The morning after a haunting performance at Semibreve Festival in Braga, I meet Christian Fennesz for coffee to talk about the concert, the recent EP ‘Seven Stars’ and his views on collaborating with Ryuichi Sakamoto...
How do you feel your performance went?
The festival is fantastic, the location is amazing and the people are really wonderful but the only problem I had was that the sound on stage was not right for me. Something happened, a kind of distortion coming through the monitor speakers, so I didn’t feel comfortable. Once this happens I just can’t really get into it. My music is really just based on improvisation and for that I have to be very confident, I have to feel relaxed and when there is a little technical problem then it’s difficult for me to get into it. Of course I can still play and it’s OK but I could have done better.
Because you didn’t feel really immersed into the sound?
But from the audience it sounded really good!
Everybody told me it sounded great but I know myself I can go on top of that easily and it happens when I feel really comfortable with the sound. To me the sound on stage is the most important thing.
When you say you want to feel relaxed, you mean you want to bathe in sound on stage?
Exactly! That’s what it is: I can get into my own world, of course I care about the audience, but nothing can make me feel nervous. Once I’m just into my own world I can let it go and it just works perfectly. But when I have to think about problems then I’m not well balanced anymore.
So when you’re really into the sound, you feel cushioned in a way?
Yes, that’s what make me play better. And I love to hear my music very loud and clear. But I also like the interactions with the listeners, with the audience. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, I can feel it. Maybe yesterday there was a little bit too much distance between the stage and the audience.
Do you prefer more intimate venues then?
It can be big but I have to see them. Yesterday, I couldn’t see anybody. I couldn’t see faces.
How does it impact your music when you play?
When I see that the audience is into it – you can see that on people’s faces – then it makes me more falling into this world. This is a feedback loop in a way.
While you were playing you were watching the visuals projected behind you on a few occasions.
Obviously I don’t see much when I play, facing the audience, so I just wanted to see what the visual-artist was doing, because I liked what I saw when we were rehearsing and I was just curious to see what he was doing during the actual performance. And when I see the music works well with the visuals it gives me confidence, and I calmed down.
You’ve mention the importance of feeling relaxed and confident.
It’s very important for me as a live-performer, because being on stage is not so easy. There’s always a level of professionalism that I can only count on so it’s not a problem in itself. But yesterday everything seemed so perfect, the people were so nice, the theater was great and then there were those little technical problems. This could have been an excellent performance and it was just OK in my opinion.
Can you tell us about your last record ‘Seven Stars’ which was released quite recently on Touch and why did you go for the EP format?
I love the EP format. I even love the single format! I really love to do small projects. Actually I would prefer it anytime to making a full album. I could make like three to four 4-track EPs a year quite easily. I feel so comfortable with the format because, in a way, you don’t have to carry all the weight of an album. An album is such a statement and you have to be so careful with it because every new album gets compared to the other ones already out. And for some weird reasons, people expect a kind of musical revolution whenever I make an album, which is ridiculous. Why me? I made one anyway with the first two albums. Now each time I make a new record, everybody expect a new style or something. And instead of that, I just want to keep working in my own style and make it better. So, that’s why sometimes, when I think I have to say something I prefer the smaller formats. Two or three years ago I did a 7” single on Touch and I really loved working on that because this is a project you can do in a few weeks. With smaller formats, it more like doing them just for the joy of music, something like: “This is a nice track, let’s just release it!”. There is no big philosophy around that, just nice pieces of music. With an album it’s always more than just the music, at least for me.
I can see how ‘Seven Stars’ works like a very coherent ecosystem with two framing tracks that have more of a ‘song’ structure, and two more ‘experimental’ tracks in the middle.
Well yes, it was planned like that, having two songs as a frame and two more drone-y works in the middle. The two ‘songs’, the first and the last track, I think they have something in common, they’re very narrative, they’re almost like 1960’s or 1970’s film music with something like Italian accents.
Yesterday you played the guitar part of the first song ‘Liminal’ and, as you say, it is a narrative track but the live version, in a way, felt much more inhabited.
It’s a different style what I play live. It’s much more expansive. The record version it’s almost impossible to play live. I would have to play it as it is, so I might as well play the record. So I try to find ways to recreate my stuff in a live context. But it’s a different mix, it sounds different of course. There are some pads I play as well but on the records everything is mixed down so carefully that it’s always different live.
The second track ‘July’ on ‘Seven Stars’ sounds much more ‘composed’ compared to the rest of the EP or more generally your music.
Yes it is very composed and sometimes I really like to work like that. It’s funny because it sounds very composed but I did it in one day. Actually I played guitar, I recorded that and then I started working on it and re-composing it like an abstract painting, cutting things out and pasting them elsewhere. Sometimes my tracks are really based on improvisations I do in the studio. That means I play in the studio just like the way I play live but I record everything. I find something interesting and then I start composing but the emotional aspect is already in the recording. And when I mix I can really fall into it so, for me, the mix can be a very emotional process as well. It’s funny because sometimes I can’t even remember how I mixed things. For me the mixing is almost part of the composition.
Another aspect of your career is the live scoring of silent movies. How does it relate to your other activities?
It’s not exactly the same thing but of course it’s always me doing the music and I have my own techniques and approaches. But playing live for a film is interesting because it gives you a guideline. The pictures and the story give you a guideline but I don’t think the music should overwhelm the pictures. I think the pictures should guide the music. And that’s what I’m trying to do when I play live for films.
How do you prepare for that?
I do see the films before but I don’t play. I just watch and I think about ideas while I watch. But when I play live, I like to keep it fresh. I don’t want to think too much before, just a few parts, some kind of frame. I want to keep everything else quite open so I can react in real time. These are the most interesting things I think. It is risky but this is a challenge. That the fun part! Otherwise that would be too organized, with notes etc. For the movie ‘Dead Man’, Neil Young wrote the music and he just played it live. He had a big screen in his studio room and he saw it for the first time and played it live.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of artists. How does it relate to your solo work?
Collaborating is always learning from someone, from their knowledge. My own work is in a way very isolated, my own sound, the things that I create under the name ‘Fennesz’ in the studio is a very special kind of sound. I guess my music is kind of narrative, it’s based on memories and all those things. Not clear memories, more feelings. It’s like films form the past or from the future that are in your head. But when I play with other people it’s more the musician in myself and not the composer, and with this I’m very flexible and I’m happy to learn things from other people but it doesn’t really influence my own work I think. It’s more like communication and there is nothing nicer than playing music with a good friend, it’s a beautiful thing to do. Sure, in a way of course, it does influence you but it’s really more about communication. For instance when I played with Keith Rowe or Toshimaru Nakamura, I played totally different things than when I played with Yellow Magic Orchestra which I just did during an American tour recently. Those collaborations are very different from each other but they are equally fun for me. And of course I did learn from them. I definitely learned, from Ryuichi Sakamoto how silence is very important in music and how one should take time and not play too many notes.