Features I by I 13.06.13

Writing water: Matias Aguayo on Kompakt, clubbing and dodging the norm

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Chilean-born and Cologne-raised, Matias Aguayo doesn’t tend to stay in one place for too long. 

Aguayo’s breakthrough came with his work with ultra-melodic Kompakt duo Closer Musik in the early 2000s, and he struck out solo with 2005’s spartan funk-not-funk LP Are You Really Lost. His real triumph, though, was 2009’s excellent Ay Ay Ay – a jaunty collection of electronic pop, heavy on processed vocal snippets and scampish charm; try kindergarten jam ‘Rollerskate’ for a crash course in Aguayo’s unapologetically exuberant style. In the years since, he’s ploughed his time into his BumBumBox “clubnight” (read: impromptu flashmob-style soundsystem events across South America) and launched his own label venture, Cómeme.

Aguayo’s latest, The Visitor, is his most percussive album to date – a pinballing collection of rattles, bongo hits and breaks. With assistance from Jorge Gonzalez (of totemic Chilena outfit Los Prisioneros), Juliana Gattas of Argentine electro-poppers Miranda!, and a host of Cómeme faces, it’s audibly a group effort, crackling with the energy of the group mind. With an album launch at London’s Plastic People on June 27 also on the horizon, FACT caught up with Aguayo in his studio to discuss Surrealist strategies, musical tourism and why, sometimes, you just need to turn the screens off.

“It was a method that was almost spiritual – this idea of recording water flowing and trying to recognise words in this flow.”

The Visitor was recorded with help from a host of friends and artists that you’ve worked with. How did that emphasis on colalboraotin shape the record?

The collaborative thing, or the idea of music that is produced in a more communal context is something I’m attracted to as a listener. So when I think about myself and the music that I like to hear, it often comes much more from a context that moves away from the ‘author’ idea – the idea in electronic music of the musician who is alone in studio, more like a poet or a writer.

I think music is a very, very transparent language, in the sense that it will tell more about how it was done or the process than your real intentions with it. So I think this album is done in a passionate way with a lot of adventures and anecdotes. It was also shaped through the fact that some was recorded in Buenos Aires, some in Columbia, some here, and in situations of jamming and intense music-making – this automatically becomes something you can hear in the work.

[It’s] an approach in the work that is more process-orientated, and not so conceptual – this idea of creating special or unique situations in which I am making music with others, so the result somehow reflects the situation. If the situation in which you’re making music is a bit more boring – an office-style one where you get up every morning to get your job done – then obviously this will be somehow reflected in the music.

The situation, for instance, that many of the tracks were developed in was playing live. Scott Monteith [aka Deadbeat], who mixed the album, he had me mix down the rhythms that I was playing in my DJ sets, and then on top of these DJ sets in my practice I was improvising stuff and developing it, and then coming very well prepared to the studio because I’d already sung these songs a lot. In general, I’ve been trying to work in complete takes, because I  wanted to abandon this thing of being too much concentrated on the screen, or on the visual translation of music via the screen, so I didn’t really want to be too much in front of the computer screen. So I was playing out a lot of stuff out there: a lot of the percussion is electronic percussion, but hand-played very often, and I preferred to create this situation in which I have very long takes and make them as perfect as possible.

An the one hand I have to develop my musicianship, but it also gives me the opportunity to be less stuck in front of a computer screen. The screens are following us everywhere with the mobile phones and the emails and whatever you have to do, so I wanted to create a special situation of music-making. And for me, it’s always good or important to put myself in a situation I haven’t been before, creating artificial conditions for me to feel like a beginner – or, I’d even say, an amateur: not understanding too well the techniques I use, because if you do that it’s more likely that you find surprises. It’s very inspiring.

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Closer Musik, early 2000s

It strikes me that there’s a lot of crossover between the way you worked on this record and the sort of things you’ve been doing with the BumBumBox parties, which are about creating improvisatory situations and escaping the norm.

Yes, escaping the norm for me was always one of the essential things in what was somehow called “techno music”. The control of music has become tighter in its norms: if you perceive dance music as for dancing, it’s for the club; if it’s more a listening thing, it’s for home. Music is put in different but strict formats. What was always the idea with Cómeme was to bring the dance situation to other levels than just the club. I love the club, of course, but you get very homogenous audiences there, and it’s a situation where you already know more or less what is possible, what can happen and what cannot. So it’s very much about letting things ago and also losing control. I am fully aware that sometimes my musical decisions…when I sing, it can become sometimes a little bit silly, or very catchy in a silly sense. And I prefer not to judge myself and control myself within this – I prefer just to make this mistake and let it happen, and not become my own censor

It’s interesting you mention that, because what you do on this record is use the human voice and language in a very prominent and a very unusual way. I wondered if sound poetry or Dadaism were things that informed your work? 

It’s not a conscious reference, but it’s actually something I’ve found out in other ways. A friend in France described the process I was doing of creating the lyrics and the vocals as having something to do with ecriture automatique, which is a Surrealist method or something. But I didn’t know so much about it.

But I can tell you the approach to the lyrics – there’ve been many different and complex approaches. One thing I’m very much intrigued about, in general, is the musicality of things which are not meant to be music, which are not music on purpose – like the birds singing or people just talking. And I have the impression that, through the fact that we train our voice every day – not so much in singing, more in talking – everybody has created quite a sophisticated way of doing melodies, of creating rhythms, with the voice without knowing it. So I’ve also liked very much to observe very different dialects – dialects in general, but also the peculiar ways in which people I know speak and pronounce stuff. So on the most Spanish side of the album language-wise, I confront melodies of different dialects that come together – my wife is Mexican, I speak quite a Chilean Spanish, I have these Argentinean and Columbian friends, so I’m always confronted with these different dialects, so things like ‘Aonde’, which is very Chilian, or more the A side of the record, which is more Argentian and where I very much use the melodies of the language.

There were other approaches to the lyrics. There is a track called ‘Dead Inspector’: when I was improvising the melody, I was just doing some fake English and recording it, but I liked the take very much and the musicality of how I was singing it and the vowels. So I sat down with Scott Monteith, and we decided to decipher what I had improvised, to really understand what I’m saying and covert it into proper English very methodically. To my surprise, it turned out to be exactly the lyrics that I imagined, and deeper lyrics than those I could have achieved writing very consciously, because the musicality of the lyrics with the conent went so well together. It was a method that was almost spiritual – this idea of recording water flowing and trying to recognise words in this flow. Therefore, your comparison that I didn’t think about programatically at all – to discover a Surealist approach of how to evoke lyrics – is absolutely valid, but as I say it was not really part of the concept.

Also, I worked with Jorge Gonzalez, who helped me also with some lyrics – he has written some great lyrics, and that was also very interesting to approach lyrics with him. He’s much more conscious, he’s much more of a writer – but he could also help me very much with translating some ideas. In some cases I could take his ideas; in some, it was more a combination of my lyrics with his. But on the track ‘Aonde’, for instance, he wrote the full lyrics.

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Am I right in thinking Gudrun Gut was involved as well…?

No…well, yes, a little bit. Gudrun Gut and Thomas Fehlmann gave us the possibility of using their house, which is 100km from Berlin, to record. The thing I’m always doing with the other Cómeme musicians: we all live in very different places, but we try to somehow get everyone together in the studio to help each other finish our tracks, because we believe the collaborative process leads to better results. There were two weeks that we spent in The Uckermark, which is the less-populated area in Germany – a vey good place to concentrate and focus. We did the same in January in this year in Columbia, we did something similar, we stayed in a house also in the countryside near Medellín. All of these places we’ve been recording, my album’s recording was not the main focus. It was something on the side that I also did – I recorded with some percussionists in Columbia, or I took some recordings of the space in Gudrun Gut’s house.

As we mixed it down, there was a big chunk of the album being fully arranged and recording here in Berlin, which we called The District Union, and in this studio we assembled a lot of things together: lots of the recordings, especially the collaborations, which will shape the next step of the label. When I was doing an overview of all of the tracks which had different stories, I could have also taken the decision to take this group of tracks – these are more the party tracks, these are the darker and more psychedelic tracks – and turn them into different albums. But I realised that the idea of having a closed product with one colour or one mood that goes all the way through and is somehow consequent, interested me less and less. i wanted to have this very different approach.

“The screens are following us everywhere with the mobile phones and the emails and whatever you have to do, so I wanted to create a special situation of music-making.”

That fits in with what you’ve said about making a diverse record, and obviously The Visitor is a very global record in terms of where it was recorded. Certain artists – Diplo springs to mind – have been criticised for using elements of music like cumbia and reggaeton in ways that aren’t always respectful to the original scenes. As somebody that works with those sounds, have you got any thoughts about that sort of ‘musical tourism’?

I can’t say so many things about musicians that I don’t know, but I’ve been hearing some stuff in a club where somebody’s playing a track of some Columbian singer with a techno beat under it. I’m not too interested in that in general. My approach to rhythms is…well, i play them myself , first of all, and in my approach to arrangement I try to avoid this referential work. Obviously you will hear the influences in my music or things like that, but I reject the idea of putting conscious references into the music, saying “This is a fusion thing – I’ll take a Columbian rhythm and mix it down with some electronic thing.” I happens very easily nowadays in music that, as the musician, you’re forced to work with references – so it’s not such a big difference if you go to Brazil and later try to do baile funk than if you try to emulate disco music from the Seventies.

I think this referential is not too interesting personally. I’m more interested in what is behind it – in the arrangements, in the rhythms, and I think that is a lot to do with the South American background, where in general you have this idea of dancing to very different music at the same party because you can dance in different ways. You don’t want to do the same dance all the time – you want to do some salsa, then later you want to be faster with a merengue and then you go to some other mood with some rock’n’roll moves or whatever. So it’s very much about this movement – this dance movement – and not so much about this referential stuff.

About the disrespectful thing: yeah, of course, these things happen sometimes with the sampling, sometimes with not even wanting to understand how the music works. This referential thing will make musicians decide via criteria that, for me, have more to do with fashion and publicity or something – a new look or a new style, or a combination of different styles. Obviously, that is something I try and avoid.

Kompakt is a label you’ve been intimately involved with for many years. The label turns 20 this year – looking back over its work over the last two decades, how would you describe its impact and its legacy?

I can perceive this big impact that it’s had on very different levels. There’s a musical level, which I can only answer very personally – the impact it has made on me. What was described as the first sound of Cologne with Wolfgang [Voigt] and Michael [Mayer] and Wolfgang’s brother Reinhardt and all these things from the 1990s in Cologne, I think this laid a foundation of many things that became possible for me musically afterwards.

For me, it’s difficult to judge this in a Cultural Studies – in the sense of how much impact or influence it’s had. But, taking Cómeme for instance, it’s due to the help of Kompakt that the label became possible, because to create a musicians’ working network in South America is very difficult on an underground level. There’s always ‘super-underground’ and ‘super-mainstream’, but there’s no professional underground scene .They helped me very much to build this bridge, and made the same possible for many musicians who distribute via their channels and so on. And for me, I also knew all the people from Kompakt before Kompakt existed. I almost grew up with them, so it’s a very loyal family.

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