|Michal Ho: Found sound
Don't move in next door to Swiss producer Michal Ho, writes Björn Schaeffner, because you might end up on one of his records.
When I arrive in Michal Ho's Zurich apartment, all is quiet. Not quiet: The sound of crickets emanates from his flatmate's room. Is this a fabricated soundscape or are these real crickets? We’re not sure. Michal Ho checks the speakers, only to find out that the source is a box filled with swarming insects, live-food for a hungry gecko. "I definitely have to record this", Michal announces. I couldn’t agree more. Crickets doomed to end up in a Gecko’s belly will probably never sound funkier.
Michal Ho, who is perhaps best known for his EPs on Jay Haze’s Tuning Spork label, has a knack for sampling. His curiousity about sound extends across different genres, too. Yes, this is not your average minimal techno guy. He’s experimented with hip hop, drum n bass, electronica, jazz, dub, dubstep and house. His techno productions have been released on labels such as Get Physical, Contexterrior or local imprint Stattmusik. And they have earned him enthusiastic responses by the likes of Ricardo Villalobos and M.A.N.D.Y.
Aside from containing samples of everything from his kitchen appliances to his neighbour's fisticuffs, Ho's oddly titled album Screw the Coffeemaker is a study in percussion: a long and meandering trip into the groove-heart of contemporary dancefloor music. A likeable, soft-spoken type with a deep, charismatic voice, Mr. Ho in person is far from your average sound nerd. And he’s not boring either: he's just as comfortable chatting away about the Dada movement as Technotronic. Or coffee making.
Michal, given the title of you’re album, have you had some bad experiences with household appliances recently?
So far I've only had one bad experience: My coffee maker exploded a few years ago. But I survived. And I'm still using the same coffee maker (laughs). No seriously, people keep asking me about the title. And of course, it's total nonsense. It's from a manual of an Italian coffee machine. There was this passage going: "Step 2: Screw the Coffee Maker tightly". And I just thought that would be a great title for the album.
Is playfulness something that's essential to your music?
Definitely. This is one of the reasons I love working with Tuning Spork. The quirkiness it represents. I love this fucked-up humour, even if it sometimes goes too far.
On one of the intros on my album you hear some guy in the street getting into an argument, then a fight, right in front of my house. Of course we could all be nice and appeal to the masses, but we're just not like that. I actually have great fun deleting the cheesy hooklines from my tracks just to make pop fans suffer for lack of something to hold on to…
So how do you make your music quirky?
I try to enhance every loop and detail of my music with some subjective weirdness. I think that's what gives a track personality. Even if you make something completely weird, I think that's worth far more than just another track that fits neatly into a DJ set.
You spent your youth in Zimbabwe.
In 1988, my family and I moved down there. My father, who works as a doctor, was engaged in a development project. I went to school there and it basically was a very bush experience. We’re talking outback! But it was a great way of getting to know African rhythms.
"Even if you make something completely weird, I think that's worth far more than just another track that fits neatly into a DJ set."
Something that’s essential to your music.
I wish I could fully integrate a triplet six-beat drum rhythm into a four-to-the-floor house track! Buy hey, I try to get the best out of two worlds: The flow of natural grooves and the precision of techno.
How did you connect with the world of electronic music out there?
Well, I bought my first house record in a local music shop. Around 1989 I heard the first acid house track. From LFO. Of course, we couldn’t lay our hands on any underground stuff in Zimbabwe. I listened to Technotronic. Yeah, I liked Technotronic. Something I'm not ashamed of (laughs).
No need for that.
Later in Switzerland, one day in '95, I bought two records, the green M-5 from Maurizio and one from Photek. I've always liked Detroit techno and German minimal on the one hand and drum n bass and breakbeats on the other. These two sides were always cross-influencing each other.
And what was your first encounter with music?
When I was four years old, I got this cylinder music box. I was jinxed immediately: you'd have metal bars plonking off in a specified distance, different tones playing at different times, thus producing a pattern. I guess that was my first encounter with a sequencer.
And later on?
I played bass in an avant-garde rock band, also acoustic guitar. But everything changed when I came into contact with the E-Max II, my first sampler.
There must have been parties as well...
In 1993, I must have been 14 years old, I went to this big rave, which was a big trancy thing. But I wasn’t just another ravehead. I listened to rock, funk and hip hop as well. And industrial music and musique concrète. I was always open to a variety of styles. Some of my friends used to organize illegal Sunday after parties, and there these musical influences would come together.
Diversity is something that comes through on your album.
Maybe. Each track tries to take things in a different direction from the basis of a loosely interpreted house groove. I tried to meld funk, electro, dub, Latin and African influences, because of their natural connection to techno. But the common denominator is the simple fact that all the tracks are at 125 BPM. And that they were produced with Ableton.
I like its usability. Compared to all the graphically more advanced sequencers, there's quite a hands-on-approach there. I am constantly developing my tracks further in Ableton through playing my music in the clubs, trying to get new vibes into the set, seeing how the crowd reacts to the sound.
You are also producing drum n bass under the moniker Mijatoho...
I'm releasing on two small labels, Jerona Fruits in London and Social Studies in New York. Another EP came out in 1999 on Alex Dallas’ Straight Ahead Records, who is now a member of the Drumpoet Community.
Just recently you released a dubstep album with Jay Haze.
Yes, we did the Sub Version album together. It’s a dub experiment, very heady stuff, even spooky at times. Two tracks featuring Paul St. Hilaire were actually licensed by Soul Jazz Records for their Box Of Dub compilation.
How did you meet Jay?
Jay was backpacking in Zurich in 1999, and I met him by pure chance at a lakeside bar, where they used to organize open-air parties. We immediately clicked and ended up jamming in my studio.
Your first techno releases were joint ventures with Samim.
Samim and I, we go back a long time. We met thirteen or fourteen years ago. At the time, we started making music together using hardware samplers and PC-based midi sequencers. For our first live shows, we used a DJ mixer to cross-fade.
Sounds pretty wild. What was it called?
We called ourselves Longspecht. That’s 'Long Woodpecker' in English (laughs).
Oh God, it was a private joke, but let’s not get into details...
Do you think you can you live up more easily to your aspirations working solo?
Well, I just love doing my own thing.
When will we hear another release of Samim and Michal?
There’s something planned for next year...
"Did you know that there is a Heater hater club on the web?"
What was your response to the success of Samim’s hit 'Heater'?
I'm really glad this happened! I remember Samim showing me the track for the first time. "Maybe this one is too far out?" he asked me. "No, it's great," I told him, "It's something that tears down borders." Did you notice the attention it drew to the original cumbia version? Actually, I'm quite the opposite of a Heater hater. Did you know that there is a Heater hater club on the web?
I had no idea.
Well, anyway, the use of world music elements in techno, that’s right up my alley. It’s a return to sampling culture that I really appreciate, being a sampler kid and all. Taking something that is already strong and treating it respectfully with a different interpretation. It's more in the jazz tradition. I wish there were more tracks of this sort.
Tell us about your sampling experiments.
The only instrument I've sampled so for a Michal Ho record is my thumb piano, which was featured on the Econoclast EP. The intros to the tracks on Screw the Coffeemaker are all recordings from outside my balcony. The first three are actually from my coffee-machine. So it’s a mix of kitchen sounds and street sounds. I guess I wanted to add some of the acoustic atmosphere of where I live.
What’s coming up next on the musical menu from Michal Ho?
I’m doing a bunch of remixes. One for Alland Byallo from San Francisco, who’s started a new digital label. The other is for Thomas Demey on Toys for Boys. And one for Inxec on Contexterrior. Plus, I already have a load of my own tracks ready, enough material for another album. But I guess it’s probably wiser to split that into two EPs for next year. Also expect some new live sets and podcasts online soon.
You will be touring international clubland as well...
Yes, I will be playing out live a lot. I like travelling, being on the road, seeing the differences, seeing the common factors we all share. Honestly, I like to get out of this town, especially during winter.
Published / Thursday, 08 November 2007