This is the orginal english version of the interview with Darrin Verhagen, the man be’ind the beautiful dark worlds of Shinjuku Thief.
Fabrizio Garau (FG): You are a teacher. In Italy we don’t have teachers like you and we don’t have courses like yours. Please, tell me something about your lessons.
Darrin Verhagen (DV): I divide my time between two classes: Sound Design, and ‘Technology, Composition and Perception’. Sound Design examines some of the fundamental principles (whether they be from evolutionary biology, neurological processes, or artistic conventions) which inform a relationship between sound and vision. This is explored through examples of both sound design and score in film, with this cinematic model then used as a baseline, against which other media (computer games, theatre, dance, earcons etc) are compared and contrasted. ‘Technology, Composition and Perception’ examines developments in technology and their footprint on composition. We study a range of compositional approaches, across a wide selection of genres, and unite our analysis of such disparate forms through an examination of neurological theories describing the ways in which the brain processes streams of aesthetic information.
FG: As a review also dealing with postmodernism, it’s interesting to know how a musician gets in touch with the “sampling culture” and why he decides to express himself through electronic music.
DV: I think this has less to do with a conscious philosophical decision and more to do with availability of means. Initially when I was wanting to craft music which sounded orchestral, there were no synths which could do a decent job — hence (and in the absence of an orchestral budget and players) the need to look to samplers as an alternative. To congeal such a disparate collection of forms and artists under one ‘sampling culture’ banner’s probably a little reductionist. I may use the same equipment as a plunderphonics merchant, a hip hop artist and FM Einheit, but we all have different interests, techniques and agendas. It’s like this current trend of ‘uniting’ iPod owners with this iNod — some perception of a shared cultural identity simply because they’re all using the same piece of equipment to listen to what are probably wildly different playlists! It’s crazy…
FG: The name “Shinjuku Thief” has been taken from the title of a Japanese movie: this work was a mix of different narrative genres. Could we say that you try to do the same thing with music?
DV: That was certainly the case when we were working on the ‘Bloody Tourist’ album — which skittered from one genre to the next. Whilst there’s certainly different feels to the more recent Shinjuku Thief albums, they’re usually pretty homogenous across an album, so that chopped up reference to different styles in the band title’s probably less apt than it was.
FG: When you use a sample do you feel like a thief or not guilty because you are doing something new?
DV: Well, compared to the first few CD’s, my more recent output has been dealing with references through sampling less and less. As my orchestral libraries have been improving, there’s less need to plunder my classical collection for prime quotes/fodder. Even back then though, I think the thief analogy is somewhat flawed. If I photocopy a series of paintings and photographs and use them in a collage, I haven’t actually ‘stolen’ anything. The originals are still intact, where they belong. It’s only a litigious commodified culture which has propagated this idea of sampling as theft. The idea of true originality was an anathema to many folk cultures which fed upon their own history for centuries…
FG: I’m not sure, but I suppose that “The Witch Hammer” is your most known record. You said that “the initial impetus for writing ‘The Witch Hammer’ came from a musical interest in employing a hip hop approach to construction, whilst using a classical palette”. I think is a very important definition. Could you clarify it to our readers?
DV: Sure. I was interested in the challenge of using samplers, which were more associated with citation, fragmentation within a contemporary setting, to stitch together a seamless ‘classical’ world. The impetus ‘hammer’ then was twofold — on one level I was enthused by the technical challenge, and I was motivated from a narrative perspective by the richness of the ‘Malleus Malleficarum’ as a starting text.
FG: Personally, I’m really impressed by “Medea”, because (it’s a subjective matter) it’s possible to have a concrete sensation of what sufferance and psychological disease are. I just would like to know something more about it, and absolutely something about the particular theatrical representation of this immortal classic (“Medea” is a commissioned work).
DV: There’s a great video clip that i+t=r made for one of the Medea tracks — which gives a very clear sense of the aesthetic of the world created (and viewing that would achieve far more quickly and successfully what I’d do inefficiently on the page!). The initial production was on the drawing board as being an extremely experimental work — which is why I decided to ground it sonically with a few fairly traditional touchstones — western harmony & counterpoint, choral and classical orchestral instrumentation. With this as a bed, I was then afforded a certain degree of license to push out the timbral world of the piece further than I probably could have otherwise. The final play was drawn back in, more closely to a traditional theatrical experience by the end — but the final result worked well.
FG: Your last album, “Sacred Fury” is released by Fin de Siècle Media. How have you started to collaborate with Magnus Sundström? I also have the “AZ50HD” EP where you remix des Esseintes (Sundström’s side project) and Magnus remixes E.P.A. (one of your many projects): what do you think about his work as The Protagonist and as des Esseintes?
DV: Working with Magnus is great (whether it be collaborating artistically or with the label). When I was offered the job at university, it became clear that one aspect of my life was going to have to go to make room. And as I didn’t want to give up my compositions for theatre, dance and computer games, Dorobo raised its head above the parapet at just the wrong/right time. With my label gone as an avenue for my releases, Fin de Siècle Media seemed like a logical choice. Magnus has a similar sense of humor, a similar love of highbrow and lowbrow culture, and tastes akin to my own with music. Releasing my Shinjuku material through someone I had that much respect for just made sense. The fact that he was based in Sweden was just a bonus!
FG: “The Witch Hammer” and “Sacred Fury” are soundtracks of human irrationality: things like superstition and war (maybe is better to say “the battle”) are perfect means used by governors of all time to keep things as they are. Are you also interested to represent this political aspect?
DV: I’m certainly very interested in politics — but I tend to use it as an obtuse rather than didactic thread in my art. I quite like the Aristotelian idea of art purging the soul through beauty and terror. Whether this is a honing of political perspective (through the registration of innocence brutalized through power), or simply a neurological trigger tripped by antiphony (seductive thing drawing you in, nasty thing raising the pulse) is an interesting question.
FG: Imagine that I’m a student and you must give me records — instead of books — in order to make me understand what’s electronic music: please mention some “immortal classics”… I don’t want to be failed.
DV: This quick collection is potentially more illustrative of certain aspects of electronic music, than summaries of histories, or interesting blips on the landscape rather than necessarily albums which would stand up to close scrutiny in today’s day and age (although some certainly do!)
Depeche Mode — Violator (quintessential electronic pop)
John Oswald — Plunderphonics
Klaus Schulze — Mirage (classic European electronica)
Jean Michel Jarre — Oxygene (ditto)
Brian Eno — Thursday afternoon (the use of the studio as instrument)
Ryoji Ikeda — +/-
Bernhard Gunter — Un peu de neige salie
Autechre — Tri repetae
Bernard Parmegiani — De natura sonorum
Michel Chion — Requiem
Giles Gobeil — Les Mechaniques Du Ruptures (electroacoustic structures with an industrial sound palette)
FM Einheit — Steinzeit (orchestral sampling)
Line Tjornhoj-Thomsen — Triff (electronic vocal processing)