NUN’s new album The Dome opens a portal to the future and the past at the same time. The nostalgia their second album evokes might not be for my memories, but the sensation of starring in the remake of a huge sci-fi classic is all my own.
I long suspected that synthesizers are self-aware. Anyone who’s spent five minutes with one knows this. Not to belittle what artists do with them—kinda the opposite, really. Is it like convincing a wolf to herd your sheep? Often synths make their agendas known to you, and that it might be nice if you ran with it—had some input, even. Years ago, back before I knew anything about electronic music, I saw NUN play live with their synth-orchestra arrangement: Jenny on vocals, alongside an assortment of synthesizers and drum machines whose sounds were broadcast by Steve, Hugh and Tom. I hadn’t yet had my five minutes alone with one of these machines that turn direct current into music, but I knew I was witnessing an act of high witchcraft.
By this reasoning, by the synth’s ability to endlessly permeate, NUN’s real membership has the capability of being the size of a chamber orchestra. But how does this shape the emotional relationships between members, and their economies? Our tools can be talismans, but I think synths become more than this when shared between people: they are anthropomorphised in our collective imaginations to have personalities, desires, and foibles all of their own. With these thoughts in mind, I asked NUN about the specs, both emotional and technical, of their family of synthesizers, and how they shaped The Dome (with our conversation accompanied by images of the group recording their latest space opera).
I have always found the hierarchical dynamics of playing electronic music together pretty interesting—if you want to sync two machines, one has to be the boss of the other. How do you navigate this? Is there a single master unit in NUN’s setup?
STEVE: My MPC1K handles the drums and some sequences and arpeggios, and playing a synth program on my Novation Bass Station II—so I guess I’m mastering and slaving myself a bit. Perhaps just saying “No Gods or Masters” might be easier?
JENNY: I would say the dominating force is Steve’s world—the drums are very central and play the largest role as the navigator for all the rest of us to sit in and around. But we’ve always functioned as a band. Even when we explain it to sound engineers who might be mixing NUN for the first time, we explain this. Pointing to each section—bass, drums, melody, and vocals.
HUGH: We’re all basically a slave to Steve.
Is there a particular piece of gear in your past that made you fall for hardware electronics? Do you still use it in NUN today?
TOM: I think maybe it was the Roland System-100 in the RMIT studio where we first started making music together. Steve knew what he was doing and guided me. I still remember being overwhelmed by the abundance of three-letter acronyms: LFO, VCO, VCA, VCF. You can hear it on the original Immersion on the tape we did with Enderie. That’s also the mixer’s spring reverb crashing. Seeing how much they go for now, I don’t know that smashing the mixer on the desk was a great idea. It’s definitely not still with us—I’d love one but you see them go for over $10,000 these days.
JENNY: In my first band I used to use a Bass Station synth. I fell in love with it. Everything about its distortion, it was really hard to control and I had no idea what I was doing really. I now play a Bass Station 2 in Vacuum, but NUN doesn’t need another synth player—that would be like adding another pipe-line to Jethro-Tull.
STEVE: The first synth I used in NUN was the Korg MS-10. Amazing filter, but it just became too stressful having to repatch it after each song—the pressure of repatching live on stage between songs was getting old. I still have it, it sits next to the new Korg MS-20 mini, but I think I prefer the tone of the MS-10. Simpler and less options; its bass, its rawness—it sounds like electricity.
Is there a piece of gear in NUN’s setup that feels like the youngest sibling of the fam? Or the eldest?
TOM: From the outset, the Roland SH-1000 I played bass on felt very much like a member of the band. I loved that thing—its laminated wood veneer reminded me of the Rank Arena telly I grew up watching.
JENNY: I have always used a zoom studio 1201 reverb multi effects rack processor with a cheap analogue delay pedal, although for the new record that has changed to the SP-303 sampler—I love it.
Which one is the most unreliable? Have you ever had a piece of gear that felt cursed?
STEVE: Both mine and Tom’s Roland SH-1000’s were notorious for not working, and for having to twist them to get them to work—they both did it!
TOM: Sometimes the keyboard wouldn’t work and you had to hold the back left corner and front right corner and gently tilt it in just the right way to get it going again. It would usually take between 8 and 15 of those gentle twists to get it on again. Meanwhile we’re all sweating, wondering if we can play the show. I eventually opted for convenience and have swapped in a new ARP Odyssey, which doesn’t have the quite same magic but it’s a lot less stressful. I still miss my SH-1000. I hope its new owner is enjoying it.
JENNY: There were some hairy moments. All of us just sitting there staring at the wood veneer willing it to work… work… turn on… deep breaths! I’ve had moments where my Zoom 1201 processor died and I have had to hit it. Like an old TV—ha, that idea of just hitting something to make it work.
I love the mental image of you all standing around the SH-1000 willing it to work, it sounds like a seance. Were there any shows where it felt particularly treacherous?
TOM: We played this show in the huge reading room at the State Library of Victoria a few years back. We were playing in the podium in the middle of the room—it was both exciting and intimidating! Of course, that day the 1000 started firing notes at random—I could control which notes played, but not when. We went a frantic search for a replacement but had no luck. I actually did end up fixing it—one of the switches was faulty—but not in time. I played Steve’s MS-10 that night.
Is there a piece of gear that reminds you of a specific person? Are they still in your lives, or is the gear a nice way to connect with them?
HUGH: Steve and I both use Mattel Synsonics drum machines live and have bonded over them. They’re these small plastic boxes with rubber drum pads, and sound engineers always complain about the noise and hum they generate even when not being played but we love how cheap and nasty sounding they are with hissing white noise hats and symbols, toms with a pitch knob and really punchy snares—they’re heaps of fun. You can hear Steve counting in songs by hitting his live, and triggering his sequences with them. In ‘Evoke The Sleep’ from our first LP I’m crudely hitting away at it to create the laser beam sounds.
Has a piece of gear ever broken your heart?
HUGH: Only when I forgot to bring a piece of gear to a show and it was too late to go home to get it. So I guess my absent mindedness broke my own heart.
Who are the newest members of the family—what gear joined the rig for The Dome? How did they come into your lives?
JENNY: The new songs have a different feel to them. There’s a lot more clarity so the distorted and broken nature of the digital zoom would not be complementary, so I’m using a Boss VE-20 vocal processor.
STEVE: Since the album was recorded I’ve had 4 or 5 rig changes. It just evolved over time.
Does making electronic music feel more like something that makes you speculate on the future, or dwell on the past?
JENNY: I think that anyone making music is referencing their time and place. I feel this very much encompasses an overarching understanding of past and the future. The history of modern music, the repetitive nature of the machine correlates to the repetitive nature of the piano—the duplication, mechanical reproduction, the production of rock music, pedals, guitars, amplification and vocal effects, is all so similar. I do find it hard to separate electronic music from most forms of modern music and render past, present or future. However personally I feel a very strong relationship to my youth and that first experience of pop culture in the 80s—watching Top of The Pops was just like being transported into another world; new wave, punk, goth and pop all at visual peak.
TOM: It’s kind of both and neither for me. I mean, we’re certainly influenced by a whole bunch of bands from the past (Human League, Pet Shop Boys, TG) but it’s never been about recreating any of it. I really just think of it as writing pop songs, like I would in a band with acoustic drums and electric guitars. Catchy songs with a synthesised sonic palette.
STEVE: I guess it is inevitable that the past will inform the present and the future. Electronic music was always seen as futuristic, but it’s been around for a very long time now.
Jenny—I found what you said about the ingrained repetition of music interesting, not because music shouldn’t be repetitive, but because it makes me think about the trance that repetition can lull you into. Where do you go when you’re singing on stage, or coming up with lyrics?
JENNY: I have always liked working in repetition too, ha! Some of my favourite jobs have been stacking shelves at night or folding paper into envelopes and trying to get a system that is most effective. It’s when the mind turns off that I find the images, ideas or feelings you want become tangible. It really can carry you elsewhere.
On stage for me performing is an entry point to doing the weird thing that is being on a stage yelling. I very much rely on that repetition of sound and the noises that Steve, Hugh and Tom are making. It feels okay to just leave the conscious spot behind and go elsewhere. Honestly, if I was to be self aware I could not get into the state needed to perform and express that kind of cathartic spilling out, which in so many ways is trance like.
I read that The Dome was written and recorded while the band was tucked away somewhere on the Great Ocean Road. Do you normally compose together in intense bursts like this where reality is suspended? Or do you find ways to incorporate it into your daily lives?
TOM: We just didn’t want to draw the recording out. It was actually a great way to do it and only occasionally did we experience cabin fever and stress, which is pretty remarkable considering it was at least five days we spent there. It was a great space in Fairhaven with a beautiful view of the ocean. It was cool to have the space to set all our equipment up and audition it at our whim when we needed to. I’d say we had 75% of the album prepared and ready to go at practices before we recorded and the rest we just worked out along the way.
JENNY: That was a really productive way to do it! We did allow ourselves set breaks, nighttime dinner and two episodes of Saxondale and then back to it.
The Dome feels like it was made for a film—maybe a sinister space opera. What movie would you love to remake the soundtrack to? (I know I personally was beaten to the punch when someone recently wrote a new gabber soundtrack to Blade.)
JENNY: Yes!! Ha ha that opening vamp club scene in Blade—what a time. As for me, this is a tough one. It would have to be a tie between Terminator 2, Rivers Edge (score only as the soundtrack is too good to mess with) and Picnic At Hanging Rock. I deem all John Carpenter films OST perfection and I would hate to remake them, as they are perfect as is.
TOM: Repo Man!
HUGH: I think a gabber soundtrack could work well in many films. I’d probably go for a classic with lots of time and space to mess around with like Being There, or something more menacing but ridiculous like Falling Down or Straw Dogs.
STEVE: Something trashy, I’d love to do “CYBORG”, a classic post apocalypse Van Damme action flick. Some rough and ready early ebm would be good for that. Basically any old sci-fi film pre-CGI would be amazing.
NUN – The Dome
Released by Aarght Records in November 2018
NUN are currently in the midst of their national album tour:
Bridget Chappell is the founder of community project Sound School, makes solo bent dance music as Hextape, co-runs Vapor Noir drain rave, and studies classical cello at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. She’s hoping to find someone else there who likes gabber.
All photos by Tom Hardisty, capturing when NUN recorded The Dome.