“Right now, we could be anywhere and I think that’s a really good feeling,” says producer, musician and artist Steven Warwick, in a German shopping centre in the Berlin suburb of Neukölln. “I’m in Hermannplatz but I don’t feel like I am. It’s because you only see the top of the buildings. It feels like you’re in Paris,” he adds chuckling, “which is cool.” Warwick is wandering through his interview location of choice — a once modern 1920s department store, now a modest mall called Karstadt — talking about some of the inspiration for his latest album Nadir.
Dropped digitally and by surprise by PAN on November 18, the record is billed as a ‘mix tape’ and is released sans Warwick’s usual musical moniker, Heatsick, which last surfaced as part of the vinyl-album release Re-Engineering, almost three years ago to the day in 2013. “Around that time, someone passed away and I had no time to process it and it didn’t stop and I wasn’t allowed, I mean, I had to function,” he says about the death of someone close that lead to a period of grief postponed, while promoting and touring Re-Engineering, as well as working on various other visual art projects. “It wasn’t until last year when I actually had some time to process what had happened, and then this year has been bleak.”
Carrying on from the release of Nadir, Warwick now shares “Snapchat-style” video for the song ‘CTFO’ (web-slang for “chill the fuck out”), which was shot on an iPhone and features the emoji-art, fast-cuts and squiggly pixel lines recognisable to anyone familiar with the popular image messaging app. “The song is about miscommunication so it felt pertinent,” he writes in an email about the video which features Warwick wandering through this same mall where our interview takes place. “What I like about Karstadt is it isn’t artisanal. If I come in here and feel relaxed, it’s because I don’t have to think about the over-curation of the space.”
The ambient, yet urgent ‘The Mezzanine’ follows its pulsing synth sweeps with the deep-voiced spoken-word of the artist himself delivering the droll quip, “neon signs float by,/ whilst I curate my eye roll”. That track, like many others on Nadir, evokes the numb senselessness of shock, except that it has the familiarity of a lived, daily reality for most of us. “Feeling alone/charging my phone,” bounces album closer ‘Millennial Vague’ on a spiralling and spare sound of plucking strings.
‘CTFO’, meanwhile, rolls on an anxiety-driven loop, expressing some sort of analysis paralysis while the dialogue continually contradicts itself: “why you call/ you know that i’m not answering/ why hang up/ you know that i’ve got no credit.” It’s a song that evokes a feeling that’s in opposition to the calm of walking around the Karstadt top floor buffet on a rainy autumn afternoon. There are decorated ice cream portions in a cooler, a chilled fruit display with melons, apples, oranges, a pineapple, and a chalkboard with text that Warwick translates from German as “wine is bottled poetry.” Amongst the potted trees and benches of a laptop-working area, there features a wall-length mural of EU landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Gaudí’s Park Güell, and the Millennium Wheel. “It’s the European dream, right here. Maybe that’s why I like it.”
I’ve actually never been in this building before, when did you discover it?
SW: In the summer. I didn’t know about the rooftop cafe until the summer when a friend said he was there.
Is there any discomfort you feel in a space like this?
SW: No, I actually really like it. It’s just very ‘as is’. It’s very matter-of-fact and I don’t have to think about if I’m making a decision by coming here. It’s kind of ‘over,’ in a way.
‘Over’ in what sense?
SW: Well, it doesn’t feel ‘curated.’ I don’t think I’m going to run into anyone I know here. I feel like I’m in this strange German middle class provincial film. We literally could be anywhere right now. We could be in a Biennial. We could be in any city. We could be anywhere, it’s great [laughs].
It’s like going to McDonald’s anywhere in the world because it’s always the same.
SW: Yeah [laughs]. I mean, yeah, well it’s reaffirming. People like familiarity don’t they? I’ve been travelling less this year in comparison to previous years. I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin and when I was in Los Angeles I pretty much spent my time there. I didn’t travel much, I just lived and worked in one space, and I kind of liked it.
Where did you record ‘Nadir’?
SW: I started recording it in 2015 so was on and off for a year. It started in LA during a residency [Villa Aurora], which was in a building 10 times larger than I’m used to and then in a tiny box room downtown. I wrote a bit on sofas in New York and finished up in Berlin.
How did these places influence you and your work?
SW: My interest in the Californian desert is society’s fantasy of the retreat; the great outdoors, the desire for danger, authenticity, solitude. But this is a paradox as luxury, like the latest models of cars offering a tech savvy version of a camper van, still rely on state of the art technology to deliver the outdoor experience. A skylight for a bunk to look out at the stars. Outdoors culture and ‘self care’, or wellness retreats are prevalent in both California and also Germany, not mentioning the Californian desert’s influence on tech culture be it Silicon Valley or Burning Man Festival.
As a travelling producer, or musician, what does it do to your psyche, all that time spent in airports? There’s a loneliness and alienation in that that’s palpable.
SW: Of course, but I don’t think you have to travel to sense that because we can come here. It’s just that places are becoming more like that. I mean, you know, you have hospitals which were rebuilt to resemble airports.
I was thinking about how historically vital places, cultural centres like Spitalfields market in London, for example, retain this identity and yet have been totally subsumed by concrete and chain stores. It says something about the drive of capital which needs to destroy and rebuild in order to function. There’s a Subway on Brick Lane now.
SW: There’s a Subway there now? [laughs] I mean, you could say that about a Wetherspoons pub. It changes the function. In Berlin they want to rebuild the palace, which used to be the Palast der Republik but originally it was the Hohenzollern and now they want to rebuild it but only the façade and house a shopping mall.
In Poland the Communist Headquarters in Warsaw became the Stock Exchange.
SW: Yes, in Berlin there’s the building where Karl Liebknecht gave a talk – one of the legendary talks of the Weimar Republic – is now a business school. Politics does crazy things to buildings [laughs].
It is interesting that you say politics does crazy things to buildings just after mentioning this one being converted to a business school, especially at a point where there seems to be zero distinction between politics and economics.
SW: I think business has replaced politics.
Even with the fact the UK exchange rate has been fluctuating like crazy because of a political decision [Brexit].
SW: I don’t even know if it’s political. I think it’s people creating false narratives of paranoia, post-modern narratives of something that never existed. Everyone knows that these things never existed. There was never a better time but people have to pretend there was and then some people start to believe that. But I’d say that’s ideology, I don’t know if it’s political.
Would you say the album is a response to a certain climate or feeling?
SW: Yeah because it’s now. It’s happening now. Do you know what I mean? It’s not a direct commentary. It’s not a record about something, it’s just a record which I’ve made in this time, which happens to have a certain set of conditions.
So everyone is kind of feeling pretty sad right now, was everyone ever feeling happy?
SW: Maybe people were just on Prozac [laughing], and it wore off. Things could always be worse, couldn’t they?**
All images courtesy Jean Kay.