SOHN’s personality is exactly what you’d expect after listening to his debut record Tremors—a nihilistic compendium set to airy synths and slow-motion bass. In conversation, the Vienna-based producer speaks in a measured whisper and comes across as thoughtful and even poetic. But SOHN’s idea of poetry might not appeal to everyone. While unpacking the song “Paralysed” on his album, the artist uses the word “beautiful” to describe a set of lyrics about feeling like someone could slit your throat and leave you on the side of the road. To him, that’s a metaphor for being in love. There are a lot of similar moments of what SOHN refers to as “positive nihilism” on the rest of the record.
“The Wheel,” the live video premiering above, opens with the line “I died a week ago” which, according to SOHN, should be interpreted as a statement of freedom, not literally. If Nietzsche made electronic music he would have produced Tremors. We phoned SOHN while he was on break in Vienna to talk about working with Miguel, Banks, and SZA, being a recluse, and accepting that we’re just specks of dust within the grand scheme of things.
Noisey: How long ago did you start experimenting with this pacing and sound?
SOHN: About two years ago. I have a friend, in the live band, who collects antique analog synths. Getting a chance to play with those made the music happen. Before I was making music on computers and making stuff with the software.
What was your musical background prior to that?
I’ve been knocking around, trying things and not doing them very well [laughs]. I learned guitar when I was a kid and was into some terrible rock music. When I was 12 I got into indie music and liked things like Björk, Radiohead. I ended up doing electronic music almost by accident. I want to hear [a] song, not a technical exercise. I ended up making music that uses the electronic palette just because I love using these instruments. I’m very much an outsider.
It’s funny that you say that because you’re from London and left just as this new wave of slower, brooding electronic artists started bubbling up. Were you thinking of distancing yourself when you’ve left?
I’ve just always been that way. I’m a solitary person and didn’t get involved in any of that stuff. I was offered an opportunity [to] move, so I did. I’m a European citizen and can live anywhere in Europe. It was probably a reaction to not being involved with anything in London. But I’ve come to realize that has nothing to do with London—it’s just me. I’m not the type of person who lets myself get involved.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about a recent fist fight that broke out between Hudson Mohawke and Zomby… [Read all about that here]
What was your take on that?
I don’t know either of them. I saw it happening on Twitter and it’s just a bit of nonsense, isn’t it? I don’t really understand what that’s all about.
It seems kind of antithetical to their music.
Yeah, but I know that one of those people has got a bit of a history with that stuff as far as I’ve been told [laughs]. That’s so far away from me. That’s in the UK club stuff which I’ve never, ever been involved with. You know those youth [laughs].
I have an idea of who you’re talking about. You shared a label with him.
[Laughs] I couldn’t possibly comment because I don’t want to get beaten up.
So has working in Vienna shaped your sound?
It really has. The pace is a lot slower. It enables you to [have] the space and room to explore. England is the same communication speed as New York and Los Angeles. In a place like Vienna, that’s just not there. [It’s] very laid back and that makes its way into the music.
What kind of mindset were you in when you were writing the album?
Melancholy is one of my main threads. There are moments of positivity but they come out in a very macabre way because of the instinct I have as a writer. A song like “The Wheel,” where it starts with “I died a week ago.” It’s dramatic and dark but to me that’s an incredibly positive statement. You can start again. It’s rebirth and freedom. It’s positive nihilism. That feeling that everything is pointless and worthless and nothing means anything and that’s something to rejoice because there’s no right or wrong answers and you can do whatever you want.
What are some of the other positive moments on the album?
Probably some of the lyrics which are the darkest lyrics actually. There’s a song called “Paralysed” where it sort of ends—[laughs] I’m just realizing I’m trying to tell you this is positive and the lyrics are—“Nobody can slit my throat/ Nobody can leave me laying by the side of the road like you can,” which is a graphic image of being in love. It’s like putting your life in someone’s hands to the point where they can slit your throat metaphorically. But it’s a beautiful thing.
So your idea of positivity is like two negatives canceling each other out.
Yeah, I would say so. I see that release of negativity to be positive.
I’m curious about the story behind “Ransom Notes.”
It’s a very philosophical song. It’s an observation on the fact that you’re tiny. Us human beings think the most important thing is that Monday meeting or that person we’re in love with, whatever. There are mountains on this planet which have moved in such a long period of time and we wouldn’t even see them moving because we’re tiny, tiny piece of time compared to the earth, let alone the universe. Mountains manipulate themselves and move because the continents separate and that happens over a longer period of time than the whole of human existence. That’s mind blowing.
You’ve collaborated with Lana Del Rey and Banks. When you choose your collaborations, do you try to align yourself with people who have a similar aesthetic?
No. Normally it just comes from hearing something and thinking, “I know what I could do with that.” If I have that instinct, generally I jump on it.
Banks has a similar sparse singing style.
Part of that comes from the fact that I constructed one of her early songs and Teebs constructed one. We’re like-minded artists so it’s natural we’ve ended up in the same realm. I’m probably now doing a bit more further out of that realm. I’ve got productions but I don’t know what’s going to come out. I did something with SZA and I don’t know if that’s going to come out. I spent a couple of days with Mø recently in Copenhagen and I don’t know what will happen because her album has just come out. I’ve probably got a couple more Banks tracks coming.
Have you been approached by any more mainstream artists to write for them?
I have been by a few and it’s an interesting place to get because word has gone around the industry. It’s difficult to know because songwriting is so different from collaborating and production. It’s something I’m interested in getting into because I want good songs in the world. If I can write a good song for someone, even if they’re a massive star, there will be another good song out there.
What was your reaction when you found out that Miguel is a fan?
It was cool. I’ve met him and he’s a really, really nice guy. I don’t know if we’ll get in the studio. That could happen. It’s funny because it’s so bizarre to me that these people even know who I am. I’m just this guy who’s living on the Eastern edge of Western Europe, making some stuff in a studio.
Tremors is out on 4AD on 4.7
SOHN Tour Dates
5/7 - Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington, DC, US
5/8 - Johnny Brenda's, Philadelphia PA, US
5/9 - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY, US
5/10 - Rough Trade, Brooklyn, NY, US
5/12 - The Sinclair, Boston, MA, US
5/13 - Ill Motore, Montreal, QC, Canada
5/14 - Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, ON, Canada
5/15 - The Pike Room, Detroit, MI, US
5/16 - Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL, US
5/17 - 7th St Entry, Minneapolis, MN, US
5/20 - Fortune Sound Club, Vancouver, BC, Canada
5/21 - The Crocodile, Seattle, WA, US
5/22 - Holocene, Portland, OR, US
5/24 - Independent, San Francisco, CA, US
5/25 - The Casbah, San Diego, CA, US
5/27 - Troubadour, Los Angeles, CA, US
5/31 - Maifeld Derby Festival, Mannheim, Germany
4/4 - Rockhouse, Salzburg, Austria
4/5 - Conrad Sohm, Dornbirn, Austria
4/8 - Gebaude 9, Cologne, Germany
4/9 - Exit 07, Luxembourg
4/11 - Uebel & Gefahrlich, Hamburg, Germany
4/12 - Lagerhalle, Osnabruck, Germany
4/13 - Heimathafen, Berlin, Germany
4/14 - AB Club, Brussels, Belgium
4/16 - Melkweg, Amsterdam, Holland
4/17 - Village Underground, London, UK
4/19 - Nouveau Casino, Paris, France
4/20 - Zoom, Frankfurt, Germany
4/21 - Papiersaal, Zurich, Switzerland
4/23 - Arena, Vienna, Austria
4/24 - Hiroshima Mon Amour, Turin, Italy
6/7 - Field Day, London, UK
7/18 - Latitude Festival, Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk, UK
Marissa is a writes about music all day every day and she's on Twitter - @marissagmuller.