TEN QUESTIONS WITH: MANUAL
Since his Manual debut appeared six years ago, Jonas Munk has amassed a formidable discography that includes numerous solo releases of varying stylistic character as well as recordings issued by group-related projects (Syntaks, Limp, Rumskib, Causa Sui) with which the Odense, Denmark musician has been associated. His latest release, Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides, provides a summative portrait of Manual's music-making, with the first half devoted to the grandiose guitar-based pieces well-known to fans of Until Tomorrow, Azure Vista, and Ascend and the second disc dominated by the 'ambient' style captured on The North Shore and Bajamar. Munk generously spoke with textura at length about the new collection, his current working methods and group projects, future plans, and assorted other matters.
1. Given that Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides sounds like such a definitive and encompassing collection, what will you do for an encore? Do you already have a follow-up ready to go?
It does indeed feel like a definitive statement, rather than just a collection for the fans. I wanted it to include every aspect of the Manual sound, from the grandiose 1980s-influenced pieces over the dreamy electronica tracks to minimal ambient explorations and still maintain a thread. I won't have a real follow-up ready for a while, since I have been busy with numerous other projects and doing remixes and production work. But I have been working on a few new Manual pieces this summer and there might be another Manual release next year. The next thing to be released is probably the Jonas Munk-Ulrich Schnauss collaboration, but it's still pretty far from completion, so I don't know. Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides is definitely the only big overall statement for a good while, and somehow also feels like an end of a chapter (even though there's going to be a continuation of these ideas on future releases)—at least for a while.
2. In my initial Manual listening experiences (dating back to 2001's Until Tomorrow), I gravitated towards the shorter, non-ambient material of Ascend more than to the purer ambient style of The North Shore. Yet I find myself being drawn more to the second disc on the latest release than the first, something perhaps attributable to the impact of the magnificent “The River” or perhaps to the contextual experience of hearing the material as a collection. Do you have a stronger affinity for or connection to one of the two sides represented by the discs? Is there one side that you regard as the purer representation of the Manual persona?
I guess I have a tendency to consider the musical side represented by disc one as being the most ‘Manual'-like, but I think that has merely got something to do with the fact that it's what sells the most, is written about the most, and is what most people prefer. And maybe also the fact that albums like Ascend and Azure Vista are a culmination of a vision that dates far back. Azure Vista, for example, accumulates influences from all of my life, even back to my earliest childhood, up through my teens to the present, and therefore feels like such an encompassing personal work. Azure Vista was the result of years of ideas and inspiration and was recorded during an important time of my life, when I was reaching a complete and unbounded happiness and for the first time taking the step to become a full-time musician, so that album and that sound really have a special importance. Not to say that it's necessary my best album, but for me personally it was definitely a culmination of being in love with music for twenty years.
The more ‘ambient' side, represented on disc two of Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides, or on albums like The North Shore and Bajamar, on the other hand, were the result of a feeling that no one was doing good ambient music. I felt, and still feel, that there are some areas in this minimalist music that are still completely unexplored territory. For example, part of the 'genre' of ambient music from the beginning is the idea that it should be completely static composition-wise, whereas I feel it only gets really interesting when you start thinking of these pieces as compositions, just as if they are pop songs or something. Many of my ambient pieces actually have climaxes and compositional movement, but of course on a completely different scale. It's ambient music, but not in the word's original sense, because it's not ‘wallpaper' or background music, but music that encourages listening and engagement. So a lot of my motivation for doing The North Shore was the feeling that I personally needed music to listen to that was quiet and minimal, but still was emotional and interesting compositionally and ‘warm' without being cheesy. At least that was the starting point for these explorations; now I feel that this side of my music is just as important an aspect of what I do; at the moment it actually feels like the most important way for me to create music. People are always comparing these minimal pieces to Brian Eno, because that has become the standard thing to do with music that is without beats, repetitive, and quiet, but, when one looks closer, albums like The North Shore and Bajamar hardly have anything in common with Eno's works, or any of the ‘ambient' artists from the 1990s, for example.
When it comes to what I prefer to listen to of my own albums, there's no doubt that I prefer these minimal albums. For some reason, it's much easier for me just to sink into them and enjoy them, whereas I am always biased towards albums like Ascend, Golden Sun, or Azure Vista. I tend to only hear all the mistakes, all the things that could have been better, all the small details in the mix; it's like I'm so over-concerned with ridiculous small things that I'm not really able to just lie back and absorb them. I feel that pieces like “1986” / “Eleda” (The North Shore), “Seleva” (Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides) and “Celebration” and “September Swell” (Bajamar) are the most perfect pieces I have ever done. I can listen to them again and again and they always seem to mesmerize me and seduce me with their simple beauty. Sometimes it feels like I didn't make these pieces, that they came from somewhere else, which is a bit ironic since some of the best compositions were done fairly quickly without any frustration or struggle; “Celebration” was done in a few days, and it's the most intense, unique piece I've ever done! Whereas the songs on Azure Vista, or for example disc one of Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides most often were very constructed through a calculated process, thoroughly composed, and generally a struggle to get together. The ambient pieces have a natural beauty that, at least for me, feels very authentic, free, and timeless. For me, they represent an unforced, quiet, unbounded joy.
3. Was it at all disheartening to have “The River” shelved prior to its vinyl release, or did you simply carry on, knowing that you'd eventually release it on a collected set like the new release?
Yeah, it was supposed be released on a split LP with Danish drone outfit Svartbag, but it never happened because the guys who wanted to do the release didn't have the money to do it in the end. It was a bit disheartening since I worked on it for a long time; I even performed it live a few times. But I guess the whole time I was just waiting for the right opportunity to release it.
4. Your ‘voice' seemed so fully-formed on the debut album. How did you explain the fact that you were able to present such a mature style on the first album and at such a young age?
Does it really sound mature? I am still proud of that album, but now I definitely think it sounds naïve in some way, and think it's fairly obvious it's the work of a teenager. But a lot of people comment on that work and it sells surprisingly well, so I know that it still influences a lot of people.
I think the reason the album still holds up as a good work, even though it has its obvious flaws in production, is the fact that it's based on some good ideas. I had no idea what I was doing production-wise; I had an 8-track, some analog synths, a sound module from the 1980s, some guitar effects, and a two-track sequencer and I tried to make the best of that setup. I didn't really care a lot for the sound aspect (most of it is recorded in mono actually) and, for example, I didn't have proper mics and I didn't know how to place them to get a good sound from my guitars, but I just experimented and tried to get some weird sounds out of my old gear. That's probably one of the reasons why so many people find that album so charming: it's got a really unique sound, especially when it came out and everybody had begun using lap-tops and the same synth-sampler plug-ins. Until Tomorrow had a completely different sound-aesthetic. Sure, I wanted to have glitches and micro-programmed beats in my sound—in some way, I wanted it to sound modern—but my limitations in knowledge and gear resulted in a very different sound.
Another reason why it's a powerful album, in spite of its limitations, is the fact that it presented a new way of dealing with electronica. Electronica has always been based around repetitions with changing textures—even today this is the blueprint for basically all electronica albums! I wanted to do something with lots of compositional movement. I wanted pieces that surprised and created glorious climaxes (as in 1980s pop and rock, for example), pieces that could change pace midway, or suddenly break down into a quiet part. In short, I wanted to give it an epic sense, even though it was basically quite minimal electronica. This way of creating really dynamic song structures has always been the heart of Manual. I still feel this way of composing in instrumental music opens up to completely uncharted territory, and I'm absolutely bedazzled over the fact that practically no one else is investigating the possibilities in musical structure instead of only focusing on different textures.
Also, Until Tomorrow was one of the first albums to really use electronica elements in a very organic way and melt it into an acoustic framework—or vice versa. Since then, the market has been flooded with albums blending electronic beats with acoustic guitars and other organic instruments, so it's funny to think back to seven years ago when it still felt fresh. It's incredible that every month there's an album out that sounds like Until Tomorrow! I don't mean that all these people have been inspired by it, as I think that this mentality or direction would have happened anyway. Especially here in Denmark , electronica in the style of Morr Music circa 2001 is really flourishing, and the funny thing is that they don't have any idea that my albums exist or that people did similar things seven years ago! Back then, it really felt like an interesting direction. I came from a rock background and started digging the Chicago scene as well as some of the late 1990s IDM stuff such as Schematic, Hefty, and Warp Records, and really felt it would be interesting to combine that approach to sound with some guitars and a completely different way of songwriting.
Electronic music still has a deep connection to dance music and hip-hop. I never felt any relation to any sort of hip-hop or anything that could be danced to, so I figured the way to go would be to create interesting compositions that by no means would work in a club, or even a lounge—something that was much more personal and private in tone. For me, Until Tomorrow was also the result of a pure excitement of being able to create music all by myself. As soon as I got my 8-track when I was 18, I knew that it was completely my thing to sit alone in a small room with my gear and explore the possibilities of sound and composition. Not to sound like a bleak person (ha-ha) but it was a revolution for me to be able to actually make real music in my parents' basement! So there's definitely a presence of that naïve excitement and sense of wonder in that album.
That's probably why it still feels like a good album to so many people; even though it's naïvely put together and sketchy in sound and production, it still has some very interesting ideas musically; you can sense an ambition and a musical vision, even though it's obviously the work of someone who's absolutely without any control of what he's doing.
5. Given that, presumably, many of your recording goals already have been met, what goals or ambitions do you have for the future? Have you strategically plotted out the years ahead, or do you prefer to let things unfold of their own accord?
Well, I can't help planning a lot of things years ahead. I probably shouldn't mention them here because they tend to be delayed by at least a year or so. All I can say is that I am working on music full-time and that there are going to be lots of new things and some completely different releases as well in the future. I have lots of plans, but new ideas always come in on the side as well as new opportunities for collaborations, etc, so I always end up postponing them.
6. I'm presuming that you grew up listening to and were influenced by The Cocteau Twins, so am wondering what it was like for you to finally work with Robin Guthrie on “Marabella”? Secondly, given that the two of you appear to be such a natural pair, it would seem to be an equally natural step for the two of you to collaborate on an album-length project (much as Robin Guthrie recently did with Harold Budd). What are the chances of that happening?
Yeah, it was huge when I discovered The Cocteau Twins. I didn't really get into them until I was 18 or something, but ever since they have been a big influence on me, or more specifically Robin Guthrie's guitar playing has been an influence. Earlier in my teens, I was really crazy about stuff like The Cure and also U2, mostly because of their guitar sounds; lots of delay, lots of chorus, really metaphysical sounds that resonated in my teenage mind days after listening to it. I have always loved the big, swirling guitar sounds of the 1980s and, when I discovered The Cocteau Twins, I felt it was that sound taken to its limit, to its natural conclusion. Of course, now I can see that Robin's sound has very little to do with these bands (besides he would probably kill me if he saw I was comparing his playing to U2) and has a unique style of its own. But for me back then, it was really a gathering of all the guitar sounds from the 1980s I loved so much, combined with some very interesting playing, and very unique chord progressions. So The Cocteau Twins has definitely been an inspiration, sometimes very directly (“Summer Haze”, “Neon Reverie”, “Clear Skies...” to name a few). Working with Robin on “Marbella” was, of course, huge for me. Just listening to our two guitar sounds next to each other is totally awesome. There are no plans to make an album together at the moment though. But I would certainly love to...
7. You're also a member in the groups Limp, Syntaks, Causa Sui, and contributed significantly to the recent Rumskib debut. Can you update us on what is currently happening with those group projects as well as any other projects with which you're currently involved (like the Ulrich Schnauss and Auburn Lull collaborations mentioned at your site)?
Well, Limp hasn't played together since 2003. Lately, we have actually talked about trying to play together again, maybe record a few things, but it's unlikely there'll be a release in the near future. Syntaks is really the solo project of Jakob Skøtt; I just appeared with a little guitar and synth on his debut album. He's working on tons of stuff at the moment, and will probably release some new material soon. Hopefully, he will also be part of the Manual ‘band' when I tour North America next month.
We are working hard on Causa Sui which is frustrating since it's not really moving anywhere. We are working on two instrumental, more laid-back, albums at the moment. But it still has that acid-kraut vibe; these days I'm putting the final touches on a twenty-six minute track that's really special! We also just stopped working with our lead singer which is a big relief for me. It's great fun doing the Causa Sui stuff, especially since it works as such a contrast to the Manual stuff for me. I work on music every single day, so it's important to be able to work on completely different things to maintain a balance. If I have worked on really ambient, minimal stuff for three weeks, it feels great to go out and record a twenty-minute jam with the band. On the other hand, it's also extremely stimulating to work with synths and beats at home again after two weeks of doing rock-oriented stuff. At the moment, it all works as a unity, and I really believe this is the way to stay inspired all the time.
Keith from Rumskib is working on a solo record at the moment, and it's likely that I will have some part in that, one way or another. I would love to be more involved with it, but simply don't have the time for it at the moment.
I have been working with Ulrich Schnauss since 2005 and we have a lot of really good material. I don't know what it will turn into yet, maybe a mini-album or something. We are hoping to get it finished soon, but it's hard to find the time since we are both busy and live far apart; Ulrich lives in London now and I live in Denmark so doing a session is not the easiest thing in the world.
The stuff with Auburn Lull is also going really well. We have about an hour of almost-finished music. We have been working together for nearly a year, and I really like the direction it's taking. Sound-wise, it's very close to The North Shore and Bajamar, but even more minimal and darker in tone. So far one piece is finished; it's twenty-five minutes long and probably the best thing I've ever been involved with. But again, it's far from completion, and I guess we might create a lot more material together so we will have some really fine pieces to choose from when we're putting the album together sometime next year.
Soon there will also be a limited CD release out on Benbecula consisting of some sessions I did with Jakob Skøtt and Rasmus Rasmussen last September. We played a gig of completely exclusive music at a festival in our hometown Odense, a partly-improvised set in a completely different style than what we normally do. We recorded some of the rehearsals and decided to make a limited release out of it. I guess it showcases the more 'avant-garde' side of our musical personalities, to use a terribly pointless high-brow word.
8. In an interview about five years ago, you mentioned that didn't use samplers or computers to compose your music, and that your recordings were created using hardware only. Given the incredible technological advances that have occurred since that interview, I'm curious as to whether your working methods have changed since then.
Until Tomorrow and the first EP were created using the very simple setup I mentioned earlier: analog synths, a little hardware from the 1980s, and some guitars. With Ascend, Isares, Into Forever, The North Shore, and small parts of Golden Sun, I started using samplers and up-to-date (well from 1992 or so) sequencers, but during Golden Sun (sometime in the summer of 2003), I shifted to a computer-based setup, recording everything on computer, and using software samplers instead of hardware, and that's how I've been working until now. I still use a lot of analog synths and of course hardware effects for the guitars, but I record and sequence everything on a computer—a little ironic, as my sound hardly has become more modern throughout the years. On the contrary, one would think Azure Vista was created almost entirely with old 1980s hardware. But it's definitely a necessity to work with computers now, because most of my pieces depend on heavy editing and the ability to mix together over sixty layers— occasionally, I use over one hundred channels on the mixer, which would be nearly impossible with a hardware setup! Working with computers definitely makes things a lot easier.
9. You also talked in the past about certain key influences like Talk Talk, Philip Glass, Eno, and U2 among others. What, if anything, is currently inspiring you musically or in heavy rotation on your turntable/iPod/disc player? Or is it the case that you are so busy and/or focused that you're unaffected by genre trends (hip-hop, dubstep)?
It's hard for me to talk about certain key influences these days, because honestly I don't think there are any. I digest so many things at the same time that I rarely get inspired by any single artist or even single track anymore. In the days when I did Until Tomorrow, I guess I was always inspired by certain things (Jim O'Rourke, Hefty, To Rococo Rot, Warp, etc), but I think, or at least hope, I have grown away from that. Of course I am still inspired by things, nothing is generated by itself (causa sui :)), but nowadays the inspiration grows out of a huge mass that has been built up inside of me for years and years—and not necessarily by music alone. I think that's probably one of the major steps I have taken as an artist; not relying on other peoples' ideas—at least not directly anyway. There comes a time when you've built your own styles as an artist, or a ‘set of tools' or ‘ingredients' you can pick from when putting things together.
I am really not very focused on modern music anymore, and rarely come across anything that blows my mind. It feels like I'm less and less influenced by current genre-trends, which I take as nothing but a blessing. I don't give a shit about the retro-mentality either. I try to absorb whatever I like in whatever music from whatever era. I think the best thing I can do is to stay true my own likes and dislikes, and have faith that it leads me somewhere fertile, even though no one sees the point in it (that's actually how I feel about The North Shore and Bajamar actually). I realized long ago that I don't really belong in any musical landscape; for example, I tried for a long time to find out which magazines I should subscribe to: The Wire? Mojo and Uncut? Grooves? Downbeat? Or should I simply read Pitchfork like everyone else? I realized I didn't like any of them, and that finding trustable guides for buying albums was a hopeless project. I certainly wouldn't describe myself as ‘indie.' I am certainly not a typical jazz enthusiast either. Am I a rock person? If so, why do I hate every single rock band on the planet? I guess what really constitutes my musical world is probably more certain aspects of certain music than genres or styles.
It's also hard for me to answer what kind of music turns me on at the moment, because I am into so many different things at the same time. Besides, I hardly ever dismiss anything—meaning that if I once liked something, I keep coming back to it year after year. I still regularly spin the music that turned me on when I was twelve. When I look at the stacks of CDs by my player right now, there's a lot of David Sylvian lying there; also some Robbie Basho, some Miles Davis 1970s albums, some Javanese gamelan albums from the Nonesuch Explorer series, some Beach Boys albums, a couple of Ash Ra Temple CDs, Seefeel's Quique reissue, Harmonia's second album, a Steve Reich recording, a Kate Bush collection, a Cream live album, and the two new Guthrie-Budd CDs. All amazing stuff!
10. ‘Listed' questions:
All-time favourite record or record that changed your life:
Role model or inspiration:
Eno is also a good inspiration. A person who has had his hands in many different genres, yet left his clear mark in everything he has done, a red thread running through all of it. Also, Miles of course, someone who refused to settle into a routine, but always strived for something new and higher each time he got his band together for a session. Wouldn't ever want to work with Coldplay or get a heroin addiction though...
Most memorable concert you performed in:
Most memorable concert you attended:
Song you wish you'd written:
Favourite non-music-related thing to do:
Favourite place in the world: