Photo collage courtesy of At/All
Pascal Babare hasn’t been to a music festival since 2013. That’s when his longtime friend, musical collaborator, and former roommate Matthew Nicholson gave him a hash cookie during All Tomorrow’s Parties in Melbourne, a festival that featured performances from My Bloody Valentine, Swans, and Thee Oh Sees, among others. The festival was held on an abnormally, obscenely warm day—42 degrees Celsius (which translates to about 107 degrees Fahrenheit)—in a concrete industrial park, with the stages housed inside large sheds. It’s still up for debate, but Babare recalls Nicholson minimizing the potency of the treat in question. So he ate all of it.
“All my favorite bands are playing, it’s going to be this fun day,” Babare says. “I love music, I love getting blazed, and I love cookies.”
By the time Swans’ Michael Gira began speaking in tongues, Babare realized he was in over his head. The escape from the fest was troubling, with Babare running into old friends, teachers, and even acquaintances he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager living in Japan. He found solace in a bottle of Gatorade at a gas station. The memory makes it difficult to consider stepping foot on festival grounds again, but it’s something Babare and Nicholson have been discussing. For the first time, the two musicians have strayed from their roots in experimental folk, art, and film scores and have embraced pop together under the name At/All. And it’s music fit for fields of sweaty, dancing kids.
At/All—which is Babare, Nicholson, and vocalist Lucy Roleff—have prepared a debut album, Sun Dog, out August 26, which you can stream right now on Noisey. Despite the trio’s combined decades creating music on all corners of the globe—Nicholson now lives in Los Angeles, while Babare and Roleff remain in Melbourne—At/All is the first time the three have allowed themselves to indulge in the sprawl of a dance number. Sun Dog is, at its core, an electronic album, but the organic tones of live percussion and bass drench the collection in a sunny and warm haze. Instrumental tracks like “Jingle Baba” twinkle and pulsate with synths and undulating swells and glitches that make the songs feel like stepping into a sonic kaleidoscope. Standout track “Night Body” is grounded by a deep disco bassline and electric guitars intertwined with Roleff’s vocals, smooth and sultry, elegantly gliding from deep alto range to celestial soprano. While nearly half of the album’s nine tracks are instrumental, no moment feels overindulgent; instead, each element is purposeful.
“I had been experimenting with musical processes that I hadn’t before,” Babare says of the project’s origins. He had started working at a studio in 2014. “I was also feeling really over my head, basically feeling that I was surrounded by professionals and I was faking my way and just not wanting to work on my own solo music for awhile. I was sick of my own process.”
Babare and Nicholson had lived together, jammed, and contributed to each other’s respective solo projects before, both in Melbourne and while working together as gardeners in London. But they had never properly collaborated as producers. Babare started setting aside time in the studio for them to write.
“It was welcome to have this fresh thing that was moving all of a sudden,” Nicholson says. “I was in the doldrums. I had a pretty shitty breakup around that time so this was something good I could do with my best buddy.”
Drawing on a more analog approach to electronic music, the pair would craft instrumental tracks on piano or using stock synths on Ableton. It was sometimes a mess. The original version of “Frequency”—an eerie, warbly, underwater track—was too electro-heavy, so they stripped it and built it back up again, an approach they took on a number of songs. As the productions began to form, the guys sought out their dream vocalist for the project in Roleff. At the time, the classically trained singer was creating baroque electro-pop with her boyfriend as Magic Hands. Babare had played in the band, so he emailed Roleff the tracks and asked if she’d sing on them.
“I listened to the songs and immediately I had melodies in my head,” Roleff remembers, “which is a good sign because if I have to force it, it doesn’t happen.”
She’d record legato vocal phrases into GarageBand, her voice blanketing octaves in whispers, with birds chirping in the background. It was takes like those that made the final cut, such as on album opener “Big Company.” Some of the denser tracks, like sci-fi flick-reminiscent “Earth & Nearby,” remained standalone instrumentals, oftentimes because there were such intense dynamic changes and pockets of ambiance that it was difficult to create melodies.
By the end of 2015, Sun Dog was fully realized and mixed by Babare in Melbourne, with versions sent to Nicholson, who was then living in Los Angeles. The final product proved a true diversion from the self-contained methodology of their solo writing and a strong first showing as an experimental electro-pop act. That classification—and the fact that Sun Dog should incite plenty of dancing—makes At/All prime festival fodder, a nightmarish realization for Babare, compounded by his stage fright and the fact that the trio has never performed live together.
“It’s such a weird combination of live instruments and electronic instruments,” he says. “It would be fun to do it with a really simple setup with a backing track and me and Matt just playing either bass or percussion or drums, but that feels like a cop out.”
“We’re just going to play the CD,” Nicholson offers.
Despite the homebody-meets-club-music approach, At/All reflect on their debut with a sense of reverence based on their own perceptions of how the project came together: lucidly, Nicholson says; a holiday, according to Roleff.
“It’s not less intimate, the process, but I’ve been able to be a different kind of musician,” Babare says, “which is liberating.”
Allie Volpe can't wait to go outside and dance somewhere. Follow her on Twitter.