The music on Songs from the Bath, Thor Rixon‘s full-length debut, can be just as bubbly and inviting as the album title suggests. But simmer for a while in the album’s warm waters and it soon becomes clear that the Cape Town-based multi-instrumentalist/producer had a lot more than just relaxation in mind. An upbeat, mostly chilled-out blend of dance music, R&B, Afrobeat, bossa nova, folk, pop, and jazz, Bath is also accented by Rixon’s eccentric touch. As much as his songs lull you with their polished elegance, they also teeter on the verge of unraveling at any moment, which creates a delightful sense of tension throughout.
After first making a splash with his quirky, lo-fi approach on 2013’s Shared Folder and 2014’s Tea Time Favourites, Rixon took nearly two years to finish the more ambitious Songs for the Bath. The album’s origins date back to a 2015 trip Rixon took to Berlin in order to co-produce friend and fellow South African musician Alice Phoebe Lou’s 2016 album Orbit. After spending time fine-tuning of the wealth of sounds he’d accumulated on the trip, Rixon used them to craft an album that not only defies easy categorization but also contains heartfelt messages about our shared journey through life.
Rixon (a co-founder of the now-defunct naas Collective) talked with us about his process, his evolution as an artist, and the universal truths found in the album’s watery theme.
You recorded several of the sounds on the new album with your phone while you were traveling in Berlin, Barcelona, Madrid, and Oslo in 2015. How did those sounds end up shaping the finished product?
At the beginning of the conceptualization of the album, it started out with the title. I came up with Songs from the Bath first, and then gathered all the music and the soundscapes around the name and around that theme of water and liquid. When I went out and recorded things on my phone, I was looking for anything that caught my ear, but I was especially drawn to things that in some way resembled liquid or fluid movement in an audio realm. I would capture those and put them into the songs, chop and change them and see if they worked. It was just a lot of that.
There are lo-fi textures that kind of… ‘bubble up,’ if you will—
The lo-fi sound is something that’s always appealed to me since I was a kid. I remember hearing my mom put on dub records and that sort of thing. I feel like lo-fi almost captures emotions and feelings in a slightly better way than some polished sounds, which can be a bit too clinical and too ‘musical’ in a way. The lo-fi sound is more earthy. I feel like it’s softer and carries a bit more weight sometimes.
And yet this time you’ve captured a sense of immediacy and gleeful chaos but found a way to give it all a very polished sheen.
I like ‘gleeful chaos.’ That’s nice!
It’s like you’ve turned messiness into an asset and found a way to hold it all together. The album has a very deliberate flow. How much of a growth step was it for you to expand beyond the EP format?
It’s definitely the biggest body of work that I’ve created to date. I spent a lot more time than I had previously writing songs and building up a library of songs that would work well together. It was a collection of about 30-plus songs and from those 30 I found the seven pieces that I felt made Songs from the Bath what it is.
Those seven pieces encompass several different genres, but with this kind of playful irreverence, as if genre itself were fluid, like a liquid.
I think it’s nice to draw influence from genres and tinker with aspects of certain styles. You sort of mash those together and let the song speak for itself and take it where the song wants to go. I almost feel like sometimes the music itself is guiding and you’re just there kind of making sure that it gets created in a way.
You obviously have a zany side, like in the “fuk bread” video and your press photos. Even the album cover is whimsical. But on the new song, “Death Pt I,” you address dying as if it’s something the song’s narrator is genuinely looking forward to. The song is so relaxed it’s easy to miss what you’re singing, “I can’t wait for the day when we all separate / death is tidy / it brings us together.” What was the inspiration for that tune?
That lyric is actually pretty literal. It’s looking forward to a time when all of us on this earth are not in constant conflict and when we all separate but at the same time we all come together. I tried to keep it open-ended enough so that it allowed the listener to imprint their own impression of how they felt onto the song. It kind of depends on what you believe about life after death and all of that, but I believe that when we die we all are at peace and we come together and we separate at the same time. It sounds very contradictory, but they’re the same thing.
Like the dissolution of our individual identities into the greater pool of life and spirit.
What are some other earnest themes or observations that might be lurking in the music on this album that people might miss if they just turn it on while they sit and, say, enjoy a bubble bath?
Well, there are quite a few political undertones. Some of them are actually quite blatant, specifically on “Death Pt 1.” That song doesn’t just merely deal with the spiritual side of life. It’s also a bit of a critique on Western culture right now. It’s a big old mess, as we can all obviously see. It’s metaphorical in a sense, and also somewhat blatant, but the reason it’s called Songs from the Bath is because the bath is a metaphor for life, in the sense that we’re all here in this life to cleanse and wash ourselves from this muck that we experience from when we’re born all the way up until the time we die. It’s a big old mass of dirty water that we’re all cleaning ourselves in. I suppose that’s what the act of living comes down to. We’re all trying to make ourselves better—or, at least, I hope that some of us are trying to make ourselves better in this life. We go through it trying to be kind to each other and trying to be the best possible versions of ourselves that we can be, not only for ourselves but also for others as well. Because if we’re not, then we’re just being selfish and greedy. That’s the overall tone and message I wanted to convey.
The way the record ends, it’s almost like a dance suite with a gentle denouement, like a sustained exhale, but where the music is coming unglued at the same time. Can you talk about the mood you were trying to establish as the record closes?
I saw “The Bath” as the title track. It encompasses everything that I wanted to say and touch on. It’s kind of the centerpiece. If hadn’t put any other songs on the record, that one would have stood up as “the song from the bath,” because it covers the darkness and intensity that you experience at birth. Then it takes you into the active, driven state of life, and then it ends in this suite of your final years.
There’s quite a fluency on this record between dance music, experimental electronic, and jazz. What did you listen to growing up?
The dance thing is actually quite recent. That only started when I went to Berlin, to be honest. That was when my eyes were really opened to dance music. My new stuff is still experimental, but beforehand, I was just experimenting and seeing what stuff I liked. And now that I’ve experienced dance music, it’s weaseled its way into all the things I make, which is quite funny. My mum is very pleased. She’s always been pushing me to write dance music, for some reason.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. It’s just my mom’s taste. Like we were having Christmas dinner last year and she was playing Deadmau5 the whole night, a whole album on repeat. And I don’t even listen to Deadmau5. That’s her thing [laughs].
Your recent introduction to dance music aside, it sounds like you’ve been comfortable with electronic production for much longer.
Yeah, I took a course in Cape Town with a pretty renowned producer from back in the day. His name was Fletcher. That was 2010, and I’ve been making electronic music ever since.
You also decided that music was what you were going to do with your life the day after you finished the South African equivalent of high school. What made you so certain?
Well, it’s just something that I started doing and found that I was able to survive with. I obviously had side jobs to keep me afloat in the beginning, but there was a point where it tipped over and I was able to do it completely full-time. But it was always just something that I did, from back when I was first learning guitar in junior school [the equivalent of middle school in the U.S. —ed.].
So what kinds of musical jobs did you take on at first?
Producing other people—so friends, or friends of friends, or other South African artists came to me and asked me to help them with their music and record them and produce them. Alongside that, there was also the performance side of things, which I was honing simultaneously. I started out DJing, which I never really felt a connection with, and then one day I decided, ‘You know what, I’m going to put a live set together.” I took all the music that I’d written and molded it into a live setting, so I gave everything a more dance-y feel and re-sampled and re-mixed a lot of the work. I’ve just been building and working on that set ever since.
You mentioned guitar before. When did other instruments come into the picture for you?
My first instrument was guitar. I think I was about 11 years old at the time. It was grade 5 here. A year later, I started playing drums, just teaching myself. I used to put on System Of A Down. I remember Steal This Album had just come out, so I’d put that on my headphones and try to drum along to that. That’s basically what taught me how to drum. And then I started playing trumpet when I started high school. Those are basically my three main instruments.
The album features two prominent piano guest spots. How did you capture those?
I stayed with Sebastien Meltz in Berlin in this little commune filled with wonderful people. I was working on “Death Pt 1” in one of the rooms there, just playing the guitar line, and he came in and just joined me on piano. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really nice. Do you mind if we record that?’ I just recorded him playing it, and that was that. And “Softly in the Distance” already features Olmo (AKA Berlin-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Francesco Lo Giudice) on vocals. He plays piano on that track as well. Sadly, piano is the one thing that I can’t play, and I really wish that I could.
The numerous guest performances on the album really help bring the songs to life.
And they were mostly done in one take, too.
You’re sporting this David Byrne-esque look lately. How much did people have a hard time recognizing you now that most of your hair is gone?
[Laughs] Well I still get people coming up to me saying “You’re that ‘fuk bread’ guy.” I get that quite often from random people all over. I think it’s the eyebrows.