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Icebreaker International

The Scene: Deep in the artists’ bunker of The Arches, all bright walls and exposed metal ducts, we are speaking with Icebreaker International. Alexander Perls chats with us about meeting superstar DJ Sasha in this room last night and how they’ve been searching for his stash. From drugs to the promotion of international trade through their music is hardly any change of subject. Agent Simon Break, the Second Man, emerges from a partially concealed door on our right. Both are dressed as the Secret Service agents they undoubtedly are.

Our Mission: Interrogate the NATO men and attempt to ascertain the truth or get under their cover. By Any Means Necessary, including physical intimidation. To this end we take up positions on the sofa, eyes covering the whole room. We are at ease and the agents pace nervously. There is nowhere they can hide. The interview begins.

M: Could you give us a bit of background information?
A: On Icebreaker International? It Began in 1999 when Simon Break and I released Distant Early Warning which is an album about missile defence as you know, sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation through an organisation called NATOarts. Um and that was an album on a label, Aesthetics, in Chicago. And then um we did.. after that we were sponsored by the NATOarts organisation to ride a vessel called the Trein Maersk on a trip around the world which began in Port Yokohama in Japan and ended in Halifax in Nova Scotia. That album’s called Trein Maersk and selections from that we’ll be playing tonight along with a video show which traces the journey from Japan through SE Asia and the Middle East to Europe to Halifax and the kind of video diary of North America circa early 2000, the time at which we made the diary.

C: Can you tell us a bit more about NATOarts?
A: NATOarts is the organisation Simon & I started working with in 1999, based in New York, which promotes works of art that deal with issues of international security and stability. This Distant Early Warning was a perfect work for them because it was conceptual art about the Distant Early Warning system which is a military/defence installation. NATOarts’ other projects, the NATOarts retrospective was on view in New York and Geneva consisted of 5 installation pieces all of which dealt with international security and stability. One of the installation pieces was based on our journey round the world and was made by myself, Simon and another artist, but most of the artists are New York-based and…hehehe…you don’t need that!
S: Yeah. We’re probably musically more accessible than most of the other…
A: Those guys are extremely serious. Our stuff’s serious too but we try to keep it…
S: With us in a way it’s the content that’s serious rather than the style; the style is deliberately meant to be a little bit more…
A: It’s meant to appeal to the masses as much as possible, whereas what we’re getting at, we’re trying to bring them a message that isn’t being brought to them through a popular medium.
S: It’s that old sort of BBC slogan/technique .. to educate and to entertain. Hopefully they’ll think that economics and free trade are cool.
A: Which they are. We’re gonna prove it tonight.
C: How are you going to prove it?
S: Via extremely focused techno pop. It’s been very heavily focus-grouped. We actually worked with the…
A: The DynaMix corporation of Spokane, Washington. They took our music and put it through a battery of tests, on mostly American audiences because that would be the average consumer. We had tests in stations in Illinois, Missouri, Maine, New Hampshire, California and Nevada. And they had these like focus groups with 30 or 50 people in each one, it was like insane. And from that they culled music from our journey that they thought would bring the right message to the public from NATOarts.

M: So have things been hard for you with the growing anticapitalist stuff going on?
A: UM. No we’ve had a lot of support actually. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation sponsors our work and um…
S: I mean the majority of people are pro-globalisation and international capitalism, the average person, so we’re trying out – I don’t know. Electronic music, more kind of a leftfield art tends to go hand in hand with a left-wing outlook and we’re trying to reverse that by maybe
A: We level the playing field.
S: We level the playing field, as it were, by trying to bring a more – I wouldn’t want to say right-wing…
A: Centrist
S: Centrist. A kind of neo-liberal
A: Third way kind of thing
S: A neo.. yeah, a kind of neo-liberal viewpoint to that sort of art. How’s that?
A: If this was from last night they were like so Sasha …. He was going “right..um…Cocaine?”
S: “What do you think of globalisation?” “I fink it’s a good fing because I can get from like .. Milan to Glasgow really quickly and I can do a show in Lisbon”

C: What are you going to work on next? What’s your next project?
A: We have a project actually which we um..
M: Do you get to decide or do you get told?
A&S: Sort of a mixture.
A: There’s another project coming up soon. It’s…another big complicated theme.
S: It’s a film project with a religious theme.
A: Well basically…you know the story of the Mormons? Joseph Smith, this guy in the 1820s, lived on a farm in upstate New York. He got together this group of pilgrims and they became the Mormons and travelled West from upstate New York to Salt Lake City and… The next project, The Latter Days, is a re-enactment of his story in the context of a young corporate guy going west in a company car. So it’s a re-enactment in film and music and installation art.
S: And in the course of the film some things become clear.
A: His name is Joseph Smith. He’s like the next Mormon prophet so we’re re-enacting that story.
S: The Mormon church is very very interesting. I don’t know if you know about it but it’s a very corporate church, a very rigid sort of corporate structure. And they’re all sent letters from an HQ in Salt Lake City. So that was very interesting to do something about the nature of modern religions, the idea of modern myth making. That a myth maker could happen now, a sort of prophet figure.
C: Did he not write extra bits of the bible?
S: Well he did, he found them.
A: He found them and transliterated it, the Book of Mormon, right. Anyway that’s not what we’re dealing with here tonight. I could send you enough stuff on that to bore you to tears, I recommend you stick with this.
S: What we’re talking about sounds terribly highbrow, but in actual execution what it involves is a lot of vaguely Kraftwerky techno pop and pictures of skyscrapers. So it’s…
A: What most people want.
M: You’re just trying to make yourselves more interesting with all this.
S: Yeah, exactly. Obviously. No doubt about it.
A: Oh I think it’s for real.

M: It is a problem with a lot of electronic artists that there’s not much to look at while it’s going on.
A: Well we’re going to solve that problem here. In a very forceful manner.
S: There’s gonna be too much to look at. Our original idea was actually that the concert would be a mixture of a concert and a lecture because we worked with a professor of economics in London, a guy called Nedgely Harte. Who we worked with before because he helped us with some of our research and what we were going to do, we were going to have a combined … combine electronic music with a lecture. There’d be large panels and he’d talk and it would be with music, the idea being then to educate with music, but we watered it down. It’s screens and it’s very visual but it’s just us. We sort of want the idea that people can come along to the more educational aspects of this as and how they want, rather than just be forced to listen to lots of theory about capitalisation and so on. The album itself has very extensive sleevenotes which will explain the why and where we went on the trip and what we found at each port in our investigations.

M: One of the criticisms I saw of your last album is that people said it doesn’t sound like you’ve taken much from each of the places you went to.
S: I read that review, yeah.
M: …that you could have recorded it anywhere…
S: That was 100% entirely the point of the record, which that particular reviewer totally, totally missed.
A: And we’re not like Deep Forest, you know? It’s not like we’re attempting to… The whole point was we’re making a portrait of the world in which people from all over the world…
S: Essentially share the same culture.
A: Share the same culture, which happens to be the American-dominated one. That’s the kind of realistic portrait whereas hundreds of these World, like Douchy-Doouchy from Djibouti
S: And if you go to Djibouti…
A: They all drink Coke!
S: They drink Coke and listen to Destiny’s Child and they’re very happy. And we don’t want to say that’s good or bad but that’s the way it is. I mean we’re certainly not going to say it’s bad (like a lot of people, they say this is terrible) because that’s like saying that the people who like these things are stupid. We don’t think they are. The stance of this audio-document is very much in favour of globalisation and presenting an argument in favour. Now whether people want to see that as being in some way, you know, a stance that we’re taking, in some way ironic, is up to them; entirely irrelevant. But certainly from our point of view it’s entirely sincere. But the choice to not be trying to take cultural elements from these different places we visited was very very deliberate because we found… It’s not like we went out to tiny places in the countryside where we may have found whatever the kind of local folk-zither players were like. This was a journey around big big industrialised cities. And what we found was that what we saw in each one was mostly the same. There were variations, but they weren’t to do with local culture, they were more to do with shifts in political and economic geography rather than culture. Certainly the culture, the business culture would change from place to place but the actual artistic culture, for want of a better word, is very much now a sort of global dialogue.

C: You think it is a dialogue and not a monologue from certain large countries?
A: Big ones with money.
S: Well no .. a monologue is just a dialogue where one person doesn’t say anything… you know…
A: Right.
S: No I don’t think it is that at a ll because I think that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and in any way that this Western monoculture is spread throughout the world, as it spreads it dilutes and changes and that feeds back to the root of where it came from. If you go to what people would argue is the centre of the cultural world, New York, for example: you’ve got every type of person in the world there. So it’s essentially a monoculture, that doesn’t mean to say it’s explicitly a white culture or whatever culture but it is a monoculture which is generated by, you know the fact that people are becoming more alike each other. All over the world.

M: Could you not then have made the record pretty much as well in New York then?
A: Could we have made it there? Not really.
S: No. No, I don’t think so. Well we could have. But you know … it’s a holiday.
No! because it’s very much our impressions of what we were seeing. I don’t want to say that. When I say that there’s not elements of the local artistic culture obviously it’s not that there aren’t elements of the places we visited, there certainly are but they’re our reactions to them. For instance the track Port Rotterdam, which we haven’t got time to play tonight, because it’s long and complex and with all these movements, that was very much influenced by…I don’t know if you know that Rotterdam is quite far inland, you go up this enormous river to get to it. And so the music relates to the journey along the river, from the sea barrier (which we were very impressed by, amazing piece of civil engineering). So it starts there and then moves along the city through industrialised areas and more rural areas till you get to this heartless incredible hyper-modern, clean, clinical city. So it’s very much a reaction to what we saw. It’s just we didn’t take what would have been the very bland route of, wherever you land going to the local “World Music Shop” and saying, ‘What is local to this region?’. That we really could have done from New York. If we wanted to say where it was, oh we’re in Singapore so it must be Kyoto or shamzims or whatever we could have stayed in New York and done that really easily.
A: Probably more easily.
S: Much more easily. We could have got it all off Amazon, without a doubt. That’s the thing. In a way this idea of preservation of local culture is, ironically enough, very much a Western middle-class ideal. You talk to people in those countries they’re like: That’s not what we want. It’s old. We want Destiny’s Child. So I think that would have been the easy way out.

C: Practically, were you recording tracks as you went? Did you have a studio on the boat or …
Both: Yes
S: It was just with the laptop I had.
A: In a room about this big actually. With portholes like there.
S: It was literally a laptop, a guitar and a couple of small bits. That’s all you need to make an album nowadays. You know the number of huge selling records which have been made on this equipment now. I think studios really are an indulgence because it’s… the idea of music as a profession that one performs in a special production plant is in some ways I think becoming fairly redundant. Music’s a tool.
[A is tuning his guitar]

M: Do you play a lot of places like this?
S: It is generally something that has a kind of art theme, definitely. We certainly haven’t played any traditional rock venues. We’ve played .. three or four “gigs”.
A: All at special thing.
S: All in special places. One in Geneva in a theatre where we played at the opening of the exhibition. Which was kind of an ideal situation to think we could see the parts fit together. The music we’ll be playing tonight is reworked versions, designed to be more exciting in a live context, kinda souped-up and made more techno-y.
A: More accessible.
S: On the album they are a little bit more sprawling. But the album itself has to go with the installation, which is in the exhibition, which is a very large display with a world map and a set of texts. To us it’s a complete project. The audio’s only one element of it. It was intended to complement our journey.
A: When’s Fennesz going on? I wanna see Fennesz.
[discussion about when Fennesz is on]

M: Have you been able to see any of the other acts?
A: Oh yeah, it’s been… Koji Asano just …
S: I think it’s all excellent.
A: Oh it’s all good… The Paragon Ensemble.
S: If it’d been me, myself I would have… I think they’ve deliberately put us on at the end because it’s a bit lighter, people have got through this very intense listening experience and we’re a bit of light relief at the end. I would have programmed it with maybe a little bit more light and dark. Because everything is so good, so intense you almost need to have something a little more light. The thing I particularly liked was Philip Jeck. Amazing, absolutely beautiful. Genius. But it’s all good. They’ve put on a really good show here.
Any more questions from the floor?
A: How the hell did you guys find out about us?
M: We wanted to do an article about the festival
A: Oh right.
M: And Tiernan said we could interview whoever we wanted. You were the act we were most intrigued by. I did order your album but it hasn’t arrived.
S: Which one? The most recent? Excellent. More money for the cause.

C: Has your stuff moved on from say, the early single?
S: The one with Piano Magic? It’s very much moved on. I’d say melodically the musical ideas are very similar and very much the same but what’s really moved on is the arrangements and the production which are now much more electronic. Much more, sort of taking a lot more from dance music. And much more polished, more progressive you might say. It’s still very melodic and there’s still these same kind of motifs of…spiralling arpeggios and all those things. That album, the sound of that album was very much designed to evoke the idea of the Distant Early Warning System which is this missile defence system located in the arctic. And so that’s like a very harsh, inhospitable environment and you get that feeling that the music’s coated with snow. But then, the next album being about globalisation, modern technology and trade we wanted it to sound very fast-paced, high-tech, modern because that’s the environment it was made for and so the whole came out more polished. Before, it was all quite analogue, our production techniques, whereas this album they were very clean, it was quite expensively mastered.
A: Now I’m all ready to go see Fennesz.

Interview by Chris Haikney and Marceline Smith

NATOarts website
Aesthetics website