“I always dreamed of being an explorer in the old-fashioned pre-colonisation sense of the word.” Dijf Sanders on his Indonesian field recording adventure

Having spent two weeks in Java getting better acquainted with the Indonesian island’s sounds, a project made in collaboration with Europalia, Ghent-based producer Dijf Sanders came back with enough field material to record an entire album, aptly titled Java. We talk teenage tendencies, chance encounters and walking around with a waterproof bag full of expensive gear.

Dijf’s next The Universe show is scheduled this Wednesday 21st from 10h to 12h.

I sometimes have the feeling you’re the Belgian cousin Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) never had. You feel OK with this sort of comparison?

Sure. When I first started writing music on my desktop back in the day, I was compared to Aphex Twin, but I never really managed to get a grasp on the kind of sound he mastered. Then it quickly shifted towards Four Tet. He was the first producer I knew who made electronic music that didn’t sound electronic. I remember his album Rounds, back in 2003, when the term “fokltronica” was coined. It’s around that time that I started toying with samplers. That’s when I realised I didn’t need a whole bunch of synthesizers to create music. It’s also around that time that I started sampling everything. I was raised as a guitar player, but from the age of 12 onwards I started recording everything around me with my Walkman or MiniDisc and a microphone. I have some 250 cassettes of these recordings at home and they pretty much represent my entire childhood and teenage life. I’ve always been into recording stuff. Nostalgia is the most powerful emotion I can work with, I get a kick from these old sounds and the emotions that go with them. I don’t use these tape recordings when making music these days but they’re an important piece of who I am as an artist. They helped me understand how to capture space, how to grasp an atmosphere. I guess that’s where my love of field recording comes from.

Can we take a few steps back and talk about the genesis of the Java project?

It happened through the Bruges-based label W.E.R.F. Records, which had been contacted by Europalia Indonesia. They were looking for an artist willing to collaborate with Indonesian musicians, and since they had liked my previous record, The Moonlit Planetarium, they asked me if I’d be up for it. My initial reaction was “Hell yeah!” Although I was not planning on doing something in the same vein as The Moonlit Planetarium. But when you’re served such a project on a silver platter, you’d be stupid not to say yes.

Before beginning the project, did you know anything about Indonesian culture?

Practically nothing. I had heard about gamelan, the traditional music of Java and Bali, but that was about it. Although I was definitely excited, I also was a bit overwhelmed because it was such a huge project. I needed a guide, and thanks to a series of happy accidents, I found that person, a guy called Palmer Keen. I met him through a Facebook page, Mesmerizing Instruments and Sounds. One day, they reposted something from a website called Aural Archipelago, which is the Bible for Indonesian field recording that Palmer runs. We got in touch and a year and a half later, I was in Java for a two-week tour of the island with him.

I was raised as a guitar player, but from the age of 12 onwards I started recording everything around me with my Walkman or MiniDisc and a microphone.

How did you prepare during those 18 months leading to your departure?

I didn’t want to dive into Javanese music or culture. I didn’t want to go prepared. Field recording is about recording sounds you’ve never heard before. I needed to be unprepared to be mesmerised. So I focussed on the technical side of things, which basically meant getting good gear because it’s such a special environment to record in: a huge open space, with a level of humidity constantly going through the roof. It was a rather daunting prospect as the gear in question cost shitloads of money, and I had to learn how to use and protect it. All in all, I was lugging around a waterproof backpack packed with gear worth 5,000 euros in total – microphones, tripods, chargers, batteries and whatnot.

What were your expectations once you’d get there?

I always dreamed of being an explorer – in the old-fashioned, pre-colonisation sense of the word. It’s a fantasy, really. But it’s 2017, those things don’t exist anymore, and certainly not on a crowded island like Java. Summing the whole experience in an interview is a thing of complexity: Java is four times bigger than Belgium, with 150 million inhabitants. But contrary to what one might think of the place, there isn’t that much jungle to explore. These people are farmers, they need all the land they can get. They do have national parks but there’s no music there. I could have gone to Papua or Sumatra, but to feel and hear the music, my guide told me I needed to go to Java. It’s not what Europalia had in mind when they commissioned the album, but if you want to hear a lot of interesting music in such a short period of time, Bali and especially Java are the places you need to explore. And while in Bali the traditional music can feel a bit westernised, it’s not the case when you travel “off-grid” in Java, when your guide takes you all the way to small villages.

I take it Palmer Keen’s contribution was essential. Could you have pulled this off without him?

Absolutely not. He’s just as essential as I am in the making of the record. No Palmer, no record. First of all, we’re talking about a country where no one speaks a language that even remotely sounds like French, English or Dutch. Furthermore, it’s a whole different etiquette. When you want to get things done, you need to know how to approach the locals, you need to know how to make your intentions clear. Basically, Palmer was the guy with the hookups and I was blindly following him around. He knew what I was looking for, we had talked about the project, what I liked. I had shown him traditional instruments that I liked or had heard in his database, sounds I wanted to hear, and he was basically delivering. And while I knew what I wanted, I also did not want to be too directive or bossy. At the end of the day, I was the guy who knew nothing so having my guide decide was the best way to avoid missing out on great encounters or experiences. So I just had to go with the flow, and not worry too much about everything, which was a blessing in disguise, since people tend to live by that mantra in Java!

How big is music in the Javanese culture?

You first have to bear in mind that we’re talking about a very poor community. While you hear the music in the cities, it’s a whole different world in the countryside. There, most people need to work really hard to earn a living, and you basically have no time to play around with your handmade bamboo instruments. If music is played, it’s mostly ceremonial or sacral – weddings, celebrations, ancient rites and the likes. That being said, music is a very big deal to them, although working the land does come first. 

On Vimeo, there’s a video of you in the water, recording people clapping on water with their hands. Is this scene representative of your trip?

Oh yes. This trip was about people. People making sounds, not music. That’s what I was mainly going for, sounds. I’m the one making the music in the end. If I had gotten too much music it would have been a much more complex affair.

What was the range of sounds you were covering?

The biggest part would have to be dedicated to instrument sounds, or very small loops of music. Stuff that creates an atmosphere rather than a piece of music. Basically, material that I could work with back in my studio in Ghent. I also did record music I heard on the spot, but it was mainly music created by one or two people, that way I could easily play with the material while creating the songs for the album. I also recorded nature sounds – and by nature, it often means motorcycle sounds, because they’re everywhere in Java.

Nostalgia is the most powerful emotion I can work with, I get a kick from these old sounds and the emotions that go with them.

As an electronic musician, rhythm plays a big part in your creative process. How do they approach rhythm in Java?

They work on a totally different level, they use a pentatonic scale (a musical scale with five notes per octave, in contrast to the more familiar heptatonic scale that has seven notes per octave). Harmonically speaking, it allows you to work differently, to explore new rhythms and patterns. What’s more, they use a lot of instruments that are both percussive and melodic at the same time – a bit like a xylophone or congas. Most of their music is percussive with a melody interweaved. Our percussions can be a bit monotonic sometimes, and treated apart from the rest. But for them, melody and rhythm come from the same instrument. That makes the whole thing more intuitive, easier to be played on its own. And all these instruments, in addition to being very intuitive to play with, they are also very cheap: they’re made of bamboo, which you basically find everywhere in Indonesia. They use plenty of different instruments, which all make sounds that are very different, but in the end, it’s always bamboo.

How big is the difference between the source material and the album? Was there a lot of reworking?

It depends. For some songs, 20% was made using sounds I recorded during my trip whilst for others it’s a lot more – up to 80%. For instance, the final song on the album is a recording of a tarawangsa ensemble to which I only added some slight effects and a synthetic bassline, but that’s about it. And there’s also one song for which I didn’t even use my database of recorded sounds. I just recreated the atmosphere I felt there and all the organ or saxophone pieces were recorded here. Some tracks have samples that originate from one specific place, while others mix together pieces of samples heard all over the island. So it’s quite a mixed bag. But the whole process was very intuitive, I had nothing specific in mind when I went to the studio to record the album. The only track that is a pure and untouched field recording is a bonus track on the digital version of the record, but for the rest, it’s one big tapestry created here in Ghent.

Do you feel you came back a different man or artist?

I don’t really know. I used to be quite uptight up about the way the industry functioned, about how music should be made, how different my musical tastes could be. But this is over. I couldn’t care less. It’s only about what I want to do, and this trip was just about not giving a single fuck. As exciting as it was, this album is just another page in a diary that I’ll keep on writing.

Tune in to Dijf Sanders’ monthly show The Universe on theword.radio every fourth Wednesday of the month from 10h to 12h. Next up, this Wednesday 21st.