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2010 A Glass Half Full

Shiver Into Existence: Cold Waves And Minimal Electronics
Kev Kharas , June 29th, 2010 12:10

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Earlier this year, London's Angular Recording Corporation released a compilation album entitled Cold Waves And Minimal Electronics. Profiling an analogue (rather than digital) synthpop music conjured into being by an obscured, disconnected constellation of young people living largely in the suburbs and small towns of 1980s continental Europe, the story of the record, of the acts whose music features on it and the contrasts it draws when set against today's new music are all, I think, hugely interesting.

These are not tales I intend to tell myself, however - for that I have enlisted the help of Wierd Records owner Pieter Schoolwerth, who - in tandem with Angular's Joe Daniel - gave much sweat to the cause of its compilation. His answers here are similarly exhaustive, dedicated and erudite, and are voluminous enough without the weight of my musings, though it's worth asserting at this stage that Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics exists and so impresses largely because other things no longer do.

In destroying any hiding place where music may once have loitered, the internet has also rendered the isolation bands like Nine Circles and Jeunesse d'Ivoire existed in somewhat moot. It was an isolation that mattered, and it still matters - surrounded at the time by glossy, chart-bound synthpop poster children from the US and the UK, the ‘cold wave' groups seem always on the verge of some cataclysmic existential shiver. You peer at photographs of the bands, these strange, gaunt apparitions in their remote European wastes, ossified forever on monochrome 12” sleeves, and you realise the importance of having that moment caught - if it hadn't been, if the record had never existed, it seems inevitable that many of these people would have just shivered themselves out of existence.

There are interesting comparisons to be made with today's nebulous constellation of bedroom likeminds - the glo-fi groups, the lo-fi groups, the auteur producers revelling in post-dubstep moments. The artists whose music fits, for now and however awkwardly, in those loose bands might not be aware of each other's existences, but as technology gets less expensive it has a kind of corralling effect, drawing similar sounds from distant pockets. While this is true of the cold wave groups, one key facet is that their equipment - analogue, played live with human hand - was not so absolutely pre-programmed as to deny the entrance of human fallibility.

And it's that irony that appeals, really - Cold Waves And Minimal Electronics is the sound and story of synths, sure: of gear that always seemed to point urgently towards the future, but these groups, their arpeggios often awkward, lyrics sometimes clumsy, seemed to stand at the crux of something that hinted at the humanity before it without surrendering completely to a ubiquitous digital future. Maybe more so even than that, it's the sound of a lonely, lost arcane.

What was the unearthing/compiling process like? How long did it take from start to completion and what difficulties did you face along the way? What did you enjoy most about the dig through (presumably digital) crates?

Pieter Schoolwerth: The Wierd/Angular collaborative effort began in the fall of 2007 when the great Joe Daniel walked into the weekly Wierd Records party on the Lower East Side of NYC and introduced himself. Joe had been following our activities since finding a copy of the first Wierd Compilation at a record shop in Paris in 2006, and he quickly suggested we collaborate on a rather ambitious release together. As Wierd I am only interested in releasing new music, but I have long wished there was a nice collection of the early cold wave and minimal electronic groups that have inspired my friends and I in building this new community in Brooklyn the last few years. I think I'm speaking for everyone when I say we've never felt there to be a proper context historically for the new music we have been making, as the history we do all regard so highly has been entirely lost in time. I really wanted new music and young artists today to hear these songs, keep them alive in the clubs, and hopefully in doing so expose a few people to a spirit that once existed in underground alternative music that might inspire artists now in 2010.

To start the whole process I spent a few days in my record and tape stacks and sent Joe a four CD-R set of 80 tracks I thought would be at least some semblance of a place to start in this massive world of sounds. We then began corresponding daily and 2.5 years and 3000+ emails later, and with about 10-12 of my long time friends over on the continent tirelessly helping us find the original bands we were able to come up with a final tracklist of 19 songs we agreed on and were able to track down. The first volume of the collection focuses on the minimal electronic side of this history. Volume II if and hopefully when it comes together after another excellent detective story which we have already begun will be devoted to the guitar-driven classic cold wave bands.

When entering into the process, did you approach the music as a curio, or is the cold wave scene something that holds real 'significance' to you (whatever that term may imply in terms of historical/cultural influence)?

PS: Well I suppose I am dating myself here a bit, but alas... I have been DJing in clubs and on college radio, playing in bands, and a devoted fan of this music pretty much all of my adult life. I began going out in '84-85 as a young teenager, did my first radio show in the summer of '87 which became a weekly show by the fall of 1989 in Los Angeles, and never really stopped spinning records or doing parties apart from taking a few years off with my move to NYC for my first solo art exhibition in '94. I feel truly lucky to have been a part of the late 80s nightlife scene in LA, it made a permanent impression I will never forget. It was a wild, amazingly rich creative scene and era where people were very free in the night, indie record shops were everywhere, small bands and labels sold loads of records, could thus afford to tour, and underground music was fantastically alive and well!

I have always firmly believed having a great party is truly an art form, and not unlike painting which is how I make my living here in Brooklyn... its all about details - the perfect balance of lights, colors, composition, people, physical and bodily pleasure... this is what I have for many years now tried to preserve at Wierd in New York and the cold wave and minimal electronic groups have always been for me the ultimate evocative soundtrack to creating this world.

Nothing holds more cultural significance for me than this musical history, and to see people slowly becoming interested in this vast, unrecognized world of artists who really had little knowledge of each other at the time is great for new music.

When I first became involved with this music, artists and small tape labels communicated via a sort of international cassette culture underground. There were just a handful of guys over here in the US in the 80s who were aware of some of the European artists in this tradition, the main guys being Al Margolis who ran Sound of Pig Tapes in New York and Chris Phinney at Harsh Reality Music in Tennessee who both I remember sent out Xeroxed zine catalogs of all the tapes they distributed. Much of the minimal synth music in particular first made it over here at the time through the industrial noise/experimental electronics scene which these two pioneers were a part of.

Through them I learned of Alain Neffe at the Insane Music label in Belgium, perhaps the godfather of European cassette culture and from whom I learned of so many of the cold wave and minimal electronic bands through his Insane Music Compilation Series and a whole new world slowly opened up to me.

Where did most of the music come from? What seemed to be the big influences on the acts featured in both albums, musically and otherwise?

PS: Cold wave and minimal electronic music in its first wave was almost entirely a continental European phenomena in the early 80s, but because so many of the groups sang in their native languages of French, German, Italian, and Dutch few of these groups were on labels with little if any distribution and were largely all located outside of metropolitan areas in small towns and suburbs, and thus were never heard in the US or UK. So this massive world of thousands of artists has long been overlooked and tragically forgotten. Cold wave was a guitar-driven form of 'Wave Music' that was early on quite informed by the icy razor blade guitar sound and high-end heavy drumtracking of the legendary producer Martin Hannett who created Manchester's Factory Records sound. In 1978 the first great French group in this tradition, Marquis de Sade, released their debut album and two years later journalists trying to describe their sound came up with ‘La Vague Froide'. As this sound continued other influences began to seep in and the guitars became heavier.

The second generation of incredible French cold wave groups arrived later in the mid-to-late Eighties - Lucie Cries, Opera de Nuit or those on the Lively Art label in Paris such as Asylum Party or Little Nemo. With their entrance, you start to hear a new hybridized, wavy psychedelic guitar sound that absorbed and merged American and UK metal with the 'jangly wave' bands as I have always called them (think early REM, Smiths, Lucy Show) to create what was almost a sort of proto-shoegazer sound. Its hard to listen to Asylum Party's 'Mère' or 'Borderline', or Little Nemo's 'Sounds in the Attic' and not think of Kevin Shields, Lush, Ride, or Slowdive's guitar sounds soon to come a few years later.

The minimal electronic bands made music with a similar emotional resonance but used analogue synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines very much inspired by the early industrial groups such as Throbbing Gristle or SPK, as well as the German electronic bands of the 60s and 70s such as Can, Neu!, Klaus Schulze etc. Like so many of the cold wave groups in France, the 'minimal synth' groups (which was a revisionist term invented later in the 90s by German eBay sellers in order to entice English-speaking record collectors) were largely isolated in non-urban areas recording at home direct to cassettes. Of course the UK and US New Wave groups were everywhere in the media and on MTV at the time, with huge budgets for recording, videos, 'image-development' teams etc. In the early minimal electronic groups you hear this same era of synthesizer music stripped bare without any of this mediating commercial distraction guarding or protecting the artists as it were. When the hand comes down on the keyboard you hear the organic imperfections of electricity, and the lone human behind it. I have always loved the brilliant new wave bands like Soft Cell, early Human League, Vince Clarke-era Depeche etc., but without the monetary means and coming from different isolated places at the same time historically, the European groups produced a very different humanistic, homemade private sound.

As with any club-ready, synth-dazzled music, there seems at times a certain glitterball glamour afoot - do you think this was in any way an ironic re-presentation of more affluent, Western clubland climes, or was it more a reaching out to the world, a desire to join in with the party manifest in sound?

I can tell you from meeting and corresponding with so many of these artists over the years, if by 'glamour' you mean were they flyin' high and dancing the night away surrounded by celebs and glitterati at the Studio 54 outposts in north western Germany or southern Holland or Yugoslavia then uh, no... this was certainly not the case. But a certain celebratory, decadent glamour certainly does exist privately within the fragile sounds of the songs themselves. It's undeniable. Of course some of the artists were likely aware of the 'Blitz Kids' London look and the post-Kraftwerk robotic Germans prancing all over their TVs at home, but some really couldn't have cared less and were simply on their own using the newly available consumer synthesizers and cassette machines to write and record their own songs alone in obscurity.

There isn't an ounce of irony in any of this music, which is one of the countless things I have always found so refreshingly exciting and vulnerable about it, unlike so much commercial '80s music and so much so-called 'indie' music now. A large part of why I wanted to do this release was I think it's really important for new music to hear this sound and spirit. New, independently-produced music is at a crossroads in negotiating the abstracting forces of the internet and its accordant distancing effects which now appear in the music itself, between the music and fans, and between fans themselves where communities are no longer being built in real space and time to support new artists and local scenes off-line.

New music's reaction to these forces is very important for its survival. Irony and various heavy-handed studio FX have a way of emptying out the human element in much new music, and I think it's very important to keep the hand and spirit in the song. Irony was once a great outwardly-directed political weapon in the '70s for great artists and thinkers like Malcolm McClaren, Devo etc. who indeed had a 'target' in mind (i.e. Reagan/Thatcher/vapid consumerism etc.). But the internet very much reversed the flow of irony in the mid-'90s, and many artists just make fun of themselves now on stage and screen, which I find quite sad - it's basically the identical logic as that of both stand-up comedy and commercial advertising, and is causing music to lose its excitement. Many fantastic niche genres today like noise, power electronics, indie black metal and the new 'Black Wave' scene in France remain resistant though to all this, with the sensitive and 'desiring' human body alive and well, and continue to be a beacon of black hope in the cold.

What are the people who made this music doing with their lives now? One of the things that I find most interesting about the artists featured is the way they seemed to fade away into obscurity relatively quickly. It's almost like they were playing at being 'real' musicians - happy with their own fleeting moment, ossified forever on the cover of a 12".

A large part of the resistance for so many of these bands was that the American and English press have not always made it easy for European pop bands to be heard or taken seriously, especially when proudly singing in their local tongues, from which point of view perhaps this world of thousands of bands could be safely and conveniently seen as a lost group of hobbyist dilettantes, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact of the 19 bands included betwixt the LP/CD and digital versions of the comp, 10 or them are still active today nearly 30 years later and never stopped. Matthias Schuster from Bal Pare, Geert and Peter from Twilight Ritual/Linear Movement, Dirk and Peter from Absolute Body Control, Eric Trochu from End of Data, Dirk and Frank from the Neon Judgement, Franck Lopez of Opera Multi Steel and others continue to record, perform and tour, and release or self-release their music on small local labels. Of course as with any genre of music some of the bands did not last, made a few 7"s and tapes and called it quits whether out of frustration or simply life moving on, and went on to pursue other things, careers, families etc., but the core early bands in this history are very alive and well and engaged in new music today. The thing I hope fans will think about however in 2010 is the significance of this sound now, and that they may come to appreciate its richly melancholic, humanistic and pleasure-seeking spirit that this amazing group of artists represents.

What human-interest stories did you uncover in the trawl through the cold wave archives? Was the human side (motives, aspirations, inspiration etc) something you were keen to delve into, given the titular ‘coldness' of the music?

The word 'cold' is quite complex in describing this music, for apart from the sounds, as an adjective it more importantly has always suggested to me more the artist's fragile emotional states while producing it, and the accordant fact that it sounds so direct and unmediated in production, its very private and humanly 'warm' through its metallic, icy sounds. In other words 'Cold' to me has always suggested more something akin to sensitized and vulnerable - as in being strip searched and laid bare on the ice, not what one would on first glance at the word assume to sound guarded or detached.

The best part of this long (and what Joe and I began to call our daily) 'minimal synth detective story' was meeting all these amazing people and seeing how lives can go in so many different ways as the years go by... Some of the bands were thrilled and in tears to learn we wanted to release their songs, some were quite embittered and told us to go fuck ourselves which was great, that it was the worst time in their lives they'd rather forget, some were incredibly paranoid and delusional shut-ins who wanted great sums of money etc. etc... so many brilliantly eccentric, charismatic characters, some very happy and comfortable, some much less so. Joe can tell you the story of contacting Lidia from Nine Circles who a friend of mine in The Netherlands tracked down on Facebook, she actually had no idea her music had even been recorded (check out the recent phone interview the Guardian did with her).

And there were many other stories and obstacles to finding and then hearing what had become of some of the groups. There were the expectable artists we could not find who had died, disappeared, and most difficult of all recorded under countless pseudonyms. I was looking for 'Ursula Nun' as she called herself on the liner notes from the amazing Swiss all female minimal electronic band The Vyllies and ended up being led all over Europe to many people who I hoped would know her whereabouts. I tried a bunch of guys from the 80s Athens wave scene (their debut EP on Creep Records only came out in Greece), then I found this fantastic guy on mySpace in his mid-50s who had photographed many of the early Zurich punk shows in the late 70s and we finally found her. A few of the artists spoke no English so we had friends translate, one bizarre guy who claimed to have the rights to a certain track (which turned out not to be true) had no internet and would not answer his land line phone so I had a friend in western Germany literally walk to his house and knock on his door for over an hour with no answer, think he was hiding under the bed bless his cold heart!

For several other songs the master tapes were long-lost so we had to record direct from the original highly imperfect 30 year old vinyl sources which was quite a task in itself.

Is there any yearning on either of your parts to have been a contemporary caught up in this scene?

There never was a 'scene' in the social sense to get caught up in, that's the confusing issue here to understand. Nearly all of these bands were working all over the world simultaneously, often entirely unbeknownst to each other miles below the radar - it's a huge substratum of discarded artists everywhere that's gone missing. A few knew each other, maybe met via a ‘zine or played a show together locally but for the most part it was like a huge international network of totally disconnected particles or pockets of artists... and it raises the philosophically complex question of what it means to desire 'participating in' something that never existed, when you ask it here. I met a young girl at the Wierd party a few weeks ago and it turned out she was 20-years-old (i.e. born in 1991) and she casually said off the cuff: 'God I really miss the 80s ya know!'. 'Hmm... what do you mean by that darling?' It was a Very Rare moment indeed.

This brings up the question of what this music stands for now, and the broader issue of how will the future re-write the past when the internet is now reconditioning memory itself? As the young girl's comment hints at and this revisionism feeds - the darkest question of all remains: what does it mean 'to be nostalgic for' something you never experienced, and a scene that never existed? What is it you are really 'missing'?

In being such an admirer of many these bands for a long time, however, I will say I often feel it's very unfortunate that so many of them made such great songs that were never heard, nor were a part of a social community as we have built here in Brooklyn now. Perhaps this addresses the romanticisation of this music 'fading out' as you call it. Sean McBride from Martial Canterel said it well: 'It was almost like these bands were writing the soundtrack to their own extinction' (which has really proven to be true in many cases).

We have kept a new community of artists alive for many years here in Brooklyn very much inspired by these groups, and honestly no-one has ever paid much attention to us or the music... I think I can speak for my friends when I say we have simply long-identified with these groups being quite alone and ignored and struggling. So perhaps in a way this may have been strangely something that has come to motivate us here for the past few years to create this great new music scene (off-line), with their songs, all having been so 'scene-lessly-produced', being the nightlife soundtrack we all revel in each week, with new band after band being born like some kind of magical analogue mold. When I brought Absolute Body Control over to play with Martial Canterel, Wolf Eyes, and Carlos Giffoni a few years to a packed house in Brooklyn, it was really interesting to see all the noise and synth fans new and old coming together under one cold communal roof almost 25+ years after ABC had begun.

Do you think any of the acts were aware of the fact that their futurism would one day turn into retro-futurism?

That is something you should ask the artists themselves. It would be interesting to see how they look back on this common 80s idea of the synthesizer's function as a tool of future-making, with all the abstracting difficulties computers and the web have introduced into day to day life, human relationships, and surviving as a musician now. I would also like to ask them how they feel about their (apocalyptically foreboding) 'futurism' now being heard as I see it as a 'retro-humanism', in what is quickly becoming a 'post-human' era in which the physical body is disappearing before our very eyes...

Why do you think a lot of the music has lain dormant for a while? Why did it take this long for the comps to appear, and why should they appear now?

There has always been an outlet for finding this music, it has just not been so easy to discover the trapdoor in, and many of the original records and tapes were indeed limited editions, almost always out of necessity and not by choice, and as I mentioned earlier with the vocals often being in the bands' indigeneous languages greatly limited distribution politically at the time. The great Pedro Hoersturz in Germany who compiled the crucially important Flexipop compilation series in the early-mid 90s should rightly be thanked as the crucial figure who kept these songs alive between the 80s and the birth of the web, where they became available years ago and found all kinds of new young fans apart from the few older record collectors who owned the records and tapes before that. A few years later the all-important Genetic Records label in Germany released the 'Reminiscence' 3 x LP vinyl box set, which was the first time many of these bands were reborn on vinyl for DJs. As far as appearing now, as I said I really believe the unmediated, emotionally expressive and un-ironic or detached 'direct' punk-inspired sound is a welcome blast of frozen cold air for new music and will hopefully inspire a few new artists to turn off their computers, get some gear and go out and party to re-build a new underground alternative musical scene that is desperately needed in 2010... this bitchy old DJ's fingers are crossed! :)))

For more on cold wave's uncovering, head over to this Tumblr. Next month Wierd will release a pair of new albums from Frank (just Frank) and Automelodi. Also worth investigating is the Stones Throw release The Minimal Wave Tapes which you can find out more about here.