Secret Thirteen Interview - Felix Kubin


Reinventing the Modern Age - the Exclusive Interview with Felix Kubin

Felix Kubin personality seems to be one of the hardest to pin down. His work stretches through different archetypes/symbols of the collective consciousness of the whole 20th century and beyond. By employing the aesthetics of space age, radio plays, library music, kraut-like experiments and boundary-breaking futurism, he manages to create a parallel world of lost cultural artefacts and innovative, hyper-modernist visions. Felix’s music has traces of analog experiments, library collages, 80’s wave aesthetics, dadaist movement, the ambitiousness and courage of early 20th century modernists. Felix nicely merges the structural approach with jazzy playfulness, improvisation, unexpectedness and pure personal charm. His discography spans over various forms, decades, genres ranging from his electroacoustic experiments to spacious futuristic synth epics of his most recent “Zemsta Plutona” or library/big band punk improvisations of “Bakterien & Batterien”, his collab with Mitch and Mitch.

Thus it is a pleasure to feature such person in the virtual pages of the journal. Felix provided a surprisingly in-depth account of his artistic vision and evolution and provided many interesting thoughts on temporal aspects of art, culture, technology, future, past and present.

Listen to Felix Kubin's exclusive Secret Thirteen Mix:


Can you tell us about your newest album „Zemsta Plutona“? How important is this album for you now as a musician and how does it differ from your other releases?

My work stretches from electronic pop to chamber music, radio plays, writing, films, workshops and lecture performances. I really like this synergetic way of life, it turns everything into art, as soon as I turn my senses on. Zemsta Plutona definitely belongs to the pop music realm of my work. It is my lovechild but also one of my most difficult births. This album took 8 years in the making. It was supposed to be released by two different labels who both didn’t manage to do so in the end. One stopped existing, the other let me wait too long. So, I finally decided to put it out myself on Gagarin Records in cooperation with ZickZack, an old label from Hamburg with a famous history of German experimental underground pop like Palais Schaumburg, Holger Hiller, The Wirtschaftswunder, Tödliche Doris, Einstürzende Neubauten and others. The development of my album went through many stages. It’s a heterogenic record, an almanach of many references and styles – all arranged and held together by the Kubinistic strait jacket. It comprises tracks that I have played live since 10 years. The playfulness that you find on many of my pop records is also present here - but with darker colours. I especially like the track “Piscine Résonnez!” because its production is really beautiful and its genesis was quite unusual: I made the first sketch of the track in 2003, knowing that I wanted to have two French female voices shouting on it. Finally, in a warm summer night in 2008, I was hanging out in a bar in Hamburg with two French girls who I got to know on a festival. After lots of drinks we ended up in my studio at 3 am in the morning. The girls insisted in recording something and suddenly I remembered this track, so I asked them to write a text about an electric fish that cleans swimmers in a pool with ultrasonic sound. (I had once witnessed this method of cleaning at the laboratorium of my father.) Later on I added real drums, a laundry drier and diverse brass instruments. The track was finished in 2009 and released in 2013. Some things take time…

Your music occupies an interesting spot between retro and futurism, nostalgia and uncompromising modernity. How do you see your art in terms of future, present and past? What is your perception of time in general? And what would be the most inspiring period of our history for you?

I don’t believe in a single ray of time and evolution anymore. Concepts of the past and future permeate our lives, we have to filter them in order to find our personal way. We are living in a multiple time zone, our watches show different times. Internet compresses time. It’s like sitting in an aeroplane during take-off.... I usually fall asleep then.

The most inspiring period of our history? Whose history? Mine? The present. Now. I have never worked on so many levels and in so many disciplines as now. Experimental pop, contemporary classical music, lecture performances, teaching, radio plays, writing, film. Thinking.

Regarding “retro”, nostalgia and modernity: here I have to go a bit deeper. I have never used the term “retro” for my music and I never think of the past, when I compose. To be honest, I never think of any time, when I make art. Ideally, I am in a timeless bubble and transform into the artwork itself. Then my body dissolves and I become dissocial. Detached from all objects. Of course, every artist consciously or subconsciously takes in elements of what he/she has experienced, and the longer you live, the more influences you are exposed to. But nobody would call a painter “retro”, just because he uses a brush and a canvas – a method that is being practised since centuries. Funny enough, when I enter the stage with an analog synthesizer (which I started doing in 1998), while everyone is using a laptop, it’s considered “nostalgic”. I don’t see anything nostalgic in that, it’s just a choice of sound and immediate interaction with my instrument. Admittedly, I do use retro style images in my visual appearances – but I make them more abstract and mix them with new elements. It’s good when things can be interpreted in many ways. In general, I like to trigger the intelligence, imagination and obsession of the audience.

I have started working with computers very early, already in the late 80s for MIDI sequencing. And I used a digital Yamaha DX-7 just when it came out around 1984. It’s a mathematical machine with an interesting concept (FM synthesis organized in algorithms) but a very customer-unfriendly programming surface. It’s really not fun to put your hands on it and you have to invest a lot of time to get something beautiful or surprising out of it. Between 1989 and 1995 I didn’t use analog synths anymore because I couldn’t digitally store their sounds and at that time I was obsessed with storage and the possibility to have access to all my sounds immediately.

It was for pure aesthetic and functional reasons that I came back to the analog machines. They are much easier and faster to “programme” (making adjustments that is), and their instability creates lively and unpredictable sounds. I was tired of clicking through stupid digital menus and submenus for hours. Of course, nowadays the electronic industry has understood the advantages of analog gear, that’s why all the companies simulate analog behaviour and create better and more intuitive GUI’s (Graphical User Interface). However, what we need now is not another method of sound synthesis but more intuitive and complex interfaces, that is ways to play and shape electronic sounds LIVE, like playing a violin or a drumset. The acoustic world is still way more lively due to many factors: the complexity of resonances, the constant changes of timbre, the possibility of subtle dynamics and different ways of holding a sound (duration). If the industry will be able to invent interfaces that come close to the playing techniques of acoustic instruments, we will have a real revolution.

Having said that, I also love sterile sequences which sound totally robotic. But that’s just because I am German and I like to walk in edgy style. I’m a tree with a throbbing gristle. (Elias Canetti once wrote that the Germans like the forest so much because it reminds them of an archaic army.) When I first saw Jaki Liebezeit play, it totally struck me that he was searching for his rhythms like I did when I programmed a drum computer. He picked a sound in the middle of a rhythm and then slowly filled the rest up, without the classical bass drum/snare drum hierarchy. Each instrument was of the same importance to him, as if he was playing a marimba. I can totally identify with that.

I always use coincidence when I compose. I let things happen. And I often carry concepts and melodies around with me for many years before I realize them. However, I cannot compose things in only in my head and then put them down on paper without having tested them on an instrument. When I did my final exam at grammar school, I was specializing in music composition. We had to compose a score for polyphonic choir in early expressionist style using chords of the Hindemith chord scheme (this scheme works with certain intervals and sound “regions”). The starting point was an expressionist poem. I had huge difficulties with this task because I was not allowed to use the piano earlier than 15 minutes before the end of the test. So I basically composed everything in the last 15 minutes.

I need the resonance of the instrument because my brain needs feedback. It’s an hungry organ. My technique is that of a somnambule – half-way in between knowing and searching. I do hear melodies and soundscapes in my head and I try to localize them on the keyboard, but I am often surprised by a better solution that I find by accident.

Art and especially modernism is inextricably linked to places. How were you influenced by the places you were born/lived/visited? What surrounding made the greatest influence to you?

I was very influenced by radio. In my parents’ house there were constantly radios running in each room. It was like a sound installation. A radio kitchen, a radio bathroom, a radio living room, a radio bedroom and sometimes a radio cellar. Our house was radiating! All my musical socialisation I got from radio, and from friends (or their older brothers). There were really good programmes on the radio back in the 80s. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon you could listen to the entire album “Mark of the Mole” by The Residents. I taped it all, I still got the tape. You can imagine that such an experience changes the life of a 12-year-old boy. This is something I truely miss today: competent radio personalities introducing music off the beaten path.

Triggered by all the great music that was happening in the early 80s in Germany, my brother and I instigated a whole scene of children bands in our little suburb of Hamburg. These children didn’t want to copy existing songs, they wanted to create their own experimental pop music! There is a tape coming out soon on the “Alarm” label in Cologne with 80 min of the music of that “scene”. At my school, I was totally isolated with my taste of music. I led a double life.

What was the first sound you remember and how did it influence you? What was the most impressive sonic experience in your life?

The first sound I remember is my parents arguing. I grew up with constant fights. The only way I could escape that was putting on the headphones and compose. Music helped me a lot at that time. My most impressive sonic experience was the sound of bells. Bells have always impressed me. I remember a live piece by Giacinto Scelsi where a huge group of people stood on a balkony in Hamburg’s music hall ringing dozens of little bells. I imagined this to be the celestial sound of the Last Judgement...

You have a device for voice recording. Do you ever use recorded sounds as samples or as a source for inspiration? How important is voice and its mutations in your music?

The voice is both an instrument and a carrier of content. In its best form, it combines both worlds. That’s why lyrics in music don’t necessarily have to be lengthy, you can also focus on the phonetic strength of few words. The phonetic interpretation of a word is just as important as the content, and many words seem to be rooted originally in sound imitations (just think of “splash”, “gurgle”, “rattle”, “explode”). I was always interested in the textures of voices and the sound of words.

Does the constantly changing cultural climate affect your ideas? Does it make you re-evaluate and treat your life-long inspirations from a different perspective all the time? Or maybe it makes you adhere to them more and more?

The most fundamental cultural change happened with the invention of the internet and the digitalization of life, that is the permanent availability and communication of information. Until the beginning of the 1990s we had alternating social and artistic “movements” that defined themselves by being against the previous movement. It was an era of “anti”, or as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han puts it: an era of negativity. The world was divided in two opposing societies: communism and capitalism, East and West, bodies and antibodies. This has fundamentally changed at the beginning of the 21st century. We are now living in an “abundance of positivism”. Everything is a potential, a possibility, a project, a chance, an opportunity. The pause (a symbol of interruption, contemplation, death) has disappeared. Criticism is seen as an unwanted disturbance of an ongoing production process. We are not allowed to say “I don’t like”. The machine is not allowed to stop. This constant production makes us feel exhausted. Maybe in East Europe the time is still ticking a bit slowlier and that’s the biggest treasure of the East. I am a victim of this production madness, too. But it helps me to make a living from my art and to stay independent in everything I do. Without the globalization I might not have been able to survive as an artist. I travel a lot, mostly outside of Germany. Travelling has put me in contact with different ways of thinking. Most of these encounters are short and therefore superficial but at least I can talk to people and ask them: “Is it really true what we’re reading in the newspapers about your country?” And then I mostly get a completely different answer than expected. Exchanging information from human to human in a social environment is still the most beautiful thing to happen. It creates trust. I think, we lost the ability to flirt with life. All this excess of work makes us asexual.

Space aesthetic is another re-occurring concept in your art (the new album, let's say)? What does it mean to you? Do you feel nostalgia for the ambitious Space Age and its aesthetics? Do you like sci-fi and related fiction?

Well, I wanted to become an astronaut or an astronomer, when I was young. But this whole obsession with space is just symbolic. It’s a about “Der Freie Fall”, a term that isn’t easy to translate. Literally it means “free fall”. It both comprises a feeling of disorientiation, of losing your grip – and a feeling of total freedom and independence. Detached from all objects. It’s a moment of highest beauty and biggest fear at the same time. In this regard, Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space was poetic and very courageous. He catapulted himself into a black void. I believe that if we really want to live our life to the full extent, we have to take the risk to jump.

Apart from this symbolic aspect, I like the aesthetics of some science fiction films a lot, like e.g. the Czech film production “Ikarie XB-1” of the early 1960s. It has an amazing set design. I also like the fact that sci-fi films are like fairy-tales projected into the future. They express desires. Many of these desires have already been technically realized. It’s comparable to the desires of the spiritism 100 years ago: terms like television, telephony, channel and medium are all rooted in the history of magick and occultism. We have just forgotten about this. I made a radio play called “Paralektronoia” which deals with this subject, I also perform it as a lecture/concert.

What would be your future plans? Do you have some interesting ambitions or projects to share with us?

I put out lots of records at the moment. I don’t know why, maybe it’s construction time again. In December 2013 I released an album with the exotica jazz punk band Mitch & Mitch from Warsaw. Together we’re 9 people on stage, a real big band! We toured West Europe and in May we take Poland by its beautiful curls. Our album is called “Bakterien & Batterien”, a blend of swing, big band punk, film and library music. The making of it took one month. “Zemsta Plutona” took 8 years. See, I only exist in extremes. Sometimes I feel as if my brain will extrapolate. I hope one day a second Felix will extrapolate from me, two one-eyed somnambules called Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Green!

Another release I am working on since 1,5 years is “Chromdioxidgedächtnis”, a box containing a CD, an audio tape and a booklet. It’s a commission work for the Deutscher Musikrat and it’s about the format of the audio cassette itself, a format that just recently ended up in the dusty corner of media history. For this composition I exploited my own tape archive. Some of the findings are really funny, like for example a tape where I tried to create my own sound archive at the age of 16. Together with my brother I was walking around our parents’ house, recording all kinds of noises which we announced with a countdown. Some of these recordings appear on the CD, combined with prepared piano, percussion, sound effects and different tape recorders. The CD is a rather abstract audio work, comparable to secondary literature – but in the realm of sound art. In contrast to that, the accompanying MC is like a mixtape of oddities. It also contains a feature about the artist and former Philips company employee Wim Langenhoff who witnessed the rise and fall of the audio cassette.

Other plans involve several radio plays (in German “Hörspiel”) for national radio stations. One will be about interferences, the other about the microphone as a weapon. Hörspiel is still an exciting genre in Germany cause there is a long tradition for it and the quality standard is the highest in the world. Like film making it demands many skills: writing, composition, foley art, dramaturgy and acting. But its realization is much cheaper – and all the images are created by the listeners, if they need any. If I had to choose what to listen to when catapulted into space, it would be an endless radio play.

Felix Kubin

Mostly written on train travels in April 2014

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About Author

Laima Stasiulionytė is a freelance photographer and photo retouching expert specializing on noisy black/white photography, which has a delicate surreal and industrial visual expression.

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