I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Jan St. Werner, of pioneering electronic music duo Mouse on Mars, discusses his forthcoming solo album, Blaze Colour Burn.
Jan St. Werner may be best known for his genre-defining work in the electronic duo Mouse on Mars, but listening to his new solo album, Blaze Colour Burn, one hears an artist redefining his unique approach to sound. Site-specific composition, field recordings, and film scores are carefully complied into an album that transcends the material and space into an acoustic reality all its own. His collaborative work with MoM and Microstoria, as well as his solo projects Lithops and NoiseMachineTapes, span decades of experimentation, yet didn’t prepare me for the full spectrum of depth in this new work, which is the first release inaugurating Thrill Jockey’s new Fiepblatter series.
Gregg Kowalsky and I were interested to speak with Jan since our new Date Palms album is coming out the same week on Thrill Jockey. Gregg was first introduced to electronic music while interning at Beggar’s Banquet, the label that distributed the first MoM records which were a huge influence on his early work. I came to Jan’s music through a more classical avant-garde route—through the music of composers like Stockhausen—eventually making my way to more popular dance forms in the 2000’s. Speaking to Jan over Skype, we discussed how recording has transformed the electronic musician into a curator and archivist, how the manner which the individual manipulates sound reflects his inner prism, and his time as Artistic Director at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music in the Netherlands.
Gregg Kowalsky Three of the pieces from your new record Blaze Colour Burn are from film scores, and one of the pieces, “Spiazzacorale,” was a long-form public performance. But I felt when I listened to Blaze Colour Burn that you managed to create a really cohesive album from such varied material. Was it a challenge to do that? What was your approach?
Jan St. Werner I’m constantly producing musical ideas which are never played or used in a score, so I kind of forget about them. I just keep them as sketches. But eventually I went back to this archive of material and realized that there is something in common there. Of course there is something in common with every piece of music you do even if it’s super eclectic or varied—still there is something that holds it all together.
Sometimes it’s really hard for the composer or the artist to really find out what that connective thing is. For me, when I went to start something new I had a very different idea of what it should be—not a musical idea actually—it was much more an idea of how I see the world through sound. It sounds a bit kitsch, a bit pathetic, but it’s true. For me it was the idea of starting a game, like a gallery of exposing musical ideas. I would be the curator or the archivist or the collector rather than the artist.
I was also relaxed about using my own name because I’m this archivist, I’m the beholder of that archive. When I chose the tracks and these musical ideas, I realized, Wow, these particular pieces have something very strong in common: bringing different layers of acoustic realities together. This was when I realized these pieces make up one consistent idea. It’s a different idea of an album than you would have had in the classic times of, like, concert albums. This album is more like an exposition or a show with an idea or theme.
I could get lost in interpretations now and in my obsession as an archivist, as the bookshop owner.
Marielle Jakobsons (laughter) Right.
GK Was the process of putting this album together something that you did in a short period of time because the material was there or was it a long period of collecting and sorting this material?
JSW That’s a good question because while I was talking I realized that these selections of tracks came quite casually and quite quickly. This was also actually the beginning of me having confidence to be going back to Bettina [Richards, founder of Thrill Jockey, St. Werner’s label] and telling her, “I’m ready again.” (laughter) I will not continue the Lithops legacy. It’s a new thing and includes my visual works and ideas more prominently than before. I want to do all the artwork and I want to make a picture book. All this kind of came from finding out that I could compile these tracks in a very coherent way. So, Blaze Colour Burn.
It’s a bit like this kind of Russian puppet which you open and it’s always smaller, a little babushka inside.
GK This album combines location-specific recordings with acoustic spaces and environmental field recordings with synthesized sounds, which are more of an abstract space. Do you think this affects the way the listener perceives time and space in the material when you’re combining different acoustic spaces and recordings?
JSW Yeah, totally. I think I have a fantasy about a situation or a space or, I could put it more architecturally, of a building that you see from a certain perspective. Maybe even like a skyline of buildings. You would have this collage of architecture and living things like trees and plants and birds and human beings passing by and looking out of windows. You have these layers of senses. But still, what you get to see is just a tiny percentage.
So as much as you see, there’s so much more that is hidden. To me, music is a bit like this. The acoustic and field recordings provide an image of a space, an actual space, and the brain immediately identifies that as, oh, this must be outdoors. These actions, these unorganized events—this must be something that’s unscored, that’s found, that’s real life. Then you have a synthesized sound, which maybe just kind of grabs some of the resonance of place and amplifies it or exaggerates it or adds something to it.
It comes out from the shadow of that situation while at the same moment, it creates a shadow. It covers elements. Suddenly, you can’t hear the field recording as well anymore or maybe just tiny bits of it are still audible. Immediately, you have a new situation. What I try to do, especially with Blaze Colour Burn, is quite subtly try to change a space continuously and even throw the listener into this drama of never really knowing where they are, so that their attention is really maximized.
It’s also about production in a way. How do things sound? Does this record sound weird or bad? What is a good recording? What makes it? Is it improvised versus composition? Is it accurate editing—cutting this thing into perfect moments so that the next thing comes in at the perfect moment—or is it exactly like holding on for a little longer and do you fade it in, do you cut it in? I think this record was a happy way of putting all these things together.
For the “Spiazzacorale” project, there was a whole day of actions and things going on in this piazza and it was at the same time very subtle. The people who were living in that Umbrian town—sometimes they weren’t really sure what was going on and sometimes it was obviously a happening, a musical kind of happening and performance going on. They would stop and look at what was going on. The church bells were the main conductors. They gave the basic harmonic score or layout. They gave the rhythmic layout and they gave the rhythm throughout the whole day.
A church bell’s melody is a signal. It’s calling people in a pleasing way and also in a quiet, dominating way. It’s quite an authority to have a church bell ringing. So I had these bikes with induction speakers, like synthetic variations of these church bell themes cycling around the city along predefined routes. Sometimes these bikes would come together at the time when the church bells were going. Then there was sound on the streets and there was sound in the cafes. Then at a later point there was a marching band and there was a flute orchestra playing just two notes from that church bell melody.
It was a very casual scenario, but at the same time, there was drama involved. It was humorous but it was also a political thing for me to take the church bell’s dominance and give it back to the people so they would interpret it in their own way. (laughter) We found an Umbrian folk song that the marching band would play, but I made it into a time-stretched version so they played it super, super slow. In the tuning, the church bells were matched with it. So all this is basically unrecordable. There’s no way you can make that into a musical piece just by putting all these elements together.
JSW So it took me a really long time to find a way to collage a musical piece that to me did a similar thing as the original piece. In a way, “Spiazzacorale,” the recorded version, kind of concedes all that into a musical piece and still is a thing of its own.
MJ Yeah, that’s interesting. I was wondering how—because it was this eight-hour performance piece in a public space—did you end up deciding to create two pieces or tracks out of that on the album?
JSW I had a lot of different ideas for longer and shorter pieces, which would consist partly of the pre-recorded electronic sounds that were played in two cafes on the piazza and the synthetic church bell alterations that were on the bicycles. Then I had all kinds of ideas to only use the electronic parts. In the end, it all came together somehow. I realized, it’s a bit too much of the same if I make it into such a long piece, so I’ll cut it up again. It’s a bit like when you have a version of a track and then you make a new track and then you make your own remix of it. (laughter) I mean, you know how that is.
JSW (laughter) That’s a heartfelt yeah.
MJ For sure! I’ve done some long form pieces of my own, which I was like, Oh, I could do an entire album of that but then I end up cutting out the pieces that I feel are the most compelling.
MJ This was kind of similar to what it sounds like you were doing. So you said you had a lot of pre-recorded sounds. Did you also add new sounds to “Spiazzacorale” during the editing and composition process?
JSW For the album pieces, no. This is only what I had prepared for the actual performance. It’s the recordings of the performance and recordings from the rehearsals for the performance.
MJ Okay. That’s interesting, really, talking about being the bookkeeper and curator, because it sounds like you had a really massive amount of material from this project to work with.
JSW Yes, absolutely. That’s a funny thing, because when I started making music—I’ve always been incredibly fascinated and obsessed with recordings. The first thing I ever did when I had a tape recorder—I was probably at a very early age, maybe five or six years or something—was just record stuff from TV, the bits where there was sound of a Winnetou movie, which was like these Western movies by this guy Karl May.
GK Oh, wow.
JSW Yeah, and they were massive movies for Germany. It was always the Indian, Winnetou. He was like the chief. He was the king. And then he always had these friends who were white men, like Old Shatterhand and Old Firehand, with all these weird names. I would record bits of the movies where there was either sound or soundtrack, but no talking. Of course, I couldn’t edit the tape because I only had that one tape recorder. So I would really sit in front of the movie and as soon as someone would speak, I would just press the play button so I wouldn’t have that. I would only have the atmosphere of the movie.
GK Oh, wow.
JSW I had my edited atmospheres- and soundtracks-only version. I would just keep on rewinding the tape and I would just play with my little action figures and forts and like saloons and all these houses. (laughter) That would extend into the world of Star Trek later. I found out there was Styrofoam glue, like a special glue you could get, so my whole room was just a mass of Styrofoam sculpture made from TV packaging. These would be cities or spaceships. I would keep doing the same thing, just replaying scores I had recorded. I actually never told anyone that story. I have no idea why it’s coming up in my brain at the moment. It’s this fascination with recorded sound.
I never had any idea of becoming a musician, but I knew there was something going on and I had to be involved with that when I had my first sampler. I was playing in bands as a percussionist as a teenager, so when I had my first sampler and a drum machine, it was a very percussive thing. Still, this thing of having like two seconds and gradually extending it to ten seconds. And ten seconds—wow, that was a luxury—and now I can just record anything as long as I want. My computer is a tape recorder and I can finally cut out all the bad bits and it’s a still a crazy miracle that, to me, at the same time, it’s a sampler. So even if I record, let’s say, a concert. To me, that is a sample. It’s like a very long sample. And I would really have to treat it right and know how to edit and cut it and be true to the original. I actually don’t sample other people’s works. I sample my own stuff, but I consider it sampling.
I end up having tons of recordings. I’m just totally excited to be able to record such long samples, but they’re still samples. I have to file them. I have to know where to use them and what to do with them. The thing is, they’re still very valuable to me. I hardly ever record or store material that I don’t find useful or worthwhile in some way.
JSW Sometimes I need three years to judge what I have recorded. So, um, so this really explains a bit how to me this whole sampling and digital sound world—or whatever you call it—technology possibility works. How it makes sense and how I treat it. And why I find myself rather being an archivist or being a bookshop owner. (laughter) You know? I have all that stuff.
A record is a great thing. You send it out there and you say, Hey, can you help me keep track of all that stuff? I don’t want it but I don’t want to have it lost either. That’s the idea of why I make records, I guess.
MJ Technology’s always changing, especially the technology used by electronic musicians and composers. But listening back to your back catalogue, I hear a lot of similarities and processes. I was wondering if you reinvent your processes as technology changes or do you have, say, favorite patches or design tactics that have been with you for years?
JSW The way you manipulate sound is very much based on your imagination or your brain that makes it happen. Of course you can rock technology and you can kind of really use it to an extreme extent, but I think the limit really is your imagination. Just being technological doesn’t make or create interesting results. People are obviously taken away by technological possibilities. It never lasts very long. Sometimes if I hear a track which is obviously really technology-driven, spelling out the technological possibilities throughout the song. It’s frustrating, listening to that, knowing that at some point, we’ll all be tired of that. (laughter) Everyone will go, Oh, that’s so ’90s, so 2012, so dubstep. That’s dubstep from August 2011. I always wanted to not have that in my music.
GK That’s something we noticed, especially in the new albums, that they feel timeless in a way, like they could have existed in 2001 or 2013 or later down the road. And that’s a unique quality in the work, I think.
JSW That’s nice, when that translates. I love to play with technology, of course. And I also love to involve or embrace a trend, because I feel that in that architectural skyline I talked about, there are people walking on the piazza. Even a musical style or a trend can be one of those guys. I like that when you have, for instance, these kind of public performances, you have all sorts of people. I mean, you have fashion people. You look at them, like—Oh man, they really, really took care of their own shit. Then you have some old bloke, and he looks from a movie from the ’60s. This is like the perfect fantasy. In the end, when you look at all these things, let’s say ten years down the road, and you think, wow, this whole mix is so cool. That was like the trend at the time. This was the fashion. And you see all these cheap sneakers, this kind of carrot-like suntan. They’re in these kind of solariums. It looks just bad and cheesy. And when you look at it from that perspective, it’s just cool. It’s funny. It really is, like, that’s mankind. It’s absurd and weird and I love to have that in my music, too.
Actually, I’m less looking for a timeless quality. I want a timelessness which is really at ease with its time. You know what I mean?
MJ Yeah, definitely!
JSW When Andi [Toma, the other member of Mouse on Mars] and I do a track and there is a musical trend—When drum and bass came up, we were infected and we loved it and we loved to be influenced by it. Now I like this juke stuff. It has to have been around a long time, but now it’s becoming really popular.
JSW We’re totally digging it. We really love being infected by it. For us, it’s great to be excited by these kind of things and we try to incorporate these things into our music. They can mess up our music. It’s totally cool. But they will never totally carry our musical ideas. We just listen. We interpret. The way we hear them is probably wrong.
GK It’s like a deconstructed version of it.
JSW Yeah, always an interpretation.
GK Listening to Mouse on Mars records, I find that you can hear aspects of whatever was happening at the time in the electronic music scenes. That music has a playfulness to it.
JSW For us, music is a material. For instance, when we were really inflected with drum and bass, that had a lot to do with how we were listening to music anyway. The speed of it and then how you would work with rhythms, it was kind of bouncy and you would have faster high-ends and slowed-down drums. I had this old sample-editing program that had a function where you use the envelop of a sound like a rhythm and it would extract that envelope and you could put that envelope onto something else. So I was experimenting a lot with having a rhythm envelope and putting that onto a melodic or harmonic wave form or sound.
MJ That’s one of the things that I really hear in your music, this aspect of transformation. It seems like you’re really into enveloping and movement as a part of your composition on the macro level but also on the micro level. For example, in your whole pieces but also on the individual sounds themselves, they are never static and always having this sense of motion and transforming through time. How do you approach creating that kind of motion on both levels at the same time?
JSW I had a funny moment when Andi and I were talking about how we both deal with music or respond to it. I’m quite talkative and I’m actually happy to express how I see music or what it does, and Andi kind of respects that quality because that’s not his way of doing that. He doesn’t really talk about how he perceives music or what it does to him. When we speak about it, we have to acknowledge that, actually the way I make music is very much like how I talk about it. (laughter) But with Andi, it’s very much how he moves, his whole body movement is very much what you find in the music and he’s incredibly fast, he’s like a juggler or like a sportsman. He’s really good at table tennis or doing really fast things. It’s also quite funny because he’s a person—I’m sure you have friends like that—he’s standing next to you and you talk to him and just for a brief moment you do something and you want to talk to him again and he’s gone. And you think, okay he’s just right behind you or something and you look around and he’s not even anywhere in the room. He has a holographic quality. He could be a perfect thief. I think he could be a great pickpocket. (laughter)
MJ It’s like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to him physically. If you see him, chances are you won’t see him in a moment.
JSW (laughter) Totally. It’s totally like that. And I think what he does with his sort of body I do with my way of—that’s what I do with talking and thinking. When I make music I’m quiet, I’m just sitting there like jabberwocky on that mushroom for days. I feel like a giant brain that is connected to lots of wires.
GK I’m wondering if being the artistic director at STEIM [STudio for Electro Instrumental Music] affected your work in any way? Your music?
JSW Yeah, I’m sure it did. It was a new and special thing. I kind of avoided the authority or the responsibility part a little bit. (laughter) But I really liked the network and the social experiment that STEIM was and is. I enjoyed being able to bring in different elements to STEIM and even kind of sabotage the approach a little bit, because STEIM’s main theme has always been real-time music.
GK I think the reason for us why STEIM is so interesting is because there’s not a lot of institutions like that in the United States.
JSW STEIM is really in danger at the moment. It has enough power, potential, and personality to be unique and still very special. But when Michel Waisvisz was still the director, he would shift STEIM into unknown territories get people like me, who he knew would bring STEIM to a certain edge. He liked the near-collapse of it.
What I brought was really the idea that we don’t have to see people perform music to believe there is music. If you just hear it, it’s enough. From there, you can trace it back and think, how has it been made? Is it performed well? Is it interesting music? I made it so that people would hang out and listen to music together, so it became a social space where we just listened to speaker recordings. They were skeptical at the beginning and then they loved it, because there were new people coming in, especially from the visual arts, which was also quite a new thing.
If it really influenced my way of making music, I don’t know. It surely did somehow, but in the end, I feel my musical development is quite—I’m quite a farmer boy. It was something that really slowly progressed. When I was ready, at a certain point, I would deal with a certain musical genre or style.
Marielle Jakobsons & Gregg Kowalsky form the core duo of Date Palms. Their third album,The Dusted Sessions, is due out on Thrill Jockey June 11, 2013. For more new music check out the Thrill Jockey Records website.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee