The PAN artist discusses five records relating to his recent Scythians EP, with hardstyle, industrial and IDM among the styles covered.
Despite being one of an ever-increasing number of US-born expats now residing in Berlin, James Whipple’s music doesn’t fit comfortably into the city’s prevailing techno narrative. Rather, it’s a combination of Jersey club, grime, ambient, hardstyle and other genres informing the music he makes as M.E.S.H., but his recent Scythians EP on PAN sounds almost like none of these things – their influence is just a wireframe on which Whipple hangs his glossy, tactile, hyper-digital environments.
Given the high-tech leanings of Whipple’s aesthetic, it would be easy to bring his music under into the nebulous category of “post-internet music,” but it’s his direct engagement with the pulse of the club that makes it all the richer. Whipple’s music is rhythmic at its core, even if those rhythms sound like sentient Giger-esque tentacles trying to attach themselves to your brain, much as they do on the title track. It’s this fusion of the technological and the organic that seems to work its way through the five tracks of Scythians, which come across more like a simulation of club music based on the cerebral impulses of a raver interpreted by a supercomputer than anything created by a human interacting with a sequencer.
This push towards a new language for club music didn’t come from nowhere. Whipple was one of the resident DJs at Janus, a Berlin club night started by Dan DeNorch and Michael Ladner back in 2012, with a focus on bringing together like-minded artists and DJs who didn’t quite fit within the established club narrative. Together with fellow residents Lotic and Kablam, Whipple was an instrumental part of the night, where music was played in a similarly freeform manner as the those connected to New York’s GHE20G0TH1K party, and Fade To Mind’s Total Freedom. The ethos of Janus was perhaps best summed up by DeNorch back in May when he told 032c: “I think there’s a feeling that we’re searching for a sound that doesn’t exist.”
The future of Janus as a night currently seems uncertain, with their last regular night in May looking like it could be the end of the party’s run the city. However the crew will all be appearing under the Janus banner in association with CTM’s Polymorphism event at Berghain later this week, and at this month’s Unsound festival in Krakow. Whipple meanwhile will be headlining the Tropical Waste party at London venue The Waiting Room on Thursday October 9; like his Janus associates, M.E.S.H.’s future as a solo artist seems secure thanks to the unique artistic outlook the night helped him to develop.
It’s this ethos combined with Whipple’s unique aesthetic that made him a prime candidate for a Five Records feature, and his choices are as broad as you might expect, veering between hardstyle, German IDM, industrial music and more. Though Whipple was intentionally vague about the reasons his choices, he did say that they “definitely relate to Scythians,” but that he wasn’t necessarily listening to them while making the record. “They are records I like a lot and have definitely rubbed off on me,” he explains.
Wildstylez – “Back 2 Basics” (Digital:Age, 2011)
I wanted to start with this one because it’s a hardstyle track. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that it’s something you have an unironic love for. Where did this stem from exactly, and what’s your relationship with the genre?
I don’t know how explicitly readable it is in my music beyond a certain kind of sound design or rhythmic/harmonic traces. I guess I was originally exposed to hardcore through some of the gabber-tinged extreme laptop music of the early 00s. Newer hardstyle also showed up in DJ sets at GHE20G0TH1K in NYC and was sampled by some EDM-trap acts a few years ago. The Norwegian producer Cracksmurf was also active before that (he did a hardstyle/dancehall remix for my first record). The appeal for me are the harmonies that seem to have mutated from the classic “evil” sounding tunes of ’90s rave techno into these sort of self-aggrandizing, stadium-shaking anthems. And the kick drum contorted into this demented polka just feels so right.
I expected to hate this track, but the production values are so high it’s almost impossible not to be caught up in it. The reverb put around some of those riffs is great – it just makes the whole thing sound so satisfyingly epic without being cheesy. What exactly draws you to that big scale, almost stadium-filling sound? It’s quite at odds with the propensity for lo-fi house and techno which seems to be on the opposite side of the divide from your music and the Janus ethos in general…
I guess there is a natural binary between lo-fi and “high end” sounds, and fashion will dictate which sounds people will be looking for and making at any given time. If I’m more influenced by the sound design in a trailer for a franchise Hollywood action film than in quoting dance music history, it’s more down to personal preference. Trying to be the antithesis of something, on stylistic grounds, leads to really short-term rewards. I am more drawn to sound, though, that somehow relates to the texture of the present. And I guess I prefer the epic in contrast to the cinematic, which can dissipate into mood.
Janus was a party held in a very small space. How do you think that kind of sound would translate to a larger environment?
We’re doing a Janus night at Berghain soon, which will be a change in atmosphere for sure. Total Freedom is headlining. I can’t wait to hear him in that space.
What was it that made you pick this Wildstylez track specifically?
I like it because the breakdown has this hyper-earnest appeal to genre purity in monologue form, something you’d expect to hear more likely in a deep house mix.
How exactly do you feel about that idea of “genre purity” as you put it? Your material isn’t really pure in that sense at all – I would have imagined that genre purity is something you’d be against?
I think I experienced a lot of my influences in kind of a discontinuous way. I don’t necessarily prefer eclecticism for its own sake, I just think there’s more interesting ways to think about and contextualize sound than to rigorously patrol stylistic borders. Sometimes there will be music coming out that is not necessarily sounding similar, but will be linked through social relationships, use of imagery, melodic tics, etc. To me that’s more interesting than the order someone places a kick drum in. At the same time, as a DJ I’m dependent on scenes of producers who feed off each other and build up some sort of shared sonic language to the point of creating a recognizable or signature sound.
It’s been mentioned before that “Imperial Sewers” is directly influenced by hardstyle, which is a popular but equally maligned genre in a lot of circles – are you consciously trying to reclaim hardstyle by recontextualising its sounds, or is it something more simple than that?
In general I don’t identify with the idea of the experimental musician who makes the gesture of placing elements of a supposedly “low” form of music into a “high-brow” context, whatever that means. I’m triggered by a lot of different types of music but it comes out in a hopefully more intuitive way.
Skinny Puppy – Too Dark Park (Nettwerk, 1990)
Is there any interesting reason behind choosing Too Dark Park?
Not really, just a record I’ve always really liked. The way samples are treated on it is amazing. The density is almost overwhelming. And just the overall atmosphere. It has this really digital feel to it.
How big a fan are you a fan of industrial music? Have you been to a lot of gigs, or are you purely a home listener?
I like some older EBM and industrial, but it’s never really been something I followed. I really liked Trent Reznor’s Quake soundtrack when it came out, which I guess marks my level of engagement. I guess I just like the atmosphere of some Skinny Puppy songs, it reminds me of sci-fi horror like Hellraiser or Cube. The two best tracks on this record, Nature’s Revenge and Shore Lined Poison, have all these layered elements, musical and nonmusical, and from really different sources with different fidelities. And the rhythm just has this feral attitude.
Do horror and sci-fi have much of an influence on your music in general?
Hard to say, there’s a sort of gothic strain in science fiction films like Event Horizon and the Alien series that I find interesting though.
Skinny Puppy are quite a political band – is this something you’re attracted to or is your interest in their music purely aesthetic?
The politics are kind of part of the show and ingrained in the music.
This is another one of those records where I almost think there’s a connection to some of your work – the mechanical clank of “Scythians” specifically feels like the jumble of steel percussion throughout this record. Would you agree?
Arovane – Icol Diston (DIN, 2002)
How did you come across this record? Arovane isn’t the most widely known artist from the IDM era.
I actually bought this when it came out. I don’t know how, but the record store in the town I grew up in in California had it in stock.
So why did you choose this one?
It’s somehow an album (actually I think it’s three EPs collected together) that has stuck around for me and that I still listen to often. It has this mix of the austere spaciousness of Berlin techno mixed with borderline sentimental British electronica.
I know it’s a pretty maligned term these days, but I can’t really put this in any category other than IDM – the similarities to Autechre and Aphex Twin are fairly obvious, but there’s a distinctly Germanic flavour to it as well. Are you a fan of that period of electronic music in general or is there something about this record which stands out for you?
For sure, I was definitely listening to a lot of that stuff. It was also the heydey of netlabels and music forum culture. A lot of that stuff hasn’t stood the test of time very well at all. But the good stuff had an impact on me.
The rhythm of “Acval” feels incredibly unstable, not at all like the other tracks – it feels like the track most aligned with your style. Would you DJ with music like this?
No, I don’t think I would ever DJ something like this. Music with too much pads turns nightclubs into really awkward places.
It seems fair to say that Arovane isn’t exactly a household name in terms of German producers of that generation. Do you think he deserves a bit more recognition?
Sure, this music stands out from the technical wankery and corniness that defined a lot of music from that time period. You forgive the earnestness because it’s so lush.
I was discussing the idea recently that what’s currently going on with PAN sort of mirrors what was going on with IDM and Warp back in the ‘90s, in terms of the more experimental structures that nevertheless function on the dance floor – yourself and Beneath’s recent records being the most obvious examples of this. Would you agree? What are your feelings on IDM as a concept, especially as its such a problematic term?
It’s hard to say. It’s not so rigidly defined for me. I DJ a lot and don’t really carry this rather arrogant idea that the DJ is going to expand peoples’ minds through formally difficult music. As soon as your DJ set turns that didactic it’s time to go home. I think this desire to define the sort of ‘auteur’ producer outside of, but responding to, dance music styles shows a contempt for the people in the club who might actually be having not-so-dumb experiences. There’s also the fact that a lot of new club music is both explicitly made to hype up the dancefloor and at the same time is really inventively put together. That said, the music I release, which can be pretty tangential to club music, does sort of feed off what I play as a DJ, so there is this kind of response there.
Popol Vuh – In den Gärten Pharaos (Pilz, 1971)
Popol Vuh are notable for doing a few soundtracks for Werner Herzog films. Are you a Herzog fan at all?
Yeah, I got into Popol Vuh through the Aguirre, The Wrath of God soundtrack.
How do you feel about kosmishe music as a whole? Do you listen quite widely to it?
Not really, but I like the stuff that doesn’t have too many trappings of its era, the more basic stuff.
What is it that you like about this record specifically?
I like this record because of the really stripped down arrangements. There is a real sense of egolessness, a cavernous feeling of emptiness and spiritual commitment.
This pick surprised me, as to me, as to me it has a pastoral sound – it kind of makes me think of rolling German countryside, a little at odds with your choices from the more artificial and mechanical end of the electronic spectrum. The other picks feel tied in with your own music a little more logically. Is this a distinction that you also hear?
This record does sound really artificial to me, in the sense that it’s coming from a realm of thought. It’s a mystic record made with synthesizers. In the second half the synthesizers become more dry and stark and don’t sound like any instrument in particular.
Pita – Get Down (Editions Mego, 2002)
There’s a lot of this kind of noise/glitch stuff around (especially from that era), so what is it about this Pita album that you rate?
The sound palette is so aggressive, but with these pitched synths that give the whole thing this spaciousness.
As jagged as it is, the album feels very atmospheric too, much like your own material. Do you listen to this to be absorbed, or do you find it a more confrontational experience?
I’m kind of a baby about noise music, the confrontational aspect doesn’t really appeal to me. But in a lot of music like this, once you’ve overcome the discomfort, you are automatically already in a really attuned listening state.
There’s something about tracks titles like “Acid Udon” and “Concrete Raver” that remind me of that idea of rave deconstruction practiced by Lee Gamble and Leyland Kirby. Is this something you’ve considered listening to Get Down?
Sure, that’s there somewhat I think.
It ties in with the idea of “homeless club music” Dan DeNorch discussed in the recent Janus interview with 032c. These ideas can be very attractive to the critic (me included), but do you think there’s perhaps too much over-intellectualisation of dance music and not enough effort being put into giving new ideas a stable home? It feels very much like Janus was an attempt to give new ideas a solid place to gestate within the context of a club – would you agree?
Yeah, it has a lot to do with these disconnected scenes of club producers spread out around the map, and the sense that they are making music that doesn’t have a home in a real physical club setting yet. Most of the best club music being made now isn’t being played in big clubs. There is a lot of industry inertia mixed with issues of access. It’s important for there to be new promoters and DJs who reach for these new sounds while also developing something sustainable, otherwise we are all just trend-hopping every six months with no development, while the past gets continually recycled.
Interview by Scott Wilson
Header image by Ilaria Pace from a picture by Georg Gatsas
M.E.S.H. will be DJing solo at Tropical Waste at The Waiting Room in London on Thursday October 9, and will be appearing as part of a full Janus line-up at Berghain in Berlin on Friday October 10, and at Unsound festival in Krakow on Friday October 17 – more information on those dates and more can be found here.