Name: Manu Louis
Occupation: odd pop genius
Current release: Cream Parade on Igloo Records
Recommendations: Cosmic Pulses by Stockhausen, and it brought to my mind a new definition of crazy: a radical, almost religious belief about something extremely unconventional / Wasting Time on the Internet by Kenneth Goldsmith offers an interesting vision of art in the digital age.
Website/Contact: Hear more of Manu's music on his Bandcamp page.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing the day I got a guitar. It was quicker than learning other people’s music. But of course, I had influences. When I was 10, I wanted to be John Lennon, and when I was 20, I wanted to be Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Now, I'm content with being myself. I guess I'm pretty good at it.
What pulled me into making music as a kid was its potential to become the soundtrack for life, a magic mantle. When you play a track that's heroic enough, you become Indiana Jones; with Wagner you can make Belgium win the Second World War – with Playmobil figures, of course; and Prince gives you all the adventures that teenagers dream of.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I spent a lot of time learning techniques, and I still do: harmony, rhythm, production. I've always listened to a lot of different music but never really took the time to copy anything. I never learned any Led Zeppelin riffs or Coltrane solos, for example, but I learned certain techniques and improvised or composed from there.
In the process of learning and creating, I’m generally very attracted to what I don’t understand, and I like to work with fresh ideas, so I’m constantly looking at new languages, techniques and ideas. At the same time, rather than accumulating as much as possible, I try to get rid of things that aren’t necessary anymore. So, it’s a process of constantly getting rid of the dead zones and replacing them with something fresh.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As my work tends to be polyphonic – I superimpose many different layers and meanings – the main difficulty is to give these baroque constructions the right amount of air. I'm saying yes, no and maybe at the same time, while keeping it fluid and legible.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio contained a Casio keyboard, an electric guitar, my voice and sometimes, my neighbor as a minimalist keyboard player. Everything was recorded live on my father's DAT using the integrated microphone. Later, I bought a Tascam four-track, which enabled me to do overdubs and invite musician friends to record. When I was 20, I bought a computer and a sound card to record and edit. I would also use Cubase to compose for acoustic instruments and some cheap software to do proper scores. It was only about five years ago that I started using synthesizers, drum machines and purely electronic elements.
Gear… I try to not accumulate gear. I find it depressing to own stuff. So, my main thing now is my laptop. Then, when I work on an album, I rent a synthesizer for a week, for example, record as much as possible and combine it with the material from the computer.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
For me, the main problem with electronic music is having your brain absorbed by sound research in the middle of a composition. It's hard to spend 30 minutes looking for a sound or previewing presets and then go back to the song. So, I split up these types of work. I spend one month per year experimenting and archiving presets, textures, rhythm, samples and so on – that way, I build a repertoire of sounds that will be my basis for the following year on whatever project I do.
Working this way speeds up the composition process and forces you to refresh your sound every year. It makes me feel like I'm Miles Davis, switching up my band in order to bring the music to a new place.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Sound changes the meaning of notes, so the gear, for sure, influences the style and the content of whatever you do. For example, any time I play a Stratocaster, it doesn’t matter how avant-garde I play – I feel like I’m part of Elton John’s band. The same thing happens with a vintage synth; it gives the music a nostalgic edge that I don’t want, the instrument imposes itself on the composition too much.
The same thing happens when a certain musical style is too strongly emphasized. Style replaces author, and the song becomes an imitation of the anonymous rather than someone expressing themselves. Since established styles and vintage sounds are nearly impossible to avoid, I use the good old alchemist trick of mixing unrelated elements, timbres and genres, and that way I keep my oh-so-precious authorship in-tact.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I love collaborating. Right now, I’m writing songs with someone I admire a lot: Carl Roossens. We not only jam and swap playlists but also show each other embarrassing photos from our teenage years. What I like most about improvising with someone is that you not only invent something you wouldn’t otherwise – you also steal their soul. I’m not only writing music with Carl – I’m also becoming him.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I'm on tour a lot, but when I'm rooted in one place I tend to have a routine. I like to pick up an instrument in the morning and play, sit down and compose in the late afternoon and in between, do things like emails, promotion and so on. At night, I read or compose some more, or if I'm in Berlin, go see a concert.
I try to force myself to use one day per week not to work at all but to reflect on the previous week and think about the next. I also gather listening and reading material. I might also go to a sauna or a gallery or museum. Later, those things somehow manifest themselves in my work. Especially the sauna.