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INTERVIEW: Damien Dubrovnik
Maria Perevedentseva , September 21st, 2017 14:27

Following the release of their new album as Damien Dubrovnik during the summer, Loke Rahbek and Christian Stadsgaard discuss taking Posh Isolation to global audiences and what's next for their label

They say there is no rest for the wicked, and it certainly holds true for Posh Isolation founders Loke Rahbek and Christian Stadsgaard.

Since the 200th release for the label at the end of June under their joint alias Damien Dubrovnik, the Danish duo’s profile has been raised through a string of interviews, an accomplished 201st Posh Isolation release by newcomers Khalil, and a veritable monopoly over the programme of the Berlin Atonal festival alongside their friends and associates from Varg’s Northern Electronics imprint.

Speaking to them over the summer, it becomes clear that this happy sequence of events is not the result of a strategic PR campaign but rather the harvest of long-standing creative partnerships and labour. For eight years, Rahbek and Stadsgaard have sought to provide a platform for experimental music-making in their native Copenhagen and cultivated an aesthetic that – shared with their Swedish neighbours – currently dominates the electronic leftfield. ‘The first rule of Posh Isolation is you do not talk about Posh Isolation’, they quip, and an element of Teutonic mysticism plays an undeniable part in the allure of their sound and their approach to it.

However, Rahbek and Stadsgaard are pragmatists at least as much as they are idealists, globalists as much as they devoted to their local scene, and insist on natural instinct and organicism for the running of their operation, all the while producing the industrial power electronics for which they are famed. Their strength lies in having managed to turn these spaces in between paradoxes into a wildly fertile creative playground, and we have every reason to believe that even better things are coming yet.

How does playing a festival like Atonal compare to your local scene in Copenhagen where you have your own really committed community? Does it enable you to take more risks, or do things differently?

Loke Rahbek: I think a very important part of the DNA of the Damien Dubrovnik project is intimacy, and managing to create intimacy in a room that can hold five thousand people and has a forty-metre high ceiling is quite a challenge. However, there is definitely a blessing that comes with playing festivals like Unsound and Atonal that merge so many different kinds of music and people. With smaller settings – as wonderful as they can be – there’s always the danger that you end up preaching to the choir.

Christian Stadsgaard: I think that’s the charm of festivals as well – that you go there, and not everything is necessarily tailor-made for you. It enables you discover things that you would not have seen or heard otherwise.

Your work has always placed a heavy focus on experimentation. Is this experimentation on a practical or a conceptual level? And how do you feed your drive for inventing new things?

LR: I think to a large extent it comes naturally. You wouldn’t expect anyone to make the same record again and again, would you?

When you put it like that, of course you wouldn’t. But that is the critique that has been levelled at mass culture for decades.

LR: I’ve always become bored quite quickly, so when I’m working and I’ve figured out that one version works then there’s no reason to do it all over again. Then you have to try to see what happens if you go in the opposite direction, for example.

CS: Our work is actually not as conceptually rooted as we might have presented it years ago. You never sit down and say to yourself: today I need to experiment. It’s a question of getting deeper into new production techniques, and when you start to be able to handle those, you say, 'Ok, this approach would fit well with Damien, let’s try this, let’s try that'. Playing around! That’s what it boils down to.

You have said in the past that emotional impact is very important and is perhaps even the central element of your work. Would you still say that’s true? It’s a notoriously difficult thing to talk about but I wonder if we could scratch the surface a little.

LR: Oh God. Well it seems to me that the larger percentage of all music that’s ever been made has been done with an emotional starting point. Perhaps with the exception of some system music or something like that. But essentially, I don’t think there’s much of a difference, in this respect, between what we do or what The Clash did, or what some techno DJ is doing.

So the emotion is sort of ambient? It’s always already there but is not directly being translated onto the record?

LR: We’ve talked about rooms before, and I think this is a key idea for thinking about experimental music. I want the releases and even the performances to be rooms much more than narratives, so that the music becomes an invitation to go into that room and do whatever you want in there. It’s architecture, and I would like for it to be a very emotional and loving piece of architecture. We do not want to be dictators, that would be absurd.

CS: I don’t want to say the music is like an open-ended text because, of course, some people will find sonic connotations in what we do. But to try to not determine exactly what the listener should get out of it is very appealing.

LR: I played in Italy recently, and a young couple came up to me and told me that on their first ever date they ended up going home and listening to Vegas Fountain. And I couldn’t personally imagine a worse record to listen to in bed on your first date, but it’s flattering, of course. I like that people manage to get that out of our music.

How does your anti-dictatorial stance work in relation to the vocals you use on the albums? How do you prevent their semantic content from becoming prescriptive?

LR: Christian’s phrase from before – the open-ended text – does have resonance here. Whenever you’re creating something you do have narratives and storylines in your head, and all the lyrics for Great Many Arrows and our earlier records are those narratives. But presented in a way that they are not dictating but rather hinting at scenarios.

Like cues?

CS: Yes, cues is a nice word.

There is definitely something about music that demands a kind of abdication of agency on the part of the listener, perhaps more forcefully than of a spectator looking at a painting. So there must be a kind of productive tension between giving the listener the 'room' to think and feel what they like whilst also demanding their total submission to your work?

LR: There is this wonderful power – when I was a kid I wanted to be a painter, and my first proper experience of noise music, or experimental music, made me realise what you just said: here’s a thing where we can’t just walk away – we would have to leave the building. There isn’t an opportunity for this classic scenario of a gallery opening where everyone is thinking of the wine instead of what’s on the walls. With music you can make sure that everyone’s paying attention or taking an active stance purely by being there, or by disengaging and leaving.

CS: To add to that – and this might still be the noise kid inside of me – what I like is the physicality of music. It’s not just sound, but you can actually feel the vibrations, and that’s amplified when it’s noise music or techno. It’s not just the ears, but the entire body that reacts to this expression. And that I find very appealing still.

Great Many Arrows was the 200th release for Posh Isolation. Is that marking a watershed for you? Are you going to carry on doing things in broadly the same way?

LR: In many ways, it’s a very similar operation to what we started in Christian’s apartment eight years ago, and in many ways it’s changed a lot. But it’s been a gradual change, and I hope that we’re always getting better at what we do. Everything has changed in eight years – not just our label but the world, the music industry, all the experimentation with production and distribution – and running a label, you have to take the time you’re in into consideration.

CS: We’ve never made any specific executive decisions about changing direction, or anything like that, but change is a part of our whole operation actually. We want it to evolve, which, by definition, means changing.

LR: It’s just very important to stay curious isn’t it. If you’re going to put things out into the world, you have to be curious, and look to sharpen whatever tools you’ve got. It’s kind of like going to the studio – you use a four-track tape recorder for years and it keeps breaking down, and then you realise, “Oh, I could use this other thing instead”, and then everything gets a little bit easier.

Do you intend to carry on with this prodigious growth? 200 releases in eight years is impressive – do you have the energy to keep putting things out at the same rate?

LR: It would be foolish to say we would release all the same stuff that we did back then. You get better and some things that seemed so necessary at one point may not again in the future, but the evolution of the label in itself becomes a narrative you can tap into. We love looking at these old things and being reminded that we made a tape and released fifteen copies seven years ago, and it really meant something at the time. I’ve used this metaphor before, but it’s like building a monument of sorts: all these releases function as bricks in the monument, and you never know what the finished product will look like, but it’s never been as exciting to be building as it is now.

CS: We also work with a group of people who are very productive, so some of these decisions are completely out of our hands. The label has a bit of a life of its own.

What do you think it is that makes Posh Isolation records, that stem from this really tight community, connect with people that are very much outside of your circle? Like when Japanese noise records were brought into the US and really clicked with people even though they came from a wildly different culture. How do you think that works?

CS: It’s really hard to pin-point exactly what works for people – I don’t know why our stuff works for people in Russia, and I can’t answer that question fully. But for me, being very fascinated with Japanese noise music when I was younger, there was a strong element of exoticism to it, and I guess that’s still a part of it now.

LR: When we say we want to release like-minded individuals, it was never the idea for the label to be a showcase of our friend circle or the Copenhagen community or anything like that. It’s been about presenting good art. If the art is good enough then there’s no big mystery about why it is appealing and why it can move someone on the opposite side of the globe.

Damien Dubrovnik's latest album, Great Many Arrows, is out now via Posh Isolation