Interview by Parisa Eshrati
In his recent debut album, The Much Much How How and I, multi-instrumentalist and composer Cosmo Sheldrake relays a playful and optimistic interpretation of our relationship to the ecosystem. Through the use of natural field recordings and unique production techniques, the record creates an imaginative vision of our environment from the most micro to macro lens. In this detailed interview, we discuss the themes and execution of the record, in addition to plant physiology, breakfast recipes, and using samples as a means of journaling.
Let’s start off discussing the use of sampling as a form of journaling. Looking back on the sounds from your new debut album, The Much Much How How and I, what specific memories or thoughts do they bring back to you, or do they take on a new meaning once they’re embedded in your music?
Definitely, I think it's a bit of both. When you make anything, specifically a full-length album, you listen to it so much. After listening to something so intently for so long, it sort of loses its meaning. It's like when you repeat a word so many times that it eventually becomes meaningless. At this point, I don't immediately associate the samples with the places they originally came from. However, the second I actually pause and consider the constitute parts or isolate the sounds from their context, then it all comes back. All the samples now just got absorbed into a whole, but it's made up of so many components that have an entire story on their own.
The theme of the album is our relationship with our environment and all the good, bad and playful connections in-between. Aside from field recordings, how do you engage in your environment in a way that keeps you optimistic? I feel like it's easy to feel disappointed or defeated the more you research the environment.
I think in part I'm just an optimist and try not to dwell too much on the negative aspect of it. I think optimism is also important just from a conceptual point of view; it's really necessary to have something that does engage people in a positive way. It's overwhelming sometimes if we just dwell in the negative and can lead to of apathy or a kind of disengagement.
I used to be involved in a lot more direct action forms of protest in the past, and I honestly got disillusioned with all that. There's all this formal decision-making, and personally, speaking from my experience, it felt like the point was somehow lost in the midst. It became very much about personal politics and about people's relationships with each other. That was really frustrating for me, and I didn't feel like I could relate anymore. I also studied anthropology, and the more you research the more you realize that the origins for a lot of the environmental conservation movements are conceptually flawed. It's not necessarily thought through, and a lot of its history has gone unquestioned. Upon examination, you realize that a lot of these movements have very worrying consequences and profound baggage. A lot of early conservationism goes back to really racist colonial ideas and fantasies about the notion of wilderness.
So, I definitely have felt a bit alienated and dis-empowered getting into this kind of stuff, but I felt that making music could be a way to connect back with this subject, while also hopefully engaging people to think twice as well. It felt like a way to create a constructive, positive statement that wouldn't necessarily carry any political baggage. It's a way of reconnecting and finding ways to feel more empowered, so I think that positive aspect of my music just comes out naturally as an effect.
Going off on the research side of things, it's interesting to also consider your upbringing as an influence on your music. Your father works in plant physiology and came up with the idea of morphic resonance, where natural systems inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind. Do you think about this much when you’re working with the themes of your music and collecting field recordings?
I've been around my dad's philosophies growing up and have thought about them since I was young, so although I'm not necessarily consciously thinking about when I make music, it's very much informed my perspective on life in general. I think about the way that animals, humans, and ideas interact, and I'm sure that some of my dad's ideas have filtered into that. When I'm thinking about animals and animal communication, I can't help but feel that I'm dealing with some very intelligent creatures. They're not just these walking, lumbering machines or robots or just these materialistic beings that biology would have us believe. I guess I consider myself a bit of an animist in that sense.
So yeah, all of this does influence the way that I treat the sounds that I'm recording and how I use a bit of caution as well. I'm aware that sometimes there are consent issues recording something that isn't necessarily telling you to go for it. I think it's another discussion to be had on using samples and animal sounds. I think about it in a similar way of issues around cultural appropriation in music. It's a bit off topic from your question, but yeah I definitely do think that growing up around my dad's philosophy has influenced the way that I work with music in that regard.
The album artwork is by Louis Renard, featuring his images from the first colored publication of fish released hundreds of years ago. It has some pretty outlandish looking fish and even a mermaid in there. You've stated how his work for you represents the boundary between observation and imagination. I feel like that sentiment perfectly mirrors your ethos, where you are taking literal samples and using imagination to morph them into something entirely new. Where do you personally find yourself in this playing field between observation and imagination?
I think I'm very much squarely in the middle. In a way I think the way that we all see the world is just a natural mixture of those two things. We observe and perceive through our senses, then our minds stitches it all together into a comprehensive vision about the world that we then carry about. We carry ourselves around with the assumptions of how the world exists, and I definitely think a large part of that is woven in with imagination just due to the subjectivity of reality. I always struggle with people who take themselves too seriously, which is why my work really leans towards the fantastical and nonsense side of things. It's easy to get trapped up in a mundane cycle, so I've always just loved mischief and anything that bamboozles the seriousness out of people. So when I make my music, I make a conscious effort to incorporate the observations with the whimsical and mysterious kinds of logic. I think throughout history, humans have thought about the world through mythic frameworks. It's important to acknowledge that and bring your observations with a narrative base.
Taking a look at some specific songs on the album, "Egg and Soldiers" talks about the pitfalls of shortsightedness, which I thought was interesting compared to “Tardigrade Song” from your last EP where it’s celebrating a simple life. Where do you find this balance between simplicity and shortsightedness? And also, speaking of eggs and soldiers, what’s your best breakfast recipe?
Well to start I just have to say that breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day. I spent a huge amount of time thinking about breakfast, making breakfast, eating breakfast, so let me think about that part of your question and get back to it.
With a lot of my lyrics, they just kind of emerge and then I realize what their meaning after it's all written. I think "Egg and Soldiers" started because I had been struggling for a while from sciatica and general problems with physical ailments. I used to skateboard and I ripped the ligaments in my shoulder, and I never really got my act together. I never did the stretches to rebuild the strength and on occasion it still pops back out. So, that song started with with my own shortsightedness and my own lack of ability to take on things that would clearly benefit me in the long term. From there, the song expanded out. It seems like the same sort of things are going on socially, culturally, and as a civilization. I wanted to play on this microcosm/macrocosm idea.
So let's take the chorus:
Swap cow for bean and grow a stalk
To tangle with the clouds
This is an invitation to re-fertilize our imaginations. Then the second half says:
Plant poems in the barren ground
Blow doldrums round and round
That's an attempt to breathe movement back into that void. There's then the middle bit with more apocalyptic imagery:
Cut the brambles down
Search for heaven underground
It was lost but now its found
For we drank the ocean
We'll play while Venice drowns
Submarines won't save us now
That obviously is references the harsh outcomes when we don't think of the long-term. I've always been interested in this image of Venice drowning, because it's something that's really happening. I have this ambition to set a microphone near the water in Venice and record it, then speed it up into the sound of a short blip. It's a bit morbid, but that little blip would be the sound of Venice drowning.
So on the other hand, with "Tardigrade Song", I think you're right in that I do romanticize the idea of simplicity. In practice, tardigrades are actually a lot more complicated than that song make them out to be. There are meat-eating tardigrades, vegetarian tardigrades, cannibalistic tardigrades, a whole plethora of them really. Generally speaking, it does seem that despite having all these incredible abilities, they don't seem to put them to use. It begs the question - why did they evolve these incredible skills in the first place?
I think I'm most happy when I'm in the present and thinking in a simple kind of framework, but there is something important about thinking long-term. As a culture, I don't think we really allow for it because everything is just in terms of the next four-year election cycle. It has to be a mixture of both in order to be happy and have a good constitution of mental health. It's important to be present and and present with each other, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep the long term in mind.
In regard to breakfast...I mean, there are just so many ways around a good breakfast. I guess I should start off explaining egg and soldiers because so many people in America that don't know what it is. It's a British tradition where you soft-boil an egg, chop the top off, and cut up toast into little slivers that you dip right into the egg. That's why I also include it in the song, because I spend so much time making breakfast which is maybe self-indulgent and shows a side of gluttony. But I think one of my favorite recipes is shakshuka. It's a Middle Eastern breakfast with chopped onions, tomatoes, peppers, lots of spices, and poached eggs. It's delicious.
I also briefly wanna mention the “Splosh” track you made for the Drip EP. Is dance music an avenue you’d like to explore more?
I'd absolutely love to. I guess I'm intimidated by it because I didn't grow up in that tradition really. I find that people just acquire a certain logic listening to house or techno music for a long period of time. I think that can be a good thing too, though, so I don't just follow the exact style of other artists in the genre. I still love dancing despite not having been immersed in that kind of culture. I'm not sure in what capacity I'll be exploring dance music, but I definitely will.
What type of dance music do you listen to?
I really like a bit of everything. I've always loved jungle, that's something that just ignites a frenzied energy in me. I also love street drumming traditions that you get in Chicago or places like that; it's got such a high energy spirit to it. I've got this record of voodoo drumming, and I love that trance-type drumming, specifically coming from places like Haiti. I also really enjoy cumbia and Colombian music, and am really inspired by South American music with West African traditions. I also love swing and big band music. I don't like new styles like electroswing, but I really enjoy the stuff from the twenties, thirties and forties.
Going off on other side projects, I was looking at the description for the Freakzone mix you made and I have to ask, do you play Plantasia for your plants? Or do you you do anything with music to keep your plants happy?
I think my plants hear it just because I like to play that record pretty frequently. I find it helpful for me to concentrate and work to, so at the very least my plants are listening vicariously [laughs]. I haven't done any serious sort of experiments whether it actually helps them grow, but it's interesting to think about nonetheless. It's a topic that people consider more and more, and they're discovering plants may potentially even have a visual sense, and a much more interactive, responsive sensibility than people give them credit for.
I think it's important not to rule out the prospect that plants can hear. In fact, there was a study recently that showed that plants adjust the level of sugar in their nectar depending on the kind of frequency from the wing of the inset coming up towards them. They did this in a lab setting where they'd play sounds of an approaching bee, and the plant's nectar would rapidly turn a hell of a lot more sweet in response. So it seems that plants can hear, and even if it's just through picking up vibrations that doesn't really matter because that's all sound is anyway. I do think it's entirely possible that we do need to be more careful what we say and play around plants for sure.
Absolutely. So have you still been active in teaching music workshops and such? I also was curious if you take much inspiration in that regard from your mother, who I know runs a lot of workshops, especially teaching Mongolian overtone chanting.
I haven't done much in that recently only because I've been so wrapped up in making music. Every year, though, I do a workshop with my dad and brother in Canada. We'll actually be doing one soon in London for our first time. In ways I definitely have been inspired by my mother when it comes to facilitating workshops because it was such a big feature of my upbringing. There were always workshops happening in my house, so I always felt it to be the normal way of exploring and learning.
The main way I got involved with workshops was through these youth camps at an organization called Power of Hope, and the umbrella organization was called Partnership for Youth Empowerment. I started attending when I was young and then later became a facilitator. It went through facilitation training and workshop design classes to better learn how to empower youth through creative arts and immersive workshop models. It's impacted me greatly. It shaped the way I create music, and some of my biggest mentors are friends that I'd made in workshops. I'm helping out a friend currently organizing an opera workshop, but unfortunately I haven't spent much time teaching because I've been working on music, but I still think it's very important and give back in that way.
Before your full-length album, you also dropped that Hocking EP. You noted how you were experimenting with hocketing for the EP, which is a technique that splits up melodies and shares them across several voices. Did you pick up any new techniques for the full-length, or anything new you're experimenting with now?
I really got into hocketing because I'm interested in polyphony as a concept. I truly think that the way we understand or perceive the world in general is deeply polyphonic. We have thousands of voices coming at us from every angle. If you listen to bird songs, for example, they're all singing their own song but not necessarily trying to compete with one another or drown each other out. They'll leave space both rhythmically and frequency-wise. It's fascinating how all animals have evolved acoustic niches to achieve this.
Evolutionarily speaking, we as humans would have learned to hear and understand things in a much more polyphonic way than we necessarily do now, but I think becoming more literate and falling out of the oral tradition has had a huge impact on that. I just thought that hocketing was a really interesting tradition of splitting up melodies spatially. It seems to be a more honest way to reflect that we hear and piece the world together anyway. It started as a way of splitting up melodies that were particularly intense or hard to sing, and then the Hocking EP just came from that.
There aren't any other immediate things that pop to mind that I'm working on lately in regards to vocal techniques, but there are things that I'd like to explore. My friend introduced me to this amazing Inuit technique that's not exactly throat singing, but it's almost like a game where two people sit opposite each other and try and make the other essentially fall out of rhythm. One person is singing and the other has to sing in-line and follow at the same time. You're having to hear and think and follow simultaneously, and it's easy to get confused. If you fall out of sync it's so hard to try and jump back in. It's just another interesting way to think about polyphony in groups.
Just out of curiosity, do you know how to do throat singing?
Yeah, a bit. I mean, I can do the kind of overtone chanting that my mom teaches since I grew up around that sorta stuff. I can do the basics and deep, guttural kind of throat singing, but I'm not very good at the harmonics. So a little bit, but not as much as I'd like to.
I was going through your social media earlier, and you had a post at an evolutionary biology lab looking through a microscope at tardigrades, then a few posts earlier there’s a picture of you looking off from a hot air balloon. I just thought that was interesting because it seems that you’re observing things from the most micro to macro lens possible. What do you think, despite the lens or point of view you’re looking from, is your overall takeaway from observing our ecosystem?
You know, the smaller lens we look through, the more and more complicated things seem to be. For example, my brother is tropical ecologist. He's writing a book on fungi at the moment, and the more he or other scientists look at microbes and microbiomes, the more they see the density and complexity of fungal networks and how it influences plant behavior. Basically, the further down and smaller you get, the more dramatically baffling it all becomes. This idea reminds me of a book, I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, which tries to do away with the entire notion of the individual. It says that we are not the "I", it ceases to be a singular thing and we should think of "I" as a plural. We have all these dense communities of all sorts of tiny little beasties doing their thing that affect us in whatever way they do. I think the more people come to grips with that, the more complex and interconnected everything becomes.
Fundamentally, looking at a tardigrade through a microscope is very much the same as looking out at a landscape from a hot air balloon. It's just a matter of scale. I think people are increasingly realizing that the complexity of life never ends, you just have to have different means of being able to see or understand it. It's a bottomless pit of fascinating connections and interweaving structures. I think it's just important to take time and think about it all.
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.