Originally published in Terrorizer magazine, April 2008
Nadja – Written On The Body
2007 was the year Nadja emerged head and shoulders above their peers in ambient doom metal, dragging behind them an extraordinary pedigree and a reputation as an incandescent live act. In advance of their Roadburn appearance, and with re-releases from their huge back-catalogue selling like chthonian fairy cakes, Nadja discuss their new record, ‘Desire In Uneasiness’, and their personal history, with Petra Davis.
I traced along the length of your forearm,
Can you hear me?
…at least (it seems)
your flesh, your body,
can hear me.
From Fingerspelling, by Aidan Baker
From text on the body to the body in the text, it seems Aidan Baker, one half of improvisational doom duo Nadja, is concerned with the boundaries of the physical, with what sound can do to the body. The textures contained (and barely) within Nadja’s characteristic euphonic blast – what Baker playfully refers to as their ‘wall-of-sound approach’, referencing Phil Spector’s riproaring chorales – are each discernible in themselves, singularly and in interaction, in their sensual swoop and sway, their proximity and distance; and finally, in their merging, in their unison. While Earth allow light to play over their sinister landscapes, while Cobalt call down their limitless thunder, Nadja allow the listener to witness distinct and graceful skeins of sound working to cocoon a mysterious entity, conspiring its inevitable transformation.
Nadja began in 2003 as a deliberately doomy and metal-influenced project. Baker is also a solo artist, having released more than 50 recordings under his own name on a variety of Canadian and international labels: something of a personal interest for him is dispersing his music among cultures very different from his own. While his eponymous releases tend towards ambience and experiment, with influences as widespread as Hendrix and Sun Ra, Nadja is a far denser proposition:
“It’s really an outlet for my interests in heavier and noisier sounds: it allows for a certain level of aggression that doesn’t always feel appropriate in my solo work,” Baker explains. “That may or may not be readily apparent in our sound. I know a lot of people consider Nadja’s music soothing and mellow, but an equal number find it dark and disturbing. For me there’s usually an element of aggression in there somewhere, even if only in terms of sonic obliteration. Part of our aesthetic is embracing those contradictions or ambiguities between heaviness and ambience, darkness and light.”
at some point we become different something other than what we were simultaneously more & less than two at some point our languages change & the stroke of my tongue is nonsense against your skin
From Phage, by Aidan Baker
As Baker points out, what sets Nadja apart from his solo projects is a shared aesthetic. Bassist Leah Buckareff joined in 2005 to allow the band to go on the road. But Baker and Buckareff share more than a tour bus: they have been in a romantic relationship since before Nadja began. Given the pair’s correspondence of ideas, the sensual interplay of instruments, voices and textures that characterises Nadja’s sound, and the onstage (and instudio) communion of their collaborative improvisation, it’s tempting to read Nadja as a relationship band – a Fleetwood Mac or an ABBA. Is that temptation deliberate?
“There is probably always a ‘me’ and ‘you’ in our music,” admits Baker. “Does that make us a relationship band? I don’t know! Perhaps it’s our Swans influence – Gira’s lyrics are so often about power relationships, master and servant, self and other, mind and body…”
So it’s about competing dualities, rather than a more personal relationship? The push and pull of an irresolvable difference?
“…well, I hope our ‘me’ and ‘you’ aren’t always locked in a love/hate relationship! Some of our songs do have positive ‘outcomes’, even if only through the element of transfiguration.”
“I suppose our being together does make this easier for both of us; we’re such compatible individuals,” Buckareff relents. “Aidan’s desire was to move Nadja away from strictly an ‘Aidan Baker’ project to an entity that includes us both. My involvement has grown in all aspects of what we do, from performing to songwriting to art direction.”
For a band whose imagistic palette is so rich and dense, it is perhaps not surprising that both Baker and Buckareff work in other artistic disciplines also: Baker is a prolific writer, having published several prose works, while Buckareff’s interest lies more in artisan forms. She recently gave a lecture at a Toronto arts festival on the maths of hyperbolic crochet – knitwear design based on Pythagorean geometry.
“How did you hear about that?” she laughs. “Math is what drew me to it, really. I promote all kinds of craft outside of Nadja, but actually the music we make is very much crafted – we improvise live around a solid structure.”
For Baker, too, there are thematic and structural correspondences between his writing and his music. Duality, animality, loaded sensuality, all are quite as alive in his written work as in the world Nadja constructs. The textual music of his prose seems close to the textural sonics at play in ‘Touched’ or ‘Corrasion’.
“Duality, the other, the self, perception – in the eyes of the self and that other, whoever it might be – are certainly recurring themes for my writing, and they are there in Nadja,” he agrees, “but I think my prose and my lyrics are fairly different; in terms of substance, at least, if not thematically. I’ve always considered vocals more like another instrument: they’re just another texture, rather than a focal point for a song. And my lyrics are usually pretty abstract. They’re meant to suggest an idea or an image or an emotion, rather than state it clearly. But because my prose doesn’t have music to lend it support, it has to be more specific – it has to embody a more concrete notion.”
But there have been specific projects which seem to correspond, not just thematically, but to be aware of one another, almost. ‘Bodycage’, Nadja’s 2005 release – focusing on the debilitative disease fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, which gradually encases the body with a bony exoskeleton – seems very close in its concerns to Wound Culture, Baker’s prose musings on psychosexuality and the body. A familiarly Cronenbergian mix of romance and horror stalks both works.
“I suppose it comes down to that fascination with “the other” – or fear of it,” Baker elaborates, “the idea of a mind/body divide, where the body is the other to the mind. With Wound Culture this manifests via an exploration of sexuality and how the physical affects the psychological (and vice versa). But in ‘Bodycage’ the mind/body divide is a more literal one; the mind imprisoned within the body by disease…the body imposing itself on the other…or the vagaries of natural selection, via a seemingly science-fictional disease, imposing itself on humankind.”
I fall into you
reproduce like a virus,
rearrange like a mutagen
– from Lysis, by Aidan Baker
New release ‘Desire In Uneasiness’ is no less infectious – and no less brutal – than its more thematically dystopian precedents, but introduces a new sense of space and dimensionality to the band’s sound. At the core of many of the songs, the band’s characteristic heartbeat patterns remain, but around them, drones reverberate hugely across the stereo picture, and deliciously dubby basslines fade in and out of focus. It seems there has been a shift of perspective, from inner to outer space. Perhaps the shared internal world of Baker and Buckareff has been externalised somewhat by working with a live drummer for the first time. Jakob Thiesen joined Nadja to record ‘Desire In Uneasiness’ last year.
“We haven’t actually performed live with a drummer yet,” admits Baker. “The songs on ‘Desire In Uneasiness’ were less written than constructed – taken from jams that we did with Jakob. Some more so than others, but the majority of the tracks were chopped up from the original sessions and pieced together. Usually, we start out with a simple structure of riffs or chords, and then I build a drumtrack, so this was very different for us.”
Despite the manipulation of samples from various sessions, improvisation – moment-to-moment communication between separate, harmonious sonic textures – remains at the core of Nadja’s recording process.
“It is quite important to us, yeah,” Baker says. “Once we have the skeleton of a song down, we usually add layers and/or improvise soundscapes and textures over top. Often these parts will determine how a song or movement transitions into the next, so improvisation does play a huge part in the structure of an album as a whole. It’s not just for atmosphere, for texture.”
And how much of the live performance is similarly improvised?
“We usually have a couple of set songs which we play more or less the same way, but we do specifically leave some time in the set for some free-form, improvisational material,” Baker emphasises. “Live, things often sound very different anyway, songs can’t easily be transferred from a studio setting. “
“By improvising, we’re really allowing our audiences to witness the ‘making’ of a song,” adds Buckareff, “although I don’t know if anyone actually thinks about it that way.”
“We connect with the sound rather than performing or presenting it”, agrees Baker.
So far, so exceptional. Is there a significant or influential context that makes sense of the Brobdingnagian ambition and alterity of Nadja’s work? Do the band’s roots lie in metal, in drone, in noise, in avant garde?
“People are totally divided over that,” deadpans Baker, “they don’t know whether we’re metal or noise. Or shoegaze or experimental, or WHAT.”
What do you think you are?
“Whatever. I guess we’re something else,” he grins.