Sendai Skips the Beat
Yves De Mey and Peter Van Hoesen’s latest record, Geotope, is awash in glitchy ambience and eerie static. MUTEK caught up with two of Belgium’s finest creatures of clicks to discuss the design of their experimentation
Michael-Oliver Harding - May 15, 2012
Their paths first crossed, according to Yves De Mey, at Clicks ‘n’ Cars, an impressively off the wall installation of empty car frames that Peter Van Hoesen and his Foton collective performed in the early aughts (and which, incidentally, blew this writer away at Montreal’s 2003 Elektra Festival). In a nutshell, car parts hanging from the ceiling become de facto speaker membranes thanks to attached shakers, with all the sheet metal generating unmistakably ominous tones. Yves met Peter’s Clicks partner, who invited him to play at Foton’s following car-part concerto in their native Belgium, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sendai, the duo’s unearthly collaboration, finds the longtime friends finally rekindling with the experimental inclinations that first brought them together. Both established techno producers, composers and sound designers, they have been tweaking with digital clicks and cuts in evermore startling ways since the late nineties. Yves De Mey was long tapped into the UK drum’n’bass and breakbeats scene, before cultivating a keen interest in sparse, experimental sound design – the infinite possibilities provided by his modular synthesizer system sealed the deal. Peter Van Hoesen has been a pivotal player in Brussels’ electronic scene since the mid-nineties, known for his dark, bass-heavy techno, his influential labels Time To Express and (the more experimental) Foton, and his record Entropic City, considered one of the defining techno records of 2010.
Both walk a fine line between dancefloors and daydreams, between bustling rhythms and bold sonic abstraction, constantly lurking in electronic music’s most dangerous, remote alleys. Both boast wide-ranging experience in theatre, contemporary dance and film scoring (which have served as apt outlets for their hiss, reverb, and drone orientations), as well as many R&D projects into extreme frequencies. Now, after two techno-minded EPs in 2009, Sendai’s long-awaited debut LP, Geotope, marks a clear break from 4/4 tradition. Rescued from all beat-driven shackles, focusing all energies on no-holds-barred experimentation, Sendai draws us in with their evanescent textures and shadowy ambience. We spoke with Yves and Peter in early April.
After releasing two EPs in 2009, both of you basically fell off the Sendai grid. Peter moved from Brussels to Berlin to focus on his label Time To Express, while Yves stayed in Belgium to work on a slew of sound-design projects. Was it a conscious decision to focus on other projects? Did you want to take a few steps back from Sendai and see where it should go next?
Peter: We had some time to reflect, and we were forced to think about the music we wanted to make instead of just making it. I think that brought us to where we wanted to be, because while we enjoyed doing the two techno EPs, we knew that wasn’t going to be what Sendai should be about. We both always had an interest in experimental music, and it sort of feels more natural for us to make what we’re making now, instead of making techno.
Your backgrounds both encompass sound design, theatre and dance, and an interest in experimental production. So I guess it was just a matter of time before you’d eventually collaborate?
Yves: With our work as sound designers in movies, theatre, and other stuff, there’s a lot of research that goes into sound design, and that’s definitely something that brings us together. We share this knowledge, we play things out loud for each other, and I feel, almost in a romantic way, that this is where everything connects.
Peter: Awww! Yes, it just occurred to me that the context in which we met was actually experimental music. Because what we were doing back then with Foton was purely experimental, and Yves was at the time moving away from his drum ‘n’ bass past into very experimental territory. And it’s around that time we both met. So in a way, the starting point was already pretty experimental. And then we found out that we had pretty similar backgrounds musically, which of course continues the whole story.
What was the production process like for this record? Did you have extensive conversations about where you wanted to take the music, and what mood you were looking to strike? Would one of you create a shell for the composition and then go back and forth?
Yves: That could really vary from track to track. When we started to work on the album, we were usually both in the studio, so sometimes Peter would come up with a certain sound or a loop, and I came up with something from my modular system so, in a way, we can really say that it’s live recorded! Not live produced, but definitely live recorded. We really did it all together. We have this veto system in the studio, so as soon as Peter or me think that something is total crap, we just say it and move on to something else.
Peter: Yeah, we don’t want to be a democracy, so if one of us doesn’t like it, that’s enough for us to just trash the thing. Eventually, you end up with something that we both really like, which guarantees the quality. Also, we indeed did a lot of things live, sometimes even in such a way that we would record sounds from the modular, I would work on it for a couple of minutes, and then order another sound from Yves. He would make it on the modular, send it back to me, I’d record it and that’s how we’d proceed, step by step. So it really was an interplay between two different people and two different ways of working as well. The modular is very hands-on fro Yves, while I would sit in front of the computer making the rough edits.
Peter, you’ve said that your ideal setup is one that combines machines and software. That clearly seems to be the philosophy that has guided this project along.
Peter: Yes, that is definitely what we are about. We’re playing live tomorrow at Ghent’s Resonance festival, and we’ve got more machines than laptops – it’s a nice collection. I think it’s important that we have this mix, because you interact differently with the music, and it’s also two different people doing two different things, which is also very important.
For your Geotope live set, you’ve said that you want to achieve both sound and visual synthesis on stage, and that audio and visual elements are equally important in such an exploratory context. Yves, you’ve programmed a software environment from scratch for the visuals. Will it feature any footage or clips, or is everything purely generative?
Yves: There’s practically no footage, just one tiny bit, but it’s not used as video. It’s used to map textures to certain things I do in the visuals. Everything from the visuals is indeed generative, so if there’s no sound coming into the computer, there’s no visual. It extracts certain parameters from the sound and, with that, it builds the image. I control which parameters I need. There’s a lot of geometric shapes in there, and also a bunch of lines, depending on the quality of the sound, whether it’s a bass, a mid or a treble sound. It all responds in very different ways.
Did you have any references in devising these computer-generated visuals?
Yves: I could give a very dangerous reference. If you think of Raster-Noton visuals, also without any footage, it’s visual synthesis.
Peter: It might be interesting at some point to include some footage, maybe put something which hints at narrative content, but right now we’re much more interested in the abstract shapes and forms and geometries, because it kind of goes well with our music.
Yves: And there’s a big change in the visuals right now, because there’s colour. When it was just in B&W, we had this very high-tech feel, a kind of mathematical sound synthesis. Now, there’s perhaps more poetry in the visuals. I think that’s because of the colour, but also the music. There’s a lot more poetry in the music we make now than when we were making techno-like music.
For both of you, this record marks a return to your experimental roots. Lately, we’ve seen a number of techno-minded producers shift back toward abstract sounds and textures, taking after approaches that were perhaps the domain of experimental artists some 10 years ago. Why do you think that’s the case?
Yves: Maybe a lot of techno producers, through working with their machines for years, found that it’s a nice way of escaping techno to work with the same machines to make some kind of experimental music. I also think there are a number of labels we’ve seen in the last 10 years who were successful with experimental music, which opened the minds of many listeners – because I don’t think a lot of techno producers would make experimental music if there wasn’t an audience for it.
As proof, there’s a ton of mixes you can find online. But something that really bothers me is that most of the mixes start with a 10-minute experimental track and then just go back to techno for the rest of the 90 minutes. Nevertheless, I think there’s a certain interest and openness to it, and I hope it continues, because it makes things more interesting. I try to follow what’s happening in techno, but I don’t buy it.
Peter: Well, not anymore, but you used to buy a lot!
Yves: I used to, but I’ve kind of lost interest. Because to my ears at least, there’s much more to discover on a sonic level in the experimental realm, and that’s where my heart lies. I’m not saying that innovation only happens in experimental music, but it’s probably easier to find it there. Because you don’t have to make people dance.
Peter: Yes, there’s less of a functional requirement with experimental music. I definitely think it’s a good thing that techno has become more experimental or more open to different sounds. But on the other hand, it still needs to move the dancefloor, and that’s a very important challenge that people should keep in mind: make it interesting and experimental enough, but still keep the dancefloor going.
Sendai performs their Geotope A/V show at MUTEK 2012. They perform on Friday, June 1st as part of Nocturne 3’s Red Bull Music Academy Stage at the SAT.