Words: James Frostick
Dom Stephens talks about his work as Nimble Animal and his debut album under that moniker, Dumb Dirge.
Dominic Stephens is a renaissance man – that is to say, he does a lot of things. More specifically, he does a lot of things well. Even more specifically, he does a lot of things exceptionally well. As a creative talent he has been (and is still) responsible for some of the more unique sonic experiments to come out of Brisbane (and Australia by geographical extension).
As one of the creative minds behind much loved Brisbane band, Oh Ye Denver Birds, Dom spearheaded a surge of experimental art-pop that captured the minds of many who craved an all-encompassing sound that could move and shake the imagination.
As Outerwaves, Dom stepped out on his own and tried his hand at crafting similarly affecting music through the use of electronic music production. Outerwaves was another success, with a few exceptional singles putting him firmly among some esteemed company – the eclectic mix of up and coming electronic artists who are making waves on the blogosphere.
Nimble Animal is Dom’s third musical project. While it is possibly the most under-publicised moniker of Dom’s repertoire, it is far from underdeveloped. Nimble Animal might be the project where Dom’s instrumental and electronic interests meet; the music is an amalgam of acoustic leanings and electronic flourish. The result is different from either, yet is unmistakably Dom. That is to say, his inherent knack for creating great, dense, lush, melodic music soaks into every song; every note and every boom-bap beat on Nimble’s debut album.
He’s got his fingers in a lot of pies, and all the pies taste delicious.
Last year Nimble Animal released Dumb Dirge; an incredible album dripping in heady melody and crawling with chittery top notes. It is pulsing, like there is a heartbeat thumping inside, along with some mediative deep breathing. Dumb Dirge features some great experimentation with loops and trance-like dissonance. It is almost feels like the soundtrack to a religious awakening, though less hymnal and more tribal.
I only spoke to Dom recently, there were plans to chat last year but my own lack of organisational skills worked against me. He spoke with an earnestness that reflects his musical and creative passion; his words exemplifying why he might be a modern day, musical equivalent of the Vitruvian Man – perfectly and equally proportioned in artistic talent, creative drive, unique imagination and aesthetic flair.
I pressed Dom initially on why he moved to electronic music as opposed to the band atmosphere of OYDB.
“With electronic music, basically I always loved doing stuff with bands – all the louder music – it wasn’t until I started living in share houses where there were sound restrictions and thin walls and people with different timetables to myself,” explains Dom. “I started playing around more with stuff that you could make with just headphones on that was really the main motivation for moving into electronic music in the first place, to be able to keep making music but to keep the flow happening creatively.”
Nimble Animal started in 2011, while Dom was still active with OYDB and before Outerwaves became a focus – however it wasn’t until last year that Nimble Animal truly took shape and material was released.
“I was doing Nimble Animal a year or two before Outerwaves but I only ended up doing a couple of shows,” says Dom. “Then it just faded out because I was doing stuff with a loop pedal – it was at the really early stages and it hadn’t been completely worked out, how I was going to go about it. So I played those few shows and kept playing with Oh Ye Denver Birds and just had it sitting in the background.”
“I knew what I wanted to do with it; I knew that I wanted it to be like some kind of experimental synth-y, dirge-y, noisy thing. I just needed the time for it to come out, creatively anyway. It started like that, and then from doing Outerwaves, I was enjoying it and was around a group of people doing similar stuff, I realised I wasn’t too bad at making that sort of thing.”
Dom’s ideas for Nimble Animal’s sound did eventuate. Dumb Dirge does have that noisy, synth-y element he desired – though the term ‘dirge’ seems to draw the mind toward a dark mass of noise; almost like a funeral march, as if one were marching through a bog. This is not the case. The dirge on the Nimble Animal record is more like a force of buoyant sound, pushing one onwards; a solid bed of noise that is at times ethereal and other times vigorous. This is evident on Dumb Dirge standouts, ‘Any Other Day’ and ‘XIX”.
This ties in well with Dom’s afore-mentioned pop leanings, perhaps with influences of psych and noise.
“I was a bit more interested in artists that were circumventing instruments and stuff like that. I got interested in different bands that were doing more soundscape-y, dazed, drug-hazed music. I realised that it could really work with Nimble Animal doing that kind of style.”
He is entirely correct. Nimble Animal’s lush soundscapes reflect exactly his sentiment and ideas – though it took a while for these ideas to coalesce into something resembling an album.
“It took me a long time,” says Dom. “Dumb Dirge was pretty much compiled from songs written over the past few years. It wasn’t until it hit that certain point where it turned into an album, I realised that they fit really well together and I was happy with that collection of songs to put out together.”
For the uninitiated, it might be hard to differentiate between Nimble Animal and Outerwaves for a few reasons. They are both based in the realm of electronic music, they have Dom as the sole identity behind them and they dabble in the strange and the obtuse, sound wise.
Though my description of Dumb Dirge does a little to relay the vibe of the album, the key difference between both of Dom’s electronic outfits is only easily discerned by Dom himself. Personally, I see a lot of similarities between Nimble Animal and Oh Ye Denver Birds yet, technically speaking, Outerwaves and Nimble Animal seemingly have the most in common.
What is the difference?
“It’s a question I get asked quite often,” says Dom. “For me it is really obvious. For me there is a big line between both the projects but for some people they are quite similar too because it’s just me playing solo and they are both bordering on elements of electronic and indie music. I think the main thing is Outerwaves has more of an electronic beat – kind of a glitch to it, whereas Nimble Animal is not as technical. It’s basic; it’s more about waves and layers of sound. Outerwaves is more crafted and bouncy. It’s quite hard to describe how they are separated, for me in my head I can really tell the difference.”
“I think there is also being able to record Outerwaves with the comfort of your headphones and just working on a beat or a loop for days and days, where Nimble Animal is a bit more hands on – I can set up a microphone, turn up an amp with natural distortion so it has got that live feel to it. There is a bit more room to move with experimentation and not really having a thought about the listener so much as in like, constructing a song. It’s more just about the enjoyment for me making certain noises because I enjoy making it. With Outerwaves I might think about what my target audience is or the way to construct a song to appeal to certain people.”
The technicality of both monikers seems to be where the biggest difference lies. Dom often refers to the acoustic and instrumental elements incorporated into Nimble Animal as the crucial element – the use of guitars and ambient sound is audible among the waves and cycles of Dumb Dirge alongside the oozing synths and the modulated voice of Dom himself.
Dom is a musician, and his proficiency with instruments in the physical sense helps add a dynamic that many laptop-tied electronic artists might lack. Though many of the top-tier electronic artists incorporate live instruments in their work, the bulk of the genre seems to use computer manufactured sound. This isn’t a bad thing, if done well it sounds great (see: Outerwaves, duh). In Dom’s case, he seems to thrive in a flexible environment where everything is at his disposal. Dom perceives that natural vibe as crucial to his music, thus, the methodology behind Nimble Animal’s brand of electro is surprisingly organic.
“It is predominantly headphone and computer software instruments based usually when it comes to electronic music,” explains Dom. “For most artists and very successful ones, maybe even the majority of artists these days doing that style of music, I think acoustic instruments are still a really important thing because it creates that ambience on a track; that thing that makes it sound less computer-y, Whether it is an acoustic guitar line or just something that has been mic’d up, recording the ambience of the street outside – I think it’s still really important to keep up that acoustic sound at some point, in some way.”
“For me I think it sounds better, so it’s easier to make music when I’m using acoustic stuff because it sounds a bit more real and therefore the songs come together quicker for me. Also, I think just having those instruments helps the listeners relate to the music better, because it feels more real. It feels easier to relate to certain emotions and experiences when they can hear a bit of ambience from the road noise or the way someone plays a guitar.”
In terms of inspiration and song beginnings, Dom doesn’t set out to write for either Nimble Animal or Outerwaves. Each new composition usually begins as a form of catharsis or simple experimentation with techniques, only becoming a Nimble Animal or Outerwaves song once the ideas have formed or it naturally evolves along one line or another.
A blessing of having different monikers is being able to create without having to always match expectations that come with a particular name or sound. Dom hasn’t limited himself or contained his emotions by any stretch; he has given himself every opportunity to seize any creative whim that comes to him, letting it grow into whatever it needs to and releasing it under whichever label he chooses.
“I use writing music as my sort of therapy for getting through situations,” explains Dom. “I will always start a song on that basis, just making music to meditate on an issue that I am going through. As the song develops, that’s when it falls into the box of either Nimble Animal or Outerwaves or whatever else.”
“It gives me room to move between a few genres now. I just feel like I really need a few different outlets, to express different aspects of life and my emotions, things like that. It’s really fun to do that and to not have to worry about certain techniques. It’s more about the thrill of playing around with sound and finding cool things. There are also my observations on life, society and the manic drone that people seem to have. I guess the more angry ones are just trying to let of steam about some things I don’t like to do with humanity, maybe.”
Dom’s unique view and talent have gotten him pretty far. As an individual he represents a more appropriate description of what a modern musician is and should be. As a musical avatar he embodies a creative fire that can shift and adapt to any style, and from a technical standpoint, he has the talent and know how to bridge the gap between established forms of instrumentation and the obvious future of electronic creation.
While he may not be the only musician doing this, he is the perfect example of a musician who is doing it well.
The future holds bright things. A forthcoming Nimble Animal album, new Outerwaves releases and, who knows, maybe a new Oh Ye Denver Birds release one day (I can dream, can’t I?).
Whatever Dom chooses to do next, it will probably be just as sublime as his extensive back catalogue. So, if there is one person to keep an eye on, it should be Dominic Stephens, musical Renaissance man.