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 b