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Thijs De Vlieger on Orchestral composition and embracing the rabbit hole
7 Jul '2020
The Noisia man on his latest project, Unmoved Mover, and why we should “Stop questioning art and just get down to it”
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It is no overstatement to say that, over the past two decades, Thijs De Vlieger has become one of the most respected figures in the world of electronic music. As one-third of Noisia, De Vlieger has been at the forefront of innovation in sound design-led genres such as Neurofunk and techstep – his technical understanding of sound combined with his innate musicality has made him a master of his craft.

 

Now, 20 years after their formation, Noisia have announced their disbandment. “The problem was that we had to do more stuff together, and then we couldn’t agree on what. That’s the extent of it really,” says De Vlieger down the line from Noisia’s studio in Groningen, The Netherlands. Thanks to that insane custom-made studio complex, the three will still be seeing each other practically every day.

 

Now, after six weeks of lockdown, he finds himself at the start of an exciting solo career. His latest project ‘Unmoved Mover’, released under his solo alias Thys, is a sign of things to come, but De Vlieger has creative ambitions far beyond dance music.

 

Thys · Unmoved Mover

 

 

“I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, so I really like to do completely different stuff from time to time. That’s hard to market in today's climate, but it’s what I thrive in. It’s really hard because it doesn’t define you, it kind of undefines you, you know?” 

 

“I’m seriously working towards becoming a film composer, I’m saying it out loud now. I’ve been thinking about it for longer. Yeah, like I’m going to be a film composer. I’m doing a lot of research, studying and making, and I’m working with a private teacher. It’s just a matter of time until I get my first job. That’s the idea".

 

 

Have you always been interested in working in different kinds of music?

All of us in Noisia have wide interests. We all listen to all sorts of classical and pop music. In Noisia, I always found the most satisfying part was the story-telling aspect of the whole project. Not the detail in the snare, but telling a story, making intros and builds and non-linear narratives in songs that do something different. 

 

Not only do we each have different approaches to sound design, but also to the way we sequence things. I really like it when a song takes a completely unexpected turn. That was always my part, and you can really hear it in ‘Unmoved Mover’.

 

Thys · Unwound (feat. Lordel)

 

 

I like to change things rather than having a loop that repeats over and over, but that does make it less danceable. I love club culture, and I love DJing, but I don’t know if it’s really what I want to say in music. I want to tell a bigger story, and in the club, you don’t want to tell that story, you want to keep it hypnotic. There the story is a one-hour journey where you move from loop to loop, from vibe to vibe – that’s the story you tell as a DJ. You have an hour for it, and I want to tell the story in a song, in six minutes. 

 

How have you done that on Unmoved Mover?

Unmoved Mover is a really good example of what I’m trying to do. I’m taking club culture, my whole background of 20 years of being in clubs and into electronic music, but telling different kinds of stories with it. I know the rules of what works in a DJ set, but I don’t need to respect them – instead, I take the sound and the tools from that world and do other stuff with it. That’s what I intuitively want to do so that’s what I’m doing. I don’t know if it’s important, or if people need to hear it, but it’s what I want to do.

 

So you’d like to take this and make the move into movies…

I'd love to work on movie projects to help tell the story of a film. Music is intrinsically abstract; it doesn’t use words. You can’t really tell a story in music, but that’s not the point, it’s not music’s strength. That being said, music can really help tell a story in a medium like film. 

 

I’d love to work on projects that tell stories, and maybe ones that have political or activist connotations – to use my music in a context that matters. I’ve tried to put meaning into music in the past, but I’ve concluded that it doesn’t make the music any better. It’s a struggle and it sucks, so I want to take on projects that themselves have meaning, and then provide the music for that. 

 

With Noisia it was such a small team that it almost didn’t feel like a team anymore, it just felt like one unit Noisia

 

I’m also really excited about the concept of team creativity. I’ve really liked working on dance performance projects in the past. It’s such a team effort, it’s so different from our little thing of making music and then playing shows – you’re really in your own bubble the whole time. Our live performances Outer Edges and I Am Legion were much more collaborative. We were talking to the lights designer, stage designer – it was really a team that put the whole thing together. But with Noisia it was such a  small team that it almost didn’t feel like a team anymore, it just felt like one unit, Noisia. 

 

In team projects, you get a bit of “what if you do this” or “this is what you do while this is what I do, and how do we bring that together?” – it’s super exciting. 

 

Were there any particular challenges working in music for choreography? Perhaps you never know exactly how long a particular scene is going to go on for? 

It’s actually the complete opposite – it has to be the same length because everything is set to a grid of bars and beats. They don’t do 8 bar and 16 bar loops like DJs do, but they count – and if the music is off, they lose count.

 

 

The great thing for me when composing for dance, as opposed to theatre, is the music is very dominant. I don’t have to give way to speech. If I take the music down that’s not me taking it down because someone needs to speak, it’s me taking it down because then I can take it up again. I really loved the position that music has in choreography performances. There’s so much space to do interesting things. It’s such a nice interdisciplinary artform. 

 

Were you given any restrictions? Were there any strange things that you hadn’t dealt with before?

The two shows were performed live so I couldn’t do a bunch of production tricks. It had to be realistically performed by people on electronic instruments, so that was a challenge. That's why I started writing in Ableton. I come from Cubase, I’m now doing both. I use Ableton for club music and Cubase for scoring and cinematic stuff. But that’s the challenge of doing it live, every show has a concept, so you really have to limit yourself to within this concept - you have to decide what you can explore.

 

I think every composer would say “I composed that for this project, but also I was just exploring a particular tool or technique because it was new and exciting, so it was all over that show.” I think that goes for classical composers as well – everybody has a little thing that they just recently discovered that’s all over their work.

 

When you start composing for movies, what kind of sound do you think your compositions will have?

My ambition is to control the orchestra comfortably. I love the orchestra, I’ve always loved orchestral music, I grew up with it. I’ve also done a couple of projects with symphonic orchestras, and it always feels like what I should be doing. I should devote some of my time to writing orchestral stuff, and working with orchestras because it’s such a beautiful dimension of sound, it’s a sound design that’s just finished. No one needs to touch it anymore. Everything is where it should be.

 

You don’t need to pan it!

It’s done, yeah. Just leave it like that, don’t fuck around with it too much. The orchestra is also such a huge part of film culture. Imagine Jurassic Park without the John Williams soundtrack; or Star Wars; or Hitchcock without Bernard Herman. It’ll take time for the orchestra to be replaced, and it might never be replaced because it's now canonized. It’s always been canonized into the culture, but now even more so through movies and games. So I think the orchestra will stay, and I want to control it.

 

The orchestra is also such a huge part of film culture. Imagine Jurassic Park without the John Williams soundtrack; or Star Wars; or Hitchcock without Bernard Herman

 

I think what makes me special as a composer is the 20 years I spent as part of Noisia. When people hire me, I’m realistically hired because I’m so fluent in the language of electronics and dark sound, so my motivation is really to do both orchestral and electronic composition. I think my unique selling point, or whatever you want to call that in management speak, would be the electronic part.

 

You use modular synths and Reaktor a lot. Most people get stuck down the rabbit hole and they spend too long messing with things, as a professional do you still feel that? 

I think the rabbit hole is a very sacred place. You should always invite the rabbit hole, but make sure you’re recording and make sure you minimize the administration of managing the recordings. The moment I’m like “Oh, this is cool,” I go over to Cubase, it’s all prepped, I press record, record it and I instantly export it with a very descriptive, non-creative tile. I have a backlog of years of exported sounds from little noodle sessions. 

 

 

You then have to know how to process the sounds. You could do that in audio, within a sampler, or even as a wavetable. You can load them in Serum as a wavetable and scan through them. There are many ways to use that material. If you want to make artistic, unique sounds, your starting point should always be something that you make yourself. You can then stick as many bread and butter effect sounds and loops on top to make it sound fatter. 

 

How do you know when a track has got to the point where it’s not worth working on, and you just need to bin it?

For me the question is the other way around: how do you know when to pick up a thing? I never throw anything away. One thing I’m religious about, and I say this in every masterclass or interview that I do, is to save everything, back up everything, and make sure you have MP3 or WAV files of every sketch that you do so you don’t have to go through all your projects and open them all to see what's in there. That’s why I have a render of every version of every project so that I can just go through the bounces and be like, “Oh wait there’s something there”. I may have dismissed it a month ago, but six months later I might think there’s something in there. I can go into the project, export the part that I like, and use it in a new sketch that I have. Alternatively, I might think that I’m going to give the whole sketch another go. 

 

save everything, back up everything, and make sure you have MP3 or WAV files of every sketch that you do so you don’t have to go through all your projects and open them all to see what's in ther

 

I think you bin things every evening when you leave the studio, or when you shut the laptop, and then the next time you pick it up, that’s when you decide whether it's worth picking it up again.

 

When you pick things up again, do you find yourself processing and changing them a lot?

Usually, when I go back I do so because the whole sketch has potential. I often keep lists of sketches that I shouldn’t forget about. Usually, the sketch in itself has an internal balance or harmony that works, but sometimes I just go in to sample or scavenge one sound. 

 

For me, when I open up an old project, first it’s about re-establishing a relationship with the song. I usually start by mixing it some more. It’s kind of a soft way into the comfort zone to mess around with some faders, try some audio plugins, try some different compression, fix some EQ here and there. It gets you into that relationship with the song again, it reestablishes a decent map of the song into your head. So I do go in and fuck up the mix, and then later have to admit “okay that didn’t help” – but that’s how I get back into the song.

 

If you could go back and give yourself, the young Thijs - one piece of advice - what would it be?

I would say to myself ten years ago that, “Even though it’s also a consumer good, and almost a service sometimes, your music is still art.” If you think about the history, and the culture, and the human and social aspect of DJ culture, of being in that room all together focused on the same sound coming out of the speakers. Club music is an art form – don’t let anybody tell you it isn’t.  

 

Even though it’s also a consumer good, and almost a service sometimes, your music is still art

 

Some people like to watch the DJ, some people are just in their zone, but none of them want to be alone. I'm one of the people in my own bubble. I don’t want to be touched by strangers, I hate that on the dance floor, but if I’m in an empty club and there’s a DJ before me playing it’s not the same. There need to be people around me, there needs to be this collective focus on the music. We feel safe together. 

 

 

This is also what Unmoved Mover refers to, it’s a concept that I once learned: it’s a way to explain god, they used it in medieval times when they tried to justify the existence of god in philosophy and natural science. For me it means that I’m in that club and I don’t want to dance, I want to be there with people, and I want those people to be there, I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone by them and just be with the music. 

 

It is art. Stop questioning art and just get down to it. 

 

Anything else you’d want to tell your younger self?

Learn about the science of sleep, and how valuable sleep is to productivity and mental health. Feeling rested, feeling energetic, feeling motivated, and feeling creative are all connected. A rough night of sleep can mean the next day I don’t feel like recording anything. A couple of consecutive nights of rough sleep and I’m not even going to the studio.

 

It helped me to read the latest knowledge on it, including Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep – and to really take it seriously. Sleep is so important for creativity and can really make music-making a lot easier. Knowing about what the body needs – about diet, about the effects of alcohol, the effects of sleep, anxiety, traveling anxiety – those things are so much more important than what VST someone uses. The difference between good musicians and unsuccessful musicians is mostly just mindset and luck. And knowing how your body and mind work together – that’s a vital part of knowing how to be and how to stay creative.