No Fun In New York: Noise Merchant Carlos Giffoni Interviewed

Louis Pattison talks to experimental musician Carlos Giffoni about his new album _Severance_ ahead of his show in London tonight

Carlos Giffoni is to all intents and purposes the Godfather of the current New York experimental/noise scene, a character with professional ties to many of the main players that make up the thriving underground of the evergreen Big Apple. A good chunk of Giffoni’s rep comes from his curatorship of No Fun Fest, a particularly brave, noise-themed festival that’s grown out of its grody beginnings squeezing into venues like The Hook in Red Hook to fill the rarefied halls and balconies of Williamsburg Hall Of Music last year (having Sonic Youth as headliners possibly helped a bit).

Giffoni – originally from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, resident in New York since 2001 – is also an experimental musician of some note. His first work of note was as part of Monotract, an all-Hispanic noise-rock band formed in Miami that put out a great album called Trueno Oscuro on Load Records in 2007. These days, though, Giffoni is pretty deeply into the analogue synthesisers. Records like 2007’s Arrogance and 2008’s Adult Life – released on his own No Fun Productions imprint – have gradually tempered abrasive noise destruction with a more enveloping, cosmic sound schooled in the experimental hippies-in-space sound of Conrad Schnitzler, early Klaus Schulze and the like.

More recently, he’s called time on the inexorable growth of No Fun Fest, taking a year off for 2010 and embarking on some more international events. First up was No Fun Sweden – a festival organized in Stockholm in September 2009 with iDEAL Records’ Joachim Nordwall. And forthcoming, a No Fun European tour, which features No Fun’s new progressive synth wunderkind Oneohtrix Point Never and finds Giffoni debuting a new project, No Fun Acid that’s nothing less than a noise take on acid house, complete with beats, claps and old-school 303 wibble (see them at London’s The Grosvenor tonight).

We kick off the conversation by asking about Giffoni’s new album for Hospital Productions, Severance – a particularly dark offering built from degraded synthesizer, eerie manipulated field recordings and occasional, cranky beats.

Let’s talk Severance. What equipment did you use, and what approach were you going for? Also, why release on Hospital Productions (or, indeed, other labels) when you’ve got No Fun Productions in place?

CG: Severance was recorded in about a year and a half. I was done recording it around mid 2009, but then did some minor edits and did some field recordings to round it up. All the short tracks called Severance are excerpts from field recordings.

There is a variety of modular synths that I am using on it – mostly some Eurorack format, but also some Modcan and MOTM modular synths. I don’t use any board effects or digital editing tricks – only what’s available to me on the modular synths, and I use the standard EQ in my mixer. I wanted to keep expanding the use of pure synthetic textures that produce interesting results when you blend them together, but also play around a little more freely with some structures until the piece felt right. In some cases I added some bass-y synth lines, and an even more beat/analogue clock division-locked piece, which was ‘Knife’.

The concept of the record is somewhat self-explanatory. ‘Severance’ is about cutting ties with things, people, ideas – learning to let go, even if it has to be done in a somewhat violent way. Severance is also the pay you get when you get let go of a job. For example, there are gains in life that come from letting go, or even being let go. You get to a point in your life when you learn that everything is about calculated restrain – choosing where and when to act, letting go of unimportant things and focusing on what’s of value to you.

[Hospital Productions owner] Dominick [Fernow, also of Cold Cave/Prurient] asked me to do a record. We’re good friends and have worked on many projects together. At the time I was working on ‘Severance’ and it seemed like the perfect match for the aesthetic of his label, being a little darker in mood than what I’ve put out on No Fun under my own name. I really like Hospital and have done a few other more limited releases for him before. We worked on the artwork together, and I am very happy with the way it all came out.”

Can you say a little about your taste in compositional terms? Your musical interest at present seems to primarily concern work on vintage/analogue synth equipment – is that where your interest currently lies, and what’s the appeal?

CG: Yeah, pretty much. Today is actually a good day – I just received this oscillator that I had been hunting for a long time and thought would never get. It’s a small gain in a never-ending journey of getting the perfect instrument completed. The appeal? It feels better to play this analogue stuff and experiment. It leads to many avenues of sound I wouldn’t think of. It also sounds much better and interesting to my ears than digitally created music. Analogue means that all frequencies are possible – even the ones we can’t hear. Digital music is always limited by sample rate. I am voting for Infinity with my music.

Also, analogue stuff is never perfect – and imperfection is often found in real instruments no? It is often refer to as ‘character.’ So yeah, playing analogue synths, it feels to me like a very close and personal relationship can be formed with my instrument – a relationship not possible with computers. They are much better than analogue synths for editing spreadsheets though.

Around the time of last year’s No Fun Fest there was some critical griping about ‘the state of noise’, or what have you. Attending it, I thought the bill seemed to be extremely diverse, to the extent it was maybe lacking in a common thread (which I suppose could be seen as a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it!) How has your approach to the festival changed over time, and do you have plans for what it will continue to be in the future? Can you envisage it getting bigger – could you imagine it continuing to grow the same way as, say, Sonar has over the years?

CG: My approach has changed with my taste, so if you look at the line-up those are some of the bands I am really digging right now. I don’t care if they make noise, pop, whatever. So far as growth, I saw the festival moving towards a more commercial and business-like model, as something like, say, Sonar has. That’s when I decided not to do one this year in New York. It’s time to step back and change directions. I have no desire to make No Fun Fest a business orsource of income. So that growth is going to stay where it should, in people’s imagination. I will not bringing it to reality.”

As a side note to the above, it’s clear the internet has exposed noise beyond the anarchic outsider/underground networks of the ’80s/’90s, and in some ways that’s seen the experimental approach of some early artists codified into a genre with familiar styles, trappings, approaches, etc. How do you feel about noise at the moment – is it in good health? Does it even mean anything anymore?

CG: I see experimental music where it always has and should be, as source of musical rebirth and to remind us of the infinity of sound, which is a reflection of our universe and a universe within itself. I see the newer generation of artists that are and were involved in the latest wave of experimental music/noise moving forward in new directions by merging their approaches with more musical and structured forms, while at the same time keeping grounded in what they learned from this time.

I am never going to stop making bizarre electronic music, but at the same time I am seeing the value in putting down some beats and some melodic lines here and there – and spicing things up with some more musical side projects. Infinity is double ended and circular at the same time!

The Oneohtrix Point Never records seem to have made a big splash. In a sense it’s a retro style – steeped in new age/Berlin school electronics – but he definitely seems to bring something new to the genre and there’s a really strong character to his work that seems to hold even something huge and sprawling like ‘Rifts’ together. How did you meet him/come to release his stuff, and do you consider what he’s doing to be remarkable?

CG: It’s really interesting. Dan [Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never] wrote me this really long email explaining the concept behind his work and sent me some sound samples. I did not know him at that point, although he had seen me play before a few times and I am sure we meet briefly at some point. I never release anything from someone I don’t know but there was something very appealing in how he explained his music, so I gave it a good listen and was instantly interested and intrigued. Here was something that sounded both new and archaic, synthetic and organic, anti-musical and musical.

So we started emailing back and forth and we met up at a show or two. Then I offered to do ‘Betrayed In The Octagon’ [Oneohtrix Point Never’s debut album, originally released as a tape in 2007] as an LP and we went from there. He was working on ‘Russian Mind’ and let me hear the rough cuts. I actually gave him some critical comments on him that made him re-record a good chunk of it!

We are now really good friends, and will be touring together in March. I’ll also be doing more stuff on the label in the future. It has been a very successful situation for both of us, and I am happy to work with someone that really cares about what he is doing from both a conceptual and sound point of view and that has a good head on his shoulders to not let a measure of success get to his head too much.

More generally, is New York a galvanising place to compose and create – does it still feel like the hub of something?

CG: Absolutely. New York is central to the world. Almost everyone and everything comes here at least once a year on tour – and I mean everyone, from classic Opera to fucked up electronics, to punk to hip-hop to whatever. What makes this place so special is that you can see what’s happening at a global level and feed from it. You are not trying to impress some hack from a small town – you are competing with world-class players.

It’s also one of the harshest place to survive in, a lot of people that move here end up moving back to where they came from in a few years, they just can’t deal with what it takes to be a New Yorker. I been here for 10 years now and love it. The fest, the label, and half the music I have made in these 10 years would not have been possible elsewhere.

On your forthcoming European tour you’re playing as No Fun Acid – presumably this is an extension of the music you played at No Fun last year, which had a strong vintage acid-techno feel – at the time I remember thinking it sounded like Phuture, or something. So – tell me how this project came to be, and what’s the future for it…?

CG: This project was born from both my interest in synthetic sound and from growing up surrounded by electronic music at clubs, raves, on the radio, birthday parties, in the supermarket… there’s electronic music everywhere. The acid synthetic line is something that came naturally to me when I started to do more experiments with sequencers in modular’s – probably it was engraved in my brain somewhere – so from there I got a few drum machines, a 303 clone, and No Fun Acid was born. The project is very different from my other more experimental work so it deserves its own space. A twelve-inch is coming out in March with a B-side remix by Gavin Russom. Mike Simonetti of Italians do it Better is also working on a remix of a different track.

I just got an 808 clone and I expect to do some more experimentation within the Acid space in the near future. We’ll see were it goes – I am having a lot of fun with it right now and a lot people seem to be getting excited about it. Change is good. Electronic music is good. Partying and dancing is good. No Fun Acid is good.

And what’s coming up on No Fun in the near future? I think last year you hinted you might be releasing some music by [kosmische synth legend] Conrad Schnitzler… any further news on that?

CG: Yeah – I have the rights to release a CD box set of the entire ‘Colour’ collection [an ultra-limited private press collection from the ‘70s] and some unreleased material from the time, along with pictures and liner notes. It’s a big project and it will cost a lot of money. All the parts minus the artwork are ready to go. If anyone has fifteen thousand dollars laying around that they want to throw my way so I make this happen sooner than later, let me know.

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