Dystopian swan song on civilizational debris: An interview with Chra

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Christina Nemec is a multifaceted musician, one half of the duo Pasajera Oscura, member of the supergroup Shampoo Boy. Her solo album Empty Airport is released this month on Editions Mego. She runs her own label Comfortzone and is based in Vienna, Austria. She’s also an author, DJ, self-confessed music addict and radio/TV presenter. After a period of experimentation with low frequencies and noise effects, she started to work on more club-friendly beats, using sinewaves processed through a tape recorder and other analogue and digital tools to allude to landscapes, territories, silence and extraordinary and extreme situations. Her project Pasajera Oscura was nominated for SHAPE by ORF musikprotokoll im steirischen herbst. This interview was conducted a day after the duo’s concert at the ICAS Festival in Dresden. 

Yesterday you played as Pasajera Oscura. Can you introduce the project?

Christina Nemec: Pasajera Oscura is a duo consisting of Patricia (Irradiation) and me. Patricia has gothic, dark techno roots. She’s more into quadraphonic sound and room acoustics and is studying electroacoustic music at university in Vienna. I, on the other hand, have a kind of DIY, punk and hardcore background with more dirty sounds and noise. We were both invited by the Austrian Cultural Forum to play in New York. We had known each other from Vienna as female:pressure members, but we only properly met in New York three years ago. She made a four channel piece and saw my show. We hung out for two days and decided to try to combine our skills somehow. Now in 2015, after we got this invitation from musikprotokoll im steirischen herbst, we started to think about working more intensely and doing some recordings during the summer.

Specific sonic qualities are a very important part of the project – sound and its various manifestations, low frequencies and sinewaves, the spatialisation of sound – as they become key mediators of your artistic message. Is it something that is particularly interesting to you?

CN: This is what Patricia works on. I’ve never been into room acoustics, I could easily just play a mono set. I want to have this deep and harsh sound straight into your face. I never work with panning, for instance, I’m more for a direct punch. Patricia then says, ‘Christina, you have to focus more, you have to send me some signals which I can transfer into my system’. I learned from her how to separate and arrange my listening. But in a way, I’m still too punk for that.

These subliminal frequencies can create this guttural, raw effect as well, only liminally.

CN: This is what I like. These almost inaudible deep frequencies. Over the last few years, I’ve had these dystopian thoughts about the future. Probably it’s because I’m getting older and have a fear of death. I’m originally a bass player. I’ve always been into very deep bass.  We were inspired by Godflesh and Kevin Martin who’s now also doing this deep stuff. I also really liked Mick Harris from Napalm Death and Scorn. I guess it comes from all of these influences.

Your new solo record Empty Airport sounds like a “dystopian swan song on civilizational debris” (according to the press release by the label). Lately, electronic music has become darker in general. I guess it is a reflection of the zeitgeist, but have you also had other, more personal reasons for it?

CN: I grew up very close to the Italian and ex-Yugoslav border in Carinthia. It was a former UNREF (United Nations Refugee Fund) camp. In 1968 the community of Villach built an apartment house for young families where my parents moved in. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in the history of the places I go to. I read a lot about the first and second world wars. When I started to work on this album – Empty Airport – I was in Slovenia in a WWI museum and I saw all these mountains. I suddenly had this strange feeling. And then all these things were happening at the same time. It probably also has to do with 9/11. Description Of An Empty Airport is a track which I made in 2002 for a sound installation in Barcelona. I could hear a room that is empty but is veiled with a hall echo. It’s a big room with windows and stones, and somewhere, a telephone is ringing. No one comes.

Since 9/11, it all seems to be getting darker and darker.

CN: Yes. It got worse and worse. And 2015 is a nightmare, with refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, the rise of the right wing, etc. But I wanted to be as abstract as possible in expressing this. On my previous album, I was singing. I stopped completely because these days I don’t want to use my voice at all.

Why?

CN: I think I have nothing to say. Funnily enough, next week I’m doing a show with my band, where I sing. It’s a burlesque show based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I just don’t feel like going on stage and singing. I was a rough singer anyway.

Is there a connection between Brian Eno’s Music For Airports and your Empty Airport?

CN: It was a coincidence. I know it, of course.

Your album seems to come from a much darker, disorienting place, anyway.

CN: I was listening to the Eno album again, and this contradiction is really funny. At the time he made it, airports were these glamorous places where you were treated as a king or a queen. Nowadays you are treated there like shit.

You are also a member of female:pressure, a “network of female identified artists in electronic music and digital arts.” How did you get involved? Was this feminist aspect in music always important to you?

CN: I started to make music in the mid 80s, and I never really thought about this issue. In the post-punk, wave, hardcore times, we had this feeling that women were very strong role models. I was a bass player in different bands and then in the mid 90s I started to study at university. There was a community radio in Vienna, and I was responsible for the music programming and I really had to think about the representation of hosts and music. Then I was invited to a small Hamburg festival to talk about this. I met Susanne Kirchmayr, aka Electric Indigo, there and she asked me why I wasn’t a member of female:pressure. When I got back to Vienna, I joined them. It was around 1998. Since then, many things have happened. We’ve done compilations and DVDs together. It’s still growing and there’s still a need for it to grow.

How does it work in practice? What are your activities?

CN: If you check my DJ mixes, or whatever I do, 70 percent of what I feature are female artists. I always try to do more, even with my label. I try to do something about it and not only moan and talk about it. I reclaim it by doing it. For example, I really like my Pasajera Oscura’s colleague work and that’s why I work with her. Shampoo Boy is a different thing. I’ve known Peter Rehberg and Christian Schachinger for almost 30 years. Three years ago they needed a bass player and asked me to join them. Then we realised we have a really good connection. We have now made three records and we haven’t had a single argument. I’ve never found a band like this because arguments are a daily thing when you’re in a band.

You have these various setups in terms of playing – solo, with various bands and artistic collectives. Is it easy to switch back and forth between them? 

CN: Yes. It’s very easy. I like to give responsibility to other people. I’m not a control freak. That’s important. If you’re a control freak, you cannot be happy about working with other people. You have to trust and love the people you work with. Sometimes they annoy you, but you have to respect them. And then it works.

Can you talk about the latest Shampoo Boy album on Blackest Ever Black?

CN: We’re always recording in Peter Rehberg’s home studio. It’s always the same plug and play situation. We meet couple of times, record and Pita makes the pre-selection and shows us the 50 minutes of the 200 or 300 minutes we’ve recorded, and then we meet again, have a couple of beers, and discuss it because we don’t do any overdubs. We played our release party in Berlin last week and it was the first time we did these pieces live and it worked. It’s very difficult. Two years ago you record something and you don’t really remember what you played then. But it’s always fun. We met two weeks ago to start to rehearse and we even recorded new material for the next album. The motto of our album, Crack, in my opinion, was to go away from the metal doom rock thing. I wanted to sound more organic, post-techno. I wanted the bass to be like a heartbeat.

Both of these albums capture a long period of your life. How does it feel to have them out now – is it loaded with memories or is it sealed this way, to be left behind?

CN: I guess it’s both. You have to go back in mind, because you have to talk about it. But in real life, it seems totally far away and you are somewhere else now. But it’s a good feeling. I have been listening to this record ever since it was mastered and I’m very proud of it. But I’m happy with all three records that we made. This also has to do with Pita’s good taste. When he suggests which parts of our recordings we should use I always wonder at how good hist listening is. This makes him a good curator.

With your Chra LP, there’s an even longer gap. You mentioned that the initial ideas behind it were born thirteen years ago? 

CN: I started to play my solo stuff live around that time. When I gave my first demo to Pita, he told me: ‘Christina, it’s too close to the work of Mika Vainio, you have to find your own artistic language’. In 2002, I was really inspired by Pan Sonic. I was recording a lot of stuff in Mika’s studio, and of course, it was his sound because it was his echo machine, etc. And then I got totally motivated. I have eleven tracks on this album, and they were all from last year. I recorded them in Waldviertel where we have a little farmhouse. I do a lot of field recordings there. You have this feeling when you go to the woods that it’s something very beautiful, but also scary. You can get lost or meet someone, find an abandoned house. It’s all of these things coupled with the urban dystopia of the airports.

You also run your own label Comfortzone, where apart from your own work, you have also released the likes of Lydia Lunch and Mika Vainio. What are your current activities?

CN: I’m working on a 12′ compilation featuring Gustav from Vienna, Cherry Sunkist and a track by Pasajera Oscura. Then there’s a 7 inch by Mika Vainio.

Why did you choose the name Comfortzone?

CN: I’m being asked a lot about it now that it’s turned into a neoliberal term. But actually, I’m a big fan of Placebo and they use the word in their lyrics. It’s very addictive. It’s not about feeling comfortable in your life or work, it’s more related to drugs. For a long time, I was a drug addict. It was nice, but I had only one decision in the end– to be dead or to stay alive.

So the dystopia also comes from that experience?

CN: Probably. It all comes from all the influences that you’ve had. I’m not esoteric and I’d never go to a hypnotist to find out what is left in my memories. As an artist, you have to be more sensitive, which sometimes makes life harder.

Is music your main creative outlet?

CN: I’m writing essays and a bit of fiction. I’m interested in theory. I don’t even know whether I’m an artist. I studied theatre theory. I would say I’m more of a curious person who is trying to find interesting things and mix them and do something with them. I’m not sure if I’m really creative, I’ve no idea. This art thing is very difficult, don’t you think?

But sometimes you don’t have to name it, you just do it. It is art.

CN: Yes. It’s probably also a bit of a concept. But not in music. Concept music can sometimes get really boring. What I really like is smart people doing good music and giving good interviews.

Chra’s album ‘Empty Airport’ will be launched next week, on 29th May 2015, at Grelle Forelle in Vienna, as part of the (Editions) Mego 20th anniversary series of events. For more information, check out the club’s website.

Chra photo: Bernadette Reiter