If the music world is longing for this year’s new genre tag, it’s coldwave. Not to be mistaken for chillwave’s slightly more frigid cousin, coldwave got its start as a European offshoot of late-‘70s post-punk — a combination of industrial influences à la Throbbing Gristle, the moody guitars of English goth, and icy, minimal electronics. Even the most renowned coldwave and minimal acts of the time — Absolute Body Control, Opéra de Nuit, Deux, and so on — have just a smattering of out-of-print cassettes to their name, and only with the advent of music blogging have these rare tracks been rediscovered.
Similarly, most of the acts associated with the coldwave revival of 2010 have actually been plugging away for more than a decade — most notably Sean McBride, one-half of Xeno & Oaklander and solo mastermind behind Martial Canterel. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call McBride one of the most crucial figures of modern synth music in America; coupling meticulously crafted analogue production with moody, evocative lyrics on longing and intimacy, Martial Canterel’s new LP You Today (out Feb. 8 on Brooklyn’s Wierd Records, arguably the epicenter of 21st-century coldwave) has appeal that stretches well beyond the underground.
We spoke to McBride, via e-mail, about You Today’s high-concept production, the appeal of analogue, and why the cold sounds of early ‘80s Europeans have such resonance today.
How did you come to start the Martial Canterel project?
The initial impulses for the Martial Canterel project were both historical and biographical. In 2002, emerging from a troubled relationship coupled with a total disenchantment with contemporary music and a hermetically sealed diet of obscure wave and minimal-electronics, the impulse was obvious. I already had acquired a nice little arsenal of synthesizers in the mid-’90s…using them in conjunction with a guitar and a sampler, so the groundwork for making this music was firmly in place. There was a kind of epistemological leap that I took, eschewing all contemporary instruments and processes in favor of inhabiting some more originary mechanics and interface.
In the same year I sent a demo CDR to Genetic Music in Germany, who were at the time one of the few labels in the world both reissuing forgotten minimal music from the early ’80s as well as releasing current groups taking inspiration from this period. They loved my demo and were eager to release it; however, the name Moravagine — which I had been using — seemed to be already in use by an Italian punk band. I changed the name to another early modernist hero: Martial Canterel, the magician protagonist of Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus. I had made many CDs and tapes but the first official release, Confusing Outsides, came out in 2005.
Aside from the obvious partnership, what’s the distinction between Martial Canterel and your work with Xeno & Oaklander?
Martial Canterel has always been my personal project and essay in the world’s undoing and its attendant consequences and paradoxes. I also like a good challenge, so writing music with three- and four-part song structures with multiple step sequencers, drum machines and synths, and recording everything live with no overdubbing is something, being alone, I enjoy. With Xeno, there is a kind of sacred fraternity with Liz [Wendelbo, Xeno & Oaklander’s other half] and I playing off one another; she focusing on wall of noise sounds and note bends, and I, clocked step sequences and arpeggiated bass lines. Conceptually, Xeno focuses more on particular histories, occupying different moments, different positions, and different voices.
There are obviously connections to the (oft-forgotten) coldwave bands of the early ’80s. What non-music media fits in with your concept for Martial Canterel?
The films of Bela Tarr, British cottage dramas and murder mysteries, film noir, Hiroshi Teshigahra, historical geography, and Reza Negarestani.
A lot has been made of the sort of “coldwave renaissance” in New York, centered particularly around Wierd Records, and to a lesser extent, other pockets of the urban U.S. Why do you think so many artists have turned to minimal electronic music, and what about it appealed to you?
It’s funny to watch this all come into broader appreciation. Where in 2001 there were maybe 500 people around the world, many in Germany and Belgium, who traded and forumed this music, now, everyone and their avatar has a blog uploading this or that LP or single from some little known group from 1983 Malmö. But aside from record and MP3 collecting, the real attraction, and for me the paramount attraction, is the equipment itself. The last 20 years of electronic music have primarily involved emulating analog synthesis, speeding up and tidying up the process, “stabilizing,” of making a performance of this music akin to someone checking their email. The true materiality of this music is what really appeals, its truly electric nature, the vulnerability of the instruments, the synthesizer as an “instrument with a limit.” All these things purport a kind of humanness to electronic music; something we haven’t seen widespread in many a decade.
What sort of affinity do you feel with those acts, if any?
My affinities are, for the most part, with musicians who share a fascination with similar processes and themes; for example, Staccato Du Mal from Miami, Further Reductions and Epee du Bois from Brooklyn, Delos and Lower Synth Department from Western Germany, Human Puppets from Athens, and many others. Also many involved in the US noise scene, such as Yellow Tears, Hive Mind, Damian Romero, and Bloodyminded, who are fabricating their own devices and exploring the thresholds of aural endurance and experience. I am ultimately really attracted to the materiality of the analogue and to those who govern their processes accordingly.
To put it simply: Why exclusively analogue?
Analogue is living. The flow of electricity from the wall is shaped and contoured by the synthesizer into waveforms which can be turned on and off, held or released, pitched high, pitched low, filtered to a mute murmur, opened up to a fierce growl — all of what the synthesizer outputs is analogous to the amorphous electric charge emanating from the wall. I liken the playing of these synths to a craft, the making of something with one’s hands. Perhaps akin to the potter’s wheel — it is a fragile and vulnerable balance between hand and tool.
You Today is described as an “exploration of the increasing difficulty in trying to connect with real people and real things, as technology renders the material substance of bodies and objects ever more abstract and distant.” It’s a seemingly bleak message — what would you like to communicate to listeners?
The inconsolable sadness that is the world. For me this shadowy and minor-keyed music opens up fissures in the tightly knit fabric of betrayal and falseness from which affirmation springs, like a kind of invocation of hope. Employing the negative in the face of so much negativity produces something, however fleeting, positive and it is this hope born from negativity that I would like to communicate most.