Niagara is the Portuguese trio of Sara Eckerson and brothers Antonio and Alberto Arruda. I first encountered them via their 2013 EP on Lisbon’s Principe label Ouro Oeste, and with its raw loose jammy house vibes it sounded like nothing else before or since – particularly by the band themselves. As I encountered more of their music, the mutant disco/ tech vibes of Ímpar, or the weirdo Afro electro of their 2018 debut long player Apologia, I quickly realised that this was a group that refused to sit still. No two records sound the same, and their recordings are culled from countless hours of jamming and recording – to the extent that they started their own label Ascender to release some of their excess material. In the last couple of years much of their ridiculously difficult to find self released early material has started to be issued by various labels. Discrepant’s 1807 (Músicas Retiradas Dos CDRs) compiled their cdr releases between 2014 and 2018, whilst the Disciples label have released two editions, Parva Naturalia and Magna Moralia. With so much interest in the band we took the opportunity to do something we never thought possible – interview them. Conducted via email we’re actually not sure which of the trio we spoke to or where they were writing from, but we hope this short conversation does provide some illumination on one of the more interesting and mysterious outfits in operation at the moment.
Cyclic Defrost: When you started Niagara what were you hoping to achieve? Your music and the way you approach it seems so different from anything else. Was this a conscious decision you made at the start?
Niagara: When we started Niagara, we just wanted to make some music together- to find a space to create some music that was very dear to us. We actually started making music together when one of us was having a birthday party.
To be different was sort of a conscious decision. We did not want to fit into any formula, but of course any musician knows that you are only going to do what you can do. And only when you find what you can do well, does the music actually sound real.
Cyclic Defrost: Was there any inspiration from other artists in what you were trying to do? Because when I first heard your music I felt like it had just dropped out of the sky fully formed – by aliens or something.
Niagara: Niagara is made up of three people. So, there were many different things that we liked listening to, each one of us. But we always wanted our music to be direct, to only keep the essential, like most of the music that we admire.
Cyclic Defrost: What did it feel like being part of the early days of Principe? Was there much solidarity between artists? Did you feel like you were part of something new?
Niagara: The early days of Príncipe were really exciting, and it still is. There’s always new music all of the time. In the beginning, we met some of the other artists and travelled together. But certainly we all felt like we were part of something new and we still believe it was something new that never happened before here.
Cyclic Defrost: What made you start your own label?
Niagara: We always recorded a lot in different ways, different formats, different combinations, different instruments. At some point, it became clear to us that it was important to release some of this music and that it was imprudent to always rely on others to make this music available. Ascender became an extension of us. All the records were conceived to be in harmony with the music. Also, Ascender gave us the possibility to start making the CD-R’s. This gave us a tremendous amount of freedom.
Cyclic Defrost: Every release of yours sounds very different from the previous one. Is there much talk about what you’re trying to achieve before recording?
Niagara: We never talk a lot about what we are going to do. We record continuously, always looking for some concrete free expression. In this continuum, the form changes. And we usually release those songs that we like best every time the form shifts. Instead of planning too much, we just edit ourselves. It is more like waiting for something to change naturally and then containing it.
Cyclic Defrost: Last time I was in Lisbon I picked up a 7inch of yours Comboios. Can you tell me a little bit about this release? I can’t understand what is being said on the cover – and my girlfriend is Portuguese!
Niagara: That release – the titles – are a reference to a particular time when we travelled a lot by train. For some reason, that ended up influencing some of the rhythms we were creating at the time. We don’t want to reveal very much of the text, but if you count the syllables of the third and fourth lines there is something relevant in the number. Also, there is a connection between those lines and one other line written on “Parva Naturalia”s artwork, which we absolutely love. Nevertheless, it makes perfect sense that your girlfriend is perplexed by it.
Cyclic Defrost: To what degree does improvisation and jamming play a part in the way you make music?
Niagara: That is interesting because we do not make a distinction between improvisation, jamming, and composition. We are a trio. We play different instruments. Some of us play the same instruments. And all ideas are welcome. So, we also don’t make a distinction between who writes what. We have a studio that is set up so that we can record things very quickly and in different ways with different instruments. And then we shift everything around from time to time in the studio. It is also important for us to put ourselves in new situations, and that may imply using new instruments or even recording in a different way. But, as we said before, we record continuously and so sometimes the end of a song is already a compositional idea for the next one where we might improvise variations.
Cyclic Defrost: You seem to like to sit on a groove for a long time with small changes occurring quite slowly. It kind of reminds me of an electronic version of Krautrock or Komische, it’s very hypnotising. Is that the intention?
Niagara: Yes. We do like that. We tend towards music where there is not a lot of change, not a lot of things happening, not a lot of distractions, but music where all changes are significant. That’s common to all three of us.
Cyclic Defrost: Parva Naturalia compiles some of your older material, as does your recent release on Discrepant , 1807 (Músicas Retiradas Dos CDRs). Does it feel strange to release this music now? Do you feel nostalgic looking back on it?
Niagara: We do not feel strange or nostalgic at all, but rather happy. This is a very good question. No nostalgia, but it is true that all of this music now has a different existence. But music always has different existences, different lives, throughout time: when it’s made, when it’s mixed, when it’s out on a record. Nevertheless, it is interesting to hear them now in the company of other songs. They shine in a new light that we really like. We are very happy about this.
For example, this also happened with “Magna Moralia”. Although none of that music had ever been released before, it had a very strong presence in our minds when we recorded it. And then we briefly forgot about it, and only when we brought it out for the release did that special presence come back strongly.
Cyclic Defrost: How would you describe what Niagara does?
Niagara: What we do is jazz. Not in the sense that we follow or copy a certain recipe or even tradition, but in the original sense. We look for new forms within the limits of what we can do. And then those limits expand and the form changes. This is fundamental. This is concrete freedom: to always look for the new form and not lose track of who you are. You have to still be there in this change.
Cyclic Defrost: What continues to inspire you about making music?
Niagara: That there is uncharted territory. We are musicians and so making music for us is a necessity; it’s life; it is a natural condition.
Cyclic Defrost: What is the plan for 2022?
Niagara: “Parva Naturalia” just came out. And we are very happy about it. People should also check out the Zine that comes with it. There is an entire world in there! That is the world in the music. There is no borderline between those images and the music. You would be surprised how much of that music was created by osmosis. We only realize now how much of that iron and dirt and paint is in the music.
We are also planning to release some more CD-Rs and recording new stuff.
Parva Naturalia is out now via Disciples. You Can find it here. Magna Moralia is also out now via Disciples. You can find it here. 1807 (Músicas Retiradas Dos CDRs) is available via Discrepant you can find it here.
Niagara band photo – Marta Pina