Foxes in Fiction: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Ambient pop, honesty, healing.
File next to: Sea Oleena, Fog Lake, The Clientele, Deerhunter
Playing: Day Two of WL16, Saturday February 13 at Markham House City Building Lab (afternoon show). Get tickets!

Foxes in Fiction are healers. One healer, to be more precise. Started around 2005 by Warren Hildebrand while he was still in high school, the project has made its way from the GTA — where Hildebrand grew up and briefly attended OCAD — to New York, where he now lives and co-operates label Orchid Tapes, which has released works by Balam Acab, Ricky Eat Acid, Katie Dey, Alex G, and R.L. Kelly, among others. Working with an astonishing attention to detail and a personal philosophy that ranks community far, far above buzz, Warren has turned Foxes into both a focal point for his collaborative spirit — his 2014 release Ontario Gothic features (in a variety of ways) Owen Pallett, R.L. Kelly’s Rachel Levy, members of Ricky Eat Acid / Teenage Suicide / Julia Brown, Trans-Bedroom Sound, and Wonder Bear — and an output for honest, healing music made for the purpose of connecting and bonding with those who could use the help and support.

What sort of relationship do you have to your gear? Would you say that you are a studio rat in the sense that you love playing around with electronics and really getting into the technical work? Or is the gear a necessary evil that you have to go through in order to get at the emotion or honesty that was driving the song in the first place?

It’s pretty passive and adaptable, I really love the technical and compositional side of making music and I think I have some really cool stuff, but I don’t really know a lot about one type of instrument or group of pedals or keyboards or anything. Playing around with stuff and manipulating sound and just generally experimenting with different outcomes is always going to be important to what I’m trying to do, but I can make that happen with whatever I have in the room with me, and the processes I have are always changing based on that.

How much of the music we’re hearing is the result of a specific vision, and how much of it is the end product of experiments / happy accidents? With Ontario Gothic, for instance, did you go into that album with everything planned out or did it emerge as you worked?

I write as I record, so there’s usually very little planned out in the beginning, aside from an idea of a general structure or narrative that I want an album or set of songs to follow. I had all of the song titles and the flow of the album drawn out as pictures before I finished writing or recording them. I knew how I wanted to direct people when they listened to it, but I didn’t have the actual things to make that happen until everything was written and recorded and pieced together as a big album. So there were no outtakes or extra songs in the end and it’s sort of a backward way to reverse-engineer a record, but it was the same way I worked with my first album Swung from the Branches and it’s a process that’s worked okay for me both times.

Is there a song or album by someone else that you wish you had written? More broadly, is there something you aspire to in terms of your music? A kind of “if I could do that, I would be satisfied.” Or is thinking about things in that way totally alien to your creative process?

I don’t know, it’s usually a different song every week. Right now it’s probably “Rewind” by Kelela; that song fucks me up, and when I listen to her music it just makes me wish I was more competent when it comes to making that sort of music. I think about Kanye West’s production style constantly too. Also my friend Katie Dey has an approach to music that I’ve been sort of thinking about endlessly too — she is an amazing songwriter, and no one I really know makes music with the same approach to the idea of tension-and-release or contrast between total insanity / peripheral noise and blissfully beautiful pop moment that she does, and I think I’m going to probably be stealing a lot of her ideas on whatever stuff I do in the future.

In terms of your projects (including Foxes and the Orchid Tapes label), you seem to have arrived at a really good place, at least in terms of name recognition, quality, and financial independence. Reading through interviews you’ve done over the last couple years and digging into your online presence a bit, it doesn’t sound like it’s always been an easy road. Armed with all that experience, what sort of advice would you give to anyone traveling a similar road, or a younger you, or whomever it might be suitable for?

I don’t think it’s an easy road for anybody. There is a daunting amount of fruitless hard work, disappointment, depression and stress, generally bad situations, and terrible people who have the ability to destroy your career that kind of come as a package deal when working in the music industry. Bad experiences are a given and you don’t really learn how to navigate this world based on anything except your mistakes, failures or disappointments. You really have to know how to accept those experiences, learn from them and hold on to a love of music and just move on and keep doing whatever it is that brings any amount of joy or happiness to you.

My advice would be to think hard about who you can trust, and what it is that you want to get out of making music. If your goals are really defined in your mind it’ll be much easier for you to figure out what it is that you need to do get there and what kind of work is going to be necessary to achieve your goals. You’re working in a world that most likely doesn’t care if you’re there or not and you really have to work hard if you wanna make it happen.

In a similar vein, the Internet is a double-edged sword: it’s been a central cog in the building of the community that is Orchid Tapes by yourself and co-operator Brian Vu, and it seems to be a key component in your own music — it’s a place where you can go to live and express yourself, but it can also be tremendously negative and harmful. How do you navigate that?

I think it’s just important to be aware of the limits of what the Internet can do for you. It’s been super positive and helpful in building the group of friends or label-related people that I know now, and that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for MySpace or other social media sites. But to think that the Internet is the place where everything is going to happen to you is sort of a lie. Real-life situations or experiences, without any sort of digital divide, are such a central tenet to what makes any sort of community strong, especially with art or music. The showcases that we’ve done in the past, where we’ve all gotten the chance to get closer to each other and meet the actual people that listen to our music or support the label, are the most important moments for Orchid Tapes, in my mind.

You’ve been on the road a lot over the last couple of years, including some tours in Europe and all over North America. Has performing gotten any easier?

It hasn’t gotten easier but I’ve gotten better. For the longest time I was trying to incorporate tons of electronics with samples and backing tracks because I thought the most important part of the show for Foxes in Fiction was recreating parts of the album that people liked. I don’t really think that anymore. There was a point where I was playing with such a complicated, automated set-up that everything was just starting to feel like a boring slideshow every time we played and I was getting way too comfortable.

So I recently starting playing by myself again, but without any pre-recorded material, just with guitar and looping pedals. It’s a lot harder and often way more terrifying, but I know it’s sort of the best performance-wise the show has ever been and it feels like I’m actually getting better at it because of the way I’ve decided to start doing things, and I don’t think that can really happen unless there’s more on the line and more of a chance of everything going to hell.

If you had to pick two or three desert-island, essential-to-the-development-of-Warren-Hildebrand records, what would they be?

This is another list that is always changing, and this is more than just three, but these are some records that have been really important to me:

  1. Casino Versus Japan – Self-titled
  2. Felt – The Splendour of Fear
  3. Broadcast – Entirety of their discography
  4. Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair
  5. Stereolab – Dots and Loops
  6. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

You seem to be all about collaboration. What two artists would make wicked stuff together? This can include your own projects, but it could also be, say, Lotic and Rihanna, or Jeremih and Sky Ferreira (creds to my friend Sofia for proposing the examples).

– Carly Rae Jepsen & Katie Dey

– Ricky Eat Acid & Rihanna

– Grouper & Enya

Who is someone you consider to be underrated? Who blows you away and does not get nearly enough attention?

As well as being one of the biggest joys of a person I’ve ever met in my life, my friend Rachel who makes music as R.L. Kelly is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever met. More people need to know about her music.

Selfish question: I live right by Bathurst Street in Toronto, and I was wondering if there was any particular story behind your song “Bathurst” (from the Alberto EP).

Not really. I had been spending time with friends on Bathurst the night I wrote and recorded that song, and the mood I was feeling that night is just reflected in the lyrics.

What’s next? Are you in an Orchid Tapes phase, or a Foxes one, or a nice balance of both?

It’s never one more than the other. We have a lot of stuff that we’re planning for the label right now for the rest of the year I’m really excited about, and I’m starting to write and record a new album right now too. Gonna be a good and busy 2016.

Don’t miss Foxes in Fiction when he plays Markham House City Building Lab Saturday February 13 at 5:45pm for Wavelength 16. Get your tickets or festival passes here.

— Interview by Stuart Oakes