Chris Windeyer

Condo Punks Make Headphone Drones: Nava Luvu’s Beautiful Noise

Yellowknife alternative music duo create intimate, intricate sounds

Nava Luvu’s music defies easy categorization. It’s a pulsing, clicking melange of found sounds, tape loops, samples, noise and audio glitches. By any measure, it’s avant-garde. By the North’s conservative musical standards, where cover bands and acoustic guitars still rule, it’s revolutionary.

Take the track “Reach” off 2014’s . Fragments of a dance-y club beat underpin the random clangs of mutated windchimes, while not-quite-human voice samples swerve in and out. Nava Luvu makes (and I mean this in the best possible sense) deeply weird music.

The Yellowknife duo is the brainchild of real-life couple Ashley Daw and Sami Blanco. The pair met in Montreal, where they were working as nightclub promoters. Nava Luvu’s roots lie in the Montreal-based noise quartet Nacomi, of which Daw and Blanco were both members, and which itself is the product of Montreal’s fertile musical underground. The result is a sound where electronic music, avant-garde, ambient and punk freely intermingle.

Blanco, a Montreal native, says the profusion of avant garde electronic music coming out of that city is the product of punks and metalheads who would practice in various jam spaces and abandoned warehouses and continually get shut down due to noise complaints. In response, they gravitated to cheap electronics and samplers and began manipulating field recordings, beats and electronic noise, making music that echoed the ambient sounds and rhythms of a modern, post-industrial metropolis. “The way to summon that kind of magic of the city is to do a kind of urban meditation and take the sound of the city,” Blanco says. “Let’s say you go on a construction site. You’ll hear all the techno [music] you want to hear. You can record it and that becomes the heavy music your parents don’t want to listen to.”

So when Daw moved to Yellowknife in September, 2013 to take a job at the local Montessori school, the pair found themselves separated and yearning to make music together. When Blanco arrived four months later, Nava Luvu’s output, 10 separate recordings to date, came pouring out. “We were creating sounds with each other that we had never created before, and I think it was that distance [which created that],” Daw says.

And while Montreal’s urban decay served as a backdrop for a noisy musical direction, both Daw and Blanco say they’ve drawn inspiration from Yellowknife’s relative quiet and seclusion. All this gives Nava Luvu’s music a restrained quality. Take the album Snails, where jittery percussion teeters on the edge of chaos, but an underlying, ethereal drone holds the music back from the brink.

Daw and Blanco also found themselves constrained by Yellowknife’s cheek-by-jowl apartment market. In Montreal, the pair had the luxury of a dedicated jam space and a loud, bustling urban environment. In Yellowknife, they’ve created a studio in their apartment, but they jam using headphones to avoid noise complaints. Blanco remembers a grafitti he used to see around Montreal: “Condo Punk.” The phrase has become an apt description of Nava Luvu’s sound and method.

“Our sound kind of evolved because of the fact that we were always jamming in headphones,” Daw says. “I feel like we got much tighter, more intricate and more careful with our levels because it was so crisp in the headphones. But it also became really intimate because we were essentially just jamming, the two of us, in our bedroom.”

That process has worked its way into live performances, which like Nava Luvu’s recorded works, are completely improvised, with Daw and Blanco set up facing one another. The choice of instrumentation is spur of the moment. “They basically have this stream-of-consciousness thing going on in their live set,” says Greg McLaughlin, a Yellowknife guitarist and songwriter who has shared a stage with Nava Luvu. “It’s similar to their recorded work, but there’s a level of spontaneity to the live performance, and they’re no doubt taking risks onstage, which I find exciting.”

During our conversation, Blanco variously likens the process to cooking and to taking pictures of sounds. “I don’t have synesthesia, but I’m pretty close,” he says.

Blanco says the reception for Nava Luvu in Yellowknife has been better than expected. On National Drone Day, May 9, the duo will be appearing at YKARCC along with Casey Koyczan’s electro-experimental project The Bushman, Nick Walker and other artists.  They also have a new album, Transport, coming out May 26 on the US label Apothecary Compositions.

And if that weren’t enough, Daw and Blanco continue to work on a steady stream of recordings and collaborations under various aliases outside of Nava Luvu. They’re planning a project called As, which will include Daw’s vocals, and Blanco says he even dabbles in a bit of folksy guitar.

The pair are following their musical sensibility wherever it takes them. Blanco says that process, when it works, surprises both musician and listener alike. It’s what makes music fun.

“We’re not virtuosos,” he says. “We just play with intuition.”