Interview / Felbm / Soundway

In 2020 Felbm released one of Ban Ban Ton Ton`s favourite new records of the year, in the form of Tapes 3 & 4. Music he modestly refers to a sketches, selling short its accomplished, carefully arranged, gentle jazz swing. In December we shot him some fan mail, which resulted in Felbm, aka Eelco Topper, sharing with us some top selections of his own. The plan was always to extend this out to a full interview as soon as the fates allowed. In my mind this was gonna be January / February, but commitments on both sides have meant that we’ve only just got to it now. 

Where are you from?

I’m from the Netherlands, born in Zwolle. I’m now based in Utrecht.

When did you start making music?

I started as a kid, maybe age 7 or 8, by playing snare drum in a local marching band. I then went to playing drums more seriously at around age 12. By the time I was 16, I `d started making my own beats and instrumental electronic music, which is also when I started taking piano lessons. This is probably where the roots of what I’m doing today still lie today.

What equipment did you have then? 

When I started making my own music – hip hop beats at the time – I owned an Atari with Cubase on it. I used that for midi sequencing, together with a cheap Yamaha DJX keyboard which had a 6 second sample feature. It was a great time, discovering these possibilities and encountering all the limitations at the same time.

What sort of music were you making? Didn’t you used to make house, hip hop and drum and bass? 

Haha, wow, nice research. I guess it’s all true. Around the ages of 16 to 18 it was mostly hip hop, which came back after I graduated from my jazz piano studies, when I organized open mic sessions with a live band. Around that time – 22 or so – I had a group that I played live drum & bass and other dancefloor-music with. Then after mainly playing keyboards for other groups for some years I started my own electronic synth-based project under the moniker of Falco Benz. This was more four-to-the-floor oriented music, which had influences from house, but always had this pop-music feel to it, I guess.

Were there any particular parties / DJs that inspired you to make dance music? 

I think that for my first steps in electronic and dance music the inspiration came from Daft Punk, Cassius, Armand van Helden, that kind of wave. For drum & bass it was Roni Size mostly. I would go out, but not so much to specific parties where they would have particular DJs or themes. I’ve not really been a clubber. My roots lie more in the musicians world than the DJ world.

What equipment do you have now? Have you acquired anything new, or special? 

I’ve acquired – and sold again – many synths, and a few drum computers, over the past 15 years. The go-to synths that I still own are a Roland Juno 60 and a SH101. I’ve been more into acoustic music lately and completed the basic setup of drums / bass / acoustic piano / guitar for the Felbm tapes. For my upcoming Felbm project I’ve bought quite a few tuned percussion instruments that I’m very happy with. It started with a vibraphone a few years ago, but recently I’ve bought a slit drum, a small marching marimba, some gamelan metallophones, etc., that I’ve mainly been using for this new release. Ah, let’s not forget the Marantz four-track cassette recorder that is now is the main workhorse for most of my initial recordings.

Can you tell me any more about the bands that you’ve been in? 

As a trained keyboardist I’ve been doing session work for quite some years, but I would mainly play with a few regular / steady groups. Most notably I played with Benny Sings for 8 years – just before his big breaktrough (laughs). Besides playing with others I always had my own groups, for example the oddly named duo Knobsticker, with whom we made one album and an E.P. of danceable pop music. After we decided to quit, I started my solo career – first as Falco Benz – and somehow, even though I come from a world in which you always play music with other people, it led to another solo project which is Felbm.

Are you open to the idea of musical collaborations?

Of course! It just really depends on the setting, the people, the idea. On the upcoming Felbm release that I’m working on right now I’ve been collaborating with three great players – on flute, saxophone and cello – and I knew immediately that this is something that I will continue – asking people to feature or add their magic and musical background to my music. Even though the foundation of the Felbm project will always be done by myself, just because I enjoy playing and creating these layers. Also I would enjoy collaborating with another artist – being able to put in some “Felbm-feeling” to the another artists work.

Can you tell me more about the creation of Tapes 1 – 4? What feelings / inspirations fed into the music? What brought about the stylistic change? How long did the albums take to make? What instruments did you use? 

The whole Felbm thing came to be after I had a creative and energetic breakdown from the Falco Benz “career”. After – and even before – I released my first full length album I felt locked in my self-created cage of using synths and creating four-to-the-floor music. I needed to get away from the computer and the electronic tools, and also I wanted to work less and relax more. What happened is that by taking time to relax, I started noodling very basic but fun ideas on an acoustic guitar at home – despite all my limitations as an mega-amateur guitar player. I bought a 4-track recorder and I would record a rough sketch, for example after dinner, and only when I felt like it. There was no pressure at all, and the 4-track limitation forced me to capture the songs in 4 essential parts – usually a rhythm track, chords, bass and a melody. It was so very freeing to discover that I could make music this way, compared to the rigid formula that the Falco Benz music had become in my mind.

Following this new strategy of “no pressure involved” creation, the total amount of time from the first rough sketch recording onto cassette at home until a finished Tape could take more than a year. For some later recorded sketches it takes less time, as I’ll start the actual production of a particular Tape once the cassette at home is full.

The main instruments I used are piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, rhythm boxes / drum computers, synths and vibraphone. On Tape 3 & 4 I used the Critter & Guitari “pocket piano” quite a lot.

What instruments can you play? 

I studied jazz piano at the Utrecht Conservatory, and even though I don’t play jazz very well – nor classical, I can play keyboards quite okay. I’ve had drum lessons when I was younger, but I never got very skilled at it and I try to get away with it on my recordings. I can’t really play guitar or bass, or any other instruments very well. I just try and try and try and sometimes something listenable or fun comes out.

Are there any artists or pieces of music that have had a direct influence on the music on Tapes, and on the music that you currently make?

I think that the most important factor in even considering that I could create music with just self-played instruments comes from the fact that I’ve been a long time fan of Mocky. When Saskamodie came out, I was so astonished and overwhelmed by the freedom, joy and looseness in his playing of all instruments. It was – and still is – so enjoyable and it opened up this possibility for me that you can allow yourself to play other instruments, even though you might not master them all as much as your main instrument. The vibe, soul or heart of the music can still come across without loss of value, I think. And Mocky made me experience this very strongly.

An important influence on the music I currently make is my good friend Sander van der Toorn a.k.a. Dean Tippet. He’s probably my main source for new – and old – music, which he sends me and is almost always spot on. Together with his taste I think my taste is moving and developing continuously. I’m quite sure this can be heard in the music I make, so I can fairly say that he, or the music he sends me, is an important influence. Perhaps I should also mention Robert Stillman, because his album, Rainbow, also hit me really hard – also because – like Mocky – of the way he creates his music and plays all instruments himself. Every part is breathing his soul and expression. But then again, it was Sander who first made me aware of Robert Stillman.

Could you please give me 3 pieces of music that you are currently enjoying?

After the Internationals – Brokeback 

From an older record of theirs – Field Recordings From The Cook County Water Table, 1999 – but I wasn’t very aware of their repertoire, and I enjoy the warm, quiet and open sound very much.

Ei Dvipa – Merope

From their most recent release, Salos, which is a very impressive album, and in which I enjoy the very subtle integration of electronics, and the feature of the Jauna Muzika Choir. Just beautiful.

Wave III – Elori Saxl

From her album, The Blue of Distance. A great album with electronics combined with Reich-esque instrumentation and ambient compositions. Soothing.

Were you surprised by the success of the Tape series? 

Yeah, at the moment I’m still quite surprised by the attention that especially Filatelie is receiving! With the release of the first two tapes, the attention grew slowly but surely, which already was a nice and satisfying experience, but with the release of Tape 3 everything moved quite a bit faster, for which of course I’m grateful. It’s such an honour and a special feeling that people spread all over the world are listening to my little tape sketches.

Tape 5 has been in my recorder for some time now, but is far from full.. At the moment I’m more drawn to other Felbm projects that I feel energy and inspiration for. As there is no pressure or rush, time will tell when the tape is full, and when I will be able to go take it to the studio and complete it.

How did you make the connection with Soundway?

I just emailed them a Soundcloud link to Tape 1 – via the webshop contact form and wrote that it was for the attention of Miles Cleret, the label founder and owner. Miles replied after only a few hours that he liked the music and that it might be nice to do a small vinyl run. It took another year before that actually happened, as I decided to first create Tape 2 and then release them together, so that it would be more of a full length release. So I can recommend anyone to just reach out to labels you would like to get in touch with. I think many labels also have become much more accessible with the rise of Bandcamp.

What are you working on at the moment? Did you manage to get to Doornburgh and make a start on the Elements Of Nature Project? 

Yes! I’m actually very excited to share this, so you’ll be the first to know. Last January I was able to spend two weeks working and residing at the former monastery at Buitenplaats Doornburgh – near Utrecht – during which time I wrote and recorded all the main parts for this upcoming release that will simply be called Elements Of Nature. Doornburgh is a very special place, both for the architecture of the monastery and the location, it was very inspiring and I ended up with around 60 minutes of raw material. In the last few months I’ve been editing this material and adding recordings with flute, saxophone and cello, and I’ve just send the final mixes away for mastering. It’s a project inspired by nature, naturally, in which I only wanted to use acoustic instruments – natural elements – and draw inspiration from walking and observations in the woodsy park surrounding the monastery, as well as from the contemplative atmosphere of the architecture. The project will be self-released on a limited edition cassette around October 2021, and will come with a small book with drawings made by my regular illustrator Joost Stokhof. I can’t wait to see the final result and share it with people.

(First photo by Pierre Zylstra)

Felbm-EoN-by Pierre Zylstra

Felbm-EoN1

Felbm-EoN2

Has the lockdown period been creatively productive for you?

It has actually been comparable to earlier years. Because of chronic energy issues, I`ve had to take things slow-er for some time now, and the lockdown just made this easier and more accepted. Suddenly everyone adapted to my tempo it seemed. The Doornburgh residency has been very productive, but I think this might have been the same in a non-lockdown situation. 

Prior to the pandemic where there any local parties that you enjoyed? 

As mentioned earlier, I’m not so much of a clubber and I don’t regularly go to parties. I think the main highlight in Utrecht is the Le Guess Who? festival, that has an amazing line up every year.

Are there any other local artists that we should watch out for? 

On the Elements Of Nature project I’ve been recording with saxophonist Koen Boeijinga. He’s an amazing talent, living in Utrecht. He’s not just a saxophone player, but a very good improviser and creator. His playing is grounded, and free, everything he does has so much feel to it. I’m sure he’s going to bring the world a lot of exciting music!

Also, the earlier mentioned Dean Tippet is a great creator of music in various different forms. He has written songs for many of Benny Sings albums. I also worked with him on two releases, and at the moment he’s messing around with tape recorders as well. However, the reason I bring him up is his partner and muse, Dax Niesten, who is totally someone to watch out for. She’s a young multimedia artist. She paints and makes animations, but also writes and records her own music that is very touching and pure. She’s developing so quickly and I think her work is very authentic.

In case you haven’t heard of Nana Adjoa, you should check her out as well. She’s just released her debut album, Big Dreaming Ants, which is doing well globally. Nana is a great multi-talented singer and instrumentalist, she played bass for my Felbm Five band, which was an honour.

Are things beginning to open up again where you are?

Yes, slowly but surely they are. The vaccination program is now starting to show its effects, which gives a lot of hope and positive energy to the people in the music / art / event industry.

All being well what are your plans for the rest of the year?

In the next 2 months I’ll be finishing the physical production – cassettes, artwork, books – for the Elements Of Nature release, preparing everything that comes with it as well. I’m trying to organize a small group that I can hopefully play this music with, from October on or so. It will be different from my Tapes material and I’ll need different players. And of course I’ll need to find venues that are interested in this kind of music. In the meantime, a new plan is boiling for a project of slightly the same nature as this last one. I hope I can prepare this alongside releasing Elements Of Nature, possibly starting recording at the beginning of next year. However, I don’t want to pin myself down to too much already. We’ll see, I’ll go step by step and follow the flow of the river. Panta rhei.

Felbm`s terrific Tapes 1 – 4 are out now, care of the super Soundway. Watch out for more news on the Elements Of Nature project around its October release date. 

Felbm Tape 4 Art

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