Global Beat: Altin Gün

Ryan Reed on April 19, 2021
Global Beat: Altin Gün

After COVID-19 brought their psych-rock coronation to a halt, the festival scene’s favorite Turkish-folk reconstructionists have unlocked a whole new digital world.

In some alternate universe, Altin Gün were 2020’s psych-rock royalty.

During the months building up to the pandemic, the Amsterdam sextet opened a North American tour for Tame Impala, landed a Best World Music Album Grammy nomination for 2019’s Gece and booked major festival gigs for Coachella and Bonnaroo—perfectly syncing with their plan to record a new LP live in the studio.

The disappointments from that halted momentum are so obvious that they hardly need to be detailed. But there were also benefits to their slashed itinerary, including the chance to rebuild their music at a molecular level. For their third record, Yol, the band continued their M.O. of reinventing Turkish folk songs. But they also leaned further into electronic and sample-based sounds—a logical route, given their unplanned pivot into file-swapping.

“Coachella was meant to happen in April, and we were already looking at a studio—planning to [record] around and in between those weekends somewhere in California,” says drummer Daniel Smienk. “We were like, ‘Fuck, it has to be good! This is the only time we have this year to make this album.’ [We were booked] until the end of the year. Then March happened, and all that pressure was gone. All the songs that actually made the album probably wouldn’t have happened if we’d made it there.”

Altin Gün were already well-versed in the process of digital collaboration, having used the Internet to demo Gece—that is, before bringing the material to life in their rehearsal space, blending vintage psych and funk tones with traditional Turkish melodies and instruments (including the saz, an amplified, three-string lute). Smienk admits that he was initially a bit uneasy about letting go of that second, pivotal step and even questioned if their songs could survive without the raw musicianship that informs their band’s identity.

“I was a bit scared of how the album would turn out because people expect us to be this live band,” he says. “It was like tiptoeing, touching the bottom of the ocean: ‘Is this live?’”

Instead of playing together in a room, Altin Gün were locked into the confines of their computer software. The drummer says that the experience of watching samples and programming replace his human touch was initially a bit frustrating. But he eventually found creative workarounds, opening doors he wouldn’t have bothered to unlock in the pre-pandemic era.

“[For me], the drums give the feel to the song,” Smienk says. “So in a way, I had some difficulties with it because you’re basically just replaced by a drum computer. [Laughs.] There are some parts that are a bit jammier, but it’s mostly on the grid. But on the other hand, it’s also quite exciting— the possibilities that happen to you. You can make weird sounds and use sounds you’ve never used before.”

As usual, bassist/founder Jasper Verhulst spearheaded and “organized” the basic song structures—this time, intentionally shaping a tracklist that made most sense with their largely jam-free format.

“When we were forced to do it like this, we didn’t really have the songs ready,” Smienk says. “We had some ideas that were 100-percent done, but the songs weren’t decided yet—so when the time came that we had to do it remotely, that obviously made a difference in the songs we picked and how we interpreted them.”

Once they had frameworks in place, Smienk and percussionist Gino Groeneveld blurred the line between electronic and organic through a unique rhythmic “exchange.”

“A few times, I got the demo tracks and started with a Logic drummer or 808 groove,” Smienk says. “Then I went to the studio on my own to explore the song a bit and see what my live interpretation would bring back—and then I could put into the electronic thing again. It’s quite easy to just pick a loop or a standard drum groove from a computer, but it was nice to see how that opened new ideas and how you can put that back into the electronic thing again. It does create another spectrum.”

A few moments on the album break from the computerized process: The vintage psych-funk workout “Hey Nari” and shadowy “Sevda Olmasaydi” were recorded together in the studio during the summer, when pandemic restrictions had lightened a bit. But as a testament to the band’s fluid playing, even the most overtly computerized cuts—the post-disco pulse of “Yüce Dağ Başında,” the ‘80s-leaning electro-pop sugar rush of “Esmerim Güzelim”—feel like natural extensions of their original style.

It’s a seamless balance of old and new, with Belgian electronic act Asa Moto adding a final polish to the mix—a change after the analog tape sound of Gece. “Earlier, we had the idea to make an electronic EP or something,” Smienk says. “Our sound guy used one of [Asa Moto’s] tracks to check our live sound and adjust the EQ for front-of-house. Since the album was becoming so different, we wanted to try a different perspective on it. We wanted a different set of ears.”

It may have been an awkward change at first, but the members of Altin Gün are now savoring their new vantage point. “It’s good to have this amount of time to focus,” Smienk says, noting that they’re already swapping ideas for the next LP. Hopefully, that one arrives during a less horrifying time—but as they proved with Yol, Altin Gün aren’t afraid to experiment in search of a savory groove.