Monday, September 29, 2003

Here's the raw version of my Discorder article

Mego Comes to Vancouver by Sam Macklin

Viennese record label Mego ("My eyes glaze over") has been realizing its vision of music's future since the halcyon days of the '90s experimental music boom. In this proposed future, a kind of psychedelic austerity or po-faced pranksterism is achieved via ecstatic laptop tinkering and the harnessing of errors. Mego has given the world a series of frankly astonishing releases from in-house acts like Farmers Manual, General Magic and Pita whilst also putting out projects by legendary figures such as Jim O'Rourke and Merzbow.

Perhaps Mego's most accessible and well-known releases have come courtesy of Christian Fennesz and Noriko Tujiko, both of whom will be visiting Vancouver this October. In anticipation of their arrival, Discorder decided to contact Fennesz and Noriko in order to provide advance information for the curious and further illumination for the already addicted.


Avoid meeting your heroes. The chances are you’ve received that particular pearl of wisdom before from some other source but don’t write it off as a mere cliché. This is sage advice because the whimsical children’s author genius will always turn out to be a curmudgeonly misanthrope who wants you to fuck off and the tortured artist genius will always turn out to be a thoroughly genial type who wants to buy you a drink. And yet it’s so hard to resist, bearing in mind that any such idol will trail a mass of rumour and misconception in his/her wake. Don’t you want to get it all cleared up? Don’t you want to know?

Such was your trusty correspondent’s dilemma when asked to interview Austrian computer-music virtuoso Christian Fennesz. Luckily, the resolution presented itself via the very technology that makes Fennesz’s music possible. We’d do an e-mail interview. Of course, this was just enough contact to destroy my wonderful vision of Fennesz as the first arrogant, scowling rock-star of abstract electronica. Thoroughly genial indeed, he began his second e-mail of the exchange with the salutation “boing!!” The format of this interview also allowed him to be somewhat evasive, and frustratingly lean, in his answers. It’s unlikely that any real insight was achieved in the process but, at the very least, a few misconceptions were put to rest and a few rumours scotched.

Oh, but some of it turned out to be true. For instance, Fennesz did indeed start his career (if you wish to call it that) as the guitarist and singer in a rock band. The outfit in question, Maische, was based in Vienna and primarily influenced by the My Bloody Valentine/Sonic Youth school of noise. They were, apparently, moderately popular in their native land during the early ‘90s. However, Fennesz was never quite comfortable working in this format. “Me and the drummer were singing” he recalls, “I hated it and of course I would be happy to leave that to the likes of David Sylvian,” the ex-Japan vocalist who contributes to Fennesz’s forthcoming album Venice, which will mark a kind of full-circle in his work - from song-form to abstraction and back again.

Fennesz does feel that, although it “depends on the lyrics”, the application of words to music can limit the meaning of a piece. “I don’t think my own music needs additional lyrics,” he says, qualifying that “I do like to work on other people’s songs though, just like I did with David, and I’m curious to hear what he did with one of the tracks I sent him.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. By the time that Maische started to end, Fennesz was thoroughly disillusioned with the logistics of the rock band set-up. His solution was to purchase a sampler and begin work on what became the Instrument EP. Although ostensibly a leap into electronic music, Instrument was entirely sourced from sounds created by Fennesz’s Fender Stratocaster and the resulting music has a great deal of aesthetic common ground with the man’s noise-rock heroes. Hearing that a member of Maische was working on some electronica, Mego leapt in and offered to release the results, which they did as a long out-of-print 12” single.

By 1997, and the release of his first Mego full-length hotel.parralel, Fennesz had seemingly left behind the strictures of rock for something way more rarefied. The album was a great deal more generically electronic sounding than Instrument, with only “Aus”, the gorgeous closing track, showing hints of rock harmony, instrumentation and rhythm. The contents of this album may come as a surprise to those who only know Fennesz through his reputation as the man who brought warmth to European “glitch” music. Nevertheless, he does not see it as an austere or anomalous piece of work. “I don’t think that it sounds cold” he rebukes, “I still like it!”

His next step was to pull in both directions at once - simultaneously committing fully to computer composition/digital signal processing (DSP) and taking an aesthetic step “back” into blissed-out noise territory. Since then, his work has become less abrasive and the elements of live guitar and keyboard playing have come increasingly to the fore. Meanwhile, Fennesz has become openly scornful of electronica’s obsession with software-and-process over music-and-results. However, he is quick to deny that his approach now favours musicianship over programming. “Both are equally important”, he counters, “I am still fascinated with technology”. Indeed, although he enthusiastically thanks me for not asking any questions about software, he also - rather surprisingly - offers that “if this is any help, I use Max/MSP, Reaktor, Logic, GRM Tools, Kontakt, FM7 and Soundhack.”

Ultimately though, he does agree that there is something obnoxiously macho about the virtuosic use of high-end software. “It is like the return of ‘guitar solos’”, he avers, “and some people get it wrong.” He concludes that “I’m a musician, not a computer scientist, so I want to write music, not ‘code’.”

It seems undeniable, then, that - for this musician - music will always be more important than technology. As for whether he’s given up his penchant for extreme noise, he merely teases: “Wait for the next album...”

Fennesz’s DSP noise masterpiece, 1999’s Plus 48 Degrees North..., was released on the British label Touch. It was immediately remarkable for the way it wrapped scouring blizzards of distortion within designer Jon Wozencroft’s rural cover photography. Clearly, something was happening here. In rejecting the standard “dots-and-loops” approach to packaging that is all-but ubiquitous in experimental electronics, Fennesz was taking control of the context in which his work was received - something most laptop artists appear to consciously avoid. He evidently loves the design of his Touch and Mego releases, noting that, “I was lucky enough to work with great designers like Jon Wozencroft and (Mego’s) Tina Frank. I was always happy with the results.” More significantly, he notes that “Every artwork they made for me was well-discussed.”

This speaks volumes about Fennesz’s all encompassing approach to his releases, his unwillingness to allow context to be set by outside forces and his inability to simply do what is usually done. This, along - of course - with the sheer brilliance of his music, allowed Fennesz to create the image of a laptop musician whose creations were infused with humanity and personality. Here, it seemed, was an artist who harnessed new technology to capture the vagueness of human memory and the beauty of corroded nostalgia in a way that was radical and in no way obvious, yet very immediate and, to those with an ear for these things, undeniable.

Having said that, Plus 48 Degrees North... is uneasy listening to say the least and was never likely to capture a particularly large audience. Luckily for the world at large, Fennesz had a big move up his sleeve. Having already referenced classic rock in general, and the Beach Boys in particular, on his Fennesz Plays single (a pair of extremely abstracted but surprisingly accessible cover versions), he set out to make an album that refracted vintage pop through the scratched lens of post-Oval glitch music. It was the resulting 2001 Mego full-length, Endless Summer (named after both a Beach Boys greatest hits and a classic surfing movie) that allowed him to make inroads into the collective consciousness of the indie rock masses. Fennesz still listens to Endless Summer all the time and notes that it’s “the only record of mine that I can listen to without thinking it was me making it.”

The album marked a commercial and artistic high point for Fennesz. It also represented, at least for the time being, the end of his relationship with Mego. Thus emerged another of the rumours this article set out to investigate - that there had been a falling out between artist and label. “There were some ‘interferences’” he admits but adds that, “now we’re fine. They are friends.” As for the future: “There are no plans to release a Fennesz record on Mego. All the upcoming stuff will be on Touch. But never say no.”

Along the way, Fennesz’s rising profile has provided opportunities for a great deal of collaborative work. He’s worked with dance companies, filmmakers, instillation artists and a whole bevy of top free improvisers. He’s also done remixes for the likes of Hrvatski and Ekkehard Ehlers (perhaps the only laptop artist whose music rival’s the Austrian’s for sheer beauty).

Still, probably his most successful and well-known collaborations have been as part of FennO’Berg - the knockabout trio he shares with Mego kingpin Peter “Pita” Rehberg and indie-rock renaissance man Jim O’Rourke. Their two albums are beautiful, hilarious and unutterably strange, often all at the same time. Although he’s been getting more selective with the collaborations he does, Fennesz says he’s willing to do a Fenno’berg record “any time” and confidently states, “I’m sure there will be another one.”

And Fennesz’s collaborations are becoming ever more publicly prominent. As well as the aforementioned work with David Sylvian, he’s jammed on stage with Sonic Youth and worked on the next album by major-label indie rockers Sparklehorse. This last collaboration seems especially close to his heart. Indeed, when I ask him what he aspires to (my big closing gambit!), he responds with a quote from the band’s singer Mark Linkous: “It was like a little child built up to a fountain.”

Fennesz’s fascination with Sparklehorse may be puzzling to some of his hardcore fans but it will certainly help to bring his music to a whole new audience, even beyond the section of indie-rockdom that is already familiar with it. But that’s nothing compared to what might have happened if the bizarre rumour that Fennesz was doing a Madonna remix turned out to be true. He’s heard this tall tale too but apparently it “bullshit” although he’d do it in a shot, given the chance.

Meanwhile, solo releases proceed apace, providing ample material for those of us still catching up. Field Recordings on Touch collected an array of previously released material, including the entire Instrument EP, while the recent Live in Japan (via Japanese Touch affiliate Headz) provided a “greatest hits” set that embodies the perfect summation of and introduction to Fennesz’s work.

It also gives us some king of idea about what will happen when he presents Live in Vancouver at the Scotiabank Dance Center on October 25th, a new piece commissioned by Dangerous Currents, part of the Electric City festival. This performance has been long awaited by his many Vancouver fans and will be a must-hear for all abstract electronica enthusiasts in the area. It’s hard to know what to expect, as all the man himself will give away is “No visuals, just light.” Not terribly illuminating, pardon the pun.

As for Venice, which was slated for release near the start of this year, one has to wonder when that’s finally coming out. “Strange” Fennesz quips, “Mike from Touch is asking me the same question every day now. It will come out this year.”

Something tells me it’ll be worth the wait.

Noriko Tujiko

Over the course of four album’s (the middle two for Mego) Japan’s Noriko Tujiko has slowly been building a grassroots reputation as a genius of experimental song craft. Despite the fact that her amorphously melodious laptop pop seems to confuse the rigidly dogmatic music media, Noriko has managed to win the heart of just about every real person who has been lucky enough to come across her work. Her enthusiastic championing by a select band of fans and her newfound ability to tour Europe after a move to Paris last November have helped to raise her profile significantly.

Noriko’s second album Shojo Toshi, impressed so many Vancouverites that the Powell Street Festival was persuaded to arrange a grant allowing her to visit these shores. She played two shows in town, on consecutive nights - the first at the Sugar Refinery and the second at The Blinding Light!! Cinema (RIP). Both were truly superb, with Noriko seated behind her Apple Mac, whipping up tempestuous eddies of sound and revealing an astonishingly room-filling vocal presence.

I was lucky enough to have a short e-mail discussion with Noriko about her music. Her English is faltering but sure as shit a lot better than my Japanese, as they say. She’s very gracious - I ask her if she minds the fact that everything ever written about her has compared her to Bjork and she replies: “No, not at all. It’s a good advertisement, no?” She’s also clearly confident about her obvious talents - I tell her she looked taken aback by the warm reception she got from her Vancouver audiences and she simply tells me “it’s not true”. Of course not. Nobody who heard those sets would have been surprised to discover that the other people present had enjoyed them a great deal.

The bulk of the material presented on those two nights later emerged as her third album Make Me Hard, which is, to these ears, her masterpiece - a set of songs so fully realized, so perfectly addictive, so artfully skewed that it’s truly uncanny.

Make Me Hard was quickly followed by a new album, From Tokyo to Niagra, on the consistently excellent German indietronica label Tomlab. This fourth album, perhaps Noriko’s most accessible to date, is ostensibly a collaborative exercise with avant-journeyman Aki Onda. “He was taking a lot of photographs of me and then after that we started to make the album naturally”, she explains, “I can’t even remember the beginning of the working. But anyway he was the producer for the album when I noticed. I had never had a producer and it was nice. I want to have a producer for the next album too.”

While it may seem like a step back to the more straightforwardly Bjork-ian trip-hop of her debut album (some of which was re-issued by Mego as the 12” I Forgot The Title), From Tokyo... reveals more and more hidden subtleties and glorious sonic/melodic hooks with every listen. Noriko explains the differences between the new album and her previous work in typically “enigmatic” English: “As I was working alone using only my brain. And for the last album I was not working alone.”

Whatever it is she may be getting at here, I’m sure of one thing: The new album is already capturing the ear of Vancouver’s music-loving public and many new fans must be kicking themselves that they missed Noriko’s Vancouver performances. Fear not, for she is coming back. Noriko will be performing on October 22nd at the Scotiabank Dance Center as part of Dangerous Currents. Don’t miss out this time.

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