If you are lucky to be acquainted with Alexander Leonard Donat, you would know that he has to be one of the most busy people in the alternative scene. He works full time, family and on top of that, works on multiple music projects, both solo and with others. This interview was originally written for the Vlimmer album Nebenkörper, Alexander has released in this time, an album with the Fir Cone Children and another solo project ASSASSUN with the album Sunset Skull, which we will discuss in another review (and there was the sound of your reviewer banging their head on the computer because Donat can put out albums faster than she can review them).
Alexander Leonard Donat, welcome to Onyx for this interview about your project, Vlimmer.
You have been releasing music under the moniker, Vlimmer since 2015. How did this project come about?
In 2015 I was in a state of disappointment in respect of the music I had made and how it was received. I guess, you shouldn’t expect anything from the music listeners out there, especially not that they feel the same as you. Seven years ago I released an indie rock album called “Jagmoor Cynewulf” which, for me, was the perfect blend of alternative and pop music. Really, I would have sold my soul for this album, and after four or five years in the making, a lot of time on the road, playing the songs live, and more than a couple of thousands of Euros invested I thought this is either it or I’ll stop making music. It wasn’t it, yet, luckily, I didn’t stop, I’d rather develop a “Ah, fuck it” attitude and go back to the original question: “What kind of music do I really want to create?” I didn’t really have to think about it for too long, the answer was: a bleak version of shoegaze, not the dreamy head-in-the-clouds kind. Dark and hopeless instead. Without any audience I could just concentrate on creating music, and the songs kept pouring out of me – they still do! – it was absolutely revitalizing. Since 2015 Vlimmer has been undergoing several changes in style, and now it isn’t much of a shoegaze-influenced project anymore. Trusting the music reviews, I do something in the darkwave, industrial, goth, post-punk fields. In retrospect, Vlimmer was born out of frustration, and now it’s become one of the most important things in my life.
Before your debut album Nebenkörper was released in 2021, you had released a lot of EPs. What inspired you to produce a full album?
When the songs I wrote kept on coming, I quickly realized an album wouldn’t be enough, and a double album wasn’t an option. Who listens to a 20 track album these days, anyways? With a handful of exceptions maybe, not me. The concept of a series of 5-track EPs sounded perfect to me. Why five, you may ask? The above mentioned “Jagmoor Cynewulf” album was accompanied by an 18-chapter book, an existential narrative, and I simply used the words I’d already written, and – it was more of a coincidence – it turned out one chapter was good for five tracks. It also set the goal: releasing 18 EPs. When I released the first two parts in November 2015 I had already written songs for three more EPs. A couple of months before the final part I, of course, thought about what I’d do after that. There actually was only one option: recording the debut album. I loved the idea of working on that very format after having released 25 EPs in total. Working on an album felt entirely different, you can do so much more than with a 5-tracker. Also, creating an album’s tracklist is one of the most exciting things for me, it’s like a big puzzle. Looking for the perfect position of all the pieces is the part I enjoy the most. I believe that the right tracklist can create something that is bigger than its individual parts. For “Nebenkörper” I had recorded some 20 songs and the process of choosing which ones to put on the album was fun.
Did you find the format of an album gave you more scope to play with as far as choosing different styles?
It seems even if I try to create something coherent sound-wise, I end up with a product that reviewers see as diverse with no clear genre tags. Still, I’m very satisfied with how I managed to bring my initial “Nebenkörper” idea to life: recording an album with a focus on a brutal, post-apocalyptic, industrial sound outfit, tribal drumming, faster songs – in contrast to the dreamy and often catchy 80s wave pop/post-punk which I had more and more focused on. If it weren’t for my wife, “Meter” which is the album’s most popular song, wouldn’t have landed on the album as it actually seemed too pop-oriented. Luckily, I trusted her and made my peace with it. “Meter” very much belongs to “Nebenkörper”.
Did you find writing and recording a full album more of a challenge?
No, not at all. Having recorded some 20+ albums with my other projects I am used to either format, albums, EPs, singles… Okay, one exception, so far there’s no double album, ha!
Are there themes that inspire you when you write?
Vlimmer songs are almost always about the human being and their position in society. Living among other people is a constant challenge for everyone, this has even become clearer since the pandemic started. Creating music helps me not to lose my mind in today’s mad world. In general, I am a lucky and happy man, I can’t complain at all, but still, no one is free of the everyday struggles that unexpectedly await you around the corner. Putting negative experience straight into my music helps me getting rid of them.
The latest single Erdgeruch/Space Dementia, sees you using more clean vocal techniques rather than distorted via electronics. Why did you decide to try this style of singing?
That must have happened automatically, as the song is super catchy, even my little kids sing the “Erdgeruch” chorus. Additionally, the arrangement is rather sparse compared to the full in-your-face “Nebenkörper” mix which, in parts, drowned out the vocals. Originally, it was recorded in the same album sessions, but even now that it has had a lot of airplay, I think it would not have fit on “Nebenkörper”. However, I consider putting it on the second album which I will release later this year.
How would you say that Vlimmer has changed since the first release in 2015?
The first 30 or so songs were all based on recurring drum loops which I created with a guitar delay pedal and wouldn’t change at all during a song’s progression. It therefore even had a motoric krautrock feel to it. I also, purposely, didn’t use any hi-hats or cymbals as to achieve a more layered sound result that was intended to wash over the listener without any distracting sounds. When I began including hi-hats it really was a big deal for me as it meant I was ready to write proper songs again which included a verse-chorus structure and more prominent vocals. Suddenly – but indeed accidentally – I had found myself in the goth and post-punk scene which was and still is very supportive.
I have noticed you seem to be involved in a few projects. Can you tell us about these?
In a way, Vlimmer is my main project as it’s the closest to what I like about music. But it wouldn’t work if I hadn’t more projects that balance everything out. Fir Cone Children is my dream punk thing, a mix of punk and shoegaze, here I focus on the experience my daughters make, mostly writing lyrics from their perspectives. In the beginning it was all about naïvety, fun, discovering things, playing, running about, but hey, the older you get, the more you adjust to the world around you, therefore it contains melancholy and occasional desperation, too. In general, I see Vlimmer and Fir Cone Children as a dark/light dichotomy which is necessary for me to keep it all in order. Additionally, Feverdreamt is experimental oriental/electronic music with its own invented language. My latest incarnation is ASSASSUN, a purely electronic creation in the darkwave/synth punk sector. Other projects of mine even include a second member: WHOLE is a mix of indie rock and electronica based in Berlin, Distance Dealer is a pan-Atlantic synth/goth project with my friend Thiago from Brazil.
Do you enjoy the collaborative process as much as being able to do your own thing? Is there a completely different dynamic?
There’s an absolutely different dynamic, yeah, and I fully enjoy it as it allows me to have others decide stuff for me, ha! Don’t get me wrong, I love having full control over projects, songs and their mixes, artwork et cetera, yet it can be a kind of relief to go with what your musical partner has in mind if you know you can trust them. It’s lovely having the chance to do both, though, with a preference, maybe, on doing my own thing because it speeds up everything immensely and allows me to be the productive person I naturally am.
What bands or type of music first caught your attention when you were younger?
I was born into a musical family which was all into classical music. The first bands that made me want to be in a band were alternative rock bands like Deftones, At The Drive-In, Linkin Park, Tool, Jimmy Eat World and Sigur Rós.
What acts and music do you find yourself drawn to now?
That’s a tough one because there are so many. I have my favorite bands, and they usually mix genres because that’s something I enjoy rather than listening to bands that set themselves clear “scene boundaries”. When bands incorporate a certain atmospheric, layered and melancholic or dark sound component, they are most likely to get my attention, no matter if it’s black metal, indie pop or hip-hop. While I enjoy a truckload of genres and styles, I think often it’s a certain indie rock element that has me put on a band’s record on my record player. My favorite bands and artists are No Age, British Sea Power, HEALTH, Radiohead, Flying Saucer Attack, Hood, Trail of Dead, The Hirsch Effekt, Converge, Deftones, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, The Icarus Line, Xasthur, Motorpsycho, Diiv, Deafheaven, Deerhunter, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Daniel Menché, Sufjan Stevens, Touché Amoré, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Low, Liturgy, Algiers, Aphex Twin, Torres, Bosse-De-Nage, Sonic Youth, ANONHI, Tim Hecker, Nine Inch Nails, Black Country New Road, and I definitely missed some more …
With covid still very much controlling what we do, are there any plans to do anything live with Vlimmer?
As much as I’d want to perform live with Vlimmer there are no current plans of doing so. The song arrangements would require a proper band, and it would need an insane amount of time to find band members, learn and practice the songs, and do the booking. It would also mean less time for writing new songs which is the most fun part of making music.
You also run the label Blackjack Illuminist Records. How do also manage to fit this in and what is it like to run your own label?
Running a record label and making music are my favorite things to do, although I’m super happy with my daytime job as a teacher in an elementary school in Neukölln, Berlin. The latter pays the rent and I don’t need to generate any income with my music which gives me enormous freedom. I probably manage to do both because I need less sleep than the average person and I have an unstoppable urge to be creative. I guess the limited time we have on earth also is a major motivation, I want to at least try to leave behind something that stays when I’m gone. Not that it changes anything when I’m dead, but the feeling calms me in a way, it gives me a purpose which is something we all seek, right?
So with your debut album under your belt, what is in the future for Vlimmer and Alexander Leonard Donat?
I’m finishing up the second Vlimmer full length, “Menschenleere”. It’s different compared to “Nebenkörper”, catchier, less aggressive and menacing – yet with the unmistakably claustrophobic Vlimmer vibe.
Thank you for talking to us!