Crescendo Into Exodus: An Interview With Jar Moff

With the Athens-based sonic collagist's second album for PAN released next week, Matthew Kent catches up with Jar Moff to discuss Financial Glam, mimicking orchestral manoeuvres and becoming lost in music

Listening to Jar Moff’s sonic collages, there’s always a moment when his abject chaos and scrambled wavelength become fluid clarity. I remember picking up his PAN debut Commercial Mouth when it came out in January and being initially slightly terrified; the abrasive wallpaper of contrasting texture coming off as nightmare fruit, or as some kind of sonic weapon akin to Brötzmann’s machine gun. Engrossing, but the kind of thing you might opt to play when you have the house to yourself.

But as winter turned to spring I found myself picking it out again, later and later at night, increasingly negotiating it as though the free jazz squalls and rapid-fire, multi-dimensional atonality were auxiliary to new driving, buffeting, soothing currents buried deeper within the whole. It was as though I’d allowed myself to be carried along by the flux rather than attempt to fight it upstream. The discord and overall force of direction hadn’t altered, but my reaction had changed and broadened in a way that, in retrospect, felt analogous to many of the contemporary dialogues we’ve recently taken on; increasing acceptance of a huge and constant drip-feed of contrasting data via endless feeds and channels.

This month sees the release of its follow-up Financial Glam, and with it a clearer sense of perspective as to an active theme around the work. Being based in Athens, Jar Moff is positioned in the centre of the giant and complex economic crisis from which Greece hasn’t exactly come out looking great. Suddenly the LP titles activate and shift into increased definition, hinting at an ironic and dejected outlook. Musically the record feels more fragile, careering between ‘grandiose crescendo’ and unsettling emptiness in a dynamic knitting of orchestral/acoustic with electronic/digital. And as the track title ‘Kresentosiagona’ (‘crescendo of the jaw’) suggests, this is a climactic and post-climactic statement of what happens when the commercial mouth finally breaks apart.

With Financial Glam released this month, the Quietus caught up with Jar Moff via email to find out more, and to tease out a little about a craft that has seen him aligned in equal stature with various turntablists, sound collagists, acousmatic, electro-acoustic and plunderphonic artists, plus the manifold guises of noise, experimentalism and abstract hip-hop.

You work concurrently in visual and sonic art [this article’s accompanying collage artworks are by Jar Moff] and it feels like they bleed into each other a lot. The last interview I did was with Wanda Group, who I think is similar – a kind of cut/paste musical technique. Do you think of the two as mutually inclusive processes?

Jar Moff: Good to know you had a conversation with Louis [Johnstone, Wanda Group], he’s a good friend and one of the few producers working nowadays on minimal productions and field recordings who can retain a personal signature to these type of sounds. Well, I don’t really know if there’s anything mutual between the two of them. I would say that each one of them serves a different kind of need. So when I work on sounds it’s not like, how should I put this, like a healing process, like something that keeps me calm or relaxed. On the contrary, it takes a lot of time, energy and discipline even to finish a piece. While working on the visuals, collages, it’s actually something that keeps me calm, and so I work on that whenever I need to take a break from processing sounds. I used to do CDr packages more, but nowadays I work mostly on A4-size pieces or collect old books, especially books that deal with the subject of excavations, etc.

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How does your process for producing actually work? Is it a case of finding a particular sample and building from it?

JM: Not really, I don’t concentrate on a particular sample. The first thing I do is to collect an interesting and a rather large archive of music, [and] cut it up into small portions of sound. Then it’s a constantly editing process, I put a lot down and then I take a lot away, I repeat the same procedure for as long as it takes. Now I work exclusively on long pieces, 15 to 25 minutes, pieces that are constructed in the form of intro – middle part – ending part. Meaning that, if I compose an interesting track but this particular track doesn’t fit in with the rest of the long piece (thematically, sonically or whatever), I throw the track away, in the garbage, no second thought. I find it really important to feel comfortable to delete part of your work, to be more selective of what you need to keep and so on.

How much do you interact with hip-hop, and the LA ‘beat scene’ (for lack of a better description) still? Whilst Commercial Mouth still had the ghostly presence of it in spots, Financial Glam really feels a step removed from any kind of overt formula like that.

JM: It’s somehow a weird coincidence how I got to work with a label from LA while the whole beat thing was going strong at the time. Matthew from Leaving Records was kind enough to help me out by releasing some of my early works. But honestly, I could never interact with a scene that’s happening thousand of miles away from where I’m staying. For me, in order to interact with a scene you have to be there, to have a physical presence, to have a basic idea of the historical background and the cultural elements of the area where the scene is happening. If you don’t have that, then it’s an influence and not an interaction. So I think that Financial Glam might sound a little bit different because it has different reference points. Different type of influences.

How did you get to know Bill Kouligas and find your way to PAN?

JM: We’ve known each other for a long time, from around the time he was still staying in Athens. I remember him being seriously focused on music. I wasn’t. I used to work on different types of jobs, and producing sounds wasn’t my priority really. About six years ago I started working on sounds more, and a few years later we started talking about the possibility of working on a record or something. It took four more years, and then we finally worked together on releasing the Commercial Mouth album. Time goes by super fast, man.

Do you mix/DJ at all? Or is that really part of the audio collage thing? I’d be interested to hear what you’d spin.

JM: I don’t DJ really, but I’ve made this thing that has the form of a mix. It’s made by tracks that I have produced, mash ups, three tracks playing on top of each other, etc… It’s called patisiwn moutra [and was put out via Tinymixtapes].

That’s built a lot more loosely than your records I guess?

JM: It’s more loose definitely, but the inside story is that I made it in four days without sleeping at all. I don’t know why… It was about the time national elections were taking place around here, and I guess that I wanted to have my thoughts occupied on something.

You work as a method of getting away from that stuff?

JM: Well, maybe – but I understand that you are into mixing and stuff, so have you ever done a mash up or mixed two tracks together or anything like that, and while listening you were like ‘Damn, that’s wild’ or something? For me that’s the most tempting part of production; to make something completely new and have it sound wild. It’s a great feeling.

It’s probably the thing I love most about that kind of a medium. I think it’s the thing I’m always looking for most in a mixtape – that an artist takes these combinations of existing sounds and somehow makes it completely new and their own or whatever. That it conveys that this original thing is an influence, whilst simultaneously working to turn it to something new in their own style.

JM: Yeah. And that’s where the use of cut ups, the small portions of sound like five to ten seconds long, come into play. For me, in order to create something new you have to [use] a lot of different elements, and these type of elements should be free of cultural baggage, stripped down of their identity in order to make a revision. [Whereas] in a mix, the sheer fact that you can use longer sections of musical pieces means you may change it and make it sound different and new, but it always has that feeling of the original composer hunting you down. 

The idea with all these works that I do is to change the way small portions of sound (cut ups) have been used so far. And that may sound too ambitious or something, but that’s what I’m trying to do. Financial Glam, for example, was constructed using more than 220 cut ups interacting with each other, and all the pieces were performed live so the piece could have the feeling of an actual musical performance. Now that’s not an easy task, man, not at all, so if someone wants to concentrate on the origin of those 220 samples, [with] those particular samples as the case here, it’s ok with me, for real. But I definitely see this record as an original musical composition of high difficulty to achieve.

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Does your identity as a Greek person come into play with the work you produce, with the ongoing government-debt crisis and the elections you mentioned? How is Athens as a place to live and work at the minute? Both your record titles are so leading – is consumerism, or consumption, a major touching point for you?

JM: I don’t think the titles are limited to that. I mean, ‘Commercial Mouth’ has to do with the notion of consumerism, PR tactics or whatever, but ‘Tziatzomanasou’ is about, fuck the police basically, and ‘Financial Glam’ is an ironic remark on what I think is happening in this era. I guess that notions like consumerism, inflation, private sector, investment opportunities, financial groups etc don’t really affect you because of your national identity – they affect you depending on your social class. So this country is going through a very dark period that I can’t really describe in a few sentences, but let’s just say that it’s hard to live in a place where scare tactics by the state have become a daily routine, and that it’s tough to work in a place where 35% of the population don’t have a job or income.

Financial Glam has come pretty quickly after Commercial Mouth. How close together were the two records recorded? They both seem to follow quite a dark trajectory, ‘Kresentosiagona’ in particular seems to flit between delicate/muted and then intense/discordant moments. There’s a sentence in the press release that talks of ‘fragile movements and majesty ever close to the crash’ which seems about right – moments of beauty in a sense of looming dread.

JM: There’s definitely a tight connection between the two records. I started working on Financial Glam as soon as I finished recording Commercial Mouth. I wanted to make a follow up fast. That was my intention anyway, ’cause it didn’t happen like that, Financial Glam took me a year to complete. The main thing separating the two records is that before and while I was working on Financial Glam I did a lot of research and took a lot of influence from contemporary classical pieces by serious masters like Ligeti, Penderecki, Boulez and so on.

Now, I don’t really mean that I have some kind of academic knowledge on this subject, nor do I think that this record is some kind of classical contemporary piece or whatever. What I’m trying to say is that, while listening to this stuff, I was impressed by how these composers could orchestrate this type of dramatic climax, these types of variations in sound dynamics, this kind of intensity, all of the changes in pace and the constant changes of mood in their works; and I tried to transfer these types of techniques into a different musical context. That is, how should I put it, the technical aspect of the thing. When it came to the structure of the record, the basic idea was to create a stretched out revision of one of the most characteristic parts in a classical piece, the part where the whole orchestra progressively achieves a crescendo and then falls into a more quiet and stable musical part while retaining the intensity of the piece. So ‘Kresentosiagona’ is the crescendo part of the piece, and ‘Financial Glam’ is the exodus.

So are you working on something new now that Financial Glam is (nearly) out?

JM: No, really I’m taking a break from all that.

Jar Moff’s Financial Glam is released on Monday 16th December via PAN

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