A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTIAN FENNESZ at a small coffee shop near Christian’s hotel in Amsterdam on November 4, 2003, the day after he performed with Mika Vainio and Christian Zanési as the GRM Experience.
First of all, I frankly admire your music. And I just want to ask you about your compositional process, like how you do it, and where you come from. How did you get started in music? Did you have an academic background?
No, not really. I just started playing guitar when I was 8 or 9, and never stopped since then.
Did you play classical guitar?
I did, then I did also, yeah. I took lessons in classical guitar, that was in the countryside of Austria, you know, nothing special. I was playing a bit of classical music because I was fascinated with technique, so I do have some background. I was also teaching classical guitar for kids, around 18 or 19,. That was the very beginning, at this time I was experimenting with my parents’ cassette recorder and putting the microphone into the acoustic guitar and overload everything and record this. So, I was always really fascinated with sound, the possibilities, putting the guitar sound somewhere else.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were younger?
Rock music. Rock and pop from the 70’s and the 80’s. I was a big fan of the Beach Boys, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, you know, the normal stuff that everybody was into. Then in the 80’s I really got into new wave and punk and synthy pop like Talk Talk, Japan, Brian Eno stuff, because, really, I was just a big music fan at that time, listening to everything that came out.
In a previous interview I found online, you said that you were looking for the line between pop and academic music and I was wondering if you still feel that way, if you’ve located that line?
I don’t know, I mean, yeah, at that time I was probably thinking a bit differently. For me, actually, things have changed after I made this record Endless Summer. Before that I had quite good attention in the, let’s say, academic world. Since that record, I got attention from the mainstream rock world. There are interviews with the guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers where they’re talking about my guitar playing and my influence.
How did you react to that?
I find it fascinating. It’s actually… it’s exactly what I want to have. To break the barriers, to break the walls between all those things. At the moment I’m able to get in touch with every kind of scene, you know. No matter if it’s the classic academic scene or if it’s independent rock or if it’s electronic experimental, or whatever.. improvised music. I kind of have access to any world at the moment, which is a real privilege, it’s great, it’s fantastic, I’m very happy about that.
Do you think you could have done that fifteen years ago?
I don’t think so. I think that in the last years, the audience has become very different. People are really used to listening to very complex things, experimental music also. They enjoy it. Sometimes, for example in Japan or in Paris, people don’t make any difference whether it’s coming from the academic world or the pop world. It’s kind of merging. I find this good, and helpful for me.
Is the idea of “experimentalism” still a meaningful concept for you?
Yes, of course, I’m still very interested in the possibilities of modern technology, of how to reach the limits of this. I’m still fascinated by this. But that does not mean that I am not interested in a good melody as well. It’s those both things that I have. It’s a very subjective personal approach and.. Yeah, for me it’s fine, and it’s a very natural thing (to combine the two). I’m happy people are following me, but I don’t know how other people are doing it. I don’t know how other people are drawing a line between things. Probably some people I play with would never listen to the music I listen to. I’m sure Keith Rowe, a guitarist I play with, would never listen to a Talk Talk album. But… maybe he would. You never know.
There’s always an emotional and introspective quality to your music. Can you talk a bit about the idea of emotion in electronic music and how you, you know, communicate that.
There is, I feel, umm… structures, or chord changes, or that kind of stuff, there are a few in the whole world of music that were always touching me. I don’t know why. It’s something like that’s opening an inner eye or something. And I’m always trying to reach this point. It’s extremely sensitive, it’s so hard to find, to make it work. That’s the big challenge also, let’s see, within a stream of sound, to find a melody to work out, that’s touching in some way. That’s the most difficult thing for me, it’s the biggest challenge. It keeps me really fascinated and keeps me working on. I found out the thing that is touching me the most is R&B, it’s very interesting. For example, in iTunes I made this list of all the songs or music that I like, it’s a collection over 30 or 40 years and I found out that all of it nearly, is R&B. You can play it one roll, as one tune, it’s really fascinating.
When you begin a new piece of music, when you start a new project, in the beginning of the piece, what gets you going? What inspires you?
It’s different approaches, sometimes I might just start recording myself playing guitar, then I might find some change that’s interesting, then isolate this, or pick up something of that, then put all this through, I don’t know, outboard things, and record it again. Then maybe put something in Max/MSP or… there’s lots of multiplication of things, sometimes it’s just a little noise that I find somewhere… it’s always different. Sometimes it’s a melody that I have in my head and I try to work it out from there.
Has that always been the way that you worked?
Many pieces are the result of just improvising in the studio, you know, trying out things, then recording this, then finding parts within that. Then build up a composition from this material. It’s like, um, I just play in the studio like a kid, it’s so fascinating, I’m still fascinated by it, by what I can do there, how things can sound if you do this and that. Really I can spend 12 or 13 hours at a time in the studio. I just like doing it. It’s fascinating for me.
When you’re working in the studio and you really know that it’s working, can you describe what it’s like for you?
It’s just the right combination of inspiration, being awake enough. Sometimes I find things so easily, it’s almost automatically going on. Sometimes it’s almost like a trance and then at the end I can’t remember how I did it. Especially with computer work, it’s going so fast: I try this and to this and then after 15 steps, I’ve forgotten what’s at the beginning. If it get to that transportative state, then it’s the best, then it’s really perfect.
Do you have a similar sense when you play live?
Yes, it’s exactly the same. I know when it’s working, I know when it’s not working. In the meantime, I’m experienced enough to do an OK gig but still knowing that it doesn’t work. Sometimes it just takes off from the beginning then everything goes so easily, when it’s taking off from the beginning and it can’t fall down anymore. If it doesn’t take off in the beginning, it’s very hard to go up later.
So you can reach a point where it can’t fall down?
Yes, especially in the live performance. Sometimes, not every time. But sometimes, yeah, it works.
Did you feel that way about the Live In Tokyo album?
Yeah, I did. Probably you can’t put this on a CD somehow, it was really different in the club. After listening to it now, I don’t have this strong feeling anymore. It’s still OK. But when playing it live, I really it’s good. The same with the Live In Melbourne CD years ago. But still, the best concerts haven’t been recorded, you know.
Are you influenced a lot by people that you collaborate with?
No, actually not. I find it fascinating to see how other people are working but I think I’ve found my way. Yeah, there are people who work similarly, I think Jim O’Rourke might work a little bit like me in the studio. He’s more, a really skilled traditional producer.
Do you find that same sense of exploration when you’re working in Max/MSP?
Max/MSP is just one part for me, it’s just one instrument that I like to use from time to time. I don’t like to use it all the time. It’s more an instrument that I can make sound with and use it for that, but it’s not like Max/MSP is controlling everything, it’s just one part.
Is it a difficult transition from the studio to the stage?
For this I use Max/MSP. I use a patch, you can download it from the internet, it’s called Lloop, a friend of mine made it. I’ve been using it since he started with this. This is actually a sample player, so I have a bank of sounds, I would say 500 sounds that I’ve recorded in the studio, parts of tracks or single sounds, with this I have to make a live mix, I have to build up a mix of what I have on the computer.
Do you have to change a lot in the process?
You have to play it like an instrument, otherwise it’s just looping. It’s a big challenge. Each time, it can go totally wrong. You always have to prepare and listen to what you do.
When you say something doesn’t work, what does that mean for you?
There’s this internal quality control, I can’t tell you specifically what it is or why something doesn’t work. If I play something for friends or my girlfriend and they say it’s great, fantastic, leave it, but I’m not 100% sure. If I’m not 100% sure two weeks later, then I just throw it away. I probably do have some experience to be able to realize when something is just not reaching what it could reach or going where it could normally go. I don’t have parameters for this, it’s a feeling.
How did you get involved working with David Sylvian?
I wanted him for that one track, to sing for my new album. So, Touch, my label in England, they contacted him. He got back to me directly and said OK, I’ll do this, but will you be on my album as well.
I was wondering, specifically for the track on David Sylvian’s Blemish, is your music tied directly to his lyrics?
Yeah, I was trying to make a ballad, of course. I was trying to respond to respond to the lyrics in a way. It was quite difficult to do, because he was sending me this demo version with vocals and this very simple arrangement he was playing, that was great. And I just deleted this and built a completely new song.
Are politics are a consideration for you in your music?
I’ve been thinking about this quite often and in the end I think a very personal, a very subjective approach is a political statement. For example, I don’t want to sound like the rest. What I find extremely scary in the world of today is perfection. Perfection scares me. The music that I make, many people think it’s scary or it’s weird or whatever and I don’t think that’s true at all. I think this has got more heart and soul than most R&B albums currently being produced. Again, as I said, it is perfection that scares me. It is just reflecting the society of today. Everything’s looking the same, everybody thinks the same. It’s a science fiction world that we live in. I think a very personal approach is a statement. I think this is probably the only political aspect of my music. It’s not something I’m trying to build into it, I don’t want to make any obvious statements, it’s hidden somewhere. But I think it’s there, in a way. Once I was thinking that I would be very interested in writing the music for a film that’s dealing with very strong political things. I did this for theaters ten or twelve years ago before I started releasing records.
Do you think direct political statements in music can be effective?
You know what I think, I think the more “placative” how to say this in English… Like, um, too much in the foreground, too obvious, you know, statements, it’s like the stamping of the foot. I think it has a lot more influence when things are hidden somehow. If things come from the back. For me, it seems to be a much more efficient political statement than naming everything and pointing things out too directly and too obvious. But my music isn’t subverting anything, it’s too kitsch.
Is kitsch something that you regularly think about in your music?
No, I don’t think so. I think the problem here is that many people are using kitsch for funny reasons and I think my problem is that I really like the kitsch, I identify with it, I’m honestly using it because I like it. That’s the big difference here.
Do you ever worry about sentimentality in your music?
Yeah, I’m fascinated, again, with how far can I go and when do I reach a limit where it’s just stupid. It’s a very fine line, I find it fascinating to play with these things.
I was thinking of some of the bands you mentioned when you were younger and it seems like some of them may have been dealing with similar issues.
Yeah, this could be possible. For example, the Smile album from the Beach Boys.
Is there any straight up pop music that you’re into now?
I still like what Björk is doing. Um, I like some Radiohead stuff, actually, I have to say I like the White Stripes, just guitar and drums…
Any thoughts on Schwarzenegger winning the elections in California.
You get what you deserve, that’s all I can say on that one. We didn’t vote for him, it’s you!
I was out of the country, didn’t vote.
Well, at least his IQ is higher than Bush, whose is only 92. I mean, an orangutan can go up to 89.
Interviewed by Roddy Schrock