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Stephan Mathieu

A l'issue du duo de musique improvisée Stol, le batteur Stephan Mathieu se lance dans un projet solo de musique digitale sous le nom de Full Swing. Mathieu continue la production sous son propre nom et signe le fantastique FrequencyLib, sorte d'album souvenir de pop digitalisée, et Heroin, disque conceptuel, fruit d'une collaboration avec son ami Ekkehard Ehlers. Après une période des plus productives, jalonnée de productions pour les labels En/Off, Bottrop-Boy, Fällt et Lucky Kitchen, Stephan Mathieu décide de faire une pause bien méritée, moment idéal pour un bilan. Avant sa performance au Festival I.D.E.A.L, en mars dernier, Mathieu a accepté de répondre à quelques questions.

At the beginning of your carreer was Stol. How would you define it and how do you relate it to what you are doing now? Was it a switch or a continuity to start working with the digital media after being a percussionist ?
Stol was a band, a guitar player and me, we worked for ten years. I'm coming from improvised music, I spent the nineties in Berlin as a drummer, played with very different people ; but Stol was like a homebase. It became a band, which is not so usual in the improvised music context, it is more like combinations. I started working with a computer when Stol was finished.
I played less and less projects, i just focussed on this duo situation. We had this contract with Kitty-Yo which was fantastic for us as an improvising band to have a contract with a pop label. We made a Ep for them, then we were working on an album, and during this process we finally split up. I had bought a computer to make these recordings - we wanted to make it at home in my living room - so i learnt to work with it. It was my first computer. When the band was terminated, i was alone with my drums, and i said, ok now i have the drum, there is something missing : the guitar. But i have the computer. So i worked very much with this. And now, i'm really able to do my music on my very own.
From the sound aesthetics, it's like an extension, for me it's almost the same if I play drums or i'm processing sounds, it's the same person behind it. Of course it sounds different but it's pretty much the same idea.

Can you reproduce the same immediacy, the same freedom in the production of sounds?
It's a completely different process, if you sit there with your machine. Also because i'm working less and less in real time, for the programs i'm using, i have to wait. I give them something to work and then i have to wait, it's not working in real time. Playing drums is absolutely real time music, so there's a big difference, but in the end it's very alike.

The first thing you did was the Laub remix, and then the Summer Ep for Orthlorng Musork, it's really dynamic. To me, these are probably the most dynamic works you did with the first track on Wurmloch Variation... Was it because you had still this rythmic logic ?
No i can't say so. The first Wurmloch piece, the Laub remix and the Full Swing Ep, these are the very first pieces i made. I made them the first six months. As soon as i started to work with a computer, i never wanted to program beats, i always thought i have to play the beats. I don't like sequencing. Until now, i haven't found a way to work with rhythms and beats , i'd really like to go back there.

You never reworked the sounds of your drum kit ?
The two tracks of the Full Swing Ep are both completely made out of drum sounds. In fact, both tracks are made out of one sound, the reverberation of my floor tom, without the hit, just hummm. From this tone, one and a half second long, both pieces are made out of this.

What is the origin of the Full Swing name ?
Everything happened very fast. Kitty-Yo invited me to do this remix for Laub. I had to finish soon, and the record had to be finished two months later. I could not take the decision to release it under my name... And there is a sound whose technical term is "Full Swing" - when the speakers make this movement from plus to minus, very fast, that's a full swing. And a friend said, "oh there's a full swing in this music ... And I said wow, that's a very nice word, so i picked up this name. And it still somehow sticks with me. But in the meantime, I really wanted to release the music under my name.
The strange thing was when I played last year at Mutek, I was invited to play a Full Swing set and a Stephan Mathieu set.

So, do you make a difference between the two ?
No, i actually do not do it. But there, I had to define it. So the Full Swing things I see as the hip clubby thing, and what i do under my own name it's more ... pure ... With Full Swing a couple of the edits i made have these dub ideas which I don't have with things I do nowadays.

Is one project more conceptual than the other ?
No, in the end it's the same. But if somebody asked me today to make a Full Swing thing, i would approach it more in a clubby context, but with this big science.

Could you tell me the story of FrequencyLib ? Could we define it as "digitalized souvenirs" ? Why have you chosen these tracks. On the CD, it's mentionned that it has been compiled by Ekkehard Ehlers, did you have much more musical material ?
No, not really, what Ekky did was mainly the arrangement of the pieces on the CD : which one is track one, which one is track two. The playlist, that's what he made for me. There were two or three more pieces, and he said, "Don't use them it's ok like this". I asked him to do this for me, because I had these thirty pieces and I did not know how to arrange them. It's very important for me when i make a record, it's like a composition out of different pieces, just as a story. I left this part to him, because i just could not do it, i was trying this and that combination and got almost crazy.

Why did you chose these particular tracks as sources ?
The initial idea has to do with the Full Swings Edits. I was asked by a couple of people to do remixes, and I was always looking for special frequencies in their music, like things that promised for me a little pop appeal, I was looking for these parts and worked with them. I mean none of the Full Swing Edits really has a pop appeal, maybe the Laub piece. But all the others things are pretty dark, like black holes where time stands still and so. But I was looking for this in the original sources of Monolake or Kit Clayton. Then I met Ekkehard - in the meantime he was a very good friend of mine - who was working with samplers which has always been a big taboo for me, I never wanted to take foreign people's material and just use it. But at this point I thought, I just tried it, also because I thought : "There is this huge pool of music I know and I love , there are so many frequencies, and I want to try them as my material". At the same my point, my daughter was very interested in music, she wanted to listen to these Bob Dylan CDs over and over again ... I just discovered Napster - it was in the very last months when Napster existed - and i thought "The Carpenters. Search it and play it for Lucy", and said , "Hey look this was one of my favourite song" ... Because i always have this pop music in my head it was like a sport for me. "Ok there's this R.E.M song, i have to find it now...". My girlfriend was on the telephone speaking about a song, saying , "There's this song, who made it ..." I heard this conversation, searched for it and two minute later I said, "Hey listen" . I was really fascinated by this big big music box and found 200 of my favourites songs and thought i have to do something with these ghosts in my head. At the same point i had an invitation from Fällt in Ireland to make an album. I just started to work with Beatles and Beach Boys stuffs and I said ok, i'll make an album out of this. So FrequencyLib was originally made for Fällt, for Christopher, but in this process we had this heavy argument about artwork and conceptual things and we both said fuck you , go home, do it somewhere else. So that's how it landed at Ritornell. When I offered it to Achim Szepanski, i wanted to have it on Mille Plateaux. He wanted to relaunch Ritornell, because it was sort of going down and he wanted to have it on this label. It's dead in the meantime, it's such a pity. For me it wasn't a Ritornell album. The picture I have of Ritornell was more like WurmlochVariation, to me it was like a new contemporary music thing.

Would you agree on the fact that it's appropriation and restoration of the essence of the track ?
For me, a very personal essence of the track.

It's funny you mentionned your daughter, since I have the impression that the cover is a digitalized picture of toys.
The cover image was the thing why it did not happenned on Fällt. Because Chris who runs Fällt is a designer. He offered me so many things and i said no, no , i want to have it more pop. I dont't want to have these glitchy digital things but in the end i made the cover myself, it's from one of my favourite children books. What's the guy with long nails and hair, Shockheaded Peter is the english name. It's a german children book where you learn don't fight, don't play with fire, when you eat at the table, don't play with your chair. It's a picture from this book reduced to a desktop icon.

There is an educational value at several levels ... A transmission value...
I have this sense, I'm also teaching, i really like to give my ideas to other people, see what they do and also get their opinions and ideas.

You teach digital arts , which forms does it take?
It's mainly based on music. So I'm giving an introduction on electronic music but more from from the digital side . So I start basically with Xenakis and moves to Terre Thaemlitz, Markus Popp, the GRM people. Discussing music, listening the stuffs, giving people an introduction in software and i try to animate them to find their own way up with it. Not to try and make these drum & bass beats, to find their very own way. It's important for me to, especially with software, to take it and use it. Don't read the manual, just use it and see what happens.

As such, do you put your teaching in parallel with your personal works ?
It's the only way i can teach.

Ekkehard Ehlers says his personal musical works help him to document his theoretical studies. Is it the same with you ?
I mean , Ekkehard and me are very different. He's a man of the world, he can talk, his work is very conceptual, I also work very conceptual, but I can't talk about it. My concepts are very inside. I think it's ok, because every time i try to talk and explain, I feel very uncomfortable. It's ok to have it covered by something and people should find their way to interpret it.

The "Gute Nacht" piece is both on your FrequenLib album and Plays John Cassavettes by Ekkehard Ehlers.. What is the story about this ?
The point of this thing is Ekkehard was also mastering FrequencyLib for me. When he heard this Gute Nacht piece, he said oh it would be the perfect B side for John Cassavettes ... He asked me if i would do a ten minute version. And we both liked the idea to have this "Ekkehard Ehlers plays" and one piece is completely by me. It's my piece, i made it for him. It's not about switching personality ...

Can you tell me about the Heroin album ?
We've been touring. Ekkehard, Akira Rabelais and me. And in Rotterdam there was Frans de Waard, from Staalplaat and the band Goem. After the concert he invited me for a sort of carte blanche. The idea was to go in an artist house, in his home town, the Netherlands, with a guest of my choice and spend there one, two three weeks ; how much we want and work on an album for them. So Ekky and me, we've been friends for two years and we always said, we have to do something together but instead, when i visited him or he visited me, we just hanged around, listening to music and we never did something. So we said, "Hey come on that's the chance. We go to Nijmegen and produce something there". In the end, we had one week, that's what we could match, and it was a very productive time. We produced the complete album, when we left we just had to master it. Ekky made one side of the Robert Johnson 7", and i made like five or seven pieces for FrequencyLib and a single for Bottrop Boy, everything in seven days.

How did you elaborate the music ?
The most interesting for us is that we heard there was a rock rehearsal space. So it's an artist recording studio, which was not so much of interest for us because we work with our own computers and microphones and stuffs. But this rehearsal space with drums, guitar was interesting for us. So we wanted to scan it, play the instruments and record them, and take this as source material. It's what we did.

Did you play drums there ?
I brought my own drum set with me , I unpacked it there for the first time in two years and when i was hitting the drum - I really love my instrument, somebody made it for me and I really love the sound - but when I unpacked it I could not stand it, it was so direct. I agreed I couldn't play the drums, not technically - because I never practice, I just sit down and play - but because it was hurting my ears and everything. So what I did with the drums was like some real experiments with microphones and speakers and feedback. On Heroin, there are these two Blue Baby pieces which sound like a sine wave, that's the feedback, it sounds like test tones or so, but it's a drum. In the middle and at the end. I had a microphone, i had a drum between my legs and the microphone went to the mixing board to the speakers. The drums were starting to resonate when i was moving it very slowly the tom was like "hummm", it was changing. This was my way of playing the drums. Then we played a lot of guitars, very cheap broken guitar, we recorded this and organ, melodica, jaws harp, blue harp. The idea was really about scanning, like you have an image and you scan it and you take it to photoshop and process it. This was our approach with these instruments , to have it as pure and also working with the essence of the instrument.

And what about the remixes ?
We did not want to have a remix album in this classical sense. Basically we sent the CD to friends or people we like, and ask them to continue what they hear, like a ... Do something in this way . That's why we asked these three guitar players : Christian Fennesz, Josef Suchy and Oren Ambarchi. We wanted to have this rock spirit somehow, because Christian Fennesz is a band person. That's why we made this choice. We asked them to do something new or rework old stuffs, but they did not have to use our stuffs. We also made a CD with outtakes, material which we did not use. Some people worked with this. Some people did something entirely new, Takemura did a very classical remix. We are very happy with this.

Other projects with Ekkehard Ehlers ?
This year we are going to work on something new. In Berlin, there's this musical instruments museum, they have very rare instruments from all the ages, like this walking stick violin, and other very curious instruments. I recorded there and we want to do something together with this material. But at the moment, mainly, I have to take my time, because I did so much in the last two years, and I need a big break, so I want to slow everything down.

About the visual part of your performances. How do you work on them ?
I'm using one thing, it's a patch that a friend wrote for me, it's a very simple. I can control colours. I'm not so happy about how it will be tonight. It's really depending on the projector's strength, otherwise ... I'm not sure how it will work tonight. But the main idea is to have, i'm not on stage when i'm peforming, and i want to give people they can look at. It's just a big monochrome coulourfield which very slightly fades from pink to blue in fifty or sixty minutes, it's pulsating very softly, like a visual drone somehow.

Have you been offered by Ekkehard Ehlers to issue an album on Whatness, which is interested in the combination of visuals and music ?
He has a very nice idea, but I don't know if it will happen. There's a German writer and journalist, Dietrich Dietrissen, he's really very famous. Ekky had this idea to make like a fairy tale record, where he reads a fairy tale and I make the music for it. But Whatness is very slow because they do not have very much budget. So it might happen in the next two years.

Recently you issued an album on the Lucky Kitchen label. I don't know this one, how would you describe it ?
At the moment, I think it's my favourite music by myself. Tonight, my live set will be based on material from this CD. It's two sound installations, because i'm doing installations, it's very important for me, I really like this. One is for a Glass Exhibition, and the other is for Cultural Heritage, old iron works : One very long track which is originally an eighty minute loop, it's a permanent installation running on the outside, in a very nice area. The interesting point for me is that generally it's difficult to have a sound installation and release it on a CD without the context, the room and everything. But, I think both installations work very well in living room. It's the idea to have like an installation for your home, even if I don't write this on the CD. But it works very well for me as "musique d'ameublement".

You obviously like pop music. Have you never been tempted, as Ekkehard Ehlers with März, to do a pop album ?
I'd really like to do a pop record but I have to find my way. It's a long way. I can't sit down and read a manual and learn how to work with a sequencer to make beats ... I have to find my way always, somehow. I've been talking with Ekky about it for two years ... We'd like to do something with beats, strings, vocals. Something different from März. I'm very much into soul like Tweet, it's produced by Timbaland. I'd like to do something like this but with my own language, of course. This would be pop music I'd like to do. At the moment, I'm very much interested in the idea of musique d'ameublement [...] I think it should be an essence, like Satie said, it has to make the sound of the dishes more comfortable. I like this idea of creating a good environment. What's interesting for me with sound installations, is that it brings my language into popular or public context, it's a very interesting task for me.

Interview réalisée par Christophe Taupin en mars 2003.
Remerciements à Annibale de Dense et Kitty Hartl.