28 Jan 2015 — Henning Lahmann
The first time I consciously encountered the work of Montréalais Jesse Osborne-Lanthier was in the summer of 2013 when he curated a couple of nights of the Foreign Affairs festival at Haus der Festspiele in the pretty, curiously bourgois western side of town (where no one from the Kreuzberg/Neukölln expat bubble ever seems to go), together with his friends and NFOP regulars Alex Zhang Hungtai aka Dirty Beaches and Bernardino Femminielli. The same year, a new project popped up, immediately grabbing our attention: Femminielli Noir, Osborne-Lanthier's stupendous proto-techno collaboration with his fellow Montreal mate. By now, the artist has settled in Berlin's not-Neukölln-but-close-enough formerly eastern neighbourhood of Alt-Treptow, where I visited him the other night to talk about his new and old hometowns, upcoming projects, and his involvement in the NFOP-presented Berlin Current, CTM Festival's platform for emerging experimental music by artists living within the city limits. Read the interview below.
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Tell me a little bit about your background, where you come from musically, because I saw that you also have a background in visual arts, not only in music?
Yeah, I used to do a lot more visual arts, in fact I’m trying to find a way to reincorporate that in my work. I think the concept of being a "musician" is far less interesting to me than being the kind of person who can re-contextualize moments or experiences in life onto any certain medium. Music is the way I express myself best, now, I’m trying to loop it back around and junction here and then, to see if some of that old way of translating experience onto creation still holds true to me. I’m working with Grischa Lichtenberger on some A/V stuff at the moment, the tinkering and conceptualizing parts are super stimulating. There’s this aspect of detachment towards being a musician – someone being related to an instrument / machine that I don’t really enjoy that much. For instance, that’s why the stuff with Femminielli Noir is mainly derived from concepts, jokes, toilet philosophy and a cynical attitude towards the world.
How long have the two of you been working together?
I think like four years now? It’s been kind of a series of sporadic events. The stuff happens and is made really fast and then we tour it out or release it and move on.
How did you get to know Francesco De Gallo and the whole Hobo Cult community?
Frank is a really good friend. I had heard his material around because he saturates the Montreal experimental music market so much, it’s basically impossible not to come across his work. Everything he does, he records and puts out. I used to work at a synth shop in Montreal, so I met him when he came to the store once with a couple of friends and we hit it off right away. The next week we were jamming together, shirtless, in 40 degrees celcius heat. I consider Frank close to a brother now. I’m actually trying to get him to come to Berlin and hang out for a while, see if he can break the static of staying/melting in Montreal. Money is an issue though, of course.
So you did not go to Montreal for the music, you just accidentally became part of the scene?
Well I had a few music projects. I went to France with a collective of artists in 2009 or something to to do visual and music stuff. When I came back to Ottawa that fall I had no real place to stay and I had a friend staying in Montreal who could offer me a job so I went. I was always associated with music and art acts from that corner so it was kind of an easy thing to go there. Because in Canada, where are you gonna go? It’s either Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal, the latter being closest geographically.
Do you have a formal education in music?
No, I’m actually pretty dissociated from the whole academic value of music. I’d rather learn everything by myself. I’ve always had this anti-authoritarian way of thinking about education and felt like it was best for me to just invest the money I would invest in school in buying gear, experimenting and then learning with books, online or tutorials on Youtube which I’m very addicted to. So there’s no formal education at all.
You seem to be very much into hardware – on your bandcamp I saw lists of gear used.
I think that list is more of a joke for myself (to remember), relating to the fact that I had a phase for it and to the ridiculous amount of money that went into the production of a small-run tape. Right now I’m not so obsessed with hardware. I’ve downsized the studio when moving to Berlin and basically purged most of my possessions. It seems that this entire masturbatory geek hardware way of approaching art or music is kind of disengaging. I see these things as tools, some of which are essential to "making music", but they’re not permanent and have little to do with what I want to achieve for myself or what I’m looking for. My surroundings have changed and gear is just not where I want to focus or waste energy on. I admire Grischa for instance who does everything on the computer but can translate a clear engaging narrative that is actually way more interesting than that of a lot of people who use a ton of hardware to say nothing at all.
I really love his music. How did you get to know Grischa?
I sent him an email cause I was really interested in his work and in Raster-Noton in general at the time. I was coming to Berlin for a few shows and I just asked if he wanted to meet up and talk. So we met and hung out. I later booked him for that Berliner Festspiele weekend that I helped curate, we got along really well, connected on many levels and started an imaginative, abstract project that later came to life when I invited him to Montreal to play Mutek with me.
Is there a plan to do things more permanently with him?
Yeah, it’s a permanent project now. We’re working on different performances and installation concepts, an LP is also in the works.
Is that the main thing you want to do right now? Because it seems like you are very much a collaboration person. There are all those different projects with other people.
I really like the aspect of collaboration – when it works. There are other collaborative efforts where it just doesn’t seem to stick or I feel like I’m kind of judgmental towards the other person, which is not how you want it to be when working with someone. The reason why there’s more collaboration stuff is that at the moment creating alone doesn’t come as easy. I also like that working with other people lets me exercise other ideas and methods. With Bernardino for example creation has become a world of its own, it has a tongue-in-cheeky, jokey political aspect, it's nonchalant; we make fun of stuff, make each other laugh, it’s quite laid back. This way of working is not something I would really integrate into my solo approach.
How did that happen?
It started from conversations about the disdain of the Montreal local scene. We wanted to start this somewhat provocative project that kind of hinted at the sluggishness of our surroundings. From there it took on different shapes, from performances to recordings and actions. We grew really close and the philosophy of the whole project has evolved quite well. – When working alone I look at it more like I’m documenting stages of my life – It takes on this personal archival scope, like Athenaeum Of Unedited Superannuated Incomplete Unreleased Intimate Works 2011-2011 and Otherwise Insignificant Psyche Debris – there’s no real concept behind them, rather a documentation of a way of seeing things and experiences I lived within a selected time-frame.
Let me come back to Montreal for a second. For the outside world it seems like this creative heaven, that’s the perception everyone had for the last couple of years. But the way you’re describing it – what would you say is lacking, what should be happening but is not?
Well one of the reasons I left is that I felt like I wasn’t advancing that fast anymore. I was playing these three same festivals every year, contributing to the biggest kind of platforms that were available for me in Montreal, on a loop, I had to get out of this cycle. I feel like although Montreal is a creative hub for artists where you will meet amazing people and will work non-stop on music and art and get gigs all the time if you put your mind to it, there is a certain redundancy and sadness in the fact that for the most part it doesn’t really leave Montreal. There’s not much focus on the city being a monolithically established cultural area where people can exchange with people internationally, like other cities can be… the possibility is just ignored more often then not. The exchange often only happens within Montreal itself – this closely knit feeling can be nice but it leads to problems when you’re trying to gain momentum and get noticed and respected on a bigger scale. I feel like in the fields of electronic music, Quebec is generally recognized for what it did in the earlier, safe, academic electro-acoustic era, which is boring. Very few people in the province make it out elsewhere and succeed in reaching bigger spheres and publics. There’s also no venues right now. There’s no space to actually do anything interesting without having to save up your 9-to-5 pays for a year to rent a sound-system and space. There are these pricey or unavailable standard places that the festivals use, but most lofts, small clubs and venues that host, the entire underground after-hour show scene have been pummelled by gentrification… people with "power" are coming in, deciding that this is not happening anymore. There was this whole debate thing last year – finally we had this hope that the city would allow bars, clubs, venues and cultural spaces to be open until 6am, which is not something that is regular for Canadian or even Quebec cities. The bars that the elected representatives did decide to give these permits to were all these really corporate, douchy, dead-inside kind of spaces on the two scummiest streets in Montreal… then the bill got refused altogether, so in the end nothing happened. But the suggested plan had no relationship to culture, music, arts, or night-life. There are no conscious decisions to bring forth cultivable opportunities for people to have fun past 3am or whatever. Of course, you can always do what people have been doing for the past 15 years; go catch a shitty 10pm noise or indie show at Casa Del Popolo, where the stage is built on top of a broken sub woofer, most sound-guys are deaf and you hear the conversation of the people next to you more than the music. Of course, I say this all in good fun, there are amazing things about Montreal.
But do you feel like now that you’re in Berlin and you have been here before, do you feel like there’s more energy here, that things are different? Because some of the things you just described, I can actually relate to.
Yeah. Well Berlin for me is, hm – like, for example, although I really like Paris, I wouldn’t move there, cause for me, it feels too "fast". Here there’s instead a slow thing going on, like, if you want to go out or find something interesting to do on any day, you can probably just go on social media and find something, which is interesting… I feel it’s what I’m looking for at the moment; I can take it slow, be a hermit and work on stuff at home, but if I do feel like getting wild and funky, the opportunity for me to do so is at hand whenever. I never really wanted to move to Berlin permanently, it’s a place I fell in love with easily when I came here the first couple of times, and then it was like okay, the Montreal routine is driving me into the ground and so, I must leave, I must find somewhere else, where I’ll feel stimulated, and this seemed like the most logical place to come – I’d already been coming to Europe every year anyway. In my six months here I’ve been in contact with people that I find really interesting and respect, collaborating with actors that I thought were way out of reach within the spectrum of electronic music, I realized that everything is so closely knit, that there are possibilities to engage with some of these artists really easily. There’s also the other attractive point of Europe, that if you want to use music or art as something to make a bit of money and travel, you can easily go to any other country which has its own culture, language, food and so on, and you can gain a few hundred Euros of doing that and then can come back here as your home base – in Canada, you’re gonna play Toronto for a hundred bucks but spend a hundred on gasoline going back and forth, and then you’re gonna be stuck in this room with thirty people, half of them friends... how about trying Vancouver which is five days of driving away...?
How did you get in touch with the people at Berlin Current, how did all that come about?
I met Oliver Baurhenn of CTM through Nathalie Bachand of Elektra. I had a meeting with him but that didn’t really pan out to anything, I thought it was more of a greeting thing cause I wanted to meet people here, and Elektra kind of opened the door to that. Later on through Olle Holmberg [Moon Wheel] and Yair Elazar Glotman [Ketev] who were playing this night, we decided that it would be interesting to maybe start a project together so we had this little meeting, and I think Olle sent Jan Rohlf [co-founder of CTM] some of my stuff and he was really into it and just emailed me the next day and asked if I wanted to play this lineup.
What’s your live setup gonna be like?
Oh, I have no idea yet.
Is it going to be improvisation?
No, most of it will be pre-planned stuff. For me improvisation is more of a way to make things stick together, building a narrative with the pieces that I have. Each show is different because I tend contextualize stuff in a certain section of time. So it will depend on the next two weeks really. I think I might play some stuff I played on the mini-tour that I did in France about a month ago. But other than that I have no idea. It always really changes. I don’t know if it’s gonna be experimental or more dancey – it will most likely be more clubby because of the context.
It’s probably gonna be the night for that, as it’s on the final club night of CTM.
Some of my expat musician friends in Berlin keep telling me that they love Berlin, they love coming here because they sort of find the freedom they were looking for, but at the same time they feel isolated from the "scene", whatever that might be in Berlin, but you seem to not have experienced that.
Well maybe I haven’t been here long enough to actually integrate myself that much and see that manifest itself. For me the only isolation comes from not knowing that many people and feeling like I don’t have as many close friends here as I do for instance in Montreal and so, I feel alone in that sense. I don’t necessarily attach myself to any particular scene. I kind of move around and experience all of them differently, I’d been doing that in Montreal as well, It helps to get less sick of surroundings.
And it seems like you have met the right people, like Olle or Grischa.
Oh yeah I think it’s working well. Maybe I have a different output, I don’t know where the other people are coming from but for me it just seems like it’s totally up to yourself, it’s open to what you want, there’s not much money here, and I feel like somehow, because of that there is a sense of teamwork that makes shit happen. With or without funds a lot of people will be like, ‘’hey, you wanna do this? Let’s do it! And then it’ll happen – but then again this might just be my experience of previously living in a city that’s not so happening. So coming here is quite exciting. The winter is still kind of dead, but there’s something still brewing and in comparison Montreal winters are the death of fun.
It’s interesting to see how differently people experience coming to Berlin as artists.
When I came here two summers ago and went to Urban Spree for the first time, I felt like all the people I was running into outside in the food court area before the show were all from different countries, from different backgrounds, yet a lot of them still relatable, that was a pretty great feeling.
Right. I love the space just for that actually.
So what’s coming up next for you?
Yeah, there’s the Femminielli Noir LP 12" coming out on Mind Records which is our mother label and has really helped in getting some of the Montreal people on the map in Europe, there’s great stuff on the horizon for MIND, I highly recommend checking it out. We’re doing this Germany/France mini-tour in February with the founder of the label, Abraham Toledano (Moyō) and our friend Shub’s (ex member of Dirty Beaches) new solo project Night Musik (who is also releasing his LP on MIND, which I helped produce). There’s another Femminielli Noir EP 12" on this Montreal-based record label called "NEW". Then there’s a solo release on Where To Now? I’m working on and a 7" and 5" again on MIND, plus I’m supposed to possibly compile something for Entr’acte at some point. There’s a collaboration tape with Robert Lippok [Raster Noton, To Rococo Rot] on Geographic North who are doing great things. Grischa and I are putting the final touches on our record which is scheduled for release in summer 2015 but I can’t really say more about that yet. I’ll be doing a few more solo shows in Switzerland and Denmark in March before heading to the EMS studio in Stockholm, Sweden for a two week residency.
But that’s all more or less finished already.
Right. I also would really really enjoy getting more into the conceptual art game thing with my solo work. I have different ideas and plans that I want to establish but I’ve yet to put everything together.
So this is where the visual stuff comes back into your work?
Yeah, well, it doesn’t necessarily even need to be visual but I want to examine other potentials in general.
I feel like this is a direction that’s been happening in the underground scene as of late, more drifting towards the art world.
I think that’s really interesting. The lines have become really blurred in the past few years, and they’re getting more blurry. We are seeing this entire emergence of pop culture leaking into experimental ideals and vice-versa. But I’ve been saying this for years, I’m really interested in all those hybrids of hybrids of hybrids. Although all of these possibilities are opening up new worlds to engage with, this is also contributing to the fact that we are producing way too much material, and in turn contributing to one of the main "problems". Still exciting though.
I agree though, it’s too much. Trying to keep up can get really frustrating sometimes.
I agree. I have a lot of problems with that.
But for me this seems to be like something that Berlin is really good for. This merging of the art scenes and pop and the experimental scenes. Everyone seems to be here at least for a while and is willing to further blur those lines. There’s a certain kind of open-mindedness.
I feel like that’s one of the things people think about when they think about Berlin stereotypically. You know, this impact that the war amongst other things had on this place, if you think about that and then what came after regarding music, arts, design, culture, etc, I can see why a lot of people think of this city as one of the capitals of cultural weirdness, forward-thinking open-mindedness that blurs the lines. It’s a melting pot in that sense, everyone seems to be here for something related to arts, there’s less of a sense of competition here rather than team effort. I really appreciate that.