A Man of Many Faces: An Interview With Alexander Leonard Donat
Alexander Leonard Donat is a man of many faces. With Vlimmer he presents dark and atmospheric electronic compositions with vocals and the rare guitar. As Fir Cone Children he crafts catchy, short and punkish songs in a more traditional way, with guitars, bass, drums and vocals, and on the latest, includes Whimsical‘s Krissy Vanderwoude’s vocals on five tracks in a direct and playful way. And Bias, his collaboration with Thomas Schernikau, WHOLE, while dark like Vlimmer, explores various rhythms and is uplifting in overall tone.
In between his day job, taking care of family matters and running Blacklist Illuminist Records, Alexander took the time to answer some questions about his latest releases and his love for music.
You’re Vlimmer and Fir Cone Children. Please explain the differences and likenesses of each project. How do they represent your personality?
These two projects represent at least two hearts beating in my chest. While I express my love for dark and more electronic music with Vlimmer, Fir Cone Children is 2-minute punk with just vocals, guitars and drums. Both have the undeniable love for atmospheric music in common with shoegaze being the most obvious influence. Vlimmer and Fir Cone Children may not have had their final band names back then, but they started at about the same time in autumn 2013. I’m not sure whether one project was the result of the other, but it certainly makes sense that one project helps making music with the other, as it’s easier to write dark songs when you’ve been busy writing sunny songs before. As I usually don’t mix a Vlimmer phase with a Fir Cone Children one, these phases are pretty intense and don’t end until a sufficent amount of songs have been recorded. Eventually, it really feels like a relief every time I get back to the other project. One needs the other, it’s a massive help that keeps everything exciting and in balance.
What bands influenced you when you were young? Can you remember experiencing them for the first time and was there an event that connects those bands that you remember fondly?
For a long time in my life I wasn’t into any alternative music scene. It was in mid-2000, the year I turned 18, that I made contact with albums by Korn, Limp Bizkit and Deftones. I loved them all, yet only one proved to be of real value: Deftones. When White Pony came out, it was like a revelation. The heavy, atmospheric guitars of Stephen Carpenter and the floating voice of Chino Moreno, it opened my world to a bunch of bands who create massive sounds: Sigur Rós, Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor – at a certain time, post-rock was my favourite genre, I guess. But also: Converge (hell, Jane Doe!), Trail of Dead (Source Tags & Codes, for Christ’s sake!), My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead! Deftones, however, had the biggest impact at that time, especially when I saw them live in 2001, I dressed like Chino, wore baggy pants, had a similar hairdo. When I was in my first band in 2003 I guess it was no surprise that I tried to sing like he does and make his weird screaming noises which are otherworldly. I still do the latter, my singing though has drastically changed.
Your bio for Fir Cone Children’s new album mentions that the new songs are influenced by your two children. How do they and being a father get into your new tunes?
Before starting with my punk project which would much later be named Fir Cone Children I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do: short, fast-paced songs, not longer than two minutes, sunny chords, a beach-like feeling and fuzzy shoegaze guitars. It totally fit to this new life I was heading into with my first daughter being born and my family moving 500 km northwards – everything was upside down, crazy, exciting, overwhelming. When thinking about the lyrics I knew I wanted to conserve this feeling of excitement through very direct, simple lyrics that would fit on a matchbox. And what could be more exciting than watching the world through the eyes of a toddler or child? I decided that all Fir Cone Children lyrics would be about things I actually observed in real life – half of it from my perspective, half of it from my daughters’ ones.
How has your sound evolved with Vlimmer’s many EPs and Fir Cone Children’s albums?
Fir Cone Children has developed from a garage punk outfit to dream punk that I try to play the fastest way I could possibly do it. While the first album Everything Is Easy was entirely recorded on a Tascam 8-track recorder which made it a little more difficult to “cheat” and glue all parts together – there was no computer! The three follow-up albums were recorded in the way I usually do it: on my laptop, using copy & paste, recording part by part in contrast to recording any guitar or drum track without a break. That way Fir Cone Children definitely became more layered, more shoegazey, more complex in the way of playing the instrument – but it also became catchier and, I like to think, better with every record.
When it comes to Vlimmer you can hear everything evolving in a very significant way. Over the course of 15 releases in not even three years the project started very minimal and washed out and gradually became more complex and direct. On the first EPs my voice is buried in the mix, the drum loop doesn’t change throughout the whole song, everything is bleak, grey, hopeless. Listeners and reviewers called it darkwave, a genre I am still not really familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, Vlimmer is still a dark band but I’ve allowed some colours in the sound, some of the tracks might even be considered dance-able. When more and more people told me it sounded like the 80’s I somehow became fond of the idea to actually stick to the idea of using 80’s sounds. Still, one thing is for sure: I won’t ever try to record one song twice. It’s much more interesting to see what else I can do with the instruments and means available to me. In the Fall I am going to release two new EPs, while a third will be out on the Swedish label Repartiseraren (on CD and cassette). They sound different because I’m learning to use all these functions my synths and recording software, Ableton, have, in contrast to just playing around, turning knobs in whatever direction without thinking about anything technical.
What feedback have your received from Vlimmer fans? I love Schwerelosigkeit, it reminds me of Violens where it’s pretty but mysterious at the same time.
It’s striking for me that it’s mostly other songs than I would have expected listeners like the most. Pianist and Flutbahn have received a lot of good feedback, I guess you could say they are Vlimmer‘s biggest hits according to Soundcloud and Spotify. Still, I can’t get my head around it, why these ones and not some others? In general the feedback I get is very encouraging, it’s pushing me to go further, and it helps me understand what people value the most in Vlimmer: it’s the mix of old and new, distorted and fragile elements. I’m happy many listeners and reviewers value that I don’t try to sound the same all the time. With each song I try to add something new to the palette of dark atmospheric sounds.
What do people say about Fir Cone Children? How does the fan responses help you realize you’re doing the music you’re born to do?
I don’t know how many listeners know that all Fir Cone Children songs deal with the experience of my daughters and that they are the reason that the songs are mostly fast and loud. To be honest, I don’t get that much listeners feedback compared to Vlimmer, it’s mostly the reviewers that let me know what they think. What I love the most here is the fact that they feel the connection between the music and its background. They repeatedly state that listening to FCC encourages you to be a child again for the length of an album. While I admit that the feedback of Vlimmer listeners does have a certain influence on writing new songs, it’s different with Fir Cone Children. This may have to do with the whole instrumental concept: I’ve bound myself to a more limited palette of sounds. Knowing that I only use guitars and drums in 90% of the songs makes it a little more difficult to sound different on every track. Therefore I have to rely on my songwriting abilities rather than layering sounds to create a unique kind of atmosphere. FCC is me writing pop songs, it’s me looking for melodies and hooks.
You’ve done some covers and compilations, showing up twice on the TBTCI Spiritualized compilation for instance. What bands would you like to cover in the future and why?
I once suggested that Renato from TBTCI should do a Flying Saucer Attack or Deerhunter compilation. To be honest, normally, I’m not too keen on covering songs, but I’d love to try it with tracks by these bands. At the moment I’m working on two Smashing Pumpkins covers, also for TBTCI.
You worked with Nico Beatastic on the new Xeresa album. How did you learn of him and how was the process? What did you contribute to the song? Will we be hearing Nico in some capacity on one of your Fir Cone Children or Vlimmer releases in the future?
I can’t really tell how we met each other besides that it was on Facebook. There’s an impressive shoegaze and dreampop community there in which the folks who actually have bands get to know each other sooner or later. It was a simple vocal request by Nico one day, and at first I wasn’t quite sure whether it would work as the song doesn’t sound like anything I had done before. On the other hand that’s one of the most exciting things when making music, trying out new stuff, challenging yourself and others. About a collaboration with Nico: at the moment I’m not planning anything like this, but everything can happen any day.
Singer Krissy Vanderwoude is all over The Straight & The Curly. Did you intend from the beginning of the songwriting to have her on these songs? I just love the blending of your voices. She sounds like a young punk (as do you) on several of the songs, quite a departure from Whimsical and the other bands she’s sang with.
Yes, absolutely intended! After Krissy provided vocals on three songs on the predecessor album No Gravity Girls it felt like a natural thing to do this again. I was extremely satisfied with her vocals and told her that I would love to do this again in one year. Now, indeed, one year later she’s on The Straight & The Curly, and the cool thing is that she sings on all five songs I sent to her. It’s one of the nicest things of you to say we sound like young punks, there’s some kind of magic the way our voices mix and blend into something that doesn’t sound like any of the stuff we did before.
What can you tell us about your label Blackjack Illuminist and how they’ve helped bring physical CD’s and cassettes of your music to the world? What about their other acts? I have a portable cassette player I can dust off somewhere.
Oh, Blackjack Illuminist is a record label run by just me! Back in my twenties, I had the dream every musician or band has: releasing an album on a record label. When I was ready to unleash my first two albums as Leonard Las Vegas in 2007 I sent it to a lot of them but never got a response. At the end of the year, Record 1fourFIVE (RIP), a new German label, contacted me on MySpace and showed interest in releasing a future LLV album on CD. Oh man, I was in, of course! The two guys who ran the label were really motivated and invested quite a lot of time and money in the release and, most of all, a huge tour in a nightliner bus with my labelmates Forced Movement who I’m friends with since then. Maybe because the album didn’t sell enough or because not a lot of people appeared in the clubs, Record 1fourFIVE decided to stop a couple of years later. That’s when Blackjack Illuminist became more and more important to me. At the beginning it was just a name to give myself and others the illusion that I had a record deal but when I learned how to build a network with the help of the internet, it actually began to feel like a proper record label. I founded Blackjack Illuminist in 2007 in my student flat in Greifswald, Germany, but it was not until early 2015 that it really received bigger forms of feedback. Renato from The Blog That Celebrates Itself interviewed me about my atmospheric Oriental krautrock project Feverdreamt, a little later I released the first album of Fir Cone Children. It felt good that people responded to what I did, it was overwhelming that people from the USA or Japan ordered records. Having all these different projects and identities turned my label into a real one, a home not just for Leonard Las Vegas. Strangely, the project which I thought would be too weird was the label’s “breakthrough”. It might be a strong word, breakthrough, but it felt like one: Vlimmer, my dark shoegaze/darkwave project marked the beginning of a new era for me. Originally, I planned to paint and sell just three box sets with the first two EPs but they immediately sold. I thought, okay, let’s do more, and again, they sold out, I ended up selling 50 copies of the the first Vlimmer box. Naturally, I’m really grateful that the interest in Vlimmer hasn’t stopped ever since, on the contrary, I’m meeting new folks online on a regular basis.
But enough about me. In 2016 it felt time to open up for other artists and bands. After regularly receiving emails by people who asked if I could release their music it felt like a logical step. Sana Obruent from the USA, Oceaneer from Japan, Car Crash Sisters from Mexico, Thanatoloop from Chile, Blackjack Illuminist going international! I guess I’ll have to eternally be grateful that Paul Lopez, the guy behind Sana Obruent, contacted me on Twitter boldly saying, “This needs to be released!” and directing me to his album Prince of the Air. I’ve released two more Sana albums in 2017 making that year the big ambient/drone year of Blackjack Illuminist. Especially Dyatlov was a major success. It’s an intense dark ambient album based on a mysterious incident that occurred to hikers in Russia and, I’m not kidding or saying this because it’s on my label, my favorite dark ambient album of all time. Releasing and promoting Sana Obruent’s music, working for another artist was so much fun that I knew this wouldn’t be a one-time-only thing. A dream come true was the release of the No Age live tape, as the duo is my favourite band of all time. In the Fall I’ll release the first album of WHOLE, a band which consists of Thomas from Forced Movement and me.
By the way, yes, you should definitely dust off your cassette player! Tapes may sound a bit muffled, but they’re warm at the same time, I love them. Listening to the same release on various formats feels totally different, it depends on my mood which format I pick. Certainly, I would love to release more vinyl, but it’s just too expensive if you only have 100 copies pressed and sold.
Why physical releases and what do you do to make them worth purchasing? Any vinyl we can get from Vlimmer and/or Fir Cone Children?
All copies are processed by my hand. The tape inlays are cut and folded, photos are cut and glued onto CD sleeves, there are also several elements drawn or painted on the sleeve or the CDrs or the tape. That way every copy is unique. The idea was born out of a lack of money but it became part of Blackjack Illuminist’s corporate identity.
Being an armchair traveler, what can you tell me about your Berlin?
The funny thing is, although I was born in Berlin and lived in the outskirts of it for most of my life, I’ve never actually lived there. As I work in Berlin-Neukölln as an elementary school teacher and frequently go to concerts I can tell you a thing or two. The city is beautiful and modern in many parts. Yet you’ll find a lot of shabby places, derelict buildings. Berlin is good at using old buildings and turning them into cool new places, like clubs for live concerts. A cosmopolitan city with surprisingly appearing dog shit, that’s the capital of Germany. Seriously, I love this city, it feels like the aorta of life.
What places to you go to get inspiration for your music?
Mostly I’m inspired by other musicians, not really places. If I had to name one place it would be the Baltic Sea which is only two and a half hours away. Water in all its metaphors plays an important role in my music.
What is your favorite dish and drink and where do you go to get it?
Easy, I’m addicted to Indian food! Eat paneer jalfrezi at Madhu, an Indian restaurant in my town, Königs Wusterhausen. It’s THE best restaurant I know.
What is Berlin known for right now and how has it changed in your time?
Not only in Berlin, but in the whole of Germany it has become a running gag: the new BER airport which originally should have opened in 2011 is still under construction, it’s a complete disaster. Fire safety problems, mismanagement, lack of leading, jerry-building, constructional faults etc., hell, even old computer screens are or were part of the problem. They want to open it in 2020, though. Seriously. This time everything will work, hah!
What other bands should we know about from Berlin and elsewhere and what venues are the best to see live music?
You should definitely check out the upcoming EP of XTR HUMAN. They are my label’s newest band and their blend of shoegaze and post-punk is exquisite. Reflections is going to be released on September 7. My favourite venues at the moment are Urban Spree and Privatclub. It used to be the Knaack where I spent numerous nights as a teenager and young adult dancing to bands or DJs, but they closed it because of complaints, people thought it was too loud. What a shame …
Will we be able to see Vlimmer or Fir Cone Children play live any time soon? Have you played live and what were some memorable shows/experiences?
I have played a lot of shows with Leonard Las Vegas until 2012 but not a single one with Vlimmer or Fir Cone Children yet. There’s a chance that Vlimmer will perform live some time soon, but in a different way, just piano and voice. I’ve recorded ten tracks with my father on the piano and it sounds great. Should be quite easy to put this on a stage. I’m just not sure where to start and what kind of audience our music’s for. With WHOLE I might have another possibility of going back onto stages. My bandmate, Thomas, thinks there might be a legitimate chance to perform as a duo. Exciting!
Alexander’s music as Vlimmer and Fir Cone Children are both out now on Blackjack Illuminist on cassette and digital. WHOLE‘S BIAS album will be out Fall of 2018.
Car Crash Sisters:
In Another World
Beacon Fade Out