November 2, 2011
SOULFUL DUST: AN INTERVIEW WITH YEK KOO
As Yek Koo, Helga Fassonaki (also of Metal Rouge) has issued long-form void blares on Seymour Records, Digitalis, Stunned and most recently as part of Emerald Cocoon's 'Alone Together' series. Here in her first ever interview as Yek Koo she discusses soulful dust, Dictaphone honesty, applying for an artistic license and why her new single isn't a pop song.
Emerald Cocoon: How did Yek Koo start? Can you talk about the genesis of Yek Koo? I know you were doing stuff before Metal Rouge and it wasn’t Yek Koo yet.
Helga Fassonaki: It was an evolution. Before metal rouge I was doing a lot of solo stuff…it was very conceptual and influenced by being in art school at the time. It was more of a mistake that I started performing live. I was doing a lot of sound installation type work at Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland, New Zealand and word got out to musician/artist Tim Coster that I was doing experimental sound/noise stuff at Elam. He was organizing a music show at Canary Gallery and pushed me into it…I mean asked me to play – that ended up being my first ever live show.
EC: And what were you playing? Were you playing santur?
HF: No I wasn’t playing santur just yet. I wasn’t actually playing music…I mean, I picked up instruments my entire life and made sounds and jammed with friends here and there before moving to NZ, but I was never in a band and never considered myself a musician…I always considered myself an artist, but loved music very much and sound was a material I was very attracted to in my art practice. So because I didn’t actually play music at the time, when Tim asked me, for some reason I accepted and then had to figure out how to transform what I was doing in my studio into a live performance. I had been taking apart tape players and manipulating them and playing and amplifying the tape heads – it was these two old tape player message recorders that I found in this electronic surplus shop. I had been taking them apart and playing around with the internal electronics, using contact mics to amplify them. I was also learning MAX/MSP as a way to create interactive sound work. I had made this simple ring modulator patch that I used to manipulate/modulate the tape-head sounds for my performance. I was into the idea of taking the insides of something, the internal workings of a machine and to start with that as my sound source. It was quite primitive. All the max patch did was do what an effects pedal would do -alter the sound. I was never actually into electronic music or that type of sound and was pretty disconnected emotionally to the sounds that I was making – they were mainly these abstract experiments, relating more conceptually to my art practice.
EC: Do you think that wouldn’t have happened unless you went to art school? That these were results of being in art school?
HF: Um, pretty much. Prior to New Zealand, I used to make sounds and manipulate them using the computer for films I'd make. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music, but was never into these particular sounds as music. I viewed these live performances as something more than just the sounds… more like a visual and aural time-based event and sound was just one of the elements. Though I never considered myself a sound artist either. I really came to dislike that label. My live performance approach was (and still often is) influenced by David Tudor’s approach of never really knowing what lies beneath the electrical circuitry - this idea that performance can be as much of a surprise to the performer as it is to the audience really intrigued me and helped me cope with my technical illiteracy and phobias and embrace the act of performance itself - something I was really getting into.
EC: Apart from the materials that are obviously different (now you're playing guitar etc) what separates that from Yek Koo?
HF: As I continued performing live, I incorporated other elements/instruments like the santur (Persian dulcimer) and slowly bringing more physicality and humanness to my playing. I enjoyed actually playing instruments and wasn't interested in creating computer-generated sounds. The computer felt foreign and abstract to me, not manual and expressive enough. So I eventually ditched it and ended up using just santur, contact mics, and a couple effects pedals…slowly bringing in some vocals (but so subtly, they were barely audible). I was still trying to integrate my music and art practice when I finished school, but I was getting more involved in the underground music scene in Auckland and eventually worked out that I was an artist who plays music. So yek koo took root as my solo music project when I returned to the states, the major difference being that my influences are more music rather than visual art…but really, more recently I've been finding these arbitrary lines we draw between and around what this is and what that is really unnecessary. Visual art and music, are both forms of art, as are writing and gardening. I like to pick up the material that I feel makes the most sense and best represents what I'm trying to express at the time…so really what it comes down to is what I do take with me from project to project, like my influences and approach.
EC: So the stuff you recorded under your own name is not going to see a reissue anytime soon?
HF: Interesting you should say that because none of that stuff was ever supposed to be recorded…the only reason I ever recorded anything that I did live or sound projects/installations was as documentation - not to be bootlegged or sold as a commodity. The fact that some of that documentation fell into the hands of audio nerds who feel it should be released in material form is out of my control but not something I endorse.
EC: You talked about the differences between pre-Yek Koo and Yek Koo, but obviously there's a big difference to the way you approach things in Yek Koo vs Metal Rouge.
HF: I feel like the approach is similar but the process is different. What ties all my projects together is my use or treatment of music as sound material moving through time…I remember the Dead C talk about a similar approach in one of their interviews, where Bruce Russell said, ‘Sounds are fundamental, songs are not’…you can have sounds without songs, but you can’t have songs without sound. So even in yek koo where its more pre-composed, I approach everything I play as sound material rather than a musical part, like what I’m doing with my voice is treated as a undulating vacuum of tones, rather than a chorus line. If I have words to say, I say them and that creates some context, some poetry, but never a chorus line. In this sense I can never be ‘pop’. My approach in both projects is very non-technical and I allow emotion and an idea to push and pull the sound. This is actually similar to installations I used to make where I allowed the physical environment and/or objects to push and pull the sound. Now it’s more of what I experience and the collision of my brain with the outside environment along with my ability to push my instruments that create the sound. I feel like in Metal Rouge we’re still pre-composing, but they're very loose unwritten structures that we fill in as we play. I often still compose with Metal Rouge stuff, but it happens as we’re playing…the composition unravels as we play and then we try and remember what we did or what works. We often communicate metaphysically with each other. With yek koo I have a script that I follow, lyrics and rhythms that I memorize but both processes use sound in a similar fashion and both come from similar influences, motivations, and ethics. I have no real musical training…I did learn how to play the flute when I was younger and played for 7 years, but I hated it. I didn’t know about Eric Dolphy then…if I had watched him play the flute back then, maybe I'd have a whole other perspective. When I was a teenager, I asked my friend to teach me how to play guitar and he told me to just play with him. After attempting to 'jam' with him he said, ‘don’t ever learn how to play cause you will never be able to go back to where you are now’. At the time I was a little annoyed, now I understand. And because I don’t know how to play any of the instruments that I actually play, I can treat each instrument equally, a tool to create a certain sound.
EC: Then there’s no one instrument favored over any other, any instrument will do, it’s the process of each instrument that’s important?
HF: Well, that said I really like the way voice, guitar, and more recently pocket trumpet feel. I guess its really about the range of sound I’m able to create with each one and my relationship to the instrument at a certain phase that leads me to hang onto it more than others...it has a voice that compliments my own, etc…so yeah, there’s definitely instruments I favor but why I’m attracted to them is for the vocabulary they help me shape, form, and express. For example, I can create the greatest range of emotion using voice, which I treat as an instrument. For one, it’s closest to you physically and emotionally and emanates from within you - it’s the most honest and unique to your own makeup. The funny thing is that I had a phobia of singing for a really long time and wouldn’t go near a microphone and still wouldn’t if I considered what I do with my voice as singing.
EC: So what’s your relationship to sampling? You sample stuff quite often.
HF: I use it as another sound in yek koo. Because of the logistics of playing solo and wanting to bring in certain sounds, I’ll sample some beats that provide another element. I usually write my own part first and then find other sounds (mainly drum beats or drumming) that I think go with what I’m doing. Maybe If I found other musicians to play with me, I wouldn’t sample…I don’t know.
EC: So it’s purely a practical concern?
HF: Sometimes I have a conceptual reason for using a sample…like in the album I’m currently working on where I’m sampling a band who the album is actually being made for…no more details on that just yet. I’m always pretty open about what I sample…I learned it from the best (Dead C and Gate).
EC: At least half of your recordings are done using a Dictaphone. Why? What is it about Dictaphones?
HF: It’s just something I felt when I first started yek koo, that it all had to be recorded on a Dictaphone. Not sure why except that I really liked the immediacy of it and I really felt like it recorded most accurately on some respects how primitive and raw my playing was…I was just starting to play guitar and not knowing how to play…
EC: So the Dictaphone was meant to enhance what was already there?
HF: Yeah and it added another layer of buzz and distortion that I liked – like it was another layer of sound, its own instrument so to speak. Hmmm…this is starting to sound like what I was doing with the tapeheads on the old recorders in my early performances – amplifying the sound of the machine. Huh, what do you know? The immediacy was actually a big factor – I like that the recorder feels so close to the source - no mics, no mic cables, no mixer – just a simple recording of soundwaves to tape. And to be honest, I’m not really into recording, I’m way more into live performance.
EC: Why do you prefer live performance?
HF: I like the immediate action of live performance. Whenever I play, I can never repeat the same piece exactly…even if it’s a highly structured song…I will still not follow it, just because I’m incapable of doing that – it’s a handicap, but a handicap that has added to my style. So because I can’t play the same thing twice, practice can be like a new experience for me each time…even during tour where you play the same songs over and over again…I can make something repetitious go out of sync so quickly. So even practice can be exciting, but when it comes to recording and post-production, my interest starts to dwindle because I lose emotional engagement with it…the technical stuff gets in the way. I feel about this with art as well that often the idea itself is the most exciting part – that once you start to realize your idea and create it, you often start following this planned outline which is not always exciting. Sure, the process could be fulfilling, but it’s never as exciting as when it was first manifested in your head.
EC: Then the question is: why not just come up with the idea and write it down? Why make the object?
HF: Exactly. Why make records?
EC: Exactly, why do you make records? Aren't you working on a record right now?
HF: (laughs) Yeah, and as you know I’ve been sitting on the recorded/mixed material for about 6 months. There you go… But okay, I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite here and say that I guess what’s exciting about the process is the drive to see the finished piece…what it ends up looking like, sounding like. I like objects, I like records, I just don’t like the time between recording and the final output. I wish I was more patient. Also, putting out vinyl costs a lot of money, so you can’t always see the material result of what you’ve done right away. So by the time the record comes out you may be somewhere completely different emotionally which is probably good, because you don’t want to be so attached to something you release out into the world, you need to let go. Whereas with performance, there’s a certain presence about it. I guess the performance and the record are just two very separate things to me and the way I approach playing and performing doesn’t always come across in the recording. With this mysterious album we’ve been hinting about, I did a few things I’ve never done with yek koo before…I used a four-track (not a Dictaphone) to record most of it and I overdubbed, and composed the tracks before I learned how to play them live. I still don’t know how I’d play them live. But the live part will just be a different thing.
EC: The A side and the B side of the Alone Together seven inch sound radically different from each other. Obviously the recording style is different, but why do they sound so different?
HF: I don’t know, people have said that and its mentioned in reviews, but I really don’t know and don’t necessarily feel that way myself…except that maybe because Side B, Flame Creation, was recorded live onto a Dictaphone and Side A was composed and recorded on a four-track - that does change the sound a lot. But there are a lot of similarities…for instance, they both sample the same artist, the singing style is very similar…I definitely don’t consider ‘Oh Woman’ a pop song…though I guess the beats I’ve sampled for that one are a lot more rhythmic. And they were both composed using the same approach.
EC: Do you think then it’s only the recording methodology that makes people think that?
HF: Yeah, because I think the Dictaphone adds this honesty to it…at least in my situation because I’m playing so primitively…when you record multitrack – you can dub things in, dub things out…its cleaner and it can change the sound a lot. The Dictaphone adds dirt and grain, similar to my way of playing so it captures that aspect really well.
EC: Do you think there’s a deficit of honesty in music today?
HF: I’ll be honest: yes.
EC: But you’re fixing it one Dictaphone at a time?
HF: Well, I don’t think the dishonesty is necessarily in the recording process or recording outcome…there seems to be a darker dishonesty, a dishonest disguise over the motives of making certain music in the world that we currently interact with.
EC: So you like good honest dust?
HF: hmmm, maybe just soulful dust. Dishonesty is allowed with your artistic license…as long as you're sincere about it…as long as you've got guts to back it.
EC: Maybe you should have to sit a test before you’re allowed to get your artistic license…
HF: yeah nah, I hate tests