Dijf Sanders: putting craftsmanship back into music production

Pictures by Fotopia

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The multi-instrumentalist’s hands-on approach to field recordings and music makes his new album Puja another must-listen.

Versatility is a word often misused. If there’s one person for whom this term does apply, it is Dijf Sanders. He's not only a gifted multi-instrumentalist, he's an in-demand producer and mixer for other musicians too. Most people probably know him from his widely acclaimed solo albums, such as ‘Moonlit Planetarium’ (2016) or ‘Java' (2017). Like no other, he succeeds in creating his own sound universe, mixing a broad spectrum of styles - from psychedelic exotica to jazzy electronics. On his latest album ‘Puja’ that's no different.

For your previous record, Java, you travelled to Indonesia. For this record, you visited Nepal. Are you someone who just loves to travel? Or are you looking for inspiration by immersing yourself in another culture?

“Inspiration is the main reason why I visit these countries. I’m looking for sounds I cannot find at home. Field recording has almost become impossible in Belgium unless you want to record busses, trams and cars. Additionally, the way music is experienced is completely different over there. Over here, music is an individual thing; either you practice it on your own, or you perform in front of an audience. In Nepal, music is all around in the streets; it's part of daily communal life".

Why did you choose Nepal specifically?

“The original idea was to visit China, although that turned out to be too difficult because I didn’t have enough time. As I tend to travel only for two or three weeks, it’s crucial to find a guide who's able to take me directly to the right places and the right people. China is incredibly vast, and sinologists (people who study the Chinese cultures and languages, ed.) told me it isn't very easy to go off the grid there. As censorship reigns, true freedom of expression is rare in China. Musicians and concerts often serve a purpose defined by the state. Tibet was another option, but that turned out to be even harder to set up. Finally, I contacted the ethnomusicologist Bernard Kleikamp who runs PAN Recordings, with field recordings from all over the world. He showed me the way and introduced me to local musicians”.

When I'm on location, I just collect sounds. Afterwards, my goal is to recreate the vibe as true as possible.

How do you act on the spot? You only record or you start composing songs there as well?

"When I'm over there, I just collect sounds. My goal thereby is to recreate the vibe as true as possible. During the trip, I try not to think about what it could become later. Sometimes I can't avoid it, because some things sound so incredibly good or so inspirational. But generally speaking, I only start grazing in my recordings once I’m on the way home, and that's when the first ideas for certain tracks come up. Taken together, I have a library of three to four hours of field recordings from Nepal, which isn’t much, compared to what I brought back from Indonesia”.

How do you proceed once you’re back home? Are the field recordings your building blocks upon which you further build your tracks?

“I scroll through my library, and when I hear something that triggers me, I start cutting and pasting, dissecting rhythms, etc. If all goes well, I work on it right away. If I make little or no progression at all, I save it as it is, and I proceed to the next recording. I continue to work this way until I have finished my entire library. It’s a very fragmented approach because I work on the whole album at the same time.

“After this first phase of editing, I invite my band to improvise on the loops I made in the studio: Simon Segers on drums, Mattias De Craene on sax, flutes and shawms (a wooden conical bore, ed.) and Nicolas Mortelmans on sitar. Once these improvisation sessions are recorded, I begin to edit and process them into something new. In the end, I finished about 24 tracks, half of which made it to the album”.

“I first wanted to make this a techno record, but after hearing the samples, I had to cancel that plan. There are so many different influences present, like folk music, traditional chants and mantra's, that it would be a waste to limit the record to just one genre. The mantras with chanting monks always ended up being heavy tracks. That was nice, but I didn't want this album to sound overly heavy, so I started mixing it up with airier stuff. When I asked my management to listen, they told me something was off; it didn’t really fit in with the rest of my catalogue. They were right, and so I started all over again, making a second album in two months. It was a stressful period, but I'm happy with the final result”.

I never have the feeling that a track is 'finished'. It's finished when I become tired of it, or when time is up.

In an earlier interview, you said you love to disassemble a new instrument and tweak it so that you can make new sounds with it. Which instruments did you give a makeover for this album?

“I don't play any instrument in a polished or virtuosic way. Rather, I want to taste the sound of an instrument without getting deep into it. I try to create something that reproduces the sound of the instrument on my own terms. This album features many shawm and cymbal sounds that don’t really come from their original source. Furthermore, I exploited a local medicinal drum; I transformed this instrument used for sound therapy into an 808 snare drum that doesn't sound relaxed at all anymore (laughs)”.

When do you consider a track as 'finished'?

“When I become tired of it, or simply when time is up. I never have the feeling that a track is finished. My library is full of almost finished music. I'll likely release another album with these tracks in the coming year. These tracks aren't inferior to the ones on 'Puja', they just didn't fit the album, or I was just tired of working on them”.

You're also known as a prolific producer for other bands; Compro Oro's latest album, Suburban Exotica, was one of your latest achievements. How important is it for you to alternate between making your own music and producing for other people?

“I cannot make a living from my records. Consider my albums as business cards within the music scene. Other musicians ask me to mix or produce their album or to build their live sets, which is my main source of income. In one way or another, I'm glad I’m not completely dependent on my music, which would essentially mean I would have to make it more accessible for a wider audience. In the past, this proved to be poisoned chalice, and it created a lot of unwanted pressure”.

I'm glad I’m not completely financially dependent on my music, which would essentially mean I would have to make it more accessible for a wider audience.

“When we had released two successful singles with Teddiedrum (a band Sanders was formerly part of, ed.) back in the days, everybody expected us to maintain that success. We were being forced in a direction we didn't necessarily aim for. This curbed our creativity. Whereas now, I do what I like, and my music gets appreciation from a certain piece of the music scene. In turn, I get some extra income by working for these other artists, so it’s a win-win situation”.

What is in the pipeline for the coming months?

“Up first, my band and I are rehearsing for our upcoming album tour. As I said, I’m planning to release a few more albums in the coming months. Last year, I composed and performed the soundtrack for Wim Vandekeybus' adaptation of 'Die Bakchen', the classic Greek tragedy of Euripides. I’m thinking about making a compilation of that soundtrack. I also feel like making a straightforward synth-pop record. Besides that, I will continue doing shows with Gameboyz II Men, my playful side project with Micha Volders in which we perform live with old Game Boys; we might even release a single soon. Other things on the wish list include a guitar record, a hip hop record, and – like I said already – a compilation of the music that didn’t make the cut on 'Puja'. Finally, I would love to go to Eritrea for new field recordings. A film director asked me to make a soundtrack for his project on the spot. It looks very promising, but first, we have to collect funds for this project”.