Aspidistrafly: “Outside all the romance and mystery in our music, in reality we don’t know if we’ll live till tomorrow”

The Singaporean ambient folk duo took more than a decade to make their crystalline third album ‘Altar Of Dreams’. But as April Lee and Ricks Ang tell NME, better late than never

“I feel very guilty about it… but that’s life,” Ricks Ang shrugs.

Aspidistrafly know they’ve taken their time. In 2011, the Singaporean duo of singer-songwriter April Lee and producer Ang established themselves as cult favorites with the pastoral ambient folk of their second record ‘A Little Fable’ – only to leave fans waiting over 10 years for its follow-up.

“I don’t think I went by a day without feeling bothered that it was not finished,” Lee says of the decade of radio silence.

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“It’s not like we just stopped and forgot about it,” Ang affirms. “For the past 10 years, this [new] album has been a constant in our lives.”

Ang’s words feel apt for ‘Altar Of Dreams’, which was shaped by not just the decade just gone, but Aspidistrafly’s own history. “I started exploring music as a simple-minded 15-year old on a tape player, discovering that recording inside marbled bathrooms gave a nice reverb,” Lee reflects on the band’s inception as a home recording project born from the ashes of a former shoegaze four-piece.

Despite Aspidistrafly’s shoegaze roots, however, their goal “wasn’t to become the next Slowdive or Ride”, as Ang jokes wryly. Instead, the duo were attracted by the genre’s textural possibilities. They were also influenced by ethereal songcraft (think Cocteau Twins and David Sylvian) and experimental sound art, all influences you can hear in the intimate dreamscapes of their initial EPs and 2008 debut album ‘I Hold A Wish For You’.

That record made clear that, sound-wise, Aspidistrafly stood apart in the 2000s Singapore music scene. It was only online that they found their peers: on Myspace, they became acquainted with an emerging wave of like-minded Japanese composers and producers. Receiving their first performance offers through the platform, the duo began travelling to Japan regularly, and eventually adopted the nation as their second home.

Finding a community coalescing around them, Lee and Ang established KITCHEN. LABEL, which began housing artists at the intersections of ambient and neo-classical music. Japan and their label’s growing influence eventually nurtured Aspidistrafly’s signature sound, embodied by their acclaimed 2011 LP ‘A Little Fable’. A filmic collection of gossamer ambience and smoky chamber folk cuts, the record sparked multiple Asian tours for the duo – momentum that initially set a third album in motion.

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But their plans were abruptly derailed in 2015 just before the album’s completion. Ang developed tinnitus, which profoundly affected his ability to mix. “I still haven’t recovered from it… but like all rockstars, you live with it,” he says now with a laugh.

So the duo embraced the rhythms and romances of life: Lee pursued a career in fashion and advertising, Ang built KITCHEN into a celebrated ambient outpost, and they both moved in together, now married.

“For the past 10 years, this [new] album has been a constant in our lives”

Four years ago, however, the duo noticed a sudden spike in their listenership. Again, social media gave Aspidistrafly a second wind as a wave of cottagecore enthusiasts on Tiktok, Twitter and Spotify embraced the dusty charms of ‘A Little Fable’.

Revitalised by a newfound generation of fans, Aspidistrafly revisited their dormant album only to discover themselves creatively renewed by the intervening years. “A lot of time was spent contemplating, uncovering and reimagining about lost memories, existence, nature, the world, society or my faith,” Lee says.

Endless reincarnations later, ‘Altar Of Dreams’ emerged. Longtime listeners will immediately notice the crystalline clarity of the record. This departure from their signature lo-fi haze was informed by years of crate-digging pursuits and an ensuing interest in new age music, as well as ’80s high-fidelity, from Tears For Fears to Japanese pop.

Aspidistrafly interview Altar of Dreams
Aspidistrafly’s April Lee. Credits: Ivanho Harlim and Shysilia Novita

Those stylistic touches reveal themselves throughout the tracklist: synths and gated reverb fill gothic paean ‘Companion To Owls’, while on grand closer ‘Quintessence’, Lee soars over ambient loops and clinical drum machines, cementing an earthy vocal transition she developed over the course of karaoke sessions and a newfound obsession with R&B.

While Lee compares ‘A Little Fable’ to an animated film set in a forested fantasy, on the new record she’s documenting the real world – or at least, her own visions of reality, untainted by existential crises. “My role as a songwriter is purely that of a dreamer imagining,” she says. “I’m curious about ideas or questions embedded in subconsciousness that don’t usually surface on a daily basis, or even more frighteningly so, what’s unknown to us.” Accordingly, Lee was inspired by her lucid dreams, even writing the graceful title track in the dazed aftermath of one.

Such worldbuilding has always been central to the Aspidistrafly project. As Ang emphasises, Lee’s songs serve as launching pads for experimentation, rather than mere fodder to fill tracklists. Accordingly, making ‘Altar Of Dreams’ a cohesive record became their biggest challenge. “We never want to make a greatest-hits album,” Ang says. “From my perspective, I wanted to recreate our inner scenery into music.”

That search for cohesion explains the interstitial elements of the record, which are also windows into Aspidistrafly’s own temporal and stylistic histories. Opener ‘How To Find A Marblewing’ predates Aspidistrafly’s first LP as Lee’s first ever sound collage, constructed from found-sound collections dating back to the ’90s. On other interludes, her interdisciplinary influences emerge, through homages to Shiseido and surrealist fiction. “Music to me has never been music in silo,” the multi-hyphenate explains. “I think right down to detail, texture and tone, and then I’m able to replicate that resonance into words and aural layers.”

“My role as a songwriter is purely that of a dreamer imagining”

Providing more aural layers on ‘Altar Of Dreams’ are several Japanese musicians, including Aspidistrafly’s KITCHEN. labelmates, who have been integral to Aspidistrafly’s growth. ‘The Voice Of Flowers’ features piano from founding KITCHEN artist Haruka Nakamura, while the title track features string arrangements by composer Kyo Ichinose, who previously featured on ‘A Little Fable’.

Meanwhile, the sound collage ‘Silks And Satins’ is a collaboration with Kanagawa sound artist Sugai Ken that samples Singaporean horror dramas that once screened on local broadcaster Mediacorp – shows that Lee and Ang were fascinated with as kids. Singapore remains an irreplaceable part of Aspidistrafly’s identity, no matter how subliminal its presence might be.

Ang, for instance, found ‘Altar Of Dreams’ ’80s influences uncannily reminiscent of their Singaporean childhoods. “In a way, it’s trying to recapture and recreate something that I thought I’d forgotten,” he says. Lee adds: “We live in a city of extreme, constant renewal, to the point that the places I spent my childhood no longer exist.”

Aspidistrafly interview Altar of Dreams
Aspidistrafly’s Ricks Ang. Courtesy Ricks Ang

Reflecting on their third LP and its career-spanning scale, Lee concedes that ultimately they are glad they took the time to produce their best work. “Sometimes I have nightmares about rerecording it over and over again,” she says, crediting Ang as both her biggest fan and harshest critic. “If he had cut us some slack a couple of years ago, I think we would have regretted what we put out.”

Ang concurs: “There was a great sense of relief that we finished it – but most of all, that we finished it at the right time.” It took them over a decade, but as Lee concludes, better than never.

“Outside of all the romance, mysteries and dreaminess in our music, in reality we really don’t know if we’ll live till tomorrow,” she says soberly. “At world’s end, this album is something that I’m glad to have completed and presented – to those who have been waiting or those who have yet to discover it.”

Aspidistrafly’s ‘Altar Of Dreams’ is out now on KITCHEN. LABEL

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