Interview
Jan Jelinek



five years ago, Jan Jelinek stitched together microscopic samples of soul and jazz music, and looped them to flow like a bloodstream on his landmark album, Loop-finding Jazz Records. The post-techno pioneer’s touch has also sang as microhouse in the form of Farben and as droning ambience under the name Gramm. Last year, Jelinek recorded under his own name again and explored his native Germany’s krautrock heritage in the psychedelic masterwork, Kosmischer Pitch.

Jelinek toured the record this spring with a live band of guitarist Andrew Pekler and drummer Hanno Leichmann. Stylus caught up with Jelinek during his San Francisco tour stop a few days before he performed at the Mutek Festival in Montreal.


What are you performing tonight? I understand that you’re working with a live band.

We’ll try to represent only two or three tracks from the last album. It’ll mostly be improvised with new stuff. There are some loops that we prepared before but we drift into improvisation—I think that it’s 60 percent improvising.

Is the live setup similar to how (Australian jazz band) Triosk took your loops and jammed with them? Do you play your loops as a foundation for the band?

Yes, but I respond to them as well. I have a synthesizer and I have an instrument called the Hohner Guitaret, it’s comparable to an African thumb piano. I can play some strange instruments as well. I can respond even if my main focus will be on the computer.

Has the band worked well so far?

Yeah, it’s been good. Sometimes, it’s been a little chaotic but, so far, we’ve always had fun and I think it went well for the audience. It seems that the audience liked it.

Sometimes chaos is nice.

Sometimes. Not while you are into (the music), but it can be OK (laughs).

What type of music will be performed? Will it be like jazz?

This time, it doesn’t have to do with jazz music. I think that it will be noisy, drone music, but with beats. If I should name a genre, I’d say that it’s comparable to drone music.

Given that so music of your music is built on looped samples, what do you have to say is the power of the loop in electronic music?

I really like repetitive music and the way I produce is that I start with a loop. I think that loop-oriented music is such a strong thing because it doesn’t have parameters like time. It’s a kind of anti-music in that way. Repetitive, loop-oriented music doesn’t need virtuosity, it’s actually anti-virtuosity. Loop-oriented music is against all parameters which describe music in a traditional way. When you are producing it, it is like meditating. While you are listening to the same loop for hours, you are starting to hallucinate, and you’re listening to the overtones, and starting to imagine elements that are not actually in the track. That’s what I like about loop music.

As you mention the meditative and hallucinatory qualities of your work, I have to say that many of your rhythms sound very mechanical and yet, there is also a ghostly drone that hovers above that rhythm. I hear that in tracks like “St. Mortiz” and “Moire (Strings).” Is that the way your music usually turns out to be or is it inspired by something else?

When I start to produce, I don’t have a real intention of what something should sound like. Every piece of mine is (created) by the process of the interaction of the computer and me. Of course, there are influences, but I’m not a musician. Everything is focused on processing the sample sources, so I don’t know which direction it will go when I start with a sample.

How did you get into producing loop music? Was it inspired by the soul and jazz music you were listening to?

Not jazz music, it’s actually the opposite. When I’m listening to music, I’m very sound-oriented. It’s not like I recognize the saxophone players who are playing, I’m oriented in how it sounds. When I’m listening to jazz music, I’m not interested in the parameters that describe jazz-like virtuosity. I like the jazz records from the 60’s and 70’s because of the sound and how they are recorded. I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge fan of jazz music, I’m a fan of the sound of the genre.

Does that sound also encompass the vinyl surface noise of those old records? I hear a lot of those sounds in your music.

The most interesting thing about sampling is that you can focus on the sample source, and also focus on the medium where the sample source is taken from like vinyl, which has a texture. You can filter the sample source and then put the vinyl medium into the foreground. That’s what I like about sampling. There are a lot of possibilities… Sometimes when I use samples, you can’t recognize the original source anymore because all of the parameters and functions from the sampling software can hide the original sample source.

As you sampled a lot of soul and jazz music in your albums, what interested you in exploring krautrock on your latest record?

This time, I tried not to only focus on the sample sources on the krautrock records, but I also tried to work like the groups from that period as well. I tried to mix my ideas of using a sample source from the past like on Loop-finding Jazz Records and put it into a new context and a new setting. I also built a setup in my studio that could be the same setup like it was 30 years ago. I’d work with a lot of old synthesizers. I did not use much of a sequencer program. Almost everything was played live. The computer was only used as a loop player. In general, there were three to four loops playing on the computer and I was jamming to them with my gear, the mixer, the effects, and the synths. I was recording for a few hours and I tried to cut only five minutes from that jam session out and use the excerpt as a final track. I tried to avoid something like arrangement. I was a bit tired of sitting at the computer and making an arrangement from the first to the last second. It was interesting to do that on (Jelinek album) La Nouvelle Pauvreté from 2003. Now, I’m getting tired of working with a sequencer program, so I tried to find a new solution.

Did you do 12-hour studio jam sessions like Can?

No, not that long (laughs). The good thing is that when you work for a longer period (like) listening to the same loop for 10 hours…you can make the decision that this loop is really worthy as a track or not. Only after a few hours does a loop show its real quality.

You have a lot of patience.

(Laughs) It’s the only thing I do.

Given that you live and work in Berlin, I often see that city as a clash between the very modern and the very old, decaying Eastern Bloc past. I see that image while listening to your music a lot, where it’s very futuristic but it’s also worn by time.

That’s a good interpretation, but I don’t have images or pictures when I’m producing. Of course, sometimes when you’re producing you think it sounds like blah, blah, whatever. But I’m not really visual-oriented.

What do you want to convey to listeners with your music?

(Pauses) Music has to be very functionalized. Music doesn’t need any content, but it has to work as an ambience. My music was focused on that concept. I was also tired of authorship in rock music. It changed a bit during the years. Actually, when I’m producing music there is no message. I don’t have lyrics, it’s more about sound. When you think about sound, it’s not that you want to give people a message. But I’m not sure, I’ve never thought about that, to be honest.

When I listen to your minimalist work, it has that meditative quality.

Loop-oriented music is actually not an entertaining music. The listeners’ own cognition causes them to listen (sharper) and recognize overtones after hearing the same loop for 20 minutes. For instance, when you are listening to a minimalist composition at a concert, everyone is listening to it in a different way and everyone is recognizing something different. One (person) is recognizing overtones, resonances, or whatever, and the other person is listening to the drones. It’s more focused on (personal) cognition than entertainment.

Are we going to see the return of Farben soon?

I thought about starting this year with new recordings, but so far, I don’t have an idea of which direction it will go. I have to think about buying new equipment perhaps.

In Farben, what interested you in breaking down samples and creating funk music out of them?

The sample sources are very connected to club music. As you asked me (earlier), I was into De La Soul, their first record was working with those kind of samples as well. I tried to put the sample source in a different context. In general, when you are listening to a soul sample, it’s obviously pop or R&B, and I tried something different.

Are we going to see The Exposures tour the U.S. anytime soon?

I don’t think so (laughs). I haven’t talked to them for two years. We have trouble right now, they tried to sue me for one sample I used.

Rajko Muller (Isolée) said in an old issue of The Wire that you originally wanted to make house music, but the genre was so large and complex that your music is the result of not being able to make house music. Is that true?

Yes, it’s true. I’m not trying to do it right now. I tried to make club-oriented music but I could listen to that stuff in no club. I think that there are good and bad aspects of dilettantism. The good thing is that you create something that is maybe different from the other stuff, because you’re not able to do it like every house producer. The bad thing is that you try to (make) it like the usual house music, but you can’t reach it. Of course, it was something like a joke when I told it, but there is a truth in it. When I started to produce music, I was really influenced by club music. When I released my first Farben EP, I thought that it was a club record, but it’s not. I don’t know what club played that record. I played in many clubs, but it was always risky. Sometimes, I played during peak time and sometimes people understood what I wanted to do with it, and had fun with it and danced. But most people wanted to have (the music) very in-your-face in clubs, (lowers voice) and I had a problem with it.

How did you get into soul music? You’ve mentioned soul music a lot in every interview I’ve read.

As a teenager, I was really “retro.” I didn’t like contemporary music very much and I also hated electronic music. I liked soul and old Motown records, I don’t know why but I was really focused on them. I was always really frustrated because I played bass in a band and I loved to play soul music, but nothing is more ridiculous than German teenagers who try to play soul music. That’s the reason why I was so happy when I went to my first house party where I realized that there is some contemporary music that had the same message like soul music, but it’s contemporary and I could do it as well.

In one interview, you said it was strange for Germans to play soul music. You said that you didn’t want to be like Jazzanova.

I don’t have anything against it. But some of the music is a bit obvious and I don’t understand why they want to be like producers here (in America). When you grow up in another country, you have another background. Why don’t they play with that background as well? I mean, I don’t have something against it. I’m not sure if there is a typical German background. When you talk about soul music in Europe, the reception of African-American music is quite different than the reception here (in America). That’s why I said that Jazzanova is trying to play music like Americans. The reception is definitely different, you don’t understand as much of the lyrics, you’re more oriented to the (instrumental) music.

When German hip-hop producers wear the same clothes as American hip-hop producers, I think it’s surreal. It doesn’t have the authenticity, but maybe when it loses the authenticity; it gets its own quality. It’s like cabaret. It’s hyper-real in a way. It shows the reception of hip-hop where German teenagers, for instance, think about American hip-hop and translate it into their style and culture.

Is there any music that you are now really getting into?

Right now, in the States, I’m looking for exotica stuff. The plan is to make a record with those sample sources and also play the instruments that were used on those records as well.

Are you going to record insect and bird noises like those heard on Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village”?

(laughs)

I know that you released the exotica-like lounge song, “Sexing Dean Martin” a while ago.

I made that track maybe 10 years ago, and I can’t remember why I chose that title.

A lot of your tracks have samples from music made in the 1970s. Why so?

I don’t like reverb and in the 80s, a lot of studio producers were starting to work with reverb. Every decade has its own aesthetic and I like the 70s because there is not that much reverb, it’s very warm in a way and very organic. In the 60s, they used spring reverb, and it doesn’t sound like real reverb. It has a space connotation that I like. It’s innocent in its technique, and maybe that’s the reason why I like it. But I like some 80s stuff as well. When I’m choosing sample sources, I usually chose from the 70s because of the sound.

I think that from the early 70s, the social ideas are coming back like collectivism which plays a big part in music right now. In the New York scene, there are Black Dice and Animal Collective. It seems that the social experience plays a big part in the music. Ideas from the Fluxus movement are coming back as well, which are also very social ideas. It’s more about the live experience than the long-player.


By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-07-06
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