Outside of the Circle They Exist In
An Interview with Bulkhead
Photo: Andrew Graham
Techno troopers Bulkhead have the pleasure of being interviewed by Profet's Chief Ideologue Filip Lindström, in a Profet piece about monumental masterpieces, record breaking snow storms and the unmistakable sound of friendship.
When I speak to Toronto techno marvel duo Bulkhead over the phone, I almost lose my already limited ability to speak English. Is it because I’m star struck? May very well be, because Patrik Benjamin and his band mate Pop District has just released one of the best records I’ve heard since I first encountered W.A.S.P’s self-titled debut album. Bulkhead’s »Aft Pressure« is a masterpiece. If you’re a first time Profet reader, don’t believe that I’m one of those writers who dub every record I hear a masterpiece just because of the mental lack of other words to use in description of a body of work. Though I spit on myself and describe my knowledge of the English language as narrow (solely for comedic effect) I am certain of my ability to express admiration not only in superlatives.
I don’t play this card often. I don’t call albums masterpieces, because I am a masterpiece myself. Every masterpiece has its flaws, and in order to find balance and an imitation of peace, my mind needs to pick mine out and display them. You see, dearest reader, if I wouldn’t view myself as a masterpiece, no one else would, but if I wouldn’t acknowledge my weaknesses, someone else would most definitely do. The only standards I set and live after are my own, and therefore what passes as a masterpiece in my book is something far beyond the ordinary.
Two monumental high points, out of many, on »Aft Pressure« are »Whiplash« and »In Voice 17«. I listen to »Whiplash« for the millionth time at a Burger King in Stockholm at 4 in the morning, and I feel sorry for the inebriated creatures of the night around me. They don’t experience what I am hearing. I wonder what kind of lives they lead, looking at them and seeing souls stuck in momentary bliss, happily ignorant of a world they have never seen. They do not experience what I’m hearing, and if they would I don’t think they would understand it like I do. »Whiplash« is sublime techno, hard hitting and raw but technically and musically perfected. There are no vocals, but the organic hi-hat (which either has to have been recorded live or extremely skillfully sampled) plays the main part. Its correspondence with the bass line and the subtly changing snare makes up the song’s main narrative, offering something for the dance floor as well as for the techno head who enjoys to think every once in a while.
»In Voice 17« is a part of an ongoing series of tracks that has spanned all of Bulkhead’s career. On »Aft Pressure« there are six chapters of the »In Voice« saga, and number 17 is by far the greatest of them all. Its beat sounds like a set of child’s teeth banging against a radiator, rattling away under a heavy synthesizer riff so tweaked that it resembles a distant ship horn. Two minutes and three seconds into the song, the riff twists for a few seconds, and every time I hear it I feel my internal organs changing places. On top of everything you hear a delicate flickering of echoing keys, providing a major counterpart to the ship horn’s minor. All in all, »In Voice 17« would make a terrific doom metal song, with its slow pace and gut wrenching hook. If I would get one last wish, it would be for Arkansas doomers Pallbearer to hammer away on an »In Voice 17« cover. Please listen to their smasher »Worlds Apart« and tell me that they wouldn’t take good care of Bulkhead’s ship horn riff.
»No one wants to see us«
- Patrik Benjamin
At the time I talk to Pop District and Patrik Benjamin, it’s not 4 in the morning and I’m not sitting in a Burger King wondering how people who are not me can manage to go through with their lives. It’s an early May evening at the height of one of Sweden’s first tastes of global warming, and I let Patrik (who introduces himself as »Andrew« for some reason) and Pop know of my liking for »Whiplash«. They are flattered and say that it’s one of their favorites as well. Patrik/Andrew claims there’s not much to it, and says:
- You don’t need a lot to make a song, so sometimes less is more.
»Whiplash« can be interpreted as a »less is more« kind of track, because of its straight forwardness. To me, there’s a great deal of things going on in Patrik and Pop’s hard-hitting hit, if you listen closely to the details.
Regarding personal taste in music, Patrik is the one member of the group whose preferences mostly resemble mine. Both me and Patrik enjoy electronic music that is hard, fast and unforgiving. Pop District, on the other hand, comes from a down tempo IDM environment, which balances out Patrik’s need for speed in their collective efforts. In any good band, the members complete each other, and you can hear how their individual contributions intertwine. Rather than a duo, Bulkhead is a band, with a sound that mirrors their friendship.
- It’s funny that you mention that we’re similar to a band, Patrik reflects. There has been a lot of times in Toronto where we weren’t getting gigs in night clubs, but we were getting gigs in live venues, opening for bands like Severed Heads or Atari Teenage Riot.
- We were never treated as a DJ act, says Pop. Maybe it’s the sound of the music, I don’t know why. The music lends itself well to the people we were playing with, like Severed heads which was an honor. It’s a different kind of audience, as you know, than people who go dance to a DJ.
- More people that listen, Patrik perceives.
- People that are very tolerant and will try it out, Pop elaborates. These audiences would increasingly get into it as we played each song.
- Do you think that this works for you because people really need to get to know your stuff to appreciate it? I ask the Bulkhead boys.
- Maybe to some degree, Pop ponders. We like to think that we have a bit of a different sound. It can be a bit abrasive and not work in a DJ set type of setting.
I think Bulkhead is a bit of a double nature, a group that you can either shallowly or deeply enjoy. For the body, a song like »Whiplash« kicks in faster than a designer drug, but for the mind the same song takes time to sink in. When it does though, your first reaction will be a shadow in comparison.
The cover of »Aft Pressure«
In a live setting, Bulkhead performs on synthesizers with pedals along with their own recorded tracks, tweaking them and adding new dimensions. Pop and Patrik aren’t entirely sure that it counts as »live«, but I believe that’s more than you can ask of many other electronic producers. My feeling of Bulkhead being a band rather than two dudes making tracks together resonates in Pop’s next saying:
- Personally, my taste is very diverse. I listen to techno music sometimes, but I think we both have a very diverse array of tastes when it comes to music, which I think ends up showing in our music as well. We kind of see ourselves more as a punk group than a techno group.
- It’s sort of unconventional too, Patrik says. It’s not a typical house or techno beat that sounds really replaceable. There’s a lot of experimentation and we don’t really care if it would fit with another DJ playing it.
Here I return to the eternal topic of contextualizing one’s work. When Patrik chooses to define Bulkhead through its opposites, I naturally think of how I often times have said that Profet is different from other music magazines that in my opinion offer less qualitative material. I myself know in what way Profet is special, like how any mother sees her child as the most extraordinary in the world, but I can’t put in words the exact difference. Is there substance in something that cannot be articulated? Is a body of work really unique if its uniqueness can only be explained by the lack of the same in its counterparts?
My lengthy contemplations come down to a straight forward question for Pop and Patrik.
- Do you feel unconventional, like other acts in Toronto see you as unconventional compared to them?
- Toronto has a lot of different scenes and we have a lot of friends and allies in different communities, Patrik says. But we are our own.
Pop gives another angle to Bulkhead’s position in Toronto’s music life.
- We don’t really fit into a scene per se, and I think they probably look at us to some degree as pretty unconventional, or maybe outside of the circle they exist in.
- We have the freedom to do whatever we want, Patrik concludes.
Bulkhead. Photo: Andrew Graham
Pop and Patrik found each other for a reason, I believe. I wish once again to underline the connection between their sound and their friendship, as their friendship can count as the third member of the band separate from the two individuals.
- We were friends for years through the Toronto scene, Pop says. I lived in Ottawa when we first started to get to know each other, then I moved to Toronto in 2010 and we were friends from then on. We eventually started messing around in the studio together, because we had both been releasing music on or own for a while.
- I read somewhere that you locked yourself in the studio, is that how you made this particular album as well? I ask Pop and Patrik.
- The way that it started was that we lived on opposite sides of the city, Patrik recalls. We were kind of bored, and didn’t have that much money.
- We had a lot of free time, Pop pops in.
- We had a lot of free time, Patrik concurs and continues: When I went to see his new place it took me forever to get there, so I said »Next time I come here I’ll bring some gear so we can at least jam«.
- Then we got hit by a crazy snow storm in 2015, which ended up being the worst snow storm on record for Toronto, says Pop. It did become a little foot note in the mini bio of what Bulkhead is. We got snowed in, and we made one track, then we just kept on making more. That led to the initial cassette release in 2016 on Far Away Tapes, a cassette label in Los Angeles. It fell into the right hands.
Mike Simonetti, who made the first release on Far Away Tapes, got a hold of Bulkhead’s music, and so Patrik and Pop got signed to Simonetti’s label 2MR. Last year, 2MR put out Bulkhead’s »Lunchtruck EP«, featuring parts of their cassette on Far Away Tapes. Patrik reminisces about one of the EP tracks in particular.
- »Luis Luvs His Nail Gun« was the very first song that we did together, the very first time I went to Pop’s house and brought gear. We started it and finished it in one day, and then I said »Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow« because I wasn’t really doing much. The second song we did, on the second day, was »Lunch Truck«, so the two first tracks we did ended up on the record.
- We knew clearly something was working, Pop claims. Then we did that whole album in a matter of a couple of weeks.
Friends working together either works out flawlessly, or it fails terribly. Bulkhead is an example of the former. Friendship, talent and snow storms often times add up to outstanding productivity, and Bulkhead is no exception. The boys have heaps of unreleased tracks, from which they pick and choose for new releases. What matters is what fits together. The series of tracks entitled »In Voice« originally was meant as segue ways between Bulkhead’s musical edges – Patrik’s hard-hitting and Pop’s ambient. What was intended to be interludes turned out to be a vital ingredient in what Bulkhead’s sound has become, and as said »In Voice 17« is one of their brightest moments.
On »Aft Pressure«, the boys have involved vocalists on two tracks, Joel Eel on »Route Sixteen« and Louisahhh on »Shake These Chains to Earth Like Dew«. Patrik says he has read my interview with Louisahhh, entitled »In Lack Thereof, Hated and Loathed« , and I am overwhelmed by hearing so. Whenever I get some form of acknowledgement for my writing, from anyone, I find myself back in the sense of purpose that I sometimes feel so far away from. Just by hearing that Patrik Benjamin, one of two masterminds behind the brilliant Bulkhead, even knows that Profet exists sends my mind into the lyrics of a song I usually turn to when I’m at my worst, The Growlers’ »Going Gets Tough«, where Brook Nielsen sings »Still always remembering/When the going gets tough/That the labor of our love/Will reward us soon enough«.
Louisahhh. Photo: Marilyn Clark
But, when I think about it, why is it so overwhelming that a Toronto techno titan has read one of my pieces when I’ve managed to hear his music on the other side of the globe? I see no difference between Bulkhead’s work and mine, it should get equal worldwide recognition.
Patrik and Pop has been thinking about the making of a video for »Shake These Chains to Earth Like Dew«, and I ask them whether or not they have planned to be in it themselves.
- I don’t think we’ll be in it, Pop says to Patrik’s amuse. We like to be behind the curtain. You might have seen some of our very limited imagery. For the initial press photo we actually went out in the snow and took a picture of our shadows. I think we’re going to leave the spot light for Louisahhh. She’s got such a striking, beautiful look and she’s so photogenic.
- We would ruin the video, no one wants to see us, Patrik laughs.
And so, the interview comes to an end. What have we learned today, kids? Well, first and foremost, we now know that the Bulkhead boys can turn a hell of techno hi-hat and that they aren’t extremely comfortable with public appearances. But, most importantly, we’ve established that existing outside of a circle is more rewarding than anything else.