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Steppin' presents: Imaginarium

Anton de Bruin, the Rotterdam-based sonic architect, and part of Dragonfruit, Peter Somuah Group, and Y.O.P.E. provides a glimpse into the enigmatic world of his sonic universe in our latest interview from the Steppin’ presents series. Reflecting on his musical journey, and the genesis of his latest dub-jazz project Imaginarium with which they’ve paid a visit to Birdhouse Studios for a session last November. Merging dub, orchestral arrangements, afrobeat, cinematic elements and electronics, the two-year labor of love and friendship, Imaginarium, serves as a metaphysical steampunky manifestation of Anton's imagination. All of that topped off with visual storylines and characters, each represented on the cover of the upcoming self-titled album. 

Anton de Bruin performing with Imaginarium at Birdhouse Studios
Tijmen de Nooy Photography

How are you feeling at this point in your life, musically, and artistically? And how did you get here?

So, I'm not from a musical family, my mom doesn't play, and neither does my dad. Mom’s from a family that was musical, but not in a professional way. My three musical love pillars that started everything is Jamaican music (reggae and dub), jazz music (Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock), and the third pillar is orchestral music. Cinematic music, but more orchestra-based. Your classic Hollywood 60s 70s & 80s. The golden era of music. After I started playing, I quickly went to the High School for the Rotterdam Conservatory, so I've been making music with professionality in mind since I was 11 years old. And I studied piano there, did all my classes during the daytime, studied piano, and practiced. That was the jazz side of it. The Jamaican side just stayed with me as a listening thing during that time, but I rediscovered it later, which took me where I’m at right now, sort of coinciding with the state of the jazz scene in London. Fusing a new path for me at the time. 

So I’d be doing this during the day, and at night I’d teach myself orchestration with a friend of mine, who studied classical piano, and eventually did a film scoring masters in Amsterdam. I was around a lot of different music influences. One of my best friends was a classical pianist, and another one was a classical percussionist, so I gained a lot of knowledge from them as well. We would take a video game score, and tried orchestrating it to make it sound nice. So this has been a constant daily 20-hour educational cycle for me as a teenager in High School, when I was about 13/14. 

Then I got into the Conservatory. I chose the pop department instead of jazz, because I didn't want to play traditional jazz all the time. I knew the pop department had a jazz teacher, so I could still get the chops, but also learn more about the synthesizers, and more groove based stuff. At this time the Conservatory didn't really have a spot yet for genres like neo-soul, contemporary jazz in the ways of Robert Glasper, Theo Croker etc. When my interests became more focused on that style of music, I figured there wasn’t really anybody or anything out there to latch on to. That resulted in getting me to a dark place for about one or two years, since I had quite different interests then my classmates and most of my teachers.

Out of this I started Dragonfruit together with producer Sjoerd Huissoon, feeling this sound was not being made or represented in our direct surroundings. We also felt like that kind of music wasn't really happening in Holland in general in 2017/2018. There were some people, like Full Crate, or Benny Sings, but it was really under the radar at the time. If you knew, you knew, but you really had to dig for it. Once we started this, it all kind of fell into place with production, learning more about that culture and about the music, branch out into learning about The Roots, J Dilla, Common, becoming this bouquet of colors, because then eventually, all of this goes full circle again. 

Through working, learning and discovering this music, we also discovered the UK Jazz scene, that in itself has strong links to the Jamaican music that I love. This turned into a close connection with Ghana through playing with Peter Somuah, and just within five years, it became this web of everything linking up, and starting to really make sense, allowing us to make something that would include all of these influences. It becomes this synergy of potions that spin around into this big powerful thing. And within that I found a voice and artistic vision.

I graduated at 21. I'm now 25. So four years of doing stuff. Now I’m at a point where I have opinions about how the world works. I used to make music that came from a need to put a sound somewhere. Nowadays, I just try to make music, because I want to make that music. I just want to make stuff, do it in whatever way that feels good, and put that out. That's also why I’m starting my own label, Sundown Recordings, because it allows me to do that. Follow my artistic vision and being able give it the space and time it needs to evolve and develop.

So yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at right now. My brain is just one big mess of beattapes, West-African music, Jamaican soundsystems, jazz, orchestral sounds and trying to bring back improvisational music to clubs, to the streets, and to the people. Fighting against the elitist connotation that surrounds it. I mean, still, big love to spaces that provide a setting where we can listen, process and experience improvised music in a concert setting, but they do have a certain audience that comes with a certain monetary price point that gatekeeps the music in a way. I mean, it's a whole movement that's happening, but I do want to be a part of getting it out of that space. I’m trying many different things, and working on multiple projects very different from each other. 

To answer the question, these days I feel more at peace, because at the end of the day, I enjoy doing what I do. I think that's the main thing. After this, I’ll go home to write some string arrangements. Tomorrow, I'm making a beat. I don't struggle with it. And as long as that’s not happening, it’s all good.

What does Imaginarium in itself represent to you, and how did it all come together?

Imaginarium was two years in the making, and it came from wanting to do something different from what I was doing, just for myself. All of the people who played on the record are friends of mine, and the people who featured, whom I didn't know before, became friends of mine as well. 

The record started with the idea of recording five tunes very low key and eventually it turned into a 50-minute album with international features, a string orchestra, and it all kind of spiraled out of control. But that's the most fun part of it. Just seeing it expand and becoming something you could never dream of. I think I'm very blessed with this. For the strings, because I am able to do it all myself, I had the luxury of not having to worry about paying somebody to write the arrangements, and all that. I just called my friends to come to my studio, bought a few crates of beer and we recorded some arrangements at night. Simple as that. At the end of the day, I would also produce their records if they asked me or write arrangements if they need me to, so it’s a bit of a trade. Imaginarium is built on friendship and mutual respect for each other. 

We played the first version of the record at the end of my BIRD residency in September 2022, and presented Imaginarium there. I’ve been coming to BIRD ever since I was 16, and musically I’ve grown up there, so it was definitely a milestone to present my own project there. However, in January I threw all of that material away, and rewrote almost everything. I felt like it wasn't 100% what I wanted it to feel like. Only one song survived from that first draft, and that’s ‘Dragons Dance’, and it isn’t even on the album. It was released on the Super-Sonic Jazz Family Vol.2 compilation. In January I was finally fed up with everything, and ready to get it all out of my head. I just booked a studio day about two months in advance, and decided to make something, and record it. Whatever happens, happens. I wrote the two songs. ‘Black Sun’ and ‘The Girl And The Robot Flower’ and we recorded 'Dragons Dance' in the same session. Three months later I booked some studio time again, wrote the rest of the songs, and we finished the base takes for the record. One of the songs, ‘Kaleidoscope’, was written 48h before the second studio session and if you ask the band, they still probably hate me for that.

The album now has a whole cast of features which I'm really happy with and grateful for. Belgian-Brazilian singer Helena Casella on 'Airloop', Ghanian-German poet and spoken word artist MOGYAH on 'Black Sun'. Singer Marit Van Der Lei on 'The Girl and the Robot Flower', Y.O.P.E collaborator Sam Nera on 'Dandelions', and UK flutist 'Harry Trevillion' who lend his talent all over the record, really elevating the album in ways that I couldn't be more happy with.

What does Imaginarium stand for?

Imaginarium is a concept, a metaphysical steampunky way of thinking about your imagination that lives somewhere within your consciousness. The songs have visual storylines, and also contain all these characters and stories. So Imaginarium is kind of like this little machine, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a personal manifestation of whatever you believe it to be.

How would you introduce Imaginarium and the self-titled album that’s coming this year?

Watch my brain panic, and this is the result (laughs). It's a collection of things. Everything that I do, and spend time on, in life. It has songs, it has dub, it has strings, it has a story… It's a very visual album. The songs were written, at least in my mind, in a very cinematic way.

Every song is represented on the cover of the record. The songs are characters, and every character is represented on the cover itself. It’s all hand drawn by a friend of mine, Astrid Martirossian. She also does all the Dragonfruit artwork. I think I told her that I don't mind if it looks like Howl's Moving Castle, the Studio Ghibli movie. That's also one of the characters in the record. 

Everything is ready. Masters are ready, cover is ready, and the release date is planned for March 15th. Hopefully also on vinyl.

'Imaginarium' cover artwork by Astrid Martirossian

Have you been performing live a lot in this formation?

We have played three festival gigs, so the Birdhouse session was our fourth time. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what stages we play. Just playing with friends is always nice.

What message would you like to convey in your music? 

I know what I feel for it. I know there’s some really personal songs in there as well, but that’s the most beautiful thing of it all that people can attach their own meanings to the songs. It will come to people when they need it. I’m the type of a creator that noodles around, makes something, and a few days later, when it settles, I can say I feel like I get it. For me that’s the way I discover how I feel about things. It’s a way of saying stuff that you might not be able to do with words. I cannot rationalize stuff with words, so I do it like this. Later I listen, give it a title, and put it out.


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James Brown
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