Over the course March and April of this year, the Chicago-based experimentalist Mukqs released a series of EPs that showcase a wide diversity of approaches to electronics, each album coming to develop a life of its own. Given the project’s scope and variety, I thought I could not do it justice through a review, since it would be like trying to control something that not only resists those sorts of categories already, it is also pulling towards a myriad directions simultaneously. Instead, I proposed an interview to Mukqs, thinking that it would probably be a richer, deeper, and more suggestive way of getting to know these releases. Thus, I held an extensive conversation with him via email, presented below with a few choice edits. It is a long exchange, so my recommendation is to grab a cup of coffee/tea, set up Mukqs’ bandcamp page with all the albums, and play them as you read.
David Murrieta Flores for ACL: Hello Mukqs! In case any of our readers don’t know you beforehand, could you please describe the nature of your music in general?
Mukqs: Hey there. Thanks! I treat Mukqs as a catch-all project to record music on my own that disregards conventions of genre or style and favors diverse palettes of sounds that capture whatever I feel like recording in that moment. One of my main goals with the project is to incorporate strategies based on chance and improvisation into the context of electronic music, which can take the shape of randomized effect processing, glitch-like manipulation of samples using spastic looping techniques, and setting up processes where samples or feeds of sounds are moving and changing in a way that’s out of my control. In general terms my music falls into categories like noise, improv, ambient, glitch, video game music, techno & related styles, electronic free jazz, & plunderphonic sample collage.
You told me you were planning to release these albums almost every week or so – why did you choose this schedule and how did you arrive at this idea? The context in which they were made is also of note – do you think we’ll eventually find it obvious that these pieces were made during the 2020 pandemic?
This is not an explicitly Covid quarantine-related project, and doesn’t really engage with any of the meaning around the crisis itself, but the prospect of spending so much time at home at the beginning and the fact that I would be unable to leave the house and go out to my usual routine of jobs around the city lit a spark under me to start recording weekly releases. Because had I hours and hours of more time every week, I basically guilted myself into being productive and working on music, because during an average work-week I typically regret not spending more time on music and tell myself that I wish I had more of an opportunity to do that on a daily basis.
I think the only way you could tell that they were made during this time period is by looking at the dates I recorded each release and the date they hit Bandcamp — and the proximity of all six releases to each other, week by week, within that time period. Other than that, I don’t think that the actual music contained in the releases would reveal any sort of relationship to the events going on right now. If anything, I like the idea more that they purposefully wouldn’t ever be connected in that way. To me the music is like, the escape from that whole world, the art that stays constant to some extent, and that represents like an almost utopian ideal that can’t be shaken off.
Is there an overarching theme unifying all these albums? Or is there maybe an overarching practice? What would the differences between them be?
There is no theme uniting all these albums really. If anything, the goal was to produce a diverse set of works that would resist a central theme, with each one streaking off in a certain direction of music and production styles I’m interested in. Maybe the goal then was to make a series of releases that don’t share much at a micro level, that might seem like works made by artists operating in totally different styles. It was more of a process of doing something and then resisting doing that thing again within the boundaries of the series, to not repeat myself and to sketch out a bunch of different pieces that would contrast each other.
The overarching practice though, is the same as my general approach to recording, which is that all of them are live takes from my rig of machines, presented without structural editing or overdubs and without the use of a computer to generate or process sounds. This approach isn’t rooted in any strong feelings about gear or process as much as in the fact that I have no experience using DAWs or computers as music making tools, and prefer to stick to my rig of machines as the sandbox to compose and work up each session.
What kind of gear are you using for these albums? Is it the same kind of gear you use for other projects?
Here’s a quick rundown of my gear for these recordings, which is the same as the stuff I use for everything else really:
Electro Harmonix 2880 and Electro Harmonix 95000 + Roland SP404 sampler – these stereo loop pedals, used in tandem with the sampler, are basically the centerpieces of the rig for a good chunk of these recordings. All of the synths and drum machines that I use are pumped through the loop pedals and saved in them as stereo feeds, with specific panning information, which I then record from the loop pedal into the SP404. This allows me to make tracks with the sampler as a workstation to play back various different feeds and create the final tracks. You hear this process to the most pronounced degree on Anaglyph, Specular, Frieze, and Deludanoid. The latter also features a live feed from my Electribe EMX-1 drum machine, which I use to lay out drums and synths on the grid, so the sampler is playing along with the grid in that case.
I use a Tascam tape deck as the main feed source on Choronzon and Antistatic. I recorded a bunch of synths and drum patterns into the four channels of a master cassette tape, and played that back through the stereo loopers for the final takes of those recordings.
In general my recordings tend to use some long-form sample or feed-recording device as the main source of the sounds, and I process those through the stereo loopers for the final take. So the process is like: 1) record a set of samples into the sampler or onto the tape deck, freezing those sound sources into a kind of master source that exists in a pre-finished state. Often times these sound sources will feature improvised keyboard/synth stuff, randomized drum patterns, long passages of drone tones, samples of vocals, field recordings I took on my phone, or steadier beats. 2) When it comes to the moment of the final take, whatever sampler or tape deck I’m using gets plugged into a stereo looper (or 2) which I use to process in real-time during the course of that final take. With both Anaglyph and Frieze, this process was kind of doubled, so the feeds went back and forth between loopers. I think of this process as a sort of mulching, where sounds that I initially created on synths or drum machines get scrambled and splattered around in the various layers of recording.
The synths I used for these recordings were:
Waldorf Blofeld — dedicated digital synth library with heavily modifiable tones and a rich variety of voices that it can produce. Basically a softsynth in the box.
Electribe EMX-1 — my source of every drum tone you hear on these recordings, along with some more staccato synth outputsRoland Sound Canvas SC-88 — another source of raw synth tones, this one with a palette of more artificial MIDI voices that mimic orchestral instruments, string voices, horns, etc. This is the source of the more video-game-y tones in the music.
Yamaha SY35 — an FM keyboard synth similar to the Yamaha DX7 that I use for more lush pad tones, as well as a general MIDI controller to control the outputs of the other synths.
How would you say these albums fit, generally speaking, in your trajectory as an artist? Do they represent, for instance, a moment of transition, or maybe of experimentation towards something in particular?
I’ve always tried to stay active with the project and record / release a lot of music. Generally, my goal is to try new things and never return to some previously explored zone just because it feels comfortable or because I think that I’m “good” at making music in that style. In truth, I don’t really think I’m good at making music in any style. It’s not really a matter of skill or talent in my mind, it’s more like a process of experimenting, messing around, making errors, doing things that I am firmly unskilled at and seeing what happens, exploring new ideas with signal flow and what gear I use in any given recording, figuring out different ways to loop or process sound or store it as samples or sound source feeds.
For these 6 releases, I think the fast pace of their release makes its seem like they’re some kind of special project, but that fast pace really just boiled down to the fact that I had more time to devote to music during this period. If I always had this much time, I could keep this pace pretty much indefinitely, I think. I was inspired by some of my favorite artists like Jim O’Rourke and Kevin Drumm, who have a constantly churning release schedule and often will have a new full-length album on their Bandcamp pages every two weeks or so. They can maintain this pace because they dedicate themselves to having those new releases up, and fans pay for subscriptions and for the releases directly, so it becomes a project that they can keep going. These six releases represent a time period where I actually worked on music at an almost “full time” schedule to an extent that I never have before. When I say full time, I definitely don’t mean in terms of money made — I’m not quite there yet in terms of fans, people who pay for the files, etc. I just mean in terms of the time I dedicated to working on music.
I feel that music, and experimental music in particular, increasingly can no longer operate with that “face towards the void” kind of avant-garde spirit. Simply, perhaps, because the void is already here. Your music feels made for the world, at least for me, it feels like I do not have to chase it into the unknown. In a temporary context where every day is quite samey, having a series of albums that is different with every listen might help remind people they’re still here, so to speak – they are not lost. Would you say experimental music has a certain role to play in our current situation? How would you say these albums fit into that position, whether positive or negative?
I think “the void” can mean all kinds of different things. Like you said, the void is here in the physical sense of the dangers and deaths and society-altering effects of the pandemic (and, like, living in society even when there’s not a pandemic). I would say the void in a musical sense is something that isn’t necessarily thematically tied to horror or death. It can be a kind of mental turning-off or shutting-down, a sense of feeling overwhelmed or squashed under the weight of something, a sense of loss of one’s self. I think these qualities can actually be very positive and desirable when you’re listening to music. It’s like, you sunk into it and zoned out and for that period of time you forgot your surroundings and connected with the sounds. I think the idea of forgetting your surroundings, or forgetting in general, doesn’t have to be bad, and doesn’t deserve to carry some kind of weight of guilt, like “you were ignoring reality and this is bad.” To me, this has no moral weight, as long as you follow it up with a return to reality, and you balance it with real reckoning with your surroundings, society, and life. These forces can totally co-exist. When I think about recordings of some of my favorite “noise” musicians like Aaron Dilloway, Jason Lescalleet, Graham Lambkin, and many others, I feel like their entire angle with music is to erase the world before you when you’re listening to them, to totally subsume your surroundings, to allow you to close your eyes and just be like “ahhhhhghhhghgh” and melt for a while. With some of my recordings, I aim for this effect for sure (Choronzon for example).
But then like you said, I guess maybe the fact that I try to keep my music as diverse as possible in terms of styles covered and methods I use to make it works against the idea of the mind-erasing void. By shifting around, it’s more like poking the mind in different directions and stimulating it into remembering where it is in the world. This effect really only works when the releases are presented together, to give them contrast and sketch out a varied narrative in the long run. Maybe within each 20 minute chunk there are moments when you find your mind coming face to face with the void. Maybe there are parts that make you perk up and be like “whoa, interesting, hmm” and focus your mind on something. Maybe that’s the idea of not being lost that you mentioned. And maybe that’s conveyed in a sense of constant change, of sounds that never sit still, so they don’t give you a chance to get lost (get lost meaning like, to lose oneself in a catatonic state). Even though that seems kind of backwards — if the sounds are always moving, wouldn’t that make the listener get lost more, with nothing to grab onto? If the listener is actively paying attention though, and following the music down all its digressions and weird turns, then that becomes a narrative roadmap to keep them from sinking into the narcosis. I think if the listener goes in knowing that there will be nothing solid to grab onto and that things will always be shifting, this can provide a sense of comfort or stability in a way. It’s like watching a blockbuster action movie for comfort, because you know the plot is going to be constantly firing and will give your brain no downtime, so you just hop in for the ride. It’s a paradoxical stability that you find by giving yourself up to change. Like you don’t have to expect any steady structures, any “refrains” that things return to, any hooks or verses. Again that seems weird, maybe, because those are the exact musical elements that usually provide stability. But to me, those things can also lead you into the doldrums, into a kind of rote pattern of repetition, into dreary territory.
I want to go into specifics. So the first release was Anaglyph, and I want you to talk to us about one of my favorite “bad topics” of experimentalism: meaning. Before that, however, I just want to give a short explanation for those who might not know what “anaglyph” means. Traditionally speaking, an anaglyph is simply a carved relief (on stone, maybe a vase), which is interesting because nowadays the term is more commonly used to refer to the juxtaposition of two images in a manner that gives off a 3D effect. The classic example is the mixture of red/blue images for which you can use old-school 3D glasses and see volumes out of them. Basically, it’s a synthesis. This brings me to a question that sets up the matter of meaning: is there a parallelism between your practice of electronic synthesis with that achieved by the 3D image?
Before we get too deep into the “meaning” discussion here I would like to say that a majority of the names I chose for these albums and tracks were sourced from a poorly Google translated blog post I happened upon on a random search that was an explanation of various types of wallpaper and their installation techniques. The post has since been deleted, and I’m really sad I didn’t save it, but it was basically a word salad in the neighborhood of 10K words long that explained various types of wallpaper and was filled to the brim with words and phrases that I don’t think I have ever seen before, explaining wallpaper terms with bits like “maximum felicity for the dryness of the metope hanging space.” I was drawn to this as a source for naming tracks, etc., because it not only had a high frequency of words that I wouldn’t normally see used in typical English writing, things like “Metope,” “Anaglyph,” “Paperhanging,” “Antistatic,” “Abounded,” — but also because of its scrambled grammar and its weird turns of phrase. This mimics my musical practice because it generates interesting variations from a process (Google translate, in this case) that churns through a feed of information and emerges with results that are chance-based in their final manifestation, taking a central theme (wallpaper, here) and rolling the dice on how it would be presented in its final incarnation, but maintaining some vestige of the original meaning or intention. To me this is similar to letting a cassette deck scroll through its feed and blindly looping phrases from it and collaging them into music.
My selection process from this feed of words still demonstrates a sense of agency and a process of culling meaning from an otherwise random dump of information. “Anaglyph” stood out for me because of both of the meanings you mentioned. It’s a carved relief that generates a sense of three-dimensionality from what is essentially a flat image. I tend to think of my recordings as flat image themselves due to the nature of the sounds I use, which are usually sourced from older synths, tape decks, and “outdated” gear. Most of my tracks lack the higher fidelity sound sources that characterize modern computer music, and ends up landing closer to, say, Y2K-era video game music in its more flattened sound sources and like chirpy, mid-range timbres. The more contemporary faux-three dimension / 3D glasses meaning of “anaglyph” is relevant to me because of the nature of the stereo spread of my music. I tend to place a lot of value on the active left to right panning of sounds across this more “flat” spread which comes from using the panning knobs on my tape deck and more directly on the channels of the stereo loopers that I use in my final takes. The horizontal placement of sounds, changed actively by constantly adjusting those knobs, gives the music this swirling, continually warping effect, and all these changes are made during the final takes, when I’m really working those panning knobs and sending sounds around as they come out of the tape deck or looper. So the 3D glasses thing was appropriate to me because it captures the idea of an optical illusion generated from visual parallax, where the 3D effect stems from your two eyes being separated from each other on your face, and having a disconnect from each other. It’s like an exploitation of the specific conditions of the human body to create something striking to the viewer’s eyes. I think this exploitation of a “drawback” and the presence of a stereo effect with two different sources receiving different information ties into the spastic, randomized stereo spread manipulations that appear in Mukqs tunes.
I felt in Anaglyph a melodic undercurrent, sometimes emerging into view, like correctly adjusting the 3D glasses and seeing a shape where before there was none. Along with the smooth, softly noisy synth sounds, this melodic sensation gives the album, in my view, a lyrical aspect. The very visual referents of the track names also add to this, as if we were listening to you at work with the metaphors of sounds. After all, we’re culturally predisposed to associate certain sounds with certain feelings, and Anaglyph throws all kinds of emotionally charged juxtapositions around, so to speak. Is the meaning of sounds something you also consider as part of the work of synthesizing? Is the world of meaning inevitable, in this sense?
I don’t think that I necessarily imbue specific meanings into individual sounds or types of timbres. While some sounds like, say, the piano or more orchestral synthetic sounds are tied to specific histories, I don’t think of them as like different eras battling or contrasting with each other in my tracks, or as commentary on those eras. It’s more like, these are sounds that I’m interested in, and I want to see how they fit together from a purely sonic perspective, more than trying to imagine some clash of different eras from a semantic angle. That being said, I do tend to approach discrete ideas for recording from the angle of certain genres as a starting point, like “ok this one is going to be orchestral. this one is going to be more beat-focused. this one is going to be more drone” — as a point from which I begin and then feel free to frequently break from. This initial category of sound might inform the general selection of tones, of the way the songs are laid out, etc. My selection of sounds in any given recording more directly boils down to me seeking a contrast between different moods or atmospheres within one chunk of time, and how sounds fit together in terms of their raw texture or timbral qualities, and how they fit together in terms of the frequencies, from low to mid to high. When I’m juxtaposing different sounds together in a track, usually it’s a matter of introducing one sound and then trying to imagine what other sound would cause a shift in the narrative in relation to that first sound, or what set of sounds would create a spread that covers a lot of different bands of the EQ. Maybe the latter inclination comes from my background playing in metal and rock bands, where each member of the band typically occupies one chunk of the stereo spread, like the bass in the lows, the guitars in the mids and highs, and various parts of the drum kit occupying everything from the lows to the highest highs.
When it comes to track names, it’s hard for people who dig into them to resist grafting meaning onto the tracks based on the names, and I think this is a productive and interesting extra layer to the music, but it’s not something I pore over or think too deeply about. To me, the meanings generated from a naming process that is essentially one step away from complete randomness are still relevant and important, though. Like, the fact that I picked names that made you think about all these associations and thematic ideas about the music demonstrates to me that I did something right, in a sense, even though it was kind of tossed off, while also demonstrating the power that text has to shape the music itself. If I had named every track like “01,” “02,” “03,” it wouldn’t have such an undercurrent of meanings that spread out in different directions, even if those meanings were generated randomly.
I want to move on to Choronzon. Which, in essence, means moving on to occultism. If I got this right, Choronzon was the figure used by a couple of 16th century occultists to refer to the evil of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Not the devil itself, I think, but a more primeval form of evil. More recent occultists have turned this figure into an abyssal concept opposite to life (and will). First: how’d you reach this theme? Second: how does the motif of the Choronzon play into the process of making music?
I really hesitate to say this, because once again I really don’t want to graft any external themes from the Covid-19 pandemic into this music; as I said, I don’t think that it plays a direct role in any of the sounds that I present, other than being the initial impetus to get me to work on this music.
But when I was getting back the mastered files from Angel Marcloid for the music that became Choronzon, I still didn’t have a name for it, so she named the project folder “Corona Zone 3”, or something like that, just as a placeholder. This filename activated some weird memories, because my girlfriend Emma and I, who have a musical project together that has yet to see the light of day, had the name “Choronzon” written in a file of names that we were planning to use for our future music. I can’t claim to know too much about the occult or Aleister Crowley or the Book of Enoch or anything like that, but that world has always interested me to some extent as a person looking in from the outside. For her, it’s a little more personal in one sense, because she has always had a fixation on the numbers “333,” which happen to be the numbers associated with the demon Chronozon. She has “3” “3” “3” tattooed on three of her fingers, and over years and years it has kind of become her lucky number in a way, the number that she constantly sees around her. We acknowledge that this is purely an example of the confirmation bias, where you assign meaning to some number and of course you start seeing it more because you’re paying more attention to that number. It’s a joke for us more than any sort of real belief. We see “333” somewhere and we’re like “wow there it is again!!!”
So the web of random events that led to me remembering Choronzon in this case stemmed from Angel’s file name, and the fact that I had already chosen a piece of Emma’s visual art to use as the album cover, AND Emma’s and my joking interest in the number 333 / the demon Choronzon. The name just seemed especially appropriate for this session of music because Choronzon is said to live in the abyss, to be the demon that destroys your ego, and these themes are important to me, and relevant to this music, which I see as a kind of mental scrubbing and washing-out, like power-washing your brain with constantly buzzing tremolo strings and what could be seen as a harsh and more grating sense of atonality.
The whole album has a clear horror vibe to it, but not any kind of horror – it reminds me of John Carpenter soundtracks, the sort of expressionist terror only achievable through the contrast between “clear” and “dense” synths. Metaphorically speaking, this kind of separation goes against the synthesis of sounds, and yet it is only achieved through it; what kinds of limits were you envisioning this music could perhaps push?
This music was 100% directly inspired by the death of Krzysztof Penderecki. I have loved his music for so long, and love the overt sense of terror and helplessness evoked by his use of atonality, “unpleasant” intervals, as well as the deliberate searching for juxtapositions that make you queasy and unsettled when you listen. I also love Carpenter, of course, and I think he picked up some of what I just described from Penderecki’s music and whatever came before and after it. With Choronzon I was pursuing that sense of dread from the specific intervals and the general sense of atonality and anti-harmonic composition, and I also wanted to try to use only orchestral synth tones, like strings, horns, timpani and other orchestral percussion, and other string instruments that are a couple steps removed from the classic sense of the orchestra, like the electric guitar and the electric bass. All of those pop up in this music. I was trying to resist using more classic synth sounds like sine waves, square waves, etc. — of course all of these waves are used to build the synthetic orchestral tones that I did end up using, but I just wanted to avoid sounds that are overtly “synthy” in favor of tones that are trying to directly mimic instruments. The only limits with this music are those that I imposed on myself, to make something that could be in the neighborhood of an orchestral work that might terrify concert goers in a classical music hall, or that might appear in the soundtrack of a horror movie.
Another aspect that played into this recording was the use of the tape deck, whose hiss is more audible here than anywhere else in these six releases, and which becomes a kind of instrument itself here due to the specific fidelity that it gives all the sounds — especially given that so many of the passages here are pretty sparse, with only one or two voices sounding out, which makes the tape hiss very audible and swell in volume when there are no other sounds to fill that space. I liked the idea of making something that bridges the gap between a full orchestra and a bedroom tape-deck project, which speaks to the notion that technology is more in service of our ideas than vice versa, and that we can use pieces of musical gear for ends that might be typically conceived as being beyond their capacity just by starting with an idea and scheming as to how how we can achieve it with the gear at our disposal.
Choronzon’s quite modernist, in a way, perhaps even from the topic! “Six Parlors” sounds like Schoenberg (feat. Lovecraft), for instance. How much does modernism haunt your music? Have you ever felt like you’re invoking its void-facing presence with your compositions?
Just for the record, I have no love in my heart for Lovecraft, for reasons that hopefully have become obvious over the years. But I love Schoenberg. And I love musical modernism and serialism. I think it’s exciting for me to explore ideas of harmony and structure that were originally proposed by modernists from the perspective of a home recording project because it demonstrates that you don’t need to have a full orchestra on hand, or hyper professional players, to make music today that evokes modernist antecedents. Like, you can just make some nasty sounding atonal music with synthesizers and synthetic orchestral tones in whatever style you want, be it super consonant romantic music or fractured and skewed hell music. I will say that when I was making Choronzon I was not paying attention to the specific theory of whatever harmonies I was playing on the synths, but was going totally by ear, just finding intervals and weird juxtapositions in a more improvised fashion with my hands on the keyboard, and not second guessing myself when I found something that sounded particularly weird or off-putting or foul. That’s not to say that the music here is even as nasty as I could have made it if I put more time into it. It can always get nastier with more time put into it. Most of the feeds of sound that end up in my sampler or source tapes before the final takes are generated in an improvised fashion, with me pouring out sounds from the synths into the sample feeds without ever going back and editing them or erasing certain parts — more like trusting that the first thought is the best thought, and that no one will really be able to tell that I don’t really know anything about the specific harmonies in play. I don’t really consider this a form of bullshitting, more like coming to the table with an idea of a certain mood or atmosphere in mind, and then trying to get there with my fingers on the keyboards. Like, if it sounds “modernist,” then I succeeded, even with a total beginner’s level knowledge of theory. That, to me, is a kind of success in itself because it ties into those previous works and traditions from a more emotional angle than from a theoretical angle.
What kind of a tool is chance for you? Is it like a cutting tool, or is it like a blunt tool, made to perfect shapes, etc.?
Chance and randomization is present in more than half of the music I make. Sometimes I work on tracks that are very specifically programmed and laid out in terms of song structure and when certain samples or tones are introduced. You can hear this on the first two tracks of Deludanoid, which lay out a song structure based on deliberate changes between sets of beats, which I play with melodic / textural samples that are triggered at the “right” time, according to whatever decisions I make with my hands on the gear. This process lays out a take that has more grid-centered beats and samples. The other side of the coin, which I think is more commonplace in my music, is the style of recording a final take where many elements of the music are beyond my control and samples or tones are introduced through randomized processes.
My favorite tactic is to let a scrolling sound source air out from the gear, but to not allow the sounds from that source to hit the final mix in their “dry” form. Instead of letting the feeds from the drum machine or the tape deck or the sampler play out to constitute the final take, I’ll use the stereo looper as a kind of disfiguring last step in the process. Because the dry feed is muted, so you only hear the shorter looped pieces of sound that get plucked from the feed. So the drum machine might be playing a 16 bar pattern that I cant hear, but in the final take with the looper, I end up snatching up shorter bits of that pattern and looping them individually over and over again to create a kind of randomly evolving series of loops. Even though I’m the one triggering when to switch over between different loops and when to cut between different elements of the sound source feed, that hands-on process of switching loops is the only human input in the session.
I love to not hear the dry feed from the sound source, and to only hear the looped bits as they start to pop into the mix. On the one hand, I know exactly what sound source I’m working with and have a good idea of how the sounds will hit the mix. On the other hand, I have no idea about which specific parts of the source feed will end up in the final take, or what kind of rhythms could be created by those elements, so it’s like drawing a ball randomly from the lottery pool and airing it out in the performance. I can standardize this process by syncing the stereo looper to the MIDI clock of the drum machine, so all the loops that randomly pop out of it end up being synced to the beat grid, which gives the illusion of the final take being quantized and steady in its beat structure. You can hear this most directly in tracks like “Sword School Word Chain” from my tape SD Biomix on Orange Milk, “5 Tooth Eel” from my tape Slug Net on Unifactor, or the entire B side of my tape Mem Aleph, all from 2019.
This process gets a little more unhinged when the sound source is something like an unquantized feed from the sampler or a scrolling feed of sounds that I recorded into the tape deck. In these cases, with the dry turned off, you can’t hear the feed itself during the final take, and I myself can’t hear the feed while performing. So, whatever phrases that end up getting looped and highlighted in the final take are totally random.
I think it’s key for me to stay in the mindset that there is no “wrong answer” with this kind of performance style. Anything that happens is pretty good with me, because it came from somewhere beyond what I initially recorded or programmed, so every little flourish or weird structural detour that happens by way of this process is something I embrace. There’s typically no precedent in my imagination or like specific sound goals I have in mind when I make music like this. It’s more about letting the processes run and being surprised by what comes out.
I want to move on to Deludanoid. I just learned the term is sort of like a jokey internet way to refer to someone who’s deluded. I guess it kind of ties back to the “illusion of 3D” – please tell us about the thinking behind this album’s conception.
For this one, I wanted to turn the dial closer to “techno” in all its forms. I feel uneasy using the term techno without quotes here and tend to avoid calling anything I make techno because I have to acknowledge the form’s origins in Detroit, as an elementally black musical form that originated from a specific time period and socioeconomic background that I am so far removed from. I understand that that music isn’t for me to access or tap into in the same way. I feel more comfortable talking about music I make in this vein as a kind of “technoid” style, like, approaching that realm but from a different angle and from a different lived experience.
This style is something I’ve explored on some earlier releases like the only Mukqs LP, which came out on Jim Magas’ label called Midwich Productions, along with some music that came out on Doom Trip on my tapes with them. Those tape releases were more of a grab-bag in terms of styles, but were focused more directly on tracks I made with the drum machine and sampler as the primarily engines. With Deludanoid, I wanted to put together a set of tracks that were at least closer to more beat-heavy stuff, though that kind of gets pushed in different directions. The takes that appear here are drum machine and sampler, and the stereo loop pedal in the case of the track called “Before Icefall” — that song is a re-envisioning of another track I made years ago called “After Icefall,” but I reprogrammed the synths and the drums around the same central theme. “Icefall” refers to the track by Nobukazu Takemura, on his album Scope, which I consider to be an absolutely formative album for me, and that track “Icefall” in particular. I would say that “Icefall” contains the initial seeds of a lot of Mukqs music, in terms of its constantly shifting and clipped tones, its glitchy treatment of synth voices, and its disfiguring processing strategies that seem randomized / chance based but also melodic, generating some semblance of harmony from what seems to be a more chopped & skewed process.
The track “Ephemerol” was more directly inspired by electro music like Drexciya, Aphex Twin around the RDJ album, and 90s trance music in various forms. I guess my goal with that one was to make a structurally linear piece of music that moved between different segments without ever repeating itself. The track “Warning High Cube” was directly inspired by the music of Loraine James, particularly the newest album on Hyperdub called For You And I. Her music is full of these absolutely mind-melting beat structures that seem to be unquantized from the beat grid, and have percussion and glitched-out synth elements that seem to land outside of the beat, but also create their own kind of unique grid due to the way that they’re chopped, looped, and repeated over time. That angle appears mostly in the more subdued interludes in the track, which use granular effects processing and arrhythmic beat elements that seem to conform into some weird grid of their own making.
The track “Sunako Derby” was my attempt to make something in a more polyrhythmic style, with looping mallet percussion elements and basslines that intersect in a more staggered rhythmic pattern. This was inspired by the music from the catalog of one of my favorite labels, Príncipe Discos from Portugal, and the music of Foodman, who many of my friends and I see as a kind of patron saint of freak beat music — and who I also consider to personally be a friend of mine, though I’ve only spent one (amazing) night in his company when he visited Chicago to play a show. His palette of more artificial MIDI tones, almost carnivalesque humorous timbres, and high-BPM beat structures that are like a skewed version of Chicago footwork are always a constant inspiration.
Deludanoid felt more aggressive, and more dancey, but also sometimes kind of sweet. What listening context were you thinking of here? Should we dance, or should we close our eyes and lay still?
This is hard for me to really address because I think that it can serve any purpose that listeners want it to. Some people listen to dance-focused production in a state of meditation, and some really only get into it when it’s blaring from a PA in a venue setting. I think both of these are totally acceptable ways of getting into the music, and I myself tap into both of them all the time. Of course, more recently there has been no opportunity to hear live music in a venue, but I’ve played tracks like these in a more live dance setting in the past and it was so much fun. If you get into dancing in your own home with the music blasting loud, that’s amazing. It’s hard for me to do that at this point because we live in an apartment surrounded by neighbors and we very rarely play music from speakers.
This album also gives me a pretext to ask you about a favorite thing of mine I know you share: videogame music. How do you channel all that experience and listening to game music in your work? Does it give you another avenue for sound synthesis, in a way?
Now we’re getting into something that I could talk about for hours on end. VGM was my earliest exposure to music that I could consider a major part of my identity and something that inspired me to get into making music in general and making electronic music especially. Some of my earliest recordings as Mukqs, like the album Walkthrough, were my attempt at making something that resembled the music from the Earthbound soundtrack, or the works of Nobuo Uematsu from the Final Fantasy series. These are only two touchstones from an endless ocean of VGM that I’ve loved over the years, and that I still continue to listen to for pleasure all the time. I don’t know how well I succeeded at channeling those influences, and I don’t know how much I love that album now listening back to it, but it feels very sentimental to me in a way because it was an attempt to channel the melodies and emotions present in VGM into a context that was maybe closer to what I was into at the time, which was live synth / drone / ambient performance.
I can’t overstate enough how important VGM is to me and how fully it informs the music I make, especially in terms of the palette of tones that I return to when I make tracks, sourced from the Yamaha keyboard, the Roland Sound Canvas 88, and the Electribe drum machine, which all skew towards a more flat, 16-bit sound palette and often mimic orchestral instruments, rock instruments, and tones from the general MIDI library. These are tones that I consider some of the most sacred and special to me — the uncanny valley where synth tones try to approximate other instruments, but end up not quite getting there, and yet have so much value in the context of their almost-getting-there. This palette of tones is also all over 90s R&B production with all of its synthetic acoustic guitar, harp, and percussion tones, so in a way those tones bridge multiple eras of music that I deeply love and that I explored and was inspired by when I was a kid.
Something I’ll say about VGM is that it makes so much out of such little time. From a composing standpoint it requires extreme attention to detail and dense melodic planning, and is structured with so many tightly packed turns of phrase and atmosphere, all of which had to be programmed in a relatively limited computer interface. The economy of space used in VGM, with a 1 or 2 minute passage of melodies that moves so quickly through ideas, is a kind of ideal that I personally have never been able to capture. This is something that requires so much dedication and melodic intelligence, knowledge of how certain structures, chords, or scales can trigger emotions when juxtaposed against each other, and a general approach to musical structure that might mean hours and days and weeks of composition that might only end up manifesting as a 10 second passage of music. I’ve never been able to really reproduce this in my composition process, so although there might be tones that evoke VGM and some melodies that appear that are adjacent to that world, I can never claim that I’m really operating in that world. That being said, I think my main goal is to translate some of the tonal palettes of VGM, and the fast-paced structural changes of VGM, into my music, even if those elements don’t hit in such a compact or efficient way over the course of any of my individual tracks.
Your last responses dealt with this little interstice of the “almost something”, or “similar to something”, whose importance seems to be underplayed in experimental music almost by definition. What lessons, so to speak, are there to be found in that space? For instance, there’s a preoccupation in VGM for recognition, like, they’re almost art, or the music is almost serious.
Thinking about video game music in this context, so much of that style’s struggle for legitimacy or acknowledgement within both experimental circles and the academic world stems from the nature of how people experience or listen to it, and what “kind” of people they tend to be in the minds of many artists and listeners. To some people working in the fringes, the idea that something like video game music could have value might be totally foreign because the kind of people that constitute its audience are like, for lack of a better term, “normies,” or even worse, they’re like 4chan trolls or people with regressive edgelord mindsets. In truth 4chan trolls and edgelords only represent a relatively tiny percentage of the people who play video games. Video games’ audience isn’t a monolith, and so many different people experience or relate with them in different ways and at different levels of intensity. But I would say that some conception otherwise often prevents musicians from engaging with that world, even on the most basic level of its sounds and ideas, which I think is a huge shame.
I think the incorporation of styles or ideas that are “almost” one thing but come from somewhere outside of the direct circle of experimental styles and might be generally frowned upon is one of the tactics that makes music grow and change most directly. I think the raw sound elements of styles like, for example, video game music, Billboard pop music, anime and film soundtracks, etc., have a lot to offer the experimental community in terms of introducing tones, song structures, and levels of fidelity / production detail that might not be heard in that context often. Then the question becomes “is it still experimental if it’s harnessing ideas from a more mainstream context? Doesn’t that ‘cheapen’ it or contradict the general aim of experimentation?” I would say definitely not. All sounds have value and have something to teach musicians, and listeners. All sounds and styles can be warped or recontextualized through experimentation to thrill and surprise listeners, to make them think in new directions, to offer a contrast to a norm — and I think that any contrast, even if its the contrast of “mainstream” sounds versus “fringe” sounds, has the potential to teach people and invigorate them.
Specular seems to me to deal with “soft” extremes, in the sense that it is often noisy, but also often quite subdued, and not in a contrasting way, but a harmonious one. If this feeling of “mirroring” is more or less on the right track as an interpretation, what kinds of extremes are you handling in this album?
While my overarching angle for these releases was to present single servings that more or less stay within a certain stylistic framework, Specular was my attempt at more overt juxtapositions and weird digressions within the context of one release. I appreciate that you think it sounds harmonious because I wasn’t sure if it could ever be read like that. It follows a kind of modified sonata form where the dubby ambient tracks serve as the beginning and the end, while the middle tracks have a more chaotic development that takes the listener to more out-there destinations. The idea of “extremes” appears here for sure, and it’s worth noting that this was earlier in my six week schedule of releases, so I was still feeling out the overall approach to each individual release. I like how this one does move between styles within a more compact timeline because it ends up feeling like the most grab-bag entry in the series, but I think the narrative makes some twisted sense in its own way and I like the idea of listeners traveling to a series of disparate stations along the route.
I really cannot take my ears away from “Spin Cloth” and the transition to “A Looking Glass”. It’s such a great pairing! The fiery free jazz tone of the earlier is promptly tempered (but not shut down) by the latter’s impressionistic build-up: it’s such a wonderful transformation. The question that follows is: what surprising similarities and differences do you find when juxtaposing different musical “languages”, so to speak? Is it possible to transform any music into another (maybe even one extreme into another), or do you think there are limits to what an experimentalist can do in this regard?
I think it boils down to the nature of the tones on display in any given track. “Spin Cloth” focused on a palette of more mimetic tones in the realms of jazz horn, drum kit, and bass guitar / upright bass, all of which fall into the category of like “real life” instruments. My goal with that track, which actually originated in samples I recorded over a year ago that never found a logical home in other Mukqs albums, was to draw up a free jazz track with randomized and more atonal harmonies, but to take one step back from that tradition by airing out improvised individual performances on these more mimetic voices. The way that the voices / samples intersect here is totally chance-based, so any rhythms that might seem to appear in the way the drums interact with the melodic voices is purely coincidental. The rapid-fire piano solos were inspired by Cecil Taylor’s playing style. I wanted to follow his inspiration into the territory of more synthetic piano tones, while still staying within the style of a hands-on-keyboard live performance. Maybe this is why this track feels like a natural lead-in to the solo piano performance of “A Looking Glass” – both of them highlight instances of me just jamming out on a piano of some sort, though “Spin Cloth” is way more synthetic than the live voicenote-app-recorded performance on “A Looking Glass.” I recorded the latter on a piano at a friend’s house using my phone, and put that performance into the banks of the sampler, while also making other samples from it that were more glitched-out and fragmented. The final performance is me triggering the original samples alongside the processed glitchy samples, kind of recreating the original performance as a duet between my hands and the later layer of effecting and warping.
This talk of bringing different things together leads me to Frieze. Friezes are usually quite abstract, even at their most narrative, and tend towards clear decorative patterns. Is there a connection between the concept of the frieze, the abstractly mathematical-yet-surreal track names, and the soundscape quality of the music?
As much as love the art of friezes, I also took this album name from the same blog of google-translated wallpapering techniques, and I was drawn to it for this one for the easy homophone connection to the word “freeze.” (UGH, I know) This release has an icier and more subdued quality than the other ones in the series. Then when I went back to the same site to find track names a few days later, I found that it had somehow been taken down or erased from the same URL where I previously found it. This kinda made sense in the trajectory of these releases because it goes along with the impermanence of digital files and websites, and the fact that any given online resource might suddenly vanish at any moment. Maybe this vanishing plays into Frieze, which has the most glitchy and unpredictable audio treatments of any of these releases, even though it also has the calmest and most formless exterior. Because the wallpaper blog was down (lol), and because I couldn’t really think of any other external source that would be appropriate to provide names for these more formless pieces, I found a text randomizer and had it spew out short clusters of text with chance-based letters, numbers, and symbols, and picked ones that looked interesting to me. This is kind of a nod to Autechre and Aphex Twin track titles, which often end up looking like jumbled bunches of code, but it also plays into the randomized origin of the track titles on all the other releases, which came from a source that essentially served as a text generator, but with more legible results.
The glitch seems to be fundamental to this Frieze. In visual terms, the “silence” or the blank space is fundamental to understanding the pattern; is the glitch doing this kind of work? Or is it more about breaking up those patterns? what role does repetition play in this album? What does the glitch do to it?
The process that resulted in the final take of Frieze involved more steps of re-sampling and re-scrambling than any of the other releases. The original take that served as the source material was pretty serene and uninterrupted synth performances generally taking the form of long droning tones, wispy pad voices, ringing chime voices, and, towards the end, those washes of horns and drum sounds. I took that original performance and fed it through the stereo looper as a way to warp and scramble it, and then took the result of that process and fed it back through in the same way. I did this re-scrambling six times, I think. The moments where the sound cuts out or becomes clipped were created by killing the sound on my mixer as the feed went through in various levels of this scrambling. I would say that this piece is the most structurally unchanging entry in the series. It doesn’t really move too far from where it begins, and kind of hangs in a state of stasis for most of its running time — though there are clear moments marked by the movement between tracks where certain new voices or textures enter that shift the atmosphere one step in another direction. The presence of the glitching and the introduction of those silences is itself a kind of narrative disruptor that adds an extra element of chaos to the mix and prevents any given passage from getting too droned out or staying too still. The instances of repetition that appear are the by-product of the multi-step processing, where each time I fed the feed back through the stereo looper, it resulted in passages where one two-second bit of sound would be looped a few times before scrolling through to the next segment. I liked the idea of those loops forming a kind of consistency in the recording, and the glitching being the force that resists that consistency.
About Antistatic, I guess it’s “almost” a noise album, and I want to tie it to your answers regarding Frieze. Is it possible to listen to it as the “anti-Frieze”? For instance, are the roles of the loops and the glitching reversed? What would the difference be between this kind of super-stimulative fragmentation and the one we can listen to in Frieze and the others?
I think about Antistatic in relation to noise conventions in a few different contexts. It contains distorted, clipped, and abrasive tones, and heavily fragmented scrambled percussion elements that fall into the harsher realms of noise and industrial music. The presence of these types of sounds, however brief it is, might turn off someone who puts the music on. The glitching and randomized sampling aspects of this release have a more spastic, cut-up element to them, and the music is structurally linear, with no sounds or rhythms that repeat at any point after they’re introduced. I think for me, what sets it apart is the staccato nature of the sounds that appear, the fact that individual blips and drum beats appear in little servings and never really repeat after they hit the mix in some form. I owe this structure to my randomized stereo looping process, which I used to take the scrolling feed of a tape on my 4-track and actively process, loop, and fragment the feed as the sounds continue to change rapidly between vocabularies.
I think this release differs from Frieze and others in this series because the timeline of how sounds are introduced and how long they stay in the mix after appearing doesn’t leave any time for contemplation or a feeling of sinking in. The goal is to make listeners have to keep moving, like walking across a bed of hot coals — if you never stay in one place for too long, it doesn’t burn you, though it might have the potential to do so if you stopped for a second and let the burn sink in. I would say that the album is goofy though, too. It’s more goofy than harsh. Even when it enters the noisier moments, it has a kind of slapstick quality to it, with sounds that imitate popping bubbles, moaning animals, glitched voice samples, and drum tones that have an almost 80s-ish preset quality to them. It’s like a clown falling into a drum kit and flopping around for a while as the red nose honks and the horns bleat. I can think of no better sound aesthetic to aspire to than that, to be honest.
Can you tell us what kind of work we can expect in the near future?
By the time this piece runs, my new album Head Grid Terminal will be up on Bandcamp. I’m donating 100% of the proceeds from this album, for its entire existence on Bandcamp, to black community mutual aid and BLM-related causes. Promoting anything other than direct assistance to the black community right now seems wrong. The government’s despicable crackdown on protests against racism and police brutality which seek the dismantling of racist power structures is unpardonable. I stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and those protesting for justice, and demand with them that killers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless, countless other people do not go unpunished. More than that, the institutions that lead to the normalization of racist murder, including the militarized police state and Trump’s administration in general (really all of US politics in general, with a few rare exceptions), cannot be allowed to continue to exist. If you support the racist, fascist, dissent-quelling actions of the government and the police, now or ever, you’re on the wrong side of history and, on a personal note, fuck you, don’t listen to my music.
Thank you very much for your time and the considered responses!