I just want to establish the pronunciation of the album title before we begin.
It’s called Bécs [pronounced “baeetch”]. Peter Rehberg and I thought it’d be nice to use this title, but I knew that it’d be difficult for some people.
I suppose the primary concern is that it sounds right to you.
It does. I first wanted to call it Vienna because it’s so based on being in Vienna. I’ve been away for many years – I’ve always lived here, but I’ve partly also lived in other cities – and now I’m based here again, I wanted to call it that to keep it as simple as possible. But Peter came with the Ultravox card…obviously they have a record called Vienna, so he said, “why not use the Hungarian name? You have Hungarian roots,” which is true. So that’s the story behind that.
So was Endless Summer also inspired by Vienna in any way?
Not really. I was born in Vienna but I grew up in the Austrian countryside next to the Hungarian border, only 50 kilometres away from here. There is a big, big lake – 40 or 50 kilometres long – and I spent all my childhood there. We really had these endless summers in the 70s when I was growing up, and it was very much inspired by that kind of landscape and the feelings I had at that time.
Bécs is termed as a “conceptual follow-up” to Endless Summer in a lot of places. In what ways does it relate back to that record?
It wasn’t me saying that, it was the label. I think they have been overdoing it a bit but I understand why. For me, it’s a follow up because there was always a third album missing on Mego. My idea was to make a “trilogy”: Hotel Paral.lel, Endless Summer…and then there was this missing third one. In that way it’s a follow up, but it’s not really conceptual; it’s like closing a circle.
As you know, Mego had financial problems many years back and they had to close down for a while. Peter was re-doing the whole label and re-designing it in the most fantastic way, and suddenly there was a chance for me to close the circle. And this is what I’ve done now, I hope. But it’s not a conceptual follow-up to Endless Summer. All of these albums are just standing for themselves.
From my perspective, there was something about the way you play the guitar on this record – those open, reclining strums – that makes me think of Endless Summer. Perhaps that was subconsciously planted in my mind upon reading the press material.
When I see a press text from the label – and don’t get me wrong, Peter did a fantastic work – it’s always taken seriously, as if this is the whole description of the record. It’s different from Endless Summer. Maybe it’s not as good – probably not, because everyone says that Endless Summer was the best thing I’ve done – but for me, each record is equally as important.
From previous interviews, I get the impression that you try to venture new places with your sound each time you re-enter the studio. Did the process behind Bécs involve a similar such process of re-evaluation?
It was a little bit different. I wanted to do something more rough in a way, without going too much into the super-detailed sound design that I did on my last studio album, Black Sea. I could even say that I wanted it to sound a little bit more straightforward; like a “first-take” thing, which it was. Everything I recorded was actually first take and I wanted to keep that feeling. It’s not really a “live” feeling because it’s processed in the end, but the basics are almost live. That was a bit different from the two records I did before (Black Sea and Venice). On Endless Summer I had a similar approach to this.
Has this change in approach also had an impact on the way you’ve been approaching your live performances?
I’ve always kept the live thing away from the studio work. In the studio I work like a producer; I try out things, I go into detail. When I play live I think it’s more comparable to a Jazz musician who plays live, because I can never play the same set again. I can never use presets with the patch that I’m using, so it always sounds a little bit the same but not really. For me it’s very important to keep this improvisation element.
That always makes it a challenge to me – to try to get it as good as I played it last time. It would be too boring to just press a button on a laptop and use sound files; I could do that, but that’s not interesting to me. It’s a well-functioning network that I use and everything is connected to eachother, but I can never play the same concert again.
Does this allow you to respond more sensitively to the particular space in which you’re performing?
Absolutely. It can be great sometimes and it can be completely shit, you know? Just last weekend I played in Barcelona. Everything seemed nice, and after 10 minutes I broke a string. I swear, I’ve haven’t broken strings since the age of 17 and I completely lost it! It was a bad show in the end. Anything can happen with this approach. I have no safety net when I play live, but it would be too boring to have the perfect backing band or Pro Tools running in the background of whatever. I could do it – I’ve played with bands that do this – but it’s not good for me.
There are a lot of collaborators on this new record. Were they simply invited into the studio to see what they could come up with, or did you have a very specific idea of what their involvement would be?
It just came naturally. I did the first track “Static Kings” a while ago and I was never happy with it. I’ve spent a long time mixing that track, but something was just missing. I asked my friends Werner Dafeldecker and Martin Brandlmayr to play bass and drums respectively, and suddenly it worked. Mark Linkous was originally singing on that track, but when he died I just couldn’t use the vocal sound. It became an instrumental track. The reason it’s called “Static Kings” is that I spent so much time in his Static King studio in North Carolina. So it’s a bit of an homage.
And “Sav” was made with Cedric Stevens, who is a great friend of mine from Brussels, Belgium. He just came over here for two days and we just were jamming in the studio and recording everything, and it became that track. And then I had a piece called “Liminality” that was almost finished, and Tony Buck was in town. Actually I played with him at a festival in Austria, so I invited him to the studio and he played his part.
So it actually happened quite naturally; it wasn’t planned before but I was in the middle of the production so I thought, why not use these great players when they are around?
The drums really do sound fantastic on this record, particularly in the first few bars of “Static Kings”…
These musicians are all really great. I have the biggest respect for them – they’re just fantastic.
I have Cédric’s The Syncopated Elevators Legacy actually, which is a great record.
Yeah, I know. He came with all his modular synthesisers and built them up here in the studio – it was fantastic. It was great fun playing with him.
I wanted to ask about the album art too. I thought it depicted something “physical” to begin with; perhaps the side of a skyscraper or something. It became more abstract the more I looked at it. What actually is it?
The designer Tina Frank took some photos of the train station here in Vienna, where you can get a train to Budapest. So it makes a link from Vienna to Budapest, and to the name Bécs which is Hungarian, as we know. She just had this idea to take some pictures there and use them as a basic material for the design work. What I especially like about that design is that it really makes a reference to the Endless Summer record design, which she also did along with the Hotel Paral.lel design. It was extremely important for me to have her on board for this one. The T-shirts look really great – they’ll maybe be out in a month or so.
I want to return to something you said earlier on, about how Bécs completes the “circle” of releases on Mego. Do your releases on each label depict a sort of “sub-strand” of evolution, where the material somehow relates to the label it was produced for?
Maybe a little bit, but I’m not very conscious of it. When I release on Editions Mego, I can maybe go a bit in the “pop” direction that I have in my music. Maybe the stuff I do on Touch is more of the soundtrack/drone thing. But then it’s not, and it could be the other way round as well. I’m really happy to work with both labels. In the end we’re all friends, and it was never a problem for the people from Touch that I released something on Editions Mego, and it was never a problem for Peter if I did it the other way round. I enjoy working with two different labels, and maybe I can broaden my output a little bit through this.
In previous interviews you talk about your interest in the “wall of distorted guitar”, which also features prominently on Bécs. Are there still places you want to take that sound?
Yes. Actually I’m just experimenting here in my studio in Vienna right now, and I just got this amazing distortion box today. It’s still fascinating to me, especially in combination with all of the computer technologies we have today. The difference between analogue distortion and computer distortion is still something that keeps me working.
And so you work with combinations of both?
Yes I do. I’ve always done that, but over the years it became clearer to people that I’m actually going in this direction. When I started I was fascinated with all of the things you could do just on a laptop, but at one point I felt that something was missing. But I do love the combination of the analogue and the digital.
So does your music tend to come together through simply jamming out ideas in your studio, as you are now?
Absolutely. I’m experimenting; just playing like a kid sometimes. It’s a playground, and the good thing is that I can immediately record something once I find it – I have Logic on and Pro Tools on and I can immediately start working. It’s really fantastic.
I understand it probably varies from project to project, but how quickly do things tend to come together?
For Bécs I’ve just spent years in the studio doing stupid things, and nothing really came out of it – I had so much material but it just didn’t go anywhere. There was also probably a lack of confidence? I don’t know. Looking back I think there was. Suddenly, there was one track from which everything unfolded automatically and then it took me just three or four weeks. But I’ve been collecting material and recording for years. I mean, I’ve been doing many other things at the same time – it’s not that I’ve been lazy or whatever – but the solo album is a big call. I have to have the confidence to do it.
Can I ask which track opened everything out to you?
Funnily enough, it was the track “Bécs”.
You mentioned there that you’ve been working on other projects alongside Bécs. One that came to my attention was The Kilowatt Hour with Stefan Mathieu and David Sylvian. Are there any plans to take that one further?
I’m not sure…it really depends on David. In the end, the whole project really became his baby. I’ve just been recording all the parts that I played live when we did that tour. I think he’s finished mixing now and wants to release it. I imagine that after the release we could do something again.
After Bécs is released, what happens next?
Well obviously I will have to do live concerts…I mean, I’m happy to [laughs]. We might be too late for the summer festivals with that release, but I think there will be a European tour in early Autumn and then a few shows in America and Japan. When I’m in Japan, Jim O’Rourke and I have this plan to sit together in a studio for a week and just see what happens. So maybe there will be a release some day.
That sounds exciting.
Yeah, it really is. We’ve been talking about it for so many years but we haven’t had the time. I would love to just sit in a studio with him and play guitar or synthesisers or whatever, and just record and see what happens.
So have you collaborated with him before?
Oh yeah, with Fenn O’Berg!
Wow, how did that slip my mind?
[laughs] It became a very abstract thing. That’s the great thing about that band – people don’t know who is involved.
It was particularly difficult to determine who was doing what on the most recent record, In Hell. That one’s a very bewildering listen at points.
Oh yeah, but it’s so much fun at the same time. But the weird thing is, because he doesn’t want to leave Japan anymore, Fenn O’Berg became a Japanese band. The only place we’re touring is Japan!
So there’s no hope of seeing Fenn O’Berg over here?
Well Peter and I have been trying [laughs], but he’s really very serious about staying in Tokyo. But you never know.
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