Alt Altman has been causing a bit of a stir with his brooding, mournful electronica of late with his project Digits. We spoke to the former Ghost Is Dancing man about his new mixtape Death and Desire, the rise of the Canadian electronic scene and covering Phil Ochs.
You live in London now but are originially from Toronto. How long have you been here and what made you relocate?
I’ve been here since October of last year. I moved here mostly because of the greater touring opportunities. Touring in Canada is difficult especially if you’re solo. There are more big cities in Europe, shorter distances between them, and it’s easier to get around without a car. I also came for the adventure/inspiration – I’ve lived in Canada my whole life. I had friends in London so it made sense for me to come here.
That seems fair. How have you found the transition? Are there any major differences about how the scene works in Toronto as opposed to London?
There’s no question that London is a more difficult scene to break into. It’s one of the most important music cities in the world. I do think it’s great that you can play more often here, there’s so many different parts of London and scenes in the city.
Shows start very early here and that feels weird to me. I’ve showed up when I would have thought would be early enough to see the opener and ended up missing the headliner. There are positives and negatives to it for sure. I like being able to get home at a reasonable hour some nights. But it’s strange to see a headliner at 10:30 when nobody is really drunk yet
You’re calling Death and Desire a mixtape despite the fact that it’s all you playing. Why call it a mixtape and not an album?
The main reason is that it’s not just Digits music – it includes my other project Bad Passion which is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than Digits. I wanted a release that had a cohesive feel, and there weren’t enough slow Digits songs to really make an album that would go with the songs I had planned for Death and Desire. I also wanted to include a couple of older songs that had already been released, as well as a cover (‘Changes’ is a cover of a Phil Ochs song) it felt like a mixtape would be more the correct thing to call it-although I feel like there needn’t be “rules” about these sorts of things anymore
You say Bad Passion is more tongue in cheek?
With Bad Passion, our songs are very story driven. Lesley and I have a song about stealing cars, for instance – both of us are mild-mannered people. But even though there’s a bit of a wink in there, our songs are delivered very seriously. There’s still enough humour in there if you’re paying attention, but the delivery is serious. I’m not sure if that qualifies as “tongue-in-cheek”. Bad Passion made a music video that’s two guys in a bicycle gang acting tough wearing leather jackets, while sipping tea and practicing ballet by train tracks and under bridges.
You’ve described the mix as loosely themed around death and desire going clubbing, and you just said things don’t fit for the album. Do you still strongly believe in the ‘album’ concept, and having a strong coherence/ theme?
I definitely think so – but you have to be careful. You don’t want to sacrifice good songwriting for the sake of a concept. But an overall theme is a great thing to aim for…as long as you do enough, the listener can usually fill in the blanks. That’s the other thing about over-thinking a concept album. you want to leave space for listener’s interpretation.
As for Death and Desire: the idea is that the personifications of Death and Desire are friends, and they decide to go to a club together. Desire is obviously incredibly seductive, everyone wants her. While Death could potentially take anyone’s life at any moment. Desire is an all-out hedonist (as heard on ‘The Face of Desire’) while Death isn’t really but understands that philosophy and that’s why they get along. They definitely capture the attention/desires of the clubgoers – ‘Because It’s Wrong’ is an invitation they give people to give into their urges even though it might lead them down a dangerous, potentially deadly path. The concept was more elaborate and I had a lot more songs – but they were getting too expositional and story/philosophy driven and ultimately didn’t make for good pop songs. I’m glad I decided to not be too rigid about their inclusion, it would have been a mistake. I tried to not make it too concept-y in the end but more try to make a record that focused on those themes: death, desire, pleasure-seeking, meaninglessness
How did Digits come about- and also what records influenced your music making?
Digits isn’t my first project – I started playing in two indie pop bands, The Ghost is Dancing and Europe in Colour. But I was always writing solo stuff the whole time. So once people heard it and told me it was good I started making music as Digits in 2009…and then decided I wanted to focus on it exclusively. The most important influence on my sound, no question, is the Junior Boys-I feel like before Last Exit came out I was not even thinking of writing music like this. After the Junior Boys, Morgan Geist is a huge influence in terms of his production. Kompakt’s mid-2000s output influenced me in my minimalism. Diamond Rings influenced me by making all-out pop music – the first indie music I’d heard that was unafraid to be 100% pop. He also did a project called Habitat beforehand that was a bit electronic with Sylvie Smith from The Magic/ Evening Hymns: the last track on that is incredible – it’s like Low making electro-pop.
Arthur Russell is a huge influence as well. Huge huge huge! Owen Pallett is a big influence on how I perform live, I don’t think i’d have been trying to do it on my own without his example-not that I can put on a show like him – that guy is something else.
How does Digits work as a live experience?
I use a looping pedal when i perform so i can layer multiple synth parts and perform everything as live as i possibly can. I always find it a bit disappointing when electronic acts just sing over backing tracks. Unfortunately there are no harmonies live, but otherwise I play two synths and sing, and most things are played live – just not the drums.
The live show is a lot more uptempo and dancey – since Death and Desire is a slow record, a lot of those songs would kind of slow the momentum.
Given the influences, and the genres that we’ve spoken about, it seems unlikely that you would cover a Phil Ochs tune. How did that come about?
There’s a great Canadian music blog called Herohill. They were putting together a Gordon Lightfoot compilation last year for Canada Day and asked me to contribute. I recorded a cover of “Changes” which is off my fave Lightfoot record, his first album. I didn’t realize that HE was covering Phil Ochs – so i meant to cover Gordon Lightfoot actually. It’s a song that Phil wrote just before crossing the atlantic for the first time – I felt it appropriate to put it as the closer on the record – it seemed like a better ending than the other songs.
There seems to be a pretty vibrant electronic scene coming out of Canada at the moment – Austra/ Grimes/ Doldrums/ Egyptrixx/ yourself/ New Look to name a few. Is it a sudden explosion or is it just people are taking more notice?
I think that it’s Canada’s greatest musical strength right now and yes, people are only recently beginning to take notice. Katie was doing amazing stuff solo before as well… Grimes has been really good since her first record…but I think these things start underground and then take a while for people to notice. I think Austra was the big turning point. The minute I saw Katie after she’d added her live band and started playing “Lose it” I knew that it was just a matter of time.
And Montreal is excellent right now – Arbutus have been owning that scene the last few years – Visage Musique are a really exciting new Italo development.
I actually run a blog too called Silent Shout, so if you’re ever looking for good under-the-radar Canadian electronic pop ….
What’s next for Digits – will there be a debut album for that project forthcoming?
I’m just finishing a new EP called Lonely Road – it’s five new songs, and in keeping with having themes to my records, they’re songs about being on your own and being isolated in places you’ve never been before. It will come out in the summer, probably end of June/beginning of July – the first single from it will be ready quite soon and I’ll show it all to you as soon as it’s ready. I’m also playing a few festivals in Europe which should be a lot of fun.
Digits plays The Barfly as part of Guardian New Band Of The Day Live on 14 June.