We Interview Dark Folk Producer & Catalyst Music Tech Jonny Zoum

Jonny Zoum is half of the dark folk duo Bad Tropes and a music technician and sound engineer at Catalyst, Tricone Studios and SoundCloud. Get to know him in this interview.

Jonny Zoum’s life seems to be spent bouncing around from one studio to another. The Berlin-based Australian isn’t just a sound engineer and technician at Catalyst and Tricone Studios, but is also one half of up-and-coming dark folk duo, Bad Tropes. That’s when he’s not also working in the studio of the esteemed audio streaming platform, SoundCloud.

Bad Tropes released their first EP New Campaigns in 2015 and are now working on completing their full-length debut. In this interview Zoum gives us the low-down on what exactly dark folk is and fills us in on what he’s doing production-wise, in addition to discussing the independent music world.

You’re one half of the dark folk duo, Bad Tropes. How long has Bad Tropes been going and how did it all start?

Well Luke (Troynar) wrote and recorded the first EP New Campaigns before we had met. I joined shortly after I moved to Berlin, so I would say we have been working together for about two and a half years. When I arrived I wanted to start playing music more instead of always being on the other side of the glass. I saw an advertisement that Luke had put on Craigslist and the rest is history. Out of pure coincidence we were both from Melbourne and actually lived in adjoining suburbs while we were there, although our paths never crossed, which still mystifies us till this day since we seemed to hang out in all of the same places. Our first show was actually the EP launch, so I had to learn lots of parts very quickly.

Dubbing your music as dark folk is quite an interesting genre label. What would you say defines dark folk music?

I am not a great fan of putting music into such specific genres but these days it is quite hard to avoid. The importance and emotiveness of the lyrics and the almost cinematic qualities of the music are a large part. Saying that I think there is a lot of room to move within those aspects. Also I suppose the general mood that we create can be melancholic and brooding which ties in with the whole dark aspect. I think liberal use of reverb helps a lot too. Ha.

Bad Tropes brings in a nice fusion of quite minimal guitar and vocal tracks, yet also an expansive use of delicate ambient sounds.  Being the producer in the group, how do you go about creating such an extensive ambient soundtrack?

Luke and I work a lot on creating a frame around the track. Luke usually has a fairly good idea on how he wants things to sound and so I try and get it there and also throw in ideas and thoughts. We try really hard not to use too many plug-ins and instead use hardware synths and hardware reverbs, we play almost everything in manually and try to avoid MIDI as much as possible, although that is not always possible. Not that I have anything against MIDI, MIDI is amazing.

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What kind of equipment and plug-ins are you using to produce Bad Tropes’ tracks?

We don’t have a great deal of equipment, as with many ex-pats living in Berlin we are not exactly flush. We use the MicroKorg and the Nord Rack 2 a lot. Also the Strymon Big Sky is a big part of the sound, that unit is just next level. I have used some of the Arturia synths also, mainly the Spark. I also love the Steven Slate products and I used those plugs almost exclusively when mixing Pretty Won’t Rust.

The lyrical component of your music seems very genuine and heart-felt. Do you have any input in the lyrical content or is that all vocalist Luke Troynar’s work?

I definitely cannot take any credit whatsoever for the lyrics, that is all Luke. He is an amazing lyricist and he triggers feelings and images in ways I just can’t. We compliment each other nicely I think.

In terms of your production style, which artists would you say have influenced Bad Tropes’ sound most and why?

When I am producing or mixing a track I usually stop listening to other music so that I can try to minimise external influences and also try to avoid feeling completely crestfallen when I have worked hard on a track and then compare it to something I really love and it doesn’t hold up. Which is not necessarily a good idea because if something is rubbish you are going to realise sooner or later, sooner is obviously better.

Of course, it is impossible not to be influenced by other music you listen to whether conscious or not. I think the minimalist approach of the XX is a big influence as is Beach House. Not necessarily just for sounds but just the way they are able to create a mood and trigger an emotional response.

In December 2015 you had your first international show in Moscow, Russia, of all places. Can you tell us a bit about how that gig came about and how your music was received?

We did. It was a pretty incredible experience. Our label Wait! What? Records is actually based in Moscow. Andrej, who runs the label also runs Powerhouse, the venue we played at. It was the venues two year anniversary so they invited us over to play a show with some of our label mates and other Russian artists. I think it was received really well, our music was in fair contrast with a lot of the other artists but we got a lot of messages after the show from people saying they really enjoyed it and to their credit the crowd was extremely attentive.

With music that is quite sombre and reflective, how do your songs translate into a live performance? How does the audience interact with your music in a live setting?

This is something we are working really hard on this year. It can be quite difficult to have an impact on audiences that are not familiar with our music as it does take some patience and it is not the most danceable music.

The new material is definitely a bit more energetic and fuller sounding so to be able to do that live we have added some new live musicians. Kirill Borisov, who has played with us for a few shows in Berlin, will be playing drums, samples, synths etc… Also one of my oldest friends and musical collaborators George Dimopoulos will be jumping in on guitar, bass, vocals and anything else we can get him to do.

Having already released your first EP Bad Campaigns, do you have any news about work on an upcoming full-length album?  If so, when can we expect the full album and what is it called?

We are currently working on our first full-length album. We released the first single from it late last year and at the moment we are recording the follow up single Liberties, which we hope to release in March. We are aiming for the album to come out late this year sometime.

You’re releasing music on Wait! What? Records. Who is behind this record label and why did you pick them?

Well they actually picked us. Kirill and Andrej run the label and Kirill and Luke have been friends for a while. They are both fans of our music and really believe in what we are doing so its nice to be in that type of nurturing environment. We are given complete creative freedom and the label just supports what we do. We feel quite fortunate in that respect.

How do you feel independent record labels are contributing to more niche genres of music such as dark folk?

I think now there is more support for niche genres especially by independent labels because they generally don’t sign a band they don’t believe in and want to nurture. It’s not just about money for them.

In saying that, the fact that digital platforms such as Spotify, iTunes and Soundcloud have solidified their presence and importance in the music industry means being signed to a label is not always as important or as helpful as it used to be. Every artist has a way to get their music out there.

Can you share a Bad Tropes story that hasn’t been told before?

Hmmm… we did have a rather less than ideal show in Frankfurt. Our bus stopped at the service station for a break and Luke was somehow still leisurely browsing as the bus was leaving. I had to yell at the bus driver to stop in my horrible German. That was only the beginning of a rather disastrous 36 hours. I don’t think Luke would appreciate me going into the details, but lets just say we look back on it now and laugh while simultaneously being hit with pangs of nausea.

As well as being a member of Bad Tropes you are also a Technician at Catalyst and a Sound Engineer at Tricone Studios. What’s it like working at both of these places? Do you feel like they help aid your musical endeavours?

I feel quite fortunate to be able to make a living solely through music. Tricone is where I first started out in Berlin. I met the owner, Rowan, at a party and started assisting as much as I could there until I was running sessions on my own and bringing my own clients in. The live room sounds great, especially for drums which is my favourite thing to track. It has been a great experience working there, I have got to work with lots of great bands and also have had somewhere to take my projects. All my outboard gear and microphones are there so that studio kinda feels like home for me.

I am still fairly new to Catalyst but it has been an extremely fun and exciting few months. Although, it was a bit of a baptism of fire when I started here I think that’s the best way to learn fast, even if it is a bit daunting. There are some very, very talented people here and its great to be able to help them realise their projects and to be constantly thinking of ways to improve the studios.

How did you come up as a sound engineer? Are you self-taught?

I studied for a year at RMIT which was a really great course. I had great teachers and I was fortunate enough for one of my lecturers to recommend me for a junior mastering engineer role straight out of school and it all started from there really. I have taught myself a lot but also have tried to learn off anyone that cared to teach me. Working freelance is often hard in the fact that you are the one in charge so you do not really have a mentor.

That is one thing I am struggling with at the moment, I really miss working with people that know much, much more than I do so that I can learn from them.

Both Catalyst and Tricone Studios use the renowned recording rooms of the old GDR radio station, the Funkhaus in Berlin. What’s it like to use those spaces to record music in? Which audio properties does that imbue into the music?

I try to never forget just how fortunate I am to be working in a building like the Funkhaus. It is so unique and so special and acoustically incredible. I think just being present in the building impacts the sound of the music you are making.

The live room in Tricone is really flat. I haven’t noticed many spots where there are bumps or troughs in the sound. It has such a great room sound, live but not too bright and the RT60 is just enough to pull some cool room sounds but not too much that you cant keep things tight if you want.

As someone that works in a variety of roles within the music industry, are you more of a fan of vinyl or digital? Is there still a place for vinyl in the musical world?

In all honesty I am not really that bothered either way. Each has its place, each has its own sound and each has its pros and cons. Personally CD is my favourite format, it’s fairly robust if you take care of it, it can sound really, really good with the right set-up and you can fit 80 min of audio on it, not to mention meta-data etc.

I lament the fact that we don’t really listen to albums anymore, we listen to tracks. I like putting on a CD and listening through an entire album as it was intended. I am far from an audiophile though, I use Spotify, I listen to 128kpbs MP3’s, I use crappy iPhone earbuds etc. Basically I just like listening to music, whether the quality or conditions are great or not.

Do you plan on releasing Bad Tropes’ music on vinyl?

The first EP New Campaigns was actually released on vinyl and digitally. Whether we release the album on vinyl is an uncertainty at this point. I would like to release it on at least one type of physical format. Nothing compares to holding something in your hand, for the artist as much as the consumer.

Audio-wise, what have you got lined up for 2016?

It is going to be a busy year by the look of it. Finishing the Bad Tropes album is a big priority, that is going to take up a lot of time since we are doing it all ourselves save for the mastering. I am also going to be doing some production and songwriting work which I am looking forward to. On top of that I will continue working at Tricone and Catalyst and also at SoundCloud where I am an engineer in their recording studio. It is a small but really well designed and built space with some very nice outboard gear. So yes, lots of music ahead.

Click here to watch Bad Tropes perform live at Funkhaus Berlin for our Studio Sessions series. Follow Bad Tropes on Facebook, SoundCloud and YouTube.