Last November, Stephan Mathieu and Taylor Deupree were invited to play together at the Semibreve festival in Braga. As I was covering the festival for Fluid, I had originally planned to interview them separately but, upon meeting them a few hours before the concert, we decided to have a joint conversation instead...
What are you going to play tonight?
SM: I’m playing my Phonoharp Zither, no computer processing this time, just
the E-bows and strings, all mic’d up.
TD: I’ll have various noises and percussion devices through my pedals and loopers. But we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do yet because I haven’t done anything yet. We discussed it in the hotel room but without me being able to hook up my equipment, we couldn’t get very far.
SM: I think we know what we want to do but still have to find the shape of it.
TD: I think that Stephan will probably do more of the harmonies and I’ll do more noise and textures to make a nice combination. I don’t think I’ll do any melody but we’ll see. I’ve got a little OP-1 synthesiser so that could do lots of different things. And I have to say that to me the OP-1 replaces the computer and because of that I don’t need to bring the laptop on stage. With the OP-1, I can have some synthesised sine waves, some tones that I like to use without having to bring the whole computer.
Both of you have moved away from using laptops for live performance. Why?
TD: I’ve wanted to move away for some times now but it’s only this year that I’ve come up with a system that allows me to not bring the laptop on stage. To me it was a bit boring, because when I performed, even though everything was improvised and it was different every time, it was not like I just hit play and it was there, but looking at the screen and moving some midi controllers, it’s just that for me it wasn’t that interesting anymore. And in general I’ve been trying to move away from digital things a lot, not totally so but I prefer the hands-on approach. I can do the same kind of music that I was doing before but with guitar pedals, loopers etc and for me it’s just a lot more interesting and maybe for the audience too. I think I can thank Steve Roden for what I do now. I was touring with him in Brazil maybe 10 years ago and I had my laptop and Steve brought only some microphones, delay pedals and nothing else. And I was like: “Well, what are you gonna play?” and he said: “I don’t know!”. And everywhere we went, he would collect small objects he found locally and he would make his music with those. And it was unbelievable music, music I saw him creating from nothing at all. And it’s been stuck in my mind ever since and in a way no live performance has had so much impact on me. For the past ten years I’ve been trying to do that without just going out and doing just the exact same thing. But I’ve been trying to come up with my own way of making something from nothing. The laptop to me is this box that has my emails on it, 12k’s accounting on it and all this stuff. It feels just bloated and heavy and in a way this box represents just so much of my life and it’s perhaps too much of my life. Because I know that behind the screen of Ableton Live, there is all this other stuff, all these other programs etc and it’s just mental garbage. So when I can play with my pedals, my microphones and instruments, it’s very pure: it’s all I’m using to create. So maybe that makes sense. But also I don’t want to go down as being anti-computer.
SM: What you’re saying is very interesting, I never thought of it like this but it’s exactly that for me, like having my life standing in front of me while playing a concert.
TD: You just know that behind that screen of Max/MSP or whatever, you’re a button click-away from the internet and everything else and it’s just about getting away from it. You want to get away from all that stuff and just make music.
SM: On the other hand I think I’m notorious for having problems with computers. During the last few years I had bought several lemons, machines that had arrived dead. To say the least, It’s hard to build a good relation with them. Luckily I’ve never had any notable issues while playing live but I still feel terrified with computers on stage and that was another reason why I wanted to get away from them. I didn’t feel happy working with computers, even in the studio, to me a computer was more a problem than anything else. I have to say I’ve always been happy with what I do with them, a healthy workflow assumed, but at the same time I became interested in acoustic sources like the gramophone, the zither or the virginals and I saw there were quite some similarities to what I do with digital processes. Performing live with ‘real’ instrument feels different, and it gives the audience something visual to relate to. While playing, I receive a different feedback from the people.
That’s interesting because when I saw you playing at Cafe Oto in May you were using the laptop for live convolution but in a way it didn’t matter because it could have been just a pedal…
TD: Did you touch the laptop or was it just processing?
SM: In this setup, the computer is at the center of an autopoietic system, something that evolves by itself. The acoustic input of the ebowed strings is fed into it, I’m only adjusting some parameters every now and then. In the end it is like fishing in the dark, I can’t really control the process, rather shape it roughly, while I will only hear the adjustments I do through the PA with a delay of 3 to 5 minutes. It’s a slow beast, good to surprise yourself with. The UK shows last May with Robert Curgenven, Jörg Zeger and Simon Scott where the first time in years that I used a computer in a live context again. I fell in love with it again so now it’s a tool that I sometimes use, sometimes not. I’m sure that we will see the computer becoming really unwelcome on stage, something rather uncool. I can clearly see that coming. This is most likely because during the last decade the machine became so common and more and more people think it’s all too easy to come up with acceptable results. Actually I don’t think so at all and I like software processes for the things you won’t be able to do with analog means. The spectral and convolution stuff, I can’t do this without computers.
Taylor, you’re not classically trained and that’s a decision you made very early one in your career. Why was it so important for you?
TD: When I was fifteen I sold my drum kit and my collection of comic books and that’s when I got my first synthesiser. I knew from that age that I wanted to be a musician, and over the next few years I learnt and read Keyboard Magazine and just soaked up everything I could. I had taken some piano lessons for two or three years, as my parents told me I had to take some piano lessons, but I had no interest in that. And I guess from fifteen to eighteen years old, a friend of mine and I did nothing but write music all year together and record on cassette tapes, and I had progressed to a point where, when the time came to go to University, I thought I didn’t anyone to teach me music, and I didn’t want to go to a music school and learn Jazz music or classical or give recitals, or any of that stuff. At the time, I don’t think there were any electronic music courses and if you went there, it was to learn piano or trumpet. Maybe there were an electronic music courses but none I had known about. I didn’t want to go to University to study music, so I studied photography which was something I was also interested in but needed a technical background that I didn’t have at the time with a dark room and all this stuff. So during the University as I was studying photography what I was really doing was making music in my apartment, and school was really secondary. I loved photography but I knew that I didn’t want anybody to teach me music because I was learning enough on my own. If you’re obsessed with something, no matter what it is, you can do it by yourself, at least in the arts. But right now I wish I knew how to play guitar because I don’t. To me a guitar is a tone box. I can play a few chords, I can play some notes and with a multi-track recorder I can ‘fool’ people. But I wish I knew how to really play. Looking back it would have been nice to learn an instrument or two but at the time I didn’t think it was important.
And what about you Stephan?
SM: Actually I can tell you almost the same story. I started playing drums when I was ten and I had three lessons with the organ teacher of my brother, an eldery lady. She said of course she could teach me how to play the drums, so I ended up sitting in front of a big, drum-shaped washing powder bin with a pair of sticks and had some initial lessons in rudiments. After three meetings I was disappointed and bored. By that time, I used to go to concerts quite often since my family lived at the University campus where my father was a house-keeper. There were many concerts organised by the Students’ Committee and he always took me there, a lot of Reggae, ECM related jazz, punk and rock shows. At some point a local band opened for Carla Bley, I was fascinated by the drummer and I asked him whether he would teach me. The week after I was sitting behind his massive kit playing beats, a great thing for a rock socialised kid. I saw him for a year, at home I would play along my records on my own drum kit. I also played in funny little school bands, which were total crap but certainly fun! When I was around fifteen I sold my drum kit, when I was eighteen, I discovered a series of improvised music in my home town with fantastic musicians in a venue called Stadtgalerie. This was one of the best sound art galleries in Europe, right in Saarbrücken, where I lived! So I received a nice extra education there. I met people like Steven Roden there and there were some really great exhibitions there and those series of improv music. In the late 80s I heard Alexander von Schlippenbach’s legendary improv trio there with Paul Lovens, who plays a prepared drum kit, small chinese drums and super odd cymbals, like a totally trashy set. The first image I got was that he sounded like someone shaking a huge tool box. No beats, just sound. So I saved some money and bought a cheap drum kit again and started playing, trying to digest what I heard there. A year later, I moved to Berlin as a drummer and three weeks after I arrived I found myself playing with various wonderful musicians, all the young guys who stranded in Berlin the way I did. Again a while later I played with some of my heroes, people like Butch Morris, whose records I had collected as a teen. Everything came quite quickly. There were some really great drummers in the scene, proper technicians, something I never considered myself at all but then I knew I had my own qualities and think I was quite good at what I did by doing it my very own way. Sometimes I wondered whether I should take lessons, study with someone, but I chose not to as I feared classes might spoil what I have, let’s say, my own language. I remember asking Paul Lovens for advice who told me: “Always watch the drummer, especially the bad ones.” It was a great time actually. Every now and then, I thought it would be great if I could play etudes for snare drum off the sheet, but then – why? I was able to do other things well. Nowadays it’s actually the piano that I would love to be able to play. I can’t read music, scores. Ironically, in the meantime my daughter and even my youngest son is able to teach me how to read music. I’ll play the piano or whatever you give me anyway, like Taylor said, as a tone generator. I enjoy approaching things in an innocent way.
TD: With the music and the technology that I grew up with, I didn’t have to be a trained musician. Nowadays, I don’t have to be able to play Mozart to be a musician and it was the same when I started in the 80s’ with sequencers etc. Being able to play a little bit is nice, but with multi-tracking and different kinds of sounds, you didn’t need to go to school for it. The technical stuff you did but I learnt that myself anyway. But you didn’t have to learn how to play a fancy score to make the kind of music that we wanted to make. When I started I wanted to be an industrial musician, I made industrial music, alternative new-wave music, I wanted to be New-Order.
You document in details the creative process behind your music in press releases and CD booklets. Why is it important for you?
TD: I really like talking about that stuff, so to me it just comes naturally to share that process. And I think that a lot of listeners out there are also musicians themselves so they can appreciate it. And then from a more dry point of view, it’s something to talk about on a press release. Because the hardest part of running 12k is writing those press releases because it’s so hard to talk about music so it’s just gives you something to say, and it fills up a paragraph of material. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter how it’s done and it shouldn’t matter how it’s done. But it gives to the listeners something to learn about you as a person, to follow your career and how you’re evolving. It’s just more information that people may be interested in or may be not interested in. It’s just about creating a history of yourself and how you work, how you change.
SM: While I agree with Taylor when he says the process behind a work shouldn’t matter, I like to share what I do to a certain degree. In the end it’s the music that matters, no matter how fascinating the process may be, if the music is boring the methods won’t help. At the same time, I’m interested in other people’s processes, for instance when William Basinski started releasing his music I wanted to know more about it, how his music came to be, what were his motivations. Basically whenever I fall in love with some music, I’ll find myself researching. With my own stuff, I’m mainly concerned to tell that it is a process-based music, opposed to processing-based. I don’t edit, multitrack, arrange, MIDIfy, I don’t use special effects. If I make an album, I record tons of material and discard most of it then. The rest stays as is and will only be polished with mastering tools then. Otherwise I will end up with a product where I will always hear decisions I made at a certain point. I’m not interested in that, I like to keep the sounds integrity, a quality that evolved by itself.
Both of your processes share this level of abstraction from the sound sources...
SM: My own stuff has always been about the essence of a material and processing. Whether it’s the zither, the gramophone, a piece recorded 100 years ago onto record, I always try to squeeze my personal essence from it, to find out what is in there that makes me love the sound.
TD: It’s the same with me. It’s also just interesting to listen the sound all around us or how I can use a guitar to create the kind of music that I make, besides playing it like a pop song. Take the work I did in York with all the gamelan instruments for example. I had a brief training for one afternoon and I quickly realised that I wasn’t interested in playing it the way it was supposed to be played. Again I looked at all those instruments as tone boxes and how I could use them to make the music that I make. So it was about playing all parts of the instruments, just using the all thing as an instrument. I don’t know where that comes from, it’s like asking why we do what we do or why we make the music we want to make. It’s a big question. But in order to make the kind of music that I want to make, the sounds do have to be abstracted somewhat, but not totally though. And they get smooched into a bed of sound, however that needs to happen or whatever processes need to go on for it to happen.
SM: I worked on ‘The Sad Mac’ around 2003 while having a grant from the City of Berlin, which put me in the position to buy a good pair of microphones and also to pay some recording fees to musicians. I got in touch with a couple of early music players to record the basic material for this project, asking them to perform little sketches I had made up based on their repertoire, as a starting point for my processing work. Once the album was finished, I thought it was a pity that I went so far away from the initial acoustic material I had recorded, that I chose to process the recordings so heavily. I’d definitely like to go there again, giving certain chamber music concepts another try. The Virginals project deals with that, my approach to the duo with Taylor as well. Actually early next year an acoustic duo recording with David Maranha on violin and me on the virginals will be released.
And you Taylor, what new directions would you like to explore in the future?
TD: It would be a guitar and voice record as a solo project, some sort of abstract folk music. My 7” release ‘Journal/Attic’ was a step towards that but I don’t want any processed voice or processed guitar, just a really simple lo-fi guitar, voice, maybe some little sounds. That’s what I’m working towards or hoping one day to be able to do. But I can’t play guitar so I really have to do what I can do and still make it work. And I can’t sing very well. This project is one thing but there are so many other things and they’re not enough hours in a day to make everything that I would like to do.