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Interview with Dirk Serries - Microphonics & 3 Seconds of Air

img  Tobias Fischer

you've already explained in detail why you had to move on from vidnaObmana to fear falls burning. what, however, prompted you to start the microphonics-project?
dirk serries: essentially, in between the recording sessions for fear falls burning i noticed that i kept returning to very minimal ideas on the guitar. i was really just trying out effects and techniques for use at a later stage, but what i noticed was that these soundscapes didn't really fit the pattern of what i was doing with fear falls burning. in my opinion, some of the early releases of that project, „the carnival of ourselves“, for example, already hinted at something like microphonics, but the technical set-up had been completely different. and that's when i started putting things into perspective: i had just closed my chapter as vidnaObmana, where i went from heavy industrial to a very minimal music and from there to a sort of cross-fertilisation in which all of these different elements were blended together. after concluding the dante-trilogy, my passion for vidnaObmana had died. but i still felt very strongly about minimal ambient, about pure atmospheres and about harmonies without getting too melodious. because i was experimenting so much with different genres and engaging in so many collaborations, i had somehow lost touch with that particular part of me. it wasn't hard to find out why this was happening: as a musician, i am ever-curious, i keep wanting to cover new ground. so it simultaneously felt like a completely natural process and a contradiction to me. fear falls burning had been an effort of going back to my roots in a bid of regaining that passion, but i'd again committed the same mistake. i started trying out different things, started getting great feedback, started to go on tour with cult of luna, suddenly started hearing drums and more guitars in my head. when i began working with other people, i quickly realised i was moving in the same direction as i had with vidnaObmana. so i accepted that this drive for innovation was a part of my personality which i couldn't ignore. but at the same time, i also wanted to identify constants in my work.

you've said that with microphonics, you're coming closer to what got you interested in sound in the first place. in which way exactly?
dirk serries: without being too academic or technical, for me it has been all about dissecting and analyzing the strength of singular notes and sounds. working with a sparse collection of sounds has always been a fascinating discipline for me personally but over the course of more than two decades, i more than once departed from this philosophy in order to explore other combinations, fusions and exercises. but i today believe that i needed those twenty years to actually mature and grow as a musician in order to be able to strip down to the essence. speaking for myself, it took me courage, self-experience and most of all confidence to purify my music from all the superficial and the dead weight. it has been an intense process of rise and fall over these more than two decades but i finally arrived at a point where i know what the future of my music is. also, the connection with tonefloat helped me to re-focus and meet that challenge. giving birth to my most personal endeavour under the wings of such an excellent label has given me the tranquility to execute this project over time with confidence and at my own pace.

you mentioned your fascination for „combinations, fusions and excercises“.  how would you, on the other hand, describe the feeling of staying true to a particular sound?
dirk serries: it's pure liberation! truly. i had my share of complex experimenting and composing but it only seems now that i found my own inner peace with the music i want to score.  i also feel that microphonics is purity, an honest reflection of who i am and who i want to become as a composer and performer. microphonics is also an ode to sheer beauty in minimalism and harmony. i feel myself at this very point and stage in my life and as musician confident enough to portray this vital role and to exhibit the music in the most naked concept imaginable. this is truly a personal mission and just recently when doing the first lengthy microphonics-tour, i realized more than ever that this is who i am and that the music is significant enough to stand apart with an individual sound, presentation and way of performing and composing.

 

isn't it sobering, though that the audiences for microphonics are much small than with vidnaObmana and fear falls burning?
it might sound strange to most, unless those who know me personally, but it truly feels like a re-birth. this is not to say that the fear falls burning audiences are so massive but the intimate and small-scaled microphonics concerts are refreshing and bring peace and calmness to my way of profiling myself as a musician and mapping out the future for the project. in such intimate settings and therefore with smaller attendances i feel more pleasure in the act of performing. although you might think that such concerts increase the pressure and stress since every move, accent and action is enlarged enormously, the feeling is the opposite. the character of these concerts provides me with the visibility, focus, motivation and pleasure i can hardly gain when bigger elements are involved in the production of a live event.

how long did it take you to attach your own name to the project?
dirk serries: i had a lot of reservations about it. effectively, you could say that it took me twenty-four years to attach my own name to the project, because this is the time time it took me to accept my real talents. i am self-taught and  don't know how to play the guitar in the classical sense. but i do know how to translate my ideas to sound and how to create minimal, repetitive loops, harmonies and drones. that's my natural habitat and i've kept returning to that even when i was working on fear falls burning. you could argue that, in terms of approach and philosophy, there is not much difference between microphonics and what i was doing as vidnaObmana in the early days. the instrumentation has changed, but other than that, i'm merely refining the idea.

so, effectively, you needed to record „frenzy of the absolute“, an album which was in a way blatantly out of touch with what you originally wanted to do, to arrive at these conclusions ...
dirk serries: absolutely and i don't regret a thing. i needed to take these steps into the unknown to understand what my roots as a musician are and where i wanted to go. the extreme experiment of „frenzy of the absolute“ led to the personal success of microphonics. and i do call it a success, because i really feel very comfortable with this project. fear falls burning somehow got out of hand and i told myself i would never again let it come to this. so with microphonics, there will be just one label, one setup, a single compositional principle ...

... no collaborations ...

dirk serries: ... no collaborations! this is a pure solo affair. if i should ever work with someone else in the future, i will do so under a different moniker. such as with paul van den berg and my wife martine under the title of 3 seconds of air – even though it's a project which is undeniably close to microphonics. there are connections, but i do try to create slightly different layers for that band than for microphonics. and the additional elements of paul's guitar and martine's bass are turning it into something entirely different, at least in my opinion.

is part of the approach that sets microphonics apart from the other projects, so to speak, to award more attention to each single sound rather than create dense, richly orchestrated compositions?
dirk serries: indeed. since i did both, i was in a fortunate position to actually compare and to decide which method, style and way of composition gave me the most satisfaction. like i said before, i’m very grateful for the path i’ve been able to pursue with vidnaObmana and fear falls burning as well, since the complexity of creating that music helped me realize how vital, strong and essential minimalism in all its aspects for me personally is. i also firmly believe that without this artistic baggage i’ve invested in over the years i never would have succeeded in realizing this kind of efficiency in my way of playing, the transparent set-up of microphonics and how we are presenting the complete project. i can’t express this enough as i do think that only few out there actually realise how complex and difficult it actually is remain focused on just one concept and adhere to it so strictly. this is a road i've clearly been travelling on since day one but which never exposed to such a degree until now.

to me, it seems as though your work with microphonics has detached itself from the usual cycles of development usually expected of an artist. rather than moving forward in a linear line, you now appear to be moving laterally, sideways as it were ...
dirk serries: oh absolutely. by scrapping “evoluation” so to speak from my personal angle, it gives me enough breathing space, time, energy and patience to investigate every sound, every tool, every step of the process. rather than being focused and consumed by the ever increasing aspect of multi-tracking, producing and mixing the music into one product, i now use my time to carefully play and exercise ideas, techniques and settings. it’s a great luxury to have myself focused onto one instrument only. but i do have new compositional ideas and techniques which I’ll carefully unfold over time. with microphonics there’s no rush to push boundaries and re-invent yourself from one song to the next.  there’s no pressure, no expectation, no complex pre- or post-production. it’s suddenly possible for a particular theme or idea to grow and mature over time. for instance, the music of microphonics xii (the 10” tour edition) has been progressing and mutating over the course of the last tour and will continue to do so during the next concerts for sure. the aim is completely on making microphonics a cohesive and slow-expanding series of studio albums, live recordings and concerts - all exclusive to the tonefloat label and all related and carefully executed in style and progress.

one of the things that stand out for me is that microphonics hinges on an intriguing paradox. if listened to in the background, the music seems dreamy and accessible. the more you actually zoom in, however, the complexer, more intriguingly confusing and rewarding it gets and you find there is no real center of attention anymore, but rather a continuous shifting of themes, timbres and harmonies. i often wonder where, as the creator of these pieces, your own center of attention is while sculpting them?
dirk serries: nice to hear this. i do have a sort of natural sensor for those complex and linear compositions. clear and instant “melodies” never appealed to me as i enjoy working around a few motives which unfold themselves over the course of a couple of minutes. i like to work according to a concept i call “eye of the needle”, a structure that carefully explores its own merits and harmony over a longer duration. as a listener, you do have to dive in and crawl through the “eye of the needle” in order to discover the structure of the song and notice that there’s movement, progression and an actual harmony. i like to expound my ideas over a longer stretch of time and work towards sculpting an idea over the course of a few minutes before the pattern gets repeated or combined with additional strokes of guitar. the development of a mere idea into a composition takes place, for the greater part, in my mind before i execute the idea by playing the actual notes. and i will mostly not even spell out the original idea in full, but instead play notes that normally float around the idea. this way, i will arrive at themes that generate over a longer time and do not reveal themselves at instant playback.

with vidnaObmana, you would increasingly dive into the details, making each album not just an emotional expression but also the result of intense labour and finetuning. in which way has microphonics, where your releases are live sessions, often even culled directly from concerts, changed your perception of the album as an artistic statement?
dirk serries: frequently, after completing a vidnaObmana album, i felt myself drained from all energy, inspiration and joy of performing music. the structuring of the songs, the complex tuning of every sound and the mixing/production process demanded so much. i also believe that, apart from my urge to push boundaries within the genres vidnaObmana aspired to, the complex and heavily demanding production process was also a result of not feeling 200% confident about what i was doing. microphonics is equally demanding and a result of hard labour. but since it eschews all unnecessary technical complexity and is born through a real-time process, the joy of sculpting, performing and recording the songs in the studio or on stage is far greater and more pure. the result comes immediately back to me, giving me artistically unfiltered satisfaction and generating energy. working solely with the essential sources and purified ideas is something i pursue in both studio and live releases. i really think there’s hardly any difference between the studio and live recordings in terms of approach. only the elements that affect the composition from the outside differ. by reducing the technical aspects of recording and composition but instead relying on a strict musical method, microphonics becomes a pure emotional expression of my love for sound, harmony and beauty.

so how come you never split up your work into these clearly delineated spaces with vidnaObmana?
dirk serries: when i was fourteen years old, i took a pretty mature decision: i told myself that i wanted to work under a banner which could contain everything. this sparked the name vidnaObmana, which translates to „optical illusion“ and essentially referred to the fact that i accepted no borders when it came to genre. having said that, i do believe that there is a sort of theme running through the entire oeuvre with regards to arranging the material and in terms of composition. some of it may be rhythmical, some may be noise or avantgarde. but there is always a recognisable structure in these pieces which indicates that the same person is responsible for them.

even on your earliest industrial pieces, you never just scratch the surface. there's always a considerable depth in these works ...
dirk serries: i was never about this full-in-your-face approach. it was a very associative type of music and never noise for noise's sake. i always wanted to add a certain mood and warmth, which i felt was lacking from a lot of industrial music. and the same goes for microphonics, which really feels like a breath of fresh air to me right now. i don't think fear falls burning would have been long-lived if it hadn't been for that project. after „frenzy of the absolute“, i didn't really know which direction to turn to, but at the same time i couldn't  turn back either.

another important aspect of vidnaObmana was for you to step back behind the music and let the sounds do the talking. does this also mean that you're now more comfortable standing on stage naked as it were and without the need to carry a mask?
dirk serries: i think so. probably again because it's so sparse and efficient. with vidnaObmana, i was using projections and trying to create a particular otherworldly ambiance. microphonics, on the other hand, feels like a very grounded, urban and human project to me.

does it still happen that you find yourself adding „too much notes“ to microphonics?
dirk serries: i noticed this very recently, in fact, when, during a concert, i was definitely creating too many layers and getting too textural during the performance. but i am now using these events to learn from mistakes and to keep eliminating material. there is a huge difference between working on a piece in the studio and then taking the same piece to an audience. at home, you can get a general feeling about what things should sound like. but that teaches you nothing about what structure a track should have. it is only when you're on stage that you realise which parts are superfluous and which passages can be extended. with microphonics, i have however never had the inclination to start working with other instruments and vocals. i am also somewhat proud of myself for fending off the various suggestions for collaborations. jozef van wissem, for example, asked me whether i'd be interested in working with him. and so i told him that i would love to co-operate – but not under the microphonics-banner. on the upcoming tour, to give you another example, there will be three dates with english one-man-project yellow six. we know each other really well and have a project due on equation records and so he suggested to do something together on stage as microphonics. but i refused and i consider this insistence as an important step for me personally.

in how much, though, are the ideas of colleagues using similar points of departure of interest for your own performances?
dirk serries: they’re not particularly vital for my own performances but i do have enormous respect for musicians who have been investing loads of energy, time and self-discovery into realizing their own voice in music. N's helmut neidhard is one of those musicians who did - and that's something you can absolutely not only hear in his music but also in the way how he has set up his instruments, using his personally gained expertise in configuring his personal selection and combination of soundtools. a unique but to my knowledge rare quality that makes N stand out as an original, intriguing and fascinating musician. of course, i do realize that nobody owns copyrights on which instruments to play but when you see someone copying your set of instruments blindly in the hope of reaching the same kind of music i really wonder where the satisfaction of that is?
i do realize that we don’t make original music in the true sense of the word, since as all genres have their roots in other styles, most likely all extracted from a tribal origin. i, too, have been hugely influenced by other musicians but with the proper engagement and attitude you can succeed in realizing music that is undoubtedly yours and i strongly believe i did with microphonics. and helmut did this with his music. microphonics is the result of more than twentyfive years of intense labour in selecting the most suitable instruments, realizing a timbre/a sound that stands out and that’s your own, musical techniques in carving out those harmonies, manufacturing those loops and repetitive patterns that become the backbone and feature element of your music, and so on. microphonics is the expression that dwells inside me and that has been on the outside in the forms of vidnaObmana and fear falls burning but for the first time now naked and derived from all its superficiality.

i could imagine that the audience doesn't even mind that much whether it's a more ambient fear falls burning-set or a microphonics-set. if you take your performance at the tonefloat label-night with theo travis, for example, that could also have been billed as microphonics.
dirk serries: admittedly, it was more atmospheric than what i usually do as fear falls burning. but to me, there's still a clear difference. it's in the harmonies, really. the chords i create on these two projects each have a unique feeling. there's more of a flow in microphonics. in that respect, fear falls burning is more direct and concrete, while microphonics is more brittle and drawn-out, melodious even in a way. it's a good question, though. when charles asked me to do the tonefloat-session with theo, i did a lot of thinking about which name to use. in the end, it was the fact that there was more fuzz to it and i was using certain structural elements which made me decide it was going to be a fear falls burning record. when people ask me what kind of music this is, i always tell them: this is my most extreme album ever! not in terms of noise, but in terms of minimalism. it's even purer than microphonics, because that still has a lot of warmth and a feeling of solace. but „the tonefloat sessions“ is very remote and cold music, frozen almost.

italian director fellini once remarked that he always seemed to be making the same movie. with regards to your strive for purity, is that something you can relate to?
dirk serries: i think that's a pretty apt description, yes. if you compare microphonics xi and xii, you'll see that they share a lot of elements. and yet, there is clearly a progression. on the more recent album of the two, i realised my ideas in a way that i previously wasn't able to. and yet, i could never have come there without microphonics xi. so that's why every piece builds on what came before and why i simply keep numbering the tracks serially: they're all related. there is no philosophy and no concepts either. it's all about the music and the mood it creates. if you like, it's a single, slowly evolving drone. some of this will be published, some of it won't. but even if i think something is not worth releasing – for reasons of audio quality mainly or simply because i personally don't like it – that doesn't mean it's not relevant.

your current evolution reminded of the the biography of japanese improviser toshimaru nakamura. he started out as a rock guitarist, then felt that wasn't what he wanted and moved to a microphonics-style line-up of guitar and effects. in the end, he enjoyed shaping the guitar-sound inside the mixing board more than actually playing the guitar and disconnected it, leaving nothing but his mixer. so can this minimalism turn into an obsession?

dirk serries: absolutely. for me, i get so much satisfaction from working with a single sound. this is something that a blues-musician like paul will agree with. it is incredibly hard and takes an enormous amount of discipline to keep returning to the essence. and yet, it is something very beautiful as well. just like nakamura, i keep going working my way backwards. there is and can be no end to that process. microphonics is something that was always continuing behind the scenes. which doesn't mean that i feel it should just be for fun. when i start working on a project, i feel it is important to come up with something tangible. it was the same when working with paul and martine as 3 seconds of air. when we began rehearsing together, i told them that if we're going to invest time and soul in this, it would have to be documented in the form of an album. i need music as a means of communication and even though i don't always adhere to every criticism directed at me, i need the reactions of listeners as a mirror to what i do. it's incredibly important for the evolutionary process.

but do you feel as though the critics and the audience can appreciate these subtle evolutions?
dirk serries: that however is something i really can't take into consideration. i am already happy that there are some reviewers out there capable of describing music in an informed and informative way. it's just a simple fact that we're living in a society that's always on the move and pretty superficial and most journalists are simply joining the game. putting the subtleties of a concept into words is not part of their plan. which is a great shame, because if you no longer dare people into trying out something different or into exploring these nuances for themselves, then you're missing out on a great opportunity. it is creating a culture if impatience. i do realise that this tendency will probably increase with microphonics, though.

if you take the gig at the bis auf's messer record store in berlin, for example, the music sounded so different when played during the daylight and in the sun. is the minimal setup of microphonics helpful in bringing out subtle nuances in each performance?

dirk serries: absolutely, the immediate environment in the context of microphonics is so important that it almost becomes an essential factor in the way how the music needs to be represented. luckily, the minimal and completely independent set-up allows me to adjust quite easily to the circumstances, whether it’s a beautiful store like bis auf's messer or a filfthy squat. naturally i do prefer to play at the most elegant places where the subtility and harmony is correct.  having a wooden floor or stage to your disposal is a luxury as it transports the frequencies and timbres coming out the amplifier so naturally and expanded throughout the venue while giving myself the psychical response and perfect control over the communication between guitar and amplifier. it’s unfiltered, direct and natural.

you mentioned that you're not really a guitarist. so has microphonics changed your relationship with the instrument?
dirk serries: definitely. thanks to paul, who helped me work with the blues scale, i was able to immerse myself in playing the guitar in my own way and to apply it as a sound source. but i also need some basics. so paul advised me about which guitar to use as well as which scales might be suitable to create the harmonies i like. but it's not really about virtuosity. once i've mastered a particular scale, for example, i am no longer interested in it. because then i want to abuse it to arrive at a sound spectrum that i'm hearing in my head.

so paul, do you still hear that blues-element in microphonics?
paul van den berg: i think we're mutually influencing each other. it took me ten years to get rid of my fear of silence. within the blues-world, there is this ideal of virtuosity: you need to be loud and fast and play like stevie ray vaughn. i never liked that and always felt closer to t-bone walker and muddy waters. so in a sense, i've always worked more minimally than other blues-guitarists. but when i started working with dirk, i was still playing far too much. so it took me an enormous amount of time and sweat to get rid of that and it was, in fact, a microphonics gig at the paradox in tilburg, which finally flipped the switch. that's when i got it and that's when 3 seconds of air was born.
but  to get back to your question about microphonics having a leaning towards the blues: just like dirk i enjoy using a bit of fuzz. to me, the blues isn't clean like country. it always has a rough edge. that's something which goes back to the limited financial means of the early blues musicians. they couldn't afford big amps, so to get some volume out of their instruments, they cranked them up and created this distorted sound. so perhaps dirk picked up on this.
dirk serries: the blues is also a very plaintive music. if you play a blues scale, you immediately create a mood of sorrow. there's something pure and beautiful about that and something i don't hear in a lot of music. it seems as though there's a taboo on this kind of beauty, because people are afraid of being associated with new age or similarly smoothed-out styles of music.

so with your different backgrounds, were there a lot of heated debates about the first 3 seconds of air album?

dirk serries: there was a lot of playing, a lot of recording, a lot of great expectations during the sessions and many disappointments afterwards. during several of our studio sessions, we had these euphoric moments when we thought we had finally caught something fantastic. and then we would re-listen to them and it just didn't sound right. this went on for ten years. i had to be strict with paul on several occasions ...
paul van den berg: there were a lot of funny moments, actually. i can distinctly remember one time dirk asked me what i thought about the rehearsal we'd just had. so i told him i thought it went great. he then played the music back to me and it sounded absolutely horrible. i even felt ashamed of what we'd done there (laughs).

so what was the problem exactly?
paul van den berg: it was much too hectic.
dirk serries: (laughs) it was the complete opposite of what we wanted to achieve.
paul van den berg: but it was part of the process of finding what we wanted. it's only after you've played too much that you can see the power in taking things out. i'm not someone who can translate these ideas into sound directly, though. for me, there's always a lot of trial and error. the difference between dirk and me is that he feels completely at home creating atmospheric music, while i only used to listen to it. i was a big fan of tangerine dream and similar music, for example, but i never actually played it.
dirk serries: but that's the great thing about 3 seconds of air. if you'd have two guitarists with the exact same kind of background and aesthetics, you would never arrive at that beneficial friction. and that's why i kept believing in this project and why i kept calling paul on the phone. he may not always have felt the same, but i reassured him that i knew he had it in him. this love for the music we wanted to create was vital in that respect. we did organise a couple of jams with other musicians, who did not share that interest and it just didn't work at all - although they may have been great musicians on paper. and even after the microphonics gig, when we finally reached a mutual level, we still felt something was missing. and that's when paul suggested we could include martine: she's no bassist in a traditional way and at the time mainly used the instrument to vent her frustrations (laughs). but although her performance was pretty heavy stuff, there was something about it that we thought we needed.

you can't go more minimal than her performance on „the flight of song“ ...
dirk serries: it was incredible. surprising in a way as well, but that's when all the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place. you have this figurative, wave-like approach of paul; my own, much less tangible performance and then this very concrete technique of martine. and even though the new material we're working on right now – very slowly by the way, we've had a lot of rehearsals and are still on our first track - is more direct, we're going to stick to this basic line-up of two guitars and a bass and the same amps.

were you using loops on „the flight of song“ at all?
dirk serries: there was a loop-part provided by myself, while martine's bass and paul's guitar lines were all performed in real-time. for the second project, the bass will remain the only live-instrument. but even though we're working with more loops now, we're using them much more efficiently, directly and figuratively than we ever did on our debut.
paul van den berg: things are getting more polar. i'm trying to avoid sounding too much like dirk and therefore, i am turning away from overly atmospheric material. so, for example, if i'm using a particular finger picking to get to a shared level, dirk will try and push me into another direction. we still haven't found exactly what we're looking for, but already in these early stages, it's miles from where we were with „the flight of song“. it's a kind of music which we should be able to perform both at a tiny youth centre and at major-size jazz clubs. which is an important point, because we were tempted for a second to record the new album in the same chapel as the first one. it took a lot thinking and we also needed to persuade martine into giving up the idea. there will also be a different way of recording the album. so we'll be working with close miking, which would never have been an option for the debut, where we had a single microphone for everything. this time, we're aiming for a clearer sound, which will have a direct impact on our performance: when you can hear everything you're playing, you need to be more careful. while in the chapel, you're forgiven more, because each contribution is assimilated into the group performance. now, on the contrary, we're constantly walking on the razor's edge.
dirk serries: actually, it might be interesting to note that our initial idea was that 3 seconds of air would be related to a single place. and when we recorded „the flight of song“ in this magnificent chapel we really thought we needed to stay there and make it our personal studio. but then you don't want to repeat yourself either and suddenly you're working on something which simply doesn't fit that space any more. this band, like fear falls burning, is about moving forward and looking for change. and we can work on this in our own time. paul lives just around the corner and his amp is in my studio. so we can just meet and lift off immediately.

what do you agree on before embarking on an improvisation?
dirk serries: nothing. the key, but that's it. after a quarter of an hour, we will evaluate whether we though it was dead-boring or inspiring.
paul van den berg: and after each piece, we will debate what everybody thought about it in a very constructive and positive way. our aim is always to improve things rather than criticising them. which makes it so much easier.
dirk serries: but you have to be honest about your feelings as well, otherwise it's not going to last. even as an experienced soundscaper, i was going all cosmic on one of our last sessions. martine picked up on that and told me off straight away. which is a great thing when working with other people. telling each other what works and what doesn't is ultimately what allows you to evolve without giving up your principles.

that seems to be an important point. when i listened to „the flight of song“ for the first time, i thought to myself: if they'd work with a drummer, they could easily sell ten times as many records. but then that just wasn't what you wanted, was it?
dirk serries: we've even had the idea of using keyboards at times, but we always decided against it. never change a winning team!
paul van den berg: it's an interesting remark about using a drummer, though. it's been one of our great frustrations with regards to this project that we were never able to find one capable of adding colour to our music rather than acting like a typical „four-to-the-floor“ drummer. we would have wanted someone like cream's jack bruce, someone who's virtually painting with his percussion. because then you're no longer creating this typical rhythm section where bass and drums are essentially doing the same thing. in the end, we gave up on the idea after going through too many metal drummers simply adding their cliched patterns to the music.
dirk serries: effectively, the bass is our rhythm section at the moment. that's where the movement is.

but didn't you recently attend a gig by australian impro-band the necks? there's a drummer for you!

dirk serries: oh absolutely, tony buck.
paul van den berg: that would have been a drummer we could have worked with. but it's a thought we've actually moved away from since then. martine may be adding some movement to the action, but she's also free-floating. so she's providing some basic directions without trivially propelling things forward.
dirk serries: microphonics on the other hand, is very tangible and very structured, a sort of contemporary classical music. the idea behind 3 seconds of air is psychedelia. that's what makes it unique!

in the past, you offered steve reich as a comparison for 3 seconds of air. i can see what you mean, as reich was also making great use of the psycho-acoustic effects you get when playing two almost-identical layers against each other ...
dirk serries: right and in our case, you're getting these interactions between different amps. we really worked with that for „the amplifier drone“. with „the flight of song“, it's a similar concept, but on a lower volume level and with more attention to detail. there's a sort of dialogue between my frequencies and paul's frequencies and martine's bass is pricking through these in an almost sober way. and even though the concept as such is very minimal, it is still very versatile and organic. microphonics, on the other hand, builds up gradually and never attains the diversity and breath of 3 seconds of air. our tracks as 3 seconds of air keep transforming throughout. we may be working with loops, but these loops are continually deconstructed. that's a great advantage of a trio: you don't always need to add something, i can actually go all quiet and allow paul to do his thing. just like pauline oliveros said, you need to listen to each other deeply.

in that respect, are the pieces on „the flight of song“ edits or did you record those sessions from the first to the last note?

dirk serries: they're all unedited versions.

so when you say you're currently working on a particular track, you're effectively working on a concept for a track you're going to record in one go rather than on a recording which you're gradually refining?

dirk serries: yes, we're working on a particular sound, debating how we want to get going and how we want to deconstruct things or where we want to hold back, for example. but that's about it. so once we get down to record a piece, it will be significantly different from the way we rehearsed it. there is no definitive version, we're just waiting for the right moment to press record.

it's similar to what miles davis did on „kind of blue“ ...
paul van den berg: exactly.
dirk serries: we do strike some minor agreements, though, before we start to play. for example, for the piece we're working on right now, we know that paul is going to begin with a certain theme. that's going to be a fixed element, a leitmotif, which will also return when we're working in a live environment. and i will answer that with a set of colours. but other than that, we really can't say which way it will go.
paul van den berg: occasionally, you experience strange things like that. this week, i was reminded of stockhausen and how he would use guitars on stage and have them interact with each other without actually playing them, just using feedback. and in a similar way, during one of our sessions, we were using different loop times. so when we stopped playing, we were listening to a composition which we had initiated, but which we didn't need to add anything to anymore. these loops would continually spark new shapes by themselves. it was perfect.

with loop-based music like microphonics and fear falls burning, it's decisive whether or not you can really make these self-playing installations sound  organic , isn't it ...
dirk serries: indeed and sometimes, you're limited by how much time you have available on vinyl or on a cd, even though you could continue this feedback dialogue for twenty minutes or more. but with 3 seconds of air, we seem to always find a shared point where we want to start working towards an end. perhaps that's also because, within a collective, you need to please different people at the same time.
paul van den berg: in that respect, we're often like a jazz trio. you know where you're starting, you know where you're going to end and you know that there's going to be some improvising in between. but that's it.

do you also see some space for martine to evolve within this framework?

dirk serries: after recording „the flight of song“, paul told us that he thought martine could start using a fretless-bass. which means that you can create a beautiful cantabile-tone and use slide-effects, which would allow her to get more diversity into her performance. and when paul brought along the fretless, it indeed worked great. so even you can still hear that it's martine, it is definitely different.
paul van den berg: she's also matured incredibly in technical respect over a very short period of time.
dirk serries: martine may not have had any professional experience on the instrument. but what she did bring along was a strong sense of controlling herself. she has a patient attitude. she will hear something in her head and still not give in to it directly. instead, she will wait and play later. and i can tell you that this is a rare feat. i've worked with some incredible musicians, who just can't do that.
paul van den berg: she was immediately into our philosophy. which kind of frustrated me at first, because it had taken me ten years to get that far. but then i started thinking about it and came to the conclusion that martine has of course picked this up through listening to dirk's music for more than two decades.
dirk serries: she's also a very critical person. when i was using all kinds of different elements with vidnaObmana, adding more and more instruments, she was always asking me to go back to a more minimal approach. so that's when it became clear to us that we needed to work together as a trio.

so you now have a classically trained blues-musician, a sound artist and a minimalist „amateur“ ...

paul van den berg: we're three entirely different personalities.
dirk serris: don't ask me to play riffs, for example. i don't think i could do that, even if i had to. paul, however, is perfect at it.
paul van den berg: i did notice, though, that dirk is improving on his instrument as well. he may not like to hear that, but it's true. i hear him doing things which are technically excellent.
dirk serries: which is only logical, because we're no longer hiding behind technology. with 3 seconds of air, we're using less and less effects as well. which, in turn, means you need to play your instrument in a very original way.
paul van den berg: recently, we even performed without using an amp. so that does indicate that you must be able to work with your instrument.
dirk serries: i was talking about this with ronald, my sound engineer for fear falls burning. a sound effect is such an easy thing to use. but it is really the combination of different effects that influences your way of performing. this is going to play into all projects i'm involved in, including fear falls burning, because the new album is going to be less multilayered than what i used to do with the project.

you also mentioned that the new fear falls burning full-length is going to be a duo-effort. so is that project turning into a veritable group now?
dirk serries: right now, it is definitely an organism comprising of various people. it also feels as though, within the idea of guitar drones, it could virtually go anywhere. we're again using drums, both by tim bertilsson and phil petrocelli, who also drummed with transitional and on the jesu live-tour. petrocelli, just like me, has an enormous fascination for jazz, he's a big fan of miles davis and jack dejohnette in particular. and while we were talking about this, i suggested he could add these semi-perfect, incredibly complicated metrics. actually, it's pretty hard even discovering the rhythm in that, when you're listening to it. and then i also found a bassist who added his touch to that. he's completely different than martine, but it worked. so i asked him to join me for the entire album.
next to that, my means of working on guitar drones have also changed. for the new fear falls burning album, i will, for example, be using amps on stage. and we're looking for a way of translating that to a duo live-tour. which will be an entirely different approach. something like a cross-breed between 3 seconds of air and fear falls burning. and really, this freedom is the result of creating a safe haven with microphonics. it has widened the scope of fear falls burning even more and turned it into a project for many different musicians.

microphonics sounds very refined and delicate. but in fact, it is quite possibly your most spontaneous and direct project: everything is recorded in a live situation, while recent ffb is much more planned. so is the process in itself becoming more and more important for you?

dirk serries: you're right. that was one of the frustrations with vidnaObmana. compositions were getting so complex and i was working with multitrack so much that i was editing and processing too much. i felt that i was loosing  a bit of spontaneity and that real-time-sensation. looking back, i have made my peace with that, especially since everything i'm recording with fear falls burning today is still performed live. but with vidnaObmana, it was really a microscopic shifting around of elements. and then it started to feel as though i was a surgeon rather than a musician.

from microscopic to microphonic ...

dirk serries: exactly.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Davy Den Houwer

Dirk Serries Discography:
With Microphonics:
Microphonics I-V (Tonefloat) 2008
Microphonics VI (Tonefloat) 2009
Microphonics VII (Tonefloat) 2009
Microphonics XII (Tonefloat) 2010

With 3 Seconds of Air:
The Flight of Song (Tonefloat) 2009


Homepage:
Dirk Serries
Microphonics at MySpace
3 Seconds of Air

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