Alex Somers can trace his musical DNA to when he was 13, the year he bought a Tascam four-track tape recorder to go with the guitar he’d been given for Christmas. “It was a mind-blowing moment: I discovered I could manipulate sound,” he recalls. “It wasn’t centered around the idea of playing an instrument, being in a band, or playing live, but controlling my own environment, my own reality.”
Fast forward to 2021, and Somers’ reality is explored and expanded on two breathtaking albums, Siblings and Siblings 2, released simultaneously. 13 hauntingly beautiful, impressionistic tracks apiece, the records draw on the composer’s main musical interests – film composition, ambient, post-classical, post-rock and electronica – combining grandeur and intimacy, broad brushstrokes and subtle detail, minimalism and maximalism.
That Tascam recorder also launched Somers on an amazing journey. Alongside the guitar, teenage Alex learnt to play drums, bass, keyboards and synths, “so I could control any sound source,” before a laptop and digital recording upped the ante. Leaving his home city of Baltimore, Somers took a double major in film scoring and music therapy at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; when Icelandic icons Sigur Rós came through town, he was introduced to the band’s frontman Jónsi. Soon, the pair were living together in Reykjavik, collaborating on books (the graphic Riceboy Sleeps and the raw vegan-based The Good Heart Recipe Book) and the ambient projects Riceboy Sleeps (2009) and Sigur Rós offshoot Liminal (four albums, 2017-2019), to which Somers contributed solo tracks.
When film producers kept seeking permission to use Riceboy Sleeps music, Somers started to win commissions for original film and TV music, such as Captain Fantastic, Honey Boy, Here We Are: Notes For Living On Planet Earth, Audrey, Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana and (with Sigur Rós) the Black Mirror episode Hang The DJ on Netflix. In parallel, Somers built a studio where he recorded the likes of Sigur Rós, Jónsi, Julianna Barwick, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Damien Rice, and continued with his own recordings. Remarkably, given his vast experience, Siblings and Siblings 2 are the first albums under his own name.
“I’ve carried this music for a long time – so long that it’s become two albums,” he says. “I wrote most of it between 2014 and 2016, but I abandoned it at different stages, thinking nobody else would want to hear it…. I don’t know any artist who doesn’t struggle with creativity. But friends who heard it, especially Jónsi, encouraged me to finish it.
Somers partly traces the sibling albums’ genesis to the soundtrack he composed in 2016 for Bill Morrison’s silent film Dawson City: Frozen Time, a goldrush-era history of a remote Canadian Yukon town compiled from 533 reels buried beneath a hockey rink for over 50 years, and thought to be lost forever.
“It’s such a poetic story,” says Somers. “And it’s so in sync with how I hear music, and my obsession with found objects. The footage is so weathered and fucked up and beautiful, and it was wonderful to match those images with sound. I’d dub sound onto machines, and through different mediums, play it back and re-record it, gathering imperfections. As I wrote the soundtrack, I’d splinter off in different directions, adding more stuff, and these turned into Siblings tracks. I guess they’re siblings of the film soundtrack.”
Other key influences on Siblings include a sibling, namely Alex’s older brother John, “my biggest role model. He makes incredibly beautiful music, totally under the radar. Then there’s Jónsi – “given we have shared our home, music, art and food, you can’t break that chain” – and formative electronic artists that Somers discovered in his late teens, such as Warp label giants Aphex Twin and Autechre but especially Oval (the German duo that pioneered glitch). For the former grunge fan who had “learnt how to play every Nirvana song,” this radically new music, “felt so cool and so freeing. It didn’t require a singer, or a beat, or obvious chord structures. It gave me permission to lean into just being myself.”
Siblings and Siblings 2’s artwork (and the videos that Somers has made to accompany the records) is related to both siblings and found objects – images taken from 8mm film reels of family gatherings that Somers collected in Reykjavík. A musical extension of found objects is the practice of sampling. “I love sampling,” says Somers. “It immediately gives me ideas.”
Siblings starts with ‘Weeping Willow’ (blending in to ‘Oh Willow I Die’), which samples a child’s vocal from the 1961 ghost/horror film The Innocents. ‘Tell Star (For Joe Meek)’ samples ‘Magic Star’, a vocal adaptation of the legendary space-tech anthem ‘Telstar’, both conceived the late, pioneering British producer. “I love Joe Meek,” says Somers, “the way he wanted to transcend and do crazy things.”
The two Siblings resemble a soundtrack/scan of Somers’ brain: his interests, thoughts, feelings, reactions and most likely his sub-conscious running amok, giving rise to varying landscapes and dimensions that makes the 26 tracks such an absorbing audio trip. Take ‘Deathbed’) also featuring eerie, ghostly voices, albeit buried this time in the ambient quicksand, as if transmitting from another dimension.
At other moments, such as ‘Kimblings’ (named after Jónsi’s mis- pronunciation of Siblings!), ‘Window Way’ and ‘Never Ending’, the mood is serene, matching Liminal’s meditative mindset. ‘Dreaming Boys’ is equally blissful, but more emotive, centered on a field recording of two African children in the 1950s. On ‘Avalanche’ the initial tranquility suddenly darkens with an avalanche of strings. ‘Woven’ could be an offcut from ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ – blurry, weathered, glitchy. Siblings 2’s penultimate track ‘Oella’ (named after a, charmingly run-down Baltimore neighborhood that Somers always visits when he goes home) is a dreamier version of glitch, before the finale ‘Atlas’ suitably sounds like an astronaut’s view of earth, all beautiful and weightless and awestruck.
In the time that the Siblings has been completed, Somers’ own journey has seen him leave Reykjavík and resettle in Los Angeles. He has three soundtrack commissions currently on the go, and having taken time to release his first solo albums, he has two more pretty much complete, respectively recorded in 2018 with the Capital Children’s Choir and 2019 with the London Contemporary Orchestra. “I’m really excited about making music that’s more relevant to where I am now,” Somers concludes. “But first, I’m really excited to finally let Siblings go.”
Blythe Mackintosh & Dean O’ Connor