Exercises, a new mini-album by the Montreal musician CFCF (Mike Silver) for Toronto's Paper Bag Records, is a masterpiece of restraint. With stately piano melodies informed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and judiciously applied synthesizers that convey a subtle touch of the cosmic, it's one of the most limpid recordings I've heard lately.
So it's ironic that Skype decided to act up during my interview with Silver, turning his voice into a garbled robot mess; it sounded a little like the VoIP pipes had been infected by a malignant strain of mutant Auto-Tune. (Actually, given that voice synthesis and processing was a byproduct of military technology, as Dave Tompkins explores in his fantastic book How to Wreck a Nice Beach, perhaps the idea of Auto-Tune morphing into a computer virus isn't so far from the realm of possibility.)
Still, you make do with the materials at hand, as Silver himself explains of his decision to pursue the stripped-back palette of Exercises, a record begun while most of his gear was packed away in storage. Read on as he discusses exercising restraint, channeling inspiration and making springtime music in the depths of winter.
Where are you living these days?
I was in Paris for half of last year, from January to June. Now I'm back in Montreal. I was born here, and I live here.
Did you go into Exercises with a specific goal in mind?
It kind of came together gradually, without me really thinking about it. I started off just making piano [and] synth workouts, and it gradually became something where I thought it could be a full record, and I decided to build on that. At first, I didn't know if it was going to become an album or anything; I was just working on pieces individually. I did try to work from a template for a few pieces, try to keep the elements limited and stay within a certain palette. And so eventually, after I had four or five tracks, I started to think about making it a full record. From there I tried to make it a bit more cohesive as far as the themes, and try to find a visual element that I found inspiring.
It kind of came together because I did a piano version of a track from my last EP, The River, and it was kind of in the same vein as the stuff on this record. I put together a video for it that was basically edited together with footage from the David Cronenberg film Stereo. It was all filmed at the University of Toronto, in Scarborough, which is kind of this big, concrete, brutalist building. So making that video inspired me to work further in that direction.
Are you a trained pianist?
No, not at all. [Laughs.] It's not a piano; I recorded it all with MIDI keyboards and my laptop and stuff, so it's basically just a piano plug-in. I was moving all my stuff out of my apartment when I was recording it, kind of shuffling, because I was about to move to Paris, so I was kind of in between things at the time.
What was Paris like? Were you there to make music?
No, I was there with my girlfriend at the time. She was going to school, and I kind of followed along. I'd work on music during the day, but I didn't really have much going on over there. I was just kind of hanging out.
Was being abroad helpful creatively?
I wouldn't say it was helpful, because I felt a little bit in limbo as far as what I could work on. A lot of my equipment was back here, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with some stuff I had been working on. It did make me work within my limitations, as far as not really having much around. A couple of things that are on this record were recorded there — some of the more electronic stuff, basically. It did start me in some other directions.
I was struck by how different the new record is from "Cometrue," for instance. Are you typically working on many different sounds at one time?
I would say so. During the day I'll put on a lot of different music, and depending on my mood, I'll get inspired by all sorts of different things. It just comes from noodling and playing around with the sounds. I don't try to work in one specific sound; that's never really been my way of working. I like to explore all sorts of different things, and try to relate them to each other.
Will you do more material in the vein of "Cometrue" — that kind of deep, melodic house? I love that song.
Oh, thank you. As far as the next few things I'm working on, they're not really in that vein, but I can never really predict what I'm going to be working on. I think "Cometrue" kind of goes back to my first album, in terms of trying to combine dance music influences with more subtle textures. The next few things I'm working on are a bit more pop-oriented, not really on the dance side of things.
You have mentioned the influence of Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, and David Sylvian — and of course you cover Sylvian's "September" here. I get the sense that you have a very romantic streak, musically speaking.
Yeah, I would say so. I don't really go for cold, mechanical sounds. I don't like to go too dark — even when I go dark, I try to make it emotional and melodic and kind of earnest. That's my taste in music coming through, I guess.
Are you a seasonally affected composer? I was thinking about songs like "September" and "December."
Absolutely. I'm a seasonally affected listener, so it comes out in the music, too. Whenever spring comes around, I always put on the same things — like, Sarah Records albums or Cocteau Twins, stuff like that. And then, when summer come around, I'm just in full-on pop-music mode. I get inspired by what I'm listening to, obviously, so it comes out in the music. I mean, when I made this record, it was deep winter, like, December 2010 and January 2011, and I was just listening to very, kind of, frosty piano, simple things like that.
Does it feel strange to have it coming out as spring turns into summer?
Yeah, maybe a little bit. But a lot of people here in Montreal were telling me, "Thank God that record came out now" — they're really happy because they're all in finals and studying, and it seemed like the perfect soundtrack for that.