It has become abundantly clear that Melbourne-based electronic trio I'lls are, above all, perfectionists. They recently released their third EP, Can I Go With You To Go Back To My Country, marking a full four years since the band's inception—turns out, that's how long it's taken to hone their collective sound to a point that they'd be comfortable working on a full-length release.
We recently caught up with drummer Simon Lam via email and talked about I'lls' formation, the role that formal jazz training has played in developing their sound, the fine line of tough love and constructive self-criticism, and their plans to finally, finally release an LP.
TC: Okay. Let’s start with some basics. Names? Where you’re from? How did you get started in music?
Simon Lam: I'lls is Dan, Hamish and Simon. We're from Melbourne. We met at jazz school when we were put in the same small class. We started making electronic music together. The rest is history.
TC: Who were some of your early influences and who introduced you to them?
SL: Boards of Canada were a big one. Hamish was into it from high school and got us into it. It changed a lot that we do and our approach. James Blake's first album was a big one too for us.
TC: Can you tell us a little about those early days? How long did it take you guys to sync? Was it love at first sight?
SL: We meant to play jazz in the early days, but we ended up talking about electronic music and post-rock so much that we just started doing that instead. What was meant to be homework became our hobby. We synced pretty quickly, the first EP took 7 weeks start to finish. Definitely not love at first sight though, there were many fights in those few weeks.
TC: How long was it before you guys started experimenting together with music outside the realm of jazz?
SL: It was during our first year of uni together. When we were at uni we'd only play jazz, but the first time we got together outside of class we started making new stuff. Mostly because we didn't drive at the time, so the only equipment we could transport to reach other was electronic keyboards and drum pads. Jazz sounds pretty weird on those instruments.
TC: When you guys decided to form I’lls, did your time as a jazz ensemble influence your early style at all?
SL: There was a lot of improvisation. Production was not our strong point at that time so we relied on making sounds work by playing it all live. We used to use a lot of real drums and guitar was a bigger feature back then.
TC: With all three of you being trained jazz musicians there must be an interesting collaborative dynamic during the song writing process. Can you tell us a little about how you guys write together? The dynamics? How you contribute to each others ideas?
SL: Although we all learnt jazz theory it seemed to only stick with Dan and Hamish. I've forgotten all my theory—pretty typical for a drummer—but I think it's better because between Dan and Hamish there's more than enough ideas for chords and harmony. That leaves me to concentrate on the rhythmic aspects of the music.
We usually just experiment with anything to get the ideas started. It can be as simple as playing a synth in a new way for the first time, and that would be enough to spark a chain of ideas. The dynamic is pretty intense. We're on each other's backs constantly, critiquing, almost back-seat driving when the other is playing. If something is going to make it into a track it has to be approved by all of us. There's s lot of material that doesn't make the cut.
TC: Are you guys constructively critical of each other's ideas when writing?
Almost too much. We can argue over the most unimportant element of a song for a whole day. Things can get pretty sensitive at times! I think it's constructive though. It's tough love but we all grow as musicians from it.
TC: Now let's get into the new EP. It has more of an electronic edge than your previous ones, especially in terms of the drum sounds. What influenced you in writing the new material and what role did experimentation play in finding the sounds you used?
SL: We really got into UK dance music for this EP. We'd always had a liking for it, but for some reason it's become really important to us in the past couple of years. We started listening to a lot of music that used classic equipment. We were really into earlier stuff like Ramadanman and newer guys like Tessela and Luke Abbott. From there we started getting samplers and modular synths. A lot of the drums went through cassettes and samplers like the Akai S900. It helped us get the more '90s traditional UK sound, with the tape and cassettes giving the lo-fi element from our previous records. We record drums quite a bit, so a lot of the sounds are sampled from those sessions. But we make a lot of drum sounds from other sources—the majority of drums in Agwa are from a piano recording.
TC: Do you think that this latest EP is pushing you guys towards a sound that you might develop into a full-length album?
SL: Absolutely. Doing three EPs can seem pretty excessive, though we really needed to do it to figure out what the band was about. There’s a lot of different ways we could have gone. Now that our direction is clear the album is definitely the next thing we’ll do.
TC: Lets talk a little about your live show. Sadly, I haven’t been able to see you guys play yet, so I'll keep it general. Since there’s a lot of experimentation in the writing and recording process, I could only imagine you guys use performances as a means to take your experiments even further. Can you tell us a little bit about how you translate your music for a live audience?
SL: We’ve tried a few different setups which all worked in their own way. We used to play with live bass and drums, which really filled out the sound. We could push the sonics of our first EPs really far by having extra people on board. Though since writing the new material we’re back to a smaller setup that uses mostly analog synths and programmed drums. We extend a lot of the songs out live, usually with outros. Its a good place to play the ideas that couldn’t fit into the record.
TC: Do you like using elements of improvisation in your live performance?
SL: The modular synth is kind of like improvising. The way it's set up means it can never be the same at each show. Its a really good way to retain the sequenced, computer-ish sounds but implement real-time humanised modulation on top. There's a lot of open-ended songs and sections as well. It gives us space to play around with whatever we’re feeling at the time.
TC: How do you go about giving yourself enough control in such an electronic environment to adjust to live situations as needed?
SL: We use a lot of loops, so that gives us control to let sections go for a long as we like. Playing around with filters and reverb can help shape the sound to be more aggressive or tame. We push the synths harder when it’s a more high-energy show. I like my samples having a lot of velocity available so I can choose to play things a little too loud at times, it stretches the dynamic range and makes it sound more like a live band.
TC: You guys have other projects outside I’lls. Do you think it’s important to have multiple outlets for artistic expression?
SL: It's nice to have different outlets for music. Not everything we make on our own fits the I’lls sound, so we can put those tracks into other projects and keep I’lls sounding focused and direct.
TC: Do things you learn from your other projects make their way into your work with I’lls and vice-versa?
SL: Other projects are a good way to expand your skill set, because we try things in our other projects that we wouldn't try in I’lls. It helps us broaden what we can do as artists. I think it’s important to learn other people's philosophies and approaches about music. The more knowledge the better.
TC: What can we expect in the future from you guys? Any big plans for or outside of I’lls?
SL: Dan and Hamish’s label Solitaire is going really well, so they’re going to be really busy soon. We'll have some shows coming up that will have heaps of visuals, maybe in a really small space. We’re excited for those. We’re mostly just concentrating on new sounds and new ideas for the next release. It feels like we’re just getting to a point where we're making our best music, so we want to keep things moving. There’s still a lot we want to do.
TC: Will you be in NYC anytime soon?
SL: Fingers crossed!