Adem Ilhan: The Eden project

With Fridge, Adem Ilhan makes warm electro-folk. Now for his solo debut, he's exploring a verdant new corner of pop, he tells Nick Hasted
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Adem Ilhan stands at the crossroads where computer technology and folk tradition meet. Like his old schoolfriend and Fridge bandmate Kieran Hebden, who as Four Tet made last year's most innovative album, Rounds, Adem (he drops his surname on record) feeds his warmest emotions through machines, to enhance them digitally.

Adem Ilhan stands at the crossroads where computer technology and folk tradition meet. Like his old schoolfriend and Fridge bandmate Kieran Hebden, who as Four Tet made last year's most innovative album, Rounds, Adem (he drops his surname on record) feeds his warmest emotions through machines, to enhance them digitally.

His solo debut, Homesongs, may not be the landmark Rounds was. Its songs of longing for human connection are simply strummed on acoustic instruments. But they are decorated with fret-squeaks, tambourine-shakes, harps and flutes whose sound has been subtly tweaked and clipped by computer. Adem is working in a new corner of pop, where machines are the hidden means to refreshing old song-forms, and digital circuits permit human feeling pure expression.

Adem, whose father is Turkish, created his fresh, hybrid folk in a warehouse flat in north London, not far from Hebden's own studio retreat. Its high ceilings are lined with strange costumes created by his girlfriend, and the computer he made his album on plinks randomly as we talk. The woolly-jumper warmth of the machine music made here is symbolised by the duvet used to muffle his old computer's hum as it recorded. Like Hebden, Adem also aided his record's tactile atmosphere by recording in the small hours, when utterly alone.

"It's to do with being cut off," he explains. "Making quiet, introverted music, it really helps to have that shrouded feel, to be surrounded by darkness. When time is flying at night and you're fading out of reality, you get into stuff you wouldn't normally do. You get really tired without noticing, let your guard down and get in some mad zone, spending hours on one sound. You can tell it's recorded late at night. You can feel people are sleeping."

Adem didn't go as far into the cyber-organic twilight zone as Hebden, who made the acoustic-sounding Rounds without touching an instrument, instead slicing and mutating slivers of old records. Adem chose to play every note, with troubadour "authenticity". But once the performance was done, he went to work again. He arranged his imperfect human plucking with electronic precision.

"It is computer music," he says simply. "I used it as a glorified four-track when I recorded the songs. But the subtleties couldn't be done without a computer - the tiny noises you hardly hear, the gaps between songs, which are all integral. Little things like turning up a bit of hiss, or strumming the guitar and cutting out the beginning, so you just get the ringing of strings. Creaks become bits of percussion later. I wanted people to be listening to the music and imagining me sitting in the room with them, and those tiny details help."

It's an odd twist, I suggest, that you now need a computer to convince someone that you're sitting in a room with a guitar. "It's really strange," he agrees. "A lot of people believe computers to be cold and heartless. If you use a computer like a computer, then it probably will sound... electronic. But more people who make warm music are using computers now. And when I've worked my computer hard, you can get a real physical sense of what's happening, that you're really pushing parts of it. The simplest way is to turn it up really loud, then everything reacts differently, sounds get strained. Each computer has its own character."

The folk element to what, after Four Tet's groundbreaking second album Pause (2001) was dubbed folktronica, is equally peculiar. Once the most derided genre in pop, musicians as diverse as the Glasgow lo-fi Fence Collective and their star-in-waiting James Yorkston, the indie Wicker Man obsessives Candidate and the Kate Bush disciple Katy Carr have made unapologetic, modern folk music, alongside new interest in mainstays such as the Waterson Family.

When I ask Adem why a musician such as himself, with the whole electronic world to play with, ends up sounding like a Greenwich Village singer-songwriter as soon as he tries to be heartfelt, he puts it down to the mechanics of our bodies. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. Are we used to songs like that, and therefore we respond to them nicely - to those chord changes, and that tempo? Or are they just intrinsically beautiful? I'm really interested in the mathematical theories of how notes interact with our brains - how one minor chord will sound sadder than another to the human ear. All I know is, I tried to be as honest as possible. It does sound traditional, a lot of it. I hope I made a modern record, but I wanted it to sound timeless. I don't want people to know it was recorded in the 2000s. In 300 years, there won't be much difference between 1950 and 2000. I'm going to be played," he says, with unconscious vanity worthy of Kelly Jones, "next to people I consider great."

Adem has little time for one of the reasons that bands such as Fairport Convention created Britain's version of folk-rock in the late 1960s - that it sounded like music from here, not America. "I'm influenced by a helluva lot of American music, and music from all over the world. I can't imagine a British or an English sound. It just wouldn't make sense any more. And good; it doesn't matter. I'd never want to have that sort of thing behind my music. It's an empty statement."

The idea of home, though, resonates powerfully for Adem. As its title suggests, Homesongs is an accidental concept album about being lost, and the comfort of finding people who will take you in. "I've been cut away from reality before," he says, "because of being surrounded by people who needed help, being overloaded with work, and not sleeping; simple things that build up till they change who you are. But I've always had somewhere I can go. I've always been surrounded by love. I guess I grew up a bit naive. It was something I was aware of as I made this record, that it's a bit... comfortable. But I'm glad of that. It's a record you can snuggle up to."

Music is Adem's biggest comfort, anyway. His father, a classical pianist, encouraged him to play, as did his mother, a Beatles fan. He met Hebden when he was 12 and began recording at 17. There is something childlike in the playful, enduring keenness of both to make sounds. When Adem talks about music, it sounds big, as if his ears are still small and in awe. Whether made with guitars or computers, attitudes like his will never be outmoded.

"I've always explored things," he says. "If you give me a harp, I'll think, 'How can this make a sound without plucking strings?' That's how more and more people work now - saying, 'OK, I've got a computer, some software from a friend and a microphone. How do I make a drum sound?' So you get someone hitting a table with a pillow, a sound that's never been thought of before. That's what will be exciting in the next 10 years - how people overcome technology with ingenuity."

'Homesongs' is out now on Domino