Sunken Disco: Maria Minerva Talks Downloads, DJing & Dance Music

London's producer of slinky, submerged club tunes chats to Rory Gibb about her label Not Not Fun, collaborating with LA Vampires and dance music crossovers

Some of the criticism surrounding LA’s increasingly hyped Not Not Fun label is at least to a certain extent valid. The artists they work with frequently work sampled elements of high and low pop culture into murky, pop-flavoured stews, occasionally imposing upon the listener an overwhelming sense of kitsch, of repurposed junk. And they’re prolific to the point of being almost impossible to keep track of; despite label head Amanda Brown’s well-documented aversion to downloads and digi culture, buying a copy of every cassette and LP they put out would likely reduce most music fans’ consumption of not-Not Not Fun material to a sketchy minimum. But that’s perhaps part of the point: the quality of their output varies, but it’s frequently brilliant and never less than interesting. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in picking a random record from the morass: this year alone they’ve put out a steady stream of albums that have veered between Carpenter-friendly horror dramatics (Xander Harris’ Urban Gothic), loved-up and dubbed out pop (Peaking Lights’ 936; LA Vampires & Ital’s Streetwise), and, through sister ‘dance’ label 100% Silk, several 12"s of crumbling beats that’d likely confound most club audiences.

Maria Minerva falls comfortably in the latter camp, though part of the problem with her association with 100% Silk is that it automatically places her in line with someone like Ital (who actually is producing club music). The Estonia-born, London-based producer’s music is far closer to Brown’s music under her LA Vampires pseudonym: silken, dub-infused disco, lightened with just a hint of eighties glamour and a half-hearted nod towards the dancefloor. Though her Silk 12" Noble Savage actually contained a couple of tracks you could imagine working in the mix – the outrageously flirty ‘Disko Bliss’, the stammering drum machines of the title track – the majority of her output inhabits a kind of imaginary club space. Debut cassette Tallinn At Dawn and new album Cabaret Cixous remain of a piece with much of Not Not Fun’s dreamscape output, but are quite different from many NNF associates in that they allow rhythm to act as driver, rather than eschewing its presence altogether. The latter’s ‘Pirate’s Tale’ is a good example: its overall effect is one of balmy, dubbed-out drift, complete with drawn out bursts of synthetic brass. But rather than suspending any sense of forward motion, its tinny beat generates a vicious undertow, refusing to allow the listener space to relax entirely – or, as one friend astutely put it: "like listening to Dave Pearce’s Dance Anthems from the bottom of a pool, while your baby niece swims overhead".

It’s that anxiety that makes her music so involving, and establishes it as something distinct within a growing glut of people using similar production techniques to lesser effect (although she claims the smudged, murky nature of her music is largely down to a lack of skill as a producer, like her London contemporaries Hype Williams it succeeds in giving the impression of a deliberate choice). The Quietus caught up with her the afternoon after her debut London show, where a couple of tracks from Cabaret Cixous rubbed shoulders with new and unreleased material. Minerva’s stage persona matches her presence on record: hiding behind a curtain of dark hair on a low-lit stage, she melts into the background in much the same way. In person, chatting about a future collaboration with LA Vampires and why a lot of modern dance music is quite ‘safe’, she’s similar – though very chatty, she’s slightly elusive, and her sentences have a tendency to dissolve into bubbly laughter three quarters of the way through.

How was your show last night?

Maria Minerva: I didn’t [play] the majority of things that people maybe expected me to. And I don’t even need to justify it, but if it’s your stuff that you’re tired of, it’s hard to do it well. I think out of my own material, I like the weirder moments a bit more. I think I mentioned somewhere that I would like to be a pop producer so I could do banal shit for someone else – so then I wouldn’t have to perform it – and then weird shit for my own stuff. Something like that [laughs].

So how did you get into making music?

MM: Everyone asks that, and I think I give a slightly different version every time [laughs], I’m really bad for that. I got into music in London, it was a combination of things – I was interning at Wire part time, I wasn’t really doing much, and just thought I needed a hobby, so went online and bought random shit from the internet. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing, and I had a PC back then, so it took me about a month to connect everything. When it finally happened the songs came easily. That was the easy part.

It’s not the songwriting that’s been difficult, it’s just everything around it?

MM: I didn’t have any connection to any sort of music making. The technical side of it becomes more and more important, because you want to develop and you need to progress. It’s happening slowly, but I still feel like a complete amateur. I chose my niche very wisely I think, because if you can’t produce at all then you can still produce H-Pop, right? So that’s what I did [laughs].

I was going to ask you why you produce the sort of music you do, and why it sounds like it does – is the answer just ‘because I can’?

MM: I would love to be able to be a super producer, and be able to use everything, but what I’m making is still what I want to make. It’s tricky, but I don’t think [excellent production] is the most important thing – fortunately, otherwise I wouldn’t really be able to release shit.

How did you get involved with Not Not Fun then? Where did that connection come from?

MM: I had been a fan of NNF for a while, and then I came to London, and I sort of gave up the music making for a while because I was doing my degree and didn’t think it would go anywhere. But for some reason it was a divine moment of luck and chance, I just sent them an email on the last day of 2010 and they replied. They were reading their emails on New Year’s Eve, I don’t know why, but I’m happy they did it. They just replied and said ‘let’s put out everything you’ve ever done’. I thought they might drop out because they proposed so many things in the first email, they were so serious about it from the start. But when we started working on the designs I was like, ‘oh yeah, this is really happening’.

I love working with them, it’s been so nice. I exchange so many emails with Amanda [Brown, NNF co-head], I’ve never even met her, but she’s a friend now. The internet is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It’s so good for bringing people together. I’m born and raised on the internet, and for me it’s a very normal way of operating.

You’re going to be collaborating with Amanda [LA Vampires], right?

MM: Yeah, it’s very exciting. I was a huge fan of the things she did with Zola Jesus and Matrix Metals. I was obsessed with her records, and when she said ‘we should do something together’ I was thrilled, because I wouldn’t have proposed it myself. We started straight away, and we exchange stuff over the internet. I think it’s going to be in a similar vein to the things she did with Ital, maybe a bit more accessible because I’m doing most of the singing and I’m a pop tart. It’s like really weird house beats with me singing over them. I hope people will appreciate it.

I can imagine your sounds fitting well together.

MM: It was a match made in heaven because I’ve been wanting to do something like this forever. With every person she does something a bit different, but what we’re doing is very housey, lots of house samples and shit like that. I think it’s a divine coincidence that we wanted to do something like that. It just came so naturally, even though we’re doing it over the internet, which is pretty strange.

There seems to have been a lot of hype around NNF over the past year or so.

MM: Yeah. I wonder why, because at the end of the day I’ve realised that the majority of people want to listen to stuff that sounds – what’s the word – decent…? But [NNF] don’t really give a shit about that. They have very good taste, and they’ve managed to set the standard. When you believe in something and you do it with the right group of musicians, and you create this sort of empire, then other people don’t have a choice if they want to be ‘cutting edge’ as well. They’re just going to have to force themselves to get through the horrible sound. But I think it’s interesting, because they don’t have a Facebook page or anything.

The attention’s been slow building.

MM: Yeah. I used to be completely anal about being the only person who knows the ‘cool’ stuff, but don’t think it’s a good position to take. I was very much pro-Mediafire, but now when I realise that 75% of people who listen to my stuff aren’t paying for it, and I’m on the verge of not knowing how to pay next month’s rent, I’m not enjoying that part of it so much. At least if you have the weird symbolic type of hype, it means that people will at least come to your shows. I’ve been pirating music my whole life, but now it feels like the less is more approach is making a comeback. I think maybe it’s wise to listen to less music but actually buy records, try to bring special moments and objects back to real life. My attitudes are changing rapidly.

How did Cabaret Cixous come about?

MM: That was easy because it was all the stuff I had done from when I started in 2009 to when I got signed, so it was material from over a year and a half or so. It’s pretty eclectic, because the whole time I didn’t know I was going to get signed, so I was just experimenting and finding my thing. I think my proper sound – the next LP for Not Not Fun, maybe next year or something – is the point where I can actually show that I’ve arrived somewhere. But everything so far has been random snippets from a really chaotic period, where I didn’t realise I was going to get into music more seriously.

It’s been easy for me to create a weird character of myself, which I enjoy because I’ve always been into pop music, and I’ve always wanted to do something, to create a character or persona. I think I’ve managed to do that now, but I hope it’s possible to start distorting it a bit.

Do you feel like the persona you’ve created is you, or a very different person?

MM: I think it’s still pretty me. Someone yesterday told me I’m very eccentric, very animated, a ‘character’. I don’t know if it was a compliment, because I would like to be known as a real human being, but if you’re an eccentric I think you can still be real. So I think everything I’ve put out, my pictures, all this shit, it’s 95% me and 5% marketing. [laughs]

You’ve talked about making house with Amanda, and there’s a disco-y feel to your 100% Silk stuff – presumably you’ve listened to a lot of dance music in the past?

MM: I still listen to more dance music than indie. That’s a strange one, I never thought I would end up producing something I’d call ‘house’, but I think the crossover between genres is amazing. This is the point where interesting stuff is about to come from nowadays. Maybe there should be more collaborations between real producers and people like me. Sometimes when I listen to something very good, it’s a bit ‘of’ a certain genre. I like to listen to Benji B’s show on Wednesday night, and the music he plays is awesome, but it can be very safe. Dance music seems like it has arrived at a safe place, it sounds brilliant and clear, but maybe it should have a bit more quirk. Maybe that would come from people like me doing stuff together with proper producers – I don’t know, it’s just a thought, but it would be interesting.

What I find interesting about the stuff that you – and people like Laurel Halo – are doing is that it’s still ostensibly dance music, in terms of structure, but it doesn’t approach it with the same dogmatic rigidity.

MM: Completely. I just did my first mix ever. I didn’t try to claim that I can mix, but when it comes to selection of tracks it was very eclectic. In 45 minutes my mood changes about seven times, how am I supposed to do something that sounds like a proper dance mix? A lot of people seemed to like it, but I hate it when dance music purists say things like a) ‘She can’t mix’ – ok, that’s obvious; b) ‘It’s too eclectic’ – that was the intention. I think people should just be open to all kinds of sounds, rhythms, textures.

Can you imagine your tracks being DJed – or you can imagine making a track that could be DJed?

MM: I would love that, but the only places I’ve heard my stuff so far have been indie gigs. There’s so much exciting stuff going on, but some people still want the sound to be clearer, they want the intros, they want the outros, they just want people who are working in tradition. But now they have these people destroying all the rules, being annoying, being everywhere. [laughs]

My dad’s a satirist, he has a TV show. He has so many fans but also so many people who absolutely hate him. Seeing him coping with all this pressure – and he’s very good at it – it made me realise that if you put stuff out you can’t expect everyone to like it. But the fact that people are actually listening to my stuff, I just can’t believe it.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today