For a musician, Jonathan Graves is incredibly preoccupied with the visual. The multifaceted, many-layered and hauntingly beautiful sounds he conjures in the name of Corbu – the band of which he is the undisputed leader – will, more often than not, start and end with images.
Drawing inspiration from his dreams, Graves writes from a picture inside his head, trying to craft a song which transmits that image through the listener’s ear and into their mind’s eye. It’s an ambitious approach, the success of which is impossible to gauge, but it is easy to quantify the sheer quality of the mesmerising music Graves uses as a vehicle, which swoops through lush soundscapes in a movie-sampling, brain-spinning, eye-opening Technicolor world sitting on the far side of indie pop.
The group’s recent remix of Jessie Ware’s ‘You and I (Forever)’ is not only a fine example of Graves’ sonic artistry, but also a testament to its appeal; so taken was Ware by a Corbu track she heard on the radio – ‘Neon Hallway’ – that she commissioned the band’s first remix immediately. Compare ‘Neon Hallway’ to the ambiance of ‘Promise Me’ for the full Corbu experience, and for an in-depth interview with Jonathan Graves read on.....
So first of all, how would you describe Corbu to readers who perhaps aren’t too familiar with you?Maybe... songs that are fragmented and broken up in unexpected ways. A reverbed-out singer with a weird voice. Ski lodge guitars and electronic beats, doesn't shy away from being emotional or intense. The vibe is atmospheric and a little sci-fi, but you never know what the sounds are and how you're going to get there. Corbu is more like an ongoing movie that's always going to surprise you in some way. Beyond that, it's up to looking at our Instagram (http://instagram.com/corbu_) or our visual site (http://neonhallway.com) to describe it.
The latest piece you’ve put out is the remix of ‘You and I (Forever)’ by Jessie Ware. I’ve read that she fell in love with your music, how did it feel to be approached like that? How exactly did the whole thing come about?Apparently she was co-hosting Zane Lowe's show when he played our song "Neon Hallway," and she liked it and reached out to us. It's obviously a huge compliment coming from her - just a feeling of, "Hey, someone good is paying attention and actually likes it." So that felt like a milestone for us.
You usually see remixes done by individual producers working on a computer or with synths – as a live band, how did you approach the remix? How is it different to a cover?I agree it would be interesting for a full band to do a remix, but it *was* a producer working on his computer with synths, in this case. I got lucky with this one, because I heard my version of the chorus in a dream, with the chords, bassline, and specific guitar effects intact. I woke up and sang it into my phone and tracked it the next day. Amanda had very specific ideas with chopping up the vocal, so we did that together.I wanted to unapologetically express what she was singing about being in love - there's an innocence to the synth arps in the chorus that gives it that. But I also wanted to balance it with something darker and more mysterious, which came out in the verses and the bridge. I finished it after seeing Panda Bear perform, and added the weird tape synths that start the song and bring the whole thing together.
Similarly, you’ve had your own songs remixed fairly extensively, by Autograf, TC and Doorly amongst others. How does it feel to have your own tunes reinterpreted in sometimes very different ways? Was that feeling something you drew on when turning your hands to Jessie Ware’s track?It can be a fun surprise to hear those for the first time. My favorite is still Charles Webster's "We Are Sound" remix. It feels emotional and personal, which isn't something I usually associate with remixes.
For Jessie's track, I had to assume she wanted it to sound like a Corbu song, so that's how I approached it. All of our remixes have been by dance-oriented artists, who are great as mixing engineers and will do crazy things to my vocals that I would never think to try. So I've tried to learn from them and bring my favorite bits over into our songs.
What is the dynamic of the band? You have a distinctive sound with a lot of space and a lot of textures – how is that achieved?Corbu is mostly me, working for a billion hours in my apartment. The band helps me put the finishing touches on things and translate it into a live show. Amanda is also a huge part of the soul of the thing. She writes some of the lyrics and helps me conceptualize almost everything we do. Todd plays live drums on everything, and has been with Corbu for years. The dynamic is fluid - we have a new song coming out that was arranged and recorded as a full-band performance. As far as the sound, there are so many different ways to get there. The best sounds are usually experiments. Like taking a vocal reverb, slowing it waaaay down, sampling that and then playing it as a synth. Passing things back and forth between the natural and the synthetic.
It’s no secret that you like to use chopped-up samples from movies – why is that? What are the best examples of this approach, for readers who perhaps haven’t heard much from your band before? I'm moving away from sampling outside sounds, as I've gotten better at creating the sounds from scratch. But in the past, I've used a sample from a movie that's one second long (or less), for the unconscious associations that go along with it. I'll find something that obviously fits the picture I'm trying to put in your head, and use that as the sound source, so you might "feel" it as opposed to knowing it's something specific from your childhood.
The interplay between music and visuals seems to be important to you – your music videos are beautiful creations, and I was particularly taken with the video for ‘Neon Hallway’, where all of the elements in the video correspond to parts of the music. Is this the case? Is this a factor in your use of movie samples? Thanks about the videos!Yeah, the visual aspect is the most important thing, in a way.Everything Corbu does is attached to images, from the moment it's written. The image I have in my head, and the one I'm trying to put in your head.That influences every sound choice, the shape of the melodies, the structure - all of it. When a song is almost done, I'll put on a movie that looks like what I'm trying to describe, turn the sound off and let that suggest parts to me. Like the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz trick, but with unfinished Corbu songs. It always works, in one way or another.
How did working with artist Sean Augustine March come about? Was it a very natural move to bring an artist on board? Between you, you have created a very striking aesthetic across your website and social media, is that important for you?I've always created the artwork myself, but when we were talking about the vibe of the 2nd EP, it was obvious that we should try to work with Sean. We've been following him and loving his work on Instagram for a couple years, and he agreed to do it once he heard the music. So we got together and took a ton of photos and videos of his sculptures, and it matched perfectly with the visual material we already had.
Yeah, I think it's really important that Corbu's visual aesthetic is uniform across all media. It's what we are as much as the music. And it's fun to flip the switch from release to release, and have a totally different color palette and set of images for the new group of songs.
There is an openness to your music – the first Corbu track I heard was ‘Promise Me’, which is quite different to tunes like ‘We Are Sound’. Is there a feeling when you start making music that anything is possible? I know you are very much influenced by dreams. Do you have an idea in mind of where you want your songs to go? It's funny because I feel like those two songs tie together, in a way. They both put a lot of pastel blue in my head, which comes from the synth pad sounds in them.Sometimes a song will start off in a dream, like the chorus to "Promise Me", or sometimes it'll be conventional and I'll get an idea from playing around on an instrument, like "We Are Sound."In either case, the song idea suggests a set of images to me, and I try to describe those images musically and lyrically. That's how they move from little sketches to finished songs.
Jonathan, has working as a kids’ music teacher made you see music in a different way? Maybe breaking it down into simple chunks has let you build it back up in a different way?I don't know. Kids are extremely honest, and playing something for them can give you a brutally clear perspective on what you're doing. What they really do is remind you that the groove and the "feel" of a thing is way more important than any hyper-literate, thinking element of it.Kids think visually, and the fact that I can relate to them and get them excited about abstract stuff has reinforced that part of me, and given me a lot more confidence in it.
Do you feel that Brooklyn, that New York, has had a major influence on your music? Which artists do you love, both ones helping you shape Corbu and ones you love to listen to in your own time which we couldn’t guess from your music?Extremely so, but in a deeper way than just going to see good bands.Being in New York has given me the chance to be friends with and live with artists that I've learned so much from. When I moved here, I didn't understand the importance of the pocket or groove, for instance. To my roommates, who came from a jazz school background, it was the most important thing. I've learned everything from these people. New York is what it is because of the people. We live in tiny apartments and pay insane amounts for rent so we can be around people like that.I'm influenced by Bibio, Broadcast and other classic Warp Records stuff.I also really love an Irish electronic duo called Solar Bears, and everything Flaming Lips have been doing lately.As far as stuff outside the usual indie/electronic zone, we've been listening to a lot of late 90s hip hop/R&B lately. Some amazing ideas in there, like the snake-y synth lead in Toni Braxton's "You're Making Me High." I've been referencing Outkast here and there, too.
I’ve read about your experiment on your website – a few times! – and it’s an incredibly interesting concept. Thinking in that way must have a bearing on your music, both the production process and the end product. What sort of effects does it have? There’s so many layers to your songs, are they there so that the listener can pick up on one of them and let that shape the song in one way, then pick up on another to allow the song to take on a new dimension? The experiment is about giving yourself complete freedom of internal expression. Creating a song or an image involves a totally different part of your brain than the one that pays your bills and keeps your schedule organized, and there's a natural dampening of that side of you as you grow up. The experiment is a shortcut to wake it up.And yeah, absolutely about the layered sounds. I understand the concept of making one very deep sound instead of 4 layers, and I agree with it in theory. But in the end, my favorite albums are the ones like Broadcast's The Noise Made By People or Boards of Canada's Geogaddi, where you can pick up something new after years and years of listening to it.
And finally, when can us Brits expect to see Corbu here on our shores?It might be awhile, as we're deep in the process of recording our debut album and need to focus on getting it done. But you never know. We've talked about it for a year now, it's just a matter of all the variables lining up. Which always happens, sooner or later.
Interview Q & A via email, all questions by Joe Ponting
Watch 'Promise Me'