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Interview with Faures

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, we speak to the three members of ambient group Faures – Fuzz Lee from Singapore, René Margraff from Berlin, Germany and Le Berger from Montreal, Canada – about their perspective. Quite against the typical suspicion that drone/ambient music is un-original by default, their responses point to a finely nuanced perspective and a plethora of influences – mirrored by the trio's formidable and cosmically-tinged debut album on Home Normal.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
René Margraff: Sure. I tried hard to do indie rock in the vein of Pavement, Sonic Youth and Polvo in the mid-nineties. Then I failed at doing IDM with the computer in the early 2000s, it was filed as “indietronic“. While I am surely not influence-free these days, it is more the tools I use or the things in my head (other than music) that impact the music I make. I also still do not really feel like I mastered any instrument I play. Hopefully, this will never happen.

Le Berger: I am still (and always ) in the learning phase, not sure if emulating or in which ways I am anyway and I do not recall a transition towards nor am I conscious of a thing I could call my own voice.

Fuzz Lee: Originality was the last thing on my mind when I got interested in dabbling in music. I started the usual way I suppose. I grew up in a family that loves music. Both my parents are pop and rock fans so I grew up listening to 10CC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Bad Company and so on. At age 11 I wanted to be a drummer. I’d be banging my pillows to anything that was playing on the hi-fi system (much to my parents‘ chagrin) but eventually I realised that a guitar would be more practical. My older cousin gave me his acoustic guitar and I pestered my dad to buy me one of those guitar chord books. I started learning that stuff but I found it pointless after a while because I didn’t know how to play any songs even though I knew all these basic chords. So, I taught myself to play songs off albums by picking out the notes one by one by ear. That habit became a very important thing much later on because it led me to fall in love with dissonant ringing notes and weird chords and I would spend hours just trying different chord voicings and combinations of notes, which eventually became my own “language“ of sorts and signature. I love piano music a lot, as well as keyboard lines from 80s music. So I was this drummer, who tries to play the guitar, trying to emulate piano and keyboard lines. I played drums for my first band in the mid-90s and then switched to guitar after that in the other bands I was in, playing indie music. It was only around 2003 when I started to get tired of playing other people’s songs and executing my own lame musical cliches. It got me seriously thinking of doing something different, to go at it on my own. But it took a musical journey of a few years, taking the plunge into electronic music first, then playing and learning from musicians of an experimental nature, until I finally had the confidence to finally make something that is “me“ in 2011. 

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
Le Berger: That’s the thing, I’m sincerely not sure if I perceive originality as being an important quality in music. It just seems like a superlative people involved in selling it would use after the fact, you slap it on there and it makes the product more appealing to edgy teenagers or your run off the mill hipsters. I’m pretty certain that the people I found original as an edgy teenager (ie King Crimson, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, The Shaggs, etc.) were not setting out to create the most original work ever, they probably would’ve failed miserably if they had that optic.

Fuzz Lee: Hearing David Sylvian for the first time gave me a musical shock. That was during the late 90s. I’ve never heard music like that before and I never heard guitar played like that before. Some of the songs are so spaced out and have almost no rhythm, yet it doesn’t sound empty. It’s like a musical painting. It also helps that he chooses to sing in the lower octaves, because I love crooners. I am used to music that has singing that is trying very hard to tell you something by being either loud or in the higher octaves, so when I heard Sylvian’s voice it made me listen in even more. You could tell he was doing it to prove a point or something, to destroy what people expected of him perhaps. The combination of all those things made it magical for me. The same goes for Bark Psychosis, late era Talk Talk and Mark Hollis, LovesLiesCrushing, Miles Davis, Cocteau Twins (Robin Guthrie’s guitar sound especially), My Bloody Valentine, amongst others. Listening to all these people made me ask myself if I could do something that is different from the rest.

René Margraff: Stuff is original as long as you have not heard it before, I think. That mainly happened with 80s radio when I was a child, the voices of Mark Hollis, Dave Gahan or Robert Smith were definitely different and caught my interest, also I remember a few Eureka moments while watching 120 minutes on MTV as a teenager. Later, it was stuff like Can, This Heat or Flying Saucer Attack that had the same effect.

What's your own definition of originality?
René Margraff: To me, it's simply something that is different from its surroundings and something that I have not encountered before.

Fuzz Lee: It dawned on me at some point in the past that nothing is original. Everything came from somewhere and someone before, even for the pioneers. Except for free improvisation perhaps, because the outcome is so random and there are no two improvisations in one sitting that can sound exactly the same. Improvisation can surprise oneself, by showing you things you never expected yourself to do.

Le Berger: Yes - the boundary between what influences you and what is your own contribution / inspiration is the greyest  shade of impossible to define. So you just set out to do the things you want to do, associate with those you think can help you along and come what may. Originality, if such a thing exists, will become an intrinsic part of that band / project / album de facto, as a record of what happened in that moment, at that place, to those people. Kind of like a photograph, you cannot take the same cliché twice, same goes with music. But then by that token, all music is original.

It’s not so original a definition, I am aware.

Fuzz Lee: With that in mind, originality, to me, is very basic: what you naturally make without much thought to it. What comes naturally to you, your signature, your style, your approach, thinking process, how your environment shapes you, the kind of life you live at that moment. All these things come together in some way or another, resulting in your own sense of originality. Of course, sincerity plays a large part too.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Le Berger: Having been acquainted over time with musics like electro-acoustic, free jazz, contemporary etc. I would say that at this point it seems like everything and anything new is gonna be a blend of influences and the point of originality is pretty much moot, and basically an ego-driven / celeb making mumbo jumbo. I don’t look (or listen…) for anything specific in music other than a connection, and it usually is more related to my own receptiveness than any quality intrinsic to the material itself really.

Fuzz Lee: Not that it has become less important to me, but I just don’t worry about it too much anymore. I play the guitar and there are only so many frets on that thing which means that the combination of notes is finite. In the bigger picture, there’s nothing I can do that will make it “original“. One can only keep on honing their craft in the meantime, so that you are prepared when the creative mode kicks in without warning. Also, during these moments of honing our craft, we stumble upon accidents that will lead to interesting developments that leads to something new and totally unlike us, and makes us want to work on it more. In recent times, I am making music that forces me to go back to the basics, like how I started playing guitar in my teens. So I don’t have the burden of “originality“ that might hinder my creative process right now. Perhaps, taking this route and breaking away what I am used to doing for the last few years in some way will lead me to a sort of “originality“. 

René Margraff: Originality has become less important which is rooted in the fact that I feel saturated by all the stuff that is out there and that gets stuck down my throat. Also, I feel that “originality“ is an absolutely overused term by whoever tries to sell me something. Every chord has been played, every chord has been used already to create a granular cloud as well.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
René Margraff: It makes me more critical about which channel I use or what I release/produce. I slowed down quite a bit and do not feel like I am missing much by being pickier. I have a few things planned for some people that I know. I currently cannot see communities that I feel a strong bond to. My favourite artist of the last two years must be Kassel Jaeger.

Fuzz Lee: Like I mentioned previously, I don’t worry about originality so it doesn’t bother me. There are sure to be hundreds of people making music that sound exactly like mine. What’s important to me is that that I am able to express what I hear in my head as accurately as possible. That’s all. As long I am happy with it, it’s good enough.
I look up to older artists. It’s easy for young people to churn out six albums a year but the older guys who have been at it for a long time find it harder to push the envelope because they have done so much. People like Scott Walker, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian, Arvo Part, Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Haino and my countryman, artist Zai Kuning. I am interested and inspired by their journey from album to album, leaving a trail of their growth and change.

Le Berger: To me, it means that it’s not so original to want to create something and share it with others, it’s a pretty common thing. So we can pretty much revel in that commonality and regroup in communities of like-minded folks to share our creations. However, those communities are often times virtual and the need to root them in the world `out there` seems important, else the circle of aficionados becomes too close-knit and the creations are not available to the world at large. Yet, I am somewhat in disfavor of large aggregators and the age of streaming and so on because there is less and less sense of ownership and connection from the user’s end and more control on the streamer’s end.

In those close-knit circles, I am very much inspired by certain artists, and those are usually the ones I know personally to a certain extent. It would seem that the knowledge of a genuinely lovable or interesting person can impart a sense of personality to their works. Or maybe it means I pay more attention to it …

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Fuzz Lee: I’ve been making mostly ambient and improvised stuff for the last few years, trying to break away from “proper“ guitar playing. I am in the midst of finishing an album about travelling and being lost, composed in every city I was in while travelling in Europe. I guess the real challenge for me this time is to articulate the melodies and feelings I have for places that are alien to me. Making music in Singapore, I think that I always express a certain yearning for “space“ because Singapore is such a tight, busy and noisy city. Which might explain why the music sounds serene and mostly atmospheric. However, being in Europe, it is totally different. There is so much space and not so noisy. The melodies that appear to me are much busier and complex, less orchestral. It is timely that my wish to return to some proper guitar playing coincided with this.
At some point or another, I broke my own rules and took to listening to what everyone has recommended me and also the artists that I got lumped together with (which might have proven to be a bad move in general). I see it as some sort of weird ’oblique strategy’ and also a ’quality control’ measure, to ensure that in some way I don’t make anything that sounds like them. If it does happen that I have some tracks that are very similar, I will delete them. I will then start again from scratch, working on the main melody but with a different approach, changing the background sounds or slowing it down perhaps.  Maybe this is why I spent the last three years recording and deleting (!).

René Margraff: To me, what has been important is getting the workflow right, knowing when to stop and declaring something finished. The notion of originality is maybe a shadow that keeps me from doing things I have done before a few times or something that reminds me too much of someone else. Sticking to fewer things to work with helps me to finish things.

Le Berger: So far all the music I’ve worked on and released as Le Berger has not offered much of a challenge to be honest. It has brought about countless trials and errors, the occasional technical frustrations and endless mastering / editing hours, very much focused into intricate details which probably no one cares about. Yet, no challenge per se.

The releasing of music and promotion and so on, huge challenge (and quite the hassle if you ask me) on the other hand.

I’ve been working on more structured music lately, and the arrangements is the part of the ordeal that seems to offer the biggest hurdle. For example, when you compose something on a piano, it’s only a melody, a succession of notes, pure in and of itself if you will. Then you chose which instruments to introduce in the mix, how to structure the whole thing and it seems to crystallize. That part is tough for me because it’s a sort of narrowing in purpose, it doesn’t come naturally to me.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Le Berger: The ideas that surround a work usually come after the fact for me, it’s more of a reflection to accompany the material than something that drove the creative process. Where do they come from? I HAVE NO IDEA! Who does? I want to know them, those that know that stuff.

Fuzz Lee: I am full of contradictary ideas and approaches, but at the same time, I try to keep it natural. Ideas come from daily life, the things that people say, the time I spend with my friends and loved ones, movies, books, photos, travel and music of course. I don’t sit down and force something out. It comes when it comes. As a habit, I always listen to my demos in the trains, buses and while walking around the city. I bring it with me when I travel overseas too. This is a very important part of completing the work for me. After the main thing is recorded, be it a simple guitar line or a drone, it never fails to show me the way to the next step, with the environmental sounds teaching me something. The music has to be heard and in a way, has to “live“, in all kinds of environment first. I knew my first elintseeker album (By The Sea) was finally completed when I heard it in the house of a friend in the town of Strasswalchen in Salzburg. My host mentioned to me after some moments, while we were both sitting down with drinks and listening and enjoying the sight of the open fields and mountains, that he could “feel“ the sea.

Le Berger: My mind is actually pretty empty when I work, focused in the moment and on the work, paying attention. How do previous experiences come into play? Very vaguely so, that’s for sure. There’s no set intentions here, just the attention at work.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
René Margraff: That is a tough one: take a reverbed guitar chord with some shimmer reverb, who did it first? Daniel Lanois? Some british kid with a laptop? This is such an old debate and I wish it would stop. The latest pillowdiver releases were all using tiny samples from well known bands or soundtracks, the title even hinted at them, still I feel I created my own tracks with it. Someone else might disagree and rightfully call it “some kind of drone record“.

Le Berger: People can go and claim absolutely anything, however it has to be recognized by others to become a reality … The idea of ownership when it comes to art is somewhat ludicrous to me. I mean I understand the desire to sustain a lifestyle of creation. Getting financial retribution for one’s work is perfectly fine. What irks me is the ego driven associations that come along with copyright / intellectual property on the creator’s part, and then the industrial implications that come with it on the other side, the music business thing.

There are already other models spreading, creative commons and so on, they haven’t proven successful in the measure where if you pile archives on top of archives and flood the world with material that no one knows, it ceases to matter. But it’s making a dent here and there. Yet that’s more a matter of curation and promotion than one of structure. Time will tell.

Fuzz Lee: I have no answer to this one. We all borrow or steal an idea from somewhere or someone. The problem is when you copy it wholesale, instead of using it to question your approach or solving a problem. Perhaps it’s more of an issue for big artists in mainstream music and the business side of things. Music is a living, breathing thing for me. We all will be influenced by something and it will affect our writing in some way or another. It changes and grows with us in a meaningful way, if your intention is to be honest and sincere with it. Yet, as new as it sounds to us, the maker, someone else has done it before. I think as long as the new work breaks away from the old, and breaks the way you usually work, we can see it as a successful personal achivement of originality.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Fuzz Lee: Frankly speaking, other than my guitar, the computer is extremely important to achieving what I want. Making music on my own with software and experimentation has made the process more closer to sculpting or painting than music making. I also feel like a curator with my own music. A studio (my computer, that is) is also a tool. With a band in the past, every strange idea would be met with strange looks or dismissal. You just do your part and there are limits imposed. As a solo artist, the horizon is far and wide because I call the shots. Anything is possible and impossible at the same time.

René Margraff: Surely certain tools are more open to be experimented with while others might seem a bit rigid. However, someone with a Casiokeyboard can be more cutting edge than someone with a wall of Eurorack modules. I would call this justice.

Le Berger: I see none.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Fuzz Lee: For me, it was simply the existence of the DAW (digital audio workstation). The first time I recorded something at home and not in the studio made me excited with the endless possibilities. The fact that I didn’t know how to use these things at the start led me from one wonderful accidental discovery to another as well. It led me to what I am doing today. Even if I don’t use any effects, I could still make something I like with just the guitar. Something simple and pure.

René Margraff: I sank some money in Eurorack modules and hardly ever touch a computer for musical tasks (other than using Soundhack or Argeïphontes Lyre or Audacity to edit something). While this is interesting to me and keeps me going, it still has to show if it is really improving my music. I did it because I thankfully could by selling other unused gear.

Le Berger: I do not find technological developments interesting.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
René Margraff: Political and social factors come to mind – censorship in the system you live in or no access to instruments or musical tools in the wider sense.

Le Berger: Well, oppression and coercion seem to be very conducive to creativity, I imagine originality would fit alongside. Poverty and other limitations of all sorts seem to do the same.

René Margraff: I think if people try to push the tools they have to the max, it still can yield good results, although this approach was more common 15 or more years ago ...

Fuzz Lee: I can only speak from the context of where I live. Only certain types of art or music will be accepted here and that angers me a lot. Singapore is a place with strict rules and regulations and people are expected to follow the rules, without questioning them. It translates itself into many things in life, whether you are artistic or just an average person. I get asked why I make the music I do, for example. I get lectured by friends who think I am trying too hard to make “strange music“. In their eyes, conforming to traditional forms of rebellious music like punk or rock has more meaning. How ironic is that? I am the product of my landscape and environment, even though my musical expression doesn’t suggest so. The sounds I hear all around me, the melodies, orchestration and chord structures of old Chinese and Malay songs from the 60s and 70s I hear in our taxis are embedded in me since young. The only encouragement for me to keep going my own way is by knowing that there are fellow creatives who go at it alone, in isolation, like myself. I see them as inspiration, not conforming to anything, not being part of anything. Making music in their own voice, not succumbing easily to trends, not feeling ashamed to sound where we belong and at the same time, not belonging anywhere in the country’s creative scene. In a way, “obstacles“ in the form of rejection or not being accepted in any scene because we are doing something different is what drives me to be truly myself in musical expression. It’s like a feedback loop. Maybe it’s my own way of being a punk.

Le Berger: I guess on the other end oft he spectrum is a sort of opulence, when everything is available to you there isn’t much left to create. The gazillion tools available to create music nowadays would fall in that category for me, especially the tools that do everything, and most especially those that do everything for you.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Fuzz Lee: Definitely. But it’s more interesting for me to achieve them with what I have at hand. It’s much more satisfying and realistic that way. The experience will be much bigger, deeper and meaningful too.

René Margraff: I would like to have two weeks to play with the Acousmonium for sure.

Le Berger: I’ve had three such visions this morning alone! Technical reasons are less problematic nowadays though, you tell an engineer what you want to do and they’ll figure out a solution. Then there will be a bunch of back and fourth because as a laymen you didn’t ask him the right technical question, but eventually you’ll get there.

Financial is another beast, you have to really want to put that thing in motion, I mean really really really want it, because there will be some sucking up, some begging, some screaming and bashing tables with your fists and shit. Once I settle on one of those visions, you’ll hear my fists on a table all the way to the peaks of Nepal. Until then, I’ll settle for the visions I can bring into the world today, with the means at my disposal.

Faures Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Faures