Our interview series heads to Berlin where our good friend Alfie Brooks sat down for a lengthy and super engaging chat with Contort Record's experimenter, WSR. Big props to our editor Max Dade for such a fought out transcription!
AUDIO VERSION OF INTERVIEW:
AB: ‘Ello ‘ello. This is Alfie just checkin’ in for Loose Lips, and you´re about to hear my interview with Emanuele / WSR from Contort Records. It’s a very enlightening, tea sipping experience and I hope you get the same satisfaction as I did.
WSR: I mean . . . in generic terms, when I was a kid I had a really random taste, so let’s say the first serious musical taste that I started developing was when I was maybe 11 or 12. I remember there was this party for my sister’s final exams in high school, and there was this friend of mine Hassim – a DJ. He came and brought all this DJ gear. He just started playing songs, and that was my first exposure to electronic music. He left me a CD with James Holden and others. I thought “fuck, this shit is amazing”, but the CD didn’t have the names of the tracks, so I was just Googling the lyrics to try and find out the songs. So yes it got me into people like Royksopp, James Holden, and also The Knife. So I was about 11, and I started to try and make these minimal techno things, thinking “yeah I can probably do this with some software”, so I tried to do it with video editing software [laughs] to try and sample the tunes but it didn’t quite work, so I downloaded FL Studio. So when I was about 11 or 12 I started to work with that.
AB: Were you playing instruments at the time as well?
WSR: No. That was my first instrument. A lot of kids had piano or guitar lessons but I didn’t. My father plays so many instruments – Piano, guitar, bass.. he plays so many instruments and he’s good at all of them.
WSR: Not professionally. It’s just hobby and he loves it. But he would always try to get me into music. But you know when you are trying to get your emancipation from your parents? I was always trying to fight it when I was a kid. So when he tried to get me to play things or sing along I would be like “No!” So that was my attitude towards music until he started to give up!
AB: And then you found your own path?
WSR: Yeah, exactly. Electronic music was something completely alien to me, so I thought I could try and do this. I was just making a few tunes for myself because my school friends were not really into electronic music. When I was 14 or 15 in high school, I tried to seek out others who were interested. I made these friends through a friend of mine who was DJ’ing in Florence . . . one of them was also producing at the time. I was 15 and they were 17. One of these people is Sciahri, this guy who I also have a project with. This was 2006 and at the time it was still minimal techno, Richie Hawtin and all this minus stuff. There was also a group of people who were organising parties in clubs in Florence, which we tried to be part of. Me and Sciahri were into making music, but we also thought that it was a natural thing to also DJ to do it, like a combination of these two things. I wasn’t so much into DJing, but I thought I had to be if I wanted to make music.
AB: The kind of music you were making, you thought it was best for the dancefloor?
WSR: Well yeah, I mean I was experimenting with dance music, but I was also into bands like Radiohead or The Knife, who were using electronics. I thought, “Yeah if you took the vocals out of this you could dance to it”. But I was also interested in putting these vocals or elements in. I was more into making and not so much playing it, so we had to bring people to the parties to be part of it. But we were actually really bad at doing this! My friends would ask if the party was good, and we would tell them to go somewhere else!
AB: So how long was that going on?
WSR: That went on for two or three years until we gradually gave up. We saw how the situation was and we weren’t into licking people’s asses to be part of it, so we just wanted to make tunes.
AB: Was it the lack of a local community that drove you to Manchester?
WSR: Kind of. Yes and no. When I was in high school my sister was at uni in London. I would visit twice a year and started to get in touch with British culture, in a way. She was there between 2006 and 2009. When I knew that I was in the fourth year of high school I did a MOOG workshop. I was still making tunes with FL Studio and thought I should get into this workshop. I fucking loved it. It was a workshop for a week – 8 hours a day just about synths. Fuck! Great! So I thought I should do something like this at Uni, so I looked it up. There was a really expensive course in London, but it was about £10,000 a year, but there was another in Manchester in 2011 when the uni fee was still £3,000 a year and now it is three times as much! So I applied to Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, but the one I wanted to go to was SSR in Manchester because I was also fascinated by the music history of Manchester.
AB: Yeah. The scene there is really interesting.
WSR: I just wanted to get out of Florence in the first place. I realised it was just work. I had a girlfriend in the last year who lived in Bologna, so I would go there every weekend and eventually I just thought, “there are better things than this!”. Bologna is really cool, but you know I was just like,”let’s see what happens”. So I went to Manchester.
AB: During that time while you were studying, how did you develop musically regarding production?
WSR: When I was in the last year of high school I started a project with a guy I had met on the MOOG course. He’s called Stefano and has a solo project called Nominal. He released on this label called Portals Editions [AA1](what’s aa1?) from Berlin. We had a project where we both did our things but not very well shaped. We knew we were interested in similar things so we tried to do things together. He was a drummer making weird, fucked up hardcore music from South Italy. We started to do stuff while he was at uni in Milan, while I was in Florence. So we spent six months meeting up and doing things – recording drums, vocals, and trying to process them in Ableton. So we were really getting into Ableton. It was during these years when Apparat was doing things with Ableton, so the program was really getting out there in popular ways and we wanted to experiment with that. So our project was about recording acoustic stuff and manipulating it into electronic music. We played a few shows which were quite cool. We played at a festival called Club to Club in 2011, and also in Bologna and Florence. We never released a record because we were a bit slow at making things.
AB: Were you interested in releasing records at that time?
WSR: We were. We were interested in releasing. There were some cool ideas but it was so immature. We didn't really know what to and the ideas were embryonic even though the music was overproduced. Of course, we wanted to do as much as we could in terms of sound design, but we were just overdoing it. When I started Uni at SSR – we had a bunch of studios with expensive gear and my friend would visit. We would make some tunes and try to grow, to develop something. Then we started to do this stuff more seriously, but eventually, it was difficult to carry on because we never lived in the same city. After he finished living in Milan he moved to Berlin, and I was in Manchester and it became harder to do things together so I started to do things by myself. I tried to continue things in the same direction, so I was doing things with acoustics and manipulating them.
There were times when I was into the manipulative craft, working in an abstract way. I was always interested in turning that into music. I did three years at SSR and I learned a lot of things.
AB: During that time, was the WSR project born?
WSR: Yeah, it was there that I started doing some of the things that are on the last record, which was made in 2013.
AB: Yeah I notice that in your liner notes.
WSR: So I started developing that there. It took me a while to actually get to a point where I was happy and also about what I wanted to do. I had tried lots of things. For example, different sources. Always starting from acoustics, but while I was there I learned how to mix/master/produce things, but in an ‘industry standard’ way. It would teach you how to do a record really fucking well, and I learned all that, but it was starting to get obsessed with these tools, so I didn't really do anything for a year because I was worried about the process, the unwritten rules on how to do things. Then, I kind of stopped because of this obsession with production and lost what I wanted to do in terms of music. this was until I met this band at a place I was working in bar shifts and sound in a weird punk club. There, I met these guys that had this project that was great. It was called PACKT. I tried to stick with them. It was difficult to tell exactly what they were up to because their communication was on and off.
AB: Between the band?
WSR: Between the band and me. I was interested in what they were doing. I would meet and ask them and they told me they had recorded a record and were looking for someone to lend them some monitors to mix it. I told them I was up for it but it had to get done properly, and I was that person. So we did it together. Once they showed the material I thought it was stunning. The gear they had wasn't super pro – there were some toy instruments, one guy was a drummer, another singer, and another guy with some synths. The singer had a high pitched voice and sang kinda out of tune but it was very musically interesting.
I asked them how they recorded it and they told me it was done on a £15 microphone. Every single, vocal, guitar piece, drums, nothing was sent through the interface. Everything was done with this cheap-as-fuck microphone. The mix was all over the place but the music was amazing, and we mixed it in one week. It’s beautiful – it’s one of the best things I’ve put my hands on. The band split up eventually but the record is still there [on Bandcamp].
That experience taught me that actually there is this naïve approach to doing things, which is so precious. I remember listening to old things I did when I was 14 or 15 and the music and ideas I had back then were more interesting than when I was around 20 when I did not consider the musical aspect so much because I was so focused on production. I needed to find that again and it took me a while to ‘consciously unlearn all the notions that I had been learning the first two years when I had been recording all these bands and trying to develop things. In the third year, I had this bad-ass studio that I could use where there was this big desk and all this amazing gear where they had been making these 808 state productions and all this shit. [In that studi0]. . .? I didn’t record bands or other people’s productions, I just did my thing. I started to work on that more, trying to do things in a more playful way, to play instruments and record and do things spontaneously, but this takes focus and you also need to put the music first. So, it took a while, but eventually, I started to develop something that made sense and that was interesting, but it wasn’t necessarily complying with all these industry-standard production rules. Because when I was mixing this PACKT record, they were doing some stuff just so wrong [technically]. They were doing stuff on Ableton but their projects were insane, with like 40 vocal tracks.
AB: Always layered right?
WSR: Yeah, always layered, because they didn’t really know what to do with plug-ins or how compression works. So they were using it in a trial and error way, using presets, etc. But always in a super creative way.
I was thinking, “I was trying to do these things when I was younger. I thought I wanted to know more, but now I want to know LESS!”
AB: Yes. That’s something I have also been thinking about recently. If you consider the computer as? an instrument, then you need to be able to use it without consciously thinking about what you’re doing. So you just press press press until the sounds get interesting.
WSR: I suppose the way they teach sound in an academic way is like trying to replicate the teachings from the times when music and production were two separate things. You would have a band and you would go in the studio and you would have an engineer to do things in the best way possible. There were all these sets of tricks put down on paper to say how things were done. Now it’s completely different. It’s a different world – there’s no band engineer now; you mix, it’s part of the creative process as to how much compression you are using [for example]. You can start just doing something with compressors. Who is anybody to tell you what is wrong or right? There’s no fucking rule. It’s a cliché to say this, but you need to get to the point where you lose the contact with what you’re trying to express.
AB: To understand how it works.
WSR: Absolutely. It’s weird. There’s a big contradiction – ignorance is super powerful, but at the same time, anything that makes your brain work is good. It doesn’t matter what it is. I wouldn’t be interested in learning what all the tools do, regardless. It depends on the kind of person you are, I think. For me, I’ve met artists who don’t give a fuck about what the industry standard rules are, and what every single piece of gear is doing – they don’t care, they just wanna make tunes and it works for them. Some of these people are just the most amazing artists I’ve seen doing things and it works for them. It’s just a matter of what you’re interested in. There are musicians who are just incredibly gifted, taking instruments that are made and just making musical masterpieces out of them. Also, there are musicians who are interested in the stage before that, in creating something and kind of being in the process before the instrument makes the sound – doing things from scratch, or creating instruments or programming. There are all kinds of different stages, it just depends on your sensitivity as an artist is. There are artists who have no form of lyricism, but still, they make this beautiful music. It’s like looking at a landscape and it’s beautiful. There are so many different ways to explore themes and areas of music or sound.
For me, I was always interested in creating music, not in creating music concrete or whatever. I was interested in doing something in my language, which is something that has a structure and a melody.
AB: And it has a form.
WSR: Yes, definitely a form. I can’t do things that don’t have a form. I can appreciate people that do it but it’s not my language. Like when I have to actively say something. In order to do that I have to find this more primal approach to music and actually getting my hands dirty and playing some instruments. That’s also one of the reasons why I started to do things with strings, the fact that I eventually started to play the first instruments. I taught myself to play the guitar when I was 17 ... I bought a drum kit at 18. I learned them by myself.
AB: And subconsciously from your dad.
WSR: Yes, I never asked my dad for a single guitar lesson.
AB: It just seeped in.
WSR: Yes. And when I started to get into bands like Radiohead and that kind of stuff, I started to want to play guitar. It taught me about music – how you learn the chords and the basics of music theory, because I used to play a little bit of keys, of bass, and would borrow instruments from friends when I was in Florence. I could do something, but I was just recording bits and bobs and putting them into the computer, so that was new to me. I came from making minimal techno in FL Studio to playing guitar and trying to combine the two. The reason why I got into strings. . .
AB: How did that . . . jump?
WSR: Because I did an internship in a recording studio where I helped to produce a record by an artist called Alberto Boccardi.
AB: And this is at what point?
WSR: This was between the second and third year in Reykjavik in Iceland. The production on the record was amazing, and they used a lot of strings. Alberto Boccardi is an electronic musician and he’s really good at orchestrating things, like making electro-acoustic ambience. He gets a lot of other musicians to do things for him. He’s from Milan, so he has a guy who plays double bass for him, or someone else to play drums, sing something, etc. He basically came to the studio with these fragments and they recorded more things there. I helped produce his record, which is what introduced me to electro-acoustic music in a way.
AB: It must be so nice to have that relationship to the music as well.
WSR: Yep. I was part of its creation. This record is about 5 or 6 tracks. Some of them are very ‘composed’. There’s this one piece called ‘Piano Memory Ground’ that’s so amazing. There’s double bass, piano and vocals. Everything is very freeform but also kind of physical and acoustic. I was like “Fuck, you can just make electronic music this way, by taking acoustic things …” It’s something that’s always interested me, putting acoustic stuff into the computer, but this was so physical. He would let the musicians play and then pick out certain parts and then combine them together, orchestrating them at different times. And I just fell in love with that. He’s also very interested in strings. I love the timbral qualities and just the possibilities that you can get from strings. When I came back to Manchester I borrowed a cello from a friend of mine and started to play it a little bit. I learned very basic stuff with it and recorded a lot. I also bought a violin from Oxfam (charity shop) for £5 or something and started to track some things.
I was interested in doing some things I couldn’t do, as I could do productions so well, I needed to get something that I was bad at doing because there’s something in the struggle to do something that you don’t really know how to do but it’s still your world. Music is still my world I just can’t play that instrument very well, but at some point . . . you know, the cello is not something very easy to play, but I have a good ear so I could play a chord combination that I liked and would just record it and do something with it. It was really important to get to that point as it’s the energy that you get out of playing this instrument that is really powerful. You can connect to it so much more than me just fiddling around with plugins. So, I tried to do the same thing and keep the plugins to a much lower level. I started to track these basic cello things. There was also a classmate of mine who played double bass, so I would combine these instruments and take them to the studio where we had a nice tape machine, so I would experiment with pitch shifting. I remember this one session I did in a big studio in SSR where I just brought loads of cello chords pitched down four times and set up all the amps facing each other. There were about 5 amps, and I took some really expensive omni-directional mics and put them in the middle. The microphones were going through these £2-3,000 compressors and I would play this massive drone of cello stuff in this noise ceremony, blasting them at the loudest volume I could with earplugs. I wanted to get this energy of distortion and physical rumbling of the music. The guy from the reception came down and what like, “What the fuck are you doing at 3 in the morning?!”.
AB: So are these experimentations you were doing on the latest release for Contour?
WSR: Yes, the track called Ceremony. That’s not me playing, that’s Tom.
AB: But it’s the combination of everything, the recording. . .
WSR: Yes, it was put together in different stages. I was experimenting so it would take me a while to make tunes.
AB: So after, your uni course, did you go straight to Berlin?
WSR: No. I moved back to Florence because I was a bit confused and didn’t know what to do. I wanted to develop musically but I still had the idea to be a sound engineer. I had done some work, like the record for PACKT but now when I think about it, I spent a whole year just doing my thing. . . so it was pretty evident that I didn't wanna be a sound engineer! I was also doing sound in this venue, but I hated it! Every time I was asked to do a shift at the bar or a sound shift, which was like 70 quid, paid, and I basically just had to babysit the DJ. I would much rather do the shift in the bar because it was way too stressful when sorting out shit while people are looking at me. I’m not that kind of animal.
When I went back to living with my parents for a bit, I tried to do some sound work in Florence, for example, some sound for artists in the world, but really I just started making tunes. It made me realise how depressing Florence is, so I stayed about 6-8 months. At some point, I had loads of tunes, lots of material that I hadn’t sent to anybody.
AB: You weren’t interested in sending or promoting on the web?
WSR: No. I’m aware of the fact that I’m shit at self-promotion.
AB: You’ve got an asset there. That’s my greatest weakness. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but I wish I wasn’t so ‘self-promotey’ when I was younger. You’ve got to be aware of what you’re doing. Why did you create WSR as an alias and not under your own name?
WSR: I’m not so comfortable with it. It’s so manipulative. If I were singing and playing guitar then I’d probably put my name on it. When it’s artificially created—I’m creating worlds that don’t exist in reality, trying to combine the human and electronic aspects. . . I’m doing it, but it’s not me, specifically.
AB: That is to say . . .
WSR: I am really fascinated by musicians who don’t put their face or their ego in the music. I suppose I would like to do the same. I think when the music is out of you, it’s not you, it’s just the music. I like to connect this to a name – just give it an identity. Or some people might call it branding.
I also like the visual aspect. I do some stuff with my sister, who does the graphic stuff.
AB: Nice. And she did the artwork for your latest release as well. . .
WSR: She did that, yeah. She’d done all the artworks for this other project with Sciahri, Unknot [AA2] . She’s amazing.
Yeah. I like to have this connection in that it [the music] is made with my hands. It’s me, but I don’t want to put my face and name on it.
AB: I totally understand. It’s not just branding. The internet is this social space where you can have an output and you can create an avatar, or whatever you want, to put that stuff out, so people strike up a relationship with what you’ve made, which is not yourself. It’s nice to not have that direct connection, I’m sure.
WSR: It’s not because I’m not interested in saying that it’s me. It just helps to have some separation. When I see something that has an identity of something I’ve done, and it has this visual aspect to it. It helps me to relate to it as if it were an external thing. It helps me to have a relationship with it and I find this alias more comfortable. Whether it’s me or with other artists, as in some of the tunes that I’ve done, there are other people contributing to it. It’s not just my name—it's the project.
AB: At what point did you move to Berlin?
WSR: When I was in Florence I was making more tunes and I was like OK, I’m sick of this. So while looking for jobs. This friend of mine Stefano, who I had the project with, he was living in Berlin at the time and he was preparing this material that he eventually released on Portals Editions. He had some insight into what was going on. I was asking friends about who to send projects to, etc.
AB: So this is the point when you’re interested in releasing something.
WSR: Yeah I had around 20 tracks, and some of them were more embryonic, others were more developed. I thought I should send something.
Stefano told me “Samuel Kerridge” is launching a new label”. He had literally just released his first album, umm. Always offended, never ashamed. . . Just like a couple of weeks later after that. So I was into what he was doing . . .
AB: This is contort you’re talking about here…
WSR: Yeah. So I was in Florence and I sent Hayley an email asking if she was interested in listening to my music. She told me to send a link and would check it out, and that they were busy but would give it a listen. So I sent 3-4 tracks to them. About 20 minutes later, Sam sends an email saying, “man, this is amazing! Send over some more!”. So I sent some over and he says, “This is fuckin’ great. Let’s make an EP, I’ll get back to you in 2 days”.
AB: That’s the beauty of patience. So this is the first WSR solo thing.
WSR: So we put the EP together when i was in Florence. At that time my sister had moved to Berlin with her boyfriend. There was a combination of events that happened when we were putting the EP together. The EP was waiting to be mastered. Sam had written saying he was curating the Sunday at Atonal this year and we’d love you to play there. First, he offered me to play at Contort. He offered to pay for the flight and everything. I agreed to do a live with a cello player. It made sense to have something physical live.
AB: To have a performance.
WSR: Yeah. Not just a laptop set. Then, he stopped answering me regarding that. He didn’t tell me anything more about it for a month. Then he spoke about Atonal – we’d love you to play with the cellist there. What do you think? I was like”Fuck yeah!”
So what happened was Sam invited me to do that, which was such a big chance to do something properly. I thought about moving to Berlin. I was working as a translator, so my day job allows me to work anywhere. I had this idea but it wasn’t planned. I thought about moving there for a couple of months, and my sister was already there. If we are in the same place we can do things together, an exchange of ideas.
AB: You have this artistic relationship then.
WSR: Yeah, very much. So I moved here in June 2015 to prepare the performance at Atonal, which was at the end of August. I moved here and started looking for a cello player. I had done all the stuff with Tom Griffiths in Manchester but he was still living there. I had thought about getting him to come to Berlin. I wanted to prepare really well, so these rehearsals could go on for a month to do it well. While looking for cello players, I started to get in touch my network of friends. I met Andrea Taeggi who has released on Opal Tapes. He’s a friend of Stefano. When I moved here, Stefano moved back to Milan and left me his network of friends through which I started to hang out with. I also met Koenraad Ecker who is also a friend of Sam. He played at the same Contort event. He’s a fantastic cello player. So, Andrea and Koenraad have this duo called Lumisokea. Koenraad also plays dark electronics so the two are the perfect match.
I presented the project to Koenraad. I was already a fan of his when he released a record on Digitalis. I can’t remember the title now but it’s beautiful. Fortunately found a room which became the rehearsal room. There was nothing inside so there was lots of space; it was perfect! We rehearsed about two to three times a week for a month in July.
AB: Was this performance based on your first EP?
WSR: It was. The EP came out in October. There were four tracks but I had a lot of material left over. So we took six or seven tracks, went through them together, and rearranged them so that they could be played live. We made some changes because not all of them could be played exactly the same way. We also changed the vibe of some of them so they could work. Eventually, we had created a solid set of tracks, which was cool because Koenraad could play the cello and a guitar with a set of pedals. He is very good at sound sculpting and is skilled in the technical part. In fact, he was probably doing much more than me throughout the whole performance.
He was also doing some freeform and melodic structures. I would also manipulate his sound with distortion and compression to sculpt it even more and combine this sound with the electronic parts. We created this 45-minute set and eventually played.
AB: For people that don’t know where Atonal is, it’s in Köpernicker Strasse. It’s a huge shell of a factory. It used to be a power plant. There’s something about the space that’s almost spiritual. It’s crazy. This huge room full of concrete. If you go to an event in there, the vibe is crazy. It’s not like anywhere else—a massive but contained room. You played on the main stage right?
AB: That must’ve been NUTS!
WSR: Well, yeah! We were so nervous.
AB: No shit!
WSR: I think we had the soundcheck at 4pm and we started at 8pm. We were there at 2, just in case. We had to wait for ages because there were some problems with the projector. We soundchecked at half past 7 in the end, just shaking. I opened my Ableton set, and every 20 minutes I would go there and press the space bar just to check that it wasn’t frozen.
AB: How was the set received?
WSR: Really well, yeah. Buzzing.
AB: Was that the first performance that you had done under the project name?
WSR: Yeah. I tried to get some shows when I was in Manchester but nobody would really give me any credit.
AB: Have you done much performing since then?
WSR: Not loads. A little bit. I can’t remember all the performances but I can say I have been playing every 2 or 3 months since then. I played a festival in Italy the same year. . . a few times in Berlin. Atonal was the only time we did a performance like this. It’s an expensive performance, with a cello player and technical shit that’s necessary in order to figure it out properly. You need a sound engineer also. After that I played a few shows in small clubs, so I started to think about alternative ways.. to keep a performative element. For example, I played a few shows with just the laptop but it doesn’t really work for me; it’s just a bit boring.
AB: I never really understood it. It’s a whole other thing.
WSR: I wanted to have a human element, to play music that has a lot of human character, so to play completely from a computer is just a bit weird. I mean, there are some performances I have loved but it’s a different world that is not mine.
I struggle to find the combination of needs. After the performance, Koen moved to England for a few months. I had been looking for a string player since then… but couldn’t find anyone I could really connect with. I decided to stay to in Berlin. [Not having a string player] I started to look around for some string sounds. I built some string instruments myself, as cellos are really expensive. There was this time when I was really broke and wanted to do some stuff. I started looking into instrument building.
AB: So you stayed in Berlin, and since that performance, you started to build your own instruments.
WSR: Yeah. Around that winter, around December 2015 I started building some very basic instruments. For example, a plank of wood. I was interested in having something to play, something I could make tunes with. I was also interested in making something that I could play live with. So what if I could put two strings on the edge of the table and just bow them? At the other end, I could have the laptop and effects, so I did that. I sourced all the material from friends, form guitar builders and stuff that I found in the garage.
AB: It's a good limitation.
WSR: I made this instrument – its so punk. Just a block of wood with two strings. Cut out of a used guitar, a pickup cut out of a used guitar, and a bridge so that I could bow it. The tuning pegs are made of those hooks that you can use to screw them in the wall?... So I bought a drill for ten euros to drill a hole in the hooks so that they could become the tuning pegs.
AB: Sounds quite sophisticated!
WSR: The tuning on my instrument is so temperamental. It does keep a tuning but it’s difficult because when you bow hard, you lose the tuning. My original idea was to do the same thing I did with Koenraad only by myself because the string parts are not that complicated in my music. However, at first, it really didn’t sound very nice! It didn’t sound like a cello at all. But, I discovered that this instrument has a very strong character itself. It doesn’t sound like a cello but it sounds like something else. Depending on how much strength I would put in, I would get different tones. I could really explore the strings in a cool way. It’s super noisy, the strings are exposed and the tuning is shit but as a tool/instrument that is musically poor, but insane in terms of tone and timbre. I can just increase the high frequencies by just pushing really hard and it grows like an animal because it’s really unstable. I finished it a day before playing before this Contort event in OHM. I was initially going to play a laptop set, but after sending a picture [of the instrument] to Sam, we agreed to use it.
I exported all the drum parts and had a cheap loop pedal to play the instrument. Just setting the BPM of the beats I could cut some loops. I think it was one of the best performances I’ve done! It was on the 6th of December 2015. There’s a recording of it. There are two tracks on the last album that are alternative versions of those tracks. They are taken from this performance and are cut out from the live recording. There are the beats of the songs with me improvising with this weird instrument.
AB: You have developed this relationship with your homemade instruments. The instrument plays an important role in your productions. So if we go to your latest release, how much of that was old and new? What was the balance?
WSR: There is quite a lot of it. I mean, that record. . . The first EP contained some of the stuff that worked better. There was some good stuff before but it was too freeform for some of the other stuff on the there. In terms of the album, which Sam compiled, there are things made in Manchester and Florence that ended up on the album, together with things that were much more recent, for example, the tracks made with the homemade instruments. It was cool because there was a connection between them.
When you go to make music, often you might hear this folk tune that you want to replicate the vibe of, or there’s another day when you hear this shoegaze thing that you also want to replicate; at least I do this. There’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t put out that has a particular vibe that might one day go together [on a release]. But for this record, this happened. There was this stuff that was partially improvised; it was a lot to deal with. Exposing the effects of the instrument, the performance, the recording space (because everything is recorded at home). These elements just connected very well.
AB: It’s really nicely compiled. I would love to hear a continuous mix with everything linked. It works, the way that it flows. You did that together with Sam?
WSR: Yes. Sam came up with a selection. I proposed some amendments, and he did also but we decided together eventually. He did 90% of the compiling. When it was compiled I seamed the pieces together and produced some more parts to do that. Although there is a relation between the tracks, some of them are two years older than others, so they needed to be related. It’s kind of fascinating to know that it doesn’t all have to be recorded in the same session in order to be consistent.
AB: You’ve had a relationship with Contort since you moved to Berlin. That must be a good outlet because you have a vast archive of music that you can curate with the label owner. That's a nice way of releasing music. A lot of people don’t have that relationship to a label but want to release. Often people get asked to create a specific release for a label. I think that´s where the personality of some music can get a bit lost.
WSR: Anyone who makes music and wants to explore their own interests—they would make it regardless of it being released or not. How it gets out in the world is definitely not as important as the research you are making in the music. Therefore, if you’re having fun making it and it is interesting, then it doesn’t matter how it comes out. Today, music itself is also a tool for marketing purposes. It’s bad, because I am also part of the system. It’s just the way it is. So many records were sold as compared to nowadays. It’s so evident that music is.. part of a wider thing. It doesn’t actually have physical value anymore; it’s just content. It’s horrible. There’s this, but the most important thing is for you to just do your thing.
AB: Yeah. To bring it back to your progression, Contort as a label seems to be the focal point of your life in Berlin. It’s the reason why you came here; it’s a community in the end. It’s obvious that there are a lot of labels that aren’t like that, but at the same time, they are. They are just micro-communities.
WSR: It’s more than just releasing a record. Sam is interesting in creating something that makes things happen, that involves an audience and creates a dialogue. I think that when they started Contort they were the only event organiser here doing this. There’s so much techno and tech-house. Sam created a dialogue between people who wanted to hear these kinds of sounds.
AB: There is a desire for the audience to hear [this]. There’s a love for techno but also a really strong love for the other side of that. For me, it is interesting that Contort has that relationship with Atonal. That first EP was something that you’d made without the knowledge that you would be playing at Atonal, but sonically it fits.
WSR: When I sent the stuff to Sam I wondered if he liked it. I make melodies and harmonies, but he makes devastation! But he liked it. He made me understand that the genre doesn’t really matter, its about being on the same page in terms of approach. I had something to share with Sam in the way that one approaches music making. We are completely different in terms of influences and the practical approach to making music, but the mentality is also very similar. He is obsessed with not having control over the situation, and says its impossible to have control over everything; it’s useless to rehearse before the gigs because the mixer could be broken, or the sound engineer is a dickhead--it’s never gonna sound the same anyway, so why bother!
I am fascinated by this approach and try to keep this playful approach to making music by not taking yourself too seriously and explore the things that you’re interested in. I’m into contemporary classical music and he’s interested in something else, but we are on the same wavelength. That’s what connects me to the label I suppose.
There was a label showcase as Corsica Studios, which was really cool.
AB: Nice venue.
WSR: Yeah. It was amazing. I went there just to see some shows in the first years. It was fun, because I was also playing at a Contort and Different Circles night.
AB: That’s an interesting combo. How did it go?
WSR: Really well. A lot of people I know were involved. Shapednoise was on the bill; a good friend of mine here in Berlin.
AB: He’s also into devastation.
WSR: Pretty much! I also played strings on his last record on Type. We asked to play in the same room. I did an intervention on his live set, improvising live strings for the first 10-15 minutes. Then Sam played and SØS Gunver Ryberg, this Danish lady who has released on Contort. Then, Mumdance, Logos, Raime, Conor Thomas also. He’s such a sick DJ, he’s so good.
I’ve got something coming in the next few months but I don’t wanna say because it’s not confirmed!
AB: When you make music now, are the homemade strings still integral to the productions?
WSR: Yeah. After I did the first ones I did a few others. After picking up a few skills from the first designs, I made a few others with improvements, these proto-violins. Now I have settled with this bass guitar. I bought a bass guitar and chopped the sides so I can bow them. I put a nice pickup in and changed the strings, so there’s a double bass string and a cello string. Now it has been refined and I can do more complex things with it. I bought an upright piano from a guy who had this old piano for 80 euros. I moved it into the bedroom and made some tunes with it. I opened it up and took out as much wood as possible—I’ve been experimenting with that. First I wanted to turn it into an electric piano, like a Rhodes. So I bought a bunch of pickups and put them in a series but it was insane! So I started to do more acoustic stuff with it and some experiments with contact mics. I’ve got a piano in my bedroom, which is also good to put down some melodies. It’s old and the mechanics are noisy, so they are these wooden noises that are awesome. When going back for Christmas, my Dad had rented a medium-sized grand piano for a week, so that he could play with his friends. It was a well-tuned Yamaha piano. I tried to play it but didn’t really like it, it sounded too good!
I checked the date of the piano I had bought in Berlin. It was from 1856! Upright pianos usually have crossed strings, but this once doesn’t—it’s all straight.
AB: Does it still retain some kind of tuning?
WSR: Yes. I had it tuned but it can’t stay the same, so I tuned it a whole tone down. The sound is beautiful and the strings are all there. The sound has so much character. It’s still not fucked because it’s made from hand-crafted mahogany that is all carved. I’m also trying to combine other elements because a lot of the stuff on the album and the EP is stuff that I am trying to combine with my handmade instruments. Now I would like to create a primal element; that character you get when you can’t play an instrument very well [technically] but it sounds cool. It's the same with the piano—I can play a bit but I’m not that good. There’s something that happens when you’re experimenting and there’s some energy there to exploit. By putting that into the computer you expose that considerably. It’s something you can’t get with processing and manipulation. For me it’s new, but there are artists that have been doing it for years. There’s this energy you can get in music, and you can also get it with performance. You can perform with an instrument and create energy with it just by increasing the pressure on the string while you are bowing it. You can obtain something similar just by having a loop of the same phrase and increasing the distortion on it. You create energy in both cases but it’s different. While I’ve been doing the latter forever, now I am really interested in the former, the performative element and exposing that in an electronic framework.
AB: Looking forward, are you interested in continuing along the same lines as you did in 2016?
WSR: I think so.
AB: That's the thing about your craft—It never stops. It’s about looking at that relationship.
WSR: Yeah. It just comes naturally I think. I’m just obsessed with some things. Everyone’s got their own way.
AB: Thank you to WSR, the man obsessed with strings. Hope you got something out of that. Go check him out. Amazing music. This was a Loose Lips podcast.