Bill Kouligas (PAN): Interview
“It’s not a competition, it’s not a race. It’s a personal interest I’m working with here.”
Since 2008, Bill Kouligas’ PAN label has been responsible for an exceptional catalog of material that spans a remarkable dimension of avant-garde and electro-acoustic music. His releases range from the unclassifiable compositions of Rashad Becker to the intricate modulations of Keith Fullerton Whitman, exposing artists old and new to a diverse audience.
I met Kouligas in London the day after he had organized a show for the legendary Japanese collective Marginal Consort, whose latest live recording, Instal. Glasgow 2008, had come steaming-hot off the PAN press. The Greece-born visual artist, designer, and musician had also just finished working on 12-inch releases from HELM, Concrete Fence, and Black Sites, as well as full-length albums by Rashad Becker and Rene Hell, not to mention his three-week NYC showcase in July — when we hooked up, he was preparing for a well-deserved break.
I was keen to find out how he had the energy to put this whole thing together, how he managed to dedicate himself to outsider art in an industry constantly on the move, and where all of these projects are going to take him next. We met somewhere in the city’s financial district, with Eli Keszler, who released Catching Net on PAN last year — it played perfectly into the context of our conversation, as Kouligas described how the people he works with are often his good friends, and even if they aren’t, they soon build a relationship that transcends the music at hand. Indeed, this came to the fore straight away when I hinted at admiration for Kouligas’ dedication to the label.
“Sure,” he said, in a relaxed tone, “The main thing is that there is a heavy focus on my interaction with the music. I want people to realize that I don’t just release records and put on shows. That is a lot of fun of course, but there is a lot of work behind it.”
That’s a fantastic place to start. What’s going on behind the scenes?
There isn’t anything specific about what I do that binds it all together. Basically, it’s about being there and creating a network and caring about what happens. Of course I am hugely interested in the albums I release, and that’s one of the main aims of PAN. However, a lot of these releases are conceptual works and so many of these artists are working in different fields, and they are putting different things together; it’s not just like any random audio that you put on your MP3 player.
But that’s the environment a lot of your releases are projected into — is that something you have to take into account while there are so many other labels right now?
You have to remember that it’s not a competition, it’s not a race. It’s a personal interest I’m working with here.
Sure, but that background context is unavoidable in some respects, especially when this music is being picked up and written about so frequently — people sometimes read a review, they check a score, they download the music, and they listen. This is how listeners are consuming music, right?
Of course. I mean, I do the same thing sometimes. I can’t process everything but there is so much information out there, which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time, but that’s how it is. This is the contemporary state of music and that is why I think people need to put some extra effort into what they do — they need to present the full package — and think about what each release really means.
Who do you feel needs to put in the most effort in that situation?
It needs to come from both the audience and the artist. If they like something they need to devote more energy into understanding what it is. I think this effort is often missing and people just scan information quickly and just keep looking for the next thing, and I don’t really know what’s left after that. I’m curious to see how this is going to change things in the future.
Working with [Rashad Becker] on his own record is a very special thing. It’s like a sonic personification of the man.
So how do those consumption habits effect what you do with the label, when you are working on your next project or your next event?
Well, it doesn’t personally impact me, but it maybe alters my way of thinking: I want people get the full picture of each release. For example, this show last night, I released the record and I combined it with a live show so that people could experience what Marginal Consort is. It goes without saying that I’m so grateful for their release, but it doesn’t really translate the same way as the live performance, which is something very physical. A Marginal Consort show can last between three or four hours and when you are in the audience, you just lose any sense of time or space there, because you are in a trancelike state when experiencing this sound.
You have said that this is a very bold and personal release. How did you become aware of their work?
I was at the Glasgow Festival show in 2008, which is the show on the recording. I was just blown away. So slowly I got in touch with the festival and the people behind it and we communicated with the band and then we started working together. It took four years to do this — it’s one of the longest projects for PAN. The project went through many stages but I’m really happy that it’s finally out. It’s a very important release for me.
What does Marginal Consort think about the release? Are they pleased about specifically having a recorded show and making that available, particularly because the act is so performance-based?
Yeah, they were really happy about it. I think documentation is extremely important in these cases, always, because not everyone was in Glasgow for that show and not everyone was in London last night. For me, it’s essential to document these amazing events and get more people interested, to deliver more information about the concept and the thought behind it.
How do you think the release fits into the PAN catalog?
Well, as you know, there are so many things going on with PAN. There is always a starting point, but I like all of this music so much, and the reason it all fits in my head is because I can find a common ground with it. From a performance-art piece to free-jazz albums or whatever, I’m trying to create a platform that makes all of these things work, to present them well and to make them interact with each other. I’m also very interested to see how artists work within this platform, especially when I have somebody working in the dance or electronics scene with someone who works mostly in avant-garde, and vice versa.
When did the turning point occur? When did you decide that this is really something you want to do?
Well it started as a very small idea. I’m a musician myself and I was making experimental music for about 10 years: I play electronics, a bit of noise, and drums and electro-acoustic music. I’m originally a drummer and I used to play in bands for a long time. So basically I found there were things I wanted to release, and PAN just grew organically. It all flowed through my head, all these ideas.
Doesn’t that take a huge amount of effort on your part, to dedicate yourself fully as an independent label?
Sure. But that’s what I do. It is hard to explain in words sometimes. If you have a passion for something then this is what you put all of your effort into.
It’s interesting to see how that flows through your life and into the locations you have lived in, in terms of where the label has been based.
Sure, I was born and raised in Athens, and then I moved to London around 11 years ago to study graphics at UCA. I did my M.A. here. But while I was a student I was really active in the underground experimental scene.
How were you active?
I was putting on shows, organizing tours, playing a lot, collaborating with artists here. That’s how the label emerged. It started in 2008, exactly five years ago, and then I moved to Berlin in 2009 and continued in that city, and now I’m between New York and Berlin.
Is that because you saw something happening specifically in Berlin that wasn’t happening in London?
Well, I think it’s interesting to be influenced by the culture of a space because it’s important to understand how things work and what is happening around you. In Berlin that’s all about electronic dance music, which is really big there — London has its own scene, and New York has something else. I think it’s important to find the things you are fascinated with and meld them together.
How do the differences between those places play into the spectrum of artists you are working with?
It’s just about being from a different background; a different cultural view.
Did you find that you were therefore more productive in one place than you were in another?
Well, I have to say that London is my favorite city. But I moved to Berlin because it’s an easier city to exist in. It’s easier to focus on a creative project there, because Berlin is very cheap in terms of rent and living, it’s very affordable. So a lot of artists move there because they have the opportunity to rent a big space, like a studio, and have all of their hobbies going on around them — it’s just way easier. And, it helped me to find my own pace, to mature and find my own place to sit down and think, which helped me to work more carefully. But it was London that gave me the energy and the passion to go and do it.
What about Athens, then, the city where you were born? You released records from Jar Moff and Mohammad, which are probably two of my favorite albums that you’ve put out, and they are all based there at the moment.
Thanks, yeah, I have known all of those guys for a long time. Jar Moff is just a guy I have known through common friends. I have known him for almost 15 years now, since he was 13 or 14. We used to play concerts together — playing guitar in some bands, playing drums in others, and I just followed his creative practice throughout the years. He works a lot in the visual arts and in music of course, but he is renowned for his audio collages. We kept in touch after I left for London and he started working as Jar Moff at around that time. When he sent his material over, I was like, “Yeah, we have to release this.” It’s one of my favourite releases, Commercial Mouth.
How was that received, then? I mean, I’ve never been to Athens, but Berlin I know quite well, and I’ve worked in New York — but Athens, how is that sort of material received in the public domain?
Athens is a very interesting place in spite of the chaos and the crisis and all of the negative things that are happening there right now. These experimental projects bring another dimension to the actual city, and a lot of people are interested in what is happening with all these things, but I don’t think there is any ground to let them exist and develop…
You mean with funding?
Yeah, that. There aren’t too many shows going on either. But on the other hand there is a very dynamic scene and people are pushing it hard to get over the financial situation there.
What does the scene encompass? Are there any other artists from Athens you are working with?
Mohammad are a bit older and they have been around for a long time. They did two releases before Som Sakrifis, which came out on their own label. The band is a trio: One of them has a solo project called ILIOS, which I worked with in the very beginning, it was the fourth release on PAN — he is a sound artist and was very active in the late 1990s, playing with a lot of heavy sound art. There is Nikos Viliotis, who is a cello player, who plays a lot of improv music — he played in London a lot. And there is also Coti K, who is a producer and a sound engineer. He produced bands like Tuxedomoon, a lot of 1980s stuff — he has worked with a lot of people.
They are all in Athens right now. So I knew these people, I mean, I knew their work for a long time growing up. They have done some significant stuff for the Greek music scene, and then we became friends. I like Mohammad a lot so I asked them to work together.
Is there anyone else you are keeping an eye on in particular there?
I mean, there is an emerging beat-oriented scene. There is a label called Modal Analysis, which is a techno label, but they are doing some very interesting stuff and they are inviting all sorts of people over from abroad, which is really important. Athens is one of the biggest European cities, but if you look at it on the map, it’s like the last country towards the East. That makes it hard for touring bands and musicians to go and play there, so the young generation have fewer examples of contemporary music and less exposure to what’s happening. The situation there is the opposite of London, where you have all your heroes playing every day, and that creates a stronger scene. So let’s say everybody there is more of an outsider.
Of course you have the internet to inform people about what is going on, but it’s hard to understand the full effect of the culture. So anyway, Modal Analysis are doing a really big festival in February and they are bringing over 50 or 60 international artists to perform and I think that is really important; like there is more there to get excited about.
So is that the drive of the festival, that it’s more experimental?
They have a lot of experimental music, a lot of techno and dub. It’s like a leftfield electronic music festival.
Are you getting involved in it?
Yeah, I’m going to do something. Probably with Jar Moff and Mohammad because they are based there, and I might bring Russell Haswell over and maybe one or two others.
How are the Greek musicians received in particular by your audience, as opposed to some of the more well known musicians you have on PAN?
For example, Jar Moff was an unknown name, so listeners were just approaching it as something new, but the feedback was very positive. A lot of people like the record and he was invited to play a number of shows, which is great, because he has been making this music for a long time. It’s great that people are finally getting to hear his stuff.
That seems to be one of the running themes within PAN — that you are making suggestions with what you release.
Exactly, I think it’s important to suggest stuff and build an identity. I don’t only want to release things by people who have done a million releases. I like to work with reputable artists as well though, like Keith Fullerton Whitman and Mark Fell; it’s good they have released a lot of stuff, but it’s important to work with these lesser known artists too. It gets quite interesting when we put them all together — when we get Mark Fell and Jar Moff together with Heatsick and Eli, it’s totally different. It’s good to bridge the past to the present with artists who are more established because I think it creates a dialogue.
That’s part of it, for sure. But recently I saw an interview you had posted on the PAN website, with Self-Titled, and they had a comments section that got pretty nasty.
Oh, that comments section. We found out that the guy who was being aggressive is somebody who has been sending me demos for three years now. I just don’t like his music that much, and I can’t put out everything I get in the mail every day. I mean, I didn’t say anything bad, I said, “Thank you for sending me your music, we are very busy at the moment…”
… Oh no! So he just went on a comment section rampage?
Yeah. A lot of people are grumpy. And every time something is posted about PAN, he always says the same thing — something about the artwork looking “shit” — I can’t please everyone you know, nobody can.
For sure, but I mean the reason I brought the comments up was because people were also talking about an identity with the label and how important that is. It seems like the audience is consciously looking for the identity of whatever you are putting out. From what I have read, and from what you are saying, it seems like that is not something you are specifically tuned toward; it’s more about what you are specifically interested in aesthetically and your personal preferences, not to mention your personal contacts and your friends.
It’s not only about working with friends, it just so happens that I still play shows with lots of people and I release some of their material. It means I’m also traveling all the time with them, which is great. I just came from Latvia a couple of days ago, and, generally, I get to see a lot of music all the time. That way I find out what is interesting and what is not.
From a performance-art piece to free-jazz albums or whatever, I’m trying to create a platform that makes all of these things work, to present them well and to make them interact with each other.
Latvia is quite interesting. There is quite a nice scene there.
It was very interesting to go there, because I had zero expectations. I got invited to do this showcase, a label showcase at a festival called Skanu Mezs; it’s like a big electronic festival. I went with Eli and HELM, who is a London-based artist.
Oh yeah, Luke Younger.
Have you met him?
Not yet. But I loved his Impossible Symmetry record.
Yeah, it’s great, and it was perfect going there to perform together. It was in a huge, huge cathedral with 400 people and it was just amazing. The scene was crazy because, of course I know where Latvia is, but you know, what can you expect when nobody knows your music there? It was really positive to see such enthusiasm. I think there is something more and more happening in Eastern Europe every year — it’s really interesting because actually it has a huge tradition of music. Mostly with classical stuff, but for some reason, post-War, it all went downhill.
I think censorship during Communism had quite a lot to do with it. It’s changing quite rapidly. I’ve spent a bit of time in Ukraine and Slovakia, and it seems as though censorship warped the public perception of art, particularly in music and film. I mean, the strangest stuff would get censored, anything that was considered out-of-line with the regime, but when Communism fell in the early 1990s, that’s when people started getting access to outside, international art — and that seems to feed into a desire to hear abstract work.
Sure the people there are hungry to experience more of this music. In a way I know this because it’s sort of similar to the picture of Athens. Because you don’t get to see a lot of shows when art works are censored — you just get people going to see shows that have been approved by the state.
From your perspective, especially as you are so aware of the situation in Eastern Europe, what has drawn you New York? The scene is established and the enthusiasm has been there for a long time.
Well, I am between New York and Berlin at the moment. So I was in New York for five months, now I’m in Europe, and then I’ll be going back to the States in December. Travel is part of my personality. I like interacting with different cities and finding out what is going on. New York is so important in that there is so much happening there, so it is kind of important for me to experience it, plus I did a big festival in New York as well, which ran for three weeks.
Yeah, it looked like a huge project! How did it go?
It went really well. The main reason I moved to New York was to work on that. I planned to do a showcase there and it turned into a whole festival. I had offers from three different promoters to do something, so I suggested that we just combine forces and do something united. It became a three week festival, which again, was interesting because we had so many different types of shows; from something in a museum to a lot of experimental and improvised performances, which were all great.
Is it something you are going to be doing again?
It’s not an annual thing. But, I like being involved in all these things, I like curating shows, but I don’t want to predict what will happen. If I have something in mind then I will put it together of course.
It seems from your output that you are constantly on the go — I mean, you finished the New York event and then you released Rashad Becker’s LP and then Rene Hell…
Yeah, and in between I released two 12 inches, one by Black Sites and one by Regis and Russel Haswell as Concrete Fence. Then there was the new Helm 12-inch, which came out last week. And then with the Marginal Consort show. It has been a really busy time.
I’ve read interviews with you in the past where you are just plowing through all of the people you work with and the artists you are putting out music for. So when we planned to meet, I promised myself I wasn’t just going to run through the artists and ask about all of them, because I don’t just want to reel through musicians. But one release in particular that really struck me, aside from Mohammad, was the Rashad Becker album. What did you feel when you first heard that?
Rashad is a very special person to me. We have known each other for a very long time and he is actually very much a part of what the label is. He has been there since day one. He is integral to everything, not just what the records sound like. He has mastered and cut every release up to date, but when I started, I wasn’t aware of everything, production-wise. He was extremely supportive and enthusiastic about everything — and he has always been there for every release. So working with him on his own record is a very special thing. It’s like a sonic personification of the man.
Of all the work you have put out, Notional Species just stands out because of his approach. What did you like about it in particular?
One of things I like about Rashad’s music is that he might be working in a field that has been played so much, but he still finds his own voice. You might hear a lot of stuff that makes you imagine something else, but he constructs his music in a way that takes you to a different level. A lot of people who work in electro-acoustic music, they all operate in a specific background, but Rashad just works in his own unique way. I know every step of that record because I have seen him play it live so many times, and I have worked with him so often in the studio.
How did you guys meet?
I met him years before the label, I think we met through common friends. In fact, in the beginning, I didn’t know what he was doing — he was just our friend. He was visiting me in London loads when I was here so we have a great relationship. It was really important that I met him — I wanted to be a label but I needed to know more about how it worked and he helped me through it all.
How about that process then, of moving from design to even just putting out your first record — how did you make that leap of faith?
Well, I finished my studies and I was working in advertising in London. Music is where my heart is, so I had to make the decision; was it going to be design or music? I still work freelance as a designer but I just tried to combine all of my interests and make it one thing. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I don’t really see PAN as just a record label; I like the idea that it could expand into something else. All of these shows and the conversations between the records, the artists and everything — it’s all part of one idea. It’s not like I don’t want to do a traditional record label, it’s just like all of these people are doing so many interesting things, they all have different interests — look at Eli, he’s drawing now! [Eli is sketching something beautiful in his note book]. A lot of the artists I work with have an interest in critical theory, and in illustration, and in installation works, or even computer science, so I think it’s good to not only have an artist present his sound, but also his other interests and see how they interact with each other.
I have to say that of all the shows, last year’s CTM 13 festival in Berlin was just the perfect example of this; I had a one-day showcase at Berghain. There was Florian Hecker doing a sound installation in all three levels of the building, and I had Keith Fullerton Whitman playing with a huge modular synthesizer, and then Heatsick was playing with a broken Casio keyboard. I think that the whole flow of these ideas was really effective and that is what I love to do — it’s so important to give people the space and the room to express their talents and the things they like.
But that is my point, I guess. It’s a wonderful thing you were able to do with that project — it’s not like these things just happen. This comes from you, this comes from your operation — you need to have the contacts and the skills to make it work.
If you have the energy and the will to do things, you will just go and do them. Life is short.