Audio Output: Luomo and Farmers Manual
Itís hard to remember that youíre in Asia when every time you sit down to wait at one of the many bus stops along Orchard Road, you see Kate Beckinsaleís pouting face. In fact, the ad campaign for the insufferably post-Matrix, Goths-with-guns lemon Underworld was so ubiquitous in Singaporeís 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 cultureís 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 Ďvictimsí seem so eager to hasten the process. Are they so deceived that they donít 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 ďjust another gig.Ē It wasnít. 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 doesnít 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 Zoukís three-room umbrella) to find the place completely packed. Some were there for the festival, though many were regulars at Phutureís 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 Ė 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 clickínícut geeks in the crowd to start throwing their drinks and shouting ĎJudas!í 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 didnít seem like they were as into hearing ďI Will SurviveĒ 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 wouldnít have.
LUOMO: Sure, I mean, when you play live, you play live still. I mean, itís both good and bad. When you DJ, you can spin whatever you want, when it doesnít 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 donít know how to DJ, Iím 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 donít play, I donít go to clubs. The first time Iíve been to a club was a Luomo concert. I mean, club music is tied into this loop, and this predictability. When the DJís playing, itís not really inspiring music. Itís this loop thing, and uhÖ I like when itís 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 donít say whatís going to be coming when I press seven, or two, and I donít remember it either. So, I would say itís very improvised. Enough for me.
D: It must be difficult with improvisation, because youíre taking chances about where itís going to go.
L: Sure, but I like that. Otherwise it would be so lame, just to dress and look good Ė fuck that. Iím not into that at all.
D: Iím 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 donít 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 donít have to do concerts, I donít have to do remixes, albums, anything I donít want, just to pay my bills. Thatís something Iím 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 youíre 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 wouldnít do them. Iím starting my own label next year to release my own stuff, and there will be no remixes. Thereís 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 canít get the music. Eastern Europe, Asia, wherever itís just impossible to ship. This is now insane with these record labels, itís really hard to release the music. They have to make so many compromises that have nothing to do with music, which is something Iíve been trying to get away from for years.
D: What about if someone in Asia wants to buy the vinyl itself?
L: Iíll sell it directly myself, also from my website. If somebody from Singapore wants to buy it and thereís no distribution, I think I will send a few vinyls. I donít want to restrict people from it, and I would really like to support places other than Europe. Iím really into China, Russia, new markets. I tour these places all the time; Iím going for seven days in Eastbruck all the way to Estonia, Slovenia, Poland, and theyíre really enthusiastic. People are still optimistic, their economies are growing, theyíre becoming part of the European Union, the music is catching them, itís all fresh. Whereas in Germany, the economyís going down, theyíve heard all that music and itís really not inspiring. So, Iím not complaining, if it sounds like that, this is just in my agenda, what I feel itís important to do.
D: When youíre traveling around, do you check out local music?
L: Iím more interested to speak to people, learn about the cultures. The music, Iím over the point of... I donít 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 musicÖ I mean maybe Radiohead or something. This click and cut thing, itís 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 Ė I bought the new album. But, uh, Iím 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, thatís just attitude. Somebody gave it to me. Um, but Iím 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, Iíll 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 Jonesí shit inside out, big time. Maybe also Frank Zappa. Andy Warhol, to make music with him. Thereís this one guy, Karim Rashid, thatís his name. Heís one of the worldís most famous and discrete kind of designers. I would like to make some music with him, figure out if heís serious or not. Iíve read a few interviews with him. Also, interior designers like Rem Koolhaus. Iíd 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 donít have a club background, or a relationship with this club thing. But now Iím starting to think about this bass drum, itís like a walking bass, and cymbal, itís just there. And what you can do around it Ė itís 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, Singaporeís 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, ďdonít worry Ė the stronger the accent, the better it gets.Ē By the time ďduring the performance, we seek to sift the local atmosphere of dissolution and clumsiness through manual changeĒ became ďthe easiest are shall each claw her to enter and a half the structure called her to enter and she,Ē 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 thereís 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 itís a set of data is to repeat it. A lot of this sonification like a teaching tool in a sense, youíre 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 itís also something that people find enjoyable and theyíll pay more attention.
N: We have to stop if people like it too much.
S: Also, if you have data thatís changing over time, and your brain is noticing that this is rhythmic but one part has changed, in a sense this is what youíre paying attention to. So, sometimes itís a way of showing how certain kinds of data are changing.
N: I think if more melodic stuff comes out, itís 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: Weíve been moving towards entering into more of a dialogue with the audience. So, instead of just saying Ďthis is our three minute statement to you, about usí, itís like entering a dialogue saying Ďhereís this vocabulary, weíve extended it to thisí, 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 youíre in a performance, you try to resist feeling like Ďwe must go up here and give three minute statements?í
N: We donít have three minute statements, weíre 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: Itís what you could call a lack of quality control.
N: Who are we to decide whatís good and what isnít, so many people have different reactions to our performances, that the last people who could say whether itís good or not is us. So, jam everything together into one package, andÖ
D: Itís 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: Itís so often that you do a performance and then afterwards, someone comes and talks to you and theyíll always describe some part of the set that you canít even remember, and maybe it was something that was happening when you were trying to get something else working, and itís like ďoh I really like this noise that was goingĒ
N: Thatís why we donít have quality control, because people get so much out of itÖ
D: Can you describe the communication process between you guys when you perform? When you hear a mass of sound, how do you know whoís doing what?
S: Common phrases; ĎIs that me? Is that you?í
N: ĎWhatís going on?í [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. Ďletís just push this sound around until it becomes more or that or less of that.í You can always turn down your channel and go Ďitís not meeeeÖí But somehow, itís not really so important. Whatís 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, itís only important to know itís your sound or not Ė
N: If itís going wrong.
S: Ö and maybe you change to fit theirs, or maybe you fade out totally. Itís 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 doesnít fit at the time, you can stop and let the other people go, and this is something thatís 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 thereís far more compromise going on, and itís like Ďokay I have an idea but it isnít working with these guys so Iíll wait, or Iíll change for something that fits.í
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 thatís the thing about it thatís really interesting.
N: And sometimes you can also go on for hours and not really get anywhere.
S: Live you think itís going terribly, ĎIím missing the pointí, you canít get anything to fit, and then you listen to the recording and youíre thinking itís 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 didnít make any sense.
N: You shouldnít try to make sense, itís bad for you.
S: Sorry for using that rude word. So, when youíre busy trying to make BEEP and youíreÖ [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 ďyeah, actually, itís great art what youíre doing, but Iím a painter, and imagine if I came up to you and slapped my colors right onto your eyes. Would you like that?Ē
N: Yes, and you say, ďplease do!Ē
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 thereís 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 thereís a lot of people who donít have access to the shops that sell it, so they download one recording and say Ďah, maybe itís all worth gettingí, and either they want to have it as a physical object, or they just canít afford the bandwidth. Thereís this guy from ArgentinaÖ
G: Yeah, he just has a modem uplink so he canít download it allÖ
N: And of course, there are no places there that knew Farmers Manual and stocked it. For us, itís far more important that you get the music to people who enjoy it than to make huge amounts of money from it. Thatís probably what sets us apart from the people complaining about filesharing. At least when itís online, you know what it is you get, because thereís too much material to be able to preview it all in record shops.
S: ĎNo, no, Iím not finished yet, still got 94 hours to go!í
D: When the EMP pulse goes off before the nuclear explosion and youíre thinking, ĎI really want to listen to this musicíÖ
S: Yeah, as my life is flashing before my eyes, Iíll think ĎI really want to listen to that good set I did!í
N: I really hope there are DVD players in the nuclear wasteland.
(Information about Farmers Manualís Recent Live Archive: 1995-2002 DVD can be found at their Mego website, http://www.mego.at/farmers.html. A feature by Dustedís Matt Wellins focusing partly on the DVD can be viewed by clicking here).
By Dave Morris