Haunted by Techno
Sheela Rahman aka Xosar is all about dark, noisy, pushy techno music. Her releases on labels like M-Division, L.I.E.S. and Rush Hour and her live performances capture something of her interest in ghosts, a sensibility she gained from studying neuropsychology and her long-term love of Detroit techno.
Jay Donaldson aka Palms Trax is an English boy who loves to skate, lives in Berlin cause it is cheaper and wilder than London these days and is as a producer really digging the spirit of Chicago house.
They both participated in the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo in the fall 2014. This is where this come together happened.
Sheela, I saw you recently play live at Berghain, right before the one and only Robert Hood. Did you enjoy it as much as I did?
Sheela: Oh thank you so much. I enjoyed it a lot. I am not used to hearing my music on such a wonderful, and powerful sound system. It felt like hearing my tracks for the very first time, as if the studio was only hearing 50%. The Berghain soundsystem is the full perspective!
Jay, you did also play there, right?
Jay: Yes, a live set, but upstairs at the Panorama Bar. I’m doing a 4-hour DJ set there soon. I am not sure how I will stay there so long, so I’m kinda nervous.
When I got into techno, everybody said you’d made it when you played club a like Berghain. But all the people participating in the Red Bull Music Academy are playing the circuit of these big clubs and still consider them as a starting grounds, right?
Sheela: You never stop learning.
Jay: What you get here, within these two weeks, is quite amazing: so many lectures, studio sessions, parties…
Sheela: But you are right. A lot of people did ask me: ‘you’re going to RBMA, isn’t that for beginners?’. No, everybody here is super established and talented in what they are doing, but are still be open for new inspiration.
Jay: The first thing you realize here is how little you actually know.
Sheela: I learned so many new little details which are important for my process of creating music. I feel like destroying all the past and start all over new with this knowledge. I am ready now for the master piece.
Playing in clubs like Berghain is very much the modern age of music production and social interaction: music is all over the world minutes after being finished, young artists often suddenly get very exciting global bookings. But the other night I talked to a lot of older Japanese noise artists who started in a pre-digital world, in a more isolated Japan. I asked if they were jealous of your generation – so to turn the question around: do you love this modern moment or are you secretly nostalgic for a less-connected world?
Sheela: It is, for sure, a different world. Working within the parameters of limitation helps you expanding your imagination and creativity. Today status of being given everything isn’t necessarily a good thing as it is so overhelming and not easy to focus. Every possibility is there, so which path do you take. Back then they had maybe the posibilty to work with one synthesizer and one drum machine, now everything is scaled out of focus. But every time has its positive and negative aspects, it is about finding your ballance.
Jay: We have more information, that is right. But you still have to be hungry. So you have to learn to reject a lot of information coming along. I was growing up in a small town, so even if the internet was a thing, I was not aware of such a thing as electronic music. You still have to run into people to open the doors. So coming her is great in that sense.
Sheela, I heard you also spent some time in isolation recently?
Sheela: Yeah. I went for a year to Den Haag and lived in a small house by the water. My life is going in waves. I like the idea to have a period of isolation where I do not get any external inputs, so I could look into myself and reflect everything. After I got enough out of me I jumped back into being around people, collecting information. Thats why I moved to Berlin in March. Go to Berghain, see all these live acts, getting new inspiration.
How did you experience the Japan Noise Night „From Wails to Whispers“ with live performances by Keiji Haino (Fushitusha and Hurdy Gurdy), Nakahara Masaya (Violent Onsen Geisha), Yanazaki Maso Takushi (Masonna) and Melt-Banana.
Sheela: It was really intense, especially Melt-Banana. I used to be really into them like four years ago. I did not know they were gonna play until I spotted them on the poster. I got really excited! But also Masonna, the guy who played for around one minute and freaked out on his noise/screamo-liveset. Inspiring. I haven’t really listend to that kind of music for a long time, so it was nice to catchup with what’s happening right now. They had a rainbow-hand-controller that was really cool – it worked with her energy and her stage-presence was so powerful.
They compared themselves to Skrillex and Deadmau5 – I was surprised by that, but they meant it regarding their pop-aspects. Jay, did you catch the Japanese noise artists?
Jay: Yes I did. I understand that they like the distorted sounds in Skrillex productions.
Sheela: It is almost like a challenge. As a listener it is a very active experience to pick out parts which are meaningful to you instead of getting it all served up easy. Robert Rich, who played after them, said he wants to get an active interaction with the listeners – not just a passive relationship in which everything is given to them. Sometimes something wild and surprising is waiting around each corner.
Jay: It is interesting to see how the noise musicians are responding to the audience’s reaction.
Did you have the feeling they were reacting and not just confronting?
Sheela: There was definitely a symbiotic relationship. They throw something in, got something back, and go on from there.
How important is what’s going on in the room for you two?
Jay: With club music you could strip it down in most cases to just a basic reaction schemata: you put out the kick drum, wait, you put it back in – they scream. My live set is quite strict, I can’t easily leave things out, this would not work with the songs’ structures. When I DJ I am very responsive to the audience. Why should I play hard techno if there are only four people in the room?
Sheela: When I first started doing live sets, like three years ago, I had very much programmed sets with a certain order I had to follow. But that workflow made me a bit sad and depressed as I wanted to have more active control, like a DJ. So I developed a system so that the whole thing could be improvised – it took me three years to master. But now I am able to go from one harsh techno track to a deep house track in the mix. I do all the transitions live, based on the vibe in the room. It’s made my job so much more enjoyable as I am now able to control the vibe of the room. Sometimes I have no expectation what the audience will be like, either hard dark techno or poppy house music – with this setup I can handle both.
Jay: If I would do more live sets, I would definitely try to prepare such a system too.
To come back to the Japanse noise musicians. Do you think you have things in common with them – soundwise? I ask as lately it seems more and more techno/house productions are including a lot of weird sounds and effects.
Sheela: I see these similarities of sound textures. But also a certain DIY philosophy behind them.
Jay: If you listen to a techno track these days, and you take out the kick drum, it is pretty much an odd experimental piece. I think of somebody like Function, Dave Sumner.
Sheela: Or Container, whom I recently saw at Berghain.
This is Ren Schofield, right. He’s now producing hard, dark techno which bears the marks of the noise genre from Providence, Rhode Island, were he was involved with bands like Lightning Bolt.
Sheela: His stuff definitely connects noise and techno: there is on one side the classic techno beat and then this crazy heavy sound textures. This crossover stuff I’m really into right now. Or Ancient Methods, whose industrial techno brings in a lot of noise elements.
It is interesting how audiences are reacting: in techno you could put in as much noise as you want as long as the beat is kicking, so people can still dance. But at a noise gig like last night the heavy sounds send the audience on an inner-mission.
Jay: Yes, indeed. I guess it has a lot to do with the environment and some long cultivated habits.
Keiji Haino talked also about silence being a big part in music. For him in electronic music silence’s role is a bit too predictable. What’s your view?
Jay: Of course, if you just go for the patterns I described earlier. But there is so much more use of silence in electronic music than this. If you take someone like Kyoka, who is releasing on Raster-Norton, she is using club dynamics for quite experimental stuff and okay maybe not including ‘absolute silence’ but still playing a lot with the exclusion of elements – like placing the hi-hat off where you would expect it and leaving a blank space instead…
Indeed. Perhaps silence starts at the moment you put the beat somewhere unexpected. A minimal variation can create so much of a change in thinking, feeling. The power of a milisecond…
Sheela: In techno of course the grid is so much more predictable as most of the people are working with a similar kind of drum machine which requires a similar type of mooding of individual tracks – as with noise I feel there is a little bit more of freedom to fill the spaces, to change the dynamics. That’s why I like the productions which overlap both genres, bring the noise philosophy into techno.
Jay: If you perform live, most dance producers are using similar tools, a certain kind of sequencer for example. This definitely creates limitations. There is not so much room to go ‘off the grid’.
Did either of you ever think of one of your tracks it might be too much, too heavy for the listeners?
Sheela: Yes! I have a lot of tracks I got criticised for, especially from sound guys! They think they are distorted by accident. Which is not the case: it’s on purpose!
The perfectionists who clean up the track and then destroy it, like the cleaning woman with the Joseph Beuys piece.
Sheela: These fucked-up distorted layers and layers of noise, these walls of noise, are not easy to explain to people with specific expectations how things have to sound. If you wanna be true to yourself, you have to push the boundaries, go with your instincts. What sounds good to you, sounds shitty to others – so what? Some people aren’t going to understand the aesthetic context you’re going for.
Jay: For me, with my sound, I do not have these problems. I enjoy noise, but it is not what I wanna go for. The people producing in this field know what they are doing, what could I add to it? Well, I do often fuck with stuff in my studio, but I do not see the point in releasing that stuff. I play quite a lot of techno in my DJ sets, but I try not to go too hard as my people expect other stuff from me. My DJ identity is definitely not so limited, so melody driven. That’ s why I do so many public mixes, to let people know that I’m open-minded.
Sheela: It is so hard to escape other people’s expectations of you. And they get so quick at knowing exactly how you sound, most of the time it only takes one record and your story is written. From then on they expect you to play just that certain style. Take for example my Boiler Room set last year, in which I played a bit more housey, so now a lot of people expect me to play that style. But I prefer darker, freakier music right now, more kinda Berghain sound.
Why do you make music? Whats your main motivation? What are you looking for?
Sheela: It is about connecting with people who are experiencing the same things as I do in life. In my music I try to express feelings I can’t express verbally, have a dialogue with the cultural community, contributing my creative talent into the world. I’m trying to add my views on reality and existence.
Jay: Real life must be so boring without doing music. Music is so much fun! I grew up learning a lot of instruments, I never felt I must do that, but I enjoyed it.
Sheela, you studied neuropsychology. Do you see the process of making music within those parameters? Would you say there are major differences between you two for example – but also you and the Japanese noise musicians we have been talking about so much.
Sheela: Definitely there are different processes going on. Everybody has a different intention. Have you ever read the Philip K. Dick book „Do Androids dream of electric sheep?“? The story is very futuristic, so there are all these cool devices. The most interesting one for me is the mood organ: you type in a number to chose whatever mood you want to have for the day, it is almost like taking a pill: „Oh, I want to feel depressed today“. „Oh, I want to feel sad.“ „I want to have a melancholic mood.“ That’s exactly how it is to make a song. I make a song to feel sad and maybe come up with a certain story behind, like my lover left me, or somebody was violent towards me. So, that said, we all inject different feelings in our music. You definitely see a lot of differences between noise and techno productions. When I go to my iTunes, it is like going to a mood organ. Do I wanna hear fucked up noise music and disconnect from reality? Or do I wanna hear some nice classical music?
One of my favorite things about neuropsychology is bio-feedback in the process how sounds affect your mind, how specific frequencies can bring out moods and mind states in the listeners. For example, does 528 Hz give you a love feeling?
Did you try this in any of your tracks? So suddenly the whole dancefloor is makling love?!
Sheela: Actually I did put in a few times a layer of 528 Hz in tracks. But of course you could also use this for evil things, like shopping. Frequencies can be evil.
Jay: Also with colouring. Certain colours create certain feelings in you.
Sheela: All this could manipulate the brain in a positive or negative way. For example getting rid of addictions.
Sheela, I heard a story that your house in San Francisco was haunted. Quite a Japanese story. So tell me more…
Sheela: Oh, yes, we had a ghost. My roommate and me had a period with sleep processes, where we did see really weird things in white/grey clouds. Our third room mate, an ultra-spiritural-esoteric guy, decided to do a cleansing ritual on the house to banish the spirits. He talked to the ghost and told him that he has no business there. We watched him during the ceremony, we did not see the ghost, but we felt something.
We formed a ghost hunting squad. We bought all this ghost hunting equipment and went to all these haunted places. We caught several ghosts on films. That is a real thing. We have a lot of video material. We made a website – but we had to stop it.
Japanese people obviously believe in such things. And it kinda makes sense as we all know that energy once it has been in a room stays within forever (?) How much of the mind is still in this energy?
Sheela: We also did ‘EVP’ recordings. You basically record white noise and then conduct the sounds where you hear the spirits coming in the room, using specific magnetic mechanisms. Sometimes you’d hear voices. I wanna do more of these recordings and use it for my tracks.
Well, you will get a new audience with that I guess…
Sheela: We also did use a ouija board to talk to ghosts – and did make a lot of contact. Really! I swear. Actually I did stop at one point with all of this cause it got a bit… the more you are tuning in, the more weird things happen to you. A dark energy started watching me. One time we went to a haunted hotel, the Los Alamos Hotel, which is fully preserved, they havent changed any furniture since 1800. That’s the hotel where we did all the EVP and ouija board stuff. It’s remarkable, it’s unexplainable. What happens when we die? I could go one talking about this for a long time.
Thank you both for this interesting talk.