Null + Void is the project name of New York-based electronic artist Kurt Uenala, whose moody, shadowy songs and angular beat-making have attracted the voice of Depeche Mode’s frontman Dave Gahan and many more. Together, we sat down to discuss how the importance of a well-rounded musical vocabulary, collaborating with legendary singers and a meticulous creative process, help him to deliver such a sharp-cornered and haunting sound.
Before we kick things off, I know that you are a Swiss-born electronic musician living in New York, but could you tell us a bit more about you and your project Null + Void, how it initially took shape and where it stands now?
I have always written and recorded songs for myself. That’s how I learned synthesizer programming and some basic audio engineering, since I didn’t have the money to hire anyone. Most songs I made for myself and not for a specific outside project. But sometimes I played those ideas to somebody and they wanted to release them for their own album, or they liked what I did and hired me to do something similar on their own songs. That kept me quite busy and I made a living from it in New York City but didn’t have much time for my own music. But this year I can finally afford to focus on Null + Void and go play the album live.
Your musical itinerary has gone from cello to bass to synth player and onto writing, programming and producing. How do all of these elements fit into Null + Void at this stage?
I think having a well-rounded musical vocabulary is a great asset if you want to make electronic music. You have a deeper understanding of a melody from being a cellist and playing with people in that capacity. Then as a bassist, you learn about chords and inversions and rhythm. When not to play and how to leave enough space. I think that shaped me the most. To learn how long one needs to hold notes and when to shorten them, and also, when not to play at all. The synthesizer then, of course, brings in the sound design aspect and sonic landscapes and how they affect the music and the mood/message of the song. It all hopefully ends up shaping a pretty well-rounded musician.
You have previously mentioned being more studio-driven as opposed to coming up with ideas on the outside, which is where a lot of creatives find their inspiration. How does this approach influence your music?
I am very much into current electronic music production technology. I try to keep it interesting from a sound design standpoint but much more importantly, from a compositional angle. The hardware I have in the studio helps me capture ideas easily. I react mostly to chord changes, melodies and song structure. I know, it sounds quite traditional and maybe a bit old-fashioned but it’s just what speaks to me the most and is therefore what I wish to create. I made those songs for my own pleasure but I do hope they connect with other people.
Sitting among machines and letting your creativity unpredictably take shape is central to your music. Do you think this process is what gives your sound that ethereal, sharp-cornered edge? How would you define your own music?
I think it might be because I separate the creative process into two parts. First, the writing part, where the actual sounds created or chosen on the instruments are not that important. I focus on the actual composition – chords, bass, melody and drums. Then, in the next phase, I worry about actual sound design and refine drum fills and add more parts. I think that enables you to not be tied to the choice of instruments you have available but you are able to hopefully create a solid composition before focusing on minor details.
Let's talk about collabs. You have been associated with the likes of The Big Pink, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and, of course, Dave Gahan. How do you choose who to work with and what do they contribute to the final piece?
I prefer to collaborate with singers. The names mentioned above were all people I have admired for a long time and with whom I had the pleasure to work with on their own projects. The voices of the singers on the album were very familiar to me so I already had song ideas ready that would fit them well. As far as what they have contributed, it was always the lyrics and the vocal melody but there were also some melodic synth lines and even some sonic suggestions. We worked on song ideas that I prepared beforehand as it’s hard for me to come up with good, original things on the spot. That’s the tough part with collaborating or co-writing. You might resort to the easy ‘tried and true’ chord changes or beats and not take risks because time is limited and you don’t want to look like a fool. So I have pretty detailed musical ideas ready to present to the singers and they take it to another level from there.
And on to the inescapable question: when listening to a song like Where I Wait, Dave's voice laid on top of your beats sounds like the world's most evident association. What does this perfect match have in store for us?
I mainly plan on playing live as much as I can. Dave is on tour with Depeche Mode for another six months, and after that, I am sure he will want to rest for a bit. So this year I will be focusing on Null + Void but I am sure Dave and I will work together again in the future.
As a musician, it is expected of you to perform live and produce music videos to accompany and deliver your work. Being a studio guy, do you enjoy live performance and how does it shape your music? Is there a particular aesthetic that you wish to communicate in your videos?
I love playing live, the challenge of bringing my songs onto the stage and working to keep them interesting. I bring out gear that enables me to keep things improvised. I try to leave the performances loose and a bit risky without losing the essence of the song. If it sounds slightly different to the album that’s fine for me as I love going to see acts that take risks and create something new rather than just perform the album note by note or actually just play backing tracks. I pack as many synths and controllers as I can – without going over the airline’s luggage restrictions!
And finally, are you listening to anything great at the moment that we might be missing out on?
Yes, my favourite band is called Sound Of Ceres. They’ve created very beautiful atmospheres on their new album and have a great live show. Really alien-like and unusual.
Dave Gahan Null Void  Within by Timothy Saccenti.jpg
Dave Gahan Null Void by Timothy Saccenti.jpg