“Just because I have a band called Cinematic Orchestra doesn't mean they have to be on every song with an ensemble sound,” says frontman Jason Swinscoe from a small bistro in Brooklyn.
When the London-based group first came out in the late-'90s, their jazz-café-meets-breakbeat sound had both jazz and electronic cats claiming them as their own. With the minimal, toned-down new album Ma Fleur (Domino, 2007), Swinscoe nods more toward composers like Steve Reich and folk revivalists such as Joanna Newsom than his electronic peers.
“I was getting bored of not just breakbeats but really anything associated with dance music,” he says. “I had to get away from beats. I always wanted to do more simple, modal music, and repeating is the death of an artist's career. It says to me there's no more new ideas. Ma Fleur is about taking everything away.”
In the past, the line between sampling and live instrumentation on a Cinematic record was a murky one. Oftentimes, vintage jazz records, chopped and rechopped, were mixed with Swinscoe's own arrangements, also subsequently altered and chopped up. For Fleur, Swinscoe eschewed the old jazz vinyl and sampled only his band's own live recordings. The result is a more stripped-down sound, adhering to the “less is more” maxim, and the challenge these days isn't what to put in but what to take out. “For me, that's the real artistry in art,” he says. “You have your palette, and you can have every color and all your brushes, but it's the strokes that you make and the combination of the colors that count.”
Despite the altered technique, the band and equipment from the Cinematic Orchestra's 2000 release, Every Day (Ninja Tune), remains virtually the same. “I mainly use a 12-inch [Apple Mac] PowerBook, Akai S5000, Roland MIDI keyboard and a Moog,” Swinscoe says. “One of the main things I learned this time, though, is miking up instruments. It's about not going by what the textbooks say but what your ears are telling you. For ‘Breathe,’ the drums were recorded in a live, acoustic-treated room, but the microphone, a Telefunken run through a nice valve compressor, was down the corridor. It sounded amazing.”
With the exception of the title track, all bass parts on Ma Fleur were doubled or tripled for added effect. For the instrumental epic “As the Stars Fall,” Swinscoe uses a double bass, an electric SG bass run through an Electro-Harmonix pedal and a Moog all playing in unison. “It just adds more weight,” he says.
A wise philosopher (okay, it was Mickey Rooney) once said, “You always pass failure on the way to success.” Like the scientist who records the results of every experiment, successful or otherwise, Swinscoe, who scrapped nearly 50 songs before settling on Fleur's final tracklisting, has learned to recognize the value of mistakes. “I spent a lot of time trying to make some songs work, and I know deep down that they're not going to,” he admits. “It's almost like practicing. I know this piece of music is not going to make the record. But I can exercise and practice and get up to speed on some skill or programming. Understanding why it's not working is a very important thing.”
Fitting for a band with the word “cinematic” in it, Swinscoe turned to film after losing “a bit of direction” once rough sketches were completed. To help design the vocal parts for the record, the musician called on a friend, Gavin McGrath, who wrote the script to an as-yet-unmade film and would develop ideas about its storylines and characters with Swinscoe. With these characters in mind, Swinscoe found inspiration for vocalists Fontella Bass (a previous CO collaborator) and newcomers Lou Barlow and Patrick Watson.
For a group so positioned, either by chance or design, in the electronic scene, Ma Fleur isn't exactly a 180 for the Cinematic Orchestra. The beats haven't entirely disappeared, even if they're not as prominent as they once were. For Swinscoe, though, trying to create a timeless element is first priority. “Music has to be devoid of style, especially cultural stylistic content,” he says. “Otherwise, it's a natural product of its own time, which will immediately be out of date once it's done. I suppose this record is a little reactionary [to the current scene].”