AJIMAL on New Album, Producing Music & Designing The Live Shows

AJIMAL recently returned with How Could You Disappear? – the second release from his upcoming album, As It Grows Dark/Light, due for release in Spring 2020. A Doctor by day, Fran O’Hanlon hails from Newcastle, qualifying as a doctor whilst recording his first album as AJIMAL. He has played alongside the likes of Kathryn Joseph, Loney Dear, The 1975 and Nadine Shah.

AC: Let’s talk about your new album As It Grows Dark/Light. What does the title mean to you?

AJIMAL: After we’d finished the recording, it actually still took me quite a while to figure out what I wanted to call it! The album is written about two central ideas: fear and wonder, both of which are these quite overwhelming experiences and are pretty difficult to put into words. I’m really drawn to seasonal change and the way that the transition from summer to winter, or vice versa, affects us. I remember that title popping into my head one night as I was falling asleep and it just felt right in order to represent both sides of the idea. I also like that you can choose to call it either Dark or Light and that each song in its own way examines those ideas.

How long have you been working on this body of work for?

Guy [Massey] and I started working together thanks to Focusrite, who ran a competition a few years ago and very kindly put us in AIR studios for a weekend as a result. It was an amazing opportunity for me and we got on really well, so stayed in touch and kept sending bits of music back and forth. We started recording more tracks together in little islands of spare time, so it would often just be a couple of days here and there, but the fact that it took time meant that we built up a friendship in parallel and a shared understanding of what sort of things we love hearing and making. We realised we wanted to aim at making something that had both elements of sparse, orchestral beauty but then also some more twisted, electronic, grizzly low-end elements that sit more uncomfortably; like a beautiful nightmare. So then we set out looking at how to weave those soundscapes into an album. 

Which track on the album took the longest to produce? Why?

I’ve Known Your Heart was that first track we recorded at AIR. It started out with a very organic feel to it, with lush strings, interweaving piano lines and bowed vibraphone, but actually as the album began to take shape, we realised that the sound had changed around it and that we needed to re-work it a bit to allow it to flow as part of the album. It was nice to look back at the work from over the last couple of years and see the way that it had evolved. I think the track and the album are stronger as a result. 

Are there any particular themes that are present throughout the album?

I had a folder of demos for the album, which I’d labeled ‘Terror/Wonder’; I knew all of the songs were in some way connected to those two ideas. Fear feels the most immediate and pressing (and admittedly there are lots of very good reasons to be afraid at the moment), but it also feels like a constant bombardment that can be very easily used to manipulate people, because we behave in very predictable ways when we’re afraid. So I wanted to look at that on the one hand, but then balance it against this other idea that feels similarly overwhelming, but is harder to pinpoint, encompassing love, awe, intimacy, memory, reverie, the passing of time…which I tied together under Wonderment. So yeah, each of the songs in some way deals with aspects of those two overarching themes. 

Where does the creation of a song begin for you?

The best ones come from a little spark that sets a cascade of other ideas in motion. One of the songs on the album is called Above All Else, Be Kind and it came in a fit of anger and despair the morning after the 2016 US election results were announced when I had almost lost all faith in humanity. I had lain in bed, looking at my phone and saying ‘fuck’ repeatedly for much of the morning and then ended up sitting down and writing this song; I found that everything I wanted to say just fell into place. (The song isn’t directly about that but it gave me the drive to write something). Some songs, like this one, take shape quickly and sort of tumble out, without you having to put too much thought into them; they’re often the most satisfying ones. Most aren’t like that and sometimes you reach a sticking point that you can’t see past. I tend to start on the piano because it’s just immediately there in my house, but it’s good to try different instruments or other elements like rhythms, drones, loops, effects pedals etc, to push yourself out of your comfort zone too.

Who do you look to for inspiration when producing music?

I fell in love with the last Low album, Double Negative, when that came out last year because it perfectly captures that balance between beautiful and terrifying. Similarly, the album Leonard Cohen released just before he died is something I’ve gone back to again and again because it’s just so beautiful and profoundly moving; his voice had sunk to this incredible rasping bass which gives me goosebumps. In relation to the last question actually, whilst it’s all well and good sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike, sometimes you have to just sit down and let yourself try. It’s not always easy to find motivation, but you also have to give yourself the chance to make something, whether it’s ‘good’ or not. 

You’re a Doctor by day. How do you balance the two professions?

I like balancing the two and have been really lucky to get a lot of support from friends and colleagues in the medical world. I work quite flexibly; so I can take time off for recording and touring, which is also a really privileged position to be in. My interest in medicine has been in palliative care, which is about trying to maximise people’s quality of life and relieve difficult symptoms, often in the context of complex, life-limiting conditions. At the moment I work in a hospice, and you have much more time to spend speaking to people and focusing on what’s important to them than you do in hospital. You meet people at often quite profound stages of their lives and hear and witness a lot of stories along the way, both joyful and sad. Again, that’s quite a privilege.

Where did the name AJIMAL come from?

I encountered a former Voodoo priest who used to preach under the name during the Duvalier dictatorship. I had been in the Caribbean on a sabbatical year as part of my studies and ended up in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, working at a field hospital. Religion is a big deal in Haiti and there were lots of hushed whisperings about this guest preacher who had been invited to a local mass. He had since abandoned Voodoo but was said to have been part of some pretty heinous things. Before I knew anything about him or his background, I heard the word and loved the sound of it. I came back to it later and adopted it. It translates from Creole as ‘bad spirit’. 

Is it true that you’re a classically trained pianist?

Most definitely not to any sort of noteworthy degree. I started studying classical piano as a kid, but it was never something I enjoyed or was even particularly good at. I never wanted to practice and the technical, theoretical bits always eluded me. I systematically flunked every sight-reading exam I ever did. I feel like learning an instrument via the grade system has a particular knack for ruining creativity; that was my own experience of it at least. I spent a year in Paris when I was 18 and found a piano there, so got started playing again; I explored playing much more by ear and so then it became something totally new again which I re-discovered a love for.

What can fans expect from your upcoming live shows?

We’ve been trying out some fun things and I’m developing an AV dimension to the show with lighting tricks that I’m controlling from stage. What we’ve created musically is quite cinematic and widescreen sounding, so I think it’s important to bring in a visual dimension. I’m excited about it! Also, Angus (PiK) who joins me on stage. Always more Angus.

Everyone seems to have an app idea at the moment, what’s yours?

Oh God, does that mean I’m the only person who doesn’t have a pitch ready to go?! I definitely overuse my phone already, so maybe something that gives me a minor electric shock if I’m being antisocial and scrolling through Instagram at the dinner table or something? 

How important is social media to you right now?

It’s insane the way that online social media has gone from not existing to being essentially indispensable to us, within my generation’s lifetime! There are amazing things about the digital era – the fact that there’s so much sharing of ideas, art and information and the instantaneous nature of communication with people thousands of miles away. That said, it’s easy to forget the positives when you fall into a twitter hole of Trumpian nastiness. Personally, I feel like I use social media when I need it, but I almost definitely use it too much. In terms of music, it’s very difficult to connect with an audience if you don’t. Also, James Blunt followed me on Twitter the other day. Hadn’t seen that one coming. 

What do you want the world to look like in 10 years?

Well, it would certainly be good if it wasn’t 1.5°C warmer and if we could all be a little more tolerant of one another. Right now, I really have very little idea but it feels like a lot of things are on a knife-edge.

If you had the chance to put something on billboards worldwide next week, what would it be? Or what would it say?

I think what Led By Donkeys have been doing around Brexit has been amazing. There are some excellent, authentic politicians, but sadly lies and greed are also rife. Holding our elected representatives to account over what they say and reminding them on massive billboards or by plowing it into a field in 40m high letters so that it can be read from space is quite epic. 

I would personally like to advocate something like the following: speak to a human that you wouldn’t normally speak to. Ask them what their life is like and listen to their answer. Try and understand the world from their perspective, even for a few minutes. Then feel free to go back to watching cat videos.

Do you have a personal fear you’d like to conquer?

I mean, I find lip-gloss pretty gross? Like, the really shiny stuff, sometimes with glitter in. That makes me shudder. I think I’m ok with that though – not immediately feeling the need to seek professional help. 

Aside from your upcoming projects, is there one thing you’re particularly excited about for the future?

I mean, fundamentally, it’s a pretty cool thing to be a collection of atoms that have come together in a way that can, for a tiny moment, experience sentient existence. When you actually try and think about the vastness of time and space, that’s pretty bonkers, isn’t it? Also, I’m going to Berlin in December and I bloody love Berlin. So, all in all, things are pretty good. Conversely, not Brexit!