This article was originally written for Poor But Sexy, an arts and culture magazine published twice yearly in Toronto. Massive thanks to Landon for his photos, and for accompanying me to Tonetta HQ. Click each page for a larger image, and enjoy!
For all the naysayers claiming Mutek is a fun-deprived festival for po-faced chin strokers, this year’s programming provided plenty of evidence to the contrary. The truth of the matter is that the 12th annual electronic music spectacle now contains enough diversity that anyone and everyone can find something to enjoy. From Amon Tobin’s gob-smacking stage show (pictured above) to the twisted toys of the Fab Gadgets showcase and decidedly un-Mutek Psychonautic Surfers event, it might even have topped 2010 in terms of surprises.
The late, great Lester Bangs once claimed he listened to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music once a week, obliterating everything else heard in the days preceding. Mika Vaino’s set on the opening night of the A/Visions series had a similar effect, as the former member of Finnish industrialists Pan Sonic cranked through an abstract array of dentist drill squalls and electronic chainsaws to the face, dropping down to the darkest depths of the bass cave. Raster-Noton duo Emptyset matched the mood perfectly with their trunk-rattling low end, heavy throbs and waves of white noise, yet nothing could overshadow Vaino’s attack on the senses.
Jerusalem-born Badawi kicked off the first Nocturne dance party with a mix of dark and banging electro, clearly enjoying every moment behind the decks while sporting an afro, sunglasses and an evil grin. London’s Gold Panda got off to a slow start but soon delivered on his excellent recordings with a glistening set of beats pumping through Metropolis’s top-notch sound system. Finally, hometown hero Amon Tobin unveiled his highly anticipated Isam live show, with the man himself at the controls of a stage-spanning 3D Tetris castle. Perfectly choreographed to match the music’s rapid shifts with colourful projections and exploding spacecrafts, it was a gamer’s fantasy soundtracked by mechanical breaks.
Following Sutekh’s interesting but overlong piece for automated piano, day two’s A/Visions showcase kicked into high gear with the world premier of Comaduster’s audio/visual piece, Scrape. Backed by striking images of microscopic close-ups and towering flames, the Edmonton-based multi-talent swam into washes of ambience and twitching techno. Lastly, the hotly tipped team-up of Mexican producer Murcof and Simon Geilfus of ‘visual label’ AntiVJ offered a sensory overload of glitching hiccups and screen-popping images of mutated pixels.
Montreal dream-drone duo Sundrips provided the ideal opening act for the Psychonatic Surfers showcase, and it was fantastic to hear their cosmic synths and guitar flickers on a high-end sound system. Fellow locals the Organ Mood were slightly less impressive, yet their squelching tunes on the titular instrument and analog projections are at the very least a unique and well-matched combo.
Hazy UK experimentalists Hype Williams were perhaps the most… hyped?… act of the night, and while their captivating performance lived up to the group’s recordings/reputation, it also left just as many questions unanswered. In their North American live debut, the core duo of Roy Blunt and Inga Copeland filled the room with a creeper ambience of Lynchian nightclub proportions plus a healthy dose of ’90s pop deconstruction, wobbly sounds of unrecognizable origin and muffled vocals in multiple languages. The future of mysterious music rests safely in the hands of this pair.
The Sun Araw Band, captained by Cameron Stallones, were equally vibe-changing, transforming the Société des arts technologiques (SAT) into a steamy tropical jungle. Though the electronic beats may have skipped slightly off-course, the group’s expanded jams — aided by wah pedal and an Indian banjo à la the Flower-Corsano Duo — were a blast.
However, it was San Francisco’s Arp who stole the show with his blissful washes of Moog, soft bass hits and flickers of guitar. The visuals projected on three wall-sized screens were an ideal complement, as they flipped through vintage commercials of sun-drenched nostalgia and movie moments ranging from Solaris to Koyaanisqatsi. Easily the most entrancing performance of the night, if not the whole festival.
SAT beckoned us back the following afternoon for the Fab Gadgets showcase, and proved to be yet another highlight. Local collective Women With Kitchen Appliances kicked off the proceedings with their deadpan deconstruction of ’50s gender roles, dressed in matching aprons and wigs while armed with a table of titular trinkets. Clearly relishing every moment of the performance while feeding off the audience’s puzzled reactions, the armada of irony maidens clanked, plucked and slammed their chosen cooking wares at exaggerated volumes thanks to the finest of contact mics. The climax was a steak knife jammed into a blender to create a shower of sparks inches from those in the front row. Fun stuff.
Tristan Perich’s ‘1-bit Symphony’ pushed microchips to ecstatic heights, yet it was British duo Sculptures who seemed to be having the most fun of all. Dressed like a pair of shaggy street-corner glam rock magicians, they blasted through a dynamic set of improvised sounds and visuals on set-ups that likely only make sense to them. As one member spooled tape loops together at seemingly random intervals to create a Frankensteinian collage of bleeps and skips, the other spun colourful images on a turntable equipped with a camera together to create kaleidoscopic eye candy. Catch these guys live if you ever have the chance, and prepare for a wholly unique trip.
Later that night, Vancouver’s Babe Rainbow smoked out the Savoy room upstairs at Metropolis with a head-spinning set of soft focus electronics and cough syrup hip-hop beats. Perfect for sitting down, getting lost in the haze and losing track of your surroundings. Back to reality, it was time to drop down to the dancefloor and cut a rug with Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet). Once again, the venue’s sound system delivered a stunning array for the setlist plucking crowd favourite cuts from throughout his discography. Yet the peak came early on with an extended version of recent single “Love Cry”, throbbing and bobbing through its massive drops and re-entries. The party likely raged on into the wee hours thanks to headliner James Holden, but this felt like a fitting note to end on. See you next year…
Landon Speers’ recollections:
A real surprise for most of us who’d not hear much from him before the festival, Anstam blew some minds with his brand of melodically dark industrial dance jams. Think Raster-Noton meets Burial.
Despite apparently just rocking a DJ set for his Mutek debut, Siriusmo made hips sway and people groove opening up the Modeselektor night while playing crowd favourites from 2011’s Mosaik full-length.
FaltyDL opened his set with some great ’90s feeling dance music, piano house and all, then ended with some garage oriented cuts. Drawing on sounds from a lot of different places, he tied them all together and shifted from influence to influence while keeping people’s attention — a tricky task to accomplish.
While not breaking any new ground with 2011’s performance, Mutek veterans Modeselektor did in fact bring the ruckus and keep everyone very happy with their signature brand of techno and oversized personalities.
Face to face and in printed interview, the electronic musician known as Gold Panda (or his first name Derwin) exudes a shy and unassuming personality with just the softest undercurrent of deadpan sarcasm. As a self-described homebody still coming to terms with live performance, he’s often seen onstage avoiding the eyes of the audience while tucked beneath a hood and lost in the laptop glare. Yet listening to the brightly chiming beats and junk shop’s worth of his samples on his debut album Lucky Shiner or healthy smattering of EPs, singles and remixes, he radiates a vibrant spectrum of sounds often lacking in the steely minimalism of his peers. It’s kind of like your quiet co-worker tossing off his glasses and throwing down a Freddie Mercury falsetto at the karaoke bar when you least expect it. We met up with Derwin in the dusty alley behind Metropolis for an impromptu chat and windswept photo shoot.
Texture Magazine: I’ve heard that you started out making music on an Amiga video game system and a sampler. Do you remember any games in specific that you were playing back then? And were you inspired by the music in the games?
Gold Panda: It was an Atari that I made music on actually, though I did have an Amiga as well. What was I playing? I played Cannon Fodder and another one called Moonstone. That was the one where you go around chopping people’s heads off and fighting tree monsters, while you try to find a stone or something. A moonstone, I guess. Some of the music in those games inspired me, but it was actually the console itself that I was interested in, along with the Super Nintendo. I played a lot of Streets of Rage and I was always a big fan of Street Fighter. The music in the Mario games was always good too.
You’ve also mentioned in the past how your music is very visual, inspired by different settings, images and environments, yet here at Mutek you’re playing without any kind of visual accompaniment. Would you rather have listeners create their own interpretations?
I’ve had visuals on tour in the past, though I’ve heard people say it takes away from the music if you have something to watch. It’s more like a film that way. I’d like to work with visuals more, but I don’t really know what I’m doing on my own, so it’d be good to collaborate with someone else. I don’t have anything this time though, so people won’t have that to complain about at least (laughs).
You’ve given lots of nods to the Raster-Noton label, which many people consider to be cold and calculated quote unquote “computer music.” Conversely, I’ve always thought the music you make is much brighter, with an emotional and very human undercurrent. What is about music on the opposite end of the spectrum that interests you?
It’s mainly because I can’t make that music, and don’t even really understand how it’s made. That’s interesting to me. Any music that leaves you wondering how it’s done, I find really clever. I like Alva Noto, I like that Frank Bretschneider guy, and they also signed this guy named Grischa Lichtenberger who’s pretty crazy. Everything on that label is interesting, whether it’s digestible or not. It’s often pretty difficult, but it always seems to work somehow.
One other thing I’ve read is that you dislike performing live. Is that still the case?
I just don’t feel comfortable, I guess. Before I started playing live, I was making music in my room and just staring at the wall. Even now I don’t really look at the crowd much. It’s weird with electronic music, but I feel a bit better about playing Mutek because there are more people with laptops. The last time I was in Montreal I was supporting the L.A. band Health, and that was kind of hard. As soon as you come onstage without a guitar and just some machines, people get scared or something. Other times you totally win people over though, which is great. The best part about playing with a laptop is that you don’t have to worry about luggage. It’d be more fun to bring all my favourite samplers with me, but also much more stressful.
Your music is primarily based on samples, and you’ve mentioned digging through record shops and flea markets to find interesting source materials. Do you find yourself listening to the music you sample, or is it more just a hunt for interesting sounds?
It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I find a record that’s just terrible, but it’ll have really good sounds on it. In that case, I won’t really listen to it more than once, but at least it’s entertaining. In other times, I’ll find something great that I don’t want to sample because it’s just too good and I feel like I’d ruin it.
What’s the craziest record you’ve ever found through digging?
I’ve got some religious records that are pretty cool. They’ve got stories about things like a guy smoking a spliff, climbing up a three-story building and falling to his death, that sort of thing. Sometimes it gets even more extreme, like a guy cutting up his dog and eating it raw! (laughs) It’s actually frustrating though because when I’m traveling I’ll often pop into record shops and find something crazy but then realize I have no way of carrying it with me. Someone should start a service for musicians where they can buy records and then just ship them home. As it is, I try to avoid record shops on the road.
Last question: It’s fairly well known that you used to work in a sex shop, and you’ve also spoken of making films, comics and other various media. Have you ever thought about chronicling your seedy stories from behind the counter in one of those formats?
Not really, and I’d actually rather leave those days behind. It was a low point in my life. I should have documented it at the time though. I do have a CV that someone who wanted to work there handed in. The store is called Harmony and they actually do their own pornos. They have auditions, so this guy listed off all the things he was good at, one of which was ‘sensual muff diving.’ I should find that actually, block out the name and email address, and post it up somewhere. It’s brilliant.