From neuroscience to music, Toronto's Bicyclops is blasting away creative limits

Cover art for 'Near'

Bicyclops’ latest EP Near is an imagination fuelled ride through a mesmerizing electronic soundscape.

Bicyclops is the brain child of producer and multi-instrumentalist Phil Johnston. Johnston began experimenting with electronic sound manipulation in 2014 while he was studing neuroscience at University of Toronto. Since then Johnston has released four EPs, Near being the latest. Released last September, Near features rich ambient tracks that bring to mind the likes of Radiohead. Bicyclops has also played several live shows, bringing their experimental sound to several live venues around Toronto last year.

But perhaps the most stunning part of Near is Johnston’s ability to integrate everyday sounds into a new and unique beautiful melody.

Photo by Alexa V. at Smiling Buddha

“I … use very few pre-recorded samples, preferring instead to make my own by chopping or warping sounds I record myself. For example, a rustling backpack, the sound of a crowd, rattling car keys, etc.,” Johnston said. “Alternatively, sometimes I’ll seek out sounds with unusual origins that inspire me. For instance, the main rhythm of “Cars” is adapted from the light cycle of a star, which was converted to audio and made available by NASA. Even though my main instrument is guitar, it doesn’t show up very often on the album (at least not in a recognizable form). It’s often time-stretched to make atmospheric textures, or I use the artifacts caused by warping it to make rhythmic elements.”

Each track has a distinct feeling to it. “Koto” feels hopeful and light, whereas “Elevator” feels gritty and intense with distinct noir-like imagery. However, Johnston said that while some of the songs feel a bit darker, the general tone of Near is actually a hopeful one.

“I tend to write music with the goal of evoking a feeling, rather than telling a story or making a statement,” Johnston said. “I like to take a more impressionistic approach, combining images and thoughts freely to build a sort of emotional space for the listener to inhabit.”

What stands out about Near is the brief injection of soulful vocals and simple lyrics into the tracks. “Elevator” also stands out as far as vocals because Johnston’s ability to integrate the complex human vocal range with layered soundscape is harmoniously flawless, and this ability is best represented in this track. “Anglerfish” is equally a good example, but the vocals in “Elevator” are cleaner and more of a central focus of the track.

There is definitely something cerebral about the music on Near. Johnston took great care when he created each track. He said that this is something that carried over from his education.

“On a practical level, just like pursuing a challenging degree,” Johnston said. “Self-producing an album for the first time is a huge project full of setbacks. And while the content differs, many of the skills you employ are the same. This involves keeping yourself motivated when the end seems impossibly far away, and being adaptable and able to learn things on the fly.”

As to why the move from neuroscience to music, Johnston said that art allowed him to explain phenomena that science simply couldn’t.

“I would also say that my studies led to a kind of disillusionment with my chosen field, which definitely affected the tone of my music,” Johnston said. “Without getting too far into the gritty details, the basic realization is that scientific methods are incapable of providing us with meaning. While science may reveal the mechanisms that make us work, it cannot tell us what we should value, or how we should spend our days. Those are questions that the arts are much better equipped to tackle. And while this was never a conscious choice, I think I’m drawn to music because I want to participate in that conversation.”

Bicyclops will be putting together a new live show this year to promote Near. The new performances that are in the works will include a bassist and a drummer. Johnston also said that he also hopes to release a new EP later in the year.

Check out Near on Bicyclops’ Bandcamp and on Spotify.

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