Skip to content – THIS WAS 2016: 65DaysOfStatic :: “You’d expect more from artificial intelligence than a Beatles song”

December 13, 2016 BY MATTHIEU VAN STEENKISTE (original link (in Dutch))

For the entire month of December, enola looks back at the year gone by with the interview series THIS WAS 2016. In it, we talk to artists who made the year, or whose album has been unfairly overlooked.

Writing a soundtrack is one thing. Doing that for a game is another. Making sure that all of that music can be transformed into an infinitely self-generating musical background is something completely different. 65DaysOfStatic did it all with No Man’s Sky – Music For An Infinite Universe. That way, 2016 became a tipping point; the moment where all possibilities are open once again.

It’s six in the evening when I meet Paul at the Botanique, and since the catacombs that are the Botanique backstage are being used to celebrate drummer Rob Jones’ birthday, we decide to settle down on the little stairway that leads to the stage of the Orangerie. It’s been a tough day, with a small Twitter storm between 65DaysOfStatic and How to Dress Well about a wrong installation planning. The refined button pusher/guitarist doesn’t want to waste any words on it, but he looks tired. This is the touring life the band has been missing in the past two years, but that’s what you get when a game producer calls you and asks if he can use one of your songs in a trailer, and you think “let’s just do the entire soundtrack”.

Wolinski: “It really happened in such a simple way. We were touring our last record Wild Light in the US, when Hello Games called us to ask if they could use We Were Exploding Anyway’s “Debutante” for the trailer of what would become their new game No Man’s Sky. Of course. And since we had been thinking of soundtrack work for some time, everything got sorted out rather quickly. I met the game’s director Sean Murry over coffee in London, and it was clear that we wanted to do the soundtrack and that he wanted us to. It turned out that they didn’t want a typical sci-fi score with an orchestra, but a 65days record. That was possible, obviously, but there was no way that we were just going to give him access to all of our music, reducing fifteen years of hard work into “the sound of a new game”. We needed that distinction. For No Man’s Sky, we would just be 65DaysOfStatic, and our next record would also happen to be the soundtrack.”

enola: It turns out they wanted a specific kind of 65DaysOfStatic album.

Wolinski: “Our initial plans for our next album went into a much rougher direction, with less focus on songs. And that clearly wasn’t what they were expecting from us. They gave us a shortlist of what you could consider as their version of our Greatest Hits, and it was clear: “Debutante”, a lot of stuff from our debut Fall Of Math, and barely anything from our more techno stuff. Alright. We had left that sound behind, but there wasn’t a single song that we regretted on that list. The time when we were overly sensitive about our artistic process is long behind us. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have liked this idea; we would have felt like we were unfair towards ourselves, like we were mercenaries making music, but that’s not the case now. We were eager to find out if we could do this in a way that made us proud. Luckily, we managed to do that, because I have no idea what would have happened if we ended up with watered down versions of things we did better before. There are moments on “Supermoon” when we clearly reference “Debutante”, but at the same time we got away with a droney noise scape like “Pillars Of Frost”, so it didn’t become a lazy cash-in.”

enola: And then there was another tiny detail: since the entire world of No Man’s Sky is procedurally generated, the music needed to be made in a way that allows it to be deconstructed, so that it could be procedurally generated while playing as well.

Wolinski: “Where to start. The master plan was to record the album first, and then see how we could make that into an infinite algorithmic thing. A lot of generative music is pretty ambient, because it’s easier to repeat and vary it, but neither us nor Hello Games wanted that; we needed real melodies, so it came down to deconstructing everything, and then generating it again once it was composed. On top of that, I didn’t have access to the technology that would put our music into the game, so I had to build a similar system with software that I know. All of a sudden I had to think about rules to generate music automatically, based on what we had written. It forced me to think about music in a non-linear way. And even if you don’t hear that in the album version of No Man’s Sky, I’ll be taking that into 65DaysOfStatic’s future.

enola: Suddenly I find myself remembering the machine that wrote a new song in the style of the Beatles, based on its analysis of actual Beatles songs.

Wolinski: “It so happens that I just finished a paper on that for a doctorate in Composition that I started. The interesting thing is, the lyrics are still written by a human, just like the arrangement. So yeah: you have something that more or less understands how a pop melody works, because you’ve fed it seventy years of pop history, but that’s about it. It reminds me a little of Google’s Magenta-project, which uses artificial intelligence to make art and music. That’s pretty problematic as is, and just as dystopian as it is utopian, but they also tried to replicate a voice, not by feeding it voice samples, but by simulating the physical properties of the vocal cords. Just for fun, they let it listen to piano concerto’s as well, which caused it to talk “piano”. It sounded like a piano, but in a very weird way. You can’t hear a touch, it sometimes stops in a weird way … Very interesting, but it’s nothing more than copying hundreds of years of piano compositions. And it’s the same way with “Daddy’s Car”, that fake Beatles song: it just sounds like something that exists already. While you’d expect artificial intelligence to be able to make music that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before, surely?”

enola: In what way do you think that what you’ve learned will return in what 65DaysOfStatic does after this?

Wolinski: “That’s the most confusing part. I’ve recently become pretty fascinated by the idea that, since there are so many possibilities ahead of us, it’s important to devise new futures, especially since the end of the world seems to get closer day by day (laughs). It’s harder to think of positive things, but I’ve read some good arguments about that being the role of culture. Not in a strange kind of hippie dream, but as a way to think of roads towards something.”

“Look: in our early years, we were convinced as a band that there was a new sound and that we needed to catch it; a way to combine guitars and electronics with heavy noise that no one had discovered yet, which we were looking for. In those twenty years, that technology evolved from pretty limited to bursting with endless possibilities, so that spectrum of sounds has been covered. Now we’re looking for new ways of expressing ourselves instead of sounds, since those have been documented and catalogued. Drums and banjo samples, flutes and orchestras, whatever, you can use it, because every possibility is accessible now, and probably has been done before. In his book Noise, Jacques Attali predicted in 1977 that music would lose its monetary value because supply would become saturated and it would be easy to distribute, prying it loose from the economy. At the end of the book, he proposes a world where music comes from every direction, not just from people on a stage, but just as refreshing and new. Pop music can no longer do that, because everyone is so familiar with the ritual, the rules, that it has become more about satisfying expectations than making anything challenging. So you have to look for other forms. New combinations won’t make anyone take notice, but new forms… Why do we keep talking about records and songs, if there’s no reason why you shouldn’t release an endless stream of music with the right automatic music generation tools? Commercially, that obviously doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the problem: it has to remain a product.”

enola: I was just thinking how you could use music generating software that plays unique 65days music on every single Spotify account, but…

Wolinski: “Something would get lost, right?”

enola: Indeed. There’s a reason why we always end up back with songs and albums. A record, a song has a certain value. Just like there are still people who pick up a brush despite centuries of paintings, and others who are willing to pay for them to hang them on their walls.

Wolinski: “I completely agree. And yet I’ve been getting interested in the whole Vaporwave genre lately. Not because I think it’s good, since it mostly sounds like the Blade Runner soundtrack on an endless repeat, written by some teenagers on their laptops, but because of how bizarre it is that a BandCamp label like Dream Catalogue can keep such an aesthetic and that it works as well. Even if the song titles are full of unpronounceable symbols, there’s an audience there. You click three things, and you know perfectly well that for the next hour, you’ll be listening to something you’ve technically never heard before, but at the same time you know exactly what it’ll sound like.”

“It’s completely disposable, but it works. I’ve caught myself having it on in the background while I was working or surfing the web. It felt good, I noticed when the music stopped, I appreciated the production… but I’d never go looking for a certain song. It’s a completely different way of looking at music, and it fascinates me, just because that doesn’t happen enough. The internet offers endless possibilities, but it seems like they haven’t been found yet.”

enola: If I’m hearing this correctly, it seems like 65DaysOfStatic isn’t quite yet ready for a next step.

Wolinski: “We’ll definitely be touring No Man’s Sky until after the festival summer, but after that? We’ve been looking ever since We Were Exploding Anyway. With that record we had finally found the sound we were looking for, but our label back then completely mishandled things, causing the album to die quite soon. That made us take a break from the whole business side of things, and eventually write Wild Light, but mostly it made us think of what 65DaysOfStatic is supposed to be for us. We don’t want to manoeuvre ourselves into a position in which we wake up in twenty years to discover that we have nothing outside of the world of the band. We want to be a band that can do more than just tour and record albums, we want to discover uncharted terrain. That’s why, alongside Wild Light, we made the “Sleepwalk City” sound installation for the Tramlines festival in Sheffield, which was really cool.”

“Now, technically speaking, we’re still signed to Superball, even though there’s not much love lost there. Maybe they don’t even remember that we exist, but it could be that we still have to honour that contract. It might not be the most appropriate thing to say, but if I can’t even say that, it would say a lot about the music industry. That’s just bizarre.”

enola: As bizarre as me considering protecting you by not writing this down in that way. I’m doing it anyway, but I was having my doubts.

Wolinski: “Yeah, and that doesn’t make sense. Those people haven’t talked to us for over a year. So how we handle this will dictate in which shape we’ll do anything else. We’re definitely not stopping though (laughs).”
enola: This band is unstoppable. We thought so.

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