rRoxymore: Free radical
Drawing from dub, jazz and field recordings, the debut album from rRoxymore finds her upturning the orthodoxies of dance music to create something fresh
The cover art for rRoxymore’s debut album ‘Face To Phase’ depicts an earthly scene tinged with the surreal. Against a black backdrop, flamingos, tropical fauna and a lone figure are painted in luminous green and orange, and a blood orange sun hangs low in the sky. Max Ammo, a Mexican artist who’s based in Vancouver, designed it — rRoxymore collaborated with him two years ago, at the San Francisco edition of MUTEK festival.
She was drawn to his style, which she describes as a “naive, dark and strange” take on Mexican folk art and storytelling. Mexico is also where rRoxymore goes during the winter; to escape the grey quiet of her home city of Berlin, and think about her own art.
While in Mexico last winter, she started writing ‘Face To Phase’, which was released in September through British label Don’t Be Afraid. Keen to further explore a style of percussive club music, heard on her recent EPs ‘Thoughts Of An Introvert Part 1 And Part 2’, she drew inspiration from her studies of acousmatic music and from like-minded new techno, like the frenzied oddities of Batu’s Timedance label. Working with a custom sound-bank that she’s built over a period of several years, rRoxymore used the tactile sounds of nature, like birdsong, insects and weather, the heavy rhythms of trains, and myriad other recordings of unremarkable objects and physical gestures, to construct the eight album tracks.
It’s a technique that rRoxymore has worked with since she left her native Montpellier, in southern France, for Paris, where she studied acousmatic music and composition, and the post-war radicalism of musique concrète. While studying, she started DJing at underground parties, excited by the sample-based experimentalism of hip-hop and rare groove.
“It’s about being at ground zero, about creating music from what’s usually qualified as noise”
“All these sounds are my spices,” says rRoxymore, of her appreciation of raw noise. Buried somewhere in the album is the sound of rRoxymore opening and closing the lid of a piano, and plucking and hitting its strings and wooden parts.
“I’ll make loops of these sounds and stretch them, like elements,” she continues. “What really helped with my writing was my acousmatic education. It’s about being at ground zero, about creating music from what’s usually qualified as noise. It gives me a freedom to see and hear everything differently.”
After the winter passed, rRoxymore returned to Berlin and finished the album. She works largely “in the box”, on her computer with production software like Ableton, but there are some trusted pieces of equipment always within reach. The one she uses most for live jams is the Nord Modular G2, a hardware keyboard that blends modular synthesis with a software interface. Listening to ‘Face To Phase’, it is a testament to rRoxymore’s talents that these somewhat historicised practises have made for such endearingly original music, which blossoms with repeated listens. What is recognisable — the authoritative skronk of a trombone, the warm plonk of piano keys — comes and goes in wisps, muted through whatever strange moment she’s wrought from her sound-bank or the Nord Modular G2.
Distinct styles do emerge from the album’s ether. There’s that polyrhythmic Bristolian techno, on ‘Energy Points’, ‘PPS21’, and the jaunty ‘Forward Flamingo’. The other, perhaps less immediate styles, are jazz and dub. When rRoxymore was growing up in Montpellier, her father filled their home with jazz. In a rare twist, he counted the iconic bandleader and musician Sun Ra as a good friend, which in part reflected the tone of the jazz that he collected: deep and searching experimentations, charged with the politics of mid-20th century black American countercultural movements, and multi-disciplinary artistic renderings of Afrofuturism.
Albums by Sun Ra, along with fellow giants like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, remain rRoxymore’s favourites, complete works that she revisits for comfort and inspiration. Her affection for the long-player is what made her reluctant to begin writing her own, in fact. Cognisant of how listeners relate to music through new technologies, she was somewhat sceptical of the cultural weight that the album format now carries, compared to decades past. It was Don’t Be Afraid label boss, Semtek, who encouraged her to start working on ‘Face To Phase’.
When it comes to the dub elements of the album, rRoxymore gives much of the credit to the mastering engineer — Mark Ernestus, one half of seminal duo Basic Channel, alongside Moritz Von Oswald, and owner of Berlin record shop Hard Wax and the Dubplates & Mastering studio. As well as pioneering an influential style of minimalist dub techno, Ernestus has a keen interest in African diasporic polyrhythmic percussion. His tastes and expertise informed the final touches of ‘Face To Phase’, which rRoxymore and Ernestus worked on together in his studio.
“I wanted the album to have a dub feel to it that was like,” she pauses, “not an atmosphere, but a varnish, almost. He’s super minimalistic, in a good way, and very technically-minded, so he really helped to push me, and the tracks, to be better.”
There’s a charming dexterity to how rRoxymore balances these dubby, jazzy elements — it gives the album a sense of disorientation that borders on, but doesn’t quite tip over into, more obvious tropes of psychedelia.
“It all gave me a sense of freedom,” reflects rRoxymore. “Not in the sense that I’d apply a technique from jazz composition or performance, necessarily, but in the sense that I don’t feel the need to be locked into any one style. In electronic music, we’ve had these machines for decades,” she continues, flicking her hands into the air with a warm sarcasm, “but we should always be pushing boundaries, still. I don’t know if I am pushing any boundaries, but I do feel like I should not be stuck — that I should at least try to not repeat myself, you know? I can’t write jazz music, but even when I’m jamming live, especially with others, it’s completely influenced by that.”
In September, rRoxymore premiered her live performance of music from the album at Berlin’s Atonal festival. Joining her onstage was Jon-Eirik Boska, a Norwegian drummer and electronic producer who created his own sound-bank for Nord, the maker of rRoxymore’s trusted modular synthesiser keyboard. Boska’s style appealed to rRoxymore — “I wanted the percussion elements to sound very electronic, so that we could try to perform the tracks as closely as possible to how they sound on the album” — and with Boska on the electronic drum-kit, his playing lent a robust pulse to rRoxymore’s machine vapours.
“When we were preparing for our Atonal performance, we played some jams to come up with sequences from the album that would work best live,” she continues. “We had, in spirit, quite a jazzy approach to it all.”
rRoxymore’s affection for contemporary radicals — the pioneers of free jazz, musique concrète, and underground electronic music — has long informed her tastes and practise. With ‘Face To Phase’, she has a body of work that feels truly contemporary, too.