“We can’t tell you what we sound like; we can tell you our aspirations for what we want to sound like, but it’s probably a million miles away from the reality,” says Benjamin Fair, somewhat cryptically, catching us off guard with his answer to our opening gambit (Can you describe your music in one sentence). “We pair off repetition with change, tradition with exploration, the familiar with the strange, love with fear.”
His fellow experimentalist in THE ALEPH, Jonathan Hering, goes even further with his response. “In his story The Aleph, Jorge Luis Borges says, ‘How can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?’ Early on, we adopted this as a manifesto.”
If you’ve had the chance of marvelling at their latest work, the five-track Sunspots EP, you’ll probably agree that this is as close as you’re likely to get to describing the duo’s singular aesthetic. The two Ex-Easter Island Head members produced the material themselves, with help coming from Andrew PM Hunt (of Dialect and Outfit fame). Stealing Sheep’s Lucy Mercer joins them on the EP’s closer, She Hangs Her Coat On The Highest Pin, by which the pair have drifted from sugary sweet synth pop to ominous baroque overtures, and back again.
“When we first started working with Andy [Hunt], we had a bunch of songs that we played to him and he said, ‘Yeh, but what do you want to sound like?’,” says Ben. “We’d just written these things we wanted people to feel or experience and nuts-and-bolts sonics hadn’t really featured. So, I thought, we love songs by ABBA, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. We love counterpoint and minimalism. We love the queasy nostalgia of TV themes and music for adverts. Hauntology, I suppose. But we also love music by artists who create these vivid, defined sound worlds where you only need hear a snippet and know who it is immediately: Kraftwerk, Moondog, The Birthday Party, Coil, Eden Ahbez, Delia Derbyshire, Darkthrone, Laurie Anderson. Music where you are very much a visitor to their planet.”
Picking up the thread, and also the initial intention of the original question, Jon chimes in. “We decided we too needed a unique sound world, something quintessentially Aleph that gave us scope to play anything from Kraftwerk to Moondog. Somewhere that would allow us to explore these themes of memory, nostalgia, fear, love. But in one sentence? A bit like Joe Meek.”
As you might already have guessed, this pair think a lot more laterally about music and its applications than most musicians. Jon sees “layers and strong lines” in the roots of their artistic influences, which stretches across “music, visual art, in buildings, in histories and in emotions”. Ben builds on this idea of there being different strata in the way they work: “I equate layers to physical environment or relationships. Strong lines are a form of personal truth. What could be more truthful than singing something from the bottom of your heart at the top of your voice?”
It’s no surprise to find that The Aleph’s methods lend themselves well to working to with film – and, indeed, their rare live shows are accompanied by a visual element that accentuates the music’s cinematic feel. “Our music/film piece The Good Eater is very special to us,” Jon says, “as its very structure epitomises our approach: threads of music, language and imagery that diverge, re-emerge, converge and entwine; music from the distant past to the far future that meets in a spectral present; invocations and evocations of the near-forgotten and the half-remembered.” This 2016 work, made in collaboration with friend and filmmaker Craig Sinclair, plays on childhood memories and the lurking fear that lives inside of us. “There’s a moment in The Good Eater,” continues Ben, “where Jon sings When I Am Laid in Earth by Henry Purcell with an accompaniment of counterpoint synths, while the film shows a father looking for his lost son. I really don’t know what that says about us: perhaps that deep down we value emotion over thought.”
Jon dodges our final question, about why music is important to them (“Impossible to answer! Why do you like the taste of cherries?”), but Ben, thankfully, confronts it in the characteristically frank Aleph way: “It makes us feel different and nobody knows why. That’s magical. And real.”
Sunspots is out now from thealeph.bandcamp.com.