Tokafi interviews Christian Fennesz

Tokafi’s Tobias Fischer has interviewed Christian Fennesz about his new album, “Black Sea”.

Interview by Tobias Fischer

There are several experimental artists who draw inspiration from the world of Pop and Rock, but few have done so as romantically and unironically as Christian Fennesz. Covering the Beach Boys on his “Plays” EP and former Norwegian chart sensation A-ha on the artfully packaged “Recovery” box set, he has never made no secret of his desire to fuse the sensual with the serene and the demonstrative with the discreet, discovering depth in what others conceive to be bubblegum and, vice versa, bringing out the playfulness in art forms deemed “high culture” by some. Others have followed in his footsteps and an entire genre has grown from the early dronescapes Christian Fennesz and some of his co-pioneering colleagues dreamed up in the early 1990s. Over the past four years, which saw Fennesz focus on live performances and collaborations (with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mike Patton) especially, the scene has virtually flooded with one-man guitar-orchestras emulating his style. And yet, now his latest full-length “Black Sea” has been released, you know just how dearly he has been missed. Even though he hasn’t radically altered his approach, the disctint characteristics of Fennesz’ style still make him stand out as much as ever: A sense of epic wideness blends with intimate whispers, suffocating darkness collides with iridescent light and melodic bliss unfolds underneath textural stillness. No cliches are at work here, as Fennesz freely allows his music to enter familiar places if it wants to and to cut through the woozy warmth of immersive ambiances if necesary. He’s not restricting himself to guitars either, opting for synthesizers and computers whenever the spontaneous momentum of a track appears to demand it. Song structures haven’t disappeared completely, but they now seem to be entangled in a hazy, equinoctial daydream. Pop is still important, but intuition has guided it to its outer rim, where form becomes flexible and gradually dissolves. “It just felt this to be the right direction to take at this point”, Fennesz simply puts it in this interview and the instancy of his results on “Black Sea” make this move seem like yet another romantic musical statement.

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Last week I was in Paris, this week I´m in Vienna, next week I’ll go back to Paris.
What’s on your schedule at the moment?
I will start working on film music for 2 different films very soon. One is the new project of Austrian experimental film maker Gustav Deutsch, the other one is a Japanese/Brasilian/Austrian science fiction movie. I´m also doing remixes for “Renfro” and “Heligoland”.
Was the preference of “Slow Reveal” above “Song Structures” as the press release to “Black Sea” puts it, a conscious decision or rather a subtle process which established itself as you went along?
It was definitely more the latter, it just felt this to be the right direction to take at this point. I think there are still traces of songs/ song structures in black sea though.
There’s been a lot of focus in the media about your music in general (and “Black Sea” in particular) featuring “guitars which do not sound like guitars”. Are you really using the guitar as just another tool for composing, as these sources suggest, or do you still feel close to its distinct timbres?
I am not always using the guitar as a tool for composing, but most of the time I do. I get satisfying results quicker when using the guitar. It’s the instrument that I know the best. It’s true that some of the guitar sounds on black sea sound more like synth strings than guitar, on the other hand, there are some acoustic and even nylon string guitar parts that are easy to identify. I´ve been experimenting a lot with rooms (real rooms and artificial rooms) this time – Microphones play a much bigger role than ever before.
The album includes Guitars and Synthesizers. What were the criteria for deciding which instrument to use for a particular part? Or was this much more of an intuitive process?
It’s always an intuitive process. Once I have the basic recordings in the computer, I start playing around with them and then anything can happen. I´ve been using physical modeling synthesis a lot on this album. I tried to blend the “modeled” instruments with the real acoustic instruments. I was trying to do the same with the room ambience.
Just like previous efforts, “Black Sea” is marked by meticulous attention to detail and by a feeling of great fluency. How do you achieve this balance in practise?
That is difficult to say… I seem to have a strange sense for timing and rhythm.
“Black Sea” also features a new collaboration with Rosy Parlane. What is it, would you say, that makes your co-operation particularly inspiring?
I already worked with Rosy 10 years ago. We released a 2 track mini CD on a small Australian label (“Synastaesia”). The recording was based on a live concert we did in a small record shop in Melbourne. It’s the same thing again: “Glide” is also based on a live recording that I did with Rosy in Paris this year. I added Guitars , Bass and Strings in my studio later.
Another guest on “Black Sea” is Anthony Pateras. Was one of his Prepared Piano performances associated to “Chasms” the trigger for your collaboration? Practically speaking, how did the track with Pateras take shape?
Anthony was recording here at Amannstudios. he also did a small gig here at Amann’s “studio concert” series. I really liked what he did and asked him if he´d be interested in doing recordings together. A few month later we met again and did the recordings. This was back in 2004…
You’ve also used live improvising software lloopp for recording the album. How does it work and what makes it special?
Using this software is like playing an instrument. It’s much more flexible than any other live software that I have used.
Track titles to “Black Sea” once again contain colour references. In how far do synaesthetics play a role for you when composing?
I guess there is a tendency but not really a concept or a technique. Using color references seems to be a good way to describe music or “musical atmspheres”.
You’ve mentioned before that establishing a satisfying package of visuals and music is important to you. Was there therefore already some kind of contact between you and Jon Wozencroft during the recording stages of the album with regards to preparing the artwork for “Black Sea”?
Yes definitely. I think Jon starts collecting ideas as soon as he knows the title of an album. Before I do the final mix, I usually send him tracks and rough mixes, so he gets an idea. It is real team work.
Some of your recent releases have been Vinyl only and the Vinyl edition of “Black Sea” will preceed the CD. Do you foster a personal love for the format?
I do. Especially the 7″ format, but I am traveling a lot, so mp3 has to be the format of my choice…
What can you tell us about your plans of taking the album on the road?
We are slowly starting to to set up a tour. It will be Japan first, then Europe, then (hopefully) the states. We’re working on it.

By Tobias Fischer