"If I Use a Dark Thing to Make People Happy, I Win" - Gesaffelstein Opens Up
I'm sipping a Coke and gazing at the Atlantic ocean from a leather couch in a 38th floor suite at the Standard Hotel, and I've just asked Mike Levy to discuss his fashion sense. His response is more confused than confrontational—he's unclear about the question's relevance to the subject at hand. He's right. The question is irrelevant, because what we're here to talk about isn't Mike Levy and his taste for tailored blazers and sleek dress shirts. Rather, it's his brutal, cinematic techno production as Gesaffelstein, which Levy takes pains to separate from his personal life. He doesn't have an Instagram, he's rarely interviewed, you won't catch him floating across festival crowds in a plastic ball. It's not a "mysterious producer" gimmick; Levy prefers to let his music speak for itself.
"There is no bridge between my life and the Gesaffelstein project," he explains in a throaty French murmur.
The name Gesaffelstein is a portmanteau of Albert Einstein and an unwieldy German mouthful: gesamtkunstwerk, which translates into something like "total art form." Wagner coined the term in a 19th century essay describing how opera's conjuction of voice, movement and narrative provides it with a sense of the universal. Levy is sort of like the Wagner of music videos, our modern gesamtkunstwerk operas. Instead of dukes with flutes we get the anti-hero gangster of "Hate Or Glory," who steals chains, melts them down, and tries to turn himself into a golden god. If all this ambition, perfection and violence seems very Kanye, well, it is. At least, it must have seemed that way to the man himself, because he tapped Gesaffelstein to produce Yeezus' "Send It Up." The collab makes a lot of sense—Levy's the reserved Gaulic yin to 'Ye's furious American yang, and neither would have it any other way.
These days the stalwarts of mainstream EDM seem locked into an unsustainable cycle of vapidity. Meanwhile, the festivals and soundclouds of your average listener have been increasingly saturated by challenging sounds from the underground, ideas whose time has come. Gesaffelstein is a powerful idea. He's the logical progression of Ed Banger electro, the muscular, savvy direction things ought to have gone after 2008 and Justice and "bloghouse." Six years later we're due for another upheaval—don't be surprised if he comes out on top.
Noisey: How do feel about the discrepancy between your sound and that of the artists who headline the large EDM festivals you play in America?
Gesaffelstein: You know, in the US, if you're an electronic artist from Europe, there is no way to play in a rock festival. In Europe, you can play in a rock festival if you’re an electronic artist because the mind is really open. And me, if I want to play in a festival in America, I have to play an EDM festival. It’s really far from my music. So sometimes you can feel that they don’t understand your music because at the same time it’s more aggressive than Tiesto's music. It’s really aggressive and it’s really dark. You know, there is a lot of similarity in EDM. Every time it’s the same drop with the same drum, you know. And then it stops, and then [makes generic electro house sound], you know. And so people dance like that. And the way I make music, it’s really different. So I don’t want to do exactly what the people want. Sometimes they don’t understand.
One thing that’s clearly an issue in electronic music over the last several years is the concept of the "mystery producer." I know you’ve said in interviews that you find that contrived. How do you think electronic artists ought to deal with fame?
If you want to be mysterious, you know, people are going to see that’s fake. I know that in the U.S. and in Europe, too, that people think I’m a mysterious guy and they think that I’m dark and all this shit. But I’m not. Just because I try to focus on the music. And the only thing I give to people, it’s just music, you know. I don’t have Instagram. I don’t put my food on Twitter. I don’t take pictures of shit. And today, every DJ, every music person does this shit. It’s crazy. And when you are not doing that, you are like, mysterious. But I’m not. I’m just normal. I’m a musician. The only thing I can give to people, it’s music. And if they want more, fuck them, you know. Because I’m here to do music, not to entertain or take a pictures with stars. I don’t have to do that, and I don’t care honestly.
What other trends frustrate you the most about modern dance music culture?
I’ve seen a full live set of me on YouTube. So the guy bought the tickets to see me, and he spent all his time with his phone. He didn’t enjoy the show. And, you know, it sucks because if you do that you don’t dance. And for me that's the really cool thing, one of the most cool things in the world. I can’t understand when you pay your tickets to see an artist and you’re like that. Enjoy the music.
If you could play a show anywhere in the world where would you play?
On the moon.
Dark, of course.
Who first inspired you musically?
Kraftwerk, definitely. You know, I discovered electronic music with techno with a Green Velvet track. And then I discovered Kraftwerk, who invented electronic music.
Where did you first hear Kraftwerk?
I don’t remember. Maybe on the internet or a CD. I know that I’m fan of them since I’m, like, 16 or 17. And they inspire me a lot today, too. The visions they have for their projects—visuals, videos, covers, you know, everything. And I try to do exactly the same because I can’t do just music, just make a track and put on the internet. I have to do a video. I have to do visuals. I have to create something special around the music. Because now when people want to buy an album, they are going on iTunes, okay. Just a link. They have nothing. So if you want to give something new to people, you have to give more than just a link. Because now there is no CD. So if you give just a link, it’s like you don’t exist, so you have to create more stuff, like video, good visuals, good live show to be something different.
What kind of ideas were in your head while making your latest album, Aleph?
It was all about the beginning. Aleph means that. It mean the beginning. It means the alpha. You know, you have the alpha and the omega. And it was the idea of the album to create something new from nowhere, you know. Like the Big Bang. The most important thing for me was that I wanted to have a sound really identified. At the same time, it’s like when you meet a guy or a girl, you know—it can be happy. It can be angry. It can be sad. And the same with my music. It can be happy music, or, sad, violent, or melancholy.
So, tell me about the notion of gesamtkunstwerk. How does it factor into your work?
It means the perfection of art with video, photographing, music, every art in one. It may be pretentious to say, but yeah, I try to touch the magical. And, you know, I just try because if I touch the magical, I’m going to be like okay, I did it, so I stop. I love to try to do that.
Do you think any art has reached that point?
Chopin. He did. And then… yeah, Chopin.
Yeah. It’s really, really rare. Everything he did was too high, you know. It’s more than music. It’s like a language. Everyone on Earth likes this music, Chopin. You can’t say that it’s shit. It’s impossible. And the scientifists did an experiment with his music, they put a helmet on the head to see connections in the brain, and even if you said that you hate this music, the music in your brain does something good for your body. Even if you say that you hate it. It’s crazy.
What would you expect to see if scientists hooked somebody up to a monitor and played your music?
I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t want to know because if it’s something bad, I don’t want to see people have a bad feeling with my music. I prefer to see them happy, you know. It’s weird to say that because it’s dark. It’s a bit ironic for me to do dark music, you know, because I’m not like that. But if I use a dark thing to make people happy, I win.
Ezra Marcus creates gesamtkunstwerk on Twitter—@ezra_marc