Mutual Benefit and Enchanted Forest Talk Buchlas, Behringers, and Research

The artists catch up on the making of their new album.

Jordan Lee is the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who performs as Mutual Benefit; Em Boltz and Noah Jacobson-Carroll are the Philly-based experimental electronic duo Enchanted Forest. To celebrate the release of Enchanted Forest’s new album Research — out now via Dear Life Records — the three hopped on a call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Jordan Lee: So, I have some questions for y’all. Are you both in Philly right now? 

Em Boltz: Yeah, we’re both in West Philly. We’re kind of neighbors, almost. 

Jordan: Nice. I’m doing a catsitting gig in Queens right now. I thought it would be really easy, but there’s three cats who, two of them can’t be in the same room, one of them has anxiety, and one of them has special food — and the doors don’t work. So it’s been pretty cerebral to keep them happy. [Laughs.] 

I’ve been listening to this album a ton over the past couple weeks, and I’ve been really impressed by the flow of it and how the songs are sequenced. Each song is its own song, but by the end of the album, you’re just fully in this world that you guys have constructed. How do you know when a song is done? How do you know when to let go of it? 

Em: I honestly have no idea. [Laughs.] The practice for creating a lot of these songs has been really different. Like sometimes one of us sends part of a song to the other, and we collaborate with it. Sometimes it’s just one of our personal songs. But other times I’ve gone back and added to something we did, like, six months ago. So I think it’s kind of hard to say. I think just the nature of having it be email correspondence, you know, it’s like you give something a relisten and it’s like, “Oh, actually, maybe it’s not done.” 

Jordan: I have a lot of anxiety over when something is done or not. I’d like to think there’s a little voice in my head like, It’s totally complete, you should feel good now! That voice never happens for me. [Laughs.]

I remember on your last EP hearing that the songs were emailed back and forth. Was there any change in process for this one, or was it made the same as your last EP? 

Noah Jacobson-Carroll: It was pretty much the same. We use iMessage to send things back and forth, it’s just the fastest way possible. We have our text conversations, and then I go make something on my computer. That’s pretty much it. Sometimes we add things to each other’s songs, sometimes it’s just a song that one of us made. What you said about putting it together, and the order, was for me at least a much cooler part. It’s like, we have so many ideas — there were 25 songs or something, so the possibilities for the order of it… They all blend together and sort of call back to each other I think, so it’s kind of collage-y, like a radio collage. 

Em: Which is something we really liked the idea of, like a sound collage. We would always talk about bands like Royal Trux — Twin Infinitives is more like a sound collage than an album, and that was a really interesting concept for us I think. 

The process of putting everything together was really grueling, because it was a lot more dialed in than the last record was. The last record was really just like, “Let’s get some songs together really quick so we can show everyone what we can do.” We took a couple of weeks, if even. But this was a very intentional process, and I think it honestly took longer to consider the order of the songs than it did to actually make them. 

Jordan: Wow, that’s really interesting to me. I think you really pulled off the feeling of it being a collage. It’s interesting — like, my process is, I need to know kind of the bones of the album before I get started. Even if it’s just all ideas, I need to know the sequence of the album before I even write the words or anything. Otherwise, the songs don’t feel real enough or something. So imagining you guys with these 20 pieces of music and trying to fit them together the right way does sound really difficult. 

Em: We drug it all into a Google Drive folder and there were, I think, like 60 songs. [Laughs.] 

Jordan: [Laughs.] So, I am intimidated by modular synths. And also intrigued by them — they’re beautiful pieces of equipment, and I’m really intrigued that they’re analog. But, Em, I was wondering your entry point into the world of modular synths. 

Em: Well, Noah was definitely an inspiration for me. Their creations with everything are just so beautiful. I don’t think I ever really expected to get so invested in it, but when I applied for [the Audiofemme Agenda] grant and got it, I was like, Well, I don’t really have an excuse anymore. It was always a financial burden, and then suddenly it wasn’t. That’s something that Noah really showed me — Noah started with the semi-modular unit and built stuff from kits. The market for affordable modules has really expanded since the ‘60s and the ‘70s, which is really awesome.

The grant that I got is a grant to kind of loosely recreate the Buchla Music Easel.

Jordan: Wow, that’s so cool! Have you achieved your aims? 

Em: I have! 

Jordan: Wow! Is that as the synth that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith uses? 

Em: Yeah, it is, she’s definitely a Buchla person. 

Jordan: What drew you to the Buchla specifically? 

Em: I’ve just always really liked Krautrock, and psychedelic electronic music. Buchla is like the epitome of weird West Coast experimental synthesis. 

Jordan: Noah, you work with modular synths as well? 

Noah: Yeah, got into modular a couple of years ago. I had a really amazing opportunity to play on some really complete systems — because a lot of modular systems are like a hodgepodge of different modules from random different companies or whatever. But I actually took a music class where I had access to like an entire — well, actually, one of the instruments was just straight up a Buchla Music Easel, which I was obsessed with. I was just all these thousands of dollars worth of crazy synthesizers. It had always been kind of in my mind — I was kind of getting into synths, or learning about them at least, and I thought modular would be too expensive. But I just started our really slowly by building stuff, and by getting a Behringer Neutron, which you can get really cheap secondhand for less than $200. They’re really crazy. So I feel like taking that class and getting a semi-modular was my gateway into it. 

Jordan: Wow, I had no idea that it could be that affordable. I’m happy to get this info from both of you — I feel like right after this I’m gonna be on eBay.

Em: Yeah, Behringer has a lot of really incredibly affordable copies of different synths. You could pick up a semi-modular unit for probably under $200 used. And then Takaab — Noah turned me on to them, they have a lot of really cheap modules that are incredible, like $30 modules. And there are smaller companies too.

Jordan: When I think of modular synths, there are wires everywhere, and I kind of imagine it as an engineer, left brain type of thing, where you spend a really long time setting something up and then all that it creates is, like, one sound. The whole thing is the process, and then this little thing happens at the end. Is that how it feels to you? Do you feel like an engineer when you’re working with it? What is the process of working with one like? 

Noah: It definitely takes a long time. If you’re starting from scratch, it take way longer than using a computer if you’re trying to achieve something really specific. But I think the cool part about modulars is you can do whatever you want. You can literally just plug things that you don’t know what they do to each other — you know, plug outputs into outputs and see what happens. Sometimes nothing will happen, but I find it really calming and relaxing to make music really slowly, and just see what happens when you do different things. 

Jordan: That does sound nice. I feel like with COVID, I kind of ran the opposite direction. I love noodling around with synthesizers, and software synthesizers, but I couldn’t get my brain in the right headspace to do that. And so I played just a ton of piano all year. I never really learned how to read music very well, and I was like, I wanna just learn how to read music and play the piano, and that will make me feel like I have control over my life

So, Em, I read in your bio that you’ve been in at least 11 bands. I was wondering if you have an overarching musical philosophy, and also if you kind of have a specific philosophy for this project? 

Em: I would definitely say it’s overarching. I think there’s a really kind of intuitive approach that I take to music.

We’ve definitely said this before, but having it feel like the sound collage quality, and having it feel like it’s something that’s organic and a part of nature is something I constantly find myself coming back to, whether it’s in poetry or other bands that I’ve been in. And maybe in the other bands, it’s been more lyrical, but I think that theme is always a constant. 

Jordan: Once of the things that I really love about Enchanted Forest is, a lot of synth-based music, to me, feels like it’s kind of on this grid, and it’s locked into the way a computer things. The Enchanted Forest stuff is very organic — it kind of wobbles around and is fluid in a really cool way.

Em: I think that was, in a lot of ways, important to us because we wanted it to feel like it was music that was accessible to everyone. We don’t want it to feel academic — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I guess we wanted to allow for other influences to come into play, and that’s why there’s guitar. And you hear a lot of software synths and polysynths and there’s singing. It’s not just about synths, it’s about creating something that sounds good, and if another instrument can do that then we’re happy to use it.

Jordan: Totally. With your last album and this one, I was really struck by the opening songs. I feel like they’re like such good introductions. I was wondering if y’all thought extra hard about the first couple notes of your albums, or if you feel strongly about first songs?

Noah: I definitely remember thinking about it consciously, like, OK, this is an attention grabber

Jordan: Yeah, it sounds like a computer turning on.

Noah: Oh, I like that! 

Jordan: Yeah, I feel like you should sell that to Windows or something and have it be the computer turn on sound.

Noah: Did you know that Brian Eno did the Windows 95 start up sound?

Jordan: Really?!

Em: Yeah. Brian Eno, now us. 

Jordan: The musical legacy. I remember seeing somewhere that y’all reference Laraaji — I think of his music as having some sort of spiritualism attached to it. I feel kind of a pretty special energy off of this type of music. I was wondering if that’s something you’re trying to aim for as well?

Noah: We love Laraaji, but I also feel like there’s those little aspects of… I don’t have a spiritual practice, but I always grew up living really close to churches for some reason. A very familiar sound for me is just church bells going off in the distance. I think that some aspects of our album do kind of sound like you’re driving past a church. Or maybe there’s just even a little waterfall in the forest or something that feels special or sacred. That stuff is vaguely spiritual, maybe.

Em: I’m not religious, but I’m definitely a really spiritual person. Even just having a routine and a practice that I feel devoted to — some of that probably shines through too. 

Jordan: Have you ever listened to the Smithsonian Folkways recordings? Where Alan Lomax went around and recorded people singing folk songs.

Em: I don’t think I have. 

Jordan: I wanna say that the Smithsonian paid him in maybe the ‘40s or something to go around America and record various versions of folk music. He would just go somewhere and put a microphone up and people would sing the songs of their community. It’s completely unproduced and it’s just capturing exactly what happened in a room, like nothing more or less. For some reason, there was elements when I listened to the record — I know that you guys put a lot of work into it and there’s lots of things happening, but it felt like it was just presenting exactly what it was. It’s like, these are sounds in a room. It’s not overproduced or anything, it’s just like a set of sounds that fit well together. It’s been very inspirational to me, because I tend to overthink things, so my songs are really unwieldy. I feel like you guys are really good at putting a group of sounds together and just having them coexist and a really organic way. 

Noah: Thanks. I’ve never heard the Smithsonian recordings, but I think a huge inspiration for us starting out, and still, is the album Neighborhoods by Ernest Hood.

I don’t really know that much about him even, but he’s some guy that had a synthesizer and a microphone, and he basically just went around his town, I think in Portland, and just recorded his town and played synthesizer over it. It’s from the ‘70s. It’s just an amazing album, and it inspired this kind of approach. 

Em: Definitely. This way of kind of prolifically creating music is how I’ve kind of always operated, making things because I need to and just not stopping. I read something really interesting — I was writing something for a class, actually, and I was talking about Psychic TV, and they made over 100 albums in the span of being a band. I really kind of relate to that practice of just creating to create. It’s not really about ever attaining any type of perfection. It’s just creating because it’s what you have to do. 

Noah: Yeah, and sometimes that kind of attitude really lends itself to something being captured. If you’re gonna really produce all of your songs, you have to spend way more time on each song. But I think there are some parts of our album that were just recorded on a phone and added in rather than in an audio interface, because it’s just faster. It also just imparts this [feeling] of, this was just a moment in a room. It carries that feeling with that.

(Photo Credit: right, Juliette Rando)

Enchanted Forest is Em Boltz and Noah Jacobson-Carroll, a Philly-based experimental electronic duo. Their album Research is out now via Dear Life Records.

(Photo Credit: Juliette Rando)