Ela Minus on “acts of rebellion” (The Extended Interview)
Ela Minus on “acts of rebellion” (The Extended Interview)
No Longer Bored
Photography by Juan Ortiz-Arenas Issue #68 — Japanese Breakfast and HAIM (The Protest Issue)
When applied to a Japanese fighting game character, a punch is never just a punch. It becomes “Megaton Justice Fist” or something along those lines. Just looking at Ela Minus ‘ grid of synths, sequencers, and drum machines inspires comparable purple prose. Minus’ craft isn’t just a cerebral sequence of turning knobs and playing keys: each action is augmented by singular intent or feeling.
The Colombian-born/Brooklyn-based singer-whose birth name is Gabriela Jimeno-places small mementos with pink tape all over her machines, little words and phrases that resonate to her in some way.
“It’s been a constantly changing thing,” Jimeno explains. “I started doing it from a practical sense, just writing down MIDI-channels…just technical things I needed to remember. So much of my gear is a little old, it doesn’t have memory or presets. I have to remember a lot of things, and I started making these notes.”
As a producer and songwriter, Jimeno is already uncompromising in her vision, but she takes it another step further by building her own synths from scratch. She has molded this vocation into an adventurous sonic lingo that explores experimental techno, offbeat pop and ambient synth-based improvisations. It’s a swift departure from her past days playing drums in various hardcore and indie rock bands, more stuck in a designated role that relied on skill, muscle memory and physicality. Having done so for an extended period has made Ela Minus-in her own words-somewhat bored.
The title of Ela Minus’ full-length debut, acts of rebellion, was inspired by a passage from the Chuck Palahniuk-novel Diary. “It’s actually an extremely dark book,” Jimeno comments. “It’s about a woman who is an artist, and in college she falls in love with this man. They get married and move to an island, where she is a housewife. Suddenly she is reconsidering her decisions because she is not painting anymore. There’s a moment where the husband describes her doing the dishes, and how she started engraving her name into the plates after she washed them. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the book, so I’m not sure how much of this is still correct. But my interpretation of it was that she was trying to leave her mark into the world somehow. To say that she was here and she was an artist. It struck me as a beautiful little act of rebellion against everything.”
It’s an idea similar to all the small notes Minus has scribbled on pink tape whenever and wherever she’s playing. These fertile chunks of wisdom inspire her to imbue value into her work and be present.
[ Note: A much shorter version of this article originally appeared in Issue 68of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is an extended website version of the article that’s seven times as long as the print version.]
Jasper Willems (Under the Radar): So how has your week been so far?
Ela Minus: Crazy, to be honest. Very busy and surreal. That combination makes me feel… floaty!
I noticed you received your album in physical form. Tell me how you’ve experienced that.
Quite insane, because I had never released my own music in a physical form before. Only when I was in bands, but not under my own thing. I honestly didn’t think so much of it. Of course, I put so much effort and love into the artwork. But for some reason, I wasn’t prepared for what I felt when I opened the box in the mail and I saw my own face. To be able to touch a thing that I made, that was done, you know? From now on, it’s always going to be on the earth. To be honest, it was a very deep moment. It has made a huge difference. Before I got it, I was happy and excited about the record. But now that I have it, I can actually touch it, I feel even more excited. It’s hard to explain really.
I think I understand it. It’s actually quite insane when you really think it through. This is a physical object you have enchanted with magic you made, to sort of put it into fantasy terms.
It is! And you know what I never realized ever until that moment: I, as a musician, work so much. I played a lot of shows-when you could still play shows-and made a lot of music. It’s always like, you keep making things but they are so ephemeral. And they disappear. Of course they roam around the internet as digital files, but that’s not the same. Especially now, after doing so much promo: I feel like I just make and make and make, and you just disappear into a black hole after a while and never see anything. Now finally, you see something. It’s such a different feeling. Two years of your life are made into this thing … whoa! It’s been very interesting.
I watched a couple of your live sessions and I couldn’t help but notice your rig: there’s pink tape on all the instruments with offbeat instructions and descriptions. Is there a specific internal logic behind those?
It’s been a constantly changing thing. I started doing it from a practical sense, just writing down MIDI-channels…just technical things I needed to remember. So much of my gear is a little old, it doesn’t have memory or presets. So I have to remember a lot of things, and I started making these notes. I don’t exactly know how, but it evolved into making notes more for myself. Like, “Remember to have fun.” Playing so many shows every month, I needed little reminders like that. So I just kept doing it.
Do these reminders also compel you to improvise? I reckon that when you’re operating so many instruments, you get bored quickly, and want to throw the tracks in different directions depending on your mood.
Yeah, definitely. I’m not really sure what that has to do with the tape but yeah, I improvise a lot: both when I’m recording and playing live. When I’m playing live I never stop-like a DJ-set, I never leave spaces in between the songs. I leave empty sequences with all the machines running to improvise. It’s probably my favorite part.
Did a lot of ideas for this record come out of those improv sequences?
Yeah, most of them. Actually, especially some of the more beat-driven tracks that have vocals. There would be nights during a show where I would be playing something, and I thought, “Oh this sounds cool, I should save this sequence.” I didn’t do it every night, sometimes it’s shit or I forget about it and it’s lost forever. Whenever I’m back at my apartment, I go back to those sequences I saved, and start improvising on top of them. And…that’s how I write! The more ambient tracks materialize when I’m just playing around with my synths. They are actually 45-minute long tracks and I just edit them down the album.
Maybe something for the Deluxe edition? A whole side of just one song?
I love that actually. For a long time I actually thought this was going to be a double album. One was going to be a club album, and the other an ambient album. I’d love to release one track on each side of the vinyl one day.
The short “filler” tracks-for lack of a better term-seem to carry just as much weight to you as the longer tracks. Of course, you carry out certain tracks with a specific intent, but is that reciprocal? Do you also play music because it makes you feel a certain way?
Definitely, it’s one hundred percent reciprocal. I only have myself when I’m making music. My only way of knowing whether something is worth releasing, it’s how it makes me feel. I got confused, it made me emotional that you said that. The shorter songs are as important to me as the other ones. I did improvise “Pocket Piano” for the first time live as sort of a comedown. I remember thinking more than once: “Whoa, everyone is silent, and connected to the song.” So… I think it’s not only me.
The opener ‘N19 5NF’ sounds like the opposite, like a cosmic big bang or something: there’s so much going on in the concise space of that track. It’s hard to fathom that it was made with just hardware.
I love that you said that it doesn’t sound like hardware, because I agree actually. I was very surprised too! I had just gotten a new delay the day I created that song. I honestly didn’t know how to use it. It’s a Eurorack delay module. I remember taking it out of the box to start playing with it. I had the synth-line of the main arpeggiator and I immediately sent it through the delay. I was like: “Woah, this sounds amazing!” I had no idea what I’m doing, I just recorded it. The magical thing about that song is that it’s the only one I probably won’t be able to replicate exactly as how I recorded it. It was a little mistake, but I just had fun with it. The original version of that track is like 10 minutes long.
I like that you choose to store certain ideas based on these personal yet hard-to-pinpoint criteria. Like a gut reaction maybe.
It’s funny, because I’m not one of those people that saves everything. In both my work and other things, I tend to follow the opposite direction. I throw away way more things than I save. I’m very detached in every sense of the word. So when something inside tells me to save something, it really means something, because I feel things. It’s probably my only criteria: when I feel something in my gut, it’s worth saving.
Going back to the tape notes on your rig, when you funnel those elemental feelings to concise directions, I reckon the chances of stumbling on something worthwhile increases exponentially. I mean, when you play music live in quick succession, the danger of routine starts to sink in when you just “do your set.” But if you use other elements-in this case words-as a guide, you can make it more memorable again.
It also helps you be more grounded. I’ve played drums for many years for other people. Obviously, everything becomes a routine if you have to do it every day. It’s impossible that it doesn’t. But I learned a lot by seeing bands do things I didn’t want to do myself. One thing I wanted to avoid as much as I could was the performance and the music becoming a routine. I think what helps most against that is just being present. When you are present in the minute, then it’s not about anything. Not about what you did the day before, or doing it again the day after. You focus on “that moment” and “that show.” And that’s everything there is. That has helped me so much. Some of the tape on my gear just says that: “Be here!” or “Pay attention!” or “Listen.” Little things like that help me come back to reality.
On “Dominique” you describe the kind of day a person would otherwise forget if you hadn’t documented it in a song. It sounds like a pretty shitty day.
It was so shitty! [ Laughs] You’re right, I probably would have forgotten it if I hadn’t written the song. I remember it quite vividly. I felt like I hit the bottom that day. I had been working by myself on the album for maybe a month or so, slowly turning my schedule around and slowly going to bed. I was eating less, and really going down that black hole. I clearly remember that I woke up and it was nighttime already, literally 7 p.m. When I opened my eyes, my body felt like shit, I couldn’t understand why I slept so much. Why the fuck was it nighttime?
I was so confused. I got up. [ Laughs] I went to the kitchen and there was no food at all. I got very annoyed with the sound of my fridge when I made the record, so I unplugged it. So no refrigerator in my house, no food whatsoever. So I remember going to the kitchen thinking, “Fuck this, I’m just going to make some coffee.” I sat down behind my desk: it’s very common to leave my laptop on the session I was working on the night before. I pushed play in this very hazy state. What I heard was the music for “Dominique” and I loved it.
So I started singing literally about what happened: I woke up at 7 p.m., my brain felt like it was going to break. I think I wrote that part first, and then the chorus. Then I got really hungry so I went outside. I ran into my neighbor in the elevator. Obviously I couldn’t talk because I was so out of it. But he was very excited to talk because he hadn’t seen me. So he was all nice and bubbly, while I couldn’t talk. So I went out to get some food and then wrote the rest of the song. I felt I was touching the bottom; I remember thinking I hadn’t talked to my friends for so long. I was completely disconnected from everything. After that, I thought I should maybe get it together a little bit.
The song lifts me up. Which is kind of morbid in a way, having a cheer at the expense of your dread.
The song makes me happy too now. I feel like it’s a little girl’s song. It has a childish sound to it. So it’s okay, I’m glad, you know? What could be better than bringing joy out of something dreadful? I think that’s the best thing I could have done with “Dominique.”
Now everyone is sort of forced into that detached state of the song because of the pandemic. Which again, is bizarre.
Of course, none of us thought this was going to be reality. Never in my lifetime I have experienced anything near quarantine. Not only with “Dominique” but with the entire record, I have no idea how to feel when something becomes so preempted. It’s almost as if I had written the songs exactly for this moment. I had never worked with a label before or anything. In the past, I’ve worked really fast and released music really fast. This is the first time it took longer. I was patient with the process, and in the beginning I was afraid that I had made such a specific record-one so much in context with my own life at the time-that it wasn’t going to do anything. I obviously couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m still so confused about it.
One of the mottos plastered on your synths is “Bright Music, Dark Times.” Which makes me wonder, are you making the most uplifting Carebear-like music ever now?
No. Actually, it’s funny. Four years ago, I had a show in New York the day after the presidential elections in 2016. It was an extremely rainy day, it felt like mourning, like a funeral. Very, very weird. I remember waiting backstage, and I wrote down “Bright Music, Dark Times” on the side of my case on pink tape. I did not think of it farther than that. I kind of forgot about it but people kept bringing it up. They said it was a good description of my music. Even after I took it off, people would still send me messages about it. For something so ephemeral to me, it amazes me that it stayed with people for so long. So now I embrace it, I guess. One thing I have learned with Ela Minus, compared to anything else I’ve done in my life, is that I really have no idea. I’m just puking stuff, just working. And what matters is what people feel with it. I guess people see a significance in it, so that makes me just curious to explore it further. I always think my music is quite dark, so I try to put some light into it.
Instead of bursting brain cells to come up with deep shit, you’re hungover, numbed and you casually write a line like “the world is made for those who sleep at night.” That’s kind of wild, how realness tends to sneak in like that sometimes, before even you yourself are really aware of it.
[ Laughs] Well, thank you. But I do burst my brain cells in other ways. If I had not seen anybody for months, and I really sacrificed my own life to write those things, that wouldn’t have come out so naturally I guess.
Using your voice in the music wasn’t something you applied immediately to your music. How did you realize your music needed more than just the instrumentation?
That was a very conscious decision. The point in my life when I decided to sing was nearly the same point when I decided to make music completely alone for the first time. I was literally bored of both my life, and the new music I was hearing at the time. I couldn’t find anything that moved me. Before that, that never really happened in my life. And it never happened again, thank god! Because I love music and I’m constantly amazed by new music that I discover. But I was in this moment where I was only playing drums in bands. I’ve been fucking around with synhs in my house but I never really recorded anything with the synths. But I was so tired of bands being cowards really. They over-think everything, trying to be democratic about all the music decisions and make everybody happy in the band. It was about everything except the music.
And I hated that. I started hearing it in the music I was consuming. I saw people desiring to be famous, to be successful, to be liked. I heard everything except honesty. I was just sad and frustrated. This can’t be life, you know? A friend told me I should record my electronic stuff; he always heard me messing around with synths, and really encouraged me to continue pursuing that seriously. So I made a list of things I have never done before. Like, “I have never written a song alone.” I think I started using my voice as a rebellion against not hearing honesty in music. There’s nothing more honest than your own voice, especially when you are not a singer.
I have already spent a lifetime of experience playing drums and studying music. I knew how much ego gets into the plane after you’ve done it for a while. The more you have been doing something, the harder it is to keep yourself humble. And not attach your fears and your ego and your insecurities to your work. I remember thinking: “If I sing, it’s the truest, most honest thing I can do.”
Obviously, it brings another extension of yourself into it. The same with the synths as well. You don’t just use them in a certain individual way, you build them from scratch, so your fingerprints are all over your work. Which brings me to my next question: how did your synth-building side hustle originate?
I went to school [The Berklee College of Music] to study drums, and when I was there I started getting more into electronic music. I enjoyed being around it, going to clubs. And I became fascinated with synthesizers, and I wanted to learn more. I never consciously thought why I wanted to do it. The way I got the job was really organic. Again, I was getting bored at school. All the people wanted to study drums and become the best drummer in the world. And that was boring to me. The people with whom I studied audio synthesis with wanted to be DJs or producers, and work with video game developers. I also wasn’t interested in that.
I learned to code and program things in laptops, and I don’t know, it just didn’t move me. So that’s when I started turning to hardware instead of laptops. And so I got a birthday present: a pocket piano. And I loved it so much that I sent the company, Critter & Guitari, a long email: “Thank you so much for this beautiful machine. This is the way synthesizers should be.” They were really moved by my email, and sent me a message back to maybe come visit. Of course, when I went to New York, we got along. I asked them if I could work there for free, because I wanted to learn. They let me work for free and after about a month they were like: “Okay, now we’re going to hire you!” So, you see, I didn’t really think about it! And I did it as much as I could. I don’t consider things a side-hustle or even a main-hustle. It’s all part of what I do.
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Originally published at https://www.undertheradarmag.com on December 9, 2021.