In Berlin, by the wall, you were… making music that wasn’t techno? The German capital, despite its international reputation, actually does produce music with y’know, choruses and melodies sometimes. All sorts of sounds are humming around the streets of Berlin these days, and Mansions & Millions have carved out a niche of their very own. The Neukölln-based label has become a greenhouse for acts that take in everything from indie-rock to hip-hop, united mainly by a commitment to the power of songwriting and a desire to make something unique, a creative restlessness pushing towards something new.
Mansions & Millions was founded in late 2014, early 2015, debuted with the release of the Maybe Unlock My Heart EP by Canadian artist Antoine93, and seven years later is closing in on a half a century of releases, from the likes of Magic Island and more, some of whom you’ll meet below. There’s something very reflective of the city in its line-up, in that it collects people from all over Germany and the wider world (Canada, the US, Poland, Argentina and more), and brings it together in a way that somehow makes it all work side-by-side, in a place you can call ‘pop music’, by its widest definition. This July, they’re having a summer show at Lido in Berlin, with their own artists like DENA and World Brain along with guests like Jaako Eino Kalevi and Itaca. Ahead of that, we caught up with Anton Teichmann, the label’s founder, as well as some of its artists to get a flavour of what drives them.
Anton Teichmann is the founder of Mansions & Millions, and co-runs the management company A-Okay Management. He also hosts the label’s monthly radio show on Berlin station Refuge Radio.
To start things off with the label’s history, you started back in 2014-15, the first release was Antoine93 – Maybe Unlock My Heart. You had worked for a few other labels and distributors before you started this label. What was the motivation to start Mansions & Millions?
There were two main things. I’ve always looked up to other labels, and I was always influenced by how labels can shape tastes, and develop new artists that other people haven’t heard before. When I was a kid and I teenager, I got involved playing in bands, and was interested in local underground music. But it mainly happened because I had worked for these two other labels before. First Sinnbus in Berlin, which was really important for me. Then I worked for Morr Music, a more established, older label. So I saw from the inside, how running a label worked, and the effect it could have. The second thing was that I befriended this group of artists in Neukölln, people like Magic Island, Better Person, our dear friend Sean Nicholas Savage, and Touchy. Some of them, like Magic Island, or Better Person, had no professional help. They were making great music, but had no-one to release it. When I met them, and first listened to the music, I assumed they did. There was a lot of stuff about them on the internet, and they had a lot of friends, and I kind of assumed they had labels. But they actually didn’t, and this fact, and the fact that I had experience working for labels, made it seem like it would be a logical step for me to start my own label. Morr Music actually encouraged me, and made it possible. They gave me a distribution infrastructure, and the knowledge, to actually do it.
So initially, it was about finding these artists, who clearly had talent, and a little bit of a scene around them, and being passionate about getting their music out into the world?
Yes, that was really important for me. That it was about the scene we started to build, with promoters, and with artists, and also just with friends and collaborators. That was, and still is I think, the main part of the label. Even the places, we had certain places where we hung out, sometimes played shows, places like Tennis Bar, which is a very important place for our scene. I think this is just as important as the music. The human aspect, that we’re all friends, and that we all like and respect each other.
A lot of the time, you get called ‘The sound of Neukölln’, which I guess can be a blessing and a curse. What do you think about that label, and do you feel that for a record label like yours, having a firm sense of place and community is important? That it’s not just an abstract thing that only exists online?
I think first of all, it’s very important to acknowledge that Neukölln is a big neighbourhood, with all kinds of people from all kinds of places. So to claim to be the sound of that place is impossible, and not something I’m interested in. That’s the thing we love about Neukölln, that it’s so diverse, and that there are actually thousands of sounds of Neukölln. So for me, it’s important to stress that it’s one of the sounds of Neukölln. But it certainly is a type of music that is very special to this place, along with many other styles of music. I have tried to make it my mission to help the local artists here to have a career and listeners outside of Berlin and Germany, making music that isn’t necessarily electronic music, because that’s the music that Berlin is known for internationally for the most part. I sometimes envy electronic and experimental musicians, because they have the infrastructure in Berlin to build an international career. They have basically everything they need to be recognised internationally. Whereas with the kind of music I release, this kind of indie, pop music, there isn’t a pre-established market out there for pop music from Berlin. So we have to work really hard to build connections to places abroad, so that people can appreciate it. I’m happy that it’s worked quite well so far, and that it’s growing, so that’s the nice part about it. It’s also true that it’s growing – there wasn’t so much music like this before, that had the same international ambition that we do.
When it comes to what you look for in an act, when you’re finding new artists, how does it usually work? Is there something you look for in the music that people send you, in demos? Or do you generally find people through your network, or see something live? What’s the usual way you find your way to the songs?
So far, I’ve been fortunate enough to discover most of my artists through my immediate surroundings. Most of the artists I was friends with before working together, or became friends with when we started working together. I know there are pros and cons with this, working with friends, but so far it’s worked quite well. So the personal element is very important. But I also get recommendations. Artists themselves have friends, and they will say ‘hey, my friend just recorded some music, you should listen to it’. And you also see people live, opening up for our bands. So far, it’s rarely been though getting sent demos, or me actively trying to find artists. Most of the time these things just kind of happen. That might change, but up to now the acts I’ve signed have been through these immediate connections. I really appreciate people sending me demos, it’s very humbling, but so far most of the bands have been through our circle. When it comes to the sound, it also needs to be special. It’s very hard to describe, but in my head I know what I’m looking for, something in a sound that’s unique. Though I know every label says that.
This is from an interview you did with Tagesspiegel, where you said “Erst kommt der Song, dann kommt die Technik”. Maybe that’s a nice way of summarising what unites your artists. Is there a need for the songs you release to have a sort of heart, and a feeling, and a sincerity to them, that’s more important than a musical style?
It’s very important for me. I really don’t like gear or tech heads, for whom it’s super important that they use certain equipment or something expensive. Obviously, I’m not a musician, so I take an outside perspective on that anyway, but it’s really not important how well someone can play an instrument, how technical they are, that’s really irrelevant for me. What’s important instead is the idea behind it. The songwriting, the broader ideas, the philosophy, the approach to music. That doesn’t mean it always has to be lo-fi, a lot of the music on the label has been professionally-recorded, but the sound isn’t the main thing.
You’ve also been working with stuff like the Off-Kultur Festival, and Cassette Store Day. Do you think it’s important, for a small label, to have a sense of initiative like that, to constantly look for things you can do to push the music you care about, to do interesting and exciting things, to be part of a bigger picture?
This is something I do with other people. It’s important for me to team up with other people, and to try and facilitate these things. With culture, we can’t just expect things to happen. I am dependent on infrastructure, but sometimes we need to fight for that infrastructure, and to develop that infrastructure. I try to think about these things, and not just take things for granted. It’s one of the things I’ve learnt over the years. Even though it’s challenging to be a label, at least it’s not boring, and you have to try and find these new things.
In terms of being a label in our current time: a lot of the old role is gone, because anyone can put a song up on streaming platforms if they want to. Do you see the role of a label nowadays, as first of all a curatorial one, where you can bring together these artists that work as a roster together? And also in terms of building a scene, and helping people develop in a way they might not have been able to on their own?
Yes, definitely. I’m not naïve about the fact that you don’t need to have a label to have a successful career these days. I think that’s a good thing. And I think it makes it more important for me to find something that I can give to the artists, when they could just release it themselves. I need to give them something that they can’t do themselves. I think offering a scene, offering a community, is really important, and hard to do by yourself. So I try and offer that. Sometimes, I bring a new artist to the label, who the other artists don’t know yet, and they end up becoming friends, and collaborating. I had that with Luis Ake, who became friends with a lot of the other artists through being put on the same line-ups, and they ended up collaborating. That kind of thing is beautiful. I think there are a lot of entities in the industry, labelled agencies, who aren’t really interested in developing artists. They just wait for an artist to be successful and jump in. And I’m not going to lie, it’s very tough. It’s never been easy, and it’s not now, but it is a challenge, and I like doing it. Starting from the very beginning with an artist, and releasing their first material, and then seeing them have a career and play internationally, have a lot of listeners, be played in a TV show or something. That’s very gratifying. A lot of people don’t want to do that, but that’s something that I as a label can offer.
In terms of the challenges facing small labels these days. We all know about the problems with vinyl, and you’ve spoken a lot about the issues with Deutsche Post raising their shipping prices. Do you think it’s getting tougher, as time goes on?
I think right now for sure, financially it’s a challenge, because everything is getting more expensive. So obviously, we as a label are getting hit with inflation like everyone else is. With vinyl, I can raise the prices, for example, but it’s not like Spotify or the other streaming services are paying out more. Other companies can raise their prices, to make up for the higher investments they need to make, but we can’t do that, because we don’t get paid more money by the streaming services. So we’re getting squeezed at the moment. And there are other challenges – live shows are back, but the smaller shows, and shows by new artists, are difficult, because people want to go and see stuff they like, rather than discover new stuff at the moment. So ticket sales are a bit low. Promoters are not very adventurous at the moment, which I also understand. They weren’t able to make money over the last two years, so they want to put on shows that definitely sell. Obviously, the music media landscape is very difficult. And an over-reliance on social media and algorithmic creation is tough, because it’s a game, and you never know what will work. But I don’t just want to complain, because these things have sometimes worked in our favour. So it’s a blessing and a curse, the fact that music discovery works very differently to how it did ten years ago. And challenges have existed before too. I still like what I do, and for the most part it’s still working quite well. So there are challenges, but we need to adapt. There are some things that are out of our hands, like the financial stuff. I can’t really do much about shipping prices.
After seven years, two of them pandemic years, so we might say five and a bit – are there things that you would like to achieve with the label, that you haven’t done already? Maybe raise the international profile more? What are the ambitions on the horizon at the moment?
I think it would be really nice to achieve the goal of having left-field, internationally-successful pop acts out of Berlin, and not even necessarily just on my label. Berlin isn’t necessarily the place people look to for this kind of music, they would rather look to places like LA, or London. I think in Paris for example, there is so much exciting new music right now. There was a time when there wasn’t much good new music coming out of France. But now there’s a lot. So that would be really nice, if we could really establish this scene and this infrastructure here in Berlin. I definitely think there’s a lot more room to grow, for the artists and the label. That’s why I keep doing it.
What can we expect from the upcoming summer show at Lido in Berlin?
I’m really looking forward to it, because it’s Mansions & Millions and friends. So it’s with old and new friends, that are part of the scene, like Jaako Eino Kalevi, Albertine Sarges, who’s playing with Itaca, her other band. It’s really nice, this pairing of label acts like DENA and World Brain with friends like that. It’s going to be really fun, and I hope people show up, and I hope people look forward to it.
Nalan is an artist with many strings to her bow, having previously put out music under the aliases Nalan381 and slimgirl fat, as well as being a member of clubby trio Gaddafi Gals. Her debut album, I’m Good. The Crying Tape, with its soul-pop lead single I’m Good, was released in 2021.
Before Nalan you also had a lot of other projects, like slimgirl fat, Nalan381, and you’re in Gaddafi Gals. What was the idea with starting this particular solo project, as just Nalan?
I always felt like doing music in a project called Nalan, because it’s my name. But there is a Turkish pop star from the 90s called Nalan, so that made it difficult to use it. So at the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, I decided I really wanted to do something personal, I wanted to do an album, and I wanted to go by Nalan. So I quit my other aliases, when it came to performing music, although I have kept slimgirl fat as my DJ and producer alias. Nalan381 was a project that I had back in Munich, and Gaddafi Gals have a new album out in September. I’ve produced a lot of music in the last two years [laughs].
With the style of the project. It’s not pure pop music, there’s a lot of soul and R’n’B in there. But it seems poppier than the other stuff you do, with more focus on the melodies and the vocals. Was that your intention with this project, to go in that direction?
It was an intention, but also the way it came out organically. I also worked a lot on my writing, with the lyrics, and the way I write became more of a ‘classic’ style. Before, I worked on intuition, I would mumble, even use words that don’t exist. Now I wanted to write stories, and put them into a classic song framework. But it still has my own form of expression, because I’m not a native English speaker. But I can’t write or sing in German [laughs]. I use Turkish sometimes, but with German it’s hard. It’s hard to get German to work with the structures of a song, without making things sound cheesy. It’s a tough language in that sense. But if you can write in German and sing in German, I think you’ve achieved a lot [laughs].
You said about I’m Good, that the story behind the song is the whole idea of replying to someone asking how you are with ‘I’m Good’, because that’s the answer people always give, no matter how they feel, and you built the song around exploring that. Is it always the case that when you’re writing, you like to have a clear idea behind every song?
For this project I have always described it as like a television series, with each song as an episode. Maybe like a soap opera [laughs]. Because I had a lot of emotions I wanted to describe, a lot of situations, so I made up a lot of characters, and combined them with some emotions to tell a story. So I wanted to use that method to write stories, not just sad ones, but also funny stories, or catchy stories. To have a dramatic and serious point of view, but also with some irony. It’s not automatically autobiographical. That was important to me. I come up with the scenarios, but I combine them with real feelings that come out somehow in the song.
You said the album came when you were in a strange place, with quarantine, and a lot of emotional turmoil going on. Was that the real starting point of making it?
Yeah, it was. I was in Kreuzberg then, and then I moved to Wedding, so the album was produced between those two places. In March 2020, you weren’t even allowed to go out. So I could only go outside to skate. So I spent a lot of time doing that. It was a bit like being a child again, you didn’t have so many appointments, so you had a lot of time. So I just skated a lot outside, and tried to get away from it all. It was an intense time. Now I don’t skate so much anymore, because I don’t have the fucking time [laughs].
So what’s coming up next?
I’m planning an EP, which, like the album, will have several genres on it. I wanted to emphasise the mix of genres that I do, but mixing them in an obvious way, and I haven’t decided exactly how this will sound. I’ve already started recording, but it’s going to be a rough thing, and I’m going to do it quickly. I like to work fast, I’m not a hyper-perfectionist, I don’t need two years for an album. I get to the point where I’m convinced about the track, then it’s done, and then I move on.
A member of glittery synth-pop band Fenster, who released four records between 2012 and 2018, Jonathan Jarzyna, aka John Moods, has a knack for writing a song and selling it too. He’s released two albums of soulful, singalong pop to date, with a third, The Great Design, set for release in November.
In the last twelve months, you’ve not been taking it easy, you put out the Autoplay EP of demos and rare songs. What was the idea behind that?
I had a lot of emotional attachment to those particular demos. They came from a keyboard that I like to use, and they were the foundation of my live set. I grew very fond of them, and Anton did too. So we were talking about it, and we thought that before I move on, to new horizons, it would be nice to commemorate these songs. One song, When You Call My Name, I just wanted to put out, I really love that one.
I wanted to ask about that one, When You Call My Name. The style of that song really puts the attention on you as a singer, and lets you play this role, of the kind of torch singer, mystic vibe. Is that an interesting style to play with, and a character to inhabit?
If I have learned one thing through the years of playing solo, it’s that you get to know yourself in a different way, when you’re alone on stage. When I started performing these songs, I had never been on stage by myself before, and that put a lot of pressure on me. It’s like getting to know new aspects of yourself you didn’t know before. And these characters start to emerge. I’m not good at deciding on a PR strategy, like wearing Kangol hats, or whatever’s hip these days. I was just trying to channel something with the song. And when I perform it, I become very erratic, because the song is so repetitive, you just get on this train.
A lot of people say the real test of songwriting, and a song, is when you strip it back to the basics, and have it still sound good as a demo, or a stripped-back recording. Do you think having the stripped-back versions on the EP, showed that side of songs like So Sweet, So Nice?
That version was so dear to me. I really wanted it to be out. I had made the album version, which has really grown on me, but there’s something about the first version. It’s called demo-itis, the disease that means you can never really get over demos. Now I’ve been playing the song in an acoustic set sometimes, and the song still fucking works, it still has that energy, I can still go into the crowd. It doesn’t work for every kind of song, some are very tied to aesthetic, and it sounds weird if you take away the synth or something. But with that song it works.
Anton: The Autoplay version is actually the version that John has played live, even after the album came out. And even with this version, you can tell it’s a special song. I think it really does show the strength of the song, from a songwriting perspective, that even in a stripped-down version, the fans, and the crowd, still go wild, even when they don’t know the song.
Recent single, Same As You, is about, in your own words “universal and deep unconditional empathy with everyone, stone, plant, flower or human”. It’s a very big theme that one?
Empathy has definitely been a theme of my journey over the past few years. I find when hippies say ‘it’s all about love’, I think empathy ties into that. It has been a huge healing perspective for me. Not to excuse any type of behaviour, but just to be aware of people’s suffering more and be kind. See that people grow up differently, have different life experiences, different challenges. When you feel attacked by someone else, it’s a good exercise to think about that. Especially for a notoriously narcissistic person, which a lot of artists can be, me especially.
The style of the song is very soft and floaty, did you feel that matched the theme well?
Yeah, I recorded it on tape, and added some breath-y things to it. It’s the slowest song I’ve ever released, I think. Soft and slow.
You’ve got the band in place now. The Autoplay EP, you said closed a chapter. Where do you feel you’re going next?
I want people to know that I’ve moved on to a live band set-up, with everything being played live, no backing tracks. I want to play festivals, play shows, to spread the word about that. People have seen my old show, with backing tracks, for four years, and I want to show that this is a new thing. I have a new album on the way too. The Great Design wonders and marvels at the creative and functional decisions of nature, God, or, depending on what one believes, the mysterious intelligence surrounding us. Many songs turned out to be about the absurdity of ownership, owning songs or things or loved ones or even yourself. The new single, It Ain’t Your Time, cryptically talks about the passage of time. Musically the album is a journey exorcising some 1980s vibes but always open and modern in its approach. French producer ET (Fenster‘s Emocean & Discovery Zone) sharpened it sonically.
You had had a couple of other projects before J. Vague, and then took a couple of years off after becoming disillusioned with music. So what was the motivation to start this project?
I was in an indie band in my late teens, and that was intense. A very good experience, but at the same time, when I was 20 I already felt disillusioned with the music industry. I had been working with a lot of labels, indies and majors, but I never felt I could really be creative. It was a lot of touring, a lot of reproducing what you’ve already done. It’s also a phase where you develop your character quite a lot. So when you’re 20, you’ve changed a lot, and don’t want to repeat things you thought of when you were 16, it’s a bit weird. I moved to Berlin, and I still made music, but I went behind the scenes, writing for others, producing for others. I also started making art, video photography and installations, and ultimately decided to study fine arts in Berlin, which I’m still doing. So from having this teenage dream of becoming a popstar, or a rockstar, or just the idea of making music as the main thing in life, I branched out into other creative outlets. That’s what I feel about J.Vague, it’s an outlet for my pop music sensibilities. I also produce weird electronic music with Neuzeitliche Bodenbeläge, I make some heavy techno music, and I’d like to have a project with distorted guitars soon. But J.Vague is my main solo focus now.
So you started it as a solo pop project?
It’s a bit like writing for someone else. I worked for years as a songwriter for Universal, and there I grew into this feeling of writing for others, and actually liked it. This J.Vague figure, or persona, is something that I’m really into sometimes, sometimes I really feel that it’s me. Especially when I’m writing the songs, or recording them, I am really in this character. But at the same time, there’s some distance to it, and you can think ‘what would J.Vague sound like?’ Not what I could sound like, because I have different projects where I express different things.
You said that when you were a kid, you only worked on music when there was a ‘certain intensity’ in your life. Is that still the case, with how you write today? Do you have to have that to make music?
Yes, it’s interesting. Songwriting for others is a very special thing to do, and it’s a thing I had to learn. It’s a bit like acting, like trying to connect to a strong feeling, that’s maybe in the past, but is not current. I still need that for sure. Especially when singing. I always sang in the band I had as a teenager, but it was always the hardest part of it. Writing a song melodically, or writing the chords, never felt hard. Or programming a beat or something, these have always been things that I felt really comfortable with. But singing and writing lyrics, to do that in a way that is authentic, or relatable for other human beings, I think to some extent, you have to be emotionally real in that moment. So I can still relate to that comment, but I think it changed it a bit. When I’m in the studio with J.Vague, I can’t wait for the feeling, I have to evoke it somehow. But that happens through the music actually, when I play some chords or something. I’m doing something that will hopefully evoke something in the listeners later on. It’s kind of a moment of reflection right there.
You talk a lot about the EP, that it was mostly about love. You also talk about not wanting to over-complicate the lyrics. Maybe that’s a way you can write with simple lyrics, when you have it so focused on one feeling, or type of song? You don’t have to make it complicated to make it good?
I think it’s something that’s especially relevant for non-native speakers. When you make music in English, I feel like a lot of artists who are not native speakers, tend to over-complicate the lyrics, in order to maybe make themselves seem more sophisticated. But when you listen to American, or British, rock and pop music, the lyrics are mostly pretty simple. The biggest hits in the 80s and 90s are very simple lyrically. But you can do so much poetic stuff with simple language. You don’t need to use significant words to stand out, you can create these images with pretty simple wording.
If you talk about the sound – compared to Neuzeitliche Bodenbeläge, it has a very different sound. I think a lot of the J.Vague songs are about the sonic textures, and the feeling that atmosphere creates. Do you spend a lot of time working on the atmosphere in the sound and the texture of the music?
For sure. I’m not a songwriter who sits down with a guitar, or at the piano, and writes an album of demos, and then starts to produce. Producing is how I write the songs. Especially now with the album. There were some songs that I re-recorded, some that I made in my bedroom. But most of it was made with one of my best friends, Dennis Jüngel, in the studio. So writing the songs, producing the songs, I can’t really distinguish that anymore. It starts with a texture, or the sound of a guitar, or a synthesiser, and that leads me to the next thing.
So what would you say is the average A-Z process for a J.Vague song?
I think the process is really about trying to find a moment to connect with myself, for a few minutes, and figure out my intention that day. To really feel a resonance with something. I also record in different studios, so it was always a different environment. I might be in a new studio, surrounded by a bunch of synthesisers I have never seen before, and be curious as to what they sound like. Or I might have a session in my bedroom with just my headphones, find a sample, get a little texture from it, and record some guitar over it. So it’s always about connecting to my surroundings, and what I feel like, and what I can bring to the studio that day. The anatomy of it, then, is bringing a song to the point where I feel like ‘I want to sing over this now’. That can be at a state where it’s just some guitar and drums, or it can be when the song is completely done already.
What should we expect from you in terms of upcoming music?
The first song I released as J.Vague [Jungle Of Confusion] was a song I had from 2017 that was just lying around. I sent it to Anton, and he really liked it and wanted to release it. I was really unsure what to do. My partner Alina came up with the name just to have a name for that song. And releasing that song on Mansions & Millions felt really good. So during the first quarantine in Berlin, I wrote the EP, which was done in two weeks. And so I wanted to make an album. It’s taken me over a year now, a lot of different studios, working with real drums now, more of a bigger set-up. Before it was really a bedroom thing. The things we’ve recorded now sound more like a band at times, sometimes like 90s Madonna productions. But I wanted to do something that sounded bigger. I think it’s the first time I wrote and produced for a whole year for one project. I made over 30 songs, and then a fragment of them are the album.
Another Fenster member, JJ Weihl released her first album as Discovery Zone, Remote Control, in 2020. Her music is a mind-merge between the thoughts and philosophies that run through the veins of the modern digital world, plus glossy, colourful pop music.
To start things off, you put out the first album back in 2020, and that was in the middle of the pandemic. And it might have been a fitting time, considering how much the digitalisation of life is a theme of the album, and how much more digitalised the world became during the pandemic. Now in recent months, you’ve been touring quite a lot. How did it feel to take it out into real life?
It felt great. It felt a little like when I put out the record, it was going out into a void. These last few months have been super life-affirming and very fun. I’m from New York, but I had never toured solo in the States before. Getting to tour with Jenny Hval was pretty incredible, she’s really sweet, and her whole band was great. The venues we played were beautiful, and it was a dream. I thought when the record came out, that ‘ok, this is what it is’. But it feels like it’s had a second life. I think as an audio-visual show, it made a lot more sense in that context. And it’s been great to meet people, who had listened to the record. I’ve just done a few shows with Tops in Europe, and that’s been great. It’s been inspiring to see them play, and just in general to feel the world around you.
I saw you play at Pop Kultur, and at the FitzRoy a few months ago, and you’ve got a big visual concept to go with it. How did taking it live give you the opportunity to build that visual concept? Because when you have music as the only medium, it’s quite limited, you just have the sound to work with. When you take it live, you get to take it into the 3D space. Was that something you’d always had in mind for this project?
Definitely. The project was conceived as an audio-visual project, just in terms of creating a lot of content, to go with the music. The live show already went through a lot of iterations. I was experimenting even before the album came out. Once I played at everybody’s fav Tennis Bar, in Berlin, and with some inspiration from my friend Pictorial Candi. I created a Pepper’s Ghost, an analogue illusion with a piece of Plexiglas, which makes it look like an object is floating onstage. I’ve had all kinds of visuals, different set-ups, experimenting. Then during the pandemic, I got funding from the Musikfonds, and I was able to work on the Pop Kultur-commisioned work CYBERNETICA. That’s when I started working with this 3D visual material. It just evolved in this way, because I wanted to find a way to create holograms on stage, with a set-up that was still mobile, and not too expensive, and so I found this material to project on, and collaborated with some 3D artists including ENT (Damien Granier) who made a lot of the 3D assets for CYBERNETICA and the music video for Pattern Recognition, and my friend Ryan Rosell who runs Tennis Bar and puts out USB mag. The 3D visual thing kind of came about during the pandemic, and then I used it for the first time in a live session at Monarch thanks to an invitation from my friend Tammo Dehn who was producing a series of live videos there called Fenster zur Welt. It’s still evolving. I’m excited to explore some different software, and wearables. It’s never a static thing.
It’s a project that’s quite dense with footnotes. It’s one that touches on so much, and takes you to places where you could go deeper, and learn a lot about a million different things. So when you’re writing stuff, do you research stuff with the idea that ‘ok, I’m writing some songs, and it’s cool to look up interesting stuff to inspire the songs’? Or is it stuff you’re interested in anyway, without even thinking about songs, that later goes on to inspire music?
I can only describe it as a cybernetic process, and by that I mean everything affects everything else. So while I’m writing the music, I’m reading five or six books at the same time, and they can be books about quantum physics, or simulation theory, or short stories. Whatever I’m reading is penetrating into the music, and whatever the music is, it feeds back into the images I see when I’m making it. Those images then create a world that is refined and underlined by those concepts, and it’s all looping back on itself. It’s really connected for me. They’re like pieces of a puzzle, and I have them all jumbled up and I’m putting it together, in a mix between an intuitive way, and a cerebral way.
You talked about the cerebral there, and I think this project is very cerebral and very intellectual, and very conceptual. I was thinking it was interesting that you did a Lou Reed cover recently, because for me, Lou Reed is a very emotional artist, very about the power of a feeling or an emotion. I think that sense of feeling and emotion is also there in Discovery Zone songs. Is that something you think about, that with this project, that can get so cerebral, you have to make sure the heart and the emotion is still in there?
Absolutely. I’m not a trained musician at all, I’m self-taught, and the music I grew up loving was pop music. Most of the songs and the melodies are very simple and emotional, and quite intuitive, and that’s what I’m drawn to. The music I actually make isn’t very cerebral, it’s actually quite simple, and my intention is for it to be universally accessible. But the concepts I’m interested in, on the other hand, are like an Alice In Wonderland thing, a big rabbit hole where it just keeps going and going in layers. The way that it’s communicated, I hope, doesn’t come across as too cerebral, or pretentious, because I’m just really interested in exploring technology and consciousness, quantum entanglement, and how everything is connected. And the way that is represented through pop music, I find an interesting juxtaposition. So covering a Lou Reed song, and playing pop music with a bunch of underlying discussions, is what I’m interested in. But I hope that when someone comes to the show, a five-year-old kid could also get into it, and doesn’t have to understand any of the concepts I’m talking about. So my intention is that there’s an entry point for everyone, whether it’s through the sound world, or through the communication of it, how we interact with technology and advertising.
You talk a lot about Marshall McLuhan, and the idea that surroundings are not passive but active – you’re surrounded by an environment that contributes to your own self-perception, and that feeds back into the environment. It’s all moving parts. I was thinking about how, in the online world, the input and output a person has with the world around them is moving more quickly, and with more information than ever before. Do you think it makes having an identity as a person that has any stability, a lot harder in the online world? And how does that then work when you’re an artist, when you are trying to create something?
I think there’s definitely an increase in the amount of content there is, but a lack of meaningful content, or rather, the meaningful content is often ‘contaminated’ or intertwined with advertising and branded content, creating a dissonant landscape where ‘authenticity’ in the virtual world becomes void or tainted. As [Jean] Baudrillard says in Simulacra and Simulation: “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” I think it’s important for me not to get too lost in the ocean of online content, because the vast majority of it, as we all know by now, is just geared to make you buy stuff. I like to study historical advertising and am interested in that as a medium of communication. But I’m very aware that I’m a human, and that stuff works on me, so it’s important to create a protective layer, from the overflow of useless or harmful information out there. Baudrillard says: “The museum, instead of being circumscribed as a geometric site, is everywhere now, like a dimension of life.” If you extend this metaphor to the virtual world, our life online isn’t really representing something that’s “real”, the simulation is what is real, and there’s nothing behind it.
So when you have this overflow of information, but are also responsible for creating something, I guess it’s hard to know if the thing you’re creating is coming from you, in a meaningful sense?
I think that we’re all connected. The artist and the ego also consist of the environments and people that shape us. Our algorithm is based on everything we’ve ever consumed, and of course how we are built and perceived in society. What we’ve consumed our whole lives is rearranged and spit out in some form – nothing is truly original, in that sense. I see myself as a vessel, or a collage artist, reassembling information. And I see the whole universe as information. When you zoom out, and see it that way, you see the abundance of information, and that nothing is truly just your idea. It comes from an unimaginable equation of what you’ve received, as a human sponge. For me it’s very helpful to think of it in that way, being in the middle of this constant flow of information, rearranging bits that are always going to come out new.
Once it goes through your internal processes, it will come out new?
Exactly. I was raised in the United States, and there you’re raised being told you’re very special, and very important, being told that you could be president. Which is great and has its benefits. But it’s also important to tell children that we’re all part of a bigger thing, and that no-one is more or less than anyone else. We’re all doing this together, and everything that you do affects what everyone else does. It’s important as a human or an artist, to never think of yourself as more or less than anyone else. There is a great scientist and thinker called Gregory Bateson and I find the way he sees the world incredibly relevant. In his essay Steps To An Ecology of Mind he writes: “We create the world that we perceive, not because there is no reality outside our heads, but because we select and edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs about what sort of world we live in.” We create the world, and the world creates us. It is inextricably linked.
Don’t detach from your ecosystem?
Exactly. But detach from your ego-system [laughs].
Tonight [a show at Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg Platz] is your last show in Berlin for a while, because you’re going to work on new music. When you have a project, that has such a strong profile and vision, as this one, as with the first album, how do you decide then where to go for the next album?
I just feel so excited. I’m actually already working on new music, and I’ll play some new songs tonight. The first record was almost me in the dark, kicking around, figuring out what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it. Now I feel so excited at the prospect of making another record, and to keep evolving, and I have so many ideas that I want to try. I feel quite eager to create new songs. They’re little universes for me, albums, and I’m really excited to create this new universe, with the songs, the live show, the visuals.