Balam Acab Returns With a Mountain of Eerie, Unsettling Electronic Music

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When Alec Koone says, “I can’t be one of those musicians who sits in a studio, churns out a record, tours, and does the whole industry thing; I’m too old for that,” it’s easy to be cynical and ask one simple question: Since when was 26 too old for anything? But then again, Koone was 19 when he made See Birds, the EP that launched Robin Carolan’s Tri-Angle label and set a high bar for Koone’s Balam Acab project—a project he wasn’t planning on doing much with at the time.

Once the reviews started rolling in and it became clear Balam Acab was going to outlive the silly witch-house “scene,” Koone got to work on his first and only proper LP. Released to another round of acclaim six years ago, Wander/Wonder epitomizes what we’ve come to expect from Balam Acab—waterlogged rhythms, heart-sinking hooks (the album’s liable to both cure and cause depression), and fantastic orchestral flourishes that reveal Koone’s classically-trained background.

But then, before any of us realized what was happening, Koone scurried away from the limelight and went back to school. “I barely made anything,” explains Koone, “or even opened my DAW [digital audio workstation] during that time.”

The Pennsylvania-based producer’s hiatus lasted about four years—just long enough for him to feel rejuvenated and eventually record and self-release Balam Acab’s Child Death EP in late 2015. To give you an idea of how much Koone cared about the music industry at that point, it dropped a week before Christmas, well after everyone’s year-end lists had ran and at a time only true fans would appreciate.

“I love where my project is at right now,” says Koone, “because I can do anything and it seems like it’s gonna be fine.” He ain’t kidding; Balam Acab’s Bandcamp page has been on a tear this year, as Koone unveils a flurry of side projects, solo outlets, and previously unreleased material. Not to mention promising new Balam Acab pieces like last May’s All I Beg EP.

In the following exclusive, Koone delves into the life, death, and rebirth of Balam Acab, and what he’d like to do next.

What’s your earliest memory of connecting to music on a deeper level? 

I like this question because it was such a specific moment in time; I remember it so well. I was in high school and had been getting into, like, Bright Eyes and post-rock. I had [Animal Collective’s] Sung Tongs on my computer for a really long time, but never threw it on for some reason. One afternoon, I came home from school, laid on my floor, and had my mind blown. After the first song [“Leaf House”], I was like, ‘OK, let’s see what happens next.’ Which was ‘Who Could Win A Rabbit’—equally mind-blowing. Then ‘The Softest Voice’ came on, and it was game over.

How has your taste evolved since then? 

[Laughs] It’s gotten more normal. Like, I’m listening to Third Eye Blind’s debut LP right now. But after [Animal Collective] I got into noise/drone tapes and weirdo music. I refused to listen to anything with guitars unless they were not playing them like guitars. Then, my friend forced me into Pavement when I was 18. I heard the cowbell in ‘Silence Kit’ and was about to write them off forever, but then the vocals came in and I was like, ‘Hmm… this is catchy.’ Now Pavement is one of my favorite bands.

When did you first try making your own music and what did it sound like? 

[Laughs] Pop-punk? After School of Rock came out, me and my friends got our parents to buy us instruments, and one kid got a 4-track. I have a jewel case for our ‘debut album’ in my bedroom. We had a lot of songs, but something happened with the recorder and we lost them. I’m sure they were awful. We were 13.

Did you take lessons back then? 

I took guitar lessons, and then, more intensely, classical guitar, piano and voice when I went to Ithaca College for a minute. I love music theory, sight-reading, sight-singing, and all the dumb rules you have to follow in classical. I love working with people where I can be like, ‘Wait, try going to ‘mi’ instead of ‘do’ when it changes from II to IV.’ I love being able to communicate in solfège and Roman numerals [laughs].

When did you start recording as Balam Acab?

I made Rituals and Black Rainbow when I was in eleventh grade. Then I did an Etherea mixtape during my first winter break from college. It got a little attention, so I figured Etherea would take off, if anything. Then right at the end of the break I made ‘See Birds,’ ‘Big Boy,’ and ‘Heavy Living Things,’ and uploaded them to Balam Acab’s MySpace.

Did you already have Wander/Wonder written before signing to Tri-Angle? How do you feel about that record now?

I didn’t have any of it written. We agreed to do an EP and LP, and I was like, ‘Man, how am I gonna make an EP of stuff that was just an afterthought?’ With Wander/Wonder, I was determined to bring the Etherea influence back by making it super spacious and textural. I feel ambivalent about it, because I still get paid, in my opinion, an absurd amount of royalties from See Birds and Wander/Wonder. I think it’s too palatable, but for my age and first attempt at an LP, it was all right. Anyone can throw it on, shake their head, and be like, ‘This is nice.’

You all but disappeared after releasing Wander/Wonder. Why? Did you feel burned out due to the B.S. that goes along with being a public figure (interviews, touring, dealing with people who still mention witch-house)? 

Yep, pretty much. I ghosted everyone, moved in with a now ex-girlfriend, and lived a normal life because I can’t do that whole sit in a studio, churn out music, tour, repeat, get fucked over [laughs]. I gotta have real-life experiences to make electronic music that can reach people.

There’s a single on your Bandcamp called “Shaun Is Dead,” which appears to be about the suicide of a close friend. Without getting too personal, how did that experience impact you on a creative and personal level?

On a creative level, it didn’t really help. On a personal level, it was the first time I had to deal with death in my life that truly impacted me, so it pretty much wrecked me [laughs].

Is your What Logic Is This EP an even more direct response to his passing? It sounds pretty raw.

Yeah, I made most of it around his passing. I would throw together whatever I could before going to bed. I made it all in Audacity while lying on the floor.

What made you want to step back into the public eye over the past couple years? 

I don’t wanna be in the public eye. I just want to make music again.

How many of your projects are still active? And what do you have on deck next? 

I can’t even keep track of them. I’m playing some shows with Balam. I’m working on Nikki with possibly two other people, and could see that turning into a really cool live act. I wanna record an ON GOD album, but need to finish writing the songs and find a good way to record guitar music. Those are my most active right now.

Finally, tell us a little bit about the tape label you launched recently.

I’ve found some really good artists in my opinion. We’re gonna start putting stuff out in September hopefully, and keep things pretty casual.

5 key Balam Acab works on Bandcamp

See Birds

When the rest of us were more concerned with taking mirror selfies, Alec Koone was stocking his MySpace account with this stunning record—his first as Balam Acab. Tri-Angle’s Robin Carolan swept in to press the low-key release and launch his label straight into the stratosphere. Even Beyoncé took notice in an edgy L’Oreal commercial that tapped the EP’s title track.

Wander/Wonder

The only proper Balam Acab LP. Too bad, too, because it’s quite a beauty. While many writers slotted Wander/Wonder into the here-today-gone-tomorrow witch-house “scene,” the eight stunners on here sound nothing like SALEM or any other fly-by-night sorcerers. More like a meditation on life and loss that’s not the least bit sappy or sweet, it’s as if Koone is conducting a chorus of ghosts and water-logged beats.

Live Instrumentals (2011-2012)

Much like Clams Casino’s own MC-free mixtapes, this crisp time capsule proves just how powerful Balam Acab’s productions are without proper vocals. Culled from a short victory lap that featured a live singer, Live Instrumentals is a soundboard-quality survey of everything Balam Acab had come to represent before Koone quit the industry altogether and went on an indefinite hiatus.

Watertree Edits  

Bless this mess of smeared #downergaze edits, a haunting mix of Koone’s classical background and surgical DAW skills. About as close as Balam Acab comes to making a William Basinski record… if William Basinski ran a bunch of live instruments and mangled vocal melodies through a wood chipper instead of relying on ravaged tape loops.

Free Etherea

If Balam Acab popped a steady regimen of antidepressants, it might sound a bit like Koone’s Etherea alias. Originally released in 2009, Free Etherea slips a series of sample-heavy Dilla and Madlib nods alongside a small handful of remixes.

All I Beg

Wondering where Balam Acab is headed now that Koone’s finally back in the saddle again? All I Beg is a promising hint of what’s to come in the months ahead, a frustratingly short EP that picks up where Wander/Wonder left off and points towards an equally eerie phase two.

—Andrew Parks

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