Jason Swinscoe and his musical partner Dominic Smith, the braintrust behind the jazz-inspired electronic project The Cinematic Orchestra, didn’t intend to take the better part of 12 years to release the follow up to their last album Ma Fleur. But as they got in the cycle of touring and working on commissions like the soundtrack to the Disney nature film The Crimson Wing and finding themselves relocating to various spots around the globe, the interim became longer and more fraught. To the point that when Swinscoe wanted to map out ideas for a new album, he got stuck and quickly reached out to Smith for assistance. Together, the pair built the suite of songs that make up their new album To Believe from the ground up, going back, as Smith says in our conversation below, to the spirit of the first Cinematic Orchestra release that Swinscoe did on his own on nights and weekends.
It was clearly the creative reset that this project needed as the humble seven-song LP is an outstanding achievement that maintains the dramatic sweep of the band’s 20 year history with plenty of accompaniment from strings and horns while setting a tone that feels of a piece for these uneasy times. It’s not a despairing record in that way, but the music and the vocal contributions by folks like Roots Manuva, Heidi Vogel and Moses Sumney are marked by an exhausted resilience. The last mile of the marathon is underway and that little extra push is all that’s needed to get us over the finish line. This is the record you want in your earbuds. One that empathizes with you as it nudges you forward.
Paste spent some time on the phone with Smith from his home in Los Angeles to talk about the creation of To Believe and the themes of the album, as well as looking back for a moment to when The Cinematic Orchestra began in the late ‘90s.
Paste: It seems like your role within The Cinematic Orchestra has always been in the background or in support of the ideas that Jason already had. But on To Believe, you two constructed everything together from scratch. How do you see your role changing within this project, especially in relation to this new record?
Dom Smith: It’s really been an organic evolution, our relationship. At the very start, Jay would want my opinion on everything he wrote, as a kind of friendly A&R guy. As that relationship evolved, I’d get into arrangements by the time the second album came out. When it got to Ma Fleur and Crimson Wing, another level where we just spent so much time together in the studio that it naturally evolved that we’d start working on stuff, and that would include writing.
But this record…obviously it’s been a minute since a new one came out and one of the reasons for that is that there was a kind of constant evolution of Cinematic Orchestra from the very start in Jay’s bedroom with a sampler and a tiny computer and a pair of speakers. It grew and grew and grew, unexpectedly in some instances, into a real orchestra with 40 piece strings. That can become quite a lot to deal with. Especially when you started with this intricate sculpture approach that digital production and sequencing gives you. Where you can lay things out in a very purposeful way. To suddenly be in a room with 20 musicians all playing at once and trying to rein that into something that’s felt like it was yours, started to become more and more difficult. Really, Jay and I writing was a result of having known each other for so long, I was like, “Why do we go back to the beginning and start with that intricate process again, where the voice was within you rather than trying to find voices in other people?” So, literally, that’s what happened. We set up the bedroom studio like it had been at the beginning and started to chip away. Then a back and forth process with the band. But it was mostly trying to get established ideas through that collaboration.
And it took a while, from what I understand, because you were insistent on doing this together rather than working remotely, correct? Because you were in Los Angeles and Jason was living in London or Paris.
Because it was a bit new, as far as our relationship, and because we’ve always worked that way. We’ve never worked remote. When we did Ma Fleur, I was in Tokyo and he was in New York, which is even worse [travel-wise] than L.A./London. But we would still meet up to do the work because that’s the only thing that really makes sense to us. If I work on my own, I’ll do different things. If Jason works on his own, he’ll do different things. But together, it’s almost like we push each other a bit further. It definitely made the process more protracted but definitely more enjoyable for us.
From there, you two then record the analog instruments, the orchestral part of the music, and then mix it together. What is that process like figuring out how those elements blend together smoothly and what to keep and what to cut?
It’s kind of a back and forth. We sketch out the original ideas with soft instruments, so pianos and strings and Fender Rhodes and there’s some very good soft instrument these days that sound great. We didn’t replace everything, but we got to the studio with some of the core members – those people that have contributed to the records in the past – and play them idea and get them to re-play them. In some instances work out something brand new in that moment. Like, you have a programmed rhythm and you’re, like, “How do we turn this into a drum rhythm, which answers all of the questions and doesn’t sound awkward on a live instrument?” But it is a sculpture of real moments and virtual moments all stitched together to hopefully sound like it’s all one piece. The finishing of the piece happens inside the box rather than in the studio.
Has that become more streamlined over the years? Or is it something where you have to worry over every detail?
I think we probably will worry over every detail. Jason is incredibly thoughtful and involved in this process and wants it to be as good as possible. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. Part of the reason we love working together is that we love that kind of headspace. It’s a kind of dreaming headspace. “What could we do? What could it be if we tried a little bit harder? If we turn over a few more stones?” I think we both have great optimism about music and its power and the power we felt in our lives experiencing it. That’s what we want to create for other people. And for ourselves. It’s a constant journey trying to satisfy your musical aspirations. I think it should be a journey that lasts your entire life. You don’t want to get the mountaintop.
Is it an easy thing then to avoid repeating yourselves? You talked a bit about going full circle with this album in the way it was recorded and try to connect with where the project began, but you still have to think about how to evolve the project and keep it moving forward. Is that something you put a lot of thought into or does it just come naturally?
I think it’s a combination of both. We do think about it. We’re always trying to add to the aesthetic without destroying the heritage. There’s a fine line that you have to pay attention to both sides of the coin, as it were. But it’s a constant challenge to not want to be repetitive and not be inspired by your previous work rather than constrained by it. Both sides of the coin become important at different points in the conversation.
I’ve always been curious about projects like this where you’re bringing in different guest vocalists and performers to take a kind of spotlight turn on your albums. Are you directing them through every step and making sure they’re performing it as you hear it in your head? Or are you open to letting them see where they can take a lyric or a melody?
At the beginning of every vocal process, me and Jay have always tried to be as open as possible within the parameters of what we want to do. When we sat down with the vocalists on this record, we definitely spoke to them about our intentions behind writing a record that had some engagement beyond music but with culture and the world around us. These ideas about belief and reality and our perceptions about ourselves and consciousness. But the less prepared you are at the beginning, the more you’ll get from somebody. If you’re telling everyone, “Here’s my ideas,” you’re pinning them down and they’ll react to a universe you’ve created. So, it was definitely a conceptual world, but musically, we were very open. We want people to feel there’s no, “You must fit into this.” It’s more, “Where can we go together?”
Moses Sumney, for example, he wrote everything that you’re hearing but for another track. And after a while, I was, like, “There’s some conflict here with what Moses is doing and the song.” So we rewrote the track underneath his vocal. You’re only going to do that when you get to a certain stage. And certainly I had no idea we’d end up with the track that we did. But that’s honestly the nicest thing, when you can feel the music talking to you and you’re with a few people who will let it do that.
Can you talk more about this concept that you had for the album, exploring these ideas of belief?
During this process, it’s obviously been quite protracted and being people that have been blessed with a relatively long career, we could just observe the changes in music and music culture and the world around us. We both grew up going to London clubs and club culture, which at the time was very underground compared to now. One of the things that we talked about in the process of this record was feeling that somehow the music had lost a little bit of its opinion or its critique. Electronic music has turned into this massive thing with EDM and all the festivals. It pushed that music into a much more commercial space and that space is less critical. It was a little bit of longing for that feeling that music was talking to you, not just on a musical level but it had meaning beyond that. That led us down the path of conversations about where meaning comes from. And in today’s post-modern media these questions of consciousness and belief and faith are more contested than ever before. I think that’s really healthy. It challenges everybody to be a little more critical about their own process and about the processes which we employ to communicate or not communicate with each other or start fights with each other. Or avoid empathy. All of that started to resonate with us in a way felt more and more relevant. And when we talked to other people, it was easy for them to latch on to it.
In other interviews about this album, it sounded like there is a fair amount of Cinematic Orchestra music sitting in the archives, that you worked on at some point between the last album and this new one. Will any of that ever see the light of day?
Another reason that we took our sweet time was that we wrote an awful lot of music. And when I say “an awful lot,” I mean maybe an album and a half’s worth of material. There was a point where we had to rein it in. At one point we were going to do a double album, but then we were, like, “No, let’s just get this first record out. We’ve made long enough tracks. A single album’s fine.” As soon as we get over the initial touring and promo for this record, we’ll be back in the studio and starting to work on the material which is already pretty developed for a new record. You’ll definitely not be waiting around another 10 years.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Motion, the first Cinematic Orchestra album. When you think back on that time and the part you played in getting that record made, what do you remember most about that period of time?
Me and Jay both worked at a record label and were both good buds in that environment. It was very early on at Ninja Tune and it was all heads. Everyone there was a DJ. The office was in a squat. It was way off the Ninja Tune we know now. Me and Jay gravitated to each other’s opinions. It was a pretty opinionated room. A bunch of loudmouthed DJs all shouting about what they thought was the best and the worst in the world. And Jay and I definitely felt a connection over our tastes.
Really, Motion was a solo project apart from Tom Chant. Tom was working with Jason on that record and still works with the band now. It was kind of a secret to begin with because the opinions…it was a very hostile environment, musically. Me and Jay talked about the fact that we both loved house music and that was not allowed. When Jason started creating the sound of the Cinematic Orchestra, it was pretty avant garde at the time. There weren’t people making music with that intensity. And in the beginning, it was Jason after work playing me tracks and leading me to me protecting him in the environment. My role with this record was to support him and champion that record and help him sequence it and definitely help to kind of birth that moment. As soon as we did, everyone was, like, “That’s the best idea in the world!” It was quickly apparent that Jason had something that resonated with people. Even I was shocked at how quickly people got into that record.