Artist Interview: Reef Frequent
Reef Frequent is a pseudonymous artist who came to prominence last year with the release of a trilogy of albums on BLCR Laboratories that explored concepts of the afterlife. Three days ago, Reef Frequent (in conjunction with Tiny Mix Tapes) announced the imminent release of his sixth full-length album Unknown System Boundary – along with a music video of “Toxic Sword” – which will be available on Midnight Moon Tapes on digital and cassette format on 4 August. Back in June, Sunbleach exchanged messages with Reef Frequent to get to know more about the compositional process behind Unknown System Boundary. Through the exchange, we discussed destructive samplism, Oneohtrix Point Never, narrative in music, and the concept of an “infinite boundary”.
S: So before getting any further along – what can we expect from your new album on 4 August?
R: I would say to expect something that’s on a different scale than anything I’ve released as Reef Frequent previously – it’s a concept piece but not in as direct a way as afterlife and the associated Trilogy; and the detail level here is a lot higher than anything I’ve made previously, so expect things to genuinely sound great across mediums and platforms.
S: What do you mean by “the detail level here is a lot higher”?
R: Everything here is a lot more compositionally dense and mixed in a way that’s almost overbearing in its clarity. Almost doing things with a sheen that becomes blinding at times, but in a very calculated way
S: What compositional methods differ here than on previous albums, especially with respect to the Trilogy?
R: I really inverted the way I used samples here. There are less overall and where they do appear they often take on opposite roles than their source context, i.e. vocal samples acting as synths and vice versa.
S: Walk me through a day in the life of Reef Frequent as the artist in studio, so-to-speak. How do you begin the process of creation?
R: For this project in particular, a lot of the sparks that became completed tracks came out of bits and pieces of other unfinished things I had started, and as I progressed I found something really interesting in the process of sampling your own work and actually began to write small pieces and digital vocal lines with the intent of throwing them away and reassembling then later. I don’t know if it’s a technique I’ll return to, but for this record the creative process was incredibly destructive and as a result left in its wake an insane amount of unfinished and unreleased material. I guess I would equate it to building up a mountain that gets better as it gets higher, and what you see here is the peak shaved off – there was a lot of necessary destruction to form the shape for what could be created and actually held value.
S: How have you applied that notion of destruction-as-creation to samplism this time around?
R: I think that concept in particular starts to permeate the track here as assemblies of their parts- many of these pieces simply shouldn’t fit together in the way that they do but by bending the rules of composition through sheer force of will and just producing the absolute hell out these components the end result lands in this really eerie location of equal parts perfection and instability. (That might be an applicable tagline for the album.)
S: What’s the source material this time around, other than what was created in the past?
R: Much like my project INTO THE AETHER, there’s no target or rule for where to sample from. Whereas afterlife and Return primarily sampled from post-rock and black metal respectively Unknown System Boundary samples rap, ambient, rock, field recordings. And the benefit of such dense mixes here is that pinpointing samples is nearly impossible, and in fact with reworking and resampling tracks as many times and over as long a period as I did, I probably wouldn’t even be able to give you a complete sample list for this project. Data loss in practice I suppose.
S: I had no idea that those two albums used black metal in their sampling! I’m definitely going to have to get them a deeper listen. And is there a narrative associated with your upcoming album?
R: Yeah, Return in particular has a lot of sampling of very heavy music. And as far as narrative not as much as the Trilogy for sure, the narrative there is very central. With this project I would say the focus is much more on the concepts of data limits and digital destruction than any particular narrative. There’s definitely a progression within it though, things hit very hard and in your face at first and cool off a little in the second half of the album, so in a way the decay that occurs after digital destruction may be the narrative present.
S: What precisely was the narrative of the Trilogy? Additionally, what specific conceptual or thematic albums inspired the new album, if not a narrative?
R: The Trilogy really follows a very intimate journey into the afterlife, and while it extends beyond literal point of view that progression and the settings really drive the narrative there, especially with Return and INTO THE AETHER acting as areas that further explore the areas of realism and surrealism that afterlife bridges between. With Unknown System Boundary however, I would definitely say the biggest difference is the point of view is no longer as directly first person, and while there’s definitely a progression across the tracklisting, the thematic elements and setting rule. I would describe them as an environment more digital than anything I’ve done previously, and I think that’s reflected in the detail I mentioned- things don’t flow and build in an organic way, instead they stack and divide and meld into each other.
And as far as inspiration the biggest concept that spurred on this album was definitely the idea of limits, and especially in practice as we advance technology to the point where things no longer run out of space or overload. A lot of great ideas are birthed from passing the accepted standard limits (distortion for example) and so the notion that limits may be increasing exponentially out of our reach creates a really interesting problem where to innovate it may become necessary to break the model of how we work. So like I mentioned, a lot of pieces here were made with the intent of throwing away, samples reprocessed and the originals deleted, digital vocalizations written, distorted, and the lyrics beyond them erased. Destruction really became the foundation here, so the deeper anyone delves back into what’s going on the less information they’re going to get. That’s kind of the case with a lot of things, but this just takes it to an extreme conceptual level.
S: I assume that the identical acronym of Unknown System Boundary and “Universal Serial Bus” (e.g. USB drive) is not coincidence?
R: Exactly, the idea of an infinite boundary is very in keeping with the themes and “USB” was then a convenient opportunity for a double meaning.
S: Can you go further into depth with the “infinite boundary” concept? My mind is going to those old-school depictions of 3-D space with gridlines stretching into the distance, like old Mode-7 renderings by the SNES. Also the album artwork to The Virtual Heaven by Synthetic Virtual.
R: That’s absolutely in key with the art direction I’ve gone for this project, especially the idea of being able to mentally trace an endpoint that’s not visible. That being said the sweeping drama of a single point extending infinitely I find more akin to ambient music, whereas here I think a more fitting metaphor is an infinite maze, and I think the cover art for USB reflects that well.
S: That immediately brings me back to some of those old Mac/PC dungeon crawler games!
R: Oh yeah, playing any of those while listening will definitely enhance the experience.
S: Have you listened to R Plus Seven by Oneohtrix Point Never? Your descriptions of the point of view being “no longer as directly first person” and the concept of the “stack and divide” of elements recalls his piecemeal compositional process.
R: Yeah, I’ve actually read essentially everything I can find regarding his process (especially with that album and Garden of Delete) and as someone who’s compositional abilities I greatly admire there’s undoubtedly a healthy dose of inspiration there. R Plus Seven in particular too I feel is equally abstract and thematic at the same time, the way it sets an environment in place and explores it through those sort of “stack and divide” coalescing elements is what USB aims to do as well, even if the sound palette I used was actually much more inspired by Garden of Delete. R Plus Seven is his most sublime album in my opinion though, and I hope this is mine as well.
S: What parts of OPN’s compositional process in particular do you admire? Also, what do you feel USB leads to for your future endeavors as an artist?
R: I would say I especially admire OPN’s ability to turn his projects into larger universes and areas listeners can immerse themselves in, and a lot of credit there goes too to artists like Nate Boyce and Jon Rafman for creating really immersive aesthetic experiences that feel tied to the sounds on his albums. So that’s definitely a cue I try to take into my work, even if it’s something as simple as color association, if a listener can grasp onto something more than just the music it really enhances the experience. And it’s hard to say exactly what’s next, especially as USB has taken many times the span and effort to compose than anything I’ve done previously. At the present though I’ve been jamming a bunch of more improvised ambient/noise synth tracks and just looping things and laying down melodies on the fly- I don’t know if it’ll turn into a full project or not but it feels like a necessary palette cleanser to physically play and just let the music come directly and effortlessly. Obviously I had fun making USB, but it was incredibly tedious as a whole, so it feels great to make music that’s simple right now.
S: What’s next on your plate? You say it’s good now to make music that’s “simple”!
R: It is! It’s also good to make music that’s complex, but really entrenching myself in complexity with this project involved listening to a lot of really detail oriented music, and as much as I love complexity in general theory (especially design/art/architecture) the more I pushed in that direction the more it became hard to enjoy minimalism and simplicity and recognize value there. So recently I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to understand what turned my off simplicity and find simpler art that I enjoy, and it’s been super enjoyable to find/revisit some fantastic stuff like Air’s Moon Safari and everything on OPN’s Rifts, just great music without a lot of pieces. Anyway that’s started to seep into my process, and it feels great to enjoy both sides of the spectrum a little more. Feels personally more balanced and less limited at the very least.
And next I think I’m gonna just keep jamming and getting good with my synth, then maybe see if labels are interested at all, and hopefully get something out in not too much time. Whatever’s next will probably be less concept oriented too, so I’ll likely frame it as a mixtape or EP and not a full album. This stuff would sound perfect on tape too though, so tape labels who read this: hit me up.
Also just as a general statement as an artist, if you run a label don’t feel afraid to contact artists whose work you enjoy, you never know what cool stuff people have cooking and are just looking for an avenue to get it out.
S: Does that last statement have a story to go with it?
R: Oh not really, just a general reflection on how informal the music world has become, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the ways I’ve connected with labels and other artists is just sending the occasional track or message. Basically if you’re a fan of someone don’t hesitate to tell them, anyone worth talking to won’t care who’s “bigger” or “smaller” and good music recognizes good music. I just want more people to connect is all, because making those connections that seem small can sometimes afford you opportunities to do really cool stuff.
S: Any parting words to readers?
R: Just make sure to keep an eye out for Unknown System Boundary. I’m working with the guys at Midnight Moon Tapes right now getting physicals pressed, and as soon as those are ready we plan to release.
Unknown System Boundary drops on Midnight Moon Tapes on 4 August. Check out the video for “m / m o i r e” below: