Audio Output: Luomo and Farmers Manual
It’s hard to remember that you’re in Asia when every time you sit down to wait at one of the many bus stops along Orchard Road, you see Kate Beckinsale’s pouting face. In fact, the ad campaign for the insufferably post-Matrix, Goths-with-guns lemon Underworld was so ubiquitous in Singapore’s subway stations and bus terminals that there was practically a de facto ban on Asian faces in local advertising. For those of us who instinctively shudder when we think about the long-term effects of Western culture’s rapidly expanding presence in the East, a stroll down Orchard Road confirms our darkest fears. When Audio Output (the weekend-long musical arm of the newly created digital media festival The Year Of Living Digitally) was announced, I was excited with the prospect of a Singaporean alternative to the parade of European and American DJs who pack the local clubs. I was disheartened when I subsequently learned that most of the performers would be imported from other countries. Curated by British duo SND, the festival featured foreign musicians including Miroque (Japan), Farben (Germany), Luomo (Finland) and Farmers Manual (Europe and elsewhere). Would this be simply another planeload of expats come to exploit the undiscovered country?
Western culture flourishes outside the West. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is an unavoidable one locked in reiteration for those who live there. The debate over whether the rest of the world can possibly benefit from globalization will continue so long as there are corners of the globe untouched by fast food and blockbuster movies, but few critics seem interested in the reasons why the ‘victims’ seem so eager to hasten the process. Are they so deceived that they don’t know cultural domination when they see it? Or does contact with the West offer some sort of empowerment? As co-organizer Ben Slater said on the last day, Audio Output was not meant to be “just another gig.” It wasn’t. Instead, what I found over the course of the three days was a group of musicians who are committed to fostering communication between cultures that doesn’t only go in one direction, and an audience that was interested in a mutual exchange with the West that left them with far more than a Coke and a smile.
On the Friday night, my companions and I arrived at Phuture (part of local superclub Zouk’s three-room umbrella) to find the place completely packed. Some were there for the festival, though many were regulars at Phuture’s Friday night funk/R&B blowouts who were waiting for the festival to end. Florian Hecker was ill, so Luomo had graciously stepped up to do an impromptu set of ambient/glitch under his given name Vladislav Delay. The room was mostly full of club kids anxiously standing around – not the most welcoming of environments for laptop music without a backbeat. After a short but lively burst of fragmented crunchiness, the abstractness of Delay gave way to the tech-house throb of Luomo. Over the course of his lengthy set, the wiry, blonde-haired chain-smoker transitioned tracks from Vocalcity and the recent full-length The Present Lover with brief flourishes of beat noise twisted beyond recognition. The breakdowns in the songs were far more confrontational than anything a tech-house DJ would have dared lay on a mainstream crowd, but the audience in Phuture that night were far more adventurous than I would have expected. After a few minutes of the set, they were moving in front of the handful of chin-scratchers and dancing like maniacs. I half expected the click’n’cut geeks in the crowd to start throwing their drinks and shouting ‘Judas!’ like folkies watching Dylan go electric. Instead, they stood their ground as the rest danced, while Luomo threw his head back and chopped up vocal samples like a man possessed. When he finally gave way to the regular DJs after a vigorously performed encore, the crowd clapped respectfully and got ready for the resumption of a normal night of clubbing. It didn’t seem like they were as into hearing “I Will Survive” as they might otherwise have been, and I wondered if they had seen a glimpse of something that was more than just another gig.
DUSTED: I was surprised to see that your set at the club was done with laptops instead of just doing a DJ set. It seemed to give your set a certain flexibility that maybe DJs wouldn’t have.
LUOMO: Sure, I mean, when you play live, you play live still. I mean, it’s both good and bad. When you DJ, you can spin whatever you want, when it doesn’t fit in the mood, you can just take the latest techno record and bang it. When you play your own stuff, you are restricted. But I don’t know how to DJ, I’m not interested in this DJ thing so much.
D: How do you react when you hear a DJ in a club play one of your tracks?
L: If I don’t play, I don’t go to clubs. The first time I’ve been to a club was a Luomo concert. I mean, club music is tied into this loop, and this predictability. When the DJ’s playing, it’s not really inspiring music. It’s this loop thing, and uh… I like when it’s living.
D: How much improvisation is in your set?
L: I would say a lot, but there are songs already that have some kind of structure. There are almost endless options. The basic songs have only eight tracks, but all of the tracks have eight different options, and they don’t say what’s going to be coming when I press seven, or two, and I don’t remember it either. So, I would say it’s very improvised. Enough for me.
D: It must be difficult with improvisation, because you’re taking chances about where it’s going to go.
L: Sure, but I like that. Otherwise it would be so lame, just to dress and look good – fuck that. I’m not into that at all.
D: I’m wondering how hard it is for a producer like yourself to support yourself from music.
L: I could earn my living easily with music, but I decided two years ago that I don’t want to do it. I started my company in Finland. We do audio software for mobile phones, and business stuff. Now that the music industry is going down, it would be harder than a few years ago to live and live well from music without restrictions or compromises. Music is a hobby; I don’t have to do concerts, I don’t have to do remixes, albums, anything I don’t want, just to pay my bills. That’s something I’m proud of.
D: Do you feel it important to be around other artists, or to be part of a community? Or do you feel like you’re off on your own, doing your own thing?
L: I was fortunate in the beginning to get into these labels, Mille Plateaux, Chain Reaction. I did what I wanted. But then comes these remixes, and I wouldn’t do them. I’m starting my own label next year to release my own stuff, and there will be no remixes. There’s going to be a website where all the music will be for free, MP3s, all the catalog is going to be free downloads for any places where you just can’t get the music. Eastern Europe, Asia, wherever it’s just impossible to ship. This is now insane with these record labels, it’s really hard to release the music. They have to make so many compromises that have nothing to do with music, which is something I’ve been trying to get away from for years.
D: What about if someone in Asia wants to buy the vinyl itself?
L: I’ll sell it directly myself, also from my website. If somebody from Singapore wants to buy it and there’s no distribution, I think I will send a few vinyls. I don’t want to restrict people from it, and I would really like to support places other than Europe. I’m really into China, Russia, new markets. I tour these places all the time; I’m going for seven days in Eastbruck all the way to Estonia, Slovenia, Poland, and they’re really enthusiastic. People are still optimistic, their economies are growing, they’re becoming part of the European Union, the music is catching them, it’s all fresh. Whereas in Germany, the economy’s going down, they’ve heard all that music and it’s really not inspiring. So, I’m not complaining, if it sounds like that, this is just in my agenda, what I feel it’s important to do.
D: When you’re traveling around, do you check out local music?
L: I’m more interested to speak to people, learn about the cultures. The music, I’m over the point of... I don’t listen to this kind of music at home. I listen to jazz or reggae or hip-hop or R&B or pop or whatever, like this electronic music… I mean maybe Radiohead or something. This click and cut thing, it’s really hard to listen to it for a while, to enjoy it. I think these people should talk more about trees and culture and people, rather than who sold how much, and what computer programs I use. Then the music will sound more lifelike. I hate this kind of Gameboy, programming thing.
D: Who have you been listening to lately?
L: I listen to lots of Radiohead, actually – I bought the new album. But, uh, I’m a hip-hop freak. I listen to lots of hip-hop.
D: I saw you were wearing a Redman t-shirt on stage.
L: Ha, that’s just attitude. Somebody gave it to me. Um, but I’m doing a hip-hop album, or starting to. I went to Finland to record a few basic songs, actually forty of them, and when I have time, I’ll start doing this kind of stuff.
D: If money were no object, living or dead, who would you like to collaborate with?
L: Miles Davis. I studied Philly Joe Jones’ shit inside out, big time. Maybe also Frank Zappa. Andy Warhol, to make music with him. There’s this one guy, Karim Rashid, that’s his name. He’s one of the world’s most famous and discrete kind of designers. I would like to make some music with him, figure out if he’s serious or not. I’ve read a few interviews with him. Also, interior designers like Rem Koolhaus. I’d like to make some music for his buildings or interiors.
D: Do you think about the kind of space that you would want your music to be played in?
L: No, it finds itself. With Luomo, I don’t have a club background, or a relationship with this club thing. But now I’m starting to think about this bass drum, it’s like a walking bass, and cymbal, it’s just there. And what you can do around it – it’s much easier.
On Sunday, the day after their own performance at Phuture, three members of the originally Austria-based collective Farmers Manual showed clips of their installation work (from their Recent Live Archive: 1995-2002 DVD) at a revealing question-and-answer session in The Esplanade, Singapore’s brand new multi-million dollar arts complex. In the audience were several local musicians, including electro-acoustic artist George Chua who has staged his own series of monthly experimental music concerts at funky arts venue The Substation. The presentation began with Farmers Manual reading and rereading a short text about their artistic intentions. They invited members of the audience to read the passage into the voice recognition software in their computer, which would print the new version onto a projection screen. As one of the members said when the audience seemed too shy to participate, “don’t worry – the stronger the accent, the better it gets.” By the time “during the performance, we seek to sift the local atmosphere of dissolution and clumsiness through manual change” became “the easiest are shall each claw her to enter and a half the structure called her to enter and she,” the audience started to enjoy sticking their hand in the mix. It quickly became clear that Singaporeans were not discouraged from interacting; rather, one of the aims of the festival was enticing participation.
DUSTED: One thing I noticed is that your music tends to be very rhythmic. Some of the sounds in there formed easily quantifiable rhythms, whereas there’s very little conventional melodic material in your stuff. Was that a conscious decision?
S: Nick was talking earlier about sets of data versus streams of data. Melody would be more likely to come out of a stream of data, but often it would be so complicated because melody also has a sense of repetition to it. Whereas if you play a set of data, a good way of making clear that it’s a set of data is to repeat it. A lot of this sonification like a teaching tool in a sense, you’re trying to make apparent features of the data. If you choose to do this by repeating the sequence, then you have a rhythm that appears very automatically. The rhythmic aspect is more of an emergent property of the data. It comes up very often, and it’s also something that people find enjoyable and they’ll pay more attention.
N: We have to stop if people like it too much.
S: Also, if you have data that’s changing over time, and your brain is noticing that this is rhythmic but one part has changed, in a sense this is what you’re paying attention to. So, sometimes it’s a way of showing how certain kinds of data are changing.
N: I think if more melodic stuff comes out, it’s really accidental.
D: When you do really unconventional things with melody and rhythm, does communication between the listener and the musician become more difficult?
N: We’ve been moving towards entering into more of a dialogue with the audience. So, instead of just saying ‘this is our three minute statement to you, about us’, it’s like entering a dialogue saying ‘here’s this vocabulary, we’ve extended it to this’, and then you can respond to it somehow, either by moving through a space, or by making noises yourself, or if you have some sort of microphones in a space, anything that goes on there will become part of the musical dialogue.
D: So when you’re in a performance, you try to resist feeling like ‘we must go up here and give three minute statements?’
N: We don’t have three minute statements, we’re all too incoherent for statements like those.
G: More like ninety-five hour statements.
N: We do have ninety-five hour statements, like this DVD we just put together.
D: I thought it was fascinating how it presents so much information to the person who buys it.
G: It’s what you could call a lack of quality control.
N: Who are we to decide what’s good and what isn’t, so many people have different reactions to our performances, that the last people who could say whether it’s good or not is us. So, jam everything together into one package, and…
D: It’s very different from standard record industry practice, put out your 74 minute disc once every year or two years or ten years.
N: More like our eight-year market research endeavor. If we had a market research division, maybe we would have three-minute statements.
S: It’s so often that you do a performance and then afterwards, someone comes and talks to you and they’ll always describe some part of the set that you can’t even remember, and maybe it was something that was happening when you were trying to get something else working, and it’s like “oh I really like this noise that was going”
N: That’s why we don’t have quality control, because people get so much out of it…
D: Can you describe the communication process between you guys when you perform? When you hear a mass of sound, how do you know who’s doing what?
S: Common phrases; ‘Is that me? Is that you?’
N: ‘What’s going on?’ [laughs] Yeah, but I think one thing humans are really good at is picking out patterns in chaos, and I think the way we tend to work is quite autistic, in that one of us will just focus on a particular thing, ie. ‘let’s just push this sound around until it becomes more or that or less of that.’ You can always turn down your channel and go ‘it’s not meeee…’ But somehow, it’s not really so important. What’s more important is how it all fits together, and if you then do something that makes it fit together less, you pull it in a different direction.
S: More like, it’s only important to know it’s your sound or not –
N: If it’s going wrong.
S: … and maybe you change to fit theirs, or maybe you fade out totally. It’s a nice aspect of having so many people play at the same time, you get a really dynamic performance because if you have something that doesn’t fit at the time, you can stop and let the other people go, and this is something that’s got a lot to do with the relationships between the people, if you get random people together and play, you just get this cacophony and you get two soloists at the same time. With this there’s far more compromise going on, and it’s like ‘okay I have an idea but it isn’t working with these guys so I’ll wait, or I’ll change for something that fits.’
G: Actually, I think that not all of the ninety-five hours of the DVD are good or interesting, especially with the improvisation. There are boring parts as well, and then there is this moment when it all magically comes together in one place, and you cannot exactly tell did I do it on purpose, or did it just happen, or something, but that’s the thing about it that’s really interesting.
N: And sometimes you can also go on for hours and not really get anywhere.
S: Live you think it’s going terribly, ‘I’m missing the point’, you can’t get anything to fit, and then you listen to the recording and you’re thinking it’s really nice, but when you were there playing it you were constantly fighting against this cacophony, and then you listen to it and it makes some strange kind of sense. But when you were in the middle of it, it didn’t make any sense.
N: You shouldn’t try to make sense, it’s bad for you.
S: Sorry for using that rude word. So, when you’re busy trying to make BEEP and you’re… [laughs]
D: Do you ever get people coming up to you after your shows to complain?
G: Yeah, there was this one occasion where a person came up to me and said “yeah, actually, it’s great art what you’re doing, but I’m a painter, and imagine if I came up to you and slapped my colors right onto your eyes. Would you like that?”
N: Yes, and you say, “please do!”
D: About the live DVD, is all the content available on the website?
N: The DVD is just a snapshot of this online archive up until the point when we released it, so there’s actually more stuff online than what we have there. Whenever we do a performance, we put it up.
D: Has it hurt the sales of the DVD to have it online?
N: I think it actually encourages it, because there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to the shops that sell it, so they download one recording and say ‘ah, maybe it’s all worth getting’, and either they want to have it as a physical object, or they just can’t afford the bandwidth. There’s this guy from Argentina…
G: Yeah, he just has a modem uplink so he can’t download it all…
N: And of course, there are no places there that knew Farmers Manual and stocked it. For us, it’s far more important that you get the music to people who enjoy it than to make huge amounts of money from it. That’s probably what sets us apart from the people complaining about filesharing. At least when it’s online, you know what it is you get, because there’s too much material to be able to preview it all in record shops.
S: ‘No, no, I’m not finished yet, still got 94 hours to go!’
D: When the EMP pulse goes off before the nuclear explosion and you’re thinking, ‘I really want to listen to this music’…
S: Yeah, as my life is flashing before my eyes, I’ll think ‘I really want to listen to that good set I did!’
N: I really hope there are DVD players in the nuclear wasteland.
(Information about Farmers Manual’s Recent Live Archive: 1995-2002 DVD can be found at their Mego website, http://www.mego.at/farmers.html. A feature by Dusted’s Matt Wellins focusing partly on the DVD can be viewed by clicking here).
By Dave Morris