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Pic by Ryan Spinoglio

Best known for his work with electronic dance duo Itch-E & Scratch-E, Andy Rantzen has just released a new album. Baz Bardoe tracked Andy down for a chat

There is an old joke that says the first thirty years of a music career are usually the hardest. If this is the case Andy Rantzen may be approaching the zenith of his career because he has been making mainly electronic based music for over three decades now.

He is best known for his work with electronic dance duo Itch-E & Scratch-E, who achieved considerable success with a sound that combined lush melodies with driving beats.. Outside of this group his output has included the industrial/ambient dub hybrid Pelican Daughters, electro-punk group Cherry2000 and a steady stream of eclectic solo material ranging from melodic electro to folk music and spoken word.
In 2016, he has had releases on UK’s Spinning Plates (solo) and Tenzenmen (with Jochen Gutsch), and was awarded the Jackie Orszaczky Composition Competition prize alongside collaborator David Sudmalis. His new album, ‘Worthless Offerings’, has just been released by 4-4-2 Music and is available on Bandcamp.

I recently had the chance to pose some questions to Andy, and as you would probably expect his answers were intelligent and informative.

I first heard your name in conjunction with a style of music that I might term ‘ambient techno’ for lack of a better description – that is, quite lush and ethereal melodies, over driving beats. What were your earliest influences and what drew you to this style of music?

Well, it probably all began with Gary Numan when I was 15. Then it quickly branched out into John Foxx and Ultravox’s third album. That material was romantic in a self-consciously pan-European way, but also somehow emotionally removed. Then there was John Foxx’s second album, ‘The Garden’. That one was particularly romantic yet detached at the same time. Later, I heard the late 80’s first wave of Detroit artists for the first time. They were doing the same thing: exploring a cool, almost non-human form of romanticism. It’s also present on SPK’s album Zamia Lehmanni. I remember being quite moved by the possibilities of very cold but beautiful melodies. When you get lush with big vertical arrangements and harmonies, it can make sense to hold back on the emotional dynamics of the progression, keeping things emotionally monotonal on a production level, going for stark, austere ethereality rather than melodramatic emotionality. The latter is less convincing, like bad acting. I am aware that many listeners find ‘cold emotion’, as Kraftwerk called it, slightly schizoid. They want that human feel. But in the inhuman feel is a way through to an appreciation of what lies beyond the human, i.e., the natural world. After all, trees are beautiful, but completely emotionless.

You have enjoyed considerable commercial and critical success. In the 90’s artists such as The Orb and FSOL had enormous success with prolonged ambient pieces, and generally experimental work as well. There were many, or at least a few electronic artists including yourself, that enjoyed more mainstream recognition. Was this a singular period or do you see it as being possible for such work to have continued mainstream appeal? And do you think the music industry is now more or less conducive to such outbursts of art?

 Funnily enough, in the early 90’s, much less happened for me than people think. It’s a rear view success. At the time, my stuff didn’t trouble the charts much, and I didn’t play at many raves and festivals. I wasn’t really in the public eye. I consistently lost money for every label I recorded for, nothing sold in significant quantities, I was never offered touring opportunities or remixes, and I never got paid anything significant. If anything, for me, things have improved since then, largely because my back catalogue stretching back to the mid-80’s is still owned mostly by me, I still control my own publishing, and archivist types and crate diggers are starting to get interested in the older material.   I think the commercial music industry is probably too savvy and professional nowadays to truly align with the more disruptive and spontaneous outbursts characteristic of convulsive periods in the history of art. Disruption has always been co-opted and commodified by industry, of course, but there were early peaks and opportunities at the start of the recording industry when mainstream business practice didn’t quite know what the rules were. The business is much more locked down these days. There’s less room for the improvising entrepreneur or artist who wishes to take risks. You could still get a Nirvana, a Mayhem or an Underground Resistance in the early 90’s. There was more scope then for eccentrics to get involved and try stuff that was truly unexpected. Right now, things are very tame in the mainstream – it’s like the early 1950’s in some ways. We generally need a strong convulsive reaction against the commercial imperative to create a new artistic renaissance. These things come in cycles, so it must happen sooner or later.

When I interviewed Scanner he suggested that the chillout spaces of 90’s raves were a kind of cultural nexus that allowed the cross fertilisation of cultural practice, and hence in a space dominated by ambient music, it made sense that it informed other areas of practice. Do you feel this is tenable? What are your thoughts?

 The idea itself is that a space, designed in a certain way, can encourage certain kinds of interaction and cultural development. Different spaces yield different thoughts, emotions, ideas and perceptions. The aim of the chillout space was to design an environment to be conducive to creative interactions between like-minded artists. Any space can function in this way – a cafe, a living room, a pub, or a garden. You can even hold court from your bed, like Florence Nightingale. Where you meet someone you wish to collaborate with, or exchange thoughts with, it is always an important question to ask, where would they be most comfortable? Is there a place which is somehow conducive to the free flow of ideas? The internet is, most people would agree, not that place. Humans actually need to meet, and meet in person.

More broadly, spaces do have their own energy and even artists who don’t wish to collaborate are very fussy and exacting about how they like their studios – super messy, super neat, facing a nice view, deep underground, etc. In some ways I think that studio spaces function as a cocoon for raising unconscious fantasies, and the way an artist designs their creative space will tell you a lot about how they dream and fantasize, what their innermost wishes and fears are. As will their art, of course.

Electronic music has seen a vast advancement in the technology of music making. From the synthesiser, to sampling, to advanced computer based sequencing the increments in technology have been truly amazing. Part of this has also been an evolution – or at least change – in the technology of how we listen to music. Not so long ago a record collection would take up an entire wall. We can now carry around 16,000 tunes on our laptop. How do you think this has changed the way we interact with music, and the part it plays in our everyday lives?

It’s made music both ubiquitous and less important than it used to be. Perverse creatures that we are, we are not drawn to stuff that’s readily available. We crave the rare, unusual and hard to get. And if we can get our hands on that stuff, it increases our status in the tribe. We have open contempt for things that we can obtain at the click of a mouse. This possibly mirrors our contempt for other easily obtainable things, like clean air and running water.

It’s possible that, some day, even the widely available material now on the internet will be very hard to find, due to data access restrictions or catastrophes of one kind or another. At that point, it’ll all become extremely valuable again. It’s as if value in the arts is a function of what Thorstein Veblen identified as conspicuous consumption: Wasteful expenditure is one way in which the leisure class signals its identity, and expenditure on rare artifacts is certainly one form of conspicuously wasteful expenditure.

There was a time when we found out about music via magazines, gigs, posters, and radio. There was well defined cultural sub groups associated with genres, and they would advertise themselves with patches on jackets etc. Then along came the internet and things like My Space. Today we can experience concerts on You Tube, and interact with artists on Facebook and other social media platforms. I am interested in your thoughts on how technology of this type has impacted upon social organisation especially. For example we can say that punk influenced the DIY ethic and helped create a flourishing ‘independent’ music scene that divested itself of major label control. We can also observe that the punk ethos influenced a range of other lifestyle decisions, for example I tuned into animal welfare and other issues via punk. What I am interested in is how these new ways of disseminating and interacting with music might be changing the way we socially organise and interact.

There’s no doubt it is changing our perceptions, and it’s changing the human relationship to our planet. However, it’s hard to discern how those new structures behave when you’re in the thick of it. If you’re inside it, it’s like a blizzard of information, most of which seems somehow trivial. Even if you view it at a bit of a distance, you can get a sense that there is a rather disorienting hum of senseless human activity that grows and grows in volume with every passing year. I know some people who aren’t particularly interested in online activities, and to them; perhaps, the whole deal with the internet might feel like a shared delusion, and perhaps even a tiny passing moment in human cognition and social organization.

There is an unimaginable amount of content being produced; more than anyone can every experience. There are a billion micro- and macro-cultures emerging. Everything is very accessible, yet hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for. There’s a greater role for chance and chaos – your track on Youtube might suddenly attract a vast audience due to a range of unexpected events. Disturbingly, that audience might be actively hostile. A work of genius could sit around for centuries in an obscure part of the web, undiscovered. All of that is fine by me.

If we believe what experts are telling us about the pace of global warming, overpopulation and the depletion of our earth’s resources, there is a very good chance that the internet will disappear at some point, along with a bunch of other things that we take for granted, like electricity, education and public transport. There may be a radical shrinking in the size of the human population. Those who remain may find themselves in a relatively technology-free existence, and this whole sophisticated phase in which we live in 2016 will be literally wiped from collective memory, leaving only ruins and strange artifacts like CDs which no-one can play. Perhaps generations to come will worship them instead.

Back to the question though – yes, I am interested in how I can use the technology to rewire social organisations, but for me it’s very personal. How can I use music, and digital communications, to change my life, right now, like in the next five minutes? Or at least within the next 8-12 months? You can turn to music to enrich the present and the very near future. Music can be a powerhouse to alter your life, permanently, and quickly. It was music that found me my wife. We first met to collaborate on an art work that needed a soundtrack. That soundtrack collaboration eventually changed my daughter’s life and mine, my house, my job, gave me new friends, and a new life. The one four minute track reshaped everything. It’s been up online since about 2012 and has had about three listens. Not a commercial success. But it’s been enormously powerful in terms of its impact on my existence. There are many other similar examples in my back catalogue, as there are for other composers and songwriter. So there’s a lot more to writing music than commerce. It can have an incendiary impact on your existence, transforming you inside and out.

We are seeing a huge upsurge in anachronistic approaches and technologies. There is a big interest in analogue synthesis for example, and new music releases are being pressed in vinyl. Some new artists are releasing cassettes. What do you attribute this to? Is there a dis satisfaction with where technology seems to have led us?

 My interest in vinyl and cassette is mainly down to the fact that it’s a viable archive medium. Digital is not. I’ve learned this the hard way, as have many musicians. Most of my DATs and CDs from the 90’s are now unplayable, and anything I failed to copy to another digital medium ten years ago is now gone forever, as are most of my older hard drives. But my cassettes from the 80’s still play, and vinyl records from the 1920’s still play. Post apocalypse, there will still be heaps of Richard Clayderman records out there, but probably no Spotify, Soundcloud, Facebook or Youtube. So I sometimes wonder if I want my music to last or not, and if so whether it should be on vinyl or some other really long-lived format such as a notated score. Making vinyl at this stage still feels like an expensive indulgence. I’d rather the money went on my kid’s teeth.

Writing in a notepad, on the other hand, costs next to nothing, and paper has longevity. It could survive a major extinction event. Lyrics could be discovered and set to music – you don’t have to plug anything in. I have started to wonder, ‘If you only had sticks and stones, and a few words on a piece of paper, what kind of music could you make?’. Now, I’m aware there’s something slightly crazy and grandiose about all this – ‘I want my works to survive the Apocalpyse!’ – but that doesn’t deter me – artists are crazy and grandiose, it’s part of the fun.

 Artists who have tended to rely upon ‘traditional’ outlets for their music such as releases and music gigs, are really struggling, and in many cases seeking other careers. The advent of downloading and the ease of sharing music files has meant that sales and sales revenue have plummeted. Many record labels have closed, and even the big concerns are struggling. What do you as being the way forward? And do you think that music has now been devalued in the sense that consumers simply no longer expect to pay for it in many instances?

I do think we have to accept the situation as it is. Once we acknowledge what’s going on, that gives us some reality-tested basis for understanding how we can work with it. Musicians who want to be super-famous, for a short while at least, can still do that, with a combination of luck, talent and hard work. But it’s a naïve and dangerous aspiration. When you gain excessive fame, you lose privacy, and when you lose that, you lose intimacy, space, silence – all that wonderful stuff. 

I don’t really consider myself a musician, as I can’t play an instrument. I’m more a recording artist or songwriter or composer or lyricist who has no real aptitude for coming up with what most people want. It’s not commercial work, but I can do it all at home every day, and don’t really care who hears it. If you’re the kind of artist who needs to feel popular and loved, or who wants to make a living from music, I’d suggest you write, get a really good agent, and pitch pop songs to big name artists. It’s hard work, and you need to be ruthless, obsessive and prepared to travel, but if you have a natural talent for it, that’s the path to take.

If you’re a musician or singer however, what you love most is probably to play your instrument and perform on stages to audiences. The collapse of the recording industry may still affect you indirectly, as you won’t be able to tour on income derived from album sales and royalties, but you can look to earlier times, because we’re now in the same boat as musicians from the centuries prior to the twentieth. You can take to that troubadour existence and live the life of a travelling musician (author/songwriter  Hugo Race’s recent memoir, ‘Road Series’, as a great insight into that life – track down a copy if you can). Some of us can eke out a living travelling and performing, for a while at least, while we’re young and healthy without too many family ties.

As for me, and people like me, I have a day job, never tour, and write at night or early in the morning. That’s the right path for someone like me.

What are some of your favourite pieces of music making gear?

Since 1996 I’ve exclusively used the Kurzweil K2500 and K2600 series for sequencing, sounds and samples. When a K2500/K2600 goes down I get a new one – I’ve been through three of four. That will be my instrument for life I suspect. I also use a Korg MS-20 which I’ve had since 1985. That’s about it, apart from a spring reverb and an old analogue delay. I think there’s plenty of value in getting to know one instrument very well, and avoiding compulsive upgrading. The trick is to reduce the latency between having an idea and making it happen, and after years of experience on the one machine, the fingers fly! After a few years you and the instrument have a great understanding of each other, and that helps a lot.

Any advice for people entering into music making?

Find out what you like, then engage in musical activities that lead you in the direction of getting more of it. And if you change your mind at any stage, and decide you don’t like what you originally thought you liked, engage in musical activities that change or reverse direction, and propel you in a new, more appropriate direction. You should view your music making as a ship, and your life as the sea. Music can steer you towards experiences. As Brian Eno says, you should think of music not as a product but as a trigger for experiences.

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