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. ~
Read part 1 of the Interview here.
You said you sometimes invent fake bands—with real members other than yourself?
Certainly. Just like I invite the dancers onstage, I sometimes invite musicians to perform with me live. But I always take care not to tell them what to do. I try to make sure that there is a basis for everyone involved so that a live show can be built on the concept of improvisation. I encourage them to contribute something unexpected. I want them to do whatever they want. That’s why I picked them. I want to see what happens, not know in advance.
In another interview you’ve mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog as influences. How does that fit into the equation?
Film is probably my favorite medium. If I had more time and money, I probably would work more with film because emotionally it’s so much more effective than music. In a good film music is just a part of the whole. Music is an aspect. I regard film as a total medium that incorporates all other art forms in essential ways. Tarkovsky is probably my favorite filmmaker, because sinister things in his movies are always so subtle. Take Solaris—or even better, Stalker. Stalker to me is just such a cool movie. It’s almost like a horror movie in the traditional sense because it’s so goddamn scary. It’s fascinating to see that Tarkovsky doesn’t need a mon- ster or a bloody zombie to create that atmosphere of horror. It’s a totally intellectual kind of horror, but it affects you emotionally. It’s extremely thought-out. But it’s also astoundingly simple.
What about Solaris?
It’s so scary how Kris Kelvin is confronted with his most traumatic memories at the space station. That’s true horror. I don’t see how it can be taken any further. I discovered Tarkovsky because I studied Russian in college and had this intense desire to watch Russian films. I like his total approach to film as art, especially when it comes to music.
And how does that relate to what you do?
When I compose I consciously try not to overly reference the pop world. You can evoke a spiritual level within your music when you allow yourself to be inspired by other things—Hildegard von Bingen for instance. All the layering of vocals in my music comes from the experience of listening to her liturgical songs. When I pile up twenty vocal layers it’s reminiscent, at least for me, of medieval or Renaissance chorales. I try to incorporate these elements into the concept of pop music to find some kind of new middle ground.
In terms of method it’s a kind of copy-and-paste, no?
I’m not sure I’d call it that. Listening to a choir or devotional music is extremely emotional for me, and I try to figure out why it touches me the way it does. If I can see a pattern in the music, I try to make it work for me too. But I want to get back to Tarkovsky briefly. I know lots of people my age who say that his films are too long, too slow and too intense. They don’t want to be lulled into his contemplative pace, and it’s hard to accept a movie that’s three- and-a-half hours long these days. But I can absolutely imagine taking abstract elements from Tarkovsky and implanting them into my music.
Nobody objects to the time commitment when it comes to The Lord of the Rings.
[laughing] That’s true. I actually watched all three parts again pretty recently.
On the big screen or your iPhone? Alec Empire recently told me how fascinating it’s been for him to watch the trilogy on the tiny iPhone screen with earplugs.
Actually, I don’t have an iPhone. My friend has a big TV. It’s a twelve-hour endeavor. But for me it’s not a contradiction to con- sume both high culture and Harry Potter or some Japanese mangas. Pop art still appeals to me the most. I guess it has to do with the way I grew up in the 2000s. I like to see a film like Kill Bill as much as I do like watching Solaris. Both experiences are potentially inspiring. Or take dancing: lots of people say that dancing is just a waste of time, but to me it marks a key difference between animals and human beings. It takes a high level of intelligence to interpret music, especially as something you can dance to. It’s spiritual. It’s liberating. If someone can make you dance to their music, it’s a pretty amazing skill. Same goes for all the pop art that touches you emotionally in a split second. I can’t see anything negative in that. I sometimes get the impression that people mistrust their feelings. I try not to do that, just like I try and trust simple ideas and things that are stripped down to the bare essentials. I think it’s a sign of having mastered something.
Are you referring to your own music?
Actually, I would say it’s true of the last Katy Perry record. There are so many people who call her songs easy and so cheap, but to use elements of pop that so many people have used before and still make such an amazing record—that’s awesome. I mean, her songwriting is really on parade, as is the production. A million people are trying to make pop songs all the time, and you’ll listen to all sorts of failed attempts on the radio every day. To succeed in a medium that everyone is working in is a huge achievement, if you ask me. It takes a lot of intelligence and talent for sure.
Did you always dance to your own music on stage?
That’s a damn good question. Let me think. I used to dance for another group when they were giving concerts, so dancing onstage was already natural for me when I started doing my own shit. But I think that for the first few gigs I had to focus so much more on my musical performance that I probably didn’t feel laid-back enough to do it. But this changed and nowadays it feels totally natural for me.
You studied ballet for a couple of years. Did that make a difference for you at all?
More off stage than anywhere else. I love to dance socially. A lot of my friends make dance music and whenever they play, I dance. Before I had my ear problem I spent a lot of time in studios where they were recording, I’d be dancing to the monitor sound from around the mixing desk. At the DIY venues and in Montreal in general we used to dance all the time. Dancing with friends should not be underestimated.
You’re staying in Vancouver at the moment, far away from Montreal and its big music scene. How has being away from that affected you?
I will be spending the afternoon looking for a house, a cabin in the woods to seclude myself from the civilized world for a little while. I’m going back to recording soon, so it’s time to get away from people again. As I said before, making music is a solitary act for me. Other people just become intruders. That’s why I’m looking for a really remote place to spend the winter. I am really looking forward to staying far away, deep in the woods, snowed in. The more time you spend away from people the less you hear them commenting. It’s as simple as that. When I’m alone I can refocus. I haven’t really been alone in the past year, and I’m just not made to work on new music after a show in my hotel room. I’m fully aware of the fact that you can go crazy when you’re all alone. I like to think of it as crazy in a good way, though. More manic, really.
Is it at all typically Canadian to need to escape to the woods?
Actually, most of my friends think that I’m crazy. My parents are pretty concerned, too. So, no, it’s not very typical I’d say. But it’s interesting here because Canada is just a big white wasteland in winter.
Dan Snaith said that Canada’s icy winters are inspiring.
My grandparents lived in the mountains of British Columbia. I spent a lot of my childhood there, but the last six years I lived in Montreal. Now, being back in Vancouver, I’ve only started to realize what I’ve been missing in Montreal. I totally forgot how big an emotional impact the woods must have made on me. Ancient forests were, like, my natural surroundings until I turned eighteen and left B.C. for the big city. Being back here, everything feels so calming. I’m much more relaxed these days.
The way you talk about the woods reminds me of Twin Peaks.
The northern landscape is just so big and violent. Of course, Twin Peaks took place just south of the border. B.C. is the perfect environment to shoot films like that or the Twilight series because it’s so scary here with the dark forests and thick fog and shadowy mountains . . . so sinister and beautiful at the same time. When you walk in the forest at night it’s an almost spiritual scariness. It feels haunted. I think the woods are haunted.
Yeah, and movies exploit that really well. Space too. It’s just like the tagline from Alien: “In space no one can hear you scream.” When I go to New York and end up in the Bronx at night, it can be scary too. But it’s different if you’re afraid of getting mugged or if you’re afraid of mass murderers. It’s Silence of the Lambs scary. A friend of mine lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, right on the Mexican border. That’s what you’d call a dangerous town because of all the random drug murders. But I find the psychological threat of Twin Peaks so much scarier than the real, physical one. It’s not a coincidence that Vancouver had a massive industrial Goth scene in the eighties—the most prominent band being Skinny Puppy. The intense, emotional music from B.C. derives from a very specific temperament. ~
A slightly edited version of this interview appears in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Photo: Luci Lux
Photo: Max Dax
Few bands cast a shadow as long (or wide) as electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The influence of the band’s trail-blazing retro-futurism, conceptual precision and electronic minimalism is difficult to overestimate, extending beyond numerous genres of electronic music into the broader realm of art and popular culture. And the art world seems to have caught on. This past April, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art presented Kraftwerk Retrospective 12345678, a series of eight sold-out 3-D concerts, one for each Kraftwerk album, beginning with 1974’s Autobahn and ending with 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks. The result was an audiovisual tour de force that put the “werk” into Gesamtkunstwerk— with peerless kraft.
Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA Ps1 & Chief Curator At Large at the Museum of Modern Art
Photo: Luci Lux
Honestly, I don’t really know anything about the music world—I just know a lot of musicians. So when I first contacted Kraftwerk in 1998 for the Berlin Biennale, while I was working with Christoph Schlingensief, I had no idea what to expect. I think at the time, Kraftwerk were at a point in their career when they had yet to decide if they really wanted to commit to the art world. The thing is, 1998 was also the height of the Love Parade in Berlin, and the organizers also asked them to take part, which they didn’t do. But I think maybe they were scared off because we both asked at the same time. It took a while, but they answered our call in 2007. That’s when we first started putting this in the works.
What we’ve done in the MoMA atrium is pretty much recreate Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf-based Kling Klang studio, down to very minute details. Attending every show and being so caught up in the process, I’ve experienced the retrospective in a very specific way: The first night I was completely exhilarated; the second night I was irritated by the rhythm and duration; the third night I was completely addicted. It was like being on a bicycle, cruising along, eventually having to go uphill, and then coasting back down again and hitting your rhythm. Then it’s in your body. When I did the interview with Jon Pareles for The New York Times together with Ralf [Hütter] the word “tangible” kept coming up. Ralf said that when he speaks during concerts, he does so from inside the music. For the Trans-Europe Express show, they performed ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ which is all about Echo and Narcissus. These are the audio and visual reflections that are both sent and received, like a radio station transmitting and receiving, an artist looking and being looked at. It’s an excellent metaphor of what’s been done here at the MoMA, which has cost a considerable amount of money to produce and involved an incredible amount of building and restructuring. My colleague from the Whitney thought that the exhibition space had already existed. No, this was created to bring people into the image, into the cube. And within the cube, people are inside the cone of 3-D projection, which extends from the screen onstage to the projector in the back. Both the band and the viewers are literally inside the art. You can’t stand on the side. I told people when they watch, they have to be in the cone.
During the first dress rehearsal, when the sub-bass came on during ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, several light fixtures started rattling. We took the frequency out, because I thought the building would collapse—I thought the paintings would fall off the walls. We ended up solving the problem of course, but it gave us a scare. The fact of the matter is that when you’re curating, especially doing a retrospective, you give up your own personality. It’s the strangest thing. When I was doing Marina Abramovic, I had to completely dive into her world and live her speed and velocity. Or better: stillness and duration. It’s an intimate experience with a work of art. It means you have to be completely available. So I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk straight for the past four months. You know, with every artist, there’s a first work where the nucleus of all future ideas is contained. And that’s extremely important to know when creating a retrospective. Here it’s Autobahn, for me. That’s subjective, of course.
I think Kraftwerk have been artists from the very beginning, but they were kidnapped by their mainstream success. Of course, everybody is happy to be kidnapped by success, but it makes it more difficult to recognize who and what they are. Still, in the sixties and seventies their studio was right next door to Gerhard Richter’s. They could have drilled a hole in the wall and been right there. But honestly, not a lot of people have understood the extent to which Kraftwerk are and were artists, in Germany especially. Of course, I assume that people like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke got it. Joseph Beuys got it. Werner Herzog and Fassbinder got it. Katharina Sieverding got it. But not many others.
For me, Kraftwerk are very much children of the BRD, the Federal Republic of Germany. I am like a grandchild of the country, and Kraftwerk are father figures. The BRD, like the GDR, dissolved—it doesn’t exist anymore, but artistically speaking, it was all about Kraftwerk, Heinrich Böll and Joseph Beuys. It used to be that Germany had the first truly active Green Party, and culturally—in art and music—this played an important role. Beuys sang ‘Sonne statt Reagan’, and there were massive anti-nuclear protests, especially against the stationing of Pershing missiles. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz featured Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, of course. I see all this in a very specific historical context, but also in an artistic one. The incredible thing is how Kraftwerk have been capable of not just updating but upgrading their material over the course of their careers.
Somehow it seems like people haven’t understood that the retrospective is an exhibition and not just a concert. People just don’t get that, and it’s been very hard to get people into a different mindset. It’s like with movies—film was the leading art form of the twentieth century, and it still hasn’t really made it into art museums. Museums can be so slow. With a time delay, art arrives with cinema, which is something I’m trying to push. I did Doug Aitken at MoMA which was big, cinematic images with no sound, then I did Pipilotti Rist, which was cinematic images with sound, then came Marina Abramovic, which was cinematic image with sound and live performance. And now it’s gone one step further. Kraftwerk is the fourth step. But there’s a fifth step, and I’m not sure what it is yet. A few months ago I went to the Cologne Cathedral to check out Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass works. And all I could think is what it must have been like a few hundred years ago to come from some mud-hut, some tiny town with no electricity, no heating, and see this incredible thing with image and sound. That’s what I imagined seeing and listening to Kraftwerk to be.
Juan Atkins, electronic musician and founding father of Detroit techno
Photo: Luci Lux
The first time I heard Kraftwerk was on The Electrifying Mojo’s radio show in Detroit in the late seventies. This is when FM radio was still young, and there were only, like, three stations. There really was no specific format for FM radio at the time—DJs were allowed to do what they wanted. You heard them play entire albums when they felt like it, which couldn’t be more different from today’s radio format. Mojo used to play ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are The Robots’ pretty regularly, but the first time I heard ‘Robots’ I just froze. My jaw dropped. It just sounded so new and fresh. I mean, I had already been doing electronic music at the time, but the results weren’t so pristine—the sound of computers talking to each other. This sounded like the future, and it was fascinating, because I had just started learning about sequencers and drum programs. In my mind, Kraftwerk were, like, consultants to Roland and Korg and stuff because they had these sounds before any of the machines even appeared on the market.
Needless to say, Kraftwerk definitely influenced my sound, because when I heard their music I automatically knew I had to tighten up what I was doing; I had to make it cleaner and better—though not necessarily more minimal, because what I was doing was pretty minimal for the time. A lot of people think that I was copying Kraftwerk directly, but that’s absolutely not the case. For me, they weren’t any more of an influence than, say, funk—P-Funk especially. I actually had a chance to talk to Florian [Schneider] when we played Tribal Gathering together a few years back. We met up behind the Detroit stage and chatted a bit and I was really surprised to learn that Kraftwerk were hugely influenced by James Brown. Of course, P-Funk was made up of at least half the JB’s first line-up, so somehow Detroit techno was a very natural, even “fated” progression. I mean, there were other funky electronic bands around—Tangerine Dream and Gary Numan and all that—but none were as funky as Kraftwerk. I mean, you could actually play the stuff on black radio, and that wasn’t a small feat. You could go to an all black club in Detroit and when they put on ‘Pocket Calculator’, everybody just went totally crazy.
Kraftwerk’s minimal lyrics were part of their overall concept, and definitely contributed to their special blend. I can say for sure that they put Germany on the map for me. When I was a kid in school in America, the only thing we learned about Germany was World War II. Also, I always had this impression—independently of the war—that Germany was very logical, very machine-oriented. And without a doubt, when I went to the Man Machine show at the MoMA retrospective, I could definitely hear the way they combined the machine-driven syncopations with a more human take on improvisation. And the visuals were phenomenal. I had only heard after the fact that Ralf Hütter had played an important role in choosing both Francois K and I to do our DJ sets for the Kraftwerk exhibit at the geodesic dome at PS1. I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Let’s pause a moment to reflect on the upcoming Berlinale Film Festival which starts from today. It’s the time of the year when our beloved city transforms into a tiny Hollywood where red carpets are rolled out, Paparazzi linger in dark alleys and your chances of running into Werner Herzog on your way home are higher than ever. This year the Dieter Kosslick curated festival will focus on the future. The future of our lives: how do we want to live? What’s the impact of the Arab spring, Fukushima, Ai Weiwei and the financial crisis on our lives? “There are a lot of films in this festival about changes happening in the world,” Kosslick said. “We are showing the films in order to create a bigger picture about upheaval and awakening…It was natural to link these films with our other activities.”
The variety of the selection films sounds promising even though there are not many big names in the competion. The big-hitters still tend to prefer Cannes but that doesn’t have to be a disadvantage for the 62nd Festival. Debutants, unknown directors, and countries not associated with film-making can all offer a great deal that will not been seen elsewhere. Twenty-three films will be screened in the competition program, with 18 vying for the Golden and Silver Bear awards. One cool thing is that there are some promising German films on the program with renowned directors such as Hans-Christian Schmid, Matthias Glasner and Christian Petzold making submissions. On the contrary the US is keeping a low profile and is participating in the competition with only one film. In Jayne Mansfield’s Car director and actor Billy Bob Thornton offers a family drama set in the US at the end of the 1960s. Some 300,000 viewers attended the Berlinale last year, and that’s likely to be the case again this year. You better buy your tickets soon. See you there.