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Sebastian Mullaert discusses his ambient past and present

2014 saw a surprising resurgence when speaking of a defining sound. Ambient saw a rude health not seen since its halcyon days of the early nineties. Where recent times saw the banner vaguely picked up by the IDM scene, that purist experience, more often than not, saw a retreading of ground through Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, KLF’s Chill Out and any number of albums from The Orb….This has all changed.

Where ambient was often used by a house or techno producer, bereft of flair, to pad out an uneasy transition into the long player format, it has now been embraced wholescale by some of the electronic scene’s leading lights. Notably, the Throne Of Blood imprint managed to knit together contributors such as Jokers Of The Scene, Pittsburgh Track Authority, Popnoname, Margo and Simian Mobile Disco in their outstanding Moon Rock series, plus the Air Textures compilations have managed to draft in accomplished curators in the form of the likes of Deadbeat and BNJMN.

These sole instances of artists demonstrating their breadth have been a joy to listen to in the face of a downtempo scene that had erred towards the abstract and chilling via hauntology and witch house overspecialisations. It is, however, the artist long player that has drawn the most adoration. Call Super’s debut LP on Houndstooth may have protested its techno origins, yet shared more in common sonically with the diverse global textures of The Orb’s Orblivion. Function and Vatican Shadow combined to drawn upon the most meditative and hypnotic traits of techno on Games Have Rules, without ever having resort to the omnipresent kick drum to tenderise the brain into submission.

One of the key ambient releases of the year propped up the Winter months, offering warm refuge in the face of never to manifest “worst snowfall for 100 years” tabloid headlines. Serial collaborator Sebastian Mullaert of Minilogue fame, where he pairs up with long time partner in crime Marcus Henriksson, created the perfect storm, or should that be perfect calm, when pairing up with Eitan Reiter on Reflections Of Nothingness.

Suddenly, the evolution of his sound over the last few years gradually fell into place. The tightly focussed output of the mid 2000’s which shone so bright as a Euro-centric sound wrested dominance away from then darling West Coast US tech-house vibe – The Girl From Botany Bay, Seconds and Space being typical examples of work that filled a post-prog void – shifted into sprawling epics in recent years. EP’s like Let Life Dance Through You and Cycles took you on a rollercoaster of emotion that spun out over durations of anything up to twenty or thirty minutes.

Those who are fans of Mullaert’s sprawling collaborative and solo work will be familiar with his psychedelic trance history and the deeply spiritual approach to his music nowadays is perhaps less of a surprise. For a great many people, spiritualism is a remarkably intangible concept, sometimes regarded with the same sort of galaxy weary cynicism as Han Solo’s appraisal of “the force” as a “hokey religion”.  Sebastian’s approach to life, to be and to help others to be, is far more real than you may think.

A single memory of a hazy past in London’s Fabric comes to mind where, at some point around 3 or 4am, I stood back to cast my eye over room 2 and saw an entire collection of people in unspoken synchronisation, an unconscious rhythm and movement that was driven purely by the music. No dramas, no pockets of cliques, just unity. Being.

We had the distinct pleasure of catching up with Sebastian to talk about Reflections Of Nothingness, his approach to life and music. Speaking to the softly spoken Swedish artist mirrored his free-form productions; a neatly organised list of questions and topics were all touched upon in a sprawling first answer, with the conversation then evolving and regressing organically over the duration.

 

I’ve been looking at what you’ve been doing in recent times and you seem to be involved in a lot of collaborative works – stuff with Koss and Henriksson on Mule, Patrick Siech over on Minus. How do these, and the collaboration with Eitan, come about?

Both of us came from the trance scene, you could say. Before I started Minilogue with Marcus [Henriksson], we had a project for that sound called Son Kite. Eitan… he came from the underground trance scene with a project called Loud and I know that they had been inspired by Son Kite, and then later on with Minilogue. When both of us released some ambient music on a label called Aleph Zero, Shahar, the guy who runs that label and a good friend of both of ours, he felt that at some point the two of us had to do something together. He was hinting to us, to each other all of the time, and he made Eitan do an ambient remix of one of my ambient tracks a couple of years ago and he was always talking really positively of each other with the other one! Although I didn’t ever meet him because of all my production commitments.

Eventually, I did a gig with Marcus at the end of the Mayan calendar. They had a really a really big festival in Tulum, Mexico. Eitan was at that festival and both of us stayed for about a week on the beach. So, maybe because of Sharar, we ended up hanging out, had a nice time together and really connected. A lot of fun, but not only fun. We really connected on a deeper level I think, shared a lot of passion about music and life.

Something that has been a big part of my music output the last years has been, it’s hard to summarise but… in my life I start to feel that the only point is to “be”. To really find the being within, because it is so amazing to be.

It’s so not amazing when you are not being and you are somewhere else than… here, to feel the suffering of the restlessness and everything that all of us have within. More and more the music, the dance aspect of music, the tool side of the music that helps people to dance… the whole point with it is to remind people to be.

I think this is one of the big reasons why we, humans, have communities. We are here to remind each other about being. So this whole thing with music and art, this is the inspiration why I do this, and when I talk with someone and I feel that surge, that the same passion is also within someone else, I feel that there is something fruitful to work with. It’s nothing I have thought about actively but when I look at it, I see that’s when I get inspired by meeting someone else, to share this feeling with someone else.

One thing I’ve noticed from being someone with a typical 9 – 5 lifestyle, going in and out of cities, is that… even though you’re with so many people every day, there is a distinct lack of community. You’re with people all the time but you’re drawn away from them, becoming insular. I can understand how having a love for people is a great approach to life.

I think that if someone really sees you, the being, then you can have a feeling that is much like love. That is very strong, it is amazing to feel love. Everyone has felt it at different points in their life and everyone wants loves.

It’s very infectious.

Yeah, there’s something in us that is always searching for love, that wants it more. There is the side of us that wants love and I don’t think it can feel love. To love is to be. When you see each other, letting each other be, then you feel this happiness. So it was something really great when I met Eitan, I said sometime we should do something. A year later he called up and said “you know, I have a week with no gigs and I’d love to come over to Sweden, can I come for a week?” I said, yeah!

I think we had about four days in the studio where we just jumped in, jamming and exploring…

Ah yes, I watched the video for Dissolve on YouTube and it looks like exactly what you describe there. The impression that it was two guys, in studio, some tangible instruments, not sitting in front of Ableton screens, just letting the process take control.

Yeah, that’s a really good media to show how the album was made. It pretty much was like that.

Going back to the festival you did for the end of the Mayan calendar. I feel that a lot of festivals are the same sort of experiences with the same DJ’s on the line up, there is very little distinction. You get the odd little exception like Burning Man or Kazantip which are quite unique. Was this one over in Mexico quite a special event to play at?

I would say it was… medium! (laughs)

It had some special things but it also had a big part of the trend of commercial… I would say it like this; some festivals around the world still have the end focus on letting experience music, to feel dance. They still have that focus of wanting to help others to be. When that emphasis is really strong and that is the main focus of the festival, then it becomes really really special and magical. But then there are always other interests as well, which is the effect of a materialistic world, which we also live in. When this materialistic takes over and becomes a bigger reason for the festivals existence, then it attracts other energies, other people, and it’s just harder to get this magical feeling.

So this festival, I would say was… it had a bit of both, but it was not one of those super special festivals.

Have you had one of those in recent times?

Yeah, there are a few round the world which I feel are special. There are quite a few in Japan that I feel still have this ambitious focus, also Fusion in Germany, which I have played at many times, although it has become bigger, attracting the different energies, so that has become a bit of a mixed festival.

We have more gigs coming up this year, many of them are coming from the trance scene in a way. Some of them are still having trance as part of the festival, some have completely gone into other genres of dance music but still that same focus of the deepness of the music and that the reason is to dance.

Labyrinth in Japan is a perfect example of that; it’s a pure techno and house festival today but was a trance festival in the beginning, where I played as Son Kite with Marcus for the very first one. It slowly evolved into really deep meditative hypnotic techno and house.

I’m not overly fond of pigeon-holing genres but Son Kite, the music that Eitan makes, is often referred to as psy-trance. It is, as you say, a very spiritual genre. I first picked up Minilogue over the course of the 2000’s and you did some pretty focused and earthy club tracks, some that are some of my personal highlights. Is it kind of nice to get back to working on something a bit more for mind and soul, not necessarily just the body?

You mean as in it’s interesting to do something more than just dance music?

Well, it’s still within dance but you’re kind of expanding the horizons of what you’re telling within your music. Whereas… well, don’t get me wrong, I love my house and techno like anybody else; I’m more than happy to have a seven minute track of sheer awesome coming out of my headphones at me. But something I’ve noticed with Minilogue over the past few years is you’ve been gradually expanding into these huge sprawling twenty and thirty minute tracks, huge rollercoasters. I was wondering if it has been steering you back to these earlier spiritual moments you used to have with psy-trance?

I think with Minilogue, in the absolute beginning, we sneaked into the more clubby side of things and that was kind of a searching period where we did that. Although Minilogue always kept that essence of being a bit more psychedelic in a way, with the hypnotic side of things, evolving soundscapes. It’s hard to say what you’re gonna do in the studio, if you really start to feel what is relevant at the moment when you do something. Some days are more deep than others! I try to let the feeling I have guide what I am doing in the studio.

Yeah, I noted the track you did with Patrick over on M_nus, that was just pure fun techno.

Yeah, although I feel that still had a psychedelic touch to it, like the old Plastikman stuff. Very spiritual, very soulful. Music has so many different functions, one is to dance and you can do that in so many ways.

Dancing is to express energies and feelings, and different music can help you investigate different aspects of you. So to dance slow, triggers certain things within you, helps you get in touch with those, while faster… like the M_nus release, it’s straight on and that brings out other things. That’s the real importance with variations in music and the amazing thing with artists and DJ’s that can spin a journey that is evolving. You help people move through difference aspects of themselves and help them to express it. When you express, you see what you might not have seen before and you grow as a person.

That’s one reason why I’ve been a big fan of the dissolution of genres over the last few years or two. For a while, things were getting a little too specific, people were highly marketed on one sound.

I see the reason why people have to give things a name. You have to communicate, we are communicating beings. It’s not wrong, we have a language and we put names on things to help us relate them to other people. The problem is when the naming becomes more important than the experience of what is being named. The names can very often take control over us and hinder our ability to feel things.

Yeah, you can put up a load of mental boundaries “I’m a progressive DJ and I can’t play that  track because it’s not my sound,” it becomes quite a negative then. From a journalistic point of view, you can spend a thousand words describing something or you can say “progressive house” and somebody goes “right, I know what you’re talking about.”

Moving on, one of the things I was going to say was do you find it odd working with so many people with people on collaborative projects when you spend so much time on projects with Marcus but, just from speaking with you, I get that you actively seek that out to add flavours to your music. Is it something you relish, these little “getting togethers”?

I always played a lot of different music, I came from a lot of musical backgrounds where it was really natural to play with a lot of different people. I’ve been playing a lot of classical music, violin and piano, playing in everything from string quartets to symphony orchestras to ensembles to duos and trios. Then I moved over to pop music where I played violin in a pop band.

Later on, I started to work with electronic music, when I was 18/19 years old. That was what really became my profession. Before that, I still studied or I had other activities, but electronic music became my life, work, hobby, passion and everything. Then, both me and Marcus were really dedicated and really went all the way with what we did.

We tried a few collaborations in the early days, like with with Koss, and I think it is something that has always been there, longing to get back to work with different people and ensembles. It’s not better to work with many people instead of few people, everyone is different. I felt that was something that I wanted to do, for me while we have this pause with Minilogue, it’s great to have this moment to work with other people.

It’s a little bit like when you meet with someone, it doesn’t have to be a creative aspect or a musical situation, it can also trigger different aspects of you. You have different relationships with different people.

Some people you’re like [with faux fury] “I hate this bastard!” and you’re angry, but there is something there which has tapped into something in you that you’ve not seen or solved or had a chance to let out. The same with music, it’s interesting to see how the meltdown of the group you are in at the moment is different from other projects.

It’s interesting how you’ve taken a break from Minilogue to go off and work with Marcus again on Son Kite anyway!

You know, we’re still continuing with the Minilogue vs. Mathew Jonson live shows, they’re completely improvised with little planning and they’re really really good. We felt it was stupid to take a break from that.

It’s a performance style that increasingly popular with a lot of artists. I’m a big fan of Mathew Jonson and he does that improvised thing with Cobblestone Jazz and you’ve got Magic Mountain High doing it too. It sounds fantastic.

Yeah!

Do you think you’ll be going on the road with Eitan doing the same thing, or was it that one magical moment where it came together and that was the result of it?

We are talking about it and Eitan will come across to my studio again in Spring, what work we will do that week we have not decided. I feel that Eitan, he really wants to make a tour of this, or to put it into a live situation. We are booked for two gigs in the summer.

Different collaborations have their beauties, everyone is good at different things. When you are together with someone, you can be really powerful in how you are able to inspire other beings to be. Eitan is a very creative person, very open and direct. When something triggers him then he has to do it right away.

I can see a live situation can be interesting but I would like to take it in another direction. You have limits, I’m touring all the time and he’s touring all the time, that’s how we pay our bills. I’m also doing so many other collaborations, with Marcus, Mathew Jonson, Ulf from Kontra Musik, doing the M_nus stuff live with Patrick Siech. You can’t tour with too many projects at the same time, you’d kill yourself!

I was going to say, I’d noted that you’ve got a big love of going walking in forests recently and you seem to be into your nature in general, do you find all these commitments in the electric music scene is at odds with that side of you. You know, late nights, airports, cities and chaos.

I think the balance is good! I get home and I take a walk in the forest to balance myself. With Eitan, I have a deal that we make the tour in another way. Not to put the project into a position where you have to make it into something to do gigs to earn money and stuff. To keep it really without intention.

Pleasure rather than business.

Yeah, and the one way I think is to tour around the world and to join different musical expressions within the world. Like going to different tribes, different cultures and to play together with other musical cultures, record it and film it. We’re both quite graphical, we love to take photos and film, Eitan’s background is as a painter and he does a lot of video editing, a very multi-media artist.

It would be great to melt into other people’s musical aspects, like travel to South America and play tribe music with people, record that and take it back to the studio and do something. Make the project with Eitan into something completely different than the standard “studio, prepare things, go out and tour.” Do the reverse; go out and tour, record things, take it back to the studio and then share these things with world.

The final thing I want to touch on; we’ve talked about the collaborative side of you, the work you with so many people, but you also have released as WaWuWe on your own WaWuWe label. Is this going to be a brand new solo thing for you? Or is, again, one of these special moments where you think “I just want to put this thing out”?

No, the new one is almost ready!

In a way, although that is completely my music solo, there is still a person involved who does graphics, Marcus Clemenson, who is an art director. He is also really involved in meditation and yoga, he’s a meditation teacher and also has that same approach in life, to let life be. He did the whole graphic behind it and it became a collaboration with the music as the graphic took form at the same time I did the music.

The meetings we had started to shape what I did with the music, not only shape but he also helped me to express something that was really me.

The plan now is that it is going to be a series of six, vinyl only twelve inches. I don’t know if you’ve see the vinyl but it looks quite different. The hole in the middle, it’s quite big. Where you can usually see the label of the vinyl. We had to build the machine, the… I’m not sure what it’s called…

(Cue five minutes of verbal charades as we try to figure out what the technical term “record sleeve hole cutting machine” is. We failed.)

I had to buy a whole machine to cut out this hole, we had to build a new one that was bigger than the original one. Then within the cover is another cover, which is printed and you can see it through the hole. When you take it out you see the graphics.

Disc art for Wa Wu We 001.
Disc art for Wa Wu We 001.

I think I know what you’re on about, I’ve got one that is similar to that. It’s nice to hear that you’re not only pushing back the boundaries of music, but you’re also pushing back boundaries of vinyl artwork production machines!

Yeah! It was expensive to print these ones. The cover with the hole in was more expensive to make than to print the whole vinyl.

That’s what I like about vinyl nowadays though, it’s a bit more special than it used to be. When I first used to buy it in the nineties, it used to say “LIMITED EDITION OF FOUR THOUSAND COPIES!” but now it is a real precious commodity.

Well, we’ve got all six made and my vision is to do that and then see if Wa Wu We continues. I’ve got my work as Sebastian Mullaert too.

Yep, you did something on Ovum recently as part of their 20th anniversary.

Yeah, and there is a new one coming there and I have a new Sebastian Mullaert release on Traum in February. It’s quite few things I’ve got going on.

Thinking back to that video for Dissolve; there’s bits of it where there are several ghosts of you in the background working. I’m now actually convinced, by the amount of output you have, that there are actually five of you.

(laughs)

It all sounds fantastic though and I’m looking forward to hearing it all. Although I now wish I had five Simons to help type all of this all up so I actually have some free time to do that. Whoever is making duplicate Sebastians, can you please pass them my way.

One more thing, with the album. I don’t know who came up with the idea but we did a preview of the album, that’s mixed, like a twenty minute journey but it’s made up of two minute pieces of each track. I’d been filming a lot and Eitan did the editing of it, and it was like a video journal of the album.

We tried to really film nature in way that… because we were in nature a lot when we did the album, for Eitan, who lives in Tel Aviv, it was an exotic thing for him to come here in the spaced out Swedish nature. We tried to capture that contrast.

Reflections Of Nothingness is out on Mule Musiq and is one of the undoubted highlights of 2014, order a vinyl copy from Phonica.

This month saw the artist return to Traum with the Direct Experience EP, a sprawling four tracker that also features his WaWuWe alias on remix duty.

Festival Forte GIF
Festival Forte GIF