Let’s Have A Word #7: Noiserv

The Lisbon multi-instrumentalist Noiserv spells out a word starting with N for us.
Photo by Vera Marmelo

David Santos, a.k.a. Noiserv, picked his moniker from inverting the word Version and inverting the letters E and R again. Versions and inversions on his previous work define what his varied output has been so far, as Noiserv has been taking on different approaches and concepts from one record to the next, while still keeping his unique personal touch.

One of Noiserv’s distinctive traits is the striped tops he dons on most occasions. He has certainly earned his stripes since the home-made demo he submitted back in 2005 to Festival Termómetro (long-standing festival designed to unearth new acts), which also prompted his first ever solo concert.

His new album, Uma Palavra Começada Por N (A Word Starting With N) — released track by track during this singular 2020 — was the cue to his recent short tour around the country in the autumn, which culminated with a show in Lisbon at Teatro Tivoli, a few days before this interview.

The show’s visual impact was impressive. The stage set was made up of a video wall with a live screening of the show from multiple cameras set up at various angles and Noiserv and his paraphernalia playing inside a hollow cubic frame, which also displayed some of the light effects.

(Interview held in Portuguese)

About Friday’s concert — the scenic concept was your idea?

It was a joint endeavor, thought out by me and the light designers Fred Rompante and Berto Pinheiro, who operated the lights at Tivoli.
The idea of the cameras came from previous tours, but we only had one on top, not as many, so this was a bit like an upgrade. The cube idea came from the time I recorded the TV show Eléctrico for RTP; then ideas starting to merge with one another for this particular set.

Photo by Vera Marmelo

You’ve been one of the few artists touring lately.
How has it been to go back on the road and play live again? Has it been strange, given the rather usual intimate atmosphere of your shows?

Well, there are many aspects that are different from what we were used to. The first one is the audience not being so comfortable having to wear masks. Another one is when venues are sold out their capacity is still reduced, so there’s this weird dynamic between what represents a full venue or not. But then again, it is like you said, I think I was fortunate enough to have a whole agenda planned almost a year in advance in September last year, before the pandemic hit. So when it all started happening, we decided not to cancel anything because we were still trying to figure out how long we would be able to stick to our plans, and then things ended up coming together in a way that allowed us to go ahead with the tour. Therefore, regardless of how more complicated it is for us to set things up and for the audience to watch with a mask on, or even to have a capacity that is smaller than what it could have been, I think to be able to do it in the current situation is the greatest gain. Sure, there are a few differences, but they don’t make a concert any better or worse, because the connection with the audience is still there. I guess this is what matters in a concert — and to still achieve that is a victory these days.  

You released all of the songs as singles before the album. What was the idea behind it? 

I think it was to get away a bit from what I’ve been feeling records have, which is that a record lives held hostage to the couple of singles picked out by whoever chose them — the label, the artist, or the management. So, it seems there are many songs that remain hidden inside a record, and they’re only heard by whoever has the album — and even then, they might be overlooked in favor of the singles. This way of releasing one song per month gives each one of them a longer lifetime than what they would get if released in one bunch. Each song had one month. Sure, people have other things to do than to listen to my music. But for a month, any communication I do would revolve around that particular song, and that would give it a little more space than it would otherwise. That was the basic idea.

And all the videos were also shot in February, their montage was made as we were releasing them. So, when I launched the first song in December last year, the record was done, and I could do the rest with the time left at my disposal, which was plenty during lockdown, right? (laughs) 

Do you think the music industry will head that way in the future?

Although the idea of an album has been losing ground, and I’ve been releasing one song a month, I still think that the concept of an LP and the concept of a unit, from one set of songs, are primordial in the music one makes. Therefore, I don’t know. I guess music for some is supposed to be that way, where songs are out and not part of a bigger work, and so when one record actually comes out, it’s like a collection of all those songs. But I think of a record as a whole wrapped in itself.

Now, when we decided to release the songs, we resolved on releasing one at a time. Not that taken separately, they don’t exist well outside that group. I don’t know what the future holds, but as far as I’m concerned, I will always value the notion of a record, a whole containing several songs, not that the themes are all the same within, but with something that binds them all together.

So, each song has its own video: they’re basically parallel threads gravitating around the same scene with one common link: you sticking post-its with the title of the song. Were the video ideas all yours? 

Just like the lighting design and stage set for the concert, it was a joint effort, in this case with a Leiria-based group called Casota Collective. I brought many ideas in from the start as a reference of a character for each video. Many others came up as we discussed it. I sometimes do everything alone, but usually when working with other people, one idea leads to another, and we feed on each other’s creativity. Of course, the songs are mine so I end up having a strong say and conceptually it all has to make sense in my mind,  but fortunately I’ve been surrounded by people with alike minds so it’s been easy to find a common ground.

Do you envision the video as you write the songs? Because you’re fairly “audiovisual” with all the soundtracks you’ve scored.

Usually not. There’s an initial stage very confined to the lyrics and the voice where maybe by the time I finish the song, I might have a rough idea for a video, but whatever that idea is, it hasn’t conditioned the song per se. As the music comes up and I’m constantly thinking about it, it’s normal that a few ideas cross my mind already, but I try to separate things, so music is one thing and the videos part usually comes afterwards. Unless it’s commissioned for a soundtrack, in which case I make the music based on the picture, of course.

The last track and video of the album (“Sempre Rente Ao Chão”) ends with the focus on the phrase “Não estar é perto de ser o que eu não fui” (Not being is close to being what I haven’t been). Can you explain it?

This should be read as a double negative, that is “Not being is close to being what I haven’t been” is like “Being is close to being what I’ve lived”, so when you remove the double negative trick, it may be easier to understand. But the idea behind it is: not being in the places, not making the most of the situation you find yourself in  – and by ‘not being’, I mean not living it fully – you won’t be anywhere near having lived that moment. If you’re somewhere, not really being there philosophically or metaphorically, but often your mind just isn’t there, you’ll also be far from having really lived that experience. It all has to do with being in the here and now, making the most of the things that come to you and realizing that you ought to take them in as best as you can.
And also this has to do with the dynamic of music, this song and the actual record, which ends on this note  – and so does the concert setlist – so, if one is not completely there, the moment will have slipped away.
The purpose of this sentence is to value the importance of the things you do or experience, because with both focus and dedication, we’re truly living that experience.  

Tell me about your composition process. You play piano and guitar, which one do you lean more towards when you work on your first ideas?

I think songs always emerge from both of them. On the first record, it was mostly guitar, but piano started appearing gradually. The process of composing arrangements is often different, but the initial composition of the song itself is always quite similar. It always starts with small drafts that I occasionally make in various places: at soundcheck, in my living room or in studio, while I’m doing something else, and all of a sudden I pick up the guitar and come up with something 20-seconds long or so that I might like and tape. Then, I keep those drafts on my phone or something, and if by the time I reach 20 or 30 of them, I feel there might make up a record, so I move to a longer process of stretching them in duration, trying to figure out what direction they might take or not and when I get to four or five songs well into that process, I go to the studio to work on the arrangements. From there on, that part of the process can take up to two months as well as just one week, it varies, because it has to do with a slightly obsessive search in the sound palette at my disposal and trying to find the perfect fit for each track.

And the lyrics, when applicable, do they come later?

It’s more or less simultaneous. Normally, on that first 20-second draft, there’s always some phrase, some little thing that keeps and then sets the theme for the rest of lyrics. Then again, it’s never quite the same, but the lyrics come as the music comes. I’ve never written lyrics beforehand, but instrumentals yes. So, usually, it’s simultaneous, but when not, the instrumental comes first. 

Do you usually leave many ideas out?

Almost nothing. Because normally if it’s already one of those drafts, it means I really like that snippet and I’ll find it difficult to discard it. But sometimes, if I don’t use it on one record, I’ll use it on some other work. I have a folder on my computer where I store those unused tracks and source from, not just for my records, but sometimes on a soundtrack I’m writing, and I check whether one of them could make sense. If not, it stays in that folder. If it does, I delve into a bit more. Now, when a given track goes into that arrangement phase, it is very unlikely to stay out of the record.

Are you conditioned by how you will reproduce it on stage as a one-man band, since you usually use so many layers?

I used to more than I do now. Lately it hasn’t been on my mind because I don’t want it to condition the live performance and above all the song. But then, for example in the concert you attended at Tivoli, I played six songs  from the new record, there are two more I could play and there are others which in practical terms based on this loop mode are impossible to play, as if they were not loopable. Maybe on my debut album, the songs were born out of fooling around with loops, these new ones and the ones from the “piano album” [ 00:00:00:00 ] came from a different dynamic where the song is the main focus and I need to figure out how to play it live. Even those get a different rendition from the record, because that’s how I could adapt them, always trying to avoid resorting to sequenced tracks and play everything live, no matter how much I have to split myself.

Sometimes, when I’m writing a song, I start to get an idea of how I’ll play it live, but I don’t let this influence me or change the song. In the studio, I try to reach the ideal song, live will be another story.

Photo by Vera Marmelo

You started out by singing English but eventually switched to Portuguese. What was the motivation?

It’s just been happening gradually. I released my first album in 2008 in English, then an EP in 2010 in English as well and somewhere between 2009 and 2011, when I made the soundtrack for José e Pilar [Documentary filmed in the intimacy of writer José Saramago in the last years of his life], I wrote this song in Portuguese called “Palco Do Tempo”. Ever since, considering how people liked that song, I’ve thought I’d make a whole record in Portuguese someday. And when, before this last record, on the piano album of 2016, I wanted to make a basically instrumental one, I thought maybe it was a good time to try out including a few songs in Portuguese, so that’s what I did. By the time I got to the last record – as I like to try things I’ve never done before – I thought the next step would be to make a record with all the layers of instruments but in Portuguese. So that was the initial proposition.  
I think when one gets used to it, the whole thing about singing in English or Portuguese, both languages are challenging and both are “easy”, it’s all about getting used to the process, so I’m more or less torn between them at the moment, they’re on a par in terms of number of songs I’ve made. I’m not sure what could be the challenge on a next record, but who knows. 

You had been gigging a lot abroad before switching to Portuguese, what difference have you noticed, if any?

Yes, I don’t think the language is in any way a hurdle to play abroad. In France, in particular, the audience – and I’m not talking about the Portuguese community – like it even when you sing in Portuguese, probably more than in English . So, the idea that singing in English is important to open doors to an international career is very debatable. I haven’t felt any difference from the moment I started singing in Portuguese, at least since I had Portuguese tracks in my record. Things have moved on in a positive way and there hasn’t been any drop in interest.

Where outside your native Lisbon would you live?

I’ve never really imagined myself outside Portugal. There’s always this notion that one would rather live in the city or in the countryside. One day, it may happen to me eventually, but for now I enjoy living in the city. I live in the area around Graça and Santa Apolónia, a neighborhood inhabited by people who actually live here, so not all AirBnB’s and ghost neighborhoods, exaggerating a little. I like to recognize the lady at the grocery shop or the man at the restaurant and I like this kind of Lisbon as a village, which although it’s a capital, it is different from a Paris or a Barcelona, maybe. So, I don’t see myself living anywhere else at the moment, but if someday it becomes too complicated for a number of reasons, I might move away. But right now, it doesn’t even cross my mind.  

Who’s your favorite Portuguese musician?

Of them all, the one I like most is Manel Cruz, former Ornatos Violeta, who has his own solo project and has had many other projects with various names, but the essence is always in him, so yes, Manel Cruz.

Let’s Have A Word: what’s your favorite word?

I don’t know. As a matter of fact, I don’t have one I like more than others. At the risk of sounding a bit egocentric, I like Noiserv a lot, because it’s a word that didn’t exist and that has a combination of letters I invented, probably the only one I created and will ever create (chuckles), so not wanting to be pretentious or egocentric, but this word stands out for me. 

What’s up next?

In a normal time, I would still have many concerts to give, which I still hope will happen, playing the songs off the new record.
Besides that, there are several things I ought to do, collaborations, soundtracks and others, but there’s no timeline defined yet because the promotion of the record is still my main focus. So this is not the end of that, just a forced postponement. But of course I’ll be doing collaborations on the side –  I have one with Surma as well – and other things. Now with more time without concerts, I’ll be able to delve into it a bit more. But only while I’m waiting to resume performing Uma Palavra Começada Por N live.

Photo by Vera Marmelo

And what about You Can’t Win Charlie Brown?

Right, we’re also thinking of making a new album. No idea when, maybe next year. We have a few new songs which will probably be for that.

Have you been playing basketball?

I stopped with the lockdown, only playing sporadically. I played until I was 18, then I quit but last year I enrolled again in a local team, Maria Pia, which plays in the 2nd National Division. I even played a few games, and now they resumed training and the championship, but with all the concerts and the pandemic going on, I said I would only go back after November. Anyway, it’s something I enjoy a lot — can’t say I’m a great player, but I like it.


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