Alex Smalley Translates Experience into Expression

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Alex Smalley has made a lot of music over the years, though rarely under his own name. He’s perhaps best known for the work he’s done under the moniker Olan Mill, but his collaborative project Pausal has always hit my sweet spot. Towards the end of 2021, Smalley released Vanaprastha (The Man Who Went Into The Woods To Find Himself) on Past Inside the Present, his strongest sonic statement using his own name. It’s an album that leaves a heavy mark by using a light touch. Smalley’s work is always expressive and lasting, and Vanaprastha pushes that into new spaces.

This interview was conducted over the last couple of months of 2021. Alex Smalley can be reached via his own website.

What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

I’d say that thunder, gongs, bird song, and water are all pretty satisfying – especially water in its many forms. My favorite sounds are probably made through processing instruments, whilst my absolute favorite is the sound of my kids laughing.

Can you talk a little bit about the album title and why it seemed like the right fit for the record?

Vanaprastha is a Sanskirtt word meaning ‘bathing in the forest for insight’. Before relocating from the UK to Germany in 2017 I spent much of my life walking in the woods – a ritual I find pretty essential to this day. Those introspective years were the grounding to my life as a father and I’ve learned many things from the solitude of nature. When making this record I felt a distant connection to those peaceful places back in the South of England. 

This new record, Vanaprastha (The Man Who Went Into The Woods To Find Himself), is your first official solo album after numerous collaboration and group releases. What inspired you to finally do your first solo record?

Many things have changed for me in recent years and through all the challenges I’ve discovered more about myself. This has led me to question my creativity from new perspectives and find more clarity in what I want to communicate. 

Generally, I do prefer working with people as it’s more gratifying to strive for something beyond my own creative means.

One thing that really struck me when reading about the album is when you mentioned that learning more about plant medicine helped push your creative process. What are some of the aspects around plant medicine that you’ve learned and how did it help with pushing your own practice?

There has been a whole wave of learning from those experiences, especially around how connected everything is. The mysticism and complexity of nature is a humbling thing through the lens of nature itself. I find that paying attention to how purposeful things are enables me to be more curious about life and creativity.

Something that I’ve thought a lot about, well for a long time but especially in the last 18 months, is how music can be transportive and how we can use sound to create worlds to bring people together and find surprise connections. There’s an aspect to Vanasprastha that encompasses that to me – it’s very much a distinct, calming world within itself. With all the different changes in your life recently – moving to Germany, starting a family, etc – how are you thinking about the connective nature of music, and has that changed for you at all in recent times?

Thanks man, I could take this question in many different directions. Music remains really important to me and my relationship to it continues to grow, whether it be through exploring new genres or singing to my kids. Music has given me some of the most connective experiences of my life. It helps me to swing on the same frequency as other people and dive deep into my own consciousness. 

My own music remains quite introspective, but I’m currently in a pop band with my wife where it has been interesting to work with language and rhythm. It feels like these tools open a better platform to bring people together and connect.

I’m excited about Artificial Intelligence getting a better handle of sound composition. The cross over between art and science is something to be optimistic about. Maybe creative machines will play with sound, consciousness, and perception in ways that tap into deeper listening states and more connectivity?

You say you generally prefer collaboration – can you talk a little bit more about how your various collaborations through the years have helped influence and push your own creative practice? 

It’s nice to share experiences with people, I find this makes events more memorable. My most longstanding collaboration is with Simon Bainton as Pausal. We met in the woods whilst walking our dogs and became good friends through music. I have some important memories locked up in the albums we’ve made together. For me, there’s something instantly warm and nostalgic about our music and it always takes me to a specific place. I’ve learned loads from him in terms of making music and also discovering it.

All of my collaborations have been some kind of learning experience. You get to connect with people on a deeper level when you make art with them and the process of communication can be interesting.

What else can you tell me about your project with your wife? That’s one thing I can very much relate to as my wife and I have had a pop project, Altar Eagle, since about 2009, though we haven’t done much since our daughter was born in 2013… Are you all going to release any songs or anything soon?

Our project is called Ampersand. We started working together in July 2019 when Maria was asked to perform at the Bauhaus Festival here in Weimar. I initially helped out with some production, but this led to more and more creative input. Our music is a kaleidoscopic mix of chaotic rhythms and ambient sound design, it manifests into a kind of cathartic pop music. A friend described it as ‘epic, but close’ which I liked. To me, it’s the melting pot of projects like Godspeed, Autechre, Mountains, and Kate Bush. We’ve been relentlessly working on our album for the last few years and it’s almost finished now. Hopefully we’ll release it in 2022.

In working on and releasing this solo record, it seems like it’s rife with a certain vulnerability. That’s part of what I really connected with, anyway. How has it felt having it out there and hearing people’s reactions to it? 

It’s really interesting to hear your perspective. I can defiantly see how the album represents a vulnerability. It was created during a very uncertain time back in April 2020 so I’m very grateful it got all the way to vinyl. The goal at the time was to connect with something peaceful and dive deep into blissful listening states.

I’m really proud to have this album released, especially with Bruce Riley’s artwork. It still needs to be released digitally, so it kind of feels like it’s not properly out there yet.

What was the biggest challenge for you in making Vanaprastha?

This album came together much faster than most records I’ve made. I had a small window of time to do something, so I just worked non-stop until it was finished. There were moments where I missed having someone there to give me feedback, but maybe this was an advantage to getting it done within a limited time frame.

What is next for you?

When I arrived in Weimar in 2017 I collaborated with a pianist called Lucia Adam. Some of the music we made together will be released in 2022 on Hush Hush Records. I’m currently working on a follow-up to Vanaprastha, which is coming together pretty quick. Then Maria and I are getting our Ampersand album finished and we will defiantly play more concerts in 2022. It’d be nice to play with Simon again too.

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