Producer Mike Silver is known for the propulsive, drum-heavy tracks he creates under his CFCF moniker. But last month, he dropped the Exercises EP, a collection of gorgeously ambient compositions that mark a tectonic shift for the 24-year-old Montreal native. The album’s standout track is “Exercises 3 (Buildings),” a whirlpool of tinkling piano and expansive synths that invites inevitable comparions to Phillip Glass. And while CFCF admits the legendary composer served as inspiration, his main muse was the ’60s brutalist architecture that still permeates the Montreal landscape. In the song’s video, which used Lois Lowry’s classic dystopian childrens novel The Giver as a point of reference, a lone girl wanders through one of these monolithic structures (the video was shot at Trent University, in rural Ontario) when she encounters a teacher who gives her the ability to see the world beyond her grey reality. The whole thing screams purgatory, but as her monochromatic world gradually breathes to brilliant life, we’re left to wonder. Below is the exclusive video premiere of CFCF’s “Exercises 3 (Buildings)”, followed by a Q&A with Silver, and some words from the directors.
You’ve said that Exercises was inspired by brutalist architecture, but the music feels anything but brutal. How do you reconcile that?
CFCF: Well, when I arrived at the brutalist influences, that really was part of the point, to try to express a very different kind of feeling that I get when I am in buildings like that. They have a bad reputation, and I know architecture appreciators tend to hate on them. I think to some extent as Canadians some of us have been brought up with a different way of looking at them. They’re our libraries, our schools. In Quebec especially, they were built in a time of social upheaval and idealism, with so much optimism for the future. So when I am inside of a building like that I don’t feel oppressed, I feel nostalgic for an idealism that doesn’t exist anymore. And that the buildings that make me feel that way do so with just huge slabs of concrete, you have to wonder what it is about such unsubtle designs that provoke such powerful feelings. So I think unconsciously, I was trying to get to the core of that, to extract some emotion from that concrete.
After your previous, drum-machine-heavy work, why did you make an album that was largely beat-free?
It was a reaction to the way I had been working for a while, layering tracks upon tracks and creating these mammoth songs with so many elements that couldn’t be picked apart. I wanted to do something that breathed organically. And there are still beats, but I didn’t want them to be the focus. In the past year or so in music, I think ‘beats’ have become too much of the focus—it’s become a hollow sentiment, a crutch. I love when beats serve the emotional purpose of songs—but sometimes it’s just beats for beats sake, heh. I love making beats and programming drums, but a song has never ever worked out for me where I said, “Oh wow, this beat sounds great—uh, now to write some melodies.” The melodies can never be an after-thought.
Exercises sounds like a real evolution for you. Does it feel that way too?
I’m glad that you and others see it that way. It’s interesting, because the title kind of expresses how I initially approached the record—exercises, experiments in trying a different approach. I can’t say it will be how I work in the long term, but it’s an attempt to open up my methods of working. Even now, as I’m trying to cobble together a live set around the EP that is very stripped down, I have to break down the tracks even further and take them apart. They are so simply arranged, they’re like Legos or IKEA furniture, haha. I just have to figure out how to put them back together once I take them apart.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the process of moving towards the final stages on my next proper full-length album. I think Exercises was a side-step—this one is the evolution. I think it’s the culmination of everything I’ve done so far framed as a pop record, but a particular kind of pop record. It’s largely vocal tracks. I’ve been working on this record for 2 years now. It was initially inspired by riding in trains but morphed into something larger. I guess we’ll see when we get there.
From the filmmakers: ”Mike had told us that images of old libraries with brutalist architecture were a strong source of inspiration for him while writing the album, so we were quite keen to do something that paired well with the future-retro images that had influenced his music. The architecture of these buildings reflected a grandly imagined future that already felt dated, as if the world never bothered to catch up to these concepts of what the future could look like. We used Lois Lowry’s classic dystopian childrens novel The Giver as a point of reference. Developing a story wherein a chosen student living in a numbed, grey, world is given the ability to experience the world as it should be; view its colors, feel its warmth, and witness death. Her experience had to match the strong cathartic build of “Buildings,” and this story, set amongst imposing brutalist architecture is the result.”
“There’s a very strong cinematic feeling to “Buildings.” There’s this classic sounding piano matched with these emotive synths that feel very David Borden, or Phillip Glass. We wanted the visuals to have a strong cinematic aesthetic and narrative that could match the emotive feel of the song. Our wizard of a producer discovered the incredible location, Trent University, just sitting there in rural Ontario. With the help of a brilliant and generous cast and crew, we were able to transform what is presently dorm rooms and an alumni building, into the gothic retro future you see in the video. It took two days, several sandwiches, and the luck that school was out for summer/forever.
Director: Adam Beck
Concept: Paul Johnston
Writers: Adam Beck, Paul Johnston
Producer: Joe McLaren
Director of Photography: Bobby Shore
Cast: Natasha (Sutherland Models), Tom (Ford Models)
Art Director: Conor Pike
Styling: Allyson Shiffman
Hair and Makeup: Wendy Rorong (Plutino Group)
Gaffer: Ian MacMillan
Key Grip: Briana Blades
1st Assistant Camera: Blain Thrush
Steadicam: Daniel Abboud
DIT: Zach Cox
Production Assistant: Oliver Whelton
VFXs: 1188 Films (1188films.com)
Grading: Chris De Castro
Sound: Alexander Bullick