Get Familiar: Prayer - XLR8R

Get Familiar: Prayer

The cryptic Grade 10 artist releases an EP informed by his classical-music studies.
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Anonymity is a double-edged sword, more so than ever in today's saturated-media environment. For musicians, it lets the work speak for itself—though few are the truly anonymous artists who won't engage, in some shape or form, in the necessary rituals of promotion. But anonymity also strips your work of any true identity, no matter how carefully crafted—or ignored—the anonymous persona is.

Prayer is the alias of a young, English musician from the Midlands. He debuted a couple of years ago via the Cult Music label, helmed by notorious, arcane agitator Zomby. Last year, Prayer broke off from Cult Music and worked to build Grade 10, a new home for him and his musical allies, some of which also spent time as part of Cult Music. True to form, the label-slash-collective has remained blurry in details, opting to take more care in releasing the music than talking about it.

On the phone, Prayer—who doesn't divulge his real identity—comes across as somewhat eager to talk, yet bound by an admitted shyness and, perhaps most tellingly, a lack of practice in detailing his processes and actions for the public. Still in his early 20s, Prayer has grown up with the twin influences of modern electronic music and classical, a duality that informs much of his work and is one of the pillars propping up the promotion of his music. Towards the end of our conversation he admits, almost matter of factly, to just liking music and being recalcitrant towards the “in your face” aspects of modern society.

His new EP, Beneath, is coming in early November via Grade 10, comprising four tracks of dense electronic compositions that veer between intense and uplifting. Ahead of the release, XLR8R quizzed Prayer about various aspects of Philip Glass, his classical background, Grade 10 and London versus Leicester.

What do you think it is about Philip Glass that makes him such a recurring inspirational figure in modern music?
There’s a depth to his music. It was the first thing that got me into classical music, him and minimalism. It’s quite poppy in a way, accessible. I first started listening to him because of that. It was my dad who introduced me to his music. Then I got into minimalists. Michael Nyman is the other main one I’m really digging. It’s quite amazing because it seems quite simple at first, but as you listen more there’s a depth to it; I love the repeated structures.

Around what age did you get into classical music?
15, 16. I think Glass and the minimalists suffer from a stereotype that their approach to classical is quite light and timid, but that was the first time I realized classical music could be more than its stereotypes.

Light and timid is an interesting way to describe classical. It normally brings to mind a more bombastic approach.
When I started studying classical at university, you realize that even with Beethoven there’s a whole world of sound that is so much more than the popular image of that composer.

What originally brought you to study classical at university?
A natural progression. I started off as an electric guitarist, as everyone is. I can’t pin it down. Maybe it was discovering all these composers, and then gradually I started playing the classical guitar, messing around on the piano and it developed from there. My dad introducing me to the minimalists was the starting point. He knew I was into music, and even before that he would play me things like the Cure. God knows where Glass played into all of that! He would just talk to me about things, and I guess it seeped it subconsciously.

"As long as it was dark. I was always interested in it."

How did your discovery of classical music play out against what was going on around you, in terms of popular music and dance music?
The pursuit of classical music was almost a solo thing, to be honest. The people on the Grade 10 label, we’ve all been friends since our teenage years. All our musical influences are different, from jungle to house to classical, and it’s filtering through my work. It’s a consequence of hanging out together. When I was at university it went from acoustic classical to acousmatic— electro-acoustic. It’s quite an avant-garde side of electronic music, people recording sounds and manipulating them. Learning about composers like Jean Claude Risset and Denis Smalley. From there it went on towards things that are more accessible, like Burial. As long as it was dark. I was always interested in it. Classical was a way into broader spheres of influence for me. As the bridge between what’s classical and what’s not gets thinner, things get closer. You can hop in from one to the other without people being surprised, I think. The thing about acousmatic music a well is that when I studied it, it felt a little…weird. Like, does this even make sense? But then it became about developing the ideas that composers and others have been playing with.

What place do you think classical music has today? You’ve written this composition to promote the new release, and much has been made of the importance of classical to your own productions.
It’s quite hard to pin down. There are two paths so to —a full-on academic side, and then one that’s more like Classic FM, and from that into people like Nils Frahm. It’s like a bridge between all these things. I write the way I do partly because of my studies. I started a master’s degree, but then gave up as I was tired of going down this academic route of thinking about music. My music sounds the way it does because I want to write it that way. I’d like to think my music can be this bridge between those worlds, between classical and a more beat side, a modern side. I’d like to see it go more towards the classical side. There is a lot of heavy classical music, but I don’t think it’s been represented too much in the world of modern producers.

prayer beneath

How do you bridge traditional song structures with the modern approach to writing, one rooted in dance and electronic music, where the form of a song is more malleable?
I try not to think about it. The main thing I think about when writing is chords. That’s mainly where I bring in the classical element. My song structures aren’t exactly song form, but they’re not too far out either. There are different sections. But the chords are really the main influence from classical music. The sound of my chords would be inspired by composers like Vaughan Williams, this seventh and ninth chord approach, with inversions. And then the acapellas I use are from a 1990s sampling style. I like that style, not messing around with them that much. That’s how songs tend to come together.

The main way I’m influenced by classical is also in the layering. That’s where Phillip Glass comes in again. It’s almost like blocks of music, but there’s a lot of detail in there, layering sounds atop each other beneath thick chords. The structures are fairly straight forward after that.

The new EP is your first in a year. Why choose to take your time to release music, especially given the pace of the industry today?
I’ve never been a fan of writing a track and putting it on SoundCloud a day later. I’d rather hold stuff back. When you’re writing stuff, you might think it’s really good at the time but if you sit on it, a few months later you can see progression, and that carries on until you reach a point where you have to put something out. Otherwise it’s a never-ending process! I get good input from everyone else in the Grade 10 collective; we all do. We’re all on the same wavelength, so we act as sounding boards for each other. Music was never as instant as it is today, so I think taking time helps to create more meaning.

What’s the idea behind Grade 10?
There’s a very English sound I think to what we’ve been putting out. The aesthetic is to keep a raw sound overall, rather than being overly polished or heavily produced. Even with the artwork, it's simple, bold ideas. I’ve known all the people in Grade 10 my whole life pretty much, so it was quite natural for us to come together like this. We’ve progressed from writing music to putting records out. Everyone is involved in all the aspects of it. Artwork is designed in-house, stamping records and posting them out. Mastering is one of the few external things in the process. A few of us had experience with what was needed to run a label with our previous time at Cult, so that got brought in—but it’s still constantly a learning experience.

Most of the crew is from and in Leicester. I’m in London with another one of us, so it’s mainly a Leicester thing. It’s nice. We started doing a regular radio show on Radar Radio in London, and everyone drives down from Leicester for it once a month. It’s been a great way for everyone to up the profile and just be involved in something that feels exciting; that station is doing some good stuff. It’s something we all enjoy doing—getting together and vibing off each other by playing music altogether in one evening.

"When you’re involved in a product from start to finish, it means a lot more than just throwing something out there into the ether."

Do you enjoy mixing the administrative and creative sides of running a label?
When you work on more mundane tasks, what makes it worse is when you do it with people that you don’t like. But when it’s your friends it’s more enjoyable. It’s a lot more meaningful too being involved in that whole process. When you’re involved in a product from start to finish, it means a lot more than just throwing something out there into the ether.

What’s your approach to performing live?
Aside from DJing, what I’ve done so far is deconstruct backing tracks and pick parts to play live on a keyboard that I connect to Ableton. I’ll trigger backing parts and play on top of it. Eventually I’d like to do a lot more but I’ve never been a massive fan of electronic acts bringing a full band on stage. I think eventually I’d like to bring in strings. For now, I limit it to Ableton, a keyboard and some pads.

What is it about a full live set up that doesn’t appeal?
If you can do it really well and offer something new, that’s great, but I’ve never liked when you’ve got a finished product that sounds perfect and then the live show is almost like a gimmick to prove that you can bring it to the stage. Generally if I go see live shows it’s an orchestra; otherwise I go see people DJ. I’m sure it can work, and it depends on the type of music, but I think for my sound, which is heavily synth-based, I couldn’t see it working within that realm.

How important, if at all, is location to your creative process?
I’d say not really. If I’m involved with anyone creatively it’s people from Leicester. A lot of the reason why Grade 10 sounds so different stylistically is because there’s no one defining scene attached to the city, unlike London. Everyone keeps to themselves musically in Leicester. The fact that we are a close collective of friends is more important. There are more shows, more concerts to go to in London, though—that’s undeniable. I used to go out a lot more. It’s another cliché, but I’m quite absorbed in my own stuff. My creative process is often reflected in that—building upon my own ideas and challenging myself to find the next step.