When punk was replaced by new wave slash post-punk slash no wave slash whateveryoulikedtocalleditbackthen, the most fascinating thing was that the music certainly was as wild and intense as the one it has risen from - yet it was basically impossible to pin down the sonic palette of this new sound. Bands like Minimal Compact, Chrome, Tuxedomoon or Clock DVA, to name just a few, all executed music very differently even though they shared the same desire for seriousness, mystery and deconstructing musical norms. The appetite for destruction got intellectualized and the resulting sonic insanity went way beyond the understanding and boundaries of what a single genre could offer. Now, some forty years later, celebrated DJ/producer Matias Aguayo picks up the threads, an underrated avant-garde has left behind.
If Twin Peaks’ “The Roadhouse“ wasn’t located in some remote piece of woodlands, but in a condemned building on the periphery of a giant, faceless industrial city, then Aguayo’s new group The Desdemonas would be its celebrated in-house band. On their debut album “Sofarnopolis“ Aguayo and his companions celebrate a haunting phonetic eclecticism that isn’t trying to meticulously reproduce a specific sound, but in fact is a heartfelt bow to their own musical socialization that’s manifested in a time where music wasn’t just an omnipresent accessory but something essential to break up the narrowness of your own four walls. Lodown had the chance to catch up with Matias Aguayo in early September.
It’s been more than a year since you played a gig with The Desdemonas in Berlin... what was the reason that it took another year to get the album out?
We’ve actually been on tour twice already last year since it was really important for us to play the music without having any kind of release out yet. When you’re on tour, when you play live, so many things are still happening to the songs... and even though we’d already finished a few tracks at that point, we returned to the studio in order to work on them again. Certain ideas just got more elaborate while we were playing live - and obviously we also played a lot better together after a while. I generally really like these specific moments when you’re playing music that hasn’t been released yet, when you’re in a position to actually surprise people with things they don’t know. Last year around that time, we didn’t really know where we’d release the album... the only thing I was sure about was that it would not happen on my own label Cómeme nor on any of the labels I’ve worked with in the past. I think I was looking for a platform that already brings a lot of experience to the table in terms of actually working with bands, a platform that’s musically a lot more open than your average dance label.
But then your old friends at Kompakt could’ve been the right address, don’t you think?
(laughs) Yes, indeed... but in this particular case Crammed Discs is an even better one.
You’ve formed a band for this new project, you did the cover artwork as well as the first video... it seems as if this is a major affair of the heart for you, as if you’ve actually been pregnant with “Sofarnopolis“ for quite some time.
Yes and no. Things finally got put in concrete terms within the last two years, I’d say... to play with a band, the desire to actually establish this band, to rid myself of the DJ booth. I mean my DJ-sets already have this kind of performative character, it’s an enhanced DJ-set where I use a mic, where I play live, where I create this show. In the past I already had several small band projects, so playing with The Desdemonas is something almost crucial for me, you know, to be able to refine myself as a musician, to develop and act out a stronger performative side of mine. The whole thing basically started when I moved back to Cologne, where I rented a small room for two weeks at an old friend of mine, with the intention to work on new music that doesn’t need to be released first and foremost... it was more important to be completely free, more important to not spend too much thought on the creative process. I think the most significant aspect was to lose myself in new operations, and that’s actually something I really try to embrace with every new project - using instruments and procedures that feel strange and unusual, that I don’t know too much about. In this particular case: working without a computer. I mean, I brought a few effect devices, a drum machine, a mic and a keyboard with me and during these two weeks where I locked myself away, I did completely free music... which in a way brought me back to my teenage years, which actually was an overall positive feeling.
With what kind of music did you actually grow up?
During my high school years, I was living in Oberberg... in Gummersbach, to be precise. Living in that province at the time, it obviously wasn’t too easy to get your hands on exciting new music, so I started to record these tapes - not classic playlists, they had more of a show character. I recorded a lot from the radio, specific late-night programs where they played a lot of new wave and avant-garde. I also recorded quite a lot of short wave noise and it all ended up in this kind of collage format I enjoyed doing back then. I was discovering bands like Tuxedomoon - who release on Crammed as well - and based on this kind of music, mixed with this weird high frequency noise, I was somehow cobbling my own music. The situation I got myself into, being in this small room for two weeks with no computer, definitely transported me back to those days... and during this period the very basic structure of the majority of the tracks you hear on the album was built. Even though it was early stages, I already knew that this needed to played with a band - regardless of the fact that I wasn’t fully aware of the emerging reference system at that point. (laughs) When I listen to music today that felt highly significant when I was younger it sounds so very different compared to the actual memory I had of the music. And maybe The Desdemonas can be perfectly summed up like that: it’s the memory of a particular music which doesn’t sound the way I had in mind while looking back on it today.
Is it frustrating or comforting when you consciously rediscover music, which then eclipsed itself as something entirely different compared to how you originally perceived it?
(laughs) Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating... but for the most part the songs you connected to in the past are still good, even though they probably trigger something entirely different in the meantime. Also, since I wasn’t aware at all of how music gets produced or how particular drum machines sounded back then, I classified and located music entirely differently. Today, I know a lot about how music gets produced... and sometimes this automatically implies something of a de-mystifying process. It’s the imagination in itself that often turns out to be the most decisive and stimulating factor, don’t you think?
So would you say that you’ve come full circle with “Sofarnopolis“... also bearing in mind that Tuxedomoon are now labelmates of yours?
Yeah, you can say that! Personally, for me it’s a very satisfying story that you’re able to do this kind of time travel, that you’re able to develop this continuity where in retrospect you realize that you stayed true to yourself in one way or another... and maybe even more importantly: that you can still communicate with the kid you once were. This is one of the truths I was able to extract from this project... and from this fantasy it originated from. It’s almost like this kind of doppelgänger situation where you meet yourself in a different timeline, not being able to imagine how the future would possibly look.
I remember that it took ages for Crammed to get back to me after I sent them some music... I almost forgot about it, to be honest. But suddenly Marc Hollander, definitely a personal hero of mine, gave me a call, we arranged a meeting in Berlin, and from that point, things actually started to evolve quite quickly.
Would you say that “Sofarnopolis“ is flirting with the idea of concept albums?
Not really, no. I’m not working conceptually in the classic sense, since I never imagine an overall picture from the beginning... I hardly ever design something consciously. It’s more like an expedition, on which I play the passerby addressing situations where I inevitably will find something... at least that’s how I work on the lyrics. The way I feel in the studio is also of major importance, the atmosphere you create there through light - or if you can hear birds’ twittering from the outside.
In the beginning things most definitely are high on improvisation, vague musical decisions... a certain technique that I already used on one of my former records comes into action to bring the bass frame to the next level. Let me explain: I start to sing in English, but it’s more like a chant performed in a weird pseudo-English... a close friend of mine, who’s a native speaker, and I then try to decode what I actually sang. Often it comes close to an interpretation, which I like, because it is a lot more intuitive than conceptual... (laughs) and that’s how a lot of the wondrous lyrics materialize. And the way the illustrations came together is very similar: as we mixed the album in the studio, I needed a new task to sink my teeth in while our engineer was doing his job...
Sorry to interrupt, but I’m actually surprised that you didn’t mix the album yourself. I thought it must be really difficult for you to just sit in the director’s chair while someone else is in charge of the final polish?
(laughs) Not at all... as a matter of fact I like it. In the past I mixed a few records myself but had to come to the conclusion that the final result often sounds a lot better when someone else is lending one’s ear. I’m wouldn’t consider myself being a good mixing engineer, there are other people who can do that a lot better... and letting more gifted people taking over I’m coming a lot closer to achieve the result I actually had in mind. Anyway, obviously I was sitting right next to the engineer while he’s doing his work, and I needed something to do on the side which isn’t distracting me too much though... and that’s how I started to draw again. I call a huge affection for underground comics and graphic novels my own, and I realized that some of the characters I drew emerged in different situations... up to the point where a kind of story suddenly unfolded. The way the tile “Sofarnopolis“ came together was a similar one. Inevitably you’ll reacht he point where you have to ask yourself about the actual title of the album... during an early take I sang/mumbled something that sounded like “so far no police“. If you repeat this phrase really quickly it almost sounds like an ancient Greek city that hasn’t been discovered to date. besides characters, I also drew a lot of different skylines, and that’s how, slowly but steadily, this picture of a town manifested itself. (laughs) I hope this somehow makes sense and explains the procedure behind this album at least a little? In the end it always comes down to this: I truly believe to achieve a lot more as soon as I start to conceive the whole thing as a discovery journey, and not as something conceptual where you put way too much thought in it before you even played a single note.
Where does your illustrative talent actually root from?
I’ve always been drawing... my mom is a graphic designer/artist, so I did grow up surrounded by crayons and colours. I’ve never really focused on it though, I never was too ambitious about it even though I also did a few cover artworks for my label Cómeme. In the case of “Sofarnopolis“ it was the matter of a few friends encouraging me to deliberately put things into practice this time around...and ultimately it felt like a very organic process. As it was time to do a video, an animated one felt like the logical conclusion - I really really liked the vid Tom of Finland did for DJ Hell and wanted to do something with a similar vibe. Little did I know about how time-consuming it actually is to realize a video like that. I did the majority of drawings while I was heavily touring, mostly in planes. After I landed in a different city, I was looking for a place to scan the drawings in order to send the result to my friend who did the actual animation. I was drawing for weeks, which I actually really enjoyed since I love to engage myself with something new, especially things that I wouldn’t consider myself being good at. In doing so you suddenly start to realize things - about yourself and your work - that finally surprise yourself again. As I said earlier, that’s the exact reason why I like to change my working method with every new release... using different programs and different instruments. We all know the stories of artists that released a thrilling debut.. and that’s about it. Everything that followed already sounded formulaic... which is understandable to a certain extend because what’s wrong with convenience, right? I like to force myself into situations though, where I feel like a complete rookie. Restrictions and difficulties can trigger some seriously creative impulses, I believe.
Usually people tend to run in the other direction as soon as they’ve reached this point...
Maybe this results from the fact that I started to do music at a very early age... with very little equipment. (laughs)When you borrow a four-track recorder things tend to be rather limited. But I think it is very exciting to try your best to canalize all your ideas into four tracks. I’m getting rather doubting when people tell me about the endless possibilities certain new programs offer.
When you realized that the music needs to be played by a band, how long did it actually take to find the right people that fully understood your vision?
Not that long actually, since the band members either got introduced to me through close friends - or I’ve worked with them already. Gregorio Gomez plays guitar, and I’ve already worked with him in Columbia for a project on Cómeme. Back then I already played very early bits to him and we immediately clicked and brought the music to the next level. Matteo Scimali plays drums and he got introduced to me through a mutual friend… he’s one of those drummers that always looks for a new and special sound. Finally Henning Specht on keyboards, who I already knew through his band Hypno Love.
As you did mention earlier, your DJ-sets already are pretty performative... did the transition to being the frontman of a band feel kinda big nevertheless?
Not really, as I’ve already played in bands before. As a teenager I also played a lot of theater so being on stage never really felt too alien to me.
I was wondering if you hand-picked Trevor Jackson for doing the dub version for the “Cold Fever“ single?
Trevor and I have known each other for a very long time and we’ve always supported each other’s music a lot... he’s one of the few people with whom I basically do a kind of creative exchange on a constant level. He also did the cover artwork for my “Ay Ay Ay“ album, so yes, asking him to do a dub version actually was a no-brainer. To start this new musical chapter of mine with a 7“ is also the result of a shared idea of ours. I really admire his musical frankness... the same I can say about guys like Andrew Weatherall or the Optimo guys. I guess, that’s why we’re playing together quite often.
So would you say that Matias Aguayo & The Desdemonas is much more than just a single album project?
There will definitely be more music, and I definitely would love to devote more time to this project... luckily, the other guys involved feel the same way. I mean, I obviously love this whole club-thing I’m doing, but I also know that it would never really completely satisfy me. The music we do under this moniker actually is very danceable, don’t you think? Some songs are a bit slow, maybe, but everything is driven by a groove that a few adventurous DJs might even integrate in their sets. I think our music definitely encourages you to dance... your movements might be a bit different though compared to when I would do a DJ-set. (laughs) Come to think of it: I’m obviously used to seeing people in front of me dancing... but it’s really liberating to see that they’re now moving very differently.
Sofarnopolis / album / Crammed Discs