.:.Too Many Limitations and Restrictions on Our Potential Knowledge.:.
An interview with Dave Phillips
by Angel S.
Dave Phillips is among the most important experimental musicians of our generation. His work converges on one point of noise, performing arts, video art, field recordings, and many more mediums and styles. For many of us, he’s a leading figure in the noise scene, but after this extensive interview, I’m convinced there’s much more depth in his goals, struggles, and motifs.
With over thirty years of sonic activity, 200+ releases, and over 500 concerts all across the globe, Phillips has now found the will to tour the Balkans. Here’s what he shared right before the start of his latest tour.
Heathen Harvest: Your bio says ‘Dave Phillips has been sonically active for 30 years’. How did it all start? Why have you chosen noise and experimental music as a means to express yourself?
Dave Phillips: I grew up in a home where music was listened to often. My father was passionate about music and so was his mother. Wanting to make my own music has been present since I was about eight years old. To play, to create…it’s like breathing. Without it, something essential would be missing. It’s a hunger, a drive. It will only stop when I die.
Creating ‘noise’ wasn’t really a conscious decision, but was rather more of a development. After playing in bands until I was nineteen, I wanted to do something on my own. There were things that attracted me to experimental music, like the freedom it implied, the intensity of sound, abstraction (which really tickles my fancy), and the purging elements. There’s also the ‘do-it-yourself’ approach, the riveting spirits and atmospheres, and more.
But my approach was rather practical: I played with what I had or could build, starting with self-made drums as a kid. Later on I used a microphone and a Revox reel-to-reel recorder and borrowed pedals. I suppose these tools also gave me a certain direction. One thing just led to another.
HH: How did this evolve over time? Are you following the same aesthetics, the same values, and the same mission as back when you started?
DP: My evolution always felt like a continuation, a learning process, a development, and a refinement of what I did or experienced previously. At its core, it was a growth, drawing ever bigger circles. The aesthetic and values continue to expand today. I reckon I formulate things differently than I did some decades ago, but at heart, there’s an essence that’s always been there. More often than not, this essence would manifest itself unconsciously, in non-meditated ways, and only later would I be able to formulate these things or make sense of them. Some I still can’t explain on a rational level, even though my gut feels ‘good’ about them. But it never felt like a ‘mission’ to me—more like a ‘drive’ or a ‘path’.
HH: Why noise, exactly? Why not classical music or dance? What does noise and experimental music have that other art forms and movements don’t have?
DP: ‘Noise’ isn’t really an accurate description, neither of what I do nor as a genre description. The term ‘experimental’ feels better. Experimentation has always been close to my heart—in music, in cooking, in relationships, or simply in living. It’s a matter of finding out things, of learning things. I guess it’s a kind of curiosity, an interest to question things. It feels inherent.
What does experimental music have that other art forms don’t have? For me, the ‘choice’ of such ‘forms’ is not based on an evaluation of what one form ‘has’ that the other form ‘doesn’t have’. I think it’s just a matter of what form is closer to one’s heart, what language one can relate to better.
I listen to a lot of classical music, actually. I like using ‘classical’ instruments, and I enjoy composition. Perhaps what I do is classical? Well, I’m not bothered by what it is called, or genres. The more I learn, the less I care about such things. Actually, I’m interested in breaking down those barriers (and my own), to step out of ‘comfort zones’. It’s exciting. Besides, I have been playing other musical styles too, like in my doom metal project Dead Peni, or with Ketsu No Ana. Perverts in White Shirts, one of my more recent projects, ventures into what could be called ‘pop’ or ‘dance’ music.
HH: I read somewhere that ‘noise’ is the punk of our era: What is your two cents on this idea?
DP: Being involved in various activities that related to hardcore punk as a teenager, I find there are a few things that hardcore punk and experimental music have in common, and not just musically. Like the do-it-yourself approach, the wish to exchange these things in a non-profit-based environment, the often very passionate people in both fields who are active for the pure love of these things… The energy levels of sound can also be similar, and with that the ‘liberating’ quality of such high-energy music, I reckon there’s quite a few experimental music people/practices that are inspired by punk—even though I wouldn’t really second that statement, ‘noise is the punk of our times’. It sounds like something a journalist would write. What is punk, anyway? Ah, those silly genres again…
HH: Currently, you can be pretty much considered a convergence of noise, field recordings, performative arts, electronic music, and video works. Is there, however, any direction among those which are leading the parade, starting the process, or are they equally important?
DP: They’re like dear friends! They each have their distinctive qualities and cannot really be compared to each other, except that they all are dear to my heart. So, I can’t really say one is more important than the other. The live set I call ‘video action’ seems to communicate my intentions rather effectively—within a fairly short period of time, that is. In context though, it’s my whole body of work that gives the best picture, so in that sense, all forms of expression are equally valid.
HH: Even though aggressive music and radical art forms can be used for purveying messages, meant to wake up people and drag their attention towards important causes, they are also soaked in negativity, promoting anti-human ideas (discrimination, hate, etc.). Have you at some point felt the urge to leave this community because of the negativity that it spawns?
DP: No. For one, I know personal moods, where it feels like negativity is taking me over. I reckon I sort of understand the state of being where such negativity needs to find an outlet. The way this is translated and expressed, of course, is different for different people, also since political, ideological, and philosophical standpoints differ, and so on.
I don’t think these things should be judged on face value. Some acts can have similar expressions but can come from very different standpoints. Some acts can have comparable standpoints but express those in quite different manners. One thing I don’t want to do is to simplify, or even to approach something from a purely rational perspective. At the end of the day, I have more interest in exchanging with someone (maybe especially) from a very different standpoint rather than excluding them, or excluding myself.
HH: What are your causes, and how do you think art can fight all we hate about the world?
DP: Man, that’s a huge question. My whole body of work is trying to address that! [laughs] To sum it up in some words is not going to offer a complete picture—far from it, in fact, but I’ll try.
Basically, I feel an inherent opposition to the reduction and restriction of life and lives, and to waste. The reduction of beings into objects, goods, or food, the reduction of nature into a resource, the reduction of human lives to problems to be locked out at borders. The restriction that borders exemplify. The waste that our high-energy lifestyles take for granted. The reduction of human potential into dealing with the rat-race, undignified selves, and hated jobs to generate income for consumption in order to feed the economic machinery and the holes in us. Societal value systems and behaviors that restrict life to a function within pre-set rules and supposed economic realities as taught in our educational systems and as lived by corporatism—with blatant disregard or disrespect for life. The mental restriction that the predominant, rational approach is, that tries to explain the world in systematical ways… Maybe we underestimate the range of depth and knowledge available within us. There are too many limitations and restrictions to our potential knowledge.
I see the human species as a very young animal. It has incredible skills, but it does not yet know how to apply these effectively, and it has not yet found its places within nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, the human being is still in its infancy. For example, we are only just learning to deal with the religious, patriarchal, materialist, and supremacist mindsets that have been dominant for the past couple of millennia. That seems pretty medieval to me. As far as dignity and balance are concerned, or recognising our place within a whole (rather than having this god-like attitude that we rule or can control this whole), we still have a long way to go. We need nature—but nature doesn’t need us. That’s one of the more obvious areas of balance that we have to learn—soon, before we destroy our home, which in itself is a mind-boggling prospect. What animal is stupid enough to destroy its home?
I suppose some of the more obvious cornerstones of how I try to address these things are environmental awareness, animal and human rights, equality, dignity and respect in relation our consumer society, to comfort, lifestyle, convention, waste, and distraction. These are the cornerstones, but really, it’s what happens in between, when all those areas connect with all these lives, with the environment, with urbanity, with politics and economics, with neo-liberal governments that call themselves democracies, with the short-minded, selfish, and destructive manners in which we maintain our high-energy lifestyles, the overestimation of rationality, and the absurdist rule of bureaucracy. This hyperconnectivity of all those areas of life—some would call it chaos—this is what interests me. It’s that which comes out in my work.
I’ve established the concept of ‘humanimal’. It is like a red thread. Basically, this concept describes a developed humanoid existence that has overcome the erroneous religious, materialist, and supremacist phases of evolution (recognised as mistakes that anticipate the learning processes), acknowledges itself as part of a whole, and has grown into an empathetic, conscientious, and connected creature allowing emotion, instinct, and its other senses their equal part in decision-making, moving beyond the previously dominant one-sided, reductive/rational/logical/systematic/male/anthropocentric mindset, and having balanced itself within its environment by retracing an origin, with social and environmental care as inherent sensual functions.
How can ‘art’ fight? To me, the role of art has a particular importance: namely, to ask questions, to push boundaries, to offer new ideas, to inspire, to suggest new directions, and also to demand, provoke, and transgress, to invade comfort zones, to create unease, to trigger discourse, and exchange. It’s a role of great societal importance, with methods that aid the evolutionary process. It mostly happens on small islands, but ‘art’ and ‘cultural activities’ are of utmost importance for human development.
HH: For the past twenty years, you’ve been almost all around the world. Which places left the strongest mark on your existence as an artist and as a human? Which places have you been dreaming of coming back to, and are there places you’ll never set your foot back into?
DP: I love places where nature seems more ‘intact’, like national parks, nature reserves, large forests, fields, basically in nature and exposed to the elements. Being in such environments goes way beyond trying to capture its sonic wealth via microphones. My earlier ventures into Asia have left some decisive marks. I guess the exposure to cultural backgrounds that differ from my own is something I perceive as enriching.
There are many places I’d love to return to. I can’t single out any specific ones. There are hardly any places I wouldn’t want to return to; even when circumstances are more ‘difficult’, I come across experiences that teach me things.
HH: With over 500 gigs around the globe in your career, but with a back catalog of over 200 releases with various projects, tell us how different and how important is studio work for you and the act of eternalising a piece of music by recording it and pressing it on a certain format?
DP: Studio work is something I just love. The creative process is one of the best places to be. To work on, to refine and expand my sonic language, to try to put new and learned things into sound, to experiment, and so on, is utterly exciting. To actually finish a piece is much harder than to start a new one. A piece nearly always feels a bit unfinished, but by finishing it, a new perspective is possible and a new standpoint is established which will nurture future works. It’s an ongoing learning process, and being able to do that in a field I love is an incredible privilege. So, I am very grateful for the interest that comes my way, of people who want to release these things. It creates a feedback, and I suppose it feeds my drive even more.
Also, I consider studio work and live presentations as two different things. Of course, there will be elements that will feed into both, and things feed into each other, but the fundamentally different meaning of ‘time’ in the studio, as opposed to playing live, for example, is something I love to play with.
HH: You’ve been a part of Schimpfluch-Gruppe and Ohne and you have collaborated with various artists, among which was HiroshI Hasegawa and many more. Tell us about these collaborations and their impact on your creative processes and their importance in regards to your development as an artist. How can somebody collaborate with Dave Phillips?
DP: Well, I consider myself a bad improviser, or let’s say, improvisation often feels somewhat unfulfilling. So, for me to want to collaborate, I have to know someone well on a personal level, or to at least have had the chance to meet, to drink together, and maybe to play together a few times before deciding on a collaboration. What I like about collaborations is that the process forces me to move outside of my own comfort zone, to deal with sounds and approaches that can be very different from my own. In that sense, they are great learning experiences.
HH: For many people touring, having the chance to release their own music with dedicated labels, curating events, and not having to balance with a day job sounds like a dream come true, but it surely is a demanding lifestyle, often as a lone wolf. What has your career given and taken from you?
DP: Even though I’ve been playing music since a teenager, what really set me on my path was a back injury/illness that happened to me in 1997. It changed my life. This back injury has been with me ever since, and it’s not a nice thing to have to deal with. But it also increased my drive to channel myself through sound even more. Since then, all my energy goes into my sound language. I have little money but all the freedom I want. Being able to do what I do is a dream come true. Subconsciously, I’ve always wanted to be a musician, even since childhood. I feel extremely privileged to be able to do what I do, all the more that there are people out there who actually want to release my work and host my concerts. It is an incredible gift that I’m given, so I have no complaints whatsoever, and not the feeling that anything is taken from me.
Loneliness happens, but I am never bored.
HH: What are the Balkans going to see from Dave Phillips on this upcoming tour?
DP: I’ll be traveling with three different live-sets, and depending on the circumstances, I can play two of those sets at one event.
My ‘video action’ is a live piece that is very dear to my heart. It’s a presentation that I’ve been working on and refining for years. It’s only since a few years that I find that this piece finally, satisfactorily manages to transmit my intentions. My current ‘live action’ is based on a kind of exorcism—an act that I had to do in order to deal with some burdening aspects of past encounters, and its premiere was so fulfilling that I decided to refine it. It now encompasses a wider meaning, from the personal to the global, by fine-tuning and rearranging some of the intentions that initially triggered this piece. These two ‘actions’ are physical performances wherein I use my voice, my body, loop-tools, objects, a sampler, and some backing tapes. The ‘video action’ obviously is also accompanied by visuals.
Then there’s my ‘field recordings’ set that also is in constant flux. It’s a ‘listening concert’, played in the dark, consisting of untreated sounds of insects, frogs, and other non-human sound sources, that I shape into a composition.
But you’ll also see me, before and after the concert. Often I think that, even though my language is sound, the reason for my work is another—it’s to share things and learn things. So by all means, grab me and have a word with me.
Catch Dave Phillips live in the Balkans from May 12th until June 3rd. Tour dates as follow:
12.05.2017 Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. OKC Abrašević
13.05.2017 Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Charlama Gallery
15.05.2017 Pristina, Kosovo. Termokiss @ Klubi ⟨M⟩ club
17.05.2017 Skopje, Macedonia. Kanal 103
18.05.2017 Skopje, Macedonia. Social Center Dunja
21.05.2017 Sofia, Bulgaria. Czech Centre
22.05.2017 Belgrade, Serbia. Live Soundtrack @ CZKD
24.05.2017 Novi Sad, Serbia. Suburbia
25.05.2017 Subotica, Serbia. Studio 11
26.05.2017 Budapest, Hungary. Dürer Pince
27.05.2017 Koprivnica, Croatia. AK Gallery
28.05.2017 Zagreb, Croatia. Mocvara
29.05.2017 Ljubljana, Slovenia. Kino Šiška
31.05.2017 Nova Gorica, Slovenia. Carinarnica
01.06.2017 Maribor, Slovenia. Glas Podzemlja
02.06.2017 Trbovlje, Slovenia. ZNFI
03.06.2017 Trbovlje, Slovenia. ZNFI
*This interview was also conducted in Bulgarian for bnr.bg.