Radio-Activity: An Interview With Felix Kubin
, November 7th, 2013 07:10
With his great new album Zemsta Plutona just released, the unique German sci-fi synth-pop explorer and sound artist speaks to David Stubbs about musical deconstruction, radio art, and reconnecting Germany with the culture of Eastern Europe
The music of Felix Kubin spans, in its scope, the years 1916 to 2016. He straddles pop, sound art and composition, regarding all of them of equal value. Active in music since his pre-teens, his music alludes to, and draws on, the spirit of Dada, expressionism, Weimar cabaret, post-war musique concrète, the unique radio art form of Hörspiel, Kraftwerk and the great wave of early 80s German groups who preceded the bland misnomer of Neue Deutsche Welle.
As well as the early 80s German artists he first heard on one of the multiple radio sets in the rooms in which he grew up, Kubin's music is reminiscent of of a host of artists whose work has collapsed the walls between pop and the commercial, deconstruction and the avant garde - among them The Honeymoon Killers, Raymond Scott and Iannis Xenakis.
His latest album, Zemsta Plutona, finally released on his own Gagarin label, is as good as anything he has ever recorded since the "Tetchy Tapes" he first made when practically still a child on his newly acquired Korg MS-20 synth. It's been well road-tested. "Usually, I tend to play tracks first live before I put them on record, where it's possible to play them live," he explains. "So, people know them from live concerts. Most of the tracks for this were ready for 2009, and were ready to be released on a French label, but that fell through – then I got an offer from a label in Los Angeles who wanted to put out an album but that took so long, two years - until finally, I said, this is ridiculous, I've been playing these tracks live for so long - I need to put this out."
'Lightning Strikes', with its flatulent, rasping bass, angular, tintinnabular percussion and theatrically disjointed structure is reminiscent of groups like Der Plan. 'Atomium Vertigo' is like a mini-soundlab of French pop noir and discreet funk, while 'Nachts Im Park' is as spare and sinister as a scene from The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. 'The Rhythm Modulator' heralds the same new analogue, atomic age as Metamono, while titles like 'Der Kaiser Ist Gestorben' and 'Swinging 40s' are a reminder that, like Kraftwerk, Kubin is positing possible presents and futures by casting deep into the German cultural past. With its itchy, irregular avoidance of preset patterns, verse and chorus, coupled with a synth-pop immediacy, Zemsta Plutona seems to come at you in 3-D cones, triangles, rectangles, cones, shapes of all kinds.
Kubin is a busy man, who looks both East and West – as I talk to him, he has just walked through the door following a trip to Poland, where he worked with a big band ensemble with "a very Polish, very open understanding of jazz tradition", and having played two concerts in Vilnius, Lithuania, "which were great – but they filled me up with alcohol very much...". However, he's more than happy to chat to The Quietus.
It seems to me that much as English music in the post-punk era was determined and sometimes identifiable by the city from which the groups came, so it was in Germany. How did growing up in Hamburg influence you?
Felix Kubin: Lots of people think I might be from Berlin - I grew like a distant plant! Hamburg produced a lot of simple punk-pop famous within Germany but not outside. Asmus Tietchens - he was a very strong encounter for me in Hamburg. He opened my eyes to non-academic experimental music, post-industrial. Also Uli Rehberg [who first released albums by SPK, Throbbing Gristle in Germany], who introduced me to a place that was a meeting point in Hamburg. A meeting point for the weirdest of the weirdos. But I can't say it was influential beyond that. I was looking in other directions. Yes, there was Faust too, who a lot of people forget came from Hamburg, but they were also very isolated.
You were born in 1969 – it seems you must have been very young when you started listening to the new German music.
FK: Very much. I had an epiphany – like lightning. I was with my parents and brother in Bavaria. I was watching a TV show – Der Plan, Palais Schaumberg, D.A.F., all were featured. All these bands were at the core of this new movement, and I was so struck by seeing them. I was already into making music, I had this Korg MS-20 – I played a lot around with it. But I'd never heard music before in which electronic sounds were played in their own language, rather than as a replacement for instruments. All these bands, from Der Plan, who refer to the German Kinderlied tradition, to Palais Schaumburg, a musique concrète version of pop, and D.A.F, who stripped everything down to a bassline and drums – all of these deconstructions. This was the initiation for me. I felt like I'd been waiting for music like this my whole life.
But you know in art movements like Expressionism [which influenced Der Plan] and also Dadaism, the way they used language, not always in a rational or political way, but in playful and subconscious ways. It's sometimes the way little children talk – they combine words in a crazy way without thinking about them. There was a childish, ingenious appeal that this music had to children – you didn't need to be an intellectual, with a lot of listening experience, to get it. There was a roughness, a provocativeness, breaking out of certain forms – Der Plan would combine 1950s Schlager music with porn soundtracks. Of course, as a kid I didn't fully appreciate this.
A lot of the invention of these times was a bit dampened when it became codified as Neue Deutsche Welle.
FK: Yes, that was a term taken over by the industry who were unaware of the original power the term represented and just tried to make a Schlager [bad pop] out of it.
You're great to watch live, and there can be this manic, even comic element which makes the experience very engaging – the dancing, or producing a knife and stabbing frantically in the air...
FK: Yes, but I don't think when I'm composing, 'Will this be funny?' I don't think of music as a comedic medium. It's more in the presentation, maybe my persona, maybe that I can't take myself seriously, the way other Germans do. I don't take myself seriously, but the music I take very seriously. The playfulness is designed to confuse – like these Idiotenmusik tracks I made, completely experimental cut-up pieces – I throw these into my pop sets because I want to challenge people. It's not meant as a circus effect.
Could you tell me a bit about Hörspiel? I know it's an area in which you've worked - a sort of radio sound art - but it seems to be a strongly German tradition, perhaps more influential than TV.
FK: Yes, and the interest in this medium has grown recently. It offers the possibility of combining several forms of expression without having to use the very much exploited visual side. I just read an amazing book called Sound In Z by Andrei Smirnov, about early Russian inventors of mechanical sound makers. Dziga Vertov, who made The Man With A Movie Camera in 1929, he used sound very intensively because he wanted to be a sound artist. He found that the sound recording possibilities were better on film than with shellac or whatever.
So, in the medium of Hörspiel, I can play with language, writing, voice, phonetic and with a certain content, or the deconstruction of content. I can bring in music, sounds - as sound art or as illustration - or even documentary elements which I can fictionalise afterwards. I make these documentary recordings and can put them in a fictional frame. It's a hugely adventurous and very satisfying medium. The people who give you the budget for these things, from the German national stations, are very open to experimentalism. They really want this medium to be a parallel to literature, an artistic medium in its own right. It's really a strong culture.
Some of the people who have worked in this area include Herbert Eimert, Ferdinand Kriwet and Rolf Dieter-Brinkmann, who developed a style of improvised writing with the use of a tape recorder – there's a five CD box released by Bayrische Rundfunk – a mixture of spoken word, art, a rough mixture of musique concrete, and using the microphone as a weapon, in a wild and aggressive way. Stockhausen is rightly praised in German avant garde music, but it is unfair to say that he was the only one working in this area – there were many others.
I currently have a play entered in a Berlin Hörspiel. I've also had previous works, including 'Terroterratorium', which is an examination of the German-Polish relationship.
'Terroterratorium' extract, with Mik! Musik's Wojciech Kucharczyk
It seems that, unlike German film, it's tricky for Hörspiel to make an impact outside of Germany because of the language barrier . . .
FK: Ah, but you know, you have a fantastic Hörspiel artist in Great Britain, his name is Barry Bermange. He was connected to the people from the Radiophonic Workshop and worked with Delia Derbyshire. They made a piece together called 'Dreams'. He did a commissioned work for WDR. I asked WDR if I could put it out and everything was settled, but I wanted to contact Barry Bermange, he's in his 80s now – and he said he was looking to put all three parts on CD. I was looking to put it out on vinyl, but no answer! I am trying to be a messenger for the radio play abroad, so it would be great to put out a piece in the context of horspiel in Britain – but I can't get it out of the hands of this man, now...
Delia Derbyshire & Barry Bermange - 'Dreams'
Would you say that one of the key aspects of your work is a strong need to reconnect with older, German traditions which were broken by the war years?
FK: Yes, that's the German stigma – we have to fill the gap. Also, the gap of humour. You read some of the great texts of the 1920s, many of them Jewish, were so sharp, so great. Many fled, like Kurt Weill, and some of them later had to flee the Communists. Many of them fled to America. We can feel this lack [as] a phantom pain. Where's our humour? Where are our writers, our visionaries, our inventors? Only the technical industry survived – the ones who were able to go through the Nazi system without having to express a political position. All these firms like Siemens, Krupps...
You grew up in a divided country as well as a divided continent. Eastern Europe is close to your heart. Is this part of an effort to imagine what could have happened culturally in a more united continent, or what could happen in the future?
FK: Most of us were aware that what we learned at school was propaganda like in East Germany, if not as massive. Bands like DAF created ... not so much an anti-Americanism, but they didn't agree that we should subscribe totally to America and reject the East – so a lot of their artwork looks East, to the Comminust system. That got me interested in Poland, which has an amazing tradition of documentary films, [and] films from Hungary, things you wouldn't see on Western television – the melancholy, the way of filmmaking, this influenced me very much. I was curator for a festival in Hamburg and got in contact with artists around the Baltic sea, including Danzig. This opened my mind and heart to this culture.
Felix Kubin's Zemsta Plutona is out now via Gagarin Records. For more information, click here to visit Kubin's website.