One of electronica's most adventurous spirits, Markus Popp has returned with an album that sounds surprisingly... musical. But is everything as it seems?
Markus Popp, aka Oval, can be a frustrating interviewee, not least because he often responds to questions with more questions.
"Am I actually playing instruments on this new record?”
Well, are you?
"Yes and no.”
"Are these instruments virtual or real? Again, yes and no.”
The new record in question is the first Oval album for nine years, a double CD simply entitled O. Accompanied by a separate EP called Oh, it has been touted as an unexpected departure from the man who gave us 'glitch music' and spent years teaching computers new ways of generating sound. No‑one is going to mistake it for S Club 7, but it is undeniably more approachable than much of Popp's previous work. It even features something that sounds remarkably like a man sitting behind a drum kit and hitting it with sticks, while most of the pitched musical content is performed on something that might or might not be an electric guitar. (Imagine Derek Bailey playing through a broken sampler.) It is, all in all, unexpectedly warm and human. Popp himself describes it as "an Oval debut album all over again”, the result of a conscious effort to reinvent his music.
"The most important step towards this goal was 'radical departure' — to do everything as differently as possible compared to how I did stuff before, and do it on all levels: technically, musically, organisationally. I wanted to bring back the — in my opinion, often absent — 'music' part into 'electronic music'. I wanted to play stuff, I was impatient to take control — for instance, by establishing riffs as the new main building block, replacing the loop. This element alone added so much more immediacy and control, but also a lot of unprecedented decision‑making and new responsibilities. Being loop‑based, like in the early Oval days, had been, by definition, very static and inflexible.
"Effectively, hardly anything from my old tricks, tools and techniques translated over into the new setup. Plus, everything else around me having changed so dramatically over the years sure did help. It would have been a major exercise in reverse engineering to do another Systemisch, Ovalcommers or even So record with today's tools. But to start anew with an entirely new approach was easy — at least in theory. So much had changed around me during my hiatus, the list of tools to try in 2010 was practically writing itself. What to do with those new tools was, of course, the big challenge.
"First and foremost, I wanted a playful, inviting, 'just listen' type of music that effortlessly just 'is', and which convincingly renders obsolete distinctions like programmed versus played, or acoustic versus electronic. No hired musicians, no live band — just me, ready to start anew and go the extra mile.”
Having suggested that this "fresh start” reflects a radical change of method, Popp then immediately undermines this suggestion, pointing out that the way music comes across to the listener can be deceptive. "A rain shower, an explosion, a flock of birds in the distance, animals, even human actors: practically any asset as part of a movie scene today is perceived — provided the lighting, photography and animation are executed flawlessly — as simply 'being there', whether these assets were ever part of the original shot or simply added digitally in post. Who knows, to a certain degree, this new Oval sound might be nothing but a trompe l'oeil, an acoustic illusion — albeit a very convincing one — to a point, where you don't insist on the seemingly specific qualities of the 'original' aesthetic or playing style any longer. So why still give in to the old impulseof investigating the perpetual 'How did he do it?'”
There he goes with the questions again. Giving in to the old impulse does at least yield some further information about the genesis of O. Whereas previous Oval projects have involved stitching together thousands of tiny fragments of sound, or creating computer programs that would facilitate the generation of sound, this one does indeed rely on something more akin to conventional musicianship.
"While my tracks from the mid‑'90s were engaged with music on a pretty basic and unsophisticated (yet effective) level, these new releases can now confidently challenge music on its own turf — something I wanted to do for many years, but just did not quite feel ready for. Over the years, I increasingly felt I needed to be part of a conversation — ultimately, because music had always been a major part of my life and I wanted to finally come up with a better payback scheme than dissection or denial. But this does not mean that those 'critical' days are now behind me — my tracks are just as 'meta' as ever. Only this time, I made it a bit easier to get to the 'music' parts.
"Ultimately, I wanted to be part of a dialogue, which I can only make happen via musical means, by me establishing a communication with music through music. This is exactly why I developed a musical skill set: to speak the language. No Oval debate club membership card required: to 'just listen' is all I am asking this time.”
Although Popp has been making records for 15 years or so, he's always done so from an 'outsider' perspective. The new album thus forced him to learn some of the conventional studio skills he'd never previously needed.
"Going the extra mile meant to go from 'music coordinator' to 'composer' and to recording my own improvisations. There's this vast history of music production, which I had barely been in touch with in the early days. It is not more than a few months ago that I had finally figured out what a compressor actually does. Once I had the technical aspects down, things went pretty quickly from there. The tracks are pretty much recorded live (of course in multitrack). Still, this says nothing about which exact musical direction to take from there — that part took even longer.
"In practice, the production of O was all very, very hands‑on, about ending up with the best possible take. You know, that one recording that is worth practising an entire day for, the one that can capture and convey sophistication beyond all the technology involved. This time, it was crucial to me to generate these phrases, make them happen exactly in this way with my own hands, make them seem magically effortless — whereas the disruption of music and music technology from a perpetual 'outsider's perspective', like in the Systemisch days [the 1994 Oval album that pioneered 'glitch music'], only gets you so far.
"By the way, having real‑time, manual access to the process does not mean that I was necessarily working any faster. All phrases and motifs have been triggered as you hear them, they are not montages. But still, there were so many options to attain that organic, playful atmosphere I was after. In the end, I decided to capture these riffs on the fly, like shooting Polaroids — at the expense of having to record everything all over again in case a take had failed or gone the wrong way.”
The press release for O mentions that it was entirely recorded on a cheap PC, with no third‑party plug‑ins. On the one hand, this seems to be important to Popp: "I guess it remains important to my music to this day that I always remain capable to get creative with modest resources. Oval always was a low‑budget affair. If you would go ahead and try to date Oval tracks, telling from the hardware utilised in their making, you'd always have to add several years to the estimated creation date, because I never, even to this day, had or cared about the latest technology. For example, Systemisch ultimately ended up as this glorious mono recording, because I simply could not afford a fancy stereo sampler at the time.”
On the other hand, however, it often seems that Popp considers any discussion of his tools to be an unwanted distraction. "Mentioning it in the release bio was merely a placeholder to signify: 'This is only a black box. No secret‑weapon‑type technology was used in the making of this record.'”
Are we at least permitted to know more about the source of the guitar‑like tones that dominate the record? Grudgingly, a little: "If you absolutely insist on getting a mental image of someone involved in a certain activity while you are listening to these tracks, picture me in between lots of instruments, both virtual and real, plus many more real‑time controllers of all kinds, practising — and thinking pretty hard about how to turn Oval from a lean‑forward to a lean‑back experience without sacrificing any of my past achievements and without being plain bad at writing songs.”
Popp is much more forthcoming when asked about the drum tracks that feature on the album. "What you hear is me playing, programming and triggering 'real' drums, my own sampled 'real' drums, as well as real‑time (drum) controllers in conjunction with several customised kits from BFD II, Superior Drummer and Addictive Drums.
"For years, I absolutely wanted to add a rhythmical element in my tracks beyond the proverbial, and inevitable [given Popp's working methods], clicks and pops. However, I don't like the aesthetic of drum machines — synthetic drum sounds are all right, but ultimately limiting, plus I don't like patterns — nor did I want to rely on loops (too inflexible). Instead, I wanted more expressive drums that can 'lead' like an instrument, on a par with all the other elements of a track. I listened to a lot of music, learned how a real drum kit actually works and then decided what 'understanding how to play drums' could do for my own music. For Oh and O, I most of the time ended up with drums that evolve over the course of the track, almost flowing alongside the other instruments rather than dictating predefined beats or parts. My current drum setup will definitely keep me occupied for some time to come.”
In a warped kind of way, the making of the O album saw Markus Popp obeying one of the oldest rules of recording: get things right at source. "I strictly stuck to not employing any post‑processing of any kind. Here, the So project with songwriter Eriko Toyoda was very instructional, albeit quite possibly for all the wrong reasons. Because of the way I had worked with Eriko's guitar recordings at the time, I decided to do the exact opposite with the melodic parts for Oh and O. So was happening right at the pinnacle of my 'hi‑tech' phase, when it was all about leaving nothing unprocessed. I threw a fully loaded Kyma rig, SoundMaker with those terrific third‑party spectral plug‑in packs and TC Electronics' Spark XL at Eriko's delicate songs, each app running tons of custom modules and effect chains. Ultimately, I ended up spending an eternity processing every guitar part (and vocal part and bass part and FX part), creating endless iterations of an already defined, beautiful, original recording. And since I wasn't working on a sound grid for the Ovalprocess software [the innovative music creation program that forms the basis of Popp's art installations], but towards a regular CD release, only a few of those many variations of a sound file could actually make it into a song and onto the record.
"For O, I took the exact opposite route. There were two key differences: first, I am in control of all the melodic parts myself, and second, [there was] no further DSP post‑processing to make things overly complicated. Those parts you hear on O are literally the result of rehearsing those phrases until they were 'just right'. Once recorded, I was done with that clip for good. I kind of knew all along that this was the superior concept: the lifelong dream of 'touching every sound file just once'. It simply took time until I was ready to pull it off. Well, that and to be good enough at it to consider a release.”
And that's perhaps the most impressive thing about O and Oh: that Markus Popp turns out to be every bit as good a musician as he ever was a non‑musician. "Make no mistake,” he concludes, "these tracks are accessible, but they are very 2010, capable of surprising anyone on almost any level. Oh and O may not have 'watershed moment' written all over them — but this new material has the potential to lock you in a pretty intense staring contest for quite some time.”