Interview: Felix Kubin on the Virtues of Slowing Down and the Death of Love

Synthesizer wizard. Dada evangelist. Neue Deutsche Welle pioneer. Children’s organist and pyrotechnic coordinator. A man with a German haircut. The resumé of Hamburg-based composer and performer Felix Kubin reads a bit different than most. Since the tender age of 15, Kubin has been putting out records at the extremes of all spectrums – from maniacal drum machine and keyboard terror, to minimal wave, space age lounge, and romantic theatre compositions. Yet within these disparate styles, there is a single-minded focus on the absurd, the primitive, and the taboo. In this edited and condensed version of his recent Fireside Chat with RBMA Radio, we take a look inside Kubin’s mind.

Can you talk about your first memory of music?

When I was young, I wanted to become a foley artist. I sometimes visited my grandmother when I was young, and when I visited there, I got so bored and a little bit claustrophobic as well so I watched a lot of television. I remember seeing a wonderful little documentary about a foley artist. And that was something I was most fascinated by.

Can you remember your favorite noise of that time? Something you listened to that wasn’t music or coming from the radio.

One typical noise was a layer of three or four different radio programs running in the house of my parents. In every room, there was a radio running, all tuned to different stations. So I could stand in the hallway and listen to a blending of all these signals or I could choose to go from one room to another room and smoothly change the radio reception. I also remember the lawnmower of my father in the garden, and my mother running through the living room with her heavy boots. She was making especially loud noises because she wanted to annoy the neighbors.

You were born at a time that home recording was just starting really. If you were born, say 20, 40, 60 years earlier, you would have had to go to a studio for recordings, you would have had hired musicians to play your music. Do you think you would have been able to do what you’re doing if you were just a composer in that sense?

It’s always very hard to imagine what would happened if like ... I’m sure that if there’s a God or if there’s a destiny, I was destined to be a composer. Not only a composer in a narrow sense, but also a composer for radio plays and for acoustic things. That’s really a skill that I’ve had since I was very young. I composed my first piece when I was nine, and my parents weren’t musicians or artists who were pushing me into this direction. I really did it myself. The same thing with radio plays.

I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 19. Although I was so full of love, falling in love with everyone all the time.

I believe that every human being has this force in whatever direction. And if they just find out what they are best at, they will be happy. Happy bakers, happy postman. But I’m sure, I would definitely at one point, have followed this path of composition. I’m not sure if I would have had the guts or the abilities to make a living from it, but that’s a completely different task and a completely different skill. How do you organize yourself in a world ruled by money, by capitalism, and certain rules that come with it? You can’t be the greatest composer if you don’t know how to deal with this. You will always be a hobby composer.

But I grew up with the beginnings of the home recording studio, this completely new era that meant I could get completely lost. I don’t have to look on my watch and have someone behind me saying, “Hey, hey, hey, the clock is ticking. This is a very expensive studio. Now, get your ass up and moving.” I had the ability to just sit in the living room of my parents while they were not there and just do what I want. But it was a solitary existence. It also had a certain melancholy. There’s a reason I could produce all these songs. I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 19. Although I was so full of love, falling in love with everyone all the time. I wouldn’t say I was a very lonely kid, but there was a part in me that felt very remote from my environment. Even from my parents. And I didn’t know where to put it, so I put it into my music and that’s why part of it sounds eccentric in some way.

How do you feel when you play live?

When I go on stage, I don’t feel lonely. That’s the place I feel really secure. When I was younger – like a teenager – the only time when I went to a concert was when I was performing myself. I hardly ever went to concerts. I was listening to music very, very much. I bought a huge record collection of some older friends who just thought, “Okay, this kid is special. I will lend him my whole record collection.” And then, I started to copy tracks on tape. I still have these tapes full of incredible music from Throbbing Gristle, Crash Course in Science, Einstürzende Neubauten. But I was the only one to listen to that. I had one friend who I made music with who I could exchange with a little bit until I was 15, 16 and then he was more interested in other things.

Hamburg had a good scene when you were growing up, right?

Yeah. You always find a good record shop or a good friend that is like a revelation and I had this friend in Uli Rehberg, the guy who was running this amazing record shop called Unterm Durchschnitt in a small street called Durchschnitt. He introduced me to noise music, industrial music, electroacoustic music. I didn’t know Stockhausen before, but that was it: I was introduced to a completely new world. There was a strong scene in Hamburg. Alfred Hilsberg from ZickZack was in Hamburg. He was also important for me. He was always bringing me this strange little plastic suitcase with some records in it when he visited me at my parent’s house. But I would say that I really had the feeling that my music was understood and really connected to people when I played abroad. Not really in Hamburg. Really more in France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Austria.

Hamburg is also known for being particularly political.

Nobody can philosophize when they have to deal with daily problems of how to survive.

I used to say it’s not really possible to combine art and politics in a fruitful way. But, during the last years, I thought that it’s possible if you don’t use political language. When I use certain terms, then it’s often ironic or let’s say, in a romantic nostalgic way and so obvious that it’s clear that they come from another era. I would have big difficulties in using contemporary political terms because I think they are anti-lyrical somehow. They are pragmatic. What I hate about politics is its pragmatism. That’s a very Protestant thing. I get along much better with people from Catholic cultures actually. The Protestants are only interested in art if it has economical value. They judge everything in economical value.

You’ve had a fascination with utopian cultures or utopian ideas. Has this also extended to religious ideas or religious societies?

For sure. If you listen to the communist songs, they sound really like Christian church songs. They’re so close to that. This is just a replacement of religion. I mean, religion has a very strong escapist element. It’s always about moving all desires and everything that you can change into the beyond, the great beyond, so you don’t have to deal with it in reality. Communists, let’s say the idealistic communists of the very beginning, were hoping to be able to realize a utopia in general but also certain ideas here in reality.

You can see a lot of traces of the socialist and communist movement in the Western world. You can see in Sweden, where the taxes are so high. Sweden is a strange mixture of a capitalist and a socialist country I think. It’s not only out of idealism, but it’s also out of experience. They just experienced that their society works very well like that. Social security allows people to relax, to not be afraid of survival every day. That’s something we suffer from at the moment – that the social securities are withdrawn by the state. The state is taking less and less responsibility in Germany, and that puts people into a state of panic. Maybe that’s something that the state is interested in, though: You can’t start to get bored or have time to think about things [if you’re worried about surviving]. You can kill philosophy like this. Nobody can philosophize when they have to deal with daily problems of how to survive.

Can you talk about your work with Mariola Brillowska?

I met Mariola in the early ’90s and I fell in love with her. It was also for me, falling in love with Poland I think, because we travelled there and it really looked like opening an old book from the ’50s or something like that. Something that I still sense when I go to Eastern Europe is the very different perception of time there. People think in a very different speed and act in a different speed. It doesn’t mean they are slow. Not at all. They just give things really deep thoughts. It’s something that we should learn again I think, to give time for things to develop – music, productions, films, whatever. I released a record called Historical Recordings, and it took seven years until it was ready. Of course you can do it one year. But I think it’s good to give things, to give artworks and in general, to give everything time. One reason why the ability to love is dying is because people don’t invest any time anymore in love I think.

One reason why the ability to love is dying is because people don’t invest any time anymore in love I think.

It’s so interesting that this movement of [classical] minimalism came from America. Maybe because it’s such a fast country and so much about innovation. There had to be an antidote to this maybe. I mean, I’m fan of hysteria and manic things, but I tend to more and more like the essence of something and to cut out the stuff that is not so necessary. I see a beauty in that like I see a beauty in a lot of the earlier stuff that Pansonic did, in which they were bringing back this idea of the beauty of one tone. There’s, of course, a border between minimalism and just boredom or even being lazy. What I don’t like is when people are too lazy. Even if they do something very minimalistic, I want to feel that they took time to come to this essence, to come to this point.

That’s a big quality of Kraftwerk. They use such simple melodies, children melodies or like old Schubert. They also refer sometimes in some tracks even to Schubert. Some tracks of theirs are completely timeless and very simple. My daughter is seven. She’s a big fan of Kraftwerk, and she wanted to learn piano just because she kept listening to “The Model.”

What about the use of the voice? Is the human voice a transmitter for content or is it more... I mean, you don’t really approach voice as an instrument, right?

It’s the most personal, most immediate instrument because you don’t even have to translate it into a certain movement of your hand or, say, your feet when you play organ. You don’t have to learn that. You’re born, and you start to make noises with your voice, so your voice is a very immediate tool of expression of your thoughts, your brain, your fears, and so on. But a lot of things are language. There’s body language. Even certain sounds you create are like language. When there’s audio, we are surrounded with audio logos, we are surrounded by ringtones, this is also language. This is also part of our acoustic environment.

Everything we understand as language is actually just something that grew over the centuries.

At the moment I’m working as a visiting professor at the Art Academy in Münster and the topic is megaphonics, and it’s about the human voice being transmitted or amplified through technical media. It’s about understanding where semantics start and where they stop or how far can we understand the term. For example, there is a piece by Ligeti where he tries to construct something that sounds like language out of electronic noises, using the same methods that we use with our voice which is a mixture of our larynx and certain muscles and the sounds that we construct with our throat and our mouth.

You can construct something that sounds like language that sounds familiar to us, yet it has no meaning because there’s no pattern. Everything we understand as language is actually just something that grew over the centuries. So, for example, we say, “Okay, the word bored is now bread.” It became something common, to use the word bread for the thing that you eat. But it’s very necessary to be aware of what this means and how it can change and how you can work with it in a chaotic way lyrically.

By Hanna Bächer on December 6, 2013