May 28th, 2009 | Interviews

graham kolbeins

Alejandro Cohen wants to put you to sleep. He came to L.A. from Buenos Aires in ‘96 to spin records and stir up dusty dino bones. On May 28th, Ale and friends from L.A.-based collective dublab will take over the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur to create an night of ambient music event aptly titled “Tonalism”—a term Ale appropriated from late-19th-century painters who tried to capture the mood of nature by representing it with misty atmospheres. This interview by Drew Denny.

When did you come up with the concept for Tonalism?

Alejandro Cohen: The first Tonalism happened in 2007, but the idea probably came to me in 2006. My friend Adam, who runs the label Pehr——released a compilation called Tonalism. The idea of the comp was to have music that was meant to fall asleep to when listening to it. From there I thought it’d be fun to do an event where we play music with the same idea in mind. Also at the time I was reading more and more about events that people like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, John Cage and Yoko Ono were having both in the East Coast and the West Coast that had a similar concept to the one behind Tonalism. And from there the main idea came.
The flyer describes the event as an ‘ambient music happening’ but I saw names like Michael Stock—from Part Time Punks—included as well. How did you curate the event? Will everyone be playing ambient music or are you mixing it up?
The music and performers behind Tonalism all share a same sense and taste in music and styles. The live performers, DJs and visual artists are chosen not really based on genres of music, but mostly by having a common understanding on how things should sound, look and feel. So to answer to your question, yes—it is a mix of styles, eras, genres and instrumentation. But at the end all is connected.
Is it true that Brian Eno coined the term ‘ambient music’?
I’m not sure about that. I do believe there’s an artist that presented that concept a few years before Eno did. His name is Douglas Leedy and the record is Entropical Paradise—from 1972. In the liner notes I remember him pretty much presenting the concept of ambient music. It’s a fantastic release consisting of three records, six songs, one on each side.
What does that term mean to you?
It’s just a term. It helps simplify your everyday conversations when you want to refer to a certain feel, emotion or style in music. But it’s not too far off. What most people consider ambient…that’s another thing. It varies greatly, and all of them are valid. To me ambient music is melodies, songs, sounds, compositions or noises that create an environment—it’s not background music, but it doesn’t require for you to listen to it actively… It is somewhere in between those two. At Tonalism many recordings we play aren’t meant to serve that purpose, but we present it in a way that it does.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, from the neighborhood of Recoleta. I moved to L.A. in August 1996. When I moved to L.A., I ended up in Altadena—it’s a long story—but fortunately I didn’t find myself in the middle of Hollywood surrounded by European students trying to play guitar like Joe Satriani or Pastorius. I was fortunate to meet by pure coincidence—through a Recycler ad for a Volkswagen car—Damon Aaron. He introduced me to Michael Morgan a.k.a. Transistor Cricket, and from there I connected with other people, eventually meeting the folks at KXLU. Back then everything was more isolated—things happened at random a lot more, and mainly because it was before the Internet and Myspace became popular. Post-rock was in its infancy, with Tortoise only having one release, but people were already paying attention. Up in Altadena we really lived in our own world. Personally I fell in love with Further, Summer Hits and affiliated bands, including many that were part of KXLU and the clubs Jabberjaw, the Smell—in the valley—and the Impala Cafe. But it did feel much much smaller than now. You could sense that there were only a handful of people doing this. Silverlake wasn’t what is now, same with Los Feliz. Spaceland was just starting, and I remember the LA Weekly running an article about it. But that’s about it.
What do you think about the radio stations in L.A.? What is the future of Internet radio organizations like dublab?
I don’t really know commercial radio enough to have an opinion. KPFK, KXLU and KCRW are the ones that I’m mostly familiar with. And I think between the three of them, they offer a wide range of music that most cities only wish they could enjoy. Those stations can be quite adventurous in their choices, and that’s great! Internet radio seems to be getting more and more accessible as technology advances in its favor. The number of listeners will probably increase. Hopefully Internet radio will have the reach that FM/AM radio has in terms of accessibility. In regards to programming, I don’t see it departing radically from what FM and AM radio are nowadays in relation to content and options out there. It will probably offer the same type of options that FM and AM radio offers but in more quantity.
When did you start spinning?
I don’t remember when I started—it wasn’t a decision I made consciously. Little by little I started getting more and more involved in events, sometimes playing music, sometimes organizing. After a while I found myself playing records more and more, and that’s what happened. But if I have to give you a rough estimate, I’d say it was around 1998 or so.
Tell me about Languis. What’s your role in that project?
Languis is a band I started with Marcos Chloca in 1997. We released a bunch of records through the years. We toured a bit, and played with a lot of local bands and artists that came through L.A., like Broadcast, and Mouse On Mars. The band is still around—we released a record last year called Fractured through Plug Research. We have some releases planned for this year, but no live shows. Marcos moved on to play with a band called Lower Heaven, so at the moment I’m the main person behind the group.
Tell me about when Languis recorded at the Natural History Museum.
Oh, that was awesome! The natural reverbs sounded so beautiful. It really makes you realize how awful it is having to rely on reverbs from a computer all the time, since most people don’t have access to a room like that or natural echo chambers to record. It’s like watching a movie all your life on a tiny black and white TV, and all of a sudden someone plays that same movie on the big screen from its original film. In other aspects it was also a great experience. We—Languis—were there late at night to record a piece for the Natural History Museum’s Sonic Scenery exhibit. It was such a contrast to how you see the museum during the day. Everything comes to life!
Which is your favorite dinosaur?
I’m not sure—they are all pretty cool. Never went through the dinosaur phase as a kid. If I have to pick one, I’d say the Argentinasaurus, since I’m originally from there.