Mikael Jorgensen and James Merle Thomas are Quindar, an electronic duo inspired by the breadth of space and the historical context that led to the proliferation of the Cold War and other similar events.
Seeing NASA as a response to the times in which it was conceived (Quindar tones are the ambient bleeps and bloops heard during the Apollo missions), they use sound as a way to compound their interest in this foregone era and explore the culture of the times.
With the release of Hip Mobility, Quindar gives us a look into their process and love affair with the cosmos.
Prox: Let’s start by learning a bit more about you guys. Who is Quindar and how did you form the Group?
MJ: Quindar is a collaboration between James Merle Thomas and I. We’ve known each other for over a decade and in the spring of 2011 I invited James to my Greenpoint Brooklyn studio for an expectation-free jam hang to see what we could make with a mess of synthesizers, guitars, drum machines, etc…
The results of that 3 day session fueled subsequent sessions. I know that the core structures for the songs Italian Conversation and Honeysuckle This Is Houston were written during that very first session. We both had a fascination and love for synthesizers / technologically based music in addition to science & space exploration. This seemed like a perfect vehicle to create new music and ingest and remix the NASA audio archives into. I moved to Ojai, California in December of 2012 and James coincidentally took a position as an adjunct professor at USC not long after. We continued to record at my studio and play shows around Ojai and LA.
JMT: I’ve recorded and performed music for years, but am formally trained as an art historian, and more specifically, as a historian of the art, technology, and politics of the Cold War and late 20th century. A few years ago while completing a fellowship at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, I kept uncovering a lot of rich media archives -- audio recordings, 16mm industrial film, etc., that exceeded the scope of my project at the time. Quindar was born out of that material, and our wanting to produce something that was critically informed and researched, but simultaneously creative and a bit heretical and unconventional.
Prox: Could you talk to us about the creative process for this album? What were the sessions like and how did you two motivate each other throughout it?
MJ: There is a lot of overlap between the two of us, musically. We would set up a small network of synthesizers, drum machines, our laptops & effect pedals and start jamming. Then we’d determine a tempo, key and general feel or genre that we’d like to work from and then record everything on separate tracks. These long improvisations could be 40-90 minutes long and would get trimmed back to 3-4 minutes. The NASA audio would be woven in at all stages of the process. On the song Anita & Arabella Jim took a section of ambient “room tone” from a recording where the microphone was seemingly accidentally knocked about and turned that into a percussive, rhythmic loop. For the track Choco Hilton I sliced up sections of Skylab audio highlights and resequenced them into a stuttery, percussive element that depends more on the sound of the voices than what is being communicated.
Prox: It’s common to hear artists draw inspiration from other music but I haven’t heard of programs being an influence nearly as much. Why NASA? What is it about the organization that piques your musical and creative interests?
JMT: For my part, I’ve approached this material as a historian of the Cold War, and have been interested in studying NASA as a symptom of its era, a federal agency that arose out not only out of an ideological imperative, but also out of a certain way of thinking, a mindset that has a lot to do with systems theory, cybernetics, and even banal things like management theory. A huge part of this history is the way that media - film, photography, art, etc - was used in the service of a particular narrative, an ideology, what have you. NASA is a fascinating example because you can’t really describe one singular version of the agency. It was (and to some extent, remains) an all-encompassing, sprawling entity that simultaneously alluded to futuristic notions of travel and progress while requiring a history that built on metaphors of the frontier: rockets as the new conestoga wagons, planting flags on foreign soil, and so on. Another way to re-tell this seductive narrative is to return to its constitutive elements: the elemental sounds of a machine, the traces and scraps of going to work every day in a laboratory, the banality of working within a vast system, and to reshuffle them, scramble their order and significance in relation to history.
MJ: Post-WWII America is a complicated but fascinating time when it was as if we were learning who we were and what we were capable of. These early manned space missions were so tantalizingly analog - miles and miles of celluloid film and magnetic tape captured a nationwide effort to send humans to the moon using less computer power than a current smartphone. The adventure was daunting, the technology was seductive and new, the documentation of preparations through re-entry are beautiful.
Prox: What is the significance of the title Hip Mobility? Why did you feel it encapsulates what this album aims to do?
MJ: The title is from an industrial film that we unearthed that was made to demonstrate the flexibility of a prototype space-suit. The section of the film has a subject wearing an exo-skeletal apparatus bending at the waist.
It’s a bit tongue and cheek, but also obliquely describes a kind of movement - be it physical or social.
Prox: How does historical research contribute to the overall atmosphere of the release? Did you help to understand the sound and culture of space travel from each respective archival period?
JMT: The project is deeply inflected by a critical reading of NASA’s history. If you were to more closely define the project, you could describe Hip Mobility as a kind of heretical study of the period between around 1968 and 1975 -- a period that found NASA scrambling to stay relevant after the moon landings, and as it transitioned into a model of living in space, as opposed to simply going up for shorter periods of time. The durational qualities of Skylab and the other post-Apollo missions are important to the record, in part because there was simply so much down time that allowed for the mundane and the everyday to creep into the official missions.
Prox: Could you discuss how Lawrence Azerrad’s artwork added to the depth of the project? What does the cover represent?
MJ: Lawrence and I have been colleagues for years and upon moving to the west coast we started hanging out in Ojai. His existing body of work speaks for itself but I had the chance to hear him talk eloquently and passionately about music and design and how it relates to album cover design at the AIGA Design Conference in Las Vegas, NV in October 2016. It was in that moment that I decided that we should ask him to do the package. He said yes and came back with a design that was so wonderfully rich yet simple that we didn’t really change much of anything but some copy from proof to print. It’s a gorgeous package and I still find new details each time I look at it.
Prox: Please tell us something about yourself that we may not know that influences your work.
MJ: My dad was a recording engineer in NYC from the late 50s-80s and notably recorded the theme to the TV show TAXI by Bob James. I’d travel with him to the studio from time to time as a kid and fell in love with music making and music making technology.
JMT: I grew up in a house that featured a huge organ console, modernist Italian furniture, and a significant collection of classical and electronic music. My father, who was a physician who briefly worked for NASA in the early 1960s, loved records by Wendy Carlos and Tomita. Long before I knew what pop music was, I thought that synthesizers covering songs by Debussy were cool.
Prox: Who are some of your favorite artists, business people, creatives or intellectuals?
MJ: Shortlist here - Brian Wilson, David Axelrod, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Suzanne Ciani, A Tribe Called Quest, Carole King, Neil Young, James Brown, Prince, John Paul DeJoria, DEVO, Vik Muniz, Olafur Eliasson, Ann Hamilton, Sherrie Levine, Teresita Fernandez, Yvon Chouinard.
JMT: This is always a daunting question, so I’ll just copy some names from my google drive and current vinyl pile The list amounts to a compendium of heroes, collaborators, and friends (I’ll let someone else sort out the distinctions): John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell. Okwui Enwezor, Sheila Levrant De Bretteville, Taryn Simon, Johanna Billing, Mariane Ibrahim, Fred Turner, Pam Lee, Lucius and Annemarie Burckhardt, Deana Lawson, Camae / Moor Mother, M Geddes Gengras, Jeremy Deller, Simon Starling.
Prox: What are some of your favorite hobbies?
MJ: I love making giant soap bubbles. The kids seem to like it too.
JMT: Someone asked me this recently and I was frankly paralyzed by the question. I’m a dedicated amateur. I turn my hobbies, which include making music and organizing creative projects, into my jobs. It’s probably unhealthy, but I don’t think I have any active hobbies right now. Is that okay to confess?
Prox: Any tips for aspiring artists/historians?
MJ: Keep learning. Keep going. Keep digging.
JMT: Don't be precious about what you make. Keep going, Make more. Get it out there, and don’t look back, except occasionally, and with fondness and appreciation for those who have helped you.
Prox: Would you like to give us any information on upcoming projects and releases?
MJ: Our live show is a great way to experience Quindar. In addition to the archival audio, we take vintage footage and are able to manipulate and edit it live, in sync with the music. Check our Instagram page for some fan-sourced footage of our recent shows: instagram.com/wearequindar or #quindar and don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list at quindar.net.
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