Pikefruit's Inflorescence Reviewed + an Interview

Pikefruit - a duo (Alex and Nicole) from the Pacific Northwest that creates ethereal, electronic music - recently released a new album titled, Inflorescence. Iridescence? I know what that is. Fluorescent? I get that. Incandescent? Got it! But, inflorescence? I have to admit, even this English major was a bit stumped on that vocab word. Good old Webster’s was able to help out, of course: inflorescence is “the mode of development and arrangement of flowers on an axis” or “the budding and unfolding of blossoms.” As their first full-length reveals, Alex and Nicole are indeed blossoming.

Sonically, listeners can expect something in Bjork or Kate Bush neighborhood, with melodies that are strong and occasionally soaring. Nicole’s vocals sometimes cloud the lyrics creating an air of mystery and an invitation to peek around the bend to find out more. While the music is spacy, Pikefruit maintains the melody.

The record is free of excessive surface noise which is particularly appreciated during the album’s quieter passages. Bass clarity is commanding and avoids competing with keyboard upper frequencies or Nicole’s vocals. Nicholas Wilbur created a clean, transparent mix that takes advantage of a large and inviting soundstage.

Most importantly, Inflorescence tempts the listener to stop, to slow down, to pay attention to the lyrics and be swept up in the layers of sound and mood that they’ve concocted. Since I was expanding my vocabulary, I decided to research what a pikefruit is and - you’ll be glad to know - such a fruit does not exist; however, now a band does.

Thanks to Alex and Nicole for answering some musical and technical questions about their new release.

Evan Toth: You two are just getting started and there’s not a lot of information about either of you and your relationship. Would you mind giving our readers the overview of your backgrounds and how you connected and decided to begin creating music?

Alex: What can I say, we’re shy! We like talking about the music more than ourselves. I started learning how to produce electronic music back in high school, and the instrumentals that eventually became Pikefruit were started in college. I didn’t have a well-defined plan to make full albums, I just made loops as creative relief between studying and writing papers. I decided to look for a vocalist after I moved to Seattle, having realized I needed a creative partner to bring the record to life.

Nicole: I took piano lessons when I was eight years old. With that base knowledge of basic music theory and the joy of experimentation, I taught myself how to play a bunch of different instruments including guitar, flute, trumpet and drums. I was lucky to have a musical family and environment that supported performing arts. Noraebang culture is pretty big with Koreans as well, and as a half Korean I frequently sang with family and friends growing up. Not seriously of course, just for fun. I later joined choir in college. For forming the band, Alex put out posts all over the internet, social media and word of mouth. We met up at a show and discussed the style he was thinking of and the possibility of making music together. I shared some samples, was completely embarrassed as I had never really shared my singing with one person like that before, and he said, “You rock my face off. I have found my singer!!!”

E.T.: So, I was surprised to learn that all of the complex music on this record was created by a duo! Can you explain who does what and how you both tag-team each other and cooperate, musically speaking?

Alex: Looping is definitely central to our process — it’s the only way we could get that many layers! We built up the productions instrument-by-instrument, usually starting with one of the keyboards. It was a slow process, because even though the end result is technically complex, we still wanted the result to be coherent and in some sense simple. While I twiddled synth knobs, Nicole did vocal doodles into a cheap microphone, looking for melodies to match. The vocal effects were added after we mostly knew what the vocals were going to be, as the last layer to round out the sound and help tell the stories.

Nicole: Our songs evolved pretty organically. Our songwriting process was slow and iterative, looping instrumentals for hours on end while letting vocal melodies fall into place. We would meet up a few times per week for a couple of years. There were a few different ways we came up with our final songs, starting with a sound, starting with words, or starting with an idea or feeling. Alex had a bunch of beats in various stages he shared with me. We’d listen to them on repeat and think about the imagery or emotions or stories that played in our heads when we’d listen. While recording on a laptop, I would then hum over them until we found a sticky melody that fit. Sometimes I would spontaneously sing words that would come up, or I would read a random page of a book, or Alex would write a poem and I would sing those words until we found a few that sounded right for different parts of the song. We would refine and refine until it became a complete idea, story and song. Then came millions of hours per song of polish.

E.T.: This is your first full-length album, can you describe how it is different or similar from your debut EP, Sprig?

Nicole: Alex and I both have a background related to plants, so Sprig and Inflorescence are variations on the same botanically inspired theme of life. The basic idea is the same between the two records, but we like to believe we honed our craft a bit from the EP to the LP!

Alex: Yep, the basic idea is the same, and Inflorescence is intended to be a natural progression from Sprig — hence the punny name. The formula stayed the same: Odd synths, sampled acoustic drums, Nicole’s vocals front and center, and plenty of vocal effects. A major difference between the two though is that the LP was professionally mixed.

E.T.: “Lullaby” is an interesting fusion of your synth foundation and acoustic drums: can you talk about that song?

Nicole: This song started out as a beat Alex had created a while back with the title “Lullaby”. We tuned into the soft, loving, nurturing feeling of lulling someone to sleep. Sweet and simple.

Alex: The simplicity is important, I think that’s what makes it an outlier perhaps compared to the other songs. This song had only a dozen stems, whereas other songs like “Clockwork” had twice as many. The sparseness was mostly a result of the topic: It’s quite literally about being sung to sleep, so it just made sense to keep simple. Hard to fall asleep with too much going on…

E.T.:Your music really establishes a dreamy mood that’s difficult to describe. How do you craft that auditory vision? How close does this record sound to what you envisioned?

Nicole: Dreamy is definitely a vibe we were going for, while at the same time wanting to avoid a sound that’s totally “blurred” by reverb. There’s plenty of reverb on the record, for sure, but we wanted to make sure that the instruments, and especially the vocals, always had clarity.

Alex: I’m really happy to say the record sounds pretty much exactly like it was originally envisioned over 10 years ago. I heard the sound in my head back in college, but it turned out to be particularly difficult to figure out how to get that sound, especially as amateur musicians. The record sat unmixed for literally years while we searched for the right mix engineer. The original spark for the record happened back around 2010, when I was listening to Beach House’s Teen Dream a lot, and I wanted to do something inspired by that album but with an electronic foundation. We hope the record still “makes sense” today, all these years later..

. E.T.: There seems to be a tug of war on this record between the synthesized electronic side and your pure vocals and drumming. Can you explore the tension there between the artificial and the organic?

Nicole: (laughs) We hope it came across as synergy rather than conflict! But yes, this intersection is at the core of the aesthetic we were after.

Alex: In some sense, the aesthetic is the “inverse” of the usual synthpop instrumentation: Lots of synthpop uses synthesized percussion (drum machines) with acoustic tuned instruments (e.g. guitars, pianos). Instead, we used synthesized tuned instruments (digital synthesizers) and acoustic percussion (manually sampled drum kits). We tried to bring those elements together by sequencing the drums digitally and giving all the digital synthesizers quirky modulations that add a tactile feel. This combination is also why the Pacific Northwest is an important context for the music. Regardless of the grunge sound from decades ago, the reality of being here today is a gorgeous combination of natural beauty (lakes, trees, islands, etc.) and artificial beauty (skyscrapers, tech ingenuity).

E.T.: Tell me about your musician - or, otherwise - influences.

Alex:I grew up listening to radio hip hop producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland, then in college got into electronic and indie pop like Flying Lotus and Beach House. Hearing Oval’s 94diskont. was a turning point for me understanding the huge range of possibilities music can encompass, at which point I decided to look for other unique sonic ideas that hadn’t necessarily been expressed yet. These days I mostly listen to electronic — my streaming history right now lists Khotin, Beacon, Vague Imaginaires, Facta, Loscil, K-LONE, and LNRDCROY. I have hobbies outside music — software development, building LEGO — but I tend to keep them separate and don’t see them as influencing my musical work.

Nicole: A lot of the inspiration for our aesthetic comes from our shared love of plants — Alex studied ecology and I was in landscape architecture. I listen to a wide variety of music that’s always changing, but the female vocal influences I’ve internalized after years and hours of listening and singing along include Björk, Elsiane, Portishead, and Submotion Orchestra.

E.T.: I notice that you don’t double track your vocals which is particularly notable as the music would lend itself to layers of harmony; you could have really gone crazy, but you don’t. It’s almost by resisting the temptation to do that, your vocals retain more of their independence. Can you talk about that production choice?

Alex: You nailed it! That was precisely the idea. We intentionally did no doubling whatsoever. We wanted Nicole to have a “direct line” to the listener, and having “multiple Nicoles” at once got in the way of that. Instead of doubling or harmonizing, we augmented the vocals with various backing effects to support the story being told.

Nicole: There is some effect-based vocal layering like in “Wish You Were Here”, or “Lullaby” where there are both my and Alex’s vocals, but we refrained from doubling in order to maintain more of a pure vocal sound. There’s a freshness and vitality we wanted to retain in the vocals to contrast with the electronic music production. Something different from the harshly auto-tuned vocals in lots of pop music today, but a little more polished than rough acoustic indie music. We have some unfinished songs with harmonization that didn’t make it onto this record. Perhaps in the future…

E.T.: Can you clue us in to how you recorded this? What studio, who produced? Digital / analog?

Nicole: The entire recording and production process was very do-it-ourselves. I recorded vocals at Alex’s apartment, literally in a closet, with blankets taped to the walls. We tried a few professional recording studios and they didn’t result in the sound we wanted. All the production was on Alex’s laptop using software synths, as well as acoustic drums sampled in random places over the years.

Alex: The real magic came from the mixing process, which was done by Nicholas Wilbur in Anacortes, WA — he was the first engineer who really understood what we were going for, and he was essential for the record. That part of the process was on outboard gear and is where the sparkle came from. We hope the end result has the sincerity of a “homegrown” effort, but with enough professional polish for the ideas to really come through.

E.T.: The record that I received sounds very good, it was well-pressed. Would you mind sharing the mastering/lacquer mastering engineers and where you had the discs pressed?

Nicole: I didn’t actually know we were going to be on vinyl until Alex surprised me. He knows the whole process better than I do.

Alex: Actually, this was my first time having vinyl made, just learning as I go. Anyway, for sure, happy to share! Matt Colton at Metropolis in London handled both digital and vinyl mastering. He is brilliant and we’ve wanted to have him master a record for a while. The vinyl was pressed by Furnace Manufacturing in Virginia, they were great partners!

Jazz listener's picture

Another solid review and enjoyed the added bonus of the interview portion.

xtcfan80's picture

I like this...as if Aoife O'Donovan met Massive Attack....nuff said

latoarts's picture

Nicole's piano lessons take me back to the time when I was learning and taking piano lessons. Back then I was also eight years old and there were so many reasons that take me here.