The Wire

In Writing

Konx-Om-Pax in full

June 2010

Read the unedited transcript of Joe Muggs's interview with Konx-Om-Pax

Joe Muggs: So Tom, what are you working on at the moment?

Konx-Om-Pax: I'm doing a thing with Hudson Mohawke, just a wee short animation as we've got a bit of a budget just to make abstract pieces. He's going to do the sound design, so he's coming up tomorrow and we'll work on it. It's one of those things where I don't know that much about it, they just kind of gave me half the budget and that's it. It's good making something I want to make, with no real boundaries.

Aside from that, just trying to get my label done – the website – get some podcasts up, get some music mastered, doing all that stuff.

J: How would you summarise your reasons for starting this online label?

K: It's just a way for me to promote my audio and visual work under one banner, really. Just a platform for me to release my own projects without having to rely on other people.

J: And is there any sort of model for it? Are there other audio-visual labels you've taken inspiration from?

K: Well I wouldn't say it's an audio-visual label as such – it's more a kind of hybrid of a studio and a record label and a blog and... everything, really. It's just multi-disciplinary in that it's a way to showcase my commercial work, my design work, as well as being a record label to put out audio releases like actual records and cassette releases and things.

K: Yeah, of my own stuff, but possibly more collaborations with Oneohtrix Point Never and just people I want to work with. It's a good way to give myself self-initiated projects and collaborations, to go “well I've got my label now, so I can just... why not collaborate with so-and-so and we'll just put it out?” because there's no middleman, I'll be instigating it and releasing it myself.

J: Is that partly in reaction to the fact you've got so many commercial projects on the go that you need the motivation to do more personal stuff?

K: Yeah... 'cause the design work's a day job, I suppose – doing music videos, installations, designing sleeves, that's how I make a living – and I've got all these contacts through the music scene, through doing the more commercial work for them, that it's perfect... perfect opportunities to do musical collaborations with people I'm working with. For instance Ross – Hudson Mohawke – who I'm working with now, I thought “well, I've been doing all this shit for him, he can do some shit for me!”

J: So in this case, you create something and he makes music to fit it?

K: Yep. Or we both work on it simultaneously really. It's a similar way of working to when I did “Advanced Beauty” with Universal Everything, which is Simon Pyke – you know, Freeform: we would work on an animation bit by bit, he would give me some sound and I'd give him some visual, and we'd both work it on at the same time. It had a certain duality to it so it moulds and fits together into something more solid, rather than “here's a video, you do the music”. So me and Ross are going to be working on it at the same time, I'll give him some visual things to look at and he'll go “ah I can make some noises to fit that part...” A lot of this one, the movement in it is going to be powered by melody, so different synth parts make elements move, so it's all kind of... well, imagine “Gantz Graf” with Jim Henson directing it, that's the best way I can describe it, it looks like a fuckin' Muppet Autechre video.

J: I can't think of anything better! It actually sounds like the way you think about video is really blurred with the way you think about music – that sounds exactly like how someone would describe working on a purely musical collaborative project, sending parts back and forth.

K: There are really fine lines and blurred boundaries between music and everything else I do, it influences everything else, and I just try to be really fluid and honest with it, there's no big masterplan. I don't think.
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J: Has that been the case from the outset – that you were always doing music as well as graphic art and so on, and that they fed into one another?

K: Yeah. I spent most of my time at art school not doing design. I studied graphics, but actually spent most of my time doing sort of noise projects. I discovered the Fluxus movement, so I was pushed and encouraged to study John Cage and Nam June Paik and Yasunao Tone and all these really weird experimental avant-garde people... But I was studying graphics, so I was pushed to do all these weird interactive audio-based projects that had a visual element so you could call it graphic... Yeah, I was quite lucky and privileged to be able to do that at Glasgow. I did very little graphic design and spent way too long organising Autechre and Squarepusher raves in the Union.

J: That begs the question, how much did rave culture fit into the Fluxus ideas of all the media running into one another? After all it's easy to read the rave as a participatory artwork in its own right...

K: I think it's safe to say that the way I make my work is almost on a parallel with hardcore records from the early '90s. I just take bits and bobs from old visual references, so I'm influenced quite a lot by old avant-garde artists and animators of the '50s, '60s onwards like Norman McLaren, Bernard Parmegiani, I could list a billion different people – but quite old influences recontextualised in hypercolour, really souped-up maximum imagination sort of vibe. So yeah, if you compare it to sample-based hip hop or hardcore... I'm not the most technical person on the planet, I very much make it up as I go along, so I kind of reject the super clean, polished work that seems to be popular at the moment, I'm much more cut'n'paste, punky, hardcore, do-it-yourself, total bedroom warrior to be honest. I don't really leave my bedroom that much.

J: So when you were studying did you see these connections between raving music, pop culture music and the avant-garde at the time, or is this something you spotted in retrospect?

K: Well when I went to art school, it's around the time I was listening to John Peel and discovering Jeff Mills and Drexciya and Boards Of Canada and Richie Hawtin, and just listening to lots of techno and more traditional dance music – but as I was studying I was introduced to the more avant-garde electronic scene at the time and it just all mashed into one. I was really into music but really liked colouring stuff in, so it all blended perfectly.

J: That's funny you describe Drexciya and the rest as “traditional dance music”, to some they are quite left-field in themselves – but it seems that in Scotland and Glasgow in particular they are not even seen as underground, people just see them as their pop culture.

K: It is like that,. Stuff like Drexciya, obviously being pals with people like Jack [DJ Jackmaster of Numbers] and Richard [Chater, of Numbers and Stuffrecords] and all the Rubadub boys it was normal just going back to their afterparties and listening to Drexciya loads. It's funny, me and Clair [Edinburgh-based DJ & LuckyMe associate Eclair Fifi], sometimes if we've been at a party and are a bit the worse for wear, we put on “the Drexciya security blanket”, we've got specific Drexciya tracks that we put on and it makes you feel normal. I think our mutual favourite must be a Translusion track, something “...Glide”, you know the blue Transllusion album [The Opening Of The Cerebral Gate]... “Dimensional Glide” by Transllusion that's it, that's the Drexciya track you put on at ten in the morning if you've been up all night, that makes everything normal if you're a bit wasted, that's the Drexciya Security Blanket. So yeah, it's all normal – the underground doesn't really exist for me... I mean I guess it's all relative, but your peers and the people you hang around with – that's just normal.

K: It's a generational thing, maybe; people who are my age were hanging out with the people who were putting on parties at Club 69, I was going to proper techno nights when I was barely eighteen, and you just get brought up with it. I was lucky enough to DJ with Keith and Jonnie [aka Twitch & Wilkes of Optimo] when I was really young, and I just remember Jonnie turning up with this brown, thatched bag full of Burial Mix ten-inches – I didn't even know what dub-techno was and he turns up with this handbag full of ten-inches, like “check this out” and just played Rhythm & Sound really, really loud, and that was just normal. So I was being introduced to all this while I was still in my teens; being able to DJ with Twitch and Jonnie when you're quite wee, and Martin from Rubadub and all these people... I've got this really nice umbrella sort of peer group of really knowledgeable and well-educated people from techno to really experimental avant-garde stuff, so I was introduced to Japanese noise at about the same time. It's all about friends and who you know, and [in Glasgow] we're really lucky that we've got a really good system, that's generational, of knowledge that gets passed about and we're in the middle of it all.

J: OK so the generation that you're part of, people like the Numbers guys and Hudson Mohawke, they have this musically very bright, in-your-face aesthetic – were you conscious of that developing at the same time you were developing these really colour-saturated visuals? Was it part of the same movement, even?

K: Well obviously me and Ross and Rustie are all the same age, we all grew up watching Transformers and Ghostbusters and drinking fizzy juice and getting hyper, and I guess Saturday morning TV is a big influence, and liking dinosaurs... so I think we're all influenced by growing up and being quite young at the end of the '80s, MTV and everything. But I was quite scared of colour when I was at artschool, I didn't start dabbling with colour until I was in the fourth year, it was too much, it was too intense. But I only really ever used four or five colours, and it's the first CYMK colours you get in a swatch in Photoshop, and I still use those same colours I used when I was five or six, from the first Apple Mac Performa that my dad brought home. I remember the first time I ever saw bright magenta and green on a computer screen, I was just “that is the fucking coolest thing in the world. ” It was just so bright and vivid, I really do remember the moment I saw it. When you've been used to the Classic II black and white tiny little Mac screen, and you first see Mac Paint, I think it was called, or ClarisWorks, just a simple paint shop programme, but the first five colours, seeing them and being able to draw stuff on a computer, they were really psychedelic, luminous colours – I remember the moment I saw my first green! And I still only really use those colours, it's kind of a safety net, something I can always rely on, so if you look at Hudson Mohawke's video and all the album artwork, they all revolve around a really limited colour palette.

J: I don't really associate things like Fluxus and Dada with garish colour, though – they seem much more monochrome, connected to the printing press, Xerox machines, that kind of technology...

K: Well what actually interested me first there was not visual but the kind of whimsical, playful attitudes of someone like John Cage. He was obviously into Zen and chance, and I think he was really aware of his own existence and the... not pointlessness of life, but the knowledge that “I could do it this way, but I could also do it that way”. So the way he would make music by chance, just having a lot of fun – he was quite playful and fun, and just seemed aware of how you're not around for that long so you might as well use the pomposity of... You got the feeling he just felt everything was just a bit silly, and “why not?” and stuff like that – it's difficult to explain, but yeah. And I liked Nam June Paik's video art as well – I'm friends with [Skam recording artists] Team Doyobi and they take a lot of visual references from that, Alex from Team Doyobi has been quite important to me as well because he put me onto a lot of old retro artists and computer-based stuff that seems to be really, really brightly coloured and interesting with a kind of “aged futurism” as well. I'm quite interested in what people thought the future was going to be like 50 years ago, and Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably one of the most important visual references I've got...

J: Space Odyssey comes from such a time of utopian design – it's from the same kind of school visually as 60s radical architects like Archigram who thought they could build a city right round the equator and things like that.

K: Yeah, yeah – I saw a documentary recently about people who were going to build space elevators. Things like that and Buckminster Fuller are definitely great sources for me...
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J: It's funny to see which elements of those 60s dreams still exist in our design and technology...

K: Well, Stanley Kubrick invented Skype!

J: So in your own projects, amongst all these influences, was there a moment when you created something and went “this is my style, this is what I do”?

K: Yeah I think definitely when I worked with Jamie Lidell for the first time and did the “You Got Me Up” video, I realised I really like working with people and I could get a good performance out of someone, in the directorial aspect of making people feel relaxed and create a real kind of calm realism in their performance – but then that mixed in with the more abstract, hyper-real visual work, I think I want to marry the two more in the future for more filmic-based projects, where there's a real human ultra-realism blended with a complete fantasy-based reality. I love the Alice in Wonderland notion of creating total fantasy lands but putting in a Scottish actor... I really like Dead Man's Shoes, the realism associated with that, and Turkish independent cinema, and Russian contemporary modern cinema, where it's all character-based with really honest performances and not using actors and all that. So I'm influenced by that, but also by monster movies and really hyperactive, weird surreal things like Holy Mountain – but merging the two together to create... I dunno, human realism blended with hyper-real fantasy stuff. I think the two are going to converge soon with a film project I'm planning.

J: A lot of the realist styles you mention have in common that there's an economic realism to them too, characters need to get by is often the plot in itself.

K: Yeah I like that sort of situationalism, relating to the characters, using real people... there was a film called Uzak [Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002], that I think won a few awards, a Turkish independent thing, and the director used friends and family to star in it... it kind of looked like an Edward Hopper painting as well... so I love the nitty-gritty realism of these, but I want to add this layer of colour and monsters like a Hudson Mohawke music video.

J: You're not shy of setting yourself a challenge then?

K: Heh, no, I suppose. I've had this idea of doing a surreal techno musical, something that's character-based but then branches off into this fantasy world. Imagine Trainspotting meets Aphex Twin's “Windowlicker”, like if there was a narrative that goes along that was completely character-based, but then one part of the story branches off into a music video essentially, so a character begins performing and the landscape is animated and starts making noise – so it really is like The Sound Of Music, people bursting into song. The Sound Of Music, but techno, like Hecker doing the soundtrack, a normal person in the story suddenly having tentacles burst out... It's just all the stuff I'm into and I think it's a good way of mashing them in all together. I don't think anyone's done a techno musical, I think techno musicals are kind of the simplest way of describing what I want to do.

J: Talking of surrealism, as you kind of were, how did the Nurse With Wound collaboration you're doing come about?

K: It's simply an event that Optimo are curating, an all-day event at the Tramway, and they've asked local Glasgow-based people to submit work to show at this event – I can't really remember too much of the details, there's other artists playing, and there's me and another Glasgow boy Neil Clements are doing an installation for it. I've known Jonnie and Keith for years, and I did an installation at Optimo this time last year – I put a video wall onto the dancefloor and performed a live soundtrack to these three abstract films that I've made. That's actually going to be the first release on Display Copy, a limited release of the audio from that installation, and I've got Carlos Giffoni from No Fun, he's done an acid noise remix of one of the tracks. So yeah, it's just part of an ongoing relationship with Optimo, they get us to do things now and again.

J: If people ask you what you do, do you have a way of summing it up or do you have to spell out “well I do a bit of this and this and this...”?

K: I think I'm much more confident in calling myself an artist now, just because I've moved on from having to live off commercial work – by which I mean TV adverts, really mundane graphic design jobs. I've managed to struggle and just get on with working on personal projects and art-based projects with other artists, mainly within the music and fine art world. So yeah, I try and not do the boring nine-to-five graphic design job, and if you say “I'm an artist” people tend to go “oh right, OK, cool”. It's funny if I chat to taxi drivers and say I'm an animator and they go “oh yeah you do cartoons and all that?”

J: And you have to explain that you make noise techno with tentacles coming out of people's heads?

K: Heh, well it is difficult to explain because I do so many different things, there's so many different aspects of directing, art directing, sound design and blahblahblah, this, this, this, this and this. It's just an arse trying to explain it to people so I just say I'm an artist. I used to cringe a wee bit when people said they're an artist, it sounded a wee bit pompous, but now I see it is the easiest way to describe stuff.

J: Do you ever come up against any barriers between club culture, pop culture, high art, low art, any of those things? Any sense you should “know your place”?

K: I'm aware of it, but it doesn't really matter – I just concentrate on making desirable objects. There was a really good thing with Saul Bass that I could talk about. He was the graphic designer from the title sequence of some of the all time greatest movies, and he discusses that he wants to make beautiful objects and how that's all he cares about – I'll send you the link, when I saw this it sums up my ideas really perfectly, he nailed it exactly in what he talks about.

J: So that's a fairly flexible definition of objects – it's not merely one-off, solid, three-dimensional things, then?

K: Well I like to take my time with what I do, I don't really care how long it takes it'll fuckin' take I want to make it as good as it can possibly be whatever it is, whether it's a twelve-inch sleeve design or whatever. Designing [Hudson Mohawke album] Butter was a really long-winded, painful, sleepless-night kind of thing; I mean, I did Polyfolk [the preceding Polyfolk Dance EP] in a weekend, I didn't even have to try, it was just like “BANG”, idea... But then Butter took months and months and months of trying to nail it because I felt like I had the first one to live up to. I had the “difficult second album” syndrome as a graphic designer which was quite funny. I always put myself under a lot of pressure to make nice stuff, and if I've done something for someone the next time it needs to be better. I actually fucked up – I was meant to be doing Oneohtrix Point Never's next album on Mego with Steven O'Malley, but I basically stressed out so much I was just not hitting the nail on the head at all and ended up not doing it. It was only designing a record sleeve, it's not that big a deal, but I worked myself up so much about it that I ended up missing the boat with it – because I really, really care about these things and I want to do a good job. I guess there's a growing-up thing there, about how to be more efficient and cut-throat with the internal dialogue, be better, be a bit more focused on what needs to be done... it's just a learning thing I suppose.
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J: So if your focus is on the object, do you also have any ambitions about where you want them to be exhibited, what audience you want them to reach?

K: Well, I think I'm a believer in the idea that you can present extremely avant-garde experimental radical ideas to the masses if it's presented well, because good ideas are simple ideas – and I've got a kind of system that if I do a bit of work and show it to my mum and she likes it, she goes “that's great”, then I know it's a winner. It's kind of like the De Stijl artists discussing the layman, but I've showed my mum really crazy pictures and abstract shit that I've done, and if she gets it, if the man in the street can appreciate something that in technical terms is really mental and avant-garde and experimental but they can get it then it's a good piece of work. So target audience is universal in that I'm not snobbish in any sort of way, I just do what I do and present it, and if I'm happy with it that's what matters I think. I'm not trying to please anybody.

J: And do you come up against preconceptions about you or your work from people in the gallery world because you come from nightclubs or vice versa?

K: I think there's more... I'm only really recently beginning to do more installation work and contemplating exhibiting more because I went to art school, and a lot of my friends are now becoming quite successful artists within the fine art world, which in turn is giving me more confidence to just go “here's my shit if you want it, here you go” and that's how it goes. I'm not too bothered about what people actually have to say, a lot of my stuff polarises opinion, and I'd much rather have people go “that's shite, I really hate it” than be in the middle which is just a bit shit. Yeah, polarised opinion seems to be quite a common thing.

J: Have you had any responses to or criticisms of your work that have made you listen and take note, even look afresh at it?

K: When I did the installation at Optimo I was really nervous, because the music I did was really intense – somewhere between Swans and Merzbow, like really intense – and I thought I was going to get a kicking. I mean I was quite confident at the same time because Whitehouse has performed there loads and had a great response... But for the installation performance I had all these TVs on the dancefloor, and at the end a bunch of folk were sitting cross-legged on the floor just watching the screens like they were kids watching cartoons, to this hell of white noise and feedback, just deafening noise – they were just sitting really happy, watching this weird psychedelic animation I'd done of globes rotating and silver balls. It was weird, the people that were watching that would not necessarily have heard any extreme music like that, but because there was a visual element involved it just worked. So I was really surprised by people just being engrossed by the animation that I did but listening to really loud, powerful noise at the time, it was weird... then as I finished Twitch started playing disco records and people got up and started dancing to that...

J: Swans-style noise into disco, there's a great manifesto for Glasgow's music culture somewhere there...

K: Aye, you can get away with murder... But no, that's not the right phrase, I really don't like the idea of people “getting away with it”, I don't like that attitude, it's like making excuses for your work, you shouldn't be getting away with, you should just be doing. It's not about getting away with it, you shouldn't really be worried about that, it's quite a negative thing.

J: Hmm, that's something that really was played up by the Young British Artist generation, they almost revelled in the idea that they were scam merchants and piss-takers... which maybe gives conceptualism a bad name in some ways?

K: Well, when you're doing something that's not necessarily accessible in the traditional sense but it comes off, and it's liked by a lot of folk, then people do play up the whole “ooh, I got away with it” - and I'm just like “you didn't get away with it – it just worked.”

J: Do you have any great ambitions at the moment? What would you most like to make work?

K: I'd quite like to work on a film project with Werner Herzog and Autechre, that would be quite cool. If me, Werner Herzog, Sean and Rob all sat in a room and had a chat about doing something I like to think something good would come from that.

J: Well it's certainly not obvious what would come from that!

K: Yep. I don't know what it would be, but I'm very fond of the term “maximum imagination”, it would just be about coming up with something that's as far out and as colourful as possible, so Werner Herzog and Autechre would be the way forward.

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