Fennesz: A Trickster in Barcelona

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 05.16.14 in Features

Word to the wise: Photographing Christian Fennesz is more difficult than you might expect. At least, it is after consuming three beers in the space of an hour — done at his urging, I hasten to add. (With his dark sunglasses fixed firmly, and seemingly permanently, in place, Fennesz came across as keenly committed to enjoying his post-show, pre-travel afternoon to the fullest.) The Austrian guitarist and electronic musician may be known as a digital High Romantic — thanks to both the rich, ambient glow of his recordings and the penumbral landscape photographs featured on the sleeves of albums like Venice and Black Sea — but on this warm spring afternoon in Barcelona, it’s his trickster side that comes to the fore. Standing outside MACBA, the contemporary-art museum best known to electronic-music fans as the former home of the city’s Sónar festival, Fennesz proves hard to keep up with. Throwing his arms to the heavens, ducking and feinting, and striking exaggerated rock-star poses, he hams it up like a dude who has seen Spinal Tap perhaps one too many times. Half of the pictures will turn out blurry, just because he won’t hold still. It occurs to me that, despite his self-evident swagger, Fennesz may be slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera. Earlier, when I had asked if he had been doing much press, he said that it had been “full-on,” and lamented, “In Austria, we have this saying when they kill the pig, and they hang it: ‘I look like a hanged pig.’”

Fennesz’s music is so seductive that it can be hard to remember that he’s always had a bit of the trickster in him. One of his early releases, Plays, offered nominal cover versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” and the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” — albeit versions so blown out and edge-frayed that there was virtually nothing recognizable left of their source material. Remember that this was in 1998, when the so-called “clicks + cuts” scene remained firmly, even hermetically, sealed off from the pleasures and cultural associations of popular culture.


Photo by Philip Sherburne for WS

You could detect elements of both sides of Fennesz’s personality in his appearance the night before at Lapsus, a smartly curated new festival that played out across two evenings in the CCCB, a museum complex adjacent to MACBA. On stage, with his long, dirty-blonde hair and sharp black suit jacket, he looked a little like a cross between Swans’ Michael Gira and the actor Martin Donovan. The sleeves of his sweater, however, snuck out from beneath his jacket and crept halfway down his hands, lending a dose of the teenager (not to mention Kurt Cobain) to a look that otherwise scanned as jet-setting avant-gardist.

It was one of Fennesz’s first performances in support of his new album, Bécs, and what was most surprising was how closely some of the songs resembled the recorded versions. Fennesz doesn’t really “do” faithful renditions; alternating between electric guitar and real-time computer processing, his performance style is largely improvisational. But recognizing the declarative chords of “The Liar” — a song whose low-end chug almost sounds like Fennesz’s answer to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” — and the limpid melodies of “Liminality,” I was struck by how songful the new album is. Hell, there are even vocals — surely a first? — in “Static Kings,” a blissed-out reverie that sounds a little like a vocoder-assisted Flying Saucer Attack, while “Paroles,” with its bucolic acoustic guitar, brings to mind the Durutti Column run through the world’s lintiest fuzzbox.

While Fennesz never stops working — recent years have brought collaborations with Patrick Pulsinger, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Martin Brandlmayr and Werner Dafeldecker, and David Daniell and Tony Buck — Bécs is his first solo studio album in six years. And after a long stretch in which his major works (Venice, Black Sea, Seven Stars, and the Sakamoto collaborations Sala Santa Cecilia and Cendre) appeared on the British label Touch, Bécs marks his return to Vienna’s Editions Mego. Run by Peter Rehberg, aka Pita, Editions Mego is the revived version of Mego, the titanic experimental-electronic label that was home to Fennesz’s landmark albums Hotel Paral.lel (1997) and Endless Summer (2001), where he first established the hallmarks of his style: the click and whirr of digital glitch music; the sublimated pop yearning; the pinprick details glistening against a wall of pink noise.

The return to Mego is significant in that the new album is meant to form a trilogy with his other two Mego releases. It’s an interesting proposition, given the leaps in both style and mood between each record, not to mention the 13 years that have passed since Endless Summer. At least half-seriously, Fennesz calls the new one his “pop” record, and it’s hard to argue with him. (Editions Mego founder Peter Rehberg does anyway: In an email, he notes, “Not so sure about it being ‘pop,’ but the guitar is much more in the forefront, which is something that echoes back to the old Mego albums.

Before our slightly wobbly photo session, I sat down with Fennesz and his wife to discuss the new album and his previous night’s performance.

The show last night was great.

Yeah, it was OK. I broke a string, which actually never happens, usually. Kind of got me out of the routine.


In the very beginning. It was fine, but I was just trying to cope.

The live set really brings a whole new dimension to your music. It’s much more physical than it is on record.

The live thing is always different. The album is all studio work, and live playing is like jazz playing. There’s a whole lot of improvisation, but using parts of tracks. It’s really different.

What exactly are you doing on stage?

It really is a very improvisational thing. I use this patch made in Max/MSP that a friend of mine did, and that enables me to improvise with a bank of sounds that I can fly in. Then I play guitar on top of that. Sometimes I find something and go with it, and sometimes I might stop and just play a track. It’s a mixture of all these things that I do in the studio and that I’ve done before. Everything goes into the computer, and I know what’s going to come out, somehow. I have to react to this.

I wasn’t expecting to actually recognize songs from the album.

I might capture a few things and then isolate them, go on top of it. But I never just press the play button. I want to play. I want to play like a live musician. I think I owe this to the audience.

‘Everything goes into the computer, and I know what’s going to come out, somehow.’

Do you ever feel like the laptop gets in the way?

Uh…I don’t know. I mean, the laptop became such a normal thing, everywhere. Everyone’s using a laptop today to play live, no matter if it’s a rock band or a folk band, whatever. It’s just a normal stage thing. It does its job. But for me, what I do, especially with this patch that I’m using, you have to improvise. I can’t rely on presets. I always have to start with a white piece of paper.

I was struck by the tension between foreground and background in the live performance. Even more than on the album, you can feel this struggle between noise and melody.

This is like learning by doing. It’s always been a challenge to get these two things together, which wasn’t easy in the beginning. When I started playing solo, I just used a laptop in the beginning, and the guitar came in later. But then, I’m a guitarist. I kind of needed that routine, to have that instrument back with me again. It’s an ongoing challenge to get the two things together.

You do so much playing with other musicians; how have those collaborations fed into your solo recordings?

I’m not releasing that much. There’s always a gap. And within these gaps, I actually need some kind of interaction and communication, because otherwise I would just end up being alone in my studio. That can be depressing. So I enjoy working with people who I think are the best around, anyway. I’m lucky enough to have them. You can always learn from collaborators.

You’ve worked extensively with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Has that collaboration affected your own music at all? He has such a strong melodic sensibility, I can imagine that’s a big hole to fill once you’re back on your own.

What I learned from him, there’s definitely one thing, and that’s the tone. He’s really just got the tone. Everybody can press a piano key, but the way he does it — [Mimes carefully pressing a key]. Very special. Maybe I learned something like that. Also leaving space between the chords. Silence is something he’s working a lot with. But the first of all is the tone. Magic!

You did some really interesting things with tone last night. At one point you laid the guitar down and were scraping the strings, and it created this very vivid, almost percussive effect.

As I said, I broke a string, so I had to reorganize the whole set. I placed the guitar on the table and I put in this effect, just a ring modulator. I knew what was going to come out of that. It was on purpose, but I had to react in the moment.

And at some point you also seemed to be using a looping pedal; I noticed you plugging the guitar into it early in the set.

Got me! That makes the live playing interesting. For fuck’s sake, why should I just stand there and play songs I’ve recorded? No, I want to do something different.

You began experimenting with the guitar early on, when you were very young.

I don’t know, I just wanted to listen to something I have never heard before. That’s why I plugged in the microphone of my parents’ cassette player into the acoustic guitar, turned the volume up until it made feedback, and I enjoyed that. That’s how I started. I was 10. Just never stopped. It’s very simple: I found something for myself that I enjoyed doing and kept on doing it. The fact that I got popular, in some way, or the fact that I made records, was a result of that kind of searching for something that I had never heard.


Photo by Philip Sherburne for WS

Let’s talk about the new album, Bécs.

[Pronounces it as "betch."] It’s Hungarian. Behhhtch. [Laughing.]

Why Hungarian?

We [gestures to his wife, seated across the table] just got married a month ago. Her mother’s Hungarian, I have Hungarian roots, we’re living in Vienna, and “Bécs” is Hungarian for Vienna. I don’t know, there’s just such a strong connection in both families to that country, that’s why.

You seem to enjoy the sound of the word.

Yes. It’s a little — Vienna is great. But Vienna can be a bitch. And I find it really funny that the Hungarian word is “Bécs.” It’s not just a word for Vienna, it’s a little bit downgrading. There’s always this competition between these two cities in the empire, Vienna and Budapest.

This is your first solo album in six years. What took you so long?

For me, it was always important to have that third album with Mego, and, as you know, there was a time when they had financial problems and they had to shut down the label. Peter Rehberg did a great job restarting it, and that gave me the chance to fulfill this circle. In my mind it was always a trilogy, starting with Hotel Paral.lel, Endless Summer, and now the third one. The time was right, so I thought I’d just do it. He offered it.

You knew after doing Endless Summer that you wanted to return to that body of work?

I wanted to make a third record, yeah, but it just didn’t work at that time, because the label was gone.

You did make a number of albums for Touch, however.

Yes, of course, I was always working. For me, the Mego adventure always had to be a trilogy. And now I’m lucky enough to have fulfilled it.

‘I just listen to iTunes. I’m such an MP3 freak, which is a shame.’

Did you have a specific framework in mind, going into Bécs?

There’s always a specific framework in a way, even if it’s not conscious. It’s always different to work with Peter, for example, and to work with Mike [Harding, of Touch]. I love working with Mike and Jon [Wozencroft], from Touch, but it’s different. And Peter is, I don’t know. Without saying anything, he gives you some kind of framework that you don’t even realize in the first moment. But there is something.

What is that?

Maybe it’s more pop.

That’s interesting. At some points the chords are, in fact, surprisingly jangly.

It’s simple music, but I think it’s got some grounding, some guts. That’s what I wanted to do.

Are those organs on “Pallas Athene”?

It’s funny, because my studio is in this old Viennese house from the 19th century or something; there’s this door that I have to pass through, and it’s written “Pallas Athene,” so I see that every day. I thought, OK, makes a nice track title. It’s all organ sounds. The idea behind that was like Blade Runner, more or less.

And it sounds like there are drums on a few songs, too. Is that a new development?

For the first time, I really worked with two drummers on this album: Tony Buck, from the Necks, and Martin Brandlmayr, from Radian and Polwechsl. I never did that before. Of course, obviously, I’ve been treating drum sounds a lot. But still, it was a nice move for me. And there’s Werner Dafeldecker, the Austrian bass player, playing bass in one track.

Were they recorded as live jams?

Well, it was both. There were the results of improvisations, and again, I just gave them a track, a finished track to play on top of it, and then I mangled it in the computer.

Silence plays a key role in several places. There’s nearly a full minute of it at the end of “Liminality.”

I just thought it needed some kind of pause somewhere. There’s so much going on at the beginning and I thought it might be nice to have a little break, then go on again. This is something I learned from Another Green World, Brian Eno. He did that. That was the idea.

It creates an interesting effect, because when I’m listening to it in iTunes, which is how I listen to pretty much everything, I find myself sort of snapping to attention after the pause, and thinking, “Wait, what am I listening to?”

Same with me — I just listen to iTunes. I’m such an MP3 freak, which is a shame.

What are you listening to these days? A few years ago, you mentioned to Lawrence English that there was too much new music and you had completely “lost track.”

There’s still too much! [His wife shouts, "Empire of the Sun!"] I love them. Oh yeah. No, obviously, I listen to friends’ music, the old classics. I still listen to Talk Talk, still listen to Miles Davis. Empire, that was a good one. She knows me.


Photo by Philip Sherburne for WS

Do you spend a lot of time in the studio?

It’s my playground. This cave. Very dark and cozy. You can do what you want.

What are things like in Vienna?

We’re talking about this every day, because we’re never sure where we should live. I really have to say, after having been exploring so many other places, I do believe at the moment that Vienna’s a great place to live. Life quality is perfect, you get something for your money, it’s peaceful, it’s quiet. We’re enjoying it. I don’t know where life will take us in one or two years, no idea. We’re living there for three years, and it’s great. I’ve always been living in Vienna, but I have a second place in Paris. Just recently, last week, I played in Paris. As beautiful as it is, compared to Vienna at the moment, just for living, forget it.

‘My family never made me feel like I’m a great musician. They always berated me. “You’re a fucker anyway.”’

What’s happening in Vienna, musically speaking?

I really can’t tell you, because I never go out. We have our place, then I have my studio ten minutes’ walk away, and that’s it. I barely go anywhere. The only person I meet is Peter Rehberg. He’s a beer buddy, and we go to a pub where nobody knows us, and that’s it. I really don’t know what’s going on. I believe there are many people who don’t even know I’m living there, because I never show my face. We just bought this new mattress and put it on top of the old one. So cozy! I can never leave the bed.

I completely understand you. Last night was the first time I’ve gone out in ages. It helped that you played so early. It was quite a short performance, in fact.

Forty-four minutes. Playing too long is horrible! Last night I played 43, 44 minutes — which is actually more than I usually do. Forty is my normal set.

When you began recording, glitch was considered an avant-garde technique; as noise is popularized, is it harder to find new things to say?

I think so. There’s a few really interesting things that happened to me. I’ll just give you one example. When I did my first record on Mego in ’94, ’95, I played it to my mother. And she said, “This is just completely chaotic noise, and I can’t find anything within that.” She was honest. And a few years later, I released the same record on the Touch album, Field Recordings 1995:2002. It included the first track of that album. And my mother listened to it, and said, “Hey Christian, why can’t you make such beautiful music as that any more?” It stunned me. Obviously her hearing has been changing.

Basically, she always hates what I’m doing [laughs].

Has she heard the new album?

Yes, she did hear it. There was actually a point that made me really worry: She liked it. I’m not sure if that’s a good sign. She’s always…

Putting you down?

Yeah. No, she’s sweet. But she’s nitpicky. My family never made me feel like I’m a great musician. They always berated me. “You’re a fucker anyway.”

Were you rebellious as a teenager?

No, I was a shy man. Confused. Scared.

Before we finish, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you: Where did you get the title Hotel Paral.lel? Because that’s the name of a hotel right here in Barcelona, on Avinguda del Paral.lel.

The first time I played outside of Austria as a solo artist was actually in Barcelona. It was the second edition of the Sónar festival. And I was in a cab with Peter Rehberg. I had the album finished, and we had no title. And we arrived, and there’s Hotel Paral.lel.

And that was it?

That was it.