Aiden Baker Thinks of Nadja's New Album as "Apocalyptic Dance Music"

Listen to 'Sv,' the crackling, distorted new album from the Berlin-based drone duo, and read our conversation with Baker.

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Mar 11 2016, 9:10pm

Berlin-based drone act Nadja has been on the tips of tongues in underground music communities since they first formed in Toronto in 2003. With a career built more firmly on fearless experimentation and exploration than on putting out a single smash album with an instant hit, the duo of Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff has built a name for itself by releasing countless limited editions and playing shows just about anywhere they can. While many of Nadja’s releases are centered in doom metal and ambient music, the ways these sounds present themselves varies wildly from album to album, providing a wholly new and engaging set of ideas for the listener to explore.

Nadja’s newest release, Sv, is a single composition that spreads across 41 minutes with a thundering mechanical resonance. Its sense of motion comes not just from the consistent and engaging drum programming, but also from the churning and smothering walls of distorted, crackling guitars and bass. The whole thing slowly blossoms and expands over time rather than revealing itself entirely up front or miring itself in blatant repetition. With no lyrics or vocal reprieve, the listener is alternately pummeled and hypnotized by music that feels like a hideous force of nature harnessed by human guidance and driven towards dark purposes.

With Sv coming out in just a few days on Brazilian boutique label Essence Music, I thought it wise to catch up with the ever-prolific Baker to examine the unexplored places within repetitive and oppressive sounds, and the joys and challenges of collaboration. Listen to the album in its monstrous entirety and read on.

Noisey: Aidan, thanks for taking the time. You played in Athens over the weekend and next weekend you’re playing in Stockholm. How does it treat you to travel for these independent gigs rather than touring from city to city in sequence?
Aidan Baker: We do both kind of shows. We just did a two week tour in February around Germany and the Czech Republic, travelling from city to city. This is one of the advantages of living in Europe, as it's much simpler to travel between cities, since everything is closer together, and air transportation is considerably cheaper than in North America. We don't really have a preference between extended tours and one-off shows. Both have their appealing elements.

I see you tend to respond to comments asking Nadja to tour new places with a variation on “set up a show and we’ll play it.” Is the live show an integral part of Nadja’s mission or is it simply another way of sharing when the opportunity arises?
This is a partly facetious response. By telling people to “set up a show and we’ll play it” I'm hoping they will actually look into the logistics of setting up and making a show happen. It's very easy for someone on the internet to say, “Come play my town.” It's not so easy for bands to actually get there. That said, we will go pretty much anywhere that people invite us and, as I mentioned earlier about travel in Europe, we've been all around this continent. I think you'll find our fans are divided about whether seeing us live is integral. Some people appreciate the possibility of being subsumed in our sound, experiencing the physicality of our live shows. Others say we make headphone music that is best appreciated in a quiet, solitary setting where one can probably experience the subtleties of our recordings. Personally, I think both approaches have validity.

You’ve been quite prolific since your last LP, Queller, yet Sv feels like the other side of the coin presented there. Whereas there’s a gentleness and a subtlety to Queller, “Sievert” is churning and monolithic while retaining a groove. How do you feel these albums relate and what keeps you pushing so consistently with all the smaller releases in between (both as Nadja and solo)?
Queller and Sv are pretty different, the former much more structured and song-oriented, Sv more free-form and abstract. I don't know that there is much relation between the albums, apart from our sound. As you say, they are kind of the opposite sides of the same coin, representing the more abstract, experimental side of our music, and the more concise (so to speak) and focused. I am always interested in exploring new and different directions and sounds, within the general framework of ambient or experimental music, which results in some of these smaller, more limited releases.

Sv is titled after the unit used to measure radiation’s impact on the human body. Is this meant to be a sonic examination of radiation? Is it meant to simply place a thought for the listener to explore?
The title is meant more to make people think about the impact of the environment on the physical body, and vice versa, humans impact on the environment. Both on the literal level of pollutants and toxins, and their effects on the body, and a more philosophical or aesthetic level—how one might quantify or measure the experience of listening to music on a physical or cerebral level. Using the theme of radiation is a perhaps more immediate, relatable means of suggesting these ideas—our album Radiance of Shadows is more explicitly a sonic examination of radiation and the effects of nuclear warfare...

In the press release, Sv is mentioned to be an almost danceable composition yet also feels like one of your heaviest works outside of Dagdrøm. This description seems apt yet might confuse those unfamiliar with the genre. Nadja’s transcendence of genre is nothing new—are you hoping to invigorate drone and metal obsessives or reel in those who might be scared off by heavier music?
We originally composed Sv to play at a pair of Berlin festivals in the summer of 2012. One festival was themed on the apocalypse, the other was more simply a dance party, so, on a very simplistic level, we combined those elements and made what we thought of as apocalyptic dance music. I don't think we have any specific intention of trying to convert people to heavy music or re-invigorate the genre. It's more about our own desires to experiment with sound and structure, blur the boundaries of genre.

Do you feel there’s a value in musical orthodoxy or traditionalism?
Yes, certainly there is a value to musical orthodoxy. Inflexibility, of course, is problematic. Traditionalism should be an element or a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

I’ve noticed subtlety is often missing in experimental communities, yet I see you finding new details in the musical minutiae. What is it that keeps you relentlessly exploring and creating work that may appear simpler on the surface than it actually is?
I think it's precisely those details within the minutiae, which can be new and fascinating, that keep us exploring. Juxtaposition is an integral part of our aesthetic and the idea of seeking out the microscopic within a macro environment, minimalism within maximalism, is a large part of what we find inspiring. The process of creating itself is part of what inspires us.

You’ve collaborated a few times with a mutual friend of ours, Dorian Williamson, on a project called Adoran. How did this come to be? What new territories do you find yourself exploring with Dorian and other collaborators outside of Leah [your bandmate in Nadja]?
I have known Dorian for a long time, as we were both active in the Toronto music scene with different bands. We found a shared appreciation for bands like Swans, Halo, and Godflesh, and decided to play together. As I play drums in Adoran, this offers me a chance to experiment in ways I don't as a guitarist, especially as I'm not a trained or highly technical drummer. I have had to create my own method of playing according to my abilities. That Dorian plays more abstract, drone-based patterns on his bass makes this all the more challenging, as I'm not simply keeping a tempo to a distinct bassline. The appeal of collaborating is finding myself outside my usual comfort zone, having my abilities challenged or forced to reach a new or different level. This doesn't always happen, of course, or happens to varying degrees, but when it does, that's what makes a collaboration especially satisfying for me.

Finally, how has working with Essence Music on special editions of your albums enhanced your experience? Do you feel the audience can get the full impact of Sv by hearing it in digital form, or will this handcrafted box complete the experience?
I suppose this comes down to the argument of whether music should be seen as a commodity or an art form. Which, in the age of the mp3, is certainly a relevant debate. Essence's boxsets do a lot to promote music as art form over commodity. That said, I do hope people are able to appreciate the music for what it is, itself, independent of external forms. If that external object helps them connect and establish a deeper relationship with the music that is great.

Ben Handelman is appreciating drone on Twitter.