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XLR8R in Conversation with Martyn at MUTEK 2013

Last week, XLR8R was invited to attend the annual MUTEK festival in Montreal. During our four days in attendance, we witnessed plenty of memorable moments—13 of which were spelled out in detail in our festival review—but our participation actually went beyond merely checking out the various shows and parties. XLR8R was also invited to host a couple of public conversations with MUTEK artists, one of whom was Martyn. We've excerpted a portion of the discussion here, specifically the part where the Dutch-born, DC-based producer (and 3024 label boss) told us about his new audio-visual show.

Let's talk about the new show that you're doing. It's called The Air Between Your Words and it's an audio-visual thing.

A thing. [laughs] Basically, when I started writing my new album... Usually, when I make music, I have sort of a visual idea. But once you finish the music, there's not really a way to express your visual ideas. You just put the tune on a record and it becomes an audio file, basically. I was always interested in doing something much more visually, and I worked together with a guy called Erosie, who does all the artwork for the label and usually for all of my releases. We just sat down while I was gathering ideas for this new album [and thought about] how to make it much more of a visual experience. I was already doing live shows, but I wanted to make the live show a little bit bigger, a little bit better, and [to have] more of a message, as well.

The other reason why I started doing this was that while touring and seeing a lot of other people play live shows with an audio-visual component, I started noticing that a lot of those shows were much more about technical ideas, like flashing LEDs and stuff exploding or whatever. It was almost like a freak show sometimes, like, "Why do you have to have a visual show?" "Well, because. Because everyone has a visual show." So basically, a lot of shows have a lot to do with a technical feat than a narrative or a story.

Obviously, I put the bar very high for myself to say that now I'm doing a show that has a clear narrative. I think the narrative also will form itself by doing lots of these shows.

When you were thinking about putting the show together, was there any artist you saw and thought, "I like that," or anyone who you thought was doing a particularly good job? It's been a tricky issue with electronic music for... forever.

Forever? I don't know. It is definitely something in the last few years where the festivals are getting bigger. People make music, they do albums, and after a while, you have to think of a "next step," and usually people go the audio-visual route or a live show or something with lights.

There are two shows that I really like, audio-visually speaking. There's Flying Lotus' show, basically because I've seen it so many times. I've done a lot of touring with him, so I know the ins and outs of the show and what goes on behind it. I think it doesn't have that much of a narrative and it's still sort of a technical story. It's called Layer 3 and basically, he stands between two screens and they project from the back and from the front. So you create a sort of 3-D effect. He plays with it a little bit during the show, so there's kind of a story to it. He uses a lot of live action from his videos and stuff like that. I really like that show.

The other one I like is Hype Williams, which is no show at all. Hype Williams plays live, it's two people; basically, it's just dark the entire show and then, all the way at the end, there are 15 minutes of stroboscope and that's it. So it's the most anti-visual show you can imagine. But the most powerful thing about it is that it's analog and doesn't rely on the technical—flying cubes and all that. That makes it powerful and much more of an experience than all those shows that have computer-animated graphics.

With a lot of audio-visual shows, there's a video or graphics sequence, the artist has to follow along, and there's an issue of losing the spontaneity of a DJ set or even an audio-only live set. Is that something you've had to think about? Is keeping room for spontaneity important?

Yeah. With the live shows that I've done so far—the ones that I do without visuals—I have a discography that I can tap into. A lot of my music is rich in sound [and] there's a lot of stuff going on. There are always lots of layers of beats, melodies, bass, and extra added sounds. If you start freestyling with all those different elements, you can go lots of different ways. So I always try to keep it very spontaneous. Usually, you have some sort of starting point, maybe two or three tracks in the beginning that get you into the groove. Then you have a target where you want to end, so that you know that you have to complete the journey between those two points. And [you] always have a sort of finale, something that sort of builds up to an ending, whether it be something really loud or really subtle. In that way, you keep it quite spontaneous. The more you master your controls and the more you program your effects and things you like to use, it personalizes the music.

As far as the visuals, I've done the show with different people. There is a set amount of graphics that we use that are sort of tied to songs. But it's also very much improv, because every VJ, just like every DJ, has a personal style. So one show might be completely different from another, but I hope there will be some sort of narrative that you can understand and has a beginning and an end, rather than a trick that has a loop of eight minutes and you see that seven times and then the show is over.

How many times have you done the new audio-visual show so far?

It's funny, we've done it twice for an actual crowd. [MUTEK is going to be] the third one. But we did a big art festival in Holland and they gave us two weeks of prep time with the venue. They were like, "You can do the show every day," just to test it or to make sure everything worked. So we did the show a lot of times, but for a crowd, it's obviously a very different story. It's still in its infancy, but it's also exciting to try and not make mistakes.

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