In conversation with: Chris Korda
Interview by Chiara Pignoloni for T-Magazine
Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your story. What was it like growing up in NYC and how did you get into music?
I saw rivers of people flowing through urban canyons, endless rows of modernist buildings that scraped the clouds like teeth. In summer, a glowing red dome of air pollution covered the entire city. There were less cars then, but I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle because the traffic was too dangerous. NYC looked like the 1950s TV show “The Honeymooners.” It was a more middle-class society. People had small apartments and modest furnishings and weren’t ashamed of that. People felt more solidarity because the horrors of WWII were still recent history. Governments attacked aristocracy by redistributing wealth, for example the year I was born, the top federal tax rate was 91%, inconceivable today. I met people from around the world, and became cosmopolitan. I was a wanted, loved child and spent much of my childhood reading. I got into music from listening to my mother’s collection of rock records.
How did you evolve as artist and performer? How did your experimentation with gender begin and why did you decide to play using the cross-dressing?
I was strongly influenced by progressive rock, particularly the band Yes, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and other examples of odd time. I sang in my school’s choir, played various instruments informally, and started learning the guitar seriously at the age of 16. I studied harmony in college, and briefly attended Berklee College of Music. I also studied for years under jazz saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. I discovered by chance that I had an unusual aptitude for computer programming, and since I found it impossible to make a living as a guitarist, I started a 35-year career as a software developer. I crossdressed occasionally as a child and during my 20s, but didn’t get serious about it until Halloween 1990, when I came out as a crossdresser. I moved to Provincetown, MA (a gay resort), competed in drag balls, and was exposed to deep house, which inspired me to start making electronic music.
Your environmental struggle was a forerunner of what is happening today on a global level. How was Church of Euthanasia born and why did you choose this subversive and provocative approach to express your eco-political statements?
My mother claimed that my environmentalism resulted from her reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” while she was pregnant. The more likely cause was books I read, such as “God’s Own Junkyard,” a photographic essay that showed the impact of billboards and litter on suburban landscapes. I developed a lifelong fascination with the ugliness of industrial civilization. Environmentalism was new, and the cleanup of decades of industrial pollution had only begun. I was profoundly shocked by the first climate change stories in New York Times. As a child I intuitively understood humanity’s uniqueness, our radical differences from other mammals, and our consequent domination of earth. Growing up in the space age, I grasped the cosmic scale and total indifference of the universe. As a teenager I had a psychedelic vision of humans “dancing their funky dance” and heedlessly procreating and consuming without limit, and this vision became the Church of Euthanasia.
How did you get in touch with the world of clubbing? And how did you start making Electronic music?
In the early 1980s I got inside a few NYC discos including Magique, Tunnel, and Limelight. In the 90s I often heard deep house and techno in Boston clubs such as Venus de Milo and Axis. Another strong influence was the Boston College radio station WZBC, particularly a show called Acid Burn. WZBC had a format called NCP (No Commercial Potential) which often featured sound collage. My first album (“Demons In My Head”, a sound collage) was popular at WZBC, and this encouraged me to produce more. I sometimes performed live sound collage on the air at WZBC, using my own software (Mixere), for example “I’ll Just Die If I Don’t Get This Recipe” (available at archive.org). I also helped found a long-running Boston techno party called Circle. Circle’s first party was an opportunity to test my live techno set before debuting it at Ultraschall in Munich in 1998.
What does music represent for you and how did the idea of using it as a tool for spreading your ecological cause come about?
When the Church of Euthanasia started in 1992 I was already making electronic music. My first dance tracks (“Magic Cookie,” “Paradigm”) were instrumental. The Church of Euthanasia began disrupting events held by other organizations, for example by staging a fetus barbeque at a pro-life rally. The stunts became increasingly theatrical and involved many props, one of which was the “Baby Blaster,” a 1960s baby carriage that concealed a deafeningly loud portable sound system. I was responsible for creating the Baby Blaster’s audio tapes, and several of them ultimately morphed into techno tracks, for example “Buy / Buy More” and “Fleshdance” both started as vocals-only Baby Blaster tapes. Another tape featured a screaming baby overdubbed so that eight babies scream at once, and that same baby later turned up in “Six Billion Humans Can’t Be Wrong.” My dance and agitprop projects fused into the classic techno track “Save The Planet, Kill Yourself.”
How did your innovative style of making music come about? What kinds of music are you inspired by?
I discovered polymeter accidentally in 1993 because the software sequencer I was using (DOS Cakewalk) allowed each track to have its own independent loop length. I was unaware of Steve Reich at the time, and doubtless reinvented some of his breakthroughs. I soon visualized more advanced polymeter techniques, and began writing my own sequencer, which I used from 1998 to 2003, for both composing and performing. My sequencer had frustrating limitations, which led me to abandon it for over a decade. I started work on a more sophisticated version in 2017, and used it to create “Akoko Ajeji” and everything since. My sequencer is called Polymeter, and it’s free and open source. I’m inspired by Ralph Towner’s album “Solo Concert,” and by outsider artists like James Hampton, but my biggest inspiration is Thomas Wilfred. Some of Wilfred’s “lumia” machines permute for years without repeating. Like Wilfred, I make phase art.
You have “multiple personalities”. You are a music composer, an inventor, an artist, a cult leader, and a music software programmer, whose projects include an AI-enhanced musical instrument (ChordEase), and Polymeter music sequencer. Where does the need to create a program to compose your music come from?
As Walt Whitman said “I am large, I contain multitudes.” In the past, I was limited by lack of instrumental technique, but I overcame this by creating specialized interfaces that allow unusual approaches to musical expression. To achieve unique results, it helps to have unique tools. I enjoy inventing machines and collaborating with them, and feel fortunate to have the necessary skills to do so. Most popular music is in 4/4 time and uses a few common scales, primarily the major scale. Disco music has been recycling the same rhythmic pattern (the backbeat) for decades. A change is long overdue. I see popular music as an island. The island is packed with people who assume it’s everything. But the island is surrounded by a vast sea, an unknown world, hidden in plain sight. I can only explore a tiny portion of that hidden world, but hopefully others will follow.
Talking about your musical career, Germany has a fundamental role. Your "mentors" have been none other than Dj Hell, who in the 90s published two of your most important records on his label "International Deejay Gigolo" and Zip, who published you on the legendary "Perlon". Tell me how it went, both times.
“Save the Planet, Kill Yourself” took a year to make and was originally released on my label, Kevorkian Records. It charted well in only two American cities: Chicago and Detroit. DJ Hell later heard it in NYC and brought it back to Munich. White labels were the norm, but Gigolo disrupted that by promoting glamour and shock, so my timing was good. Techno and electro are consistently popular in Europe and especially Germany, but there’s a deeper reason that I found a receptive audience in Germany: the Holocaust. Collective guilt was hardwired into post-WWII German society. No other nation has expressed shame to such an extent. The Church of Euthanasia also advocates collective guilt, but at a species level. Being ashamed of your country is an important step towards being ashamed of your species. Germany inspires me and I’m grateful to have found a new home here, thanks to Zip.
In 1998 you went on an european tour for your second record on Gigolo “Sex is good”. How your music was received in those years? What was people's reaction when they saw you playing with a computer and not with turntables?
In 1998 I toured Germany three times and performed at Futura in Sarajevo. The Church of Euthanasia had recently appeared on the Jerry Springer show, and hate mail was pouring in. My gear consisted of a desktop PC and road cases full of hardware and cables. It attracted customs agents who tried to shake me down. Live electronic performances were common but typically short. I only played my own tracks and they came out differently every time. People were curious about my software’s interface, which was modeled on a lighting controller. Crossdressing was still uncommon and it excited people. My act was extremely political at a time when this was almost unheard of in techno music. It was also glamorous and sexy, which was similarly unusual at that time. The show was intense and fast, peaking at 152 BPM with “Fleshdance.” People danced as if their lives depended on it.
In such a conformist Music Industry your voice remains out of the chorus, but, how did you switch from a such provocative work like "Six Billion Humans Can't Be Wrong" (1999) with texts that expressed a strong eco-political declaration, to a record like "Akoko Ajeji" (2019), only based on harmonies, where you took inspiration from the “Yuroba” language for the titles of the tracks? What has changed in Chris Korda over the past ten years?
I reached adulthood just in time for the post-punk, cyberpunk, and zine movements. The 1982 film “Liquid Sky” dramatically altered my taste and showed me the artistic potential of electronic instruments. In late 1980s I played in Boston hardcore bands and attended many loft parties. During my lifetime, neoliberalism has systematically dismantled the post-WWII order, starting with Reagan and Thatcher in 1980, so that we now face Gilded Age economic inequality and environmental catastrophe. It’s no surprise that my work is often political, but my love affair with music has a life of its own. I fell in love with harmony as a child, while hearing church organs and singing in choirs. Exposure to the primal spookiness of acid rock and the ambiguous tonalities of jazz deepened my love. Lately I’ve been exploring atonal music theory and pitch class sets. I’m bound to follow my muse wherever she leads me.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your future projects and releases?
The new Church of Euthanasia album “Apologize to the Future” is scheduled for release on Perlon in mid-July. As far as I know this is the first album entirely about climate change, the singularity, economic inequality, intergenerational injustice, antinatalism, and human extinction. It’s told from the point of view of future generations. The style is hard to categorize but it could be described as electro rap. Some tracks are more techno, others are more breakbeat, but they’re all in complex polymeter and rhythmically odd. Harmonically it leans more towards jazz or avant-garde classical. The album contains more lyrics than all of my previous work combined, and they rhyme, so I’m shaping up to be "The Bob Dylan of Climate Change." I'm also producing two music videos for the album. After that I’m releasing an album of generative solo piano, which is the sequel to my “Polymeter” album on Mental Groove.
What is your vision of the world, of life and what do you want to leave with your "sound signature"?
Nearly everything factual we know about the universe was discovered in the last few thousand years. Before that, humans were childlike morons, cowering in caves or up trees. Magical thinking shielded us from the senseless brutality of our environment. Our prodigious sex drive helped to offset extreme child mortality. Our exclusive focus on the present made us successful hunters. But in the modern world, all of these attributes are monstrous. Today our survival depends on ideas. The world of ideas, which we call civilization, is what makes us interesting and worth saving. Paradoxically, many of those ideas are also ensuring our extinction. Maybe intelligence snuffs itself out, and maybe that’s the solution to Fermi’s Paradox. We’ll soon find out. Either way, we stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants. I’m grateful for the gifts society gave me. I won the sperm lottery, and I’ve done my best to give back.