When Eve Rakow and Nicholas Nesbitt (Klein Baas) made their debut as The Frown in 2011, their otherworldly sounds at once occupied a space that we didn’t know existed. That’s probably because they created it the moment they descended upon the SA music scene. It’s true that this electronic duo have never been easy to pin down, instead, they’re ever-ready to re-invent themselves and take risks, and they’ve done so once again with the release of their third studio album We Are Not Dead, or W.A.N.D. With this 12 track album comes a shift, reflecting an even braver, stranger, darker and more experimental output than we’ve heard or seen from The Frown before.
W.A.N.D launched in Johannesburg on 31 July and, with what promises to be an equally mesmerising but different launch in Cape Town coming up on 28 August, we caught up with Eve and KB to chat about their new album, being alive, and making magic.
Firstly, we’d like to know a bit about The Frown’s transition. Where does your new album take listeners?
Eve Rakow: The Frown has always been about escapism for me. I try to create worlds to float in when this one becomes unbearable.
Nicholas Nesbitt (Klein Baas): I think this album really takes the listener on a journey. It’s a bit of a sonic road trip, emotionally and musically. The last album I produced for The Frown was very chaotic with lots of ideas crammed into the songs. For this album I tried to keep it more minimal and scarce, to give the vocals space to breathe.
The title is quite mysterious and seems to comprise of two ideas. There’s the abbreviated form, W.A.N.D, which suggests magic, illusions and spells. And then there’s what the acronym stands for, We Are Not Dead, which makes more of a statement. What was your thinking here?
Eve: We Are Not Dead is something I have to remind myself every day. If I am not dead then I am alive. But for what? Am I adding to the beauty of this world, or to her pain? Do I try to connect with her inhabitants or do I curl up alone? To be purely “not dead” is not enough for me. Am I living? The acronym W.A.N.D was the start of my own realization of the magic of what it is that Klein Baas and I do. It was unintentional and it only revealed itself weeks after we had settled on the name.
KB: I think some days you wake up and think, “Does all this all mater?”. You have to realize that you can’t be passive, you need to fight to make the art you want to be remembered by. There was lots of magic making this album, but also it was a fight to keep our hopes and dreams alive. And at the end of the day, we made something beautiful that won’t die.
Each of you pursued solo projects while working on this album. How did these personal sounds and stories shape what W.A.N.D is now?
Eve: I created a concept album under the moniker Stolen Pony. It was a love letter from a lonely girl to her lover, “The Internet”. It gave me a chance to step out of the confines of The Frown and explore a lighter, softer, dorkier, girlier side that I didn’t even know I possessed. I also worked on a bunch of new collaborations with other artists and I developed a foundation for my new solo project Protears, which I am really going to take my time releasing. It was important to take time to do all of these other things as they helped in the growth of The Frown as a whole. I think everything you undertake as an artist helps you to grow by pushing you to places you would never have thought to go.
KB: Working on Glass Swan allowed me try new things without it having to be under an already established brand like The Frown. A lot of the tricks I learned making the Glass Swan EP found their way into the new The Frown album. I think when Eve heard my Glass Swan stuff she realised there was potential to do some of that kind of production in our new album. She gave me more freedom to work on the tracks alone.
What was the process of creating this album like? Does it differ from the way you’ve worked in the past?
Eve: I had a crazy two years of touring and mistake making and glory and failure and falling in and out of the swamps of sadness and being caught in Love’s sticky webs that by the time it came round to working on this album, my grubby old writing books were overflowing with stories. When I finally sat down with KB again he had grown so much as a producer and as an artist, our connection seemed so much stronger as a unit. The work for W.A.N.D was almost telepathic. This album is the closest I have ever let anyone to who I really am. It’s terrifying for me.
KB: I was working on loads of beats and ideas after my Glass Swan stuff. Things had quietened down a bit for The Frown I was not sure if there was going to be another album. One day Eve and I were in my studio, my girlfriend/angel Kate was making us tea and we were just messing around with stuff, and I came up with a riff for ‘Memory Foam’. That was the spark. We were really excited about that song. So for a month or so we met a few times a week at Eve’s place and just came up with ideas. Once we had the songs down we recorded the vocals. Eve left to go live in Cape Town so I basically mixed and added all the finishing touches. I feel like this album was a flow of consciousness rather than a laboured task. We trusted our guts, and it shows.
The Johannesburg launch of W.A.N.D took place at Kalashnikovv Gallery, which automatically placed the project in an arts sphere. Why did you choose to present it in this context?
Eve: The club scene almost ate us alive while touring the last album and I think we almost lost track of why we started creating in the first place. For me personally, I wanted to go back to the core of what we are about. We exist in a very different space then most of what is happening in South African music and so we needed a different environment to show it. That is not to say that the album will not translate well in a club space or that we will never play shows that get people sweating and cry-dancing, because that will always remain a huge part of what we do. I think we just wanted people’s first experience of the new sounds to be in a new space. Simple as that.
KB: For me the album is dead. So to get a captive audience to listen to your album you need to frame it in a special way. The gallery idea is interesting to us because we really want our friends to hear the album the way we intended it to be heard. We have been doing a lot of thinking about how music is presented and we want ours to be looked at as art rather than as bangers in a club.
Film stills from ‘WAND’, a short film created with Robyn Nesbitt
At the launch event you screened a short film created in collaboration with Robyn Nesbitt. Could you tell us a bit about the piece?
Eve: Robyn Nesbitt is a hugely interesting visual artist and she has a soft touch and a clear head and when we first sat down to talk about doing something together all I knew was that I wanted to do a ‘something’. I had no idea what that was, but the film grew from our conversation and then, from distance. I moved to Cape Town and my role in the film became very strange. I would wake up in the middle of the night and send them voice clips of scary noises that troubled me or dreams I had or thoughts that would have vanished by morning. Listening back to some of those recordings I have no memory of them whatsoever. I was basically just narrating my dreams.
KB: I worked with Robyn on my Glass Swan project, we created little films for each of my songs. We approached her as we knew she would understand the sentiment of what we were trying to create. We wanted to create something thought provoking and otherworldly. She is amazing at taking something ordinary and making it seem otherworldly. We did it all ourselves, finding locations and using some of Robyn’s footage that touched us and felt right. I scored the track using deconstructed versions of the W.A.N.D album. Eve did the whispers – they’re the ones she would Whatsapp us in the middle of the night.
What is the concept behind the album artwork?
KB: In the album there is a song called Palace and for me that’s what that image reminds me of. It’s a type of portal. It’s us welcoming you to come as you are. I feel like it’s an invitation to all the people that feel like they don’t belong. It’s was designed by me from a still from Robyn’s footage and a very intimate picture of Eve. I really think it captures both the human and synthetic sounds on our album.
Eve: If you stare straight into the light you’ll find everything you hunt for in this life. Nothing will ever hurt you again. Do not heed their warnings, they are lying. Just fly towards her. Welcome to the Palace…We are glad you came.
Putting something that you have created – which, naturally, contains so much of you – out there into the world requires a certain vulnerability. Do you ever struggle with this?
Eve: It is the most difficult part. Nothing is every finished or perfect or done and so there is always a reluctance to send this still growing, fragile thing out into the cold. But music is nothing if it is not heard. An un-played piano is the saddest thing in the world.
KB: It’s the hardest part for me. I always feel like once the album is finished, that such a huge part of me is out in the world, completely exposed. I find it difficult to look back at the work I have done, it’s like looking at a picture of when you are younger. It makes me sad sometimes. This album is the first album I have made that I feel like I can look back on and it’s something I am truly happy with.
When do you plan to release the full-length album? Do you have any more live performances planned?
KB: People who come to our shows will receive the album for free. We will be launching in Cape Town at the end of August and we will be putting out tracks on Soundcloud over the next month. We will be getting the album out on other platforms like iTunes but we looking for the right label to work with on this first.
Eve: The songs will be available on our Soundcloud. Once a week for twelve weeks, we will release a new song accompanied by an image that has the lyrics worked into them. The launch in Cape Town at the end of August will be a totally different experience to the Johannesburg event. Something that only the people who are there will ever get to witness.
You’re going to be releasing a video for your single ‘Light People’ towards the end of the year. What is this song about?
KB: That song is very special to us. It was the last song we wrote for the album. I had this keyboard line and Eve started to sing a melody. I quickly recorded what she was doing as a rough take. After trying to record a few more versions we realised that the first take was magic.
Eve: It’s really interesting how I remember the story of this song so differently. To my memory I wrote this song on piano at a party night when I felt every isolated from the rest of what was going on. I took it to KB and he straight out told me it was a ballad and that there should be an acapella outro to the album. I pushed him to add to it. And I think my loneliness and isolation is evident in the beginning of the song but as KB’s baseline sets in, it’s as if he takes me by the hand and reminds me that we are not alone.
If you’re in Cape Town, get your tickets for the album launch of We Are Not Dead at KnexT Art Gallery on Friday, 28 August.
Photographs of the Johannesburg launch of W.A.N.D by Nina Zillah Bekink