Interview with Joke Lanz, Turntablist
A snapshot of my deepest psyche
This interview took place in a café in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin (Germany) on 30 December 2013. Translated into English from German by the author. Um die Originalfassung auf Deutsch zu lesen, bitte hier klicken.
Joke Lanz is a Swiss sound artist who explores the synergies of corporeality and live electronics in experimental music. Inspired by his background in punk rock, he transfers the energy of improvisation into his live performances. Under his well known moniker Sudden Infant, now enhanced with bass player Christian Weber and percussionist Alexandre Babel, he creates a blend of body art with noise music. Lanz keeps his electronic setup minimal, in order not to distract from his body as “an energetic living sculpture.” 1[1. “Not only as a soundproducing tool, also as an energetic living sculpture.” Tobias Fischer, “Interview with Joke Lanz / Sudden Infant,” Tokafi, July 2010.] In his turntable concerts, Lanz conveys sounds and noises into embodied entities. Whereas many interviews have focused on his career as Sudden Infant, our talk in a Berlin café casts light on Joke Lanz as turntablist. Unveiling detailed insights into his artistic concepts, we will hear about his solo shows, his experiences with an orchestra and the sonic treasures of his record collection.
[Karin Weissenbrunner] Christian Marclay, one of the first turntablists, actually came from visual arts. He started to use the record player as he hadn’t learned any music instruments but also due to his influences from performance art and punk rock. Were these influences important for you as well for your own approach to playing the turntable and your Sudden Infant projects?
[Joke Lanz] The energy of punk music has always been very important to me. Later I found this energy again in the actions of Viennese Actionists and performance art from the 80s. Back then, the turntable and the vinyl were already compelling to me. And after discovering people such as Christian Marclay and Yoshihide Otomo, the way was clear to me. My musical language, which stems from the punk movement, is still recognisable in my way of playing the turntable. When I was little, I played the violin, later I played the bass guitar in a punk band. But I think that I enjoy playing the turntable most because I taught it to myself. Somehow it is more open towards all directions. You can do whatever with it.
How do you prepare your turntable concerts and source material?
Well, there is always an idea of a piece in the air. Following this idea, I select the sound material that I want to use. In my case, the material are vinyl records. But in some cases, I work with the record player [itself] as sound object as well. Not as much as Ignaz [Schick], for example, as I like to focus on the vinyl. I also use manipulations of vinyl discs, cut them and re-assemble them together, or I stick tape on the grooves and so on. But first of all, I am interested in the direct interaction in playing the turntable: the intuitive and fast selection of material, for example, and the immediate realization; then how you play the material, whether you let it play fragmentarily and then stop it, or you repeat it, scratch it or change the speed of it, play it backwards, or you use cut-ups things, scratches and such vinyl stuff… Certainly, there are endless possibilities of playing techniques. Additionally there is the [sound] material: a human voice, for example, which you can play with double speed or even faster or slower or backwards or you scratch it or you just scratch only one word the whole time — which would result in a kind of texture. This you can connect again, with a rhythm, for example, with a drone or with another human voice, with a dog barking, or everything results in a certain rhythm or sound carpet. You can endlessly build up and down and then destroy it towards complete silence. Silence is an important element in my music. I use silence, breaks, so to say, and many cuts frequently.
Also as a kind of “framing”?
For me, it is a dynamic element. For instance, we are sitting in this room and all the people are talking in the background and you hear that blablablabla… And sometimes there are moments in which suddenly there is just quietness. It is said that “an angel is passing through the room.” For around two seconds just nobody speaks! And suddenly everybody talks again. This is really such a dynamic element! It is very exciting and immediately opens the ears. It is something that I like a lot in music — loudness and silence, which kind of counterpoint each other. Music is not only what you hear, in this sense. For me, music also has a body. My music has a part of me. Feelings, emotions, fears, joys — there are not only the acoustic sound waves that arrive in the ear, but also really emotional aspects that manifest themselves in some form.
You describe your music as an “extreme form of musique concrète that juxtaposes spasmodic gibbering with disorienting electronics.” A journalist described your style as a “cinematic collage technique”. To what extent would you agree with that? To me, it seems your music is less focused on cinematic impressions.
Well, I created music for movies several times and played the turntable live to a movie once as well or added the soundtrack for short movies. But it’s true, it is not really the initial point in my music.
Not so much in your solo concerts?
Yeah, I think in my music the physical and corporal aspects are more important than a cinematic interpretation. My starting point is the human, the body. The output is probably a transfer of all the chemical reactions in my brain, stomach, tummy, lungs — I don’t know actually — together with all the synapses and subtle elements as an extension on the turntables. I don’t have a picture or movie in my mind. It is more a snapshot of my deepest psyche inside of me, or of a corporeality from the depths somewhere in me. Everybody has his or her depths and there are vicious things that are hiding there, but also extremely tender things. Often, many of these things never come up, or only scarcely. And this is what is interesting to me, to unveil these things.
Ok, but don’t you have to know beforehand what will happen to you in the moment during the concert, since you choose the records already before playing?
Yes, this is a bit contradictory [laughs]. Well, I have to admit that the records and the material, as well as empirical values from past performances, have already created a certain framework, a certain selection. I also know myself. It is rare that things come up that are completely new for me. It can happen, but [laughs] I roughly know the range and this is how I can pre-select the material. Sometimes I bring 40 records with me and play only with seven in a concert. Or I bring ten records and play all ten, but one only for ten seconds and the others therefore much longer. It depends. Sometimes — I have to admit — I don’t know where the needle will land. It is very difficult to coordinate but it is always a revelation to me because I play intensely with chance. So, if I look out of the window [looks out of the window to the street], then I see these people and not other people. Or I see a black car, but it could be a yellow one as well. Same with the needle on the record: then this sound arrives and not another one, and I work with this sound. This all happens so incredibly fast that it is more intuitive than rational. Sometimes I compare it a bit with sexuality. Sexuality switches off rational thinking. If you are in love, if you feel another body, if you exchange emotions, you can’t tell anymore what happens to you. You are just anywhere. That is the great and crazy thing with it. It goes in this direction.
But sometimes I get a kick, which is somehow like, yeah, as if an angel passes through the room. Suddenly something opens up and you think: “Wow!” This happens very often while playing together with other musicians. If things get mixed and chafed, and you don’t know how it happened but it is suddenly just there. While improvising, there are these looks, like an unbelieving look to your musician partner: “What incredibly great shit are you playing? That’s unbelievable.” And then: “Did you hear that?” You think something like this and the other musician as well. Also, it is often very telepathic.
So, you never use a stopwatch in order to play something different after ten minutes, for example?
No, if I play a solo turntable set — which is something different for me than an improvisation with somebody — then I play an improvisation with myself, so to say. But I can decide to use this particular sound material for my set. And then I will try a change to something else, or I know what is there. Often, I prepare a beginning and an end, roughly. A good beginning and a good end is often half the battle. The part in the middle depends on how you are feeling with the room, with the audience, with yourself…
When you prepare the beginning and end, which kind of structure do you prepare? Do you want to tell a story with your set or create something new again and again?
No, I tend to prepare something dramaturgic. For example, dynamics play a huge role in the overall picture. I work with many little sounds but also with very loud and strong sounds. Between that, there are many little breaks, directional shifts, then these physical sounds, that I always use, or speech as well. Furthermore, strong abstractions with very short and little citations. For example, a little child’s voice, that hums something [hums a high pitch] and parallel to that a monk’s chant, like a deep man’s voice [hums a deep pitch]. Here, you immediately imagine things. Although, before the listener remains too long with that, I remove it. I don’t want to leave people in total comfort. I am never in total comfort myself. Luckily, life is so diverse and every day brings something new, so that you can never be in complete safety. And this is mainly how I create my solo sets, dramatically.
For example, on the recording of my CD Münster Bern. The festival took place in a huge minster, a cathedral actually, and I knew that my solo concert would be in there. 2[2. Joke Lanz’s Münster Bern was recorded on 22 October 2011 at the “zoom in” festival for improvised music at the minster in Bern (Switzerland).] So I gave some thought to this. The acoustics in such a nave are incredible, the sounds move epochally up in the air, which is very impressive and almost religious. For this concert, I gathered some vinyl records with church bells and played them at the beginning of my set. In the first moment, I played them straight, without any manipulations, then I gradually started to double and quadruple the layers and to change the speed. I began to craft a kind of sound carpet made of church bells. This became enhanced and then I went somewhere else with my set.
So, in a wider perspective it is a collage?
It is a collage-like construction, yes…
Although the single parts have a build-up?
Yes, you could take the single parts out of the whole thing and you would have a short piece with a topic.
The first time I saw you playing was with the turntable at TITO Festival [The International Turntable Orchestra, at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in October 2009]. Only later I heard of your Sudden Infant Project…
It is not so easy to see through this whole jungle of experimental music which has emerged by now. There are a great deal of people who do great stuff but you don’t know about them. Back then, many people didn’t know that I play turntables, they only knew me from my Sudden Infant projects. Some people still don’t know that today, or the other way around.
Did you study at university?
No, not really. I didn’t want to stay in school any longer. I made an apprenticeship as a draftsman for building construction. But I didn’t finish it, because it was too boring, not creative enough. Then I started an apprenticeship as a wholesaler. That was extremely boring but I had to do something. After that, I worked in construction or in factories. Well, I did all sorts of things. That is a problem, that many who went to art school but had never worked in a job before thought they could make a living with music or art. But that is extremely difficult. They never learned what it means to work in a factory for a year, for example, just to get by. But this would be a useful lesson for them, I think, to get in touch with the reality of life. Then they can recalculate that with music or art. I always did it like this and I always did music part time. Working for a living, music, then being a father. I wanted to have time for my child, of course, and didn’t want a 100% job. I just worked 60%. Then my child, the music. After that, the music became more and more important, the job positions became fewer. And 10 years ago, I had a grant in London; after that I risked everything with music only. It is difficult sometimes with the security…
Which projects do you have with other musicians as a turntablist?
I have mainly played turntable with people abroad, for example in Switzerland or Austria. Also in the UK. Back in 2004, when I lived in London, I had some turntable performances, for example at the Bohman Brothers [Jonathan and Adam] of the improvisation scene. They regularly organized concerts in the small cafe in Bonnington Centre, which today doesn’t exist anymore. Back then, Cafe Oto had not existed yet. — Cafe Oto is really a cool venue, one of the best places in London at the moment. I also know many people at Resonance 104.4 FM [radio station in London]. I also performed there in the studio.
Once, I played with the composer Jorge Sánchez-Chiong and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Transart Festival in Bozen (Italy). In New Music, they use turntables for orchestra pieces more and more often.
The turntable is slowly becoming established.
Yeah, I think that’s great. It’s interesting. It was an incredible experience for me when I flew to Vienna and rehearsed with the big orchestra and conductor one week long. And I wrote my own score, but only for myself — I read notes, but not that well. Of course, I also coordinated it with the composer, Jorge. And I was so nervous at the opening night at Wien Modern [Festival for contemporary music in Vienna] in the concert house, you can’t imagine. I was at the pedestal — next to the conductor — in front of the orchestra — as soloist, turntable — and you see this impressive orchestra. And at a certain moment the conductor turns around, looks at you: “And now!” [laughs]. And for the musicians of the orchestra — they are really like employees, clerks, they check the clock, put the scores down and start playing — for them that was crazy. Probably only a few enjoyed it. But it was very exciting.
What would you say connects you with the musicians Mat Pogo [Italian improviser based in Berlin, mainly using his own voice] and Dieter Kovačič, aka dieb13 [turntablist and improviser based in Berlin]?
Hm, maybe all three of us are not the youngest men anymore, who still have a certain madness and humour — the daily lunacy.
You also had some musical projects with the Viennese turntablist Dieter Kovačič.
Yeah, we’ve played together several times already and we always have a lot of fun. We had a duo for TITO, for example. At this festival, it was possible to manufacture dubplates 3[3. A one-off acetate or vinyl disc used for quality control or to test recordings prior to creating the master that will be used for production.] in the foyer of the concert hall. So, for our duo we had the idea to record Swiss and Viennese swear words. We brought recordings to the guy on a USB Stick and he made us two copies of a 7-inch record. Then we used these records in our concert [laughs]. We scratched and threw these Swiss or Viennese swear words to each other. The audience really started to laugh. I don’t think you can do that with everybody. But with Dieter, I can.
In which way would you see yourself as a politically motivated artist?
In the past, I was much more political than today. This might be dependent on age or that you see things differently than always combative. But I realize that I also have periods in which my brain cells start signaling and I feel more pressure to do something in this direction. Latently, I am always slightly political, but not so explicitly anymore. In the past, I often chose titles for my pieces that were concerned with oppression of children or with terror of big cities — I was a huge car opponent. I’ve never been an animal rights activist or a vegan, instead I’ve always championed for people.
Did you get some inspiration from avant-garde movements of the last century, such as Fluxus?
At some point, Fluxus was important. I lived in Zurich for a long time and was strongly influenced by Dadaism, which had its origins in Cabaret Voltaire in the historic district of Zurich. I worked there with my friends of Schimpfluch-Gruppe with a strong Dadaistic orientation, although we enhanced it with tape recording techniques of the 80s and 90s, and other diverse methods that you can do with tape players. But also the irony of Dadaism, this self-irony, the questioning, the humour: “Life is serious enough, let’s just realize the whole thing in a more humorous but also crazy way” — that was fascinating!
Then I became a father at a very young age, 24 years old, in 1989, and I had a little baby — and mentally, I was still a child myself — which played a part, for example for the Sudden Infant project. Viennese Actionism shaped my work deeply, also Fluxus and Happenings of the 70s, although Fluxus was almost too hippie-like for me, punk had a stronger influence on me. This do-it-yourself idea from punk and Dadaism was mainly fascinating for me.
Are there turntable pieces on your albums Turntable Cookbook (2002) and Turntable Abuse (1998), and are these releases still available?
These are old things, and out-of-stock for a long time. The Turntable Cookbook album was a very limited CD with only turntable projects. Many concrete citations and loops. In some pieces, I used children records, for example. In others, Rockabilly songs, which I separated and assembled.
Do you also use cut-ups [pieces from different vinyl record glued together] and/or do you manufacture your own records?
I use both, cut-ups and dubplates.
Where can you order vinyl records today? At SchneidersLaden [a shop for electronic music instruments in Berlin]?
Yeah, or you can also make dubplates at Hardwax [a record shop in Berlin]. I made two dubplates there just recently. That was for the concert in Exploratorium with the Berlin Domino Orchestra. The music was by the clarinet player who led the orchestra, which I could then play back.
I also have many records of my own projects that were released on records, such as my Sudden Infant projects. These I re-use for my turntable projects, like in a recycling process. Sometimes I press a plastic dubplate that I can use to play around. I also look at flea markets or second-hand shops with records old as dirt and with very bizarre things on them, such as heart beats. There are these scientific records that were pressed in the 60s or 70s for soon-to-be doctors. At this time, tapes or records were the medium to convey something. I own a whole doctor series of old 7-inch records called Medical English for German Doctors. Each single has its own topic, for example “delivery” (Fig. 2). On that one, you can hear a conversation between a doctor, a midwife and a patient who is giving birth, in English [laughs]. That is so great. These things hardly exist anymore. … Today, everything is digital. The CD is also already dying and people have everything digitally on their computers. Everything is for downloading. That’s why I think, that this haptic, old-fashioned piece of turntable with vinyl records is even more exciting. The vinyl records are also so physical for me, almost like a living creature. Records also have these crackling sounds and the more you play a record, the more it will change. Sometimes the needle gets stuck, without any reason. That is crazy. And only a single small action can change the sound. This is the fascinating thing for me, to work like this.
By now, the turntable is more or less accepted as an instrument. In clubs, DJs who play records prove to have skills than those playing music from laptops. Although there is this replacement, the soft- and hardware Traktor Scratch for the virtual scratching of mp3 files…
But this can’t replace the directness. That’s like with virtual love — it can’t replace real love either.