Electric Indigo Interview

Composer, DJ and founder of female:pressure network of women in electronic music and digital arts, Electric Indigo (Susanne Kirchmayr) has been involved in the world of dance music on many different levels. She began her career in the late 80s and has had the opportunity to develop a well rounded perspective on the industry from being involved in it for over two decades. She has played all around the world as a live performer and DJ, and her sound design for theater works producing for multi-channel installations is gaining the attention of larger and larger audiences for its innovation. Femmecult is happy to have the opportunity to gain insight into the experiences of such a distinguished artist.

Femmecult:

You have been working in the field of electronic music for over 25 years, starting out as a DJ in 1989. What motivated you to get involved in the electronic music scene and choose this path over something else?

Electric Indigo:

In the 80ies, I was mostly into funk, hip hop and jazz. I started to buy records and exchange mix tapes with friends years before I started to play vinyl in public spaces. That started in a small bar in Vienna where I went frequently as a guest. I noticed that quite a few of my night life acquaintances spun their favorite records there and I decided to ask the bar owners if they let me do so, too. It all went from there. I never intended to get a 9 – 5 job, all my close friends were artists. I was a bohemian, very curious, adventurous and independent to a degree that could have passed off as detached. But back to your question about electronic music: Apart from early hip hop I did not know much about electronic music. I wasn’t into synth pop and only very few industrial bands appealed to me. I incidentally came across Brian Eno and some pretty strange japanese electronica, I went to a couple of acid house parties in Vienna and one in London in 1988 and I think I already knew LFO and some other Warp stuff by 1990 but it took me until 1991 to really get into electronic dance music. A Viennese DJ, Gebel, who worked at Black Market Vienna introduced me to DJ Rush on Saber Records. That was it. My initiation to techno happened in a record store with headphones on. I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was kind of the essence of what I had always liked in music. Right after that experience I also got to know Underground Resistance and then it was completely clear: This is where I want to go on!

Femmecult:

At what point did you begin to compose your own music and how did that come about? Were you were working with vinyl and turntables at first, and did you move on to using electronic music hardware such as synthesizers?

Electric Indigo:

To me, making music was always very different from djing. Nevertheless, it was the logical consequence since beat-matching and mixing records demand an analytic hearing. I was curious how these records were made and I learned a lot because I met all kinds of experts in this field and asked them a lot of questions: about the machines, studios, means of production, about labels, distribution and, naturally, about artists. I started to go to some artists’ studios and played around with their Rolands and Korgs and Mackies. Not much later, in 1993, I had the chance to start to work at Hardwax, a legendary record store in Berlin. There, my learning curve rose exponentially and I could buy some second-hand synthesizers and drum machines from the Hardwax owner, Mark Ernestus, and from one of my colleagues, René Löwe aka Vainqueur. I had my first equipment at home: a Roland TR-808 and TR-606, a Sequential Circuits Six~Trak, a Multimoog, a KORG MS-10, a Doepfer step sequencer… Still, I needed some support to get tracks done and I continued to work with other producers like Patrick Pulsinger, David Carretta, Richard Bartz, Dr. Walker and Khan. I mostly recorded sessions on DAT without editing. Just start and end point had to be defined. Only occasionally, I worked with sequencing software. I can’t even remember what I tried before I got Ableton Live in 2002. It probably was Cubase and I did a couple of tracks/remixes with sampler and software. But for the most part, I had a pure, analogue hardware set-up.

Creating music took a whole new direction for me when I first started to play live. In 2002 I was invited to develop a new project with Mia Zabelka, a composer-performer and fervid violinist who uses lots of electronics. We prepared a program from scratch with certain defined elements but a lot of room for improvisation. I took most of my hardware to the concert and we had a wild ride on stage.. It was a completely new experience for me: seated audience, space and time for really weird sounds and unforeseeable twists. This kind of performance met a tendency I have in common with many other techno producers: we love to indulge in the search of sounds. Have you ever heard of anybody who sat in the studio and listened to variations of a pure kick drum the whole night long? I have such stories repeatedly. I love to change one parameter after the other and listen to the results holding down one key for an hour. Suddenly, I could do these sort of things on stage, experimenting and exploring rather freely.

Only when I had an invitation to play live in New York, I decided I had to find a different solution. I couldn’t carry all these synths and drum machines with me. Of course, I had heard about Ableton Live and this ever since has been my production and live software of choice.

Femmecult:

What was the musical climate like back in 1989 in Vienna and Berlin?

Electric Indigo:

I don’t know much about Berlin when it comes to the late 80s. I only experienced some of the new wave bars in Berlin in the mid 80ies. But in Vienna, rare grooves, funk and soul were pretty big in the late 1980s. There was a strong connection to London due to the owner of the local Black Market record store who imported London club culture to Vienna. Before that, there were either discos, or cold and artsy new wave bars or inns that were open late night and served a mixed clientele of artists and politicians… You could still feel The Third Man (see Carol Reed) in the 80s in Vienna. But there was an enormously influential radio show called Die Musicbox on the national radio every Monday to Friday one hour in the afternoon from 1967 until 1995. All sorts of independent underground music had its home there. I worked as an editor for this show for a while around 1989/1990. As a matter of fact, I met Christopher Just who worked in a record store at that time because he heard a feature about Underground Resistance I made. There was only one of the main program directors, Werner Geier, who actively supported me in my passion for techno – even though he was into hip hop himself. Most of the people in Vienna I was in touch with didn’t like techno. Many of them either thought it was fascist German march music or that it was outdated. Seriously, one of the music journalists and bosses of Musicbox took about 60 minutes of his precious time just to explain why techno was long over (he, not unjustifiably, referred to something made in the 1970s) and why it was journalistically not correct to report about this music, especially from an enthusiastic standpoint. He said this in 1991, I think. Additionally, I lost my DJ-job at the bar where I started. They didn’t like my new enthusiasm either. On top of that, as a former funk, jazz and hip hop DJ who didn’t really know how to mix, I didn’t have any credibility in the small Viennese techno scene.

Luckily, I got to know Hardwax and the German scene and it was totally clear to me: this is where I need to go. Finally, in 1993 I could start working at Hardwax (Records). My Berlin years from ‘93 to ‘96 were absolutely formative for my artistic career. Hardwax was, and is, a very important node in the international electronic dance music network. It stands for a rather puristic style, very underground and authentic, and working there means to be extremely well connected. One of the most significant changes in the past 20 years concerns the availability and distribution of sound carriers. The main reason why I could succeed as a DJ even if I learned mixing by trial and error in front of the public (it took me a very long time to finally beat match decently,) was that the records I played were quite rare and my selections good. It is hard to imagine nowadays that 20 years ago a record that was sold in Berlin was not available in Vienna. Some records maybe arrived a year later if ever at all.

Femmecult:

Have you always been musical, or did you receive training as a child?

Electric Indigo:

As every good Austrian child I learned an instrument when I was a kid. I took piano lessons for three years and I wasn’t bad. But I always envied my brother who was able to beautifully improvise on the piano. Somehow, I didn’t manage.

Femmecult:

What was the process for learning to compose your own music? Did you collaborate with others initially, or were you learning what you liked on your own, and developing your own style as you went along?

Electric Indigo:

I think I partly answered this question above. But what I didn’t mention: I have the feeling that I only started to really develop my own style in the past couple of years. It feels like a research, I am looking for the essence of what I find fascinating in music. This research evolves from working alone. Nowadays, I have the need to concentrate and progress. Improvisation is great but I’ve done that sufficiently for now, Additionally, I had some negative experiences working with others, too. I spent a lot of time waiting, for example. Energy and impulse was dwindling away while waiting for a partner. Artistically, it is also always a compromise, which can be good, too, but I want to find and elaborate my own forms of expression.

Femmecult:

What are some artists / philosophies that influenced you early on and into the present? Why do you find them inspirational?

Electric Indigo:

Public Enemy, Missy Elliott, Peaches, Prince, Simone de Beauvoir, Ada Lovelace, Judith Butler, Alan Turing, Jenny Holzer, Theodor Adorno, Noam Chomsky, Sadie Plant, Donna Haraway, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Immanuel Kant, Gerhard Richter, Zaha Hadid, Louise Bourgeois, Norbert Wiener, Valie Export, Steve Reich, John Cage, political activists: Johanna Dohnal, Olympe de Gouges to name a few. These personalities seem all very ideal to me, I haven’t met them in person but their work had direct or indirect influence on my way of thinking and my artistic expression.

But even more important are my artist friends who give me the chance to exchange and reason ideas, who personally inspire and motivate me with their brilliance, integrity and persistence: Robert Henke, Béla Borsodi, Pia Palme, Cio D’Or, the Hardwax crew, Mark Ernestus, Daniele Artezza, Bill Youngman, Acid Maria, the Underground Resistance crew, Nico Killekill, Angelina Yershova, Teresa Kaltès, Sven Gaechter, Anton Waldt, Michaela Schwendtner, Nana de Bary, Mieko Suzuki and many more!

Femmecult:

Please talk about your music setup. Do you use software and hardware instruments? What can you say about the difference of working in each of these mediums in regards to workflow and creativity?

Electric Indigo:

In the past years I have been exploring ways to make music from recordings of spoken language. I mostly work on the basis of granular synthesis and also sometimes apply spectral processing. The tools I use for this are all software based. In particular, I use Ableton Live, Max For Live, a lot of Robert Henke’s M4L devices, especially his Granulator, and Michael Norris’ SoundMagic Spectral AU plug-ins on my MacBook Pro. I need several MIDI-controllers: two nanoKONTROLs, a QuNeo that i use as a launch-pad emulator and a MPK mini. And there is my MOTU sound card. The advantage of this set-up is its mobility. And I can do everything with it that interests me most these days.

I still love my old synths, especially the Multimoog, and in the past I made heavy use of a microKORG, a Jomox X-Base 09, a MFB-503 drum computer and a KAOSSpad. There is also an Arturia MicroBrute sitting on my desk, waiting for my next live improv project that probably will come sooner or later…

Femmecult:

Please talk about your experience developing sound installations for exhibition? How did you get into composing music for multiple channel works? What are some challenges and rewards for working in this medium?

Electric Indigo:

Composing such pieces is like solving a puzzle for me since I don’t have a multi-channel set-up at home. I imagine it and I love this challenge because it always worked out the way I preconceived it 🙂 I find it particularly compelling to think about how to place sounds in a specific room in a way that goes beyond surround sound, I like to contrast immersive soundscapes with sounds that can be clearly located, that might move in a certain direction. I also like to think of speakers as instruments. Pia Palme told me about baroque orchestras who’s single players were distributed in the performance room, a church for example. This is an inspiring idea. I can treat a loudspeaker as an instrumentalist in an orchestra but then also use it more flexibly and create positions of sounds where there actually aren’t any speakers. The magic of acoustics and perception! A couple of years ago a friend invited me to participate in a collective sound installation at Coded Cultures festival in Vienna and so, as usual, I took the chance. I have made several multi-channel compositions since, the latest one will premiere on October 9 at musikprotokoll within the scope of Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz. It is a cooperative work with Pia Palme, called ‘Relatively Scary’.

Femmecult:

You’ve toured quite extensively around the world. What have been some highlights for you? How is it different performing in the US versus in Europe or in Asia?

Electric Indigo:

It is always hard for me to pick out single events because I am so extremely thankful and I feel so privileged to be able to travel to such a multitude of different places and experience such a variety of venues, people and events. I’ve always had a weakness for central Asia, so to travel to Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude was definitely one of my most exciting tours. I very much like to go to Japan because I just love the food as well as the knowledgeable audience. In the US, I sort of feel at home. I’ve been there so many times, especially in NYC. My best friend has been living there for 20 years. Last year, I went on holidays to California and was surprised how super nice and lively Los Angeles presented itself 🙂 I was there already before but each time only for a day or two. Last spring I spent more days there and enjoyed it a lot. But I haven’t played in the United States for many years and any judgement of the club scene would be outdated. When it comes to music, the case is clear: Berlin is my hometown!

Femmecult:

In 1998 you initiated the female:pressure database collective of female djs, composers and visual artists working in the electronic music field. What made you decide to begin a project of this magnitude? What have been some positive things that have come out of this network?

Electric Indigo:

When I started to dj I was not aware that it might be an unusual thing to do. I got into DJing for the sake of music and my passion for beats, bass and funk. Touring as an artist, I unwillingly created astonishment just because I am female. For more than 25 years, people have been asking me about other female artists in electronic music and club culture. female:pressure is my systematized answer, accessible wherever and whenever one can go online. The need for a resource of information about female artists in electronic music was as obvious in the 1990s as it is today.

We were able to pull off some nice projects over the years. 2013 was particularly intense in this respect: we made a press release, a call for diversity in electronic music and digital arts on March 8, it was released in 9 languages. Later that year we had the Perspectives Festival in Berlin and, in December, we released our Pussy Riot Freedom compilation to help raising funds for the imprisoned band members. Other activities include the Honorary Mention of the Prix Ars Electronica in 2009, our Creative Commons project open:sounds that bore a CD and a DVD release (2006 and 2008), a tour in Japan (2009), several regular radio shows in Vienna, Hamburg and Berlin, ‘die vorspielservice’ – a fun project from Vienna by Amina Handke and female:pressure, subtitle ‘the corrupt record showcase’ – the idea got exported to Leipzig, Germany, too.

But the best outcomes are when people meet through the network and new collaborations and projects emerge. I think this happens more often than I know of. Every once in awhile I meet people accidentally who tell me that they founded a new a/v project or musical project or something else with another female:pressure artist after they connected through our mailing list. I think the mailing list is our main tool for real action. About 44 % of the artists listed in the database are also subscribed to the list. In case you’d like to know: we have about 1270 artists from 62 countries at the moment.

Femmecult:

What is on the horizon for female:pressure network? In your opinion what are some ways we can expand the international visibility of female artists?

Electric Indigo:

Since everything depends on individual initiative, it is hard to predict. Personally, I think a follow-up on our facts study would be absolutely useful. Apparently, we were the only ones who actually ever analyzed the gender quota in electronic music line-ups. More than 18 months after its release, the study still gets citations. It would mean a lot of work, though, to make a new and better, more systematic study that possibly even complies with (or comes close to) academic standards. Unfortunately, the colleagues aren’t always easily motivated.

Femmecult:

In a video interview with k1971 label management Berlin, you said you noticed that some female artists who have been more visible in the past tend to have shorter careers than their male counterparts, becoming less popular and visible after only a few years. What do you think may account for this?

Electric Indigo:

It might be caused by a mixture of ageism and the higher dependence on some sort of novelty factor. This is just an assumption and unfortunately I don’t have scientific data for verification. But it doesn’t sound implausible to me that there can be parallels to careers of actresses whose chances to succeed decrease with age as is commonly known. Meryl Streep is a famous exception and she openly addresses this issue.

Femmecult:

What advice might you have for women in electronica in expanding their opportunities in this business?

Electric Indigo:

Frankly, I’m really not the best address for keys to economic success. I have an optimistic nature and relatively little responsibilities. I don’t have kids, my rent is rather low, I am an expert in downgrading and, above all, I have brothers and friends and my partner who can help me out in the worst case. This combination makes me feel free and integrated at the same time which I consider a huge privilege. I can’t but stay authentic in artistic regards, I couldn’t sell out because I don’t have the means to do so. And, naturally, I am not looking for such means either.

But in any case, authenticity is certainly one key quality for success on the long run amongst several others. Originality, refinement, progress and probably pursuit of perfection belong there, too. Most important is cooperative practice and networking that incorporates the aforementioned authenticity. Find your peers, find a sphere where you feel you belong to!

Femmecult:

What is on the horizon for female:pressure network? What, in your opinion, are some ways we can expand the international visibility of female artists?

Electric Indigo:

I think we are on a good way, especially in Berlin. It would be super smart to seek cooperations with media and industry partners. This can be tricky, though. You need a sure instinct and an intelligent policy to make this work the right way. I wouldn’t want to lose the informal swarm-like character female:pressure has, it makes it very flexible, open and accessible. But for mid-term, strategic cooperations you need consistency and stable negotiants which probably means a more formal structure is necessary for some kind of activities. Consequentially, we would have to create several local organizations parallel to the existing network and database.

Femmecult:

After releasing many singles and several EPs, you are working on a full length debut album. Please talk about what you are planning for this release, and what else is on the horizon for Electric Indigo?

Electric Indigo:

You are putting your metaphorical finger on my soft spot. I have a lot of interesting rudiments but frequently experience setbacks. In other words, I am struggling with final forms of expression. It is much easier for me to work with a deadline, for a project that needs to be realized. And I know, in theory, this project needs to be realized, too. But too often I end up doing other tasks first. Anyhow, I need to finish it, I have a nice label seriously interested in it, Imbalance Computer Music, but its standards for an album are high and so are mine.

Otherwise, I’ll have a great video of an A/V cooperation with Thomas Wagensommerer online soon. A composition called ‘Morpheme’ that I made for the Heroines Of Sound Festival in Berlin in June. All sounds are derived from a recording of a sentence Sadie Plant said on this year’s CTM panel about sound, gender and technology: “To let noise into the system is a kind of fine art in both cybernetic terms and in terms of making music, too.” There is an audio excerpt online.

Later this year, but promotion hasn’t started yet, I will have a release on Suicide Circus Dark Series, two original tracks and two remixes by Dadub and Bill Youngman. We are planning on touring in this constellation, too.

Right now, I am working on music for a theater play ‘X Freunde’ that will premiere in November 2014 at KosmosTheater in Vienna.

On October 9, the aforementioned ‘Relatively Scary’ will premiere at a carossel Karmeliterplatz in Graz, Austria

The first half of December I will travel through Chile for the first time and possibly play both a DJ-set and a live gig. It is not confirmed yet, though.