Cristian Vogel isn’t just a producer. He’s also an artist, philosopher, even a scientist who, in a career spanning nearly two decades, has garnered world wide acclaim and a cult following among electronic music circles. He’s probably better known for comprising one half dance duo Super_Collider with Jamie Lidell but having worked across contemporary dance, film and sound art, the Chilean-born, British-raised technophile has 14 albums and a seemingly endless pool of experience and information to show for it. So much so that his latest album The Inertials, out now through Shitkatapult on June 8, managed to raise 126 per cent of its original budget through crowd-funding source Pledgemusic to yield yet another mind-bending insight into the human condition.
Consisting ten stand-alone tracks, the album mutates from the beat fragments and splinters of ‘Enter the Tub’ to the crunching force and functionality of ‘Lucky Connor’. But they don’t call Vogel a ‘producer’s producer’ for nothing and there’s more to these sounds than pure visceral experience. Named after the anti-telepaths of Philip K Dick’s existential sci-fi novel, Ubik, The Inertials runs on an inquisitive thrust that sees him exploring mathematical theory through the fluctuating signals of ‘Spectral Transgression’ or the nature of recorded music in the altered sonic states of ‘Bootstraps’.
Speaking from a friend’s house in Geneva, Switzerland, the Barcelona-based artist switches off the Cuban music in the back ground to talk mutating forms, Indian classical music and that blogosphere buzzword ‘retromania’. That’s not to say Cristian Vogel is at all sentimental when it comes to music, because he isn’t. Instead, as is the nature of electronics and synthesis of sound, he is always looking forward, fascinated by its constant flux and what he calls the ‘quantisation of infinity’.
aqnb: You’ve basically lived the history of electronic music.
Cristian Vogel: Well, I’m not that old.
aqnb: I mean, you were born in the 70s and have lived its recent history at least.
CV: I got into computers first and I really just wanted to make music on home computers, in the mid 80s. I do remember being really young and getting right into software programming. I just wanted to make games and then music for them and that part started to get really interesting. I got into modelling music and software really young.
aqnb: Do you think using a computer effects the way you make music because you’re visualising it?
CV: You don’t really visualise it. You work on a level of dynamics and flow and you can adjust the variables. Music is a system based on variables, fundamentally. So you can start to get into the whole universe of variability with the aid of a computer. You can do that, explore it and find it in all different places. That’s what I was doing at the beginning and I guess that’s what I’m doing now.
aqnb: I heard about the midi port you have tattooed on your arm.
CV: [laughs] Yeah.
aqnb: Is that where it all began for you?
CV: I was young and foolish. I think it was such an exciting time; at that time in the early 90s. It was one of those real, very rare moments in culture where there’s a musical revolution, or there’s a revolution happening and there’s a soundtrack to it, as part of the feedback into the revolution. It was so vital and amazing that I was like, ‘I’ve got to tattoo a midi port on my arm’. I kind of regret it now because no one uses it anymore. It’s a little a bit out of date. But still it’s a little reminder of the power and energy that was around at the time.
aqnb: I read an old interview with you on the internet and you made a comment about “self-absorbed-pseudo-hypnosis music”. I immediately thought about those Brooklyn and Californian electronic scenes. Like analogue neo-psychedelia that comes from a consciously naïve, retrospective standpoint. As someone so progressive musically, what are your thoughts on that sort of stuff?
CV: The trouble is, with the internet, it all comes up again. I have no idea what I would have been referring to out of context. But perhaps, with electronic music, I think it’s really concerned with looking for synthesising new tundras and sounds; computing rhythm structures and modelling how music is played, using software and algorithms and machines. So it’s constantly modelling the past and reinventing ideas for the future, which can be used by other musicians in a different context. It’s going to influence everybody in the same way, just like guitars did.
aqnb: Interesting you say that about guitars because John Foxx once pointed out to me that the synthesiser, unlike guitars, hasn’t yet been fully developed as an instrument in its own right.
CV: [laughs] Yeah, it is a very new form of music. I’ve just been researching Indian classical music and, from what I understand, it’s one of the oldest running continuous music forms. We’re talking thousands of years old. So electronic music is only about 50 years old still, so in the frame of things we have really only just begun. But there’s also so much information put out, because that’s the nature of synthesisers, and we’re going to have to go through it all in the next hundred years or so.
aqnb: Is there any over-aching concept to The Inertials?
CV: I used to work around concepts for albums, when albums made more sense but these days I don’t think the album form is going to hold for very long. With the internet now there’s no limitations on how long it needs to be. If you’re going to just release something digitally that’s by the by. I used to have albums to basically write the thing but apart from the general ambience, it’s perhaps inspired by the complexity of a writer like Philip K Dick; the complexity in his writing. That sort of complexity and multi-dimensionality; forwards and backwards, left and right, up and down directions in time. I tried to put all that together and package it in the form of music that you can also play and amplify really loudly and still connect with the public in a club. So I tried to work with beats and express this type of complexity in different ways. I don’t think it was immediately obvious. It’s in there and it takes a few listens. I think but maybe not. I don’t know.
I tried to write individual pieces so that each track is complete on its own; it has its own syntax and language, colours and dynamics within itself. It doesn’t necessarily refer to the next track or the one that happened previously.
aqnb: Is that in response to that sort of iTunes culture of singles?
CV: I suppose it might be leveraging that a little bit, yeah. It’s taking that to a creative place. It’s the fact that people tend to select a few tracks that they think they like and then buy a few of those. I guess it’s just trying to make sure each individual audio piece is really tightly compacted and contains all the kind of information that it needs of itself and within itself. I did kind of think along those lines a bit.
aqnb: Speaking of the change in people’s interactions with music, it also makes me think about the way the internet has supposedly affected our brain functioning. There’s this idea that digital processing has changed it in some way but perhaps its just accommodating for it.
CV: Yeah, maybe. There’s also this idea that the same encoded piece of audio is never the same. What appears to be the same track is actually always different, every time it’s decoded. Because every time you listen to a piece of audio, it actually goes through a type of decoding and decompression operation, which is done by software; mp3s are decoded. So now we’re getting even more of a situation where ever time we listen to a file it’s different. You might listen to a 128K version, or very low bandwidth version, or a preview and every time you hear a track it’s different. That means you can start thinking about more crazy ideas of music as always changing, always dynamic and moving. It’s never the same thing twice.
aqnb: That’s really interesting. Then when you consider the fact your brain plays tricks on the way you hear, especially in techno music, its quite a huge idea that we are all potentially experiencing the same piece of music in completely different ways.
CV: That’s the power. That’s the good stuff. That’s why it’s been a lifelong obsession, when you get into it.
aqnb: I know you were very young when your family fled Chile in the 70s but do you think that might have influenced your work?
CV: That’s a good question. I think it’s definitely, probably influenced me very much in the fact that I’m interested in forward-looking music. I’m not interested at all in recreating or looking into the past; any of these ‘retromania’ ideas in music.
I do study the past in music to some extent, especially the beginning of electronic music, but I think it has definitely freed me of the need to explore the roots of music and being able to move forward.
aqnb: That’s an interesting point with regard to ‘retromania’. It’s that idea that that digital technology is really just a mimetic form, an imitation of analogue. That ability to reproduce reality perhaps bred an era of obsessive ‘retro-futurism’ and now we can move on.
CV: I have an understanding of digital and analogue that is slightly different to that. As I understand it, analogue represents the infinite continuity of nature. Like a plant, if you zoom in on a plant you go all the way to the cell structure, which goes on and on to the greenness… there’s infinite scales of nature. While digital is an ‘on/off’ type thing. It’s a way of dividing infinity to make it more manageable. It’s about quantisation and dividing continuity, while analogue is the state of this continuity. So when you talk about analogue synthesisers, it’s actually where you’re working with voltage, which is a continuous phenomenon, an electrical charge. You get closer, musically, to what infinity might sound like and that’s why it’s so addictive.
aqnb: That’s a great point.
CV: [laughs] It might not be totally accurate but these are the things I trip up on when I’m in the studio.
aqnb: How so?
CV: Well, music is interesting to explore philosophy and life rhythm because it’s an embodied form. Your relation to music is decoded just by listening to it, right? You don’t have to read it or have a degree or any type of further intelligence to decode. You just have to listen to it. It goes straight into your ear and straight into your brain. There’s no actual processing going on in between.
That’s why it’s a very interesting force for exploring these quite abstract and complex ideas of the human condition because you can feel it. It’s as simple as that. It might not be as accurate as science itself, it’s more cloudy and fuzzy, but it can definitely offer a very vital understanding of one’s connection with the universe.
Cristian Vogels’ The Inertials was out on Shitkatapult June 8.