By Caleb Oldham
“Restraint” is a key word when describing the music of Melbourne-based electronic act I’lls. Tracks unfold like architectural plans, with attentive calculation and intricacies that are hard to catch upon first listen. The year-and-a-half it took to produce their most recent, six-track EP, Can I Go With You To Go Back To Your Country, was partly spent achieving a careful balance between anticipation and eruption, tension and release, while mixing elements of jazz and UK garage with elaborate synth work. Minimalist yet expansive, muted yet open and atmospheric, I'lls' music excels at striking an equilibrium between disparate forces, and it's this quality, coupled their close attention to detail, that makes I’lls so re-listenable.
In addition to being one-third of I'lls, Dan Rutman runs Solitaire Records with fellow bandmate Hamish Mitchell. Despite being less than one year old, Solitaire has already released material from stand-out acts Good Morning, River Yarra, Asdasfr Bawd, and Wabz. There's no single genre that encapsulates the music put out by Solitaire (Rutman says that that would be “boring”); instead, be it stoner rock or techno, Solitaire prioritizes what they “like most about music”: its ineffable power to express a mood.
Dan and I met on a roof in Morningside Heights and talked about jazz, branding, and I’lls’ most recent release.
Rare Candy: Let’s start off by talking about how jazz has informed I’lls’ musical direction. To what degree do you feel like you’re bringing concepts or ideas from jazz to electronic music?
Rutman: We all did jazz school together at Monash, which, at the time, was the top school for jazz in Australia. Hamish and Simon actually dropped out after a year, which was definitely the better decision because I stayed and finished when I should’ve just left. I don’t know if extra years of jazz school would’ve even helped Simon because I think innately, he’s incredibly rhythmically gifted. Jazz school for him was most useful because it taught him how to get really great melodic drums. He’ll drum and you can hear a melody in it.
RC: And he’s doing that with his voice as well.
Rutman: Exactly, and he’s such a great singer because he’s so rhythmically smart. So I think jazz taught him a lot of technical knowledge. but Hamish and I are really just harmony nerds, and that definitely informs our songwriting. Guys like Wayne Shorter, he’d write really complex harmonies but with really simple melodies, super smart.
RC: And how do you think jazz has influenced your idea of what a live electronic set should look and sound like?
Rutman: We have to do everything live. We’re really sticklers. We don’t like not playing a song you know? It’s boring. People don’t really dance at our shows though, hopefully they’re transfixed. You know people are engaged when they aren’t talking.
RC: How do you incorporate analog sounds into your material?
Rutman: We love synths. We each all have a Korg MS-20. We’re big fans of the Juno. We’ve got the 106.
RC: Recontextualization plays a big role in electronic music today (via sampling, remixes, etc), and a lot of that has to do with the massive array of sounds that we’re capable of drawing from, but I’lls seems to shy away from it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sample in one of your songs.
Rutman: Yeah, we don’t really use other people’s songs, we make them all [from scratch]. It’s more fun that way. Plus, sampling is a hassle. You’ve got to go look for those discs, find a specific drum. I prefer to muck around on synths, and if we can make them sound great on our own then why not.
RC: The visual element of the band seems crucial. You incorporate projectors into all of your shows, and with the help of some local Melbourne artists you’ve managed to really give the project a unique visual trademark that complements the music. Do you think that visual branding plays into our perceived quality of music?
RC: Should it?
Rutman: It definitely should. Especially for a group like us that isn’t playing the most accessible music. We needed to, for a lack of better word, “package” it to make it understandable. The visuals are super strong. So many people have been like, “I checked out your album because I really liked the cover.” And it was really important that each single had a cohesive look to it, that even the press shots represented one whole thing, and that’s something that we really started to understand as we ran Solitaire — that it’s important to do that kind of thing, and that it can be art in its own right. I’ve recently become very interested in synesthesia, and really, music and visuals aren't that far removed from each other.
RC: And now that you’re running the label you must be constantly having to make those aesthetic choices.
Rutman: I think it’s important to make things look great. And have every part of the music be attractive, concise, and make sense. Good Morning is a band that works so well because they have such a strong look. Even social media presence is becoming part of a band's aesthetic.
RC: Not to generalize, but I feel like, at least the Australian bands that make it over here have a good understanding of how important it is to have this visual unity or cohesive packaging.
Rutman: Yeah, I think it’s because we slow-brew act over there. Courtney Barnett has been around for five years. It might seem like an overnight thing for you but for us, I mean, I saw her play four-and-a-half years ago. She’s had lots of time to get it together.
RC: Do you feel like there’s a strong community in Melbourne for people making music and art?
Rutman: Absolutely. The scene is quite varied, even the stuff we put out on Solitaire is varied. We’ve got a very big house scene that’s emerging, and we’re starting to get a UK garage scene. I don’t think you can even use the term "the Melbourne scene” because there are just so many different ones.
RC: Do you feel like categories such as “jazz” and “electronic” are useful, or can they feel entrapping?
Rutman: I think they’re useful to draw upon, but when you’re trying to describe your sound to someone it’s more helpful to use other bands. Categories don’t really work because jazz is so broad a label, and electronic encompasses so many styles. I’lls and Flume are miles apart, Radiohead and... I don’t know.
RC: Do you like that comparison? I’ve heard I’lls frequently compared to Radiohead, for what it's worth.
Rutman: Yeah of course, my favorite band of all time. I’m pretty happy about it, the other guys get a bit annoyed with it, but I don’t know, I love Radiohead. We always get told that we sound like In Rainbows, which is my favorite album ever.
RC: Your most recent release is very cohesive, and I get the sense that the band feels better about this one than any past release.
Rutman: The first record was all over the place, we did it in maybe six weeks. We literally had just started playing as a band. Simon was going overseas soon so we had to rush it. I still listen to it and I’m like, “this is not the worst thing ever.” The music scene in Melbourne was so underdeveloped at that stage, when we put it out, and no one really knew what to do with electronic music, let alone electronic music that wasn't dance-based.
RC: What kind of headspace were you in when you recorded this time around?
Rutman: I think we really figured out what we liked most about music and the musicians that we admired. Jazz is huge because it gives you really great tools to analyze any type of music; even though you might focus primarily on jazz, you develop your ability to listen and figure out what you like about music, and can then you take that and apply it to anything. Take Four Tet for example, we love Four Tet, he’s phenomenal. And to figure out what we like about him is another thing altogether.
RC: What do you like about him?
Rutman: That’s hard. Depends on the song and the album, there’s so much. Four Tet is really good at changing the mood of the song with one instrument or melody. Like “This Unfolds” is one continuous rhythm that starts out with this really funky bass line, then the synth comes in and it gets a little bit more dancey, and then this other synth will come in and it gets really dark, another drum will come in and it’ll get really bright, and everything is flowing. How do you do that so well and have it not be stupid? It’s not predictable. What we really learned recording this new album is that that if you’re going to do it, do it full on. Be alienating because someone will remember it.
RC: Do you feel like your music can be alienating?
Rutman: All the time! That’s why people don’t speak at our concerts. They’re freaking out on the inside.
RC: I think that might come from the feeling that there isn’t really one person expressing him/herself in I’lls. It’s more like an atmosphere that you collectively create, expressing itself through Simon. He does a good job of taking himself out of the equation.
Rutman: That’s really nice to hear. We don’t try express a single person and Simon is super conscious of that. He doesn’t like talking in interviews because he always says that he doesn’t want to be the frontman.
RC: Do you have any great Australian bands to recommend?
Rutman: Heaps. You should check Cassius Select out because only God knows why he’s not enormous, though he’s actually from Canada. Dro Carey, Oscar Key Sung, he's got a song called “All I Could Do” which is just a hit. He is going to blow up.
RC: That’s what I thought when I first heard Good Morning.
Rutman: I hope so! They better be huge or I’m going to be pissed off.
RC: If I’lls didn’t play electronic music would it be a different project?
Rutman: Well, Hamish does his own stuff which is very Burial-esque. I’m going to kick his ass because he’ll write these phenomenal EPs, and he’ll say, “Yeah, it’s not very good I’m not going to put it out,” and I’m like “I’m going to fucking kill you, this is amazing, let’s put it out.” He just says, “It’s not ready.” Simon has another project called Nearly Oratorio which is really good. It’s just him, solo Sufjan-esque stuff. He has another band called Klo which is Purity Ring-esque with his cousin, she sings and he produces. I just do modular jams which are stupid and will never see the light of day. Solitaire is my side project. It’s interesting because I’lls has really been like a stepping stone for a lot of different things: Hamish’s videos, Klo, Solitaire, etc, and all of these things have really taken off. I'm really happy.