Æ (Aspinall/Edwards) is a collaborative project between writer Andrew Edwards and producer Alex Aspinall, a pair of Bristol, UK natives who met and began working together in 2011. Their debut, MAEXIMVS, a concept album focusing on the themes of change, power and relationships, was recorded over the course of seven months and released in March of 2014.
MAEXIMVS is available for download here.
Andrew E: Trained-ish. I had piano lessons for a short time at a young age, and started guitar when I was about 12. I had guitar lessons for a good two years, and when I felt comfortable enough about what I had learnt, I started teaching myself. I also picked up piano again. I guess I am mostly self-taught.
Alex A: I’m a grade 8 trombonist, so my route into music’s fairly traditional. I’ve been having lessons since I was ten and studied Music at GCSE and A level. I moved school for my A levels which is when I started Music Technology, and I’m now at Kingston University in West London studying Creative Music Technologies. I had my instrument lessons with the local council for nine years, playing in their classical and jazz ensembles as well as solo. A lot of my Music Tech knowledge comes from obsessive reading and research outside of school about microphones and mixing techniques.
How did you two come to meet one another?
Andrew E: We both met at Backwell Sixth Form in 2011, where we both studied Music and Music Technology together. I couldn’t read music, and the only music I could write at that time was just bland “grunge revival.” When I picked up on how talented he was at producing music, I just latched on to him and asked him to help me produce a few demos.
Alex A: Our iMacs were next to each other in our Music Tech class which is when we started chatting. Pretty soon we were hanging out in our school’s old studio, which we christened “The Cave,” messing around and working on our coursework. Andy’s been doing “pop” music much longer than me and he asked if I’d mix a few of his songs, which became our first band together, STELLAR!. He’ll tell you about the kind of music we made. We only did two gigs before we got bored and people went on holiday and stuff. In the meantime, Andy and I were working on a few tracks under the name ~kaesong~, which eventually grew into Æ.
Andrew E: In late 2012, I wanted to start a band that didn’t have conventional rock instruments; I wanted strings and brass. Alex is a trombonist so I called him in. The band we made was called STELLAR! and together we wrote and recorded an EP that was actually pretty successful.
What inspired you to write this album?
Andrew E: Kanye West! The first thing I did after I heard his last album, Yeezus, was go out and write Sheba!
Honestly though, the big theme in MAEXIMVS is power and ego, or how power affects you and those around you. I’m a control freak, and one of my flaws is that I let my accomplishments get to my head; I get cocky and I get arrogant. My arrogance affects a lot of people around me, and sometimes I’m too stubborn to realize that.
Musically, I’ve always been interested in writing something huge, pompous and cinematic like an opera. I guess MAEXIMVS was my first opera. The concept of power rubs off into the music too, you have tracks like “Maximus” and “Sheba,” which have a huge maximalist sound that isn’t easy to avoid, and then tracks like “Wish You Away” and “Something On Your Neck” which are more subtle and delicate.
Alex A: Andy’s responsible for the majority of the writing and I handle the mixing and production, but the main purpose is really just as a learning exercise for the both of us. We worked on it from September through March so it pretty much evolved alongside my course studies.
What was the recording process like for MAEXIMVS?
Andrew E: Difficult. Alex is currently studying in Kingston, while I’m retaking a year of school before university. Trying to maintain contact and progress while we were hundreds of miles apart was very frustrating, we only met up twice throughout the seven months of making MAEXIMVS.
I do all the writing, recording and some production on a Mac computer in a tiny studio dubbed The Cave. All there is in the room is the Mac, a keyboard, and a DI box I use to record guitar and bass guitar parts on. I just had no way of recording any drums for MAEXIMVS because The Cave is just too small, so instead I would sample beats from artists like Barry White and The Commodores. I wouldn’t say sampling was the lazy way out though. If anything, the samples gave our tracks much more strength and edge, the sort of edge that you find in other artists like Public Enemy, N.W.A and Kanye West.
Alex A: Because I was away at Uni, each track would be composed and recorded in The Cave, then Andy would Dropbox the project to me and I’d mix it in my room. Sometimes he’d set me to work on the instrumental then send the vocals separately. We’d usually have three or so tracks on the go at any one time.
On MAEXIMVS, you sample a wide variety of artists, ranging from Led Zeppelin to Frank Zappa (and, as you mentioned, Barry White and the Commodores). How do you go about picking a song to sample? Do you have a mental catalog of interesting beats, or do you make a note to self whenever you hear something you might one day like to use?
Andrew E: Samples are a vital part of the writing process, for me anyway. For tracks like “Sheba” and “Stomp,” we wanted something big, heavy and powerful, and the first sample that came to mind was “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. When it came to “Something On Your Neck,” we needed to sample something that could be soft and creepy like the rest of the song, so we sampled “You Belong To Me” because the lyrics “Just remember when a dream appears, you belong to me” just fit in so well. It also sounded really cool.
When it comes to actually finding the samples, it’s a little bit of both. I’ll either go searching through my favourite soul/funk records or make a note of something I hear that I’d like to use.
What track are you most proud of?
Andrew E: I would say all of them, but that would be boring.
The track I am most proud of would be the 6th track, “Lulu.” I think it’s the strongest lyrically, musically and structurally, and I think it’s my best work as a songwriter so far.
“Lulu” was also the track that took the longest to write. I was in The Cave at about 8pm one night in December 2013, and I was getting frustrated because I couldn’t find a way to finish the song. I had the lyrics and structure all in my head, but I just couldn’t be satisfied with how it was sounding. A couple months later, I decided to try writing and recording “Lulu” again from scratch. This time, the song just poured out and there were no issues. My favourite moment in the track is when you hear the riff from “Sheba” come in around the last verse. I think that moment is sort of a musical plot twist, the moment where your eyebrows fly up your forehead and you just think “Oh wow, there’s a connection!?”
Alex A: I’m probably the most proud of “Sheba,” “Stomp” and “Lulu” because they were the tracks that sounded the weakest when I first heard them but came out the strongest on the album.
What is the most difficult aspect of telling a story through music?
Andrew E: Writing a story is difficult, writing a song and a story at the same time is even more difficult.
I think that as a writer, you should try and answer as many questions as possible before the audience even has a chance to ask them.
When it comes to music, it’s very hard to have an obvious plot. In opera or film music, you have “leitmotifs,” little musical themes that represent a character. For example, in Star Wars you have the “Imperial March” for whenever Darth Vader makes an appearance, and in The Wall, the riff from “Another Brick In The Wall” makes an appearance whenever a song is about anger. In MAEXIMVS we use motifs the same way Pink Floyd do, by using little riffs to represent different themes and emotion. For example, we use a guitar riff from “Something On Your Neck” again later on in “Wish You Away,” Those two tracks are about vulnerability, and by using that riff we make that theme clear. We do the same thing for “Intro” and “Minimus,” and again for several other tracks. I won’t give too much away.
Was there one particular album or song that made you want become a musician?
Andrew E: Yeah, it was “Split, Part 2” by The Groundhogs, and the track is from (funnily enough) their concept album titled Split, Part 1-4. I remember the moment I’d first heard it, it was in the car with my Dad and I was about 11 years old. It’s such a big, dirty, crazy track. The drums go mad, the bass goes mad, and the electric guitar has this dirty, screaming riff. It’s the sort of noise I’ve always wanted to make since I first heard it. The riff from “Sheba” is actually based on the riff from “Split, Part 2.”
Alex A: Not really, I just found music was the only thing I enjoyed and was good at and could potentially do as a career.
What are you listening to right now?
Andrew E: The new album from Nine Inch Nails called Hesitation Marks. I went through a phase last year of listening to nothing but the sort of minimalist synth madness that only Gary Numan and NIN can make. Trent Reznor (of NIN) is a one man army, he makes a lot of noise out of nothing and that was a huge inspiration to us as we were making MAEXIMVS with next-to-no equipment or help. Also a lot of Massive Attack.
Alex A: Right now I’m listening to Seven Stones by Genesis, but some less 1970s-prog-rock bands I’m into are Elbow and Tame Impala. I also like to listen to Hard-Fi, Milagres and Peter Gabriel.
What do you like most about contemporary music? And what do you like least?
Andrew E: Music at the moment is fine, I’ve no idea what everyone is complaining about.
You’ve got Queens of The Stone Age and Daft Punk putting out ace records. Miley Cyrus’ album Bangerz was okay. I didn’t care much for Taylor Swift’s album last year, but the singles she put out were pretty cool. Honestly, music has been pretty good in this decade so far with guys like Alt-J and Biffy Clyro making a lot of noise. Everything’s just improved writing-wise, and I think the amount of diversity we have in music now is terrific.
Dubstep’s breakthrough in 2010 had a pretty big impact on popular music as we know it. Suddenly every pop song has ridiculously heavy bass and huge drops. I’m not complaining. I’m not proud of it, but I have a Skrillex t-shirt from when I saw him live in 2012. It’s now my pyjama top.
I’m not a fan of Lorde, at all. I think in the 21st century, the only way to last longer than 15 minutes is to have a steady rise to fame. If you just come out of nowhere, like Lorde has, you’re going to fade away very quickly. Remember Gotye? “Somebody That I Used To Know” still gets a lot of airplay, but no one really seems fussed about him as an artist. Same goes for Robin Thicke; he’s going to fade out very quickly.
Alex A: The way producers aim to fit the market. If “pop” music is what’s popular at a certain point, it must be always changing. I think a lot of producers, in place of looking to make something new sounding instead make tracks to match the current trend, and to ultimately make a quick buck. We should be making something interesting and weird, otherwise tastes will never advance.
What’s the best piece of advice — musical or otherwise — you’ve received?
Andrew E: There’s nothing wrong with being simple, there’s plenty wrong with being boring. That really stuck with me when I began writing the album, tracks like “Something On Your Neck” and “Sheba” started out pretty dull and lacked any development. As soon as I added another beat, changed the dynamics or just made something louder or quieter the track just transformed.
What are you working on next?
Andrew E: We’ve already started work on writing a four-track EP. I want to have it out by summer, but I don’t know how Alex feels about that.