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In Extremis

The Man Don't Give A Funk: Venetian Snares Interviewed
Angus Finlayson , May 16th, 2012 04:55

Aaron Funk, the sonic terrorist best known for his work as Venetian Snares, has just released a new album under his Last Step alias, entitled Sleep. In a rare and insightful interview, he speaks to Angus Finlayson about delving into the void, sleep states and never compromising

Venetian Snares: the name alone is enough to strike mild discomfort into the heart of your average self-styled dance music aesthete. It’s all so crass, isn’t it? The brain-boring breakbeats, the stubbornly irregular time-signatures, the comedic-skrewface antagonism seemingly pitched at a 4am audience driven wild on murky drugs and yet murkier ideas about the relationship between syncopations-per-second and aesthetic legitimacy. It’s braindance that your brain can’t dance to, the logical endpoint of a certain creative vector that sounded brilliant about halfway through the noughties but by now is surely washed out, dried up, cliched and dull. Right?

Now, it should be said that this writer is nothing less than a paid-up fan of the tongue-in-cheek blitzkrieg approach Aaron Funk has become infamous for. But even Snares detractors ought to be able to detect something more complex at work across his vast, decade-plus discography. Aphex Twin is a fruitful comparison - not for any stylistic overlap (though there obviously is some), but for the singularity of approach. These are artists prolific and willful enough to fashion their own self-sufficient meta-scenes: roving across an increasingly expansive landscape, painting in details here and there until the place is teeming with oddly configured life forms that borrow liberally from God’s creations but couldn’t breathe anything other than their own strange air.

Over the years, then, while there’s been plenty of steroidal junglism to go around - try The Chocolate Wheelchair Album on for size - we’ve also had slightly po-faced nods to the 20th century classical canon (My Downfall (Original Soundtrack); Rossz Csillag Alatt Született), re-imaginings of the halcyon days of rave (the better half of 2010’s My So-Called Life), and several takes on frenetic but soft-edged acid under the Last Step moniker. Lately, Funk’s palette has broadened and deepened yet further: last year’s Cubist Reggae EP - as you might imagine - seems to explode its delicate source material into more dimensions than the ear can perceive, hinting at a tantalisingly vast abstract space; 2010’s Speed Dealer Moms EP, a collaboration with producer Chris McDonald and (yes) RHCP guitarist John Frusciante, trades in a kind of analogue applique, spinning out expansive, surprisingly tuneful mosaics of material over its leisurely duration.

Still, for many Funk’s persona is defined by a kind of adolescent contrarianism - an urge to kick against, to direct an impish ‘fuck you’ towards no-one-in-particular, in a perpetual act of what feels like self-validation (this is the producer who named one of his tracks ‘Die Winnipeg Die Die Die Fuckers Die’ in honour of his home city, and yet admits that he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else). It’s this that shines through in past interviews - even the lucky few who manage to break through the theatrically childlike exterior come up against a disarming bluntness which deflects any attempts to poeticise the man and his music.

The producer’s supreme articulacy in this interview, then, comes as a surprise. He doesn’t have much truck with the proposition that he might be mellowing out musically - you get the feeling there’s plenty more gurn-fodder on the way - and yet Funk’s willingness to share his views on process, style, posers and presentation here suggests an artist far more comfortable in his own skin than ever before. As does Sleep, the latest Last Step album recently released on Planet Mu: just over 30 minutes of hardware jams apparently produced in the liminal zone between wakefulness and its opposite. These are still unmistakably Snares creations (as he points out, the time signatures give the game away), and yet their delicate, soured tonalities and fluid structures open out, through repeated listens, onto a strikingly different headspace. Now more than ever it’s clear that Venetian Snares is no one-trick pony. Write him off at your peril.

I read that when you first started making music you were inspired by going out to parties. What kind of parties were those? Do you still go out a lot?

Aaron Funk: Raves, warehouse parties here in the early 90s. Some were verging on being after-hours booze-can type places. They were pretty inspiring to me. I never go out these days. Over the years I've become more and more of a hermit. Didn't leave my house for over six months last year. That's when I realised maybe I should go outside occasionally at least.

You’ve put out so much music over the past decade or so. how do you stay inspired, keep your ideas fresh? Do you go and see music live? Are you constantly seeking out new sounds online or in record shops?

AF: I think you're assuming that inspiration must always come from something outside of the artist. No, I never go to gigs or record shops. I actually have no idea what's going on in music these days. I don't really care. Sometimes a friend will insist I listen to something. I will check it out, but usually I'm not too into it. I just find inspiration in myself, have never cared about genres or what is supposed to be fashionable at the moment. That all sounds dated to me before it even exists.

What inspires me is more personal, I guess. Emotion, energies, personal experience - these things are truly far more inspiring to draw from than trying to be a part of some aesthetic, I can't even relate to that. I think perhaps that is a younger person's game. Coming at music from the standpoint of it being a product that will feed some niche isn't something that resonates with me. Sure, when I was doing stuff 15 to 20 years ago I was inspired by jungle and acid, but those styles of music hadn't really defined themselves either, they sounded more like an adventure than an aesthetic. I still draw from that today – roots, I suppose it's called.

It's funny, when I first started putting out records people seemed to think I just released everything I ever did. The truth of it is, I had been doing music for so long I had loads of it kicking around! People kept asking me to do a record for their label and I would say yes - it was exciting at the time.

So how long were you making music before you started putting out records? Was it difficult for you to get that first break - were people not receptive to what you were doing?

AF: I have been producing music since 1992. Well, I've been doing music throughout my life but I got an Amiga 500 in ‘92 and that really changed things for me as far as what I could do with sequencing and sampling. My first official record, Greg Hates Car Culture, came out in 1999 - so I guess seven years or so. It seemed like after that record was released loads of people were asking me to be on their label. It was kind of hard, I think I was just in the wrong place at the right time. This was really pre internet culture so the only way music got around was by people trading tapes - at least where I come from.

In Winnipeg people thought what I was doing wasn't even music, they just heard it as random sounds I suppose. Which is funny these days, because time has really caught up to it. But back then it just sounded like alien nonsense. I guess in the mid to later 90s you were supposed to sound like Roni Size or something, but I'd gone in the completely opposite direction. I felt like I was taking jungle further, while the majority were getting more and more conservative with it. For a while back then I would get booked for raves in Winnipeg, but that didn't last long. I would just play my tracks and kids would start crying. A friend of mine told me after a set I'd done here at some rave there was a girl in tears saying "I can't believe I paid money for this!" I would go on after a happy hardcore DJ – and felt like a villain.

So there’s this perception that you work in a vacuum, not really influenced by the music going on in the wider world - what you’re saying seems to confirm that. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

AF: That's fair, and not too far off at all. I will go ages without even listening to music. Sometimes I wonder if I actually like music or not. In a sense, I don't really enjoy most of it. Much of the music I hear just sounds like someone's ridiculous choices, based on their idea of what music should be, what should sit with what, what note should follow another, it gets really transparent. The music I enjoy seems to transcend that, coming from a place other than presenting how music should go. I mean that's fine, most music is that - I just don't care about hearing it. To me, music fails when its presentation becomes the basis for its existence. Think about that later!

I've been listening to Hindemith and Tchaikovsky lately. That is about as old as it gets! I like hip hop a lot, I like the stories. I listen to loads of old music really, especially with electronic stuff. Something newer I'm looking forward to is the Polysick album Planet Mu is putting out, I’m feeling that. Sometimes I listen to nothing but Depeche Mode. I am really obsessed with some of their records. My tastes are weird. I like old cowboy song music. I like bebop. I like Italo Disco.

Are you still based in Winnipeg these days? Given your success, have you ever been tempted to move somewhere where there’s a big following for your music - or do you thrive off the isolation?

AF: I am in Winnipeg, yes. I did live in Budapest, Hungary for quite a while, but that didn't work out and I eventually came back home. I wouldn't like living somewhere where my music is more popular, I just want to be left alone. Not that I think people would be stopping me in the street. I’d just rather be unavailable - I would be getting asked to DJ all the time or go to parties. I don't want to deal with that. I do thrive off isolation, since I was a little kid, I am most content hanging out alone creating something. Maybe I'm not a people person.

Could you talk about the Last Step moniker - you’ve done stuff under it as far back as 2005, right? Where does your interest in this more acid-influenced music, using drum machines rather than breakbeats, come from?

AF: Was it 2005? Well, I've released music as Last Step since then. I think that first stuff that was released was made around 2003. That's the thing with this stuff, it always gets released way after I've made it. Mike [Paradinas, Planet Mu boss] asks me for years to put it out and I disagree or I stall. Sleep for example was recorded in 2008. I started releasing under Last Step at first because I didn't want people to know it was me, but that was pretty naive on my part, because everybody recognized it as me anyways. Again, I was probably putting too much importance on the presentation of something, thinking too much about sending it out into the world. It's easier when your name isn't on it.

I just figured Venetian Snares fans would be pissed off or something, which most of them are [about] every second Venetian Snares album anyway. Aliases, so cheesy. I do still have some that nobody has figured out, though. It's when I'm using odd time signatures I get spotted - nobody else really does that. I do kind of get off on the fact that every second record of mine alienates half the people that liked the one before it. It's absurd that it still goes on like that, nobody's figured it out.

Using drum machines rather than breakbeats comes from the same place as using breakbeats. It's all sound and expression. If I'm pissed off at you I probably won't smile and give you a hand job. It's like that - what is the appropriate means to an end. For me drum machines and analogue sequencers are more immediate and become a way more exciting way to create something some days.

It's like jamming with people for me - at least, it feels more like doing that than it being something that's completely composed. I like where they take me! I like dialing in a sequence on a sequencer where I have no idea what notes are playing, and then stepping to that with 303s or something else where it's more apparent what notes and intervals you are using. Seeing what harmonises with this unknown in a nice way. I really like that feeling. It's probably a lot like guitar bands that detune their guitars in some strange way and then jam on that. I imagine it's like that anyway, and they'd get a similar feeling.

The tracks on Sleep were made as you were falling asleep. I’ve always had this image of you making music basically every waking hour, obsessively. Is that accurate, would you say?

AF: I am happiest when I make music every waking hour for sure! Maybe happy is a stupid word - satisfied more. I'm pretty obsessed, I really crack up if I'm not doing music. It was a really magical feeling doing those tracks for Sleep. At the time I was doing more composed meticulous things all held together in the computer - tracked and edited music. I tend to do that for 16 hours or so and I'm getting tired. But I don't really want to let go. So I just sort of fell into creating these tunes instead of going to bed.

They have a real unique energy to them, something I've never played around with before. I feel so comfortable listening to them. They really bottle that feeling for me, feels so good. They feel like they were created outside of reality to me. Like they weren't meant to exist on this plane but somehow I pulled them in. Maybe because there was no real analytical thinking involved in making them. Just playing off what sounded pretty to me, rather than planning structures and movements as I might normally. Feeling equally surprised and refreshed in that flow between myself and the machines.

I passed out so many times, waking up to something playing with very little memory of how I'd made it or what the patch was. Like being outside of thought, or maybe being thought itself, or a conduit. Maybe some spiritual experience I can't put into words. Definitely being between things, where I like to be, uncharted. I don't try and rationalise these things, I just end up going in circles. It's nice not really being able to express something in words, it's beyond it. It feels like I am trying to explain that state. I have no idea, it's fucking awesome though. 

This album is maybe a bit more straitlaced or serious than some of your past releases. How important is humour to your music? Do you ever worry about it getting too serious - or, conversely, too silly?

AF: Humor is very important to me in music! Everything is, it's fucking ridiculous to limit yourself to only creating angry or sad music or only doing silly funny music. The whole spectrum is there. That way of thinking is really lame and puts presentation and what other people might think right at the top of the creative hierarchy. That is a true enemy to creativity.

I love to do music so silly it's nauseating! I laugh my ass off making it. It's all expression - it has to come from somewhere real, otherwise it's bullshit. If I’m sad all the time, my music reflects that. If I'm happy, same thing. I have known people that limit themselves to making only dark music. That to me is so narrow and unfulfilling. If something is bleak, it should be bleak for a real reason, not out of some aesthetic. Fucking posers.

Your music can often feel quite personal or confessional. This isn’t something people would necessarily associate with the styles of music you make. How do you go about putting that kind of expression into the music? Did you find it to be an awkward fit at first?

AF: I'm glad it often feels confessional and personal. It is. It's not awkward - it's who I am. Why wouldn't that be the most natural thing in the world to do? Why is nothing real? Fuck this world, man. Fake-ass idiots everywhere. What the fuck is this? Is that really what it's like for most people to create something? What an enormous fucking slab of nothing. Kill yourselves.

To me it would be impossible to work any other way. I have loads of tunes that never get finished because I don't feel like that again. I can't come at them faking it, it brings an impurity to them that shouldn't be there. I’d rather they not exist. Can't fake it. Something I love about Sleep is that they are these really pure moments, because they were each recorded in that state without leaving them and coming back the next day or following days, whatever. Just harnessed and done. Of course with some things you can't work like that - it takes far more time to lay everything out and get the instrumentation perfect. My So-Called Life was done in the much the same way: just do it, harness the moment - it was consciously a collection of tracks done in that way. I think the mood and vibe you put into something is more important than anything else. The essence of it is what really makes something what it is.

Speed Dealer Moms is obviously centred around a lot of analogue gear - I remember going to the Bang Face Weekender (2009 I think it was?) where you were going to do your first performance, but all the gear broke down at the last minute. I understand analogue gear features heavily in Sleep too. What is it that’s drawn you to hardware lately? How does it differ from working on a laptop?

AF: Yeah the thing at Bang Face was really unfortunate. They hired us out loads of gear and half of it didn't work. I found out later that lots of backline places rent that stuff out to be used as props on stage. So it all looks mint, but may not actually work.

It's all analogue gear on Sleep. Like I was saying before, the immediacy of it is really inspiring. It sounds so beautiful as well, it's really alive, feels alive. Nothing sounds exactly the same twice - a drum off an 808 sounds more organic than a drummer on a kit sometimes to me. So many little nuances each time it hits. You can come into this natural flow with it, like it's a part of your spirit somehow. Or your spirit engages it in this nice way and it engages back. I've always used hardware but Sleep is the first music I've released that is solely hardware, played live, unedited.

On the surface it seems limiting, but it's really so far from limiting and defined if you put yourself into it. I love how far away I can get from traditional tuning and harmony. That is so beautiful to me. I'm sure it sounds like a bunch of out-of-tune shit to some people, but to me it's magical. You can get into old poly synths and detune the voice cards so they play a sour note every six or eight notes or whatever. Tuning VCOs on a modular [synth], I'm not looking at a frequency counter, I just leave them where it tickles my ear in a nice way. The sequencers I use just have knobs for the pitch which can be set anywhere between two notes - it creates a new relationship between consecutive notes. I'm so into that!

Music gear has all been designed to conform to traditional tunings, quantised - I want to find ways to dissolve that. It's like the space between this universe and the next and the next and the next. Why not slip between these? It feels like pathways into that. Love analogue gear!

Cubist Reggae, Speed Dealer Moms - a lot of the music you’ve been releasing lately feels more contemplative or withheld than the rinsing breakcore you’re perhaps known for. And Sleep is generally much slower and more chilled out than past Last Step releases too. Why do you think you’ve been drawn in that direction lately? Is this Venetian Snares mellowing out?

AF: Maybe I'm less reluctant to show that side of myself - I have come to a point where I don't really care what people expect from me. That's how the Last Step name came about in the first place, I was conscious that it was pretty far from what I'd always released as Venetian Snares. Cubist Reggae and the Last Step stuff are all things I never thought I would release. Mike talks me into it somehow. Good for him too, otherwise I would just keep everything to myself, other than a few friends. I always play music for Mike, but I haven't in about a year, so I don't know how he's going to do that now, haha!

So I'm not really mellowing out as you say - I haven't actually done anything very mellow recently. It's funny how you say I've been drawn to it lately. It's always been there. It's even funnier, someone's perception of when something was created. For me, I will let things sit for ages before I release them. I wonder what people think happens? It seems like it's commonplace to think an artist goes into the studio and toils away at an album to get right out there and sell on to you, the music listener. Much music is probably done and presented like that, actually. If I worked like that I wouldn't be able to do anything.

The idea of people hearing something kind of freaks me out. It's nice to wait until it feels like history already to me before it's out there. Putting out music like that really messes with the idea of time and timelessness - I’m really into that. I just want to mess with everything, that's probably a good part of what drives me. I probably sound like such a dickhead.

It seems very rare for a producer to have a career longer than a decade these days. What do you think is the secret to your success? Do you consider your music in terms of a career - trying to retain and expand your fanbase, keep your exposure up - or do you not think about the business side of things at all?

AF: I’m not sure I think of myself as successful. I succeed in what I create and it ends there. I don't think about the business side of things at all. I can't. It feels repulsive, the idea of trying to impress people, expand my fanbase. I think anyone that listens to my music and stays with it really does so because they want to come along for the ride with me. They're not going to get what they expect each time, nor should they.

Finally, what are your plans beyond Sleep? Will you be making more of this kind of music?

AF: I never have plans. Sure I've made lots of music in that vein. Maybe I'll release a Sleep 2 someday, something from another period, maybe not. I don't really want to think about it.