But our ideas don’t just end when we stop playing, and there might be something in there that hints at something more to us. We both listen to heaps of music beyond this sparse, austere experimental music. We listen to pop music and electronic music and whatever the fuck, you know. Our ideas come from everywhere, and for us to go ?that was pretty good, that was alright for one take, let’s just put that out,? is a little strange. We thought it would be a waste not to explore those ideas as well and to give people a fuller picture of what we wanted to communicate.?

For the perfect example of what Tjhia is talking about, check out ?Clamshell?, the surprising final track on Landlakes. With its melodic clarity and simple (but not simplistic) rhythmic structure, ?Clamshell? is in some ways the complete antithesis of everything that has gone before it. Even against tracks ?Oho? or ?Tropes? it stands out – to use Nosek’s wording – like a sore thumb.

??Clamshell? came out of a jam that a lot, maybe two-thirds, of the record came out of,? explains Nosek of the song’s genesis. ?It was the main riff that makes up the pop song but it was heavily delayed and had really fast drums. We tried to re-record it like that, but it never worked. [So] towards the end of the record we sat down and tried to nut it out as a pop song.?

?It wasn’t really working in the way we created it initially,? adds Tjhia. ?But we both liked it – I know that I certainly really campaigned for it to be on the record in some form. I think we wanted to have something – whether it was that or a collaged noise piece or something – that wasn’t so – I think a lot of stuff on the record is really quite diffuse, and the way we tried to arrange that song was to really strip it back and make it about really identifiable sounds, passages being played very cleanly. I wouldn’t say sterile, but just with a sense of starkness and a bare quality to it, because I thought that would work well on an album that was quite muddled. Not in a confused or disoriented way, but kind of in a ?cocktail? way.?

So, after all these words, finding a succinct way to describe this funny little muddle called ii – a marker in the sand that, while obviously not all-encompassing, would explain to weary travellers in two syllables or less that ii aren’t crunk, jungle or lounge – still feels like an incomprehensibly difficult task. A little help, maybe?

?I really like Kompakt records,? says Tjhia. ?They released that series of records called Pop Ambient, and I kind of like to think of it in that vein. You know, ?pop-something.? Because even though it’s not a pop sound and they’re not pop structures, I hear our songs as pop songs because they’re short and they’re in some way melodic.

?The rest,? he jokes, ?is up to reviewers.?