A quick Zoom invite sent, followed by hellos and can you hear mes, and we’re live for a chat and a catch up with Herb Magee, better known as Arvo Party. The electronic producer has kept himself busy, putting out a surprise ambient album titled Devotions this month, not long after his last album Love Above All. Devotions though is only the beginning of a series of releases he’s planned through the next few months. As he puts it, “Why not just put music out while everybody’s sat at home?”.
For many musicians, working from home isn’t an option, not so for those in the electronic music world. “For me it’s beneficial, I don’t think it’s beneficial for the general public who have to buy a new album every few weeks but for me definitely. Creatively I don’t feel like I have been as productive as I would normally be because my head’s in a different place like everybody’s. But I’m lucky I can do whatever it is I’m doing with my life from home, and out in the country. I’ve made my studio a slightly nicer place. Women no, houseplants yes.”
Arvo Party is of course a little different from Magee’s younger days in the legendary LaFaro, whose self titled debut turned ten this month. The touring band life has given way to crafting Arvo Party’s varied and stunning compositions at home and with that a complete change to the creative process.
“Do I miss the creative element of being in a band? Absolutely not. I think I might find it very difficult to go back to being in a band, but who knows. Any time I was in a band, and I was in a lot of bands, I never felt like I was a prolific contributor, maybe LaFaro aside. Even putting an idea forward in a rehearsal room was a big deal, I didn’t have the confidence to do that. This is a bit more experimental and I feel like whenever I’m working the ideas come quite easily and when it’s finished I’m not as precious as I used to be about it. ‘OK that’s done, get it out there’. If I’ve done everything I can do to this, then it’s up to somebody else to put their emotions onto it or leave it lying unlistened in a Spotify playlist. I’m glad that I can do this on my own and I wouldn’t be able to stop even if people wanted me to, because it’s a habit.”
For many in the music scene nowadays, they’ll know Herb Magee as Arvo Party, with his own self titled debut released in 2017, first, LaFaro and everything else a distant second. But how does one go from playing ‘big dirty riffs on stage through a massive PA’ to remixing tunes on his laptop?
“There’s a theme in my life where everything’s fine for a bit then something happens and I’m fucked for a bit, mentally. At the time I moved back to Belfast, bought a Mac off a guy, got Logic on it and figured out how to make music. Within a few months I had a couple of silly remixes, in hindsight they sound awful but I was learning. I like that idea of music being a document, where you can see exactly how someone’s progressing. And the good thing about doing all of this on my own is you can see how I’m progressing.”
“It wasn’t really a plan, it just sort of happened and I thought I could put these up on the internet and get some validation. And five years later here I am, the NI Music Prize gave me too much validation and what’s next? I am really enjoying the experimenting and I’m amazed I’ve gotten this far and make a living off it, sometimes.”
That part is wildly different to his touring days.
“When I was in a band, you never made any money, you were just putting it back into making the next tour, fixing the van or getting some t shirts done. You’re constantly chasing a break that never did come. With this it’s a lot more sustainable. It didn’t cost me any money to make this and I’m getting emails saying somebody’s bought your idea for a fiver. I thought that can’t be right. “
“I just make music and when I think it’s good enough I have to release it. The next two albums are sitting there on my desktop, and by the time I release those I’ll have written another. I can’t just throw it in the bin, I should release it because people like music. There was never really a plan to get this far, but here we are.”
With Love Above All his third album proper, as he refers to it, there’s still been a lot of other releases including remixes and numerous other albums in the pipeline.
“I feel like I’m still figuring out what I’m doing. I know musically it’s quite bipolar, but I’d like to think I could look back in a few years time and see a theme. Almost every track is a happy accident, there’s no plan. Apart from the ambient thing, ‘I’m going to make sad music and leave all the drums off. Brilliant.’
“I would write something every day, but it wouldn’t be every day that I finish something. It’s good to have that freedom and I’m not wasting anyone’s time but my own, until I release it and I’m wasting everybody’s time.”
An advocate of Bandcamp’s no-fee Fridays, he’s put out deals and even released the Devotions album to take full advantage, with ardent independent music supporters gathering round to put their usual gig fees towards merch and music on the platform each month providing a boost in these uncertain times. Would he have released that album and those set to follow if we weren’t in the current landscape however?
“Without lockdown? No. The Bandcamp thing doesn’t really make much difference, though it’s a good thing to be a part of and a good thing that they’re doing. It helps me that I have stuff ready to release. Whenever I was trying to put Love Above All together, I’d been trying to piece it into an album for months. I had about thirty tracks to choose from and I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t work as an album. Then I realised that they all inherited different places. So I had all these tracks done anyway, it’s lucky that with Bandcamp I can throw it out. It doesn’t exist until you release it. It only exists to you, what’s the point? So why not put it out? Which is totally the opposite to when I was in a band, I don’t care if you like it. It’s not about that, it’s about the doing of it I think, for me. I keep reading about bands that have postponed releasing albums because they can’t promote it or tour it. I’m not going to tour an album anyway, because it’s just me and a laptop and toys.”
One lockdown album for an electronic producer may almost be expected, but Arvo Party isn’t stopping there with a diverse set of releases ready to go.
“I started doing this synthwave, 80s influenced thing. I’ve always had a soft spot for it. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid releasing it, but there’s some of that kicking about that I want to put out in June. Everybody’s miserable, it might make people happy.”
“There’s another I’ve been working on for probably about a year. I feel like it definitely inherits its own space, it’s very different and a lot more organic. It has its own sound the whole way through it. I’m intrigued to see how that goes down. That’ll be July and there’s another after that in August or September that I’ve already started working on. Which is just ridiculous really. I thought fuck it, I’ll put out as much music as I can.”
Almost inevitably we discuss the topic that has again raised its head with the prominence of Bandcamp, and that’s the economy of streaming and specifically Spotify. He doesn’t hold back.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea but it’s been done wrong, there has to be a better way. I’m not against it, I am against the economics of it. If I look at my Spotify at the end of the year, when they send me an email with some animated video that makes me feel like a golden god for a few minutes and tells me ‘you’ve had 150,000 streams this year, and here’s £100.’ It’s not a wage. If somebody goes on and buys my album on Bandcamp for a fiver, that’s more than I would earn on Spotify in a month. Bandcamp Friday is just a resource to sell your music for a little bit more money. You’d a goddamn fool not to get involved while all eyes are on it. It’s also good in the fight against Spotify. It’s a necessary evil. I’m so annoyed at them telling me I have so many streams yet getting a pittance out of this massive million dollar company.”
Those Irish music fans that haven’t yet delved into the music of Arvo Party may have encountered his work through other avenues. Magee has become something of a go-to for remixes around Ireland, remixing the likes of ROE, Emma Langford and Versechorusverse.
“I’ll be working on a remix and I’ll take the vocal off it and think that could be an album track for me. But every time I go, ‘no, this is a remix so do what you’re supposed to do.’ I just started doing that for fun really, and I really enjoy reharmonising tracks. I’ve always enjoyed that taking a pop song in a major key, just taking the vocal and building a whole new song around it. And try to change every melody, every key to make it more sad, because sad is better. The only thing that annoys me about remixes apart from explaining to people that this is my time, is the fact there’s so many remixes sitting on other people’s hard drives waiting to be released that I know are fucking brilliant, some of the best I’ve done.”
While Arvo Party waits for his best remixes to hit the internet, he clearly isn’t taking chances with his own music. With four albums to his name already, that number should hit six by the end of the summer as those experiments in sound reach Bandcamp and of course Spotify. With the quality of releases he’s put out so far, and the progression throughout, we expect there to be a lot more Arvo Party listeners on the way.