Interviews

Interview: The most organic ensemble album I’ve done – Manu Delago presents Circadian

On September 13, acclaimed composer, drummer and handpan player Manu Delago releases his new album Circadian.

Born in Innsbruck, Austria and currently residing in London, the young musician has performed and recorded with the likes of Björk, Anoushka Shankar, The Cinematic Orchestra and Joss Stone, all the while establishing an impressively varied and prolific solo career.

Always looking for a challenge, Manu embodies adventurous music in the most literal sense of the word. His last release, Parasol Peak (a short film with an accompanying album), saw him leading an ensemble of seven musicians on a mountaineering expedition in the Alps, to play and record original music in different locations at varying altitudes.

In Circadian he aims to “take the listener through the cycle of sleep stages, emulating REM, light sleep, deep sleep and an abrupt awakening.”

I caught up with Manu on the day he launched the video for his new single, “Zeitgeber”, to talk about Circadian, Parasol Peak, his creative process and his role as a pioneer of the Hang, a melodic percussion instrument created in the year 2000 by the Swiss company PANArt.

You’ve collaborated with a great number of musicians, from Björk to Anoushka Shankar, The Cinematic Orchestra and Joss Stone. Is there anyone in particular you’d love to work with in the future?

There are many musicians I would love to work with. I’m not sure I can even narrow it down to one specific name. But I guess I’ve come to a point where I really focus on my own music. If there are nice collaborations, then I’m always open, because you learn so much by collaborating. But it’s not something I’m actively pursuing at the moment.

Throughout your career, you’ve performed and recorded solo, in duo (with Christoph Pepe Auer on bass clarinet) and in groups of various sizes, including a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra strings section and the Graduale Nobili choir. Do you have a preferred format? 

I just like the variety. I don’t want to repeat myself. I play an instrument that is relatively young, so I like to experiment and try out new things. As you’ve mentioned, I started out solo and with the duo, then moved on to larger ensembles. I try to do things that inspire me.

I find it very fun to write for a large ensemble, because you have so many options. But then it’s also a challenge to play solo, because you have to cover a lot of ground by yourself. Sometimes, I seek other challenges, like the mountain thing, where I had other parameters that made it unique.

Parasol Peak was an immense undertaking. Do you have anything similar in mind for the future?

I have ideas and I’m planning things that go beyond the music, but that’s in the distant future. At the moment, Circadian is a project that is very much about the music and that ensemble playing — a strong group of people achieving something together. That’s something I took from Parasol Peak, but now I’m doing it in regular concert halls rather than on mountains.

Tell me a bit about the transition from Parasol Peak to Circadian. 

On Parasol Peak, it was really inspiring to see how much we could achieve with seven musicians being in the same place at the same time, for a week. That strong human energy was very inspiring for me. On my previous albums, I worked with musicians in the studio, or remotely through the internet. It was more disconnected. Parasol Peak was really amazing in terms of connection and just the human aspect.

I kept all of that for Circadian, but I didn’t have the limitations of needing to carry the equipment, so I could use way more instruments. It was more like a small orchestra. It was great fun writing for it and recording in a cozy studio. There’s more variety in terms of actual sound and warmth of sound. Obviously, also in the sound quality. On the mountain, we embraced nature — we had the nature on the album. Now, it was more about the quality of the actual instrument, the organic sound.

Circadian was inspired by individual circadian rhythms. This concept came as a result of your own experience with sleep deprivation, brought about by your hectic schedule as a touring musician. Could you tell me a bit about the creative process behind this album? 

I keep a diary of ideas on my computer. There were some fragments that I collected over time. Last winter, after a long period of touring, I booked a studio for a whole month. That was really a key decision for me. I had all of my instruments set up, a lot of percussion stuff. I also invited many guest collaborators to the studio. 

Every day, I cycled to the studio and worked. In the evening, I cycled back. I had no social media, no concerts or anything. I was really focused on the music. That was a very creative time for me.

I’d been craving to have that, but all that touring didn’t allow me. Sometimes, you get three or five days off, but you don’t really have the time to focus properly. That month was basically when I created pretty much all of Circadian

This seems to be a really introspective album whereas Parasol Peak was very much outward-oriented, with a lot of energy invested in overcoming the inherent challenges of filming and recording music in extraordinary conditions. What would you say was the greatest challenge in creating Circadian?

I think the main challenge was actually to find one sound and one theme for it. When I went into the studio, I decided that I didn’t want to limit myself in any way. I wanted to have all the options. I made some tracks with electronics, some tracks solo and then some with an ensemble. I tried different versions and ended up with almost twice as much music as I’ll be releasing.

Then, it was a challenge to find a story and find one sound that makes sense for the album, to give it a direction. The ensemble idea felt like the most natural one. I really wanted to tour with this project, because Parasol Peak was not a touring album. That was a film. So this album is very much geared toward playing live. After the release, we will do twenty concerts around Europe.

You have an impressively prolific and varied career, with twelve records to your name and a great number of guest appearances. Was there any particular time when you felt you’ve come into your own, that you’ve achieved the sound you were looking for?

It’s a good question. I think there are always moments when you think you’ve found it. A year later, you look back and think, “I should have done this differently!” Every record is a chapter in one’s life. You do what you do, then you move on and hopefully the next one is better or different in whatever way. I’m sure I had several moments when I thought, “This is what I want to do!”

When I started out, because the instrument was so young and there was a lot of demand, I might have been a bit premature in releasing stuff. Mostly between 2006 and 2011. Those were the early days of the instrument, and for me also. Nowadays, I try to take more time and release something every other year or so. I’m happy with the stuff I’ve put out in the last eight or nine years, but I still want to move on and do something different.

Created in 2000, the Hang is a relatively young instrument with a short lifespan, having recently been discontinued. You’ve described it as a “blank slate” in terms of history and tradition. As arguably the most prominent Hang player in the world, do you feel any pressure knowing that you are an integral part of the instrument’s heritage?

The Hang has been discontinued, but there is a whole scene of handpans. There are now 200 handpan makers. In a way, the scene is actually exploding. On the one hand, it’s nice to have that standing and have a bit of a following, but on the other hand it’s also a motivation to move on and try to be a pioneer. But not all things necessarily have to be about the Hang.

On Circadian there are tracks where I don’t play it and on Parasol Peak there are tracks where I didn’t play it. On the current Björk tour I don’t play it at all. I play five different instruments, but not the handpan. I always try to do other things as well, because my background is being a drummer and writing music. 

I still love playing a regular drum kit. It’s something I’ve been doing all my life. I sort of turn into a child when I play. I actually released a video today of my new single, where I play drums. It’s something I really like doing.

Percussion is such a massive family of instruments. Especially on Circadian, I really used a lot of different percussion from all over the world, interesting sounds that I collected. Percussion has been a really big part of Circadian.

How would you describe the music of Circadian?

What already happened on Parasol Peak was that the music became a bit more minimal than before, because it also had the visual component. For me, Parasol Peak was always a film. Somehow, I was actually surprised that the music still worked quite well on its own. I had radio DJs who played it without even knowing about the film. That made me think about my music in a different way.

At the time, I was touring with Ólafur Arnalds, an Icelandic pianist, whose music is always very minimal. There’s a lot of space. When I went into the studio, quite a lot of the tracks ended up being minimal. That went hand in hand with the sleep concept.

Since Circadian is a story-oriented concept album, what role did track placement play in shaping the album’s narrative?

That was also part of the challenge I mentioned earlier: how to bring together all the music I had into one single thing? There is a track that is twenty minutes long. It’s a very minimal sleep track called “Delta Sleep”. Naturally, on most albums, this would be the last track.

It would have been too obvious to do that. Because there is this nocturnal theme, I thought about it and built the album in such a way that it starts in the evening and then slows down, when tiredness kicks in. Then, it has this sort of dip in the middle, with the long sleep track. Gradually, there are dreams happening. Then, it reaches dawn and the last track, “Zeitgeber” — which was released today — is kind of an alarm clock. So it’s a bit brutal at the end. But that is, I suppose, how most people experience the night. A lot of people have to wake up with an alarm clock. I really wanted to have a track on it that would reflect that and I placed it at the end.

It’s great if people want to go through this journey. Most people don’t really listen to albums anymore, like in the old days when people actually listened to them sequentially, so it doesn’t even matter that much. Nowadays, “Zeitgeber” might be on the “party” playlist and the others might be on the “sleep” playlist or whatever. People can listen to it whichever way they want. I just wanted to find a story and a natural way in which the album worked.

Parasol Peak was a film and the albums before that were more electronic. With the electronic component, there’s always a compromise of how much you play live and how much is from the laptop, electronically manipulated. Circadian is the most organic ensemble album I’ve done and I can’t wait to play the music, because I know it’s going to be fun.

Find out more about Manu’s work at his website. and follow him on Facebook and Twitter!

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