Music by VICE

Welcome to Oliver Coates' World of Pure Imagination

The British composer's new record 'Shelley's On Zenn-La' shimmers with a rare otherworldly joy. It's inspired by the death of the Silver Surfer and the birth of his son, which makes more sense than it sounds.

by Lewis Gordon
Sep 18 2018, 8:10pm

All photos courtesy of the artist.

On the cusp of the Cairngorms, a Scottish national park made up of ancient mountains, Oliver Coates is talking me through the mythology of the Silver Surfer and the comic book character’s home planet of Zenn-La at a blistering pace. “Silver Surfer: Requiem is this graphic novel about his death,” Coates tells me from the living room of his in-laws’ Scottish house. “He can change matter by thinking about it cosmic galaxies away so he wanders around the universe melancholically, finding himself in these weird metaphysical scrapes.”

This is heavy stuff, made even more mystifying by the three kitsch paintings of bearded men watching us as he speaks. They’re definitely not the same painting or person but they’re eerily close, each striking a sharp contrast with Coates’ slender, clean-shaven appearance. He quickly changes subjects, pointing out the old cassettes of classical music that are scattered around the room and then, with another calmer breath, expounds the joys of parenthood as he gently rocks his newborn son to sleep on his chest.

Ideas that might initially appear to be contradictions—the death of a fantastical superhero and birth of Coates’ first child—weave in and out of Shelley’s on Zenn-La, the cellist and electronic artist’s second album, recently released on RVNG Intl. Written and recorded from May to November 2017, the resulting record unspools with hyper-sensory delight. It offers a jubilant, occasionally disquieting psychedelia, a knotty composite of Coates’ interiority during its creation.

Stylistically, Shelley’s on Zenn-La occupies similar territory to Coates’ last album, 2016’s Upstepping, on which he fused electronic textures with that of his cello, which was sometimes recognizable, but more often not. This time around, it feels as if there’s more color to the Radiohead and Mica Levi collaborator’s work. It tingles and glitters with an ASMR-like quality. There are nods to his love of the UK hardcore continuum, from the whacked-out jungle of opener “Faraday Monument,” full of intricately syncopated clicks, to the needling, propulsive IDM of “Perfect Apple with Silver Mark,” reminiscent of Autechre at their most haunting. Moments of aching ambience emerge alongside deeply romantic folk melodies, synthesizing the divergent musical interests the composer fostered since childhood.

Coates grew up in Wandsworth, South London in the 90s. He started playing the cello at the age of seven, swiftly moving on from the compulsory exercises of traditional musical training. “Very quickly, I didn't bother with any of the educational stuff at all. I was more interested in what I could find out in the wider world of music,” he tells me, before rattling off a string of twentieth century Soviet composers including Ríkhter, Oistrakh and Rostropovich. “They weren't just really good, they were also really enigmatic. As a teenager, mystery in music seemed important.” Coates describes an earlier, equally mysterious encounter, one that transported him from suburbia to the fringes of UK dance music when he was ten years old.

"The sounds I made [with a cello] were just one slice in the narrative of sound.” — Oliver Coates

“Once a week there was a Rastafarian who walked through the street. You know, everyone was white [in the neighborhood],” he says. “But this guy was walking through the street with a big boom box, once a week, as if he was saying something. And for me, I watched him coming down the road with serious ragga jungle playing. You heard the bass before you saw him and the music was complex and wild and seemingly unfettered by form, just rolling drums and rolling bass. I don't want to just fetishize him but he represented that there was more. It meant the sounds I made [with a cello] were just one slice in the narrative of sound.”

Since then, Coates has straddled the classical and electronic worlds deftly. He’s worked closely with the London Contemporary Orchestra, performing works by revered avant-garde composers such as Julius Eastman alongside those of his friend and collaborator, Mica Levi. In 2016, Coates programmed the Deep Minimalism festival at London’s Southbank Centre where the late composer Pauline Oliveros delivered her last Tuning Meditation. Last year, he performed cello on Jonny Greenwood’s ornate Phantom Thread soundtrack, contributing to its lush string arrangements.

Most recently, Coates has moved from London to the Scottish Highlands having lived in the capital most of his life. But it’s a change—from London’s freneticism to the relative slowness of rural Scotland—he welcomes. Most importantly, it’s a quiet space for him and his wife to experience parenthood with their newborn. With it, comes an opportunity to disrupt his current music practice while also exploring the Gaelic folk tradition of the region his wife’s family hail from.

“I've got to know the lot I’ve married into and they do just sing a lot. There's a certain approach from being up here and having a lot of tunes in their head,” he tells me excitedly. “Not only that but they mess them up and improvise around them and loop, loop, loop and the words change. They do stuff that people do with CDJs all the time but they just do it with their voices.”

Coates recalls a point in the making of “Charlev” when these two worlds—the electronic and the folk—rubbed up against each other. Coates was working on the track in Hackney, headphones on and laptop set up.“I’m sitting there connecting wires and doing buttons and stuff while my was teaching her mother a Swedish folk melody,” he says, describing the sound of their exchange bleeding into his own music. For “Charlev,” Coates devised a microtonal scale and then smeared his hands around the buttons of Ableton Push, a type of electronic controller, to trigger his Korg Monologue into making synth patterns for the song. The resulting track ambles along a winding house groove before a hyper-pastoral folk refrain kicks in filling the song with a blissed out, almost balearic quality, a lost classic from the annals of Ibiza.

In October 2017, the autumn after beginning Shelley’s on Zenn-La, Coates received the news that he was going to be a father. “You wouldn't believe what that does for your psyche. It's an incredible feeling,” he tells me, beaming. “We wanted it so much and it made the November bit of making the album such fun.” Coates worked quickly on the remaining tracks—”Cello Renoise,” “Norrin Radd Dreaming,” and “Perfect Apple with Silver Mark”—rediscovering a part of himself in the process.

“When you hit a certain point of adolescence, that’s when you experience the rawest, most undiluted feelings,” he says. “For the rest of your adulthood you’re kind of filtering those and making them more complex.”

"Maybe that's what it's like to be alive [. . .] All the time you're taking in sounds and sight but you're making your own Proustian version that's shimmering and not quite reality" — Oliver Coates

Around the same time, the concept of the record began to coalesce in his mind. Still in London, he’d been walking past the Michael Faraday Memorial everyday (itself renamed as “Faraday Monument” on the album), a brutalist sculpture in Elephant and Castle. Across the road was The Coronet, a defunct nightclub as of January 2018, where Coates would see people queuing at night. He’d also been watching YouTube videos of early-90s ravers at Shelley’s Laserdome, a famed club in the north of England. “I think I got a bit mixed up over sleeplessness and different things and in my haziness I got confused about the nightclubs,” he explains tentatively. “I started to imagine that the Faraday monument was this fictitious version of Shelley's nightclub. That suddenly became Shelley's nightclub on this strange utopian planet which was kind of like Silver Surfer's.”

Halfway through our conversation, Coates decides to take me for a walk up to a bench looking out into the heart of the mountain range. We trek through the damp scrub of the wood and shimmy along a narrow path on a ridge before making it up to a mini plateau. As we walk, Coates, striding in futuristic-looking trainers, talks me through Luc Ferrari’s Presque rien, four pieces of environmental music from a fishing village in Croatia, recorded and released between 1967 to 1998.

“As far as I can tell, it’s modified recordings and a kind of painting of a scene without much musical intervention. But if you listen more and more closely, something is echoed or something shimmers or something distorts. The odd modification makes you realise it's not quite reality,” he tells me as the twigs and branches snap beneath our feet. “Maybe that's what it's like to be alive. There is no neutrality. Your ears are filtering everything all of the time through your emotions. If you hear a baby cry in the next room, you don't just hear it once objectively, you replay it within a split second and say, ‘wait, was that a baby crying or was it the cat?’ All the time you're taking in sounds and sight but you're making your own Proustian version that's shimmering and not quite reality.”

It’s a divergence that somehow brings us right back to the Zenn-La, Shelley’s Laserdome, London and the forest where we’re standing now. “I like the idea that this music I'm making is environmental recordings of an imaginary place,” Coates says. “Each of the tracks on this record started to be like they were describing the topography of this place, like an oral description. There are buildings and then you go out into the countryside and you have these fake lands like the “Prairie”. Then you come back in and there's “A Church.””

Scattered throughout this partially fictionalized terrain are the real, ultra personal events at the heart of Coates’ life. “The Silver Surfer is also a private allegory for us about having a baby,” he tells me quietly and openly, referring to the image of the ultrasound. “It’s this glimmer of hope on the screen. That moment was just ‘oh wow.’”

It’s never clear where fantasy or reality start or end on the record. Sometimes Coates’ cello is upfront and left relatively untreated as it is on “Prairie.” On other tracks such as “A Church” it warbles and oscillates next to a synthesizer, tangling and disentangling at various points amidst an awkward, elastic 2-step beat and the spacious, dreamy vocals of Chrysanthemum Bear. On “Cello Renoise”, the tone of Coates’ cello achieves a synergy with skittering, alien drum and bass percussion resulting in a virtuoso rinse-out of radiating harmonics. Despite the acute singularity of each track, there is a consistency to the whole as it maps Coates’ sometimes sleep-deprived perception of the world.

Coates stresses to me that the music was already being written before the tracks became imbued with the Silver Surfer and the landscape he created from its science fiction and his native London. But those elements provided the composer with a backdrop throughout which he could situate the more personal, commonplace details of his life, a sound world laced with intimate double meanings and purposeful mystery. “What it does is set the mind alight,” he tells me from the plateau. “That's all I've ever wanted from music. To draw you in.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer based in Glasgow. He's on Twitter.

oliver coates