This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on March 28, 2013.
The opening bars of Conquering Animal Sound’s new album sound like the beginning and end of the world. The track is called Ultimate Heat Death of the Universe, and it evokes prehistory in clacking seashells, and the apocalypse via thermodynamics. The rest of the Glasgow-based electronica duo’s second LP, On Floating Bodies, is similarly cosmic, disorientating and sublime.
Exploring and atomising realms like neuroscience, experimental film, philosophy and fluid mechanics (the album’s title is inspired by Archimedes’ tract on hydrostatics), On Floating Bodies is the follow-up to Conquering Animal Sound’s Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award shortlisted debut, Kammerspiel (2011), and it reinforces the duo’s knack for astral, fractured pop without compromise.
Since forming in Edinburgh in 2008, Anneke Kampman and James Scott have conjured the divergent charms of Kate Bush, Autechre, The Knife and Four Tet while harnessing the tension between earth and the heavens; pop and the avant-garde; impressionism and precision; woman and machine. Yet for all of their universal soundscapes and lexicons, Conquering Animal Sound are galvanised by the minutiae.
“We tend to find and record a little sound, and that’ll start an entire song,” says Peebles-raised Kampman, who creates their music in a 50:50 split with Scott, from Callander. “If you start with something abstract, you can move things about. It gives you more options,” she offers.
Scott, too, thrives on the notion of constructing a sound-world from a germ of an idea, or a grain of sand. “Rather than having the lyrics or the melody and writing everything down, we write everything up – we create a sound we like and just see where it goes,” he says of techno-arias like ruptured R&B chorale Gloss, which originated as a vocal sample; or hazy sci-fi lullaby Inner/Outer/Other, whose genesis was a grainy old clip of orchestral tape.
“We work up from the stuff that other people might use ornamentally – that’s the seed that starts the song for us,” Scott continues. “So on The Future Does Not Require, we started by sampling a note on Anneke’s flute, and then using that as a keyboard sound, and then making it a bit more unrecognisable. It’s about using different things and subverting them in the process.”
It also subverts our expectations. The Future Does Not Require is a dystopian electro-psalm that hints at technology vanquishing humans, yet this futuristic fate is skewed by the human lure of “a warm hand”, while Kampman’s vocal is backed by a machine that beats like a heart. “Everything we do is filtered through a computer, so it’s never going to be ‘real’ as such – it’s never going to be organic – but we do derive a lot from real things,” says Kampman, and true to this, there are gorgeous swathes of violins and guitar lines on the album.
Kampman’s startling voice is also treated as an instrument, and her elocution and phrasing is vital to the duo’s disembodied, celestial aesthetic: it renders them nigh-on impossible to locate. “I grew up singing along with friends who were rappers in the Borders, and I think that’s partly why my singing sounds the way it does,” suggests Kampman, whose father is Dutch. “It’s also very much about speech quality – I like to stress parts of the word that people don’t normally stress,” she says. “So I’ll emphasise the structural parts, or the beginning of words, or use several notes on one vowel sound.” What, like Mariah Carey-style melisma? “I’m like Mariah Carey through a cheese-grater,” she laughs.
Kampman’s talents are further explored via her fascinating loop-based solo venture, ANAKANAK and her duo with jazz guitarist Haftor Medboe, while Scott’s alter egos include fuzz-pop heartbreaker the Japanese War Effort and Pollockshaws rap existentialist Ar Droops. Amid their varied solo and communal penchants for techno, hip-hop, minimalism, jazz and electronica, the duo have a pop heart, and a gift for making songs their own.
This was evinced earlier this month, as part of a live session for Vic Galloway’s BBC Radio Scotland show. They performed a cover version of You Think You’re A Man, a 1984 hit by cult-pop star Divine (re-read in indie by The Vaselines in 1987). Kampman and Scott reconfigured the emasculating synth-pop anthem as a spectral, femme-powered call-to-arms, which underscored many of the duo’s charms: their way with the ghost of a melody; the myriad meanings in their work; their sense of humour; their ideological intent. “I knew I wanted to do something disco, and something fun, that like had a kind of slightly controversial feminist message, and I thought that Divine song was appropriate,” smiles Kampman.
But don’t be misled by an album track that looks like another cover. Despite its title, I’ll Be Your Mirror is not a take on the 1967 Velvet Underground song of the same name, but rather a shape-shifting, space-age hymn. Scott has joked that the Velvets borrowed the title from Conquering Animal Sound, rather than the other way around – thus suggesting the Glasgow duo have mastered the art of time travel. You wouldn’t put it past them.
On Floating Bodies is out now on Chemikal Underground.