25 years after first crossing musical paths, Steve Shannon and Cillian McDonnell are bringing out their sonic world-building debut release under the Mount Alaska moniker.
The two clearest routes to changing your perspective are elevation or experience. Mount Alaska’s debut LP Wave Atlas: Season One is far from wanting with regards to a unique viewpoint, as reflected in the eight shimmering, evocative, dynamic transmissions that make up the LP, not to mention the unorthodox approach that characterised their conception. So, considering that, based on a cursory googling, the frosty peak that furnished the Dublin duo with their moniker appears to be a fiction, it stands to reason that it’s experience rather than altitude that has afforded Stephen Shannon and Cillian McDonnell with their uncommon angle on things. The duo first crossed paths in 1994 and quickly bonded over a shared love of dance and electronic music. Records were bought, shared, DJ’d and dissected together for a decade before Shannon and McDonnell began working together in earnest, as Shannon extended McDonnell the invitation to join experimental indie-tronic outfit Halfset – then Shannon’s principle avenue for releasing music.
“I came to Halfset late,” begins McDonnell. “Steve invited me to play live, it was after the band had finished a record. I’m not the greatest drummer in the world so I was wondering why he even asked me. I came to realise that it was more about the fact that I had a good understanding and grounding in electronic music and I knew through being friends that was really important for him; that a drummer understood what they were playing, understood the history, the reference points, could talk the language of electronic music.”
With the dissolution of Halfset, the members went their separate ways. Though, the closing of one chapter read as an opportunity for McDonnell and Shannon to lean full bore into the synthetic music that had long soundtracked their friendship.
“We never stopped,” begins Shannon, whose day-job finds him involved in extensive soundtracking and film-scoring work from his home studio. “When Halfset finished, we carried on meeting up a couple of times a week to make music. We were just trying things out and messing around with a couple of new ideas. We had this thing that we really wanted to do something that was absolutely our own. So, even though we were enjoying ourselves and happy with what we were doing, we always felt that we wanted to push it a bit further and make something that we were really proud of. Because of that thinking, we rejected a lot of things before we got around to releasing anything.”
“We went through various iterations of a sound and a lot of it was learning and a lot of it was talking and experimenting,” adds McDonnell. “I remember that we eventually hit a point where Steve was like ‘we need to fucking do this…’ That would have been maybe 2016.”
“And that was still two years before we got anything out!” laughs Shannon.
McDonnell continues, shedding some light on the extent to which Shannon’s work writing to picture coloured the early days of the Mount Alaska project. “I remember we met up for a pint one evening and Steve was like, ‘My job is to finish music on time and in budget and it’s driving me fucking mental.’” The pair can’t contain a certain wry laugh, knowing as they do the extent to which Shannon’s experience would eventually inform Wave Atlas. Shannon picks up where McDonnell left off. “That’s my whole world, that’s what I do. With film work there has to be a deadline. There is a fixed sum and timeframe and if you don’t get the work done within that, they just hire somebody else. I was just teetering along like that for five or six years and I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Mount Alaska was almost born of that frustration. Writing scores can be very stressful work because you’re working for multiple people and sometimes you will spend a few days or a week working on one small section. You’re working very tightly to brief and you know exactly what they want. You send off what you’ve done and when you get the next version of the film back you realise that the music you were working on just isn’t there. Nobody says why, it’s just gone. There’s something quite hurtful about that but there is also something great about it because the music isn’t the most important thing that is happening.”
Wave Atlas: Season One asks the question, what would happen if you utilised the palette of the film scores that captivate McDonnell and Shannon, while shedding the notion that sound must show deference to image. The result? A dually ambient and propulsive twist on the tones and tropes we associate with modern OSTs. Somewhat ironic, considering the project’s expressed intention to liberate Shannon and McDonnell from concerns of outside stakeholders, the idea to release something in this more ambient mode did not spring from Mount Alaska themselves, as McDonnell outlines. “It was a weird one because a label approached us that do a lot of more drone, experimental, ambient stuff and they said they really liked our more uptempo releases and asked would we maybe be interested in doing something more in-line with what they do?”
“So, we had a conversation with that label and a conversation with ourselves and were like, ‘well, we’re already doing all this ambient stuff and not releasing it, maybe we could do something with that?’ It felt like we had finally been given a home for this stuff. But, then we and the label went our separate ways and suddenly we were left with this record that felt very out of context. Luckily, 251 [the label releasing Wave Atlas] stepped up and they’ve been amazing. It’s funny, we were close to pushing the button on releasing the record ourselves, I only sent it to them to get advice. We were totally surprised when they were like, ‘We really like the record! Why wouldn’t we put it out?’”
So, what does it mean to write a “score” without anything to place it over? I wonder if Shannon and McDonnell had an imagined narrative that shaped the record, a cast of characters, a series of events. Shannon explains that the finished work’s relationship to the traditional OST is a little more abstract than that and wholly more interesting for it.
“We’ve always been into scores. I can literally put on an OST sit down and listen to it beginning to end. That can be really interesting, listening to the score when you remove it from the picture. Each individual piece was created to work with a particular scene – whatever that may be – but when you listen to the music on its own, it’s got this really interesting abstract continuity that I love; that’s something we tried to explore on the record.”
And explore they do. Giving yourself over to Wave Atlas is a holistic, immersive experience that echoes the remarkable sonic world-building of the medium’s great auteurs: Herrmann, Carlos, Jóhannsson, Carpenter et al. In a sense, the music affords the listener space to furnish its auditory swells and gullies with a wholly personal narrative and emotional stakes. It might sound trite, but fundamentally, this is the soundtrack for life, not a picture show.
“We tried to come up with ideas or themes in the same way a film would normally have an arc, y’know?” Shannon explains, “There’d be central characters and then the piece of music would often be created around what was happening to those characters. So, we tried to utilise that kind of frame to make music with, but we didn’t have a specific story line or cast of characters or anything. We just use it as an emotional guide and it really worked! I actually wouldn’t mind doing it again.”
“And we might!” McDonnell hastens to add. “There is no full stop, it’s season one after all.” Mount Alaska aren’t afraid to test the boundaries of where narrative and sound meet but they know full well that you have to end the season on a cliff-hanger. Rest assured ambient-inclined audiences are, undoubtedly, going to be left wanting more…
Words: Danny Wilson
Photo: Dorje de Burgh
Wave Atlas: Season One is released on 251 Records on November 22.