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Christian Henrik: Town Portal

11 Oct Interviews | Comments
Christian Henrik: Town Portal

In 2009, I was turned onto a (mostly) instrumental band from Denmark called Shelflife. They were like a mathier, cleaner version of Swervedriver, but with less of an emphasis on vocals. I was bummed to find out they broke up, only to find the primary songwriter started a new project called Town Portal. It’s heavier, mathier, and more technical than the previous band, and strictly instrumental. The new record, “Chronopoly“, is a great display of how you can be as technical as you want, and still write great, grooving songs. Christian was nice enough to take some time from his day, and go into detail on his history of being a musician.

Is guitar your primary instrument?

Yes

What instruments do you play?

Instruments that I actually know how to play would be guitar and bass. But I love messing around with other instruments too. Percussion, chromatic percussion, drums, any stringed instrument I can get my hands on. I don’t necessarily think you need to master an instrument to be able to write music with it.


How long have you been playing guitar?

I think I have been playing since I was 14. So about ten years.

Did you take any lessons growing up? (guitar or other)

I did take lessons for maybe half a year, learning some basic scales and some picking techniques etc. I think however that most of my learning process was through playing songs I loved with help from guitar tabs. Also I was in a group of friends where everyone was learning guitar, so I think people helped each other out a lot.

What impact did that have on you as a musician?

I think that learning how to play the right way was a nice intro for me. But I think I also quickly realised that I wasn’t interested in mastering a ton of blues licks etc. So in many ways lessons was a way to quickly master the instrument enough to move on to more creative endeavors.

Do you have an understand of scales and music theory?
— How does that impact your songwriting?

I am actually pretty terrible at musical theory. At least the melodic side of things. Most of the time I have no idea what the chords I am playing are called. It has never really bothered me though. It has always made more sense for me to register chords according to the feelings and moods they recall rather than giving them numbers and letters. So that is sort of how I have always ordered things in my head. These days I think we have developed our own little technical lingo in Town Portal that probably is total nonsense to anyone else. Stuff like: ”Ok, let’s play the part with the circular feel and the mega-chords and then transition into the part with the Chinese harmonies and the upside down rhythm”. But hey, whatever works, right?

Do you still practice instruments, beyond when you’re writing for your band(s)?

I don’t sit down and practice except once in a while before a gig, if I’m feeling rusty. But I play my guitar every day. Sometimes I’m messing around with chords. Sometimes trying to write something more structured. I find it calming to play. Even if I’m just doing it while watching tv or whatever. Just the feeling handling the guitar is kind of therapeutic.

Do you still attempt to push forward by learning new instruments or applications?

I do occasionally play with new instruments or effects. But my go to cure for feeling stuck creatively is usually to play around with tunings. I think improvising an open tuning and just playing with no clue what you’re doing is a good way to break out of your habits. It allows you to sort of listen to what you’re playing as if it was someone else playing. It always brings something fresh to the surface for me.

Do you have have a method for songwriting? How does it usually happen?
– Prefer bringing a skeleton to practice, or build as a collaboration?

I think earlier I would write half or whole songs before I would bring them to a band practice, and then we would sort of adapt the song and change parts etc. Lately, especially on our new album, someone has brought a little bass line, a couple of chords or a rhythm, and we have built the songs as a collaboration. It takes a little bit of letting go, as the music often quickly morphs away from your initial idea, but often it ends up resulting in something that I find to be much more interesting and durable.

What is your electric guitar rig these days?
Did you change it up in studio?

I am very much a creature of habit. I have been playing the same guitar through the same amp for the last 4 or 5 years or so, and I don’t have any plans to change things up much any time soon. I play a Fender Jazzmaster through a Musicman one fifty amp with a Marshall 4×12 cab. When recording, I think 95% of the drive parts on the new record, are done by gaining the transistor part of my Musicman amp. I haven’t really been able to find a drive quite like it with any pedal, and I think it makes up a very large part of my ”sound”. Very often I will have a Holy Grail reverb pedal between the guitar and the amp. I find that the reverb can be really good for sort of getting the amp to break up extra, which is great for more noisy/shoegazy parts. Other than that, I think my tuning has a lot to say. I currently play a homemade tuning that goes from low to high: C-g-d-g-a-d. Especially the low strings tend to resonate together in a very different way than when playing in a standard E-e tuning. I have always liked the sort of loose rattling string sound, and the extended low frequencies you get when dropping.

For live use, I can’t go back and forth to my amp turning the gain up and down between parts, so I have a couple of drive pedals I use. One is a very cool pedal by Blackout effectors called Mantra. I used that for a couple of the really heavy/noisy parts on the new Town Portal album as well. Also I have a boss super overdrive that I would never ever record with. But there is something about it’s hollowed out, slightly nasal sound that just works for cutting through in a live situation. So I use that for medium boosts and the mantra for full on drive. Atmospheric sounds I can usually get live by messing with the holy grail.

TP tends to layer an acoustic on the records, what’s your go-to acoustic?

Yes I have layered acoustics on top of electric tracks many times when recording. I find that it can add a lot of texture to electric sounds. On all Shelflife and Town Portal records, I have been playing a Furch Durango. I really love that guitar. It sounds very… organic in some way. It just really sounds like wood and metal and nothing else. It actually belongs to an ex-girlfriend. The day she wants it back, I will probably need to go out and pawn something to go out and buy a new one.

Does gear impact your songwriting / performing?


It certainly does. I think that generally I really like to just stick with a setup that I am familiar with and know how to work within. It’s sort of like, I need to have my usual gear and my usual sound to be able to not think about gear and sound. Which then allows me to focus on songwriting and interplay.

Tell us about the recording process for the new record! It sounds spectacular.


Thank you very much. We recorded the album one instrument at a time. As much as we would love to record an album live some day, we wanted to keep the songs in the high seat, and decided it would be the easiest way to get these songs to reach their full potential. The drums were recorded by a local engineer called Jakob Reichert Nielsen. He is a great guy and has produced some awesome records with some of our favorite Danish bands (see: Obstacles, Trust, Rising). I did the rest of the recording in our rehearsal space, and we sent everything over to Carl Amburn who mixed and mastered the album. Carl has previously worked with bands like Self-Evident, Traindodge, Riddle of Steel and Roma 79. He has produced so many of my favorite records, and as always it was a pleasure working with him. In my opinion the final result is a nice mix of all the ingredients we put into the process.

Regarding guitars and bass, I think we keep it relatively simple. Bass was recorded with a single Revox 3500 dynamic mic right up by the speaker, and guitar was recorded with a Kel HM-1 condenser and a 3500 Revox dynamic mic on each their speaker (same cab), which were then summed. But I think I could have gotten pretty much the same result on guitars with a sm57. I think one of the key elements in the way I record guitars is the hardly new technique of doubling tracks. I find it close to impossible to simulate that feeling of a super loud amp in a room with only one mono guitar track. This makes sense to me, as you have two ears that will always be hearing something different because of the acoustics of the room you are in. So in order to simulate a wider, more spacious sound, I will record the same parts twice with slightly different sounds. For example with different pickup settings or different drive settings. I then pan those out a bit, and voila, suddenly everything sounds a lot wider and bigger, and more like I am used to in a live situation.

Any advice for students who are trying to find success in the music industry?

Ha, well I am still losing money on having a band, so I hardly think I should be giving advice about surviving in the industry.

What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry, and what the future holds?

I find it really hard to tell where things are going. I think the days of getting rich as a musician are over, or at least limited to a very few artist. And a lot of these aren’t even selling music as much as they are selling fashion, lifestyle, etc. I think our strategy as a band has been to sort of ignore what is going on with the commercial music industry, and instead we have just tried to set some goals and navigate towards them as best we could. We have focused on writing music we love, we have made it accessible through the internet, we have tried to promote it as best we could online and we have booked as many shows and tours as we could to get our music out there. And honestly I feel very certain that we wouldn’t have gotten further by sitting around waiting for a label or booking agency to sign us. I think, if you put your heart into the music you write and avoid compromising your intentions, you might not get rich, but you will have fun as a band regardless of what hole the music industry might dig itself into.

 


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