Interview by Parisa Eshrati
After feeling a disconnection with his music, German-Italian music composer and DJ David August took on a two year hiatus for self-meditation and discovery. Upon connecting more with his Italian roots and delving into the transcendental nature of art, David re-emerged with his most authentic and honest work to date. In this intimate interview, we discussed the inner workings of both the ambient chant#1 project and the full-length D'Angelo LP, the process of setting aside ego to exist just for music, and ultimately, how to find your own truth.
I wanna start off by discussing the two years leading up towards your latest release, D’Angelo. You made a post before your hiatus stating that you wanted time to meditate and find an undiscovered path. What was that meditative time like, and what is that path you ultimately found to be able to enjoy making music again?
It’s interesting, really, because the whole process was quite complex and exhausting. Three years ago, I was in the middle of touring and doing club shows and felt an exhaustion by the music I was playing. There seemed to be a lack of narrative and authenticity. Somehow, I never really asked myself “Who am I musically as an artist?” or “Who am I as a person?” during all these years of writing music. I’m a firm believer that music is always a personal outcome. There are people that think you can either be a musical person or a private person and that’s it, but the fact is what you do musically and artistically are reflections of yourself.
This very personal process became a musical process by consequence. I was struggling with really basic questions about identity. I think it’s natural for people in their early-to-mid-20s have this kind of crisis where you suddenly can’t help but wonder about all these big questions. I’m lucky enough to have this medium of music and art to elaborate on all these questions and use as a tool for guidance. So, I took time to contemplate and realized that I was never really inspired by my true identity. All of the music I was doing then was more an output of heavy societal influences. It was never really obvious during the time I was making this music. I was authentic for me back then, then but it just wasn’t anymore.
When I realized I wasn’t being inspired by my true self, I started to analyze my roots and where I came from. That concept has obviously always been a question in my life, but I never put my Italian origins into my music. I could’ve been proud of it so long ago, but I was really scared to show this private part of myself and reveal the culture that influenced me in such a personal way. I was so full of insecurities that I never really believed in that honest communication between me and my audience.
When I started connecting to my roots, I realized that now I’m dealing with something authentic and of value here. That's when I really started to dive into this whole process. I began to confront myself with all these impressions that I had around me since my childhood. My whole family was always very conscious about culture. I grew up surrounded by Italian Baroque and Renaissance music, painters and artists across centuries, and Italian cinema from the likes of Fellini and Pasolini. During my childhood I was obviously too young to fully grasp this culture, but nevertheless it’s the history that my family and I grew with together.
Over the course of my two year break, the time really became about confronting myself with my culture and revisiting all these artists. These influences had always been present in my life, but it’s ridiculous that it never became a part of my music. I wanted to find a connection to my own narrative through these artists’ visions and approach to storytelling. One of the main artists who really influenced me during this time was the Baroque painter Caravaggio. He was so obsessed with finding truth and pictured it in literally all of his artwork. That’s why I connected to him so well, as I was trying to find my own truth as well.
That whole process of finding my identity was the main reason for my break, but on the other hand I was also trying to be more conscious about our society. My obsession with truth was not just for myself, but where we all stand in this very strange period of the world. I found myself surrounded by uncertainty, insecurities, fears, and lies all enveloped in our culture. I don’t mean this as a political or sociological sentiment, but I was confident that doing this type of self-confrontation and creating a more authentic piece of work was more relevant now than ever. All these factors just started piecing together over time, and even though sometimes I already feel like I’ve moved on from this record, I’m really happy I went through this all.
Since creating this album was such a personal process, I’m curious if the themes and stories represented in your lyrics were allegorical to your own life. “The Life of Merisi” lyrics, for example, involve a lot of reflection and feelings of uncertainty which eventually turn triumphant. Was that mirroring the process of your hiatus to ultimately creating this album?
There was uncertainty during this process, of course, but I wouldn’t consider that the driving force. Artists will always deal with the inner dialogue of was this all worth it?, will people understand? and even just what the hell am I doing? These feelings will always somehow exist, but I was never influenced by fear itself during that process of my career. I mean, there were times when I thought no one would connect with my work as it was getting so abstract, so at times I would compromise. Even still, that was more in hopes of connecting with the listener rather than shying away due to fear.
The lyrics and music, especially the ones you were just referring to, were not directly inspired by the process during my hiatus. It was more specifically an homage to Caravaggio (whose first name was Merisi). I tend to work on a piece by creating some sort of visual inspiration in my mind. I imagine a cinematic vision with these people’s stories, and then I try to make music and lyrics that I would want to hear as its soundtrack. This record was my first serious approach to using words as communication in music rather than just relying on sound. So, I tried to put myself into Caravaggio’s mind and body and think how he must’ve felt, and used that as the main focus for that track.
Though your songs aren’t strictly allegorical or personal, it’s still interesting how your self-discovery process had indirectly developed some of the overarching themes throughout D’Angelo. You mentioned earlier how during your hiatus you were also becoming more conscious of our society as a whole. The track “Narciso” comes to mind, as it deals with themes of narcissism and defeat. How does this song tie in with those observations you were having? I imagine you had to be surrounded by a good deal of narcissism being in the DJ circuit for so many years.
Yes, that’s definitely true. “Narciso” is the track dealing with the most social aspects and social criticisms. It wasn’t necessarily referring to Berlin’s DJ scene, but to our society as a whole. And though the songs may not be allegorical, I would still consider them personal. It may not be me communicating directly through the song lyrics, but the I’m using the main character of each song to influence or develop certain themes.
In this case of “Narciso”, it develops on these critical themes of our society, but also builds the core essence of the album. It’s one of the longest tracks on the record and it contains a lot of personal samples. I went through a lot of old tapes and collected recordings of my mother and family members chatting. Most of those samples are inaudible because it’s mixed so low, but it still feels very personal. I believe in a certain sensibility of human beings to be able to perceive something, an energy or so, that I don’t need to mix a dialogue between so loud that people can hear what they’re talking about. All I left is literally just a glimpse of something. Something is present and a personal insight in there, and you can feel that even if you can’t perceive every detail with your physical senses. So overall, it’s a very personal opening track, but more than that I really just couldn’t stand what I was seeing in our society. I had to put that sentiment into my music somehow.
I realize that when I talk about this record there are so many details and so many interweaving influences that it’s hard for me to narrow the conversation down to just one essential topic. There are so many layers in “Narciso”, but the rest of the album is also filled with these minute layers and nuances. I could really talk about every second of each track and tell you a story behind it.
All those details amounted to so many textures and layers, so even though we can’t discuss it all it’s amazing to hear it all came through so cohesively on the record. Moving on from the themes, let’s talk a bit about the actual songwriting process. You mentioned that while you were in school you were more thinking about music than actually writing it. Did that outsider/purely listener perspective combined with the educational process now given you a more analytic approach to composition?
Well, apart from songwriting, the studies were helpful in general to my life approach. I studied the technical aspects of music, but you really grow just by being surrounded by interesting people in a stimulating environment. It was a very rich time for me really on an inner human basis because you grow by having the overall experience of education.
When I had stated that I was thinking more about music than writing it, it was not solely because of my educational process. It was also just the simple fat that I was maturing from an adolescent to an adult man. It’s a process that makes you think a lot about life. You start to become more aware of everything about yourself and your surroundings and place in society. All of this newfound awareness is what caused this new perspective and approach to creating music. When you write music, the best case scenario is that it just happens. It’s just a conscious communication between your inner creativity and subconscious and sound. I realized that I don’t want to actually think during the process. Instead, it would make more sense to just take time off before writing to do some reflection. I felt I could learn much more that way than just to push through and keep working. Obviously that mental process never stops, but I wanted to create a clear space and time for introspection.
All of the music I made before never had this effect on me. I never felt this kind of need for introspection. The mental process was always too analytical and honestly exhausting while I was writing music. I would meticulously plan what I would research beforehand, sit too much thinking on what kind of music I want to make, and I wouldn’t play at all until I had an exact plan. This is all bullshit. I know now that it’s about what you are doing in the very moment.
“When you completely let go, you'll experience that you become a medium through which the music transcends.”
Speaking on creating this conscious communication with music, you also wrote in that post that you’ve experienced the transcendental power of music. Was there a specific instance that lead to this sort of revelation? How has delving into this realm make you feel more connected to your art?
It’s difficult to put this type awareness into words because these concepts are so complex and as human beings we can only comprehend so much. We can’t explain everything and never will be able to, but it’s also good because it leaves us with respect for the unknown in the universe.
This awareness came out of the fact that I started to look beyond the rational side to music. I never believed in this sort of transcendental power until I experienced that music could control you instead of believing you can control the music. I think this can go for any art or form of creation, but I speak about music because it’s what I know about personally. When you start to believe in another power that’s not in your hands but somewhere out of your control, you start to approach music and life in general in a very different way. I know it all sounds really strange, but because of this I felt a communication to music in a way that was totally new to me. I was somehow experiencing it at a higher level, not just my music but music in general. This can be so much more than just listening or performing in this rational, one-directional way.
I had an interesting experience at the university during my last year. Aside from my technical studies, we also had to do lessons on our main instrument, which for me was the piano. For my big final exam, I had to perform Goldberg Variations by Bach. It was a piece that I had always wanted to play but was always too difficult. Leading up to my exam, I thought a lot about how much anxiety I would have playing in piano competitions when I was little. I would always think about missing a piece or playing the wrong notes, so much so that I became so afraid of playing piano in front of people. Since then, it was so much me and my thoughts in the moment and not at all the music or the art.
I went to take my final exam, and I just had this moment where I suddenly wasn’t afraid anymore. I was so much there just for the music and the experience of that piece. Somehow, when you completely let go, you experience that you become a medium through which the music transcends. It’s super rare to have this experience, but my aim is to reach that state more often because it’s so powerful. It’s the most honest form of creation possible.
I’m just touching the surface of this subject, but it’s about putting you and your ego aside and existing for the music and nothing else. I could go on about this whole feeling, but overall I had this experience and suddenly realized that this is the true essence of it all. It’s not about me thinking I get to play the piano for 2000 people or I get to be on a stage and be a great performer. And that’s all valid too, those thoughts are satisfying and I’m incredibly lucky to be in this position, but it’s not about that. It’s about being a medium which gets used to communicate something beyond what can even be explained. I know it all must sound really weird…[laughs]
I totally see what you’re saying. It’s a phenomenon that’s experienced across time and culture, but still sounds so esoteric because our language is so limited. Some people might just call that experience “creativity”, some might call it “the universe”, or some might attribute it to a religious figure, and I think those discrepancies allow for all kinds of interpretations on what the true nature of inspiration is. Going off this sort of transcendental power of music, have you ever looked into making music in different frequencies? You hear a lot about musicians now tuning into 432hz, for example.
I’m aware of it and I know people who consciously think about frequencies. My understanding so far is that 432hz is supposed to be the frequency of the Earth and has grounding effects. It’s something I’ll probably study more and see how it could make sense with what I’m doing. Like you said, for a lot of people these things sound very abstract, but it’s really interesting and I have a lot of respect for these fields. We shouldn’t forget that we are constantly surrounded by vibrations. Music is vibration. Everything has a vibration. It’s not just bullshit. I haven’t explored much, but I still think it’s good to consider these things.
I also want to discuss the chant#1 project you dropped last year before D’Angelo. You said in the liner notes that you created a sense of nostalgia, “an unconscious perspective on a place yet so familiar”. What were you nostalgic for when creating this ambient piece?
Yes, DCXXXIX A.C, the album with the unpronounceable name. I don’t even say the name of the record anymore because it’s so ridiculous that I just refer to it as “the ambient record” [laughs]. That album has quite a bit of intricate layering to creating that feeling. And you know, I’m fine with how people just looked at D’Angelo last year and let this one slip to the wayside, but for me DCXXXIX A.C is as, if not more, important than D’Angelo because it was the pre-story to this whole internal process I went through. In some way, it’s the most honest work I’ve done to date. It’s musically the work that I will continue to enjoy for a long time. I usually don’t even want to put out most of my work because by a month before the release I already can’t stand it anymore, but I keep going back and listening to it on my record player. There’s something really meaningful to that, which is why I want to keep doing ambient music.
The mentality of that record is that it doesn’t want to be anything, but just is. Compared to everything in my catalog, it’s completely unique because all my other work wants to be something, you know? Even D’Angelo wants to be something. There has to be a set of songs, and each song wants to follow a structure, and each melody wants to be a little catchy, a little psychedelic, esoteric, whatever. It follows form because it wants something. Chant#1 has a shape, but it is so free in essence. It’s not pretentious, it’s just enjoyable, and that’s where I feel the most comfortable. I’ve come to realize that the less I’m evident with my emotions the more I like my music. The more I exaggerate my melodies or my sound to be sonically extroverted, the less I like it after a very short time. The record gives enough space that you can just sit with it. I want to continue following this kind of understated philosophy behind my music
But to go back to your question of nostalgia, it’s funny because this record really came full circle for me. The whole record refers to the year Palestrina, the city my mother comes from, was born. Around the year 1639 it experienced its first civilizations, and yet musically I go back to my own childhood with that record. I go back to experiencing the early and formative years of this city, and somehow I feel as though I was referencing my own birth and childhood as well. It all sounds quite romantic in a way. I felt so connected to the music and all these parallels just suddenly fit together in a big picture. It’s the most honest and important thing I’ve done. I don’t care if a lot of people listen or don’t listen, but for me, it means something very special.
I thought the video made such a great companion piece for the music. Have you had much experience producing or directing videos before?
No, not really. I pretty much just took my phone and a GoPro and shot some scenes. I didn’t try to follow any professional aesthetic. I tried to create this first-person view because the only thing I can offer through filmmaking is a personal experience. It was so low-key and spontaneous. It was around Christmas time, and I just walked around the city and exploring. Palestrina stands on a hill with beautiful nature surrounding it, ancient motifs and pillars all around. I’ve had a connection with this area since my childhood, so I wanted to capture a personal insight into the city.
After that, I went to the studio with my friend, John Braun, who has experience with movie editing. He’s a very old friend of mine that I’ve known since elementary school. He’s like a brother to me. We did movies as a kid, you know, stupid films when we were 8-years-old riding on skateboards and doing stunts. It’s funny because the cover for the record is a picture of me around that age that John and I were making those skate films, so this theme of nostalgia for my childhood came back full circle. It’s cool that we can share such an experience 20 years later on another level, not just doing skateboard stunts [laughs]. But yeah, he helped me tremendously and we had the edit in 5 or 6 days. Having that experience and spending that time with him felt very natural and right for this project.
That’s great how it all came together like that, and the video turned out amazing. So finally, what else can we look forward to from you for the rest of the year? Anything coming up on your label 99CHANTS?
We have some great things coming up on the label. There’s this 21 year-old guy from Bristol, Louis Sterling, who will be playing some shows with me and will have the next release out on the label. I’m planning some other stuff I can’t talk about yet, but look out for 99CHANTS in the next few months. I also want to try and collaborate more with other musicians. After doing all this music by myself I feel really saturated, so I really want to spend more time with other artists. Other than that, I’m obviously a very quiet person on social media but I hope the messages I find relevant will come through.
Photos by Noé Loyola
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.