Music

Room and Cord

Christian Fennesz performing in Santiago de Chile, December 12, 2018. Photo: Ottavio Berbakow.

There are few sumptuous descriptors that have not already been deployed to describe the sui generis music of Austrian composer Christian Fennesz: Equinoctial. Thalassic. Amniotic. His previous albums Endless Summer (2001), Venice (2004), and Bécs (2014) were duly iconoclastic experiments, marrying honeyed, guitar-based melodies and snippets of field recordings with tesseral permutations of post-techno algorithms. Along the way, Fennesz has become a lodestar of left-field pop, counting among his collaborators Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian, Peter Rehberg, and Keith Rowe. The sprawling four tracks on his new album Agora (2019) were recorded with headphones in his apartment when the musician was forced out of his longtime studio. Below, Erik Morse talks with Fennesz about his domestic working methods, elastic perceptions of the guitar, and the fraught label of “pop composer.”

ERIK MORSE: How was the process of recording in your home different from how you had traditionally worked in the studio?

CHRISTIAN FENNESZ: Recording at home was only difficult for a few days. I had home-recording experiences in the ’90s and early aughts. Endless Summer was recorded in a bedroom and in a hotel room in Manhattan. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Of course, I couldn’t use guitar amps and microphones. So, it basically all went straight to computer/tape.

EM: Does composing with analog instruments plugged straight into a computer present a different set of rules or different expectations than playing through amplification and into the ether of a studio space?

CF: Actually, it’s quite traditional in a way. I have a guitar and a laptop, or two or three, or an iMac, and all of my other gear. I play my guitar through an amp sometimes. Sometimes I play it directly into the computer. And I work with all of the effects that I have on the computer, all the different software that I have. It’s a network of things. Guitar, laptops, effects pedals­—that’s it. It’s quite simple, simpler than people imagine, actually.

EM: Is there any difference for you between working in a studio and working in a spare bedroom?

CF: There is a difference, of course. I had this great studio room for many, many years. I could play there until five o’clock in the morning really loudly. I could mix like that, fantastically. The situation I have now is very different. I had to go back to headphones. That was very frustrating in the beginning. But, in the end, it was also a challenge.

EM: How long did it take to record Agora? Was it vastly different than the timelines for your other albums? 

CF: Not really. With every album, I’m thinking about the album for one or two years. The actual recording procedure doesn’t take more than three or four weeks. But it’s the thinking process that’s the important thing.

Fennesz, “Agora,” 2019.

EM: There is a long, dark history of albums recorded in hotels, from Robert Johnson to Nick Drake. So, it’s fascinating that Endless Summer, which is an album that continues to have a mythic stature, also has this very mythic origin.

CF: I was in New York. I can’t remember the name of the hotel, but it was one of those old classy hotels between Midtown and uptown, not too far away from Central Park: large rooms, two big beds, dark and cozy. Just the way I like it. I had the whole album ready, and it was meant to be a double album. After every pop track there was meant to be an abstract piece. Instead of ten or twelve tracks, or whatever it is, it was supposed to be twenty or twenty-two. I was talking to Peter Rehberg from Mego about the album. He told me it was fantastic, but to get rid of these abstract tracks. “Let’s just use the pop tracks.” And that’s what I finished there. At the time, everybody was doing this very abstract electronic music. You might remember all of this clicks-and-cuts stuff. I just wanted to go somewhere else. I wasn’t confident enough, and it was Peter who gave me the confidence. To take it all the way, to make tracks like “Endless Summer” and “Before I Leave.”

EM: Many years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Scott Walker, who just passed away last month, about his work. I think of Walker’s music and yours as coming from the same sort of place. . . 

CF: That’s so weird. Many people have been telling me this lately. Of course, I was aware of Scott Walker’s music. He has been a hero for me. But I wasn’t aware that people were thinking there was some sort of similarity. Walker was one of the greatest pop singers and pop composers of all time. But there came a time when he wanted more, to maybe dismantle the perfect pop song and head on to new terrain. Is a great pop composer a lesser musician than a great “classical” music composer? I don’t think so. I don’t think great pop music composers/singers like Walker, David Sylvian, or Mark Hollis wanted to abandon pop music. They wanted to explore new terrain. David, for example, still considers himself a musician working in the field of pop, even if he works with improvisational artists, new classical musicians, or noise musicians. He is still trying to make that perfect song in that moment of time—just as Scott Walker did in his amazing way. My version of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” was my part of that. The original song is still there, even if it sounds deconstructed. I still have a version with Brian Wilson singing on my remix. The vocals are from the Pet Sounds box set.

Fennesz, “Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” 1998.

EM: At the start of your career, your musical references were as much guitar-based bands—My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, and the Beach Boys—as they were techno or krautrock groups. Were there other musicians that you felt were pushing electronic music in that same direction, or did you think you were working in a void?

CF: At the time that I was doing that record in New York, I wasn’t aware of anybody doing that kind of music. I was a big fan of those bands. I was trying to do something new at the time, with all the skills and knowledge I had of guitar music from My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. But I wanted to bring this knowledge into a new form of music and technology. It was all done on laptop computers, during the very early days of that.

EM: Do you still consider the guitar the most important instrument in your repertoire?

CF: The guitar is still my main instrument. It’s an anchor. . . Even if I write music for synths, for example, I would start with the guitar. I am no longer the virtuosic guitarist I was when I was young. I play simple and try to focus on the sound. Listening to old jazz-guitar players like Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall helped a lot. I guess now I am a guitar composer, not a guitar player.

But then I listen to people like Oren Ambarchi or Stephen O’Malley­­—it’s fantastic what they’re doing with the guitar. It’s an ongoing fight that I have with the guitar. It’s so difficult to bring it into this kind of music. It’s a bit of challenge. It will never stop for me.

Agora is now available from Touch.

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