Akufen: Electronic Musician and DJ
Over the last two years, Montreal-based artist Marc Leclair, AKA Akufen, has been busy revolutionizing a genre one might call minimal house & minimal techno. Using samples taken from the Canadian airwaves he has developed a concept he calls "microsampling." For quite some time now, he's been using Live to bring his complex and funky tracks to the stage. Ableton got ahold of Akufen just before the release of his album My Way on Frankfurt's Force Inc. label.
Regular club-goers might be familiar with your music but probably don't know much about you. Who is Akufen, and how and why did he get into making music?
I was originally performing as a jazz guitarist in a trio, playing the piano occasionally. I had a very good ear and sharp curiosity. My first true contact ever with electronic music was at the age of twelve when I heard Kraftwerk's Menschmaschine. I was blown away, but I remained a band musician until the age of sixteen, always searching and trying to push the boundaries of my personal musical language. At the age of sixteen, almost twenty years ago, I decided to trade in my piano and my guitar for an analog sequencer and a duophonic Roland synthesizer SH-7. The very first electronic pieces I humbly composed were very much inspired by the early work of contemporaries Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Their music was so fresh and so well balanced. I needed to take a serious break from playing with musicians. I simply couldn't deal with such egos anymore and had to break free from the academic pressure, which was often blocking my inspirational flow. It was a necessity to express myself more than just proving that I was a well-trained monkey. I remember I lost everyone at that time. They all thought I was some sort of punk and remained in their parents' basements learning all the legendary guitar solos in the world. I packed my bags, left for downtown Montreal and met with other young local electronic musicians. I was about sixteen, and I haven't quit since.
With your numerous releases over the last two years on labels like Trapez, Perlon, Revolver and now Force Inc., you've coined the term "microsampling." Could you please explain this term? What is the idea behind it, and how does it relate to other forms of cut-up music that people like Herbert have worked on in the past?
I must say that it's very oriented toward recycling, because we live in a recycling era. To me, sound is as much recyclable matter as glass or plastic. I sample hours of radio airwaves every morning and dissect fractions or seconds of them to a point where samples aren't recognizable. Then I assemble every bit like a puzzle, or a collage if you prefer. It's a long process and I never know what I'm gonna end up with. My approach is very much inspired by the surrealistic techniques and the French Canadian automatists, like painter Riopelle and writer Gauvreau. I like the error margin and the unexpected factor, which often makes a lot of sense subconsciously, so I have to be very spontaneous in my way of working. I find a lot of essential answers in my music--it's like a psychoanalysis. But the listener can find his own path, his own signification. It's very important to give the listeners the possibility of interpretation. I want my music to be alive and ever changing.
Where do you draw your influences from? Not from a technical point of view, but rather your aesthetical background. Books? Films? Other people's music? I'm asking because I think an Akufen track is quite unique in the way that it integrates so many different moods. It might be quite dry and funky in the beginning and then suddenly turn into something much warmer and deeper.
I take inspiration from all over the place and all kinds of sources. At a very young age I already had quite a sharp curiosity. I was questioning myself constantly. I was into books, films of course, but I would say I was even more into painting and illustration. I had a very promising career ahead of me as a painter and illustrator, but the music took over. I wouldn't say "unfortunately" though, because I found more serenity in writing music than drawing, most probably because a lot of people including my teachers and parents put a lot of pressure on me in order to see me succeed. I came to a point where I deeply hated drawing even if the talent and the passion were there. But I kept my music always suggestive in terms of imagery, without, of course, imposing any messages. I work a lot on the light and the colors in my music. My favorite references remain painters and illustrators like Escher, Magritte and Riopelle; the French filmmaker Jacques Tati; and musicians like Satie, Steve Reich and John Barry. I like very contrasting influences, they make your palette much more colorful and the textures richer, which is why my work's never static, always moving.
Acoustic samples (guitar, piano, etc.) seem to play quite an important role in your music. This, again, is quite a new approach. Where does this love come from?
As I mentioned in my very first answer, I was a musician before, but collaborating with musicians made me bitter, and after a few years of rejecting the idea of incorporating live musical instruments parts, I finally rediscovered the warmth of a live guitar or piano. It's refreshing, but I wouldn't want to use them at any price in every context. And of course I like to use more snippets of it. I incorporate it, but still in the aesthetic of my approach. For now, I don't want my music to sound like a live band. I still want people to remember that it's sample based and not like 1,2,3 go... I will be using lots of live vocals in my future compositions. I like using the human voice very much; it gives my music a much deeper mood.
Fancy doing a remix for Gavin Bryars or Arvo Pärt? :)
It's funny that you mention Bryars, because I just read an interview with him a few days ago. He speaks about this collaboration with the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz entitled "A Man in a Room Gambling." The concept is really interesting. Muñoz reads texts about how to cheat at playing cards, while Bryars himself will incorporate some gorgeous melodic music in order to trick the audience into a false sense of security. I think this is brilliant. He's a fine artist, but I don't think it could be possible to rework a concept as much as a standard piece of music. Only in his opera work could I picture myself doing something. Yeah, why not opera? Isn't Pärt living in Berlin now? I know his biography a little but I'm not completely familiar with his work. I really dig his manifesto though. His quest for the perfect tone and his philosophy behind the use of silences are very inspiring, but again I don't think a remix of his work would be appropriate or necessary. I've heard some of Steve Reich's remixes lately and wasn't very impressed by the result. Conceptual minimal music is something I wouldn't touch. I respect the original piece too much. I'd rather contemplate it and take inspiration from it.
With electronic music mainly heard in clubs, it is (sadly enough) quite usual that albums from artists who did a couple of very good 12"s are very boring, simply because the artist fails to either compile the material in the right order or simply because his style is not interesting enough for a whole album, intended to be listened to in one row. This is for sure different with your album. Tell us more about "My Way." What was the general idea? What did you have in mind, maybe in comparison to recording a 12"?
Honestly, it was never intended to be written as a conceptual album. I just let my heart and soul speak. "My way" was entirely written and produced in the woods north of Quebec, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. I was away for one month without a phone or television and no neighbors in sight, the closest village at almost an hour drive from my location. You have to count on yourself and your judgment. If anything goes wrong you're fucked. So that explains why the album is quite intense, almost schizophrenic in a way. I could conclude by saying that my ways of working are conceptual but not my music. I don't want to impose any theory or meaning on anyone. I want to leave the listener absolutely free to find the answers he wants or needs. It's the recycling chain that keeps on rolling.
When it comes to looking for source material, the radio is quite important for you. Why? And what kind of sounds do you take from the radio? Music? Speech? Static? Everything?
This passion for cutting up radio sounds was always there as far back as I can remember. At the age of ten or eleven, my parents gave me a double tape recorder, and the first thing I did with it was to scroll the radio and "pause, record, pause" for hours of whatever was playing. The results were not always good, but I had to start somewhere. I did the same with records. The effect was way more interesting because I had more control over the source. I had a good laugh splicing Elvis's voice and making him say whatever I wanted him to say. My mother was a huge Elvis fan so she didn't like it that much. I take sounds from everywhere now. The radio became more of a trademark time after time. Now I'm using the television, the telephone and some field recordings almost as much, but there is something with the radio that fascinates me more. It's this organic flow. I hate the new digital radio 'cause there's no way to get one these days with a scrolling wheel. It's all digits now so you lose that in-between sweep that sounds very much like the ocean to me. Radio is the biggest sound library available to everyone, it's free and it will never be redundant.
How does the radio as a very old and well-established kind of media compare to your very modern sound?
It's not comparable really; I'd say they're more complimentary. I mean. my work isn't that modern. I'm using a splicing technique that existed years ago in film and music except that now I can execute more jobs much faster with the virtual sampling software and the editing tools available on the market.
On the same note, I hear some very familiar sounds, like the 909 hi-hat that not many people use anymore.
Nobody's perfect hey.... ;-) The new material I've been doing lately has way less 808 or 909 percussion. Most of my new kick drums are found sounds often made out of different layered radio noises and the Drumsynth 2.0 software. Same process for my hats and snares. I can't help using the 808 and 909 drum machines. They are simply excellent. But I rarely use them with their original envelope. I often layer the 909 kick drum attack over the sound of a door slamming or a footstep on a wooden stair for example.
It is more or less requested these days that people who do electronic music play live as well. How do you feel about laptops on stage? What do you like and/or dislike about PowerBook performances?
The thing that bugs me the most is probably the unrewarding image that is carried by the laptop. It devaluates the work of an artist just because it's more low profile. Playing live electronic music was always a controversial issue, even more so since the laptop first appeared a few years ago. Everything has had to be redefined, from the notion of show aesthetic to the vocabulary of live performance. I think the laptop is giving back to live music this sheer sense of humility. It's all about the man and his music, and not about performing anymore. I mean, if people never complained watching a static folk singer playing three chords over and over, often on a detuned guitar, then why should people bother about a guy playing on a laptop? Improvisation is possible in electronic music, but not as flexible as in jazz, classical or even rock. I like to make the parallel with going to a painting or photography exhibition. It should be called "diffusion" more than "live." Laptops are practical in so many ways. It allows you to be more mobile, it takes less space and gives you less headaches when it's time to pack up your stuff or go through the border but above all you don't have to watch the stupid plane movie featuring Richard Gere anymore when you're traveling.
How do you perform live?
I have to say that since Live was launched, a lot has changed for many of us who were using a pre-sequenced show. I'm more flexible and more communicative with the audience. I have a couple of radio sound banks loaded that I can launch anywhere I want during my performance. I used to carry two shortwave radios to tweak, but the reception wasn't always very clear. But everything is loop based basically. I'd love to eventually go on stage with an empty computer and sample in real time all my sources and sequence it live but it'll take me a while before I can achieve that with enough confidence. I've been playing live for only one year now, so I still have a lot to learn.
Your music is strongly based on the use of samples. Ableton Live is the ideal tool for bringing such music onto stage. How do you feel about the program and how does it compare to using other tools?
It meets exactly my needs by allowing me to load tons of complex sequences that I wouldn't be able to reproduce live otherwise. It gives me way more flexibility and combinations in terms of deconstructing, and also gives me more confidence. I don't want in any way to compromise on the complexity of the music I am writing in the studio. Other software that isn't based on physical modeling is more static and does not leave you many options other than using it for playback.
Thanks a lot.
Interview by Thaddeus Herrmann