Fennesz: Interview
“If I had a plan, it would be boring, but I don’t have a plan. I just see where it goes. I see where it leads me.”

Although the release of new work from Christian Fennesz is a common occurrence, the release of a new proper solo album isn’t. The man has been a factory of music production over the last several years, churning out soundtracks, remixes, singles, and collaborations with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Tony Buck, and Sparklehorse. It’s all been consistently fantastic, swathed with the waves of forlorn ambient noise so characteristic of his sound, but none of it held the title of an official Fennesz album, a pantheon of work inhabited by classics like Endless Summer, Venice, and Black Sea before it.

The new entry, Bécs, finally arrived earlier this year, and we at Tiny Mix Tapes love it. Christian Fennesz spoke with TMT from his Vienna studio about his inspiration for the album, how he differentiates between good and boring iPad apps, and why he’s finally enjoying playing live.


Can you tell me a bit about how Bécs came together? It’s been some time since Black Sea

Yes, that’s right. I’ve been doing many other things in the meantime; it’s not that I’ve been just sitting around doing nothing. I did some collaborations, some remix work, some film-music work. But it’s true, it’s about six years after the last proper solo album. I’ve been working on it for years, but not really working on it. I’ve been just collecting material, samples, ideas… but it never got anywhere, in any proper direction.

In the end, it unfolded in three weeks. The real production process actually happened within one month. I had material already and I had ideas, but I couldn’t get it together. Then suddenly there was one track, the title track, “Bécs.” Suddenly everything unfolded and all other things worked as well. I seem to need some years to think and get the confidence again to make a solo album.

I wanted to talk about a couple songs on the record in particular. On “Liminality” there’s this great distorted guitar drive and drum groove I don’t feel like I’ve heard on previous Fennesz efforts. Did you record this live with a drummer?

More or less, yes. I had the guitar track recorded. I went to the studio with Tony Buck, the drummer. He happened to be in Vienna for a few days, so I asked him to play on that track. He played to the [guitar] recording — we didn’t play [together] live. It’s got this live feeling because the guitar was quite roughly recorded, not really in time. I wanted to keep [its live atmosphere] — I didn’t want to make it really precise and clean.

I was curious, too, about the closing track, “Paroles.” I felt that song was really a summation of your sound. If I wanted to introduce your music to someone who had never heard it before, I’d have them listen to “Paroles.”

That song was happening really, really quick. I think it was only one day of composing, recording, and mixing. I heard this track from this 1960s — 1970s [-era] singer living in France. It’s a bit of an homage to that wonderful, beautiful piece of music.

I was trying to capture a bit of this 60s-70s French pop music, especially the way they arranged the music; the chords, minor seventh, whatever. These chords were used around this time really a lot. I wanted to capture a bit of that atmosphere.

Why should I work on a synthesizer that was made in the 1980s when I can get something on the VST [virtual instrument] platform that’s a lot more advanced? It’s more about the way you use it.

Do you have a regular routine for completing all your various sound work, or do you always wait for inspiration to “strike” you?

I do have a working routine, which I seem to respond well to. I go to the studio every day and I’m working on something. Whatever it is — could be film music, could be a remix, could be a collaboration project. At the same time, I’m always collecting ideas for my own work.

Of course I could release a record every year, but I wouldn’t be happy with it. It has to be the right time, it has to be the right moment. If it takes six years, it doesn’t matter.

We’re almost to the 13th anniversary of your Endless Summer album, which wasn’t only a classic album of the last decade, but an influential work. How do you feel when you hear the influence of your own work coming from other musicians?

I’m not listening much to other people’s music, to be honest, especially electronic musicians. I listen to old stuff, or classical stuff, whatever. Of course, I heard [Endless Summer has] been an influence to many people. That’s a nice thing… Apparently I’ve been creating something that’s opened up a few doors for other people as well.

I think a lot of what struck people was your mixture of melodic with atonal sounds, which has become a hallmark of your work. How did you develop that approach?

It’s quite simple: I like noise music a lot. For me, noise is something really beautiful. I also like the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I tried to make a combination of both. I was trying to hide some traces of FM radio from the 70s within my music, so people can have memories […] they can feel it because they’ve heard it before but it’s in a different design.

These things were always very interesting to me: hiding memories or phrases of pop music in my music.

Your combination of guitar music with electronic music has always been interesting to me, because the guitar is such an organic instrument to marry with the snap grid of computer-based electronica. In its construction and setup, it’s a lot more idiosyncratic than, say, a keyboard.

When I started making this kind of music in the early 90s, I abandoned guitar for a while and just played laptops live. In the studio, I always used guitar sounds to make my samples: make a bank, an archive of samples I could work with. Later on, when I was playing onstage I felt something was missing. It was just boring. So I started playing guitar onstage live.

Since that, it’s been so much better. I feel rooted, in a way, because it’s still my first instrument. The guitar is also quite a random factor. Especially on this album — it was all first-take recordings. I didn’t correct anything. You can hear wrong playing, wrong tones, but I like that approach.

I was always a big fan of Neil Young recordings. He’s a first-take man as well — he would never correct it. I like that fragile thing in combination with that very straight digital thing. It makes the [song] more organic and human, I think.

When I started making this kind of music in the early 90s, I abandoned guitar for a while and just played laptops live. In the studio, I always used guitar sounds to make my samples: make a bank, an archive of samples I could work with. Later on, when I was playing onstage I felt something was missing. It was just boring. So I started playing guitar onstage live.

Did you have a formal musical education?

I went to music high school and I had guitar lessons — classical guitar lessons — for a while. I studied musicology at university but I didn’t finish it. All I’m doing is really not academic — it was learning by doing. I still don’t know how to write music, to be honest. I would love to be able to do that; many of my colleagues are able to do it. I’m just playing. It’s more of a gypsy kind of approach.

One thing I think is interesting about your aesthetic is that, while the whole synthesizer and production industry seems to be worshiping at the altar of analog at the moment — analog synthesizers are the hot ticket items — you seem more interested in digital technological advancements.

You know, there’s a lot of retro stuff going on at the moment, it seems. Analog is great — I use analog gear in the studio as well. But I’m not particularly interested in [analog exclusivity]. Why should I work on a synthesizer that was made in the 1980s when I can get something on the VST [virtual instrument] platform that’s a lot more advanced? It’s more about the way you use it.

The analog thing that’s more important to me is my guitar, my amp, and my guitar pedals. I find it much more interesting to go with this equipment into the digital world and try to build up something new instead of trying to redo some kind of retro sound. This is not interesting to me.

Are there any programs or gear that you find especially inspiring right now?

Not too many, I must say. I try to keep track all the time. Everything that comes out, I just get it. All the new plugins, whatever, synthesizers and all that stuff. Even [with software], it seems to get more and more retro. Companies like Native Instruments, who I have huge respect for, they’re building 60s drum kits and 80s synthesizers and all that. I ask myself why? Why not try to make something completely new?

There are a few companies who do that. Those are the ones I’m following and trying to use. The majority, though, seem to have all this retro [stuff] going on. There’s nothing like [multimedia platform] Max/MSP anymore. I’m still using Max/MSP because it’s still a hit. I don’t see the reason why I should have a Roland 808 or 909 plugin… when you could make so much more! There are some people working on iPad apps that seem to be so more interesting to me.

It’s quite simple: I like noise music a lot. For me, noise is something really beautiful. I also like the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I tried to make a combination of both. I was trying to hide some traces of FM radio from the 70s within my music, so people can have memories […] they can feel it because they’ve heard it before but it’s in a different design.

I know what you mean. The iPad is a great platform for music-making software development, but there are a ton of retro 808 and Minimoog-emulation apps coming out all the time as well.

I have this friend, Chris Carlson, from MIT in Boston. He created this software for the iPad called Borderlands. There’s nothing like that for a computer. It’s beautiful, it’s absolutely great. It goes in a completely new direction. I wish software companies would make more [programs] like that for the computer and not only for the iPad.

But the same happens with the iPad. Why in the world do I need a Fairlight Computer app? [Laughs] It’s a fucking sampler from the 1980s! Why not make something new?

Yeah, I saw that recently. It’s like, we want to go back to this? We have nostalgia for sitting and trimming a sample for an hour?!

Of course, I buy it because it’s only $13 or something. [sarcastically] It’s great! I just don’t see the point, you know.

What gear do you use that you couldn’t get along without?

It’s quite simple, actually. I’ve been trying to downsize everything. I use a laptop, I use an iMac, I have an Apogee eight-channel interface, my guitar pedals, an old Vox amp, all my guitars… I have two Jazzmasters, a Fender Strat, and a very old Hofner jazz guitar, which I love. I have a small API compressor and mixer. I call them my “gold-makers” because they make everything sound brilliant. Everything goes into those two machines and they make it sound better.

How do you feel your live act has changed over the years?

Of course it’s completely different from the studio work, but when I play live, my approach is more like the approach of a jazz musician. I’m improvising with my sounds, my parts, my sequences. Every concert is a little different — I can never repeat exactly what I’ve done before. That’s also part of the challenge that keeps me doing it. I wouldn’t just want to press a button and mix a little on a DJ mixing desk or something — I really have to play, and that’s a good thing. I really hated playing live years ago. Now I love it.

What changed?

Maybe becoming more confident about it. Also, not being scared of making mistakes. It’s difficult to tell. I just feel more comfortable on stage now than I did 10 or 15 years ago. I know what I’m doing now; 10 or 15 years ago I thought I knew what I was doing but I didn’t! [Laughs]

I think now, even if it goes wrong sometimes, it’s still a challenge. There’s still a white piece of paper where I have to start. If I had a plan, it would be boring, but I don’t have a plan. I just see where it goes, I see where it leads me.

[Photo credit: IntangibleArts]

  

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