EX.528 Chris Korda
Chris Korda: Dance music's harbinger of ecocide
The American artist and software developer Chris Korda uses the conventions of house music to warn us of societal and environmental collapse. She's been talking about it through music, writing and direct action since the early '90s. Now as her warnings become reality, so too has her music reached a renewed relevance and audience, primarily through a pair of albums for Perlon. Back in the early '90s, she founded the anti-natalist project the Church Of Euthanasia, whose mission to save the world from ecological disaster is summed up by its one commandment ("Thou shalt not procreate") and four pillars: suicide, abortion, cannibalism and sodomy. The mission dovetailed with her music, which was introduced to Europe by the reissue and subsequent crossover success of "Save The Planet, Kill Yourself" (a Church Of Euthanasia catchphrase).
In conversation with Martha Pazienti-Caiden, Korda talks about the research behind her latest Perlon LP, Apologize To The Future, which imagines the bitter resentment of future generations inheriting a wrecked planet.
Youíre listening to Resident Advisors exchange. Iím Martha, thank you for being with us. This weekís episode is a conversation I had with composer, techno producer, and environmental activist, Chris Korda.
Chris founded the controversial Church of Euthanasia in the nineties, an antinatalist movement that obliges its members to take a lifetime vow of non-procreation in a move towards environmental sustainability. Her techno track ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ was a worldwide hit reaching the shores of Ibiza and the crates of Carl Cox amongst other superstar DJs. Chris Korda is now ready to share a new project, an LP titled ďApologize to the FutureĒ written in complex polymeter with a robot choir delivering the central theme that future generationsóshould they existówill bitterly resent us for leaving them with a wrecked planet. Chris wanted to set out a few things about her research around this new record and the emotional consequences of looking into the state of our environment, right from the start of our chat. So youíll hear from her first and then the full interview.
This album ďApologize to the futureĒ cost me a lot emotionally. You understand? Emotionally. I still have a hard time listening to it. It upsets me, and thatís because itís intended to, and I guess itís fair to say that itís supposed to hurt. If it doesnít hurt, somethingís wrong. And so I feel that thatís the elephant in the room. That this is a terrifying thing, and to have even thought about these issuesóeven in a relatively trivial wayówould already be traumatic, but to have explored them and visualized them in such excruciating detail is awful. It was a long process and unpleasant, and it is the culmination of decades and decades of research and study. And of course it synthesizes all of the Church of Euthanasia and everything that went into that. You could say that more than thirty years of my life is embedded in this album.
And so I feel that itís important to talk about that, to talk about what it means to have to say something like this in the public sphere. After all this time, after all the water thatís gone under this bridge. Itís arguable that this is the electronic music album ever made entirely about climate change and human extinction and all the rest of it, intergenerational injustice. I mean, these are really major themes in our society at the moment. These are the essential themes of the 21st century. And so itís as much a political development as it is an artistic one.
Do you remember a moment where you became passionate about the environment? Like, was there a key memory that stands out to you or an initial moment of realization about how much humans are damaging the earth?
Sure, sure. I read ďGodís [Own] Junkyard.Ē My mother had it. She was quite an environmentalist and very passionate about it. And so she had a lot of books on her bookshelf that would have been interesting for a child to read. And some of them were easy. ďGodís [Own] JunkyardĒ is a picture book. Itís just photographs Ö of primarily billboards and other littering of the landscape, if you want to put it that way. Itís hard to imagine, but there was a time when there werenít laws against littering. And so I grew up as a child in a world where littering was the norm and it was quite vile. People just threw their trash out the windows of their cars. It was a long journey from being a five-year-old or whatever I was when I first encountered my motherís environmental books to founding the Church of Euthanasia in 1992. A lot of stuff happened during those years thatís not relevant, or thatís only relevant if we were writing my biography, but somewhere during that time, I grasped something deep that perhaps Ö it helps to grow up in New York City to grasp, which is that the world was overpopulated. This was pretty obvious to me. And that overpopulation and overconsumption were having massive effects on not only on the environment, meaning the nonhuman world, but on human beings. You canít stand in Grand Central station and not get that. I mean, it was years and years later when I saw Godfrey Reggioís famous film ďKoyaanisqatsi.Ē And of course one of the highlights of ďKoyaanisqatsiĒ is the stop-motion or speeded up photography of rush-hour commuters pouring through the escalators of Grand Central station, intercut with sausage, going through a sausage machine.
And of course the implication is pretty obvious, that humans are meat in the machine. Itís a wonderful film. Itís a very glum film actually. Its ultimate metaphor for human civilization is a rocket. A giant rocket taking off, slowly taking offóit takes a long time to get a rocket in the air actually, but once it gets in the air, itís very powerfulóbut it shows the trajectory, the arc of the rocket, and itís very impressive and powerful. And then the rocket explodes. I feel bad, Iím spoiling the ending, but most people have seen it by now. But I feel itís actually a pretty apt metaphor. And so Godfrey Reggio had a point. But I grasped all that at a very early age. I saw that humanity was overwhelming earth, and that that was bad strategy. And that wasnít gonna work out. I mean, by the time I was a teenager, I had already grasped that.
And so the seeds of the Church of Euthanasia go all the way back to my childhood. I think most people who grew up in the 1970s probably could dimly grasp that something was going terribly wrong. Remember, the environmental protection movement began in 1971. I was a child. But before that, there was no environmental protection really. Before thatóI had a friend who taught me about all thisóbefore that was referred to in America as the ďgo-go years,Ē the postwar period, post Second World War. Those were the go-go years, where if you wanted to build a factory or somethingóthere were so many towns that just kind of sprang into existence when the interstate highway system was built in Americaóyou would just go driving out to these exits that were, there was basically almost no ďthereĒ there, they had all been farmland a few years before.
Next thing you know, suburbs are exploding and it all kind of looks a little bit like that film ďThe Stepford Wives,Ē and you would just drive there in your Cadillac and then go to city hall and bring the mayor a suitcase full of money. And heíd hand you whatever building permits you want. They donít care, whatever you want to do, great, build it. And nobody was checking to see what you were dumping in the sewers. And that had terrible consequences. It took years, decades, before we got that under control. Industrial pollution exploded in the 1960s and even starting in the fifties, actually a lot of the damage was done in the late fifties, when the plastics industry really got underway, people were pouring the most ghastly things right into the sewers.
And in many cases melting the sewers. I worked in a company in Boston where that actually happened. We were sited on top of an enormous toxic waste [dump] that had resulted from the fact that all the previous tenants of that industrial park were circuit [fabricators]. You know what those are, thatís where they make circuit boards. One of the most toxic industries in the world. And I had an eyewitness to that who said that at one of the buildings, there was a hole in the floor, a big square hole in the floor, and thatís where they poured all the used solvents. So just try and scale that, imagine that in your head, multiply that times millions of people and thousands and thousands of corporations all across America, especially in Massachusetts, where Iím from. And you can begin to understand why we needed the Environmental Protection Agency. By the time it started, we had rivers on fire and stuff like this. It was no joke. We had really made a mess. So I think that all of that was part of the answer to your question. Thatís how I got started down this road.
And tell me about founding the church.
The God honest truth is it came to me in a dream. Okay. That stuff happens. Itís not only in fiction. It worked for Salvador Dali and it can work for me. It came to me in a dream, ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ came to me in a dream or a trance or whatever we want to call it. And so ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ was the foundation of the church. Itís the gift that keeps on giving. To the extent that I could be a one hit wonder, thatíll be the one. Itís still giving today. Just last year, Supreme ripped it off, and sold 10,000 T-shirts. Incredible. And they ripped off the entire design, not just the slogan, with the slogan, thereís no problem there. You canít copyright slogans.
Maybe you could trademark them if you had a lot of money and lawyers, but they didnít just take the slogan. They took the whole design, everything. The only thing they changed is they removed the word ďeuthanasiaĒ in the copyright. So instead of saying ďChurch of EuthanasiaĒ it said ďChurch of Supreme.Ē So brazen! I remember talking to my gallerist in Paris about that. I was fuming. I was just ripping, you know? And heís like, let me talk to them. Let me talk to some people, I know what to do. And he did know what to do. He made a few calls, and he said, the thing you need to do, donít come in with your guns blazing. He said they did the same thing to Louis Vuitton, and Louis Vuitton lost in court. Iím like, oh dear. Okay.
So this is just how they roll, you know? And so he said, what you need to do is you need to send them a very polite email, and make it kind of passive-aggressive and whiny. Say something like, ďI wish we could have met under better circumstances,Ē which is exactly what I did say. It worked really well. Next thing you know, I was on the phone with the creative director of Supreme and he was super apologetic. And itís a big company, one hand doesnít always know what the other hand is doing. And so like, hey, sorry about that. Our bad, letís see how we can make this right. Well, thatís fine. But I mean, the point is that ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ is more relevant today than it was in the nineties, much more. And people get that. They see it. Back in the nineties, it seemed absurd.
Before we talk about how it was received at the time, would you be able to just lay out the values of the Church of Euthanasia?
Well, I mean, itís very easy. Itís, thereís only really only one thing that everybody agrees to. The Church of Euthanasia is committed to voluntary population reduction. Weíre an antinatalist church. Joining the church means taking a lifetime vow of non-procreation. And if you do that, you donít have to do anything else for the environment. You get a pass, you get a ďget out of jail freeĒ card for everything else. We donít care what else you do. Everything else is optional. You donít have to be a vegan. We donít care. I mean, itís nice. You get brownie points for that. But the only thing you have to do is not have children. But you have to stick to it. If you change your mind, we kick you out, and you canít come back. Youíre excommunicated. We only have one rule, so weíre pretty stubborn about adhering to it. The one commandment: ďThou shalt not procreate.Ē And thatís it. Itís easy.
And so itís really kind of a slacker religion. And it grew up at a time when that made sense. At the time when the Church of Euthanasia started, it was still ďhigh weirdness by mail,Ē the Ďzine movement, the Church of the Subgenius. We had competition back then. Satanism was big, punk and post-punk were huge. There was a lot of crazy stuff going around in the mail. And so we were just one of those things, but we managed to differentiate ourselves from the pack pretty quickly. And we had legs. I mean once we went on the Jerry Springer show, there was no turning back. We had the ear of the public and we continued to say stuff that made people shake their heads and think about things differently. We didnít just stop with ďSave the Planet, Kill Yourself.Ē
Would you tell me a bit about how the church was received at the time, in the nineties?
Well, with horror. I mean, itís still received with horror. Itís the last thing people want to hear. Particularly in libertarian countries like the United States, where people hate being told what to do, the last thing they want is people telling them how many children they should have, or shaming them for having children. Itís never going to be popular. That wasnít its point. Its point was to draw attention to certain things, to change the conversation. I like to say that we changed the conversation about antihumanism. We put, we helped put antihumanism on the map. By the time Elizabeth Kolbert got around to it, weíd been laying the groundwork for years. Antihumanism is alive and well today in part thanks to our efforts. And the essence of antihumanism is seeing human civilization, and human activities and human history from a nonhuman point of view. And thatís what we did. Thatís a thing worth doing. And it wasnít easy and people hated it, but it needed to be done.
So you just mentioned the ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ record. In what way were you using music as a vehicle to get your ideas out there and how did you see music kind of helping your cause?
There was a lot of luck involved. I mean, I was a musician long before the Church of Euthanasia. Iíve been a musician since I was 12 years old. I started with piano. I switched to guitar at 15 or so, and I played guitar seriously for more than 30 years. I studied jazz under Jerry Bergonzi. I briefly attended the Berklee College of Music. I had composition classes in university. I know my stuff. And so I love music, and that was my first love, actually. In life, you donít typically get to do your first choice. Very, very few people get that. Itís nice when you meet someone who got to do the thing that they really said from the beginning, thatís what I love and thatís what I want to do. That wasnít my case, not really. What I wanted was to be a guitarist. Well, thatís a tough racket. As you probably know, thereís a lot of jazz guitarists in the world. Itís a little bit like saying I want to be an Olympic swimmer. Itís like, okay, well, letís see your arms. Good luck with that.
So I struggled with it. I struggled with it a lot and ultimately it didnít work out, but in the process, I learned a lot about music and developed a deep, abiding understanding of harmony and a deep love of improvisation and rhythm and all the rest of it. So I would have made music without the Church of Euthanasia, and in fact, Iíd already started making music before the Church of Euthanasia was a thing. My first recorded music is ďDemons in My Head.Ē Thatís not really a Church of Euthanasia thing. Itís an environmental Ö what shall we call it? ďAn environmental punishment in D minor.Ē Okay. Well, thatís what it says on their CD. Itís ambient music of some kind, or environmental music.
And itís interesting, and I like it, but itís more just that there were a bunch of things all occurring at the same time. At the moment where I first sort of gotten the idea that electronic music could possibly allow me to express myself in a new way that didnít involve practicing scales on the guitar eight hours a day, around that same time, the Church of Euthanasia was first blossoming. And so it just seemed logical. The things went together. I had always said that the church should use every available media. And we did that. We were pretty good that way. We got ourselves on TV, we got in the newspapers, we did radio shows, we did actions in the street, and we made music. We did everything. We made merchandise. We were a full-service cult, you know?
And so it just made sense, like, okay, well, so Iím making electronic music and Iím figuring this out. My first few tracks were just techno tracks or whatever. But then at some point itís like, okay, well, this thing goes with that thing. And so letís try setting ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ to music and see what happens. And boom, next thing you know, there goes another year of my life. It took a year actually to make that record. That was a very hard record to make. I mean, it was worth it, right? Itís still today probably my single biggest hit. And itís what got me on Gigolo. Just that track by itself. What happened exactly was DJ Hell brought it back from a record shop in New York, and his girlfriend at the time, Gabrielle, fell in love with it and kept saying to Hell, I love that track. You got to keep playing that track. You gotta find Chris Korda and bring him here and release that track.
So he put out the vibe and eventually word got to me. It took a while though. I was at some party somewhere in Boston and a total stranger [Benny Blanco] was DJing. At that point in my life, I was sort of in the habit of introducing myself to the DJ, you know, I was an aspiring artist or whatever, still totally unknown, and thatís the kind of thing you do when youíre struggling in that business. And so I introduced myself and he said, oh my God, youíre Chris Korda? Holy crap. Give me your telephone number. I gotta introduce you to DJ Hell, heís looking for you. I thought, what a lot of shit, whoís that guy, I had never heard of any of this.
I thought it sounded pretty sketchy, but I gave him my phone number. And two days later I got a call from Hell saying something like, I mean, I exaggerate, I donít want to do the accent, it wouldnít be right. But he said something like, weíre going to make you a star in Germany. And he was true to his word. So thatís how ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ got off the ground. But it was a pretty long bitter process. Initially it was released on my own label and it didnít go super well. I mean, it charted in Detroit and in Chicago, but really not anywhere else. It didnít really find its audience until I was introduced to European audiences.
Hmm. So you mentioned that it took a year to make that record. Iíd love to know a bit more about your approach to using sequences in music production. Um, itís been described as more like sculpting rather than traditional composition.
Well, I said that, in numerous interviews, Iíve stated that my process is more similar to sculpting, and thatís true now, but it wasnít true at the time. At the time when ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ was made I was using a more conventional process. I would, like most composers, I had a keyboard, an electronic keyboard or whatever in my little studio and some synthesizers and drum machines and stuff. And I would plonk around on the keyboard and play a few chords and try and find something that fit. Thatís how most people write music, but thatís not at all how I write music today. Thatís not how ďAkoko AjejiĒ was made. And thatís not how this new ďApologize to the FutureĒ record was made either. So my process has changed. Pretty early on after, or around the same time that I was making ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ I really grasped polymeter and what its implications were. And pretty soon after that, I was writing almost exclusively in complex polymeter.
Not always. On the first record, maybe not. ďSix Billion Humans Canít Be WrongĒ has some tracks that are just in straight four, including for example ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ of course, but also ďVictim of LeisureĒ and a few others. But there are examples of complex polymeter on that first record too. ďStencilĒ is definitely complex polymeter. So [are] ďBuyĒ and ďBuy MoreĒ and many others. So I had already [grasped] the idea, but I didnít have the right tools for it. It was still a very painful process back then, but ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ didnít take a year because of that. It took a year because it was so hard to get the mix right.
Itís a very complex track, it has a lot of parts and Iím no expert at audio engineering. No one will ever accuse me of that. And I had a bunch of pretty experienced help, but they mostly werenít getting it right. And so in the end we had to retain really professional help. I had to actually basically pay a guy to start over and remix the whole thing from scratch, using ADAT, which was pretty cutting-edge technology at that time, where you can just put each instrument on its own tape. And, so he remixed the entire thing, 64 tracks or whatever it was. He was actually a very interesting character. His name was David Frangioni. Heíd worked for Aerosmith and bands like that. Paula Abdul and so on. Jan Hammer caught my attention as heís one of my great heroes. But so [David] had a studio in Arlington and he remixed the whole thing.
And by the time he got done with it, it sounded amazing, truly professional. And he compressed it to within an inch of its life. And thatís the mix that DJ Hell heard. Itís just absolutely thunderous from the first note, but that kind of thing is not easy to arrange. Thatís skill, thereís a lot of skill involved in audio engineering and I never claimed that that was my real skill. Iím not an audio engineer or a sound designer primarily, though I have done some of that work of course. Iím primarily a composer.
Um, you mentioned that about them kind of coming to an understanding of the implications of polymeter. Um, what were those implications that you understood about polymeter?
Well, itís simple. I mean, itís like this. Itís just an analogy, but pretty much all music that most people today have ever heard is in 4/4, and specifically the backbeat. Thatís the thing that goes, boom, cha, boom, cha, right? With the snares on the two and the four, and probably mostly in the major scale, or maybe even only in one major scale, or maybe even only in the pentatonic minor. Most disco tracks are just pentatonic minor start to finish. I mean, I should probably explain what polymeter is for the record.
Polymeter is basically really simple. Itís really just when you have a bunch of things that are different frequencies. And so if one frequency is an exact integer multiple of the other, it wonít be very interesting to watch, but if one frequency isnít an exact integer multiple of the other, and you have a bunch of them, theyíll engage in this fascinating kind of converging and diverging movement, not unlike the planets orbiting the sun.
So itís not the same thing as odd time. There is odd time tradition going back thousands of years. To this day, thereís still an island in the Aegean sea, part of Greece, I believe Iím pronouncing it right, itís called Kalamata. ... But anyway, the people who live on that island have been dancing in seven for thousands of years, and they have a name for it. Itís called the [Kalamatianos] dance. And so if you say to a Greek band, hey, play [Kalamatianos], theyíre like, okay, weíll play in seven now. And everybody dances in seven and itís perfectly normal. Thatís just what they do. So odd time is as old as the hills, nothing new about that. Itís absolutely normal in Indian classical music and in Arabic drumming and many other parts of the world. But polymeter, not.
And so why is that? Well, we can speculate. There actually hasnít been much academic research done on this and there should be. I would submit that the reason why polymeter doesnít have a folk tradition is because itís so hard for humans to do. Essentially what youíre asking people to do is youíre asking them to do the opposite of what they normally do. Normally what people want to do is get in phase and stay in phase. If you donít do that, right, your music teacher wraps you on the knuckles. Hey, youíre losing time or youíre gaining time or whatever. But in polymeter, you do it intentionally. Youíre intentionally going out of phase with everything else at a precisely controlled rate. And then eventually youíre going back into phase again at the same precisely controlled rate. Well, itís super unnatural.
Itís super hard to do for musicians. Maybe very highly classically trained musicians can do it if you write it all out, but your ordinary average musician just canít do it. And so that means that thatís why it didnít evolve, right? It didnít evolve because itís just not a thing people do. And so it had to wait until the age of machines. Machines turned out to be amazingly good at this. If thereís one thing machines are really, really good at, itís maintaining precise phase relationships. And you could do it back in the nineties, you could do it in the eighties, probably. If you had two drum machines and you locked them into sync with each other, which was not impossible to do even in the eighties, you could program one with a pattern length of five and the other with a pattern length of seven and bingo, youíve got instant polymeter, using Rolandís technology.
So it wasnít that it was physically impossible to do. Steve Reich was demonstrating it in the late sixties and early seventies with two tape recorders. He was pretty much the first person to demonstrate it in an academic context. So it was possible, but it just didnít really have any tradition behind it. So people had no idea what to do with it. And the only examples they had of it were mostly Steve Reichís music, which frankly, it comes from an academic context. Itís not necessarily all that pleasant or groovy. It sounds kind of square, a little bit square maybe for people who arenít into academic-sounding classical music. And so people just really didnít pay attention to it. It wasnít a thing. Iím hard pressed to name another electronic music artist from the nineties who made use of polymeter.
I was literally, you know, I had to field to myself in the nineties. I was the only techno artist writing in complex polymeter. In fact itís hard to find examples even in any kind of music except academic classical music. I found a couple of tracks by Stereolab, and that was much, much later. I did a pretty exhaustive search and I didnít find it. And it wasnít because it was impossible. Itís just because itís not a thing that people normally do. But it really does change everything. I think that the implication of polymeter is that itís a whole new approach to music. It really is. And so thatís why I invested so much time and energy in exploring it. And I know a lot more about it now than I did in the nineties, for sure.
And youíve used technology across this time to kind of understand it better and bring that into the way you make your music.
Yeah, there was a big delay. The problems were mostly technological. You asked about me being an engineer and stuff. The problem was that Ö thereís a lot of luck involved in life and there was luck involved in this too. I just happened to ownóat the time I was making ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ in the early nineties, and starting out down the road of electronic musicóI just happened to own a copy of DOS Cakewalk, which was fairly obscure at that time. But it was one of the only [MIDI] sequencers you could actually get for MS-DOS, which is what I happened to be running. Remember MS-DOS, floppy disks, all this kind of thing. So thatís pretty historic, but so one of the odd attributes of DOS Cakewalk was that you could set each trackís length completely independently from the others.
And so I basically just discovered one day that you could do amazing things with this. This had more to do with setting the course of my future music development than any other single thing. I woke up one day and Iím like, oh, what happens if we set all the lengths different, and all the lengths arenít multiples of each other? In other words, if they were multiples of each otherówhich is presumably what most people probably did, maybe they had one thing thatís in four, another thing thatís in 16 and another thing thatís in 32 or whatever, and then you donít get any benefitóbut if you set one to five and one to 11 and one to 13, holy smokes, next thing you know, youíve got this crazy thing thatís evolving over days, or at least minutes, hours, long periods of time, the more prime numbers involved the longer the repeat time gets.
And so suddenly it dawned on me that this was really radical. But the point was that after MS-DOS became no longer a thing, there was a huge consolidation in the music industry, around certain technologies for sequencing. And essentially everything moved. As soon as Windows and Mac became dominant, everything became about timeline editing, just as in video. And the problem with timeline editing is it screws [polymeter] up. Suddenly you donít have separate loop points for each track. And so if you look at the design of [sequencers] like Logic and Ableton and so on, they make it super difficult to do what I do. And this message was not lost on me. I thought oh wow, this is not good. Iím going to have to make my own thing. And so I did, I set about making my own software, because frankly none of the commercial softwares were helping me. They were making it actively difficult to do what I wanted to do.
And the problem with that of course, is that maintaining your own software is hard work. And in the nineties, it was really hard work. Basically that was back before we had universal device drivers and stuff like that. So you literally had to write your software around a particular chunk of hardware, and God help you if you lose that piece of hardware, maybe you better buy two or three of them, which is what I did. But so that whole paradigm just collapsed. And eventually it became clear that the only way forwardóthis was about 2003 now, after ďThe Man of the FutureĒóit became clear that there was no further gain that could be extracted from my DOS homegrown MIDI sequencer, no matter how awesome it was.
I mean, Iíd used it to make two albums and it was great for making polymeter, but it was hopelessly obsolete and very limiting and it was hurting my artistic creativity. And so the only way forward would be to somehow port that program to a modern operating system. Well, that turns out to be a really hard thing to do. And so a lot of the reason I stopped making music for a while, was because I had to go learn the skills that I would need to do that. It took me years and years of mostly working in the commercial sector. I worked in the 3D-printing industry primarily for about 20 years. And during that time I learned about object-oriented programming and many other boring things, which arenít boring to me, but theyíre boring to most people. Essentially I learned the technological background skills that I would need to accomplish this task.
And I wrote a lot of open source software during that time and had some good practice runs. And by the time I sat down to actually write the new polymeter program in 2016, I was a much better programmer. And so I did a better job of it. And that was a good thing. Essentially, the new program, the new Polymeter has vastly more degrees of freedom than the original one did, degrees of freedom that I couldnít have imagined back in the nineties. And they are very exciting and theyíve led to a whole new area of music for me. Iím now making neoclassical music.
So during the process of making this updated software, um, were you, did you have an album in mind or did that come later and you just wanted to get the software nailed first?
[They] totally co-evolved. Essentially ďAkoko AjejiĒ is like a diary of the redevelopment of the polymeter sequencer. I got the easy stuff working first. Iím a big believer in picking the low-hanging fruit. So I picked the low-hanging fruit. ďAla AyeĒ was the first track. Itís actually a really hard track, but it only uses juxtaposition. But so anyway thatís the idea is that you build that thing, and then suddenly you have new degrees of freedom and you can approach music in a totally different way.
So did you feel freedom when you were working on ďApologize to the FutureĒ?
No, ďApologize to the FutureĒ was kind of different. On ďAkoko AjejiĒ I felt very carefree, I guess, is the word. I love the beginnings of projects and Iím a very curious person. I like intellectual pursuits, Iím a big believer inóI think it was the major who said somewhere in ďTwin PeaksĒ: ďAchievement is its own reward.ĒóIím a big believer in that. I believe that the best thing that can happen to you in life is that you can get really curious about something and then learn everything there is to know about it, or as much as you can learn about it. And that thatís the point. There isnít any other point to being alive. And so, Iím happy when I discover something new or when I start something new and I just want to get up every morning and learn everything I can about that thing.
ďAkoko AjejiĒ is kind of a happy uplifting album because of that, but ďApologize to the FutureĒ comes from a completely different heredity. I didnít write the music to start with. I wrote the lyrics and it took a long time. And in some cases, the lyrics predate the music by many months or even almost a year. ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ came first. ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ has a long history behind it. ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ started years before the album. Originally it wasnít a song at all. It started as a blog post of all things, on a blog thatís actually pretty important in my history, important enough to mention it. The blog is called Metadelusion.
Metadelusion is interesting because it is the home of what I call the post-antihuman Church of Euthanasia. I know thatís a bit of a mouthful, but thatís the truth. The Church of Euthanasia went through a pretty drastic kind of rejiggering in the Ď00s. Essentially, we made the transition from being mostly about misanthropyómostly about hating humans for all the terrible stuff theyíve done, which we wonít list exhaustively nowówe went from hating humans to actually kind of feeling sorry for them. Thatís the difference. Hating them now is kind of pointlessly cruel, since most of the terrible stuff that was going to happen to us if we didnít stop doing all those stupid things is now unavoidable, and is going to happen anyway, even if we do stop doing them. And so increasingly itís more about grasping that humans are actually their own worst enemies, which is kind of tragic and awful.
And that includes all of us. And of course the most awful injustice of all of it is that in this case, itís a little bit like some customers skipping out of the restaurant without paying. So the present generations are going to get to die. Theyíll be smugly dead, and itíll be their offspring, their children and grandchildren who will be stuck paying the bill. Essentially present generations have sent their own descendants to hell, and itís that realization that I think really led to the post-antihuman Church of Euthanasia. Pretty glum. And so ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ grew out of that. ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ essentially was the late stage of my conversion to the view that what makes humanity interesting and worth saving is not just civilization, but specifically our scientific understanding of the universe.
That actually, this is our great achievement. I mean, weíve made a lot of nifty art and stuff, and I love art, and I love outsider art especiallyóarguably Iím an outsider artist myself, so Iím biasedóand I think art is important and a big part of the human story. But the key element of the human story is that we were kind of dumb children in the Neolithic, right? We werenít very smart. We really understood almost nothing. And today we understand almost everything. We certainly can grasp electrons and protons and neutrons and the cosmos and the periodic table and amazing stuff like that. And so human beings have really actually done very, very well at explaining phenomena. And the only way that we ever explain phenomena is through science.
Basically thereís really two kinds of knowledge. This is what ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ is about. Itís about the idea that thereís really two kinds of knowledge. Thereís knowledge that consists of predictive explanations of phenomena, and then thereís everything else. And so the ďeverything elseĒ could be divided broadly into things that try to make predictive explanations, but are actually bullshit: thatís pseudoscience. And then thereís stuff that just doesnít try to explain phenomena at all, like poetry, or painting perhaps would be a better example. So, in the first category of actual explanations of phenomena, science is absolutely preeminent. There is no competition for it. And so ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ basically starts with that. It sets the focus of the album. Almost the albumís opening line is a reference to Einsteinís famous quip that ďthe moon is really out there.Ē
His point being that itís out there whether you believe in it or not. That reality is real. This is sort of where the album starts. And so the album proceeded from that. ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ became a slideshow that I presented in Berlin, at Gallery Spektrum in 2018. And it just grew and grew from there. I basically started giving a lot of time to persuading people that humanityís great achievement was its understanding of its environment. And if we were going to save Ö that ďSave the Planet, Kill YourselfĒ was actually kind of a Zen koan, if you will, or a little bit of a paradox, because itís not actually the planet that needs saving. The planet is going to be fine. Thereís nothing wrong with the planet. Itís human civilization that needs saving. And so if we canít get our act together and we canít prioritize our long-term survival, then the future just doesnít include us. The planet goes on without us, and itíll be planet of dolphins, or planet of giant reptiles again, who knows. And whatever that is, it might evolve back into something like humans again, or it might not, but either way that wonít be our fault, because weíll be gone.
And so thatís the realization that the album springs from. Itís an existentialist thing. ďApologize to the FutureĒ is an existentialist album, it springs from the observation that humanity is alone in the universe, and that the universe is hostile and fundamentally utterly indifferent to our fate. If we have meaning here on earth, itís because we make it for ourselves. And if that meaning includes long-term survival, then allís good. But if that meaning turns out to be that we just want to have a really awesome party and screw the future, then thatís whatís going to happen. And thereís no law against that. It looks to me like thatís kind of whatís happened actually. And thatís the real meaning of Ö the track ďOvershootĒ is exactly about that.
When the rich people are on their private islands and jetting around and living these obscenely indulgent, decadent lives, theyíre serving as models for all the rest of us. So weíre supposed to model ourselves on them. Weíre supposed to model ourselves on superficiality and triviality and accumulation of wealth and selfishness and narcissism. Well, could be. The point is that thatís not a violation of the laws of physics. Itís perfectly possible. Itís one of our degrees of freedom. We can have a really awesome party for the few, and everybody else can be screwed and then we can go extinct. And if thatís the plan, if thatís what weíre really going to do, then we donít need to change anything. Weíve already got the right form of government for that. Itís called neoliberalism. Itís perfect. Everything is good. We just need to keep doing it and weíll be gone. But if we donít want that, if we want something else, if we want the better angels of our nature to prevail, then we do need a different system. And weíd better do it quickly, because weíre kind of running out of time.
What would you want your listeners to take away from spending time with your album?
Polymeter aside, the album is primarily a lyrical achievement from my point of view. I started down the roadóafter ďA Thin Layer of Oily RockĒ was becoming music and not just politicsóI started down the road of hip-hop and rap and studied those forms, because I felt that they were the right model. And Iím not claiming to be a rapper or anything like that, Iím just saying that I was really influenced by all of that. I was strongly influenced for example by Kate Tempest. When I saw Kate Tempestís ďEurope is LostĒ a kind of bulb went off over my head, I thought, okay, yeah. Actually I could do something like that, that thatís kind of the right direction for all of this.
This album contains more words than all of my previous output combined, if you add it all up, and by a lot, and not only that but itís all in rhyme. So thatís really different. Itís primarily a poetic or lyrical achievement. And so I would hope that itís understood that way. Groove magazine, they were kind of kidding around when they called me the Bob Dylan of climate change, but somehow the moniker stuck. Iím not saying that thatís true, itís not an egotistic thing, Iím just saying that thereís something to that, that we need a Bob Dylan of climate change. We need someone to make these issues real for people, so that they feel it, you understand? So that itís not just some kind of armchair intellectual thing, where youíre like, oh yeah, super bad stuffís happening, but I try not to read the news actually, because itís kind of depressing. You know, people think like, oh yeah, we really ought to do something about all that stuff. But Iíve got all this other stuff to do and Iím trying to get my new record released and then Iím going to do a live streaming and this and that. And also weíre busy partying.
Everybody has their own reasons why they donít want to make humanityís imminent implosion the main focus of their daily lives. I can understand that. I donít think itís easy. Iím not saying itís easy. But I get up every morning and I look myself in the mirror and I think that this is really happening. And whether itís lucky or unlucky, I have a ringside seat for the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. And so I want people to feel that. I want them to listen to this album and feel that. And so Ö I meant [what] I said Ö in ďExit GameĒ: the one that starts ďRich people are dumb. I hope they succumb. In expensive cars, or condos on Mars.Ē
Thatís real, people should be angry. They should feel rage. Weíve been lied to, weíve been used, and above all we failed. And we havenít failed in some abstract sense. We failed the future. Thatís not a good thing. Thatís a terrible thing to have done. Itís bad enough to fail the present, but to fail the future is really, really bad. And so I want people to feel that, I want them to think about that. And I want them to somehow connect with the issues that are being raised on this album. They might just listen to it and say, oh, thatís some pretty groovy music or whatever, but I donít think so. I personally feel that itís long overdue, and I couldnít tell you why it hasnít happened sooner. I mean, thatís something thatís for someone else to say.
Do you think that people might potentially be a little bit more [receptive] to hearing the ideas that are presented on the album amid the context of this kind of backdrop of a global pandemic with coronavirus?
I would think so. I would hope so because thereís clear connections between the two. I mean, I was going to cite this earlier, I can send you the citation, but thereís clear academic research and peer reviewed papers and so on showing that not only is COVID connected to the climate crisis, but in fact, it was predicted long ago. It was one of the predicted consequences of the climate crisis. Essentially itís a simple thing to understand, itís that deforestation and mass extinction on balance tend to place humanity more in contact with species that are carrying pathogens lethal to humanity. Thatís not hard to understand. Itís been understood for decades that this would be very likely, that this would be one of the things we would see happen, along with sea level rise and increasing global temperature and the acidification of the ocean and all of that.
Itís just another one of the things on that long glum list that you can get from the United Nations or whatever. Essentially itís that as we simplifyóthatís a polite wordóas we homogenize ecosystems and largely strip them of all their biological diversity, we can expect the weeds to get the upper hand. And when I say weeds, I donít mean plants that we donít like. I mean, the tough opportunist species. Most of them are not our friends. The obvious examples are rats and roaches and pigeons and so on, but thereís lots of others. Most of them are bugs and bacteria, and theyíre not our friends. And so to the extent that we create a hothouse world, weíre making life harder for ourselves. Definitely we will have more problems with our health. And so I donít, I donít see them as being separate issues.
I actually see COVID as a big wake up call for humanity, and a lot of people agree with me about that. I think thereís a lot of perception, especially in climate change circles, that this is actually just what we needed. Itís cold water in the face. Itís allowing people to do things that they previously said were impossible. Oh, we could never cut back our air travel, or we could never stop going on vacation all the time, or we could never stop driving, or completely rejigger our economy so that everything is moving online. No, no, we couldnít do any of those. Well, actually we did do those things. We just did it in response to a much different threat. So thatís fine. I think that COVID has opened the door for people to think about life in a different way, and to ask pointed questions about whatís really valuable and what we really want.
And so I think that itís actually the right moment. Iím not saying Iím glad that COVID happened. Of course Iím not. Itís made a lot of people die, and itís made a lot of people very miserable and itís causing a depression in many countries and thatís terrible. But I think that like so many things it has good and bad aspects. It has a silver lining. And one of the silver linings is that itís helping us to re-conceptualize modern life, which we desperately need to do. Now, whether thatís enough is another question. That wonít be for me to say, Iím not gonna say that itís enough. In fact thereís precious little evidence for that. Like I say somewhere in all of this, wake me up when the Keeling curve changes direction.
And for those who are not up on climate science, thatís the measurement of the amount of CO2 that weíre putting into the atmosphere each year. Itís been going up steadily since 1958, and it shows no sign of leveling off. Weíre still out putting more CO2 each year than the year before. So wake me up when that even plateaus. Thatíll be a sign that humanity is getting serious about its own future. And Iím sure Greta Thunberg would say something similar. In the end itís all about CO2. Thatís the main method we have to make our future impossible, is by continuing to add more CO2 to the atmosphere. Methane is not helping either, and thereís lots of other terrible stuff weíre doing thatís not helping, but if we continue to add more and more CO2 to the atmosphere every year, then definitely weíre going to four degrees C or whatever, or maybe worse.
And then weíre melting all the ice and melting all the permafrost. Then after a certain point, it no longer matters what people do. We could wake up one day and say, hey, you know what? That was all a terrible idea. And so weíre actually going to stop [emitting] any CO2, and maybe even start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and it could still be too late. Once you start really melting the permafrost, then the earth just has a certain inertia of its own. Itís a little bit like the Titanic. The time to turn it around is not just before you hit the iceberg, because by then itís just not going to happen. Itís a really large, large thing, and the icebergís really large too. And so thatís too late. You got to turn it around like five minutes earlier.
And so we have a similar situation. We got to turn around, and we got to turn around now. Actually we should have turned around 30 years ago, when the Church of Euthanasia was howling in the wilderness, but now would still be better than never. And so I hope that the Church of Euthanasiaís message will be received. I hope that the album will have an impact on people and theyíll think, yeah, actually we can change our lives, and we have to change our lives because we donít want to send our children to hell.
Absolutely. Um, so to end, what would your advice be for, um, being an environmentally friendly consumer of electronic music?
Wow. Well, thatís a really tough question. I thought about that one a lot last night. That one kept me awake. I didnít get as much sleep as I should have, and itís partly because of that question. I sort of donít know what to say. I gotta be careful what I say, I almost am tempted to plead the fifth, because thereís a deep problem, there really is. I guess whatever, itís a free country, I shouldnít be afraid. Iím the Reverend, Iím not supposed to be afraid. What I want to say is that the electronic music industry, letís just say that itís invested in, shall we say, partying. Partying is a big part of whatís being marketed, and thatís a problem. Itís not just a problem because partying is superficial and because it leads to a fairly shallow set of values. I would point to the fact that the clubbing industry is primarily sustained by alcohol sales.
Now the clubbing industry is under attack at the moment. Itís not polite to kick somebody when theyíre down, but you understand that disco was derided even back in the 1970s when I was a teenager. Disco was perceived by many people as being a step backwards in terms of musical variety and creativity, but it became the main American export culturally, and it spread all over the world. And so now 40 years later, people are still doing that thing where it goes, boom, cha, boom, cha. I canít tell you how many people I know who are in the business of providing something like party facilitation. Itís a bit harsh, but I think you know what I mean. And so thatís a problem, right? Because thereís nothing that says that music has to be synonymous with partying.
In fact the music that I grew up listening to wasnít. The music that I grew up listening to was extremely politically motivated. And a lot of the lyrics were very powerful and about pressing social issues. And many of the songs that I remember from my childhood were transformational. They changed me. They changed many other people. Arguably in some way, by changing all of us, they changed society. Go back and read Joni Mitchellís lyrics. Theyíre very deep. Thereís a lot of emotional and intellectual depth. Iím frightened that during my lifetime, art in general has become more crass, as culture has become more crass. I donít think that Trumpism is a surprise. To me, Trumpism is just the continuation of a long glum rollback of everything. I lived through the age of rollback, and itís been pretty bleak to watch.
I havenít really enjoyed it much and Iíve tried to fight against it my own way. Iíve tried to contribute more depth and more feeling to the intellectual and emotional conversations and artistic conversations that weíre having. But itís not an easy thing to change. The tideís going the other way, right? And so thatís part of the reason I listened to and was influenced by rap music before I made ďApologize to the Future.Ē I actually think that rap musicóand hip hop to some extent, but especially more political rapóis one of the last bastions of real lyrical depth. Now you may not necessarily be able to relate to the issuesóit depends on who you are and how you grew upóbut thereís no question that itís very complex lyrically and rhythmically, and thereís a lot of thought that goes into making those rhymes. And some of them are quite interesting and they have a lot to say about society and where itís headed.
It is possible still for music and art to be political and to change society. And I want that. I just think that the electronic music industry has not in general been holding up its end of that bargain. Iím not going to point fingers and say that thatís anyoneís fault, I just think that thatís a phenomenon thatís occurred. Thereís been a kind of epidemic of superficiality, and that too needs to change because I see them all as just different facets of the same problem. Iím not kidding in ďOvershootĒ when I say ďInto the deep weíll soon descend; Party until the bitter end.Ē Thatís really about the present. Itís about the present viewed from the future, but itís still about the present.
Thanks for doing that, that thinking and going to those places because obviously not everyone wants to do that.
Oh my God. Tell me about it. And I donít want to do it either half the time. I guess what I could say as a postscript to all of this is that this was a hard year. The year of ďApologize to the FutureĒ was a hard year and Iím still recovering and actually itís painful to still have to talk about it. I would like nothing better than to go back to making neoclassical piano music and playing with my sequencer and exploring the vast ocean of polymeter. My real love increasingly is atonal harmony. Itís a wonderful thing. If you get a chance, you could hearóI just released an album on Mental Groove called ďPolymeter.Ē Itís going to have a sequel, a wonderful sequel that I love called ďPassion for Numbers.Ē
Boy that sums up my life. What a title. ďPassion for Numbers.Ē So true! But itís a beautiful thing. Itís kind of neoclassical, but jazz as well. Itís kind of like stride piano, probably Fats Waller would have loved it if he could have heard it. And itís totally algorithmic music. It really is. Itís revolutionary. Itís algorithmic music where Iím using polymeter to generate atonal harmony. I started seriously studying atonal harmony and pitch class sets and all that good stuff. And itís wonderful. Itís a fascinating world. And I would love to spend the rest of my life working on that.
But the truth is that current events affect all of us, [myself] included. And so I might not want to spend my days talking about the climate crisis, but I feel that itís my responsibility to do it. Itís like the Talking Heads said years ago, itís life during wartime. We all have to put our ambitions and our personal goals aside a little bit, or at least in the backseat, and focus on the matters at hand. And I think that thatís a message that everyone should embrace. These are not ordinary times weíre living through.
Yes. And I hope one of the ways that people can understand that is by taking in your album. So I hope that it reaches as many people as possible. And thank you for your work. And I just want you to know that you are appreciated.
Thatís very sweet, Martha, thank you.