You have to envy Dinos Chapman.
Not content with being one of the world’s most celebrated and controversial visual artists, thanks to 21 years of gleefully transgressive collaboration with his brother Jake, Chapman this month releases his debut album of solo electronic music, Luftbobler. And, far from falling flat on his arse, he’s turned out a work of considerable poise, power and originality.
The London-born artist is an avowed fan of Aphex Twin, Stockhausen, Throbbing Gristle and Squarepusher, an you can certainly their influence in Luftbobler‘s complex, kinetic compositions. Equal parts wonder and dread, dream and nightmare, this music is nothing if not nocturnal in character – indeed, it’s unsurprising to learn that Chapman, a chronic insomnia sufferer, recorded everything in the dead of night.
Interestingly, Chapman had no intention of releasing any of these crepuscular sketches, amassed over the course of 10 years; but when The Vinyl Factory‘s Sean Bidder heard them, he convinced him to select the best and release it as an album. Chapman remains self-effacing about the work, dubbing it Schlampige Musik (sloppy music), but he does himself a disservice: the process of creation might have been sloppy, but the results most certainly are not.
The Vinyl Factory [full disclosure: FACT is part of the Vinyl Factory group] have made Luftbobler available on CD, digital, gatefold LP and limited edition (300 copies) LP formats. All are beautifully packaged, with artwork by Chapman and design by FUEL, but the limited edition is especially lavish: it includes an additional one-sided 12″ pressing of an exclusive bonus track (never to be released on any other format), an exclusive coloured etching by the artist, individually tipped in, with five colour screen-printed artwork across four panels; each sleeve is hand-signed and numbered.
To celebrate the release, Dinos has created a site-specific audio-visual installation of Luftbobler for The Vinyl Factory. The show takes place at The Vinyl Factory’s Soho gallery (beneath Phonica Records) on February 28 – March 3, 2013, and will premiere eight new short films created and soundtracked by Chapman. More information here. He will also be presenting a live audio-visual show at the 2013 Sonar festival in Barcelona.
“Well, I was asked how long I’d been making music and I said 10 years, then as soon as I said it, I thought, probably not. But then recently I found a WAV file that pre-dated the dinosaurs so yeah, it’s been quite a long time. I don’t sleep very much, and I’m an obsessive tinkerer – I fiddle with things. I remember a long time ago asking friends who made music how I might go about it myself, and no one would tell me, so I had to find out for myself. Which is what I like to do anyway.
“I never intended any of this to be heard. It was only for my ears. I was very reticent about anybody hearing it. It wasn’t intended to be for mass consumption. Sean [Bidder, of The Vinyl Factory] grabbed me by the ear and pulled me out of the basement and said come on, let’s put this out. I didn’t actually imagine that would happen. And that’s absolutely the truth. My brother would always say to me, why don’t you release some of this? And I’d say, hmm, I don’t know…in a way to protect myself. Because if it’s for nobody but yourself then you don’t worry. As soon as you do things for an audience, the audience becomes part of the procedure. This was just me in the basement, trying to avoid sleep… and it has a certain naivety that I like. I do like amateurishness. I’d hate to know how to use these tools properly.
“So yeah, I didn’t intend anybody to hear it, and it took Sean twisting my arm and making me show him what I’d been doing, to realise that maybe it could be released. I wouldn’t listen to my brother, he could just be trying to make me look a fool [laughs].”
How does it feel to have it out there now? Are you anxious about it at all?
“I’ve learned from what I do with Jake that making something is by far the most interesting part of the process. Showing it – well, you can’t be responsible for what people think of what you do, so in a way you have to divorce yourself from even imagining that. The completion of the work is a necessary evil. As far as I’m concerned you’re making the same thing over and over and over again in an attempt to complete it and never have to do it again. But obviously you can’t so you just keep doing it.”
Do you have any background or schooling in music?
“When we were kids, my brother, my sister and myself were frogmarched to guitar lessons. And I think we all became fairly proficient – my sister was certainly very good, and my brother was very good – he continues to play in a band. But I dropped out. Because I realised that I was too shy to play guitar in front of people. It’s a performance instrument, you can’t hide behind a screen. So I stopped.
“I grew up with punk, so I managed to see most of the bands. I actually wasn’t a good enough guitarist to be in a punk band, which is saying quite a lot [laughs]. The thing about punk that I liked – and it’s the same thing that has since happened with digitalisation and the mass production of sequencers and so on – is that suddenly all those old ideas of virtuosity are no longer necessary. This technology means you can go it alone too: people have been given them means to make their own music and not necessarily have to share the experience with anybody.”
The rise of electronic music and laptop performance – literally “behind a screen” – must have seemed a godsend to you.
“I’ve seen people performing live with their computers, and there’s not much you can do apart from stick your hand up in the air occasionally and that just looks stupid. I saw Aphex play a few years ago in New York, and all you could see was the top of his head. It probably wasn’t even him [laughs]. But yeah, that kind performance: it’s the shy person’s way of showing off.
“I’ve always been very interested in experimental music. Recently I’ve thought that I want to start making some of my own instruments. The nice thing about soft-synths and all these kind of things is that you can manipulate them til they sort of stop being what they originally were. But a lot of the sounds that I’ve put on the album are digital representations of, for instance, an amalgam of a piano and a guitar. They’re very obviously digitally produced sounds, but a lot of these sounds are…wanting to be analogue. And I like the idea of instruments having character: for example on the last track there’s an instrument that I kind of imagine as this sort of thing with legs, which makes this noise as it moves…”
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Tell me more about your approach to composition. I get the impression that you enjoy how malleable sound becomes when you use modern software.
“I’ve got a WAV file of Kylie Minogue talking about plastic surgery to an interviewer, and I’ve played it for so long, and it’s become so mangled, but it still sounds like Kylie Minogue. It’s been reversed, it’s had god knows how many layers of vocoder over it and you just can not get Kylie out of there [laughs]. The essence of Kylie is in that file. So yeah, I really like the malleability of sound but sometimes I get frustrated because it’s not malleable enough.
“With the music… I’ve got this bad habit – actually it’s not a bad habit, it’s just a method I suppose – where I work on something til I get bored, and then I do something else, and I can rack up 15 versions of a thing in an evening, and then sort of leave them and decide to make something completely different and then maybe go ooh, what happens if I put those two bits together…
“I like the idea of having a massive repertoire of bits that you just pick up and see if you like how they taste together. When I brought in the bits to show Sean, I had 15 hours of little snippets and initially we thought we might release the whole lot, unedited. You know: this is what has stolen my sleep for the last 10 years. But then Sean said actually, some of it’s quite musical – though at first I thought he was taking the piss. So we whittled it down to things that might work. I like the idea of sifting through things and cannibalising them.”
The album is indeed quite musical, I would say very musical – perhaps surprisingly so for a “non-musician”, an artist working outside the medium most familiar to them.
“There’s a problem with artists, which is that they think they’re better at everything than everyone else. They think they’re better at making music than musicians are. I don’t quite mean that… but what we [artists] tend to do is occupy other people’s territory and imagine that we have a better point of view. But then we do this thing where we say it’s not music, it’s an art project. And it somehow deflects any criticism of the thing as music – because it’s an art project it’s mean to be…whatever. I don’t like that idea, I didn’t want to do that. Sean agreed and he pushed the idea that we present is as an album. If you’re making things that are music then it should be criticised for its musical content – there shouldn’t be brackets after it saying this guy isn’t a musician, he’s an artist, so go easy on him. I’m not interested in that.
“I’m not trying to bend the parameters. I’m working within the parameters. The thing about art is, once you know the rules you can use the rules of bend the rules, but you have to know what the rules are. I think with music it’s the same. I don’t think you can make music without understanding what it is, and what the parameters are. That’s why I like experimental music: generally speaking it doesn’t break the parameters, it just nudges them very gently, it tests them. And I think that’s why my brother and I do in our visual work.
“A friend of mine heard the record and said, how come you didn’t you go mental? And I said, exactly – that’s the reason I didn’t go mental, because that’s what you expect. You expect an artist to go, ok, what does this machine do, oh yeah that sounds really irritating, I’ll do that. That’s too easy. It’s way too easy. And it’s not new. Noise music has existed for a very long time, it’s a known and entirely legitimate thing. But then an artist gets hold of it and decides that it’s new just because it’s them. They imagine that nobody has ever heard or seen what they’re doing.”
“I gave my sister the record recently and she said, it’s really you. She said it’s like Hansel and Gretel.. it’s like you’ve dropped the pieces of bread but someone’s eaten them and now you don’t how to get back. And I said, you’re absolutely right. I like getting lost.”
Tell us about the album cover art. Was it inspired by the music?
“It was an existing image, it pre-dates the music. I think a lot of the tracks have a very saccharine quality to them, but it’s underpinned by this sort of brooding, nasty, you’re-all-gonna-die thing in the background. All our visual work’s a bit like that. When you make things, you look for a homogeneity – if you do a drawing and it doesn’t look like the painting you’re doing, or if your painting doesn’t look like your sculpture, you kind of worry…you think one of them must be wrong [laughs]. I was doing some drawing recently and it occurred to me that it was like the music; and really, these things are related in ways that you don’t necessarily see or understand to begin with.
“So yeah, I’ve realised that the pieces of music I’ve made are related to drawings I’ve done: they’re not very friendly, but nor are they hysterically horrible. Just a little bit…uneasy. What I liked about that drawing is that it’s this monster that looks a bit unhappy – he doesn’t look like he wants to be a monster, he’s looks kind of fed up. In the original drawing there’s also a teddy bear eating a marshmallow; the marshmallow’s going to get eaten by the teddy bear and the teddy bear’s going to get eaten by the monster. And it’s just this kind of inevitability of the end. And as soon as you cut the teddy bear out and just leave the monster you still have this kind of melancholy. You know Swamp Thing? I remember reading a few of those when I was a kid and I never understood why Swamp Thing was so miserable. And now I know. [laughs]
“I think the best music tends to be in a minor key. We’re much better at melancholy than we are at anything else. Even house music is full of those descending minor chords. I try to make happy stuff, but it just doesn’t stay like that. You can make melancholy and funny, but happy is just a bit much to ask. Think of Abba, think of Bryan Ferry…those songs are all about lack and disappointment.”
Are you happy, in the end, with how Luftbobler has turned out?
“I’ve got a Land Rover, and Land Rover stereos are rubbish, they’re really not very good at all. And I’ve got a little lead connecting my iPod into it, but it’s broken. Nonetheless, I’ve been playing Luftbobler in there a lot recently and something’s gone really bad in the player and it’s changed the music – but I’ve listened and I’ve thought, I like that! I like what it’s done to it. It’s lost bits of it and put some kind of weird echo on. I started wondering how I could replicate that myself. Then you begin to realise that everything is in flux anyway. There is no finished product. It’s all process.”