Autorotation, an experimental electro-acoustic band from London, is set to release their latest EP Mapping The Darkroom on July 20th. Influenced by classical composers such as Debussy and Gorecky to pop icons such as Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins, they have a very unique sound all their own. The band originated in Toronto in 2001 with Robyn Sellers (vocals, ipad, dulcimer) and Igor Olejar (guitar, programming), who both lived there at the time, and went by the name Bleep. The band changed their name to Autorotation in 2005 and moved to England, feeling that Toronto had no scene or interest in live electronic music. After their move, the band released their albums Everything, Everything in 2009 and Jesus Bolts in 2011 and in 2013, Laura Lee Tanner (percussion, vocals, MIDI controller) joined the band, helping to expand the band’s sound and sphere. Sellers, Olejar and Tanner organized the wildly popular “Is It All Black and White” independent music and arts festival from 2014 through 2016, which combined electronic, classical and acoustic artists who were accompanied by stunning visuals. The band also does voice over work and are the hosts of their own online radio show. Staff contributor Emily May spoke recently to the band via email discussing a variety of topics including the new album, performing with the English Chamber Choir for Gladiator Live in London and their monthly radio podcast.
You create compelling and unique live performances. What goes into a live performance for the band and do you do anything special to prepare?
Igor: All three of us are multi-instrumentalists and are interested in multi-media. Our shows often involve synced visuals and heavy use of technology, alongside more traditional instruments that we switch between. If possible, we always go to the venue before a show and decide what we’re going to do according to the PA system, stage shape and whether the audiences will be sitting down or itching to dance. We also often have special guests for a song or the entire set – it just makes every show special and more fun.
Robyn and Igor- You both lived in and started the band in Toronto, later moving to London where you evolved your sound to be more chaotic and dark. You’ve mentioned that the move was liberating in that it allowed you to stop thinking about “making it” and focus more on finding your style and making music that you wanted hear. How do you think your music has evolved over the years?
Robyn: As an artist, you’re always a reflection of your environment. London is much more busy and chaotic than Toronto, so that probably appears in the music that we write. As for the darkness, the general future looks gloomier than ever before. Since Brexit, which is dividing the nation on some hard lines, the feeling of many artists is that of forced isolation and the diminishing value of art.
We used to be very political (and generally more optimistic) when we started. However, over the years, the songs have become more personal. We just don’t want to join the political debate as there is none . Politics is full of misinformation and manipulation (maybe it’s always been like that), especially now with the ease in which social media can mislead. On the positive side, the more personal songs are maybe more relatable.
Robyn- I read that you run your own business on the side in London tuning and repairing pianos. What sparked your love for the piano and led you to pursue your studies in tuning and repair? You’ve learned from those at Broadwood and Sons, Finchcocks, Martin Piano Services and Steinway and Sons, as well as undergoing a day of training at The Bluthner Piano Centre. What has it been like to learn from so many amazing people?
Robyn: I’ve played the piano since the age of seven. Well, to be honest, I played the edge of the kitchen table. My family made the decision that I probably needed a piano to put all of us out of our misery, which is pretty amazing for a non-musical family with a kid that was, more or less, mute until the piano arrived. Pianos are my refuge, but when I went to college, I studied electronic musical instruments, recording and sound production, because I thought that was the future and that sexism in the music industry didn’t exist! – Oh, dear. My then tutors insisted that I should do the piano tuning course, because I spent a lot of spare time playing all the old wrecks in the college. Only 15 years later, I decided that my tutors were right and sought out people in the industry, because by then, that college (London College of Furniture) had shut down. Training is ongoing. I’m an “associate” of the Piano Tuners Association and they keep everyone to a certain standard and updated with any information. There are a lot of great technicians, tuners, piano hirers, movers, suppliers, who all have invaluable knowledge that sadly isn’t available in any but one college in Newark, and that’s also now a degree course – something that always spells the end of an institution as piano tuning is a skill not a theory.
What was the inspiration behind your 360-degree video last year of your single “Get Out” that was shown from the audience’s perspective?
Igor: That one video on our Facebook page is one of four virtual reality videos filmed from four perspectives: the audience, the drummer, the guitarist and the vocalist. They can all be found (and watched with VR goggles) on our YouTube channel.
I met Mahtab and Luigi from VRSUS at a music technology meetup in London, where we talked about the lack of live music virtual reality products. So, we applied for a grant from the Arts Council of England and received it, which funded the production.
The premise was to use the virtual reality technology to show what it’s like to perform as an underground band in a small East London venue – hence the four perspectives mentioned above. The song itself needed to be short and energetic because VR is really a visual medium and the music is almost secondary. Lyrically, it’s about the frustration of living in such a polarized society where plain lies and deception rule how we live our day-to-day lives.
Bonus fake internet points to anyone who identifies who’s lyrics we referenced in the chorus!
You all have mentioned how you love to collaborate with other artists, especially when you get to work outside of your comfort zone, having worked recently with dark folk band Sol Invictus. What would you consider to be outside of your comfort zone? How often do you collaborate with other bands/artists and what have some of your favorite collaborations been? Are there and bands/artists you are hoping to collaborate with in the future?
Robyn: out of my comfort zone? Being involved with a punk band! Actually, Igor was drumming for them, and now Laura has taken over. I’m still their road manager.
Seriously, though, we all like a challenge and like to stretch our musical abilities to any genre that we’re not familiar with. Hence the collaboration with the dark folk masters, Sol Invictus. I threw myself into the deep end and choralized (new word!) four songs for Mr. Wakeford’s latest creation, Necropolis. It took less time then I expected (imagine an evil laugh here).
So, we’ve collaborated with artists from around the world, either writing or performing, but one of the most challenging and rewarding was a collaboration with the Romanian electro-acoustic experimental duo, Makunouchi Bento, on their project “Flika”.
We would love to collaborate with people we’ve admired over the years, but right now, we’d really like to do a film score for a great script. Something similar to Thomas Newman (my favourite), but we’ll settle for Hans Zimmer 🙂
You do a monthly podcast on the radio on which you discuss and play different genres of music. How did the podcast begin and how do you decide the theme/genre for each show?
Robyn: London’s KtoK Radio was the mother of “Radio Does Nothing For Me” show, the title of which is the first line of our song “Mothers”! For a while, Igor was the studio manager at the station and an opportunity presented itself. Originally, we would chose one of our songs and select all the songs that influenced the writing of our piece. More recently, it’s been about different genres that we individually listen to. This is proving to be hard work when you know nothing about them. But, it’s all about discovery – as radio should be.
Autorotation organized a free Electronic Music festival with choir a few years ago in London called Is It All Black and White Festival. What prompted you to start the festival and what kind of reaction did it receive from the London community? What were some highlights from the festival and is it something you can see yourselves doing again in the future?
Robyn:The discovery of a local de-consecrated chapel prompted all of our choral adventures. I had dabbled with choral writing, but if you don’t have a choir, how do you know if those sketches are working? Conductors of the first few choirs I sang in were resistant to trying them out, so when we stumbled upon this chapel (Dilston Grove), and stamped our feet, clicked our fingers and proclaimed it would be a great reverberant space for a choir, the chapel caretaker overheard us and made some “I’m interested” noises. We then just had the job of getting funding from the Arts Council of England, writing choral compositions, inviting other composers, re-writing their work for the choir and then everything else that makes an event, like hiring a PA system, catering, insurance, invitation, advertising and hosting… Three years in a row nearly killed us and, frankly, took the energy away from Autorotation, which is our main focus and our baby.
There were many good moments, but the real highlight is non-musical. Our friend and neighbour, Jason, employed his brilliant hosting and catering skills to welcome every musician and chorister, every member of the public.
Would we do it again? Maybe in a different format. This is something we really need to think about seriously.
Robyn and Laura- you both sang at Gladiator Live in concert in the alto section of the English Chamber Choir. How did you become involved with the event and what was that experience like for the both of you? Robyn-you also sang solo parts in a duet with Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance! What was that like for you and what kind of influence has Dead Can Dance been on Autorotation?
Robyn: I’m a new member of English Chamber Choir which gets asked to perform at the Royal Albert Hall regularly as they’re basically an amateur choir with professional voices. When they fell short of voices needed to fill such a big venue, I asked Laura and another member of our choir (Green Army Choir), Caspar Gordon, to join me. I also asked members of other choirs I’ve previously been part of, here in London. – Bit of a Choir Slut!
Singing with Lisa Gerrard was absolutely blinkin’ AMAZING. Bucket list ticked!! I think my voice was pretty much nurtured by Liz Frazer and Lisa Gerrard – both 4AD signees and to actually compliment & duet with one of them is just an incredibly affirming experience. One I’ll never forget. Plus the conductor was pretty complimentary – something I didn’t expect.
Laura: I totally underestimated what a profound experience it would be for me to sing alongside Robyn and the English Chamber Choir at the Royal Albert Hall. The Gladiator soundtrack is stunning and, as a percussionist and former trombonist, I was fascinated to be seated behind the 7 percussionists of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with all their various ‘toys’ and the impressive horn section. I was also impressed with the conductor and the space in general. It is quite something to be in front of that many people especially when they are reacting emotionally to the performance. The music was looping round my head for days after the event, as I know it was for Robyn also!
The band, aside from beings fans of electronic, experimental, metal and classical music, love the sound of a big and complicated choir. Robyn, you have sung in some of London’s best choirs and Laura, you conducted a choir when you were at University. What sparked both of your love for choir? Robyn-What have some of your most memorable experiences been with singing in choirs? What can you tell me about the Green Army Choir that you are all three a part of?
Robyn: I’m not sure I ever even realised I liked choral music or choirs. I’ve just always written vocals in more than one part. I hadn’t been in a serious choir until we moved to London and it wasn’t easy, auditioning for City of London choir. There were a lot of horrified faces when a woman with dreadlocks appeared amongst the ranks of incredibly well musically trained voices. The conductor of that choir actually said that he couldn’t deny me as I was obviously incredibly musical despite my obvious inexperience. I didn’t know what voice parts were or how to classify my own, I just sat down on an available chair and it turned out to be the Alto section which I fell in love with as harmony is my thing, as much as the melody.
Easily, singing with Lisa Gerrard, conducted by Justin Freer and right beside my singing companion, support and best buddy, Laura will always be THE most memorable experience. I think just singing amongst voices, as any choir member will tell you, is very up-lifting. Maybe the time I choked, singing my favourite Christmas time choral piece, O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, because it’s so beautiful, will also be a permanent memory. Luckily the tenor I was stood beside didn’t notice and even mentioned later that he’d never heard someone sing it with such affection.
Green Army Choir is the name we give to the volunteers/conscripts we put together whenever we have a new piece to record or a show to put on, of our own choral work or others’ in some cases. The name comes from a track on our album Everything is Everything – which you should take a listen to if you like anything by Autorotation. – Quick plug 😉
Laura: Although I was in the university choir I didn’t actually conduct one until much later, and this was generally in small groups in schools and the community. I was a vocal coach in the drama department of one college and enjoying playing with parts and harmony, which then extended into my experience in the mental health and community groups I had the privilege to lead later. I have always loved sacred and devotional music and this has led to my appreciation of the choral music of this style. I have also written some of my own, and one of my most memorable moments was having one of these performed at Dilston Grove by ‘The Green Army Choir’ for the festival ‘Is It All Black & White?’ organized and hosted by Autorotation.
Robyn- How did you get involved with voice-over work and what have some of your more memorable jobs been? What do you love about doing voice-overs?
Robyn: There are various online platforms we use for voiceover work. We have recording equipment and I have one of those “BBC posh voice, no money” kinds of accent. Igor’s got the brains, I’ve got the voice, let’s make some money – as The Pet Shop Boys didn’t say.
I’ve done some powerfully boring text manuals that have had me fighting drooping eyelids, and some illuminating sex manuals that have, shall we say, broadened my horizons. I can do quite a few accents, but many times you just have to sound enthusiastic, which is a skill in itself when you’re talking about the next most useless invention or product.
Robyn- You recently did some choral work for Rick Wakeman from the band YES! How did that opportunity arise and what was it like working with Wakeman?
Robyn: First thing, it wasn’t for Yes. Rick is a long-time friend and patron of English Chamber Choir and always gets the choir to record and perform with him in London. We generally work on Rick’s own releases and recently recorded for his Piano Odyssey, which is a follow-up to his best selling Piano Portraits album. I also happen to know him through a mutual friend and piano tuner, Andrew Giller, who owns the studio where Rick recorded Piano Portraits. The studio houses a bunch of fantastic Steinways, all hand picked and maintained by Andrew. Rick and I can’t keep our hands off those pianos as those instruments just demand to work with you when you’re composing or arranging. What’s Rick like? He’s lovely – very down to earth for such mega star. His wife, Rachel, grew up in the same town as me, in Dorset, so I tend to gossip with her when she’s around.
You will be releasing your upcoming EP Mapping The Dark Room on July 20th. What was the writing and recording process like for the album and what can you tell me about the physical voice + piano songbook that you are hoping to make to accompany the EP? You will also be a part of the upcoming Music 2 Heal The Earth compilation. What is it like for you all to be a part of such an amazing project?
Igor: Most of the songs start as piano or acoustic guitar ideas. We then take these ideas into our project studio where we develop them further, recording various instruments and the vocals. This time, we asked Howard Merlin Wulkan to help us with the production. He also mixed the songs and produced the final masters.
The piano + voice song book is just an idea, at this stage. The EP is being released digitally only, but people do want to own something tangible. We’ll see whether there’s a need for a physical song book, although it would be interesting to produce it – something we haven’t done before.
Music 2 Heal The Earth is the reason that we met with Howard in the first place. Environmentalism is a recurring theme in our songs and we were really happy to be asked to contribute a piece to the compilation. We’re anxiously waiting for the release and all the good things that will happen as the result.
The band tweeted about having lots of ideas and plans for the future. What’s next for the band?
Igor: We always have hundreds of ideas in our heads – it doesn’t mean they will all materialize. But, apart from writing new music as Autorotation, we’re exploring individual side projects which include a folk album about living on a canal boat, more choral compositions and events, and mixing the art of live computer coding with the members of London’s undergoing music community. We’ll see what happens.
You can stay up-to-date with the band, check out their videos and stream and buy their music via the following links: