Animal Collective have helped usher in an era of popular music in which genre defying has become genre defining. The band’s masks have also paradoxically become the face of a generation with performance anxiety. Today, Noah Lennox, alias Panda Bear, is no longer afraid to show some face. In the 2011 summer edition of Electronic Beats Magazine, he explained to Glenn O’Brien why Animal Collective is not as pompous as their name implies. Above: Lennox, photographed by Simone Gilges. The Panda Bear-curated Green Ray event takes place on December 13th in Lisbon.
Glenn O’Brien: Are you in Lisbon right now?
Panda Bear: No, I’m in Milan. We’re on tour at the moment.
GO: I went to Portugal on my honeymoon. I was in this town called Guimarães. You ever been there?
PB: Is that in the south?
GO: No, it’s kind of up north. It’s an old, Roman town.
PB: I haven’t been anywhere way south or way north, but I’ve pretty much hit everything in between.
GO: So, did you ever play music acoustically or did you cut your teeth in an exclusively electronic universe?
PB: We’ve all played acoustically. Several of us started out playing piano or acoustic guitar, and I studied cello when I was a lot younger. Our first set-up as a band were these small drums and acoustic guitars. Gradually we’ve shifted towards electronics… and then back to playing acoustically. It goes in cycles. There are advantages to both.
GO: I was trying to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a world where people only used synthesizers…
PB: It must have been really interesting to be around when the first synthesizers were being used.
GO: It was kind of unbelievable. Suddenly a keyboard could replace an entire orchestra.
PB: But the keyboard never really came close to properly replicating the orchestra. It’s kind of funny that today there are all sorts of artificial orchestral sounds that are totally divorced from their original function as facsimiles.
GO: Are you pre-digital? Were you ever firmly in the analog world?
PB: Yeah. Some of the guys in the band are really into tape machines and what not. I’m not really sold either way. I see the attraction of both. There are times when I feel really drawn to the digital world and want to make something that has a really clean, sharp, icy sound…
GO: I think there’s a pretty strong need for digital music. Everything used to be natural and full of woodwinds. Now we have all this digital noise. Do you think digital music should be seen as a reaction to noise?
PB: I think it can be reflective of that.
GO: It’s like the need to harmonize our aural environment. Do you agree?
PB: I think the world’s gotten noisier, especially in the city. I wonder if that makes people want to hear things that are more natural, more meditative or contemplative. Or maybe it’s the opposite, like they want to hear something that reflects their environment.
GO: When I first heard, like, drum’n’bass, I felt really alienated from it. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to jazz…
PB: I think there’s a lot of electronic music that can only be appreciated in a club or a place where you can actually feel it. I think club music has to be heard at club volumes to be enjoyable.
GO: Maybe you have to be on ecstasy. I always avoided that. I never wanted to take anything that would make me like people.
GO: You know, when I first heard Animal Collective, it felt like you were playing two songs at once. Does that idea mean anything to you?
PB: I feel like between the four of us, we go into so many different directions. We all bring so much baggage to the table, it’s like we’re trying to bring our musical personalities into harmony. Sometimes it feels like we’re playing four songs at the same time.
GO: I’ve never observed the whole two-songs-at-once thing before I heard you guys, except for maybe with Prince. I guess it’s because your music is so layered.
PB: Sometimes we get a little carried away with the layering in the studio. It’s like when you have a certain familiarity with the songs or the sounds, you constantly add things to it to make it more interesting for you to play. But I like the idea that there’s enough of a spark in the music that somebody would feel like picking out all the layers. It’s cool when people start hearing the junk.
GO: Do you ever work the opposite way? Like when you add and you add, and then start subtracting?
PB: Sometimes. There’s a certain balance we try to achieve. There’s a point when you know that if you added one more thing or subtracted one thing, it wouldn’t be as good.
GO: Do you record different versions of the same songs?
PB: Sort of. I’ve done different mixes of stuff for my solo album.
GO: What about playing live?
PB: Typically, we’ll play stuff live that’s unreleased. There will usually be bootlegs circulating, which we then rework in the studio. The studio versions are usually less esoteric and more layered and arranged.
GO: When you get it down on tape, do you ever get sick of it and just play it differently for the hell of it? Bob Dylan does that. He’ll never play the same song the same way twice.
PB: It’s not common for us to play a song for years and years. After a while, the song’s just dead. Or if we do play an old song, we’ll play it in a way to fit in with the rest of the set. When you go on tour with a song and play it a couple hundred times, there’s a certain part of your brain that stops thinking about the fact that you need to play something for four measures. Something else takes over—there’s like an outward perspective shift and you start hearing what the song really needs… or what parts of the song you should get rid of.
Panda Bear plays the drums with his eyes closed. Photo: Eduard Meltzer
GO: It’s brave to play new stuff. Do you notice a difference in the audience’s reaction to new material versus old material?
PB: I actually had a huge conversation with a group of kids about this last night. They ended up driving four hours to see us play in Zagreb, and they were really disappointed that they didn’t hear certain songs. I think we only played three old songs, and they were really upset about it. I consoled them by saying that the best concerts we’ve been to as fans—the ones that made a lasting impression on us—were the ones where we really didn’t know what to expect. And that’s what we hope to deliver. Maybe it’s kind of a lofty goal. I told them that we weren’t trying to be antagonistic or cool, or anything. We play new stuff because we think it could be a powerful experience for you. If that’s not what you’re looking for, then maybe you shouldn’t come and see us next time. Sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.
GO: If you want to hear a certain song, why not just go home and play the recording? You don’t get the opportunity to hear something that hasn’t been recorded before too often, right?
PB: Don’t get me wrong—I’ve seen shows where the band sounded exactly like the record, and it was fantastic. But I’d rather go for the home run, even if it doesn’t work all the time.
GO: When you play songs that haven’t been recorded, are you improvising?
PB: That depends. If you play something often enough, it ends up mutating and you play certain parts differently. It’s a pretty natural evolution I would say. There usually aren’t drastic shifts. It’s not like the entire structure will change.
GO: And the changes are spontaneous? They’re not discussed beforehand?
PB: Yeah, but it happens slowly.
GO: Have you ever listened to John Hassell?
PB: I’m not sure. Did he do a song “Paradox” or something?
GO: I don’t know…
PB: Did he put out an album with a sun on it? Or a drawing of a sun?
GO: I don’t think so. He’s a trumpet player, but he plays the instrument in really weird way, kind of like it’s a kazoo. He started out doing jazz, but now does more electronics. When you go to record stores, you often find him grouped under “world music” for some reason. He does really beautiful stuff and his trumpet voicings sound kind of like talking. When I first listened to Animal Collective, I thought, “This sounds like The Beach Boys jamming with John Hassel.” I’d be interested to know what you’d think of him.
PB: Sounds sweet.
GO: Do you ever do stuff with musicians who aren’t from the “collective”?
PB: I’ve done a couple of collaborations with musicians I’ve met online… But it’s always been from a distance. It makes me nervous to work with people I don’t know. In the band, we’ve all known each other forever. Josh and I have been friends since we were eight years old.
GO: That’s kind of amazing.
PB: It’s daunting to think of the process I would have to go through to work with other musicians.
GO: I think the idea of collaborating over the Internet is really interesting. David Byrne made a record with Brian Eno that way. Have you ever let other people mix your stuff?
PB: Yeah, my last solo album was mixed totally out of my hands. Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, did it. But we were in constant contact—emailing at a steady clip of five or six messages per day. He probably sent me thirty different versions of each track. As long as the lines of communication are wide open, working with somebody else can be a powerful experience.
GO: What made you decide to go with him?
PB: When I’m working on music, it gets really difficult for me to be objective. At a certain point, I don’t feel like I can make good decisions about the music anymore.
GO: Was the result better than what you expected?
PB: Yeah, absolutely. He definitely took it to a place I didn’t think it could have gone to.
GO: I know you have kids. Has that changed you in any way as a creative person?
PB: Not creatively, no. But it’s certainly changed my work ethic. I think it’s changed pretty much everything in my life except for the creative process. I think I’ve been really protective about the creative side of things, so I don’t think anybody or anything can really alter that at all.
GO: Is it easier to keep a collective together than a band?
PB: It is in the sense that people can come and go. I just hope it never becomes a drag for anybody to play in the band.
GO: I think it’s an interesting concept.
PB: I actually don’t like the word “collective”. I prefer to be called just a “band” or a “group”… even if the loose membership isn’t really implied.
GO: I like the word because it’s sort of funny.
PB: I think it sounds a bit too headscratching and serious. It’s intellectual in a way I don’t really like.
GO: It kind of reminds me of Monty Python and The Holy Grail where knights are riding along and somebody says, “Where’s your Lord?” and they say, “We don’t have a Lord—this is an anarcho-syndicalist commune!” Did you ever see that?
PB: I did, yeah. I know what you mean—that’s sort of what I’m talking about. There’s pompousness to the name that I don’t think is very reflective of our music. But I guess it’s too late at this point.
GO: Where did the “animal” part come from?
PB: It sounds kind of lame, but we’re all really big fans of animals. At the time, we were thinking along the lines of animals as beings that act purely instinctually… kind of the opposite of a “collective” in that way. Musically, it was about not making decisions based on knowledge or reason. We wanted to work with music on an emotional level, not on an intellectual level. That’s where it comes from.
GO: I wrote a line in an essay that goes, “You spend the first half of your life learning how to be a man, and the second half learning how to be an animal.” Adults have to learn how to follow their impulses. When you work in a cubicle, it can be hard to get back to nature.
PB: I would say you spend the first half of your life learning how to fit into the world and second half trying to escape from it.
GO: Yeah, that’s very similar. What kind of music do you like to listen to?
PB: I don’t really listen to music that much. For me, it’s like chocolate. I don’t listen a whole lot, but when I do, I try and savor it. But typically I look for things that surprise me—things for which I don’t really have much of a point of reference. I like music that sounds alien. When I’m really confounded by something, I find it to be the most rewarding. ~
The Panda Bear-curated Green Ray event—featuring Actress, Brian DeGraw, Ron Morelli, and more—takes place in Lisbon on December 13th. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (2, 2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
In this interview taken from the Summer 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, EB’s editor-in-chief Max Dax speaks to Dan Snaith, the artist behind sonic collagist Caribou and more recently, the techno-flavored Daphni project, about Werner Herzog, marrying dance music’s functionality with the freedom of improvisation and a certain kind of Canadian identity crisis.
Dan Snaith has few musical allegiances. The Canadian-born DJ, musician and front man of London-based Caribou is a fearless, if contemplative, champion of the idea that hybrid forms best serve aesthetic functions. For Snaith, hybridity isn’t just a sign of the times; it’s a vision of the future. Max Dax spoke with the globetrotting futurist in his apartment in London Holloway. Photo: Luci Lux
Max Dax: Dan, I once flew over Canada going from from London to L.A. and spent a good chunk of the flight staring at the endless ice landscape. I had to put my sunglasses on to get rid of the glare. After four hours of pure white, I finally spotted the first sign of civilization: farming grids.
Dan Snaith: Yeah, I know that all too well.
How normal are extreme winters for you?
It’s changed since I’ve been going back there as a visitor. Honestly, I have a hard time with Canadian winters. It’s much colder than when I remember growing up; the wind blows harder and the snow seems deeper. London is actually on a higher point of latitude and the weather is milder but the Canadian winter is strangely bright, far more glare than here. As a kid, I was outdoors all the time, even in winter. It was like a big playground; sledding or ice-skating or whatever. But as a teenager, I spent most of my time indoors playing music or hanging out with friends. The climate wasn’t such a big deal back then, but now I realize it’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t want to move back.
It’s also typical of North America that none of the cities are more a couple hundred years old . . .
I was always aware of that! My parents, being English, would constantly say, “There’s no history here!” Obviously, there was a long Native American history in Canada before colonization, but that was almost completely destroyed. And unfortunately, they didn’t have the same archival structure . . .
You mean, they had oral history instead?
Yeah, a different form of historical narrative. For most Canadians, “old” is a hundred-year-old building. On the flip side, living in London, I sometimes miss the lack of history—that can certainly be liberating.
In what way?
It’s much easier for Canadians to form their own ideas about their identity. There’s a strong multicultural foundation, which is something I think most Canadians are proud of. Our self-conception is rightly based on being a nation of people from all over the world. This is true even in the crappy little town where I grew up. But somehow I think we envy the Europeans for their millennia of history—and this is an important aspect of a certain type of Canadian identity crisis.
From your description, Canadian history and barren landscapes provide an enormous freedom; a sort of artistic tabula rasa . . .
Having a blank slate and no explicit tradition imposed on me as a musician is incredibly important. Ultimately, it’s what allows me to be open to taking an Ethiopian flute sample from one record and combining it with a synthesized bass track from another . . . even if I do it somewhat naively and it has larger musical implications.
What are the implications of that kind of hybridity?
I think it projects rootlessness and, for me personally, it’s an expression of being an outsider. When I was growing up, I spoke with a British accent at home and a Canadian one in school, and musically, I wasn’t into any of the stuff my peers were listening to at the time. I should have been getting off on Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. records, but back then I hated that stuff. I was much more into Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I’ve often thought about what it would have been like to grow up in a place where you can really identify with the music being made at the time, like New York in the late seventies. But maybe it would have been just a big burden. I mean, if tomorrow I gave up Caribou and started making death metal, I don’t think anybody would say, “Dan Snaith is going against his roots!” I definitely don’t feel any allegiance to anything.
That’s somewhat surprising to hear, because there appears to be such a clear thread that runs through the fabric of your music. For all its eclecticism, Caribou possesses a pretty recognizable sonic fingerprint, so to speak.
I think that’s true, but it’s also two sides of the same coin: On the one hand, it’s the diversity of elements and influences that defines Caribou, while on the other, all of the music that I make is stamped with my identity. But it’s common for my generation—or at least amongst my friends—to appropriate ideas as we see fit. It’s not as simple as identifying yourself with a genre or a cultural movement anymore. You have to move in between things and figure out what’s essentially you, what makes you happy.
Jenny Holzer famously said, “Lack of charisma can be fatal.” How would you define your musical voice?
When I made my first records years ago, I worried about whether, after everything’s stripped away from the music, there would be anything left that’s mine. It would be tragic if my music wasn’t more than just the sum if its influences . . . But I think there are ways of preventing that. I still have a policy of not including things that are too easily appropriated in order to really hone in on my sound.
That kind of self-censorship takes discipline.
Yeah, it’s not easy to decide against using something that’s worked so well in the past, like with these big, airy drum samples I had thrown on a bunch of tracks from Andorra. Soundwise, I’m still not sure I can actually articulate what’s “mine” or what belongs to “my sound”, but as a musician I don’t have to, and I feel comfortable with that.
Before I saw Caribou play live in the Berghain in Berlin, I expected a much more electronic, dance-oriented show. And then you came out singing with two drummers, a bass player, washed in guitar feedback, playing the bells, triggering synthesizers. That’s when I thought, “He’s a conductor!”
You were surprised? I think of the live show and the albums almost as two different entities. With Swim, I actually divided up the songs into Caribou stuff and my own DJ stuff . . .
“Odessa” being a Caribou track, for example?
Yeah, because it’s a pop song. But tracks like “Bowls” or “Sun” were composed as dance music and intended to be functional in that sense. I had a certain obsession with functionality during that period; I was wondering whether I could create something that would elicit an immediate physical response from people in a club. I mean, it’s easy to create generic dance music and to figure out when and where stuff should build or drop. But the best dance tracks often sound so accidental and non-conformist. For example, take Theo Parish: his music doesn’t necessarily work when you’re listening to it at home, but when you’re in a club it just hits you and your body understands it.
Are you talking about the volume? The club context? The feeling on the dancefloor?
I mean the physicality of the music, the way it just envelopes you. I suppose context also has something to with it. When I made “Bowls” at home, I didn’t think it was ever going to make people dance. Then Keiran Hebden played it as a surprise one night at Plastic People and everybody just threw their hands in the air and had a ball with it, so I didn’t change the track from the original first home recording to the album version. But I also never expected it to have that effect, to translate in that way. That’s a great example of how important the mysteriousness of not understanding how you made something can be.
A marriage of the functionality of dance music and the freedom of improvisation and appropriation?
That’s exactly what it is. When I made Andorra, I had just started listening to dance music again after taking a break for four or five years. What really got me back into it was listening to stuff like James Holden and realizing how weird this music really is. Compositionally, it’s not like with a normal band where you first write a melody and then a bass part and then a drum part and then everything else. Instead, you establish some danceable, repetitive, formulaic foundation and then work on top of it, maybe with some weird, pitch-shifted melody or a backwards flute sample or whatever. That’s when you realize that there’s more madness than method to this music, and that’s what I really like about it.
Is this an example of electronic musicians reaping the fruits of the digital age?
In terms of accessibility and sampling, for sure.
But accessibility doesn’t just mean being able to do things really quickly and easily. It also means having to wade through endless possibilities of manipulation . . . a process that potentially makes things more complicated.
That’s particularly true in dance music, but whether it works to your advantage or disadvantage is a matter of approach. For example, Ricardo Villalobos has been very vocal in his criticism of Ableton Live because it’s made the whole process of creating dance tracks so easy. I think that’s a valid criticism, but it’s not the only way of seeing it. There are definitely ways of making new music with software like that . . . like in their misuse. The less obvious ways of using new software—the “wrong” ways—‘open the door to all sorts of new sounds. Combined with the sheer accessibility of songs and sounds today, the edges and the extremities of music have become absorbed into the middle.
Crate digging has become popularized . . .
And so easy!
I’m constantly blown away by the speed of change and development in the digital era. It all happens right in front of your eyes. I don’t have any fantasies or nostalgia about living in another era or in an exclusively analogue world.
I occasionally go back and forth. I remember hunting for obscure records before EBay and YouTube, and part of the attraction was the process itself . . . not to mention the obscurity of the objects. Also, you were dealing with real, physical things.
What you’re describing sounds like objects of fetish.
Not entirely—that kind of fascination with materiality is much stronger for people ten years older than me. I inherited a bit of that because those were people that I looked up to, musicians like Pete Rock or RZA who coveted records as physical objects and whose music was based on that kind of obsession. I learned how to find samples by reading about how they did it. Today, that idea must seem totally ludicrous to somebody making music who’s ten years younger than me. They probably ask themselves why anybody would spend their time looking for the physical object when the music is right in front of their face. I tend to straddle the line because I still buy tons of vinyl – mostly new music.
Because you need it to DJ?
No, I actually prefer to play CDs. I’m not part of the school of thought that thinks everything sounds better on vinyl. That’s only the case when the turntables are well cared for in clubs, and they’re usually not. As an outsider, I don’t feel tied to a culture of vinyl at all costs. Of course, I like the fact that when I buy a record, the money goes to the artist and I also get to own this physical thing. But I buy plenty of digital stuff as well.
Does this hold true for things other than music?
I own plenty of movies, but that’s an interest that’s developed over past five to ten years. I have friends who grew up seeing music as part of a greater world of the arts. That’s not what I grew believing. I could have quite happily lived only with music for the rest of my life. But that changed when I discovered the films of Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog, amongst others.
I didn’t know you were a film buff.
I would say I’m more of a budding film fan. When I was travelling through China, I came across dozens of markets where they weren’t just selling fruit, vegetables, and scorpions but also entire libraries of amazing and somewhat obscure cinema, all sorted by director— basically everything that won Palm d’Or in Cannes and beyond. Even though this stuff isn’t necessarily popular there, you’ll find exquisitely packaged box sets with all the extra scenes and extra footage on every second street corner, believe it or not. A friend of mine told me that the head of the DVD bootleg ring is actually a huge film buff, so I guess that explains it. A forty volume Chinese Fassbinder box set will literally take up half your suitcase.
Isn’t it surprising how authentic some of the bootlegs look?
I once saw a Chinese Tarkovsky box set that looked like the most sought-after collector’s edition you could possibly find . . . This is how I got to see a lot of these movies for the first time: piracy!
What Tarkovsky film has inspired you most?
My first was Andrei Rublev and I think it’s still my favorite.
I thought it would’ve been Mirror.
I like Mirror, but I’m not necessarily looking for the same things in film that I do in music. When I was making Andorra, I was obsessed with Werner Herzog, particularly Fitzcarraldo and The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. The latter is truly the visual equivalent to all the German progressive rock bands that I love so much. It seems kind of obvious because of the Popul Vuh soundtrack, but even without that you can tell that it’s the analogue of what was going on musically in Germany at the time.
You mean in terms of the freedom of Herzog’s imagery?
I would say in terms of newness and innovation, not having artistic forbearers.
That kind of innovation usually involves transgressing borders. For Herzog, this sometimes meant spending millions of Deutschmarks on realizing a vision that few others could share in, at least at the time. Do you find this kind of dedication to a singular vision inspiring?
Yes. Almost all of my musical and cultural heroes are obsessed with maintaining their own voice in what they do artistically. I remember watching Herzog for the first time and literally running into the next room to make music. That was a new experience for me, one that’s made easier by having a home studio. I continue to feel inspired by the creativity of other media because in the end, a creative act is a creative act. Although I don’t know much about visual art or poetry. Poetry in particular is something I’ve never grasped.
You don’t read poetry?
Only casually. For me, poetry comes across as an analogue of classical music, although I don’t know if it’s a good comparison.
Seems a bit like apples and oranges.
That’s probably true. I haven’t read enough poetry to come to that conclusion. It’s just something I have yet to wrap my head around.
Poetry can certainly be high art, but it can also be a sort of sport, like in Japanese Haiku culture, where poets compete to capture the most original linguistic snap-shot.
My experience with almost everything is that when I start learning about it, I get excited by it.
You have a PhD in mathematics, but often emphasize irrational and unharnessable aspects of writing music. Do you also feel drawn towards mathematical or logical patterns? And do your analytical abilities point you in a certain musical direction, like, for example, with the functionality or layering of dance music?
The fascinating thing about music is that it expresses something fundamental about the mathematics of the world around us, our natural biology, our chemistry. But it also equally expresses our tendency to love things that are complicated and inconvenient. Both of these things appeal to me: achieving a perfect musical symmetry, but also disrupting that symmetry.
And would that be a conscious approach to listening and playing music on your part?
I suppose so. Mathematics always appealed to me for those reasons as well. What’s unique to math is that when things are true, they’re really true. When things fit together, that’s the end of the story. There’s only one correct answer. But until you get to the point where abstract ideas work together, there’s this sense of dealing with a certain mathematical chaos and the necessity of finding creative solutions. There may be one correct answer, but there’s often more than one way to figure it out. In the end, the payoff in mathematics is huge, because when you’re right, you’re right.
Have you ever proven something significant as a mathematician?
I’ve proven something original, but I would still call it pretty trivial. When I was writing my dissertation, I took the results of one problem and generalized them in their application to have a broader mathematical significance. The funny thing is that my former advisor who lives around the corner told me that another student recently took my results and was able to draw much broader conclusions and applications . . . which basically rendered my research irrelevant. For me, it wasn’t about the results, but rather the research process itself and the problem solving involved.
The bricolage aspect of your music would seem to place research at the center of the song writing process.
It’s a different kind of research for making music, one that’s less analytical and more aesthetic. I would say travelling plays a pretty big role in that sense. Being in Ethiopia was hugely influential on me in that sense.
In a recent issue of Monocle, Tyler Brulee said that Addis Ababa was one of the most exciting cities in the world. What was so special about Ethiopia for you?
I think Ethiopia is truly one of the most underappreciated countries, and Addis has so much to offer—culturally, visually, and musically. But the areas outside the city also blew me away. There’s this amazing dry, craggy landscape, sort of like the American southwest. These were the even more interesting places for me, because they give off this kind of cradle-of-civilization aura. Tigrid, which is a northern province, is one of the hottest places on earth. It’s also populated by tons of ancient clay and rock churches carved into the sides and on top of mountains and cliffs. Some are more than fifteen hundred years old. The Ethiopan church was kicked out of the fold by the rest of Christianity pretty early on, so it ended up developing independently. And these churches are still in use. There are hand- holds built into the side of mountains that go up almost a hundred meters, like a climbing wall. I climbed up one to check out a church and it was terrifying, which made it even more fascinating that the people in these villages do it several times a day—even the children and old women. The priest himself was almost ninety years old and he ran up and down the thing no problem.
Were music and research the driving factors for you to go there initially?
Music, for sure, especially the Ethiopiques reissues. These releases really blew a lot of people’s minds because the music just sounds so different than everything else—kind of like how Ethiopia, culturally speaking, is so different than the countries it borders. I’d been listening to Ethiopian records for years, but what I had didn’t compare to the sheer volume of the Ethiopiques series which is, like, twenty CDs. There are so many incredible musicians on there—Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, Getachew Mekurya—too many to name.
You mentioned before that composing for you involves finding a symmetry between what’s intuitive and making more analytical decisions. Ethiopian music is immensely complex, both harmonically and rhythmically. There are usually multiple patterns interweaving or being layered on top of each other. At the same time, the music remains very danceable. Is this contrast something you especially relate to?
For my ear, the scales, modes and harmonic framework of Ethiopian music are remarkably unique and sound nothing like Western popular or classical music. And that’s a large part of what appeals to me, because the bedrock of my musical taste is the spiritual free jazz of the sixtees and seventies—Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler, stuff like that.
I’m not surprised.
I love the fact that Ethiopian pop and jazz has a real dancehall tradition and that it was never divorced from people dancing and grooving to it . . . even if it was more geared towards the Ethiopian elite. There was always a strong connection between Ethiopia’s more avant-garde jazz and the country’s popular music. You can hear it in the richness of the songwriting. There’s such a broad palette being used.
That seems like an accurate description of what you do as well, especially in regards to combining disparate influences.
Often the most fertile way of making something “new” is by combining disparate music, and this is also the way I’ve worked for years. I’ve been making music since I was thirteen and the first time I felt I had created something worth releasing was when I started combining electronic elements with acoustic elements; whether it was a sample of a harp and drum machine or an acoustic guitar and a synthesizer. This is the first time I started seeing my music as identifiably mine, and it was the synthesis of things that felt so exciting and pushed it in that direction. That being said, there’s tons of music I love where it’s completely clear what it is, like a Carl Craig remix, or King Tubby or whatever . . . although I suppose Carl Craig is a bad example because he’s done all sorts of different things. In the end, even the music that is unambiguously of a “single” genre was, at some point, also a mix of other genres. I imagine that’s probably a necessary condition in the creation of a new genre.
I can recall thinking when I was young that certain genres were off limits. I can also remember transgressing these personal borders and the worlds that opened up for me as a result. This was my experience in discovering jazz. How rigid were your musical borders and how did you get past them?
I grew up playing classical piano, though I never really enjoyed listening to classical music. As a teenager I still took lessons, but I had moved on to pop music and learning to improvise around more convential stuff, like The Beatles or whatever. That was the first time I got interested in playing and performing. But pretty soon, my teacher told me that if I really wanted to improvise, I would be much better off taking jazz lessons. So I just totally immersed myself in jazz piano. During the summer, I would play five to six hours a day, and when school started up again, I would try to get in an hour or two before first period. I was obsessed with really learning song structure, harmony, theory and the scales behind it all. And of course, I was really into practicing, practicing, practicing. Because everything I’d read and everyone I talked to said that if you want to get really good at this, you have to spend all your time doing it.
Joe Zawinul has said it’s a lifestyle.
Yeah, and he’s not the only one. You play to the exclusion of everything else, which is something I ended up doing. But initially, I was into the safer, more traditional jazz – more classical bebop and stuff like that. And then I went to university and everything changed. I randomly picked up some Penguin Classic anthology of important jazz records and was exposed for the first time to a proper jazz canon. The book had these ratings of important records, and I’m sure if I picked it up again today, I would disagree with a lot of it, because the more conventional stuff got such high ratings. But I have to credit the book with exposing me to Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, which they gave five stars. I’d never heard of Ayler, but I decided to go out and buy the record. That was a day I’ll never forget; everything changed for me, and I pretty much instantly stopped caring about be-bop records and only listened to free jazz.
Jazz rhythm sections are responsible for providing an anchor to the more deconstructive tendencies of soloists. This is less true for free jazz, but still applies there as well. With piano, the anchoring and soloing can be done at the same time. Who was inspirational for you as a pianist?
If you had asked me back in the day, I could have given you a long list of pianists. But my perspective and mode of operating as a musician has changed so drastically, that naming clear influences for individual instruments is something I can’t really relate to anymore. My heroes today are almost all producers or musicians using other instruments. And my interest has to do with their contributions to writing music, not how they play their instrument. I used to be able to play the piano really well. I can’t do that anymore because I don’t practice. But what I do practice all the time is producing and writing songs.
What producers do you admire?
Again, there are so many. I really like Charles Stephney, who produced the Rotary Connection albums, a kind of a symphonic soul music. For hip-hop I’m really into Timbaland; for dance music, Carl Craig and Theo Parish. I really like Bryan Wilson, of course. Joe Meek is great too. He actually lived and recorded on Holloway Road near my apartment. He was a real studio pioneer who built some of the first echo machines and effects. I think his biggest hit was “Telstar”. Great song.
What about musicians who mine non-western music for their sound?
I suppose there’s a pretty long history of people who’ve done it, from The Beatles and Bryan Jones to David Byrne and whoever else. Personally, I’m always discovering stuff when I travel. My last trip to China was really inspiring, but unlike Ethiopa, it wasn’t supposed to be for the music. Actually, my wife had become fascinated with this fermented Chinese tea called Pu-erh, which is only made in the tropical southwestern province of Hunan. In the end, the trip was also enlightening for me musically, but that wasn’t the impetus for going. I really love the chance aspect of the process of discovery.
I recently took a vacation to Italy for the express purpose of visiting a pasta factory. It’s a different holiday than one spent at the beach.
I enjoy a good day at the beach, but after two days I’m bored already. ~
In between Kode9‘s new single “Xingfu Lu” and Rinse mix CD releases, we revisit infamous dub producer—and On-U Sound founder—Adrian Sherwood‘s take on the Hyperdub founder’s second album with The Spaceape Black Sun. Dub on dub. This review was originally printed in the summer 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
I don’t intellectualize things. If I hear a good record, I can recognize what makes it different from the pack. But otherwise I don’t really ‘think’ about it. I don’t even do that for my own productions. That being said, Black Sun is quality from beginning to end. You need people pushing things forward, and this is a perfect example of that. Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, just has really good ears—he’s got his own “sonic”, as I like to say. And this is what allows him to create his own sound and continue being an innovator.
An important part of innovation is knowing what you’re doing in the studio, and Kode9 obviously does. He’s the jack-of-all-trades of the moment, from doing A&R work to producing the new Burial album. Like myself, he’s also the boss of a record company. I only do my own productions at the moment, but he releases other people’s stuff as well. He’s good at pushing other music in new directions.
Musically speaking, I like most of what he does. Some of it is a bit too techno for me, but that’s because I come from a roots background. But his skills as a producer are indisputable. And in all, he’s just a good lad. We most recently worked together on a couple of remixes. He’s also performed at a dub festival I organized a few years ago.I see him in a line with people like Digital Mystikz— musicians who stretch boundaries. I think it’s important that even if you don’t work within a genre, you can still appreciate it. Pushing things forward is a good way to fight against nostalgia. That’s important because otherwise it all becomes too precious. ~
One… Two… Three… let’s count with Yello frontman and raconteur Dieter Meier. Oh yeah! ~ Photo: Luci Lux
1 memorable line in a film or song:
“Oh yeah…” (from “Oh Yeah” by Yello)
2 decisions I regret:
1) Having invested in the U.S. housing market.
2) Drinking my eleventh gin and tonic at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club on October 12, 1981 at 2:15 a.m.
3 people that should collaborate:
The Dalai Lama, Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky. I hope they would venture beyond conventional critiques of capitalism to help find solutions for a better use of human intelligence.
4 things I haven’t done yet:
1) Hike in the Himalayas.
2) Surf in Hawaii.
3) Play the piano (properly).
4) Do nothing for six months.
5 things I used to believe:
1) That I was a very unimportant person. (I still believe it.)
2) That I can’t finish anything.
3) That Americans landed on the moon.
4) That God created the world.
5) That it’s OK to live in four-star hotels
6 hours ago…
I woke up depressed thinking about the highly unstructured day I had in front of me.
7 days I barely remember:
I’m currently enjoying the springtime of my senility, so there are hardly any days I can remember, these days.
After 8 p.m. …
I usually look forward to an insanely dry martini.
My 9 lives…
I’ve had 24,090 lives, every day a new.
10 years since 9/11…
…and the so-called “War on Terror” continues on in the wrong direction. Trying to box a mosquito
isn’t just impractical—it doesn’t work. The world needs to dry out the swamp that breeds terrorism by helping and respecting people. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on war and firepower should have been invested in nation-building.
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (Summer 2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com:
The world according to acclaimed German director, novelist and producer Alexander Kluge is full of veils, masks, and hidden agendas. And not always in a bad way. From facial expressions to DNA, life is illusory and coded. But masks aren’t just forms of self-preservation through misrepresentation; they also provide freedom through anonymity — or protection from radioactive exposure. In Munich, the auteur explains to Max Dax why masks are beyond good and evil and how novels are instruction manuals for deception.
Mr. Kluge, why do people wear masks?
That’s like asking why people don’t run around naked. Why do we wear clothes? Why do we have skin? Why is there external protection even at the cellular level? The answer is that life itself isn’t naked, and it’s for the same reason that you can’t transport water in the desert just by cupping your hands: you need a proper container. All forms of life need a house, a shield, a casing. It’s a basic human need to have a cave or an acre of land that belongs to you and you alone. In the end, there are only two kinds of human beings: cave-dwellers and prairie people. If the prairie person is denied mobility or the cave-dweller is denied protection, they’re badly able to survive. It’s a natural human tendency to light candles in the cave for comfort in winter, and let the sky to be your roof in summer. All poetry is about these two states of being.
You once said that the reality that human communities construct is like a second skin that makes life bearable.
And I stand by it. Our first skin serves us to hold us together physically; if our organs were exposed, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Skin is a casing that, first and foremost, protects us. But in order to survive socially, our physical skin is not enough–and that’s why people construct a second skin called “reality”, something that’s constantly changing. My grandparents had an entirely differently constructed reality than my children. We build our realities according to our personal, social and political circumstances … and we do it in order to survive. Human beings are simply unable to deal with an unadorned reality.
Is the second skin you call reality a kind of mask?
I would say the face itself is a mask. It has over two hundred different muscles that we can manipulate in order to form the most varied and illusory expressions. We’ve been able to use our facial muscles like this since our evolutionary forefathers and early man discovered language and the ability to deceive. That’s why every human being is a walking, talking mask. With the advent of language, deception and disguise became part of the game of survival. It reminds me of an interesting scene in Heinrich von Kleist’s Cathy of Heilbronn, where the princess visits a fountain at night, disrobes under the moonlight, and is revealed as a skeleton. She stands in stark contrast to the protagonist, Cathy, who is vital, rosy-cheeked, and made of flesh and blood. In theatre terms, the princess’s skeletal frame implies that she’s incapable of love–an aspect of her true identity she wants to conceal at all costs. Her clothes ad jewellery–conventional symbols of dignity and splendor–are nothing but masks for death. In Kleist’s attempt to distinguish between truth and deception, masked death becomes a woman’s false beauty.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
That’s Oscar Wilde–and what a fitting aphorism. Ancient Greek actors and actresses were called “Personae” or “Masks that can be heard through” because they said things through the openings of their masks that they would otherwise never be allowed to say offstage. Even the oracle at Delphi spoke through a mask. Historically, people are better able to sort out their egotisms from behind masks. When free of the burden of their own conceits, they can speak certain truths. Man is undoubtedly a creature of illusion.
How would you say the practice of confession fits into that scheme? Is the partition in the Catholic confessional also a type of mask?
Of course! Without a partition that provides a certain degree of anonymity, there’s no way to confess so freely. As soon as people look each other in the eyes, they start measuring their words carefully, and that’s entirely natural. Whoever says that people should be totally open and honest with each other is operating under a false understanding of what it means to be human. Nietzsche said that man is a manufacturer of illusions–an illusion-making machine, so to speak. That’s why our basic human desires aren’t geared towards the discovery of truth per se. Sincerity and openness are byproducts of other more basic human needs.
But isn’t the mask-wearer potentially motivated by truth? Isn’t the mask a tool for producing knowledge?
That depends on your understanding of what constitutes knowledge. I think that lovers put on masks when they want to reassure each other of their love–something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do in light of the reality of an unknowable future. I suppose this holds not only for lovers, but also in assuming any given role and the responsibilities that come along with it. By being “in character”, people can assess the reality they’re engaged with. But to know what these roles are, we need various forms of fictional narrative–specifically the novel, because, historically, that’s where these roles were made most explicit and played out. I don’t think there would be love without certain kinds of explorative fiction or literature, regardless of genre. Or should I say: there would be no love without roleplaying and no roleplaying without masks.
You believe that fictional narratives have such a strong effect on our behaviour?
Not our behavior, but rather our communication. Fiction allows us to communicate about our behavior. It’s similar to when people used to speak from behind fans: you could speak your mind and not be caught in the act. If you blushed, nobody would be able to tell, because, as a mask the fan is opaque. In contrast, the blush is a revealing mask. One is worn over the other.
You’ve mentioned the novel as a source of information on various roles we play. Opera is considered one of the most coded and artificial forms of the performing arts. What can it tell us about communication and disguise?
Opera has a stronger, more emotional thrust that the novel; or, for that matter, most literature. Take for example The Pretend Garden Girl, which Mozart wrote when he was still very young. It tells the story of a Count who stabs his lover, Violante, in a fit of jealous rage. Violante survives and realizes she still loves the Count. To heal her broken heart, she disguises herself as a simple gardener’s girl in an attempt to win him back. She succeeds, but only by masking her true identity. The story demonstrates the importance of masks and disguises in communicating love in circuitous fashion. Contrary to popular opinion, love doesn’t always function magnetically or on terms of a direct attraction. The masks in literature and opera tell you exactly that. In fictional narratives, the mask is a medium of communicating emotion. It’s not for nothing that the novel was popularized as an art form at the same time as garden labyrinths. In a proper labyrinth, nothing is really grown; lovers get lost only to find each other again. And this is why they epitomize love: because they have no express purpose! Love that only serves reproduction or upward social mobility is sad and lonely. Love that allows for detours and impracticalities also allows for a certain luxury we call freedom. Its artistic expression can be found in music and opera. And let’s not forget techno–an art form dominated by the power of bass and the movement of dancing masses. Techno is also a type of opera, in my opinion.
Would you say that the club is the new opera stage–a modern masked ball?
Indeed. I remember being in the old Tresor in Berlin during the nineties and thinking to myself: what’s happening here in the old basement safe of the Wertheim department store is nothing other than twenty-first century opera… all night long.
What would the opera be like without masks?
It wouldn’t exist. Don Giovanni is one long masquerade, Cosi fan tutte even more so. You see, the important thing is that the audience knows more than the actors on stage. If that’s not the case, opera becomes incredibly boring. The characters have to be ignorant of their own demise; that’s one of the main appeals in opera. It’s a labyrinthine art.
In Aristotle’s writings on the etymology of tragedy, he traces the word back to ancient springtime festivals involving goat sacrifices. “Tragos” is actually the Greek word for “goat song”. During the celebrations, men wore masks and sang songs about social issues that would otherwise result in conflict. The participants all assumed prototypical social and political roles. These festivals were a way for people to vent: instead of mass brawls, conflicts were resolved on stage. This is the original form of theater and, therefore, of opera as well.
A sort of war by proxy set on stage?
Yes, just like in the Old Testament: Isaac was supposed to sacrifice his own child, but in the end, an animal did the trick.
What about the functional masks that people use for protection? The images form Japan’s recent nuclear catastrophe are ingrained in our collective consciousness–especially people wearing white surgical masks.
First and foremost, people wear those kinds of masks to protect themselves form radiation. But I also think they wear them to mask their own fear. Fear often takes control of facial expressions; fear exposes.
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl figures prominently in a number of your books. How have you been affected by the images form Japan?
The disaster in general has affected me strongly. Nature once again has reminded us of the scope of her power. The last eathquake and tsunami of that magnitude in Japan occurred some fourteen hundred years ago. It sometimes seems that this is how nature confers and communicates with man. But because nature resists being “understood”, we sometimes speak of “nature’s mask”–which comes off when Vesuvius blows or a huge earthquake shows its destructive power. Of course, “nature’s mask” is just an illusory invention of man. There are plenty of nuclear power plants in areas we know are potential sites for natural disasters. Clearly, planet earth doesn’t wear a mask on its own. Rather, we mask the planet because we haven’t been able to solve nature’s puzzles.
We’ve recently seen television images of “masked”uprisings in Egypt and Libya. There, protestors have been veiling themselves to protect their identity.
The circumstances in North Africa are indeed unsettling, because the masked demonstrators make it even more difficult to determine of agent provocateurs are in the mix. Here’s an instance where masks create as much confusion as they do protection. I mean, Libya is in the middle of a civil war and neither the sides nor the fronts can be easily determined. Not even during the Third Reich was there such an intense atmosphere of ignorance and insecurity. It’s extremely eerie. Libya’s former Foreign Minister defected to England and also became a kind of shapeshifter. I’m sure he brought with him dozens of masks he’s created through diplomatic experience.
Would you be surprised if, say, club-goers in London’s Fabric or Berlin’s Berghain were suddenly wearing these functional masks as a fashion statement? Crowds dancing in surgical masks or the veils and turbans North African revolutions?
Not only would that not surprise me, I think it would be a highly sensible reaction to a really disturbing series of event. You can make whatever scares you less threatening by wearing it–it’s a natural way to get over your fears. Every child puts on a ghost costume at some point and, in doing so, makes the ghost harmless.
Historically, people have worn masks to cast out demons…
And they continue to do so! Just look at Carnival, Halloween or Walpurgis Night… But there are also more everyday examples, like COSPLAY, where people dress up like their favorite Manga characters to free themselves from the shackles of the daily grind. They’re developing new, creative rituals. I recently had the chance to film two Manga girls going to a COSPLAY convention. The one girl introduced her friend with the words, “That’s my dog!”–even though the girl wasn’t dressed like a dog, but more like an vil fairy. I appreciate that the Manga movement allows for these kinds of bizarre masquerades and surreal role-playing scenarios, because each individual possesses all sorts of different identities: we’re beings of a thousand characters. The fact that we can express them with masks–by putting on different faces–is a great thing.
Can you give me an example of a “fake”mask?
The “honest” banker in the television advertisement who tells you, ”Come to our bank, your money is in good hands.” That’s the epitome of deception.
To what extent is Facebook a virtual masquerade or even a form of deception?
Playing more than one role in life isn’t something that’s exclusive to Facebook; it’s part of the essence of life itself and has been since man has been able to think. And why shouldn’t we live these roles out? In a metropolis, most people have multiple identities.
Is it a lie when somebody knowingly discloses false information on Facebook?
Not necessarily. Sometimes things become true when you invent them for yourself. What’s truth? Think about the modes of flirting popular in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. There was so much disguise and affectation involved in the communication between partners in order to determine whether one person loved the other. Of course, there was a big difference between the two genders. But even back then, men always promised the world when seducing a woman, just in “Don Giovanni.
How do we look past the seducer’s mask to see what he or she is really like?
Do we really want to? Do we need to know what kind of person he was in the past? How she grew up? Who his parents are? What she loves? How he lives? What she’s afraid of? Today, everything can be accessed on Facebook. Maybe after studying somebody’s profile, you can see behind the masks they wear in the physical world. Walter Benjamin once said that an actor can’t pretend to be truly terrified. If you really want to scare him, you have to fire a shot next to his ear–then you’ll really have him flinching for the close-up.~
Photos: Rick Burger
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com: