Ice Choir
by Kevin J. Elliott

As the drummer of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Kurt Feldman is no stranger to the pop revival that has blossomed since that band’s debut. On the front lines, though, Feldman was limited to playing a jangly, dreamy variety of pop, while his itchy songwriting self was looking for an outlet that tapped into a much different scope, one that included fretless basslines, gossamer synths, programmed beats and deeply emotive vocals and lyrics. Ice Choir was born out of a want to create songs that harkened back to a time when the radio was just as likely to play Johnny Hates Jazz as it was to play John Cougar Mellancamp. Back then the Top 40 was chock full of New Romantics with new haircuts, blue-eyed soul and jazzbo combos evoking lavish lifestyles, as well as former punks and new wavers trading in guitars for Fairlight systems. As long as there was a pop hook at the center, even Richard Marx could have multiple chart toppers.

Afar, Feldman’s debut as Ice Choir, could easily have come from that time. Every instrumental passage and every breathy lovelorn couplet is illuminated with a meticulous attention to detail, and in turn, sound as slick and ebullient as classic albums like ABC’s Lexicon of Love and Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche ’85. It would be errant, though, to declare Feldman’s project a simple retread of that nostalgic plasticity. I was fortunate to see Ice Choir’s first live performance and found Feldman’s crew more than competent in stitching together these lush arrangements and intricate melodies. In my email exchange with Feldman, I learned Afar is inspired by an even deeper love of synth-pop that collects fragments of 8-bit video game music and obscure Japanese electro-composers. It’s that wide net of influence that keeps Feldman untied to any particular period or style and focuses all of his efforts in being an erudite student of the pop song.

First off, is Ice Choir something you started as a diversion to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart or is this something you’ve been doing for a while now? How exactly did it start?

Kurt Feldmen: I started writing and recording songs for Ice Choir in late 2010, when my previous band, Depreciation Guild, was winding down. I spent the better part of 2011 on the road with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, where I was in a generally negative headspace due to personal issues. Writing songs while I was constantly traveling helped me through that. They all ended up on Afar, the first Ice Choir album.

The music recalls as very specific time in pop—when bands like Scritti Politti, Level 42, and ABC ruled the airwaves—so I’m curious to know what drew you to this genre. Was it something you grew up listening to on the radio or did you discover it later in life?

KF: I think I’ve been exposed to and enjoyed, even if only tangentially, aspects of ’80s pop music my whole life. Since I first got a Nintendo at age three, I’ve been obsessed with the videogame music that is inextricably tied and indebted to the Japanese pop and techno-pop of that same era. Admittedly, though, that connection and my interest in ’80s production values and the artists who (artfully) employed them is a more recent exploration of the past 10 years.

For me, those groups and those records hold a special place in my heart, but I’m often derided for declaring “Perfect Way” the best pop song of the ’80s. For a lot of people, looking back it is not taken too seriously. Do you catch the same flak for liking this stuff?

KF: “Perfect Way” is a great song of the ’80s, but it’s also ostentatious and challenging to the conventions of pop music from that era, which isn’t always immediately recognizable to the average listener. Everyone hears FM synthesizers and thinks of the ’80s because that’s when those tools were fairly ubiquitous in pop music. Sometimes it takes a more astute listener (or a musician) to recognize when their expectations have been subverted. This is true of all eras of music. To answer your question, though, I don’t care what critics think and I like to think my friends all have good taste, so no, I haven’t had that problem yet.

Was it a task to recreate the sonics of that period? Did you have trouble finding the right instruments from the era or did filters and plug-ins lend a hand?

KF: Not really, a lot of the synthesizers I used on this record were free or hand-me-downs from friends or my dad. I also intentionally acquired some of them to make the record. They’re not particularly in vogue and so they weren’t that expensive either. Patrick, who plays bass, happens to be my roommate and he also lent some of his collection to the recording process. I used some modern soft-synths and plugins in conjunction with this hardware as well. Other stylistic choices in EQ and mix balance can also be indicative of a particular era, which may be apparent in this instance.

I suppose that leads to my next question. I was really impressed seeing the record played live. I had the preconception that it would be a solo laptop performance, but you are a full band. Was that an important part in presenting Ice Choir?

KF: The fact that I’m not up there singing karaoke to a laptop is important, yes. I would have opted out of playing live if that was my only option. I don’t have any aspirations of taking these songs on the road, but it’s fulfilling to play my music in a live setting, even if only on occasion and very recreationally. Patrick, Raphael and Avery are all fellow music geeks and close friends of mine, but most importantly, excellent musicians with whom I share a deep mutual respect. They’ve all got their own musical and life pursuits so I’m really grateful that they care enough to want to learn and play these songs with me.

I often separate a lot of those aforementioned bands from the New Romantics, which is something very different. I think you channel that quite faithfully. When people ask what Ice Choir sound like or is inspired by how do you respond?

KF: “Ornate pop music with synthesizers” or something like that.

Are there records from that period that you think time forgot or need a second evaluation?

KF: Gangway and Sophie and Peter Johnston are the two big ones that come to mind. They are both criminally underrated. Also, there’s so much incredible music that came from Japan during that era, which remains, even to this day, inaccessible to the rest of the world. I’m really fortunate to have been to Japan where I’ve been able to pick up records by artists like Taeko Ohnuki, Tatsuro Yamashita, Toshiki Kadomatsu, Miharu Koshi, and Kikuchi Momoko.