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Escape Velocity

Me, I Disconnect From YouTube: Mart Avi Interviewed
Lottie Brazier , May 1st, 2018 07:06

Ahead of his appearance at Liverpool Sound City on Sunday, Mart Avi talks to Lottie Brazier about music that dreams of the future, the internet as “the mother city”, John Peel’s escapades in Estonia and coming of age with an unusual larynx

Portraits by Evert Palmets

You’d want to describe Mart Avi as the opposite of beige, but he’s the type who’d probably end up finding some way of defending the colour against its regular associations with blandness. An Estonian songwriter and producer, his alternative pop wouldn’t have formed without the ever growing information base of the Internet; like a David Foster Wallace of pop, his encyclopaedic jamming together of musical references would have perhaps been a far more laborious task in the past. One thing about vaporwave was that it was often impossible put a name to a human face, but Mart Avi has some parallels with the genre’s artists - for instance a fascination with the Internet as a space - without embracing anonymity.

Avi doesn’t wholly embrace pop’s current sound but he certainly isn’t nervous of it, taking on board trap and rap as influences as well as past styles. His last album Rogue Wave is an end product of this, in that it doesn’t sound constrained by “good taste” music production built to soothe modern ears. And although while sounding not particularly like him, there’s a parallel to be found in other musicians who embrace the internet for obsessive music searching such as Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, who doesn’t view past genres like doo-wop as redundant, instead using a little inspiration from them to add colour to his own music.

Can you tell me a little about the album you’re working on at the moment: what stage you’re at with it and who you’re working with here.

Mart Avi: I’m working on OtherWorld, which will see the light of day this very year. This time it’s as if I’m building a ziggurat for dreams and phantasms to serve. It won’t be an escapist route to distant realms, but a top-of-the-line implementation of the status quo, a much wider range of sound than before, after which the facts of the case are not as they used to be. It should shift me – perhaps even into an impasse of sorts, from where I could move on elsewhere, inventing and applying new methods. It’s rather difficult for me to wrap it into musical terms.

I haven't collaborated with anyone on my solo albums. I do everything myself, from music and lyrics to design and other facets. Although, this time there’ll be at least one exception. One of the tracks is co-produced by a sharp youngster from Cleveland, Ohio, who goes by the name of SHAMPOOGOD. I hope we use the same shampoo.

What’s your process of putting a song together?

MA: “Aethers were invented for the planets to swim in, to constitute electric atmospheres and magnetic effluvia, to convey sensations from one part of our bodies to another, and so on, until all space had been filled three or four times over with aethers.“ James Clerk Maxwell - Encyclopædia Britannica 1878.”

This seems like a fine description to me. There’s a space and I fill it. Another good word for “aether” would be “quintessence”. To be more concrete, I start a song and I finish it.

You use a lot of vocal manipulation in your production. What drew you toward this effect?

MA: I sing the body electric. The act of singing itself is a manipulation of vocal chords. There’s nothing natural about it, even when you do it next to a campfire. The recording process adds another layer of artifice with dozens of variables. What if a low frequency mic is used? Or what if you’re singing inside a submarine hull coated with thin nano-polymers? On the recording, I want my voice to match with the vision I have in my head. If I was a billionaire then I’d perhaps engineer special recording tanks for each song or travel to some hidden caves in Belize to just record one phrase if that type of echo or sensibility is needed. I’d have a whole science division working on such projects, ”Mart, we’d recommend using a diamond capsule with a hafnium shell for this one!” Or there’d be an A.I. replica of my voice running in a quantum computer, which I could twist into extremes. My point is that the voice needs to match the vision I have for the song. I use whatever methods, devices, and virtual plugins needed to achieve that. I’ve read that the notorious Roman emperor Nero attempted to improve his singing technique by lying under sheets of lead, which is an awful idea. Its fumes go right into the bloodstream resulting in minor brain-damage so no wonder he had behavioural issues.

How did you find out that you had a distinctive singing voice? It reminds me a little of Billy Mackenzie’s voice but not derivatively so, it just has a similar expressiveness.

MA: Now this is the part where I can be accused of having raw talent. It’s not like it was noticed at an early age though. I kept it hidden cause I used to despise singing in the front of other people. Attention can cause a lot of stress. I was one of those kids who preferred to be left alone, unnoticed. As a six year old I had to privately sing to the school’s music teacher, who then told me that I sounded like I have a medical problem with my larynx. I was totally fine with that, as my voice was actually one of those things I was confident about. Soon I was taping my own radio shows when home alone. Those were mostly about history, world geography and village life, but I had to sing all the songs in between because these shows needed some added spectacle in music. The repertoire consisted of deformed renditions of traditional choir songs and self-penned - often obscene - goofery. Those tapes had no audience besides myself and I over-recorded most them later on. The voice break in the puberty messed up the range and took some of that inner confidence away. Sometimes I do find myself channeling the voices I used to have with a grain of success.

Who do you work with on the production of your albums, and does this have an influence on the way that you write your material?

MA: I’m on my own. My personal limitations do have an influence and this may be the reason I tend to use a lot of samples, which also happens to be the norm in the scheme of things. But there’s another viewpoint to this. I’m the child of information age, a collector of data. In general, I tend to be too clumsy. A certain level of hand–eye coordination is needed to play standard instruments well. My strengths lie elsewhere. If someone would invent a direct Thoughts-to-Music interface, I’d be able to craft a song that would cause a tsunami from Yokohama to Nevada.

Because of the combination of contemporary experimental production and eighties songwriting, it seems like you’re blurring peoples’ sense of time or chronology with your music. Is this intentional?

MA: I’m just curious and eager to sort out all the available information in the history of recording to find sounds that I can get into while dreaming of future noise. It’s not intentional, but an addiction. Your ears will keep wanting more and more, you become a slave. I’m also blurring my own sense of time as a music fan. For example, during the making of my last album Rogue Wave, I happened to listen to a lot of 1950s doo-wop and bebop combined with the latest trap, rap, slowjam haze; it all started to feel eerily similar in a pleasurable way. For me, those styles started to resemble each other. We’ll probably stop thinking about time-tags as references in the future. There’s so much immersion on every cultural level. It’s all one intermix. Sure, retro-culture does exist though − a state of stiff time-lock that is. Compositions that dream of future tend to maintain a sense of infinitude and timelessness. There are the Joe Meeks and there are The Osmonds of this world. I’m the best of both worlds.

What’s the lyrical or conceptual inspiration behind songs like ‘Lost In Realism’ and ‘In Commercials’ off Rogue Wave?

MA: ‘Lost in Realism’ could be an elusive dream about having a special skill and losing it as the life takes over. The protagonist is looking back at a time when he was a promising basketball prospect on a local level, but it didn’t work out. Now he seems to be living a dead run. It’s a simple blues song. Somewhere up the road he’s looking for sanity and I’m trying to console him. File under: myth, memory, lost worlds, life un-lived, farmer in the city.

‘In Commercials’ could’ve been sparked by the fact that my own birth name is Mart Avi. It’s something that I need to share with thousands of stores and companies all over the world. Probably thanks to aviation. Also, Audio Video Interleaved file extension - known by its initials or abbreviation “AVI” - was introduced exactly a year after I was born. Please, let me be me.

It’s difficult to talk about theatricality and sincerity in artists onstage as often these things can be blurred but you do seem to have a character or persona for your live performances - what’s the inspiration for this?

MA: I suppose one could call it an external identity. Many personal qualities that are sensible in everyday life can and should be dropped on stage. A stage is a controlled game-environment, a zone solely created for an act of reality distortion. There’s nothing to fear and there’s no need to be modest, genial or well disposed unless the act itself supports it for some reason. If a theatre actor plays a role of a saint, the audience usually does not think of her/him as an enlightened one. For some reason, people tend to mix up realities more in case of pop stars. If things get blurred, we can start talking about dangerous insanity, which is what cults are based on. I just put on a show, which can be observed like one watches a thriller from the silver screen. It can leave you mesmerised or it can leave you reluctant, but it doesn’t plead for applause.

My greatest inspiration is electricity. Electricity is a natural phenomenon that can seem unreal, phantasmagorical even, unless you’re familiar with the science behind it. Now, what roles am I playing and where do they come from? [silence (slight buzzing)]

What does music culture look like in Tallinn at the moment, and do you consider yourself to be a part of it?

MA: The overall pool is somewhat shallow, but there’s also intriguing high-end talent. If we’re talking about the underground nightlife then I’m no activist nor a butterfly, but more like a scout. I arrive late and leave early, unless in a chatty mood.

To put things into perspective though - I don’t think that the music culture around here has ever been as diverse as it is now. It even feels like there’s a mini rebirth of contrasting youth subcultures. I’m not talking about kids in black dreaming of Berlin, but something more imaginative. And there’s also a rather fine network of different venues, which can support that. Often it’s interesting enough to just watch the newest codes - verbal or visual. Sonically, there are equivalents of most contemporary styles. It’s not about being in sync with the metropoles anymore, but creating our own “global-local” models. The mother city is the Internet, not New York, London, Moscow or Seoul, so we’ll be fine as long as the rents are low.

Estonia was closed off to pop music until the 1990s because of Soviet occupation, do you think that this has had any impact on the way that Estonian musicians perceive it or use it as an influence?

MA: Not having access to every individual UK TOP 40 single in an instant doesn't mean that we were closed off. It was just that it didn’t come to you, but you had to go to it. Pop was heard, created and transmitted, although there was rather heavy censorship. And a lot of effort, trickery, wit and ingenuity was needed to reach to the freshest and cutting edge Anglo-American music. There were antenna hacks for Finnish TV, people patiently catching and recording transmissions from BBC Radio, Voice of America, Radio Luxembourg and so on. John Peel had a lot of fans here and actually came for a visit at the very start of the 1990s. He was to the local underground, what Pope John Paul II - who also happened to drop by around the same time - was to the Catholics. We weren’t cut off from the information, but from proper equipment and studio gear: now that had a definite impact.

Let’s imagine an unreality where Malcolm McLaren has to knock up all the amps and pedals for Sex Pistols in his garage - using scrapyard electronics - and then hope that mum’s colleague's brother’s lover comes back from the international wrestling tournament bringing with him five pairs of Levi’s. Oh, then there’s the committee! The committee decides which bands are allowed to perform and which aren’t. They give a sample performance to be greeted with laughter. One comrade is eager to take them to the nearest looney bin in his black Volga. Soon the band trades their scrappy instruments and crooked Musimas - East Germany’s answer to the Gibson Les Paul - to one popular schlager group for some foreign currency and vodka. The vodka is smuggled to cinemas, where modern French, Italian and Indian films are shown. Later they manage to track down a pirate press of a hip record that a man in the radio is preaching about but hasn’t had a chance to hear yet. The tracklist is mixed up, the cover is a blurry photo of a photocopy of the imitation of the xeroxed real cover. And it bears the title Zovet London, The Clašh. The band listens to that record along with some fine Soviet jazz for years, before disbanding or fade into obscurity as their own records have been waiting for the release date by Soviet giga-label Melodija for over ten years.

Aside from a new album, what else are you working on at the moment, musically or otherwise?

MA: I publish my own DIY offline fanzine called AviZonas, which I distribute during the shows. It's a bit like the long gone Melody Maker or Sniffin' Glue merged with The Twilight Zone: pulp sci-fi, cyberpunk, antique obscura, sports, puzzles and other bollocks. I’m also part of a Special Educational Needs Team at one international school here in Tallinn. I work on Primary level so I know all the popular YouTube memes and such. It’s a good life.

Mart Avi plays Liverpool Sound City on Sunday May 6