We talk to the experimental electronic artist about his new album, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears.
Chris Madak, AKA Bee Mask, will release a new album this month called When We Were Eating Unripe Pears.
Madak is an avant-garde electronic artist from Cleveland, Ohio (now based in Philadelphia) who's getting more and more attention in techno circles as of late. After years of working mostly with the CD-R and cassette labels that form the backbone of the American experimental underground, he appeared on the UK's Trilogy Tapes in 2009, and in the past 12 months he's made debut appearances at The Bunker in New York and the Labyrinth festival in Japan. Despite the mostly beatless nature of his music, these days he counts many house and techno heads among his fans, including DJs like Ben UFO and Donato Dozzy.
When We Were Eating Unripe Pears will come out on Spectrum Spools, an Ohio-based affiliate of Austria's Editions Mego. It includes seven compositions that came together at various points over the last five years. Chatting via email last week, Madak gave us some insight on the new record and talked about his newfound crossover appeal:
You're originally from Cleveland, Ohio—the same city as Spectrum Spools. Is there a scene there that's helped you grow as an artist? Or have you mostly come up on your own?
When We Were Eating Unripe Pears arrives just one month after Vaporware / Scanops, his lengthy EP for Room40. You can stream the album's second track, "Moon Shadow Move," right here.
Cleveland is a difficult and special place and has certainly put more of a stamp on me than anywhere else, to such an extent that people whom I know from other places will often pass through Cleveland for a gig and come back telling me that I suddenly make that much more sense to them. From around 2005 to 2008 there was a definite surge of activity there—a lot of people who had previously been working in relative isolation getting together and starting projects, labels, regular events, etc, albeit all on a pretty low-to-the-ground basis and more centered on experimental music than any sort of dance thing. So yes, there was definitely a sense of something larger going on for a while. We were also very lucky to live somewhere with the traditional infrastructure of record shops (Bent Crayon in particular), well-established freeform radio (e.g. WCSB), etc., especially as these sorts of institutions are even less common now than they were then.
My sense is that things have slowed down a bit since, though that may simply be a function of my not living there anymore. Regardless, places like Cleveland are immensely important because they're NOT the places that people move to in order to become artists by association. While it can sometimes be a bit bleak and exhausting to actually live there, lots of aesthetic groupthink simply misses a place like that entirely. If you're wired up to work in that sort of climate, it can be amazing for developing a really usefully skewed perspective.
So as far as how I came up goes, that's once piece of it, but there are others which are just as important, including the earlier time that I spent as a fly on the wall in more academic and art world settings learning the real scope of the field but also absorbing a lot of examples of how that acculturation only gets one so far. Finally, moving from Cleveland to Philadelphia and into a stretch of self-imposed isolation and insularity for the past few years, while not exactly enjoyable per se was probably necessary.
You've been at it for eight years or so, but it seems like you've recently started appealing to a more techno crowd, for instance with gigs at the The Bunker and Labyrinth festival. Would you agree with that? Do those gigs feel different from the kind of thing you would usually play at?
That's a huge question, but the short answer is "yes, definitely." Even accounting for the difference from what I'd been accustomed to, Labyrinth and the Bunker are both immensely special and I'm lucky to have been a part of them. While what I've been bringing to the table at techno events hasn't really been all that punter-friendly to date and while I may still be a bit starry-eyed about the whole thing, I've already found that I get a lot out of playing in that sort of setting which I wasn't getting out of the standard ways of presenting experimental music. In particular, the emphasis on, and pride in, killer soundsystems and the sense of working with a crowd that's reacting physically to sound and experiencing time in a way that comes from the sets rather than the clock have been "where has this been all my life" experiences for me, so I hope to spend more time finding out both what I can do in that world and what I can learn from it.
It's a complex and contentious thing to parse, but overall I think that we're in the midst of a really interesting shakeup in the cultural position of electronic music. For example, it caught me completely by surprise last year when I heard that Donato Dozzy and Ben UFO (to name two examples who are coming at it from rather different directions) were playing tracks of mine, and since then I've been fortunate enough to meet them, talk shop, and start to get a sense of how my work fits into their respective worldviews and vice versa. The opportunity to hear my records through the ears of artists like Donato and Ben is one of the best things that's happened to me in years, creatively speaking. It's given me a completely new perspective on what I'm doing and will likely have a massive impact on where things go next.
How does the production process usually work for you? Much of the new album feels improvisational—is it?
I try to think of my studio like any artist's studio; I'm always developing a handful of things in parallel, looking for connections between them, connections to things I've already done, and connections to ideas I'm currently fixated on, trying to organize them and build series, doing "research and development"-type work with new tools and materials, and stockpiling scraps that might be useful later. Writing, tracking, editing, and mixing are constantly doubling back and blurring into each other and working quickly is basically out of the question. As anyone to whom I've ever owed a master will tell you, everything of mine is "50% complete" for 90% of the time it takes to make.
As far as improvisation on the new record is concerned, it's more a case of "gestural" bits being used as source material within a meticulously edited context. A couple years ago when I was starting to work on When We Were Eating Unripe Pears, I was feeling frustrated that the live sets and the studio work had gotten onto very different tracks, so I decided to begin using the sets to write a record. A lot of gestural filigree found its way into the tracks as a residue of attempts to physically wrap various sonic elements around each other in a live setting. Improvisation was involved of course, but it was more incremental, a necessary consequence of starting out with something vexing and open-ended and continually trying to make it into something that will hit right on a soundsystem and feel interesting in a room.
You say that When We Were Eating Unripe Pears "draws more deeply on formal ideas from the history of records than any Bee Mask release to date." Can you explain what you mean by that? What is it that sets this one apart from your previous work?
I have the impression that this statement has caused a bit of confusion, since nearly everyone who's written about the record to date has quoted it verbatim. What I mean to say is that while previous Bee Mask LPs have been more structured around combinations of ideas from, say, painting, cinema, or food, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears was conceived of from the beginning as a collection of tracks developed largely through live performances, which puts it in a more de facto "musical" situation.
Having that mandate encouraged me to look more closely at mechanisms of musical influence and the ways in which records reflect and comment upon other records. It's also been an opportunity to revisit an idea which I've always loved—that there's no shortage of useful, interesting, and outright bonkers stuff hiding in plain sight and therefore that it's missing the point to buy into the arms race of mining increasingly marginal influences if one's approach to absorbing those influences stays too literal, credulous, and flat-footed. Much better and more interesting in my opinion to perfect the technique of squinting really hard at things that everyone already thinks they know about and seeing possibilities in them that no one else can.
01. Frozen Falls
02. Moon Shadow Move
03. The Story of Keys and Locks
04. Pink Drinq
05. Fried Niteshades
06. Unripe Pears
07. Rain in Coffee
Spectrum Spools will release When We Were Eating Unripe Pears on November 19th, 2012.