“It’s Never One Thing. It’s Always Morphing.”: An Interview with Anenon

Will Schube speaks with Brian Allen Simon—who records and performs under the name Anenon—about intellectualizing art, classical training, and running a label.
By    April 29, 2016


Anenon’s Petrol begins with the sound of traffic; not the rush of engines or the blaring of horns, but the mesmerizing whirr of freeway expanse. Anenon—born Brian Allen Simon—intends for Petrol to be his LA album. But while “LA album” conjures up images of beaches and babes, Simon is more interested in examining the isolation and loneliness that becomes an inherent product of a bunch of folks deciding to plop a city right in the middle of the desert.

Anenon has been Simon’s main project since 2010. That same year he started his Non Projects label to release the music he and his friends made that no labels seemed interested in. Petrol is Simon’s first release with LA staple Friends of Friends, and the album is a wonderful blend of electronic jazz music and experimental minimalism. The album’s nine tracks have a wide scope yet stay remarkably focused and adherent to a singular vision of the modern city. I spoke with Simon over the phone about being an LA artist, running a record label, and the freedom of learning how to make music outside of rigorous schooling. —Will Schube

You didn’t start playing the saxophone until you were 22. What sort of musical training did you have growing up?

Anenon: Yeah I didn’t really have any musical training growing up at all and I didn’t really ever crave music or find music I was passionate about until the end of high school. That’s when I started getting into underground hip-hop and 90s hip-hop and things like that. Before that I was kind of into whatever was on the radio, like KROQ in LA.

My dad is an audiophile so he was always playing music in the house. He didn’t really have distinct taste though, so he would just buy whatever was popular. He was really into Elvis so a lot of Elvis was played in the house. But then he had the standards from Miles Davis and John Coltrane, stuff like that. Every so often there was a classical record, but it wasn’t until around 16 or 17, hanging out with friends skateboarding, and kind of just getting into hip-hop and stuff that I could kind of own and claim as mine.

A lot of musicians that don’t have formal training tend to make a big deal about how a lack of training informs their creative process. Have you experienced this at all?

Anenon: I don’t really think too much about it. Although I’m certainly aware of classical technique. I did study music history at UCLA, and with that, you had to take two years of classical theory so I did learn the fundamentals of theory. But in that program I saw a lot of kids who had a lot of baggage when it came to performance and improvisation because they had been so inundated with the system of what you’re supposed to do. And they never had that freedom to just do what they wanted to do.

I was always aware of that and saw how dangerous that could be, but at the same time I understand the importance of technique and practice. I now just do that on my own terms. If I’m not playing music I’m thinking about music. I’ll just play or practice or do mental exercises. So yeah, training is something I definitely take seriously, I’ve just been able to duck that system which has been nice.

It’s also just coming from making electronic music first before I picked up the saxophone. I realized that sound is freedom and that you shouldn’t be imposing any rules of what you can or can’t do.

 I was reading a bit about the philosophy behind your album Sunsets and Clocks and the idea of embracing the space between things. Do you consider the way you make music to be an intellectual process? Are all of your albums based around certain themes or philosophies?

Anenon: I think when it comes down to the actual moment of creation, it’s as far away from intellectualism as you can get but it’s important to be able to look back at what you’ve created and place it in a context after the fact. That’s something I’ve learnt to do. Sunsets and Clocks was the first exercise in that for me. But all of my music comes from different periods of my life and different things that I’m going through.

For me it’s definitely important to be as intellectual as I can when I’m not making music. Being away from Ableton or being away from my sax is an important part of the process as well. But when it comes down to actually playing or writing a track, it’s pure creation. I’m not thinking of anything intellectual during that time.

You’re from LA and are an LA based artist. How much does place and location influence your writing and recording process? Do you consider yourself a “Los Angeles” artist?

Anenon: I’m beginning to realize how important location is. I’m actually in Mexico City right now. I’m down here working on music and the music I’m working on sounds so much different. I mean it sounds like me but there’s definitely a different energy down here. I’ve become better at tapping into energies around me and sort of use that as a means to create.

That being said, Petrol specifically is my LA album. I don’t think I’d call anything I’ve done prior an LA album. It’s my ode to LA and I don’t know if I’ll ever make another one. Something I’ve been having trouble with lately is trying to understand what having an LA identity even means.

Well it’s tricky for you because you’re associated with Dublab, Low End Theory, and Friends of Friends, but that’s just because they all sort of grew up as you were beginning to make music. You didn’t associate yourself with these institutions because you view yourself as an LA artist.

Anenon: Totally. Exactly. Like I would never consider myself a part of the Low End Theory scene. But when I was growing up that was the most exciting shit happening in LA. The whole LA thing is a little confusing because of how much flux the city is constantly in. It’s never one thing. It’s always morphing.

What about LA do you think is reflected on Petrol?

Anenon: It was just sort of what I was feeling at the time. It was me realizing how isolated we all are while driving. You know, you’re around tons of people but you’re still in your own little bubble. It’s isolating and terrifying but also pretty meditative, too.

Also, purely in a visual sense, just the way LA looks. From these very intense looking downtown streets to the more plaintive views of the 110 and up into the Angeles Forest. Sort of just how dynamic LA is as a city. That’s what I was trying to push across with the record.

The album is a really interesting blend of electronic music, 60s and 70s American minimalist stuff, and then a lot of modern jazz, too. What were you listening to while writing the album?

Anenon: While I was actually writing the album I wasn’t listening to a ton of things, but you nailed it with those references. Going into the record I was sort of like, I want to make a free jazz meets minimalism record, underneath the umbrella of electronic music—whatever that means. It’s definitely something coming out of Downtown New York. [Steve] Reich stuff and then the production process of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or something like that. You know, the cut and paste aspect of it.

I also listened to a lot of soundtrack work, too. Like all of those scores for David Lynch films. All of those lush, thick, melancholy synth pads. I think that really took the record into a more cinematic place.

The way you utilize repetition on a lot of Petrol certainly brings to mind Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. The way the underlying core sort of pulses and shifts. Is that something you consciously try to mirror while writing? Or is that just a natural progression of layering?

Anenon: It’s a little bit of both. When I’m writing a track and am in the zone it’s writing itself and I just follow it. But where I’m at now—the stuff I’m working on now is definitely drifting in the sense that movements happen and then it moves on to the next thing. I’m not trying to stick to one idea for too long. But at the same time I’m not trying to rush the movements. I’ll tend to think in broader terms, like I’ll try to get more abstract or give a certain track a more collage-y feel. But once I’m actually working on the track the song is going to dictate itself.

It seems very hard to outline and write the music you create. Do you sketch out ideas beforehand and record? What instrument do you compose on?

Anenon: I don’t sketch out anything ever. It’s all just a flowing process within Ableton and on the computer. Working within a digital audio workstation for the past 10 or 15 years, I’ve gotten fast enough at it that that’s how I write. It’s a series of intense edits. I’m basically editing a movie—it’s how I’m making these tracks.

The way I did Petrol, it all starts with a live improvisation session with other musicians. I take those recordings and sift through them and find fragments that interest me. Whether it’s a harmony or a strange melody that happens, I just start with something really small and it sort of builds from there. But now when I sit down and write, the tracks unfold pretty quickly. I’m now writing things in two or three hours. I’ll tweak for five months, but the tracks come out pretty quickly [laughs]. I’m trying to bring that improvisational energy even when I’m just working from my laptop.

How long was the writing and recording process for Petrol?

Anenon: It was about six months. December until May or June.

You mentioned earlier the way Petrol melds jazz and electronics. You’ve been doing this for a while, but in the past few years jazz has been pushed to the forefront by popular electronic musicians and rappers like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. Has the normalization of this genre fusing tamed or tempered the way you experiment?

Anenon: Not at all. I feel like jazz has always been a part of the underground. At least the free jazz stuff. I kind of don’t even like to think about what I’m doing as jazz. Jazz is such a loaded word for me at this point. I just prefer improvisation, or something like that. You mentioned Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. I think it’s great that that’s happening and more and more people are being exposed to jazz. Because you start there and then you start peeling the layers back and you start to realize how deep this thing goes. How deep human expression goes.

It’s about understanding music that’s more than a simple pop song or a hip-hop beat or something. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that stuff, but I think it’s important to understand the full spectrum. For them [Flying Lotus and Kendrick] to be bringing a knowledge of this stuff to a wider audience is a great thing.

 Did any sort of non-musical pieces of art influence the making of Petrol?

Anenon: [Ed. Note—] Brian Allen Simon sent a list after our interview concluded. The list includes:

Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram Von Velde

Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia

The work of Lucio Fontana

The work of Michael and Magdalena Suarez Frimkess

John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You will Only Make Matters Worse)

John Cage’s Rolywholyover Circus at MOCA (1993)

The work of William Pope L.

The work of Harsh Patel

There were definitely a lot of non-musical influences. It’s been a big thing for me over the past few years. It’s been less about music and more about everything else. I just don’t think that music comes from music. Music comes from everything else. You need to be aware of everything else.

When did you start the Non Projects label and how does working with other musicians as a label boss influence your work?

Anenon: I started the label in 2010. The first release came out in January of that year from Asura. Since then we’ve done nine or ten vinyl releases and a handful of digital only things too. The label side is slowing down a bit for me but it was a huge thing for me to do and I have zero regrets about it. And the label’s not over, it’s just slowing down a bit.

In 2010 I was surrounded by friends who were making great music and nobody was really caring. The digital distribution model was beginning to open up a little bit and I had a connection with Daddy Kev over at Alpha Pup because I used to intern there. He was able to lock us in for digital distribution and it kind of made sense to have our own thing. When we started the label we had four or five artists and we just let that stuff unfold and went from there.

How do you decide what releases of your own go on Non Projects and which albums get released on other labels (like Petrol on Friends of Friends)?

Anenon: Well the stuff of mine on Non Projects is the stuff that no one else would put out [laughs]. Here and there I put out stuff with Ghostly and a few other labels—just one off tracks—but no one was really clamoring to put out a full length of mine. It’s nice to have the freedom to put out whatever I want and present it exactly as I intend.

The relationship with Friends of Friends was as simple as me just catching up with Leeor [Friends of Friends founder]. We’re buddies so we were just talking on the phone and he asked what sort of stuff I was up to. I was halfway into Petrol and he said to shoot it over when I was done. And they just wanted to put it out. It was pretty natural and organic. They were just really enthusiastic about it so it made total sense. And it was nice to not put out my own thing for once.

Back the album; I noticed that most of the percussion is based around the hi-hats. Do you record that live or is that done in Ableton?

Anenon: It’s a mix of everything. It’s all recorded live and then I do really intense editing. I’m really into the idea of not being able to tell if it’s live or not. Making something through really intense editing and not being able to tell that it’s edited. There are definitely moments on this record that are untouched, but then there are passages that are the result of hours and hours and hours of editing. With the drums, I don’t think anyone can tell what’s edited and what’s live.

What about that particular percussive sound was so attractive to you?

Anenon: I think it works because Jon-Kyle, who’s been a collaborator of mine over the years in a lot of different realms, we just sort of have this innate understanding of what works well for both of us. And that’s a huge part of this record. There are other voices filtered through my lens. Working with other musicians and having them be a part of the initial part of the recording process really took it to another place I had never gone to creatively before.

Is this the first time you’ve ever heavily collaborated with other musicians on an Anenon solo record?

Anenon: Yeah. These are people that I’ve been friends with for years and playing with for a while, but this is the first official release that I’ve worked with others on.

You’ve been working with MOMA on an audio/visual series based around a piece of art by Dan Flavin titled “monument” for V. Tatlin (1969). What drew you to the project?

Anenon: Just to clarify, the whole series is called Monuments. The piece that I perform doesn’t really have to do with the title or the piece of art, but the whole thing was organized by me and Nick Malkin. We’re doing the whole series four times in 2016, once every three months, with different pairings of musicians. The idea being that each musician chooses a different piece in the MOCA permanent collection that they want to musically interface with. I chose a room filled with pieces of art by artists who were all associated with Black Mountain College.

Wasn’t John Cage a part of the Black Mountain College?

Anenon: Yeah, exactly. It’s stuff like that.

What attracted you to these particular pieces and how do you think they’re reflected in your composition?

Anenon: The piece I did was a special ensemble I put together with the performers sort of stationary in the gallery while I and another musician were walking around sort of improvising choreography. The audience was forced to walk around as well, and it created this free form piece that I think is really indicative of Black Mountain College. That school is very influential in breaking down the boundaries of art and the way in which different mediums can co-mingle. I think that more or less happened with our performance which was pretty cool.

Did MOCA approach you or was this a fully formed idea you brought to them? How did the relationship come about?

Anenon: Nick Malkin and I both used to work at MOCA selling tickets and stuff. It was something we brainstormed for a while and we pitched it to them and they liked it.

How did your relationship with Jon-Kyle come about and what was the collaborative process for Petrol like?

Anenon: We’ve known each other since the beginning of Non Projects, around then. We’ve just been collaborating naturally ever since. He started playing live with me around 2012 or 2013 and he just makes things so much more dynamic and interesting. It’s not just some dude behind a laptop occasionally blowing the sax or something. It’s always a work in progress but now we’re at the point where we can vary between electronics and then just straight up sax and drums.

As far as Petrol, we just did one drum tracking session and then one recording with a bass clarinet player, too. We just made some early takes and then went in and overdubbed drums. I’m always sending him early drafts, but that was sort of his extent with the record. So he’s along the whole way, but as far as the production goes it was mostly me.

You’ve been working with Dublab for a while, and some of the mixes you put together are wild. Do you listen to music with an intention of sharing it?

Anenon: I always just seek out things that I want to hear. Or friends will send me stuff. It’s always a scramble the night before and I just dump everything in a folder and improvise the mix live. Some of them are a little bit better than others, I think. I just like playing music that I’m excited about.

When you mentioned Black Mountain College it got me thinking a bit about John Cage and the way he sort of pioneered restrictions and chance within composition. Do you ever place restrictions on yourself? If not, would you ever consider doing so?

Anenon: I don’t. I’m not good at it [laughs]. I would consider it, but it comes down to rules. I always have a hard time with that shit. I mean I’m very influenced by John Cage and that method of thinking but when it comes down to my own stuff, it just doesn’t work for me. But I’m not opposed to it at all.

I’d love to do more notation. Sketched out stuff that’s more than me just going and improvising, stuff that’s more thought out. Even the MOCA piece started out like that, but it just devolved. I sort of set out broad strokes for everyone, but then we all just improvised within that. We all understood where we wanted to go with it, but it wasn’t this intense score and rule based thing.

If you could pick any musician to collaborate with who would it be?

Anenon: Oh man. I’d say Tim Hecker. Just put my sax over whatever he’s doing. I’d love to do something like that.

What albums are you listening to now?

Anenon: My friend Sam who played guitar with me at MOCA has this trio called Inga. I’m actually going to produce his next solo record. He’s fucking amazing. He’s a really under the radar dude that plays saxophone in INC, too. I’ve been a huge fan of his sax playing for a while and we only just recently started collaborating. His stuff is sort of jazz and just soulful and beautiful.

There’s also this Turkish Oud player that I’m obsessed with right now named Anouar Brahem who makes really beautiful, skillful music. When I made Petrol I was really obsessed with that movie Heat, too [laughs]. I’ve also been loving the music of Celia Hollander who records under the name 3:33. So yeah, sort of all over the place.

You’re recording in Mexico City right now. Is that for an Anenon album?

Anenon: Yeah, that’s the plan. Maybe an EP or something. I’m just trying to keep it loose. So I’m just here recording a couple of sessions, picking them apart and augmenting them. There’s definitely room for it to become something else but the idea for now is to keep it as an Anenon thing.

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