Listgeeks Feature #13 – Markus Popp (aka Oval)

Markus Popp has been at the forefront of electronic music for the last two decades, releasing groundbreaking and genre-defining music as Oval and through various side-projects and collaborations. His process-oriented/highly conceptual approach to making music has gained him wide recognition throughout the music and art communities. In the early 90s, Oval (at the time with collaborators Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger, who both departed in 1995) captured the sound of audio produced by failing digital equipment and deliberately damaged, skipping CDs as source material, and then arranged the resulting fragments into complex, dense tracks that oscillate between experimental ambient and electronic noise.

After an extended hiatus, Markus made a much anticipated return in early 2010 with a series of releases that emphasized more organic-sounding elements. This new approach highlights Popp’s musicianship in a more traditional sense, resulting in his most accessible music to date while simultaneously embodying his pioneering spirit and experimental approach.  Later this year, Oval will release a “lost tracks” compilation, consisting of previously unreleased and hard-to-find material from 1993-2010.

Max Zerrahn, Listgeeks co-founder, met with Markus to get his take on where he’s been, musically, and what might happen next:

Max Zerrahn/Listgeeks: When we first met, we ended up spending quite some time enthusing over 90s indie bands like Polvo and Joan of Arc. In a weird way, that sort of surprised me because the way you seem to approach your own music seems so far from that world, even though you’ve released several albums on Thrill Jockey, toured with more “traditional” indie bands, and worked with Tortoise.  Can you talk a little bit about your musical socialization and sources of inspiration?

Markus Popp: I guess I was always into “band”-type music . . . non-quantized music played by real people.  MIDI-based gear and/or synthesizer architectures, for me, always represented an area I did not want to be seen spending too much time in.  The only musical element I was actively trying to get out of synthesizers pretty much came down to exploring the blind spots of typical synth architectures, for example, by becoming skilled at making the Waldorf MicroWave do all sorts of unexpected things.  I always liked that certain je-ne-sais-quoi atmosphere of Joan Of Arc. I tremendously enjoyed their record “Owls,” which remains a superb recording on so many levels: the atmosphere, songwriting, structure & overall production are infinitely captivating and still unmatched in this field of music.

Oval – “Glass UFO” from Amberley Productions on Vimeo.

LG: When it comes to making electronic music, today’s technologies seem very accessible and the possibilities are endless, yet you deliberately embrace certain limitations for each of your projects.  Would you consider that a crucial part in the way you approach your work?

MP: Absolutely.  Right from the early days, I was neither interested in the full scope of “creative possibilities” nor into fusing all of the existing tricks of the trade into a yet unheard of kind of music.  Instead, I focused only on certain aspects – which I described as “problematic” aspects at the time – and then standardized those elements, effectively shaping my own process.  This way, I could go about things confidently and would actually know what I was doing. Of course this kind of approach, by necessity, led to non-standard results – not because I was all “anti-music” – but because I like a clear-cut, minimal approach – and I guess because I believe in solutions that irritate and not merely iterate.

LG: This might be a misinterpretation, but a lot of your work seems to question the role of the author or the role of the musical composer by incorporating an element of randomness, especially with regard to the source material that you use to craft your pieces, though you are very much in control when it comes to reassembling those “random” bits and pieces to form an actual track.  How would you describe that relationship between being in control and consciously letting go of it?

Oval – Ah! from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

MP: I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I was actively employing randomness in my process, but I always try to encourage myself to enter situations that generate surprising results.  I like to craft unlikely building blocks and then make them collide until I get music that is almost something you feel you already know, but which is composed of totally different ingredients.  In other words: music that captures the atmosphere of pre-existing music, but achieves this via unlikely means.

LG: Your latest album “O” has a very analogue feel to it, and your general approach to making the music on this record appears to be vastly different from the way you went about recording your earlier albums.  Can you talk about your motivation behind this shift and the process of making the album?

MP: While my tracks from the mid-90s were engaged with music in a pretty basic and unsophisticated way, with “O” I was ambitiously challenging music on its own turf – something I had wanted to do for many years, but just did not quite feel ready for. Over the years, I increasingly felt I needed to be part of this conversation – ultimately, because music had always been a major part of my life and I wanted to finally come up with a better payback scheme than dissection or denial.  But this does not mean that those “critical” days are now behind me – my tracks are just as “meta” as ever. Only this time, I have made it a bit easier to get to the musical parts.

When I started working on “O,” I wanted to be part of a dialogue which could only happen via musical means, by my establishing a communication with music through music.  This is exactly why I developed a musical skill set: to speak the language.  For the listener, no Oval debate club membership card was required this time – to “just listen” was all I was asking with “O.”

First and foremost, I wanted a playful, inviting type of music that effortlessly just “is” (of course not in an esoteric sense of “beyond criticism”) and which convincingly renders distinctions like “programmed vs. played,” and “acoustic vs. electronic” obsolete.  Sure, the “Oh” EP and the “O” album are accessible, but they are also very “now” – capable of surprising any listener on almost any level.  These records may not have “WATERSHED MOMENT” written all over them, but on an emotional level, this new material was supposed to possess the potential to lock the listener in a pretty intense staring contest for quite some time.

However, from where I was coming from, engaging with music in the this way was far easier said than done.  The most important step towards this goal was radical departure – to do everything as differently as possible compared to how I did stuff before and do it on all levels: technically, musically and so forth.  I wanted to bring back the (IMO often absent) “music” part embedded in “electronic music.”  I wanted to PLAY stuff, I was impatient to take control – for example, by establishing riffs as the new main building block, replacing the loop extracted from an almost arbitrary audio CD.  Crafting my own building blocks alone added so much more immediacy and control (but also a lot of unprecedented decision-making and new responsibilities) – while being loop-based, like in the early Oval days – had been by definition very static and inflexible.

Hardly any of my old tricks, tools, or techniques were translatable into the tech setup I used for making “O.”  Plus, everything else around me having changed so dramatically over the years sure did help.  It would have been a major exercise in reverse-engineering to do another “Systemisch,” “Ovalcommers,” or even “So” album with today’s tools.  But to start anew with an entirely new approach was much easier – at least in theory.  So much had changed around me during my years-long hiatus, the list of tools to try in 2010 was practically writing itself. What to do with those many new tools was the actual challenge.

LG: Your older pieces are typically long – between 5 and 7 minutes – sometimes up to 25 minutes, whereas your latest release and the accompanying EPs really took the idea of shortening the tracks to an extreme by reducing them to mere fragments of no more than 1 minute for the most part.  How would you describe the motivation behind that shift, and how it relates to the impressive quantity of tracks you have released in the past year?

MP: My primary concern was to simply give each track on “O” a chance to truly shine and develop as much visual/associative power and emotional quality as I could come up with.  In practical terms, this meant capturing each theme in its most convincing form and then cramming in as much atmosphere as possible into the smallest possible space.  That’s why a considerable portion of the tracks on “O” ended up being these dense, emotional miniatures (“O” album CD2), while others were turned into more full-featured “songs” featuring drums, etc. (including tracks 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. on “O” album CD1).

Oval – Textuell/Do While from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

In return, tracks based on these of high-density miniatures would have lost a lot of their momentum by adding variations – or adding any other type of sound for that matter.  For example, all tracks on Side B of the “Oh” EP (same goes for the entire CD2 of the “O” album) are pure, concise “themes” in order to communicate the maximum emotion.  Otherwise, I don’t think that copying and pasting parts in the sequencer arrangement is a very convincing statement these days (and it probably never was).

Taking the minimal route meant being liberated from having to constantly think about what could be missing.  Instead, I could concentrate on exploring the distinct “faux future evergreen” atmosphere of those short tracks.  Other design goals for these miniatures were “ringtone” and “music that you could swear you already know.”  The sheer visual potential of those interludes (“O” CD1, tracks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 etc.) tries to say: “in a sense, this music plays you.”

LG: Something tells me that your next project (whatever it may be), will once again head in some different direction.  Is there anything you are currently working on or making plans for that you can talk about just yet?

MP: I just completed the album master for “OvalDNA,” an upcoming “lost tracks”-type compilation that consists partly of entirely unreleased material, partly of rare, bonus tracks from several Japan-exclusive albums I have done over the years.  There will also be a second disc, a DVD-ROM containing almost my entire sound file archive from all work phases, accompanied by a piece of software that will serve as a browser/sequencer-type interface to those sound files.

Having said that, however, it is equally clear that very little will change around here. Even though I might have gone the extra technical mile with “O,” my goal will basically remain the same: to deliver touching music that can engage listeners from all backgrounds.

Plus, there was always a lot more “music” in Oval than what might have been apparent all along. Comparing “O” with my early albums, one possible interpretation might be that I sent off this “love letter to music” (which some people think what “O” is) already a long time ago – but that it is only now that its content becomes more clear.  So I’ll definitely continue to stay actively engaged with music in upcoming projects – the question is rather which form I will find for this music in the future.

Oval on Soundcloud

Oval on Facebook

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