SOHN on new album Rennen

We catch up with recent dad and nomadic songmaker SOHN to discuss his sophomore album Rennen, working solo, and how 2016 was a pretty shit year

Feature by George Sully | 06 Jan 2017
  • SOHN

“You’re my last interview of 14,” he says in response to ‘How are you?’ Christopher ‘Toph’ Taylor is on the move; The Skinny catches him in a taxi in Berlin, on his way to catch a flight to Paris. He insists he’s feeling frazzled, but he’s lucid, effusive and keen to chat about second LP Rennen – a German word which is, incidentally, the verb ‘to run’.

The London-born musician seems allergic to inertia, having moved to Vienna in 2012 for the production of his debut record Tremors, and then again to Los Angeles in 2014. And though there’s an expansive European tour lined up for spring 2017, his recent fatherhood might be cause to slow down. “I just had a baby six weeks ago,” he explains, “so my mind’s not really been on the record. And all of a sudden I’ve realised, ‘Shit, people have heard the record. Fuck!’”

Under the alias SOHN, Taylor creates spellbinding electronica that blends intricately produced percussion, synthesiser and piano with his distinctive falsetto. Jettisoning an EP (The Wheel) into the fickle internet waters of 2012, SOHN caught the attention of music blogs and press alike, with the eponymous lead single’s chopped vox and catchy rhythms offering a fresh take on the human-meets-machine dynamic. The long player follow-up, Tremors, expanded this philosophy to a transportive and self-assured album, reflective of Vienna’s icy stillness where it was recorded, and saturated in a nocturnal heartache made tangible by his piercing vocal.

Nearly three years later, Rennen is tenser, sparser, more conflicted; a clear departure from Tremors’ lushly layered textures and heart-on-sleeve anguish. “For the first record, I really felt like, as a baby record, you really want to put everything into it,” Taylor recalls. “Whereas this record, I consciously tried to detach from it a little bit. Some of the songs are the original mixes from the first day they were written. As a result, I’m a lot more relaxed about the record coming out, because I feel like, yeah, this is some music that I made. I haven’t turned myself inside out and bled in order to make it; this time I made a record and I feel good about it.” 

This pragmatism makes for a sharper album experience. “I feel like when you don’t add a bunch of elements you have to make sure that the elements that are in there are really strong, otherwise it won’t stand up on its own,” Taylor continues. "This time I approached myself as a producer, and I said to myself; 'if I was producing this artist, SOHN, what would I do? What would I find interesting to work on, and how would I highlight what I wanna highlight? What should be highlighted?' For me, the very first thing was that it was really important to put the vocal bang in front of the camera.”

But there’s a clear symbiosis between the vocals and the instrumentation, with each track seeming inseparable from the voice that carries it. “This time I was playing around a bit with how I was gonna sing on the record, because even the way that I’m singing is probably quite different to the first record,” Taylor highlights. “My voice lowered – like, naturally lowered, at a crazily late point in my life, suddenly!” He laughs. A late puberty? “Yeah! Like a really really late bloom.”

SOHN's live show

Tremors also had a mesmerising live show: a masterful rendering of the studio tracks, complete with smoke and hypnotic neon lights that ‘breathed’ with the music. “I definitely felt that after two years of touring that show, it was lacking movement – physical movement,” Taylor posits. “I really enjoyed the show that we created, and it was perfect for that record because there’s a sort of soundtrack-y element to it – it’s definitely like a soundscape.

“I did this one show with this Danish band called WhoMadeWho. We did Lessons, and the band joined me so there was a live drummer. I’m not a big fan of putting live drums into electronic music on stage, necessarily, but there was something about that one show, where I felt the song moving – like, I felt it slowing down and speeding up. And it was like, 'oh wow', this is a feeling I haven’t had in three years, because our drums were running from a machine. They were never wavering, they never changed.” 

Accompanying the new record will be a new SOHN live show featuring, for the first time as part of the official line-up, a live drummer: “I want the pay-off of that snare coming in, because I want to feel that physical space being moved – by an actual human.” The live show will also feature a second singer, LA artist Nylo. Taylor explains: “We didn’t really want to try and do it with one voice, because there are so many parts which have a unison vocal type feel to them, like Conrad and Hard Liquor.”

Hard Liquor is a strong opening number, its guttural drums a pounding welcome to the record. “Yeah, it’s my public nudity track. It’s like, ‘Listen, this is what it’s gonna be, so like it or get off the train.’”

Before SOHN, Taylor’s previous project was Trouble Over Tokyo – an angsty, skittish, less focused sound, that actually began as a four-piece: “Yeah it did. It was originally a terrible Muse rip-off, many many years ago,” he laughs.

But Taylor exhibits an air of deliberate control in his work as SOHN. Comparing life as a solo artist to being in a band: “You achieve the same thing but you just don’t have to fight to get there. I would love to work in a group with people but it’s just not something I can do. I’m not very good at it," Taylor discloses. “For me, music is just right or wrong. I don’t really think you can ever sacrifice something, knowingly, and feel good about it. If you feel like that’s not the right path to take then you can’t take the wrong path just to be diplomatic.”

Of course, Taylor is no stranger to collaboration, despite his protests – he’s turned his production talents to other artists, racking up credits with BANKS, Kwabs and Lana Del Rey, as well as being commissioned to provide remixes for dance giants Disclosure. Rennen, too, involved some pairing up. “Hard Liquor would never have existed if it weren’t for that second person,” he recalls. “It was a tune which originally I wrote with and for someone else, a guy called Sam Dew in LA,” but who ended up not using it – so Taylor sang it himself. “I definitely like the fact that collaboration brought something to this record for sure.”

SOHN on politics and 2016

Speaking at the end of a tumultuous year, we're keen to know if Taylor's itinerant lifestyle has affected his perspective on the world's precarious politics in 2016: “I moved to LA two years ago, but of course I’ve still got a lot of ties back to Vienna, so I’ve been seeing people’s reactions to everything as we’ve been going through it,” he explains. “Conrad, for example, was actually written at a time when an Austrian general election was going on, and the rise of a really far-right party was totally legitimised.”

It was an omen of what was to come, given how content the country seemed prior to the rise of Norbert Hofer and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). “So that made it into the record – on two songs really, that one and Primary, because Primary was when the primaries started in the US.”

On Brexit et al, Taylor hones in on the stagnating, toxic effects of the social media echo chamber. “The thing is that social media’s just a reflection of society,” he says, adding that while it’s a positive thing that we can share information to raise awareness of particular issues, “if none of us are going to do anything about it, it’s pointless.

"I feel that 2017 is probably going to be a chance, for me and a lot of people, to start afresh. I think a lot of people will agree it’s been a pretty shit year,” he adds, with a laugh. “It’s a chance for all of us to strengthen what we believe in, and stand up for it a bit more. I think we needed a bit of a kick in the arse from that point of view, because we’re a generation who’ve grown up satisfied.

“It makes you realise: next time I’ve gotta do something more. It’s not enough that I just say, ‘Hey all of my people who agree with me, isn’t this stupid?’ If that’s not enough you’ve gotta go out and have a conversation with people who believe it, and say, ‘Look, this is why I think that you’re wrong.’”

There’s a brief silence on the line, a silence shared all too often in 2016 as everyone’s collective optimism is left wrestling with the crushing realities of the job ahead. Taylor sighs. “We’re all fucked, man. All you can do is do your research – that’s all you can do.”

Rennen is released via 4AD on 13 Jan