Interview: El Búho – Musical Postcards from a Parisian Lockdown (November 2021)

From the underwater soundscape of a mangrove forest in Mexico to the musical heights of Los Glaciares Park in Argentina, and from the lushness of beats of the Canadian Pacific Coast woodland to the melodies of a Polish one, El Búho has made room and sheltered nature into his remarkable brand-new album (out now via Shika Shika).

Natura Sonora is the imaginative soundtrack for nine “carbon-free” journeys to nine locations scattered around the world which create distinct and personal meanings for the British-born producer, DJ and music wanderer. From his Parisian “40 square metres”, the ‘owl’ (búho in Spanish) figuratively flew off for a sonic exploration that eventually calls for a more extensive and in-depth narration…

A few weeks ago, a few hours before his London set for the latest Love Carnival organised by the Movimientos crew, we asked him to do just that. We had indeed the pleasure to meet and sit down with Robin (his real name) to have an exhaustive discussion about the journey of Natura Sonora.

It might sonically portray nine breathtaking locations around the world, but Natura Sonora is a quintessential “lockdown album”, which came to light when El Búho was actually fantasizing about travelling to those far-off destinations from his house in Paris…

I wrote Natura Sonora while in lockdown. I was stuck at home in Paris in like, 40 square metres… So, it’s an album inspired by being in lockdown and trying to travel, not being able to do it, still imagining travelling to different places. The idea was indeed to make nine imaginary journeys and I chose nine places that I’d never visited and had always dreamt of visiting.

Places from all over the world, like Los Glaciares and Perito Moreno in Argentina, Sian Ka’an in Mexico, the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada, or an island called Socotra up in Yemen. I immersed myself into those places and wrote a piece of music like a postcard or an imagined journey to that place. I used an audio recording of the space of the place as the basis of the track and then just improvised over it. So, the foundation is the place itself.

Considering its premise, a project like Natura Sonora could only represent “something completely different” in relation with El Búho’s career and his discography. There’s indeed a clear movement from his Latin American-inspired past to embrace a more ambient-oriented and immersive perspective.

The album is a departure for me as well. When you’re a producer, you kind of ask yourself a lot of questions about what to do next. I don’t want to repeat the same music that I’ve been doing even if it works, because it’s boring. You have to push yourself, invent and do new things, I think.

Sometimes people might feel like… ‘Oh, we should stick to the Latin American flutes and all the other stuff’… But if you want to stay true to yourself as an artist, you have to keep evolving and challenging yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?

So, with this album, I wanted to invest more in the idea of natural sound as the source of inspiration and take it even further employing field recordings, not made by me, but there is a whole world of field recordists producing high quality audios. For example, in ‘Sian Ka’an’ there’s a recording made underwater in a mangrove forest. A guy went on a boat with an hydrophone [an underwater microphone] to record the mangroves…and that’s an amazing sound!

Wearing more technical lenses, also the inception and development of each track gave El Búho an opportunity to challenge himself and possibly remould his songwriting.

I chose the places first, those places I’ve always dreamt of visiting or had something that captured my imagination. Then I looked for the sounds of those places. Those were the basis for the project. I was like, all right…now I’m immersed in the place. I had the sound of the place, then I watched videos and pictures and those were the starting point to make a piece of music. It is nice to challenge yourself to find different ways to be creative. Instead of starting with the melody, it was more like ‘I have seven minutes of underwater mangrove sound…I wonder what happens if I just start to play…’

So, there was the original idea of the place, then the recorded sound and I put that recorded sound in Ableton. Then, I have a digital synth – which is the only synth I own – so, I made some drum kits from different samples and started to improvise with different ideas and melodies on top of them and let it play. I eventually followed the flow, and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s something interesting here… It sounds like a bit of a rhythm…’ So, I cut them off and pasted little bits from the original recordings and turned them into loops. But they were all kinds of different processes and there’s a lot of depth to the recordings too. 

…depth which is fully embodied by the main protagonist of the nine chapters of the album, nature.

I think nature adds a texture even if you don’t realise it. For me, you are kind of transported to the place because the music contains the texture which is natural, and you’re not used to hearing it in electronic music. Even if you might not realise what it is or where it’s from, there’s undoubtedly something else there… Especially in relation to the idea of the imagined journeys and being transported to a place. Sound is an amazing way to feel, remember and experience things and to travel.

The project was born out of this time. Actually, the idea was set in motion by a track that is not on the album. I was playing in the US and a friend of mine took me to snowshoeing, where you put those big shoes on to have a walk in the snow, which was something I’d never done before. I said, OK, fine, let’s do it! I had my little recorder with me, and I recorded the sound of the snow, and it was such a nice weekend. I spent the weekend with her and her family and it was just really beautiful. I took the recordings of the snow and put them into Ableton and made a piece out of it. That was the first time and I thought, oh, this is so nice…But then, I never did anything with that track, I never released it.

Then, when Covid hit I was kind of like… where am I going to find inspiration now? I’m not playing shows. I’m not travelling. I’m stuck at home. I was in a situation of not being able to make interesting music. Then I thought, what if I’m going to use the same idea? I would love to be travelling to places at the moment. Why don’t I just try to imagine if I would do that through music and it worked even if it was different. It was a good way to challenge myself. I also used the Digitone [FM synthesizer] way more than I had before. Actually, I bought it just before Covid and never used it since, so it was the very first time. So, in that way it’s a bit more electronic, I suppose.

If on one hand nature and the nine places inspired Natura Sonora in all its panoramic glory, the same can’t be said about the physical place where the album was recorded. 

I’d say that the place didn’t really matter. I recorded my previous album when I lived in Mexico and living in Mexico was a big inspiration for me. While Paris isn’t really the same.

For our scene, there is stuff happening, but they are all a bit disconnected. There are different parties, but there’s not really a scene like in some other places. I played a bunch of shows in Paris and it’s been OK, but I haven’t really found my dimension. Nothing compared to Mexico City or other places where I played. It’s a bit of a difficult city to play music in. But it depends, because if you go to the right places, like some of the alternative spaces, you can find the right crowd.

There’s an artist who is related to Paris, but from La Reunion, who’s called Eat My Butterfly. We’re going to release her album with our label, Shika Shika. She’s a jazz drummer and percussionist and she’s now started producing, singing and writing her own music, which is based on Reunion folk rooted in African slave music. Reunion is an island where there was no native population and it was colonised by the French in the 16th century and still today is a French Overseas Department and people speak French. So much so, back then, its entire population was formed by Indians and Africans, which sparked an amazing music tradition. And she’s making electronic versions of that in her album which is coming out later this year.

Talking about other artists and collaborations, Natura Sonora can count on three talented, as well as worlds’ apart, “special guests”.

The collaborations on the album worked pretty smoothly. I just sent the musicians the material I originally composed, so they could listen to it and send me back some ideas. Then, they went into the studio to record. It’s something really easy to do these days, despite lockdowns and travel restrictions.

With SHIRAN, we did a remix for a track on her latest album [titled ‘Yatim‘]. Actually, I wasn’t planning to do a collaboration, but the track that I made for Yemen [titled ‘Island of Socotra’], it was like… ‘Oh, this track is asking for something else’. And SHIRAN is from Yemen. But neither her nor her musicians had ever heard of the island. So, I sent them the track and they loved it. They eventually added not just the vocals, but also synth lines and some percussion. It was an easy collaboration because when you do a remix for another artist then it’s easy to keep on working together 

The second collaboration [‘Białowieżawas with Sutari, a Polish folk group. I’m a big fan of Polish folk music, especially the vocal tradition, which is pretty powerful. Sutari is a trio of three women who sing and play different traditional instruments. The song is inspired by Białowieża Forest, which is the biggest in Europe and one of the places on my list that I always dreamt of visiting. Sutari played at a festival to try to save the forest and were super involved in it, which made the track very meaningful for them as well. The tune itself is a traditional melody from the Amazon, which they put together with a traditional Polish marriage song changing the lyrics. So, instead of the original lyrics referring to marrying a husband, they changed it to be marrying the forest. That was another straightforward collaboration. I listened to the music for a while and thought that it was just perfect.

Finally, the last collaboration [‘Altai‘] is with Aeve Ribbons, a singer and pianist from Ireland who I met through Joaquín Cornejo. We got in touch because I was working on something and I needed a piano line for that to happen. So, she recorded a lot of piano lines and then she asked, ‘Would you like some vocals as well?’ I replied, ‘Yeah, why not?’ So, that one was a bit more… It just happened.

Such a suggestive and evocative album couldn’t be introduced with anything but an equally inspired artwork. Which, it goes without saying, has a story on its own…

The cover image has quite an incredible story. The artwork itself is by a guy called Thomas Sanchez, who’s a Cuban artist, and he’s…huge! His paintings go for like $250000! I’ve never heard of him before, so it was the designer for our label who sent me some of his works saying that they would be perfect for the album and the concept behind it. So, we said to each other, ‘What have we got to lose, let’s just send him a message…’ Initially, he didn’t reply, we didn’t hear back from him at all. But then, one day, he finally answered, telling us to speak to his manager. So, I was like, ‘mmh… not great, but let’s see what happens’. But then the manager said… ‘yeah, you can just use it, just take your pic and you can just use it, that’s totally fine.’ So, that’s the main artwork, which is quite unique because all of his works, which are these huge paintings of landscapes, have a small figure meditating in front of a vast and incredibly detailed natural setting and he really talks a lot about this idea of the duality of nature, what it used to be in the past and an imagined future where we could go back to a pristine nature, which doesn’t exist anymore, and meditating in front of it.

Then, there’s the booklet with photos of all of the places. We put them together, finding the photographers and asking them if we could use their shots. While, in the vinyl there are proper postcards of those places.

No wonder that an intense music adventure like Natura Sonora took some sort of creative “toll” on Robin. So, when it comes to his projects for the future, just like after every album, also after the publication of his most recent LP, he wants to move on looking in a different direction… 

After you release an album, then that’s the moment when you want to move on to something else. So, now that Natura Sonora is gone, I want to do something completely different. I have some ideas about doing something a bit more dancefloor oriented and taking another direction. When you focus for a long time on one thing then you want to do something completely different. I watched the guys from Village Cuts playing in Bristol yesterday, and they played some banging tunes, really bassy… And I said to myself, I want to do something like that, in that way.

While with the label, we’re doing another Birdsong project, A Guide to Birdsongs of West Africa, at the moment. We are kickstarting for that one, which is going to come out next year and we are trying to develop the NGO side of the label more than the traditional one. But yes, to be honest, we don’t really know what is going to happen with music next year…


Photo ©: Andrea Mantovani