circus maximus

Avant et après l'été

Véritable icône malgré lui de la "laptop music", Christian Fennesz a largement contribué à la popularisation du genre. Alternant les expériences collectives et les introspections en solitaire, les remises en question et l'optimisme bienheureux, le parcours de l'autrichien tend vers le catalogue : de l'improvisation en compagnie de Christof Kurzmann, ou au sein du FennOberg - monstre gentil à trois têtes - à la pop granulaire estivale d' Endless Summer en passant par l'expérimentation. Fennesz retrace son évolution musicale, et nous fait partager sa vision anti-élitiste de la musique.

Could you tell us about Maische, your first "group" ?

Actually, it's not important at all, i think. When i started to release my first record, Mego was making a personal webspace for me, you know, every artist has his webpage. And because there was nothing to talk about me, they've been talking about all my history, which is just a normal musician's history : starting in the 80's, going through the 90's. And of course, i've been playing in bands, in rock bands, which is no problem for me, i like it, i like this kind of past. But suddenly, this group that was just an underground cult thing in Austria for a few years became known, people were asking me about it. It was not so good, actually, it's one of the reasons why i started to play alone. I was playing guitar and singing just a very little - it was more instrumental. It was noise, rock, pop. Maybe you can compare it to early Sonic Youth, something like this. But with more loose rhythms, open ... abstract rhythms, it was guitar, bass and drums. For me, i just could not stand it any longer, i hated it. That's why i stopped.

What in particular made you stop this collective experience ?
All the psycho problems that come with a band. I also had the impression i was the only ambitious person, i really wanted to do something ... for me it was clear that i wanted to be in the music scene, to release records.

So the next step in your musical career is Instrument in 1995, the 12" on Mego ?

Actually i started to work with electronic music in the early 90's. I bought electronic equipment because it was cheap to buy. Suddenly, it was possible to buy a sampler, before it wasn't, you know. As soon as i had one, i was still playing guitar but i was recording the guitar with the sampler and was trying to do something with it, finding my own production techniques. And i realized : "Super, i can do everything alone, i don't need those fuckers any more".

How did you work on Instrument, what has been the process of recording ?
It's a guitar, a very old Ensoniq sampler with only two Megabytes of Ram, that means you could make realy small loops only. So you had to take care of it ... I didn't even have a midi computer at this time. I used the internal sequencer of the sampler and recorded it directly to DAT, that's Instrument.

Then there was your contribution in the Orchester 33 1/3 project ... was it before or after Hotel Paral.lel ?
I think it was after Hotel Parallel , or during the same time, i don't know.

In Orchester 33 1/3 you have a more conventionnal approach of guitar ...Which was the plan for this project ?
The second record i'm not playing, it's a mistake. They put my name under it, but i'm not on this record at all. At this time i quit. I said : "I don't want to work with you any more ..."

Were you fed up with the group format ?
No, it's this. Christof Kurzmann is a major figure in the Viennese music scene. He's having many different projects which work as a network, collecting ideas, bringing people together, also musicians. This was something that he got offered from an Austrian jazz festival (Music Unlimited Festival). To make a project which is this orchestra, but just for one or two live gigs. And then, he said ok , we have two other gigs on another festival and that's it. For me, this was the thing. He was asking me to write tracks. He was trying, but he was not able to do it alone actually. And he knew i have this past : I learnt how to do this, compose or arrange a track. And we had to make it very simple for musicians, because these musicians were not used to play that kind of music, they were people from rock bands. Within two months, i had to write six or seven pieces that had to be simple, but effective, and bring everything together. So i did this. But afterwards, they started to play once a week all the time the same thing, like a music box. So i said : "Boys, this is not for me anymore, sorry , i go."

Between instrument and Hotel parallel, you began working with a computer ?
No. That's a very interesting thing. Once i read that Hotel Paral.lel is supposed to be one of the landmarks of laptop music, but the truth is ... i had bought another sampler. A new Ensoniq sampler that had a bit more RAM, like 16, which was like massive for me, and an Atari just running Cubase for triggering the sampler, but there's no DSP, nothing ... on this record. Why i came to these sounds, is that i discovered how my sampler was crashing, and what it was doing when i made it crash. So i was developing structures ; how to make the sampler crash that was doing eventually this. That was the material i was working with. I was suddenly completely excited about this kind of sounds, and it's just an accident, but it was some kind of sounds people have been waiting for or something ... and on the other side, there were a lot of computer musicians who were trying to make these sounds also, but with computers. But, on Hotel Paral.lel, there is no DSP, no Macintosh.

Is it the one you recorded in your garden ?
The one i recorded in my garden ( ) is the only laptop album i ever did [...] For me it was a time of being a bit more insecure, and not so confident than with th other things. I was not able to listen to this album after i made it. I just listened to it recently again, and then i found it ok, not everything, but for my own personel development, it was ok. But, during the time that i produced it, i was not very happy, i was not feeling so good. I did not get a lot of support, I always had to ... still now, i still have to fight. People are trying to pull me down all the time and say what i do is shit ... At this time, this feeling was even stronger. For me it was much better if i isolate. I don't give a fuck about anyone else, and just develop my music. That's why i came back to Endless Summer. I also have to say that during the time when i recorded the Touch album, i was very interested in software, processing... I was also trying to write my own kind of enviroments on the computer. At this time, for me it was really interesting to go deep into the software, that's why the album is maybe so, a bit cold, abstract ... But i really wanted to try this, i was totally excited about it. That's affect, you know.

And then there was the plays 7" ?
Plays is something completely different for me. It's another stream in my musical thinking, some idea of song. I remember when i was producing this, i felt extremely strong. I thought i could do everything at this time. It was like a magic time for me. I was just trying out things and suddenly, i had this half of a track that made me really happy. So i went on working on it, and thinking it was something special.

How did you work on this 7", since the result is so surrealistic ?
There are different approaches on those two tracks. The first one, the Rolling Stones cover, which is older, it' s from 1995 or 96, was entirely made on a sampler, during the Instrument sessions. And the second one, i made two years later, the Beach Boys cover. It's a completely different process. In this case, i was transcribing the whole track : the voice, the bass line, the string section, everything ... I had it on a piece of paper, and i was trying to rebuild it with my own equipment and sounds. So i started to play a bass line, but i just made an abstract bass line with just a few notes that make the harmony changes work. It was an extremely long lasting experience but i was so focussed on it. I didn't have this very often in my life as a musician, but i remember there were a couple of hours where i thought i had gold in my hands, it's very strange.

The pop format is an obvious link between plays and Endless Summer..How did you have the idea of Endless Summer ?
I had this idea for a long time actually. I knew that the next record on Mego was going to be very melodic one and a simple one. I wanted to make something very simple and clearly working. I didn't want to talk around it. I got so frustrated about this image that computer music had. Always seeing, all the same laptop people doing the same shit in a way, all of them may be very interesting, but there was just something that i thought is not a bit too easy to do and then i went to Australia, when was that ... like two years ago, i was on tour in Australia, and i got this really strong feeling ; I was living in Sydney at Bondai beach. I like surf culture for example, i'm really into this, it's something i find fascinating, not only the sport, but the overall attitude around it, it's like a religion. So i got this idea, making a record that may be called Endless Summer, not because of the Beach Boys compilation but because of this film, Bruce Brown's movie of the late 60's that my brother, who's a surfer, introduced to me. Only later, i realised that there is this compilation on Capitol Records that i wasn't aware of. I have many Beach Boys records but not this one. And then i checked it, and said, "ok, it's fine". But then suddenly people were starting to write Endless Summer is another Beach Boys cover versions. It's not, it's all my tracks.

But we can feel this kind of Beach Boys spirit in it ?
Yes of course. It is the spirit of simple things i'm just fascinated with. Spirits of good will, hapiness, but that's not working, there's this melancholy over it. A state that is not reachable, something you see but you can't reach and you always long for it. It was these feelings i've tried to express a bit or so.

Your music is much more connected with reality (references to musics, images and places) than most laptop artists' works ?
I want to break rules, and clichés.You have so many genres, every month they invent something new, like clicks and cuts and all this... Now it's click house and i'm supposed to be glitch rock. I think it's really stupid. It's made by people who are not able to see the world as it is, it's complicated, and they try to make it easier. It's not easy. I'm against this, and i'm against this whole aesthetics that comes with every genre. Once i've been playing in New York, America is very special for this. I was wearing a shirt which was more like a designer shirt. In a mailing list people complained, saying "That it's not a possible that a computer musician is wearing designer's clothes." You have to this kind of haircut and look like a student ...i'm not into this. For example, when i started to play live... In Berlin there was the first Phonotaktik festival where they really tried to put this music in spaces where it's normally not shown. There was never a stage. But they didn't succeed with this idea. And just as rock bands we have to go on a stage again. I was always against stages. I always said "I don't have to play on a stage, i can be somewhere", this music doesn't have to be shown on a stage, it's boring, there's nothing happening. But it was absolutely not possible to change anything, and it's still this way. Everywhere i go i have to be on a stage. Then i think, even if i don't like it, when i'm on a stage then i want at least stand for what i'm doing, even if it's boring. I'm an official person when i do this, I don't want to piss off people, being arrogant, which i have seen so many times in electronic music. I don't like a sitting audience for example, i feel stupid when people are sitting and staring at me. For me it would be better to have a constant flow of going in, going out, talking, drinking, whatever. The good thing for me tonight is that it was very intimate. It was a small place, but if it had been a bigger place, like ... I had this before at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, it's a seated audience in a theatre. You stand on a stage and you have one thousand people sitting and staring at you. It's not working for me, there's something wrong. They see a person in front of his computer, ok, why are they looking at this?

Tonight, your performance was quite pop in the format, i mean one could recognize elements and motives from Endless Summer...
It's always improvised. But i'm improvising with parts, today i was using a lot of Endless Summer material, which is more structured in itself. I'm into this idea. At the moment - it could change, i might be doing something different in two months - i like it when people recognize a track that i made, it makes me feel proud. Sorry, but for me it's nice.

What is your position on the debate of laptop music in a live format ? We have sometimes the impression to be attending a great digital swindle. Do you think it's important to be a musician to make laptop music ?
Musician or not musician is not the question for me. The question is boring or not boring. Because you don't have to be a musician to make good music. Someone who's got the feeling for it is a musician. I think the audience gets used to this music with what is fake and what is good. This was not happening two or three years ago. Today, i have the impression they are a bit more sophisticated, you can't give them shit or fake.

In The Wire, i read, that your recent compositions reminded you of your early musical experiences as a child ...
I don't know, i probably need a psychoanalysis or something, but i have this old box of cassette tapes that i have been recording when i was starting at ten or eleven. In my parents house there was this little room in the garden, outside the garden house, where i had my guitar, there was a harmonium and my parents had a cassette recorder, a 70's cassette recorder, with a microphone that was really crap ; and i was recording everything i did, i was so fascinated. I was spending like 8 hours a day in there. I was putting the microphone in the guitar, i put everything on the wild side so that was distorting, it sounded like a heavy metal guitar, same with the harmonium, then with guitar pedals and electric guitar then, when i was thirteen. When i listen to those tapes, it has so much to do with what i do now again. And it seems that this rock group things i had was just a compromise. And that, everything i did afterwards is so much more related to this early past. It's fascinating. When i listened to it i recognized the tracks and the melodies and thought "Oh my god, it's actually quite good, i should use it again". I had this big magic childhood, normally people don't have this, but i was really a happy kid, i felt so good.

In the light of your latest pop album, how do you see your improvised works ?
That's something i'm still interested in. At the moment, i don't want to do too many colaborations or too many improvised gigs, but if it's the right people and the right time and if it's not happenning too often then i really enjoy, because it keeps the music player in me alive. I enjoy playing with other people actually, it's not that i'm tied with this isolation idea. Yes, with my own production, i am, but ... as a player, working with people like Keith (Rowe) is fantastic, it is a challenge. He plays a tone and theres a whole universe in it, a own personal universe.

Do you make differences between your collaborations with Pimmon, Rehberg, Rowe on Ritornell, and the Fennoberg project ?
For me it belongs to the same part of mine. Fennoberg is maybe a bit more pop, in a weird way. It's funny music. There's a new one. It just has to be mastered. All the material is from two live recordings, one in Paris and one in Vienna. And it's a bit different , more serious, kind of adult Fennoberg. Deeper with more drones. Not so funny, Still funny but more mellow.

Weren't you supposed to work on a project with Jim O'Rourke ?
Yes, we've been trying for many years. The schedule is just not possible. When i have time, he has no time, and the other way round. So, we were thinking about sending cds and sounds. It's so hard. It can only work if there's a big label saying "ok, we stuck you together guys for two months, it's super studio and now work off something, we'll pay you for this." Otherwise i think it doesn't work.

You also collaborated with various dance companies ...
That is a very early work i did with a Viennese Dance Company i stopped working with then. After having had really bad experiences with dance music, now i only work with Mi-Octobre, Serge Ricci's Dance Company. Once he got a contact with me and asked to make music for his new piece. When i met him and the company i felt extremely well with them. He's probably the only choreographer who is on the same wave length as me. It's absolutely nice to work with him. It's the second piece now, première was last week, and i'm going to do the third one also, it's like at trilogy.

Maybe it was what you were looking for, not being on stage.
Actually for the first piece, i was on stage, playing live. But people are not staring only at you, they are staring at the dancers, it's something different, so you feel bit more relaxed.

And how do you compose, do you compose something and propose it, or is it a collaboration ?
The interesting thing with Serge Ricci is that i see what he makes, and i don't know much about dance, and i understand ; and when i present something, he understands. We just share a very similar approach. For the first piece, i was just improvising all the time, but i always used the same samples, a bank of 20 or 25 samples which i was creating tracks with. What i did always worked so well, it was always recognizable. For the new piece, i really compose the music, it's like almost 60 minutes of music, it's like a big soundtrack, more minimalistic, ambient. It's called Humour.

Will you publish these works ?
I don't know, i didn't think about this. It's just finished now, maybe yes. For me, it's music that was made for something, and i don't know if it works on a CD or not.

Any other plans ?
I'm starting to work on a new record. I'm working on ideas for a new album for next year which will be a bit more jazz.

Interview réalisée par Christophe Taupin et Cyrille Lanoë.
Remerciements à Isabelle Piechaczyk.

Fennesz Hotel Paral.lel (Mego)
Fennesz Plays (Moikai/Mego)
Fennesz Plus forty seven degrees 56' 37" Minus sixteen degrees 51' 08" (Touch)
Fennesz - Endless Summer (Mego)
Fennesz - Field Recordings 1995-2002 (Touch)