Fennesz

Since gaining note in the ‘80s as part of Austrian avant-rockers Maische, Christian Fennesz has become a key figure in the emergence of electronica. Melding computers with his own favoured instrument, the guitar, his work has inspired the IDM scene and seen him collaborate with such heavyweights of the experimental world as Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian and Mike Patton. In his lecture at the 2008 Red Bull Music Academy, he talks about his love of improvisation and loathing of rehearsals, why he never listens to his old records and why, no matter how innovative you get, you can’t beat a great melody.

Hosted by Emma Warren Audio Only Version Transcript:

RBMA

So, we have Christian Fennesz on the couch. He lives and works in Vienna and Paris. He has shown us how you can fuse live instruments with digital technology, mostly in his case the guitar, and he’s just finished a new album which we’ll be hearing more about later. He’s worked with a whole host of people from Ryuichi Sakamoto to David Sylvian and Mike Patton. He’ll be telling us all about that; so, on the couch, Christian Fennesz.

(applause)

You put out the Hotel Paral.lel album in 1997 on Mego, is that a Barcelona connection by any chance?

Fennesz

Well, yes, there is a Hotel Paral.lel here in Barcelona where I was staying when I played the Sonar Festival for the first time in, I think, ’96 or ’97. I couldn’t think of a name for the album and I walked past the hotel and thought, ‘OK, that’s it’.

RBMA

So you played at the first Sonar?

Fennesz

I think it might’ve been the second, I’m not sure, but definitely not the first.

RBMA

What were the early Sonar's like? Lots of people have experienced them now, but what were they like back in the late ‘90s?

Fennesz

They were very much smaller, obviously, but I liked them. It was something completely new, there was no big electronic music festival at that time. There were already very different styles of electronic music, but people were hanging out together, the drum ‘n’ bass people with the ambient people and so on. Now, it’s much bigger and people don’t connect the way they did.

RBMA

So, it’s not just Sonar that facilitated that, but pre-Sonar, when you first started making electronic music and bringing your background of live instruments into it, were electronic artists more segmented and separate?

Fennesz

It’s just started being segmented, I think. Myself, I like hanging out with different musicians, people from the techno scene in Vienna as well as people doing sound music, ambient music. But I also knew I wanted to keep using the guitar sound because that’s my main instrument and it’s the sound world I know the best.

RBMA

So you’ve always enjoyed that sense of collaboration and being open to different styles of music?

Fennesz

Yes, because it gave me a chance to learn something. I had a past as a rock musician in Vienna and I played with different rock bands in the ‘80s. But I got really tired with the limitations of it and with the production techniques, which were absolutely nothing at that time. It was so awful to go to a really bad eight-track studio, pay a lot of money and get a shit recording. The upcoming techno scene was a liberation, I could afford a sampler and produce my own music.

RBMA

So really, it was techno in Vienna that opened up the possibility of making your music in a different way to you?

Fennesz

It was, because we could use new production methods and we were independent, we didn’t have to go and find a big label. We could produce at home and another friend would release it as a vinyl single or something.

RBMA

So maybe, give us some examples. Who were the labels, artists clubs and bands who were influential for you in Vienna in the early ‘90s?

Fennesz

There was the Mego crew, obviously, Peter Rehberg, who at that time was a DJ in a club called the Blue Box. He was the first one to make weird ambient music and industrial music like John Cage. That was really new and interesting. Then there were the Cheap people,Patrick and Duffy, that was fascinating.

RBMA

We’re talking about Patrick Pulsinger, aren’t we? A Red Bull Music Academy family friend.

Fennesz

Yes, that was a very good time. There were many other people and small labels – I can’t remember the names, there must have been six, seven, eight of them. But Mego and Cheap were the most interesting ones for me.

RBMA

And you worked with Mego for quite a long time. What was your initial contact with them?

Fennesz

Funnily enough, I was sending a demo to Swim Records, which was a London label run by Colin Newman from the band Wire, and he introduced me to Peter Rehberg in Vienna. So that was the connection. Peter, who was doing the Mego label with Ramon Bauer, released my first 12” in 1995.

RBMA

There’s a whole era of music which we were probably connected to in which quite experimental music seemed normal; a spectrum of dance music, or vaguely dance-related music. Where did experimental music fit previously?

Fennesz

Before all that? It was more academic, but I think there were experimental artists coming from the techno or industrial scenes. They established experimental techniques in popular music, it was coming from that side. But before there were people like Brian Eno and others.

RBMA

Were you a big Eno fan?

Fennesz

I was, yes. Another Green World is a great record.

RBMA

So how much of a fan were you? Would you buy the records and play them a lot or would you go to see him play?

Fennesz

No, I just bought the record and listened a lot. Before And After Science, Another Green World and what was the other one from the ‘70s? Can’t remember (participant says something inaudible). Yes, exactly.

RBMA

Could you repeat that for the benefit of anyone listening after the event?

Fennesz

Actually, Taking Tiger Mountain

RBMA

Maybe that will come back, but one thing I wanted to ask you: it occurred to me I’m interested in how you listen to music as a consumer. Do you listen intently on headphones, do you lie down on the floor and listen through speakers?

Fennesz

Not any more, but when I was young I was a freak. I remember as a boy taking my parents’ cassette player, turning it up full and listening to Deep Purple or something. I really had to have the physical impact of the music. Of course, I have to be careful now.

RBMA

But I find it interesting how artists listen to music. Do you tend to listen to new music? Do you listen to it while you’re around the house doing things or do you listen to it when you’re driving?

Fennesz

I used to listen much more to music than I do now. Now I produce a lot and I am always working, I don’t like being confused by other music, so I often prefer silence now.

RBMA

There’s something else I meant to ask around the way you listen, more from the point of view of people starting their careers: how do you listen to music well? Is it intuitive?

Fennesz

I can only answer for myself, but I listen to music emotionally, not analytically. If there’s an element that touches me, it could be anything.

RBMA

Can you give me an example of something recent that’s touched you like that?

Fennesz

Recently? Hmm.

RBMA

It doesn’t have to be recent if nothing comes to mind.

Fennesz

Yes, I discovered this music from a kora player in West Africa. What’s his name now? God, I’m so bad with names… Toumani Diabate, his last record was really good, it really touched me a in a great way.

RBMA

Do you have a sense of what touched you or do you prefer not to break it down like that?

Fennesz

I think if I knew what it was, it wouldn’t be interesting anymore. It’s what I try to find in my own music when I produce it, that’s the same reason why I put one track on a record and not the other one – because there’s something that touches me. That’s what I’m trying to find in any music.

RBMA

Someone said to me that making music is like bumbling around in the dark and waiting until you bump into the right parts of the song, then you pull them together. It’s almost like it’s already there, like that cliché of the surfboard being in the tree, the sculpture being in the stone, you just have to find it. How does that relate to the way you feel about making music?

Fennesz

It’s a little bit like archaeology, you have to scratch the surface and look for something under it. That’s how I see the mixing process, for example, it’s like archaeology. There’s something, I can hear it, but I can’t find what it is, so I try to find it.

RBMA

Can you expand on that mixing process, because a lot of people will be interested in that?

Fennesz

I don’t think I’ve ever established any technique I could teach people. I’m always searching, there’s no difference between the way I worked in the late ‘90s and what I do now. It’s almost like I haven’t learnt anything. I have to learn it again every time I do it.

RBMA

That brings me to something I wanted to ask you about. I read these two quite different ideas about being creative. One was Bill Drummond fromtheKLF, saying the only instrument is the computer. On the other you have Will Self, a very intellectual British author, who writes his very complex literary books on a typewriter, not even a word processor, because he feels he wants the whole process inside his head; and he feels if it was on a computer, it would be contributing, and he wants the pure sense of composing inside his head. As someone who’s been making music pre-digital technology and is involved in making it now, you must have some almost geological sense of the different ways of making music with different equipment.

Fennesz

I think that’s a bit more than I could say about the mixing process. I do have a connection, I have a very traditional way of recording and mixing. I do classic multi-track recording on a sequencer and that is no different from what I did on a four-track in the early days. It’s a very traditional, rock ‘n’ roll process.

RBMA

But then what happens?

Fennesz

Then the interesting part starts, I’m trying to transform an element and push it as far as I can to get something out of it. Then add a new element on top of that.

RBMA

I think we should listen to some of it soon to illustrate what we’re talking about. But what you said then makes sense, that idea of taking a piece of music, changing it and having that as your starting point from which to create something different. Shall we play a bit or would you like to start talking about your new album?

Fennesz

Shall I play something recent or old?

RBMA

You’ve just finished a new album. Christian has very kindly said he’ll play some of it, which is totally exclusive; not that exclusive really means anything, but it’s special for us to be able to hear that. Maybe tell us a bit about the new album, then we can listen to something.

Fennesz

It’s been a long wait, I’ve been working on it for four years but the main work happened just now in the last few months. The tracks are longer than usual, there are lots of distorted wall of sound stuff, but also some fragile acoustic guitar things. There’s even a nylon string classical guitar thing I could play, maybe that would be a good one. I only finished it last weekend, so I have no distance from it yet.

RBMA

That’s about as fresh as it gets. So what’s it called?

Fennesz

It’s called "Grey Scale" and it’s based on a nylon string guitar recording I did a couple of months ago.

(music: _Fennesz – Grey Scale / applause)_

Thanks, that was a long fade in the end.

RBMA

This is a very specific way of listening to something, when it’s freshly recorded, but how important is that listening process when you’ve finished something?

Fennesz

Oh, it’s very important, very important? That’s when I realise if something works or doesn’t work, I have to listen a hundred times, but then, when it’s out, I don’t listen again.

RBMA

You don’t listen to your music?

Fennesz

Oh no, no. I’ve been listening to it enough while I’m producing it, mixing it, and when I finish it.

RBMA

Is that because you don’t like nostalgia, or because you’ve got bored of it?

Fennesz

No, it’s just time to move on. I like nostalgia a lot, actually (laughs). If I’m with friends and they ask to hear a particular track, I do it, of course. But I wouldn’t sit down in my own house and play my own record.

RBMA

You just used the phrase “moving forward,” Is that something that just happens or do you need to make it happen?

Fennesz

I guess, you need to make it happen, but it’s a long process. To realise you now have to stop a project and move on, it sometimes takes me too long. But I think it’s just still not finished and I want it to be really finished.

RBMA

You said of this album it’s taken you four years but most of the work has been done in the last month.

Fennesz

Yes, trying to find the right direction is extremely important to me. I have no problem doing lots of collaborations and releasing work from them, but when it comes to my own albums they have to be very special and there has to be a certain moment when I’m just doing it.

RBMA

What’s the connection between the music you create and your life? Does it somehow diarise or set down what’s happening in your life or is it more separate than that?

Fennesz

Difficult question. I’m not sure if I’m one 100% sure what it does. I think music is a mirror to my life, and even if I can separate it from my personal life, it still reflects many things.

RBMA

Is there something else from the new album? It would be interesting to find out what direction you wanted from this new album, because you said it takes you a long time to discover the direction you want. Can you talk about that in the context of another piece of music from the album?

Fennesz

(points to monitor) What’s that?

RBMA

We’ve got some IP configuration business coming up.

Fennesz

I was a bit scared of presenting really long tracks on this album. I come from the classic three-and-a-half minute pop songs school, I really like that. I like The Beach Boys,TheBeatles, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, it was always very clear three- to-five-minute songs. This time I have 10 minute, 11 minute pieces and it took me a long time to find the courage to do that.

RBMA

That’s an interesting point. You just used the word “scary", does it get more terrifying to release music the more experienced you get at it?

Fennesz

It can be like that, because expectations are high. When your career has been going on a long time people expect a new direction, or something better, or at least as good. But you have to push that away. David Sylvian told me long ago: “Do not read reviews, just create a ghost in your head.” So I’ve followed that and I feel much better.

RBMA

How do you dodge your own reviews? Do you just avoid buying music papers when you’ve got one out?

Fennesz

I don’t, and I tell my manager not to forward anything, I don’t want to see anything. They have to tell me if there are good reviews or bad reviews, that’s fine.

RBMA

That’s all you need to know.

Fennesz

Yes, especially when you’ve just completed it. Later, surfing the internet you come across things automatically, but... (shrugs)

RBMA

So you have no google alert to yourself?

Fennesz

No.

RBMA

You mentioned some of the pop bands who influenced you, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, The Beach Boys, is there a funny disconnect between pop bands and experimental music? Why do people approach them differently? It’s quite a big question (laughs).

Fennesz

It is. All those artists I’ve just been talking about, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, The Beach Boys, they all had a pop design but at the same time they could be extremely experimental. We have both worlds here. It was never a problem for me to listen to a pop record as well as a Tōru Takemitsu symphony, or new classical or improvised music. For me, it’s all the same world, I don’t make any distinction.

RBMA

At this point it might be an idea to listen back to some of your earlier recordings. You mentioned Beach Boys, and your Endless Summer album in 2001 has become very associated with a Beach Boys ideal. Was that your intention or was that something that’s been added retrospectively?

Fennesz

It’s a bit of both. The reason why it’s been so associated with The Beach Boys is the name Endless Summer, which is a Beach Boys compilation from the 1970s, which I wasn’t aware of, because I got the title from the film Endless Summer, which was a 1960s surf movie. I also did a cover of The Beach Boys, "Don’t Talk [Put Your Head On My Shoulder]" two years before that. So people immediately made the connection. Of course, I was influenced by their music, but it wasn’t as intentional as it seemed.

RBMA

One of the down sides of the internet is that a half truth, or an untruth, is constantly represented as fact because everyone has access to it. You can google something, find a piece of inaccurate information and then it’s much easier to repeat. Previously, if someone had made that assumption and put it in a magazine, you’d have to literally go and find that magazine to make that connection. But now a passing comment has become an established fact – that your album is inspired by The Beach Boys.

Fennesz

But you have to live with that, that’s how it is and how the world functions today. When I’m talking with you I can correct it, but what can you do when the internet is full of this? You just have to give up, it’s fine.

RBMA

That record in particular is seen as a benchmark for how you combine your background in live instrumentation - rock and guitars - with electronics. I think it would be interesting before we hear it just to talk about the lead up to it, because how you find your sound, and what you want to do, is really interesting. What preceded you making that album?

Fennesz

At that time I had very limited equipment, just a laptop, a few guitars and a few pedals – that was it. I had one microphone, which was a cheap SM57, but I think I was inspired at that time, it was a good period of my life and ideas came very easily. I just felt so good, so maybe that’s why the music felt so light and easy.

RBMA

Did it feel like a challenge? It sounds like it was quite natural.

Fennesz

The challenge at the time was that many of my colleagues, the people around me, were doing really abstract electronic music – melody was forbidden. I didn’t agree with that at all, I wanted to bring back things I’d been fascinated with in the past, like great melodies, great guitar chords. I wanted to combine that with new digital technology, Max/MSP. At the time, not many people were combining acoustic guitar with Max/MSP, for example. For me, that’s great, and still is.

RBMA

That’s a question artists have to deal with the whole time – how do you find your own creative freedom? What are you constrained by? Because the idea at that point that you didn’t bring melody in or you didn’t use guitars was almost an unwritten rule, it’s not like anyone gave you a leaflet, saying: "You don’t do this, you don’t do that."

Fennesz

No, I just had the idea and wanted to try it out. With everything I do, there’s always something that puts me somewhere to try something that hasn’t been done that way before.

RBMA

Is it just that for you as an artist you’re open to your own ideas, you don’t stop and question things, you just try it?

Fennesz

For me, it’s like that, like a little child who has to explore things, to learn. That’s what I’m doing in the studio.

RBMA

This would be a good time to listen to something from there. What do you suggest?

Fennesz

Maybe the track "Endless Summer", one of the more complex things on the album.

RBMA

Before we do that can someone from the technical team make sure we don’t have the same IP problem we had previously (shouts from technical team). It’s off now anyway.

(music: Fennesz – Endless Summer /applause)

What was the thing that happened when you were making that album that allowed you to make it sound the way it did?

Fennesz

Difficult question; trying out things, having an open mind, not caring about anything else or having any ghosts in your mind telling you what you had to do: “You have to do that like that, you have to keep up with the rest.” No, just go.

RBMA

And where did this record lead you, what happened after it came out?

Fennesz

It was my first more successful record, it got more attention than most electronic experimental records and established my career. It meant I could keep on working, so it was great.

RBMA

Technically, were there any techniques you found powerful or propelling?

Fennesz

There are lots of retro elements on there, things influenced by French music of the ‘60s and ‘70s as far as the chords go. For me, it’s like the end of a development, I didn’t want go in that direction afterwards. For me, it was done. People were expecting another Endless Summer and I didn’t want to do that.

RBMA

Before we play some of what you started doing afterwards, can we listen to one more thing from Endless Summer?

Fennesz

Yes.

(music: Fennesz – Before I Leave /applause)

Sounds really old now, I think.

RBMA

But incredibly beautiful. How do you find the confidence or the attitude to take things which might sound “wrong” and make them right?

Fennesz

That’s my thing, that’s the challenge. For me, it’s a radical step to leave it so simple. I think it’s the only time I’ve used a sample, and this was one half-second microphone sample from The Beach Boys – and, of course, David Toop spotted it (laughs).

RBMA

For the uninitiated, who’s David Toop?

Fennesz

A very famous and important music journalist and musician from the UK who wrote very interesting books about music and sound.

RBMA

When you listen to that song, you’ll have a specific relationship to it as the artist. But what does it sound like to you?

Fennesz

Oh god, it sounds so old, I wouldn’t do it today.

RBMA

I wonder where we should go now. Let’s move forwards into your long musical career. Tell us about what came after this record.

Fennesz

I did a few film soundtracks. I’m not sure about the collaborations I did, there weren’t many between this and Venice in 2004. I worked with David Sylvian on his Blemish record in 2002, I wrote a song for that.

RBMA

We should talk about David Sylvian, but before that let’s talk about Ryuichi Sakamoto. How did you two connect?

Fennesz

It was through David. I knew David Sylvian at that time and he thought I should meet Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was in New York for a concert and Ryuichi lives there, so he called me and said: “Come over, let’s jam.” So I went to his studio in Greenwich Village, very nice studio. We met, played together and became friends.

RBMA

So when two musicians like you and Sakamoto meet, what do you do? You said you jammed, but do you sit and have a cup of tea first, or go straight to the instruments; what’s the process?

Fennesz

It was very nice for me because he’s a hero, some kind of idol. But he was so sweet, really calm and we had a couple of glasses of wine – he’s got very nice wine – and we talked and started jamming with the laptops. He showed me his patches, I showed him my patches (laughter). He’s totally into that, very normal.

RBMA

And what was the first product of your collaboration?

Fennesz

We’d worked already on composed tracks for guitar, piano, and laptop. We had a concert in Rome and we performed those tracks. But before the real concert, we had an improvisation with the laptops and we released that first, then we did the improvisation thing. The real album came two years later on.

RBMA

So there’s a specific connection between the Live At The Sala Santa Cecilia album and the… how do you pronounce it?

Fennesz

Cendre (pronounced'sen-dray'), it’s the French for ‘ashes’. People don’t realise the tracks were composed already and then we did this improv thing and released this first.

RBMA

So the improvisation, was that literally recorded live? Because that was the Festival in Rome in 2004. Was the festival performance improvised?

Fennesz

This piece was improvised, yes. The piece that’s now on Santa Cecilia, that was an improvised piece, but at the concert we played all the composed tracks as well. That got released much later.

RBMA

How does improvisation work for you? Is it literally something that just happens, or is there preparation beforehand?

Fennesz

When I improvise with a laptop, of course, I have to use some sounds that are pre-prepared samples. But I have this great patch in Max/MSP that allows me to change everything enormously, it’s really like playing an instrument. When I use a guitar and a laptop it’s like playing in real time and it’s literally improvised free. This concert was totally free, it’s great, a huge challenge. You have to imagine, a full audience and we haven’t prepared anything, it’s like stating from scratch, like jumping into cold water.

RBMA

How do you collaborate in improvisation? Are you listening for things, are you leading or following, are there shifts?

Fennesz

It’s both. For really experienced improvisers it’s like composing together in real time. It’s amazing, some people are so good. I remember improvising with him live and we played songs that were happening at the same moment.

RBMA

How does an artist get to the point where you can improvise? What makes a good improviser? Is it practice?

Fennesz

A lot of practice, yes, but a fascination with music, trying to create something fast.

RBMA

Have you come across any other future-facing technologies that will make that easier? You mentioned Max/MSP – are there any others that will make that process easier?

Fennesz

I haven’t seen many yet. Max/MSP and Reactor were the last big things. There are great plug-in’s coming every once in a while, but nothing groundbreaking. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t follow it too closely, but I find a combination of digital computer technology and really classic studio recordings – old microphones, preamps, guitars, all that.

RBMA

Before we carry on, it would be lovely to play something from the Sakamoto album. Do you have something from Cendre we can hear?

(music: Fennesz / Sakamoto – Haru /applause)

When you finished that album you took it out live. What processes did you go through to translate what you recorded into something that could be performed?

Fennesz

This album wasn’t easy to perform, I had to do all the electronic stuff at least half-live. I had some basic tracks but I had to play something on top of that and there are a few tracks where I play guitar and he played piano. Of course, there’s no beat, no click track, so it’s difficult to get the right timing. We did maybe six, seven, eight live shows altogether.

RBMA

What did you get from the live show that you didn’t get from the recording?

Fennesz

We just had to change a few tracks, we couldn’t do them as we did on the album, it had to be something completely different. We had to rehearse, we had to meet three or four days before the tour and rehearse in a hotel, rent a grand piano. It was really difficult.

RBMA

I might be misinterpreting you here, but the idea of rehearsal seems a bit counterintuitive. Was it accurate or was it tricky for other reasons?

Fennesz

It’s OK, I can do it a few times but I’m not a rehearsal guy at all, though I understand it has to be done for certain projects. Ryuichi is easy to deal with and could also do it without rehearsal, but we both agreed it had to be done. It’s a very special approach with Japanese musicians who are very into rehearsing and extremely [careful to get] every detail clear, everything secure and safe. I just played with Yellow Magic Orchestra, I played guitar and laptop and they invited me to join them for two concerts. We rehearsed for almost a week in London and I’m just not used to that, I was so tired every evening, I’m not a rehearsal guy at all. They work with in-ear monitoring and a click track and you hear a voice before the break is coming. It was all very precisely organised.

RBMA

It’s really interesting hearing you talk about rehearsing like that. There’s a definite graft you have to do as a musician, whether it’s practicing your instrument every day or learning your technology. Being in music, whatever your graft is, you have to do it. But there’s an idea that you have to rehearse and it’s interesting for me that you seem suspicious and uncomfortable with the idea of it.

Fennesz

I don’t like repeating things and when you work with dance companies, for example, they have to repeat things over and over again. They want the musicians to be at the rehearsal and it’s dead boring. They need it and you have to do it, but for me, repeating myself is dead boring.

RBMA

What live shows have you been doing recently?

Fennesz

I had a long break because I’ve been working on this album. I had some solo shows this summer and a tour with Ryuichi in Italy. Before that I did the shows with Yellow Magic Orchestra and, before them, lots of live solo gigs. I’m playing all the time, at least two or three times a month.

RBMA

Apart from Sakamoto there are a bundle of people you’ve collaborated with. You mentioned David Sylvian and how he linked you to Sakamoto. What was it that interested you about working with him?

Fennesz

I’ve always been a fan, first of Japan, but also his solo work. Brilliant Trees, his first record from ’83, was extremely influential to me and I always wanted to have a great vocalist, a great singer, on my work. I contacted him and he said: “Yes, I’ll do it if you’ll sing on my records.” Soon after we met in Germany and we’ve been in touch the whole time ever since.

RBMA

And another person you’ve worked with closely is Mike Patton. It’d be good to hear some of that and also some of the live stuff, but how did it happen?

Fennesz

He contacted me, he asked me if I wanted to play a concert with him in Canada. I always wanted to work with Mike Patton but I had no idea if he knew my music. But he contacted me, so I said: “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.” I went there and we freestyled improvised music and it was great to work with him, he’s full of energy.

RBMA

So do you think people at the beginning of their careers should be brave and just contact artists they want to work with and see if they’re interested?

Fennesz

Maybe, I don’t know. I think the only person I’ve ever contacted was David Sylvian and I think even that was my label. I’m basically shy, I wouldn’t do it. But I think it’s a good idea. David once told me he never gets approached by people and he would like to work with others more.

RBMA

Tell me more about Mike Patton. You mentioned his energy and being freestyle, but obviously he’s incredibly versatile. What happened when you two came together? What did you bring to him and what did he bring to you?

Fennesz

I thought he was trying the same thing with his vocals as I’m trying with the guitar. He uses lots of electronics and sings through a pack of different effects. It just worked so well, he’s very quick at catching ideas and doing something on top of that.

RBMA

Is there anyone you’ve worked with more recently that we don’t know about?

Fennesz

I’ve been working a guy called Keith Rowe, who’s a legendary guitar improviser from the ’60s, he had a group called AMM. They were one of the early UK improvisers. Every now and then we meet and work and it’s always something fascinating. He’s been doing it 40 years but his style has something I can’t describe; when you work with him you know what it is.

RBMA

I think we should talk a bit about you and your guitar, because it’s obviously your primary instrument. Was it the first thing you learnt to play?

Fennesz

Yes it was, when I was about eight or nine. I took classes but basically I just learnt everything by trying to play the songs I heard on the radio.

RBMA

What songs would those have been?

Fennesz

’70s music - Roxy Music,T-Rex.

RBMA

Did you have a sense from the beginning that the guitar was your instrument?

Fennesz

Yes, totally. I got a guitar and spent hours with it having a great time. My brother couldn’t understand: “Aren’t you bored in your room?” “No I’m fine, I just play guitar.”

RBMA

And how did you and your guitar find the band that you wound up playing with?

Fennesz

Oh, that happened naturally. My neighbour was playing bass, there was a drummer in the other street, we got together when I was 12, 13 and played punk rock.

RBMA

So you were the neighbourhood garage band. Which bands did you like as a 12, 13-year-old kid?

Fennesz

I really liked Deep Purple, Hendrix, Beatles. Later on, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, early punk.

RBMA

So were these the kids you formed Maische with?

Fennesz

No, it was later on that I met the guys. When we started the band I was in my 20s.

RBMA

What was your first band called?

Fennesz

We weren’t really named, we just hung out and played.

RBMA

Obviously, you’ve got experience of being in a band as well as long experience of being a solo performer and collaborating with other musicians. What did you get from your time in a band?

Fennesz

Playing together in a room and just improvising is a great thing to do, but all the cycles of being in a band are something I don’t want to deal with anymore. It’s so stressful and keeps things back and down. This is what happened and I had to move on.

RBMA

And I suppose it was techno that helped you move on.

Fennesz

It was, techno was a great liberation for me.

RBMA

We seem to have sped through the guitar thing pretty quickly. Is there anything else to do with you and your guitar, the way you work with it now?

Fennesz

I think it was a natural development, from trying to find a new sound. I was always modifying effects pedals and take it somewhere else. With electronics it became much easier using a sampler and great effects boxes, and then a computer. It was never a cut-off – go from a band to playing with a computer. It wasn’t like that, it was always a natural evolution.

RBMA

In the same way certain types of music were once seen as weird, ugly or alien, do you think the laptop is now being accepted as an instrument in the same way as a wood and a string?

Fennesz

I think so. I saw Radiohead playing live on youtube and the guitarist is using a laptop on stage. This is a rock band and people are fine with that. Ten years ago, a laptop on stage? No way. Rock people were the most conservative.

RBMA

Definitely. Jumping around a tiny bit, I want to talk to you about the 7”s that were put out. It would be nice to hear some. There was the Plays EP, which was something that brought another audience to your music. Tell us how that happened.

Fennesz

I just wanted to make a cover version of classic ‘60s songs and I used "Don’t Talk" and "Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones. I tried to approach it in an abstract way, but still I wanted to keep the essence of it, much more with "Don’t Talk" than with The Rolling Stones song. When it was out in, like, ’98 people couldn’t see any connection between my "Don’t Talk" and the real one. I always had a version with Brian Wilson singing on top it, which I have here if you want to hear it.

RBMA

Yes, please.

Fennesz

I have to find it first.

RBMA

So what are you going to play first, and what will you play afterwards?

Fennesz

This is the one with the vocal on top of it. I have to make sure it’s the right one.

(music: Fennesz (feat. Brian Wilson vocals) – Don’t Talk / applause)

RBMA

My apologies for not knowing, but what happened to that version?

Fennesz

I couldn’t release it because it’s him singing on top. I had this _Pet Sounds _box where you have the vocal separately and that’s what I used.

RBMA

So for an artist like you who takes a pop song and then buries it under what you do, what do you do with the vocals, how do you treat them?

Fennesz

I didn’t process them at all.

RBMA

I don’t mean treat them in the technical sense, I mean deal with them. What do you want the vocals to do when they’re sitting on top of what you normally do?

Fennesz

I’m trying to make a good bed for the vocals, to make them sound even more beautiful.

RBMA

Clearly, that’s what’s happened. Another cover version you’ve done recently is the project for Fractured Recordings, where they invited 20 electronic artists to cover a song that meant a lot to them. And you chose a-ha"TakeOnMe".

Fennesz

People always laugh when I tell them I did an a-ha song, but I was such an a-ha fan, I really was.

RBMA

I was with you there. "Clouds", There’s more than one good a-ha record. What did you like about them?

Fennesz

They had something that was different, it wasn’t American, it wasn’t English. And they were able to write great pop songs, big songs.

RBMA

This Refracted project is something that’s quite new, that came out about two weeks ago. There’s a whole load of other artists doing other songs. Why did you agree to do this project?

Fennesz

It just came up, I said yes immediately. I always thought it would be great to cover an a-ha song and this is the main, central one.

RBMA

Shall we have a listen?

(music: Fennesz – Take On Me / applause)

I think we should pass it out to you lot very shortly. But what are the key ingredients to making a piece like that, a beautiful evocative soundscape, if that word’s permissible?

Fennesz

I was trying a lot and building up this really big space, this reverb thing, was the only thing that worked in the end. Every track has its own space and in the end the really big reverb was the only thing that worked for me.

RBMA

It’s all about excessive reverb. One other thing, did you get one of your Locked Groove 7”s mastered at Transition in London? That connects you with some of the great and the good of the dubstep world, who we’ve had in here.

Fennesz

Jason at Transition.

RBMA

Jason did your record? Well, if you’re into that sound you can also go and get your shit cut at Transition, as it says on the sticker.

Fennesz

He’s also doing the new one.

RBMA

Before we go off on a Locked Groove groove, we’ll pass it out to questions. Will first, then we’ll take it out front.

Participant

A silly thing, but when you mentioned having Deep Purple right up next to your ear it reminded me of me and a friend. To keep ourselves interested we’d play silly games and one of the games was to listen to music and see where you feel it in your body. With your music that was unavoidable. The one with the vibraphone sample was moving around and churning me, I was quite out of it.

RBMA

Do you have a sense of your music scanning the body?

Fennesz

I like the physical aspect of it, when I play live there’s always lots of bass and volume. It’s great that people have different physical experiences of it, that’s fantastic.

RBMA

I don’t want to go off on one too much, but I know there’s a Loefah dubstep record that scans you. The bassline descends and then hits you all the way through. Who wants the microphone next?

Participant

Where is the line that separates music from sound art? Is there one?

Fennesz

Not for me. Why should there be a line and what is sound art? Good music is sound art and the other way around. That’s how I see it.

Participant

Two questions: first, you have this incredibly beautiful faraway noise and distortion sound. Do you get it on your guitar pedals by doing some DSP on it, or are they totally digital? Secondly, your tracks don’t seem minimal to me. There’s always this feeling of stretched time, you let it go for a long time and there’s this new surprising element coming in which makes you like (sharp intake of breath). What is your approach to the time in music?

Fennesz

I’ll answer the second question first. What I like to do is try to manipulate the time that I have and the listener has. I also enjoy working with memory, not only my own, but trying to trigger something in someone else’s memory too. I know this sounds a bit abstract, but I’m trying. I do have extremely nice distortion pedals. A guy from Germany custom-made them for me.

Participant

Who is the guy (laughs)?

Fennesz

I can’t tell you. There are only three in the world. One is owned by Kraftwerk, one by a guy in Switzerland and the third one is mine. This is an amazing thing and it’s incredible, I use it a lot. I do have regular distortion pedals like every other guitarist and I can get the sound with those and the laptop. It’s a mix.

RBMA

We have time for two more questions. Anything else can be done over and above. You’re around for a bit?

Fennesz

I haven’t even checked into my hotel, I came directly from the airport and I had to run to collect my luggage because I arrived in A and my luggage was in B. Anyway, two more questions.

Participant

I’ll ask one practical one and one more philosophical. What’s the name of the anime you did the music for?

Fennesz

The whole thing is called The Genius [Party] cycle and it’s a collection of six different mangamovies. Mine was called Limit Cycle and the whole thing was called Genius Party.

Participant

And when will that be released?

Fennesz

It’s already out in Japan and I think they screened it in the States, but I haven’t got a DVD yet.

Participant

Good, I’m a big anime fan. The Front 242 guys talked about not falling into stereotypes and not focusing only on Logic. You talked about the Max/MSP and I’ve never used it, but I understand it’s a freer way of working on tracks. Do you ever work with Logic, do you find it useful for structure and images?

Fennesz

Logic? Yes, of course.

Participant

Do you find it limiting?

Fennesz

Logic for me is first of all a multitrack tape machine, then it adds great possibilities on top of that. But it’s not my tool for finding basic sounds; for this, I still use guitar, a laptop running Max/MSP, soft synthesizers and so on. Then, if the different sounds need putting together, I’ll put them into a Logic session. But I like the idea of bouncing things, working with the file again and then putting them on top of that.

RBMA

One more, we have time for one more.

Participant

First off I want to thank you for playing your music, which is incredible. When we listened to the a-ha cover I heard bits of the original in there. Is that possible or is it me imagining it?

Fennesz

No, I played everything on guitar and keyboards. The background is quite blurred but I played the whole track. I had to study the chords, find them on the internet and rehearse them. I really played it.

RBMA

So that’s like back to your bedroom, playing the pop songs on your guitar.

Fennesz

Totally.

RBMA

We have to say a massive and heartfelt thank you to Christian Fennesz.

Fennesz

Thank you, and thanks for your patience because I think it was John Cage who said that talking about music is like dancing to architecture. Almost impossible.

(applause)

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