Interview: Jan St. Werner
Published on May 9th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Jan St. Werner of legendary electronic duo Mouse On Mars will on 10th June release a solo album, Blaze Colour Burn, through Thrill Jockey. It comes described as the initial release in Werner’s Fiepblatter series, intended to give him an “outlet for his more experimental and conceptual works”; this would appear to include an opera by the name of Miscontinuum, featuring libretto by Oval’s Markus Popp, which is set to receive its debut somewhere in his native Germany over the summer.
Rocksucker was delighted to get the chance to ask one of our favourite musicians about his fascinating new project – consider, for instance, that part of Blaze Colour Burn is an edit of an eight-hour performance given in a public piazza in the Umbria region of Italy (see, you just don’t get that with Oasis) – but before reading what Jan had to say, get your ears full of this album cut…
Blaze Colour Burn is strikingly different to your work with Mouse on Mars; it’s like some kind of dark, paranoid wilderness. Does it in any way reflect how you were feeling at the time of making it? When did you make it?
Those tracks were made over a period of several years, probably five years altogether. It’s like a schizophrenic thing: I do things in parallel, not one after the other. I’m having a euphoric time with Mouse on Mars and then I’m back in the studio or whatever and I’m having a depression, making more introvert tracks (laughs).
At some point I made this decision with Mouse on Mars that I wanted to use all the ideas and use all that momentum that drives things forward, actually infect Andi and hopefully other people to join in the material and interpret it in a more accelerating kind of way, whereas other ideas need to be…I wouldn’t say introspective, but it needs a different analysis.
It maybe grinds down more into the core of the material; it maybe needs a more granular expertise, really digging yourself like a mole into the basic structure and bringing things up to the light from there. For me that’s really nothing to do with depression – I totally enjoy it – but it’s a slower process and a more monadic process as well.
I’m digesting these questions myself, I’m not juggling ideas back and forth with other people. Even though there are other people – there are parts with different instruments coming in, there’s even a passage where I played a session with other people – but it’s still totally my own decision to place these things, to decide where and when certain musical events are happening.
And the time arrangement: sometimes it really slows down, there are unexpected bits and pieces, and it’s really hard for me to explain that. It’s a more obscure process even to myself and I have to say I really enjoyed it. For me it was a really necessary work to do. I couldn’t say that I enjoyed doing one thing more than the other, or that if I had to choose then I would only continue working with Mouse on Mars and would stop these things; these idiosyncrasies just sort of pop up and you can’t really avoid them, they just happen.
It’s like when people ask me to do a certain project, or write a score for an installation or a film, or I do an imaginary score for something: they’re just things I have to do. Music is basically all I’m doing, besides having a family and being social, so of course there’s a range of different dynamics, different intentions and different intensities. I hope that answers your question a bit! (Laughs)
There aren’t really any orchestra sounds, it’s single instruments playing. There’s an orchestra from Foligno in Umbria, Italy on it but I don’t think I used any sessions from the Paeanumnion project. No, they’re all different things: parts have been played by my friend Michael Rauter from Kaleidoskop. I think I recorded a little session with Kaleidoskop at some point but I don’t think there’s anything from musikFabrik on it.
Apparently the album is “the initial release in Werner’s Fiepblatter series, which will give him an outlet for his more experimental and conceptual works.” Can you tell us a bit more about this?
The Fiepblatter series is a catalogue I basically invented to master this weird, kind of non-hierarchic, nearly unmanageable amount of material that I’ve collected over the years. It’s difficult for me to find a proper structure to hierarchically organise these things, so I thought that if I think of it all as an archive, that I could suddenly bring things to light, give them a catalogue number and that could be a way of filing this material.
I wouldn’t file it chronologically, because sometimes even in the same track there’s something I made yesterday next to something I’ve recorded years ago. The question of when a track was made, especially with my solo work, can be really hard to answer. Within this realm of sound and music, you’re very likely forced to refer to certain songs as new and others as old, to find this sort of historical hierarchy, so I thought if I just make this a catalogue then I could pick things and compile them according to how I think the approach on the catalogue is each time.
That would make so much more sense, and also allows me to include some of my more visual work into it, so for the first time I feel quite relaxed in having created my own historical…hmmm…there’s a German word ‘fundus’, it’s where theatres store their costumes, props and stage designs. That’s what this is for me: it’s a kind of storage and I’ll just grab whatever I think works well together, and that’s visual as well as audio.
It’s old as well as new, organic as well as digital: sometimes it’s processed stuff that was purely made on a computer juxtaposed with things where I’ve initiated a setting where people are improvising. For instance, this thing in Foligno: it was kind of a huge composition, expanding over a whole day, but at the same time certain things were not easy to control and were kind of randomly coming in and out. But it all worked together because there was this fantastic tension. I edited these tracks down and again they became something new.
For me, the Fiepblatter catalogue is this kind of parallel world where all these things fit together, and still I’m trying to file them according to their own special dynamics and qualities. I’m actually really happy that, when I explained that to Bettina [Richards] from Thrill Jockey, she totally got the idea. Her mind is also very open to the visual arts, not only stuff that’s expressing itself as music, so she totally got the idea.
The Fiepblatter is a weird instrument; it’s actually an instrument used to imitate animal sounds. It has something very mechanic, quite wooden and old-fashioned, but at the same time it’s quite a steric instrument. If you don’t use it absolutely properly, like how a hunter would use it to attract a wild animal, it can be a free jazz solo type thing (laughs). I also like that the name itself is a weird combination of things.
I don’t know where the Fiepblatter series ends. So far I have opened my archive, my box of ideas which don’t necessarily make sense within the Mouse on Mars realm, and this makes at least five new recordings, or records, or albums, whatever you want to call it. I’m already working on the next thing which will hopefully be a tape, because I think it would be really nice to make it into a tape, then there’s the opera coming and then I have a few more electroacoustic kind of pieces which mix acoustic instrumentation with electronics or abstract sound.
Is it coming out on Thrill Jockey rather than Monkeytown because it’s musically more suited to it?
Yeah. Thrill Jockey has changed quite a lot, I think, in a way that makes it more suited to the contemporary Thrill Jockey than the past Thrill Jockey. There used to be less releases so there was more pressure on each release. It was selected differently, a louder statement from the artist; it was more prominent, like “this is what the artist has to say at this given point in time” and this is what you get from the artist for the next six months or something.
Now Thrill Jockey is much more flexible: it’s wilder, more anarchic and, to my taste, there’s more interesting music coming from Thrill Jockey than ever before. I find it really weird and wonderful at the moment. It’s perfect for me because Bettina and I have known each other for a really long time so we know how to work with each other. I know it’s a trustworthy label and I’m pretty sure it will exist for a reasonable time, which is rare these days because things are so unstable. It’s a weird time for music releases so I feel confident and comfortable with Thrill Jockey.
There’s also a team of young people working there so it’s got the old Thrill Jockey style along with the new and the fresh. For me, it’s a perfect dichotomy. I suppose Fiepblatter is like a sub-brand of Thrill Jockey (laughs), which is great because I couldn’t do that with Mouse on Mars.
Blaze Colour Burn is definitely a good fit alongside ‘soundscapey’ stuff like Barn Owl, Mountains and Peals that’s been coming out on Thrill Jockey recently. Would you say there’s any kind of narrative to the album? Did you set out to record certain sounds, or did the sounds come to you, as it were?
I think my filters, especially when I’m working on my own, are pretty narrow, so I think these sounds that approach me – even if they’re very unknown or obscure – in the end are filtered through my very limited perception. The sounds that make it into my music kind of become ‘my’ sounds.
When I try to subvert my routine, it hardly ever works, and this is why I enjoy working with people. Like Andi: he’s a master at taking an idea of mine and making it into something different, interpreting it in a totally different way but still in a way that I can relate to, which is great. Working solo is like really trying to expand this universe (laughs) but at the same time I have this very strong way of doing things.
It’s not a struggle because I love to hear how things progress when I’m working on them on my own, but I’m not deliberately looking for a new thing. There isn’t a huge question mark when I go and record sounds or when I work with other musicians. I kind of draw them into this web, this kind of ‘Werner world’ (laughs) idea of sound: there are certain frequencies that are very prominent, certain resonances.
For example, when Rashad Becker mastered the vinyl…I think his way of listening to music works really, really well with my idea of where I think sound is interesting: certain frequency spectrums, certain dyamics within the music. The way you distinguish music – like a certain musical style or a certain tempo, a certain production technique that makes you think “this must be contemporary” or “this must be from the ’80s” – it can be hard to see the spectrum in it.
Somewhere around 500 hz and somewhere around 1000 hz there’s this collection, something speaks between these levels. Some music has a very vivid, very high frequency movement, maybe a very low bass, and that’s the main factor in why the music I’m making always fits well together: it’s where I’m holding the microphone when I’m recording an instrument, or which part of the instrument I’m mic’ing up.
It totally changes the sound and makes it a sound of mine, whereas someone else might mic it up with two room mics and from a different distance, EQ’ing the mic differently and using different compression. In terms of how these sounds come together, where we find sounds and which ones we decide to pick, I think this is much more important than the genre you’re a part of or the people you’d think would listen to your music.
I don’t think about that at all; I have no clue who’s listening to this kind of music and how people perceive it. The other thing is, you said it has a ‘soundscape’ kind of quality; for me, every piece of music tells a story in its own abstract way. It doesn’t matter if it’s a solo piece, Mouse on Mars, Microstoria or anything I’ve been involved with, to me the structure and transition of the arrangement is always based on a certain very abstract idea of a story. This helps me to make sense of what I’m doing.
Sometimes, really ambient music doesn’t give me this; I feel like I’m in a cloud of sound, and it’s probably a drone or something, but I don’t feel this progression. Even if there’s a subtle one, I don’t really get it. I have the same with listening to pop songs, I just don’t get anything from it. I don’t get a story, it’s just sound blocks one after the other with no transition, no drama, no risk. There’s never the risk of it falling apart or getting thinner or threatening to ‘tear’, or something; it’s super stable and consistent, and that is normally music I quickly lose interest in.
It might be different with dance music, if you lose the sense of time – the same with minimal music, you kind of forget this idea of time – but I always want a transition, even if it’s super subtle. These transitions are probably more obvious with Mouse on Mars than with my solo work, where I think sometimes they’re really, really hidden.
Even myself I sometimes lose that, but then it suddenly makes sense to me, and that’s when I mix it, edit it down, fix it and set it aside. It makes me think, okay, maybe someone gets that (laughs), maybe someone at some point has had the same point of view, the same angle where he puts all the pieces together and then he’s in that same story. It probably makes a different sense to this person but he gets this story.
I still try to make it something that’s understandable, interesting or adventurous even if you don’t get that, and I’m totally okay with ‘soundscape’ but I’m really trying not to make ambient music, to make instead music that you have to really get into, not something that stands around you and adds to you environment. It is an environment in itself, that’s what it is to me.
Still, it works as part of your furniture, you’re free to do whatever you want with it! You can play it at 45 or 15, it’s all cool (laughs).
Jan St. Werner, thank you.
Blaze Colour Burn will be released on 10th June by Thrill Jockey.
For more information, please visit Jan St. Werner on the Thrill Jockey website.