Warren Hildebrand Photo by Brian Vu
Warren Hildebrand calls his music “healing pop.” It’s not exactly by choice but by necessity. He feels the need to heal others, because he is looking to heal himself. Years ago he lost his younger brother suddenly to an act of teen violence. He has struggled to cope, not just with that tragic loss, but from the abuse he suffered growing up as a gay man in a rough part of rural Ontario.
But life seems to be getting better for Hildebrand. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his boyfriend and business partner Brian Vu. Together they run the boutique label Orchid Tapes, which although small in stature, is quickly becoming a treasure trove for ardent experimental pop fans. By offering free downloads and meticulously crafted, limited-edition physical releases, the label’s 40 releases to date have almost all sold out of their initial pressings.
Hildebrand’s own act and label flagship, Foxes In Fiction, has spent the past few years building a cult following. His debut album, 2010’s Swung from the Branches, earned him widespread attention for its wide-scope bedroom pop. While most of the songs were fluttery, dreamlike experiments, some of the more molded, pop-leaning songs suggested Foxes In Fiction could blossom into a producer and songwriter like his heroes, Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound) and Brian Eno.
Ontario Gothic, Foxes In Fiction’s just released second album, makes a strong case for the 25-year-old Hildebrand reaching that goal. Though recorded with a shoestring budget, Ontario Gothic’s heavenly, reverberating songs sound like they were taken straight out of Brian Eno’s Wilderness studio in Suffolk. His painstaking ear for soft, gauzy textures and beatific vocals, was further heightened by the lavish string arrangements by revered virtuoso and friend Owen Pallett. Noisey reached out to Hildebrand to answer some questions about his healing process, his camaraderie with Owen Pallett, the community he’s built in Brooklyn and why giving away his music matters.
Noisey: On your Tumblr it says that at 15 you started experimenting with tape machines, digital manipulation and field recordings. How did you get introduced to those methods?
Warren Hildebrand: I was actually born in Markham, Ontario and spent a lot of time living in a lot of places around Southern Ontario, Oakville just kind of became my home base because I ended up living there longer than anywhere else. But from ages 11 until 14 I lived on a farm in a town called Petrolia, which was really fucking shitty. It was there where I had my first experiences with homophobia and physical abuse related to my sexuality. I was suicidal, and became really introverted and reclusive and turned most of my time and attention to the internet as a means to deal with depression and escape my situation.
During those years, literally any free time I had was spent on old Web 1.0 message boards looking for music to download and read about, or making weird internet friends, some of which l still talk to. Around that time I got really into Flash animation; I was pretty active on old websites like Newgrounds, where users could upload their own work into a database of animations by anyone who wanted to contribute their work. So I got really interested and kind of obsessed with making stuff like that, and eventually began recording my own foley sounds and voice stuff to accompany the animations I was making. This was kind of the genesis of my first attempts at audio recording, and is what got me familiar with audio recording software. I found an old tape recording machine on the farm we lived on and started making weird audio collages with different found/created sounds using cassettes and old audio editing software on my 2001 Dell PC. I was just learning to play guitar and write songs at the same time so it was inevitable that those two things would eventually become intertwined down the line, but back then they were very disparate practices.
It wasn't until I was 15 and going to high school in Oakville that that happened, and Foxes in Fiction actually started and got a name and everything. A lot of my older music friends that I had made in school all had names for their individual weirdo solo projects, so naturally I wanted to be a cool guy and not be left out of the fun times.
How has moving to New York changed things for you?
I feel like I could live and work anywhere, so being in New York hasn't really affected by music or the way I write. I think it's mostly just allowed me to be a lot more connected to the people who are involved in Orchid Tapes. It's been way easier to throw showcases or routinely see all my American friends living in a place where people are passing though all the time, as opposed to Toronto, where a lot of my current best-friends have never even been to. I get a lot more work done now than I ever have, which is great, but I think a lot of that is motivated by the financial realities of living in a place like New York.
I get to live with my boyfriend Brian in New York too, which is really the main reason I left Toronto. "Music stuff" was just kind of a treat when stacked next to that in my mind. We were doing a long-distance thing while he was living in California for a year and a half beforehand and it was a huge nightmare. I was really depressed and living in a tiny bachelor apartment and not getting anything done and just laying in bed all day during the period before I moved, and so being able to now share a home and work alongside of someone I love has been really healthy and amazing for me.
Anything you miss being away from Toronto and/or Ontario?
Healthcare, my family and Toronto food (Pho Hung, Sushi on Bloor, Helena's Magic Kitchen and Ginger on Queen Street.)
How did you get involved with Owen Pallett?
We were both living in Toronto at the same time and Owen started following me on Twitter after he saw me open for someone, I forget who, but that was kind of the beginning of everything. There were a few times afterwards where we were both wasted and at the same shows and would talk a bit, but it wasn't really until we started chatting over Facebook a bit later that I worked up the courage to ask him if he'd be interested in contributing to my record, to which he amazingly said yes. I was in New York and he was living in Montreal by that point, so I took a train to spend a few days there to hang out at his house and discuss ideas, and it was great. He made us chicken salad sandwiches with delicious Montreal bagels.
What exactly did Owen contribute?
He did all of the violin arrangements on the record. But what's kind of become just as important as his musical contributions is the friendship that's evolved out of working and touring with him. He's encouraged me endlessly and has kept me sane about my record and music in general in a way that not many other people have. He's become a really important mentor to me and the things that I've learned because of him are really important to me. We just got off a tour with him and every day we were having the most incredible conversations and always having fun, he's really just the best guy.
Who else plays on the record?
Aside from Owen, Beau Sorensen, an audio technician and musician from Portland professionally recorded the piano that's on the song “March 2011.” I was trying really hard to find someone in New York who had a piano that would let me record it, and he hit me up saying that had spent the day recording upright pianos with really nice microphones in a really nice studio, and so I told him the notes I needed and within an hour he sent everything over. Amazing!
Ansel Cohen, whom I met at our rooftop Orchid Tapes CMJ show last year, recorded cello in his house for both the ending of “Shadow's Song” and “Amanda.” Before that I had been using the cello patch in a Mellotron plug-in that I use, which I think sounds awesome but his parts are just a million times better.
My friends/Orchid Tapes members Rachel Levy (of R.L. Kelly), Sam Ray and Caroline White (both of Julia Brown and Ricky Eat Acid) all sing on the last song on the album, “Altars.” I really wanted the end of that song to have an explosive choral effect that reflected the community established around Orchid Tapes, and I think it does that really nicely.
Also "Glow (v079)" is made up from samples of a lot of friend's projects; the drone is from a song by my friend Ben Van Patten who has released music on Orchid Tapes as Trans-Bedroom Sound, the scratchy percussion is from my friend Matt Sage's old RxRy project (one of the best things every, seriously) and the vocal part is sampled from a Wonder Bear song called "v079".
Foxes In Fiction is a solo project. How does it work when you perform live?
Up until this past tour I pretty much exclusively performed by myself with samplers and looping pedals. I did this for about five years without changing anything, partly because I was really comfortable in my routine of doing “The Warren Show” electronic things, but also because I was really terrified of the process of bringing more people on board. I think I sometimes get the idea in my head that I'm really bad or incapable of teaching people how to do things properly, which is this case manifested itself in the fear of teaching parts from my songs, so I really avoided it for as long as I could. I don't have any kind of education in music and the things I do know are so elemental that it's kind of embarrassing hearing myself try and describe individual parts of the songs or how to play them. Thankfully Emily and Owen are extremely knowledgeable, patient and understand when it comes to my idiot ways.
You’ve been touring with Owen. Did you each play during the other’s sets?
He plays in the Foxes set. We didn't really get the chance to practice or anything prior to the tour, but he was able to jump in and play all the parts from the record really flawlessly, and as tour progressed he started writing and adding new violin parts for old songs or for the songs he didn't score. By the end of tour it felt like we'd been playing together for years, it was really wild and it made me really emotional every time we'd all perform.
As a fellow Ontarian, I find the album title intriguing. What is the meaning behind it?
There isn't really a single particular meaning behind the title but I just thought, as a combination of two different words, it did a good job of unifying all the thematically disparate songs under a title that straddled the line between vague and direct. And just aesthetically I think both words read really well together. I don't know, so much of the songs are rooted in my upbringing in Ontario, and how so many of my immediate and past problems and traumatic experiences are based in my time living there, so it's mostly reflective of that.
Your brother's death had a significant impact on you and your music. The album is about “dealing with individual instances of loss, grief and the process of healing.” How is the healing process going?
The healing process is going okay. It's been over seven years since he died, but the gap between then and now has been so fucked up and emotionally volatile. Sometimes it feels like it's been forever and that life is so different now, and on other days it feels like no time has passed, and that nothing has changed and that I'm not okay. That I shouldn't be okay. Grief is such a weird and fluid thing that you always kind of hold with you, I think. You just find better ways of dealing with it day-to-day. It's strange, I don't really remember how I felt or thought before he died. The whole thing was so devastating, and everything changed for me so completely afterwards. I came across some old notebooks the other day with journal entries and poetry that I wrote when I was like 17, a year before he died, and there wasn't anything that I could trace or pin to my current self, it was really strange and upsetting. I have Type II bipolar disorder and a lot of ongoing problems with anxiety, so being able to tell where the issues brought on both those things – grief vs. mental problems – begin and end and how they effect each other has been confusing and a big struggle for me.
It sounds morose but it's really meant to be a hopeful sentiment, but since he died I feel like I'm living every day of my life like it's a constant conversation with the reality of death. I think about it endlessly and what I can do to make my life, and the life of my friends and family, and the people who listen to my music more enjoyable and worthwhile. Having my priorities in order in regards to music and my intentions is really important to me because of this, and making things and helping to put out things that I think can be helpful and healing to other people is my #1 right now.
There is a big gap between your albums. How long were you working on Ontario Gothic?
I deliberately took my time and didn't want to bow to any expectations or pressure that was being put on me, because I wanted it to be a very good record and I had no interest in following the step-by-step “buzz band” brochure. Because of my decision to do things this way, a lot of the working "industry" relationships I had fizzled out, and there are also up to like seven versions of some of the songs that just got completely scrapped, both of which are fine with me. Rushing through it to have a quick follow-up to Swung from The Branches or ride out the hype wasn't, and isn't important to me. In the end it's the work that endures, not the frequency of press cycles. Aside from working on the record pretty slowly and in a super detail-oriented way, I got really wrapped up in running Orchid Tapes too. If I'm not mindful, working on the label can completely pull me away from working on my own music, and I think that happened a lot. Everything for both my own music and the label happens in the same room in my apartment, so it's easy to get distracted by one when I should be focusing on the other.
What do you see as the greatest differences between this album and your other releases?
Attention to detail and the level of focus on what I'm trying to do with music. Whereas a lot of the older songs were pretty gauzy and impressionistic, I feel like the new album is a lot more zoomed in. Both in terms of like structure and the parsing of influence, but also with lyrics and in what I'm writing about. I know the things that I want to talk about and I know how I want them to affect people. I think I've become better at mixing and handling the production side of things too. I still don't know anything but before now I knew less than nothing.
You’re really doing everything by yourself, operating Orchid Tapes, which releases your albums as well as other artists. There is a strong aesthetic to your releases. Where does that vision come from?
Umm, it's hard to say, there wasn't ever really a conscious attempt to shape a particular aesthetic around the label, it just kind of happened over the course of the five years that we've been releasing things. I think that comes from our background in visual art and in our belief that the label should have strong political goals. Also I'm not really doing it by myself, there should be no confusing that; Brian being involved brought about the strongest changes in the whole style of the label, for sure. Before I started working with him in 2012 I was literally about to close it down because of how unhappy I was with it. But we discuss everything that we release and he has such a great eye for the visual stuff related to label, it's really amazing getting to work with him on that kind of level for so many of the things that we put out.
How difficult is it to make ends meet operating the label out of Brooklyn?
The rent is getting a lot more expensive here and it's pretty awful, especially when you're acutely aware that your presence is contributing to the rent increase and gentrification of an area and the progressive displacement of families that live there. I have no particular attachment to the idea of continuing to live in Brooklyn if it comes down to leaving, but at the moment we do alright. I'm definitely in a rare and privileged position where I'm able to spend all my time working on the things I enjoy and have it make a good enough return for me to not need to get a job at like American Apparel or somewhere awful.
But the fear that naturally comes with this is that being financially intertwined with music and the label is going to unconsciously overtake the impulses that make writing music fun and exciting and candid for me, and that I'll eventually start swaying towards things that I feel are more "sellable.” I see it happen all the time. It's a scary and kind of crazy thing to be dependent on what you do creatively, for a number of reasons.
What is the thinking behind giving away downloads for your releases? Obviously you can't profit from that.
There's no intention to. We believe really strongly in allowing anyone to have access to our releases, no matter what their financial situation is. People are going to be able to get our releases for free one way or another if they really want to, and the option to pay something is there, but giving everything away for free is more important to me than making immediate bank. Thankfully we work with a big network of artists who share these same beliefs.
We also want to give people the option to pay for physical objects like tapes or records, which is what we usually spend the most amount of time and money on making really beautiful and special. I think a lot of the time when people have free access to something like the digital version of an album they're more of an option to spend their money on a really nice record or cassette tape. That's kind of the model that all of Orchid Tapes rides on right now and it works amazingly for us.
You and the label have a pretty devoted following. Do you have any aspirations for the operation to become bigger should the opportunity come up?
We want things to happen and change as naturally and patiently as possible, for the sake of our sanity, the artists we work with and for the people are so into the label. The last thing that we would want for the label would be to jump at the idea of signing onto things that would make us super huge and take a lot of the power or hands-on stuff away from us. I think a lot of what people gravitate to with Orchid Tapes is how personal everything is and how we do things a little differently, and that isn't really something I wanna let go of at the moment, even it means turning down big offers. A lot of what I've learned this year is how important it is to say “no” to certain opportunities that may present immediate and exciting growth and change to a project, but ultimately in the long-run may not be so good for everyone involved. I feel really good about where Orchid Tapes is at right now and how it is running converse to what a lot of other labels are doing and still doing really well, and I feel very protective over it for that reason.
I think the most logical and likely step for us next would be distribution. We ship records all over the world at this point and I know it'd be a lot easier for people who have to pay a lot of shipping if they could just pick up one of our releases from their local music store, I feel horrible having to charge like $14 to some people just to send them a record.
That photo from your site of your album in the Tower Records store in Japan is hilarious. Did you have any idea that you’d end up on a display like that?
I didn't. I never thought anyone outside of my friends would ever hear my music. But I think it's pretty great. A lot of the milestones for both my music and the label have been kind of intangible and based on the internet, so like, when it comes down to doing something like explaining to my parents why Orchid Tapes is doing so well, or why the sites that are covering my music are a big deal, it leaves a lot to be explained. But with a picture like that, it's all right there! My album's being sold at a massive music store in Japan and while that is completely absurd, it's something to be happy and excited about.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto - @yasdnilmac