© Cédrick Eymenier 1999-2022
MEMORIES OF SONGS
An interview with Christian Fennesz
By Cédrick Eymenier, Paris 10/09/2003
itw originally made for OKFRED magazine #3 (Tokyo Japan)
C : How is your English ? I know it’s a silly question, but we are in Paris for a Japanese magazine….
F : I think it’s pretty much standard European It’s OK, I can communicate well with English and American people but I’m not an English native speaker, I speak German for my mother language but because I’m travelling, business… since a couple of years I think, it’s quite OK.
C : where do you come from ?
F : I was born in Vienna, Austria. I still live there… Actually, I was born 50 Km away from Vienna at a big lake, the countryside. It’s very different than the rest of Austria because It’s like flat land, It looks like Savannah. There’s no mountains, there’s no skiing, nothing, It’s directly at Hungarian border. This is where I come from. In the meantime I live more in hotel rooms, airports and train stations and also I have a place in Paris, I’m changing between Vienna and Paris.
C : What are your influences as a musician ?
F : Well, I’ve been growing up with pop and rock music of the 70’s / 80’s. This starting with, I would say, like American rock, like Neil Young…whatever…Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, ABC, Talk Talk, those 80’s bands. Many people think that I was sitting there, listening to Stockhausen or something like that, I was just listening to pop and rock music. This is really my basis.
C : I can think a lot about your music when I’m listening to Neil Young motion soundtrack for Jim Jarmush’s “Dead man”.
F : For example, my guitar playing which is on the record like, I would say, shadows or clouds of guitar. But when I really play I think when I was a kid I was just copying Neil Young’s guitar playing. I think you can still hear this . The way the cords are strummed.
C : yesterday you played acoustic guitar, I saw you 5 times playing live and it was the only time with a guitar.
F : it’s the first time since many many years that I’m doing this, but Sparklehorse guys really wanted to. We had decided it because we played in Geneva the day before, it was announced as the laptop computer against the folk rockers. So we wanted to turn it around, so Scott ended up with computer and I played an acoustic guitar.
C : And what about your influences as an artist ? I mean visual art, cinema, literature.
F : I think I was very influenced and fascinated by the film of Chris Marker, who is actually a French film artist, especially the movie “Sans Soleil” . Because there I found something, a technic that I am also trying to use in my music which is presenting just memories of songs, or ideas something that is really hidden in the past. You don’t bring it to the surface, you just let people find it, discover it within the music, within the sound. He did something like that with film. I think that was a major influence.
C : And about literature?
F : Hum…when I was young I’ve been reading all the Austrian & German classics. But I’m not so specialised in literature actually. For example I like Mark*’s songs lyrics really much. (*singer of Sparklehorse)
C : You’ re more interested in lyrics and folk singer?
F : Yes, I like good poetry for example.
C : And about visual art, painting, contemporary art?
F : I do go to exhibition. I just went to the Venice Biennale, just recently and I ‘ve seen one exhibition that actually was really mind-blowing, it’s the best art I’ve seen in years. It was like an installation, I mean it’s an Australian woman called Patricia Piccinini and she is making sculptures that look totally real. It’s a genetic-mixture between animals and human beings, it’s fantastic, it’s really touching art I think.
I’ve always liked painting from Eric Fischl, who is an American painter… Reality but there’s something dark in the back. For example there’s that wonderful painting from birthday boy painting and you see like a 12 or 13 years boy lied on sofa and there’s an older women spreading her legs… it’s funny!
C : How do you come to music?
F : I started playing guitar when I was 9/10 and never stopped actually. It went on with studio and equipment, and now with laptop.
C : Have you ever played in a rock band?
F : Oh! Yeah! For many years, in 2 or 3 bands in Austria…Yeah I was very ambitious with this, but it never worked out so I was really happy as soon as I was able to afford electronic equipment so I could produce my own music, for me that was like liberation.
C : You couldn’t find the people to do it with?
F : No, not really, only now when I have a collaboration. The great people I can work with: Jim O’ Rourke, Peter Rehberg, Sparklehorse, David Sylvian, really wonderful to work with!
C : Guitar is your main instrumental source.
F : Yes it is true, melodies or chords.
C : Do you own many guitars?
F : No actually I have many cheap guitars, really crap guitar, I like cheap guitar better than…I have one fender strat’…but I don’t know it’s not…It’s too good!
C : It’s too perfect?
F : Yes. Mark has this old “Harmony” guitar from the sixties and it is so great and it’s a hundred dollars guitar!
C : Yes, he was always tuning it again and again, with a very lazy attitude, it was nice. Do you use other instrument when you record?
F : I use bass guitar sometimes, piano sometimes, I do use a lot of those new software plug-in, synthesizers, samplers. I still use my old Ensoniq SR-10 sampler from time to time. Actually I can use anything, I mean I record, I work with the sound and then something completely different comes up anyway. But I still like to have this minimal source, like just an acoustic guitar, or electric guitar, I like this kind of restriction.
C : Do you use field recording?
F : Not very often, I like when other people are doing this but I just did it a couple of time…but I don’t have good microphones. You need very good stuff for doing this.
C : How do you record the guitar? I mean you first play then treat with computer?
F : For example. Or I might find something on the computer, I might improvise with the MSB patch or whatever and find some kind of melody and try to play the guitar, then mix this together again. Sometimes it’s just recording of acoustic guitar. For this I have good equipment I bought all this really old Telefunken pre-amps tube. It’s the same stuff than the Beatles where using. That’s really fantastic sound. So you got this warm sound. The combination between digital and very old stuff is fine.
C : Can you tell something about the mood of your track? Where does this exotic, also melancholic mood comes from?
F : It always have been something that fascinated me, my entire life, it’s really much related to my childhood also. There is always this feeling of those fantastic summers for example but there was always the knowing that the summer might end. I think this picture, I’ve been following all of my life. You can have beauty, you can have perfection but you know it’s gonna end. And this is like a dilemma that I ‘m just fascinated with.
C : There’s also some kind of romantic feeling, the cover from endless summer and also the title of your next album “Venice”, which is The city of lovers.
F : Well…You know I don’t know, I don’ t wanna be too straight with this. The music is different anyway, but what I do like is emotional music. I am not listening to music that is not emotional, it doesn’t interest me. I want to be touched by music. Music is the only saver for me. It safe me. Everything else doesn’t matter.
C : Your music seems to be floating, like a seashore the volume goes up and down with subtle sounds and then it can also be massive, huge sound. It’s very hazy, not clear at all.
F : I just like this kind of aesthetic. Also with electronic equipment you have a huge dynamic range, controlling the volume, controlling the surround setting whatever…I’m just trying to use all those advantages of technology and then I’m still interested in some kind of dirtiness in the sound. I don’t want clean high tech sound. I like to play around with this cheap equipment, I found it more living.
C : As a laptop player, I quoted you are one of the only one to play directly with the volume on the mix table.
F : It has to be dynamic otherwise it becomes too static, digital sound is so flat. You have to do something.
C : Many laptop gigs are like this, very flat. Nothing happens.
F : Yeah, I’m trying to avoid this. For me it’s important to have huge dynamic range, from nothing until wall of sound, it’s important I think.
C : How do you prepare a live performance?
F : I ended up using always the same software patch that a friend of mine was doing, his name is Klaus Phillip, a patch for free downloaded on internet, it’s actually a loop player. So I have a bank of my own recording of 500 sounds and you can fly them in and then you have to do something with it, you have to mix them together, actually you have to improvise. You have to listen to the other sound to follow this one. It’s always a challenge, it’s never exactly the same, it’s always a little bit different.
C : You don’t press the play button…
F : No! no! you can’t. With this you can’t! You have to play. That’s a challenge for me, otherwise it would be so boring…Being stand there…When they put me on a stage I think I have to play. If I make an installation or something it’s different…but when I’m standing on a stage, I have to play…that’s what I’m doing. It’s like playing an instrument. It’s even more complicate sometimes than playing guitar I think, cause there are so many things you have to control and check.
C : It’s very abstract.
F : Yeah and it can go wrong, really wrong.
C : What are the ideal condition for you to play? Sit audience? Rock gig? For a movie? At home?
F : I like an audience like yesterday, a very good audience, they were absolutely there, listening. I don’t care…I don’t really like sit audience. I like when it’s mixed, yesterday they were sitting on the floor, it was nice, even on the stage. This is what I like cause then I feel this intimacy with the audience. Yesterday it was really strong.
C : Yes, especially during the quiet stuff. What about this live performance last year at the Louvre museum playing for Paul Leni movie “The man who laugh”? Jim O’Rourke also played for another movie.
F : The people from the Louvre have been inviting me to make a live film music performance for this old movie. They gave me a cassette and I checked that It could be interesting. It was very difficult actually because it’s so long I mean it’s a movie! If it’s 30 minutes, ok no problem I can do it anytime, but that’s a 2 hours movie! So it was extremely exhausting for me. I was just sitting there, but at the end…Pouh! I wanted to go to sleep. It’s fascinating, this is really a big challenge because if it goes wrong, if after 10 or 15 minutes you go wrong you can’t find out of it anymore then you have the audience stuck there for 2 hours, it can become a nightmare.
C : Did you improvised?
F : No, it was half/half. Because I wanted to do something live also, otherwise it would have been pushing the play button again. So I had like, I would say, the bones of the piece, the frame was kind of composed, but then I would say that 50% was totally improvised to go with the pictures.
C : it was softer than your releases, very nice and subtle sounds
F : It has to be really low and in the background because otherwise it’s too much, you can overload easily with electronic music.
C : Also it was re-enforcing the attention to the movie. Are you sensitive to daily noises? Which ones?
F : Anything, for example when I’m lying at bed, in the city, and I hear the noises, I’m always kind of composing on the top of it in my head. There’s always some noises or melodies that comes in my head. I always thought everybody has this, but apparently it’s not like this. Many people have it but many don’t.
C : Because your music seems to contain what some would call un-wanted noises. Are there any sounds your ear doesn’t like?
F : You know what I don’t like? I don’t like perfect music. I don’t like perfection in production. For example there are so many nice R&B producers, but there’s so many shit! Absolutely perfect, but it leaves me totally cold. I’m scared of perfection and cliché. Otherwise I like every kind of sounds. I mean, I told you I was growing up with this lake : there’s always wind. I think this have been a major influence.
C : Would you say your music tends to be more and more melodic, rather than harsh noise like in the very beginning?
F : I don’t know, at the moment it’s half/half. I don’t know it’s always changing. I don’t have a master plan for this, it could be possible that I make a really noisy album in the future, it could also be possible I make just an acoustic guitar album.
C : You don’t have any plan?
F : No I leave it to the situation, I gave it up to work plan, it doesn’t work! It’s better to just react, just present what you’re doing at the moment. At the moment I am still fascinated by the melody, the essence of the melody. I still didn’t explore this field enough, I think. There are still things to do for me, from my point of view.
C : Since when do you work with computer? When and how did you discover electronic treatments?
F : You know when I played with bands I was always quite frustrated with the limitations, also at this time we had to go to the studio to record, it was so expensive…It was in the early 90's I bought an Ensoniq sampler, and suddenly I realised what I can do with my guitar, whatever…just by sampling and working on that, producing track with this, just with this machine, and I quit playing with other people.
C : That was the beginning : sampler?
F : Yes. Actually my 1st record "Intrument" this 12inch I made, it's just an old Ensoniq sampler, a Mackie mixer and a DAT machine, directly there. Then it's the same with “Hotel Paral.lel”, but then I have a SR10, bigger sampler, and an Atari with Cubase sequencer. And then the laptop became better and better. I remember, once I was playing in South of France, in Cannes, and at the flight back, everything was broken! Stuff fell out, it was a disaster. So ok! I am going to buy a laptop. It's just equipment that has changed but I think the personality is the same. Of course you go with technology, you discover new things that come in your music but in the end it's the same. I discovered those tapes that I made on my parent's cassette recorder when I was 12 or 13 : me playing guitar with a microphone, a phaser and harmonium and this stuff sounds great! It's really not different from the stuff I'm doing now, it's just more childish, but it’s sweet music, I go back from time to time and listen to those tapes…
C : Would you be keen to take these tapes and make something new with them?
F : Maybe, maybe one day.
C : Since the beginning of this interview you talk a lot about your childhood. It makes me think about Sergio Leone movies, especially Once upon a time America, with the childhood memories.
F : It would be a nice idea to release this stuff, to work on it. Yes. There are really many nice ideas, sometimes much better than today : so pure! Innocent! And this what I'm fascinated with : innocence that we lost.
C : Too many information kills that innocence.
F : Yeah I'm trying to find it in the music sometimes. That's the driving force actually.
C : You do lot of collaborations. Would you like to form a band? Or are you satisfied with playing yourself and on some collaboration?
F : Hum...basically I'm satisfied with this, but now I have been working for two weeks with Sparklehorse guys, it was really nice, I mean, since the beginning we met we are like a team. They are the same generation than me and they have been listening to the same kind of music, and I really like playing this. Maybe we will do something with this. You know we just had 12 days to make a program. But we are gonna meet together again and work on these material. I would like to do this.
C : Will there be a release for this collaboration with Sparklehorse? Live or studio?
F : I think we are going to a studio to make it really good. I think it could be a nice record. There is a chance that we record in Paris. We're just checking it with capitol records. I would like to record in Paris actually, It's a good city for this.
C : For what reasons?
F: For recording, well I' m here since quite a while and I’m always coming back…I don't know...there is some good spirit. Paris is my favourite in Europe.
C : The cover of endless summer was also a good reason to buy this record. How you work for the sleeve design?
F : In this case it was Tina Frank from Mego. She has been doing 4 of my records. “Instrument”: the 1st one, “Fennesz plays”: the single, “Hotel paral.lel” and “endless summer”. Each time when she did it we were always sitting together, talking about, brainstorming. I just gave her words, feelings that I had and she was always extremely well reacting. So she is presenting something and always: ok! Go for it!
C : Do you already know what will the "Venice" cover will be?
F : John (?) is already working on it. I think it will be very nice. A little bit different from the normal Touch covers also. But he says it’s gonna be a surprise, so I haven’t seen it yet.
C : I would like to talk about the Beach Boys, because of this cover you made from "don't talk (put your head on my shoulder)" and also we can hear the bass line of “God only knows” on “Caecilia” (from endless summer). Do you have a special relation with this band? With Brian Wilson?
F : I have always liked Brian Wilson’s songs and I think he is a master piece of pop music. Maybe my fascination with the Beach boys became a bit overstated, journalists always talk about this. Of course it's there but it's not so massive, there has been many others but it's true: for me Brian Wilson is one the best song writer ever. I especially like “Pet sounds” and the “smile” album.
C : But Smile" never came out...
F : But I have bootleg! It's really fantastic.
C : Brian Wilson is coming in Paris in March 2004 to play this “Smile” album on stage.
F : It's excellent! But I have a ticket for the London show already!
C : Are there others samples in your music?
F : I never use samples.
C : Yes, but I mean, for example, the bass line from “God only knows” in “Caecilia”?
F : But it's a bit different. It's influenced. It's like a homage.
C : Are there others? That’s the only one?
F : No. I never use other people sample. Only for one track I used like half a second of the vibraphone of “Until I die” from the Beach Boys also, it's the track “Before I leave” on “Endless summer” and David Toop from the Wire magazine was writing a review and immediately recognised. But actually that’s the only one I have ever used.
C : But to me it's some kind of a normal thing to do covers. I mean Beethoven was covering
F : Sure. I think it's not a problem to take the influence from master.
C : What about the rumour saying that you are asked by Madonna to make a remix for her?
F : It's really bullshit. I don't know where it's coming from. I found it everywhere! It's amazing! Maybe once there was a Venice promoter who works with Universal, EMI, Warner brothers, calling me if I ever be interested to do something like that. Of course I would! And that was all! But I never heard back...Well, I would do it definitely, no problem! I could buy a new studio with the money!
C : It seems your new album “Venice” is gonna be released next November, did you finished to compose it?
F : No, it's almost. I'm going back to Vienna tomorrow and I have two weeks I can really concentrate. So I hope it’s finished then. But November is still realistic.
C : Can we think about it as the following of “endless summer”?
F : It's gonna be different also, definitely there will be tracks on it that has melody as some of the “endless summer” tracks. but there's also some more…longer tracks, quite fragile and broken beat. I had like 3 rushes of the record already and a couple of month ago I was listening back and just thought it sounded all too perfect. I did not liked the attitude, so I just through it away, I delete.
C : You delete?
F : I delete stuff and I start again to write piece of paper and then it's good. But I’m not finished with this now. It's always the same procedure. I work and work, I make so many tracks, then I throw them away, start again, same as “endless summer”. I always have to go through this hell.
C : So you work again and again on tracks? You don't do it quickly?
F : Well, then after I threw everything away. I do it very quickly. That's how it works. But I have to go
through this process of composing endlessly.
C : You gather many things, then you choose. Maybe the choose is the most important thing in any artistic work? You have to say : this I take, this not...
F : Yes that's true.
C : Can you say anything about this next album? The mood? About the title "Venice"?
F : Well, the title "Venice" is equal to Terry Gilliam’s movie "Brazil" : actually the title has nothing to do with the movie. It's a bit like this. But there is one or two reference. I was choosing the title because once I read that population of Venice was able to deal with disaster in a very elegant way and I do like this picture. This is why I choose it. And to this there will be quite many reference in the record. And I have been there for 2 weeks.
C : you recorded in Venice?
F : I did record a couple of tracks in Venice. I was renting a little apartment in the old town and I started to work but then suddenly this heat wave came up, like 42 degrees! So I moved out and went to a Hotel on the Lido, on the beach with air-condition. It's gonna be quite melodic. It will be very very simple tracks. For example I have one piece that was building up, building up… but the basis is just an acoustic guitar. And now I'm deleting everything that I built up and just let the acoustic guitar.
C : Venice is a very quiet city. Probably one of the most because there is no traffic. Was this silence an inspiration?
F : Yes, definitely. All you can hear in Venice is the people talking, it’s weird only after 3 days you realise there is something missing in the surrounding noise, then you realise again: there is no cars of course! And I don't know, I like this mixture of people talking and the noise of the water. Very gentle atmosphere.
C : You made the electronic part and arrangement on one track of David Sylvian new album "Blemish". How did you decide to collaborate together?
F : I was always a fan of that band "Japan" in the 80’s whom he was the front-singer, I was collecting his records, also following his solo carrier, he made masterpiece, those records he did with Sakamoto, Holger Czukay, very amazing! And he is one of my favourite vocalist. And for the “Venice” album I was talking with Touch that I would like a vocalist on the record, just one track. Touch ask me: “who are you thinking about?” -Well David Sylvian, do you think that’s possible? So Touch called David management and suddenly there was an e-mail coming directly to me from David saying :"from this point we should talk together because I would like to be on your record but I also would like to have you on my record. So we did this. He is playing in Paris in 2 weeks. And the great thing is that the track we made together is called "a fire in the forest" and the tour is called "a fire in the forest Tour". That's really great!
C: It's a beautiful title. Very scary too.
F : He has been sending a track to me, with just the vocals and the guitar taping, just one chord and some kind of percussion, actually I could not do anything with that. So I delete the instrumentation, just kept the voices and wrote a completely different song. It was like arranging his singing and it became something totally different. He was very happy, me too. I think it's a nice ballad. So it’s also a collaboration that might go on in the future.
C : you work very many different people.
F : A couple of people I like to work with : there is David Sylvian, Jim'O'Rourke/Peter Rehberg, Sparklehorse. That’s it at the moment. 3 very different things that are all nice for me, I can learn from this, I really like it, I don't wanna be too isolated, because I worked alone for so many years and it’s good to have exchange with other people.
C : Thinking about the titles of your pieces like made in Hong-Kong, Hotel Paral.lel, Venice...A lot of names shows up, the idea of travelling and time, it seems you have a special relation with places and travel ?
F : It does influence me a lot, I mean the vibe of a surrounding, whether it's a city or something else but all those place have had an influence. Hong-Kong did have big influence on me, it's really an overwhelming city. And this track was made in Hong-Kong, Hotel parallel is the Hotel where I was always staying at the Sonar festival. I was looking for a title…
C : The simpler is the best
F : Yeah it is. Sure.
C : Recently your releases are made under the Label TOUCH, no more on MEGO?
F : Not at the moment. I don't know, it might be something in the future again, but I just have this nice working relationship with Touch, I wanted to continue. Also Touch is my publisher since 2/3 years now and I don't know I just like the idea to work for a label in England, where all the business stuff is. Away from Vienna also, because ...
C : Too obscure? Specialised label?
F : Yes. It's also friends, and you meet them, you go out with them. It's too isolated for me.
Also Mego is just a trade mark...And actually I don't like this idea anymore which came up in the 90's with the techno scene : the label is the music and not the artist. And Mego is just so dominant with this. They put everywhere Mego Mego Mego. I am not mego. I am Christian Fennesz. Mego is just a record label and with Touch I never had this feeling. Too much on the foreground. But it's great people, great label , they make fantastic stuff, but I think everything has its own time. I might do something else like a 12" or something.
C : Or collaboration with Fenn O’ Berg?
F : Fenn O' Berg will always be a Mego release.
C: What about this movie "Blue moon"?
F : It was a disaster. I like to make film music sometimes. It is something I am fascinated with but this thing, it was an Austrian mainstream movie, played in North Europe in Cinema. It's like a road movie in the East, in Slovakia. I got this offer at a time I was absolutely broke with money, finished. “Endless summer” became really successful but then there was the terror attack in America, 11th September and all the small distribution companies collapsed. So that lack of money left there never came, and at this time I had this offer to make this film, I signed, it was good money it saved my life but then: fuck! They changed my music, cut stuff…
C : You did not have the final cut?
F : No. that was really awful actually.
C : What's the meaning of the title of the album +56’37 –51’08?
F : It's the latitude of the place of the countryside where I'm from. I like to check maps.
C : Would you like to say anything else?
F : I'm fine, I think I talked quite a lot. It's all right for me.
C : Would there be other artist you would like to work with?
F : I don’t know. Actually, all the people I really enjoy listening to, I am just working with. We must play with Mika Vaino from Pan sonic at the GRM institute, here in Paris, on October 7th. I played last year at GRM, this time it’s really better, well organised piece, we can work on that for 2 weeks also. So I don’t know…Ryuichi Sakamoto is trying to get me involve in a project. It’s like composing something and give it to another one and works on it and give it to another one…
Reproduction of photos & words not permitted without permission. ADAGP