Gary Steel sits and sizzles with a German with a sense of humour, and more than a few flecks of musical genius.
Burnt Friedman is sitting on my inner city deck in the glaring sun, the skin on his neck and upper body bearing witness to the suction and electrode massage session he has just endured at a K’Rd Chinese massage clinic. It makes for an exotic body art patterning, its spaceship outlines looking nothing like the stereotypical ethnographic body design of current trend. Ironic, then, that this unintentional and temporary condition acts as a visual corollary to Friedman the man and his music, which works with every fibre of brain tissue (consciously and unconsciously) to play against the superficial, the expected, the tailor-made ordinariness, and the dumbed-down expectations of today’s gullible audiences.
The chisel-jawed German drops in today to wax thoughtful about his work as one half of cyber-jazz duo Flanger (with Santiago-based Uwe Schmidt, aka Atom Heart) and their new Ninja Tune release, Inner Space/Outer Space. Kiwis have long had an awed and fawning relationship with Friedman, who has visited our shores on numerous occasions to perform his superior jazz-flecked electronica under the guise of Nonplace Urban Field, and take in the beach delights of our endless Summer days.
But the three Flanger albums have pulled in an entirely different group of admirers, so superhumanly brilliant is their absorption and distillation of electric 70s jazz to the zeitgeist of the present day. Those who are disaffected by both the ‘jazzy’ style signifiers tagged on to tepid grooves found in numerous latte establishments, and the pointlessly anally-retentive electronica being jizzed up on so many lonely laptops, find real solace in the human yet enjoyably eccentric (read: adventurous) methodologies explored on Templates, Midnight Sounds and Inner Space/Outer Space.
Finding new ways to harness computer/programming technology in the service of 70s-style electric jazz (obvious Flanger heroes include Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Weather Report), there’s a degree of nimble intelligence and wayward non-utilitarian playfulness/adventure from both Schmidt and Friedman that gives Flanger a totally unique spin.
A little stung by some negative reviews in the UK press, Friedman explains what makes Flanger different from the majority of the repertoire of the hip Ninja Tune label:
“We’ve got a different sense of humour, and Atom and me
are somewhat more electronically-generated music than with rare groove or jazz. The hardcore Ninja Tune crew, this is where their roots are, the early hip hop and funk music. We step into that genre as outsiders, appropriating those styles. We rewrite the genre, basically, because we don’t have any born talent within the genre. We are programmers, dilettantes. We haven’t got an academic background, or any other ‘scene’
background. We weren’t born into a scene and exposed to the right music from the very beginning.”
Originally coming out of an industrial techno background (Schmidt’s is more techno-house), Friedman quickly progressed to experiments in ambience, and in 1995, wrote the book on what much later became known as ‘glitch’ or ‘clicks & cuts’ (or clits & cunts!) music. Unlike a battery of artists from German labels like Mille Plateaux, however, Friedman hasn’t conformed to the increasingly insular glitch scene. Still, even on Inner Space/Outer Space, every now and then the fluid jazz momentum will suddenly break down into surprising, insidious eddies of sonic detritus.
Mostly, however, the new album marks out new territory by investigating the possibilities of recording in odd ways with real-time musicians:
“This time we incorporated ten other musicians,” says Friedman, “which was completely new for both of us. We’ve chosen from the pool of 50 different instruments, and almost didn’t programme anything, but combined those takes. They were all recorded privately in a room, without the musicians meeting up, apart from the percussionists. This was the crazy thing about it, to start from the instrument takes. Firstly you’ve done the functional rough guide loops to brief the musicians, to inspire the musicians. Then you get rid of all of those, and start programming and arranging the piece around those randomly improvised takes.”
Unlike many groove records pumping out of city clubs, there are no clumsy sampled loops in the Flanger universe. But are there samples?
“Samples is a difficult term.” says Friedman. “My whole drumset consists of samples, but they are one-note samples. The percussion isn’t. The Rhodes is played on the keyboard, and some of the bass is played on the keyboard. But apart from the voices and the digital sounds – those abstract glitches or clicks and cuts that sometimes leak through – everything else is played.”
What made the first Flanger emission, Templates, so radical to the combined worlds of advanced electronica and applied jazz adventures was the discovery of a new methodology that made recording each new segment of a song a bit like a metaphorical bungey jump, and certainly minimised the chances of any boring resort to familiar verse-chorus type structure!
“With Templates we put bar-by-bar on tape (transferred from visuals on the computer), finished the track off bar by bar, so by the end of the day we would have finished the track, but we would not be able to get back to the beginning, edit it and record it as a whole. We recorded parts of it; part by part, pasted it together so we always during the process knew where we stood. We hadn’t done that before. It makes a big difference making a quick decision to record it, knowing you can’t get back to it anymore.”
It might seem vaguely traitorous coming from someone who came to music via electronica, but Burnt Friedman believes we’re headed back to a time when performing musicians will once again rule the day, and though Flanger is partly a cyber-concoction, he has a “visual representation of a band in my mind” when he listens to the record. Perhaps he envisages a future where a self-described musical non-adept such as himself can compose, arrange, guide, produce and conduct an ensemble to his own twisted imagination.
As far as Flanger goes, “it sounds playable, but actually it’s not. It’s anti-gravity, where the mind wants to go.” As a drummer himself, Friedman says “drummers, to try out new rhythms, have to conceive them mentally. But there are still physical boundaries, and the inertia of the body.”
Outside of Flanger, Friedman is a busy beaver, running his own Nonplace label out of a small but efficient office in Cologne. Within the next few months, four new Nonplace label products will wash up on our shores: the very electronic, very quirky and sometimes downright belly-laugh brilliance of the group Beige (translated title: Kingdom For A Handgrenade), Friedman’s remix album of his favourite Atom Heart tracks (Replicant Rhumba Rockers), the astonishing, beautiful and resoundingly original collaboration between Friedman and former Can drummer Jaki Leibezeit, and a longform piano rumination from blindfolded Perth-based pianist Dominico Declario.
Friedman says that Uwe Schmidt and himself have a very similar perspective on music much of the time, and Schmidt’s mindset also leeches into Friedman’s own music-making.
Schmidt has developed a fascination for solar jazz renegade Sun Ra. “When asked ‘for whom are you playing the music?’,” relates Friedman, “Sun Ra said something like ‘It’s for the private library of God’. I would like people to realise that there is more to Flanger than what they now call nu-jazz, for instance, or particular genres; that it’s a very personal thing, not something that works or may not work in a dj context or something very narrow-minded. It’s like a painting, it’s very private, very personal, very intimate. What we’re doing together is not considered, that’s why it’s allowed to go anywhere. We have much reverence for people like Herbie Hancock – their 70s music is as fresh as at the time it came out. With people like Van Gogh, in the beginning, the artistic results were clumsy, but he improved because he had no choice. He wasn’t gifted, and that makes a difference. People who are gifted are more likely to end up in a certain field, unable to leave it. It’s the best starting point to be completely clueless about music, but it takes a lot more effort to achieve something which stands out as genuine.
“It’s really hard to argue against functional approaches, a job approach. Most people I know who are involved with music-making do it like a job. They are really surprised when I come along and do whatever I think is right. They can’t relate to it. They ask me: ‘does this exist?’”
* My Word document says this was written in 2040, but from memory, it appeared in Real Groove back in ’01. I think.