Exclusive: From Tundra to Techno with Alaska in Winter’s Brandon Bethancourt

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True to its name, Brandon Bethancourt’s Alaska in Winter began in America’s most remote region. The recordings he produced under the aurora borealis became seedlings for his debut album, Dance Party in the Balkans. With tracks embracing hybrid, multi-layered sounds that range from downtempo electro beats to intense strings and lullaby vocals, some have classified the work as Folktronica. We’d call it tweeish winterland trance.

Bethancourt’s follow-up LP, Holiday, was produced on another sojourn (this time to Berlin) and is rooted in the experience of a city with a more upbeat vibe. Bethancourt recently turned up in an LA garden wearing acid wash jeans and Reeboks. After downing a G&T, he chatted with Flavorwire’s Jane McCarthy about Berlin, his idea of the best dance party ever, and where Alaska in Winter is heading next.

Flavorwire: What brings you to the West Coast?

Brandon Bethancourt: To play shows and to meet the people from Milan. I hadn’t met anybody from the label yet.

FW: You’ve been living in Berlin, but you’re from New Mexico. How did you end up in Germany?

BB: I’d been there twice before on backpacking trips through Europe, and I just really, really loved it. I don’t know, I just always wanted to move there. One, it’s cheap. And there’s a really good art scene, music scene. So I decided to do it.

FW: What’s the dominant music happening there right now?

BB: Electronic. Music in Berlin equals techno. It seems like Germany in particular has had a really important role in electronic music, namely because of Kraftwerk. They pioneered that synthpop sound. The idea of having four dudes in a band that didn’t play guitars, at the time it was like, what the fuck are these four dudes doing?

FW: Does the German audience respond better to electronic music than people in other places do?

BB: In general, Europeans are more accustomed to hearing electronic music. It’s really typical if you’re driving down the road, anywhere in Europe, you switch the radio stations in your car and more than half of them are going to be playing techno music or house or something. Or for example, I went camping with some German friends near the Baltic Sea, and you’re there in the woods, and everyone has their tent, everyone’s drinking, but you hear techno. It’s just a part of life there, hearing, “Uunch, uunch, uunch”. It’s like the sound of an electric guitar blaring through a loud amplifier, that’s American. The sound of “Uunch, uunch, uunch”, that’s European.

FW: Does electronic vary within Europe much?

BB: Well the music in Spain and Italy, as opposed to Germany, Finland, Sweden or something, is very different. I guess down south, it’s really simple, simple vocals, it’s just “uunch, uunch, uunch, uunch”. It’s party music. It’s like, you go out, you’re trying to score with a chick. You’re not going there for the music. You’re going there to get drunk, to wear your pink silk shirt or whatever. Whereas, in the North, it’s crappy weather you’re inside all the time so you want to find a new way to surprise people, to do something unique, almost to the point that it’s undanceable, but still dancey somehow. They call it minimal here. Minimal sound, really syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms where you’ve got the main driving one-two “uunch, uunch”, but there’s still a whole different rhythm set on top of it. The Germans have their shit locked down with African drumming, with polyrhythms.

FW: Given that your first album’s titled Dance Party in the Balkans. what’s your idea of the best dance party ever?

BB: It probably would take place in some abandoned building in East Berlin, and I would have, oh my God, I don’t know, Stephan Bodzin and Gregor Tresher play and maybe Daft Punk. What the hell. Why not. And there would be a laser grid on the floor and maybe some eagles or night falcons flying around with lasers shooting out of their eyes. And also a panther or two.

FW: Chained up in the corner?

BB: Not chained up. Just hanging out.

FW: Holiday is quite a departure from Dance Party.

BB: Definitely.

FW: What led to that shift?

BB: A big part of it had to do with living in Berlin and being surrounded constantly by electronic music and also just the fact that I didn’t have any instruments with me. All I had were these electronics. But my music is always shifting. It’s always like all over the place. People just sort of picked it up at Dance Party and they see the next thing, but everything that came before was so vastly different.

FW: Your name comes from the time you spent making music in Alaska. What were you there for?

BB: My sister had lived there for a year, and I went and visited her a couple times, and I just fell in love with it. I thought it was so amazingly beautiful. And so after four years of college, I didn’t know what I was going to do so I was like hell, I’ll just go to Alaska.

FW: And you’d been in art school, not music school.

BB: Right, but I didn’t graduate. I dropped out… The idea of going into music school, music training was so intimidating because all these kids had been like classically trained since they were six years old and were like virtuosos on the violin, and here I was like, “I love music. I think I’m a pretty good musician.. Eventually, I switched over to electronic arts which made a lot more sense for me. Because it’s a time- based medium where you can combine performance with music and video which is essentially my live show today.

FW: What do you do for your live set?

BB: Basically, I film myself playing all of the parts that the “band” would be playing on stage, and yeah, it’s fake playing. I film myself, and I’ve synced it up to the music so the end result is I’m on stage with the keytar, I’m playing and behind me is a big projection with a bunch of windows Brady Bunch style, and it looks like I’m playing on the screens, actually producing the sounds that you hear.

FW: It’s a band of yourself. Do people ever suggest that’s a bit narcissistic?

BB: Yeah, narcissism has come up before. But I think in general, the show’s got a lot of humor to it. I’m not taking it super, uber serious, you know? And I think a lot of people walk away from it thinking, that’s just a funny guy with a creative solution to doing a one-man show.

FW: Like yourself, your music has been all over the place. Where’s it heading now?

BB: Um, it’s a mix between minimal German techno, eighties heavy metal, and choir.