A couple of weeks ago Berlin resident James Shaw, better known by his alias Sigha, dropped by the EB office.
His latest album Living With Ghosts, released through Scuba’s Hotflush imprint, had caught our attention with its pulsating, granite-cold rumination on techno purism with tracks like “Puritan” “Dressing for Pleasure and “Scene Couple” capturing a particularly British sternness: this is music made for massive spaces, for bodies slick in chemical sweat, for six feet-thick concrete walls and Monday mornings that could be Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. There has been, of course, a recent appetite for techno of a more pummeling stripe, with the continued influence of Regis’ bruised limbed industrialism (and, of course, the return of British Murder Boys) and Blawan’s subterranean schlock gaining traction. Living With Ghosts, despite its citations of techno past, feels, in its mood, distinctly contemporary. We wanted to find out more, so when we invited James to come by to do an interview we decided to add a twist: ever-inspired by visual art he suggested he would bring some pictures of his favorite pieces with him. The only brief we set was that they must have some resonance for him and his own art. The hope was that by appealing to a more personal narrative we might trigger discussion on subjects that you never expected to broach and in turn gain greater insight than a usual Q&A session might usually allow. We hope you agree that it was a successful experiment.
You’re from south London originally. Right now there seems to have been this swing towards south, in terms of a party scene.
99 percent of my friends when I left were living in North London and were all, “Yeah, I don’t wanna go south of the river” and now everyone’s relocating to Peckham. It’s the new East London.
What brought you to Berlin?
The thing that first brought me here was definitely music; I was coming out to play and to hear techno, but the more time I spent here the more I started to realize how cheap it is compared to London. There you’re struggling if you’re an artist, but here it’s possible to really live. Since then I’ve started to fall in love with the city. Since I’ve moved here, I’ve also thought of living in different cities as well for short periods of time—taking the opportunity to soak up different atmospheres that you might not normally see when you just come to a place, play a show and leave. Berlin is the first city I’ve lived in abroad, and it’s opened my eyes to that massively.
Last night someone asked me what was going on in the Berlin scene, a question that I actually found quite difficult to answer. Is there a Berlin sound anymore?
Everyone’s going to have a different idea of what a certain place sounds like. Maybe my idea of it is ignorant; I’ve only been here a year, but it seems to me that if you’re looking at the broader electronic landscape in Berlin, techno and house still have a massive stranglehold on the city. I can only compare it to London, where people are so obsessed (consciously or unconsciously) with newness, freshness. That has positives and negatives, of course. It means that some scenes never get a change to grow or develop in a way that would allow them to reach their potential. Suddenly, all the followers disappear because the sound or scene isn’t hip anymore, and it collapses. On the other hand, it’s so inspiring creatively. You get something like dubstep, which has completely changed the musical landscape.
You started out making dubstep, but you’ve moved into the realms of almost purist techno with your new album Ghosts. How do you feel about dubstep, about what happened to it?
For me, the early wave of dubstep, the sounds that were just emerging out of the collapsing garage scene, the sort of sparse halfstep sound was what drew me in. In a way that’s also what attracted me to techno. Producers were doing so much with so few elements. Every week I’d be down at Plastic People and, for me, that time was so exciting. It was this amalgamation of sounds I loved: huge amounts of bass, sparseness, it was hypnotic… it was like a drug, you’d get drawn into this deep sound in a black room, losing yourself to it. But quite quickly, and I suppose this was when the genre was still developing and people were finding their feet, it grew in popularity and started to follow certain rules and patterns. Unfortunately this kind of energy that had drawn me to it started to disappear.
Maybe this is just me, but I feel like people started to lose interest in that halfstep sound when the smoking ban hit. I’ve always wondered how much of an impact not being able to smoke weed in clubs anymore had on people not wanting to listen to slow, spacious music. Suddenly, the energy changed, the whole wobble thing picked up and the mid-range vibe came in.
And what about your own development?
It was a natural progression, really. Even around the first time Scuba hit me up, and I sent him the first load of tracks that resulted in the first EP, I was more interested in playing and writing techno than I was dubstep. At times it’s been frustrating because for a long time I’ve played what I would call purist techno, but people I guess have had this perception of me as something different. Even after the first few Hotflush releases, there were a couple of EPs like Rawww, which was dubby kind of house, and then Shake. Those two EPs I actually made after a trip to Berlin to see Cassie play in Panorama Bar and losing my shit at ten in the morning.
How did you first get into electronic music?
My first electronic epiphany came when I was wandering into a warehouse squat party and just hearing techno blasting in this massive room. I was 16 at the time and had never heard club music in a club environment. I’d played in bands and was studying guitar, and that was what I was into then: more traditional music, however abstract you want to consider it. I’d listened to some Warp records and such, but I had a bit of a low opinion on club music. I remember hearing the cool crew on the bus playing their garage mixtapes and thinking, “I just wanna hear some Nirvana.”
But when I stumbled into this party—I had just come to pick a friend up—it just blew my mind. I’d never heard that music in the right environment. It totally changed the way I thought about electronic music. I started hanging out with more producers than guitarists, and I was picking up bits and bobs from different people. My knowledge of electronic music was next to nothing, and suddenly this whole vast sea of unknown sounds was opened up to me. When I started making sounds it was honestly the result of taking too many drugs and the result of that was some very strange music.
In what way?
I wanted to make music not for parties, but for after-parties—things that would mess with people’s heads, basically. That was my logic.
Art is an important influence within your work and the first picture you’ve chosen is a very familiar one.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia
This, obviously, is Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais which is one of my favorite pictures ever. Maybe it’s a bit weird because it’s not the sort of image you’d ascribe to techno, but I just think it’s so lovely. I’m a massive fan of pre-Raphaelite art, and this is the painting that started that. The story of her singing while she’s drowning, and her expression while it happens has such a melancholic beauty to it.
Do you have a tendency toward melancholic impulses in your work?
Massively. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or what it says about my psyche, but I tend to dwell on things a lot. I’m a solitary person and I spend a lot of time thinking heavily on things. I guess my way of getting it out is in music and writing. There’s something i just find incredibly attractive and appealing about this beautiful sadness.
This is a picture of a sculpture by Cornelia Parker called Mass (Colder Darker Matter)and it was nominated for the Turner Prize. I remember going to see the Turner Awards with my mom in 1997, and she was always really into art and galleries—that’s where I get my obsession. This piece has resonated and stuck with me. A church in Texas was struck by lightning, and Parker collected the charred wood and suspended the pieces in a way that looked like an exploding cube. It took up this whole room in the Tate, and the negative space between the charred wood… the impact was incredible.
Next, this a still from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Anyone following me on Twitter will recognize it as my default pic. I’m just a big fan, basically, and I think this photo is such an incredible capture of male strength and beauty. So I hijacked it for my Twitter profile.
I’ve always been intrigued by that version of masculinity fetishized in leather boy culture.
I think when you’re not involved with a way of life that’s sufficiently different from your own, it makes the fascination toward it even stronger.
This is perhaps the most striking, unsettling image.
This is by David Noonan, a multimedia artist who works with prints and embroidery. I stumbled across him last year at the Great British Art Show last year. There were a couple huge, grayscale and sepia embroideries hanging there and they were incredible. I think he sources images from all over, film, photography, anywhere he can find and just makes this surreal pieces. I find them very evocative.
The final picture I’ve chosen is Kohei Yoshiyuki’s Untitled, Plate 18 by Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki, who in 1980 released this book called Dokyumento: Kōen (Document: Park). There was this park in central Tokyo that people would go to at night and just hook up, and he documented this scene. And it wouldn’t be just couples; there’d be three or four people sometimes, or people actively standing there and getting off on watching others, and basically he just immersed himself in this culture. I’m fascinated by how people can just let go, not worry about the judgments of others. I’m also interested in the work of Miroslav Tichý, who was a Czech photographer and a real voyeur—if he was taking the portraits he did today, I reckon he’d be locked up. He basically went around with a homemade camera and took pictures of women when they didn’t know he was looking. He’s now become an incredibly influential photographer. I love the voyeuristic attitude of the pictures but also the composition, the untouched rawness of the shots due to the nature of them and the rough equipment he was using as well as intentional processing mistakes meant to dirty it up further. He once said, “If you want to be famous, you must do something worse than anybody in the entire world.” And it worked for him.
Your last choice is a video.
This is a collaboration between Gareth Pugh and Nick Knight. It was also used for the imagery for a feature that Dazed & Confused did on Pugh—who I absolutely love. In a kind of similar way to art, fashion is influential to me. Not all of it, but someone like Pugh… The clothes he makes and the ways in which he showcases them are amazing. He has this vision of a universe, and he creates it. ~
Hotflush Recordings released Sigha’s Living With Ghosts on November 19th, 2012.
With all due respect to the prematurely departed—those friends or enemies missing in action: the lovelorn lost, the playground fallen, the kidnaps gone wrong, the drive-by shootings, the drug-buddy ODs, be it happy accidental or tragicomically overwrought—death is wasted on the young. Believe us, kids. Listen to your non-Pa! We’ve been there, done that, danced the Death Disco, fell on our backs and watched in awe as Death in his dandified grandeur rode through the wall on a horse. Oh how we cried, our faces pancake-white and our eyes so heavily mascaraed we couldn’t even blink as we wept black tears for those who fell beneath the hooves of his trusty steed. But when you’re sitting opposite some black-coated goon slumped under his dandruff-drecked cowboy hat on the last train to the terminal zone only to be rudely awakened by some Charon, the Ferryman-wannabe in a rail conductor’s uniform, please don’t tell me you’re not glad to learn you’ve arrived at the wrong Elysian fields. This is not Elizium, the 1990 album by Fields of the Nephilim. This is Elysium! By Pet Shop Boys! Seriously, with whom would you rather spend your eternity? That gormless Goth wandering as he wonders whether he’s dead or alive? Some church-burning Scandinavian doom metal gloom-monger pleading he’s on the guest list to the hard-faced Valkyrie guarding the gates of Valhalla? Or Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, basking, bemused, in a land fit for heroes beneath the autumnal glow of a career that’s already pushed past three decades?
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/58201657″ iframe=”true” /]
Death is the great leveler, for sure. But counter to the underground tendency to level down, Pet Shop Boys have always been about leveling up. Elysium, their leveling of the Elysian Fields as a land fit for their kind of heroes, is a celebration of lives that bear an uncanny resemblance to their own, as opposed to a gloomy Wagnerian purgatory for warriors cursing the blows that laid them low before they’d had time to properly atone for a lifetime of vainglorious sin. I can’t think of any other song, film or theater play that nails the tone of the times (1981 until now) so precisely, or with such wit and poignancy, as Elysium. Be it from the UK mainstream or the underground, nothing else gets close to summarizing such abject yet exhilarating times as this, the eleventh studio album (depending how you count them) of Pet Shop Boys’ career. From its opening track ‘Leaving,’ through to the closing ‘Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,’ Elysium sees Lowe and Tennant looking back over their lives from the luxurious position their imagined death has brought them. “It’s all about being old, really,” laughed Lowe, in an interview in the August issue of the UK electronic dance magazine Mixmag. “It’s about death,” corrected Tennant. “It begins and ends with death.” “Death, old, aging . . .” expanded Lowe. “But it is uplifting,” continued Tennant. “We considered calling the album Happy Sad. In the Eighties, right at the beginning of our career someone said ‘how would you describe your music?’ And we said ‘happy-sad.’”
“Happy-sad”? That feels exactly right, not just as a summary of the broad, 180-degree range of emotional expression this conjunctive coupling implies, but also for the way Tennant’s use of it obliquely references Tim Buckley’s third album, recorded three years before Los Angeles’s most hippy-sensitive singer-songwriter found the funk route to the more directly worded sex-need songs of his 1972 album Greetings from LA. He and Lowe might have been part of a UK pop generation liberated by punk’s anti-virtuosic DIY ethos, but they only found an escape route from the frankly unsustainable position that punk had locked itself into with its grubby disgust for human organs and all their disgusting secretions, to a truer representation of trapped human emotions in the machine-disco laid down by Kraftwerk and David Bowie during his heart-frozen Los Angeles-Southern France-West Berlin sequence of albums Station to Station, Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
Pardon me for going so far back, but in the interest of human temporal accuracy, it’s necessary to point out that the cycles of love and death turned by Pet Shop Boys’ Elysium begin even earlier. Please fast-forward to Elysium’s dying moments: the very last seconds of ‘Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,’ where a motor revs up for its ill-fated chicken run with the Grim Reaper. By closing the album with the tiger-purr of a biker about to meet his maker, à la The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack,’ or John Leyton’s Joe Meek-produced UK hit ‘Johnny Remember Me,’ Pet Shop Boys root Elysium in the kind of songs that pretty much began pop’s morbid thrill in the presence of death.
“Night speeds by,” wrote the ancient Roman poet Virgil, in the Aeneid. “And we, Aeneas, lose it in lamenting. / Here comes the place where cleaves our way in twain. / Thy road, the right, toward Pluto’s dwelling goes, / And leads us to Elysium. But the left / Speeds sinful souls to doom, and is their path / To Tartarus th’ accurst.”
No other album runs the gamut between the classical grace of the ancient world and 1960s death-pop euphoria to find its own warmly witty melancholy place in the sun as Elysium. By its end, of course, it is also deeply moving—and that’s not just because news of the album’s themes has generated fears among their longtime fans that the record might be the duo’s way of saying goodbye. But their followers should have learned by now that nothing Pet Shop Boys say is that straightforward. When they tell you “death is not the end,” they’re not looking to earn some brownie points with blues or gospel fans or, God forbid, traditional Christian believers. Rather, they could be saying that thirty years into a career during which they have witnessed the deaths of friends and colleagues—from illness, AIDS, carelessness or old age—now’s as good a time as any to step back and take a measure of their lives. Unlike their hated rock ’n’ roll forebears and contemporaries (see their 1996 throwaway track, “How I Learned to Hate Rock ’n’ Roll”), Pet Shop Boys were always somehow so much older then; they’re not about to start pretending they’re younger than that now. Elysium begins with two songs deeply sighing at the passing of time, but Tennant sings them with a degree of acceptance completely at odds with the embarrassing clinging-on to lost youth endemic to those immersed in mass culture (worst example: the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger). The opening track ‘Leaving’ lays out the album’s themes of times passing, memories of the pleasures taken, now ready to be passed down to coming generations. It’s followed by the profoundly affecting ‘Invisible,’ on which Tennant poignantly reveals the self-doubts and indignities of an aging star moving anonymously through the playgrounds where he used to play. I can only think of one other song where the singer similarly recognizes that his body can no longer satisfy either his own ardor or that of the younger bodies that might have once prostrated themselves before his star status: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song,’ though ‘Invisible’ is all the more moving as a documentation of the singer’s survival through an era when AIDS made an ideal taboo-couple of sex and death for the tabloid vultures always at the ready to swoop in and rip apart the corpses of the famous, whose private lives they had hitherto mercilessly probed and exploited.
The lives Lowe and Tennant have shared as Pet Shop Boys began in the very early Eighties, at a time when the combination of disco’s ascendancy and AIDS threw punk’s self-appointed sanctimonious “be thyself” DIY declarations into confusion by introducing human pleasure into its pop-political equation of confrontation. For a good-turned-very-human Catholic boy like Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist and lyricist Tennant, punk’s DIY agenda alone could never truly provide him the tools to cover the range of human feelings his youthful libido opened out before him. Hell hath no fury like an altar boy scorned. The young Tennant long ago bailed out of a Heaven with little to no understanding of the fickleness or failings of fleshly desire. The songs of Elysium make clear that neither the Pope’s purploid denunciations of the sins of the flesh or the Church of England’s altogether colder state Protestantism ever truly inhibited the heat-seeking targets of Pet Shop Boys’ base or emotional needs.
Musically and lyrically, Pet Shop Boys are as ever united as one on Elysium’s privileging of play as the primary counter in their love games with the hateful world of pop and politics around them. From the start they had learned well from the triumvirate of British pop-cultural eccentrics: David Bowie, Roxy Music, and the self-described “stately homo of England” Quentin Crisp. Now—as then—they come up with ever more extraordinary chameleon-like ways of remaining the Pimpernel-like “now you see them, now you don’t” outsiders of a proscriptive society that’s quite happy to embrace them for the worldliness of their success—even as it chooses not to acknowledge the imp of the perverse that keeps their music jumping easily between the high and low arts of pop and art song, disco dancing and ballet, place-holding appearances on Hollywood soundtracks and their self-made scores for beloved Eisenstein movies. They get away with it by being at once quicker and slower off the mark than the rest. And they always get in their retaliations far faster than the first wounds their enemies might direct at them.
Ordinarily, irony is the curse of the English thinking classes. Indeed it was the death of the likes of Heaven 17, ABC and the other pop entryists Pet Shop Boys started out with at the beginning of the Eighties. I’ve no doubt that the young Pet Shop Boys wanted in as much as the rest of them, but from the beginning they have been remarkably adept at giving the impression they could take or leave whatever success came their way. No other group has ever made a sense of indifference central to their music or being and survived for so long. Better, perhaps, to define their modus operandi as objective detachment. Such a remove at once animates and ripples through the songs of Elysium. No other group has ever stood back and satirized their peers so acutely as Pet Shop Boys do on songs like Elysium’s ‘Ego Music’ (“It’s all about vacuous slogans . . . Innocuous sentiment . . . fake humility . . . Sense of entitlement . . .”) No other group would slip such an acerbic aperçu of the state of folk-rock now into the same song (“Sometimes I think I’m a simple folk singer / Other times a scary witch diva”). No other album would shift from underground electro to the no-holds-barred Garland-Streisand-Glee-kids showstopper ‘Hold On.’ Now more than ever, on Elysium’s celebration of their shared musical life, Tennant and Lowe effortlessly slip in and out of styles up to and including the denim and leopard skin dress code of the album’s closing requiem. Password for admittance: Don’t make a fuss, dear.
Death, where is thy sting?
Photo: Finish The Work That You’ve Started, Installation view, courtesy of Herald St, London
As an art and creative director for pop and fashion magazines such as i-D and Sleazenation as well as cover artworks for Suicide, Pet Shop Boys, Earl Brutus, and Morrissey, British artist Scott King made a name for himself on the tension between pop culture and politics.
Since the mid-nineties he’s worked as a visual artist, always criticizing the debasement of political symbols. The other day he opened his latest public exhibition ‘Finish The Work That You’ve Started‘ at Herald Street Gallery in London.
EB: Your new exhibition is titled ‘Finish The Work That You’ve Started’. Are the new pieces exhibited at Herald St London a snapshot in time of your body of work? Or do they mark a finishing point?
Scott King: I think (I hope!) that they mark a starting point in many ways. I’m very happy with this show, it’s possibly the best one I’ve ever done. The title was my mantra while I was working on the show – I had a big piece of paper with FINISH THE WORK THAT YOU’VE STARTED written on it and pinned up in my studio. It’s a great weakness of mine: having lots of ideas, too many ideas, and then spending weeks half doing several possibilities … so I haven’t done that this time, I’ve had less ideas and worked hard at them, you know, committed myself to making them work rather than coming up with forty-three other possibilities of what I might do.
Scott King, Martin Hilf Mir!, 2011, Lithographic Print, 58 X 41 Cm / 22.8 X 16.1 In
With your new lithographic print ‘Martin Hilf Mir’ you’re asking Martin Kippenberger to “make you a better artist“. Do you think you succeeded in becoming a better artist over the last years? How can one quantify ‘better art‘ anyway?
Well, I think I’ve become better over the last months – partly from ‘finishing the work that I started’. But, really, making art is all about confidence – about committing yourself and believing in yourself. Someone once said to me “the trick is to make it look easy“, and I think that’s right. All the art I’ve ever loved, all the music I’ve ever loved, appears to have been beamed down or in Kippenberger’s case, thought up in a moment of drunken inspiration. So ‘better art’ is inspired and brave … and may even look easy.
You’ve built upon this piece with ‘Never Trust a Hippie’ (2005), which you’ve outsourced to Horwinski Press in San Francisco and let the printers decide about the fonts. Why did you choose to rely on the work of other artists? Is this your reference to the ‘Mashup’ culture that rose in the mid-nineties?
The idea for my ‘Never Trust a Hippie’ print was all about trust. ‘Never trust a hippie’ is an old Sex Pistols slogan, and in many ways a defining statement about British punk – which at least at ‘street level’ was about hippie hating and confrontation. I took the slogan – a very London slogan I think – and gave it to Horwinski Press near San Francisco, the press that had printed many of the original 1960’s hippie posters. I then asked them to choose their favourite font for the word ‘Never’, second favourite for the word ‘Trust’ and so on … so in handing over the design to Horwinski, I ‘trusted a hippie’. It was not about being a ‘mash-up’, it was about two epicentres of dead pop cultures colliding … and a good joke as well, of course.
Scott King, A History Of Music (Power Station Dad), 2012, Album Covers, Screenprint, Perspex Frame, 47 X 107.5 Cm / 18.5 X 42.3 In Framed
In your new piece ‘Power Station Dad’ from the ‘A History of Music’ series you’re showing your father’s old Rolling Stones LPs. Do you relate artistically to Nicholas Wright’s cover photography for the Rolling Stones? Did these artwork designs have a direct impact on your visual career?
The Stones albums that I’m showing – together as ‘A History of Music (Power Station Dad)’- are incredibly important to me. Not just, or maybe not even, the music but the actual objects, the actual records and their sleeves. These are my dad’s LPs – the ones he used to dance around the kitchen to when he was still a young man in the mid-70s. These three LPs are the first records I remember, and I know every line of every song from them being on constant rotation in our house when I was 4 or 5 years old. So it’s a big deal to me – not just showing these – but the thought that someone else might actually buy them, the thought that someone else might actually own them … and the fact that I am prepared to sell them … that aspect of this work is almost like a personal challenge. I don’t want to sell them, they mean so much to me, but at the end of the day they’re only 3 scratched and tatty pieces of archaic vinyl – it’s just that I have a lot of emotional investment in them – you know what I mean? Making this work is like a test to myself, this series ‘A History of Music’ is all about the emotional investment we all have in ‘music as object’, we can all relate particular songs to particular times in our lives, so I’m ‘expanding’ that into these LPs as objects: their meaning as personal artifacts over and above their purpose.
With the photographs on the sleeves, it’s part of the same story as above. As I kid I remember my dad talking me through the pictures on the back of the sleeves, describing the Stones and their individual characters – I clearly remember him telling me about Brian Jones – saying he was mad, saying he was dead … and I couldn’t understand how someone so young was dead. So in that way, they probably did effect the work that I’ve done; because in the past I’ve done a lot of work about dead pop stars.
Why did you decide to pick the Stones’ 1969 Altamont Raceway show for your infographic series from 1998?
All those gigs depicted as ‘infographics’ are about death too – well they’re about the spectacle of these seminal gigs and about the division of ‘star’ and ‘audience’ as well – but they’re all underpinned by death: the final Ziggy Stardust show in Hammersmith where Bowie ‘killed off’ Ziggy, the last Manic Street Preachers gig before Richey Edwards disappeared and the Stones gig at Altamont that pop historians always hold up as ‘The Death of the 60’s’ – but more literally, Altamont was also where the Hells Angels – that the Stones had employed as ‘security’ – stabbed and killed Meredith Hunter.
‘Power Station Dad’ suceeds to capture a glimpse, a rediscovery and a showcase of your family’s past, especially your father’s youth. ‘Martin Hilf Mir’ also refers to him, since it’s a follow on to a poster design titled ‘DAVE HELP ME’, a plea to your dad from 2003. How do you as an artist relate to you your father?
With increasing worry. I see him getting old – and my greatest fear, or it was until I had a daughter of my own – has always been my dad dying. I think ‘Dave Help Me’ from 2003 and the new work ‘A History of Music (Power Station Dad)’ acknowledge the change in relationship that I have with my dad – you know – they acknowledge the almost 10 year gap between the two points – the first one is a plea for him to help me, the second one is an acknowledgement that soon it might be my turn to help him.
Scott King, A Balloon for Britain, 2012, Digital Prints, 45 X 30 Cm / 17.7 X 11.8 In, Installation view, Herald St, London
Your works often deal with tension between pop culture and politics, ‘Marxist Disco Cancelled’ is a great example of this: a “fictional stylised ghost of a letterpress poster” of “a fashionable leftist event gone wrong“, as Andrew Hunt put it. How come you imagined this as a fictional ’70s event? What fascinates you about ‘radical’/’political’/’terrorist chic’?
Well, when I first started making these kind of works, in the mid to late 90s, they were an open critique of ‘terrorist chic’. A great example is ‘Prada Meinhof’. I devised the term ‘Prada Meinhof’ (with Matt Worley for our CRASH! project) as a criticism of terrorist chic – the problem was of course, as we quickly learnt, that slogans like this are instantly adopted by the very people that you are criticising. I’m told that you could once even buy underpants in Berlin with ‘Prada Meinhof’ emblazoned across the front. And of course some people, very bad artists as I understand it, quickly took the name and started their own ‘Prada Meinhof Gang’. I have to say, I thought all of this was quite funny. But, I’m not sure that I have an interest in ‘terrorist chic’. I certainly have an interest in terrorism and the media – and I have to laugh/despair about how capitalism can quickly find a vehicle (from underpants to vodka advertisements) to combine the two in order to sell the ‘aesthetics of terrorism’ back to us as a ‘lifestyle choice’.
The exhibition ‘Finish The Work That You’ve Started‘ by Scott King is open to the public from 2nd June to 8th July 2012. Find more information at Herald St website. Find his 10 x 4 interview here.
All images courtesy of Scott King / Herald St, London
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Dieter Meier is the instantly recognisable front man of electronic music pioneers Yello. Working in conjunction with producer Boris Blank, Yello have been responsible for numerous underground dance and pop crossover hits including ‘Oh Yeah’, ‘The Race’ and ‘You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess’. However Meier is more than just one half of Yello. He is a film director, conceptual artist, company director and singer in his own right. Ever restless he recently started a new musical project called Out of Chaos, which is coincidentally also the name of his recent autobiography. I caught up with Meier in Berlin’s palatial Volksbühne to find out some more.
Tell me little bit about ‘Out of Chaos’. When did it begin?
It’s a very funny story…. A friend of mine, Anton Corbijn, is a photographer. As a young man he was interested in Yello and he asked if he could take photos during our video shoots and so he followed us to Cuba and into studios in Zürich. He did his wonderful pictures and when he was there one of the first times, he couldn’t believe that the Yello videos were so improvised. I had a technique which was quite unique – I used very abstract films like frescos as stage designs and then in front of these stage designs Boris and myself would perform. These performances were very improvised – the whole shoots were very improvised. So Anton came to me and said to me with this beautiful Dutch accent “..this is totally chaos!” and from that expression, because we always created something out of chaos, comes the title of this new band ‘Out of Chaos’. Because everything in my life really is always coming out of chaos.
You don’t strike me as a very chaotic person!
It’s always chaos! As an artist you’re entering new territories even though by now you pretty much know how you make a video or how you write a novel or whatever. The territory is always new and your territory always means in a very positive sense that there’s chaos. That there are many things that are unpredictable. That there are many things you don’t know and you always learn. For me, the only reason to do something is to learn something by doing it. I would never do something that I’m just perfect in doing. That is a reason to leave it [alone]. If you climbe a mountain and you know how to climbe this mountain and you know every step to go on the top of this mountain it gets very boring, so I’m always looking for a new mountain. To learn about myself in the world.
So what did you learn in your project?
That it is a real challenge to do something in the real time! You know when I’m in the studio we have a hundred takes. I can fool around, I can make a fool of myself. I can be a total idiot and somehow something comes together. When you perform live you are like a tightrope walker in front of the audience. This presence of life is very fascinating and for me very challenging because I haven’t done it in 40 years. So I learned a lot about discipline, about rehearsing and there’s still a big part of adventure and improvising during these gigs. I sing the songs differently every night but of course I can not make a total fool of myself and not know how I dance on that rope. So I have to discipline myself.
Yello is a famously “studio based” band
There’s two things. As a young guy I was performing with all kinds of rock and punk bands and in most of the case it was not rehearsed. I was improvising, using my voice as a rhythm instrument not as a singing voice. Finding new, non-existent African languages spontaneously and screaming in a way that could only have one gig every four weeks because my voice was definitely gone… When I sing with Boris for Yello, I hear the track the first time in the studio and I basically just sing alone with that track. Being like a child that has a little sing sing for himself. Things emerge from that process of live singing and improvising. So in the studio I’m not that far away from stage. The difference that I can take five hours for one song to find something.
What does Boris think of your new project?
He was a little sceptical at the beginning. For him it was not always easy to work with me as singer, because I’m not a professional singer and he is used to work with electronic instruments and not with musicians. These instruments they do exactly what he wants and I had to do what he wanted. We tried to imply some of me, of course. I had to escape what he had in mind because I have my own ideas and this escaping for him gave him that idea that this was “Out of Chaos” and not very professional. So he was a little bit afraid of whether I could really manage to do this. But then he saw the first concert we did last year with a two man band, then he was very pleased that I was obviously able to do this and now he loves it and he thinks that it’s great that I have a chance finally to do what i really like; to be a tightrope walker in front of an audience.
How do you approach the composition of the music?
I have all these songs that I play with my guitar. I sing them – I’m not writing notes and giving them to the musicians. So they hear me singing these songs and then we have a very good arranger who is arranging for the band and of course I recommend and contribute to how I think they should sound.
And you are exploring darker Lyrical themes?
The lyrics are much more important. I tell a little story as I like to tell people about little events that happened to me, to people, to life and such.
And how does your new musical project tie into your autobiography – they both share a name?
This is totally coincidental! I’ve been approached about biography’s or for some important person to write a biography of me, but I find they are often written out of a certain respect for what I did. And I didn’t like that at all! So this biography thing happened because I proposed to the publisher that I would do a visual biography with pictures and my own words where I could be ironic and humorous and talk about all the incredible luck [I have had] and how all these things came together.
That’s what I wanted to say in this book. For me the learning effect of what I’m doing is much more important then the working effect. The result is more the result of a Zen master who wants to learn about himself. Zen is not hitting a target – it’s about learning yourself. It’s complicated balance of living on the inside and not only living in paradise. To find out who you are on this planet.
Dieter Meier will perform Out Of Chaos in Berlin this Sunday, 18th March.
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