Japan's Merzbow is easily
the most prolific electronics artiste in history with over a
hundred releases to his name. But in his case quantity comes
with quality. With new releases out every month, the most recent
being splits with Jazzkammer, Shora and Napalmed and a two new
full lengths 'Dharma' and 'Frog', I asked him if he believed
everything he did had to be put on CD.
I do. The CD 'Hard Lovin' Man' from a Finnish label contains
live performances I played at Helsinki last winter. A studio-recorded
CD 'Dharma' was released from American label Hydrahead. A new
12' album 'Frog' from another American label Misanthropicagenda,
contains sound of many kinds of frogs. I displayed this album
and related images at Yokohama Triennale, International Contemporary
Art exhibition. There are also more CDs in progress. Two CDs
will come out soon, including 'Ikebukuro Dada' from American
label Mad Monkey Records and 'Amlux' from Important Records.
'Ikebukuro Dada"' is based on the work I composed for an
art exhibition called 'Mutations For City' held in Bordeaux,
France. 'Amlux' contains a cover of Toru Takemitsu. These are
concept albums about city. I've just finished recording two new
albums. 'Puroland', which will be released from Norway, contains
tunes I often played at shows this year as well as a tune influenced
by 70's German hard rock band Jane and a cover of the Monkeys.
The other 'Taste of Merzbow' will come out from Austrian label
Mego. This is a concept album about gourmet, and each tune has
What do you think about
your work and what's your favourite from the last year?
"My favourite is 'Collapse 12 Floors' CD from Ohm, Norway.
Since I listen to my CDs many times during editing, I don't often
listen to them after completion."
Merzbow has strived to
develop, transform or mutate his music over the years, sometimes
delving into the latest techniques but most often than not leading
the way through innovation. If you want to call it a trend, the
current big thing in electronica is laptop computer music where
Apple's Powerbook and the Max MSP software has attained almost
religious adulation. Austrian Christian Fennesz's 'Endless Summer'
album could be classified as a lap top classic but it is much
more than that. Fennesz may not yet have the pulling power of
Merzbow, but 'Endless Summer' is an album whose beauty and emotive
power dominates almost everything that has been released last
I asked Fennesz how important
the album was to him?
"I´m not getting so much attention here in Austria.
People still think it's weird music for weird people and all
that. Same with Germany. There are nice reviews from all over
the world though and I´m really pleased to see that many
people seemed to understand what I was trying to do on this record.
Some don´t however, especially those who focus too much
on the technological aspects of the record. 'Endless Summer'
was a very important record for me. I was really trying to do
"more" than making just another computer music CD.
Please don´t get me wrong, I like computer music, but I
wanted to make a record that has some kind of ( sorry, I have
to say it) "spiritual" energy which is not related
to a certain genre. Something that has not necessarily to be
seen as a record made with computers. Technology, software, computers
and all that, should not be the first things that come to your
mind when you listen to it. Technology is fascinating and important,
but in the end it's all just tools that should not be taken too
serious I think. If people like 'Endless Summer'. then they hopefully
like the musical energy that I was trying to create. There was
a great review in which each track was compared to a film. All
of those films are favourites of mine. I don´t know if
'Endless Summer' will make computer music more popular. Actually
I can´t see any major step forward in my career at the
Fennesz is referring to
the laptop phenomena. It's almost as if critics will only give
priority to musicians who know how to switch on a Powerbook.
"I think I will always be fascinated by the latest technology,
but I also see its limitations for my music. A computer patch
can definitely not transport any musical energy that I want .
This might be perfect for many other artists in this field, just
because it does NOT transport any values, but for me it isn´t.
I use the computer as a tool-box, as a recording device, or like
an instrument. I also like to use other instruments, like guitars
or pianos, etc. The computer gives me more flexibility and possibilities
in production, but in the end it's a tool. I really think that
one reason why journalists and musicologists keep building up
this weird, over-rated view on computers/laptops is the fact
that they don´t understand them. There is this almost religious
attitude. I find it very funny."
How did Merzbow feel about
his music reflecting current trends?
"I think they always reflect atmosphere of time. I use only
computers to compose, but musical orientation has not changed.
What has changed is time allocation in the process of composition."
And people like Bernhardt
Gunther, Fennesz or Kid 606?
"Although they all use laptops, I don't feel like calling
them laptop music in all. They are just creating their own music.
People in Mego were the first to start using laptops strategically.
I was influenced by them a lot, and often play at concerts with
If to these musicians,
computers/laptops are the means to an end, then the most important
element that supersedes technology is process, the actual putting
together of pieces and the manipulation of sound sources to evoke
emotions and moods. London's Antenna Farm epitomise that through
the release of their 'Early Mess' compilation CD and their collaboration
CD with Main.
I asked Alastair Leslie
(Antenna Farm is the duo of himself and Fat Cat Records' Dave
Howell) what constitutes the essence of an Antenna Farm piece.
"I really don't know. Hopefully that we've made a few good
tracks along the way, done a few good gigs, and hopefully that
we haven't gone up our own arse yet. We're just trying to push
ourselves and find our own way through the mess. A lot of our
material is recorded outside the computer (location recordings,
etc.) and then pushed around inside it, taken out again, reworked.
We also use sources like guitar, radio, turntables, location
recording, contact mics, etc. We're currently getting a little
bored of spending so much time staring into the screen, and both
want to get back to some more hands-on stuff."
Are the moods on 'Early
Mess' evoked through experiences or dreams?
"The moods come from a mix of improvising, bad / shabby
musicianship, the influence of the hugely varied sounds and music
we are surrounded by, and a wide range of different experiences
and ideas we're interested in - architecture, the technology
of modern warfare, hacking and ham radio stuff, drugged states,
explorations through our immediate environment, an interest in
more chaotic / non-linear states and patterns, industrial processes,
other factors I can't think of right now."
What part did your urban
environment play in influencing 'Early Mess'?
"We have both been interested in structure for a long time.
Some of those tracks include the use of location recordings from
various environments. I think we're also pretty influenced by
the kind of environment we live in. Personally, the regular experience
of walking back home from the studio down Brixton Hill, past
various prostitutes, pimps, drunks, fights, etc., stoned and
paranoid at 2am, is a bit of an influence."
Your collaboration with
Main must have really been testing since Main is so rigidly minimalist
while Antenna Farm are more textural and loud.
"Well, we always try to shift around and this project was
something we both really wanted to do to challenge ourselves
to see how we could work under different conditions and collaborating
with and learning from someone who works in a very different
way. We actually hadn't been working together for that long before
the project came about, and had never worked with Robert Hampson
(Main) before. The audio was mostly generated quickly over the
3/4 days we were working at the studio. All of the material was
played live, and was constructed purely from improvised sessions.
It is overall a much more restrained and sparse release than
'Early Mess', which is a bit more jolting and full-on in places,
and maybe had a greater sense of diversity. There is more of
a singular dynamic throughout the Main CD, but we think the two
CDs complement each other fairly well. It's not like listening
to two obviously similar releases. It was a pleasure working
with Rob, a really good learning experience for us."
How important is playing
live as part of the creative processes for AF, as on the CD with
"It was something that was totally vital to the Main release.
Elsewhere, playing live is something we don't always enjoy, because
it doesn't always work. We set ourselves the position of using
live gigs as a space to improvise together, it's pretty loose
and unplanned, so that something new is always created. Sometimes
it works really well, and sometimes we just fall flat on our
faces. Our recordings are nearly always made up in some part
from live material - often we just grab little sections or bits
we've recorded of us jamming together, which are then shaped
and multi tracked. We like to process sound separately then get
together and push the sounds around live until something starts
to work, using recordings from these live sessions we will often
build sequences up by layering separate unrelated sections of
sound. A lot of the material on 'Early Mess' was recorded in
Tell us something about
the technical processes that allowed the collaboration with Main
"The Main collaboration worked like this: we arrived at
the Extrapool studio in Nijmegen, Holland with empty Powerbooks.
Each day went out and grabbed some minidisc recordings from the
town of Nijmegen and its surroundings, brought them back, spent
hours and hours processing them individually, and then at the
end of the day sat down, let the DAT run and just played together
with what we'd been working on, and with a couple of guitars,
objects amplified via contact mics and some FX. We ended up with
about three and a half hours of music at the end of the week.
When we got back home, we lifted the best sections from this,
and just bolted these together in Logic. There were a couple
of sections where we overlaid tracks, but we didn't do any additional
processing, so what you hear is exactly how it sounds on those
What did Main make you
think about in your own music?
"Especially in terms of dynamics and the use of space /
silence, and also timing."
Whatever the final result
is do you feel electronic music has to feel 'musical'?
"No. But then how do you define what is 'musical'?"
Environment and response
to place through noise also plays a large part in the live performances
of Merzbow, who has contributed music to the work of Performance
"Not only the noises, my works may unconsciously reflect
the chaotic mood of the entire city of Tokyo. However, I've never
been interested in or influenced by the city's noises themselves.
Composition is rather a creative activity. When filling the performance
space with sound, the audience can be regarded a part of it.
Since the audience is a sort of raw material, the condition of
the space naturally changes along with the kind and size of the
audience. Not only audience, of course, there are other important
elements including the quality of audio equipment and reverberation
in the space. I find some kinds of drawings and artists exciting
once in a while. For example, I was impressed by Kiyoshi Yamashita
recently. He was a kind of artist of outsider art, and lived
a life of vagabond. I read his books of travel. I played with
a VJ in my recent show, where he projected a TV drama about Kiyoshi
onto the screen."
Are you still interested
in the work of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters?
"I held a concert at a museum in Tokyo, where I accompanied
the reading of Kurt Schwitters's poems. Also, when I went to
Norway this summer, I happened to get a chance to visit the small
hut where Kurt Schwitters spent his last years. New relationship
with Schwitters has been established in this unexpected way,
resulting from borrowing the title of his creation."
Like Merzbow's responses
to place and time, Fennesz's 'Endless Summer' which shares it's
title with a Beach Boys album, is inspired by memories and evokes
"There is a certain mood. It's very simple, but almost impossible
to describe. It's probably all about simplicity, memories, happiness
and loss. The Beach Boys influence is actually not as big as
people might think. Of course Brian Wilson is a hero for me,
but in the end it's just the title that makes the relation to
the Beach Boys. However, Brian Wilson reached a level in his
best songs, that for me will always be the perfect example of
intelligent and spiritual pop composing. I once sampled half
of a second from the vibraphone in the Beach Boys´ 'Until
I Die'. David Toop from 'The Wire' magazine got me."
Were the moods on 'Endless
Summer' evoked through experiences and dreams?
Despite it's deceptively
simple lounge/ambient qualities 'Endless Summer' offers more.
If the listener is inclined to analyse it, the album demands
intense concentration, because there is so much happening on
different levels and layers.
For a start, do you take your time composing your electronics
in the same way as traditional music?
"Yes. For me there is no difference. I don´t want
to give any statement regarding "how" something has
to be. Everything has to be different! I know what I am interested
in when I create my music, and that also includes the need to
go into details and work on a production for quite a long time.
Other people have different approaches and that's fine. Masami
Akita is actually one of my all time favourites, I really love
his work. I love Merzbow. He has got a vision and the power to
be able to chum his records out in that way."
So you've started noticing
limitations in computer music?
If computer music is about
programming and sequencing do you believe anyone can produce
a good electronic record?
"I don´t think so. For me, it seems to be a myth that
it can be like that. Can anyone who uses a dv camera and 'Final
Cut Pro' make good films? is everyone who plays records on a
turntable a good DJ?"
Fennesz started off playing
in punk bands, before giving it all up for the keyboards and
VDU, but how much of that initial learning had filtered into
his computer music?
"Don´t know. I have a history as a music fan, listener,
player, so I suppose this must have been an influence."
Alastair and Dave from
Antenna Farm had also delved in rock music at some point in their
Alastair: "I once played in a band at a stanley pool
sailing club do as drummer and once guested for the Reverbs in
a pub in Stoke on Trent and ran out of steam during "wipe
"Sang in a rockabilly / psychobilly band just after school;
played in a kind of Sonic Youth / Neubauten-inspired group in
Bristol in the mid-90's, playing with people like Third Eye Foundation
/ Crescent / Movietone / etc. Yes, it was an influence just in
terms of learning to play and discovering the possibilities of
the studio and exploring different sound -sources (junkyard percussion,
But for Merzbow, rock
music has been more of an influence. Rather than pillage samples
as you would expect from a poor dance DJ, he has tried to capture
the essence of rock whether it be from the prog rock 70's or
the extreme scene of the 90's. His two strongest releases, 'Aqua
Necromancer' and '1930' are cases in point where the spirit of
rock is extracted from a jumbled yet vibrant collage of loops,
tapes, processed samples and 'noise'.
"I hadn't used cassette tape for a while until the work
'1930'. Another difference between this work and others at that
time is that phaser effect was applied to it many times. I tried
to create a bit of nostalgic atmosphere by reprocessing the taped
recording. As a result, it should sound like it contains more
sounds than other works at that time. It is something like an
artificially compressed sound. I put a flavour of improvised
jazz into this work, since it will be released from Tzadik. 'Aquanecromancer',
one of the last analogue works, was composed by sampling progressive
rock, while 'Door Open 8 AM' was by free jazz. The title 'Aquanecromancer'
is based on the fact that the sampled materials were taken from
songs in Vandergraaf Generator' s album 'The Aerosol Gray Machine',
such as 'Aquarian' and 'Necromancer'. Other artists I used to
sample include Patto, Le Orme, Fusoon and Formula 3. I tried
to create Southern European atmosphere by using Italian and Spanish
These albums are a far
cry from what many regard as the archetypal Merzbow release,
'Pulse Demon'. In what ways have you developed since that album?
"'Pulse Demon' can be described as the work clearly representing
one of the characteristics of my music, and the artwork is my
favourite. So, I often use it as sample sound source even now.
This work is characterised by being composed with only analogue
device including EMS synthesiser, which aren't used anymore.
That might be the biggest change."
In fact, 'Pulse Demon'
is the archetypal 'noise' record. What do you define as noise?
"The concept of pure noise is absolute nonsense to me, though
I can imagine what it means. By categorising music in the world,
it becomes difficult for us to create music which doesn't conform
categories. Since noise is originally a non-categorised music,
it seems completely strange to talk about things like pure noise.
I should have the freedom of introducing anything like rhythms
and melodies. I don't perform it in the same way anyone else
Do you keep in touch with
the harsh noise scene?
"No, I don't."
Are you not tempted by
"Not at all."
So what are your basic
methods of process at this present time?
"I've been composing only with computers since I began using
laptop. Although the instruments have changed completely, the
sound is similar because I still use analogue recordings as material,
such as records and my CDs recorded with analogue device."
Are you always recording
noises onto tape for later use?
"I don't see what you mean by "noise", but I often
record demo takes for tunes. Especially before a show, I always
conduct a rehearsal and have it recorded. When deciding tunes
to include in an album, I sometimes choose from the takes. I
don't conduct field recording now. I often use records and CDs,
which contain sound effects of nature. The sound and structuring
are both important. But the most important thing is originality,
which allows us to be free from styles of the past. Being always
innovative is essential."
Antenna Farm themselves
source their sounds as diversely as possible, even techno dance
"Our favourite method is to use many methods. I think it
becomes a little bit boring when you just settle on a reliable,
tried and tested method. We basically just started out DJ-ing
and chopping up other people's CDs, records, etc. live, and then
increasingly processing this and adding our own material, until
now where it's virtually all self-generated. Techno dance beats
have already done so. But we are very good at camouflaging them!"
How much work goes into
producing an Antenna Farm track. I mean, would you like to be
as prolific as Merzbow?
"We always spent a lot of time on everything we've worked
on - it takes a while for the sounds to develop, and we are both
active in other areas for periods of time. We prefer to live
with things for a while and things do evolve at different paces.
I'd rather do this than rush into releasing things that we later
regret. I've only met Merzbow briefly, he seemed quite nice ."
Do you think you could
make an album simply from processing analogue tape recordings
of sounds, noises, environmental field recordings?
Which was exactly the
feeling shared by Christian Fennesz.
"I did already- 'Hotel Paral.lel'. There is no dsp on this
record, even if it's meant to be a "classic of the laptop
scene", like they say sometimes."
What's the best advice
Antenna Farm and Fennesz could give to up and coming electronic
Antenna Farm: "Don't let half-arsed intellectuals, information
regurgitators and education relieve you of your sensitivity.
Just try and do your own thing, take your own time, follow your
own instincts, don't be swayed into doing things in order to
impress people or fit in with things."
Fennesz: "Find your own style. Don´t believe
the hype. Listen to many different styles of music. Be open minded.
Don´t be boring. Stop reading computer music mailing lists.
I think for the major advantage of electronic music is the fact
that I can create and produce my music in an independent way.
I have the complete control over my productions. That's the big
thing for me. I am just trying to focus on my own way. I am not
thinking about the relationship that my work has to genres, styles,
fashions, or whatever. I just do what I am interested in, but
I never think about how my music would work in a certain context."
Merzbow: Max MSP; "I am now using
one or two Powerbooks to create music. I don't think of
using other musical instruments. Since equipment became small
by using Powerbook, I don't see much necessity for adding instruments
again. Also in terms of music, I prefer simple sound structure."
Fennesz: fender Stratocaster. nord modular
synth. joemeek sc2 compressor. trident channel strip; "I
use max/msp, but it seems to want all my time and attention.
I want to try Reaktor again, the new version looks good. I have
tried Super Collider - it still sounds best to me- but I don´t
want to start to study it again."
Antenna Farm: the mixing desk. No particular
favourite sound synthesis software.