With their first album Ding Ding Ding nominated for last year’s Australian Music Prize, and their second album Nak Nak newly released, Australians Ducks! are steadily building themselves a home within the Berlin music scene.
LOLA joined Lani Bagley and Craig Schuftan of Ducks! for a chat about going undercover amongst us humans to make their unique brand of carefully crafted electronic pop.
LOLA: So what’s the Ducks! origin story?
Craig: Our first performance together onstage was not as Ducks! – it was at a series of multimedia lectures I was doing in Neukölln about ideas from the history of modern art or music or philosophy or literature. I was preparing one about Musique Concrete, the experimental mechanical-loop-based electronic music of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s in France, on how repetition changes our approach to sound, aesthetically and philosophically. I’d met Lani and had seen a video of her doing one of her live loop-based performances, so I suggested the idea of us doing a performance together – a little musical interlude. Lani performed two songs, which was a great way to connect theory to practice.
Lani: I’d played in rock bands – a grungy one, an indie pop thing, a solo acoustic project – and I started doing the live looping, which is what I was doing just before I came to Berlin. This whole time I’ve really loved electronic music, particularly trip hop and glitchy stuff, so I’d wanted a producer to work with. I met Craig at just the right moment.
C: The idea was minted at Berghain (conceived more or less on the dance floor at Panorama Bar). It was me just making tracks, which Lani would sing over, and it was quite unambitious considering it ended up being a collaboration. It’s been a happy unexpected adventure.
LOLA: What surprises you about each other’s creative processes?
C: I recently taught a class about Bridget Riley; she has a cool and rational way of painting, the effort that goes into it is very careful and measured but the emotional effect is overwhelming. The first time Lani and I got together to make music and I watched her in front of the microphone, I was amazed at how cool and measured the effort was; in some ways it seemed like no effort at all. But the emotional effect was so heavy and precise. That was the real surprise for me.
L: I’m always amazed by Craig’s sense of rhythm, and the tangents he goes on, which are both a blessing and a curse. We’ll record something together, and then Craig will go off and come back with something that goes in a completely different direction. Sometimes I’ll think that something’s finished, and now we’ve got a whole new problem. His creativity is amazing and annoying.
C: One of the things I’ve always loved about electronic music; the thing that you build can then be rebuilt over and over again. It’s a bit sad in a way, you look at a track and think you could mix that ten ways, but realistically you have to commit to something.
L: Unless you’re Kanye.
LOLA: Do you look at your live performances as an opportunity to re-version your songs?
L: We have a little bit, purely because of constraints. ‘Make a Party’ has our friend Linda rapping on it, but she’s quite shy and doesn’t want to come onstage with us, so we had this puzzle for ages. I tried, but I can’t rap for shit and it sounded awful. Then we came up with a completely different version of the song with me singing different bits.
LOLA: Was that enjoyable?
C: No, we almost killed each other.
L: Oh my god, that’s probably the most frustrated you’ve been with me. I was just stubborn, and after me having lots of hissy fits, eventually all of a sudden it was very fun. I think we came up with the right delay that sounded really good. Sometimes it’s something that’s as simple as that.
LOLA: Do you feel you’ve got a lot of creative freedom when you’re making a Ducks! track?
L: Ducks! can be anything.
C: It’s funny thinking about how much can be incorporated into this project. ‘Time Taken’ came from two separate recording sessions with a bunch of different people, slowly massaged in the studio into two halves of a whole, which Lani then wrote a song over. I love that Ducks! can accept all of these influences and things and still make sense, and still sound like Ducks!. I love Faith No More and Brian Eno and Kate Bush – artists who are able to embrace contradictions and not be themselves from time to time. God forbid we get stuck in a band where you have to do one thing.
L: It’s not like we ever sit down to make something like ‘we’re going to make a song’. We sit down and we play with noises and it feels like being a little kid and scribbling with crayons.
C: I felt like the one thing I regret about [our debut album] Ding Ding Ding is that I was not as brave as I could’ve been as a producer. When you’re trying to do something new you want to put your best foot forward, and I was aware that it was our first statement. I think now whatever taboos there were on Ding Ding Ding are gone. I’m not trying to make a good impression on Nak Nak in quite the way that I was on the first one.
LOLA: So if you start every session with this freedom, how do you ever finish anything?
L: We decide whether this thing will have verses and choruses, or if this a thing with a feeling that we have to build the shape of. Once we figure that out, we build the thing to the shape that it should be. Craig does the mixing, but that does work better when we’re in the room together making decisions. It’s all very collaborative.
C: There are things that I find interesting that are just boring to everybody else. I will listen to a ridiculous noise for two hours and that’s fine. It doesn’t feel like work, because I’m chasing something and I want that thing to realise itself. At art school they taught us that when you have a sheet of paper in front of you, and you do something to it, you’ve created a problem that has to be solved. You have nothing, you have blank tape or space on the DAW, and then you record the sound of a cactus. All of a sudden you have a problem – an interesting problem.
L: This link between us came because I was already working with live looping. I can listen to a loop for a long time and start hearing the possibilities in that, and want to make things over the top of it. So I think that’s where our common ground is. Sitting on something for a long time feels like an indulgence to me.
C: Not that there aren’t songs on Nak Nak – there are. But like Lani said we take a thing and we sit on it and explore it over time, because what’s interesting about that thing is where it is. It’s weird how quickly you can move away from something in the act of turning it into a song. You’re actually losing a little sound world that otherwise people could really lose themselves in.
LOLA: You’re both Australian, but you met here in Berlin – is your music connected to a sense of place at all?
L: Very much so – Germany more so than Australia. The repetition comes from the sense of timelessness that there is in Berlin’s nightlife. Then there are other places, like when we travelled to Portugal and did field recordings, and recorded little bits of music in the AirBnBs we were staying in.
C: That’s one of the nice things about making electronic music, places just sort of get smashed together, that neat trick of electronic music’s ability to collapse time and space. Two rooms on opposite sides of the world, or things that happened two, or twelve years apart – a bedroom in Sydney in 1998, an AirBnB in Lisbon in 2014, all of a sudden they’re sitting next to each other or on top of each other. Time travel.
LOLA: Do you have any favourite sound makers or tools that you keep coming back to?
L: There’s a little Casio keyboard that has been frankencasio’ed with this little pitch knob that makes it go “meouhwoaoh” that gets used on everything.
C: I love that thing. That belonged to my sister, it sat there and did nothing, and then my parents had a garage sale. I already had this little collection of tape recorders and things, and when the Casio was dragged out it stayed with me ever since. I’ve used it 1000 times on 1000 things, there’s something about how bad it is. I’m always thinking there must be another thing that it does, and there always is.
L: You can put it through 1000 different effects, and there’s something gloriously purely crap-tacular about it.
LOLA: So, tell us about Nak Nak.
L: This is a bunch of stuff that we made together and we just have enough material for two albums. We just kind of never stop making things.
C: After that, we were presented with the problem of how to divide them up. So we looked for recurring themes and motifs, and tried to group them according to that.
L: We split them into a water album and a land album. Nak Nak is the water album. I just happen to write about water all the damn time.
C: So this first one has ‘Into the Sea’, which is kind of about returning to the ocean and leaving humanity behind, ‘Giant World’, which has lyrics about sounds you can hear underwater, and also a recording of frogs that we made last spring near Baumschulenweg. It’ll be a properly amphibious double-album.