It’s not often you stumble on an ambient performance in a bookshop, but Tallinn Music Week is known for its, ahem, novel bookings, and Åmnfx was one of the many highlights of the Estonian showcase festival’s pop-up city programme a few weeks ago.
On the Friday afternoon, the young Moscow artist set up on a table in the minimalist haven of Puant book store in the Telliskivi district, with abstract, uplifting drones and bass pulses reverberating around the swaying bodies and design books, art journals and gift editions. It felt like a serene palate-cleanser amid the sprinting between venues around the repurposed industrial district.
Chatting to him after his set, Åmnfx, aka producer Vasily Skobeev worried that he might’ve gone “too techno”, and admittedly there was a GAS-like kick to the store as the set wound up. He made no apologies in the early hours of Sunday at the showcase in HALL, Tallinn’s brutalist industrial techno space at the edge of town. Lurching forward in an AC/DC Back in Black cut-off tee, Skobeev’s live set veered between Detroit-inspired grooves, dubby sub-bass minimalism and ghostly piano motifs.
This restless, curious energy has filtered through all of Åmnfx’s productions, which range from ambient textures to EBM-inspired techno, piano-led deep house, dubby explorations and Carpenter-esque synth paranoia. He has released on various cassette, vinyl and digital labels, including 100% Silk, NeoViolence, Opal Tapes and his own label, Firering.
He’s just released his third album, Modern Life, this week and it’s another departure – this time a deep dive into junglist breaks and stark, echoey dub dread and an underlying nervous wooziness that recalls the darker edges of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II.
I caught up with Vasily to discuss the new album, his wider electronic explorations and his take on modern life…
Modern life is… Around us
The title of the album, Modern Life, did you mean this also to be an autobiographical/personal reference or the world and society as a whole?
I think the world or society as a whole. Look around, it’s quite surreal. I created the name for album while listening to Modern Love by David Bowie. So for someone it’s a very dark joke.
Some tracks seem to have titles that are evocative and explicit (Egosim, Tricked), while the album ends on the track No Love, which is also the ‘noisiest’ beat-heavy track. Did you mean to leave a pessimistic trace with the record?
Yes, the whole LP is a bit pessimistic since I don’t quite like direction the world is going to. Also, whole music direction – jungle, IDM, breakbeat – is a bit dark, and it was important to me to reach a certain level of darkness and pessimism on album.
There’s a very definite stylistic leap from your debut album Vision One, with the breaks and jungle traces through the album. Has this always been an influence?
Glad you’re looking straight into the core. Yes, jungle & IDM were always around, since I listened to Autechre, Aphex & Amon Tobin at age seven. Thanks to the CD shop advisers who gave these CDs to my parents. And yes, it’s so boring to me to stay in one sound direction. I even play different kinds of music from one DJ set to another. There are so much music around and so much styles & genres in which I want to write something, why should I release the same thing over and over? Sadly, a quite small number of promoters gets it.
I read before that the name Amnfx is praise to fx (Amen + FX), but is there a nod to the Amen break here too?
No. Just Amen to all the Effects, I think without them we couldn’t have our modern musical landscape.
You began the Amnfx project in 2015 but you’ve been playing music for over 10 years. Can you chart your route into electronic music growing up in Moscow?
Oh, it’ll be hard but I’ll try. As I said before, I heard some weird electronic stuff when I was a kid. I was a very curious kid, I always wanted to know how the things are made. I sang in choral school at the time. We sang Ave Maria and all the classical stuff and performed in churches and huge concert halls. I learned music notation and stuff at a very young age. In the choir there are voices, and during rehearsals the conductor separates them and asks them to sing alone one after other. Maybe I saw this and started noticing how the sounds are layered in the music I listen to.
So you were interested in the building blocks of music right away…
Yes, I asked myself how they did it and went to CD shop with my grandma and asked the salesman about the software that would allow me to make music. I installed the Magix Music Maker and recorded few funny child things that I burned to CDs and gave to my friends on my birthday. Recently my best friend showed me one of these disks, and the production is just insane, I have to say. I think today I would need a couple of years to record something like this, because at the time I had no stereotypes about music making and just did something that was interesting. Some people are trying to achieve this view on things with modulars nowadays.
After I first heard Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Iggy Pop at the age nine or 10. I really wanted to be a cool band leader with a Telecaster or with a Gibson SG, so I went to another music school to learn classical guitar. A couple of years later I was training every day at home – it was a hot summer and all the windows were open, my neighbours were so mad at me (one of them told me it recently, almost 10 years after).
With a couple of friends we started to make some covers and play some original songs. Later on I formed two more bands with guys from the architectural institute, but we didn’t get along. I gave up the rock music, indie stuff was around, French electro was everywhere and I discovered Ableton.
I locked myself in the bedroom and recorded songs with my vocal and guitar, but it was very unprofessional. I finished the school and went to the university where I studied sound engineering for TV and film. I gave up the course after two years – at the time Arma 17 brought the new vibe to Moscow, I went to some of their parties and they influenced me to make some dance music. I produced some house stuff and even released it on one label, but no one noticed it – but I’ve got my first DJ experience.
I will never forget it. It was BPitch Control party at Rodnya with a little showcase of the Moscow label where I released that EP. I played from Traktor without a cue headphone but the room was filled and everybody jumped out of the roof.
Later I did a semi-techno EP in Powerhouse studio and participated in Red Bull Bass Camp there. At that time I recorded a few things that I want to put out next year — they have a lot of potential, classic techno things. Strange that some things need a lot of time to be recognised even by the artist who made them.
In April 2015 I sat down in front of a piano and recorded the Amen piano loop. That’s the story…
Your very first Amnfx track began with your own piano loop processed. How has your classical training informed your productions today?
The classical training helps me a lot on my way, it changes the way you hear music. You need to know the history in order to create the future. I use many piano recordings in each track, you may not recognise them.
I’m very thankful to my parents who brought me to the choir. And to my grandma who helped me with the guitar lessons. She is a great classical accompanist and piano teacher. We still discuss some music from time to time. And of course I improvise a lot on the piano. I try to record every session. Hope at some point I’ll release a classical music album full of these passages. It will be really beautiful. I did a research on studios with grand pianos here in Russia, and found one in St. Petersburg in an old church. I think next year I’ll go there and record this album.
On the track Forget you said it was about pouring all your sadness about ended relationships into one recording session. Do you still write in such a way, almost music as catharsis or even almost as a form of therapy?
From time to time it’s definitely a form of therapy. When I write, I try to completely immerse into my imagination. And of course some reflection exists. But on album I tried to show my thoughts about life in general, not about my personal life. Tracks on album are connected with one idea – and this really surprised me because some of them I wrote 4 or 5 years ago and some just half a year ago. Maybe it was a background thinking process in my mind during these years.
The ambient undercurrent reminds reminds me of Aphex Twin or Autechre tracks that would work as ambient works without the beats. More recently Skee Mask has had a similar trait. Do you work on these aspects separately? There was also a ‘day & night’ aspect at Tallinn Music Week between your ambient and techno sets.
No, I work on these aspects inside the track sessions. So every sound is a part of one particular track and was made especially for it. I use synths which I made from vocal recordings for pads & stuff. As you see, the voice is still a very important instrument to me. It’s so powerful.
You work through the night in “insomniac workshop sessions”, what is it about the nocturnal environment that inspires you?
My brain works better with abstract things in the night. I’m afraid that the night mode could harm me at some point. So now I try to make daytime sessions. I think it’s somehow connected with the whole environment. At night most of the people sleep so there are not so much brain waves in the air.
During the daytime I think you can receive some thoughts from other people and these are mostly common, about some routine shit. I think that night time is better for receiving good ideas. Because for me people don’t generate ideas and thoughts, and I don’t generate them too. We just receive them.
I don’t know how this shit works but I feel it somehow.
I was really digging the Russian acts I saw at Tallinn Music (SADO OPERA, Rosemary Loves a Blackberry, Chikiss, KnightsKnights), and bands like Shortparis and Lucidvox are getting a lot of attention in the UK. Have you any other underground music recommendations from Russia?
Please listen to some great artists from my label, Firering. They are so talented, and I’m excited that they are with the label. Most of them are from Russia.