Features I by I 19.09.13

Into orbit: an audience with art-pop maverick Felix Kubin

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Felix Kubin’s discography is a cabinet of curiosities – and it’s a capacious one at that.

Kubin’s official recording life began in the late 1980s with mischievous double act Klangkrieg, but he’d already spent his teens producing a prodigious amount of highly accomplished, deeply weird electro-pop (Minimal Wave’s recent Teenage Tapes collection, released last year, gathers work recorded between his 11th and 16th birthdays). Over three decades, he’s plugged away on a dizzying array of high-concept albums, collage pieces, radio commissions and art installations – all united by a dual interest in radiophonic kitsch and the freak flourishes of classic NDW. Along the way, he’s founded a Dadist political party, helmed the reliably cock-a-hoop Gagarin and Apolkalypso labels, and produced a DVD of absurdist visual skits that makes The Mighty Boosh look like Newsnight. Mediocrity is not tolerated.

Kubin’s output has never really slowed, but – in his books at least – he’s only actually put out one solo album proper, 2004’s Matki Wandalki. That all changes with Zemsta Plutona Kubin’s first official solo offering in nine years, released in collaboration with Alfred Hilsburg’s legendary experimental label ZickZack. As a set, it’s less goofy than its predecessor, with the wobbly-set sci-fi feel of Matki replaced by a punkish, loose-limbed energy. One moment, Kubin’s plundering the darker crannies of the KPM vaults (‘Nachts Im Park’) and channeling Linear Movement (‘Piscine Resonnez!’); the next, he’s Klaus Nomi streaking through a car plant (‘Lightning Strikes’). FACT caught up with the Hamburg native to talk radio, Raymond Scott and where drum’n’bass is going wrong.

“Rather the unusual than the very pleasing and the easy stuff.”

Your body of work is extremely extensive and varied. How would you describe where Zemsta Plutona fits into your catalogue so far?

[Laughs] I think it sits in one line, let’s say – although there is a gap of nine years in between – with my last solo record, Matki Wandalki. [That album] was compiling tracks that I have played live in my solo “pop shows”, whatever you define as “pop shows” or not. This album was supposed to be released earlier, around 2009/10, but there were several factors that got it delayed and delayed, and also lots of parallel projects that I did – lots of radio plays that I wrote, and things that I did with chamber orchestra and so on. So finally I had the chance to put it out on my own label together with ZickZack, which was not only a practical thing because we got a better German distribution there, but also because it’s a certain hint at the content of the record itself. There are some pieces or some sound elements in it that are also referring to what I did as a teenager – this German underground New Wave music of that time. This is a part of the influences. It’s not a blueprint of that, but some of it you can trace back to that time. So I’d say it’s maybe my second official solo album, or something like that.

It’s interesting how you partition your solo works, because a lot of your releases, even going back to Filmmusik (1998), could be seen as coherent full-lengths. What is it about Zemsta Plutona and Matki Wandalki that, in your view, gives them “solo record” status?

I think it’s the way they came together. I usually play tracks live first – I create them and then I play them live, so they come together one-by-one, and I get a certain experience of how they work for me as a live pieces. And then I tend to record them, or work again on them for the studio version. But some of the pieces also come from pieces I made for radio play music, [which] I realised were pretty good for being played live or something like that. So they sometimes have use for other projects. But it’s all coming tougher from my live set. The tracks that are on this new record – at least three quarters of them – I have played in live shows for six years or something. Then there are some pieces on it – say, ‘Piscine Resonnez!’ – which are too difficult to perform live without real drums and these two voices of the girls and stuff like that. I would love to play them live, but they are really like studio pieces.

It’s funny you mention ‘Piscine Resonnez!’, because of all the tracks on the new record, it’s the one that feels the most live, the most punky, the most energetic…

It’s true, it’s the way we recorded it. But it’s a piece that is very hard to play live without additional instruments. I mostly play solo, unless I play in trios or in bigger chamber orchestras for my more contemporary stuff. But travelling with a little band is really difficult nowadays, unless you don’t care about being able to live from it. That’s a problem. But what I did actually for this album that’s really different from the first official solo album is that I had several tracks with acoustic instruments, or overdubs of drums at least. I added some drum overdubs to tracks that I usually play live, but without any live drums, like ‘Speed’ or ‘Swinging Forties’. For those tracks, I had a friend, Steve Heather from Berlin, playing on top to give it a few more dynamic and energetic elements.

You talked about your “pop” shows just then. Compared to some of your more recent releases,  Zemsta Plutona feels more like a pop record – something like ‘Lightning Strikes’ is very hooky, very propulsive. Do you see elements of pop in the album?

Yeah. The way I define pop is very open. For me, I don’t connect pop to any commercial success or not. Okay, there is a sociological phenomenon about it, but also pop is for me a format – a song, or something like that. I really like this format. I also like completely open formats, and I like to play with things. ‘Piscine Resonnez!’ has some really disharmonic moments – I like to bring that in, because this is energy for me. But still it’s working in a pop context. So if you see it as pop, I’m happy. [Laughs]

The album also features a sequel of sorts to your Raymond Scott tribute [2009’s ‘The Rhythm Modulator’] from a couple of years ago. I’ve always seen parallels between your work and Scott’s work: a similar shared sound palette…

A love for sequences also.

Indeed. What impact has his work had on the music you make?

You know what? I got to know the work of Raymond Scott not so long ago, I think maybe ten years ago or something, or even less, and I have made my music since the early ’80s. You can hear pretty much certain sorts of aesthetics that I use still now [in my early work], and I didn’t know about Raymond Scott. I just found out that the way he works – a kind of playfulness, but also aggressiveness, love for sequences, some sense for science fiction, futuristic ideas – that’s all in his music, and it’s totally also in my mind. I love this kind of approach. So, when I heard his music, I felt totally connected to him. But he was not an early influence on me. Earlier influences were rather bands like Der Plan, or [Einsturzende] Neubatuen or some bands of the German underground new wave, and I got more and more in contact with classical music. I would also see Raymond Scott on the edge of classical music – between classical music and applied music, or something like that. So I got in touch with that later.

NDW, as you say, has been a big influence on you. What was it like working with ZickZack on this record? I’m guessing it must have made a really important imprint in your musical development.

[Laughs] This was like a sort of comeback, but more a comeback of the heart, you know? Because Alfred is not rich, and Alfred is not really a label dude in terms of “good businessman”. He has a very artistic mind, and he has a fantastic sense, like an antenna, for individual and non-conformist music. Still now, although we don’t have completely the same taste and we don’t have the same records. But I knew him already in the early 1980s, and he helped me perform then as a child, as a teenager. He always wanted to put out a record back then, but we just came a bit too late, because he’d already run into financial problems and some kind of crisis with his label and his life and so on. And all these German labels, they were suddenly only interested in English-speaking music again, and so on. So we came just a bit too late. It was a pity, because it would have been interesting to have a record out on a label back then. But now it’s like he’s fulfilling the promises that he made 30 years ago. [Laughs]

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On the topic of label curation, I’ve loved what you’ve being doing with  [7″-only Gagarin sub-label] Apolkalypso over the last 18 months. What was the motivation behind setting up that sub-label, and what inspiried the choices that you’ve made?

It’s not limited by any style – I am also considering putting out records that you can maybe just hear as art records, which have nothing to dance to  – maybe even nothing to listen to. It’s very open for me. It’s a medium that I consider something I can do faster – I don’t need to think about the context of a whole LP, because I’m always thinking very much as a producer when I put out the whole LP. When I put out a whole LP with a group, I discuss things with them a lot – the order of the tracks, the way it’s mastered, and maybe how certain tracks could be re-edited. I’m quite an influence on that because I come from the tradition of radio plays, and I see things in a bigger context. But with these 7″s, it’s like fast shots, like pang-pang-pang. I don’t have to really concentrate energy on one artist to really write a big intro and build something big up. It’s coming back to fast decisions, and fast and spontaneous ideas. That’s also in the spirit of what we had when we were afraid of the Third World War in the early ’80s, because it was like, “It doesn’t matter any more. we can just do the craziest stuff, because it will be the end anyway.” And we had a similar situation in 2012, which I took as an ironic start for that.

Radio has obviously been an intrinsic part of your work over your whole career. In a world of podcasts and on-demand internet radio and playlists, do you think the relationship between the listener and radio has changed – and, maybe, if some degree of communal listening has been lost due to those technological changes?

It’s true. I mean, one thing that is lost is the magic of the ether. It’s a beautiful aesthetic idea that sound is travelling through three-dimensional space, through the air, and you can just hold up an antenna or anything and you can pick it up. Do you know about these aural chorus recordings, where people like Alvin Lucier picked up some kind of static explosions or crackles, and it’s all in the air? This is a really poetic medium that disappears with the internet, because then everything’s travelling digitally.

But apart from this, I think the connection is still there. It’s just that people consume things [in a way that’s] more and more isolated, and not so much in real social groups. Even if it’s a blog, and people are reacting to it – you never know what they look like, how they smell, if they have a twitching eye while they are talking, or whatever. You get only a very reduced dimension of their physicality or their character. It’s an assimilation of a feeling of a society or a group – “we are all connected to the same brain”, stuff like that – but at the same time, it lacks the social exchange between the people that consume something. When you see a film in a cinema, people can react – they can laugh, they can say, “Oh, this is a shit film”, they can leave the room banging the door. And this is something that I think has fundamentally changed.

For example, I have a radio play running on September 27 in Berlin, and there are a few of these festivals where people go to sit in a room to listen to radio plays which are produced independently with independent money, and then they discuss it or they vote for something. That brings back a certain feeling of community.

“If someone finds how to play drum’n’bass on real drums and connect it to a Spanish castanet, then maybe it’s amazing again.”

I’m struck by what you said about captured radio signals being poetic – it reminds me of the Romantic idea of the Aeolian harp, capturing the rush of the air and converting it into music. Do you have a very romantic relationship with radio? It must have a special place in your heart. 

Oh yeah, I do have a romantic relationship. But that’s also because radio used to be, for my generation, a really important information tool. It was not only about, let’s say, presenting mixes or favourite records – you can find a lot of this in an amazing variety on the internet now – but it was more about the fact that there was a commmentor who was giving the programme a shape, and were putting things in relation to each other. These commentators, these radio presenters, were really important for my whole cultural upbringing and background, my education. This counts for a lot of people who are my age: we were all running home from school, or wherever, to try and catch certain programmes. And we would tape them, and then try to find those records, and try to find out more about the bands like that. And that’s maybe my romantic relationship to radio. Plus the fact that you could take a radio anywhere, and you could, just with batteries, pick up signals, and even artistically play with it by going through the scale of frequencies.Catch strange signals from Russia, or Turkey or America, or whatever you could catch…All this space that was manifested as sound art in the radio, especially in these world receiver radios, that’s lost, a little bit. Because you don’t find interferences of different stations in the internet. It’s this digital thing, it’s either/or. It’s either on, or off. The only artistic thing you can get is drop-out, but it’s extremely beautiful to get a normal radio and go on medium wave or long wave, and then to scroll through it and find interferences between two signals. That’s also the method that the inventor of EVP, Friedrich Jürgenson, used. He found all the signals of supposedly dead people, or people coming from another sphere, within these frequencies. You could say he used this aesthetic thing of some randomness that came into existence because two frequencies were overlaying or something, and re-interpreted them with his own understanding of it. He read them in his own way, and that was the art, or the madness, whatever you call it.

Your release-before-last was the Teenage Tapes disc, and it’s been followed by your new solo album. It’s fascinating as a listener hearing them back to back, and seeing where the parallels and the differences and the interferences between them are. What’s it like for you putting a very archival record out next to something very new? Where do you think the crossover is between the two?

Of course, this isn’t scheduled like a big plan, it’s pretty random. But if I compare it, I can hear a different approach to creating the music – sometimes not so much in the aesthetics, but more in creating it, because my choices were so limited back then. I only had an old four-track machine – I still have it, by the way – so I already had to think about the structure of the song beforehand. I had to know which track I could use for what. And then, as soon as I had made a recording I didn’t play in the wrong way – back then, you had to play again, and again, and again – then I would start the next track. So the way I composed pieces back then was very different, and it was totally without any visual sight of the frequencies. The way I work now is pretty different. I first create certain sketches, and then I start to put them together. I have an indefinite number of tracks that I can use, and then I can edit everything back and forth as I want. Maybe the way I composed back then was more coherent with more planning, but now it’s a bit more random. I’m trying to create a coherence from these random pieces. That’s one thing.

The other difference I can hear is that, since the ’90s, track music became very strong- music that had nothing to do with songs any more. I can hear this influence in the new album.There are some tracks that, even if they are not like techno music in the way they are constructed, they are more linked into the ’00s than back to the ’80s, you know? In terms of sound choice, I can see definite connections to back then.

Are your current listening tastes as eclectic as the album is? Are you a magpie, or do you maybe have phases listening to trance, say?

Mmm, there’s sometimes a little bit of “phases”, but in general, I stopped putting any limits on myself. I used to have stricter tastes in music. Of course, in most musical genres, I’m interested in the less common ones, in the more eccentric ones, in the daring ones. I’m interested when people try to create a blend of different styles or something I haven’t heard before, or something done very very well and with a great feeling for sound. It don’t have to sound completely new. That’s my general direction I’m moving towards – and rather the unusual than the very pleasing and the easy stuff. But otherwise, I find things interesting in very very different directions. It’s also a question of age, I think. I just get so much music from so many people, I’ve seen so many concerts, that I stopped saying, “Okay, this is good or this is bad.” It really depends on how people work on things. I can say I never was a big fan of drum’n’bass, and even now it’s very hard for me to be able to find anything nice in it [Laughs]. But then if someone comes along and finds a method of how to play drum’n’bass on real drums and connect it to a Spanish castanet, then maybe it’s amazing again.

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