A Call to 'Deviate from Balance': An Interview with John Wiese
A discussion with the noise musician and composer, who recently welcomed his new album and book 'Deviate from Balance'
For more than a decade, John Wiese never gave listeners too much time to consider his working process. Between his frantic but meticulous electronic cut-ups, savage and roaring drones and constant collaborations with a top roster of experimental musicians, Wiese released too much music at too fast a pace for anyone to pause and ponder just how he did it.
In fact, in October 2011, the musician, graphic designer and video artist launched 100 Seven Inch Records by John Wiese, an installation of all the singles he’d released during the previous 13 years. When considered alongside his full-lengths, side projects and his maddening electronic-and-grindcore-and-everything-abrasive act Sissy Spacek, the volume of the assorted noises and jams is staggering. Wiese admits that, in advance of the show, he heard from enthusiasts who had managed to gather as many as 96 of the records but never the entire batch. How could anyone consider as a whole what even zealots could not collect?
Wiese’s release schedule has slowed in the last several years, and his new collection, Deviate from Balance, is his first full-length set since 2011. For the first time, Wiese has given listeners the time and intel to consider exactly what he does. Deviate assembles 10 recordings cut from his multimedia art installations and his graphic scores, each detailed in the liner notes. Issued in tandem with the album, an art book from Hesse Press offers a glimpse at many of those works and the compositions and concepts that drive them. From show advertisements to snapshots of museum shows, it is a rare chance to understand the self-made world of one of the last decade’s most sophisticated and accomplished sound artists.
I spoke to Wiese in Berlin, where he was working on a video project between European tour dates.
Noisey: It’s been four years since your last LP, Seven of Wands, but you were so prolific for so long. What prompted the slow down?
John Wiese: There have been, in the last many years, different outlets for presenting work. A few years ago, I had this art show of the first 100 7-inches I made. That seemed like a landmark in terms of, “OK, I’ve made some records. Maybe I can try doing things like this.” I have no interest in not making records; I like to make them. But it was just time for me to see what it was like to slow that down and not make it the end result of everything.
The pieces on Deviate from Balance stretch back for more than a decade. Was it surreal or difficult to dig back through your archives so far?
Part of the reason there was such a big gap was because I had so many different recordings and different pieces that I could put together, but I just couldn’t find the right combination. I couldn’t figure put how to put them next to each other. When I put out my last record, more than half this record already existed.
The idea is not necessarily that the work is new but that the time to present the work is new, that all the pieces finally existed that could make this puzzle. It’s like selecting and creating a version of a timeline. People want to think about time as being linear: “I made this record, and then I was done with that, and then I made this record—A, B, C, D.” In realty, you could choose any of these letters out of sequence and combine them to make this word you are ready to make now.
Did you learn anything about your own work through compiling them?
There’s this larger breadth of work that you can look at. The pieces feel differently. They sound different. They’re recorded differently. But there’s an underlying thing that ties them together that you couldn’t see if they were all recorded in the same week. It reveals more about the undercurrent than if things were made more as a specific album.
There’s been a lot of work that’s been released that has a similar sound palette, but there isn’t so much stuff that has as much indication of what’s behind it. On this record, there are a lot of pieces that have graphic scores or that are sourced from installation pieces, things that are more process-oriented. I’ve not really spent a lot of time getting into that on other records. I’ve usually just presented a final result. With this one, there is more process included. And with the book, there’s more indication of the other world around the pieces.
Your work oftentimes makes me think about process, about how exactly you’re doing something. Do people ask? Was that a motivation for issuing this book and LP under the same title?
People do ask. I don’t think most of my work relies on process to be interesting. For a long time, I’ve not spent a lot of time trying to explain the process because it’s important for the final piece to stand on its own
I’m involved in making so many different things in so many different ways, I think my process changes based on the project. There isn’t one way that I work or make things. This set speaks to that, where there are a lot of pieces based in typography, which is an early thing I got immersed in as a teenager. I started designing typefaces. When I later started doing design work and making sound pieces, there was a strong correlation between that trajectory of understanding type on a fundamental level and communicating with ideas and people in a fundamental way.
What is more important for you: concept or result?
Oddly enough, conceptually, I tend to care more about the idea than the result, though I don’t know if people would understand that in my work. In experimental music, a lot of times, people want to think of it in terms of genre, and they want to think of it in terms of good or bad—that they think the work was successful or unsuccessful or liked it or didn’t like it. A lot of times, that’s a really unfortunate outlook. Leaning toward an academic sense, it’s more interesting to think about what was done versus what the outcome was. But in terms of satisfying an audience, rock music people just want to rock. That mentality is a part of everything.
So you expect a different response from the crowd?
Something that I found through many years of really intensive touring was that, for a long time, I was really compelled to play shows and try and do something completely different every time. It was a personal challenge. But I eventually shifted to where I started to try and play the same thing every night, which of course I couldn’t actually do. What I found was that by trying to do the same thing, I would end up making these small incremental shifts in what I was doing. They were unconscious, but they were also a sort of practice or exploration. On an average tour, I would play 30 or even 50 shows. What would happen was I would start in one place, and at the end, I would have suddenly moved to this place that was much better and totally different. It was so gradual that I would end up making this thing that I couldn’t have possibly come up with if I hadn’t have just inched my way there over many, many, many iterations.
To me, a process like that is personally very interesting, because it’s something I experienced. And I think it’s very good for the work. But for an audience, the result is something they might appreciate more. Maybe it’s interesting for them to hear what my process was, but they don’t need to experience it.
Have you ever had an experience where you didn’t like the process or the idea, but the result was compelling?
Earlier today, I was thinking about certain recordings by Sissy Spacek. There was this one show that we played, and I hated the show. I thought our performance was terrible. I thought our interaction was terrible. I thought the idea and the performance and the result were all awful. But then when I listened to the recording many years later, I was like, “Man, I really like this.” Everything about it didn’t work and was bad, but when I actually just listened to the result, I thought it was good. That’s such a weird equation that makes no sense at all. But it became so abstracted from the process and the experience that it just transformed.
There’s, of course, an entire tradition of music being notated outside of what we view as “standard notation.” How did you come to recognize that there were other ways to compose sound?
I don’t have any education in that. I never studied music. I don’t think there was any moment when I discovered it. I don’t claim to have any wealth of education in what other people have contributed. My results have just come from my path, in a way—having simultaneous interests that I can combine and overlap in different ways, like type and sound and design and video.
Before I studied design, I actually started designing type on my own and entered graphic design through type design. When you study graphic design, you inevitably have a type education that starts fundamentally with tracing letterforms, understanding the balance of counter shapes, and how letterforms interact as setting but also as a system. Type design is all about rules and systems and very finely tuned discrepancies. Being drawn to that and studying it replaced any education I might have had for notating. I feel like they’re very similar ideas.
You include two different versions of the piece "Segmenting Process" here and the visual score. How did you compose it?
I took the names of all the players and abstracted the letters into elements of the letterforms. Those are placed on a timeline. The shapes of the letters—the curves and different formal aspects of it—become different aspects of their playing within time. In the book, you are seeing a composite, so it’s like 20 different ones on top of each other. They’re in different colors so you can differentiate them and get a sense of what the combination of the piece is meant to be as a total.
How much do you have to explain that system to performers?
Typically, we’ve had a number of rehearsals before the show, and it’s a lot of discussion about how to approach it and what it’s meant to be. The score gives a lot of leeway to the musicians toward the sounds they want to make. I feel like as a composer my role is to add structure and limits to what they do. But as musicians, they can make the sound they’re able to do.
Inevitably, what would always happen is we would do a few rehearsals, everyone would start droning, everyone would start playing off of each other. These are the first things I would make them stop doing: “Stop playing with each other. Stop droning over each other. Stop playing constant sounds.” Especially with electronic people, they have a tendency to not allow this instrumental breath. They have to engage the instrument to stop playing rather than to produce sounds. A large part of it is introducing the conversational pausing and instrumental breathing—these ideas that are often very foreign to music that has electronic elements, simply because it’s not inherent in the instrument.
What does that do to the piece?
Everybody is creating this inevitable drone where everyone is playing and no one is stopping. Because no one is stopping, you play more and you try and get louder and everyone is competing. The most interesting part of the piece for me was always at the very end when certain people would stop playing, and there would be this moment where the people who hadn’t been heard all set would start to come to the forefront because they finally had their chance. What I tried to do is make a score based on making people stop playing, so that you’re constantly in this anti-drone piece, in a sense. It becomes a constant wave of individuals contributing and stopping. Everyone else is heard.
John Wiese's Graphic Score
You’re in Berlin working on some video pieces between shows. What appeals to you about transitioning between those worlds?
Something I really enjoy about video is the possibility of presenting fixed or semi-fixed pieces in a way that’s much easier for an audience than just presenting fixed audio works. I really like making recordings, but the only way to present them in a way that works is on a record. It’s rather difficult to present fixed pieces of music to an audience any other way. With video and film, that’s much more the convention: People will come see a video, and there’s no expectation to make a live video.
Of all these elements we’ve talked about, from video to text, is any one more important than another for you?
Maybe it’s the designer’s way of thinking, but I think of them all as being pieces of a larger thing. I would like to make an installation. I would to make a record that is a recording of it. I would like to make a book or some images that document it. To me, the poster for the installation is every bit as important. Sometimes, it’s difficult because I think all these things are important, so it’s hard to differentiate them.