© Cédrick Eymenier 1999-2022
PINK TO RED TO VIOLET TO BLUE
An Interview with Stephan Matthieu
By Cédrick Eymenier, January 30, 2004
itw originally made for OKFRED magazine #4 (Tokyo Japan)
Stephan mathieu is a very prolific talented producer. He was born in Saarebrucken-Germany and still lives there with his wife and children. After playing in Berlin, where he lived during his teenage, as a free-jazz drummer, he finally focused into digital for doing his own music. He released many records within the past 5 years, including collaboration with his friend Ekkehard Ehlers. He works with different labels such as Orthlorng Musork, Ritornell, Bip Hop...His new LP "The sad Mac" should be released in early summer 2004. He also teaches design at the University for Arts and Design, Saarbrücken.
Recently I was visiting the Volklingen Hutte -a contemporay art space in a huge 19th century iron factory near Sarrebrucken- where a permanent sound installation from Stephan Mathieu is displayed since 2000. I met Stephan while he was checking the installation. We agreed a meeting for an interview.
C I would like to start with your sound installation at the Volklingen Hutte, can you describe this piece, what was the main idea?
SM Where should I start...hum...ok...This was the first thing I made for Volkling. They've heard some of my music and they ask me if I can do a reconstruction of the sound of 2 machines and the first thing I said was well I don't want to do an imitation, I don't even want to try to do this. So if I should do this it has to be...I need my artistical freedom, I have to do it as a piece of music, not an imation. And the funny thing is that Volkling ask me like 6 weeks before, it was very fast. My main job was the conception of the speakers and the whole technical side and this was really a 24hours/day job. A good friend of mine help me with this. Because the original idea, there should have been 3 set up, there is one now, but in the end I'm very happy with this surround set up, but it was so expensive they could not afford to do 2 or even 3 more. I'm regarding this as 1 part out of 4. My first idea was to do something with classical music because this space and the whole iron works...
C A so huge place, like a cathedral!
SM Yeah and I think classical music would serve this object. But in the end I spoke with a friend of mine who knows a lot about workers and said hey! Classical music was for the high society, and these guys who worked there were average workers people, and I thought I would do something with pop music and it was by accident that I took...At this time I was working on Frequencylib wich was my first album where I worked with samples in a classical way. Because when I started to work with the computer, using sample, using other's people music was like a tabu for me but then I was very fascinated and I just try this. All these favorite music from the back of my head...You know it's really hard for me to talk about this because I wrote this so many time, that's like the stephan mathieu's cliché...In the end I was working with an instrumental Beach Boys piece called "Let's go away for a while", from Pet Sounds...This was one of the 1st 7inch I had:"Good Vibration" and on the flip side there was "Let's go away for a while" so I know this piece very very long. And I was working with this for Frequencylib and suddenly there was this sound and I said hey! That's the sound of the machine! It was like a millisecond, just droning. So in the end the actual making of the music was one night and the other 6 weeks was just calculating, thinking of equipment.
C That's interesting because you much take care of the quality of sound. I remenber when I heard this sound at the Volkling it was so present! Very impressive.
SM Yeah it's just one big drone, makes the floor and everything shake. There's also a funny story but that's on the website...The 1st people who heard the finished installation were 3 workers who used to work in this space for 40 xxxxyears. There were the machine masters, they controlled it with their ears, they heard when there's something wrong. They came like 2 days ago and said ok! What are you doing here? When can we hear something? I said: Test will be finished tuesday by 6PM and please come to listen. They came, I played it for them and they were walking around and after 3 minutes one of them said "Can you please stop this! There's this one tone, can you put this out because this was just when this and that part was broken...and I said Wahou!
C They really thought it was the machine?
SM So I said to them: I feel honored but you have to think about this: it's a piece of music. So for some strange reason I really...I made it somehow...Because my approach was...I knew this machine since some years because I played there a couple of time as a drummer also...my appraoch was like industrial sound design, like in the car industry with the bang of the door, create it and how does it sound in a car. And I thought, these machine, it was not noise, it was like a soft warm thing and somehow it really...this was so funny. For some reason exactly what was happening was what I did not wanted. I did not wanted to imitate the machine, but it happened in good way.
C Do you like the idea of working in such place to create a more site-specific sound installation?
SM Yes very much. First of all, I come from improvised music where there's this cliché of everything goes, everybody has total freedom, if you play in a quartet or with ten people or in a duo, you can go wherever you want and at a certain point I was really tired of this. And I thought I 'd like to compose but I don't know how to write music, I don't read music or notes so pouuuh! I really thought when I was in an ensemble Ahh! I really like to fix this moment and give it another shape, and I don't like the idea that in 2 minutes it will fall apart and it will be some free jazz ups and downs and there will be another interesting moment...So what I like nowadays if people invite me to do something, I really like to have ideas, a route where to go. But in any case I'm happy if I'm asked for what I can do. So if they ask me because they like my music so that's enough, then they can tell me a lot. With Volkling for example they do exactly this, they appreciate what I'm doing and I have my freedom and they say ok! There's this Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and the idea is this and that point, then they leave me alone.
C So you did 2 installations at Volklingen?
SM I did 3. 1st one was the machine sounds in 2000, which is a permanent installation...Generally you have to know that if you ask me about something I did I can probably tell you about a whole evening because all my things...I don't want to say it goes so deep but it's connected to this and that... It always has a story, it's very personnal, it's very connected to myself and a thousand of thoughts.
C You cannot seperate and just say a little thing like 2 words, it's a very peotical way of working.
SM What I like about Volkling it's also the idea that the machine of this museum in an old iron works and the cultural heritage, the UNESCO thing and so on. They have a big pop machine, because it's for everybody, so they had this Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, they had like 250 000 visitors. So they have to promote and for me it's interesting to be part of this because...In general I don't like to shock people, maybe sometimes but not there. It's really for grandparents and their little children and famillies and people who are interested in art, people who know about art or very average people, it's very different, and that's a task to do something which meets this sweet ??????both direction. For example I made this soundtrack for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. It started where my speakers set up is, that's the 1st part of the way through the space. And I had the idea to do something like when you go to a department store, like a big warehouse and when you go inside sometimes there is this warm air shower. You know when you go through, it changes your atmosphere outside/inside. This was my 1st idea for this Leonardo piece because this a 20 min. piece, 4 parts, which was play in a loop for the whole day. You could almost hear it in the whole space, so when on your way through the hall, it goes softer and then on your way back, you could hear it again, it was present in the room.
C Not aggressive at all?
SM No. For example a aunt of my mother was there and she wrote me a postcard that she liked it so much. This was very good.
C That's a good thing for you to touch people that are not from the music scene.
SM Yes, this idea of bringing my stuff to this strange context, it's very interseting for me. It's almost like being played on a main radio station, like 12 o'clock, during the lunchbreak or something like this.
C Suddenly you can touch people, that you usually don't.
SM I wouldn't ever.
C Do you have any ambition in doing some sound installation in galleries or art space?
SM Yes I also did. It's different when the context changes. In general when I'm doing installation it's very site-specific, that's the most important thing. For example in Volkling it has this "moto", main subject and it's the place and I know that there will be people coming that won't go to a gallery, so it has to do with the venue, the place.
I also made pieces in museum or in galleries, my approach was very different. I made something much more like sound-art piece or sound and video pieces which really serve or act like a piece of art, more in a tradiionnal way, like exponent, a thing in a gallery.
C Do you make your video yourself? The one you played while you are playing your music. Is it the same kind you show in galleries?
SM Usually there is this color, this very simple thing, that's my live visual since 2 years now, I'm controlling it live so it's always different. I think it's a good thing which goes along well with my live music. This long color drone, that's what I like.
C slowly changing colors...
SM But for the exhibition it's different, but not that much. For ex. I made a piece where the visual part was a 256 gray scales, the computer ?????? from black to white, 256 steps. I wrote a programm which was flipping through the gray scale, very fast so it was like a black and white flipper, like distorting the tube of the monitor...Things like this. It's always connected to colors.
C Colors, that's interesting. What could you say about colors in relation to sound?
SM I mean there are people who say Oh! This piece is orange or I can see colors when hear this music...I'm not like that, I don't have this connections.
C These are just 2 things that interested you and so you play them together?
SM Yes, because I really like colors and especially pure color which don't have a shape, just a colorfield.
C It reminds me painters like Rothko, appearing and disappearing colorfield. For me it also has to do with mood and feeling...Do you have this kind of relation with colors? I mean not basic like yellow is happy and black, dark and sad but do you feel concerned with this?
SM Somehow I do. I mean, what you saw (at the opening of volklin stephan played live music+visual) was special because I started with yellow which I usually never do. I did this there because the projector was fantastic, so strong. But, most of the time when I play live it's a journey from pink to blue or from blue to pink, it's always these colors. So pink to red to violet to blue that's all the other way around. Because I like these colors and they are colors which work with a less strong projector because that's very delicate, because the colors have to be present otherwise if it's muddy, weak, and it doesn't work, it's like a joke!
C Last time we met you told me that these past years you've been doing so many releases, on so many label, so many collaboratons and now you needed to have so kind of a change. Can you say some words about that?
SM Nowadays if I see or hear what I've done, it's really funny because the very 1st piece I made with a computer it has been released.
C What was the name of the 1st?
SM The 1st piece I made is on Wurmloch variationen. It's really funny because if I see the catalog of things I made it's really my development as a musician. It has been documentated, just because the 1st record I made on Kit Clayton's label (orthlorng musork) they promoted it so well that from the 1st work so many people were asking me. And I was very productive and almost everything i made was released, which is somehow funny.
C In a way your productions are more like documents about your daily work rather than a finished object.
SM This has really much to do with this digitallity. I can't say that I'm really working very fast...Anyway it works. Some pieces I made them very very fast...I said hey! That's a piece! I won't touch it anymore, it's finished like this. But the work on my music...This was also with Volkling with the machine piece because while I was making the concept for the speakers set up I was always thinking about the music so it's always very much, it's a lot of thoughts.
C But then it can go quickly.
SM Making it can be very fast, but it's not always like that. For ex. Frequency Lib was so much work and there was a dead line and I had to finish it and I say wouah!
C That's funny because Frequency Lib is based on samples, maybe that's the reason?
SM For me if I hear this nowadays, it's very constructed and elaborated. Because the full swing edits for example are all music for other people who ask me to do a remix. Most of the pieces are like 80% played live then edited a little bit, to finish it. Frequency Lib was very composed, a lot of different tiny beats and constructing it. Nowadays, I did so many pieces that are just one software process. For ex. I have 2 files, I melt them with each other, then the computer is working for 3 hours then I push play and Wahouh! Wonderfull! It's a finished piece! That's where I'm right now.
C It seems your music and the way you do it trust in randomness, the surprise of what is going to happen if I process this file with this one...
SM Yeah but without the expect of randomness, it's much more like trusting in the software, it's really like that. For ex. I work with Soundhack which is a software I really like. It has really great and esoteric filters which you can hardly controll. I have this sound file and this, and somehow they are connected with each other, then I throw them to soundhack, for a spectral analysis of both, play them together and it works. So it's not really randomness, how can I say...It's an esoteric approach somehow.
C Also the importance of hazard, like the Kapotte Musiek CD, can you explain this piece?
SM It was completly crazy. It was when I was right in the middle of finding out that I really...Because another thing which is really important nowadays, I'm really tired of controlling, of using this plug and distort it, I don't do this anymore. I did this with Full swing edits and with the Frequency Lib pieces. I was very interested in checking out software and different algorythm and at a certain point I couldn't do it anymore, because I know. And if you listen to music from somebody you would find all these...I didn't want this anymore. That's when I started to reduce my software : just 2 applications.
C More basic equipment so that the idea of what you want to do has to be more precise and developped. It's the opposite of playing as when you were a drummer and played endlessly...
SM With the drum it was the same because I had my drum kit, and I used to prepare it, with metal, leather, paper, junk...I had like two back full of preparations and I love every sound and I knew what I can do and I really could control everything and at a certain point I was hitting this bell...I said Oh No! I can't hear it anymore. Or certain movement which I played, I was really like allergic. I don't want to hear this anymore. I started to play beats, very simple beats, and then I stopped because the band fall apart. I only noticed some weeks ago, that it's the same with computer, I was tired of the sounds I could make and I have to find another way and another approach and Psshhh! Right now I'm really fighting with the computer because what I'm doing nowadays sounds to me like OK! I have 2 decisions : I can do this for the rest of my life which is fine, maybe. But maybe also a little bit boring. Or I have to do something else and I don't know if the computer will play this basic role like it does now. I really can't say it's a crisis or something but it's a good point to say: do something else for a while and see what will come out. This album on which I'm working will be called "the sad mac" : that's the idea...I love sad music somehow but then there's the thought of the computer being sad because I don't take care of it so much anymore. I mean it may sounds stupid but for me if I'm very pathetic, it's a fairwell to the computer. So I'm regarding this like this at the moment, it gives me the kick to finish this album. So if somebody ask me I say Hey! That's a goodbye to the computer! To Dsp!...Dsp process or these magic things you can do with softwares it's like a goodbye. But I'm not really serious about this. I have to see it that way, right now to continue.
C On which label will it be released?
SM Probably on 12k. Orthlorng Musork, I'm quite sure they will like it, and would like to do it...Taylor (Deupree) also likes it very much and I think I should do something for them because I like them. I think by the time when Okfred#4 will be released, this cd would be released since month! I'm hoping to release it on early summer.
C I have this question, even if you already talked about that. New technologies -whatever it is, I mean It can be a pen- always generate new possibilities and new form of art. What is according to you the main advantage of digital processing? Is it the unlimited erase possibility, for ex? Crtl Z?
SM Well that's the funny thing I don't do this since 2 years, I don't erase. Sometimes...I won't say that everything works but sometimes I don't do music for 3 weeks then I have these 2 sound files and I'm doing e-mail since weeks and I'm listening to music or recordings I made and then I take this ????? and this recording of birds and while I'm doing e-mail I let the computer work and like 2 hours later "OH! I have to check this, and it's finished, I play it and it's a piece of music and it's wonderfull! So I don't erase that much. Sometimes it's ????? It was worth it, I throw it away. But it's not like when I started 5 years ago. It was very much of un-doing things and constructing it. But not anymore. When I started to work with the computer the 1st impression was Hey! It's endless! The 1st thing I got was 5 cds with softwares to check out and try I said Oh No! I found very quickly a handfull of programm I was working with, and I didn't try all the other stuff. I thought I really have to find my way very fast. Because I don't want to check everything...With the years it was reduced and now it's 2 things. I think that's important, also for other people to don't get lost in too many possibilities.
C You would became crazy
SM Also lot of things which are connected to the computer doesn't have to be music, it can also be video or something. With many things I'm getting bored easily because it looks or sounds like a demonstration of what is possible with the computer and I'm always behind poetry. I like to hear a personal language, no matter if you play a saxophone or a violon or a computer.
C Something personal and subjective...
SM I'm always looking for this when I hear music.
C Do you know Sei Shonagon? A poet from old Japan ?
SM Sure, she wrote "The pillow book"
C She speaks about the beautiness of a bird singing in the night, so far and so indistinct that we doubt of our ears. Your music sometimes reminds me this. I like this when you are not sure of what you are hearing. Do you think about this?
SM From the first place when I started to work with the computer, suddenly my music wasn't kicking a drum anymore, because a drum you know how it sounds somehow. And when I started to work digital processing, my 1st impression was that these sounds are like a living creature. I always enjoy to play this music very loud, so it becomes very physical, not like you have to be afraid of your body,but...Sounds are like creature somehow...Especially these much more droning thing I'm doing since 2 years. They are like a landscape. Somebody might say "what's that? That's a single tone! 20 minutes, really annoying!" But if you somehow like it, it becomes richer. It's like landscape somehow. So it's interesting if you ????? different frequency, you shift them in each other, they change completly. They are creating something new, maybe silence, like cancellation of sound.
C It's like one and one is 3?
C You have reached a quite good reputation in the digital music scene. What would be the next step for you?
SM My next or my current step is thinking about what the next step could be. I'm a musician, it's very important for me to create music. I absolutly love to work with the computer because it's a great tool. But I don't know. I have no idea how my music could sound. I can't say I have this music in my head, I want to make it sound...At the moment I'm really interested in doing movies, photographs.
C What kind? Figurative?
SM A thing which really touch me when I saw it was...Oh!No! I haven't seen it...Ekkie (ekkehard Ehlers) described me a video by Steven P????, which is like a short-movie. This was really inspiring me. My wife Katja, she's doing videos occasionaly for her students. She goes into the garden with the video camera and she is turning around very slowly, and we have trees, so it's like 4 minutes with the trees, it's so beautiful. Of course she doesn't have much time because she is a teacher, and now a mother of 2 little guys! But we would like to do short movies, with actors. It's just a tiny picture I have in my head but I would really like to do this. Also I would like to release maybe a dvd, not with music, just maybe short movies...it could be anything. I don't feel like I have to get rid of music, but for me music is connected to so many different things. Also since 2/3 years I have the idea to design curtains, carpets and tirels????? or tables...
C So you have many interest in visual art?
SM Yes but I have to find the point to where...
C How to achieve these projects...
SM Like I said I'm thinking a lot, and sometimes I'm thinking so much that I don't do! Then since a while I don't have much time. At the moment I'm trying to get to the point where I'm really relaxed because those last 2 years were crazy. I really want to come down.
SM I have to see how things progress. I have to work as an artist I can't do a job, I'm very bad in this. For example, since a while I'm getting quite a lot invitation to do sound-art piece. And most of the time, I have to say sorry I can't do this because I don't have the time to go to Tokyo next...because it's not possible because I'm a familly man!
C But would you like to find solution to do this?
SM More and more I'm thinking of installation which don't have sound. They are like a furnished room, with colors, with light, almost like when you go to shopping for furnitures and you look into a window display. That's what I'm intersted in but I don't find the way to start, but I'd like to go there...Also for me it's vey nice to think about things. Sometimes maybe you don't even have to do them (laugh) But there are certain thing I'd like to do.
C I like this attitude you have with what you are doing, whatever it is. In a way it reminds me Fluxus or things like this.
SM I'm not so familliar with Fluxus...I am very much a design freak. I was since years and years. And now we have our own house, and we are thinking about furniture a lot and what we would like, most of the stuff is ridiculously expensive. But I'm very fascinated by this, it's a big inspiration for me.
C That's what you are teaching?
SM I'm teaching mainly...It's an art school for design and for Frei Kunst/free art, I don't know if you translate it?
C I don't know Art is free so...Contemporary art?
SM Yes...Students we have they can do painting, scuplture, design if they want. It's a liberate approach. this sounds fantastic but in the end it's not like this. Most of my students are coming for design and they are interested in sound.
C What do you teach, Design history?
SM We are listening to a lot music. For ex. in the last semester the main subject was music and video and we have been watching a lot of videos, movies with soundtrack, I played them a lot of music. I get my inspiration from everywhere. For me it's important to show my students that you don't have necessarily to listen to music to do something about music and video. You can look at design for sofa and get the point where hey! Now I know what I want...Or read a book or something...
C You don't have to learn design history to do some design.
C I like this quotation from the Full swing edits from Democritus "By convention there is colors, by convention there is bitterness, by convention sweetness, but in reality there are atoms and space". Do you feel concerned with Physics?
SM Not at all, I have no clue. Physics was one of the reason why I quit school when I was 16 but (laugh) really it was physics and mathematica! I have no talent for this. But now like 15 years later, I have a big fascination for this, but I don't have the basic. Katja, my wife, came out with this quotation, hey! Listen to this...I said whaou! And when I was finishing the piece and the art-work, this quotation came back to my mind. This means something to me, that's all. Because with quotation I send them very easily and give it to the people to complete the picture. There's a review from Ron Shaper?????, who's a Canadian writor, he is really a great writor and he knew exactly where the quotation was. So finally I learn something about Democritus from this review. For me things like quotation, it's always very intuitive. I think I use this quotation because it reminded me my approach to this music on Full swings. Because this was very about diving very deep into the sound and finding in a millisecond like a whole world. For ex you have a piece by Laub, which is This piece, but if you look closer, litteraly, look with the magnifiant????? glass, diving deep into the frequency: you don't have a pop-song anymore. It's like moving waves of sound and if you combine them again, maybe you have something like a pop-song again...
C I'd like to ask you question about your background?
SM My real background is music, cause my father was a music collector of pop music and german pop music, which I'm almost ashamed of -when we got older I said to him"How can you listen to that shit?"- but when I was very young child, it was Beatles, Elvis Presley, Carpenters, radio top100 from the ealy 70's. I grew up with music and I was always like a big music fan. First pop music, then I discovered things like Einsturzende Neubaten, I heard them very early 1980 when they were very new, this was changing so much, so I got into this industrial stuff: SPK, Throbbing Whrisle...
C Very much more aggresive music than what you are doing now.
SM Yes. I think the most important thing was something else. Also it was shocking other people in my class "they said Pffff...what are you listening?!?" and I enjoyed that very much. Then it was contemporary music, free jazz...I was playing drums, then I heard Alexander von????? trio, it's a very good and famous free jazz trio, and the drummmer! I was absolutly shocked and I said ok! I have to change everything, I have to do this. That's why I started to play this improvised stuff...But in the end, it's always...I love pop music. Or music in general, because wherever you look you can find wonderfull music, whatever...
C Yeah every style of music has good things.
SM There was a long time I was very interested in cinema. I was working on the cinema, learning how to show movies and so on. For example the french cinema from the late 50's : Nouvelle vague, like Godart who is still one of my favorite. Not really the Hollywood thing, but the "Cinema d'auteur" I was very crazy about this. Maybe that's not thing one should write in interview, but I was taking drugs a lot, I was smoking marijuana like crazy and I went to the cinema or watch videos...there were movies I saw 50 or 100 times!
C Can you just name one or two you especially liked?
SM Maybe the movie I saw the most was Eraserhead by David Lynch. I also had the video and I was living with 2 friends and this movie was sometimes runninng like a loop, sometimes you looked at it, and it was shocking and then the same thing which was shocking 3 days ago was now so funny and lovely, for me it's a great movie. David Lynch was really inspired by Hitchcock, but also by Jacques Tati and Eraserhead you can watch it like a Tati movie somehow...Also the first 5 minutes from Blue Velvet!
C You said that maybe that was'nt something to talk about, when you talked about drugs, but I had a question about this. Have you or do you use or need any special food, drink, drug or condition to do music?
SM No it's changing. I stopped...I mean I never took serious drug like heroin, but in my teenage I was smoking dope like crazy and I stopped this when I started to focus completly on music. Because in the very early stage I was still smoking, then I said hey! It's not working at all because you feel like you are a king when you play, it's so much fun and when you listen to the recording it's terrible bullshit...I don't do it anymore, I stopped...Sometimes I have the impression that I need a certain stress to finish things.
C You mean like a deadline?
SM Yes, it's quite often. For ex. my preparation for a concert, the night before I sleep 2 hours because the week before I was just thinking about what I would do and then I had to do something and very often I keep this until it's almost too late. Then when I go to bed I think whaou! Is it finished now? And next morning when I check the stuff I'm thinking "It's good, now I can relax...
Oh! There's the wine! Please give me!
C Oh sorry I should have gave you some more...
C Threre's only 4 minutes left, we have been speaking for 1h10...I was asking this not to know about your personnal life or whatever but because in a socioligical approach rock'n roll music, techno, even jazz, there were this use of drugs that was quite proimminent, even the musician themself would affirm it, they called their song with drugs names...and with the digital musical scene -if we can say this- there is not this attitude. For example the stage is not appropriate to laptop concert, it's boring to watch someone behind his laptop, there's nothing to watch. So digital music has generated new condition of listening...
SM This live situation...That's why I'm working with the visual, because I definitely don't want to be on stage and sit there, because I know that when I go to a concert...Maybe I don't answer your question with drugs and stuff and social things...For me these speakers music, it's really about sound, so unless...I mean there are some people who are certainly doing a great show or trying to do a show or trying to deal with this aspect...There's no real show necessary also...I'm loosing track...For me the perfect situation is like go into a cinema, with a great sound system...I'm doing this projection to give people something to stare at.
C To fix attention.
SM When I developped this visual programm, the idea was to have a very very fast color flipper, which should be projected so big and bright that afer 2 minutues people would have to close their eyes and just...
C Do you know Brion Gysin?
SM Yes the dream machine. Somehow, I always try to avoid this idea,but I think it's the same idea...He made this because he was riding in a bus and the trees...
C This story, how he discovered this, that's wonderfull, but The dream machine...
SM It never worked for me!
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