Electronic duo Sanctums’ reluctance to chase fame is attracting some major attention

Being a musician in 2014 comes with a palpable sense of desperation. Whether it’s an artist schmoozing a promoter a publicist hounding a journalist or a social media marketer clamouring to be noticed in the Internet’s cluttered endless abyss the modern music game is more about the hustle than the music.

The glut has gotten so overwhelming in fact that many have started looking for art that’s not begging for attention. As such we have new bands boasting unGoogleable monikers record labels that unearth obscure never-before-heard gems and artists who perfect their craft in private before letting slip the slightest public sound.

Sanctums the Calgary-born duo of Dan “Solo” Wallace and Evangelos “Typist” Lambrinoudis II fit into the latter category. Since forming four years ago the duo is intent on making what Lambrinoudis describes as a “minimal non-dancefloor project” quietly releasing three EPs one full-length album and multiple remixes. Others have taken notice booking both the band and the individuals at western Canadian music festivals including Shambhala Bass Coast and Sled Island.

Describing the project as a hobby and an excuse for the two best friends to spend time together they exhibit none of the thirst for success of so many other up-and-comers.

They also haven’t tried to hop on any trend. Wallace a seasoned DJ with a decade in the industry points out that he’s seen far too many electronic music trends come and go. “For me it just never really appealed to me to always have to be pleasing people. I got into music because I love music and the only way I was able to express myself was through sound…. For my music I want people to either get it or not get it. It doesn’t really matter to me.”

He describes Sanctums as the “Juicy J of the ambient world” and the description is apt. Their music is undeniably artful pairing hard-hitting techno with transcendent soundscapes but they also exude personality and hint at a history of party-starting club music.

Hard to categorize and hardly self-promotional these are the reasons that people seek Sanctums out. Though they were intent on taking a lengthy break to reconfigure their live show finish solo projects and eventually complete a new full-length album the two were approached to attend the Red Bull Music Academy’s Bass Camp in Montreal from February 27 to March 2 a trip that included a live performance alongside 14 other artists at an event curated with the revered electronic music festival MUTEK as part of Nuit blanche à Montréal.

“Every time we slow down we get asked to do all these things” Lambrinoudis says with a laugh. “We were planning to do a whole live set with a band. That was going to be our thing for the summer of this year — hire someone to play drums for us and do a different style — but it never happened because we haven’t had the time.”

Now in its 16th year the Red Bull Music Academy sets up in one location around the world once a year and pairs world-class artists with a select group of up-and-coming international artists. It includes intensive music lectures hands-on workshops recording time and live performances spread across five weeks while the artists live together in a select location. Slots are coveted with thousands of applicants. The application form itself is immense with a mixture of personal and professional questions spread across 19 pages. Of the thousands of applications only 60 are chosen. This year’s Music Academy will be held in Tokyo Japan.

Throughout the year RBMA organizers also hold abbreviated versions of the event known as Bass Camps where aspects of the regular academy are condensed into three days. No application is necessary for this event — instead RBMA organizers hand-pick up-and-coming electronic producers from across the country to fly out and participate in the event. Artists lecturers and a handful of journalists (myself included) stayed together at the Hotel St-Paul in Old Montreal and took part in three days of lectures and studio time at the PHI Centre just two blocks away before heading out for performances at night or as many chose to do sticking around in the studio and collaborating until the wee hours of the morning.

Invites were sent to the artists just months before three of whom happened to be in the same room when they got the email. Wallace a father of three now lives on Vancouver Island with his family. Lambrinoudis was visiting from Calgary en route to China. Taylor Kline a Calgary native and fantastic electronic producer who recently completed a fine arts degree at Emily Carr in Vancouver was also there going over some tracks he recorded with Wallace.

I met with Lambrinoudis and Wallace at the Calgary airport on Thursday February 27 and their dynamic as a duo was immediately clear. Wallace exudes a quiet wisdom and calm patience though he’s also a masterful conversationalist. “To strangers he comes across as stoic maybe intimidating [and] quiet” Lambrinoudis says of Wallace. “But once you get to know him he’s actually hilarious ridiculous and an amazing dad. He’s one of the most caring and thoughtful people I’ve ever met and that’s why we’re friends.”

Lambrinoudis on the other hand is wild hyperactive and ceaselessly giddy — the bratty counterpart to Wallace’s paternal role. Ten minutes into our time together he lost his boarding pass then found it in the creamer bowl at the airport restaurant where he’d eaten his breakfast. Throughout the weekend he dropped absurd quotes lost and found musical equipment and maintained a wide-eyed energetic enthusiasm at all hours. “He’s just a totally positive guy” Wallace says. “He’s a very straightforward honest person which I’ve always really admired in him.”

Lambrinoudis a self-described “straight-edge raver” is also a Marxist with a background in hardcore music. As such he was initially wary of a big-name energy drink funding the event. “Going into it I was kind of sketched out about the idea of a corporation sponsoring music” he tells me. And he certainly was — over the first communal dinner he may have turned a head or two by launching into a loud anti-corporate tirade with references to Marx and Hegel. “I think no musician wants that to be the ideal” he adds.

Though images of intrusive Doritos signs at SXSW and Scion-sponsored crust-punk 7-inches come to mind it’s to Red Bull’s credit that they’ve maintained a comfortable distance from the event. Aside from fridge after fully stocked fridge of the stuff nothing about the weekend felt like an energy drink commercial. Instead the employees of the Red Bull Music Academy are music fanatics who are just as passionate about mastering Ableton hotkeys and nerding out over the synthesizers in the impressive recording studios as any of the attendees.

“I think Red Bull acts more like a facilitator” Lambrinoudis admits. “Though they do get more of their name on stuff and they do get what they want out of it the benefit of the artist is way bigger.” It’s also worth noting that Lambrinoudis drank more Red Bull than anyone else that weekend. One morning he burst out of his hotel room declaring “I just took a shit that smelled like Red Bull.”

It’s also to Red Bull’s credit that there were no expectations for any sort of outcome from the weekend — just to collaborate tinker with equipment and explore in any of the five furnished studios with help from producers Prison Garde (a.k.a. Sixtoo) and Nautiluss. The only real rule for the weekend was to make sure that everyone attended each of the morning lectures.

Both members of Sanctums were eager participants throughout exhibiting a willingness to learn and a lack of pretension. In the first session each of the artists had a moment to impress the group with a sample of their music. Each of the 20 artists oozed jaw-dropping talent and for the most part an air of humility. Wallace and Lambrinoudis went a step deeper in the personality department however playing compositions inspired by Vikings and Magic: The Gathering respectively.

The next day we heard a lecture from legendary N.W.A. co-founder DJ Yella who shared some insights about his production style while also aging himself (telling a room full of dazzling up-and-coming producers that all modern music sounds the same is near-sighted at best) but Wallace and Lambrinoudis were active participants who nerded out in the Q and A period. It makes perfect sense — following their participation in legendary Calgary club nights like The Midnight Social and Modern Math the two founded Broken City’s old-school hip-hop night Natural Selection in 2011 and have kept the venue at capacity on most Saturdays since.

For both of them however the most engaging lecturer was Jeremy Greenspan. The Junior Boys founder and solo techno producer offered great insights into his career and shared sage quotes tailor-made for Sanctums saying things like “An artist’s greatest asset is their inability to sound like anyone else.”

During the first Junior Boys song we listened to as a group a mischievous Lambrinoudis leaned in to me and whispered “I ate pussy to this song once.” From there however both members asked insightful questions about Greenspan’s recording techniques and have taken his advice home with them.

“I had a very strong connection with Jeremy Greenspan” Lambrinoudis says. “Listening to him talking about analogue summing mixing on a desk being able to actually mix some stuff on a real desk and using preamps and stuff. Even gear related the idea of making electronic music like you’d mix a band in a studio. That was huge for me. It was a game-changer. Since I’ve gotten back I bought a whole bunch of gear that I’m using now. It actually really changed my production style.”

Wallace echoes those sentiments pointing out that the weekend taught him to think beyond his computer. “We’ve always just done everything in the box and the computer because we never had a means to do it any other way” he says. “After being in that studio on that SSL board and the compressors and the sound treatment in that room and the potential of what you can do with sound in a proper setting like that really made me just realize how much further you can take your sound if you’re willing to spend the money on renting studio time or if you have the proper backing to get you into the studio…. You can do a lot with computers but hearing your music in that form and applying the analogue techniques to it just really kind of blew my mind.”

Outside of some production tips and a whole gaggle of new friends from across the country the members of Sanctums left the Bass Camp feeling reassured about what they’re doing. “I learned to stick to your guns and stay true to what your path is as a musician” Wallace says. “It was just an overall surreal experience of a lifetime.

“It definitely inspired me to continue on my path the new path I’ve kind of been walking down with music this last year and that’s more of a backroom kind of producer and label head” he continues. That’s not to say Wallace is through with DJing — he’s already talking about recording some live mixes and throwing them online. But his heart still lies in producing new music at home and releasing vinyl and digital music through Modern Math Recordings the label he runs with Matt Hali and Sandro Petrillo.

More importantly and despite Sanctums’ well-received set in Montreal Wallace says he’s still going to decline live performances until the duo have completed their reinvention. “I opened an email the day we got back with a show offer and I had to politely decline” he says. “It’s strategy for us to force ourselves to evolve because it’s so easy to get a little bit of success and then stick to what works and keep re-creating that formula but we don’t really want to do that. We want to push ourselves to evolve not only our sound but our show.”

“We might not play Shambhala this year or maybe even next year or Bass Coast… but those doors haven’t closed” Lambrinoudis adds. “I think that’s just the way electronic music works in this part of the world — that urgency isn’t there like it is for bands…. There’s some agency where we can just not have to do something and people will be patient and know that we’re still around.”

They’re not completely on hiatus — Wallace says Sanctums plan to self-release a cassette this spring featuring some music they’ve been sitting on for the last year — but they won’t revisit the project with new work again until this fall when they plan to write their next full-length album.

Instead Lambrinoudis has already spent the last two weeks getting started on a solo album. “It’s going to be super influenced by power-noise drone and definitely utility techno like DJ techno.”

Ultimately Sanctums’ goal is to just keep working at the same pace on their own terms no matter who’s listening.

“Obviously there was a time when I was younger where I had this dream. I wanted to blow up I wanted to make it blah blah blah” Wallace says. “But as I’ve gotten older and accepted who I am and what kind of person I am I just realized that kind of lifestyle isn’t for me…. I’ve never been able to fake who I am — I’m not some hyper dude who wants to rave with you all night. I’d much rather sit in a coffee shop and have a deep conversation.

“I’m honestly not jaded in any sense” he adds. “Music has been amazing to me. People have treated me amazing throughout the evolution of my career…. I feel like since I’ve stepped out of being more of a spotlight figure in a scene of any sense it feels like almost people have started to take me a little more seriously. Because they’re like ‘Well this guy isn’t really pushing anything he isn’t trying to tell you to come to his club night or whatever. He’s just making music and it’s different and it’s interesting.’ That makes me feel good because you know I’m not trying to sell anything.”