Divide and Dissolve made sense from the very beginning. When Takiaya Reed met Sylvie Nehill five years ago, “it was an instant connection”, Reed remembers. The pair instantly became friends, and soon after began making music together as a thunderous instrumental duo: Reed plays saxophone and often foreboding guitar to Nehill’s intense drumming. Their connection is intuitive: “Being a two-piece, you have to trust that person,” Nehill tells NME.
That tight friendship and working relationship has been interrupted by COVID. Texas native Reed is temporarily based in San Francisco while Nehill, who was raised in Geelong in regional Victoria, remains in Australia, where the band began.
While the pandemic has halted touring for so many artists, it’s especially frustrating to see this particular pair separated by an ocean just as they’re releasing their third album. ‘Gas Lit’ is a marked evolution of their absorbing sound, which spans doom, drone, and classical across a nuanced spectrum.
Nehill and Reed are purveyors of sonic extremity. Observe the delicate flutter of saxophone on ‘Oblique’ that opens the new album, hovering and looping in mid-air with the utmost tranquility – until the band’s signature crush of low-end guitar and concussive drums descends, 90 seconds later. That effects-warped sax motif persists in the backdrop, emerging unscathed when the other instruments fall away with a satisfying buzz of distortion. The almost eight-minute single ‘Denial’ revels in similar extremes: the song slows and stretches, establishing a brutal inner peace before the saxophone again leaves us haunted in the aftermath.
Asked about such seismic contrasts, Nehill points out that Reed is classically trained on the saxophone. “It’s inevitable that [she’s] going to make beautiful sounds,” says Nehill. “But I also think the heavy stuff is pretty. Equally as pretty.”
That’s clear throughout ‘Gas Lit’, from the rolling waves of ‘Prove It’ to the cinematic sweep of lead single ‘We Are Really Worried About You’. While ‘Mental Gymnastics’ makes for a quieter showcase of the pair’s subtle interplay, the menacing ‘It’s Really Complicated’ fully commits to an overdriven, swarm-like effect.
“The spectrum of prettiness and heaviness is reflective of us as people,” says Nehill. “We need to create music that reflects the spectrum of us. We’re really chill [but] we also love talking about what’s going in the world.”
That’s no small feature of the band. Divide and Dissolve’s longtime mission statement is to “decolonise and dismantle white supremacy” through their music. Their 2017 debut ‘Basic’ featured such song titles as ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Supremacy’ while 2018’s ‘Abomination’ followed suit with ‘Resistance’ and ‘Indigenous Sovereignty’.
Reed is of Black and Tsalagi (Cherokee) heritage, while Nehill is of Māori heritage. In the notes for their 2020 single ‘TFW’, they write: “When we first met, one of the first pieces of information we chose to share with each other is that we are Indigenous.” That experience of being Indigenous in a world shaped by colonialism is key to the title ‘Gas Lit’ – a term for the way people are forcibly convinced to doubt their own experience and, often, their own suffering.
“It feels like an underrepresented experience,” Reed says, “and it’s extremely important to bring to light experiences that may be missed. People will tell you that you’re not having them, but they profoundly affect your life. And that is not a good way to heal from trauma. So we wanted to provide a space where we’re like, ‘Hey, we see you.’
“There are all these experiences people have that they might struggle to put words to,” Reed continues. “[Like] not being able to connect with your culture, your ancestors – feeling isolated, lonely, broken-hearted. Experiencing the woes of colonial governance. So ‘Gas Lit’ is creating that spaciousness for those experiences. You might be being impacted by colonisation, white supremacy [and] genocide, and society will tell you, ‘No, you’re not. You’re fine’, when everything is not OK.”
“The spectrum of prettiness and heaviness is reflective of us as people… We’re really chill but we also love talking about what’s going in the world” – Sylvie Nehill
Profound connection has always been Divide and Dissolve’s modus operandi, regardless of whether words are involved. “We were really driven by the feeling, like the vibrations,” says Nehill. “We just wanted resonance.” Reed adds, “We’ve always been trying to convey ideas, and sometimes we’re more direct than other times. It’s such a blessing to be able to speak about what we feel passionately about with our music.”
And if they don’t use words in their music, the pair make a point to talk to fans about these feelings – including oppression and dispossession – at shows, long after they’ve finished playing. “We talk to people all night,” says Reed. “We spend a lot of time chatting and making connections, and just being in our communities. And that feels awesome.”
‘Gas Lit’ is set to be Divide and Dissolve’s highest-profile album yet. The band signed to Invada, a record label as well-known for releasing adventurous television and film scores as for helping to break UK solo artist Billy Nomates last year, after a mutual friend played their music for Portishead member and label co-founder Geoff Barrow.
‘Gas Lit’ was also produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson, who heard the band and invited them to join UMO on a New Zealand tour in 2018. Being of Māori descent, Nehill reflected on her background before embarking on the UMO tour. “I was talking a lot about my family,” she says. “We had a lot to look forward to when we wrote ‘Gas Lit’.”
The breezy psychedelic bounce of Nielson’s own band might position him as an odd fit for Divide and Dissolve’s doom-laden gravitas. But the duo say he honoured their vision, telling them he wanted the record to sound like the experience of seeing them live.
“We knew that more people would probably get to hear this album,” recalls Nehill, “so we took a little bit longer to write it. But the process was still the same.” Much of that process is conversation, whether about the pair’s shared passion for food and music or about something more profound.
“You might be being impacted by colonisation, white supremacy and genocide, and society will tell you, ‘No, you’re not. You’re fine’, when everything is not OK” – Takiaya Reed
Working primarily with only each other, Nehill and Reed take their outside collaborations seriously. All three of their albums have included a spoken-word guest turn from Brooklyn poet Minori Sanchiz-Fung. On ‘Did You Have Something to Do With It’ from ‘Gas Lit’, Sanchiz-Fung describes the invasive, wasteful effect of greed while the band shadow those words with a chilling halo of slowed, hazy saxophone.
“It just flows so well. All of us match each other,” says Nehill of their continuing collaboration with Sanchiz-Fung. Reed observes that employing an accomplished poet for an instrumental band makes perfect sense: “Minori knows how to use words. Why would we talk when Minori could?”
When Divide and Dissolve tour, though, it’s just Nehill and Reed. They had started playing together as a two-piece, but with others joining in here and there. When they were about to go on tour for the first time, they decided to commit to the two-piece format, especially after Reed worked out how to get what Nehill calls “incredible low-end” out of her guitar. Reed, in turn, calls Nehill “an incredible percussionist,” adding with a laugh: “Sylvie hits the drums harder than all the bros. It’s amazing.”
The two play live together when recording so that they can lock in and connect, which enables the music to reach its natural, and reliably powerful, conclusion. They don’t record much that they can’t reproduce live, including the transformative effects they apply to their instruments, and there’s a lot of rehearsal in the lead-up to recording. As for how the songs first find life in the early jamming process, there’s no exact formula. “They just start,” says Reed.
Even without the aid of lyrics, listening to Divide and Dissolve is the best way to understand both Nehill and Reed’s close friendship and their individual personalities – especially until they’re back together in Australia, ready to play live again.
“It’s a really good reflection of who we are as people,” agrees Reed. “It’s definitely the most vulnerable space I could be in with someone else.”
Divide and Dissolve’s ‘Gas Lit’ is out January 29 on Invada