A couple months ago I met Alex Donat. What started as a rather typical interaction—he sending me promotional materials for upcoming releases to write reviews for—soon turned to pleasant conversation. I visited his label’s website, Blackjack Illuminist Records, and was enamored with the all various sounds on display. The warm melancholic drones of Deer Traps by Leonard Donat; the synth-laden, shoegazey atmosphere of an artist named Vlimmer; the upbeat giddiness of Fir Cone Children. There was so much to absorb, so much emotion, energy, and noise that I failed to realize (for weeks) that all of these projects are the same person: Alex.
With ten years of running his label recently behind him, and a new friendship between he and I forged, I thought to ask him 21 questions; a sort of post-ten year anniversary celebration and reflection. Below is our exchange.
What were some of your first experiences with music?
When it comes to music most of my childhood was filled with classical music as my father is a professional pianist/composer. We didn’t have a single pop or rock record at home, it was all 100% classical music, and, of course, it influenced me. Sometimes I think my preference for atmospheric music is a result of the orchestral sounds that my father put on at home.
I must have been around the age of four when I learned to play the violin. My parents say they never forced me to play any instrument so I guess I must have had it in my veins, the urge to make music, my father’s father was also a professional musician. Thinking about my violin lessons I can only remember that it took place in East Berlin in, like, the 17th story of one of the big apartment blocks on Leipziger Straße. My mother always picked me up at dusk, in the backseat of our car I would hungrily eat cold wienerwurst. Today it’s much more difficult for me to play the violin, but I still love the sound and use it frequently on my recordings.
Another experience that stuck in my mind was the discovery of the original soundtrack of Turtles II – The Secret of the Ooze. I was a huge Turtles fan, and I found the cassette during a shopping trip in one of the biggest retailers we have in Germany: Metro. When I showed it to my dad he asked me if I knew that this wasn’t an audiobook but just music. Yeah, I knew and I insisted on putting it into our shopping cart. I loved that Hip Hop, Pop Rap, Synth mess a lot and was into Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap”. It definitely marked the end of the dominance of classical music at home.
When did you start creating music?
My brother and I recorded our first songs on a ghetto blaster sitting on our house’s stairs which led to our bedrooms banging pots with chopsticks at the age of ten or eleven. I did the singing, my brother rapped, heavily influenced by East 17. We wrote eight songs with actual verse/chorus structures. I still own the tapes and have to laugh when I listen to the bad English we used.
Can you describe the ‘aha’ moment (epiphany?) that led you to establish Blackjack Illuminist Records (BIR) ten years ago?
Let me guess here, as I don’t know for sure, but I think when I realized that I was pretty productive writing songs I decided that I would create my own label. I started the label with two releases by my first solo project, Leonard Las Vegas. That way it didn’t look like a desperate attempt of an artist releasing an album on their own label which would probably never see another release. Starting with two releases means you got a back catalogue right from the start.
How did you settle on your label’s name?
“Blackjack Illuminist” is a song title on the first Leonard Las Vegas album from 2007. I liked the song in particular because in contrast to the other songs which are more Indie/Alternative with a hint of Shoegaze this song has a Post-hardcore feel to it and was the hardest I had written back in 2007, you have to count the bars if you want to fully get behind every part of it—and the apocalyptic finish with piercing guitars and the recurring words “Blackjack Illuminists, Blackjack Illuminists!” was my favorite moment when we played the song live with my live band two years later, in 2009. The Post-hardcore vibe results back to my first band Jet Pilot. We played several gigs with a Berlin-based Post-hardcore/Screamo band called It.Is.Imperative, I had to think about them while recording the song.
So much for the sound, the meaning behind the name is something else. My favorite number is 22, and in order to take consideration of the fact that I sometimes find it incredibly hard to make a decision between two things—especially when it comes to ordering take away food—I chose to go both ways: 21 and 23. I only needed to find anything or anyone who represents these numbers. I knew that so-called Illuminists repeatedly use the number 23, while 21 plays a role when playing Blackjack. I never played it, though, but “Blackjack Illuminist” sounded good and still does.
What challenges have you faced running BIR?
As I do everything on my own I’ve never faced any real challenges like fighting with colleagues or artists about this and that. Financially, the biggest challenge was the release of the latest Leonard Las Vegas album and book “Jagmoor Cynewulf” in 2015. With an investment of over € 3000 and a huge self-confidence I was ready to take the label to the next level. When “Jagmoor Cynewulf” was released it meant an end to endless mixing sessions, new arrangements, beating myself up and applying for numerous labels. I am proud of the result, apparently people didn’t feel the same about it; it didn’t sell much more than 50 copies. Fortunately, my wife was really into the album and offered to help me with several hundreds of Euros as she believed in it as much as I did. Never count on potential listeners, things barely turn out the way you think they would.
And, ah, tax authorities have troubled me for some time. Even though I convinced them again and again that I do not plan on making any income they don’t stop sending me letters requesting statements on last year’s income.
Did you have personal music projects predating the first artist you debuted on BIR, Leonard Las Vegas?
After I had taken my A-levels we built a band overnight that would play 3 or 4 cover songs at the farewell celebration. I remember singing Green Day’s “Basket Case”, Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” and Blur’s “Song 2”. I was terrible but I loved being on stage. It took me two more years until I finally joined my first proper band with regular rehearsals and shows. Jet Pilot was a school band, too, an extremely popular one even, if not THE school band in Greifswald where I began to study in 2003.
In the beginning the band was into Alternative Rock. Within the next two years, however, I introduced more and more Hardcore bands to my band mates and they loved it. Well, not the guitarist, apparently. I sang less and less and focused on screaming in a weird Black Metal way to Alternative Rock/Post Rock guitars. I remember our guitarist asking me to sing again because “you had your one song where you screamed”, when I answered “I wanna stick to that” his facial expression said it all. He left the band, or did we make him leave? I cannot remember. At that time we waved farewell to Alternative Rock and became a Noise Rock/Hardcore three-piece without any guitar. Death From Above 1979 had taught us that guitars weren’t necessary, and after trying several effect pedals we had found our sound after one year. Leonard Las Vegas was founded around that time, I wanted to write my own stuff without having to argue about song parts and arrangements.
You’re quite busy; you have—from what I can tell—four solo projects that are currently active: Feverdreamt, Fir Cone Children, Vlimmer, and Leonard Donat; the lattermost is a new guise under which you recently released ‘Deer Traps’. You’ve noted that your work flow on projects moves in a pattern where you spend some number of months on a project (2 or 3 or maybe even more months), release a record/tape, then move onto the next project and repeat the process. Does each project tend to be associated with a particular mindset?
For about one and a half years this indeed was the pattern. After a dark record I was ready for a more bright one. It kept me in balance, and probably still does, only that I mix working several projects at the same time now, not essentially on the same day but it happens that I record three tracks for three projects in three days. At first I expected that I would develop an infinite cycle of writing songs for Fir Cone Children, then Vlimmer, then one of the other projects, then Fir Cone Children, then Vlimmer and so on … but when I gained more listeners, got more attention by websites and blogs, and recorded a lot of tracks for compilations it became impossible to remain in one phase without working on other projects and keep the pace of releasing new albums and EPs. In the first month it was quite confusing and distracting but I’ve found my niche and quickly adopt the necessary mood whenever it is needed. Still, usually most of the songs of any release are the result of days or weeks where I record songs in a row with just one project.
How do you select which project to move to once you finish work on another?
It always depends on the feeling in my guts. My body and my mind tell me when an album or EP is finished. It’s funny, while I’m working on whatever project I constantly think that this really is my number one project which is good because that way I am not tempted to work sloppy thinking I don’t care about this project, the other is more important anyways. Once I finish it I am happy to give it a rest and do something else, and if it’s not an already existing project I find a new one.
Tell us a bit more about your newest moniker, Leonard Donat. What gave rise to this project?
Somehow a handful of Drone and Ambient tracks saw the light of day when working on Vlimmer contributions for compilations in 2016 and 2017. You must know, Vlimmer usually isn’t an instrumental project so it was a new approach for this project. Although, additionally, I did the instrumental score for the second season of the German audio book “Randow” I felt that I wanted to try and do stuff that didn’t really fit to Vlimmer, so it was time for a new moniker.
‘Deer Traps’ is a perfect soundtrack for autumn; crisp drizzles of static falling upon melancholic piano melodies that, at times, crackle like embers from a cozy fireplace. It’s one of your more ambient-exclusive releases. Where did the idea for this record stem from?
At that very time I discovered William Basinski and was overwhelmed by how exciting loops could be even if they are repeated for, like, 20 minutes. The key is a very slight adjustment of the sounds that surround the loops. As a fan of lo-fi recordings I added that crackling noise which makes the real music appear as something that is happening behind a curtain or even a wall. I had people complaining to the host of an ambient show that played a track of mine, they were confused by some weird noise they couldn’t identify, “Is it supposed to be there?”, yes! Noise is a wonderful stylistic means even more if you combine them with melodies. Everything is so polished these days, even the bedroom productions. But actually it’s the dirt that makes the beautiful things shine even brighter—as long as you can see or hear what’s underneath.
Are there other personas/projects bubbling beneath the surface you have yet to explore and unveil to the world?
Certainly there will be new projects and monikers added in the future. I’ve been thinking about a way to combine screaming and ambient music for a while now but haven’t come up with a definitive idea of how to do it. For now I guess I got enough on my plate.
In an interview dated early 2017, you noted that you were working with your father to transform some of your Vlimmer songs into piano and vocals compositions with the hope of eventually bringing these reworked pieces to a live setting. How has work with your father been going?
We’ve been transforming four songs so far and it’s been fun. My father just listens to the song I suggest we’d do next and he presses play, listens, writes down, repeats it once, checks and goes on. It’s pretty ‘woah’ to me. We’ve been a bit slow lately due to personal situations but I’m hopeful that we’ll resume that transformation process soon. So far we’ve performed one Vlimmer song live, “Erschöpfung”. It was at the funeral of my grandmother, and it felt intense.
You released a book back in 2015, Jagmoor Cynewulf, which your project Vlimmer is based around—one EP for each of chapter of the book, for a total of eighteen EPs. What compelled you to write Jagmoor Cynewulf?
“Jagmoor Cynewulf” had been my biggest project prior to this 18 EP series. Or maybe I should say “has been” as clearly all lyrics on the EP series originate from that book. Initially, I had the idea to record a Leonard Las Vegas album with a broken character as the protagonist. Someone who is stuck in between two worlds: reality and a dream-like state which is taking over increasingly. It’s full of interior monologues, I like to describe it as my way to write Dark Ambient and Shoegaze prose. It’s as dense as a wall of sound, as menacing and disturbing as an endless loop played in slow motion.
The name “Jagmoor Cynewulf” is mix of a slightly altered place name I drove by for years and a name of an English poet of the 9th century. I have no idea what he wrote but the name looked great. The Leonard Las Vegas album was a huge financial flop but I’m still fully behind the whole concept. When I had a new project going I needed lyrics pretty fast because the songs kept coming and coming. I decided to do something different, singing in German for a change. Somehow, it made the music seem even more disturbing. Some months later I called the project “Vlimmer” which looks like “Flimmer” (German for “flickering”) but with that dangerously looking “V”. In a way Jagmoor is reborn, it’s Mr. Cynewulf’s renaissance, and he’s getting much more attention this time around.
What were some of your literary influences for Jagmoor Cynewulf?
You will laugh, there is only one influence: Arthur Schnitzler. His works are so intense, they always play in an every-day setting and include a lot of images that are either the distorted subjective views or thoughts of someone or something which manifests in the protagonists’ minds. There’s definitely a huge influence by Sigmund Freud’s dream analysis, no wonder: Schnitzler and Freud knew and met each other on a regular basis. Schnitzler displayed human despair in a way that is very realistic, it’s lurking behind every corner, he shows that, for example, the slightest movement of a hand or a specific look on a face can possess peoples’ minds and drive them crazy. We cannot actively decide what inhabits our mind, it’s tricked every day. It’s what stands in the way when it comes to dealing with society. Trying to fulfill what you think society is expecting from you can hang like a black cloud above you.
Which authors, in general, influence and/or inspire you?
I barely read anything but music magazines and album reviews. Making music and having Blackjack Illuminist Records just takes almost all the time that’s left when I get home from my job as a teacher.
Are you planning to write a follow-up to Jagmoor Cynewulf or maybe undertake writing a new book sometime soon?
During the writing process I felt the urge to continue writing telling myself that I would try a different style next time. That was almost five years ago during teacher training and I haven’t thought about writing another book since then. For the moment I have expressed everything in that book that I wanted to say. If I write a new book, irony and humor in a subtle way will play the central role.
Beyond the realms of music, what inspires and/or fascinates you?
Films! Whenever a film blows me away with it’s perfect match of visuals and sounds I want to immediately start recording new music, not copying what I just heard but recording something in a similar vein. Also, the ideas of other musicians influence me from time to time. Sometimes I read interviews about the concepts that artists have or had for their current album, unfortunately mostly they read better than they sound. So why not making that record that I thought the artist should have made? I haven’t done it so far, but the idea keeps coming back.
What have you been listening to lately? Any recommendations?
Mostly music from 2017 as I am very much a person that listens to new music. Of course, I don’t throw away my records if the year is over, but the majority is from the current year.
Records that stand out in 2017 are the following:
- Arcade Fire – Everything Now (Disco/70s/Indie)
- Ex Eye – s/t (Black Metal/Free Jazz)
- The Hirsch Effekt – Eskapist (Indie/Metal/Experimental)
Currently I am listening to the new records of Greg Fox, who’s also the drummer of Ex Eye and Liturgy, then I’m listening to The Horrors’ “V” which, sadly, is rather boring, the new Death From Above which is cool but not a must-have (their debut however!), Mogwai’s “Every Country’s Sun” which sounds too much like playing it safe, Flying Saucer Attack’s “Instrumentals 2015” which was one of the year’s highlights two years ago, and the deluxe reissue of Wolf Parade’s classic “Apologies to Queen Mary”. Those keep spinning at the moment.
How have your thoughts and perspectives on BIR changed relative to when you founded the label ten years ago?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know what I would have thought about BIR if I knew what it looks like today. I guess it’s a constantly evolving process without that one single aim. Back when I was a teenager my goal was having my voice on a rock song, somehow, somewhere. When I accomplished that all I dreamt of was recording and releasing a full album. I did just that three years after that. Ever since it’s a permanent adjustment of what I want in life, music-wise. First own CD in my hands, people buying my stuff, people writing reviews about my projects, having my music sold at my favorite mail-order, first vinyl, international customers, making music for soundtracks, returning customers who try all kinds of bands on BIR, having a member of my favorite band, No Age, involved in one of my own projects: the 10 Year Anniversary Project. That said I must admit, yes, my thoughts and perspectives did change, I would have never believed that these things would happen.
Has feedback and engagement from your audience/followers shaped the direction of the label?
In respect of my own projects I would lie if I said it hasn’t affected me at all. After the surprisingly good reception of the Vlimmer debut double EP “I” and “II” I think the listeners influenced the direction the project would go. “Pianist” had been the most popular song on the label for one and a half years. It’s a melancholic mid-tempo song with washed out retro-futuristic synths, and I tried to find out why it was this song in particular that the listeners liked, but I didn’t understand, I preferred other songs from this project, to be honest. I’ve never tried to copy the song in order to possibly repeat the success of “Pianist” but it occupied my mind for some time. In general, it’s part of the fun, you never know if the listeners like or dislike your latest release. I tried sticking to the mood of “Pianist”, the songs, luckily, sounded different.
Just before Vlimmer’s “IIIIII” (EP 6) was released I shared a song called “Flutbahn” which, for me, wasn’t first choice for a regular EP, I chose it for a compilation of an English magazine. When the reactions were so immensely positive I put it on a regular label’s release, it was a last minute decision. Now, the song is BIR’s most popular one. I guess, for Vlimmer it’s a mix of doing something for oneself and reacting to the listener’s response.
By the way, all other projects weren’t influenced by the listeners, at least not knowingly.
With all of the time and effort you spend on crafting music under various names, what have your projects as well as running BIR taught you about life?
That’s a beautiful question. Probably the most important realization was the fact that you can actually do whatever you want to do in life. At least you can try. BIR has taught me that as long as you feel the passion age doesn’t matter. You don’t necessarily need to stop making music when you’re a mid-twenty adult. Find space for things that touch your heart. Additionally, never expect overnight success, things might take some time. I started BIR as a thing genuinely for me, when people suddenly responded more and more it became their label as well. The bedroom releases finally shipped worldwide.
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Thank you so much, Alex, for all the time and energy you spent answering my questions. And thank you readers for giving Alex your attention.
You can peruse all of Alex’s projects over at the Blackjack Illuminist Records Bandcamp page, purchase tapes, CDs, what have you. He will be contributing a track under his Leonard Donat moniker to the upcoming FCU compilation.