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In Extremis

Layers Of Lived Reality: An Interview With Bee Mask
Sanjay Fernandes , November 28th, 2012 05:29

Chris Madak creates carefully detailed music that draws elements of drone, ambient and techno into its orbit. He speaks to Sanjay Fernandes about the purpose of recorded music, live performance and academia

Bee Mask's latest album, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears, ends a watershed year for the Philadelphia-based artist, one that's found him starting to gather serious attention beyond the cassette/CDR underground within which he made his name. However, he's been producing varied abstract and experimental music since 2006, from drone to ambient pieces, and even (relatively) percussive works. His unique sound has gradually developed across the better part of the last decade from within Cleveland's experimental fringe, which counts Sam Goldberg and Emeralds (among others) as part of its rich fabric, and which has recently found international ears via the latter's John Elliott's excellent Spectrum Spools imprint. The label has released a pair of full-length records by Madak prior to Pears - the stark and meditative Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico, and Elegy For Beach Friday, which compiled a range of work from across his recording career.

But to reduce Bee Mask to this mid-west geographical bubble is ill-conceived; much of his recent work owes more to his sense of dislocation. He credits the way much of Pears sounds to his touring schedule of the last two years, which has seen him play across the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. Having performed at New York's Bunker and Japan's Labyrinth festival, his more abstract work has attracted techno's more experimentally-inclined audiences. And though this 'techno' narrative has grown larger than its real influence, listen to Pears and you'll hear why. 'Pink Drinq' and 'Fried Niteshade' are as dense in sound as any of Bristol duo Emptyset's most sub-heavy efforts, but there's a great sense of playfulness present too, thanks to their shimmering sound design which sits comfortably around darker and ominous low end. The same lightness of touch extends to his recent Vaporware/Scanops 12", released through Lawrence English's Room40 label, which consists of a pair of compositions build around the recorded human voice (including a guest appearance from Autre Ne Veut) and take maximum advantage of the space to unfurl over entire sides of vinyl.

To find out more about this most intriguing of musicians, the Quietus exchanged a series of back-and-forth emails with Madak, who stated a 'strong preference' to write his answers. Rather than providing complete clarity, however, Madak's effort to guide the discourse that surounds his work reveals a complex thought process that only throws up more questions.

In the notes for Pears on the Spectrum Spools website, you wrote: "as artists ideate in their media of choice, they implicitly challenge the assumption that the written word is the privileged medium of ideation — or at least they do so to the extent that their work succeeds." Why do you like to write out your answers? Do you still privilege the written word over the sound you make? I imagine, ideally, you would prefer not to have given an interview at all?

Chris Madak: First of all, I'm delighted at the chance to begin an interview by speaking to the question of whether I'd rather not have done it in the first place. As quaint as it is to say that one would prefer that one's work speak for itself, I'm sure that I can be forgiven that preference. I started doing interviews a couple years ago because I realized that if I didn't take some responsibility for the discourse around my work I had no right to complain about it being misconstrued by other people. The idea of staying coy and letting crackpot theories pile up around you seems hilarious until it actually happens, and then not so much.

Anyway, I don't think that doing this over Skype rather than email would've gotten us any further out of the cultural problem of not engaging with sound on its own terms. Besides, I do a terrible job of thinking on my feet; like a lot of artists who work with time, I have an uneasy lived relationship with the notion of "real time" and I try to avoid it where possible. Perhaps I need to preserve access to the sort of headspace that I'm when making the work in order to speak usefully about it.

In the past you've talked about Philadelphia as 'self-imposed isolation'. Is this craving for isolation something that Cleveland has instilled in you? Perhaps it's not Cleveland, but is it something you can put your finger on?

CM: I hadn't considered it that way, but fair enough; the drive toward isolation is real and I do find it important. Part of that comes from Cleveland, part of it comes from many years of working at night, part of it comes from being a second-generation only child, and other parts come from other places I'm sure. While I'd quite like to do a stint in the country at some point, particularly somewhere immensely quiet, I more or less get what I need from having a well-crafted bubble existence in the middle of a city where I'm not really "part of the story", so to speak. At least it works for me so long as I can leave whenever I get itchy feet.

You emphasise that the touring you've done in the last couple of years has been central to the recording of Pears. It must have been an unsettling and lonely creative process, although I feel you wouldn't use terms like 'unsettling' or 'lonely' in the perjorative sense.

CM: For as much of a private person as I am and for as much as I think the current emphasis on everyone supporting themselves through endless touring is a massively raw deal, I actually do love to travel. It immediately removes eighty percent of the complexity of your life and forces you to think in very straight lines which make your at-home style seem absurdly languid and baroque by comparison.

All this is not to say that you can't get on a pretty dark psychological tear now and then while touring alone and wide awake jet-lagged on some antipodean couch trying to work out whether you're actually as far away from your house as it's possible to be on the surface of the earth. "Loneliness," however, doesn't really figure into it at all, since I've been lucky enough to make a lot of geographically far-flung friends over the past few years, so there's nearly always someone to catch up with.

In a recent interview you wrote: "It's more interesting in my opinion to perfect the technique of squinting really hard at things that everyone already thinks they know about and seeing possibilities in them that no one else can." I imagine it takes an incredible amount of self-surveillance to stop from straying into obscure influences - especially in an age when there's information/stuff/influences easily accessed, everywhere, all the time.

CM: I don't experience this as self-surveillance exactly, though I do see where you're coming from. To put it bluntly, while I do stack records at a pretty respectable clip these days, I'm not interested in making the sort of "record collection music" which is inevitably less than the sum of its parts. I think that we owe it both to the people who came before us and the ones who will come after to try as hard as possible to beat the curve and make things that exceed whatever it was that we metabolised in the process. The fact that not everyone will succeed and that no one will succeed all the time does not mean that success is not possible or desirable. As I see it, part of making art is finding some way to live gracefully with the inevitability of tilting at windmills.

Relatedly, when people gorge themselves on data trying to come at the world of records like rational actors, I can only yawn when they complain about burnout or ennui or whatever. Isn't half the appeal of records that they're nearly a form of gambling? It's ludicrously, riotously untenable to even attempt to look at them in terms of a linear relationship between what you pay and what you get. There's something inherently irrational and saturnalian about the form and its ability to throw a wrench into reality depends on a parallel structure of risk — the risk inherent in making records shadows the risk inherent in encountering them and vice versa — which evaporates as soon as either side tries to renege on that tacit contract.

What kind of listening regimes to you keep? I'm always interested in artists' listening habits? If the appeal of records is that "they're nearly a form of gambling", do you make sure the odds are stacked in your favour when you listen to new music??

CM: The regimes vary quite a bit. I really cloister myself and don't listen to very much else when I'm working on my own records, but when I'm not on that sort of tear I try to make a point of sitting down to listen to a record as an end in itself rather than a "soundtrack" to some other activity at least a couple times a day, and a shared appreciation for this sort of ritual has been a cornerstone of many close friendships of mine. Relatedly I abhor headphone listening and outside of very long flights I almost never listen to music while commuting somewhere. Knowing when not to listen, or maybe more accurately, knowing when music is an obstacle to listening is much more important than knowing what to listen to, and keeping your ears open and your perspective intact is a problem that's at once personal, cultural, psychoacoustic, and epistemological.

On the other hand, I also love the perverse way in which this seemingly noble Cagean imperative of openness to the world of sound as it is contains this seamy, voyeuristic mirror-world fantasy of always trying and failing to hear through other peoples' ears, so I've got boxes and boxes of simultaneously inscrutable and tendentious mixtapes scoured from thrift shops and yard sales cellared for special occasions and I used to love mixing bands in bars back when that was my primary racket, probably for all the reasons that most other people who do it seem to hate it; they make decisions — both amazing and terrible, often both at once — that you never would, and your job is to work out what makes them tick as quickly as possible and run for the hills with it. Trying to force them to sound like you imagine you would if you were them is always a recipe for disaster.

While I could rattle off favorite experiences of listening for the rest of the week, I'll stop on that last point, which starts to get us into why some listeners might have a visceral aversion to the idea of gambling. Trying to impose my will on things is something that I do in the studio, so I don't necessarily feel the need to do it as a listener. I have the sense that a lot of people regard records as primarily an escape, as some nonworldly means of mediating worldly issues, whether those issues are emotional, social, or political. If you have that sort of instrumental agenda where a record needs to "do something" for you, then you're probably going to be risk-averse and you're probably going to be resentful when a record fails to solve some problem that you had no business expecting it to solve in the first place. I don't identify with this at all. Records are not cabinets of curiosity, not little vitrines of solace, not "Dear John" letters, and not agitprop, but a layer of lived reality that's bound up with all the other layers in the messiest and most beautiful way possible. They are inextricably in and of the world, and I try to do justice to this reality in my own work, so people who are looking for maximum bang for their buck in terms of shoehorning themselves back into the womb should probably be listening to something else, which is fine by me.

I'd like to know more about the influence people like John Elliott, Lawrence English and Daniel Lopatin have had on Pears (as well as the others you've listed). It's a broad bunch of talented people, albeit from different musical territories but I thought they'd have torn you in all different directions?

CM: It wasn't really a matter of anyone pulling me in any direction, especially as I find that relationships of mutual appreciation among artists usually hinge on the differences between their work rather than the similarities. The people whom I acknowledged on Pears all played a decisive role in the record becoming what it is; John commissioned it back when it was only a rumor about some fragmentary demos and stuck with the project through eons of blown deadlines and my own insane caginess about not playing rough mixes for anyone. Lawrence provided crucial support by giving me the opportunity to work out new ideas on Vaporware / Scanops (which was completed over a two-month break from working on Pears), bringing me to Australia to road test them, and generally being a wellspring of principled shop talk. Daniel was perhaps the first person to hear any of the finished mixes, and as we've been babbling at each other in fits and starts about the philosophical guts of record-making for about ten years now, the fact that we could hang out and sit through the tracks without squirming was an indicator that they were where they needed to be.

As for the others, Jason Anderson, Matt Carlson, and Alex Moskos were all touring companions of mine at various points during the period in which I was working out the Pears material and were each important sources of wildly differing perspective. Kate McGuire lives with me and was remarkably sanguine about hearing rough mixes through the walls ad infinitum while she was trying to sleep.

On Vaporware / Scanops, how was it working with a vocalist? Was it the first time you've worked with one?

CM: Vaporware / Scanops wasn't the first time I've worked with outside vocalists, but it was the first time I've done so as Bee Mask. While the two tracks have a lot of consciously designed congruence with each other on the structural and algorithmic levels, the process of actually assembling the vocals was very different in each case.

Where 'Vaporware' is concerned, Arthur (Autre Ne Veut) and I have been toying with the idea of doing a record together for an unreasonable amount of time. For the last couple years the pattern has been that we'll go back and forth between New York and Philly when we have time, cut a few demos, sleep on them for too long, then scrap the whole thing and start over. One of the few concrete results has been a hard drive full of scratch vocals, and for a while I was in the habit of dropping bits of them in my set when I played in New York. About a year ago, I had an especially good gig where the vocals hit in a really serendipitous way and trying to put that moment under the microscope in the studio started me down the path to 'Vaporware.'

'Scanops' was quite a different process, as it was fabricated out of thin air in the studio over the course of about a month and has never been performed live in any form. I wanted to work with Katherine on the 12" because I love the specific contrast between her voice and Arthur's. While they both ended up getting chopped up and regurgitated from a sampler, I tried to treat their parts in very different ways, so Arthur is more like a stuttering freestyle diva and Katherine is more like a wind-up high art chanteuse. I suppose that I thought of the whole process in terms of making affectionately strange portraits of close friends, and I hope to do more of the same sort of thing in the future.

Having seen you play live twice I understand what you mean about Pears being the "shock of the familiar." Of the two times I've seen you, there's moments of distortion and rawness through the album which remind me of your show in Melbourne, and moments of sonic clarity that remind me of Labyrinth. Are you aware of the spaces and contexts you perform in and how they've influenced this album?

CM: Yes, I'm definitely aware of it, and the process of developing that material was one of learning to move forward incrementally while always keeping an eye on the periphery and remaining open to the lessons, whether sonic, cultural, or otherwise, of any specific performance. Incidentally I felt that both of those gigs "worked" in their own very different ways and while I do have a longstanding interest in playing with the signifiers of fidelity in my work, it's obvious (if a bit perverse) that one needs clarity in a soundsystem in order to do certain tactical things with the absence of clarity.

Labyrinth is of course deeply special in this regard, and one of my fondest memories of being there was standing in the rain listening to Atom™ with John and Drew (Outer Space), all three of us hearing that preposterously wonderful system for the first time, soaked to the bone, elbowing each other, and laughing with unchecked glee like complete idiots every time he lit up some new frequency range. Of course, if every gig was like that, Labyrinth wouldn't be Labyrinth. The general principle that I've taken away from all of this has been that as my work becomes more itself, it imposes on me a responsibility to do more to understand and seek out appropriate spaces and contexts for its presentation, and right now I'm giving a lot of thought to what that will entail as things go forward.

To me, Pears is the clearest example of the narrative that links your music and 'techno'. I feel this is exciting because it's opening new music paths within techno, which is at the tail end of a long plateau. Can you make sense of this narrative?

CM: Yes, very much so! I'm sure that I've mentioned this elsewhere, but while I've probably listened to at least as much techno as anything else over the last ten years (give or take a hiatus of a couple years which I'd imagine coincides with the plateau you mention), it's only relatively recently that I've felt that I had a way into the culture that made sense for me. It's fortuitous that this has coincided a moment in which it seems like people coming from within that culture are very interested in a pluralistic idea of techno as a crucible where all sorts of elements from other strands of electronic and experimental music converge and become transfigured. 

It's also a bit funny that this has happened right as a wave of other people from outside dance music have begun doing all sorts of pastiches of it, because I don't really feel like what I'm doing has much in common with all that. At the very least, that whole phenomenon made me realize that my attitude toward the culture had been overly reverent in a classic outsiders' fashion and that there was no reason for me to feel like it was off limits. At the same time, hearing a lot of takes on the idiom which I felt were missing the point has motivated me to look for stranger, more oblique, and - I hope - more substantive ways of engaging with it. The last year in particular has added up to something of a conversion experience the results of which have only just begun to become clear even to me. 'Vaporware' and Pears are probably the first indicators of something larger, which I'm looking forward to working out for myself.

You have a creative experience within the academy - do you feel that academic sound experimentation is bound up in much more conservative and/or linear traditions? But what of the naïve artist who makes noise for the sake of noise? Do you see yourself caught between this polarity, or do you reject it all together?

CM: With regards to the polarity between schooled and naive work, if people who seem to "know what they're doing" also seem to produce subpar work, it's not because they know too much, but because they may not know what they're doing in some larger, more existential sense. Conversely, I don't buy into the valourisation of naïve work; not that it can't be amazing, but when it is, it succeeds in spite of its naïvete rather than because of it.

None of that is to say that the distinction between the schooled and naïve maps neatly onto academic versus nonacademic work. Even within academia there isn't anything like a monolithic idea of electronic/experimental music. The history and interpretive frameworks one absorbs in a music program, for example, are very different from the ones that might come up in a fine arts program. While each perspective may be substantively correct, the fact that we're better off for having both of them is to me an argument in favor of the existence of disciplinary specialisation rather than an argument against it. The world of music — like the world at large — is at its best with true believers, apostates, and savants all rubbing elbows.

Anyway, I should clarify that I'm more of an apostate than a believer myself. The academic job market is increasingly a Hobbesean madhouse and more and more people (myself included) who started out with an interest in getting advanced degrees and teaching are realizing that they might as well skip the bit with the crushing debt load and head straight to the life of contingent labor. Of course I think it's a tremendous shame, but that's a different story.

When were you eating unripe pears? And why were you eating unripe pears?

CM: Spring of 2009. I had some really nice looking pears, was feeling impatient, and jumped the proverbial gun by a couple days. Actually, I don't have much of a sweet tooth and really sort of enjoy unripe fruit now and then; it can be so mannered, precise, and (if you'll forgive the anthropomorphisation) contrarian.