Christian Fennesz: Interview
“I totally love to work with things that can go wrong or go random.”
Christian Fennesz is an Austrian guitarist and electronic musician. His 2001 album, Endless Summer, is one of this decade's definitive recordings. Its warm, melodic ambience coupled with startling passages of crackling electronics and noise were focused into a then nearly unheard of pop context. The album's 2004 follow-up, Venice, marked a noticeable change toward a darker, more ethereal tone in his work. The last few years have seen two collaborative albums between Fennesz and former Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto, a guest appearance on black metal group Ulver's Shadows of the Sun, and reissues of both Hotel Paral.lel, his first full-length, and Endless Summer on Editions Mego. He recently released a new solo album titled Black Sea that fuses all of the aspects of his prior recordings into a fluid and cohesive new sound.
I caught up with Christian for a telephone interview a few days prior to the release of Black Sea. Among other things, we talked about the differences between his major recordings, what kinds of techniques and equipment he uses, his plans for upcoming releases, and how to avoid getting interrogated by airport security.
How do you perceive this album to be different from Venice and Endless Summer?
Well, I mean it's obviously different from Endless Summer. I think the main difference is that there is no concept behind it. I had no fear to use longer tracks, which is something I've never done before. I also have the impression this time that the album could work as one long composition, whereas all of the records I've done before were really more like a collection of songs -- so maybe that is different too. I also used some new production techniques that I had not used before. There are a lot of microphone recordings and a lot of room recordings as well. I used a lot of digital modeling synthesis together with real instruments, and I was trying to blend those two elements to get a very special sound, or at least I hope so.
So, was this album composed as one long piece that you went into and divided into separate tracks later on?
No, not really. It was actually the other way around. But in the end when I did the final mix, I got the impression that it works as one long piece, maybe more than the other records did. All of the tracks kind of connect.
With regards to that, there are sections of silence at the beginning and end of “Glide.” Was that purposeful?
Yes, actually. [Laughs] It was purposeful.
What significance does the title Black Sea hold?
This time it was random. It's not site specific, the concept behind it. I just like the atmosphere of this title. I thought it could work for the whole mood of the album. To say it with colors, I would say it has a more grayish/bluish tone this time. Maybe Venice was brown or dark blue and Endless Summer was definitely yellow, orange, and red. [Laughs] That's the easiest way to describe it, to use colors. It just felt interesting, but there's no concept behind it. It just came to my mind and I used it.
Both Venice and Endless Summer have Jon Wozencroft artwork. When you came up with the title for this one, did you already know that you were going to work with him again for the artwork?
Yes I did. I think Jon immediately starts collecting ideas as soon as he knows the title. And I had the title already like three or four months ago. He came up with some ideas and I've been sending him mixes. It's teamwork, what we do. I have to say I'm happy with the artwork again; it's great.
Can you describe the creative process on this album? Was it difficult as opposed to Venice or the collaborations you've done in the years between?
Um, yes it was kind of difficult. For me it's like that. I really have to have something that I can stand for. If I feel I have nothing to say, then I don't want to release anything. I've been writing music for the four or five years since the last solo album, but nothing seemed to be strong enough. Expectations are getting higher and higher, of course, and especially because there's such a gap in between the records. So it's not easy. At a certain point, you just can't think about that anymore though. Then I just went for it. The last three months of recording, I had the impression this could work as some kind of statement at least. The process is like that. I work on and off for years, and I throw away things that I'm not happy with; I start again, and then in the last two or three months I actually do it.
So in the four years between this and Venice, would you say that most of the work that took place for Black Sea was in the last year or so?
I started collecting ideas and trying out sounds and composing little parts here and there nearly four years ago. Some of this material made it onto the record in the end. I think the whole album... in the last three months is when it begins to take shape. It's not that I'm not working on it. I think that I have to go through this process each time. I have to build up things, throw them away, and start all over again. Then it works.
So basically you take the time to grow compositionally until you're in a place where you can create something different than what you were doing before.
The CD and vinyl versions of Black Sea are a little different. The vinyl only has six tracks compared to the CD's eight.
I know. It's a bit strange. The problem is that vinyl doesn't sound good if it runs too long. So we had to skip two tracks, but that was actually the decision of the label. I was not so happy with that, but they convinced me that was the only way to go. So I accepted, but for me the whole album has the eight tracks. So I suggest for people buying the vinyl to at least download MP3s of the other two tracks.
Were you at least given the decision as to which tracks were cut?
We discussed it, but they suggested to take out those two tracks. It's actually teamwork between three people, so that's what we did.
You collaborated with Rosy Parlane on “Glide,” but this isn't the first time you've worked with him. You also had a live album together. Did you work with him knowing that this time it was going to be on the album?
Well, this track is actually based on a live recording that we did last year in Paris. It was Touch night in Paris, and Rosy and I played together. I listened to the recordings afterward, and I thought that this could really be fantastic for my album. I asked Rosy if he would be into that and he agreed. What I did then was add other elements like strings, guitar, bass and other things in my studio. But the basic track is a live improvisation that I did with Rosy.
"I still find a wall of distorted guitar sounds extremely interesting, and that's why I'm still using it."
So was there a lot of post-production work on it?
There was, yes. But the basics are these live recordings. I added real strings, but played through a sampler.
I read another interview where you mentioned having formal music education. How has this affected your compositions? Do you consider your work to be academic?
I do have some musical education, and I've been studying musicology for a while, but I have to say it doesn't really affect my work at all. I'm lousy with writing music. I can do it a little bit, but I'm not good at it at all. I'm really a sequencer/composer, a computer composer. It can help when you build up chord changes, harmonies, and all that, but basically I am not academic at all.
On your website you have a research page, but it's never been used. What kind of things did you intend to place there, and do you have any plans to update it anytime soon?
I didn't have a clear idea. I thought maybe I could come up with something for the future. I've had absolutely no time to put anything up there yet.
Did you intend to use it for ideas you were going to work on?
Yes. Ideas or like an exchange platform for other people to communicate. Maybe people could upload their DSP patches and I could upload mine. Something like that. I have to find a concept for how it could work, but those are some of the ideas I've had.
You mentioned working with patches. What other kinds of equipment are you using now, and are you using guitar pedals in conjunction with the patches?
Actually, I use everything. I don't have just one way for guitar recordings. It's always different. I use Max MSP, Reactor, and also Guitar Rig. I also use classic Fender and Vox amps. I use lots of old pedals. I have many distortion pedals that I love to use, many older Boss pedals and harmonizer things. It's a mixture of analog and digital, which I like. I'm glad to be able to work in a nice recording studio that is owned by a friend of mine. That means I can use all of his great microphones. Basically anything that's available as far as software and classic guitar pedals.
In every live video I've seen, you're using a Fender Stratocaster; is that the main guitar you use for recording as well?
The black and white Fender Stratocaster has been my main guitar for many years. Most of the guitar tracks on Endless Summer and Venice came from this guitar. I've been changing things though. I have a new guitar, a Fender Jazzmaster now. All of the electric guitar sounds on Black Sea are made by this Jazzmaster.
All of the guitar sounds that you got on Black Sea are fantastic. What kinds of acoustic guitars did you use for it?
Nothing special, I have a nylon string guitar and a very old Fender acoustic guitar. It's really just some cheap guitars that sound nice. I'm used to those old guitars and I've been playing them for so many years, and there's no reason to change. Of course one day I hope I can buy a nice Martin or something, but I'm happy with the old Fender acoustic right now. What I do a lot is experiment with microphones and pre-amps for acoustic guitar recording. This is something that always changes. I'm constantly trying to learn.
When we were talking a moment ago about the pedals you use, I wanted to bring up the Siemens Telefunken box that you've been using.
You mean the distortion box? The custom made box? That's a very weird story actually! A couple of years ago... no, it must have been five or six years ago already, a guy from Germany drove down to Austria and came by our studio. I didn't know him and he introduced himself and said he had been building this box for me. I was really surprised, so I checked it out and it just sounded amazing. He called it the Master Distortion. It's really incredible. I think he built three or four of them; one for John McEntire (of Tortoise/Sea and Cake/Gastr Del Sol), one for Kraftwerk, and one for me. So I was really lucky to get that thing. It came completely out of nowhere, and it was completely unexpected. I've been using it ever since, and it's a fantastic box. It is built from old Siemens Telefunken transistors from the '60s and '70s.
What exactly does it do? Does it just randomize the kind of distortion produced?
It does. It does things that are completely unexpected sometimes. It's really weird and kind of hard to describe. Sometimes the effect is very small. For example, the track on Venice with David Sylvian (“Transit”) has this kind of broken guitar sound that came from this distortion box.
I was reading that you had some trouble transporting it when you were touring, so I take it you no longer use it when you play live?
That's changed now, because I've had someone build a smaller, lighter box that is transportable. I think I'll take this one on the road. The larger version looked like a bomb. I had so much trouble with airport security. It was so heavy; it was this iron box that was about 15 kilos or so. It was impossible to transport. Now it's smaller, so I can actually tour with it again.
When we were discussing the pedal's ability to randomize, it reminded me of this quote by Jack Brewer that adorned the back cover of Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star album. The quote is: “Once the music leaves your head it's already compromised.” I was wondering if having a certain portion of your music left up to chance is kind of like admitting that if you already can't make it exactly how you want it, then you may as well add an element of surprise because it's never going to be perfect.
It is actually extremely important to me to have those “accidents” in the studio. I totally love to work with things that can go wrong or go random. I like to capture those things and transform them into something else. The aspect of errors and random directions and accidents is extremely important, otherwise it's no fun. It has to be good fun in the studio. Otherwise it becomes routine or boring.
So it's sort of like a purposeful pursuit of curiosity?
Exactly! [Laughs] Many of the sounds that you hear on my albums are actually the product of things that went completely wrong but then became extremely interesting.
Are you always recording when you're working on new compositions then?
I try to do that. Sometimes I just forget to press the button and then you can never reproduce something that sounded so great. It can happen, but I really try to record as much as I can. A good part of my studio work consists of just playing around, trying out things, and experimenting with unusual combinations of things as well. It's extremely important to always record because you can go back and cut things out later.
As far as your work is concerned now versus when you started, what kind of things inspire you now, and is it different from what inspired you to begin with?
It's always changing. I'm also getting older and my interests are changing. I watch a lot of films. I'm listening to a lot of West African kora music at the moment, especially Toumani Diabate. I'm not listening to much electronic music. I enjoyed the new Thurston Moore record.
Back in the late '90s and early '00s, when you were releasing Endless Summer and the Plays single, there was all this talk about how much it reminded people of The Beach Boys and My Bloody Valentine. Are you a big fan of those groups and how do you feel about the comparisons?
Yes I am, of course, but you know it wasn't my intention to sound like The Beach Boys. Actually the title Endless Summer came from the film about surf culture in the '60s. Of course, it was also connected to The Beach Boys and I do love Brian Wilson's work. With My Bloody Valentine, it's a generational thing I think. I was playing in bands at the same time, trying to make the same guitar sounds when they were around. Of course, it's an influence, but all the same I think many people were doing it at the time. I still find a wall of distorted guitar sounds extremely interesting, and that's why I'm still using it.
"I have to build up things, throw them away, and start all over again. Then it works."
Would you say that your work comes at experimental music from a pop perspective?
Maybe the other way around, but you might be right. I don't really know. I like to explore new terrain. At the same time, I'm always fascinated by pop music, but not as it stands now. I'm more interested in what's behind it. It's some kind of meta-reality that just gives. There's some magic in good pop music. I try to capture this kind of magic and find it in my own self. What I do is experimental, but there are memories of pop songs in it.
I know you said that you felt like this album was less pop-oriented, but there are still those trace elements, when you think you hear something but you're not sure.
Exactly! That's perfect! [Laughs] That's exactly what I'm trying to do: make music that makes you think you're hearing something, but you're not sure. I like this idea of hiding things and just leaving some trace of it.
So maybe it would be more accurate to say that you're shaping sound
into pop structure.
Maybe, I'm not sure, but maybe.
I want to talk about something that might be a touchy subject, so if you don't want to comment then I understand. Between Endless Summer and Venice you switched labels from Mego to Touch; what was the reason behind this?
I think I can make it very clear. Mego was not doing well at the time. After September 11, it was very strange. All of the American distributors went bust and they just couldn't pay anymore. It was a big economic problem that almost destroyed Mego. At the same time, I had been working with Touch already. I needed a safer place to release my records at the time. That was Touch. In the meantime, Mego has recovered. Peter Rehberg restarted the label as Editions Mego. I'm very happy that we were able to reissue both Endless Summer and Hotel Paral.lel there, and I hope it goes on like that. The label seems to be in good shape again.
So you still have a good working relationship with Peter Rehberg.
Absolutely! Actually I meet Peter at least once a week in the pub! We're really close friends and will work together in the future absolutely.
That's really good to hear. Are you going to be touring for Black Sea
Yes. We're working on that at the moment. We're trying to setup something. It will probably be Japan first and then Europe. This time, I really want to go to the states. I think it's about time to do more there. I'm looking forward to that I have to say. It's going to take a while of course, but sometime in 2009 I should be coming to the U.S.
That's great news for all of us.
It's going to happen this time. We're pretty sure about it, and we're already working on it, so don't worry.
Do you write while touring or do you leave that for when you're at home and just try to have fun on the road?
I do work sometimes when I'm traveling. When you're on the road, it can be really boring. Having a laptop makes it fantastic to work on the road. I at least try to collect ideas and even write some stuff.
Do you have any plans for other releases in the near future?
I've been doing some soundtrack work; one is for a Japanese science-fiction film called AUN and the other is for an Austrian experimental film called Film ist. A Girl & a Gun. There's going to be a Fennesz/Sparklehorse record out in March. It's for the Konkurrent label; it's one of those In the Fishtank albums. They just put us into the studio for two days to complete an entire album.
You worked with Mark Linkous on some material for the last Sparklehorse full-length too, but it didn't make the album right?
That was a bit of a misunderstanding. We did work together before, like three or four years ago. We were never really in the studio together though. This time, we actually really finished something together, so I'm excited. I may make a trip to his studio in North Carolina in the spring and start a new project with him.
The material that's going to be on this In the Fishtank album; does it sound like what someone might expect? Like Sparklehorse songs with Fennesz guitar textures?
I think it's very much what you might expect. The funny thing is that Mark was doing most of the electronics, and I was just playing guitar. It was almost the other way around sometimes. I think it's interesting. It's very calm and soft.
On some of the collaborations, specifically Cendre with Sakamoto and the track you were on from Ulver's Shadows of the Sun, it seems like there's very little of your signature sound. Did you intentionally take a hands-off approach and only play what you felt was needed?
Yes and no. With the Sakamoto record, the piano is immediately the most dominant. I felt like if I was to overwhelm his playing with a wall of sound, it would just be destructive and pointless. I was trying to go for a less-is-more direction. Maybe it's the same with Ulver as well. It's challenging to be as minimal as possible and just make sound only at the right moment. I kind of like that approach.
Working with artists like Merzbow and Isis for their remix projects did you ever see yourself going in the opposite direction and becoming even noisier?
It's something that I'm really interested in at the moment. It may be a side project or something that goes in that direction. I certainly have the need for more noise. I find it absolutely powerful.