Cologne, Germany, has enjoyed a remarkable musical renaissance since the early 1990s, and Pluramon‘s Marcus Schmickler is one of its most versatile sonic architects. An academically trained pioneer of digital production, Marcus has always run his own studio at different spaces in the city — first the Kaspar Hauser Studio in a former warehouse, and now the state of the art chamber he calls Piethopraxis. There he has concocted three further Pluramon records, and a stream of computer compositions and live electronic improvisations under his own name — latest being Amazing Daze (with Hayden Chisholm) and Altars Of Science.
Pluramon — the closest Schmickler gets to a rock act — began in 1996 with the release of Pick Up Canyon (Mille Plateaux), an inventive ‘post-rock’album he described as a ‘hard disk band,’built up of multiple layers of sampled live instruments, and featuring a brief appearance by Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit. 2003′s Dreams Top Rock introduced a swirlier soundworld of almost shoegazey songs, but the headline was the appearance of David Lynch’s vocalist of choice, Julee Cruise, on several numbers. The Cruise connection continues on the new record, The Monstrous Surplus (Karaoke Kalk), where the lush swoony melodies are sharpened by politicised lyrics from noted artist Jutta Koether, actor Julia Hummer and artist Felix Ensslin, son of a member of the Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Can you explain how all your diverse modes of production, from hardcore electroacoustics to the very crafted harmonic pop, coexist in your mind? Is the songwriting like a “release” or relief from the abstraction?
Besides computer music and Pluramon, I also do work in contemporary instrumental and choir music, improv, sometimes do club music or remixing, but also enjoy doing radio plays and scores. It is not a contradiction for me, that’s why I would not think about it in terms of “relief” but rather of a “balance.” I consider this as a different type of a “crossover” that is not to be found within the works but in one’s biography. Besides that, the idea of genres is completely uncontemporary, especially at a time when one music style is just a mouseclick away from another. I consider “genres” as generated by the markets that look at music only as a product; or as used by scenes that need things snappier in order to defend their territory.
Do you still think about Pluramon as a band created in the hard disk?
That’s right. But since I’ve been lucky to work with ‘real ‘characters, performers like Julee Cruise or Julia Hummer, the metaphor of a hard-disk band does not apply anymore. With the release of the last album, we’ve been touring with a full band and I think you can hear it as an influence on The Monstrous Surplus. Yet, there is still another level, also when performing live, something ghost-like, where sounds are double-layered, and a weakness and uncertainty is being created.
Can you explain the concept of the Monstrous Surplus that gives the album its title?
The way the three voices appear on the album — Julee Cruise, Jutta Koether and Julia Hummer — made me wonder, what is the narrative subject? It is represented as the fragmented soul of urban life: the constellation of Julee’s and Julia’s two different but very similar voices opens up a mirror-scenario of the one in the two, commented on by a third, Jutta, representing different faces of one narrative subject. These different roles — the young, childlike, and the adult, motherlike — offer an exciting dialogue, where one is reflected in the other, as through a dark mirror. Like saying: “Is it me I see in the mirror? Or do I see a picture of me looking in the mirror? Or is it me seeing myself looking at myself in the mirror, projecting a phantom onto what I think to be the Real?”
“The Monstrous Surplus” is a quote from Jutta’s text “Fresh Aufhebung,” which suggests a position of a subjectivity in an unconditional Here and Now. The “monstrous” is the other, the phantom-like, undead. Lacan often describes the surplus in connection with the external object of desire, a surplus in a fetish of commodity. The subject’s desire or drive often stands in conflict with the symbolic order, the “law.” Koether’s text makes a point for the desire, for the drive: One must overcome his/her phantom to become a useful member of the community.
In the postmodern, there is a massive remapping of meanings. A good example is the fact that music of Ton Steine Scherben, a leftist activist proto-punk band from the early ’80s, is played by German neo-Nazis at their parades, when at the same time another song by the band is being used as a TV commercial to sell consumer electronic products. Or the fact that German Green Party, which arose from the peace movement, had to decide to send German troops to Kosovo when they became part of the government.
Maybe our version of the song reflects the collapse of the symbolic order. In our interpretation, Sham 69′s desire to recreate a unified youth movement, that rises against a certain social or political drawback, is thus twisted into melancholy. It arises through the lack of a common “law.” But one should read our version of the song in the context of the whole album: our aim is to encourage a breakthrough of this melancholy, as can be heard in the song “Fresh Aufhebung.”
The text of “Fresh Aufhebung” suggests that you want to change and free your art into a “ceremonial mess.” Is that the case, and how can you achieve that?
“Fresh Aufhebung” makes a statement for the subjective and unconditional state in the Now; a resetting, an abolition of desire, for the present. It’s also written from a very feminine perspective. At our live concerts this can really come across very clearly through the music. Jutta, who lives and works as a fine artist in NYC, has been applying this approach in many of her works over the last years. I’m very happy to have her on the record.
“Fresh Aufhebung” has a classic cathartic function in our live set and on the album: it breaks with the song format and develops into an improvised “force of form.” In order to figure out what it is, what the drawback is, which affects us and where the melancholy arises, it makes sense to brush up against it.
How did you first contact Julee Cruise, and what it has been like working with her?
Julee is a very experienced artist, and I was lucky that she liked my material. [Underground techno star] Khan introduced us. When we first met in 2001, two weeks after 9/11, we instantly went on quite intense terms. She was very concerned about what had happened, and yet flew over to come to work with me. During the work on the first album in the studio in Cologne, we had some fantastic moments and some fights; a constant up-and-down, really intense.
She is very sensitive and needs the personal dialogue. She felt I was a bit too straightforward with her — on the other hand, she liked this way of working and also the results. Since then, we’ve been on several tours through Europe, which has been very exciting. In the studio, she’s very prepared and has this amazing talent for melodies. For the new album, we did her parts in various places, on tour, on off-days and in the studio in Cologne and New York. It is really enjoyable working with her and we have become friends.
Tell me about making the soundtrack to the film The Big Sellout: how did you get involved, and was it a satisfying experience?
The director, Florian Opitz, is a friend. He kind of encircled me, asking me if I knew someone who would like to work on this film. By that time, he had already used Pluramon songs from the instrumental albums as layouts on some of the scenes and thought of it as a perfect match. As it happened, they had spent all of their budget on filming in four different continents and so they needed make the new score really fast. But I like working this way, and it turned out a real easy thing to do. What I like about the film is that it shows in a very positive way, how people work against the effects of globalisation. This film follows a straightforward narrative and that is quite easy to do music for, especially since the director and I were on the same agenda. Trust is the most essential thing when working in different media. Unfortunately, the production- company went bankrupt before the film came out. But the film made it to the cinemas anyway and went on to be quite successful.
How have things changed in Cologne over the past few years, is there still a coherent scene or do things feel different now?
If you look from the outside it might be easier to tell. I always thought of it as more of several small scenes that got recognized as one bigger blob of electronic music people called “The Sound of Cologne,” while there was quite a diversity in styles.
Will we see some more Pluramon live appearances, and what other projects are coming up for you?
Yes, we just came back from a crazy show at a film festival in Lisbon. We played at the biggest casino in Europe, total ’80s glam-trash, really amazing, very Lynch-like. We have a full Pluramon tour coming up in February across Europe. Other than that, I just have a new computer music DVD+ out on Editions Mego, Altars of Science, which I will be touring with a couple of dates in the US in December and in Europe at the beginning of 2008. In February I will be back in the US, in Milwaukee, were I will be working on a premiere of a new piece for three drummers and electronics. Also, I will be doing a new score and more touring later in the year.
Do you have any other dream collaborators you want to work with?