ROBERT FARRUGIA: SURROUNDED BY SOUNDSCAPES
He may not be quite a household name, possibly because the music he makes is far from the mainstream but, barely in his twenties, this young composer has already released 6 albums and 3 EPs, all home-recorded and most of them picked up and distributed by international labels. His latest album Tines, released last May, is an engulfing soundscape that is deeply atmospheric, contemplative yet brittle at the same time. Michael Bugeja speaks to Robert Farrugia ahead of his live performance on Trackage Scheme's Bay Stage on Saturday, July 16 during this year's Sliema Arts Festival.
What first got you hooked on music and specifically, ambient and electronic music?
I’ve been into music seriously since I was about 12 years old, although I started learning it at the age of 6. I used to take note of some tracks I liked off the radio, recording the tracks I liked on my portable tape-recorder. I don’t actually remember when I got hooked on ambient and electronic music, but I recall chancing upon music by Sigur Ros and Hammock on Youtube, which prompted me to hook up my synthesiser and guitar through some effects, and play around endlessly to create particular tones and sounds that I liked. I’ve been exploring ever since.
Who are your main influences, and what inspires you the most?
My main influences are mainly Hammock, Ólafur Arnalds, Stars of the Lid, and Brian Eno. When it comes to being inspired, it mostly depends on the album I would be listening to at that time - it could be either some newly-released album or even a forgotten favourite. Some examples include the album ‘Faint’ by Canadian sound artist Taylor Deupree , which is without any doubt an ambient masterpiece that helps me clear my mind and gear up for writing new material.
The soundscapes you create tend to have a prominent experimental and rather fluid feel. Do you set out with a definite idea when composing or is it more a case of getting an initial spark and letting the music take over?
It's probably a bit of both. Every artist I follow has a particular element in their music which I find appealing. I usually try to fuse these elements into a single composition, moulding the complex soundscape to ultimately give the end result a distinct identity. However, once I actually start working with these ideas in mind, I tend to let the music take over, counting on my improvisation skills to come up with a finished product.
Another characteristic to your music is its defining minimal aesthetic. Have you ever been tempted to experiment with 'busier' arrangements or is the 'less is more' mindset too close to your heart to venture beyond?
Yes, my music is minimalistic to a certain point, especially the last few releases. My 2013 album Almost There/ On the Way probably features my ‘busiest’ arrangements, but I’ve actually tried experimenting with other darker and heavier elements. In the end however, I find that the minimalistic approach produces a more authentic aesthetic when it comes to writing music. I always fear my music will sound slightly overdone after the final product. I prefer to work on busier arrangements in my other side projects.
There's an intimacy to the genres you work in. Is this indicative of how the music is written and recorded?
Yes, definitely. Working in a particularly peaceful and calm environment is important to actually start writing something. I usually work with headphones to make sure everything is in order and in the meanwhile I block background noise as well.
Although you're primarily a solo artist, you've also been involved in some collaborations...
2015's Phosphenes was a collaboration with Swiss musician Roman Willi, whom I hope to work with again. I've also collaborated with Macedonian artist Toni Dimitrov under the name of Post Global Duo, releasing the album Glimpse together, and later this year, I'll be working with SineRider. who remixed the title track of my latest album. I'm open to more collaborative work as it offers different challenges. Outside of my solo work, I'm involved in the band Eyes to Argus, so I'm also open to working with other musicians.
You've had various albums released on international labels, signalling an interest abroad in your work. Are there any plans to take the next step of performing abroad?
Having my music released by foreign labels has obviously helped my work reach a wider audience, and I hope to have more of my compositions picked up by other labels and to be featured in more ambient compilations so as to boost my profile further. Before entertaining the idea of performing abroad however, I want to perform a few more gigs in Malta, not only to boost my confidence in a live setting but also to learn from the feedback in order to improve my performances. Later on, I would definitely be interested in performing abroad.
You've amassed an impressive body of recorded work in a few years making you one of the local scene's more prolific artists, which suggests you dedicate a lot of time to music...
This project is indeed time-consuming, so I've learnt to prioritize. Apart from my studies, I'm also involved in other projects, primarily the band Eyes to Argus, which I can reveal is currently working towards the recording of our debut album. At the end of the day, composing music means a lot to me, and realistically speaking, even though I’ll be pretty busy and over-encumbered with other commitments, I will always manage to dedicate some time to every project I’m involved in.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta's ESCAPE magazine (10 July 2016)