Stephan Mathieu

From playing drums within the early 90s Improv Berlin scene to his visionary work using obsolete media and period instruments recontextualized in the form spectral drones of haunting beauty, Stephan Mathieu has had quite an extraordinary musical trajectory over the last 20 years and is now rightly considered as one of the most important experimental musicians. He has released more than 30 vinyl records and CDs on major exploratory labels such as LINE, Spekk or 12k and has performed his music around the world either solo or in collaboration, as well as exhibiting numerous audio installations in galleries and museums. In quite an interesting move, Mathieu has just launched his own label ‘Schwebung’ as a platform to publish his solo material as well as new collaborative works. Four albums will be released every year at the start of each season with a pre-ordering period starting three months before the planned released date. Each album will be released on high quality vinyl and as well as 24bit FLAC files so the warmth and details of the music will hopefully travel down the listener’s environment. The stunning visual identity of the label has been created and developed by Caro Mikalef and as such perfectly echoes the care and attention with which Mathieu’s music is produced. Written in collaboration with Sylvain Chauveau, ‘Palimpsest’ will be the first record out on Schwebung on the 21st of September and released as a limited edition of 500. We took this opportunity to catch up with Stephan and set out some questions about his new endeavours.

On the 21st of June, you launched your own label ‘Schwebung’. Why did you decide to create this platform?

Starting Schwebung was a step that became more evident to me in the last two years. It might sound absurd to some, but my idea is to sell my music. I mean, I have to because music is what I’m doing, it’s my job. It is not just the sound, but also the other aspects involved in making a release a special product which fascinate me and has kept me busy, basically around the clock, for the past 20 years more or less. From the first proper release in 1994 onwards I was lucky enough to work with great labels, most of them operated by friends of mine. Even back then it was obvious that having a record out didn’t mean you would earn some money with it, especially if we were talking about music that did not bother to please anybody.

This has not changed for the better, you work sometimes for a couple of years on an album, at some point it is finished, gets released and hopefully generates some feedback in the press which leads to a couple of live shows over the year. The financial side of the release itself is hard to put in relation with the time and budget spent while creating it. Making music as well as playing it live is a fulfilling thing to do, but it’s also a lot of work. Some people say musicians have to make their living today with live shows, but I’m not touring in that sense, so I most likely won’t show up in your area once a year. My music is best made at home and I’m quite productive there. While I enjoy playing shows every now and then, most of my music is indeed aptly filed under ‘home listening’. I have kids to take care of and at some point I noticed that I couldn’t go on like I used to. Actually, I learned this the hard way. At the same time, things like Bandcamp started and more labels began funding physical releases through pre-orders. Being a collector myself, I took advantage of those possibilities as a consumer, and I like the idea of supporting artists and labels as directly as possible, whenever I can. What I do with Schwebung is largely based around this idea, people who are interested in my work can buy directly from me while they can be assured that the share of profits stays straightforward. Apart from the quite enormous production costs for the physical releases, it is my shop provider and Paypal who take their share, the rest is for my collaborators and me. In consequence I chose to distribute the music myself, so apart from a couple of copies that will go to Boomkat, Experimedia and Soundohm, I will take care of the handling and shipping myself, surprisingly the German postal service made this affordable by cutting the worldwide shipping rates a year ago. It’s a nice thing to be in touch with the people who buy the music.

Will you stop releasing your music on other labels?

No, actually there are several releases cued up already – most of them have been for a long time. With Schwebung I’m currently looking at a schedule of four releases a year, and I know that’s enough to keep me very busy, so I will focus on finishing projects I have in the making and see where they will find a home then. The collaborations I’m involved in will keep the label’s spectrum interesting I guess.

Are you going to release other artists than yourself?

For now Schwebung focuses on solo and collaborative work. Let me see how things take shape. Once I start thinking about possible options I’m getting carried away very quickly. There is so much great music in need of a reissue, not to mention new work by friends of mine. Right now releasing works by other artists is not an option for me.

What’s the meaning of the word ‘Schwebung’ and how does it define the ethos of the label?

Schwebung is the German term for beats, when two oscillations of nearly, but not quite the same frequency get superimposed, they create beats. I like the word because it also carries the idea of floating, but more than that, I like the effect it describes. Now that you ask me about the label’s ethos, the notion of having things a bit off was always there, and beginning with a song based album is a good start I guess.

You’re going to control all aspects pertaining to the label but the design and artwork will be done by Caro Mikalef. Can you talk about this collaboration and how her vision will help shape the label’s identity?

If you curate a label, you choose the people you want to work with. Working with Caro was an easy choice for two reasons, firstly because I admire what she does, her skills, taste, style and last but not least her great discipline and staying power. Then, she is also my partner in real life, so I’m having the great privilege to have her on my side. Apart from the wonderful design she made for Schwebung, she is also helping me a lot with many other things involved with shaping the whole idea. Caro is a great researcher, and for the label’s visual identity she proposed working with an archive of fin de siècle explorer’s photographs. She turns the images into abstracts compositions, impossible landscapes by applying different interventions like zooming into details or creating collages by overlaying segments from various images. I love the texture, depth, magical aura her compositions have, in a way everything good music is also about. We are both interested in long term developments of a concept, things that start to grow and sprawl once you have good substance. So let’s see where this will take us, ideas are many.

Are you going to collaborate with other people? For instance the mastering phase is a big and specialized task that demands a lot of experience, a good room and of course some very expansive equipment. Is it something you want to do on your own?

I enjoy collaborating and since Schwebung in longer terms is conceived as a rather open concept, I hope I will be able to collaborate on various levels in the future. To put it another way, I always need help to achieve certain things, especially since I can estimate quite well what I can do, where I can sneak my way through somehow, but also where my limits are and where I’d better stay clear.

My music has been mastered by my friend Henner Dondorf since 1999, basically from my first computer based music release onwards. The final mastering is a challenge I never wanted to face for my own music, actually no one should do this. While Henner has always used classic pieces of analog equipment to finish my music off, it is only since the vinyl re-master for A Static Place that he has a complete analog chain up and running, a setup he has had in the making since we first met. It’s a stunning little room he has there now, and he knows how to handle his tools very well. With Palimpsest he was not only mastering the material, but for the first time we worked also on the mix of my instrumentals and Sylvain’s vocals together.

Usually, my music is always a stereo file right from the beginning, there is no such thing as a mix involved, since my music is always a stereo live take. While Henner usually spends days to master one of my tracks, with the analog setup he was this time working much faster and live, something I had always been hoping for. So the instrumentals were one thing and they shone pretty fast. Another thing was fitting the vocals in there, something we both had hardly any experience with, so this took ages and we learned a lot during this process. Just as the instrumentals, Sylvain’s vocal recordings sounded brilliant quite fast – when played solo. A real classic Abbey Road sound and I decided to keep his vocals like that, bold and unprocessed, also rather in front of the music. Problem was, that once we added the instrumental track, everything started to fall apart and neither the music nor the vocals sounded great anymore, simply because frequencies would start modulating each other, so for instance the vocals became hard to follow in places, while in other parts they became boomy. Having them processed with the obvious tricks wasn’t an option for me, so we worked for about 2 weeks on it, basically in vain. Luckily, after those two weeks Henner’s studio neighbour Bernhard Götz returned from holidays, he’s a classic mixing engineered with a huge experience. We played him our versions and while he liked the whole project, he immediately put the finger on the spot and offered to give it a try with the vocals himself. After two hours he returned finished vocal tracks for the first four songs, and they worked like a charm, at any volume they simply worked. So, there are some little things you can’t achieve with a ‘learn as you go’ approach only, at least not if you are working towards a deadline. You need to know certain tricks.

The label will release music on high quality vinyl and 24bit flac digital files. Why this choice of format?

Vinyl has always been my preferred medium, as a music collector, and even more so for my own music. In the press text for my first album of computer processed music, which was released as a series of five 10″ records, I wrote that I’m regarding the process of making a vinyl record as a filtering process to bring digital audio back on a human scale. I like when those files end up on an analog medium, they gain a different quality, become more physical that way. There is no ‘real life’ reference for my computer based sounds, so I have the freedom to say that my music is only finished once it plays from a groove. While a violin is a violin, a spectral processed sound exists first of all in the box and has to be shaped to work the way you want it to sound through loudspeakers. Vinyl is an extension of my process. I always produce my music with this last analog step in mind, it’s never a CD I’m thinking of as a final product. This has nothing to do with the recent hipness factor of vinyl, actually I’m receiving so many records pressed in poor quality. I don’t see a point in that, I don’t see a point in compromising vinyl, so I’m having the records for Schwebung produced by some of the best companies in the business. It’s not exactly a cheap way, but a photographic book printed to high standards is neither, especially when made in a small edition. I think the CD will become obsolete quite soon, vinyl is going to stay for another long while.

I’m recording my music with computers as 24bit files and if it has to be digital, I want to have it available like that. Others may see ifs and buts here, but I actually don’t care. People who prefer to buy files can convert them to the formats of their choice, MP3 for in the car or on the tube, AIF or WAV to burn on a CD, but they also have the option to play them through a good computer interface or dedicated high resolution hardware. The whole 256kbs thing that iTunes or Amazon offers, I really don’t get it. They have a certain educational mandate but all they do is promoting the lowest form of mediocrity. If you take a look at what Apple offers in their store in terms of loudpeakers you’ll find nothing but bloated, expensive toys. It’s a total joke : )

A while ago I helped my brother, who has exclusively been buying digital for several years now, with getting a new stereo. Quite a nice system, and once we hooked it up at home and I zapped through his library while discussing a fitting D/A converter with him, I noticed that all his music was encoded between 128 and 256kbs. Put this through a decent system and you can literally watch the pixel grid that renders the music a pale ghost of what it is supposed to be.

The way the vinyl is cut is instrumental to the quality of the end product. How have you approached this particular aspect?

It makes a substantial difference whether you produce music for vinyl or for a digital format, mainly because there are several things that are simply not possible to cut into a groove. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to compromise your material, you just have to take a different approach and especially take the final analog step, the up- and downsides of vinyl into account. You have to bare this last step and how the analog playback will affect the master in mind. If you do things right, you can get a great result and Henner really knows what he does there. The FLAC version of Palimpsest is actually a slightly different mix than the vinyl master since we could give it a little more go for this format. Either way, it’s still a purely analog mix there. I have the first Schwebung LP transfered by Hendrik Pauler using a DMM direct metal transfer which then is pressed by Pallas. Both are companies that have set benchmarks in vinyl production for decades. The re-issue for A Static Place on Minority Records was made by them and I love how it turned out. My master was reproduced 1:1 and the vinyl is really quiet by itself, pretty amazing actually. I’m very much looking forward to the test cuts for Palimpsest, which are expected here very soon.

Speaking of ‘Palimpsest’, this album is a collection of songs originally written and performed by American singer and guitarist Bill Callaham. You’ve re-interpreted them with Sylvain Chauveau in a more minimal form with just drones and Sylvain’s voice. This is quite a departure from your previous work. Why did you choose to embark on such a project and how did it come to fruition?

Sylvain and I were discussing an instrumental album since we met in 2009 for the first time. During 2010 I made recordings for this project, using the instruments I’m having in the house – a piano, spinett, Farfisa organ, zither, french horn, cymbals, as well as recordings of a viol quartet I had written in 2008. This material was arranged and reprocessed then using my usual tools, resulting in my usual abstract soundscapes. To my surprise, once Sylvain heard the tracks he came up with the proposal to add lyrics of some of Bill Callahan’s classic Smog songs, instead of further instrumental voices played by him.

Did you work with Sylvain in the same studio?

Sylvain has recorded the vocals with Adam Wiltzie in Brussels, using my tracks as a playback. I’m still amazed by how he heard this potential in my pieces, by how he placed Bill’s lyrics there, especially since my original material is used for the album as is, without further changes or editing. It is still exciting for me to hear my sound in this context, the way how things suddenly start to fall into place. Instead of being classic cover versions, Palimpsest follows much more the tradition of an exquisite corpse.

Can you talk about the instrumentation used on ‘Palimpsest’ and especially the Farfisa which is quite a new addition to your setup?

The whole album is full of instruments which I can’t actually play properly, so I rather use them as sound generators, create a library from those recordings and start ‘playing’ them through my software processes, which are always based on a trigger and a target recording. So what you hear on Your Wedding for instance are long notes played on a french horn, transformed by the sound of cymbals, while Chosen One has recordings of renaissance viols, triggered by an ebowed spinet. Just to mention this again, there is never an artificial reverb in my music, it’s all the spaces from the initial recordings pilling up which create a new one. The Farfisa makes a first appearance on the album, I guess I love this organ sound since I first heard Sam the Sham’s Wooly Bully. I’m currently working on a version of Gesualdo’s 5th book of madrigals which I want to play with the Farfisa, and also used it extensively for the new Main album with Robert Hampson. It’s quite a wonderful instrument. In the meantime I have 5 different models, you know, one can find them for less than a USB keyboard costs.

Will you tour this album with Sylvain Chauveau?

Yes, we already have some invites for early 2013. Sylvain and I will meet for a week in October for another project and we will certainly find the time to speak about an approach to perform the pieces in a live setting. I’m very much looking forward to this.

Can you talk about other albums you’ve got planned for release?

For now only the second release is fixed, a double LP by [San Francisco based] Tashi Wada and me, which will be available for pre-orders on September 21. While Schwebung #3 and 4 are not 100% decided yet, #5 will be another double LP, this time with interpretations of Carlo Gesualdo’s 5th book of madrigals. The first record of this set will have Gesualdo’s Libro Quinto performed by Noël Akchoté on acoustic guitar, the second LP has the same material as a spectral version played by me on five Farfisa organs. All I can say for now is that Noel’s interpretations are of great beauty, very touching and special. Apart from releasing new works, I’m going to re-issue my back catalog as remastered FLAC editions, something I will start as soon as I’ll find the time. Right now I think of making one download available per month.

So for this second release, ‘Revenant’, you’ve collaborated with Tashi Wada who’s composed different progressions for the Virginals. Can you talk more about this project?

I was introduced to Tashi’s work through his ‘Alignment’ LP, a composition for solo violin which became an instant classic for me. The record played here around the clock for days and after a while got in touch with Tashi to ask whether he was interested in writing a piece for my ‘Virginals’ project, which deals with the interpretation and performance of recent contemporary classics performed by me with early instruments and obsolete media. Less than a year after that, we premiered Revenant in a monastery in Paris.

Revenant is written for two renaissance claviers, where the open strings are played with Ebows. Both instruments are tuned in a special version of the meantone temperament, while the resulting enharmonic pitches are distributed evenly across both of them. The composition is basically a journey through the cycles of fifths played in parallel from opposite directions on the instruments. The magic – like with all of Tashi’s compositions I know so far – lies in the special tuning. I’ve been playing this instrument for five years now and know it well, Tashi’s piece makes it sound like I haven’t heard it before.

Which specific instruments did you use on the album and did you record it with Tashi actually playing with you?

Revenant was written for my spinet, an instrument built in 1952 in the workshop of early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch in Haslemere, England. It belongs to the family of virginals and was remodeled in 1919 by Dolmetsch after a renaissance pattern and is still built today unaltered. For the premiere and most other solo performances I did so far, the part for one instrument is pre-recorded, while I played the second voice live. Last year Tashi and I played some duo shows where he used my Phonoharp zither which has the same tonal range and a very similar character like the spinet. As a last stop on our trip we went to Paris, where we spent two days at the GRM studios and recorded various versions of the piece. Tashi took care of the tuning and recording, while I played the instrument.

Can you talk about the particular tuning of the Virginals for this project and how this is related to the concept of Schwebung?

The tuning is really Tashi’s secret ingredient, so I don’t want to talk about this. All I can say is that I have learned a lot from Tashi about tunings and tonal relations while working with him on the score and performance, something I’m very grateful for. What I have learned also helps me to understand my own music better. The start and ending sequences of Revenant are archetypical for what Schwebung means.

‘Revenant’ is going to be released as a double LP containing those progressions played at various speed. How do you think duration affects the score composed by Tashi and, as a performer how does playing at various speed influence what you want to achieve with this work?

When I received the score for Revenant in April 2011, I was at first completely lost and had to research every second word in there, mainly because I still know little about traditional musical terminology. While I can distinguish historical tunings from modern ones, I’m lacking a detailled knowledge in this field and literally had no idea how this piece would sound. Tashi was very patient and helpful with me and came up with a tuning chart which I could follow and once I had the instrument tuned right for the first time, things soon came together and started to sound really stunning.

Since the timing for Revenant is very open and the date for the premiere came closer, I followed a simple mathematical system to define durations for each sequence. The timing had to be pre-defined because one instrument would play back from a recording, Tashi visited me here for the first time some days before so we had time to cut corners and also make a recording for the second instrument together. The first live version turned out to be 41 minutes long. After this performance I didn’t find a quality time to work more on the interpretation for a while, but after this first experience of playing the piece in a live context, the music stayed in my head and made me think about its potential.

Before Tashi and I met again this year in Spring, I performed Revenant solo twice again, first in a version of 60 minutes, again with a pre-recorded playback, and another time for 25 minutes while I played both voices on one instrument, Apart from the duration, also the octaves can be chosen to be mixed and varied, so there are infinite variations possible, the basics stay the same but the piece changes quiet dramatically with its duration. For the 2LP version, Tashi and I are currently choosing various, rather exemplary takes between 2 and 60 minutes duration. Again I think that vinyl is a great format for this kind of music, and if you look at Tashi’s releases so far, he is with me there. For his second release, the ‘Gradient’ 7″, he had Mark Sabat perform the piece on one of Harry Partch’s original instruments, the adapted viola, so also the love for instruments that have a strong spirit within is something that connects us.

Running the label and promoting it will take away a lot of time and energy from music making and touring. Having worked on the label for a few months now, how has it impacted on your creativity and your music? Do you feel you’ve become even more focused on what you want to achieve with your work?

It’s incredible how much time all the preparation consumes, but I saw that coming. I’m certainly an obsessive character and here I have a huge playground. As always, days are much too short to follow up all the ideas and details, but I’m trying my best to keep this interessting. I’m doing many things myself, simply because there is no budget whatsoever, so I’m learning a lot, also how to fail better. HTML coding, video editing, text editing, promoting the releases, in the end I’m a musician who loves to focus on the music making. But then, the all over appearance of a release has always been 50% of a good product and I’m used to be heavily involved in this with my releases. Now that I’m doing this for my own label, it is in a way easier for me to follow my intuitions. A label is always a more or less complex context to me, especially when it has a strong identity, like most of the labels I have worked with so far. With Schwebung, this context is something I can create from scratch. I enjoy that.

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