Karen Gwyer & Strategy Two performing artists in conversation at MUTEK Montréal 2015

MUTEK is an intersection. It’s where music and digital culture from all angles of North America, Europe, and Asia meet, greet, and permeate. Seeing as how this is one of the more valuable and celebrated impacts of the annual Montreal-based festival, we thought it might be necessary to come up with a way to cover the festival in a more appropriate manner, one truer to the ritual of meetings at crossroads.

Rather than simply having a journalist conduct interviews, we asked several MUTEK performers to sit down and interview each other. These pairings include Karen Gwyer and Paul Dickow (a.k.a. Strategy), and Uwe Schmidt (a.k.a. Atom™) and Tyondai Braxton. Having these artists play questionnaire ping-pong enabled more candid and fun focus on their works and personalities. They displayed their own study and fandom of the other artist and, in turn, revealed more about themselves by performing the role of the interviewer.

The following conversation is between Karen Gwyer (Ann Arbor/London) and Paul Dickow (Portland). Gwyer recently released the Bouloman EP on Nous Disques, while Dickow has several recent releases, out on labels Idle Hands, Entr’acte, and Further.

[Go here for the back-and-forth between Schmidt and Braxton.]


Karen: Could you talk about echo? It’s a wonderful thing — what if it had never been invented, and why don’t people use it more? What’s wrong with them? Or talk about your love for it because obviously you’re absolutely obsessed with it.

Paul: Yeah, obviously I’m obsessed with it. I think I love the way things sound when they’re indistinct, so anything that does that, that creates that room. I’m not like a drug person, but there’s probably something deep in my experience that make that appealing… I think it’s just the sense of something being hard to grasp, or far away, or fleeting, or in motion, that’s how we experience sound in the natural world, especially here in [this] space that has intense acoustic properties. I have a lot of records that don’t have echo, and I always think, wow, what restraint, how dry a world that person lives in. And sometimes I try not to use echo to understand that space, actually …. It’s just my natural state. I want things to be cascading and blurry in that way. As for why people don’t use it, I think it’s because they probably get confused.

Karen: [Laughs] It messes with things, and the cleanliness.

Paul: Yeah, the cleanliness and the rhythm, and it fills in the negative space. A lot of dance music and techno or whatever is about the “not notes,” so those pauses or important. I don’t really have that in my music. It’s just on all the time; there’s sounds filling up every space and it’s strata sound and echoes are really nice ways to fill those gaps. For people that don’t live in that world, they’re missing out on a certain kind of intensity that has a kind of deliciousness to it if you let yourself be there. That’s a great question!

Karen: Shows I’ve listened to everything you’ve ever done studiously! He can’t not use echo! OK, next question: I’m going to say it like I read it because you’re probably going to think at first, “Oh not this again.” I don’t normally dissect stuff like this but I found it interesting that you chose to use Strategy as your alias. Oh wait, I see other people brought that up, too. Maybe I’m off the mark, but do you find that people assume you conceptualize about your stuff for a really long time? Or do they straight off the bat make an assumption that you’re just a spontaneous person that can’t really grasp that you’re doing a single thing or that you have some sort of single vision? That actually leads into my next question, so hold that thought. People refer to you as idiosyncratic, as though that’s a sort of easy way of just dealing with it.

Paul: So I was going to ask you almost the same question… I struggle a little bit with [how] all releases or different studies but for me it’s made from the same raw material. In my own mind, it’s a cohesive body of work, but actually the way electronic music is today, the way I think people are taught to consume it, it’s like everybody’s in their silo or in their bucket… if you do something in another bucket, you have to change your alias or do something that helps the consumer understand that it’s a different thing. When I started, I lived in a bubble world where I liked different artists that were very varied and I imagined that that was just a normal thing to do. Over time, especially recently, I’ve come to struggle with that more because people… who have to deal with the business are not very comfortable with that. There are various ways they have dealt with it; one is by trying to describe me as idiosyncratic. They’re like, “He’s always doing something diff and that’s the point!” But they aren’t able to go a level deeper and say what’s similar between all the different things, which is I don’t think that far of a stretch. You can basically break my music down, no matter it is, into three or four essential components, and those are the building blocks and it all shows up. I’m really interested in artists that have some elastic identity. When I listen to your music, I think the first things I heard, and then was a while ago, were almost like cinematic or ambient, but with beats and pulses and stuff that’s more techno but with a lot of sweeping sounds that relates back. To me, that continuum makes complete sense. I appreciate that you were not feeling bound to one particular style … and you were just going for it and trying different combinations. As a fan, I’m always looking for artists who have that same elasticity because I’m trying to understand when that is accepted and when it’s not. So one of my questions to you is do you find a push back, where labels are like, “We don’t really understand who you are or who you want to be, and right now we’re only doing tracks like X,” and you’re like, “Well, right now, I’m doing tracks like Y.”

Karen: I haven’t struggled with it so much, but part of the reason is because I’ve been very afraid to approach labels, and the only labels I’ve worked with are the ones that approached me. So that has automatically shielded me from those conversations… Part of the reason I’ve been very afraid of approaching labels that have a certain aesthetic that I like, is because I feel like the first thing they’re going to say is, “Well, you just don’t fit into this box the right way. I have something similar going on, but it’s just a bit too far out of your box.” That may not be true, and in fact I don’t think it is true, because I have actually had conversations with labels that I’ve been afraid to approach, and they’ve said, “You’re being ridiculous.” But a lot of labels seem to cover one base and feel that that’s good enough, you’re left wondering, “Why would I fit into that?” There aren’t very many labels I can think of that consistently put out really good stuff that don’t stick to one format.

Paul: The first big label I worked with was Kranky in the U.S. and they bands that are in tons of different buckets and what they are qualitatively looking for is something way more abstract than a genre. So there’s a rock band, there’s some electronic artists, there’s this full spectrum of different type soft music and they maybe all share some traits … I took it for granted. I think having these different buckets is really important….

Karen: I totally agree with you; however, I’ve always gotten a sense, and I’ve really spoken to people about his, but being labeled idiosyncratic is a somewhat veiled putdown when you’re making dance music. But yes, some people get away with it… Do you agree? Do you think that some people squeak right under there and make weird dance music, not that I’m calling your stuff weird, but experimental, eccentric, different? There’s a lot of that being made, but unless you’re associated with certain labels, there’s a fear of being pushed to the fringe?

What bugs me is that, I want to say that everybody can just do what they want and we shouldn’t give a shit; however, using female names is a novelty, isn’t it! Therefore, females, by extension, are a novelty! And they are, we’re a total novelty in this business, so it furthers the novelty to have men using female names.

Paul: I’ve definitely noticed it, and had feedback from labels to the press, especially DJ-focused ones, that it’s OK to be idiosyncratic … but if it’s not what others are doing at the same time, it’s essentially out of context. The last 12” single I put out [on Peak Oil] was a rave EP… I wanted to explore the most classic samples of music, with a lot of high energy breaks and really goofy, poorly produced music, and it’s what cheap to find in the used bins, it’s like a dollar for these breaks records… I found all these most used breaks and started doing that, before other people started doing that, and people are like, “Oh that’s weird.” People are always doing these explorations, or I like to say studies… I took a topic and I immersed myself in it in order to understand it. There’s a lot of re-contextualization so it’s not purely retro, and that’s important to me. The thing is that if you don’t do that same thing that others, then people don’t have a bucket to put that in.

Karen: Unless there’s like three of you doing, and then they’re like, “Oh, wait a minute, this is a thing.”

Paul: The record got really good press, but there’s like no context or no place for that music… The guy I do a label with, I keep playing him these really high-energy tracks that I’m making, and he’s like, “This is great — who’s gonna play it?” He’s got a good point, so maybe we have put [these records out] and not sell them till later. Or just lose money I don’t know. [Karen laughs]

(SWITCHING)

Paul: I really appreciate that you’ve got this range of moods [in your music]. I’m wondering, do you perceive them of different things, like, “I’m trying to do this,” or is it like you just sit down, like you’re painting, and you happen to just paint with that color… Is this by design?

Karen: It’s very much so something I have no control over. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know if anybody can sit down and be very specific and execute, from here to there, without going off the track … it’s always a complete surprise to me, what I end up with. If I’m doing a remix, sometimes what happens is I’ll get kind of excited about the way something sounds in a remix, because at least with a remix, you get somebody else’s brain to unpick, so you’re not starting from scratch… What ends up happening with me is, I’ll keep running with that ball, and without the person asking me to do a remix, I never would have made at least one of my records.

Paul: It can be a real comfort zone challenger. I don’t like doing that much because I find them labor intensive in a way that I’m not accustomed to, but they almost always get me out of my comfort zone.

Karen: That would explain why my stuff is always sort of going off in different directions. The starting points don’t always come solely from me, I’ve done some of my records based on further explorations on something that struck me out of the blue from working on a remix. Other times, I agree on what you said: it’s more fun to do different things than to do the same thing all the time. Also, why would someone buy a second record if it sounds a lot like the first? It’s a problem because I never assumed that people wouldn’t necessarily know how to deal with it. There’s the whole “evolution question” comes up a lot, where someone’s like, “Obviously there’s a lot of evolution between this record and this record” … I ate and slept and drank and I sat down and made another record. It’s not like I’m driving in a car down the road of music. You sit down and you do something different, so it’s always really funny that there’s this constant inability [to understand that].

Paul: Do you ever set up limitations for yourself that are arbitrary or artificial so that you will be forced to think within a certain set of perimeters… like I have all my gear in my box except for one thing?

Karen: Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have this one synth that’s realllllyyyyy ravy…

Paul: What is it?

Karen: It’s this Roland JP1000 or JP8000… it’s big and it’s blue and it’s got all the rave sounds. I’ve tried so many times to make that really work and not yet done it. But I will do that. I will just say, I will do this. I’m going to deal with this piece of gear and see what happens.

Paul: I periodically have to either get rid of gear hide it from myself because I begin writing the same track.

Karen: Yeah! Familiarity is great but, like being a dog, you get really familiar with these certain chords and keys, and you just have to stop yourself.

Paul: I was watching recently [the Boiler Room set] and you’re playing keyboards pretty the entire time. I was curious to know whether you ever also played in a band, or with other people?

Karen: Yeah, I played in a band. I finished playing in a band right before I started making my own stuff because the band was just disintegrating, and I didn’t want to stop. It’s funny because these guys just approached me, I never met them before, and they were like, “Hey you’re a lady. We need a woman in our band. Would you be interested?” And I thought, “Why not! you seem like nice people.” So I went out and purchased a keyboard and that’s how I started playing electronic music. It’s funny you talk about the Boiler Room thing because I was playing the synthesizers with two hands set… Why I did that I have no idea. Just permanently, I have retired the keyboard synths temporarily because I can’t do the same thing. And they’re big to carry around. But I was literally playing the same thing and thought, “I got to stop this, I’m just repeating myself.” Now I’m only using knobs.

When I first moved to Portland 20 years ago, it was like, not a cow town, but people didn’t take the local scene seriously. When my first band put out our first record in 1997, I brought it into the record store up the street from my house and wanted it in the local section. The woman there was like, “Nah I don’t want it there because it doesn’t sound local.” It was like embarrassing to be local…

Paul: I have not done any live playing in a long time… it’s an uncommon thing to see.

Karen: In the past when I’ve done it, and people would talk about it afterwards, they kept using the word “psychedelic” a lot. A lot. Not that I don’t like psychedelic music… that’s just the word that they used to talk about it. The word “psychedelic” in dance music, you’ve got problems. People don’t jive with that in dance music. I got scared in a way because I didn’t want people to start thinking that I was some psychedelic person. Now, bless their hearts, this wonderful psychedelic festival has booked me — the Liverpool Festival of Psychedelia — I was a bit nervous to play it simply because their attachment has negative connotations in club music. But what the hell! I’m going to try to be that person who doesn’t care.

Paul: I think all dance music is kind of psychedelic. It’s totally abstract patterns, and they’re totally trippy and weird. There was a time in the States when most dance music was consumed in a culture that was psychedelic, or psychedelics was part of that.

Karen: But seeing someone on stage go like this [closes her eyes and rolls her head around slowly] it’s like, oh wait, I don’t think they’re taking me very seriously here.

(SWITCHING BACK)

Karen: I lived in New York for many, many years, and I left about 10 years ago. All these bands, big rock bands, I’ve blocked them from my mind, were playing, and all the nightclubs had been shut down by the mayor. I freaked out and left. You’ve been in the States this whole time, you’ve been around this stuff — have you found that there has been a scene, or periods when there wasn’t?

Paul: That’s a really good question. When I first moved to Portland 20 years ago, it was like, not a cow town, but people didn’t take the local scene seriously. When my first band put out our first record in 1997, I brought it into the record store up the street from my house and wanted it in the local section. The woman there was like, “Nah I don’t want it there because it doesn’t sound local.” It was like embarrassing to be local… and nobody would show up to the show until the touring band plays… There wasn’t a sonic cohesion the scene. We’d play these shows where there was this metal band and then a techno act. It was very random, and that persisted for maybe five or six years, and that was the case up and down the West Coast. Then people started moving to these cities to get their projects big or be in the arts or whatever, then there became more subdividing out of genre and more interior scenes. What I’ve noticed since I’ve gotten older — I’m a lot older than I look — some of my friends sort of drop out and then I have to move and be rediscovered and consider what that scene is doing.

[Karen laughs]

Paul: What I’m noticing is that, even though I’m an idiosyncratic artist, there’s an international scene now where people are establishing meaningful conversations across great distances. Even if you’re not in the same style bucket but approach things the same way…

When I started, I lived in a bubble world where I liked different artists that were very varied and I imagined that that was just a normal thing to do. Over time, especially recently, I’ve come to struggle with that more because people… who have to deal with the business are not very comfortable with that.

Karen: So you never felt compelled to go to Berlin?

Paul: I was but I just didn’t have the money!

[Both laugh — I attempt to wrap up because of other interviews scheduled]

Paul: I have one more question I’m dying to ask you: in preparation to ask you these things, I read some other previous interviews, and I really appreciated how outspoken you were about the privilege and double standards that men in electronic music have, and I’m sure that includes myself, in ways I’m not aware of. But some of my mentors in electronic music have been women, so I take this matter very seriously. So what I’m curious about is what you think about how many male artists are using female names?

[Everyone laughs and moans and exclaims]

Karen: It drives me batshit crazy. What bugs me is that, I want to say that everybody can just do what they want and we shouldn’t give a shit; however, using female names is a novelty, isn’t it! Therefore, females, by extension, are a novelty! And they are, we’re a total novelty in this business, so it furthers the novelty to have men using female names. Now there are exceptions to these: there’s a lovely guy named Max who goes by the name Patricia, and he’s amazing! He’s great, his music’s great, so I cannot go up to him and give him shit for this. As a bigger thing, and a wagon that people are jumping on, it pisses me right off, and I don’t see why guys don’t get it, or embarrassed to take the female identity and use it in such a petty way, when all of this is going on, and it goes further where they don’t even show their faces and chose a picture of a woman. They get massive amounts of flack, saying, “Creative freedom! People can do whatever they want!” It’s tough not to crack that one because creative freedom is valid. You just wish that people would have fucking sense and not belittle the female gender. Own up to it! Explain yourself! But they don’t, do they? There’s no need for them to because nobody’s asking them about it because the journalists are all men. It only comes up for us, and of course we’re totally pissed off.

Paul: Well I’m really glad I asked.

Karen: I could name myself DJ Big Balls, Doctor Big Balls in Space, Brock McMegadick, but I can’t do that because I’m not an idiot.

Paul: I really appreciate that! You definitely get the last word!

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