Eli Murray seems bemused at the buzz around his work at the moment. He is initially self-effacing about the prospect of being the cover artist for Cyclic Defrost, but as the results show, his modesty belies a tremendous artistic confidence and creative spirit.
This confidence is also exhibited in his music as Gentleforce, which arrives in the form of Sacred Spaces, a fully-formed set of wide-screen electronic compositions, released on Feral Media in May. Prior to releasing this album, Eli was well-known in Sydney’s music scene for his DJing and promoting in the drum’n’bass and dubstep worlds.
Eli is an acute listener, a quality which manifests in his highly thoughtful and evocative music. As a kid, Eli’s parents observed his interest in musical instruments and tried him out on piano. But at that age, his reaction was one of boredom.
“I couldn’t really see the beauty in it yet, it was a chore,” he says, even if he was constantly listening to music throughout his school years. “It was all cassettes lent to me by older people. I got handed all kinds of stuff. I do recall around Year 7 or 8 was when I got rave tapes for the first time, and metal stuff, and some of my first hip-hop experiences were listening to the likes of Public Enemy. When I think about it now, all the stuff I listened to had to be extreme.
“My first ‘club’ experience was age 18 or 19,” he continues. “I went to Sublime when it was in Pitt Street. It’s funny talking about Sublime these days because it’s such a commercial, mainstream club. [But] that opened the floodgates into dance culture and all that comes with it. I was making a lot of cassette and CD compilations, so I got into DJing with a passion for sharing music. It wasn’t to play out in clubs or whatever, it was just enjoying that – just mixing at home. I bought decks, a mixer, closed the door and learnt to beat match for a few months. Then I played house parties for a few years which was good because it got me a lot of experience playing different systems, and having idiots shout at you, ‘Play this, play that!’. When I finally got to a club it was a nice system and easy to hear, but still nerve wracking. I do remember going, ‘Wow, this is so much easier than some shitty house party with a hundred kids screaming at you!'”
Eli was also attracted to the creative aspect of DJing. “At first I just learnt to mix house and drum’n’bass, and that was easy to learn to beat-match, but I realised with the slower tempos it’s a lot harder to mix. Then I got some mixes by Coldcut, DJ /Rupture and DJ Spooky, who were doing these vast, eclectic mixes, and that blew me away.”
As a professional DJ, Eli’s early years were spent in the club – making his name doing drum’n’bass sets. It was, as he puts it, “a good, friendly scene”. But on the side he was being invited to do more eclectic sets – his real passion.
“I was into too many styles, so I spent way too much money on vinyl. I lost interest about five years ago in buying drum’n’bass. I was playing other styles, and I got into dubstep around then – Tempa, Horsepower etc. I had a small group of friends who were into it, particularly my friend Scott (aka Kodama), and he was online every week buying everything. Most of the early stuff on Ghost and Tempa was only vinyl, and limited runs, but Scott would get all these and put on little parties and play the stuff out.”
Their passion for dubstep led to them putting on a night called Submerged at the Abercrombie Hotel in Chippendale, as the Southern Steppas crew. Starting in December 2005, these culminated with a show in March 2007 at which dubstep legend Mala (from Digital Mystikz) played.
“That happened because of a few crews; the VOID guys and Farj & Paul Fraser who run Garage Pressure. It was huge and really positive. We were really pushing dubstep and other bass music. We’d still play Planet Âµ and other weird electronic stuff, and for the early sets we’d get a friend to play straight-up dub, to give it a kind of ‘This is where it’s from, this is where it’s at now’ dynamic. They were low-key Thursday nights. There would just be 50 people, but they’d be loving it, and we would be too.
“Not long after the Mala show, I kind of burnt out – because it was free, I was putting money in just to hire the system, and I couldn’t really pay the DJs much, but it was still fun.”
Eli hails from Sydney’s Northern Beaches; an area that lacked a live music scene in 2003 when he and his friends first wanted to put on gigs. “There were a few decent clubs that we could hire, so we used to put on a night called Rebellion (rebelling against the mainstream of surf-rock there). We had a good group of friends, including the Underlapper guys who were into electronic music as well, so we’d still get a decent turnout.”
Rebellion ran for a year or so, and they began playing dubstep during that time.
“When I pulled out, Damien from VOID had just come back from overseas, and the scene was just exploding – now with VOID they just pack those nights out. I hardly ever go there any more because – it’s good, you know, great sound system, dark room – but it’s just bangin’ all night.” Eli is more likely to be found at Index, a sister night to VOID, at which his preferred strain of techno and deeper dubstep gets to be played. “I’ve gotten to support all my favourite producers in that scene like 2562 and Scuba and Headhunter.”
Eli’ approach to his own music is clearly influenced by his journey through different genres.
“With drum’n’bass in particular everyone is focused on production, production, production – it’s all about the latest gear, how clean and big your sound can be and how much compression and all that. I think maybe what was appealing to me about dubstep was, here’s this bunch of guys just making bass music again, making it simple, making this stuff that was kinda lo-fi, but keeping it simple. It was nice and refreshing to just hear a few elements – bassline, kick drum, a woodblock and a sample. There’s all this space again, and it’s warm, and not focusing on production as much.
“Now of course it’s become like that as well (big aggressive production), but that’s what has that special place for me, those earlier years, those 12-inches and all those producers like Mala & DMZ and Skream and Benga.”
Following this discussion of clubs and DJing, it’s rather interesting to hear that the Gentleforce album came out of a desire to never hear club music at home. “Coming home was just wanting to hear nice stuff – not just electronic music, I’m into experimental electronic and downbeat stuff, but I’m also really getting into folk and blues and a lot of rock stuff. Stuff like Pan American, stuff on Kranky.
“When I started to take writing music a bit more seriously, it was [after realising]I wanted to play music you’d want to hear at home. And that wasn’t going to be club music, it was definitely going to be something more beautiful, something warmer. So there are a few beats on the album, but I didn’t ever want them to be the focus – those things are hidden, or sit in the background.
“I always like the idea of beats being something that just carries the song rather than being the focus. But saying that, I’m starting to think I’d like to make some stuff that people could still dance to.”
In fact, recently Eli collaborated on a work with dancer Robyn Wilson.
“The track’s called ‘New Ground’, and was kind of a breakthrough for me (hence the name). I wrote the track in one day, and I got lost in it – it goes for 10 minutes or so. One thing for me: I write in the morning. I love getting up as the sun’s coming up, having some breakfast and coffee. I feel inspired then. I started at 7 in the morning and finished at 5, I hadn’t eaten or anything. It was one of the first tracks I’d done as a collaboration, and that’s one thing I really want to get into – whether it be a live performance or film and soundtrack stuff. I’ve done a few short pieces for documentaries and short films for friends, and I’d love to do more of that in the future.” (A special free download of this track can be found with the online version of this interview.)
Despite a long-term love affair with music, and much experience playing other people’s music, it was with a spirit of independence that Eli embarked upon writing his own music. “I’ve always been afraid of being too influenced by other people’s production or music making, or wanting to make it sound like this, or the EQing or production side to sound like that.”
Starting with the software Reason, Eli moved on to Ableton Live after winning it in a raffle when Robert Henke (aka Monolake, one of the main developers of the software) made an in-store appearance in Australia.
“I’ve picked up a few mags and read about compression and EQing, but really it was just me learning how to use Ableton. The hardest part of making this album was the mixing, though. That was the most unenjoyable part. When you start to worry too much about production, all the magic of making music kinda leaves, becomes [too]analytical.
“I’ve got one or two projects coming along, but one is trying to write music without worrying about the mixing thing. There’s this whole cassette culture coming along now, and I think that’s really nice: not worrying about the production, just being creative and then letting it go – whereas this album was being creative and having fun, but getting to a point where it’s ‘Oh, I’ve got to worry about how it’s going to sound now’.”
So in the future from Gentleforce we can expect “sound pieces, drone and ambient pieces, tracks that can go for half an hour. I want to do that, as well as doing shorter versions – the next album as Gentleforce could be songs for radio, and my other stuff could be sort of half hour pieces.”
The album’s title points to something central about the way Eli went about creating the tracks. “The name was a reference to many things, but particularly the specialness of music and the sacredness of it. Everyone’s experienced music in that way – a pop song’s really nice, but then you hear a piece that really moves you, and it’s almost like you can’t describe it; it’s something special, divine or sacred, almost a spiritual experience. So it’s referring to my intimacy and specialness in writing music, and spaces being physical spaces I’ve actually been to – but also spaces that might not exist, beyond the physical, creative spaces.
“That was the reference with Sacred Spaces for me – each of the songs on the album were really intimate parts of experiences I’ve had, trying to capture an emotion or a feeling and putting it in a song.
“With this album I’ve wanted to make an album where when you listen to it it’s kind of a positive thing. I found that really challenging because there’s a lot of dark music out there, and it’s kind of easier to make dark music than to make people uplifted without being too cheesy.”
Art has gone hand-in-hand with music his entire life, through drawing with mates in high school back to cartoons and comic books in primary school.
“I remember going to the newsagent on a weekly basis to buy comics, and cartoons like Ren & Stimpy and Akira had a profound effect on me at the time. In high school my art teacher introduced me to Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and James Gleeson, this opened my mind up to new ways of approaching my art as well as using my imagination as the canvas. Musically at the time I was hungry for new sounds and I had a few older friends who introduced me to a lot of great music. I would often meet up with my friend Jonothan, who was in the year above me at school. I would go over to his house and he would always be playing music I had not heard: albums like Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew were heard for the first time there and just blew me away! We would often put on music and just draw for hours, not saying a word. I feel now, stronger than ever, that music is a big factor in the way I create art.
“I think I have always been into line drawing as it’s a style of art that can be very instantaneous and direct. I use pen all the time and this can be a blessing and a curse as sometimes I find myself hesitant to commit to a image as it is permanent and cannot be erased once drawn. Although I dig nothing more than just zoning out and not thinking about what to draw, I let my mind just wander. That is when I feel I draw the best.”
In 2009, Sydney post-rock back Underlapper came up with the idea of releasing their next album in a limited vinyl edition evenly split between 5 different artists. Knowing some of Eli’s artwork, they asked him to contribute.
“It was only recently that I’ve wanted to [start drawing to music]again, particularly with the line drawing, because it takes hours. But I love it – it’s a real meditative thing, and for me my favourite thing in art in general is when you’re not thinking about it and just letting it come out. So I started practising that again in the last year, and Greg (Stone, from Underlapper) asked me to do a cover. I was just blown away – people like the Sopp Collective were involved, and I was just, ‘I just draw!’.
“It felt a bit funny, but when I met everyone it was just such a lovely bunch of people. It worked out well because there wasn’t a lot of colour – everyone just used black, white grey, and I don’t use a lot of colour in my art.
“I said to Greg, ‘Give me a copy, because I only want to draw to your album’ – I really wanted to capture that on the page. I love faces, and what I’m trying to do with the Underlapper cover is trying to capture a person’s face and what’s going on there – an emotion or some aspect of that person – and trying to capture that by drawing on them and around them. The drawing on the Underlapper is of a friend of mine, James de la Cruz (who used to be in the Avalanches). I took a whole lot of photos of him when there was a rainbow out, and I got him to stand with his mouth open – to have something coming out of him. The cover extends that, to show him, but also all this stuff coming out of him.”
“In terms of influences at the moment my biggest influences would be David Ellis, Brendan Monroe, Meredith Dittmar and Australian artists Dylan Martorell and Cailan Burns. I’m also really influenced by band poster art from the ’60s, ’70s, when it was all drawn – lots of lines and shapes, I just get lost in that kind of art. I really love the whole hand created approach to art they were doing then. Painting, drawing and collage art was really prominent and there were many super gifted artists that did so much cool line drawing and paintings. I’m into ’60s & ’70s rock, obvious bands like Pink Floyd, and then a whole lot of other psychedelic pop bands. I briefly looked at that before I did the Underlapper, and I thought I really want to draw the font for this!”
The cover for this issue of Cyclic also features a hand-drawn font and a face, if rather less identifiable than James de la Cruz. While not exactly collage, the background is created from photographed layers of textured paper, pieced together on computer. Many Cyclic readers will be taken by the cassette and its invocation of youthful mixtape swaps.
“I am definitely fond of mixtapes. Creating and receiving mixtapes is really special; the fact that someone has put time into making it. I find the idea of mixtapes a bit nostalgic personally. I also love analogue sound. There’s a warmth to tapes that I can’t resist! That tape hiss! Analogue equipment features in a lot of my artwork.
“When I look at Cyclic Defrost I think of vinyl, and it’s such a hands-on thing. I still think vinyl artwork is the best way of viewing music and art – CD is so small! I think I’ll always buy vinyl because of that. I have this ongoing idea of building a massive collection; I know we’re going to have kids one day, and I’d love to be able to play music to a child still in such a physical way. To go, ‘oh, here’s music’, and it’s not just an mp3 that they’ve never touched. Hopefully that physical aspect of listening for other people won’t die.”
Gentleforce’s Sacred Spaces is available from Feral Media.