The sound of Knells was a reaction in many ways to our previous work; we wanted to make something more stripped-back where there was more focus on individual instruments.
Ionophore play dark, ambient music and this is personified on their brilliant new album Knells which they are just about to release. The album definitely creates an ethereal atmosphere throughout and is an intense and commanding listen for sure. Gavin Brown caught up the members of Ionophore (Leila Abdul-Rauf – trumpet, vocals, lyrics, guitar, piano, synths, ebow, Janek Hendrich – piano, guitar, synths, ebow, electronics and Ryan Honaker – violin, guitar, piano, synths, electronics) to discuss Knells and its sound and creation as well as how Ionophore started, other musical projects and the heaviness and power of music.
E&D: Ionophore’s new album Knells is out soon. How did the recording and creation of the album go?
Leila: We’ve been doing the remote recording thing for 8 years now. This time, the process was a bit slower than usual for us. We began working on it in late 2018, right after our previous album Whetter was released and then put it aside for a while, before coming back to it when the 2020 lockdown began.
Ryan: We had a broad sort of sonic idea for what we wanted to explore fairly early, but it took us awhile before we started working on it in earnest. But once we did it progressed fairly quickly and relatively smoothly I think.
E&D: What has the reaction to the new album been like so far?
Leila: This remains to be seen as the album is not out yet, but the few people that have heard it pre-released have had unanimously positive reactions.
E&D: Leila, your vocals on Knells are mesmerising. Did you find it an inspiring experience creating the vocals on this record?
Leila: Thank you. Vocals are my favorite improvisational tool. In Ionophore, manipulated vocal tracks are often the foundation for a song, just as much as a drone, beat or rhythm that Jan or Ryan create.
E&D: Who are your biggest influences as a vocalist?
Leila: There are really too many to list. My parents and twin sister are all singers, so my influences probably start with each of them. Crooners, growlers, throat singers, wailers, experimentalists, ritualists… I love it all really. My sense of tonality is heavily influenced by growing up listening to equal parts western and Arabic music.
E&D: On this album there is use of trumpet, guitar, piano, synths, Elbe and many other instruments. How was the experience of playing all those different instruments on the sound of Knells?
Ryan: For this album we purposefully decided to start with more organic, analog instrument sources, but then let it grow from there to wherever the song pulled it. So I think we tracked a lot of instruments earlier on in the tracks and then did a lot of production work afterwards, whereas with previous albums we would kind of just do whatever was in service of the song at whatever point.
Leila: Every Ionophore release has always used a wide variety of instruments played by each of us, so I guess you could say it’s par for the course. In addition to the million things he already plays, Ryan played dan bau on our previous albums.
E&D: What are the lyrics on the songs on Knells about?
Leila: There are so few lyrics on this record, as it’s mostly instrumental, and most of them aren’t really about anything. For one song, I’m reading off of a medical factsheet about ebola. However, on Whetter, I enjoyed singing gruesomely horrifying lyrics as ethereally and prettily as possible.
E&D: What has been the biggest influence on the sound of Knells?
Janek: The sound of Knells was a reaction in many ways to our previous work; we wanted to make something more stripped-back where there was more focus on individual instruments.
E&D: Do you feel this is your most emotional and atmospheric album to date?
Leila: I think all of our albums are emotional and atmospheric in different ways. Knells is more subdued, melancholic and less electronic/industrial-influenced than the previous albums.
E&D: Would you say that Knells is a continuation of where your last album Whetter left off?
Leila: Yes and no. I wanted to make a very different album from Whetter — something more stripped down, spacious and neoclassical.
Ryan: For this album from inception we had some discrete directions and approaches we wanted to explore, moreso perhaps than our previous albums. So in some ways we were trying to push ourselves in a slightly different direction while still sounding like us.
E&D: Are you constantly working on new music and new ideas?
Janek: It feels good to keep busy musically (time-permitting), each different project or album is a chance to try a new sound or idea.
Ryan: Definitely. In addition to this project we each play in other groups and also have solo projects (that we also collaborate with each other on.) It’s always interesting how things you learn in one project or from other bandmates end up finding their way across projects.
Leila: Pretty much, but it’s all split up among several different projects or one-off collaborations. Jan and Ryan are probably even more prolific than I am.
E&D: Are there any plans for any potential Ionophore live dates when it is safe to do so?
Leila: No concrete plans for in-person live performances, but we hope to make something happen as soon as it’s safe to do so. Ryan runs a monthly (or maybe it’s quarterly) online ambient/electronic/noise live show called “Supervoid.” He and Jan have both performed on it a few times.
Janek: As we can all safely be in the same place we’ll make something happen.
E&D: What do you miss most about playing live?
Leila: I miss the improvisation, the spontaneity, human interaction and the immediate visceral reaction that comes with it. Playing live is a peak experience, a culmination of our combined creative energies in a specific moment in time.
Janek: I miss the feeling of living in each song for 5-10 minutes, feeling it out and seeing where it’s going to end up.
Ryan: While I do miss performing, I miss playing in person with other musicians more, especially people who you are very comfortable playing with and who are extremely talented like Leila and Jan. I miss that spontaneity and inspiration and invention that happens.
E&D: How did Ionophore start as a band and what were your initial visions for your music?
Leila: We met through mutual friend Alex Lindo (Forlesen, ex-Botanist) at one of his stand-up comedy performances in 2012. We all went to a bar afterwards, when I rudely interrupted Jan and Ryan who were deep in conversation about the band they were active in at the time, and somehow they were kind enough to invite me to jam with them. It was at a point when most of my bands were on hold and I wanted to do something more ambient-electronic-experimental. The initial jam got some fresh ideas going for our debut Through Light Fractures, which laid the groundwork for me to learn how to collaborate remotely, even though we were all living in the Bay Area at the time. There’s even a song about coronavirus on the album, having no idea at the time what that would mean for the world 8 years later.
Janek: The driving force between the band has always been our differing musical backgrounds, we really enjoyed focusing on that early on as it really pulled us out of our comfort zones. So many elements have been thrown into the mix over the years by each of us that it always feels fresh and interesting.
Ryan: At the time Jan and I were interested in something darker, dronier, noisier, more ambient than the current projects we were working on. We were looking to find people interested in doing that with us to help round out a band, ideally a multi-instrumentalist with interest and experience doing that sort of music. Very luckily for us we suckered Leila into playing with us.
E&D: Leila, You play guitar and sing for Vastum too. Will the band be doing a follow up to your last album Orificial Purge in the future?
Leila: We will, as time and schedules allow, and restrictions loosen.
E&D: Do you enjoy creating music for Ionophore that is so different to the other bands you have played in?
Leila: I do, since I don’t see the point of having any two projects that sound the same. Collaborating with Ryan and Jan has been unlike any other band experience I’ve had, and has opened my eyes to many creative possibilities. They’re always challenging themselves and evolving as artists with each new endeavour, never repeating themselves.
E&D: Do you feel that Ionophore is still as heavy sonically and atmospherically, just coming at it from a different angle?
Janek: Definitely, speaking personally my influences and aims have been different with each release, and how I’d choose to convey ‘heavy’ changes all the time.
Leila: What Jan said. Loud guitars, drums, and distortion don’t automatically make music sound heavy. “Heavy” music to me has intensity, is impactful, and stirs up deep emotions, and there are infinite ways in which we achieve that in this project.
E&D: Have you always been into the darker and more extreme side of music?
Janek: I think we all have very different ideas of what the darker and more extreme side of music can be, and I’m sure we bring elements of it to the band in our own ways.
Leila: This is true for me, but I have a very wide definition of dark and extreme.
E&D: Have you got any plans for more solo work at all?
Leila: We all have solo projects (Qepe, Souls and Cities, Leila Abdul-Rauf) that are continuously planning new releases. I’ll have some very exciting news to share about mine in the coming months.
E&D: Do you find it a challenge fitting in so many musical projects?
Leila: Not usually, as they’re not all active at the same time, and especially not now. The pre-pandemic challenge was trying to work around scheduling conflicts between bands and bandmates, but lately, I’ve been scaling back the number of projects I take on.
E&D: How did you get into extreme metal in the first place and who are some of your influences?
Leila: Speaking for myself, I was into all kinds of underground music (industrial, goth, punk, prog, experimental, noise) before I got into metal. I would watch 120 minutes and Headbanger’s Ball in the late 80s/early 90s on MTV and that’s how I discovered a lot of bands, aside from going to used record stores in NYC. But I was just into weirder stuff first and have never been a genre purist. As I got more into punk and hardcore in my late teens and formed bands in those scenes, I got more into getting better at guitar which led me to eventually playing metal in bands like Saros, Vastum and Hammers of Misfortune years later. My collaborators first and foremost are my main influences for anything I’m working on, regardless of genre.
E&D: What have been some of your most memorable moments in your career so far?
Leila: Probably the handful of times we’ve played live together when we were all living in the Bay Area, and then afterward, when Jan would fly in from London and we’d play a couple of shows. Because the shows are so few and far between, each one feels like a special event, and we always come back with a fresh approach – almost reinvented – with no two performances being the same…save for the lab coats.