“Volta wasn’t so techno,” Björk explains. “The only thing I remember [in preparation for the album] is that we spent some time doing show-off, kinda filigree Pro Tools beats à la Vespertine [Elektra, 2001], but we threw them all in the bin. They were just too pretentious for this album. The beats had to be effortless, primitive, lo-fi style.”
As Taylor suggests, the album was built spontaneously. “Björk didn’t have a manifesto for this record,” he says from New York’s W Hotel two days after Björk’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance (which featured a 10-piece female Icelandic brass section). “She only wanted it to be a bit more extroverted than some of her previous records. And she wanted it raw and pretty rude, which are the words she was using. Unlike having a very definitive description of how [the record] was going to sound like she did with Homogenic [Elektra, 1997] or Vespertine, it was more of an exploration of the whole process. She wanted to have an adventure, like jumping off a cliff, just going somewhere and working with someone without preconceived ideas — what happens when you put Björk in a room with Toumani Diabaté or Konono N1 and hit go, basically.”
Combining a large brass ensemble with live and programmed drums and ethnic instruments like the electric likembé or thumb piano (played by anarchic Congolese percussion troupe, Konono N1), pipa and kora (by Malian master Toumani Diabaté) — all under the roaring rubric of Björk’s lioness vocals — Volta (Atlantic, 2007) is an abrupt, often astonishing listening experience. If musical innovation is based on an inventive collision of melody, harmony and rhythm, Björk nailed it on the head. This is no easy listen, but it’s Björk’s journey to shake up her own status quo and that of her legion of followers.
“On Vespertine, we went as superhigh-tech as we possibly could,” Taylor says. “Every single sound was chopped up on a grid, and I would be drawing in little clicks and pops by hand. It was really meticulous, but with this record, we agreed that we find that approach a bit tired. Now we want stuff to be very raw, basically. It wasn’t so much like Björk would sit down with Pro Tools and loop something up for 4 bars on 16th notes ; she would choose several bits or phrases and direct where she wanted them. She will sit down at the rig and hack away, but when there is an intricate bit of editing, she makes good use of her time in making decisions, like, ‘How do we shorten that syllable ?’”
“I started working with brass on Drawing Restraint 9,” Björk says. “It was quite ambient or abstract, so when that project was done, I was excited about looping the brass into a more poplike manner. That developed into me doing a couple of brass arrangements for the songs I was working on, and [it] ended up on six songs on the album. It was so fun and possibly the area where I was most innocent on this album, the steepest learning curve. I had learned a lot from arranging the strings on earlier albums, but obviously it is a different animal. I was quite excited about doing techno brass in the rudest possible way. I used Sibelius to do this and had a guy called Matt Robertsson help me distribute the parts to the instruments. Then, similarly to the string stuff, I recorded them both as a group and separately and edited quite a lot afterwards.”
The drums on “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” are equally compelling, a real rollercoaster of rhythm. Like most leaders, Björk knows when to farm out the work. “I have to give Damian Taylor credit for that,” she says. “He is an amazing drum programmer. First, I tapped on a table sort of where the main accents should be. It is a tricky song because it is in 9/8. He then programmed a beat and used a white noise, static micropallet for the beats. I felt the pattern was right but the noises were wrong and suggested he should change it into a marching beat. He then used the same pattern but changed the noises and sprinkled some magic dust on top.”
But before that, Taylor explains, Björk first sampled brass and made some weird loops. Her original idea was to put 20 people in each [5.1] speaker so “you’d end up with a 100-person brass section,” he says. With that idea, Taylor created the beat with samples and Native Instruments Kontakt.
“‘Vertebrae’ was actually created out of a loop manipulating the different channels of the 5.1 mix,” Taylor says, “as opposed to having them play out in a conventional timeline. The beats were originally programmed with 808 kicks and static-y noises. I used NI Kontakt for the snare-drum rolls and really careful programming. I layered up a whole bunch of different snare samples and detuned them and used some randomization to spread them out. And then I added an orchestral kick-drum sample and orchestral percussion to replace the electronic stuff. The swooshing sounds are some white noise that I automated with EQs in Pro Tools. Originally, I took that sample from a Moog software synth, used a white-noise generator, recorded a bunch of noise and automated some high and lowpass filters and Pro Tools EQ3, and I used the Echo Farm plug-in as well.” AROUND THE WORLD
More than capable on Pro Tools, Björk also plays clavichord and synth bass on the album. But as her travels took her to 13 different studios, either professional or makeshift, she was really all about working with the guest musicians in their space. Like Alan Lomax in the ’60s searching the Deep South for the original cosmic blues player, Björk was looking for a human connection to authenticate and incorporate with her digital bits.
“I never write volume or expression directions into the brass parts,” Björk says, “but I stand there in the room and feel it and then perhaps change the parts, ask people to go up or down an octave in certain areas and give them emotional hints [to] what the song is about. Then we play it many times through, most often with me singing, until we’ve got it. I enjoy, with acoustic instruments, to be quite organic and feel it in the room hands-on so it can become as ‘live’ as possible.”
Björk repeated this process in similar fashion with Konono N1 at Studio Caraïbes in Brussels, Belgium, with kora master Toumani Diabaté at Studio Bogolan in Bamako, Mali, and with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons at Gee Jam Studio in Portland, Jamaica, as well as studios in New York, Iceland, Malta, Tunisia, San Francisco and on the volcanic Spanish island of La Gomera. In true guerilla style, she and programmer Damian Taylor carried only essential, almost reductionist gear, reflecting Björk’s “rude” designs for the music.
“Technologically,” Taylor says, “this record was hyperminimalist.” As well as their respective Macs — G4 PowerBook for him, G5 tower for Björk (after her G3 blew up halfway though the sessions) — the pair ran Pro Tools|HD with a Shure SM58, Neve 1081 and 1076 channel strips, a Focusrite ISA 430 MKII Producer Pack, Ableton Live, Celemony Melodyne, Sibelius Scorewriter and a Digidesign Mbox while depending primarily on the studios in every locale. But Pro Tools plug-ins ruled the day.
“[Because] we didn’t work in one central studio, we had a full-on HD rig in a flight case that we carried around with us in a soundproofed Isobox case,” Taylor says. “That was critical because we usually set up in a hotel room or a cabin, and we didn’t have a separate control room. We used all the EQs and plug-ins in HD and the different Pro Tools rigs in the different studios. I was minimalist with the plug-ins. I used the stock Digi stuff. If you actually A/B the really expensive, esoteric third-party stuff against the Digi stuff, it holds up really well and, in some cases, a lot better. I used the stock Digi EQ2 and EQ3. And I am a huge fan of Lo-Fi, one of the best Pro Tools plug-ins because it is so versatile, and depending on where you put it in the chain, you can get a lot of different effects out of it. On Volta, a lot of the vocal effects are a combination of those EQs and compression, before and after Lo-Fi. If you squash something really hard, brighten it up, then hit Lo-Fi gently with a little bit of distortion and 1 on saturation, then re-EQ it afterwards, you will get a totally different kind of roughness than if you put Lo-Fi in front of the chain then squash it. It’s a huge thumbs-up for stock Digi plug-ins !”