Manual Interview with Jonas Munk – July 2007

Circa July 2007 – Fazer Magazine

Meet Jonas Munk – the brains behind the Denmark based band Manual. While his music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find his musical stylings hugely addictive, and was thrilled to get some of his rants and raves for the pages of Fazer. Jonas has just released a 2 CD set of some of his rarer tracks in Denmark on Darla Records. They are available online for download via Manuals myspace page and Manual’s webpage. The links are at the end of this interview.

Jonas, Can I get an overview of Manual? Manual is largely unheard of in Canada. I’d like to outlay the type of music you play.
Well, it’s hard to describe the Manual stuff ‘cause it’s a mix of so many different influences. Usually people throw it in the “electronica” category, but overall it doesn’t share a lot with what I generally associate with electronica; the songwriting qualities are closer to the field of 1980s pop or epic rock, whereas electronica almost always relies on some sort of repetition, or some kind of randomised form (the more avant-garde I guess). I find it really strange that no one else is trying to investigate composition more within the electronica framework. My music has big peaks and lots of dynamic changes, whereas everybody else is creating movement by adding and shifting layers on the same compositional basis. That’s why I’m so sick of electronic music, the pure focus on texture and sound becomes boring, when the form is not being challenged. Strangely enough most people in the electronica field dismisses my stuff as “not being experimental enough” – odd, considering that I’m the only one trying to do something absolutely new with the form of electronic music. But I guess it’s because of the 1980s influence – I knew that would always keep my music “uncool”…haha.

Another label usually placed on my music is the “shoegazer” term, which I find more justified. But I don’t consider myself a shoegazer, although if I had to belong to any conventional category I don’t think this is the worst one. Everyone seems to think I grew up only listening to Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, which is pretty far from the truth. Besides, I was about nine years old when the shoegazer scene had its heyday. I do share a lot of ideas with the classic shoegazers: the love of blurring the instruments so one is not sure what instrument is doing what; the use of effects to create surreal sound pictures; and the mix of pop and strange processing ideas to create soundscapes that are at the same time strange and sweetly accessible. But my preferences for these sonic elements were already there before I discovered the shoegazers or even ambient music. In my childhood I was a big fan of U2 – when I was eight years old I found a tape of one of their albums on the street and that was probably my first real musical love. Their 1980s albums had lots of gorgeous soundscapes that really seemed to do strange things with my mind back then. Ever since then, The Edge’s guitars have been able to send chills down my spine, and I still consider his playing an influence, even on the stuff I’m doing these days. A little later, when I was around 12, I heard Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” single on the radio, and I was completely mesmerized by the sound of that song. It seemed to be created by thousands of different sounds, all melting together in a strange ghostly and glorious harmony that seemed to come from a different world. So when I think back on my musical history, I have been in love with the soundscape aspect of music since I was a little kid. I can also remember listening to a-ha on the radio when I was even younger, or listening to Yes or Genesis with my dad at home. I think probably the feeling that gave me created the basis for a lot of the ideas I’m working with now in my Manual music. I want to create wondrous, head-spinning pop-music that sounds like nothing else on this planet. Music that makes time disappear and makes the listener ascend above the mundane of the day-to-day existence into something more real. Music that awakes.

How long have you been producing music?
I have been making music almost as far back as I can remember. In the summer of 1988, while sitting on the beach somewhere in Mallorca, I ran in to a boy pretty much the same age as me, Jess Kahr, who was to be one of my closest friends even to this day. We started playing music together in my parents’ basement, me on drums him on an old keyboard my dad had bought somewhere, and occasionally my dad on guitar. That’s probably my first real venture into music. Later we both started to play with Jakob Skøtt (who’s also a close collaborator even to this day), and we all played together in different bands throughout our teens. Even from the beginning we wrote our own material. I always found doing covers terribly boring. We also got into recording at a fairly early age; I think I was 13 the first time we recorded in a professional studio. My uncle knew a producer who had his own studio so we thought it would be fun to try it out. And it was most certainly fun! Ever since then we recorded regularly – either buying professional studio time, or recording in our rehearsal room through an old mixer my dad bought and a tape machine. But I guess I didn’t really start producing seriously until I was 18 and got a digital 8-track machine, and started making solo recordings under the name Manual. I mixed all the Morr albums on that machine actually.

I am assuming you are a one-man operation?
Well, basically it is. But I have occasionally worked with vocalists. And then there’s all the collaboration albums: Manual with Jess Kahr, Manual & Syntaks (Jakob Skøtt), Manual & Icebreaker International (Alexander Perls), Rumskib (which I am not a member of, but I produced their album and play a lot on it), Clammbon (Japanese pop group that I worked with some years ago) the Limp album Orion (myself, Jess Kahr, Jakob Skøtt and Rasmus Rasmussen) and recently I have been working with lots of other artists like Auburn Lull, Ulrich Schnauss and Robin Guthrie (ex-Cocteau Twins).

Do you record exclusively as Manual? Or do you have other projects you are/were involved with?
Well, so far all the electronica stuff has been under the Manual moniker, although I’m planning to use my real name for some of the future releases. Then there’s a psychedelic rock band, Causa Sui, that I’m also part of. And there are smaller projects as well, like for example soon there’s an album out called Pewt’r that I did with one of the guys from Sunburned Hand of the Man, Ron Schneiderman, Jess Kahr, Jakob Skøtt and Danish avant-gardist Jørgen Teller.

What kind of musical background do you have?
Well, as I already talked about, certain experiences shaped my understanding of music as a kid, like U2, a-ha, Simple Minds, Yes, Duran Duran. I guess a little later, in my early teens, I was more into heavy rock for a while, then a little later when I was around 15 I listened to a lot of alternative hard rock like Tool and Helmet and I got into Type O Negative’s October Rust, which strangely enough re-lit my passion for the grandiose pop and rock I liked when I was a child. October Rust has probably been one of the most influential albums on me. The songwriting is incredible and the soundscapes are absolutely some of the most stunning I have ever heard. I was also listening to a lot of stoner rock and psychedelic stuff – something I would come back to again later on. When I was 16-17 the doors flew right open and I got into post-rock, electronica, the shoegazers, kraut rock, modern classical, 1970s jazz and the likes, and ever since I guess my musical world has been a strange mix of contraries. I am not really a genre person, so it’s hard for me to talk about genres I like. It’s easier to talk about the artists I like, but even easier to talk about specific albums or even specific songs. A lot of the time a specific song can trigger something special in me, even though I don’t like anything else by the band or even on the same album. It seems to me that most people on this scene have the standard alternative background – i.e. they started with Sonic Youth and later got into Radiohead, then Warp…blah…blah…and that’s definitely not me. I have never felt any specific relation to the standard alternative rock scene. I have never been the indie-hipster. I think Sonic Youth has gotta be the most boring band on the planet. I think Radiohead are highly pretentious and without any real talent. I can’t take any of the so called “ambient” music of the 1990s – I would rather have a leg amputated than being forced to listen to Moby, Massive Attack or Underworld. Sure, the indie scene has changed a lot since the 1990s, but not necessarily to the better. I still don’t understand the hypes that are going on, even in very underground magazines. I really don’t get it. And I specially don’t get the latest trend in underground music: the tendency to hype really lame mainstream acts – like for example Justin Timberlake or Gwen Stefani. It’s like these journalists are thinking: “well, it has become so normal to hype the alternative stuff. How can I “out-indie” the indie-crowd? Well I can make a move that no one foresaw! I can take some complete mainstream crap and pretend it’s great art! Yes, that’s it! Then no one will be able to figure me out, and I’ll be twice as alternative as them! HAHA!”…well, morons. I don’t get that mentality. Everyone is talking about Timbaland these days, and I really don’t get it. People are even comparing him to Stockhausen and stuff – but why? Everyone can do what this guy does! Maybe people who don’t produce music don’t know this, but the sounds that he uses have been standard presets in workstations and on sample CDs for the last 10 years! I bet if he comes in to a studio and there’s no Korg Triton there he wouldn’t have a clue of what to do. And everybody is talking about that new hip R&B sound and I really can’t hear it. Take something like 15-year-old Salt-N-Pepa or TLC tracks – it sounds basically the same as the new Timbaland or Neptunes productions! These hypes are really making me feel estranged from the music world. It’s like everybody, including the indie crowd, is trying to be as superfluous and shallow as absolutely possible. So, to wrap up this crazy ramble: I certainly don’t consider myself as being a person who belongs to the “indie” scene. My musical world is a Jonas world and it doesn’t deal with shallow trends, or genre categories. There’s a saying in Danish: “empty bottles makes the most noise” – and in my eyes that couldn’t be more true of the musical world the last 15 years.

Is Manual full time for you? If not – What kind of day job are you keeping?
It differs from time to time. At the moment it’s full time. I don’t have jobs on the side, but I have a university study on the side that I participate in from time to time. I started studying philosophy in 2000 and have been nearly finished for some time now. The last year or so has been completely focused on music, but I’ll probably finish my studies some time next year. I really want to maintain the music as the first priority in my life and hopefully also maintain it as a living (financially), which is probably the hardest. The other thing is more like a hobby. I have always had great interest in literature and philosophy so I’m trying to stimulate that side as of me as well, and do something about it. So far I have never had a job, besides working at the music library for a while, which was actually pretty cool.

I got into Manual via the German Morr Slowdive compilation. Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved with that project?
Well, back then I was part of the Morr Music stable, and everyone of that stable was asked to participate in that project. I think it was an interesting project, even though I felt most of the cover versions were kinda lame.

To the average ear, your music would be labeled minimalist. Personally, I’d call it anything but minimalist – but it is VERY ambient. How do you approach your music? How/when do you like to write your new material?
Yeah, that’s another thing about my music, it really isn’t minimalist! Of course there’s the ambient albums like The North Shore, Bajamar and Into Forever – they are obviously very minimalist! But my other works that most people refer to when they discuss my music, such as Ascend, Azure Vista, Golden Sun and Isares, are extremely big – especially when compared to electronica artists. (the annoying cliché “less is more” is still regularly seen on t-shirts at electronica shows). Basically I’m always writing new material, not only when I actually have a guitar in my hand, but all the time; when I go to sleep at night, when I go for a swim in the morning, when I’m cooking dinner…there’s always some ideas rotating through my head. Kind of an obsession – but a nice one that I’m in love with. But I always write my songs before I start recording, programming, mixing etc. I very rarely just fiddle around at the computer until something happens.

What type of music are you listening to right now?
So much different stuff. I am really tripping over a lot of early 1970s electric jazz at the moment – but I guess I have been digging that for years now. But for the last week I have been spinning Herbie Hancocks Mwandishi albums heavily. That shit is just too good! Also some Miles Davis live concerts from that period: “Fillmore Concerts”, “Black Beauty”, “It’s about that time”. Also listening to lots of Tim Buckley these days, as is very usual for me this time of the year. Pretty much all his albums are masterpieces, but my favourites are Lorca, Happy Sad, Starsailor, Dream Letter…all amazing timeless albums! Otherwise I am listening to the two new collaborative albums by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd: Before the Day Breaks and After the Night Falls. Beautiful ambient music by two masters of their craft. Also, some Hendrix enters my record player at least once a week (it has been like that for almost five years now). I can’t think of anything more powerful and real than Hendrix jamming with his band. You don’t hear a lot about Hendrix on the indie/alternative scene, because his legend has become a cliché. I personally don’t give a shit about it. He WAS music, and everything he ever did radiated music and LIFE so much that pretty much everything before or since appears to be pretentious and completely meaningless. To me he was everything an artist should be. I don’t care if he’s remembered merely as a guitar-burner-showman or as merely a “guitar-virtuoso”….technical ability doesn’t have anything to do with anything; he had a vision, and his feeling for playing and his experimental, avant-garde side, his artistic curiosity, was ONE – whereas today, people are either lame rockers without so much as a grain of artistry, or pretentious Wire-reading avant-garde hipsters trying to detach the experiment from the soul as much as possible, thereby setting new standards for conceptualization of music, and general shallowness. Concepts and philosophizing doesn’t belong within music itself – the reason why it has become so popular to create conceptual works without any real content, is that the whole music business is rotting up from the inside. The mainstream is getting more and more commercial, more and more capitalized, music is becoming more and more like a product. I guess the reaction to that from the underground is to become more and more extremely conceptual and “avant-garde” – trying too hard to “deconstruct”, not realizing that it is become just as shallow as the mainstream, just in a different way. I don’t believe that approaching music this way is fruitful. Creating music from pseudo-philosophical ideas or any other kind of external concepts (external to the music itself, that is!) is bad smelling to begin with. I believe that the only way to create anything meaningful and authentic is to create the personal, which is hard work, ambition and inspiration, not some superficial trend-following concepts that are great to talk about from a French, post-modern philosophical angle (which everyone is still raving about for some reason – probably because journalists feel clever if they can brand a new artist within Deleuze or Derrida’s terms), but no one wants to listen to. It is not that I feel theoretisizing is generally a bad thing, I just feel that it should be kept externally to the music itself, and not a cover-up to make some lame, uninteresting music suddenly seem interesting. Theory is to music as what ornithology is to the birds. Utterly unimportant.

Do you tour? If so, what is a live Manual show like?
It’s different. I prefer to perform with a little band, so it gets more of a “live vibe”. Later this year I’m planning small tour in the US performing with two friends (Jakob Skøtt and Rasmus Rasmussen). It’s always hard with this kind of music, since the sound and production is just as important as the compositions. Reconstructing a 100-layer production with three people is not easy. But hopefully people get to experience a different side of it than on the albums.

Can you talk a bit about ‘Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides’, your new 2CD release?
It’s a compilation of new and old material. For a long time I wanted to compile some of my remixes, covers and rarities, specially since a lot of it was never actually released anywhere – like the three remixes on there. I also had some good stuff that had only been released on limited compilations and mp3 releases, and lots of unreleased stuff that found their way into the albums. I only chose the best of the best, so there’s still a lot of rarities that wasn’t included on this one. I didn’t want it to be a complete mess of every rarity out there, but rather a set of compositions that stood up to the best of my releases. I also included some brand new tracks on it -including a collaboration with Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. I think it probably better sums up my ideas than any other of my releases, since it spans 5 years of recordings but still maintains a clear thread. It’s a pretty good overall statement of my music, whereas each of the individual emphasizes one aspect of my music: Azure Vista the grand, romantic 1980s influenced epic sound; Bajamar the quiet slow-building ambiences; Until Tomorrow the minimalist beat-driven guitar electronica etc. I hope people will enjoy it a lot, and I actually think it’s easier to get into than a lot of my other work, since some of it has lots of beats (people always want beats) and is not so overly old-school in sound as my Azure Vista – which most people for some reason failed to realize is by far my best work (probably due to the 1980s influence again, and the fact that it’s somehow a musical statement against certain tendencies in modern electronica…hmmm).

Do you have North American distribution Jonas? I found the majority of your material on eMusic (although Azure Vista is incomplete for some reason. Clear Skies Above the Coastline Cathedral is not available on the eMusic site, subsequently, this is the only Manual CD I don’t own). 
Yes, I am released on Darla, a label based in California, and they distribute to all of America, Europe and Asia. But for some reason my albums are often hard to find.

If you were to pick a few bands that you have been label-mates with over the past few years to recommend to some Fazer readers, who would you recommend?
From Morr Music (my main label until 2003) I would recommend the latest F.S. Blumm album, Summer Kling. Beautiful acoustic album – very different from what people usually expect from Morr. Also the Populous albums are nice. And Isan’s Lucky Cat is also worth getting. From Darla (my current label) there are so many albums to recommend, ‘cause they are putting put amazing releases all the time. Like I mentioned earlier, the new Harold Budd/Robin Guthrie collaborations are stunning. Also Auburn Lull’s Cast from the Platform is one of my all time favourite albums. A mix of shoegaze and ambient. Robin Guthrie’s latest solo albums are amazing as well. Also Hammock’s Raising Your Voice…Trying to Stop an Echo is gorgeous. Don’t know why it hasn’t received more attention. Such a great work. I would also recommend the latest Alsace Lorraine album Dark One and Japancakes’ Bliss Out album.

Do you keep active in seeing live bands? Can you talk a bit about the music scene in Denmark?
Well, first of all I don’t have much to do with it. My stuff is not distributed around here and I very rarely plays any gigs here, so for Manual there’s nothing much going on. Which is fine. Me and some friends tried to get a scene going five years ago, setting up a monthly electronica night, did a weekly radio show and stuff, but no one cared. Back then (when electronica was really happening in UK and Germany) no one gave a shit about it here. Now, strangely enough, it’s a completely different affair; lots of electronica shows, both here in Odense and especially in Copenhagen in Århus. Lots of people come to the shows, especially very young people, surprisingly, like teenagers. There are numerous labels here in Denmark focusing on electronic music and lots of new artists all the time. Unfortunately it’s mostly pretty lame, so I rarely go to see these things, unless I feel like partying with a bunch of teenage girls. Because every time I go check some new act out it sounds like Warp or Scape anno 1999 – just kinda worse. But that’s what’s hip now. Glitch finally made it to Denmark! I am honestly bored with all these laptoppers trying to sound like Pole or Aphex Twin – or probably trying to sound like a rip-off of Aphex Twin, which is more likely. But I guess there’s just something wrong with the whole laptop scene anyway – what’s really so cool about being in a dark room watching some dude with a laptop playing standard presets from Ableton Live? Sure, there’s lots of good stuff out there, I just haven’t seen it for a while. So, I prefer to go out and listen to some rock or jazz – do I sound like an old fart? I’m actually only 25 years old :). But good rock music is also kinda hard to find. But at least there will be less of those hipsters with black glasses, scarf around the neck, drinking café lattes, trying desperately to find someone with whom they can discuss the importance of Duchamp’s pissoir. I guess the music scene in Denmark is not so much worse than anywhere else. I guess there are more good bands coming out of Denmark at the moment than in, say, Belgium, or The Netherlands. It’s just that it is so shallow. It’s just like in the UK, with the hype machinery and everything, of course we are just slower to pick things up. So to summarize: Denmark = UK, just three years later. The most annoying trends these days are deliberately lame songwriter music, with people singing some of the worst, most banal, Danish lyrics I’ve ever heard. I could show your some links, but honestly I think I am doing everybody a favor when trying to keep this shit inside the boundaries of our little country. One other terrible trend is a tendency among very young bands; I guess they have listened a lot to UK bands such as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand and the likes. That means, new wave revival in a sort of kitschy, mocking way. It seems more like a joke – some teens trying to be funny – but the thing is, the press are taking these kids very seriously and hail them as the new big thing. That’s another thing about Denmark: we don’t really have a good music press. We have one major magazine (Gaffa) that’s free, but that’s like the English NME, just slightly more dumb and shallow. Then there’s one that’s trying to be really avant-garde (Geiger) which is more sort of a bad The Wire rip-off, again slightly less intelligent, and a bit more pseudo-philosophical. Lots of kids write for them as well. Then there’s a bunch of more or less internet based zines (Soundvenue among others) that are mostly written by teenagers who think they know everything about music ‘cause they have a couple of Radiohead and Flaming Lips albums. There’s so much damn snobbery here, but it’s a fake kind of snobbery. Everybody wants to be hipper and more alternative than the other, and in the end they end up with their heads so far up their own asses that they are left with nothing but hollow concepts and superficial ideas instead of a real passion for the purest, most powerful, of all the arts. Why is this happening in our culture? (and certainly not just in Denmark). Why are the two poles of modern music getting more and more extreme – i.e. the completely superficial mainstream MTV scene that’s spreading like a disease, and the shallow, purely conceptual left-wing avant-garde hipster snobbery that aims at denying any intrinsic value in music, to instead rely on lame post modern ideas (that nothing is authentic and can never be, that at best only the “process” can be “interesting” or some other lame Adorno/Derrida inspired gibberish) – why is everything becoming more and more superficial? I think it’s because there’s simply too much music. It’s everywhere. Therefore people are getting tired of it, and losing faith in it’s value, and therefore it ends in either a money-focused machinery, or in a postmodern “giving up” – it’s simply not worth trying. People have lost faith in its importance (and I’m not talking political importance). Society has become so materialistic – not just in the way it works, and in the values it works towards – but materialistic in spirit, a pragmatic way of dealing with values. Everything needs to have a rational end, either financially, politically or philosophically. Music, more than any other art form, is unable to live up to that criteria, because of its strange, logic-defying nature. Real music, is a real, pure beauty, that resists being categorized, resists any pragmatic function and any meaning – in the sense people normally deal with “meaning” at least. I think there simply ins’t room for real music today (which of course is an exaggeration). I think people, and society in general, actually hate music in its pure form, and therefore prefer to see it eliminated. And what better way to do that, than commercialism and postmodern conceptualisation?

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