In Conversation With: Thys
Who is Thijs de Vlieger, or Thys as he’s more commonly known to our ears? A producer? A painter? A composer? An artist? An enigma? An ideology? All of the above apply; this is the double-edged signature and watermark of a man who has transcended electronic music, and perhaps the concept of ‘music’ as a whole. What transpires is a completely naturalistic, effortless canvas of sonics and soundwaves, never once held down by the rudimentary boundaries and norms that can so easily encompass our being in this industry. At its basis, his work is an oil painting; the Rembrandt, the Monet, the Johannes Vermeer of our age and time within this electronic membrane, and we’re privileged to be able to listen to this enveloping, expansive, conceptual brilliance on a firsthand basis.
It’s safe to say Thys has embedded himself into the very fabric of the Drum & Bass scene, at the pinnacle of prominence and prosperity. Perhaps most well-known for his pivotal role in the legendary Noisia outfit, that storied, biblical journey is soon coming to a close after a final tour, delayed by COVID-19, rounding out in 2021 for what’s sure to be a bittersweet goodbye to one of the most revolutionary trifectas in the history of electronic music. They will, to put it simply, go down in history as one of the most influential movements of the century.
However, individualism is essential, and that’s exactly what we’re witnessing here, in the most magical of ways. Fruitful, mysterious and ethereal at its roots; Thys’ workflow and musicianship are unparalleled, evidenced by his self-aware output under this solo alias thus far. We’ve seen the gargantuan Groningen grandmaster bring together explosive, rhythmic, spine-tingling atmospherics on the beautiful, juxtaposed Tetris, Mon Amour commission, and emotional, string-heavy ballads on the stunning, extraordinary ‘Ghostcards’ collaboration with Amon Tobin, an all-encompassing work that released on Tobin’s own Nomark Records.
Perhaps Thys’ crown jewel so far is scoring the entirety of the ‘Sleeping Beauty Dreams’ ballet, spearheaded by world-famous dancer Diana Vishneva in a true meeting of giants. In their review, the NY Times note, “the raison d’être of the show, as conceived and directed by Rem Hass, is not the princess and the prince. It’s the technology around them” – with Thys’ score providing the foundations, balance and tension required and facilitated by a concept of this magnitude. Now, Thys returns to his roots, on this first, purposefully-written EP, comprised of one cascading, breakbeat-etched vision of electronica, and also a collaboration with fellow innovator Lordel, the exciting new alias of one of the most talented artists in Drum & Bass: Halogenix, who’s already shone on his subterranean offerings so far, namely his ‘Purpan’ EP and ‘Relic’ on 1985 Music. Detroit trailblazer Sinistarr links up sublimely on remix duties, providing a spacious 160 twist to proceedings. I caught up with Thys to discuss his past, present and future, in an in-depth chat that sums up just why he’s such a vital cog in this timeline.
I just want to congratulate you on this first debut EP – it’s a stunning piece of art. Why’s now the right time to embark fully on this journey?
Thank you! To be honest with you, journeys like these don’t necessarily feel “right” when you start them off. I know deep inside that I have to do this. But, it still feels scary to set sail and leave the safe haven for what lies beyond. Scary, and exciting…
Looking back, your time as Thys has been very illustrious so far, but in more of a composed, live-instrumentation sense perhaps. This project takes us back to the dancefloor on ‘Unmoved Mover’ which is a startling cosmos of flowing breakbeats and mesmerising electronica, is this a direction you’re looking to move down from here? A lot of your recent work has been effectively drum-less.
I absolutely see this as a direction I was always going to go in. When I set off, the Thys project was mostly about exploring things I just couldn’t explore within the limits of the Noisia collective. But, electronic music is home. I’m a traveller, I have an innate need to explore different things, and bring them home – but electronic music is home. I will always keep coming back to it, bringing back new influences from my explorations.
That said, I believe there are a lot of musical stories that are better told without drums dominating the sonics. The more I listen to other music, the more I understand how extreme some of the music I grew up with is. Translated to physical instruments, you’d need a kickdrum the size of a house and a beater the size and weight of a battering ram, to get close to represent the way a kickdrum dominates the spectrum in electronic music. This is amazing, but it also severely limits the space for expression of other elements. Sometimes I hear a snare in a track and all I can think is: “WHYYYY??!! There’s nothing in this track that justifies the aggression in this snare drum! Can’t you hear this is unbalanced?!”
So yeah, I’ve been generally more excited in exploring the possibilities of expression of the other elements, so I’ve been leaving the drums out completely to bring the rest to the front. After ‘Unmoved Mover’, I have another EP coming with barely any drums, it’s another EP with Amon Tobin, but unlike ‘Ghostcards’ this one is turning out very dark and futuristic.
I can’t wait to hear that, especially after listening through ‘Ghostcards’, imagining it on a darker tip is a bit crazy! It makes me think, after all of your experience and time in the scene, is this step back to the solo work still a bit nerve-wracking or has the selection of remixes you’ve done so far for the likes of Machinedrum & Holly and Sofie Letitre, and your work with Mija set you up nicely?
After twenty years of working in a collective, and having every musical decision weighted by my partners, it’s definitely a bit scary to go and pursue directions that they wouldn’t have gone in. But growth is always on the edge of the comfort zone, where you kind of know what you’re doing but have no idea what the consequences might be… It feels right, but it also feels scary.
It is scary – a step back into a scene you know, but in a capacity that’s wholly different to what’s come before, and I feel like this is a defining, or maybe even redefining part of your career, what stands out to you from this upcoming EP, any difficulties? Can you outline how it came together in the studio?
I think the redefining has happened in all the projects I did outside of my comfort zone, studying theory, taking piano lessons, working with a symphony orchestra, string quartets and other instrument ensembles, writing scores for contemporary dance performances that had to be performed live by percussionists, developing a workflow with modular synthesis and hardware instruments with all their limitations… Taking all of that in has redefined me, and on ‘Unmoved Mover’ I tried to bring it all home.
Funnily enough, both ‘Unmoved Mover’ and ‘Unwound’ are built around recordings from my Prophet Rev2. ‘Unmoved Mover’s’ foundation is an arpeggio from the Prophet, sampled and mangled in UVI’s excellent Falcon sampler. Unwound is all about that low melody that Laurence (Lordel/Halogenix) played on the ‘Prophet’. When we had that, the rest of the track started flowing. Both tracks took months to finish and would change drastically between sessions. I think Laurence and I worked on ‘Unwound’ (working title: “Untitled Gelato”) in three separate sessions in my studio, and finally finished it online. The orchestral outro to ‘Unwound’ was the last thing I added, I actually wrote that in Cubase while the rest of the track was in Ableton. I really prefer Cubase for orchestral library writing.
I guess it must be an entirely different scope of work to the ‘Sleeping Beauty Dreams’ composition in every shape and form. Do you need to disconnect from that side of things to work on the more ‘dance’-ready sound or does it go hand in hand somewhat?
Well as I said, I bring all of my projects back home. But there’s a big difference when you’re composing for a dance performance: you know that there will be an amazing visual accompaniment to everything you do. Leaving a long section almost silent can really intensify the experience. That wouldn’t work so well in the club or on Spotify…
Thys – ‘Unwound’ feat. Lordel heard at 53:53
We’re hearing ‘Unwound’, the wholly experimental collaboration with Lordel, already being referred to as a cinematic odyssey and it makes me wonder whether you’ll step into scoring for film or TV, or a video game again? You strike me as the Hanz Zimmer of the electronic spectrum!
Well, thanks! Scoring film, in particular, is my next big journey. I’m working with a private teacher, who has me watching tons of films, studying music theory and (re)scoring student movies. I’d love to be part of teams that tell stories in cinema.
I really decided in October last year (2019), speaking to my friend Brendan Angelides (Billions, 13 Reasons Why, and more) who urged me to just go for it because he thought I’d do great. I remembered something Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL: Mad Max Fury Road, Deadpool, and more) once told me when I was visiting his studio in LA: “it’s never too late to become a film composer, at some point you might not have the right age to be a music star, and live on tour anymore, but age is irrelevant for film composers…”
So, now I’m doing it. It’s a long road ahead, it might take years, but that’s where I’m headed!
That’s incredible. On that subject, I noticed you tweeted that you rewatched Annihilation the other day; the soundtrack from the film has always stood out massively to me, composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Do you take inspiration from that side of things?
Absolutely. When I learned that the same guy who did that score, and Ex Machina, and Devs, also was the main producer behind Portishead, my mind was blown. Although film music is meant to support the movie first and foremost, and hence is necessarily a compromise between pure music and support-music, I do listen to a lot of film scores. There’s a lot of great artists doing really nice film scores.
Out of interest, any other films you can recommend that strike you as having an incredible soundtrack/score? Ex Machina, as you mentioned, Dark and Arrival stick long in the memory for me.
Another turning point besides those conversations with Eskmo and Tom Holkenborg, was earlier in 2019: I was watching the HBO series Chernobyl and I noticed how amazing the music was. It really made me think: “Wait, you can do this in high budget productions now? Amazing!” Afterwards, I checked out who wrote it (Hildur Guthnadottir). Since then I’ve been doing a lot of research on film composers. Here’s a list of great scores, by composer, in no particular order:
Hildur Guthnadottir – Chernobyl, Joker
Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury – Devs, Annihilation, Ex Machina
Ben Frost – Dark
Colin Stetson – Hereditary, The Color Out Of Space
Clark – Daniel Isn’t Real (I don’t know if the series is any good but the music is great)
Eskmo – (Billions, 13 Reasons Why)
Mica Levi – Under The Skin (this score changed the world, bravo to the director and producers for taking that chance)
Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood, The Master, You Were Never Really Here
Bobby Krlic – Midsommar
And some of the classics:
Bernard Herrmann – Vertigo and Psycho and wow everything
Ennio Morricone – do I even need to say anything?
Hans Zimmer – he’s been a big influence in bringing electronic music into film scores, and pushed the orchestra sound hard, especially since he’s been working with Christopher Nolan. But he’s also done movies like Rainman!
Listening to the two tracks as a whole, they differ both in sonics and name, yet I feel they’re also connected at their basis, almost like two sides of the same coin?
Yes, I think what unites them is a cinematic approach to club music. Taking the tools of club music, what stories can you tell? I’m not interested in mixdown music. I’m grateful for having the tools I have, and I have tons of respect for those in the scene who are much better with them than I am. But I don’t want to make my listeners feel like they’re listening to a mixdown. I want them to hear a real story with a start, a couple of chapters, and a proper ending, all in one track.
You’ve always been a producer, across all of your projects, that countless artists specify as a direct inspiration to their work. In that position, where do you take inspiration from, directly music-wise? There’s always something different and boundary-breaking coming out of your camp.
Thankfully, through Noisia Radio I remain very much on top of the scene. We get sent the hottest tunes, and so we keep a nice overview of what’s what in our world. This is important and inspiring. It reminds me that, even though what fascinates me the most is those explorations into new territories, I have to make it sound like it’s made in 2020. This keeps me on my toes, and that’s a good thing. I constantly have to reconsider whether I can add more layers versus keeping it simple, I have to choose between snappy electronic transients versus softer transients that allow more traditional elements to sit comfortably in the mix, using little reverb to make things punchy and close versus using more reverb to put things in a space, and again to allow more traditional elements to sit in the mix comfortably, and so on. I like this challenge.
The final piece of the puzzle is the Sinistarr remix of ‘Unmoved Mover’ which I’m really intrigued about, he’s one of the most innovative artists out there, cemented by that top-drawer BS6 collab with Hyroglifics. How did you get him on board for remix duties?
We played the same night together in Denver in 2019. I remember messaging the team something along the lines of “Yo last night this DJ called Sinistarr was playing before me and his selection was spot on!! We need to get this guy at our events if he ever tours in EU!” Added each other on social media, asked him for tunes after hearing the things he’d released on Exit Records, started emailing, one thing led to another. But yeah it started with a DJ set he played that I caught!
Just like that! Was the idea for the remix always there or did you make the tune and then think, “let’s get Sinistarr on this”?
Haha, yeah I didn’t know I wanted Jeremy to remix it before I started the tune if that’s what you’re asking!! But seriously, around the time I was really finishing up the track, I started thinking about potential remixes, first thinking about tempos/styles rather than names. I really wanted a 160 remix, because I’m really charmed by the possibilities of that tempo. It has a speed and urgency similar to dnb, but it has a little more space and playfulness and doesn’t feel as forceful as 170/180. From there it wasn’t a hard choice. That recent EP on Hooversound with Hyroglifics, especially his solo track ‘Detroit‘ really impressed me. So yeah!
Your work rate has always been second to none and something to be commended, what else can we expect from Thys in the near future?
2020 has been nuts: that back to back set with Skrillex in February just before the clubs shut, the ‘Ghostcards’ EP with Amon Tobin, the remix for ‘Machinedrum & Holly’.
Now we’ve got the ‘Unmoved Mover’ EP coming, then I’ve got remixes for Addison Groove and Tokimonsta coming up very soon, then I’m working on this second EP with Amon Tobin which is becoming kind of an epic voyage of itself, and then at the same time I’m studying to become a film composer and I’m starting to look around for exciting film projects to do, or TV series or a good game to score… So I’ll be keeping busy!
Funnily enough, I wrote an essay about Noisia’s dips into writing and scoring the soundtrack for Devil May Cry & Armajet, as well as getting your music involved in other games, do you have any tips for producers looking to do the same and get involved in synch?
Lead, don’t follow. Be yourself. Keep making things, focus on enjoying the moment of creation, but also stay critical once you start showing your work outside, and keep digging deeper, understand yourself. The music always leads the business.