Even when Estonian composer/vocalist Mart Avi describes his writing process through abstract analogies of clutter and combustion, his method completely aligns with the way that I hear his latest album, Rogue Wave. These pieces aren’t melodies nurtured from the inside and then extracted, funnelling ethereal sentiment through the vessel of music. In fact, Mart Avi seems to work in reverse: plucking out shrapnel from the endless avalanche of human experience and clumping it together, manufacturing a strange, often brittle coherence from the assemblage of televisual gloss, bubbles of vaporwave, sudden pangs of estranged memory, radio leakage, automated labour and the innumerable incarnations of pop music. Mart Avi’s voice is often the central adhesive, his illustrious-yet-precarious vibrato rising up through the centre like a fountain stream.
In this interview, Mart and I discuss his early encounters with fearless and nonsensical music, the retrospectively eerie words of his prepubescent self and the wonderful conceptual premise for his video for “Blind Wall”.
Listening to Rogue Wave for the first time, I was struck by the sense of free-flow and meditative acceptance within your music. I get the impression that you’re not adverse to excess, or jutting discordance, or sudden atmospheric upheavals. Do you create your music with a conscious desire to challenge your own notion of artistic taste, or is Rogue Wave simply a product of your natural inclinations?
When creating an album, I feel free and I do what I want to do. I’m definitely not creating it just for myself though, and neither am I creating it for the presumable audience. I’m creating it for the “times” and “other-times”. An album is the season that I’m in. There can be unexpected storms, heavy rains, sudden changes in temperature etc. Since I don’t live in an isolated greenhouse, a lot of those “winds” are actually shared experiences, dozens of parallel Zeitgeists. The driving force behind all of this is curiosity. I simply like to get lost behind the hidden surfaces of a normal life. I don’t enjoy eccentricities per se, but it seems that with this kind of pursuit, all sorts of distortions and strange transformations naturally come into play. There were moments on Rogue Wave where I actually tried to be as normal or commonplace as possible, which was something that I had never done before (e.g. on the track “In Commercials”). Yet there’s a bit of a bizarre tingle in it, which makes it feel alienating and a bit absurd. I wasn’t able to get rid of that.
I understand that you grew up in Vara village in Estonia, reading music magazines in the library of the nearest city, before leaving at the age of 16 for Luxembourg. Can you recall any particularly important records or musical discoveries from your first serious forays into music and listening?
During that time I used to consider myself a punk, though never did I associate it with the looks or certain patterns of rhythmic guitar. My musical palaté was distinctly more British (partly because of the zines) than it is now, with some notable exceptions such as Suicide (probably the best punk act ever). Most influential artists for me were probably the ones that destroyed some sort of barriers, went “elsewhere”, were fearless, futuristic or just nonsensical in a way. Hearing Metal Box by Public Image Ltd or Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain for the first time was quite an experience. I was years and years behind what had happened in the music. While absorbing the present, I went through all sorts of phases that I was unable to take part in when they really happened. Bowie’s whole discography was a marvellous pop-cultural framework for that kind of endeavour, which helped to connect many of the dots. The decades didn’t matter. Not much has changed in that part. I could put the latest digital rap ravings into the same playlist with some Joe Meek productions and it would sound brilliant as a whole. Good music is still rare and there’s a need to search for it from all sorts of places and timelines, some unfairly forgotten. It would be silly to just ignore all of that.
Although, if we go very far ahead into the future and start to artificially enhance our cognitive abilities, then it might all change. Those primitive songs and sounds created by ordinary Homo Sapiens might only grab the interest of anthropologists. There will be bigger experiences so to speak, other than music.
On Simon Reynolds’ blog, Bliss Out, he drew a likeness between your music and Scott Walker’s Climate Of Hunter, which I can certainly hear in terms of how both records obfuscate their point of conception. It’s difficult to determine how these songs might have started out, given that there’s seldom a central element carrying the melody. How do you go about starting and building these songs?
I don’t build up those things from a scratch. Rather I break them down from matter. Imagine a warehouse full of contraptions, junk, luxuries, burned-out hard drives, cyberware, antiquities, avatars, phantoms. Over there, blocks of information are pressed into briquette under my supervision. I burn that briquette, out comes the smoke. Now, smoke is a song. Sometimes it burns with bright flame, sometimes there’s just not enough oxygen and incomplete combustion occurs and there can be toxic byproducts such as carbon monoxide.
In this context, It’s certainly fitting that smoke signals are actually one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication. Heck, it’s how media started! “Abuse of the smoke signal is known to have contributed to the fall of the Western Zhou Dynasty in the 8th century BCE. King You of Zhou had a habit of fooling his warlords with false warning beacons in order to amuse Bao Si, his concubine who was known as one of four ancient beauties of China. When an actual rebellion occurred, no one came to the aid of the king. [taken from this Wikipedia article on Smoke Signals]” Talk about fake news.
These songs can occasionally become overwhelmingly thick. As someone currently taking conscious efforts to try and unclutter my life from too much information and distraction, I can see a lot of parallels between Rogue Wave and my own day-to-day: the sense of transience and too much noise, with several ideas fighting for my attention simultaneously. Is this something you experience yourself, and is Rogue Wave in any way designed to reflect this?
I suppose the truth is that it doesn’t really work like wallpaper or a browser tab amongst dozens of other tabs. It’s more like a projection of a shapeshifting virus which devours the whole room and decodes it to its liking. For that the texture has to be thick (yet I always have to listen for what I can leave out). It’s not just a sonic terrain, it’s a structure, a matrix. I like when a record feels like that it’d be possible to actually live in it.
I’d love to program all-encompassing VR experiences for so called homo ludens, but I’m not that good with numbers so I have to stick to sound, which is my language. There’s a track on the album, which I named after one of the main programming languages used for software development: “Python”. I have no idea how it works in real life, so I just tried to imagine it as a song.
As a human, I’ve always accepted the overflow of data. Tech hasn’t changed that as there’s always been immeasurable amount of information directly surrounding us. Especially in nature. You can never grasp what’s truly going on a meadow. It’s not purely visual, but also auditory and there are too many smells. I have one complication though. I find it hard to multitask on visual information and today’s tech and all sorts of environments are overly visual. I want more for my ears as my eyes are in constant distress. Music helps to compensate that and it’s one of the reasons I’ve reverted back to downloading extensive amounts of podcasts to walk along with.
The intro to “Give Me Counterculture” sends me off balance. It sounds like basketball players climbing the walls. Could you divulge what this sound is?
It’s a footwork of a boxer with added effects. I actually prefer your interpretation though, so from now on it could be that instead! That trumpet-driven song used to be called “Cassius” after Muhammad Ali. It needed a bold and physical entrance. The next day, Ali died so I had to change the title and some of the lyrics cause I got scared. There were plenty of notable deaths while recording and assembling Rogue Wave, some which left their mark on the actual album, but I would rather not talk more about that.
Unsurprisingly, it looks like reviewers have been quick to remark on your vocal power. Could you talk to me about your history as a singer? When did you start to sing, and how has your relationship with your voice developed/changed over the years?”
I’ve never been trained and I don’t know much about notes, but I do remember that in my nursery years I truly felt that no one is able to sing better than me. Never mentioned it to anyone or showed it off, so no one knew. As a six year-old I had to privately sing to the school’s music-teacher, who then told me negatively that I sound like I have a medical problem with my larynx. I didn’t take it to heart though. I actually have some tape-recordings from that pre-puberty era, where I do sound like a heavy smoker. One of such audio clips can be heard on a track “Long Distance Call” from my second album Humanista from 2016, where I’m asking in Estonian: “Who is this?” Right now it sounds like a sample from a horror film, but it wasn’t meant to be creepy back then. That used to be my actual speaking-voice! After the “voice break” it normalised in a way. I lost a lot of confidence, attitude and spunk. Damn, those early teen years can be awful! I started to re-discover my singing-voice as a young adult. It’s getting better and during the last 10 months I’ve vastly grown as a performer. The reasons for that are 90% mental. I don’t really practise and there are periods where I don’t sing a note for weeks. No need to wreck it on downtime when you don’t know the actual anatomy and rely on your intuition.
I’d be intrigued to know more about your approach to playing live. From what I can see from YouTube videos, there seems to be a theatrical element to what you’re doing (whether “theatrical” is the correct word, I’m not sure). What considerations come into your mind when you think about how to transpose this material for the stage?
I mostly perform alone and there’s a need to compensate that. That’s one of the reasons I use stage props and some theatrical elements. Those props are often improvised. For example, last month I performed at a venue in Helsinki that used to be a trade school for metalworkers. There I found all sorts of bizarre stuff while lurking around after the soundcheck. I found a box of wooden Mikado sticks, a glass container, a nice big metal floor lamp, some fine furniture and I was set. It all proved to be useful and at the very end of the show I accidentally managed to destroy both the lamp and the container. If there’s a lyric that goes, let’s say, “…like a needle in a heart”, then it’s much easier to sing it if you actually have something to poke your chest with. I like to get physical with that kind of stuff and I don’t rehearse it so there’s a lot of unpredictability, which makes it more thrilling for me. I actually tend to plan a lot while performing, but no more than three seconds ahead. I’m quite clumsy and as tall as all the top point guards in the NBA today (6.3”, 1.92 m) so there can be accidents and it can look rather strange, but I’ve got a good court vision. At least I don’t dance or anything like that, it’s more like pantomime. There are very few random movements. I never talk to the audience when I’m in character, but it doesn’t mean that there’s a wall between us. It’s more like a glass screen and sometimes there can be cracks, but it’s not there to be shattered. No one’s coming to see the “real you” and that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s all an act and there has to be a switch. The “other me” would drop the mic right away and look for a comfy place to sit, where there’s the least crowd, to observe others and have a smoke.
The video for “Blind Wall”, directed by Ivar Murd and conceived by yourself, is wonderful. The lighting and copious smoke are just perfect. Could you tell me a bit about your concept for this, and whether there were any particular inspirations you were working with here?
It could be a glamorous limbo. You know what, here’s a screenshot of one of the many letters I sent to Mr. Murd (and the stylist Mr. Mackenzie, who happened to be British):
What particular records have you been listening to recently?
Actress – AZD
Burial – Subtemple
Eddie Palmieri – Vamanos Pa’l Monte
Future – S/T
Prince – The Truth
Ryuichi Sakamoto – async
Spacek – Curvatia
What’s on the horizon for you and your music?
The good thing about the horizon is that it’s unreachable and ever-moving so you can never get comfortable (unless you enter the vanishing point). I’ve got a chip in my shoulder and plenty of new music up my sleeve so that suits me well. Those fresh fumes sound like a legion of hovercrafts speeding into a blinding light.