Less Is More: CS + Kreme Interviewed
CS + Kreme = Conrad Standish & Sam Karmel, a duo who have each explored rich, numerous avenues of artistry before arriving at this latest juncture. During the early to mid-2000s Standish made ornate, canonical songs of drama and confession as a member of a trio known as (the) Devastations. Guided by the songbooks of Roy Orbison and Lee Hazlewood, as well as the grittier, more abrasive legacies of fellow countrymen Roland S. Howard and Ed Kuepper, the band possessed a brooding, dissolute sense of classicism that made for three fine and underrated records.
Out of their ending came a beginning in the form of Standish/Carlyon, a suave synth pop vehicle comprised of Standish and former Devastations cohort Tom Carlyon. Where once they had evoked Bad Seed melodrama they now brought to mind chrome-plated modernity, as sounds evolved into a taut, sleek and lurid design, one that balanced industrial strength dub and prodigious electronics with heavily abstracted, after-hours R&B. Surface appearances changed too as the thread of a debonair persona was lightly worn, perhaps best encapsulated in the shape of a Marc Bolan / Martin Gore-esque leather cap adopted by Standish. Standish/Carlyon’s first and last outing in 2013, entitled Deleted Scenes, was thereby an impressive achievement, one that made a virtue of pursuing continual transformation.
The other half of CS + Kreme, Sam Karmel, has had a similarly excursive trajectory. Early encounters with Detroit techno in secondary school culminated in an extended correspondence and association with Philip McGarva (Microworld, Transmat), an experience which inspired him to start making music. From that point onward Karmel has shown a diversity of preoccupation, never staying in the same place too long, or at least demonstrating a proclivity for spinning a few wildly different plates at the same time. As one third of Bum Creek, alongside Tarquin Manek and Trevelyan Clay, Karmel has been an active part of a group that revel in a formless, intuitive havoc. Through an improvisational spew of clattering percussion, frenzied electronic noise and mutated vocal interventions, their combined energy often locks into a mad, engaging strain of sense.
After a litter of CDRs, cassettes and a sole LP called AI, all released at the turn of the 2010s, the Bum Creek project grew dormant around 2015. Around the same time F ingers (née Fingers Pty Ltd), Karmel’s next port of call, was starting to gather momentum. Another trio, this time made up of Manek, Karmel and Carla Dal Forno, F ingers is, perhaps, Karmel’s best-known project outside of his link-up with Standish. The notability is for good reason. Moving from the sour, derelict post-punk of first release Broken Fingers to two intimately haunting, quietly expansive outings on Blackest Ever Black – Hide Before Dinner and Awkwardly Blissing Out – they’re a distinctive proposition, producing works that lurk and linger in discomposed, dreamlike undercurrents.
Between Bum Creek and F ingers, Karmel has also found time to channel his fascination with Detroit techno into Short Future, a solo venture that applies a good deal of aesthetic damage to such an established framework. On a self-titled cassette released back in 2015 Karmel remade the velocity of Motor City as raw overspill.
All of which brings us to the here and now of CS + Kreme, a place where the precedents that have come before – time-honoured arrangements, newfangled polish, freeform chaos, eldritch occurrences and crude refits – leave little trace, or at least echo in a new and unassuming way. The approach and the chemistry found in former projects is much the same yet in the final result there’s a defining understatement and lean simplicity to the project’s material, built on the patter of drum machines, broad strokes of low end and the fluid emergence of parts played by synth, trumpet, saxophone, flute and guitar. The backdrop is predominantly sparse and vaporous and progress is usually sinuous and cyclical. On a track like ‘Roast Ghost’ the combined effect is stunning. Whispers of existential enquiry, ethereal trails of ambient and sheer sequences of piano and synth are all caught in an endless drift as if everything were being carried off by some gentle oceanic tide. There’s a similar air of remote calm permeating ‘Devotion’, but instead of a continual, melancholic levitation, here the outcome is one of fully submersed sedation, something memorably reflected in a video by Scott Morrison, in which an underwater dive taken by a figure in a wheelchair becomes a spectacle of light visual delirium.
Elsewhere, on a piece like ‘Sisters’, there’s a sense that this elevation and serenity has become a little more foreboding, as robust, single hits of bass ring out, rippling in a nocturnal atmosphere which suggests there’s something uncertain on the horizon. And on tracks like ‘Fresh Exit’ and ‘Whip’ the transportive properties of their sound become a little more directly rhythmic, steered by a stately pulse and given over to a gradual, bittersweet, hallucinatory bliss.
As suggested by the range of this material, positioning CS + Kreme along the lines of forms that often seek an uncomplicated, escapist ease would do the project a disservice. Although connections with Balearic, new age and ambient have been commonly attributed and are discernible, there’s more to what Standish and Karmel have created than lenient fodder for ‘relaxing times’ or a soundtrack for drinks-by-the-pool repose. Instead, traces of these styles are reconstrued, allied with shades of dub, pop and improvisation, and delivered into something ambiguously situated, engaging and altogether more profound.
After a run of records on Steve Kerr’s Total Stasis label in 2016/17 and an extended cameo on Wichelroede last year, their latest appearance on record comes courtesy of Will Bankhead’s Trilogy Tapes. Entitled Cold Shoulder and comprised of two longform odysseys of opiated immensity (‘Eyes on Ceiling’) and heartsore minimalism (‘Husk’) it expands upon what the duo have already opened up, denoting a keener intent to protract and adapt their work’s potency. Perhaps the nature of that adjusted objective is best exemplified during the closing stages of ‘Eyes on Ceiling’ when what sounds like a fragmentary recital of scattershot free jazz sidles into earshot.
Despite the inherent depth of what they’ve produced, their route to attaining such a multifaceted identity has been relatively straightforward. The conception of CS + Kreme came off the back of casually conducted sessions and the dynamic of their collaboration since then appears to be one that’s easily negotiated. Another divergent and appealing characteristic is their mutual appreciation for maintaining a low-key presence, a quality entirely befitting of their output. Instead of wearisome strategies of self-promotion Standish and Karmel are happy to let what they’ve made speak for itself, preferring a method of distribution that avoids the compulsive noise and pressures that accompany ‘underground notoriety’.
Demonstrating their reluctance to play that kind of game our conversation comes as one of their first interviews, a discussion that reveals the origins and ideas that have informed CS + Kreme. It serves to highlight the value of instinctive chemistry, of keeping a low profile and of learning, in more ways than one, that less is more.
Alongside the interview Thomas Jeppe, the man behind the artwork for the project’s two releases on Total Stasis (along with Mani Buerger), has curated an oblique selection of images that provide an alternative glimpse into the world of CS + Kreme.
(Key: CS – Conrad Standish | Kreme – Sam Karmel)
How did you guys meet? What led to your collaboration?
CS - I'm pretty sure we met at a day party in Melbourne called Day Care, which was started by Biscuit – who now does Good Morning Tapes – and Laila Sakini. That was a really cool thing for a while, where a bunch of generally disparate people from many different scenes would get together and play records and hang out. This is maybe 2013? Our collaboration started a little later though, just after my prior thing Standish/Carlyon had ended. Sam messaged me and invited me to come over to his place for a jam, so I brought my 808 and bass over and that was that. Pretty much every track on our first 12" is birthed from that initial jam.
Kreme – We were both in a state of flux with our other projects. At the time I was trying to branch out and try collaborating with lots of other people with a light-hearted sensibility for some fun. I had only recently met Conrad but struck up the courage to see if he wanted to have one of these non-serious jams. It was kind of crazy! Things just gelled particularly with our melodic sensibility. In two hours, we had the start of 4-6 strong ideas. It was pretty obvious that we had to keep on keeping on.
When did each of you first start making music? Can you trace a line through each of your respective paths? How would you describe the projects you’ve each been involved in to date?
CS – It kind of seems with my musical path that I tend to get further out the longer I do it for, which seems to be the inverse of a lot of musical types. My first proper thing, Devastations, was conceptually extremely traditional. We were super into highly arranged 'proper' songwriting at that time, like weepy Roy Orbison ballads and Lee Hazlewood and those kind of classically minded oddbods. By our final album we were exploring electronic music, and then I suppose that was the eventual jumping off point for Standish/Carlyon. That project was really formed off the back of writing this one track, 'Nono/Yoyo', a kind of Art of Noise-ish thing. We formed the group and the concept around the track. As far as tracing a line through previous projects to end up at CS + Kreme, I really don't know. Everything I've ever done has been pretty different and that doesn't seem to change.
Kreme – I guess I started making original music from around 16 years old. My high school had an electronic music program, so I was spending most lunch times fooling around with a System 100 and early Cubase tracking. I became obsessed with Detroit techno as it provided a beautiful escape from shitty Canberra life. I found out Philip McGarva (Microworld, Transmat) was bizarrely living in Canberra so looked him up in the phone book to interview for a school assignment. We became good friends and I eventually helped him out with performing his live show in the early 2000s. From then on, I was hooked, and it was my life. I think the difference is as the years went on I moved away from electronic music into more of the wildly experimental band world (Bum Creek) and Conrad moved from band world into more experimental electronic world. Now we have met at this happy place with a vast range of experience which adds a certain depth to our project.
There seemed to be clear touchstones for your work Conrad, firstly in Devastations (Suicide, Rowland S. Howard) then in Standish/Carlyon (you previously mentioned Bryan Ferry, synth pop, dub). What kind of musical and extra musical influences have you each looked to in respect to CS + Kreme? How would you differentiate CS + Kreme more generally?
CS – Really the major thing with CS + K is everything is born from jamming, or improvising, whatever language you want to use. That's not really the background I come from, though it is with Sam. We never really have a preconceived notion of what to do, and if we do, it rarely ends up being much good. We just have a certain chemistry in the way we make stuff that I love, and that's in the fact that we always arrive somewhere totally unexpected.
Similarly with F ingers Sam, there seems to be dub influences in there but you’ve also made some pretty heavy beat music / techno as Short Future and been involved in Bum Creek which had all sorts going on. How do you perceive your work in CS + Kreme in contrast with those projects?
Kreme – I guess as a general rule I have pretty diverse taste depending on moods. I’ve always been interested in the transgressive. It also seems that I became very much improvisational based. Bum Creek never did anything ever the same, every show was a new concept from silent shows to literally completely turning venues upside down.
Its hard to believe but F ingers came from the same improvised energy but was focussed completely differently. Every song was a one off, from a jam, from a feeling, and edited later but not much. We all just had a special chemistry.
CS + Kreme started off much the same way. The difference is Conrad has shown me how to rein things in and we have become very good at fleshing out improvised ideas into realised pieces.
Am I correct in thinking you’re both based in Melbourne? How would you describe Melbourne in contrast with somewhere like London or Berlin? To what extent have your current surroundings shaped the CS + Kreme material? Have other places had a notable effect on what you’ve made as CS + Kreme?
CS - Yeah, both currently based in Melbourne (ish), though Sam is in Lisbon at the moment. I spent ten years living in London and Berlin and there's really no way you can compare life in Australia with either. My wife Jonnine (Standish of HTRK) and I moved to the forest – the Dandenong Ranges, outside of Melbourne, a couple of years ago and that's been maybe the best move I ever made. The best thing about Australia isn't its urban situations – it's the nature, so it's been super nice to immerse myself in that more and just to learn about not being in the city. Maybe the meditative nature of that has made its way into CS + K. Whenever I'm back in London or Berlin, they still feel like home and it's very natural for me there but I'm very happy where I am at the moment.
Kreme – I’m not sure it really matters where we are, we have written some stuff in my messy bedroom/studio and others in Conrad’s epically beautiful house in the forest. Melbourne is a great place to get away from certain parts of the undesired music industry thing. I think the isolation helps us ultimately.
What vision did you originally have in mind for the CS + Kreme project? How has that developed over time?
CS – There's never been a vision. Just making it up as we go along!
Kreme – We never had any particular vision, it just happened naturally, it has (mostly) always flowed. It’s a very exciting project to be involved in because as things go on it's obvious to me that we both are very open to how things naturally fall, and we are both fairly bold with our simple musical concepts. We share a pretty obscure sense of humour as well which I feel is the key.
How do you see each of your roles in the project?
CS – I think I probably play the straight man and Sam is the wildcard?
Kreme – Conrad is brilliant at knowing how to get things finished. I’m pretty good on the production tools. A good combo. Musically and philosophically we compliment each other.
How do ideas and tracks usually come together? As an example, what was the working process for a track like ‘Roast Ghost’?
CS – 'Roast Ghost' was kind of an anomaly for us in regard to our working process. Usually we just improvise for extended periods until we have something fresh, and then we just edit and edit and edit. Time constraints aren't an issue. But with 'Roast Ghost' we'd been given a specific deadline by Wichelroede, and we've never had a deadline before or since. I came over to Sam's each day after work and we just hammered it out over a week until it was finished. Later we sent Ela Stiles the track to overdub a flute part up in Sydney, and then that was processed quite heavily. To be honest, we were both hating the deadline at the time, but that track is also maybe our most focussed thing we've done. We knew that we were making a side-long, 20-minute piece of music so we tried to make it as restrained as possible, not too many bells and whistles. Sam's piano melody though is the bit that makes it. Such a strange, emotional part of the track.
Kreme – As Conrad has said. One other thing is that we use a lot of “Easter eggs”, whether it being ripping a YouTube clip and turning it into something completely different or… actually the other things are top secret. You would be surprised.
The lyrics are usually sparse, cyclical, like a mantra almost (as in ‘Sisters’ and ‘Roast Ghost’). How would you describe your approach to lyrics? What do you usually find yourself drifting towards in terms of subject matter? The impression I get is that they’re kept quite open ended…
CS – I'll only sing on a track if I have to! I just find with a lot of these tracks we make that they aren't necessarily improved by having a human voice on them, so it's good having the luxury of leaving a lot of stuff instrumental. The subject matter is generally a mix of very specific, personal stuff mixed with the nonsensical. For me it's important to leave things a little open ended so that a listener can go down whatever path they choose with them.
Kreme – This is Conrad’s forte.
Conrad, you mentioned that you enjoyed the fact that there’s not too much out there online about CS + Kreme. How does anonymity benefit the project and each of you in a general sense? What do you each make of the link between technology and visibility these days?
CS – It's not that we're being 'shadowy producers', it's just another way to operate for us. I'm bombarded in my feed every day with labels and DJs shouting about this and that, and I just don't feel a need to be a part of it. Everyone's hustling so hard, and I respect that, but at the same time I'm more comfortable sitting all that stuff out. I find the commerce of it all a little gross. People discover us on their own terms, in their own time, and that's cool. We're here for them.
Kreme – Less is more.
You’ve had a couple of 12”s out on Total Stasis, a cassette on Wichelroede and now a two-track 12” on Trilogy Tapes. How would you compare these releases? How do they relate to each other / diverge from each other? What was the experience of putting the latest one together like?
CS – Steve Kerr from Total Stasis rules. I like that he doesn't beat you over the head with promo or press, he just lets records come out and they do their thing and that's that. He has a very softly spoken style in regard to the label and I feel an affinity with that. He's got impeccable taste in films too so if you ever need any tips, hit him up. The Wichelroede tape came up through Yu Su, who asked us to be on the flip. Big love for Yu! And the TTT 12" came about via Biscuit, really (who I'm realising is quite a central figure in all this). He put 'Roast Ghost' on his tape for TTT a while back, and then Will asked us through that to send him some more stuff and here we are. It's an honour to even be a tiny part of the TTT narrative, such an inspirational label and ethos to us. With our releases to date, one thing I see occurring is that over time we are getting more comfortable with doing less, so maybe our evolution is all about getting more and more minimal until we just disappear entirely, lol.
There’s been a few other collaborators involved adding parts here and there. Ela Stiles plays flute on ‘Roast Ghost’, Nigel Yang (HTRK) plays guitar on ‘Whip’ and Clare Wohlnick plays flute on ‘Devotion’. There’s saxophone and trumpet on a few tracks too. What’s the nature of exchange between these collaborators? Do you meet up and record together or send parts to each other remotely? How would you describe the creative dynamic; structured or loose and improvised?
CS - Usually we bring people in to do the things that we aren't able to do ourselves. All the time when we're writing stuff we'll say, "this really needs a flute or some Don Cherry-ish trumpet" or whatever. Jack Doepel played saxophone on our last Total Stasis 12" as well as the new TTT one and he's just stupidly good. Like, the real deal. We're working on a full-length album at the moment so I'm assuming there will eventually be some more collaborations with friends on there. It's always better to be in the same room as the collaborator but geographically it's not always possible, so we just do whatever will work.
Kreme – We often hear things in the tracks that we can’t physically do. At times we have had placeholders, for example we might trawl YouTube for a solo or sound that works on a section. Then we will think of how to make this happen in a more unique and fresh way. We are very lucky that we have a lot of talented mates that we can reach out to.
I saw that you played at Inner Varnika recently. How much does your recording process differ from your live set? Do you like to change / accentuate anything? What kind of atmosphere do you like to invoke during a live set? What would be the ideal setting for one of your live shows?
CS – We've only played maybe five or six shows in four years. Mainly due to the fact that we have an outdoor-only policy. The first show we ever played was in a bat colony on the banks of the Yarra River, in Melbourne. This was part of an annual concert that our friend Dylan Martorell does. We enjoyed that experience so much we decided to only play outside from that point on.
Obviously, that's extremely limiting in what we can do but it's worked for us. Generally, if we want to play a show we hire a generator and set up somewhere secret, out in nature, do a post on Instagram or whatever the day before and whoever turns up, turns up. So that's probably the ideal. I still would really like to play shows overseas, in all kinds of different spots, so if there's anyone reading this who wants to help facilitate that in an interesting way, let's talk. Also, I think it's more fun for the audience to feel like they saw something out of the ordinary, rather than 'CS + Kreme played at the pub with four other acts'.
Kreme – The idea of performance being on a stage mostly bores the shit out of me, working directly with a unique environment can really provide a special layer/feeling to the show. Our music really seems to work well with beautiful unique outdoor settings, so we have almost implemented this as a policy to play.
What have each of you been getting into recently in music, literature, art or otherwise? Any recommendations?
CS - There's a few different artists in Melbourne at the moment who I really like – Ara Cho, Gabriel Cole, Hugh Morrison and Gian Manik to reel off a few. Mainly painters and ceramicists. Even with the internet being what it is, so much stuff in Australia gets overlooked due to the fact that it's in the middle of nowhere, and it's not exactly known as being a cultural centre. So look these people up! Also, a very special shout out to Thomas Jeppe and Mani Buerger who did the covers for our Total Stasis releases and are basically responsible for the visual identity of this group.
Kreme – I’ve been reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet as I’m currently in Lisbon sussing it out so I guess it goes hand in hand. Musically there’s so much great stuff around, I guess a lot of the forward-thinking stuff coming out of the UK. Yesterday Tarquin Manek played me some of his new things and they are really deep.
What have you got coming up?
CS – Absolutely zero idea, just the way we like it!
Kreme – A bit of world exploration and finishing off the album :-)
Cold Shoulder is out now via The Trilogy Tapes, order it here.