💿 Negotiating Nostalgia with CFCF
An interview with Grammy-nominated and Polaris Prize-shortlisted Montréal electronic musician, producer, and composer CFCF (aka Mike Silver).
If you've kept up with his work or heard any of his mixes, then you know Mike Silver, better known as CFCF, is a deep listener and attentive to the relationship between sound and image. From the diversity of styles his discography explores down to the album design, CFCF aims close to the heart of music’s aspirational aspects, the worlds it promises, and ideas it sells to us. He's ventured into modern classical and UK garage and delivered on Balearic beats and the divorced dad sounds of confessional adult contemporary, and many sounds in between. He absorbs influences from the past then combines them with his own contemporary sensibility and perspective to create thoughtful reflections on music as a product of consumption, a source of pleasure, a means to process emotions.
Take, for instance, Radiance & Submission (2015), which presents a hybrid of transportive folk, jazz, and new age landscapes that synthesize ideas about ambient music's function as complex texture, something more than just background music. Radiance & Submission's cover art features a painting by Japanese artist Matsudo Matsuo. Dark figures huddled over in reverent or grief-like poses contrast against a stark, austere landscape and capture the paean "In Praise of Shadows", the title of the first track and a reference to the Jun'ichirō Tanizaki book by the same name which meditates on Japanese aesthetics like mono no aware, an acknowledgement of impermanence and the notion that objects bear empathetic response. This release is a direct trajectory leading from some of CFCF's earlier work, such as the Exercises EP (2012) and Music for Objects (2013), the latter of which more openly seeks to extract the dormant beauty and pathos out of everyday objects through minimal but layered compositions.
Look also to Liquid Colours (2019), a survey and synthesis of pre-Y2k electronic elements from drum n bass, downtempo, and jungle, presented with album art reflecting facets of lifestyle branding that call to mind the serenity and simplicity found in the catalogs of Japanese retail brand MUJI and the background music they employ in-store.
His most recent full-length studio release, memoryland (2021), is no different. Through a combination of illustration and motion-blur photography in tandem with hot pink accents and an iconic digitized typeface, the album art blazes with the rapturous spirit and boundless hopes of adolescent yearning rising alongside the turn of the new millennium. At once a tribute to the cross-fertilization of genres, music scenes, and the identities forged through a love for particular types of music—in memoryland's case, post-grunge, alternative rock, and electronica—and a distillation of that feeling of looking back on your past from the perspective of being young and looking to the future. CFCF notes, "As a kid I couldn’t wait to be in my 20’s; in my 30’s it’s bittersweet to look back. That’s the core of memoryland: the gulf between the fantasy, the reality, and the memory, and how we live inside each of those at different points."
I don’t think it would be wrong to posit memoryland as the current gateway point to CFCF as an artist, but his body of work and commitment to understanding a blend of musical styles on a deeper level demonstrates he isn’t just another clout-head clamoring for crumbs of relevancy because 'Y2k' is a trending tag on Depop. It stands that he can distill the essence of several styles and ideas to re-examine the past and explore new potentialities through them all while being unafraid to pull from sources that are considered "uncool".
Ultimately, memoryland encapsulates the experience of being young, restless, impressionable, and filled with hope for the future, especially when fueled by images in magazines, music, television, film, and the nascence of the Internet. Beyond the compelling energy of the music itself, I believe this is the thrust behind why it's so popular, especially since western societies put so much value on youth; and the emotions that come along with the freedom and possibilities of being at the precipice of the beginning of your adult life are huge. Even as a period piece, set at the dawn of the new millennium, it captures a timeless feeling. It will be exciting to see how CFCF boosts off the steam of what he's achieved on this record, and which concepts and themes he will channel into upcoming projects.
In this interview, CFCF divulges his interests and some experiences that were integral to his creative development, cultivation of taste, and artistic preferences during his formative years in the late 90s and early 2000s. We chat about cross-media influences, his early listening habits, what his future projects might encompass, and more. He is very generous here with what he discloses, providing several launch pads for cinematic and musical discoveries, as well as significant context to his approach and the work he produces.
✺ CFCF stands for "Canada's First, Canada's Finest", the call sign for Québec's CTV television network. What was it like coming of age in Montréal in the early 2000s?
As a kid I voraciously read local arts weeklies like the Montréal Mirror, Hour, and of course there was early VICE while it was still vaguely Montréal-associated. I was kind of outside the underground cool thing looking in, so it was more of a fantasy than a reality. I had to envision the kind of things that might be going on, and that I might be able to do if I were older, instead of actively participating.
I’d pore through concert listings, ads for raves, record reviews, spend hours in local record shops like Cheap Thrills and now-defunct Disquivel and Primitive and ultimately buy like 1 or 2 things because I was 13 and my income was $20 allowance a month. I have a fond and distinct memory of a rainy evening, my mom taking me to Cheap Thrills where I bought a CD copy of bis’s This Is Teen-C Power! EP, and the streetlights through the fogged-up windows on the drive home.
I’d read the paper screening program for Cinema Du Parc from front to back and wonder what the hell these terrifying movies were.
✺ I get a sense that you were left to your own devices growing up, which probably gave you a lot of freedom to follow your curiosities. When did your family get a computer and what sorts of things did you get up to on it when you were younger?
I had plenty of time to explore my obsessions within the confines of what was available at the time — magazines, comics, etc. — without a particularly strong internet connection until about 2000. That’s the point where I immediately downloaded Napster and polluted the family computer with pirated mp3’s, or would scour websites for the samples from my favourite records, and leave the computer on overnight so that I could snag 1 rare funk mp3 off someone on Audiogalaxy.
There was lots of visiting and building Geocities websites for my favourite artists, teaching myself rudimentary HTML and Flash (I loved the Kraftwerk website, which was entirely Flash animated), and of course beginning to spend lots of time on message board communities. My first there was the official Astralwerks message board, which I was unceremoniously chased off at age 14 for being ‘pretentious’, because I started a thread about Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson which I’d just discovered and was excited to talk about. I would make terrible music splicing already-well-worn samples together in Sonic Foundry ACID and sharing those on mp3.com.
✺ It was a pretty regular occurrence back in the dial-up days to wait hours for a song to download, only for the file to be corrupted with glitches. If the corruption wasn't too-too bad, I'd often take the L and listen to tracks in these degraded conditions to the point where when I listen to these songs now, I anticipate the artifacts from those corrupted files. What were your experiences of those early P2P file-sharing days?
I did a lot of searching for rare rips of funk 45’s, owing my to love to DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist at the time, as well as anything Shadow had sampled, which led me to discover things like Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co., Embryo, and weird Euro prog like Supersister.
I joined a couple of Beastie Boys-specific FTP servers to unearth weird rarities and dubiously-named mp3 files. I’d also discover a lot of music from free MP3 sites like Epitonic.com, things like Tortoise and the Microphones and Josef K’s “It’s Kinda Funny”. I’d just have like the 1 free song by each band forever, I didn’t actually hear more of their music until years later.
✺ What was your first MP3 player?
It was an iPod video, probably around 2005, pretty late in the game. I couldn’t really convince my dad to buy me one prior to that, though I did have a Discman that could read MP3 files. For a long time I was pretty much only cassette mixes and then CD-R’s, which would always burn with tons of errors, and lead me to waste tons of plastic. I loaded the iPod video with a few Simpsons episodes to watch on the bus.
✺ Can you recall any specific tracks you associate with listening to music on an MP3 player?
The first records I loaded on the iPod video were Boris’s Pink, Sunn0)))’s Black One, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. This was my last year of high school and I was kind of playing with the black metal stoner metal drone thing, alongside a deepening love of soft rock.
✺ We’re both in our early 30s, so we came of age parallel with the early mass adoption of the Internet. Do you have any embarrassing early Internet memories you'd be willing to share?
What I will say is that there was a lot of internal drama on one of the forums I frequented, involving its then overactive and petulant userbase sabotaging its moderator’s ability (or desire) to further host it on his server, which led to an exodus to a new board, which itself was still severely under-moderated. The board had a lot of internal lore and in-jokes and plenty of ragequits and feuds. As I was coming to the height of my Sonic Foundry ACID sample-collaging, I composed a full-length soundtrack to the webforum’s struggles. It was largely made of samples stolen from Madlib and Shadow. It was terrible, but I guess it was technically the first album I ever made.
✺ Are there any defunct sites, music blogs, forums, etc., that you mourn?
Many of the blogs I frequented in the 2010s remained active in the last few years in severely reduced forms, like 20jazzfunkgreats. Prior to that it was honestly a hodgepodge of yousendit links of rare albums and forum threads, which I guess have been entirely supplanted now by reissue labels and Spotify playlists, but I’m not really the bitter or mournful type.
It was fun discovering music in those more wild west internet days, but it was itself still supposedly less meaningful than the tape-sharing mixtape era before it, or college radio, or whatever else. It sucks it’s all tech platforms, but finding exciting music you haven’t heard before is still exciting.
✺ As far as self-promotion and interfacing online as a working producer in the New Media Age goes, what’s your relationship now with social media?
It’s mostly pretty lame, but whatever, everything is kinda lame and we still have to participate with each other. I’m not a meme guy for the most part – it gets a bit tiring reading the same joke templates over and over. I mostly use it to keep people up to date with what I’m doing in music, keep up with my friends and to make dumb tweets about the silly hyper-specific things I’m fascinated by, like videos of Mark Knopfler kissing his guitar or whatever.
✻ Many of us were first consciously exposed to trip hop/IDM/downtempo/French touch through artists like Björk and the Smashing Pumpkins' foray into electronica with Adore, or with Sofia Coppola films (I know multiple people who used to fall asleep to the Lost in Translation DVD menu on loop), Michel Gondry’s films & music videos, and restless teen staples like Fight Club & Trainspotting. Was there a particular gateway film or memorable track in other media that led you down the electronica rabbit hole in your youth?
I probably saw the videos for “Elektrobank” and “Da Funk” and “Around the World” and thought they were really cool. I specifically remember in late 1997 getting cassette copies of Dig Your Own Hole, Homework and Elastica’s self-titled album for Hannukah. Then only later learned those videos were directed by Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, and that Sofia Coppola was in the “Elektrobank” video, and that Spike also worked with the Beastie Boys a lot.
I picked up a lot of my music taste from my siblings, and we spent a lot of time watching Muchmusic and MTV together. We shared issues of SPIN and CMJ and Rolling Stone and The Face that floated around the house, and we’d steal each other’s tapes from each other’s bedrooms to make our own personal mixtapes on the stereo system in the family living room — lots of time on the record and pause buttons, lining up the songs precisely.
This is embarrassing, but I also remember I bought Björk’s Homogenic and loved it but also eventually weighed my priorities, traded it in for a copy of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, and then disavowed a year later when the Beastie Boys said they sucked.
Ultimately, visually speaking, music videos and MTV and MTV2 were king, and those video directors were kind of my entry point to cinema, especially once Being John Malkovich and The Virgin Suicides came out.
✻ You're uniquely good at taking material characterized by interiority, and then creating something expansive that transcends the personal. This lends your music a quality that evokes physical landscapes to experience or inhabit. How do you go about identifying the world or atmosphere you want to construct sonically? Do you have any routines, rituals, or practices that get you in a certain mindset to approach composition?
No particular routines other than constantly listening to music. I think I’ve developed a really visual approach to listen wherein if something’s really inspiring me, I start to envision the physical place it inhabits (or inhabited in the past) and work backwards from there trying to evoke that space myself, either by wholesale ripping off things I’m inspired by and fixing it later or using some of the cliches of those spaces.
I’m not afraid of being unoriginal because there’s usually a bit of a joke or a wink inherent in the process, like I’m fascinated by something that is widely considered bad and I’m trying to coax out the universal qualities that will change that perception. Lately I’ve been joking about getting a green Kia Soul for my first car.
✻ I'm really interested in how film influences your music and your sense of worldbuilding through sound. You’ve talked about being inspired by films like New Rose Hotel, Demonlover, Millennium Mambo — it seems like you're drawn to films that are moody and convey social detachment, the anticipation of loss, techno-paranoia, and the melancholy of urban atomization. You know the vibes! Can you say more about your interest in film; what sorts of narratives, scenes, characters, settings inspire you?
I like movies where people are struggling to connect within the various contemporary systems designed to keep them apart. That’s pretty broad I guess, but it describes a good many of the films I like. Ultimately it’s the voice of the filmmaker I connect with, and how their filmmaking style and choices and collaborations with the cinematographer and editors coalesce into an affecting experience.
It’s hard to really explain, but I’m definitely drawn to certain types of stories like in those you mentioned. I get really excited watching the camera move around in Demonlover or Trouble Every Day, the restlessness of what it chooses to focus on or exclude at any given moment, or how it doesn’t move at all in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, keeping its distance from the characters and not offering any judgment.
✻ Could you drop some films that hint at the direction of what you’re working on now?
I’ve been going back to Hal Hartley’s work, and have adored recent rewatches of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. It’s not a good film, but I have a warm spot for Roman Coppola’s CQ from watching in the DVD era. I’ve been thinking about Tindersticks’ scores for Claire Denis, and a kind of wholesome playful indie vibe from the late 90’s/early 2000’s that was present in more crowd-pleasing stuff by people like Mike Mills, before it filtered into the mainstream via stuff like Little Miss Sunshine. I’m not a big anime guy but Masaaki Yuasa’s stuff has been inspiring, Kaiba and Ping Pong especially.
✻ Is there anything you've seen in recent years that's made your heart sing?
Those Bill Forsyth films are near perfect. I finally got around to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar which was pretty monumental. I loved Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster and Exotica, and it was very lovely to have Cronenberg back this year with Crimes of the Future, which I think will be sadly underrated for a few years to come.
✻ Do you have any aspirations to get involved with film, whether through scoring or otherwise?
I have scored a couple, a film in 2015 called Boost and one this year called You Can Live Forever, both made by friends from Montreal. I’m definitely hoping to do more.
✻ The visual design of your records also helps situate them in the present. The pairing of Daylen Seu’s illustrations and the soft, motion blurred photography on the cover of memoryland strike a neat balance between paying homage to the aesthetics of the new millennium, without feeling like a caricature of the era. Can you talk a little about the process of working with designers and illustrators?
I worked very closely with the designer of the sleeve, Ben Sifel, in arriving at those concepts together. I’d send him little bits of inspiration, ads from magazines I remembered from the 90’s, he’d send back his own bits like amazing video games I hadn’t heard of. He’d send some approaches, I’d comment, and we’d adjust until we landed at this approach.
It was very atomized in the sense that we had a multi-format approach: I was in Montreal working directly on different shoots with the photographers Alex Blouin and Jodi Heartz, Daylen was doing her illustration work solo, and Ben was conceiving how they could all blend together. It’s a very rewarding experience not without its difficulties, but it feels so good when it comes together. I’m very happy with how much praise everyone has received for their terrific work. I think they put together something totally unique.
✦ How do you negotiate nostalgia in your work? Are there any questions you ask yourself in the process of shaping an album to ensure your work is transformative or critical and not purely an exercise in self-indulgence?
It’s pretty abstract, but I did a lot of work on memoryland to try to imbue every track with a layer of comment and distance. I definitely tried very hard to avoid simple genre pastiche, while also having to embrace and incorporate that superficial element of it. How can I get a 90’s French-touch tribute to also feel like it’s the soundtrack to your life coming apart at the seams?
I think nostalgia is something that you can either get lost in, or which you can harness and use as a tool, as colour or context for something broader you’re trying to express. I suppose that’s the difference in my calling the record a period piece rather than it being pure nostalgic, stylistic replication.
The Y2k era is the setting for the story, there are all the necessary set dressings of genre and aesthetic, but they are not the central focus. The focus is the loose narrative across the album, and the idea of the distance between then and now.
✦ Liquid Colours and memoryland point to a specific time and place that was defined by overlapping cultural and socio-political factors, and a penetrating awareness of increasing global excess and tumult. You’re probably familiar with the concept of hauntology, the notion of "lost futures" that Mark Fisher used when discussing post-2005 electronic music's inability to capture the social imagination's anticipation for the future.
Would you characterize your work as attempts at gathering ghosts from potential futures that were never fully realized and giving them a more defined place to breathe and wander in the present?
(An aside: I think Vanilla Sky, despite or maybe because of its shortcomings, is exemplary of this concept of lost futures, especially since it was released a few months after 9/11, which ultimately caused a shift in mainstream appeal for certain narratives in North American media for a long time... It also has a killer soundtrack —Peter Gabriel, Todd Rundgren, Chemical Brothers, and Looper???)
Vanilla Sky felt like a mess to me but my favourite bit, aside from Mark Kozelek screaming at Tom Cruise to fix his fucking face, was the promotional video for the procedure Cruise’s character undergoes. Very utopian dreamy Gap-ad vision of death.
I was certainly attempting to superficially incorporate some of the Fisher ideas of the cancellation of the future, although I’m not sure I succeeded, since I haven’t really read enough of him in earnest. It’s more just being inspired by the fashion and design of the pre-9/11 era, attempting to express that this was maybe the last real moment of optimistic futurism, even if it was among the trash of the 20th century, before permanent paranoia and surveillance and militarism took over as the broad definition of our future.
✦ Generally, when people talk about memory it connotes a bittersweetness, leaning toward feelings of fondness. Were you pulling from any sounds, styles, or tonal elements that you didn’t like from the late 90s/early 2000s that you grew an appreciation for, or only the good stuff to engineer the ‘perfect’ land of memory?
The thing with fashion is that it represents a specific momentary consensus of appetite that is always temporary — there are always new or, more often, recycled appetites around either corner being proposed and waiting to be adopted. So to be ‘in fashion’ is to reside in that specific brief pocket and to be ‘out of fashion’ is to reside in the broader realm of possible appetites.
I pulled from plenty of music and style that is generally not included in Gen-Z Y2k style boards, because it’s the stuff I remember of that era and was part of the fabric of the era. For me it was all one tapestry, because I was watching it and consuming it in consolidated places like MTV or SPIN or whatever. It wasn’t atomized into genres and scenes from my perspective as an outsider, it was one big thing. I think that’s how the whole current Y2k-revival thing approaches it as well with a more cherry-picked aesthetic mood-boarding, which feels very sacrilegious to people who were, say, exclusively devoted indie rockers or ravers in the 90s.
I was generally a fan of the cross-genre things like Beck and Grand Royal and Mo’Wax. I thought it was cool when there was scratching in Modest Mouse’s “Heart Cooks Brain”, and how the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion worked with Dan the Automator and Alec Eiffel, and, like, CAN put out a remix album featuring Sonic Youth and UNKLE and Eno alongside Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald (conveniently titled Sacrilege).
For me there was a bit of an idea of trying to expand the canon to include those kinds of sillier toss-away things that — in their disposability and lack of longevity — were the epitome of cool at the time.
❈ I think there is a lot to mine from the era of overlapping electronica styles that Liquid Colours and memoryland survey, but I imagine you probably want to move onto something new. Can you tease what sorts of sounds have been inspiring future projects?
I’ve been thinking about the same general era, but from the approach of “i regret the jet-set”. Lounge music, indie music, post-rock and experimental electronic, attempts at bossa nova, a kind of globalized music scene from that era, from Japan to Europe to the USA, and a bit of the more glossy and cute and playful strains of dance in the Mirwais/Röyksopp vein. But, also, just writing genuinely pretty and fun melodic things and approaching music without all the angst and darkness.
❈ There’s a gold rush ethos that permeates all art forms, where artists chase after a certain idea or element that has become commercially attractive until it's worn out. The parallel opposition to this seems to be to embrace raw materials from the past that are considered corny, outdated or crude, extract the elements that are charming, and reconfigure them to align with the present, or with the intention of boosting them toward a future-oriented goal like a hope or a wish, until the cycle repeats and that eventually becomes the new hot commodity.
Does this hold any weight over you when you're starting a project? Do you ever feel like your creative interests diverge as a reaction against the creative climate of your contemporaries?
It’s a tough thing to avoid if you’re someone whose listening habits have always involved a bit of digging, searching for hidden gems etc. I try to balance the stylistic exercises with attempts at strengthening areas I’ve neglected.
For memoryland I went all-in on world-building and sound design, but now I’d like to focus more on songcraft, a tiny bit of theory, just in a more classicist sense, like thinking about how many of my favourite artists are inspired by things like Burt Bacharach.
❈ How do you approach a DJ set?
I try to include things I’m currently fascinated with, but also I have to tailor it to the crowd while I’m playing. Ultimately, I want people to have fun while also trying to avoid playing the exact same set as any other DJ out there. I like stuff that’s a bit fast and loopy and silly, lots of early tech-house and bouncy euphoric trance.
❈ Do you prefer vinyl to digital?
Both are fine. I’m not an audiophile or a purist whatsoever. I have lots of records, I dj vinyl sometimes, but it’s cumbersome and, honestly, it feels amazing finishing a set and not having to carry 200 pounds of records around. I’ll try to track down the best possible quality, but also I’m probably one of the DJ’s most likely to drop a 128kbps MP3, if it’s the only thing available because fuck it.
❈ What types of places do you like performing at? Is there a venue (real, bygone, or imagined) you dream of performing or DJing at but haven't had the opportunity?
I would have loved to play a proper 90’s oxygen lounge, or a similarly posh nightclub amid the 90’s advertising boom in London.
❈ Do you express yourself creatively in any non-musical ways?
I used to draw, but haven’t in ages.
❈ What have you got on current rotation these days?
Double Virgo and bar italia, tons of Sonic Youth as usual (“JC” from Dirty, “Jams Runs Free” from Rather Ripped, and Murray Street and Sonic Nurse in general), some nice Morr Music bands like Guther, the second album by Insides called Sweet Tip. The new Yo La Tengo song “Fallout” is really lovely, pure YLT. Lantern Parade, a cool sample-based project the started in the 2000’s from Japan. Lovely folk music like Bridget St. John.
❈ And, for the sake of my own curiosity as a longtime Beck fan, did you sample that skippy, frog-like drumbeat in "Deadweight" for "i regret the jet-set"?
Um, maybe I did! I can neither confirm nor deny!
Catch CFCF performing memoryland LIVE at The Lodge Room in Highland Park on Saturday, February 11, 2023 with support from Casey MQ & Jia Pet.
🎟 Get tickets here.
Follow CFCF on Twitter and Instagram for updates & buy/stream his music on Bandcamp.
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This interview was conducted over e-mail in December 2022.
Thank you to B.B. & Andreas Loretan for their help editing this piece.
excellent interview! wistfully brings to mind reading thoughtful magazine profiles/interviews that don't really exist anymore --a very appropriate feeling for the subject at hand