Future, we apologize
Interview by Eduardo P. Waasdorp for DJ Magazine Spain
Hello Chris! It’s a pleasure to have you on our magazine! Where do we catch you right now?
I grew up in the USA and spent most of my life there, but I’m currently in Berlin. Germany is run by an ex-physicist, so its government can at least be expected to behave somewhat rationally, unlike the USA which is run by science-hating Jesus freaks.
You’re about to release your second LP in the iconic label Perlon, ‘Apologize To The Future’ a work loaded with deep messages and a strong commitment… It comes after your return last year with Akoko Ajeji, also in Perlon… How did your relation with the label started?
It’s a long story that unfolded over many months, but basically I shared “Akoko Ajeji” with Seth Troxler, who played it for Ricardo Villalobos, who brought it to Zip.
What kept you out of sight before last year? It was a long hiatus…
I was busy with other projects. Starting in 1999 I helped develop the world’s first full-color 3D printer, and I continued to work in the 3D industry for nearly two decades. I also developed my own VJ software and worked as a VJ for a while. I taught myself jazz piano, and developed a tool called ChordEase to make jazz improvisation more intuitive. More recently, I developed a software for designing virtual pottery (called PotterDraw) and used it to make art. During this same period I also evolved the post-antihuman Church of Euthanasia, which the “Apologize to the Future” album is an expression of.
Another factor is that in the 1990s I developed the polymeter MIDI sequencer that I used to make my earlier albums, but by 2003 my sequencer had become obsolete and was severely limiting my musical creativity. It took me many years to acquire the necessary programming skill to modernize my sequencer. I started recreating my sequencer in 2018 and “Akoko Ajeji” evolved along with it.
With such a short period of time between the two LPs, is ‘Apologize to the Future’ the continuation of Akoko Ajeji, both in/or sound and concept?
The two projects are completely separate. The biggest difference is that “Akoko Ajeji” is entirely instrumental, whereas “Apologize to the Future” is lyric-driven and started as text. The two records were also produced using very different sounds.
The lyrics preceded the music, in some cases by months or even years. I spent a week alone in an apartment in Lisbon writing the lyrics to “Singularity.” The “Apologize to the Future” album cost me a lot emotionally. I find it upsetting to listen to. It’s supposed to hurt. We need to feel the ugliness of what we’ve done. We need to grieve for what we’ve destroyed, including our own future. Without remorse there can’t be restitution.
This album is a really nice mixture of jazz, electro, hip-hop and techno with a clear common thread: the robotic voices. Why did you decided to take this approach with the vocals? Has it anything to do with the underlying message of the whole record?
You forgot breakbeat. “Exit Game” is polymeter breakbeat. The samples contain breaks instead of drum hits, just as in regular breakbeat, but they’re sequenced in polymeter.
It seems plausible that our machines will outlive us, so it makes sense for them to tell the story of our hubris and demise. The robot choir also draws inspiration from the chorus in classical Greek tragedy.
The album’s primary source is Dan Miller’s climate change presentation “A Really Inconvenient Truth.” He lists things individuals can do, and his first item is “Ask your children for forgiveness.” This led me to a thought experiment, in which I asked myself “How will future generations regard us?” My album answers that question. Assuming future generations are lucky—or unlucky?—enough to exist, they’ll resent us for sending them to hell.
Another source was the “Metadelusion” blog, which started with my poem “Less.” The poem’s theme is that it’s too late to avoid catastrophe, but not too late to slow down. As the poem says, “Less can no longer be avoided / Less could be gradual, or sudden / Less will hurt, either way / Sudden will break more bones.”
The Kubler-Ross “five stages of grief” model is another influence. We’re stuck on denial, and we need to get past that to arrive at the crucial final stage of acceptance. Now that disaster is upon us, hating humanity is pointlessly cruel. Instead we should feel sorry for ourselves, since we’re our own worst enemy. This observation is the essence of the post-antihuman Church of Euthanasia.
Still another source is David Quammen’s article “Planet of Weeds” about the paleontology of mass extinctions. “A Thin Layer of Oily Rock” is a reference to the Permian-Triassic extinction, the so-called “Great Dying” which eliminated 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species. A similar mass extinction is already underway. William R. Catton’s 1980 classic “Overshoot” is yet another influence. Catton viewed humanity through the lens of population biology, and was the probably the first to popularize the term “overshoot” in reference to human overpopulation and overconsumption.
The critique of economic inequality, for example in the title track and in “Exit Game,” shows the influences of Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein. The Gilded Age ended badly—two world wars, tens of millions dead, Europe in ruins—but there was a silver lining: the destruction persuaded governments to redistribute wealth on a massive scale. Of course the rich weren’t going to stand for that, and they clawed it all back, starting with Reagan and Thatcher. Privatization and deregulation have paved the road to climate chaos.
Going deeper into the album concept, it’s almost like a manifesto about your perspective towards the issues of the 21st century: climate change, economic inequality, intergenerational justice, anti-natalism, singularity and human extinction… These topics are not controversy-extent, as I would say all of them are very polarizing… why do you think the electronic music industry, in general, is so afraid to speak about controversial topics? Even when techno as a genre had pioneers as Underground Resistance in the early days, for instance…
“A Thin Layer of Oily Rock” existed before the album, first as a post on Metadelusion, and then later as a slide show that I presented in Berlin at Gallerie Spektrum. The slides summarize my personal embrace of the supremacy of scientific knowledge. The key is Einstein’s infamous quip that “The moon is really out there.” His point was that the moon is real whether you believe in it or not.
The album attacks solipsism, the idea that only the self is real, and that reality is just whatever you believe. Solipsism blossomed in the 1970s along with new-age ideologies and psychedelic drug use. The post-truth era has its root in solipsism, culminating in Trump’s gaslighting. Magical thinking was presumably adaptive in our original evolutionary environment. It’s easier to handle your brother getting eaten by a lion if you believe in an afterlife. But our proclivity for fairy tales is having unfortunate consequences in the 21st century.
The album also expresses existentialism, the realization that we’re alone in a hostile universe that’s utterly indifferent to our fate. No one is coming to rescue us, and we have nowhere to escape to, despite the ludicrous pretensions of Elon Musk and his ilk. It’s Earth or nothing. We’ll either learn to prioritize the future or it won’t include us.
People want to be seen as heroes. It’s no surprise that people don’t want to face climate change, because facing it means admitting that we’re villains, not heroes. We partied until the bitter end. The electronic music industry is generally in the business of party facilitation, so there’s a potential conflict of interest.
On the other hand, musically, if it wasn’t for the vocals, we would be listening to an equally amazing collection of 6 tracks, with a distinct and innovative sound, in which we can hear that complexity we miss in electronic music nowadays. What does your studio look like?
My studio consists of a Windows laptop running my custom software (Polymeter), along with Propellerhead Reason connected to Polymeter via a virtual MIDI loopback cable. I use Reason only to translate Polymeter’s MIDI output into audio. I also have a flat-screen monitor, a digital-to-analog converter, a pair of powered speakers, and headphones for working at night. It’s fashionable to be obsessed with hardware but it reminds me of collecting antique cars. I like unlimited undo.
You’re a pioneer of what is known as complex polymeter, which you define as the “frontier of music”… correct me if I’m mistaken and sorry for oversimplifying (math’s have never been my strong), but a complex polymeter is a metric based in prime numbers… a way of doing music that is fairly absent in regular, mainstream or even underground music. This has lead you to a big research over the years and even the development of your own software… for someone that has never heard of this before, how would you explain it? How does the listener perceive/experience those complex polymeters in the tracks?
Polymeter is the use of multiple meters at once. Complex polymeter is the simultaneous use of at least three meters that aren’t integer multiples of each other. For example, using the meters 5/4, 7/4, and 11/4 at once would constitute complex polymeter. I try to avoid 4/4 because it’s absurdly overused. Essentially polymeter is quantized phasing. If you want to work with polymeter, my software could make your life easier. It’s free.
I don’t actually write my music in any traditional sense. Instead I design a virtual kinetic sculpture that generates the music. The sculpture consists of a hierarchical network of polymeter modulations. I have invented and implemented many types of polymeter modulation. The most basic type is mute modulation, where one track gates or masks another. It’s a simple technique, but amazingly useful.
In the current times, when we constantly hear more simplistic music being released – not just in the mainstream pop, urban or electronic music, but also in more underground styles –… what can we do to make this way of making music more appreciated and used?
The complexity of music has declined steadily since my childhood, and it breaks my heart. Music is increasingly made by non-musicians, and it shows. Music technology corporations market their products by convincing people that music is sound design, but it’s a lie. Having the most blinking lights in your studio doesn’t make you the best musician. To compose harmonically complex music, you need music theory, and music theory is math. Math is free, it just requires concentration.
It helps to turn off your phone. Social media is designed to be as addictive as possible and wrecks concentration, so ban it from your studio. It also helps to regularly listen to non-4/4 music. Try to think outside the box. Worrying about whether your music is popular or profitable is a dead end. If you want to be popular, become an influencer. If want to make money, become a lawyer. Clubbing is a globally standardized industry primarily supported by alcohol sales, so I’d think twice about letting it dominate your aesthetics.
You also stated in that XLR8R interview: “Many assumptions are baked into the toys, for example drum machines typically have 16 buttons not only because it makes their development easier, but because most people are happy making four-based music, like everyone else”. What kind of manufacturer do you think will be willing to develop your ideas? How do you picture your perfect “toy” for the studio?
My ideal tool already exists, after decades of struggle. I don’t need a manufacturer, because my software is open source and available to everyone at no cost. I’m against the commodification of ideas. If it were up to me, everything would be open source.
Are you adapting the album to a live performance? At least when all the COVID-19 crisis passes…
I like the compositions just as they are, so probably not.
Speaking of which… how have you experienced all this crisis? How has it affected you as an artist? I hope you and all your close ones are safe!
The main impact of the pandemic on me is that all my shows were canceled. On the plus side, it gave me more time to focus on composing. I’m a programmer and a workaholic so I’m used to staying indoors.
Saying your career has been prolific would be an understatement. Starting over 30 years ago, having released in Mental Groove or International DJ Gigolo, and having developed so many styles… how do you see the future of the industry?
The future of the music industry is pretty low on my list of problems. Two theoretical physicists recently published a peer-reviewed paper demonstrating a 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades. I’m more concerned about that.
I don’t see myself as prolific. I’m a slow, methodical worker. I sometimes listen to my algorithms for hours, trying to decide whether I’m satisfied with them. I tinker with parameters and try to optimize them. I often try all the permutations of something. The track I’m best known for, “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself,” took me a year.
With the COVID-19 confinement, we’ve seen the proliferation of the video streaming of sets as a “new-found-again” tool to promote music. In the past, the main players didn’t care so much for this and we’ve seen many jump into the streaming wagon… do you think there is any future for video-streaming as a tool, beyond just promotion and visibility? What does your experience tell you?
People go to clubs to party, which is more or less the opposite of socially distancing. That’s why governments are so reluctant to reopen clubs. People expect partying to include physical presence, and video streaming doesn’t address that need, so I doubt it will catch on to the same extent that clubbing has.
Have you performed any streaming during quarantine?
Yes, I did a stream at Hoppetosse. The DJ booth was wrapped in a white fabric cocoon on which video was projected. Only my ghostly silhouette was visible. I was a ghost in the machine.
What can you tell us about the Church Of Euthanasia?
The mission is unchanged, it’s still voluntary population reduction. The Church of Euthanasia has only one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Procreate. Everything else is optional. Take the lifetime vow of non-procreation. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. You don’t have to do anything else for the environment for the rest of your life.
The Church of Euthanasia was founded in 1992, and today it’s more relevant than ever. Issues that previously seemed far-fetched—climate change, loss of biodiversity, mass extinction—are now front-page news. From its inception the Church of Euthanasia predicted worsening overpopulation, overconsumption, and environmental chaos. Tragically, its predictions have proved correct.
“Apologize to the Future” is antinatalist to the core. It preaches that procreating isn’t just selfish, it’s cruel. There’s no ethical justification for creating new humans only to abandon them on a wrecked planet. Future generations will suffer for crimes they didn’t commit, while the perpetrators are smugly dead. How convenient.
You say mass extinction is underway… how many years do we have left?
In the long term, the planet will be fine, no matter what we do. It’s humanity that’s threatened, especially our global civilization which is extremely fragile. We’re still accelerating into the catastrophe so collapse by 2050 seems plausible, and in line with the paper I mentioned above. Wake me up when the Keeling Curve reverses direction or even plateaus.
Finally, Chris, what else is this year and the next holding for you? Any projects after the album?
I recently finished a second album of algorithmic solo piano, titled “Passion for Numbers.” It’s more harmonically sophisticated than its predecessor (“Polymeter” on Mental Groove) and reflects my increasing fascination with atonal harmony. After that I have another album almost completed that’s more danceable, in a mix of various styles. I hope to keep exploring the vast musical ocean that surrounds the island of common time and scales. The future looks dark, but meanwhile “make hay while the sun shines.”
Thanks for your time!