The respected New York artist tells Tony Poland her story through 11 records.
Napoleon has a deep appreciation of music, and her studies involve endless personal research and the repurposing of discarded electronics to make her own modular synths. This led to an invitation to create an installation at last year's Moogfest. Entitled The Exchange, the modular synth was built from vintage telephone switchboards.
It feels appropriate to consider Napoleon as an artist in the broad sense: a tirelessly creative soul who has dedicated her life to a variety of art forms, including painting and holography.
I met Napoleon at her apartment near the railway tracks in Greenpoint as the first evening of December sunk into darkness. I'd caught her in the downtime between her ongoing musical endeavours and her weekly two-day stint teaching sixth graders programming and Lego robotics. Prior to my arrival, she'd been sorting through records to play that weekend at Trans Pecos, supporting for Texan electro icon Convextion.
On one side of Napoleon's studio space was a trolley that houses her homemade synths. Befitting their personal nature and importance to Napoleon, these synths became a regular point of reference during our conversation. Her record collection was scattered throughout the apartment, and tucked away in various crevices were notepads and cassette tapes that were equally important to our discussion. We talked about the artists, music and record shops that have helped form Napoleon's identity as Antenes.
Beast Of Burden (Take A Walk)
Why did you choose this track?
It represents a time period where I was listening to a lot of music from the ethereal darkwave label Projekt, which was based in Chicago for a while. Attrition were a UK act who I believe weren't so well-known in the US until they had this release of their early work. At that time, I played guitar, and through the influence of Projekt bands and others like Dead Can Dance, I played the dulcimer. But I didn't have much exposure to technology, so the fact that this was electronic music didn't compute.
I would not have called myself a fan of electronic music per se, but essentially the architecture of all this music was electronic. So I now can see why I was drawn to this. It reminds me of an Edward Hopper quote I cite a lot: "In every artist's development the germ of the later work is always found in the earlier. The nucleus around which the artist's intellect builds his work is himself."
When I later read interviews with Attrition, they mentioned using the MC-202 and a Korg Mono/Poly, and now I'm looking at these [taps her Mono/Poly and MC-202] and they also used an 808. I don't have that, but I have a 606 with the trigger-out mods that I'll use with a Eurorack module with 808 hats. So it is interesting that the music I DJ and the gear I've accumulated has a connection to this period, except what I am interested in now is more abstracted. The short instrumental break at around 1:30 in this track is a great example of that "germ of the later work" Hopper references.
I guess this dates back to your early days as a goth DJ. Could you tell me some more about this period?
I was not a very serious goth DJ, more a listener and a fan who collected music. Around 2000, I was studying painting at University Of Illinois in Urbana and I used to go out dancing. At some point I was invited to play some CDs for a couple events. Later on in Chicago, I did DJ at a goth night at smartbar called Noctronica, and some others, including Alias in a black-lit bowling alley. By that point I was DJing vinyl and testing out my mixing abilities.
While I was in Urbana, I started to meet people who were part of a different scene, vinyl DJs who mixed techno, electro and IDM. There was a lot of dub and drum & bass, too.
How did you first immerse yourself in this scene?
My first exposure was through tapes. There was a net ravers' scene based around a mailing list called Midwest Raves. Since my focus was on painting and I wasn't that savvy with technology, I wasn't actively engaged with this aspect of it. But I did meet people who were, and they would give me tapes. Sometimes they were manufactured, but just as often I got my secondhand copies with handwritten labels and no tracklisting. One mix that always comes to mind was by DJ Shiva from Indianapolis, it's called Scenes From Dystopia and really inspired me, from the intro of Underground Resistance's "Electronic Warfare" onwards. (Happily, it's on her SoundCloud!)
Eventually I bought turntables and took frequent trips up to Chicago, a couple of hours north of Urbana, to attend shows and dig for records. I had my turntables set up on the floor and taught myself how to mix with the guidance of a couple of friends and these tapes.
I'll even show you how nerdy I was about it. I went to Paris to study for a semester in 2001 and had to leave my turntables behind. Since I couldn't mix there, I decided I was going to lock mixing in my memory; this is kind of embarrassing, but it's definitely personal! So I would take the mixtapes and score them out. These are the mixes with their graphical score [shows me a notepad]. This would be the kick drum, and these would be the mids and highs, so I would write down and memorise exactly how the EQs were used and what beat they were changing on.
The Men Who Won't Come Back (Quest Part 2)
I feel it would be remiss to not mention anything from Clone, Bunker or Viewlexx as the West Coast sound was important for bridging my transition between the goth/industrial music scene and techno/electro. This Clone 12-inch was a particularly important record for me. Prior to discovering it, a lot of the music I listened to was not contemporary to that period. Hearing the Detroit In Effect original and remixes made me think, "Wow, this is a record that just came out, but it sounds like this?" Immediately my mind recalled this Ministry record "I'm Falling" on Wax Trax!, and the idea of mixing it with these tracks immediately clicked.
So I can't really understate the importance of the West Coast Dutch labels, because they helped to align my musical compass a little more. I had found a type of music that extracted my favourite elements of music—the more abstract parts—siphoned into their own style.
Modulo 8.5 (Monolake Remix)
The Monolake remix on this 12-inch is one of these tracks that I'd developed strong memories with that I couldn't place for a long time, from one of the old unmarked mixtapes. Often it would be years before the identity of the track would appear in my life again.
I actually found this one while I was at Patrick Russell's house, digging through records he was selling. I had completely forgotten about hearing it all those years back, but my reaction confirmed its place in my memories. Sound has that striking ability to bring you back to a previous time.
That must have been thrilling.
Yeah, even though I forgot I even knew it, the second the needle dropped in the groove at Patrick's house I gave a series of little cheers—I'm sure he remembers it. Immediately my long drives through the cornfields of Illinois came back to me. The track itself is so dreamy yet harrowing, it reminds me of watching something dissolve, acknowledging something as it slowly fades away. It's kind of sad yet peaceful.
Do you play out this 12-inch regularly?
Yes, I play the Autechre remix lots in techno sets, it isn't what you might expect from them. It's a really driving, dark and jagged techno track.
Beauty Lies in the Eye
I first learned about Sonic Youth when I was in high school. I played guitar and bass in a band, and the other guitarist lent me his CD collection while he went on holiday, which contained every Sonic Youth album thus far. Nirvana was very inspiring to us too, and I remember it was pretty uncool to like them at my high school because they were popular.
What did the cool kids listen to then?
There was a thriving scene of pop-punk bands who would play shows, release vinyl and tapes and make their own zines. It was definitely great to be around a DIY scene like this and sometimes we'd share lineups too, but my friends and I had slightly different tastes than the dominant style. We also listened to Pearl Jam, Wire, Mudhoney and many more. To me, it was a little more droney and loosely structured. I would say it was a slightly longer-form style of music that we gravitated to, and I still do.
What was the band's name?
The Hot Commodities, one of a couple bands I was in.
What struck you about Sonic Youth?
Sonic Youth is known for having long stretches of noise and dissonance, especially in their live concerts, and using drum sticks to grate the guitar strings so they'd become loose. They used alternative tunings often, they bought a lot of cheap guitars that wouldn't hold the notes in tune anyway, so they would use them the wrong way, which is interesting as that is a lot of what I do with DIY synths: take discarded items and use them differently.
So there were washy walls of sound and that was mixed in with the more standard pop-punk elements. I mentioned an interest in listening to music in a longer form, without gaps. I can definitely now see how an album like Bad Moon Rising, where the songs flow together, would parallel my later attraction to the form of the DJ mix.
Have you seen Sonic Youth live?
Several times. I caught them at Lollapalooza the year they headlined, that was amazing. I also saw them at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago and at Battery Park here in New York. I kind of idolised that band, and I looked up to Kim Gordon. Her presence showed me that you can speak, sing and perform in quiet, subtle ways in one passage and then make blisteringly loud sounds in the next passage. She showed me how both of these approaches can convey strength. As I was the only girl in my band too, I also looked to her as this mirror, this older, maternal guide. She was and is a role model for me as a person and artist. Her book is great, too.
What period in your life does this come from?
Just under a decade ago. I was considering leaving Chicago and one of the options was San Francisco. During my visits there I met many people who love ambient music. It was San Francisco where I first learned about The KLF's Chill Out, which is an album I've now listened to a thousand times.
I remember there was a store called Ambient Airlines, which was on the second floor of a building in the Hayes Valley neighbourhood of SF. There was a blue shaggy rug in there, it was very nicely decorated and whoever was working there was serving wine. This is another little era where I had a notepad, so if I didn't have the chance to listen to everything I was writing down every name I saw and then I would maybe go back home and ask friends or look online. This Dicabor album would have come from this period of ambient exploration, along with Pete Namlook and a lot of the Fax label.
Why has this album become such a favourite?
It's really hard to pick a favourite in this genre, but I revisit this Dicabor album often. It's like an unwritten movie soundtrack; when you listen to it, you fill in all the details. The effect reminds me of an old Biosphere biography I've read. He wanted to share the expansiveness of the Arctic with people who lived in claustrophobic cities. If you were stuck in traffic you could put on some of his music and the space would open up.
I love this style of music because it absolutely has that effect. There are passages in this Dicabor album that have quaint little four-note melodies that are reminiscent of wind chimes when I'm listening in my apartment, but if I'm on the subway this same sound will blend with the three-note melody that is announcing the next train. The slightly pitch-shifted synth pads that are scattered in the composition also blend nicely with the sound of the train changing pitch as its braking.
Has Robert Babicz discussed his motivations behind this album?
Not as far as I know, I haven't found any information about it.
So you're free to build your own narrative for this music.
That's how it all started for me. I can still appreciate an element of anonymity in at least some of the music I like.
This one is a belter.
I agree! A pretty menacing track.
V-MAX was one of your first buy on sight labels, correct? Was this the record that introduced you to them?
It was the more electro-leaning Static EP from Silicon that first introduced me to V-MAX, and it quickly became a buy on sight label regardless of whether their records were electro, techno or some boundary-less, nameless genre. V-MAX reliably provided ominous, driving, raw energy; this just happens to be one that I play most often in the last years.
V-MAX was based in Lansing, Michigan for a time, and I found a lot of copies in the bins of Gramaphone, Dave's and Second Hand Tunes in Chicago. I spoke of anonymity earlier, and this record definitely has that faceless quality. The label name and artwork had a certain aesthetic, you could tell some of the labels were handmade, it looks like titles were drawn with a marker or stencilled in.
I didn't know anything about who was behind the music, so the records were an entity all their own. It felt special to collect them, like finding a key to a secret world that I could only access through this music. So finding more records meant more keys to further dimensions of this fascinating place, kind of like finding more hidden portals in a video game that grant you access to new dimensions of that world. This was a really special time and a lot of my record-buying experience was like this. The information on the record itself was my main access point.
What have been your favourite record stores over the years?
Besides Gramaphone, I also lived walking distance to the now-closed Weekend Records & Soap and KStarke Records. I also bought a used Lloyd's portable radio/turntable at KStarke that I would take to places that didn't have listening stations, such as Dave's. I have fond memories of finding Chicago gems at Hot Jams. By this time, research on the internet and real-world digging reinforced each other. I'd go on a spree of listening to acid house mixes online, on the CBS forums or Placid's website, and then the next day I could go digging and records would pop up, like organically learning a new language by just "picking things up."
Ah but that's not even everything, there was also WAXaddict, Mr. Peabody, Hyde Park Records, where I discovered the Art Of Noise classic Moments in Love. A handful of these shops are still open, some are closed, I'm sure there are new ones now that I don't know about, but when I lived there, frequenting stores was a weekly habit.
As for New York, Sonic Groove was before my time as a NYC resident but I did visit the old space on Carmine Street. It was the best record store here for my tastes, Adam X helped me pick out a lot of tracks and I definitely appreciate his exposing me to the whole genre of Belgian new beat. Back then I also visited A-1, which is of course still around. I used to sell records to Ron Morelli frequently, and I've found a lot of used gems there.
The Drone Sector
So much Luke Slater to choose from, so why did you pick this one?
It's just a favourite of mine, though many of his tracks share this seemingly weightless quality, like they can go on forever but continue to feel interesting. The delicately winding sequences give the impression there doesn't need to be a beginning or ending, it's a space. But there are also the journeying sound effects, the Doppler effect-like quality. I'm not referring to the amazing Dopplereffekt act in this instance, but rather the perceived frequency shift of a moving object, like in Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express." All the atmospherics smattered throughout the track and others in this realm are probably why there are so many references to exploring outer space in techno, and also why it's so conducive to night driving.
You could practically score out the visuals in a night drive through an urban landscape to a techno track—the repetition of the lines on the road and headlights, and then the parallax of the scenes passing by. I'm also really smitten by synths which are made to sound like ice crystals or clay being struck, when elements have both melodic and percussive aspects. This is why I played the dulcimer at one point, and also why I'm pretty sold on techno as a genre.
Is this Doppler effect quality something you've tried to incorporate in your own work?
Hmm. Yes, I remember hearing a distant train sound in Detroit and I wrote down that I wanted to recreate that sound later. Eventually I started to use the LFO on pads in the MPC and finally "caught" the sound. I've integrated it in some of my live sets and will probably develop it into a production.
The Intruder (Red Planet)
You wanted to discuss the actual craftsmanship behind this record, which I'm glad about, as I love discovering runout-groove messages.
Yes, I needed to include something from the UR/Red Planet camp and, to repeat what's been said already, there are just so many to choose from. I love the Red Planet series for both its sonic and visual aesthetic. This piece of vinyl here is such a complete creative vision—from the musical content etched in the grooves to the hand-drawn markings on the record. Many dimensions of expression here, like a hologram.
I started paying attention to the little "hidden in plain sight" and "coded" details even more after hearing an interview with the late Ron Murphy, the legendary mastering engineer and audio guru for the Detroit producers since it all started. He expressed with so much passion how much he enjoyed cutting records in less conventional ways to suit artist's ideas, using lock grooves and spacing of tracks as visual or metaphorical elements, such as planetary rings, or big gaps in the middle of the record between the two tracks with giant handwriting inside. The excellent Ectomorph release Subsonic Vibrations on Interdimensional Transmissions has a layout like this.
You can tell it was his by the little "NSC" with a circle by the runout groove, so now I always look. I've always been a fan of hidden elements or Easter eggs in any medium, like that "Endless Nameless" track hidden way at the end of Nirvana's Nevermind CD, or the negative worlds in Super Mario Brothers.
What other "hidden in plain sight" messages was Ron Murphy fond of?
Well, I have this Suburban Knight record on UR with two tracks running parallel to each other so if you just move the needle slightly it's a different track. And then there were records with tracks running inside out, which he could do with his Scully lathe. Not all of these techniques were specifically invented there. I was in an online discussion where I learned De La Soul used the parallel grooves on their Me Myself And I single, and M's Pop Muzik did this, too.
I'm not sure where the backwards track method began, but Murphy definitely introduced a combination of audio and mastering expertise and the idea of arranging tracks on the record as a creative element to techno, and worked closely with the artists. You could sense a really special series of relationships there. I never got to meet him but his legend is very much alive and honoured in the people who have, and it's right there in the vinyl.
In A Lonely Place
How influential were New Order for you growing up?
My family didn't have cable so no MTV, but there was a local Chicago music video show called JBTV where this friendly, Jerry Garcia-looking host, Jerry Bryant, would cover different shows happening, conduct interviews at his studio, and play all kinds of videos. I discovered New Order, Björk and KMFDM through his show, for example. There was also a show called Friday Night Videos and I recall that "The Beach," the instrumental version of Blue Monday, was the selection playing in the credits.
So I was a fan, but the reason I point out this track is that it's very gripping in how Joy Division-like it sounds. It was one of the songs they wrote but didn't release before Ian Curtis' suicide, so it exists in that liminal space between Joy Division and New Order. The band continued on and recorded these songs with Bernard Sumner taking on the vocals. This track is powerful as I find the percussion to take on a material form beyond what it is; they crash and shimmer and seem really foreboding.
You seem quite taken with the laser sound in this track. Have you figured out where it comes from?
I consulted a Factory Records enthusiast who said it could have been the Powertran Transcendent 2000, which was used by Joy Division. But I'm not sure.
You've had the opportunity to play this recently in a club, correct?
Yes, I'm getting more opportunities in Brooklyn to DJ at non-dance music events, which includes an experimental-leaning Monday night at Bossa Nova Civic Club. My friend Stephen, who runs the Metamorph party, does this Bossa night and invited Raica from Further Records to headline. Her live set was amazing. I DJ'd after her and put "In A Lonely Place" on mid-set. This was the first time I played it loud in a club. The energy of the whole room changed, it was palpable, just electric.
Banjo (Funk D'Void Rmx)
You said this is what love sounds like. Can you expand on that?
Something about his basslines and harmonies just contain this emotion, this very deep je ne sais quoi, which strike me as love translated to music with no filter whatsoever. Pure. I find it very euphoric and only play it in the morning.
How do you feel Kevin Saunderson's original fares in comparison?
Hmm, on this particular EP I happen to play the remixes more. I first heard it from my friend Cliff Thomas from Detroit. We were DJing together in Chicago years ago and he played the Mark Flash "Hi-Tech Funk" mix, which is excellent. I originally bought the record for that, but my tastes have expanded and evolved since then, so I play the Funk D'Void version equally often now.
Have you tried to make similarly euphoric music yourself?
That's an interesting question. If I actually tried to write something euphoric and emotional, it would probably sound pretty contrived. I come up with percussion, abstract textures and sound effects the most. But I have written tracks that contain melodies, with a more hopeful tone to them, and that happens if I'm going through a specific situation that calls for it. So, that wouldn't be something I am able to plan.
I have a limited memory of the earliest stages of writing them, which is an interesting feeling. It's almost as if the songs were written "through" me, I guess they just needed to come out. I am excited to share some of these tracks on a forthcoming release for The Bunker New York in the coming months!
I discovered Else Marie Pade while down a wormhole researching Louis and Bebe Barron and their soundtrack for Forbidden Planet, because I know they were prone to using their equipment until it broke and recording the whole process. This is an experience that happened to me, when I was trying to circuit bend this gracious gift from Moog. It's a surface-mounted phaser that they were kind enough to donate along with other effects units and a few Werkstatts, for a repurposing project and installation I developed for the Moogfest 2016.
I should never try to circuit bend surface-mounted equipment, but I wanted to change up this phaser. I made these amazing sounds with it before it broke, which I should have recorded, and this reminded me of an article I had read about Louis and Bebe Barron. After breaking that phaser I wanted to hear the music of people who had gone through the same experience.
So looking into the Barons led me to Else Marie Pade, this amazing woman from Denmark. She worked at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation doing soundtracks for fairy tales and other TV shows. She was part of the resistance during World War II, I saw somewhere else she was trying to destroy phone lines the Nazis were using. When she was 20 years old she was imprisoned at Frøslev Internment Camp, but her fellow prisoners set up a foundation that would enable her to move to Copenhagen and study music after the war ended. This is when she went to the DBC.
A truly inspirational figure.
Absolutely, and that's why I want to talk about her. I just think she's amazing, and I love this track. It was inspired by Edgard Varèse, a French composer who created this installation at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. I first heard of Varèse at a lecture by Herb Deutsch at Moogfest, who had originally bought a Theremin from Bob Moog and eventually worked with him on the first synthesizer. So Herb did a lecture at Moogfest 2014 where he played sounds from this World's Fair, and it's sounds from this very same event that inspired Else Marie to make "Syv Cirkler."
What makes it stand out for you?
This is an interesting composition, as it mixes musique concrète with Stockhausen's electronische. Both these early electronic styles had their manifestos and were quite critical of each other, but she studied both and found the value in them. The fact she used both these methods instead of being a purist made Else quite unique. Another really beautiful example of this is her score of The Little Mermaid for Danish TV, which used concrète sounds for anything happening on earth and use the electronische for anything portrayed under water.
You can hear the sequencing in this track, which is something I really enjoy. The music feels like it is moving in cycles; she even wrote it down in that way. She wanted it to start slow, then add notes and then there is the point the notes are so fast they blend into each other and it dissolves. To me it sounds quite techno, as I think of the form as patterns. There is of course a linear progression to a techno track, but beyond that there are these cycles that aren't necessarily overlapping in concentric circles. Maybe they are meeting in ambiguous ways, but there is still an idea of simultaneity.
I've read that her music was played in Berlin recently as part of a night called Heroines Of Sound. This particular track was played that night. She passed away not too long ago, but I am happy that Else was able to enjoy the recognition and that people enjoyed her music with her.