Interview: Chris SSG

(Photo Credit: Cédric Diradourian)

The infiltration of ambient soundscapes into the ever-evolving, and growing, techno scene has added a refreshing dynamic for listeners to enjoy. For those familiar with the various textures of United Kingdom’s industrial techno scene are well aware that this music is drenched in dusty ambience and grainy atmospheric samples. Combining this with Scandinavia’s gurgling acid-soaked techno boom – due largely in part to the juggernaut Northern Electronics label and SHXCXCHCXSH, we’re finding more influences are being drawn from ambient music with every release. Hopefully we will see more than just an ‘ambient set’ on the last day of a festival or hear a DJ open with the latest Aphex Twin free download – but a proper contextualised focus on ambient music, utilising the proper venue, set time, sound engineer and of course the proper ambient artist to play this music. Though this requires more than a mere blurb-length of analysis, it is promising to see the potential in music production and what forgotten pieces of ambient / ambient techno history will be rediscovered and introduced into the modern day techno format.

Before this resurgence however, Chris SSG along with the other MNML SSGS founders were a huge driving force in ambient exploration. Not only an influence on the internet, Chris along with two other partners implemented the loosely-termed chill out parties in Tokyo, curating a semi-regular event called Sound Garden inviting guest such as ASC, Wata Igarashi, Donato Dozzy and Sigha to play alongside a solid local line-up. As much as we could have continued the pendulum of email correspondence we had to cut this interview “short”, however we thoroughly enjoyed this chance to chat with Chris SSG.

Tell us about your initial exploration into ambient music?

I started listening to electronic music around 1997 and one of my main entry points was actually trip hop, which was pretty downtempo. It took me a few years to begin to discover ambient and experimental music, and the manner in which I did so was rather accidental. This was pre-internet, so the way you found music was a much more random, uneven way. Some of the raves and techno parties we’d go to had chill out rooms, and this was one place I was exposed to this type of music, without really understanding it. And then there were obvious reference points, especially Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works volumes 1 and 2. It was around 1999 / 2000 that I started more consciously exploring ambient and experimental music. Here a big influence was one of my best friends (Dave the Silent SSG), who was always more adventurous. One of the labels he introduced me to was Mille Plateaux. This and its sister label Force Inc. were a massive influence on me. Around this time, one of the artists that had the biggest impact on me was Vladislav Delay. First hearing Entain really opened my mind up to a whole new world and way of engaging with music, and by the time Anima was released I was eagerly awaiting its arrival. These albums continue to be two of my favourites. The other artist I found around this time that left an equally strong imprint was Pan Sonic. When Aaltopiiri came out, I struggled to get my head around the contrasts of the album, which was a mixture of forceful noise and incredibly restrained beauty. One aspect that joined Vladislav Delay and Pan Sonic is that both were difficult for me to easily grasp, but still I could find a way into their music. Another important part of these early years was not understanding some of the music I encountered. This was the case with a lot of what Mego was doing, as well as Hawtin’s Concept series and what I heard from Raster Noton and Autechre at that time. But being pushed beyond my comfort zone was a useful process, whether I then realized it or not. Besides that, some other ambient albums that were very significant in these early years were From Within by Richie Hawtin and Pete Namlook, Donnacha Costello’s Together is the New Alone, Sutekh’s Periods Make Sense, Fennesz’s Endless Summer and William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.

Would you like to weigh-in on what can loosely be defined as ‘Internet Diggers’. As pre-internet digging for some has either has never occurred or the ratio in years spent finding music before the internet boom is getting significantly out-weighed. However, I’m not referring to the tangible aspect of digging for records, as I feel that that discussion has had its well-deserved moment in the sun. 

When I first got into electronic music it was basically just my friend Dave and me. We didn’t have a big group of friends into it, and the internet was just coming in, so this meant the way we discovered music was simply through what we had access to. We’d listen to the dance shows on the local radio and record them onto cassette, and also go to the record store and find stuff there. I think what was perhaps different is that I could not see how different artists and genres stuck together. It was kind of like the blind men and the elephant. Looking back, I can now see where I was first introduced to electro or italo, but at the time I didn’t understand what these genres were or how they related. Today, the internet allows you to find out as much (or as little) as you want about something, and if you want, you can become very knowledgeable very quickly. While a lot of people want to idealise how things were pre-internet with finding music etc., I am more cautious. I like how democratized and open knowledge about music has become – you don’t need to become friends with the guy behind the counter at the record store or buddies with the DJs, you just need to have the motivation to look.

In Brian Eno’s Imaginary Landscapes, he compares the limited sounds effects provided on an electric guitar compared to a synth.
“Each of those options [on the guitar] actually mean something – they really have a different sound for each effect… this thing [points to the synth] which i do love, has infinite option but you just don’t need so many. It would be just as good playing this with 6 or 12 really fantastic, meaningful and useful sounds”
Do you think that’s in someway the allure of creating ambient music – having the ability to create a sound so specially delicate and purposeful that the listener can reach some level of empathy or transcendence?

Incidentally I think I might be one of the only serious ambient heads who does not like Brian Eno much. I have always struggled to connect with him. Anyway, as for the question… I’d be wary of using these kinds of terms. On one level, I think the appeal is pretty simple. If you like techno, then chances are you also like Robert Hood. That doesn’t mean when you come home exhausted after a long day of work you want to put on a Robert Hood record. So there are clearly moments where ambient music is more appropriate, and it provides a necessary counterbalance to 4/4 stuff. On another level, I think the appeal of ambient can also come from its ability to convey more precise or complex emotions and thoughts. But for this to happen, ambient has to be more than just background music or comforting blando sounds. I think a risk with ambient music is that it can end up becoming overly ‘nice’ or polite. It might be rather pretty, but it is not very substantial and actually becomes pretty interchangeable. I can understand why producers themselves might enjoy making this, but listening to it I find it very unsatisfying. Unfortunately this is really the case with some techno and house producers recently trying their hand at ambient tracks or releases. It is not bad – it is just so bland and mild. A perfect example of this would be about 95% of dub techno that comes out these days. It ends up sounding like poor quality vanilla ice cream. And that is really pretty lame. It is possible for music to be quiet or simple – very tonal for instance – but being rich in the emotions and ideas it conveys. The best ambient music can grab hold of you as powerfully as the strongest techno. And as an ambient DJ and also as a listener, this kind of more intense experience is really what I am looking for.

In regards to your own projects, how did the Sound Garden parties begin and what’s the driving concept behind these events?

Ambient was a central feature of the MNML SSGS blog, all of us doing it shared a passion for this form of music. One of the main things we sought to emphasize was the relationship between ambient and techno. We were motivated by a certain nostalgia for the chill out room found at raves and techno parties, which disappeared in the late 1990s / early 2000s. Indeed, on one level MNML SSGS at times was almost like a virtual chill out room – a place where visitors would accidentally discover ambient and experimental music, some of which they might hopefully connect with. In time, Sound Garden would become a physical manifestation of this aspect of the blog.
After moving to Tokyo in 2010, I became friends with David and Jerome, my two Sound Garden partners. We are all of a similar age and musical background, so there was a shared understanding of what this chill out space was, and why it might nice to have it back. So we decided to try to put on some ambient / chill out parties. And actually that was 5 years ago, we recently worked out we have been going that long. During that time we’ve had a series of irregular events at a number of different venues, but mainly at a place called Bar Orbit. We were very fortunate to have ASC as our first guest and that really gave us an idea of what could be possible. Since then we’ve had a mixture of international and local guests, with David, Jerome and myself as the residents. This is where I learned how to DJ ambient music properly, both through my own experiences playing and also listening to others. In particular, I have been able to better appreciate DJing ambient as a specific and distinct craft.

In relation to nostalgia of early raves and parties of the 90’s, I find the biggest factor that has changed – neither positive nor negative – is the value of time. A person’s time has become an underlining factor in many aspects of the club industry. Everything from waiting in line, the length of sets, right through to the operational hours of a venue.
What elements have changed for you in curating events?

With the rise of Berghain and Berlin-style clubbing, there is a lot of pressure and expectation for longer parties and longer sets. I am pretty skeptical about this. For most DJs, I think 3 hours is normally about right, with some 4 hours might be better. But most of the time people don’t need to play any longer than that. All-night sets might be cool now and again for a special occasion, but they should not be the norm. Longer sets do not necessarily mean better sets… Likewise, parties should have a trajectory: a start, a middle, and most definitely an end. I don’t see the need for them to keep on going and going. In most cases, for a club night I think running it from 10 or 11pm until 6 or 7am is sufficient… But then, I still wonder why we are so stuck to doing clubbing as an all-night affair. This is one aspect I greatly appreciate about a place like Berghain – the opportunity to go and dance at a more normal hour. I would like more opportunities like this. But it seems hard to get people to accept. We used to do Sound Garden on Sunday evening, with the logic being that it could be somewhere to chill at the end of the weekend and before the start of the new week. But it was always a challenge pulling getting people there. Still, it seems there are some promoters – like Technoon in Belgium – that are successfully doing stuff during the day, hopefully there can be more of this.

How was your experience playing in Berghain’s Silvester celebration?

Through my experiences DJing ambient music in Tokyo at Sound Garden and other events, I have really discovered how important the space is. There are some kinds of environments in which ambient music simply will not work. This is partly about having a place where people can sit down and relax, but it is also about there being a crowd open to something not meant for the dancefloor. So heading over to Berlin, the big question was whether I’d be able to find this. Given that it is the Ostgut crew, I was pretty confident that the environment would be right and it was. The most important thing about the Halle was that it was comfortable – there were plenty of spaces for people to be able to sit down, relax, rest, have fun with their friends. And it worked. People were definitely open to what the other DJs and myself did. I don’t think I even played a track with a bassline until my 4th and final hour, and that was just fine. I was very happy to see people connecting with what I was doing. It was a very fulfilling and rewarding experience. Earlier this year I had a mix for Smoke Machine’s UN series, which was a recording of a set I played at Sound Garden in September 2015. This gives a good idea of what my Berghain set was like, except the Silvester set was 4 hours.

Was their concept of a chill out room / space successful and how did you find people’s reactions to this idea?

As I mentioned, they really created an inviting, comfortable space. It also offered a much-needed escape from the craziness in the other rooms. Obviously being Silvester, the whole place was very full and the intensity level was very high. So having a room where people could escape the madness and just chill out a bit worked very well. It is also really significant that it was Berghain who were doing this. Ostgut are the industry standard setters, other clubs and organisers look to them. Choosing to include a chill out room for an important event like Silvester sends a clear message that there is room for ambient and downtempo music in parties today. Hopefully this is something that other promoters will see and think about exploring themselves. We can’t go back to the chill out rooms of the 1990s, but there is plenty of potential for further developing an updated version of this basic idea that matches with the parties and crowds of today.

Definitely agree. I have thoroughly enjoyed when a festival has effectively incorporated ambient music into their programming – Inner Varnika, Free Rotation and Labyrinth festivals are fantastic examples of this. For those that have not been exposed to this music before will have the chance to listen and experience ambient music in a proper context. Poor sound, awkward set-times, the surrounding environment and a club’s architecture are all major factors that affect this context. Do you think there is enough discussion about these elements?

It seems like over the last few years there is growing interest in ambient music, and more willingness to try to present it in a context connected to techno. But I think people are still trying to work out how to translate it into the context of today’s scene. With Sound Garden, it has been a process of trial and error, learning where ambient works and how we can best present it. And I am sure this is something other promoters will just have to experience and work through. The challenge with ambient is that if the space is wrong (noise bleed from another room, uncomfortable environment) it has basically no chance of working. Also if you are doing it overnight, as people get drunk or tired, their capacity / willingness to listen to ambient music shifts, so this is also something you have to account for. You need to accept that at some times people will just not be open to being pushed or experiencing something different. So the key observation is an obvious one: it is not as simple as just getting someone to play ambient. A further point is that I am a bit concerned that as promoters dip their feet into ambient waters, so to speak, they will book more established techno DJs who happen to like ambient. Certainly this can work very well with some artists who have an experimental side to them. For example, Dasha Rush’s ambient work is sublime. But it can also result in a situation where you have people who might be playing nice enough music without doing anything deeper / more interesting. And this ends up being a bit of a wasted opportunity. There are quite a few DJs and producers out there who specialize in ambient and don’t have many opportunities to play out, and they tend to understand much better what presenting ambient in a powerful and effective manner entails. So I hope organizers will be willing to find out and book these people who are first and foremost ambient artists. Make sure the focus is on “PROFESSIONAL AMBIENT”, as Legowelt puts it.

Finally, I’m interested to hear your opinion on the state of music journalism. All of a sudden a Facebook post or tweet from an artist is now considered news-worthy on music websites – sometimes even warranting an opinion piece from a journalist. Is this just an extension or reflection of the state of news-media in general or what factors do you think are contributing to this ‘problem’ – for lack of a better word.

The content monster is permanently hungry, it always needs to be fed… The way online music media is setup there is a constant need and desire for fresh content. New stories, new things to read, new podcasts to listen to and so on. The model requires people returning regularly to the sites, this means there always needs to be a steady stream of content. But to be clear, this is not simply driven the outlets, there is a strong demand for it too. Actually this was one of the reasons that we ended MNML SSGS. It was just 2 of us, doing it in our free time, for no financial compensation, but still there were people always pressuring us to have new posts on the blog. Certainly there were many readers that were very appreciative and supportive of what we were doing, but there were enough constantly pushing for more, more, more, that after a while it started impacting our motivation. The internet can kind of create a weird dynamic where people feel they have a right to stuff, that they can make all these demands… Really if you think about it, it is kind of amazing / ridiculous how much free content is available – whether DJ mixes, streaming releases, articles, reviews and so on. But the constant refrain is always more, more, more… Of course websites don’t greatly help this situation by constantly churning out content, and with it, plenty of dross that adds little besides noise and bullshit. Still, I think it might be worthwhile thinking further about the role we play, as consumers of this content. There are easy things we can do that would likely lead to a richer form of engagement: slowing down, reading a bit more carefully, listening a bit more purposefully, and thinking a bit deeper.

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