Jonas Munk is no slave to one musical master. He can jump from electronic music, to krautrock, to ambient drone, and to psych rock without blinking an eye. Sometimes all those jumps can happen in the course of a day. An afternoon, even. Keeping things new and fresh is a vital part to how Munk keeps himself invigorated musically and artistically. With someone as well versed in music as Jonas Munk, I can see this being a must.
Jonas Munk is the guitarist in the Danish psych powerhouse Causa Sui. He’s also a gifted keyboardist and has put out several albums under the name Manual. That music is decidedly more along the line of Boards of Canada and Tycho. He has also released two albums under his own name. The first was 2012s Pan. That album was a warm and bubbly concoction of krautrock. Think Kraftwerk’s Computer World with Michael Rother playing guitar over it and you might have an idea of that album’s excellent trip. Munk has just released his newest solo effort called Absorb/Fabric/Cascade, a decidedly different aural trip, but one that’s very much worth taking. Inspired to create a musical journey that doesn’t lead with emotional cues or narratives, but one that is more visceral; more about feel and texture. It’s broken into three parts, hence the title, and it moves and flows organically. It creates a space for one to just get lost in and feel what they want to feel.
Jonas was kind enough to allow me to bug him with some questions. Not only that, but he answered them as well.
J. Hubner: Hi Jonas. So how did Absorb/Fabric/Cascade come about? Was there a concept behind this record?
Jonas Munk: Actually my initial idea was to create a shorter release, a long EP or a mini LP, with just a couple long drone tracks focused entirely on texture and sound. I love the EP format and it’s a great way to explore different aspects of ones style, but unfortunately noone takes them seriously these days, so in order to avoid having to drive boxes of records to the landfill I decided to expand it a bit and release it as a full length.
J. Hubner: Instrument-wise, what did you use to create these songs? Synths obviously, but there are definitely some organic qualities in the instrumentation as well. Did you limit your music palate going in?
Jonas Munk: Definitely. I wanted this record to be all about the texture of the sound, in a very physical way. So far my entire body of work has had a strong focus on harmonic content and compositional structure, but this time all the focus was on the sonic aspect. Of course the two can’t be separated completely. The thing is, once you zoom in on the sound as its own phenomenon all kinds of subtle emotionally charged elements start revealing themselves in the sonic details – for example, the way a filter slowly and gradually opens over a period of time can be a really intimate thing and actually generate vivid reactions in the listener. That was the basic idea for these pieces: I wanted them to be really abstract soundwise and relying on very simple ideas, such as ‘something slowly brightening and darkening’, ‘gradual rhythmic changes’, ‘sounds slowly blooming and triggering something new along the way’…etc. There’s something so beautiful about simple movements like that.
J. Hubner: That concept sounds very much like Steve Reich’s body of work. Taking one motif and repeating it continuously until it starts to become something else.
Jonas Munk: Steve Reich is a master of that – music as a gradual process – take some of his works from the 1970s for example: once a marimba pattern reaches a certain level of complexity it triggers a new instrument to appear, the length of chords evolve over time until completely sustained, melodies form new harmonies in canons…..all those techniques he evolved in the 1970s. There’s something so organic about it – like with the biological world you can contiously zoom in and it’ll reveal new details. There’s a complexity and depth to it, although it’s simple and easy to enjoy it as a listener. A lot of electronic minimal and ambient music appears so banal and synthetic in comparison.
J. Hubner: And the instrumentation you used to achieve these sonic organisms?
Jonas Munk: As for instrumentation I used three different analog synthesizers as well as different fuzz boxes, filter modules and delays, but there’s also guitars in there and a piano in ”Fabric”. The funny thing is that electronics can also have a very organic character. It depends on how you use them. A lot of that stuff, say, analog synths and fuzz boxes, don’t even feel like technological devices anymore. Just like an acustic guitar the tuning depends on room temperature, and the sounds generated in no way has a futuristic quality anymore, which is interesting.
J. Hubner: How would you, or can you, compare your previous solo effort Pan to Absorb/Fabric/Cascade?
Jonas Munk: ”Pan” was more of an ”homage a krautrock”, the idea being that diving into a specific period of the past with new ears might generate something interesting. I think it’s a great little record.
J. Hubner: So do I. I think it’s a fantastic piece of music.
Jonas Munk: I’m proud of it. In the end a lot of different ideas ended up in the mix and each track on ”Pan” is going in a different direction. With the new record I wanted to zoom in on one specific aspect and explore that to the full. They both share a very unpolished, natural sound – there’s no reverb anywhere on those records, and the electronics and synthesizers have a bit of a raw quality. Sometimes you can hear me tuning the synthesizers during a part cause it was drifting out of tune, stuff like that.
J. Hubner: The album is very beautiful, but that beauty isn’t forced. It all flows very naturally. It’s both dark and light. How did you go about creating these pieces of music?
Jonas Munk: I certainly wanted it to be quite abstract and ambiguous in nature. It was important not to have any too specific emotional traits. I wanted the music to be able to create an open environment for the listener to expand into, rather than impose any direct meaning.
J. Hubner: What do you draw inspiration from? Are there other composers that inspire you to create? Cinema? Literature? I’m curious as to what fuels the creation of a record like Absorb/Fabric/Cascade.
Jonas Munk: It’s a bit hard to answer a question like that, cause personally I’ve never felt any direct, causal effect between experience and creation. I work on music pretty much everyday, one way or another. When I’ve put my kid in daycare in the morning I either take care of label stuff or I go to the studio and work for 6-7 hours. That’s how I work most often. Sometimes I’m alone, sometimes I collaborate with others or work with bands. I’m aware it doesn’t live up to the most romantic conceptions of artistic creation! But I don’t believe in genius, I believe in work and dedication.
J. Hubner: There’s nothing wrong with that. I admire and prescribe to the idea that personal goals, whether they be something as simple as mowing the lawn or painting the living room; or as complex as writing the great American novel or composing a violin concerto, can be done with hard work and consistent work. Not with being a genius or having good luck.
Jonas Munk: But on a more abstract level I’m sure the music I create absorbs whatever I’m into in some way. I always read quite a lot of books – novels, philosophy, poetry, biographies – I swim a lot, also take a few runs each week, brew strong coffee and cook indian currys, play with my kid, listen to a shitload of records and spend waaaay too much time on the fucking interweb whenever I get the chance.
J. Hubner: I think even the everyday stuff, what some might naively label as mundane, are just as important in our creative sides as those profound moments of enlightenment. So having a great cup of coffee, some fantastic Indian curry, or playing with your kid can inspire the deepest of artistic creation. At least that’s how I see it.
So speaking of artistic creation, how did you start creating music?
Jonas Munk: Actually my first real instrument ever was an Ensoniq Mirage sampler my parents got from my uncle (who’s a professional musician) for my birthday one time.
J. Hubner: An Ensoniq Mirage sampler, nice.
Jonas Munk: But I didn’t really figure out how to have fun with it, except for recording my own burps and playing them on the keyboard, so they exchanged it for a drum kit which I loved right away. My dad got some more instruments eventually, a keyboard (from a different uncle), some japanese Jazzbass and SG copies, and set up a room in the basement where we could make some noise. During a holiday in Mallorca, Spain I ran into Jess Kahr (who I still play with to this day in Causa Sui) and it turned out he lived right around the corner back home, so we became best friends and started jamming a lot – me on the drums, Jess on the keys (hooked up to a Leslie cabinet with a rotating speaker), and I guess we never stopped!
J. Hubner: So you had quite a set up as a kid. Did your dad play with you sometimes as well?
Jonas Munk: Sometimes my dad would join on the guitar and we would play a Santana song or something like that, but mostly we wrote our own stuff or just jammed. This was when we were around 7 or 8.
J. Hubner: Wow! You guys started young.
Jonas Munk: A few years later Jess talked to a classmate who just got a drum kit (Jakob Skøtt) about starting a band and I could join if I played the guitar, and that became the beginning of an obsession with that instrument. Although, the guitar was already familiar to me at that point.
J. Hubner: So was there as turning point for you guys where things shifted and music became your main goal?
Jonas Munk: When I was 16 we saw Tortoise at the Roskilde Festival and that experience initiated an interest in all kinds of weird music for all of us, most importantly at the time: electronic music. Soon after I got my first analog synthesizer (Korg Poly 800 mkII), a Yamaha delay unit and a step sequencer and for the next five years electronic music was my main interest, although I never left the guitar – it was integrated into the electronic sound I was evolving, both with my solo project Manual and our band (called Limp at that point). Soon I got an Akai sampler, a Juno 60 and a Fostex multitrack recorder and there was no limit to what was possible.
J. Hubner: So the basement jamming was put off to the side in favor of electronic experimentation?
Jonas Munk: It wasn’t like we ever left our passion for rock or the band format completely – that would be too black and white a description – but in 2004 (when I was 22) our passion for jamming and playing loud came back with a vengeance and we changed things around a bit and called ourselves Causa Sui. Since then it has all existed very much side by side.
J. Hubner: How do you balance the Causa Sui side with the solo electronic side? Is it even a balancing act? To me it seems like both could coexist quite nicely together.
Jonas Munk: A lot of people find those parallel projects strange, but it’s an incredible way of working – there’s a balance I really enjoy, shifting between styles and working methods from week to week, sometimes even within the same day. There was a time 6-7 years ago when I was working on ambient music during the day and jamming with Causa Sui all night, that was an incredible fertile period and there was just this abundance of ideas at all time. Now things are obviously a bit more constricted, but I still find that kind of variation extremely fruitful – one week I might be mixing a record for a folk band, the next I’m in London working 14 hour day shifts producing electronic music with Ulrich Schnauss, and after that I might be doing an improv session with Causa Sui.
J. Hubner: I would imagine all those styles and sessions would bleed into one another, helping to push each other along in newer, more exciting directions.
Jonas Munk: The different sessions start influencing each other, ideas ricochet from one project to the next, and that’s very rewarding. I pick up something important from each and everyone I work with. Everyone has a different perspective on music and there’s something to learn everywhere. Most people work linearly, evolving from one thing to the next, whereas I work in parallel, with projects that are very different in nature functioning side by side. For some reason that way of working is quite rare, but it has been the modus operandi for some of my favourie artists such as Brian Eno or Jim O’Rourke.
J. Hubner: Sticking with just one style, or working on simply one project at a time would be rather stifling, artistically speaking. You seem to need to have several things going at once.
Jonas Munk: I work on music everyday and only working with one project in one style would quickly drain me and start to feel uninspiring. For me one of the most important parts of working on something is the clarity you get when stepping away from it, it freshens your ears.
J. Hubner: Would you ever consider performing Absorb/Fabric/Cascade live? Is it possible?
Jonas Munk: At the moment I’m working on a way to perform some of that stuff live. But I reckon it’s gonna be quite a minimal setup.
J. Hubner: Could this be the beginning of a series of ambient records?
Jonas Munk: If people like this one I could imagine doing another drone record at some point.
J. Hubner: Last time I spoke with Jakob Skott he’d stated Causa Sui were working on some new music that was turning out pretty amazing. How’s that album coming along?
Jonas Munk: I’d say we’re at the most frustrating part of the process at the moment: very slowly writing material and fine tuning the new songs. Hopefully once we start recording this spring it’ll get rolling and the process will be more enjoyable. For the past 12 months we’ve been wrestling with new ideas that won’t come fully to life, always struggling with time, struggling with our own musical shortcomings, moving to a new studio – but if you ask me in two months hopefully the answer will be that we’re more than halfway through our heaviest, most well composed record of our career. I think it has to be a bit of a painful process – if it’s all fun it propably means we’re not taking things seriously enough.
J. Hubner: If you could pick an album that truly inspired you to create Absorb/Fabric/Cascade, what album would that be? And why?
Jonas Munk: I rediscovered Keith Fullerton Whitman’s ”Playthroughs” a couple of years ago. Beautiful album. That surely had an influence on the new record. Steve Reich’s ”Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ” has been one of my favourite pieces of music for the past 15 years but this might be the first time it has had a direct influence on my music. Also a piece from 1979 called ”Sei Note in Logica” by Roberto Cacciapaglia, an Italian composer I only discovered a few years ago. The mix of classical instrumentation and electronics is truly ahead of its time. I would also have to mention ”Wizards” by American electronic pioneer J.D. Emmanuel.
That’s four, sorry.
J. Hubner: That’s quite all right, Jonas. Thanks for talking.
Absorb/Fabric/Cascade is out now on El Paraiso Records. Pick up a copy at http://www.elparaisorecords.com/.