With the release of his new album Brief Conversations, Markus Mehr has delivered a stunning marriage of musicality and acoustic experimentalism. Through the capture and transformation of the sounds of the internal spaces we inhabit, Mehr presents a new kind of magical realism. With all those heady ideas in mind we thought it was the perfect time to sit down with him and have a chat.
How are you managing in the current German lockdown?
I’m mostly at home. Since my studio is also at home, I spend even a little more time there. Of course I miss the opportunity to move freely and to meet friends. But in general, the corona crisis does not restrict me too much personally, neither physically nor mentally. My travel and consumer behaviour is generally not particularly extensive, so the quarantine hits me less hard than maybe others. The difficult part for all of us will occur after the lockdown I guess.
It was a slow process. I come from a rock background and at a certain point, however, there was a longing to start something new, to refresh things. So I focused my interest on electronic music but soon I noticed that it was not only about changing the field. I was chasing away more instruments than I added and suddenly there were tracks without a beat, without a meter, no melodies, no recognisable structures. That’s it, complete freedom. Our release history also shows very nicely that this development is a process that continues to this day and I hope this kind of naivety will go on as long as I release something.
Can you tell us what inspired you to create Brief Conversations
During the preparations for a commissioned work (EDIT 1/0/0/0, Moritzkirche, Augsburg) in September 2019, I had the opportunity to do recordings all alone in this beautiful, pure church. Just listening to this room several nights was a very inspiring experience. This gave rise to the idea of developing this approach, recording different rooms with different shapes, recording the quiet. To listen to what a room has to tell us – the sounds it creates, sounds which can be generated in it by different impulses – fascinated me. Brief Conversations describes these dialogues and summarises it in sonic narratives.
Can you give an overview of the kinds of processes involved in the recording and production of this album?
It starts with the recordings. My field recordings are always the basis. They often happen by chance. Some are also planned because I noticed a sound event the day before or because something attracts me, for example an empty parking garage, a stairwell, a tunnel or a synagogue. After capturing sounds I look into the recordings almost microscopically, searching for lively and emotional aspects. These can be rhythmic or harmonic elements. All sounds that have something to tell are considered. In order to create something new, I use tools like most “normal” musicians: pitch shifting, time manipulation, modulation effects, delays, equalisers, distortion. The resulting components, which add something to the dramaturgy and the dynamics of the story, remain in the track; the others get chipped away.
Can you outline how one of the tracks off Brief Conversations evolved, from the original sourcing of the sounds through to the refinement of the composition?
Ah yeah … I think of ‘Shelter’. I got permission to take pictures in a huge, disused gas tank. And when I was ready to record, the worst storm that can be imagined broke out. No hope of improvement for the rest of the day. Everything I recorded was covered with this kind of white noise, generated by the wind and the pounding rain. In response, I started stamping my feet and making loud noises to deal with the annoying noise. Fortunately, I also packed my contact microphone and recorded additionally the very deep resonance of the walls and railings. When I got home after hours I was sure that the recordings could not be used. But wrong: the contact microphones – with some support from the Mini Moog – form the foundation of the track. The percussive stamping and hits are almost unprocessed and with a pinch of digital sophistication I was able to elicit a few spherical and even harmonious elements from the room recordings. If one listens superficially, ‘Shelter’ may have a more synthetic appearance. In fact, it is a purely electro-acoustic piece. With field recordings you rarely get exactly what you expect.
How important is the conceptual aspect of your work?
Very important. In the past few years I have been working conceptually only. Before I start working on something new I think about things and do some research. Collecting and sculpting new music is preceded by a theoretical process… most of the time. And once a concept is conclusive, I try to stick to it as much as possible. I think it’s like writing a book. You have to have in mind the whole story and bit by bit you invent the narrative strands and the characters.
What are you listening to right now?
BBC 6 Music.
Favourite releases of 2020 so far?
Acoustic Shadows by Lea Belucci, The Experience of Repetition as Death by Clarice Jensen and Motus by Thomas Köner are really inspiring records. Radio France broadcast a piece by Jim O’Rourke called Shutting Down Here (still available online). I was there when they performed this piece originally in Paris at the INA-GRM Multiphonies Series. It’s just brilliant. And my friend DOT made an album called Monsters … so good.
What’s your next creative project?
Basically I’m concentrating on a sound installation. But just because it feels right at the moment I started playing around with stuff for cello, viola and violin. This is quite the opposite of what I’m doing normally. And because I’m not that much interested in playing live any more, my long-time live visual partner Stefanie Sixt and I will turn towards short films a bit more. We recently released Separate Waves Of One Ocean, and the next one could come out quite soon. And here and there I help recording stuff for Slowvox, the project of my girlfriend. I’m really happy about all this things….