A Winged Victory for the Sullen
The Odd Couple
We meet Dustin O'Halloran, one half of AWVFTS, at his local Berlin studio in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. With a huge smile on his face, he rushes towards me exclaiming, "I've literally just been nominated for an Emmy!" (for the theme song of the TV show, Transparent). And rightly so. O'Halloran is a hugely talented composer known for his work on movies such as Marie Antoinette and Like Crazy. The other half of AWVFTS is Adam Wiltzie, based in Brussels and talking to us via Skype. He is also part of the acclaimed ambient outfit Stars of the Lid.
An unorthodox pair, Adam compares his relationship with Dustin to ‘The Odd Couple’. There’s certainly some truth to this description, Adam has a misanthropic but lively attitude, while Dustin exudes a gentle, calm energy.
We sat down with them just before their largest London performance to date, a sold-out crowd at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. Our conversation covers everything from the accidental miracle that was the formation of AWVFTS to the joys of cooking and gardening.
So maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about your backgrounds and the birth of A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
ADAM WILTZIE: We met years ago when I was on tour with Sparklehorse, and we went to where Dustin was living. He ended up coming to the show, I didn’t know him, we met through a mutual friend, but we got to be friends after that. Right after the Sparklehorse tour ended, I had a Stars of the Lid record that came out and we were just touring and touring and the record became a real success. To be honest I was just burned out, ya’ know? A wise man once said, “Never underestimate the strange force of mass-delusion”. Sometimes things just get popular and you don’t even really know why. It seemed like no matter what we did it was, “oh yeah, we want more, we want more!”
Anyway Dustin and I kept running into each other. One time I was running sound for Iron and Wine down on the coast of Ravenna at this beautiful festival that goes on in Italy in the summer on the beach, and he came down and we hung out again.
Actually, this particular night, the Lumiere record was about to come out and they asked him to do an extra track and he asked me to collaborate on it – Opus 43. That was the first time we did something. It was a challenge but what we did was really cool. I still like it, I think it’s a really interesting birth of what we do.
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: Definitely. In that piece you can hear us trying to figure something out, which is really what sparked the whole thing. When I hear that, I hear some potential. I think we both felt like there was something more there.
You guys have said that without Mark (Sparklehorse) the project wouldn’t exist, that he was in some way a catalyst for this music.
ADAM WILTZIE: Yeah, if I hadn’t been playing with Sparklehorse then I never would have met Dustin. It’s one of those random moments in life. Do you realise the weight of one day in your life can be quite huge sometimes? It’s quite possible I would never have met him and this wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t be talking to you.
Just quickly, what’s the status of Stars of the Lid? Are you guys on hiatus? Are you totally finished?
ADAM WILTZIE: No, I don’t know. We’re totally functional. We play concerts pretty regularly, in fact we just played in Toronto. Don’t believe everything you read. People still say we live in Austin. I don’t know if it’s lazy journalism or if people just take random factoids off the internet that aren’t true.
“To be honest I was just burned out, ya’ know? A wise man once said, “Never underestimate the strange force of mass-delusion””
I saw one anecdote where you were talking about a Stars of the Lid documentary that became a disaster. I was amazed to read that there was a guy stalking you.
ADAM WILTZIE: Yeah, that turned out really well.
Let’s talk about you both living in different cities. You make such wonderful music and there’s a really great synergy there. Does living in Europe bring something different or challenging to the music?
ADAM WILTZIE: Europe’s been a big influence on both of us, but I think it’s just a particular time in our lives and I think this is also connected with why our project made sense. Berlin and Brussels seem far away, but it’s only an hour on the plane and we can be with each other. So it’s amazing how much time we spend together and it’s amazing how many people think we live in the same city. I don’t think distance has any bearing on it.
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: When we met, I had been living in Italy for almost seven years and Adam had been even longer in Brussels. We moved to Europe not with the idea that it was just going to be a one year excursion. We both made lives and had lives here before we met. That was actually the first thing we bonded over. I had been living illegally in Italy for five years without a visa. Adam had been living in Brussels without a visa, and we were like, “wait a minute… how are you doing it?” So we were like two bandits on the run trying to figure out how to not get deported.
You have legal status now Adam?
ADAM WILTZIE: Yeah, I’m a legal resident now. I pay taxes in the wonderful kingdom of Belgium.
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: I’m legal too now. They can’t get me.
“I had been living illegally in Italy for 5 years without a visa. Adam had been living in Brussels without a visa, and we were like “wait a minute… how are you doing it?” So we were like two bandits not the run trying to figure out how not to get deported.”
Does America hold any reference points in your lives still or in the music you make?
ADAM WILTZIE: I’m a pretty nostalgic person, and I am an American, that’s who I am. Everything that happens in my life is all connected. As much as I would like to dismiss the past, it’s still very much there. I would say the same for Dustin. We’re both pretty nostalgic people.
I’d like to talk about the musical journey. A lot of the pieces you write really are journeys, they take you off on these emotional waves. When I listen to that kind of music I think of Max Richter, Ben Frost – these great modern classical composers (or however you want to describe them). A lot of people might classify it as melancholy, but I find there’s a lot of positivity in it. You get right to the core of the emotion. Does that makes sense to you?
ADAM WILTZIE: I think it’s down to the listener. Some people can’t stand us and some people feel the way you do. It’s totally subjective, that’s the thing about art. I mean, I feel lucky that people do respond to it. But I don’t know how to respond to what you’re saying. It’s hard for me to be objective about what I’m doing.
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: I don’t feel that the music is melancholy. Music like this has never been melancholy. It’s just about life and all of the emotions that are mixed in there. I think Adam and I put a lot into our music and a lot of ourselves into it. That’s what we try to do, or what we hope to do. Trim a lot of the fat and trim anything that feels like it’s just ornamental. For me, it’s just a mix of so many things. I think people who divide music into these terms like ‘melancholy’, ‘happy’, ‘sad’, etc… I think the feeling of joy is actually an incredibly sad feeling, because it’s going to be gone soon. It’s hard to separate emotions so easily.
Are you amazed at the type of reactions that these two albums have been getting? It seems quite spontaneous, how this project came together, so is the success something that inspires you to keep going and push on with this project?
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: From the beginning we never had any expectations. Maybe it’s from living in Germany, but you just have no expectations and then anything above that is going to be good.
Adam, what’s your opinion on the music creation industry at the moment? Is it something that you reflect on or something you don’t really think about? You seem like the kind of person who just gets on and makes music.
ADAM WILTZIE: I’m not sure, it’s been so long and this is kind of where I am. I never wanted to be a professional musician, I wanted to be a tennis player. So this sort of happened accidentally. I find it very hard to take myself too seriously.
If anything resonates, I just feel lucky that anyone cares at all. As I’ve gotten older I’m maybe a little more confused as to how I’m still here and how Dustin and I have this. We were just saying today that we actually have a history now. It’s not even like a side-project anymore. This is as vitally important as anything either of us have done in the past. It’s interesting how it all worked out.
You two seem like very different characters though?
ADAM WILTZIE: We’re the Odd Couple. I’m Walter Matthau and he’s Jack Lemmon.
Would you agree with that, Dustin?
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: Yeah, I think that’s actually what makes it interesting. If Adam and I were too like-minded it wouldn’t create the catalyst. You know, there’s yin and yang.
ADAM WILTZIE: We also have a lot in common. Our differences are kind of a slight emotional stimulation thing. But, it’s amazing the things that we do like, even though we like to call ourselves the odd couple. When it comes to food and art we couldn’t be more similar. But at the same time, I am Walter Matthau.
“I never wanted to be a professional musician, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. So, this sort of happened accidentally. I’m a professional musician but I don’t really understand how I got here.”
Adam I’m really fascinated by the fact that you’re confused about how you got here. I can’t tell if part of that is a joke or if you’re really serious.
ADAM WILTZIE: I just think there are some people who really believe that they’re creating something special, that they’re here for a higher purpose than anyone else. But as soon as you start believing in what you’re doing, how are you going to create anything meaningful? At least for me and myself. You have new musicians who come in every year, and some of them no one pays attention to and others who people think are the greatest thing since sliced white bread. Some of those people, they really get lost up their butts, and it’s been going on forever.
So speaking of ego, what do you think of Kanye West?
ADAM WILTZIE: I actually don’t think much about Kanye West. Maybe he’s dangerous for some people but, I dunno, I don’t spend much time thinking about him. Should I?
Well he’s kind of the ultimate musician who is stuck up his arse. He actually calls himself a God and claims to be as talented as Leonardo Da Vinci.
ADAM WILTZIE: Everyone needs a sad clown. He’s not one of the ones I’m talking about. He’s in a slightly different gene pool.
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: I’ve been thinking a lot about the creation of music versus the commerce of music, and how sometimes they’re at odds with each other. Creation needs the time that it needs, whether that’s fast or slow. It shouldn’t be rushed. I think what generally happens is that once you get into the commerce of music and this idea that you should always release an album, there should always be a followup, there should always be a tour, all of these things that become this machine and you keep having to be producing so that everyone gets their split. Ultimately it is a commerce.
When Adam and I made our first record we told ourselves that this might be it. This could be the only record we do. When we made our second record we felt lucky, and like this could be it again. We will try to continue making music, but we’re also not going to fool ourselves into thinking we can just keep pushing. The muse should be something purer than just the need to release something. Unless there’s something worthwhile to put out there, I don’t feel there’s a need to keep doing it to just continue a commerce of what we’re doing.
Well, you just described the ultimate musician [Kanye West] - he actually calls himself a God and as talented as Leonardo Da Vinci. ADAM: Everyone needs a sad clown. He’s not one of the ones I’m talking about; he’s in a slightly different gene pool.”
Most people I talk to about you guys, say that your music is very moving, very cinematic and beautiful. The music that you create is outside of the “machine” Would you agree?
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: Yeah, the moment we feel forced, we’d feel that we both don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that, personally. I will do commission work, and I’ll do film scores. There are moments in film scores where you have to push through it, and there are moments when you feel really inspired. You have a deadline and you’re getting through it. For me, this project with Adam is like the one place we don’t have to compromise in that way and we can create it in our own time.
ADAM WILTZIE: Sure, I can go with that.
What are you guys really passionate about outside of music at the moment?
ADAM WILTZIE: Well, I’m really into planting things at the moment. I would love to have a garden. I have a great place but I don’t have a garden. I would love to eventually move out to the countryside. Brussels is a great place but it’s kind of hard to leave. It’s going to happen eventually. You can’t make music all the time, ya’ know?
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: I love cooking. I work on music so much every day, so when I go home I don’t listen to much music anymore. If I do it’s very selective, maybe one album at a time. When I get home I take a break and I really love to cook. That’s kind of my “zen” moment.
Is there a kind of “zen” moment for you, Adam, in the planting?
ADAM WILTZIE: I must admit, without going on a kind of diatribe, over the years I’ve gotten really picky about the food I eat. I’ve gone organic. I love to just plant and make my own food. For some reason that just seems so attractive to me. When I think about, just over the past hundred years, how dumb the world has become. A hundred years ago you couldn’t go to the store and buy all this stuff.
We did an interview recently with a horticulturist from Kew Gardens who said something that really made me wake-up. He said, “pre-1950, all food was organic”.
ADAM WILTZIE: It’s amazing, we can send a rover out to Pluto and yet we’ve selected a company that used to make Asian oranges, to make our food for us. And at the same time we have our iPods to listen to music with. So, I don’t know. We’re definitely doomed, but I would like to plant some food before we get there.
“We’re definitely doomed, but I would like to plant some food before we get there.”
I’d like to ask you about the Wayne McGregor collaboration. Looking back on it now, how do you feel about the project?
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: He was doing so much before he brought us in. He has a lot of research brewing in the background before he starts to pull a project together. He was actually working on this computer program that would generate shapes, that he’d be working on for a few years. He’s just like one of these guys who has so much going on and so much research in it, by the time he asked us he had such a clear vision of it that we were just a part of this bigger picture that he had already worked out.
It was so clear why he asked us to be a part of it, especially when we finally saw it. We never thought anyone would dance to our music. Half-way throughout the project we went to London and saw them rehearsing and he was creating these small vignettes of movements between people representing the atoms. We were just one part of the whole thing. It went really well. It wasn’t half-housing at all. I think that’s what makes him so smart, choosing people, knowing that he’s going to get this ultimate creation out of it. He chooses the right people.
The media describes Wayne McGregor as this very important cultural figure and a brilliant creator.
ADAM WILTZIE: Yeah, he kind of is. He pulls it out of his ass too though, sometimes. It’s just that he didn’t try to micro-manage us. He let the music shine on in its own way without diluting it. Sometimes when you get into a commissioned piece it’s just – Jesus, they wont let you breathe.
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN: I think with Wayne it was one of those rare cases where it didn’t just feel like we were making something for him. He was pushing us as artists to find out what our potential was.