One of the most enigmatic groups in contemporary music, I was lucky enough to sit down with Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie of A Winged Victory For The Sullen.
Collaboration is the thing at the heart of some of musical history's greatest moments. Would David Bowie's Berlin trilogy been as good if Brian Eno wasn't on hand? Would Trent Reznor be winning Oscars without Atticus Finch? And of course you only have to look at Run The Jewels to appreciate how special it can be when two artists come together.
A Winged Victory For The Sullen is a project that came about through the chance meeting of pianist/composer Dustin O'Halloran and guitarist/composer Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie of Stars Of The Lid, two artists at the absolute top of their game. Both have extensive backgrounds in the worlds of experimental music, film work and alternative rock, and A Winged Victory For The Sullen is a project with which both of them want to embrace unrestrained creativity.
Their music defies categorisation. It mixes ambient drones, electronics and hints of emotive piano music to create a distinct and haunting sound.
In 2014 they released their second full length 'Atomos' and they are now touring it around the world. I caught up with them before their second bout of London shows to discuss the album and their inspirations.
"Welcome back to the UK guys, you've just started a European tour, what is touring like for you guys?"
Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie: It's fun.
Dustin O'Halloran: We're good friends, the people that play with us are good friends. It's like a little family.
"I saw you guys several years ago playing material from your self-titled debut. Does the live setup differ for the material from your latest effort?"
Adam: We've got a smaller group with us this time as we couldn't afford to bring a larger orchestra.
Dustin: We wrote this piece for two cellos, that's partially a change. We've got two cellos, a viola and violin.
Adam: But we'll still sometimes play with three people, sometimes four.
"Do you have a preference for the kind of venues you play with this material?"
Adam: Churches and theatres work best, we've found with 'Atomos'.
Dustin: Sometimes it's nice to do a strange location like a rock club. We need a lot of bass, and sometimes a rock club is great for that. We do a lot of work on our low end, the drone side of things. But churches have a good sound system and a lot of natural acoustics, which is nice to be able to use.
"Tell me a little bit about the concept behind the new 'Atomos' record. My understanding is it was created for a dance performance?"
Dustin: Well, Wayne (McGregor) was a big fan of our first record, and it was as simple as him reaching. We realised we'd never worked in a dance environment before and we had some time, so it was just like a perfect storm of timing and curiosity.
"How did you go about writing the piece?"
Adam: Initially we started. He gave us a chunk of time and then he started choreographing to the music. There was a little bit more back and forth, push and pull. We got to go and see the dancers a little and observe them.
Dustin: It was never that we were in a room and had to try and create something for the dancers. He would give us ideas or would say things to give us inspiration. He would give us photos, videos and things that were part of his concept.
"He was steering you a little bit?"
Dustin: Not musically, but conceptually. I think that was why he was such a great collaborator, because he never once told us how we should arrange the music. It was more about how he was trying to inspire us. He would say things like 'What would it be like if you went into a black hole and came out the other side, what would that sound like?'.
"So he was really just providing the themes to the work?"
Dustin: Yeah, so his concepts of atoms, his concepts of outer space and all of these elements. He did a lot of science research for his dance piece and developed a lot of programs. It's just the heady mix of a lot of stuff and that was our starting point.
"I haven't seen the piece myself; did you guys attend the premiere?"
Adam: Oh, we've played it live, yeah. It was strange; we were in an orchestra pit. It was fine. I'd never done it before.
Dustin: The strange thing is we've still not actually seen the dance piece live (laughs) because we're in the orchestra pit. We've seen a video, and we had some small monitors in the orchestra pit for cues, but not properly. I'd like to actually see it, sit in the audience. It's going to tour with a recorded version of the music.
"Do you guys see yourself doing more multi-media style projects in the future?"
Adam: I don't really look at it like that. Every project has a voice and you either do it or you don't. I don't think it's a particular thing that you're looking to do. Sometimes you get lucky to get involved in an interesting project and you decide to do it or not. I don't see anything in particular that we're aiming for.
Dustin: Yeah, we weren't particularly looking to do something in dance. It's just how it was. Before it'd honestly never come to mind.
"Have you found that anything about the performances have changed since it's been taken out of the dance context?"
Adam: We've been talking about this a lot recently. The premiere was actually just over a year ago and we've given this recording something of a second life as we're taking it out and playing it in different contexts for our audience who probably haven't seen the dance and probably never will see the dance.
Dustin: A little shortening here and there, but the pieces are essentially the same.
"And during the writing process, did you find yourselves working in a different way to your previous album?"
Adam: We still worked in the same way, it was just with the timing and the deadline there was more urgency.
Dustin: We'd only done one record so we hadn't had the chance to get into any habitual way of writing. Yes, there was a third element in there (Wayne) who kind of stirred the pot up again. We have a chemistry, which is why it works. But the way that we work is still mysterious. Every time we do it we're trying to discover something.
"Just to take things back a bit. I understand the pair of you met in Italy at a show Adam was playing a?t"
Adam: Yeah, I was on tour with Sparklehorse and Dustin came to the show. We met backstage afterwards and over the course of probably about a year we became friends. Dustin was working on his solo record (Lumiere) and he had a track that he was interested to see if I could do something on it. It actually turned out really beautiful, but it was really difficult for me to fit everything in. It was a solo piano piece. It was a real challenge to fit my sound in there. I said after "hey, if we do this again do you think you could play slower?" (laughs) and so A Winged Victory For The Sullen was born.
"And when the band came together and you started working together on the album, did you have like a concept in mind for the project or was it simply that you enjoyed working together and wanted to see what would happen?"
Adam: I think that was it exactly. There was no goal. We just wanted to have fun.
Dustin: When we decided to make the first record there were three things that were really important. We had to enjoy the whole process. We'd both made records that were painful in our lives and this time we just wanted to enjoy it. We also wanted to just record in a way that made us feel good, things like using analogue, different, just stuff that was really inspiring to us.
"How did your relationship with Erased Tapes first come about, as there seems to be a boon in music that, if not similar in style, is similar in feel?"
Adam: Well, we just sent him (Robert) the record and he loved it.
Dustin: I actually met Robert first at a concert that Jóhann Jóhannsson did, and he was backstage hanging out, and I remember he just seemed like a go-getter guy who gave me his card and I checked out some of the music.
Adam: Also, Dustin lives in Berlin and he's friends with (Nils) Frahm. We sent the album to a few labels and Erased Tapes was just one of them, but Robert was the guy who came back and said "guys, I just really love this record". His passion just led us to sign up.
"Do you feel there's something of a scene forming around the label?"
Adam: I hope not, scenes come and go. If we were having this interview 15 years ago we'd be talking about post-rock. This is the exactly the same interview I would have at that exact time, people thought me and Tortoise all lived in a big house and made post-rock together. Now we're talking about neo-classical and in five years we'll be talking about something else.
Dustin: I think everyone on the label is doing really different things. Classical is just a slice of what we do. There's elements of drone, there are elements of minimalism, there's experimental. All of that is in there. It's all part of both of our histories that have led to this moment. I would hope that we can create a space that's just our journey through music and not getting lumped into a scene that will eventually fade out of favour.
"What's next for you guys after this run of shows?"
Dustin: We've got a lot of touring; we're hitting here, Australia, Europe, and the States. I've got some solo material I'm working on as well.
Adam: I've got a solo record on Temporary Residence coming out. Dustin just worked on a TV show (Amazon's Transparent).