Friday, April 25, 2008

Say hey to the 'Ambient Pimp'

Klimek interview by Walter Wasacz

Sebastian Meissner has been making strange, beautiful music since the early- to mid-1990s, when he began collaboration with Ekkehard Ehlers on their Autopoieses project for the Frankfurt-based Mille Plateaux family of labels. He also worked on solo projects under the intriguingly mysterious names aUTOkoNTRasT, Bizz Circuits, Random Inc and Random Industries before scoring worldwide attention for his lush dreamscapes produced as Klimek. In 2002, Kompakt released his "Milk & Honey" 12-inch, which was expanded two years later into a full-length Klimek CD containing 10 tracks. More of his dense, melodic instrumentals have been featured on Kompakt's Pop Ambient comps, beginning in 2003 with "Milk & Honey" and "Sun(Rise)." The next year, "Standing on the Beach (Gun in My Hand mix)" was the lead track on Pop Ambient 2004; and for Pop Ambient 2005, Meissner contributed "Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death." Both wonderfully rich tracks with some of the most cheeky titles ever. The following year, his remix of "Milk" was selected for the series, then it was "Ruined in a Day (Buenos Aires)" on Pop Ambient 2007 and "The Ice Storm" for the most recent comp, released in November. For Kompakt, Meissner has also produced a 12-inch, "Listen, the Snow is Falling," in 2005 and the full-length CD, Music to Fall Asleep, in 2006.

Late in 2007, New York-based Anticipate Recordings released Klimek's newest full-length effort, Dedications, which continues Meissner's sonic dissection of those tiny spaces that exist between light and dark, somewhere and nowhere. Made up of tracks he produced over a three-and-a-half year period, Dedications possesses a grayer, more industrial tone without sacrificing any of the slow-motion beauty of his earlier recordings. Resident Advisor critic Carl Ritger calls it "a collection of perfectly realized drifting tones, humming drones and rustling static ... arranged with a painter's touch and awash in milky reverb." That sums it up perfectly.

I met Sebastian when he performed at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (or Movement, if you will) in 2006. He was part of a Kompakt showcase that included Markus Guentner and Mikkel Metal. All three live performances remain among my favorite memories of that festival. A week later, Klimek was my guest at a weekly residency that my DJ collective, Paris '68, held at a Detroit cafe. What did Klimek play that night? Bottoms-up dubstep, classic dirty funk and soul, hip hop and jazz classics: an amazingly diverse selection of tunes that he rolled out as his Ambient Pimp alter ego. People who were there watched and listened with eyes and ears (and minds, I trust) wide open.

We've kept in touch since then. This interview was done on email over the last month, with edits and re-edits sent back and forth and back again across the Atlantic.

Hello, Sebastian. We met in Detroit in 2006 when you performed at the Movement Festival. Do you have some memories of that event or any lasting impressions of Detroit?

Oh, definitely! I have lot of formative memories of Detroit. I visited the city for the first time in 1995. It was just one year after Robert Hood’s “Minimal Nation,” which was for me one of the deepest music experiences to date. The Motown/soul heritage was in the background of my perception, but still it was and is the Motor City. During that trip, a friend and me landed in Detroit’s suburbs, while missing an exit to downtown. Well, OK, I had already experienced the streets of poor and devastated U.S. suburbia in New York and Washington D.C. before.

But being confronted with the only American city to my knowledge where downtown was as much devastated as suburbia in other cities, a city where downtown was the “ghetto” was a highly influential experience for me. After some time of cruising we found our way downtown and there it was: this big Caribbean music festival (don’t remember the name), where people were gently grooving and having a late afternoon barbecue (that was the same area where DEMF is happening now). I don’t think that I expected anything that the city would look or be like, but this trip to Detroit definitely encouraged me later on to focus on U.S. urban/culture studies.

My last visit to Detroit was a big pleasure. My friend Amir Husak was living at that time in the city and I stayed more then one week at his place having lot of fun together, having him showing me all the cool and secret places of the city – like sneaking into the old train station. Going to a Perlon party at the Masonic Temple and other abandoned building and warehouse parties, sightseeing the residences of former soul legends, eating shawarma and chlorinated Diet Coke on ice in Little Lebanon (in the suburb of Dearborn), having bad Polish food in a 3rd generation after immigration restaurant, a trip across the river to Windsor, Canada. … You are very welcome to check out my pictures from my Pixel Travel series on, which I took during that visit. Definitely it was one of my coolest trips to the U.S.

I remember you identifying yourself to me as the Ambient Pimp! Where did that name come from and are you still doing Ghetto Ambient tracks?

Well, actually the Ambient Pimp thing started during that trip to Detroit. It was kind of a joke. Cruising with Amir through the city, listening to rock and hip-hop and performing later that day a Klimek set at DEMF. I mean: I never took that “ambient” thing for real myself. Ambient Pimp is maybe the Marilyn Manson or Jello Biafra of the down (or no)tempo electronica! A character big enough to leave space for letting two different worlds clash into each other.

Once I was invited to a festival called “Ambient Picnic,” on a Sunday afternoon, in a park – I wanted to record the sound of barking dogs for this event – but had to cancel the gig because of schedule conflicts. Having such dilemmas some people maybe would advise to start doing noise (music) straight away (and I am still waiting for the right moment when I will be ready to record a noise album), but I find it more communicative to reflect on music genres from the inside and not from the outside. Like all those artists who have developed and devoted their life’s work to one specific aesthetic. Today I am using the Ambient Pimp alias when I am DJing deep house and techno.

The name “Ghetto Ambient” has a similar background. I never really knew what this thing “Pop Ambient” means. For me it was little bit like this “grunge” term, symbolizing so many different things to so many different people, but in fact being just a fashion word, which was easy to sell to a growing target audience.

What is “ambient” anyway? It's a terminology same as "rock," describing a huge genre that means so much and yet blurs everything at the same time. Of course, I still love “Chill Out” by KLF. Ambient seems to symbolize dreamy worlds between relaxation and science fiction. Myself, I am interested in art, by that I mean discussing the world around me. “Ghetto Ambient” is about places at the edge of our “globalized world.”

These are non-places - but not like the French anthropologist Marc Augé used it: places such as airports and malls. But instead forgotten or ignored places in our fat society like Gaza, East Jerusalem, Algeria, or simply like the part of the neighborhood just around the corner where you live. I have composed a lot of Ghetto Ambient tracks, which shift between post-dubstep and darkly-drone atmospheres, but wasn’t able to find an appropriate label to release those tracks.

Give us a brief background of your life and travels. You were born in Czestochowa, Poland, right? I know you've lived in Vienna and now live in Berlin. Where else have you lived?

Are you joking? I am supposed to give you a background of my life? I am 38. This is too much for this format. I am born to a half Polish and half Polish-German (Upper Silesian) family. I spent the first 12 years of my life in socialistic Poland. In 1981, my parents took the train to West Germany. So I left my childhood, quite abruptly, behind me and landed in the middle of my adolescence in the (still) happy capitalism of 1980s Germany. Szombierki - a former working-class neighbourhood of the Upper Silesian town of Bytom - is the place where I spent my whole childhood.

From the end of the 19th century it was one of Europe’s most busy industrial areas - coalmines and huge steel works. Decay of industrial buildings was a natural part of the landscape; those buildings that couldn’t be maintained anymore were abandoned, leaving behind exciting playgrounds for kids like me. There were so many things to explore, digging holes and finding those unidentified objects.

In my early 20s, when I started to get busy with photography, one of my favourite places turned out to be the port in the east end of Frankfurt (my former hometown). Friends were asking me why am I taking pictures of all those ugly places. This was maybe the first time that I realized that other people might find those places ugly. It is how I started explaining to myself my fascination for cities like Detroit. Especially the old central train station, where I could luckily and illegally climb inside during my last trip to the city. Beside that – and especially after many other travels to North and South America - I lost a personal bound for places, lost the idea of home defined by geography. I also lived in Vienna for 2 years and in New York (or better say New Jersey) for one year.

Tell us a little bit about your work as Random Inc. and Autopoiesies for Mille Plateaux in the late 1990s. What was it like working with Ekkehard Ehlers?

First of all there are not that many connections between my work as Random Inc and Autopoieses. I started to fool around with my first PC in 1994: recording distortions, clicks, the hiss of records and other regular/abnormal sound events. But the biggest fun of all was sampling my records and cutting them to pieces. Ekkehard Ehlers started to call me at that time the "DJ Premier" of the microsound, a distinction, which (immodestly speaking) I have kept somehow until now.

Autopoieses started for the two of us by sitting on leather couches late at night listening to John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Iannis Xenakis and chain gang blues records and drinking bottles of whiskey and beer. We were friends at this time, and without this friendship, I guess I wouldn’t make my little hard-drive world public so soon. So working between the two of us depended on close and positive human relation.

So what happened?

At that time two coincidences occurred, which changed the paths of our music careers: one was when he was drunk, Ekki smashed the bathroom door at a party at (founder of Mille Plateaux/Force Inc.) Achim Szepanski’s apartment; the other was that our first record La Vie A Noir was discovered by William Forsythe dancer Stephen Galloway (who at that time shared the same apartment as Markus Weissbeck, who had designed the artwork of our albums).

He introduced our rework of Roberta Flack’s “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” to Mr. Forsythe, which made him use it for his ballet peace “Endless House” (actually a one minute track, which was looped – to what I have heard - to more then half an hour). I didn’t even get a ticket for any of those “Endless House” shows (and of course didn’t even see a penny, although this specific composition used there was indisputably done just by myself – as sampled from Ekkehard Ehler's Roberta Flack record) because EE was too busy manoeuvring himself toward spotlights.

On “Music For William Forsythe” Ekkehard has attempted to rework my version and I am using sometimes my own extended version as the opening track for my concerts. I have put my alias Random Inc on hold. It symbolized for me too much what is past for me: my time at Mille Plateaux, and my so-called “Jerusalem project," which then transformed into Intifada Offspring and the release Bizz Circuits play Intifada Offspring.

You began recording Klimek tracks for Kompakt in 2002. When did you meet Wolfgang Voigt? Were you a fan of his Profan/Studio 1 tracks?

Of course! Besides Detroit there was Wolfgang! Studio 1, Profan, Love Inc and all that great shit. I knew Wolfgang’s work from the Force Inc/Mille Plateaux days very well, and his Mike Ink alias was one of my favourite techno acts at the beginning of the 1990s. The Klimek - Kompakt connection started with a simple and anonymous demo, which made Wolfgang call me some days after its arrival and offering to me to release those two tracks as the “Milk & Honey” 12-inch. Those were the two first tracks, which were marking a new production level for me.

And Voigt's denser, more atmospheric work in the later 1990s ...

Wolfgang’s Gas project was surely very influential for what some years later turned out as a new wave of bedroom produced ambient music. The Gas project is rooted in a time when this so-called “ambient music” was very close to techno, it was an integral part of this culture, and it wasn’t just a pure functional music genre, allowing ravers to come down after exhausting dance escapades. Out of Gas came a lot of producers who developed very distinguished styles of slowed down/beatless music.

You have a new Klimek track, 'The Ice Storm,' on Pop Ambient 2008 and a critically-acclaimed new full-length, Dedications, on NYC-based Anticipate Recordings. How did Klimek find his way unto a U.S. label?

Don’t you think “critically-acclaimed” is a very funny and dubious word? Depending so much who those critics are… he he. I really haven’t expected that feedback to the Dedications album, since it started for me as a clean-up process of my hard-drive. Most of the tracks are very old (for me). In some cases 4 years old. Well, again it started in Detroit during DEMF 2006, where I met (Anticipate label founder) Ezekiel Honig. From this moment on we stayed in touch, and after some time he asked me for a remix of one of his tracks, which then again was the starting track for the Dedications album. This Klimek remix, which initially was entitled “For Ezekiel Honig” was supposed to be included on a 12-inch for (Honig's) Microcosm label. At the same time I wanted to get rid of my old Klimek tracks, re-gaining virtual space and also room in my head for new productions.

So, one by one I started sending tracks to Ezekiel, leaving us with 12 compositions or solid drafts. Somehow I always thought they were too deep and departed too much from the “Pop Ambient” territory, so I never bothered offering them to Kompakt (some of them were also part of my “Ghetto Ambient” sessions). Listening to them all together we realized that they had a good substance for an album. Unfortunately by accident the Klimek track entitled “The Ice Storm” didn’t end up on the Pop Ambient 2008 compilation but instead as “For Steven Spielberg and Azza El-Hassan” from the Dedications album on Anticipate. That’s all right for me, so now I can save the original track entitled “The Ice Storm” for the next Klimek album, Movies Is Magic, on which I will focus on the relationship between music in and for movies.

The titles are intriguing: You make references to Marvin Gaye, Michael Gira, Eugene Chadbourne, Mark Hollis, Ezekiel Honig and others. Can you explain how you decided on these dedications?

Dedications turned out not only as a perfect album title for this selection of tracks, but is also to some extent very programmatic to the whole Klimek project. Based on samples I am using to compose the tracks, where the initial sound/music sources haven’t a pure functional meaning. In a recent interview in the German magazine Spex, Einstürzende Neubauten were comparing the Dada movement to sampling culture, way before sampling existed. Slice it up to pieces and compose something with a new meaning out of it.

Within my own method I dissect those sound fragments from other works I love, respect or which simply fascinate me. In my sample libraries they “grow” sometimes over very long periods of time. Those are the precious things I want to gather around me to become part of my world. In the same interview Blixa Bargeld said that for him Dada needs to be an elemental part of the understanding and creative practice of every artist he wants to take seriously - an attitude I highly sympathize with.

How did you apply this to your most recent productions?

On the last Klimek album Music To Fall Asleep there are two other tracks that have a similar background as "For Ezekiel Honig and Young (pan) Americans" – the track that initiated the Dedications release. As with "Yuppies with Jeeps/Working Towards Independence" and "Accompanying Guilty Thought of Unauthorized Candy (a reference to Chris Ware's comic book character Jimmy Corrigan) /Homeless," it started with remix requests by fellow bands: Yuppies With Jeeps and The Notwist. All my attempts at remixing their songs ended up in creating something, which was a bit far away from a classic remix. And it was The Notwist who pointed this out for the first time by offering me the writing credits for my treatment (remix) of their "Solo Swim" song. So when I am using all those transformed samples from my libraries and creating my own compositions out of them, I am somehow dedicating myself to the work of those composers, musicians and sound designers – spending lot of time studying by slicing their tracks to fragments. The namedropping on the Dedications album is of course not that obvious, where every title bears sound samples from the repertoire of that particular composer (and actually seven of those people are not involved in music production).

As on Music To Fall Asleep – I was trying to pay attention to the difficulty of giving a composition a single title, as I felt that compositions (in general) consist of so many different contexts/fragments/influences and are perceived by its listeners in so many different ways – I am dedicating my tracks to two different individuals and I am trying to put people from two different worlds in a mutual context and discuss their (symbiotic) relationship. Maybe my favorite pairing of dedications is Steven Spielberg and Azza El-Hassan and goes back to my work “Presence/Absence ::: Into The Void” (coming out of an installation, my collaboration with the Israeli artists Ran Slavin and Eran Sachs, two concerts and a music composition which was released on Sub Rosa in 2006), which I have created for the XIIIth edition of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, where I have used parts of the Schindler's List soundtrack to point out a specific aspect of virtual Jewish places and virtual Jewishness. Klezmer nostalgia meets concentration camp tourism meets visiting the spots of film-shots, while dressed-up Poles in traditional robes of orthodox Jews are serving semi-kosher food to the sound of second-hand klezmer. The Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Azza El-Hassan is urging Spielberg in one of her films to finally start working on his movie about the holy land which his production company announced some years ago and which supposedly will address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So those “Dedications” on Dedications shouldn’t be understood as simple obeisance to those people’s bodies of work, whose names are cited on the album, but as an attempt to take a look at when two worlds collide. Sometimes it can mean pointing out similarities in biographies of people who lived in different time periods. Like for example the track entitled “For Marvin Gaye and Russel Jones” – even though I am a big admirer of Gaye’s and Ol’ Dirty Bastard's works – the focus of this specific selection lies in their very tragic characters. Both of them reached a level of media popularity, which couldn’t be topped anymore, making them so-called living legends, but they struggled with heavy cocaine addiction the last years of their lives.

Further pairs of names deal with relationships between artists surrounded by love, hate and creativity (like Grant Hart and Bob Mould, the Lennon-MacCarney of the post-punk scene), also about working and making art about work (Michael Gira versus a Russian seaman Vadimir Ivanovich, whom I met during my trip to Kirkeness, Norway while preparing my work "Business Never Personal") and about real and staged loneliness, hopelessness and despair (my grandmother Zofia Klimek versus Gregory Crewdson).

What kind of equipment are you using? Do you have a studio at home? You play several instruments as well, yes?

At the present time I am producing mostly on a purely virtual level. Besides my mixer, a midi-controller and my microphones, which I am using for outdoor recordings I have three computers I am working with. I don’t play an instrument. I mean, of course I have used and recorded instruments abused by myself to create sounds and tones, but it would be highly pretentious to call myself a player of a classic instrument. This is a point at which I sometimes feel very seesaw-like, sometimes wishing so much that I would have started to learn classical music composition and also mastered a classical instrument back when I was younger, something which right now would demand too much time and concentration from me.

But then again I realize that avoiding this time consuming exercise, which demands an unconditional focus and plenty of discipline, has allowed me to do those things a classical musician couldn’t do and see during his career. High level of virtuosity is rarely reached, has a high price and can become a curse - making you a prisoner of yourself and slave to your once developed/established/marketed/style/aesthetics. It’s very intriguing for me to see the shift, changes and development in the performance of electronic music and the recent mixing of classical instruments with computers and computer music.

On the one hand, I see the role of computer software being reduced in live settings to an effect device (for example recording and looping the played sound) and on the other hand, I am observing a high output of new hardware and software opening doors to a new dimension of virtuosity for computer music performers, but who mostly are missing the opportunity to practice and master a device properly. I still can’t help listening to Terre Thaemlitz’s “Super Bonus,” for me one of the biggest pieces of computer-produced music to date.

Can you tell us about some of your future projects?

I am trying to shift with my work to forms less focused on music and sound. I feel that those issues I have tried to address in my releases so far are rarely of interest in the music world I have travelled through. I have prepared three works about the Upper Silesian region in Poland, which will be a mixture of participatory art projects, installations, music events, historical excavations, documentations of oral history and social work. The next Klimek album will be ready soon, and as mentioned above it will deal with soundtracks, pathos and the relationship between storytelling and “real life” (an alternate title for this album is True Lies).

I am in the middle of working with a vocalist/chanteuse, which is very exciting to me. She has a beautiful voice and I hope we can find a productive way of working together. The “Ghetto Ambient” project is still open for me and I will have to think more about a comfortable home for tracks from those recording sessions (and start to record even more tracks) – preferably in combination with my own photo-based visuals.

Klimek will be performing with Murcof at the Club Transmediale Festival on 30 January. The event will be at the Carl Zeiss Planetarium, Prenzlauer Allee 80, Berlin.

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