For the past twenty years, Janek Schaefer has manipulated vinyl and found sounds into mesmerising soundscapes in his pursuit of creating beauty. I spoke with him about his early influences, the helping hand of serendipity and how his approach has developed over the years. His latest album, What Light There Is Tells Us Nothing, distills his ideas into playful yet poignant compositions that might just be his most beautiful creation yet.
Like a lot of his releases, this new album contains material that was originally part of a sound art exhibition. Is the recorded version simply a document of the event or a stand alone work in itself?
“I like the word ‘holistic’, as it’s the integrity of the whole system”, Schaefer explains. “The project has evolutionary stages, because I respond to opportunities and then to the site and the audience. I want to answer the brief of what the context is, what the site is and that will determine the start of an idea. And during the research, I’ll discover something unexpected and that’s where the magic is.”
He often talks about “looking for gold”, and how happy accidents are like alchemy in his process. So there’s an element of serendipity to your work?
“Serendipity is my muse”. He expands with a story about how the album actually ended up on the Temporary Residence label. “It’s all a magical thing, the Temporary Residence thing came around because I’d listened to a conceptual album by Eluvium. It was designed to be listened back on iTunes with the cross-fader on so whatever order the tracks are played, they mesh well. So I tried to contact him but I didn’t know his email, so I contacted the label to pass on my appreciation to him. And the boss of the label got back and said that he was a fan of my music, and would I like to do a release with them?”
That gesture of passing on a compliment to another artist secured a new release for Schaefer himself. This act of making your own luck is a recurring feature in his history. He tells me another story about how he wanted to contact the new director at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but didn’t know his email, so he guessed it. His guess was correct and it not only led to the Extended Play exhibition, but also to him being nominated for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation award and actually winning it! The money earned from the win was substantial, and Schaefer invested it in an all-ages disco that he was running locally on the side. The Lucky Dip Disco now acts as a regular income for the artist, whose positivity is perfect for the role of Mr. Manic, his persona behind the decks.
Tell me about the Lucky Dip Disco, and where does the name Mr. Manic came from?
“Don’t panic, you’re with Janek!” he laughs. “I’ve been lucky to be able to straddle all these realms. When I started Lucky Dip Disco in 2008, for parties for children, I had to take a breath and accept that I was good at it. I’m a children’s entertainer, but I can also sit in a Milan auditorium with fifty custom built speakers. So on those nights I can be the polite, serious artist. But in our local community I’m a top five-star disco entertainer.”
This sense of humour and inclusiveness is also evident in his choice of new personalised car number plate. Where most people would have a plate that expressed the driver’s identity, Schaefer turns this notion around. His plate reads: “HII YUO”, greeting the people that he drives past. This is a central theme to his artistic approach as well.
“Since the beginning, I simply take an idea and look at it from the other way round. All my projects do this. Like taking a turntable arm and adding lots of them or “Skate”, my random play record, was making the opposite of one long line by making lots of little lines”.
This inventiveness also applies to his titles, with a fun sense of wordplay such as Recorded Delivery literally describing the piece. I ask him about his track titles, and if he thinks humour is present in the world of experimental sound art?
“I like track titles that are quite polemic, they say what they do on the tin. “Untitled” is my least favourite title. Whereas with “Recorded Delivery” I just thought… yes! I’ve nailed it! The sound art genre isn’t a slave to the popular press, and the community is the most positive group I’ve met on the planet.”
A surprising comment during our conversation was that, before his ventures into turntablism and sound art, Schaefer had tried making dance music with an MC303 groovebox. It’s an unreleased album but is on his listed discography.
“It would have been about 1996”, he tells me. “I wanted to make dance music because that’s what I loved, but I couldn’t do it, my brain just doesn’t follow the rules of rhythm. This was at the same time that I saw Philip Jeck, Chris Watson and Panasonic play, which was a turning point in my life. But I didn’t make good dance music, and it was exactly the time that I built the three arm record player, and I put something on it and it told me what to do. My first track with the tri-phonic was “His Master’s Voices”, with the TS Elliot poem and the right arm saying ‘time past, present and future’. Once I’d finished that first track I thought I could just do what I want. Philip (Jeck) gave me the confidence to loop sounds, and after that I just followed my nose.”
This was a liberating time for the artist, giving him the freedom to play by his own rules. And if that performance by Jeck was a seminal moment of inspiration, another was his first encounter with Charlemagne Palestine.
“I’d just seen the concert with Philip, and my ears had been opened. I didn’t know anyone who made experimental music, and I’d just started making it myself. In that early phase I heard that Charlemagne was playing in a church in Waterloo, I didn’t know anything about him but it was supposed to be an all night concert. I was learning about duration, so thought I’d go to that. That night taught me an immense amount, an early keystone influence on me.” He describes the concert involving piano, field recordings and organ drones, and even a bit of shouting at the audience. Schaefer thought at the time, “He’s not making music here, he’s presenting sound. And then the most amazing thing happened.” Palestine began to walk, then jog and finally sprint around the pews of the church during the sound presentation. Schaefer thought this was strange, but believed in it as Palestine was so convincing, and since then this idea of being comfortable with yourself has been an important maxim to Schaefer. As he says, “Just be the best you that you can be.”
Schaefer’s approach to sound making has always been hands-on, creating tactile sonic fields and allowing imperfections to lend character to the work. When I ask him about his compositional methods, he explains: “I’ve always been a fan of hard editing, the more I’ve gone on, the less I’ve wanted to just fade up and fade out. In the middle of a track when a new scene suddenly appears, like a field recording or something, I call the edge of that like hearing the edges of time.”
His work with Robert Hampson taught him to go for those more sudden edits, so I ask about other experiences with artists during collaborative projects. Schaefer recalls his time spent with Stephan Mathieu in 2005 working on the Hidden Name album: “I would get some sounds ready but Stephan would say he didn’t think they work together. He’d say ‘just leave it at that’, and I’d think… what, just one sound?” But since then, he says, “What Stephan said to me all those years ago is true. I now accept it as true, and I now feel I am able to share that as a piece.”
This nudge towards simplicity is something more and more present in his recent material. “I’ve been trying for the past fifteen years to be more simple, for my own brain” which he describes as always working “too overtime”. So when he made Glitter in my Tears in 2017 it consisted of “26 tiny, short tracks of often just a sound”. This distillation of sonic elements is also apparent in his current collaborative projects. His long gestating work with William Basinski is a case in point. “If I work with someone like that,” says Schaefer, “I’ll have to celebrate that restraint and complement his oeuvre with my textures.”
His practice has been evolving yet simplifying, purifying his sound pallete. He describes his early work as sometimes “cacophonous”, with multiple textures and tones. He describes Out, his first album, as “raw and dark” and the collages on a split 12″ (on Fat Cat) are “recordings of me fucking about with a jack plug.”
So is he mellowing with time? “The more middle aged I’ve become, I want to please my local community and my family, not just the audience when I’m on stage. I’ve wholeheartedly pursued beauty. It was a very fierce beauty in the beginning but it’s a more nostalgic sense of beauty now.”
This sense of beauty is highly apparent on the new LP, where vocal samples come to the fore and the loops are sparser, less layered, and one or two sounds are allowed to hold up the whole track. There’s also a clarity to this material, a lightness of touch that seems to have begun with Glitter in my Tears. He believes this presentation of a more stripped-down and minimal sound takes a lot of confidence, saying, “It’s taken me a long time to be this brave”. And maybe this is where the future lies for Schaefer, looking for gold in fewer layers and finding beauty in a single turntable loop.