Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep: An interview with Phon°Noir

Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep

Saturday, November 04, 2006

An interview with Phon°Noir

All it took was one subtle, minor chord change and I was hooked. The song in question was "A Hymn For Silence", Berlin based musician Matthias Grübel, aka Phon°Noir. I was very intrigued by his album "Putting Holes Into October Skies" after reading this review, and decided to investigate further. The album is a completely unique mix of elctronic producytion married with singer/songwriter techniques, featuring beautiful guitar arrangements and some of the most understated vocals this year. Here Phon°Noir talks about his album, his record label, his city and his friends and influences.


1. How do you pronounce the name Phon°Noir and what does it mean.

it is meant to be read as "phono noir". The ° in the middle is just a graphic joke. but it gives the word a characteristic look, something logo-like. literally the whole name means nothing. I made it up myself from the words "phono", which is about is about sound and hearing, and "noir", which of course is french for "black". to me it was about capturing an athmosphere that was very special to the first songs I recorded. I wondered later on íf the "noir" was still adequate, but then it had already become so familiar and i felt so safe with it. by now i can't imagine having called this project any other way. I also like the way it triggers associations in everybody's minds, ranging from a black telephone to a reference to film noir... an interesting state of vagueness.

2. What influences go into making phon°noir's sound

a lot. my life basically. the people around me and everything that goes along with it emotionally. plus everything i read and see and hear, be it the city, in the theatre, in films or just when washing the dishes in the kitchen. i simply love sounds. all kinds of sounds. the great thing is: in a way everything is sound, even if it's silent. I try to save all of this somewhere in a folder in my head. some things I like a lot are being recorded and preserved in order to be used in songs someday... besides that of course the records I keep listening to... many sorts of music ranging from some classical stuff to indie guitar rock to abstract experimental noise collages...

3. The album "Putting Holes Into October Skies" has been one of my favorites of the year, but is their anything significant about the title. refers to a really weird time... that october three years ago we lost a a really close friend in an accident. for a long long time after it had happened it felt like we were still living under that same october sky. nothing seemed to move. even though it turned spring and summer again, it just wouldn't feel as though. this particular album more or less only exists because writing this kind of music was a great help in this first year... in fact the guys who did the artwork for the record are also very close friends of mine and have just been as close with him. we all grew up together as it were. the album, the words on it, the music - it was a way of trying to get on... on and through it. the title is a metaphor... sort of putting holes into that october skies we felt caught under... if you have a close look at the back sleeve you can see the male figurine putting his finger through the sky... it's bright white on the other side.

4 A friend recently described your album as the "perfect headphone experience", in reference to the production techniques. I this an angle you meant to persue and if so how did you achieve it?

this is an apsect I was definetely interested in from the very start of the recordings. simply because I have always been into exploring records with good headphones myself. discovering new bits and pieces everytime you give it another listen. regarding "Putting Holes.." I think I did not really attempt to produce a headphone album, but the mere fact that i would produce it at home and mostly work on it in the evenings and nights forced me to work with headphones anyways. i think that's what you hear in the final mixes. the whole thing was pretty close to my ears all the time ;-) yet the whole album has been recorded on really crappy equipement. there was no way of thinking of a release or whatever back then... i only had an old mixer and really old software. not to speak of my microphones. so it's not that i tried to work with crazy effects and whatsoever tricks. i just wanted it to sound right under the circumstances given. one important aspect though was that i tried not to waste the precious possibilities of a stereo panorama. but if you listen carefully you'll hear that most of the interesting things going on in the width of the panorama have been produced with a simple panner effect... some of these panning effects like the really heavy one on "Slowdown" are also an attempt to make the form match the content. this song is about losing balance. which is exactly what might happen to you when listening to that mix on the headphones with eyes closed... it's weird cos it is a lo-fi record that works on headphones - but that seems to be what makes it special, at least to some people.

5. You have a very unique vocal style, who was your favourite singer when
growing up?

as a child i have been listening to not much more than the beatles. back then to me pop music was the beatles. i have always especially loved the voice of harrison. but i guess that was of minor importance once it came to phon°noir... i never had any particular idea of what i'd like to sound like. it just happened. i wouldn't even call myself a vocalist. i just need the voice to deliever the lyrics. so... i've been singing in guitar pop bands back in my highschool years. being 15, 16 i loved the cure and leonard cohen as well as oasis or the smashing punpkins. also cos they all had a great vocal stlye... i guess you can hear slight traces of that time nowadays. once i had the first lyrics for phon°noir songs and it came to singing i knew i would have to go for somthing very fragile and careful, because the words were so few and the space between them felt so intense. ... i always liked many singers and voices. some have been more important than others... i absolutely adore the way Kasper Eistrup from danish band kashmir sings; i love the voice of the Calla singer... and many more... yet i guess leonard cohen has always been the most important singer to me. because there is sth truly special in the way he uses only a few notes to form a brilliant melody. plus i always loved the way they had his voice mixed on the 60s/70s albums. so dry and direct and rough. i think you can't sound any better than that.

6. You are signed to Quartermass, how did this relationship come about and are their any other artists worth checking out.

to answer the 2nd part first: oh yes, defintely, there are labelmates worth checking out! in fact it's the other people on the label's catalogue that made me want to get in touch with Quartermass in the first place... i discovered Tonetraeger first, some 2 years ago, a düsseldorf-based indietronics project & felt drawn into their really unique sound instantly. same with Music A.M. to me their first album is one of the most exciting releases in electronic music in the past years. i can also highly recommend the work of TG Mauss (whom i also work with on a sideproject called Maibach), he is one half of Tonetraeger & his debut "Mechanical Eye" is one of my favourites of 2005. charming, warm acoustic guitar driven poptronics. beautiful stuff.
...i came to QS on the most usual way. so normal some people even couldn't believe: i had sent a demo cd. and i was asked to hand in more stuff. so i did. they liked it & we started working on what became the album later on... what sounds so casual was really crazy though. a huge step for me! i had been working on these 10 tracks on the demo for more than a year (most of them made it onto "Putting Holes..") & decided they deserved more than just being played to my friends. so i started sending these demos. about 25 of them. to various labels i liked and felt i could relate to. i received a few nice mails back but only QS were really really into it. and they had been in my top 3 anyways, judging from the releases i knew. so i was more than happy they wanted to sign with me. it still feels weird once i think of it. phon°noir was such a young project back then... surreal in a way, but just perfect.

7. You have posted a new song on myspace ("The Figurines Are Moving") it seems to be have a harder edge than tracks on the first album. Will album number 2 explore this theme more?

yes. definetely. i felt like it's time to slowly move on. i didn't want to record another lo-fi-electronic-singer/songwriter album. there will be more different sounds on the next album. more variety in the way the guitars sound, not only acoustic stuff. more synth sounds too. there will also be way more beat-driven tunes. the way i produce has also evolved a little. i am more into the details now. i tried to be even more precise with everything i put into the mix. and i wanted to have some more interesting breaks and twists. i have been listening to Four Tet a lot over the past year. i wouldn't even dare to say i'd like to sound like him, and obviously i just don't and can't. but there is something about the way he slices beats and puts them back together. i am still learning, but i tried things like that here and there. in an adequate measure, of course. these new songs are still rather sad & still rather slow, but they are way more eleborated and complex now i'd say...

8. What is your favourite song from "Putting Holes Into October Skies"

honestly, that's something i can't really find an answer to. this record feels so much like a unit, it's one big piece of music. i made sure the sound and the textures of the various instruments etc would be more or less the same throughout the whole album. to make it flow like one big song. every track has its very special place within the whole thing. they all mean a lot to me. most of them have been with me as sketches from the very start of this project... if i had to pick three definite ones that for me capture the essence of "Putting Holes...", i'd go for "Slowdown", "Origami" and "Februarhimmel". but all the others are equally important to me. i was quite happy we didn't have a single released along with the album. i wouldn't have been able to make up my mind i guess. if one song has been highlighted slightly it was "Slowdown", cos we shot a video for it. ...i think i really don't have one favourite track. yet at a certain point i realized which songs i'd like to keep on playing live and which ones were sort of left behind. "Origami" for instance has been in every live set i played so far. and it's the one i feel most save with when chosing it for a mixtape or sth. yet some people got a completely different view on that. i am always surprised to see which tunes are being picked for radio airplay. surprisingly it is "A Hymn For Silence" which has been broadcasted most frequently so far...

9. On another recent track you collaborated with fellow Germans Transatlanticism ("My Paperhouse On Fire"), will there be more guest musicians on the next album?

in fact yes. i have been working with marie-sophie from Tranasatlanticism . she is a great singer with an absolutely beautiful voice. i am very happy to have her onboard for that one song. two other songs feature german cello player fried dähn. he contributed two fascinating parts, one on his electric cello, the other one more folky and traditional on an acoustic one. at the moment i am also collaborating for one of the last album tracks with simon aka Calika from brighton (an artist worth keeping an eye and ear on, great album out on Audiobulb). he contributes some of his typical droning soundscapes over a track i had produced lately... these guest appearances turned out to be really special moments on the finished tracks... enhancing the sound cosm of phon°noir, opening it up and taking it to another level... i can't wait to get the songs out for everybody to hear them.

10. I am intrigued as to how you perform your songs live. Do you have a full band or do you use technology?

in fact i have to rely on technology. i am playing with friends though, that is at least from time to time. which is great and makes it a lot easier for me... once i was joined by a good friend on guitar, once i had a friend of mine with me who did all the laptop work... but that have been special occasions. most of the time i use my typical indietronics-one-man-band-setup which has me singing, playing the guitar and triggering midi things via a keaboard. i got ableton live running on a notebook then. i use it for playbacking some prerecorded things, beat loops etc. but also for software-synths i play live through the keyboard. an essential thing for me is the loop station pedal for the guitar, which allows me to layer the various parts i played on the record... besides that i have a little effect board with the most important effects for the guitar and that is about it. ...i am still not 100% satisfied with the way i stage these songs, cos it keeps me busy all the time and i spend a lot of time staring onto a pedal board or into a computer screen. i am about to reduce that a little at the moment, achieving something more performative...

11. I have always wanted to go to Berlin, and I will do one day. What bands or artists should I look out for?

oh... there is too many to mention. berlin is full of great music and loads and loads of places to go and hear people play live... my favourite berlin-based label with berlin-based bands and artists is Sinnibus Records... a nice young team of music lovers, great bands. you should definetely check Seidenmatt (instrumental post-rock) and Ampl:Tude(organic electronic pop with a beat). but hey, there is so many inspiring people around here. i also like the work of Anne Laplantine, Guido Mobius, Semuin and Make My Day, who are as well all berlin-based and releasing on experimental electronic labels.

12. When is the new album due to come out and do you have a working title yet?

we scheduled the release of the 2nd album for late spring 2007. i guess we'll try to release in april, but it might as well be may until it finally happens. i have a few possible titles in mind, of which one or two are really good. but as i might change my mind another 100 times i rather keep this as a secret & a surprise. i wanted to call it like one of the songs for a long time but by now i skipped that and the new ideas feel way more catchy... so much for now... you'll hear it, someday soon, i promise. ;-)

13. Last question, what kind of film would you like to soundtrack?

a really good question. there are a few directors whose works i really love, for instance german filmmaker hans-christian schmid, who has been working with the notwist for a film score lately... i saw a great french movie lately... dominik moll's "Lemming". i guess it would be that kind of film (with that particular way of treating silence and the words spoken...) that i'd be most interested in working for, because i feel there is a similar way of working with reduction and unfinishedness. but i think music in films is meant to open up new spaces, not to illustrate what is being shown. therefore i could imagine my sound to function within the contexts of quite many different styles of films... by the way: in fact i have been soundtracking 2 short movies already, directed by Sven Gorisek who also wrote and directed the "Slowdown" video clip. both have been slightly absurd scenarios, which seemed to go together really well with my music. i am sure to work with sven again. maybe even on a bigger project


At 07 November, 2006, Blogger iworkatinitech said...

Another great interview! Love these guys, thanks for introducing me to them, now if I could find one of their records!

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