Sonic adventures in the asteroid belt

Text by Emily Bick

Tank _vol 7issue 227

Portrait by Samntha Casolari 

Recording studios are schizophrenic places: on the mixing-desk side is sterile calm and the precision equipment of the laboratory; on the other side of the glass, the performer’s raucous exuberance. There is something of this duality in Bachelorette, the recording project of New Zealand-born Annabel Alpers, who combines static drones and ghostly science-programme whooshes with a gleeful voice that fights to keep calm.

“I’ve always had a fondness for diagrams and old science books,” Alpers says, “and pictures from the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps that visual appreciation has gone into the music. I remember when I was recording Isolation Loops [her previous album] I had this idea that I would make a record that sounded like a science textbook.” Her new, self-titled album continues this theme; tracks like “Polarity Party” features synth swirls like galaxies and lines about “opposition and attraction like magnets in oscillation”. But Alpers’ fascination with the scientific never overshadows the emotional density of her work. “Grow Old with Me”, another new track, expertly marries the two, describing ageing and love in the clinical terms of biology.

There is, of course, a lineage of cosmic female pioneers of electronic music, from Daphne Oram, a co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to Delia Derbyshire, perhaps its most famous alumna. Alpers’ songs about collapsing stars and waveforms call to mind Stereolab’s “Super Falling Star”, or Kate Bush singing about pi. “When I think about the music that was around when I was a kid, bands like Duran Duran were very androgynous-looking,” Alpers remembers. “They were into wearing make-up and having their hair done, and it was because they wanted to appeal to girls. There’s never that posturing that happens in rock music – men with guitars – so perhaps growing up with the image of that music being more androgynous has made it seem more possible for women to make it. Kraftwerk were pretty androgynous – they weren’t trying to be macho.”

Bachelorette, like Alpers’ previous work, draws on the playfulness of psychedelia, the drones and studio trickery of the later Beatles albums, and Syd Barrett’s skewed and sinister whimsy; “Digital Brain” bops around like a twinkly romp through the asteroid belt on a space hopper. To record it, Alpers holed up in a guest house in the woods of Virginia for two months. For her, recording is a process of extreme concentration: she trips down the rabbit hole before emerging on the other side to mix, tour and rejoin the everyday world.

“I take a sound engineer with me, so he can mix the different things that I’m doing live,” she explains. “I have about eight different outputs for different instruments that are sent to the mixing desk. It almost becomes like a dance, or playing this 3D instrument – it’s a performance in itself.” For the new record, she’s used live drums, so her drummer will also join her on tour. But mostly, Bachelorette is a one-woman show.

So why a band name like that, one that calls to mind Björk at best and reality dating shows at worst? “I had an image of a girl who was like one of the bachelors from a 1960s magazine like Playboy,who really appreciated the fine things in life,” she says. “Listening to hi-fi stereos and drinking martinis and living in a sort of space-age bachelor pad. I used to enjoy looking at the advertising in those magazines because they would have the latest reel-to-reel two-track machines.” §