"How do you draw information out if you aren't involved and in love with it."
Berlin-based record label PAN has become something of a premier platform for multidisciplinary sound and visual art projects. Working with conceptual artists like Mark Leckey and James Hoff or various avant-garde and club producers, this expansive catalogue releases both vinyl and interactive browser-based works. Bill Kouligas, who runs the label, chats here with DeForrest Brown Jr.—a New York-based music writer and media theorist who has worked with Triple Canopy, Rhizome, and ISSUE Project Room, where he will be curating events this upcoming season. Brown's first program, Quantum Natives: Grace Nexus, premieres this Saturday, April 15, 2017.
Bill Kouligas We met in summer of 2013, right?
DeForrest Brown Jr. Yes, I'd only been in New York like three days after leaving Alabama. I was pretty green, but on the very first night I saw Actress and Gobby perform. I was at the show with my luggage.
BK It was in the back of a small gallery in Williamsburg, right?
DBJ Cameo gallery… It's crazy, because in Alabama there were no clubs and, at that time, I'd only seen maybe three electronic music shows in my entire life. I remember driving eight hours to MoogFest [in North Carolina] and sleeping in my car. I found Detroit techno through my father, who only had a cursory understanding of it, but hearing Carl Craig was a big deal. I thought he was just some Kosmische-influenced guy. I had no clue he was so big. He could very viably be on a Drake track and I would've had no clue.
BK Well, you never know. (laughter) Where did you study?
DBJ University of North Alabama. The Civil Wars went there. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is there. A lot of rock history. People would leave and go straight to Nashville to become producers.
BK How do you feel being in New York now?
DBJ It's still really overwhelming.
BK It feels like a great time in New York. There seem to be more places for people to gather, to share ideas. The whole music thing hasn't been so commercialized like it has in Berlin. Everyone talks about club culture, which is fascinating, but sometimes it's corporate driven. It's not as honest as it seems from the outside. But I've been in Berlin for nine years now.
DBJ I won't say outright that I have the opposite feeling, but a lot of scenes have been bought up in just the last four years here. I see industry heads shining lights and copping things, as they always have. But I'm excited about the present and about small electronic scenes suddenly aligning with museums and non-profits.
BK Right. I'm not strongly connected with such institutions, but maybe they're more open—environments allowing for crossover into various fields, bringing different people together to expand the conversation. Which brings us to your plans with ISSUE Project Room.
DBJ Of course, I'm inspired by that summer I came to your festival there [PAN_ACT, 2013]. I didn't even know such a thing was possible.
BK It was hard to pull off. We worked for a year and a half, and I had to actually move to New York for a period of time to make it happen. I was seeing spaces, doing all these meetings, organizing everything. People were like, "Why do you want to do a series of concerts, talks with composers, and a techno line-up in a museum? It doesn't make sense."
DBJ But, in fact, that's really all the boxes people check off. The first time I ever heard Rhythim's "Strings of Life" in the club was actually seeing Carl Craig perform. For me, listening to Derrick May was something I did only while driving in the mountains. There was no separation between Brian Eno, Mozart, or Derrick May. It was all just music. Going back to curatorial direction, I think that's more or less what we're both getting at—building an environment where music can just exist. I always think back to this particular moment at—I can't ever remember the name of that Chinese restaurant—the place where you and Laurel Halo, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and Lee Gamble performed?
BK I don't know if there even was a name [K&K Super Buffet, actually]. It was in Ridgewood, and people knew it as a Chinese buffet where stuff went down. But even that was so difficult to pull off. I remember waiting for people to finish their dinners, then bringing in the sound system.
Before that, I spent six months trying to engage with New York City: I went everywhere, tried to meet everyone. I felt there wasn't a sufficient space for what we wanted to express, just so many faceless places. I can't relate to such environments. They might have interesting schedules or a good sound system, but I can't experience music there in the way I want. It's too controlled somehow—going through bouncers, $20 drinks. Even if I love the DJ, I feel my emotions and movements are manipulated in those spaces. You saw that "Cabaret Law" [which prohibits dancing] is coming back now?
DBJ There's a big history to that, of 90's club culture being flipped at the same time as Times Square. It's the damning of dance by corporate industrial expansion. The only people who need to dance are the people who don't shop. But now, if you go to Times Square on a Saturday night they have DJ's set up in the shops playing Dancehall. It's fascinating to turn the shopping sector into a club. That's more or less what Steven Warwick [Heatsick] and I are working on for ISSUE.
BK Tell me about this project.
DBJ It's a bit nebulous at the moment, but it's akin to this image of the H&M at Times Square with a DJ in the corner and having to shop your way out of a club situation. We are calling it "Elevator to Mezzanine." Nicholson Baker's novel, The Mezzanine, tore me apart years ago. The minute I met Steve I knew we would work on a project involving this book. Four years later, it's happening.
But returning to your PAN_ACT programming, I thought I would never see those artists ever. Things can be very market segmented—you have these checks, clubs, and what's nouveau to a museum. Last year, I heard about a Hito Steyerl and Kassem Mosse performance at The Whitney, only finding out about it the day before. There was no advertising. That's when these bubbles kind of burst. Does anyone know who Kassem Mosse is? But there's a line out the door. I didn't even get in. I'm not sure what to make of that.
BK This is the reason to keep following everything.
DBJ Although it's been nice to get over the fear of missing out, instead of building an itinerary like you're doing Disneyland or something... Can I ask how you started your label, PAN?
BK To be honest, through playing music, which I started doing at the age of twelve.
DBJ As a DJ?
BK No, I was a drummer, and I grew up with punk music, playing in bands. I always wanted to make music myself, but I didn't play melodic instruments like guitar or keyboard—(laughter) this is the old standard answer by the way. My entry point to experimental music was through '80s post-punk, new wave, and, of course, classic industrial stuff.
DBJ New Order was one of thing that eased me into techno.
DBJ My father would play Afrika Bambaataa all the time, and I found 808 State in his collection. He had no clue what he had.
BK That was popular music!
DBJ I couldn't make songs or compose either, but I always wanted to. My music education more or less came from Barnes and Noble, from those kiosks where you could scan CDs to listen to them. I scanned everything from Anime soundtracks to Wagner. I read AllMusic.com and followed their suggestions. Suddenly, I was fourteen and getting into Miles Davis's On The Corner almost by accident. There was also LimeWire [a peer-to-peer file-sharing program].
BK I grew up pre-Internet explosion, a very different age, though just before the one you're talking about. We had a computer with a dial-up connection. I could download maybe one track a week, and there were no blogs.
DBJ Yeah, I would stay online all night downloading obsessively. There was a certain peace to getting on a computer for eight hours and waiting for downloads.
BK It's almost meditative, reaching for a state you can rarely achieve.
DBJ On the subject of meditation, I'm thinking about "Bedroom Soul" in that same context—from Jeff Phelps's Magnetic Eyes all the way up to like The Other People Place's Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe. They just went to their "bedrooms" and mashed some stuff out. I remember finding out that James Stinson of Drexciya was a truck driver and his family didn't know he was a producer. "He would just go down to the basement and disappear."
BK It's also that soul music back in the '70s was making millions. The record industry threw around so much money—for studio time, large ensembles, string groups. But there's also this whole wave or generation of artists who didn't get a record deal like that. They were just desperate to express themselves. There was a rising scene of outsiders because that's all they could afford. There are endless, incredible private pressings all across the US.
DBJ The crazy thing is that it's all surfacing now. The Internet—more or less—is where it's all about illuminating things as opposed to being meditative.
BK It's tricky. The more we document, to a certain extent, the more dangers emerge. For someone trying to understand all of this stuff, it's a lot to take in, especially for younger people. It could easily kill the vibe or their interest in new music. So, I'm trying very hard to support contemporary culture.
DBJ I've been grappling with this idea of the end of history. You know, there's this whole Francis Fukuyama concept in politics, but also in semiotics and—
BK I'm not standing for that! I know how important history is in order to get here. It allows for a clear perspective and understanding of what contemporary culture is.
DBJ But I feel people have fatigue. It's not the end in that something is actually no longer happening, but rather a situation where there's too much history. So, people cut ties.
BK That's easy to do. I have friends who are like, "Fuck everything that ever happened. It's only about the now and the future." Which is kind of punk in a way. It can mean, "This means the world to me, and I'm going to go for it." That's cool. I envy that. Some feel history holds you back.
DBJ Like a weight or burden.
BK I live in a small room filled with books and records important to me. It's my whole life story, my education and passion. On the other hand, I wake up everyday and can't even breathe in there.
DBJ That's my hope with the ISSUE fellowship, to play out that tension. I know my influences and can trace them back. I've been watching this anime, Gundam Wing, lately… (laughter)
DBJ I have such a vivid memory of that show, and seriously, so many different ideas come specifically from there. The different Gundams are existential burdens, and all their missions are suicide missions that cut ties with the past. They follow these paths until barriers are dissolved. With the Quantum Natives show, I'm thinking about this "end of history," this anti-history, about oversaturation with online communications and post-scarcity. We did a collaboration last year that led to this. It was called Outwardly Coiling Context Collapse.
It was published online. I realized a lot of music publications don't like you to know the people that you're talking to or writing about. They don't want you to be involved too much because of journalistic integrity. Well, how do you actually affect these things? How do you draw information out if you aren't involved and in love with it.
BK Absolutely. It's inevitable.
DBJ That was the goal: break down all the context because it's breaking down anyway. So let's just be a critic, artist, or organizer, just be whatever.
BK That's the story of my life, though for different reasons. It's hard to run a label and be an artist yourself—to create work, perform, and curate. People are still very conservative in terms of boxing things up, replacing one thing with another.
DBJ It makes me think of the Terence Mckenna line—something like "If you want to communicate with someone, just show them the thing."
BK You might have been a music journalist, but you're moving in a very creative way based on what your real interests are. That's obviously your identity as a writer but also a creative method. In a way, I relate to this because PAN started as I was designing and making music myself. There was a community growing organically. We needed to do more, and I felt I could do it myself instead of relying on others.
DBJ I feel these industries and labels keep that organic stuff from happening. They're conservative, about containment. Every project I do, I base entirely on conversation. If a subject comes up more than once, I decide I need to audit this, take inventory, and it can maybe become something material.
BK The thing with labels is that most are desperate for success or money. That's where they lose. Of course, it's important to sustain, and I don't want to compare or criticize. I say this because I care.
DBJ As a music critic, I would have loved to write bad reviews, but no one would ever let me. (laughter) I would only write bad reviews I would love. Any negative criticism comes out of pure love. That's the thing that attracted me to PAN—this empathy in the multiplicity of releases. One of the first I heard was Lee Gamble's Dutch Tvashar Plumes. I was blown away because it was musique concrete in a computer, but he was thinking about all this hyperreal stuff. It's not just concept, not just press release. It's just, "This is the thing." Same thing with that Sensate Focus release, Déviation Heat-treated.
BK You know that's a remix of Steve Warwick's record, right?
DBJ That's actually how I found Steve! I played "Deviation" while on a roadtrip and broke out laughing at the first note. I knew he understood. He gets it.
BK I love the sense of humor, though it's not about being jokey. It's about being critical and worried about things in a light-hearted way. But he's dead serious, focused. It's a fantastic balance.
People ask all the time, "Why do you do so many different releases? Why do you work with such different artists? It doesn't make any sense." It's how I think for myself. They all occupy their own spaces and have full freedom, but it's all part of one sound.