My first exposure to Stef Animal was when she opened for The Ruby Suns in early 2017.
It was a small set, but a powerful one. Using a midi keyboard and pad controller, she built glorious synthscapes from the weird musical gear she’d sampled. But what stuck with me the most was the fact that she introduced each song by naming the equipment used to make it.
I thought that was awesome since I know from experience that when working with old electronic equipment, often its character has a huge impact on the product. It’s almost collaborative. Plus as a gearhead it gave me stuff to Google when I got home.
And then just as soon as she entered my radar she disappeared.
…until now. Her first album Top Gear dropped on Fishrider Records a couple of weeks ago and it’s just as lovely as I had hoped.
Filled to the brim with squarewaves and primitive sub 12-bit samples, it takes you on an adventure through digital kingdoms of pulse-code modulated wonder. There’s melancholy here between the layers of synthesizer and processed vocals, but also cartoonish whimsy and charm.
Also somehow each song was conceived and recorded in a single session.
I caught up with Stef Animal to get the lowdown on the album, why it took her over a decade to release anything, and more.
I first saw you play in 2016 at None Gallery with The Ruby Suns and then you seemed to disappear, or maybe I just missed you?
Oh yeah, that was when I’d just moved here. No, I don’t really like playing live, and I also wanted to wait until I’d finished this album so that I had a better reason.
And then you ended up on Fishrider. How did that happen?
Well I made this weird album which was really just kind of demo’s, like they’re all just written in one day. I can never finish anything so I had to set these rules, so I was like I’ll make a song in one session and I’m not allowed to change or whatever, and then if I do that 12 times I’ll have an album. And then it actually took me a couple of years to kind of find the time to get them all going.
And then it was such a funny weird album, it’s lo-fi, there’s not much singing on it like it’s kind of a soundtracky thing. And I didn’t know what to do with it, I was just emailing people overseas, I thought maybe some sort of obscure Scandinavian cassette label might like it.
But the person that was most enthusiastic was the Fishrider guy, Ian Henderson. And I really just emailed him because I thought he might know someone appropriate, but he was just so enthusiastic and seemed to really relate to it and get all the references and stuff. So he was just keen to release it, even though it’s not much like the other stuff he releases, he was just so nice about it.
And he had this great idea of releasing it on Compact Disc instead of vinyl.
CD almost feels alternative now…
Yeah it does, it’s kind of unfashionable you know, which I think is a great time to embrace something because it’s kind of cheap and probably not that bad… There’s a lot of great things about it.
So your writing process was like one session per song?
Yeah so basically that meant if I fell asleep that was the end of it. So I had a day, which sometimes meant that after work I’d go home and start a 7pm and work until whenever it was finished enough, like 2am.
Did you have to resist the urge to go back and build it into something bigger?
Well yeah, that’s what I’d done for years, I’d try to do these big production numbers and they’d go on for years and I’d never finish them. So I had to make rules, this was a set project where I wasn’t allowed to go back and change them.
The one thing I was allowed to do at the end was go back and redo the singing because my one off kind of sketchy demo singing wasn’t as charming as the rest of the music.
The other thing was that I had all this junk that I’d collected from Trademe, cheap kind of unfashionable music gear, some of it I’d never even turned on. So also the idea was to kind of use them, give them a go and see what kind of sounds come out of them.
So each song has a different synth, that was another restriction.
I have quite a lot of “nice” stuff but I tried not to use them because I wanted it to be a lot of cheap stuff, kind of unfashionable 80s digital.
Do you think those limitations helped you to be more creative and make what you wanted to make?
I think so. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out but in the end I’m quite happy with it, like it’s quite musical and because of the limitations the speed and the equipment, it’s got all this character that wouldn’t have been there. I would have tried hard to make the perfect tom sound or something and that would have ruined it.
I dunno, I read stories of bands that have worked on songs forever and sometimes that works great, but it doesn’t work for me because there’s always a point when you can think of something better.
Yeah, like how would you know when it’s finished?
So how’d you end up with so many synths?
At first it was just wanting to buy stuff, just that compulsion to spend and accumulate musical equipment. And I guess the Trademe boom, and getting things which were cheap. And then I just got addicted to these unloved “sound modules”, like little boxes of sound, because it’s quite easy to just get thousands of millions of free sounds with plugin synths and whatever. So sometimes you think that there’s some sound module from 1987 that might have some amazing panpipe sound that’s locked away.
I have a bunch of old sound modules and sometimes I imagine that maybe this particular model of thing, in the whole world they’re all switched off or unplugged in closets at the same time.
Once I started making the project, instead of using up all the stuff I had in the studio I started accumulating more things to use for the project, so I kind of defeated my purpose of stopping myself from lusting after expensive synthesizers.
Like one of the songs was made from a duck caller which I got from some facebook group, some guy in Mosgiel was selling it…
That’s hilarious, why does a duck caller have an audio jack?
I dunno. Well I can only assume that some duck hunters have a PA system to make it loud, or maybe they lie in bed listening to it with headphones. That was probably my favorite Dunedin purchase.
Do you have a favorite piece of the equipment overall?
Probably… One that I’ll probably use quite a bit is one that I bought for the purpose of making this which is this tiny little synth made in Germany or Austria? The Ploytech PL2. Honestly it’s the size of a phone charger and it has a midi input and a single output. It kind of sounds like a broken Sega Master System, like it’s a bit glitchy, and it’s digital but very lo-fi digital. It just makes some good sounds. And it was like $80, very cheap.
A lot of your songs kind of remind me of videogames, DOS games like King’s Quest… Like a kind of medieval feel.
Yes very much, I guess there was a lot of that in the 80s, like kids cartoons had that kind of “mystical” synthesizer thing going on. And actually a computer I had when I was kid or a teenager or whatever was a Commodore Amiga and it was one of the first computers that played back samples and it had a lot of that sort of music in it. Me and my brother recorded a cassette tape of our favorite game music which we listened to like it was a top of the pops compilation or something.
Have you released any other albums?
This is my first, the golden awesome we released an album a few years ago, I sing with them it’s kind of a shoegazey guitar thing but this was my first proper Stef Animal release. First of a few hopefully.
So how long have you been making music as Stef Animal?
Yeah for a long time… What year is it? Probably 15 years.
That seems a bit crazy, is that true? I think that’s true. Maybe less, 10 or 15 years.
So yeah, but I finally got to the point where I feel like I know what I’m doing and I’m happy with the results. I feel like that whole time I was never quite satisfied. I played quite a few songs in Wellington during that time, and around a bit.
That’s why I just decided to forget all my old songs and these huge project files and just start a new thing which was very defined and just move forward instead of doing some kind of legacy project.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to those?
No probably not.
What if there’s something amazing in there that you’re missing?
There probably will be, but I’m just now confident in my ability to create new things that I’m happy with. I dunno, maybe I’ll recycle things, but it’s just a long time to be hanging onto things.
I remember reading a Q and A with writers, and people always asked “how do you become a writer?” and the response is always just write, write three books and throw them all out. And I think it’s kind of taken all this time to make me feel like I’m happy with what I do.
Got any live shows coming up?
Absolutely, it’s a little tricky because they’re weird production numbers, like they’re a bit hard to play live. I’m playing at the cook with Indi when she comes down, and I’ve got a little band with me to help me out which will be nice. We’re all playing synths and samples and things. And that will be the start of a few shows out of town probably.