Rabih Beaini aka Morphosis produced one of the more prominent albums of 2011 so far with What Have We Learned. Toby Frith talked to him about the album, his influences, growing up in Lebanon and his approach to making music.
TF - You’ve released your first album on Delsin, which is a record full of differing influences and ideas. Can you tell us something about some of those, alongside the sounds and approach that you took with this?
RB - This album is meant to be, in some way, a setting point in my life as I have moved back to Lebanon after 15 years in Italy. What Have we Learned includes milestones and a way of documenting what I learnt in music, production and travel during that time - including both the good and bad.
Most of the album was recorded in live takes and overdubs, using some old synthesizers, effects, mixers which gave me the overall structure. The complete pieces were then processed in the studio, mixed and mastered. These tracks have a live feeling, with a wider vision than dancefloor oriented stuff. It is very individual and silent at the same time. There might be some doubt on the direct influences, as I created and improvised some general guidelines and worked on them without specifically thinking about some bands or producers. Actually there might be some major similitude with Krautrock, and I guess this is the closest genre to which it could be attributed.
You mention guidelines. Did you have any in mind when you started recording the album? Any constraints or rules in particular?
The guidelines came mainly from the setup I managed to do together with Christophe from Meakusma in Belgium. I was there and decided to start a recording session with him. When I finally had clear idea of what I could use to make the music, I knew more about the result as well.
Can you tell us a bit more about the equipment that you used?
I mixed some of my equipment with some of Christophe’s, the result being a Roland TR-808 leading the drum section for the entire session, a Korg MS20 free from control or eventually controlled by an AKAI MPC2000Xl sequencer. The PPG WAVE was not properly working but it might be for this reason that it generated amazing spaced out sounds and leads. I also had a Vermona old mixer where I split all the high frequencies of the TR808 and had the Space Echo and some other effect pedals as well as a Acidlab bassline.
Starting from a sequence on the MPC or from a drum pattern I quickly created, I recorded eight tracks simultaneously and eventually adding some ovedubs. The effects were put on Live on a separate track so that I could mix them better.
It was an improvised live session, but I had more time to control some things and write some music to play over the top of it. It all came out naturally with no stress and no big expectations and I have used my live experience with the Upperground orchestra so that I can interact with my session as if it was a stage work.
I was pretty excited about the idea of totally throwing out my music without thinking too much. I knew some changes and edits would have been necessary, but it was not important. It was the overall experience that attracted me. Of course the session had generated both good and bad parts, but the material I have chosen for the album was, in my opinion, solid and totally connected together, with some bits from the past and a look to the future.
I have used only one sample on the entire album, besides the random sounds on Silent Screamer (taken from an abstract jazz record). The Venice overdubs included extra notes and pads from the Korg Polysix, and a tiny home made synth by a friend, who was happy that I used it on the silent screamer intro/outro and as a main instrument on Ascension.
Is this something that you’d like to repeat for making music in the future? And what drove you to come to that idea in the first place?
I would like to go further with this method, discovering new fields and instruments. I’m already very attracted by the idea of making my own instruments and effect pedal within DIY structure. It’s not easy but it’s very exciting to try and understand how they are made and from that, develop my own music generators.
I have always been attracted to abstract and stage made concrete electronic and classical music. However I never developed the appropriate knowledge in the field until a little while ago when we started working more properly on the structure of the Upperground Orchestra.
My aim for the future is to develop the stage settings based on concrete electronic music and driving all this into house and techno. I’ve been incorporating these ideas into my live sets and can say that it has amazing results in terms of completely forward thinking music and a great dancefloor impact at the same time.
Your song titles in the past have been striking in their representation of your homeland - “dark days of Phoenicia” for example. I’m quite intrigued by your move from Lebanon to Italy and the assimilation of ideas and influences that you will have soaked up there. If we can go back a bit, can you tell us a bit about your childhood, how music featured in it and what it was like growing up in the Lebanon at that time?
Lebanon has always been and is still a very rich crossroad for culture and music. My childhood has been fed by multiple influences, from traditional and popular lebanese and arabic music, to the more mainstream and underground western music. Naturally the war had a huge impact in the way that one heard or bought western music. Yet looking at it now, traditional arabic music, the original local and more specifically the tribal music from the internal arabic peninsula, has had a greater influence on my own music. I love the classical arabic composers and singers such as the Rahbani family, Fairuz, Um Kolthum and many many others.
What sort of dance music did you hear in Lebanon before you moved?
Dance records that arrived in Lebanon were mostly mainstream and very little underground material could be heard. Lil’ Louis and the KLF in particular had a big influence on me. The rest was mostly eurodance which at the time was not bad at all,in terms of dancefloor orientation.
You moved to Venice. That’s not a city I can imagine that would have much in the way of a fervent contemporary music scene, given that there are virtually no roads and that it’s very residential. Do you think that the structure and atmosphere of the place had any influence on you making music? I think your music sometimes sounds quite thick and dense in structure, especially the earlier singles.
Certainly it did. The intention of moving to Venice was not musical to start with as I was looking for a place with a good university to study architecture. It took me some years to glean anything useful from the few but solid musical influences there. I met a lot of intriguing record collectors and audiophiles. This opened my mind to an outside world and got me discovering things that I never knew existed. Venice has a really dark romantic feel that makes it very special and it certainly has an influence on the way I make music.
Some of your early records have a rich Levantine context to them. Venice has many old historical links with the region as well - was there a conscious decision to conjure some of the spirit of your homeland into the music? Is it something that you’d like to continue doing?
Titles are often related to something my life such as a place, an event or a person. Sometimes I choose to make a direct link to it and make music directly inspired to it. Like in the case of Dark Myths of Phoenicia, I created four tracks inspired by the mythologies in ancient Phoenicia and related to the four more important gods. Many other titles are related to my homeland, but not all of them. Touch the Stars was dedicated to a friend that passed away during the time I was working on the song.
Moving onto Morphine Records, can you tell us a bit more about your inspiration for setting it up? Is there a specific aesthetic that you want to articulate with these releases? Many of them are heavily abstract.
Morphine records was born as a developing label in the fields of classic house and techno. It came to life at a time when we were surrounded by confusion concerning the emergence of minimal and progressive house. Very few of these new artists were referencing Detroit and Chicago. The intention was not only to release house and techno, but also to have a closer look at those original genres.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Upperground Orchestra project? The sole release for that did seem to be very much a part of what you’re talking about when you mention that Morphine isn’t just house and techno. Are there any plans for you to continue it?
It is another experimentation project I am still working on. Maybe it’s the inverse path of the enlarged electronica concept, which is mainly an emulation of the acoustic instruments done with electrical and electronic instruments - a cloning concept which is pretty futuristic even still today.
The Upperground Orchestra opened my eyes to many more possibilities of this concept, being the field where I can hear a wider range of this music made with electronic and electroacoustic instruments. We are not aiming to be a conceptual or experimental band, rather more musical and spiritual. As you said, it has pretty much the aura of the idea behind Morphine Records. We still do concerts and jams on a random basis and there is some material recorded that is in the editing process now and might be released pretty soon. I am planning to give more attention to this project in the near future.
What are your thoughts on house and techno today? Are you excited by the possibilities given by new technology, or do you think that it hasn’t progressed? What producers do you make an effort to listen to new material from, and why?
I believe in continuity. Progression is not always finding new sounds and new possibilities. Sometimes it is also a way to mix different old things and come out with something really exciting, which is an aspect of it that I really love.
There are several reasons for this - the vinyl market is becoming more and more difficult to sustain, which means that people are much more circumspect with what they buy. The internet also gives everyone the opportunity of discovery via youtube for example, but more often helped through musical facebook communities (funny to say, but true) and most of all, represses of classics and lost gems.
This gives new producers more opportunities to find out the roots of this music. I find today’s house and techno more mature than say, three or more years ago. There are still a lot of very flat and soulless records around so you can not avoid it completely. However there are so many interesting and exciting records coming out. People like Omar S, Theo Parrish, Marcellus Pittmann and the whole Detroit new school is still delivering pretty amazing things in my opinion. I’m also pleased to see a new Italian scene coming out on prestigious labels with amazing products. I definitely can tell that maybe new technologies have helped everybody to produce more, but the real vibe is still from the selected ones who still believe in continuity.
Are there any immediate plans for more releases on Morphine?
After a two year break, Morphine is in the process of releasing of a new catalogue of wider range of electronica and acoustic ideas, not just house and techno. We will be introducing new artists alongside established ones.
As for Morphosis, it will definitely keep going as a project with new releases also related to the album.
Things look quite interesting for the future and I am looking forward to it.
Picture credits - Luca Terrano