From fronting a key-mosh metalcore band back in the day to recently stepping out by his lonesome and releasing a gorgeous, introspective-laden solo piano record, Christopher Dicker’s new LP marks a musical transition not often seen in the heavy music world.
After spending five years screaming his lungs out over raving synth lines, chugging guitars, and heavy breakdowns, Christopher Dicker left behind his bandmates in Melbourne’s House Vs. Hurricane right before 2011’s ‘Crooked Teeth‘ would come to fruition. While the Melbourne metalcore band moved on with current vocalist Dan Casey, Dicker took other, smaller and often unreleased dabbles into the world of heavy music. Yet just late last month, the local musician marked a sharp 180-degree shift in his musical journey – in what is a real far cry from his earlier, heavier roots – with the release of ‘A Priori: Music For The Back Of Your Mind‘; a 12-track album full of beautiful, well-composed, emotive piano pieces.
‘A Priori…‘ is made up of truly serene, touching music intended for the deep and reflective souls out there; perfect, non-demanding background music for your early morning work, your lazy afternoon at home, and your quiet nights alone. A fittingly introspective musical release for a man who once screamed lyrics such as “If you seek your eternal sunshine, you must first look inside yourself” (‘The Only Virtue‘), “Without a sense of fear, I’ll try to walk this life/try to reflect what I feel on the inside” (‘Off The Wall‘), and “Stand up, and take responsibility for the things you call your own” (‘Forfeiture‘), I think.
After receiving an email from the 28-year-old artist about a week or so ago regarding his new record, and after hearing the comforting release in full, I just knew that I had to talk to Dicker about this LP, his time since HVH, his future, and his overall vision. Ergo, here we are.
Christopher, following your leave of House Vs. Hurricane in 2011, what did you do directly following your departure from the band?
It was an interesting period. I suppose for the first time since I was a kid (or more of a kid than I was at 22 in 2011) I just starting living a less irregular life. I moved out of home closer to the city, I kept a job for more than a few months, I kept a steady relationship (with the woman I am now married to), I got eight hours sleep at night and three meals a day. These might seem like normal things but they certainly weren’t things I was accustomed to. Musically, I kept writing and recording with a couple of friends in a band on the thrashier/faster side of hardcore, which was what I was listening to at the time and it was great. We played a few shows, We did a couple of shorter records and a full-length with Jay Mass (Defeater). Even though I had parted with the band, not doing music, in some capacity, wasn’t really an option.
Well, other than that band, did you have any other interest in returning to heavy music full time with another band post-HVH?
Yeah, at the time I suppose I was open to it but perhaps not to the same extent and only if the right opportunity was there. I’ve always been a massive fan of bands like Cult of Luna, Isis, Calisto and so had discussed with some friends about doing something like that seriously. I even wrote and recorded a three track demo which never saw the light of day and I never really found the right people to make it work.
As someone who loved what HVH did, I am curious to know, do you still keep contact with that band and their members now? Or have you moved on from the people and work from that chapter of your younger life?
I do for sure but life rolls on and so it’s not to the same degree. A few of us are now married or business owners, so naturally those things occupy our attention. Leaving a band is also a significant thing too, particularly in the middle of friendships that had blossomed in part for that purpose. The band was everything we wanted to do as kids and all of sudden, someone comes out and says ‘I’m not sure I want to keep doing this’. I know, at least back then, it must have meant something to them that I had and I get that. We were in the writing/planning stages of what would become ‘Crooked Teeth’ and so it wasn’t great timing on my part. We’d had even entertained the idea that I would do the record before moving on. We’re certainly still friends and do keep in touch from time to time. We all got together a little while back, which was awesome. It was the first time we’d all been in the same room in several years and it was just like old times. I’ve heard from a number of the guys since I released this album and I hung out with Dylan [Start, bass] only last week.
I am actually really glad to hear that! Now, you composed and performed this new solo record by yourself. How long ago did you undertake this solo piano album and how long did the whole project take?
It was a bit of a labour of love really. I’ve had this in my mind for some time and have been writing for the piano for a couple of years but without any serious intention of putting a record together. I contacted Beau [McKee] around January to talk about making a record together and guess that’s when I started getting more serious about doing it. I’ve known Beau for many years, the studio he’s working out of now is the real deal and he knows how to use it. At the time, I had recorded an album of working demos for him and I think only one or two tracks from that original album made it to the finished record. I remember he wasn’t even aware I played the piano so it came as a bit of a surprise. So, I guess in the months between January & July the writing was constant, driven by a more concrete purpose of writing for a cohesive album. I spent three days with Beau at Oaklands in July in which we recorded 14 tracks, 12 of which made the record.
Also, why the piano – why not another instrument or another full band project? Have you been a long time piano player or was it something you picked up after HVH?
It’s an instrument I’ve always loved but hadn’t played seriously until a few years ago. I didn’t play the piano as a child and it was much later that I was introduced to some of the solo piano works of Ravel, Debussy, and Chopin. I do have these distinct memories of listening to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, the ones played by Reinbert de Leeuw, late at night at Salad Days in Baltimore when HVH were recording ‘Perspectives’. It’s different to the kind of expression that comes out of bands, there is something humble and old world about piano music which I love. Satie’s music showed me that simple music can be just as beautiful and powerful. I suppose I gravitated towards the piano for that reason, coupled with the fact that it’s something I could do alone at home at any time. No band practice, no schedules. It was difficult in its own way taking up classical piano. I mean, I had played in bands all my life and come from a musical space where you played what sounds good. You write what feels good. But in traditional music, you play what’s on the page. You follow all the rules. There is a wrong way to play & compose. I suppose in some sense this record was born out of my resistance to that idea – that there isn’t some rigid ‘right’ way to expression. There is, however, a benefit in studying the collective knowledge amassed over the centuries in the functional and practical aspects of formal music and to honour the intentions of the long dead composter who imagined the music in front of you.
Well said. You mentioned that you tracked the album at the Oakland Recording Studios in Melbourne. Did you end up using the Yamaha C7 concert grand piano they have there or did you bring in another piano for this recording?
We did use the C7 in the Oaklands live room. It’s a lovely piano, different to some of the larger grands I’ve tinkered on. It has this unusual sort of brightness and a pedal depth about half of the usual. Originally, we had talked about making some modifications to the piano for the recording, specifically by adding an additional layer of felt between the strings & hammers but as the tracklist changed over time, I decided the natural sound was more suitable for these particular pieces. That modified sound is something I’m working with and writing for now but I intend to experiment with it for another record.
Beau McKee is credited with the “musical image” of this record on your Bandcamp page. In what ways did Beau help you shape and guide this record into full creation and its final vision? Or is that just a fancy way of saying he recorded/produced it?
[Laugh] Well, I suppose it is, yes, but it’s also more accurate.
When you’re recording an album comprised entirely of a single instrument, the stereo image has much more available room than when you’re recording something with five or six instruments. In a situation like that, the final mix has varying degrees of stereo space assigned to each instrument, kind of like a sonic puzzle. When it’s just a piano, you have all the room in the world for a singular, complete musical image. So, it makes it almost necessary to take extra care to craft the captured tonal qualities of the single instrument, bringing in more of the room sound, blending each microphone etc. and having that be the singular focus. I think we used around 10 microphones on the recording, everything from analogue ribbons to a Decca-tree set-up along the roof (for the audio nerds) and the final sound is a careful blend of all of them. Beau did a fine job in this respect, took the time and achieved the kind of sound I had expressed and hoped to capture. I guess I just wanted to acknowledge his effort and care by thanking him for just what he did.
Sounds like he was a perfect match for you and this record’s sound. Also, yes, Decca-tree set-up can be good fun, especially for those tricky 5.1 recordings!
Regarding the album’s artwork, as well as its layout, it was done by Alexandre Katuszynski, Neil Walters, and Pat Fox respectively. Are those people you met or had connections for due to HVH or were they relationships you formed later as a solo artist?
In the case of Pat & Neil, I’ve known them for a long time. I don’t know if I can say prior to HVH, as technically I’d been doing that since school. But long enough that it feels like it’s not the band that brought about our friendship. Lucky for me, both have become incredibly talented in their own right and are both working on some really cool stuff. I’m grateful for both their friendship and contributions to the record. All credit to Neil who instigated much of the photography off his own back and we have some work together planned for the future.
The story with Alexandre is a little different, as he is based in Montpellier (France). My wife had come across his work and shared it with me, which I loved immediately. Alexandre is always travelling and photographing abandoned places – chateaus, castles, mansions, hospitals, homes and factories spread all over Europe. His work is incredible and captures this sort of slow decay. I mean, these places would have once been incredibly beautiful but through neglect are crumbling and forgotten and he is capturing that. Alexandre took the photograph which would become the album cover and layout art. I wanted this photograph specifically as I could see this philosophical connection between the slow decay of beauty he had captured and the way many of us treat the back of our minds, the things we put aside in us and ignore. I think the cover of this record is a fitting parallel. The long short of it is I managed to track down his contact details after seeing his work and we spoke over email about working together. He is a wonderful guy and his broken English brings us both amusement.
That’s awesome. And that front cover captures the record’s mood and intent so well.
Are you planning to ever tour ‘A Priori…’ or play any of these songs live? It would be a very different live show situation than what you once did with HVH…
[Laughs] yes, it would be but, to be honest, I would love to. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea about how to make a tour for this work, or if anyone would come. I know only a handful of people who inhabit this sphere of the musical world, given my history in the heavier side of things. Though I am considering holding a small show or two in Melbourne, maybe 50 people or so, and I’ll see how that pans out. It’s something I want to make more of an intimate space than just a piano in a big room. I think the music asks for that. Not sure what it will look like, we might even film it but keep an eye open.
Will do! I find that each of these 12 songs is meant to instil a certain emotion in the listener: both a calming mood and a sense of reflection. Did you find that difficult to nail at any given point in the writing and recording? Do you think that you’ve accomplished that in the end? Personally, I think you have!
Well, thank you. From a writing perspective, I think this type of reflection is what comes naturally to me, driven in part by the fact that I’m often playing in the very late night/early morning. It’s also simply the kind of piano music I am interested in. From a recording perspective, absolutely difficult. Trying to replicate the quiet space and intimacy of playing alone in the middle of the night while sitting in a brightly lit, enormous studio space, playing the same piece over and over again. That is really tough. I think I learnt a lot from the recording experience this time around and in terms of trying to recreate that atmosphere, there are certainly things I will do differently next time. It will be interesting to see how it would differ with a little more time in the studio. In the end, I’m pleased with where the record landed. It captures the sort of overall feeling and sound I had intended. To make a sort of ‘furniture music’. I owe Satie for that term, but that is to say, music which just sits in a room and provides company but doesn’t demand anything. Gives you space to think. There’s not too much of that kind of space in the modern world unless you actively seek it. This atmosphere and sort of unobtrusiveness was in focus while writing for the record and it’s why I named the record what I did.
Interesting thoughts there. And I think you put it best with that calling it ‘furniture music’ and saying that it “gives you space to think”, which is very true. Sometimes, people really need music like that. There’s just such a homey, very personal touch to this record’s sound too. I find that that also comes out in the song names as well. Are those titles indicative of what each piece is about? Is there much personal intention from your own life and feelings behind the song names?
Following on from the previous question, I think you could understand why that is. This record was unlike anything I’ve worked on before in the sense that it’s the only thing I’ve released that has been entirely my own work. I’ve always played in bands where compromises are reached, on taste and feeling, that are made in a sort of democratic way. Where here, both the music and the titles are direct references to things that have taken place in my life, some wonderful, some painful and difficult but likely no more than what we all experience. But they are named for those situations in my particular life and my reflections on them. Like a kind of attempt to look beyond myself and honour that which is outside. It’s terribly cliché but a truism – all music has it’s story.
Yes, all music has its own story; some are just deeper, more interesting or simply better than others I sometimes find. Moving on, what would you say was the most rewarding aspect about making and now releasing this record, if there’s one at all?
It has been something I’ve worked quietly towards for some time and that in itself is rewarding to finish. It was much to my own surprise that working with the piano is no contest the most comfortable, natural and satisfying place for me to create music and I have every intention to continue to do this. In a way, letting the record go was liberating, to be able to sit down at the piano again without a guiding purpose. To just play and see what happens. That’s the space I enjoy the most but I can’t stay there too long without funnelling it back towards something concrete. The feedback I’ve received on the record so far has certainly helped encourage me to continue to do it.
Well, I sincerely hope this endeavour continues! Is there only more piano-based music to come in the future or will you be dipping your toes into other sounds and instrumental ideas? Is it maybe too early to tell just yet?
Absolutely. I never really stopped working since I finished this in July, both on another series of compositions and on a piano score for a friend’s documentary film. I’m interested in working in that space too, I enjoy working within a defined concept and attempting to cater to specific feeling. I’m interested in working with some small strings sections and messing with the modifications to the piano I mentioned earlier. Given my progress so far with the felted sound, it will likely be the next solo piano work I do. I might also release a few one-offs through Spotify from time to time.
Rad! Finally, with the recent release of ‘A Priori…’ recently, and despite what an absolutely generic question it may be to end on, what happens right now for you, Christopher?
I guess I’ll keep on working and I hope that people will enjoy the record!
All photo credit: Neil Walters.
‘A Priori: Music For The Back Of Your Mind‘ is out now. You can steam the captivating release below: