Gesunder Eskapismus: Vorwärts statt Retro
S U R F I N G, das sind Penny van Hazelberg und Leroy „Lee“ Nania, die sagenhafte Band aus dem australischen Melbourne. Das erfolgreiche Duo hat mit Deep Fantasy eines der wichtigsten Underground-Alben der Dekade herausgebracht. Ein Meisterwerk der Reminiszenz. Mit hochemotionalen Zitaten aus den 80ern ausgestattet, entstand es zwar unter Einfluss des in der Popkultur allgegenwärtigen Sehnens nach Vergangenheit, aka Retro, und es ritt wortwörtlich auf dem internetbasierten meme von Vaporwave, doch die eigenwillige Interpretation der Samples, versehen mit etherischem Gesang und endlosen Gitarrenriffs, unterscheiden es recht deutlich von anderen Arbeiten aus dem fälschlicherweise zugeordnetem Genre. Deep Fantasy war nie wirklich Vaporwave oder Chillwave. Im Gegensatz zum ironisch gemeinten VW/CW-Trash, zusammengezimmert aus 80s Black-Soul-Balladen und Mall Music („Fahrstuhlmusik“), wurden hier die Titel von Damals mit Würde und Anspruch ausgewählt und von selbstgespielten Instrumenten begleitet. S U R F I N G, damals noch als Trio mit Harley Goodsell, versahen beispielsweise Christopher Cross‘ Klavierintro von Sailing mit stark verzerrten Gitarren, oder Lee sang mit hörbarem Schlafzimmerblick zu Kenny G’s Sade – ursprünglich ein Instrumental. Für mich persönlich ist Deep Fantasy viel eher im gedankenverlorenen Jazz Rock verortet, ich erkenne dabei die Transzendenz von Air sowie die Melancholie der frühen Mogwai wieder. Die aufeinandergeschichteten transluzenten Ebenen aus Riffs und Synths erinnern an Prog-Rock, Shoegazing, an Tame Impala zum Beispiel, während die Sampleauswahl sich eher beim Sophisticated Pop oder der New Romantic bedient. Neben der eigenständigen Interpretation der Musik-Zitate hat vorallem das professionell gestaltete Cover – ein vornehm reduziertes Design, irgendwo zwischen Art Nouveau, Spandau Ballet, Matt Bianco und New York City beheimatet – dazu beigetragen, dass Deep Fantasy zum Kultalbum (die von George Clanton herausgegebenen Vinyl- und Tape-Versionen waren binnen kürzester Zeit ausverkauft) avancierte. Abgesehen von den unten abgebildeten Beispielen, beschränkte sich das Coverartwork der Vapor-/Chillwave-Fraktion üblicherweise auf beabsichtigt hässliche Grafiken und gruselige Typografie (Brush Script). Doch statt diesem Tokyo Trash zu folgen, gingen van Hazelberg und Nania den entgegengesetzten Weg – offensichtlich nahmen sie das gehypte Schlagwort von Vaporwave – aesthetics – ernster.
Mit Incubo™ haben S U R F I N G nun nach sechs langen Jahren einen würdigen Nachfolger vorgelegt. Ein Album voller vorwärtsgewandter Veränderung, das ihren Prozess der persönlichen Reifung und die veränderlichen Geschmäcker und Befindlichkeiten der Zeit gut dokumentiert, sich aber noch weniger auf dem Label „Retro“ ausruhen mag. Eine spürbare Weiterentwicklung im Sinne von Reduzierung/Konzentration – in der Komposition hörbar, beim Coverdesign sichtbar.
▾ Ich habe mit Penny van Hazelberg über diese und andere Themen gesprochen:
HCW: Your new album, Incubo™, seems to remove your work from the kind of 80s nostalgia that’s starting to fatigue across the internet community. Have you found it difficult to establish what you do as legitimate genre work when so many others seem to be just ironic fanboys/girls? I understand Deep Fantasy was never really Vaporwave, however it went big at the right moment. At least the meme may have helped a bit. How do you think about this in general? Do you listen to some of the more constant Vaporwave producers, for example Luxury Elite or Waterfront Dining? Or guys from the Synthwave scene, like Com Truise?
PVH: I wouldnt say it’s been difficult, it’s been an organic evolution for us to go from genre to genre trying to find our true sound. I think we were a little naive in thinking everyone who was into Vaporwave/Chillwave would organically evolve their tastes and move on as well but i guess it’s a credit to that micro scene/community, they know what they like and stick with it i guess. In terms of what music I listen to, you would probably be surprised, I don’t listen to any Vaporwave, unless you consider OPN vapor?. I’m always finding myself going back to certain artists, anything from Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Strokes, Tame Impala, John Coltrane to Young Thug, Lee Gamble, French House etc depending on moods i guess.
Please tell us about Incubo™. Have you been working on it for the last years? When and how did you get the ideas for the updated, more Funk driven sound of this album?
It probably took around 12 months of writing and recording demos and developing them etc. We wanted to take a little bit of Deep Fantasy and add in a little Punk/Funk and really focus on vocal melodies and guitar/bass sounds rather than let a sample dictate where the track idea goes.
Could you describe the progress of framing good ideas and what it takes to create the dense Shoegazing-inspired sound of your music? Which instruments and technical devices do you use? What’s your set-up? And where did you record your stuff?
That’s a tricky one, we definitely don’t have any special formula, it’s always kind of spontaneous ideas when writing, and often after about 3 – 4 versions of a demo, the whole structure changes last minute or we change the entire vocal melody . It’s probably why we tend to take so long recording, trying to find that organically finished version of each piece. We use a range of gear from a Fender Strat[ocaster], Fender Tele[caster] and Fender Jazz Bass, Roland Space Echo, tweaking alot of soft synths, guitar pedals. We would usually each record parts at our houses in Melbourne, Australia, then meet up to track stuff and go through our ideas until things snowballed into something more concrete.
Who did/does the artwork for you? No matter if it’s the Airlines. logo or the covers of your albums – being a designer myself i must say: Chapeau! <3
Thanks alot! Well the first EP and Deep Fantasy art was done by our friend Jo Cutri, it’s always good working with him. He gets the music we are making so there isn’t much explaining of the vibe so to speak. I did the Airlines. logo myself, it’s actually a flipped version of an old airways logo, much like the music at the time, the art of sampling oozed into the visual aspect as well as the audio.
What did inspire you for the cover artwork of both Incubo™ and Deep Fantasy?
For Deep Fantasy Jo had free reign to do whatever and he found an old image that he reworked and coloured to give it more of an 80s glam touch, the original was a really dull 70s looking piece (although made in the 80s i believe) and the colours were not right. It was spot on and thats part of what makes that album remembered. Incubo™ was the exact opposite, we just thought so many people are going way above and beyond for their artwork, sometimes focusing way too much on the visuals rather than the key component, the music! We wanted to just have a bold and simple cover that just says „you know what, we dont feel like we need to dress this up to trick you into listening to our album, the music will do the talking and hopefully your pleasantly surprised“ . Incubo means nightmare in Italian which in contrast to Deep Fantasy aims to kind of be a sequel.
Do you believe that the artwork – especially of Deep Fantasy – was an important part of your success? Back in the days I first and only recognized your album on Youtube, because of the clean sophisticated design of the cover which was used as the preview icon. So I clicked on it and – BANG! – I was lost. After trillions of ironically cheap graphics of Vaporwave tracks it felt like a fresh breeze, and it matched the album’s atmosphere perfectly.
Yeah I guess so, everything started to look the same, everyone wanted to use a roman statue and Japanese lettering and it all just became a joke really. If I see that kind of art nowadays I know to instantly skip over it and you wouldn’t even get a listen from me. I guess young artists dont know any better so i cant judge.
When I was young, I often bought vinyl just because the cover artwork impressed me in the first place. It just gave me that sudden certain feeling when I was looking through the shelves of my record store. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures was such an album for example. Factory Design (Peter Saville) did an awesome job. Love all of his stuff, just remember the New Order covers. Hipgnosis was a perfect match for Pink Floyd on the other side. My favourite, though, was ZTT’s visual concept for Frankie goes to Hollywood. Do you feel me? Can you relate to this effect of visual design, even if today’s record covers are mostly virtual pictures online?
Yeah that’s a timeless piece, the covers that get my attention are the ones that look like the artist hasn’t had to try so hard to get their message across, it just works you know?
Thats the hard part, the idea has to almost come naturally rather than forced, as soon as your forcing it , it really does become visually obvious.
How would art, design and aesthetic thinking have an influence on your work? I saw several interesting pictures and videos created by you, Penny. Are you a multi-tasking artist? Please describe yourself and your plans.
I just enjoy creating art, wether its music, videos, design. I feel happy doing it and its an avenue to express myself. I’ve always thought that the highest level of art is film, so I would definitely love to make a film one day in the future but who knows, that seems a million miles away from happening right now. Im planning on doing some bootleg clothing, i guess taking that sampling art into the fashion world and hopefully some music videos in the near future.
Would you describe art as something important in your life? Are you aware of the impact of art? Many people around the world are saying that your music did a lot for them. People did study successfully or did work efficiently while listening to your album … perhaps little babies were made with the help of Hit the Spot, who knows …
I’m so humbled by the messages I get, people saying they were going through a difficult time in their lives and our music really helped them. Man, thats just so humbling to know we can help people through music and art. I think that when writing the music I would always put that emotion into it, kind of secretly, because I’ve lost people close to me and that pain comes out in the art. So to hear that people are transmitting that and feeling that, as an artist thats more important to me than album sales or being in the charts or being trendy.
Do you think artists should be aware of their influence while creating a piece of art? Or is art strictly meant to be as free as it can be? Could responsibility be a burden or obstacle during the process of creativity? Did you feel any struggles like this while writing Incubo™?
I can only speak from a personal point of view, because as you know, each artists mind operates differently and we have different objectives when creating something i guess. My most important thing is to make something that im into, and that i would be proud of in 10 – 20 years time. I would like my kids, grandkids to discover my music in the future and be really proud of it, so i wouldnt want it to come off as jumping onto some kind of trend at the time. It has to be organic and timeless for me.
In your opinion, what is the role of your music in the rude modern world? Should it be used as a tool for positive escapism? Should it be soothing? Or should future’s music be more woke and based on the brutal realities of today, like Childish Gambino’s recent work etc?
It should make the listener feel something first of all, that emotional high or that incredible deep low. When you can feel it and attach yourself to it, that’s when its working. But you know, theres always room in art for that kind of lets just have fun/fuck-it kind of mentality. We all need that once in a while.
I regard Incubo™ as an individual work, far from just being ‚retro‘. Should people, especially the young ones, take more ‚care‘ of the music they consume again? Your work could help them getting more aware of music’s history and artists, just by the samples or references.
Tough to answer, I would never tell someone what they need to take out of our music, because different people take different things from it, for example one listener said they were in tears when they first heard Feel Strong, others want to dance and get fired up etc. It strikes different chords in people and i really like that.
What do you hope fans and newcomers alike will take away from Incubo™ – apart from having a good time?
Just to get inside the melodies and experience the emotion we put into it, there are messages in there. Its just open ended and can be interpreted however the listener likes.
Some people noted the funky vibes of George Clinton with your new album. How do you feel about this? Is it an honor? Was it intended? I rather guess you guys grew up with the recycled G-Funk sound of westcoast Hip Hop?
Yes we both have this connection to funk , it has soul and it has so many highs and lows. We definitely explore that realm on Incubo™. Being linked with any legend like Clinton is obviously over whelming and humbling, I imagine being in that era and maybe being into the Ojays and Leon Ware. We need modern artists like them, not these social media artist/influencer types. When I was a kid my older brothers got me into Dre, 2Pac, Nate Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound, and the way they sampled Funk always stuck with me.
Many Bandcamp producers prefer to stay anonymous for a good reason: sampling. You two seem to be quite different. Are your samples cleared?
We were like that for a while , but its more about paying homage to who you sampled, not ripping someone off, and at the same time are you bringing something of your own to the table? are you adding your own artistic elements to this sample? If the original artist heard you sampling their work would they laugh at it or would they be like „oh ok wow, i would never have thought to add that guitar part over it“ or „Wow how did they come up with that vocal melody over my saxophone part?“
Did you ever get feedback from well-known musicians or producers? Did Kenny G give you a call, cheering with mad respect?
No unfortunately, One part of me wants to know what they really think of it, the other is kind of scared they will make us remove the track from the internet, could go either way
Will there be collaborations with other artists? Do you have contact to other producers? I could well imagine your work being used in film, even beyond Arthouse cinema.
We do plan on doing more collabs, our music has been used in several skate videos recently, i think being used in a good film or tv series would be amazing to be honest.
We are open to collabs and doing features, if the project/track is a good fit i suppose
For us european people, Australia is „on the other side of the globe“. So we don’t hear anything from your country. Did you have a local fan base? Do/did people in Australia recognize/d your work? For example, did some radio stations play your songs?
Yeah it is quite far away, to be honest we dont have a huge local following compared to overseas, I guess we started out in a small scene that was USA based and music in Australia is very bland typically, not very accepting of genre bending, abstract pop. They really love their Aussie jangly grunge and synth pop bands and the music industry here is very small and tight knit. So if your not close to that circle you dont get very far. The new album has been getting some radio play which is pretty cool so hopefully local people start getting into it.
Do you play live at clubs or festivals? If so, how can we imagine this? John Maus, for example, has a tiny live band, even though his music was more like recorded with his personal computer in his basement. Have you planned something like this?
We have played a few shows in Australia, it was a 3 piece band made up of Lee on guitar and synth, Harley [Goodsell] on bass and me doing vocals and some synth/drum machine bits. Going forward it will be just me and Lee. We are looking forward to showing everyone the new shows, trying to create the feeling of the albums with lighting and space. Festivals are something we want to do!
Will you come to Europe one day? How about a gig in Germany?
We want to! We are just organising a USA tour, Europe would be amazing, if you know any bookers/tour managers that would want us, put us in touch! Anywhere in Europe would be great, we both have European families so it would almost feel natural and organic to be there playing our music.
Thank you for this interview, Penny.
Incubo™ und Deep Fantasy sind auf Vinyl und als Cassette bei 100% Electronica erschienen. Beide Alben sind in digitaler Form bei Bandcamp erhältlich.
Text und Interview: © Hans-Christian Wichert
Titelbild: „S U R F I N G“ © Penny van Hazelberg, Leroy Nania
Abbildungen „Vaporwave Cover“ © Bandcamp, Luxury Elite, Waterfront Dining
Abbildungen „S U R F I N G“ Cover: © Jo Cutri, 100% Electronica, Penny van Hazelberg, Leroy Nania