A small-town boy from the Netherlands, Thomas Azier made a break for Berlin at 19 to explore electronic music. After spending four insular years developing his multi-layered, multi-era synthpop sound, Azier went public with his debut EP, Hylas 001. A free download, the set includes the haunting “Red Eyes” (video below).
On the eve of the release of Hylas 002, out now, I caught up with Azier to find out how the emerging 24-year-old talent makes it all come together. While it’s easy to pinpoint some of the influences on his music (Depeche Mode, Passion Pit), what’s also in Azier’s ears certainly surprised me.
POPSERVATIONS: So Thomas, how are things today?
THOMAS AZIER: “I’m good, thanks! Just came out of the studio. Walked my way home and realized Berlin is pretty in autumn.”
Fall is my absolute favorite season. Tell me about growing up in the Netherlands. What was your exposure to music as a kid, and how did the culture there impact your decision to pursue music?
“I come from an artist background and when I was growing up, there was a lot of freedom to do anything we wanted around the house. Growing up in the countryside in the north of Holland, there wasn’t much else to do than playing my piano and later recording music. We were living in our own world there.”
You packed your bags for Berlin at 19. Why did you land on that particular place on the map?
“It was quite random, I must admit. I just needed to get out. I already moved out of [my family's] house earlier, but couldn’t find my place in Holland. I was feeling restless, was looking for a certain musical excitement, certain sound, adventure. I needed to experiment and I knew that Berlin was cheap. So that’s where I went.”
Has living in Berlin influenced your sound?
“I moved over eight times in the past five years, nearly every district has its own songs and memories. Overall, everything that touches me influences my sound. For example, the ever-changing city landscape, the darkness of the city, the sounds of industrial sites, conversations I have with people, living in solitude for periods of time working on my stuff, the excitement of certain clubs, etc.”
Unlike your musical contemporaries in this era of YouTube, SoundCloud, and the like, you spent four years working on your music before sharing anything with the world, via your first EP, Hylas 001. Why the long wait?
“I guess I felt that I wanted to say something that mattered. Everything before didn’t make any sense to me. There’s so much nonsense out there, I didn’t want to participate yet. I wanted to make it worthwhile, only when I thought I would be ready. Apart from that, I had to learn how to produce, I had to experiment with songwriting, and most of all, I had to create my own story. This is what I’ve been doing these past few years.”
Where did the name ‘Hylas’ come from?
“Hylas is my creation, a sort of alter ego. A mythological figure. I can’t tell you everything about him yet, haha. But I’m sort of happy that you ask. It’s something very important for me. The number is just the number of releases. Hylas is the name of my label, and it also means a lot for me, but this will become more clear when I release the album.
The idea I had is to make a trilogy, three EPs you can put together and you have an album. Things are changing a bit now with the album, but I will always carry the ‘Hylas’ name close and you will find it in a lot of my future productions/releases.”
In your music, I hear glimpses of Depeche Mode, Sting, Passion Pit, Peter Gabriel — what artists do you consider your musical heroes or inspiration?
“I’m very flattered, thank you. Lately I’ve been listening a lot to early Elvis stuff. The recordings are so pure, you hear the room, every word he sings. And I’m very into R&B, ’90s stuff. I know it might sound odd, but me and my brother are huge fans of D’Angelo. By playing this stuff on the piano when I was young — I started out as a pianist — I learned a certain timing. Also one of my favorite records is Ascenseur pour L’échafaud by Miles Davis.” [Ed. note: Davis' soundtrack to the 1958 Louis Malle film of the same name.]
There’s an openness to your productions that I quite like, and also the variation in your vocal performances. You’ve got quite a range! How do you determine the stylistic approach you’ll take when putting a track together?
“It’s changing all the time because I’m developing and learning every day. Overall, I can say I like to go to the essence of the song, the raw emotion of when I wrote it. In my opinion, it works like a pyramid. First you have the songwriting, the solid base of your structure. If you fuck this up, you can try a million things production-wise but it’ll never work. Melody, harmony — this is the core. This is how you deliver a certain emotion, something that is essential for me. After that, your performance, how do you play all the instruments, how do you sing. All this has to go from within, so I’m not trying to think too much, going with the flow, working really fast. After that, there’s maybe production etc., ‘the sauce.’ What kind of synths do I use, which musical reference I am going to play with, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the essence of the song.”
I appreciate that you have no qualms or hesitation about labeling your music as ‘pop,’ which too often gets a bad rap — sometimes quite literally when Pitbull is involved. What is it about the genre that you respond to as an artist, and as a fan?
“I actually don’t really care about genres. I feel that we, the ’00s kids, are flirting with every genre ever made and making it our own. I think that pop music is such a strong vessel to carry your message with. It gets heavily underestimated. The mood you get from certain songs makes you want to drink, dance, and cry at the same time. This is stuff that excites me. I’m talking about melody lines that hit you hard in the face.
Music has turned into an accessory, a fashion brand. If you wear these sneakers, you listen to this band, and your friends think you’re cool. It’s part of our fashion. I’m aware of that, and although it sometimes bothers me, I’m just trying to make this thing that makes you feel all these different things.”
The sound of Hylas 002 is much more menacing than Hylas 001. That gun-loading sound effect on “Fire Arrow,” the new EP’s first single, for one.
“I’m happy you heard that. What I wanted for this one is to experiment with sound. I didn’t want to play and program all the instruments alone [as on Hylas 001]. Me and Robin Hunt, a sound designer I worked with, recorded all the sounds in an old factory in Lichtenberg, Berlin. I wanted to use natural reverb and see how this would affect the recording process. I recorded my vocals in a small hall and it felt really free. Everything you hear is basically us hitting on stuff.
Besides this, I feel Hylas 002 talks more about solitude. It’s quite a dark thing. This is exactly what I wanted.”
Tell me about “Fire Arrow.” Is there a real Angelene?
“‘Fire Arrow’ is a metaphor for the ritual burning of youth that describes the mental processes that are connected with it. And yes, Angelene is real, or maybe she isn’t. I never really find out.”
What can we expect from your full-length album? And when can we expect to hear it?
“It’s going to be quite a thing. I’m working on the artwork right now and it’s going to be so cool. A lot of new songs. It’s basically a collection of my work from the last five years. If I could take you through the city with a car, I would show you all the places I’ve been writing all the songs. The record sounds pretty exciting. Production-wise, it will combine everything I learned on the two EPs.”
Have you had a chance to come tour the U.S. yet?
“Not yet, but I just can’t wait to go out there! I’ve been forever in this studio, and for me it’s time to close this chapter and communicate and show everyone what I’ve been working on!”
I noticed that Niki & The Dove is just one of two artists you follow on SoundCloud. Just an unintentional fluke or are you, like me, also a fan of the band?
“That’s a great band, yeah! The Swedes seem to be so good in everything!”
Amazing, isn’t it? It’s the pop music form of Stockholm Syndrome — we’re powerless to resist.