Boris Carloff has figured prominently on our top secret ‘need to interview’ list since we started Praguebeats earlier this year. Not only is he an award-winning producer and highly-respected artist in his own right, he’s also one of the friendliest and down-to-earth guys you could hope to meet. We spent an extremely enjoyable Friday evening at his Soundevice studio talking about his new album, ‘The Escapist‘, listening to music, and salivating over vintage microphones.
Here’s what transpired…
Praguebeats: Can you give us a brief story of your life and career so far?
Boris Carloff: I am originally a violinist and, when I was 15, my parents took me to the conservatoire. I was there half a year and, when I was sixteen, it was horrible because I was training eight hours a day, no weekends. It was really horrible for me but it gave me something. I went on to grammar school and then I studied philosophy at university. When I was in my second year, I started going to Oslo with my friend and I would busk in the street. Yeah, I played the violin and he played guitar. And then, some of my friends said I was really good and that I should play in an orchestra. I started to play in the Oslo orchestra then I took a year off university and played in the Oslo King’s orchestra. Then I finished school and returned to Norway. I realised Norway was a great country and wanted to stay there but the winter was really hard, REALLY! It’s really dark in the winter, so it’s depressing and I couldn’t work with it. I like the sun and so I came back and I was in a small town in Moravia where I was born and I taught English there.
I wasn’t too excited about teaching English to small children so I left and went to London for one year and my friend offered me a position as a shop assistant in the digital village. I had a lot of friends there and immediately I started to work in a studio. In between, I started to make my own music. I started to make nu-jazz and funk. I think it was 2005 it was starting in south London – beat style. It was nu-jazz and a bit of broken beat and I started to make this kind of music. Then I returned to the Czech Republic and did a project called Not Photogenic. There were three of us, we made an album together and it was quite successful. Because people liked what I made in the studio and so on, they hired me as a producer. That’s how I started. Old story!
PB: Ok, tell us about The Escapist. What motivated you to make this album?
BC: On one hand it was my work, my art expressed. One of the basics was that I had some things in my life, my brother died and my dad died and three or four songs were based on that. It was like a kind of psychotherapy or something like that. I think this is music that I would like to listen to and which I would like to produce but didn’t have the chance.
The album took four years to make. I did one album that I put to rubbish. I took one song from it that is still on the album and it’s called “Shadows”. Then, I did the rest and I put it to rubbish as well and all the other songs are from last year. We have a house by the seaside in Croatia, so I usually take two months off every year and I made some basics there and finished when I had free time here.
PB: It must have been quite difficult to throw away two albums?
BC: It is something like self-censorship because, when you hear it, if it doesn’t fit together it’s better to give it to somebody else or put it somewhere else rather than make an album that you don’t like in the end.
I took two lyrics that I liked. “All these days” from the album and I put two lyrics together and made one song from them. One song was used by Krystof. It was a single.
PB: Off on a tangent again, but didn’t The Prodigy do something similar? I remember Liam Howlett saying something about when making their album he had a load of songs and some he released to the public but still threw them all away.
BC: Yeah, I think it is a good idea. Don’t be afraid to put something out because you can start from scratch. You can repair repair and repair and in the end you say “Ah… it doesn’t work!”
PB: Did you think about doing the lyrics in Czech or did you always plan to do them in English?
BC: I was thinking about it at first but I think it is quite clever to have it in English. I think it is really good for me that I did it in English. It was harder for me to make it in English than in Czech of course, because I am not a native speaker, but I am quite happy with it.
PB: How did you approach the lyric-writing process in terms of when you realised it was going to be in English? That must have been tricky.
BC: Yeah I used to read a lot of English poems, so there wasn’t such a problem to do the lyrics. I think there was not so much a problem to write the lyrics as to sing them because I wanted to be at least as perfect as I was able. I tried really to make it as good as possible, it’s not perfect, it couldn’t be but it is alright (laughs).
For two of the songs, I had a vocal producer, James Cook from NEMO, yeah, and he gave me some advice and I think it was really useful because I can hear what is really wrong but there were some small details for which I needed somebody who is a native speaker to tell me what was wrong. Sometimes I wouldn’t even recognise why. The rest, I have relatives in the US, in Chicago, and I sent it there and they either said it’s alright” or “it’s not”.
PB: Did you record all the parts yourself?
BC: Yeah, almost everything. There are three songs where the drums are recorded by Doug Yowell, the drummer of Suzanne Vega, two of the basses are recorded by my friend from the band Nightwork– a great Jazz bassist – and there are three songs with cello by Terezie Kovalová from Calm Season.
There are almost no sample loops. If it is a sample it is played on a keyboard and played through a sampler. And what is totally live is some of the percussion and strings. Because I am a violinist I played part of the strings line. But all the rest is played with a sampler. I didn’t use any parts from any other albums. I tried to be really pure in it!
PB: The video for “Falling” what did the making of that involve?
BC: Yeah that was really funny. I had to do everything in front of a green screen, so I didn’t see anything. I played both people. All the moves, all the walking were done by just acting so, at first, it was quite a problem to imagine everything. It was big fun, yeah, and the rest was made by my two friends (Martin and Jan Živočtí of The ObraskiBros) on a computer, like animation, like 3d animation and then it took five months to finish. It was inspired by movies from the 20s and also the age of American horror in the 20s and also from the Czech filmmaker – Karel Zemen.
PB: How has the video been received?
BC: I think everybody loved it which was good! Quite happy! I didn’t expect it. I have, for example, my friends from Berlin whom I haven’t seen for ten years and they were like “Ah I’ve seen your video, someone sent it to me, it’s great!” It has 30,000 views in one month. It’s great!
PB: Tell us about the drums! How did you approach the drums on the album?
BC: I had the recorded drums from Doug. I chopped them up and reworked them. In ‘Shadows’ the drums are really rhythmical but this is a big arrangement whereas in ‘Circles’, which is quite innocent, I tried not to use too much percussion, only some natural things.
PB: Is making music what you always wanted to do?
BC: YEAH (laughter), I always wanted to make my own music. It’s quite different from being a producer because, if you like computer graphics, you make computer graphics for other bands but if you are a painter you make your own music?! This is the difference.
PB: Do you consider yourself primarily an artist or a producer?
BC: I would prefer to be an artist than a producer. You know it’s sometimes really like work or a job to be a producer. It’s not fun sometimes, especially if you’re doing bands which have to make radio singles and so on, there is some pressure. Just now, I’m in a position that I’m starting to work only with bands which I’m enjoying. The last, I think, two years I’m doing only things which I like. It needn’t be an indie thing or something like that. It could be a pop thing but, if I like it, and I feel good energy, alright. And, also, I recognise for myself that it’s better when I can put more of myself (into it) than be only like a worker for somebody.
PB: What’s a typical day for you… if you have one?
BC: Yeah yeah yeah, I have a typical days which are simple. It’s like, I’m up, at eleven I’m here in the studio, I’m working with a band or I’m mixing or I’m arranging things, which I’m doing most of the time. And, for example, at three I go to have some food, then I come back and then I’m here until seven and then I go home. That’s my usual day.
PB: Ok, nice (laughter) it’s been a hard week at work and that sounds like a dream! What kind of music do you listen to in your free time?
BC: Just now, honestly, I’m listening only to classical music. Modern classical music. I like a lot of Icelandic things, a lot of things from Scandinavia. I like things from the 60s like minimalistic music, Phillip Glass and so on, Steve Reich too. And, also, I really like music impressionists like Debussy or Ravel and so on. I think I’m coming back to my background, yeah, I started with classical music and just now I’m coming back to classical music. And from recently I really like, for example, Shields by Grizzly Bear. I like Two Weeks as well, yeah, the album before. But, the new one is really great, this album which I think has more of a concept. There is no such big hit as a Two Weeks, but it’s more like, I don’t know, really like concept music.
PB: And we also wanted to ask you about the Czech music industry…
BC: The Czech music industry is quite funny because we’re a really small market and, because we are so small, there is a problem to make money from it. Then also there is a problem to invest money. So, people are afraid of new things because, if it works it will still work, so it is better for old musicians for and old bands and there is not such pressure to discover something. I think Czech music has a big problem that there are a lot of copycats, which means that if it’s not a copy of something, it’s hard to be accepted because it’s harder to put it in some category like ‘rock’ or to say “yeah I know it from somewhere, alright it must be good then”. I think it’s a problem of all small markets. I know the Austrian market really well, it’s totally the same. Germany is, of course, different but Austria is the same as the Czech Republic, maybe even worse.
I think the Czech market is quite conservative. We have Czech radio pop which is like pop rock with important lyrics, and it’s suitable for 80% of Czech people. The rest listen to alternative genres like black metal or something like that. Metal is really popular here, I don’t why, but it is.
BC:… and I think, for example, 5% of this whole market could be interesting. And I think it’s quite a shame if I, for example, compare it to Icelandic music. They put so much investment into music which is new and interesting and I think it’s returning back to them because you can really easily name four or five bands from Iceland, which is really small country of 500 000 people, that are really famous. I think this is the way, yeah? I think people here and in Central Europe will find it in ten years and then all the music markets will be different.
PB: Is there any Czech music you can recommend?
BC: I think we have a couple of things that are really interesting. For example, Iva Bittová. I think this is the most original thing from the Czech Republic, she sounds a bit like Bjork with no electronics. She’s doing something like very classical music with alternative things and she moved to New York, I think four years ago. I think it’s the most interesting thing in the last 20 years here. There are also a lot of young bands here. I think usually their problem is that they are copying something. There are, I think, some electronic things which are really interesting. Floex, for example, I think is really European quality. Also Zka4t, and Dikolson I think is good as well. So that’s what I would recommend…
PB: Can we ask you some questions about the studio?
(Even more laughter)
PB: It’s quite exciting. First of all, how long have you had this studio for?
BC: I have had studios for ten years already. The last one was in Vršovice. It had a big desk but it ate too much electricity so I had really big power bills every month, so I don’t want a big desk anymore. I’ve been here for four years.
PB: Ok, are you constantly adding to it?
BC: Yeah, I’m a bit of a freak.
BC: Really really.
(Even more sniggering)
BC: I think everything I make from music and from bands and so on, I’m putting back into the studio. And quality microphones which are my quite sick passion.
Boris proceeds to show us around the rest of his studio which includes a collection of vintage microphones that would induce a severe state of gear lust in even the most hardened of studio engineers (Check out the Soundevice studio website for more details on Boris’ collection of vintage hardware).
BC: I’m trying to collect what I will use. I think 99% of it I am really using, I am not just collecting for collecting’s sake but for using in the studio because I like some vintage sounds and so on. It works really well and I think the technique from the 50s and 60s is still the best.
PB: What’s your most prized piece of gear? If you could only take one thing?
BC: I think I would take er, oh … only one microphone? (mournful) I think one of my microphones. I really wouldn’t know which (considers for a while). I think the U47 or the C12, they are the most expensive (laughter). Maybe the M49, I dunno. These three M49, U47 and C12.
PB: Which mixers and engineers do you admire the most?
PB: Last section now, the fun section, a bit random … If you could collaborate with one person, such as an artist, who would it be?
BC: Ah, this is a hard question (laughter) (long pause)
One person….(more laughter). I think it would be…could it be a band? Beatles? (even more laughter)
PB: Which person in the Beatles?
BC: I think John Lennon, I like Harrison as well, but not so much McCartney.
PB: What about George Martin?
BC: Yeah, I think then they wouldn’t need me any more!
PB: If you could travel back in time and fully experience one musical era, where and when would it be?
BC: I think I would be in Abbey Road, year 1965.
PB: What are your favourite music venues in Prague?
BC: I really like Chapeau Rouge, sometimes I don’t like all the music, but I think Chapeau Rouge has a vibe that I like, maybe it was better before than now, but still I think it’s the best just now.
PB: Last question, you can take five disks with you if you’re stranded on a desert island…
BC: I think it would be Phillip Glass – Dracula, Massive Attack – Blue Lines, Bjork – Vespertine, DJ Shadow – Entroducing, is that four or five?
PB: That’s four (laughter), one more…
BC: White Album, White Album from The Beatles.
Boris Carloff’s album – The Escapist – was released on 17th October 2012 and is available to buy on Itunes (we think you should, by the way). He will be performing material from the album in several countries in the New Year, including a special television appearance in America. He’ll also be performing in Prague and we’re going to be there! For more details, check his website and Facebook page. We’d like to say a big thank you to Boris for taking the time to talk to us!
James and Adam