Growing up with education stuff on TV, was a real treat (at least on a subconscious level) – looking back on it now, the fact that lots of weird electronic music was used at the time to point out the scientific side of things through these education programmes, it is truly fascinating – be it chemistry, mathematics, geography, history, foreign tongue or plain quiz-shows, each programme had its ideal presentation in terms of selected music numbers; “Equinoxe”, “Neon Lights”, “L’Enfant”, “Perfect Machine”, “Moments In Love” or “Rubycon”, to name a few, might have been an obvious but a good choice… Talk about discovering music when least expecting it, or knowing nothing about its origin.
Interviewing Heinrich Deisl, music editor and writer, the author of recently published “Im Puls der Nacht – sub- and populärkultur in Wien 1955 – 1976”, he also confirmed this interesting fact on TV networks being more open to present the uknown music in their very prime time – “… yeah, there were times when ORF was really experimental.”, he said.
Once we mature enough to become aware of the artist, and are eager to discover one’s work, we realise some of these things were already there, as if injected into us while still in mother’s womb. Yes, this sounds a bit “over the top” to say the least, but that is how particular music numbers actually manifest themselves in the conscience of the general public – not that the general public cares much, still unaware of what is now part of history books itself. Yes, once upon a time, television wasn’t just plain entertainment (not that we didn’t want it more apart from these, somewhat too sterile – if not too dull – education stuff). The thing is, we never really think about how much of the obscure music stuff actually was used back then and how much of it might actually still be lost just the same. And today when we are literally living in a mass-consumerist nightmare (with that famous “pill swallowing” scene depicting it so instantly, barking from the skyscraper scenes in Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic “Bladerunner”), it is only now that we realise how innocent those education programme TV times really were and heaven only knows what we are still missing to this very day. Deisl’s in-depth study of one such lost and fertile period of the Viennese obscure limelight is a stunning proof of treasures lost in time but once again brought back into spotlight.
What are you working on at the moment? I became editor-in-chief of the magazine skug – Journal für Musik, beginning of this year. I’m active at the free radio station campus & cityradio 94.4, which is located in St. Pölten, approx. 60 km from Vienna. I have a part-time job there as the head of the arts + culture department. For the end of the year, I want to start my dissertation project.
As a regular contributor to Vienna’s SKUG magazine and the author of recently published “Im Puls der Nacht – sub- and populärkultur in Wien 1955 – 1976”, a book covering specific era of Viennese sub- and popular culture. How connected is writing for a magazine and writing a book? What are your other areas of (personal) interest, other than just music? “Im Puls der Nacht…” is my first proper book. The difference between writing for magazines and on a book is a friend of mine made this wonderful analogy: Let’s compare it with music production. Writing for magazines is like to upload tracks randomly and from time to time on Soundcloud or whatever. Writing a book is like doing a full conceptual album. Writing this book was obvious for me as I am a music journalist since 1996 and I wanted to collect all those lose ends of thoughts and sketches that were around about the Viennese music-, art- and underground scene, with which I’m heavily connected as I live in Vienna. My personal interest in the book was to focus on one particular project. For me it’s hard to differentiate between various interests, as my research approach was and is an interdisciplinary one. I don’t see music as music itself, for me music is a “sociological crossroad”, music is a cultural, rhizomatic code in which everything is connected. So for “Im Puls der Nacht…” it was necessary do deal with phenomena of sub- as well as of pop culture, historical facts as well as aesthetic theories of art or film. Let’s put it like that: the big topics besides of music for “Im Puls der Nacht” were film, pop culture theory, cultural studies and contemporary history.
Can you tell us a bit more about it? Why these particular two decades and how big was the research task? I published a lot for magazines, catalogues and scientific journals. I can’t say exactly when the research process started as the topics of the book are those I’m dealing with on a daily basis. I can say that the idea to start this research task, called “Im Puls der Nacht” – in total, it covers Viennese sub- and pop culture from the turn of the 20th century to this day, and what is left after this book publication now, will be part of the dissertation project – it started with a scientific project I did for the town of Vienna dealing with locations (clubs, bars, etc.) since the 1950s. This project happened seven years ago. In spring 2012, I finally had enough balls to start the proper writing process and it lasted until November. I wanted to have the first volume of this research project to be located in a crucial historical period of Austria. In 1955, Austria became independent and in 1976 there was the squatting of the Arena, a location that still exists. Out of some special reasons, the Arena squatting was a changing point for Viennese pop culture as it started to constitute itself. But it was also very important to reflect back to the late days of the Austrian empire, the “good old times” of the Kaiser Franz Joseph, to detect theoretical arguments for the specific development of the Viennese sub- and pop culture scenes. It was e. g. very important to deal with operettas like “Im Weißen Rössl” (“The White Horse”) from the late 1920s, with what was called “Entartete Kunst”, with crucial composers like Max Brand, with comedians like Helmut Qualtinger or with the film “The Third Man” to draw a sociological picture of counter culture. I believe that high and underground culture are interdependent to each other, underground culture is unthinkable without high culture. As we all know, “underground” or “counterculture” is not a phenomenon since the 1960s, it existed in all times. I wanted to look at different (underground) art productions before there was something like a constitutional youth culture.
Is international edition of the book also in plan? I wish there was. The book was published by the company with quite a good reputation concerning philosophy, cultural studies and psycho analysis. It always was planned to be – not necessarily scientific – but a book for the specialized audience. In the end of the day, “Im Puls der Nacht” is more scientific than it is popular writing. En plus, one goal of the book was to make an “alternative soundtrack” of this city that so much is connected to its clichés of the “good old times” of the Habsburg monarchy. So far, there is no work that can be compared to mine. Which is a shame for the general situation; a discourse about sub- and popculture in/about Vienna is still in its beginning. When in recent times I was abroad and when I told people about my book, they would tell me like: “We find it very important what you do but, on a general scale, who should be interested in your book if you aren’t talking about Mozart, the Stephansdom or Falco”? Well, I do, but not in the way you would find it in the description of “Lonely Planet” or in the traditional canon of story telling about Vienna. It would be very necessary to have international editions in order to “straighten” the clichés of this town, but I guess exactly out of that there won’t be international editions. It would mean to partly destroy the pigeonholes people have about this town.
“Im Puls der Nacht: Sub- und Populärkultur in Wien 1955−1976” seems to point out to nightlife itself – besides the entertainment aspect, how much of it was the “dark times”, that you’re kind-of-referring to with this title? “Im Puls” in the title is a word game as it also can refer to “Impuls” (the impulse). Maybe an adequate translation would be: “In the beat of the night”, as “im Puls” means: “close to”, “actual”. As I said before, I wanted to make a kind of alternative soundtrack of Vienna, so the night life and its subversive potentials towards everyday routines play an important role. In the title, “Nacht” is not necessarily “dark”, it is more a metaphor for concepts, visions, situations, encounters etc. that are a bit blurred. That are not so clear as during day light. The true time of/for creativity. The title refers to a concept in which after World War II it became a mass phenomenon to be able to “use” the night for individual purposes. This darkness is nothing in comparison to the darkness that came in the times of the Austro-Fascism, the “Anschluss” and the Third Reich. With its rich history in former times as a melting pot for cultures and being the capital of a truly international empire, Vienna’s art production and everyday life before Austro-Fascism was much dominated by people from the so called “Kronländer”, meaning the “countries of the crown”, like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary etc. And there were a high percentage of people with Jewish background amongst artists and intellectuals – think of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Max Brand, Egon Erwin Kisch etc. This intelligentsia that at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century made Vienna a truly international and multi-ethnic capital (not only a city), was radically extinguished by the Nazis. After the war and after Austria’s independence, this intelligentsia was not really invited to come back. Then, there was the iron curtain that was much of a demarcation line. Whereas Vienna once was the “entrance door” to Central and Eastern Europe, this international transfer was cut short and the town is still only very slowly recovering from this period. This is one of my historical arguments why it is so difficult to talk about a pop culture discourse about Vienna.
Did this particular scene reflect on the society in both, cultural and political terms – and did these influences stay with the society to the present day? What is the pulse of the night like in Vienna these days? As in every town, there were parallel developments. It’s more a question of shifting your focus. I think there always was political ambition in some scenes of the town, but they couldn’t form a collective statement. Back in the late 1960s, the Viennese Actionists could cause real trouble so that society was really shocked. But back in these days, Vienna in itself was a terribly conservative town. I mean, back in the pre- and war times of the 1930s and 1940s there was much going on in Vienna: there were jazz clubs, jazz musicians etc. But these were really hard times: To be spotlighted by the Gestapo, it was enough to say – instead of “Sieg Heil!” – the emblematic greeting amongst jazz fans, going “Swing Heil!”. You could be sent to workers camps for that. In general I think that the period of (late) punk, which means for Vienna approx. 1976 up to the middle 80s, was a highly productive period. There were lots of bars and clubs at that period that would play the “real stuff”. The “pulse of nowadays” is that of a town that slowly develops in a good, independent direction, mostly significant in singer-/songwriter- and in (abstract) electronic music. Vienna is not – in comparison to e. g. Berlin – a real “party town”, things roll slower here. Which has some good side effects as well, as Vienna stays pretty much “hype free”. The situation of now is one of a constitution after a certain hype of the so called Vienna Electronica back in the late 90s. Things grow slowly but steadily. At least now since a while people don’t make strange looks anymore when you tell them you are from Vienna and that you are not doing classical music. Believe it or not: not all Viennese women dress in a “dirndl”; some of them are e. g. internationally acknowledged techno DJs.
Also working as a DJ, how hard is to adjust clubgoers to your personal music taste – are people in Vienna more open to discover/dance to the music they don’t necessarily recognise, or is it always a frustrating situation of compromising your own concept with “hits”, in order to keep the audience at bay? I’m a DJ now for a very long time. For a certain period, I found it interesting to be a “crowd pleaser”. But I came to the point where for me the “dictate of known” became quite frustrating. First and foremost, through my DJ-sets I want to tell stories, make jokes, and set up a discussion. Also here, it’s not about the music “itself” but about the social context in which this music happens. Being a music journalist, I had to listen to really a lot of DJs, ranging from real underground to rave parties. For my sets and as a critic, I’m not interested in a good mixing technique (OK, it helps in a way …) but in the story or conversation the DJ sets up. As a DJ, one should find the small line that separates the “jukebox on two legs” from an artistic individual. I personally am interested in new things but throughout the years I discovered that this is not true for the majority of people. I think that Viennese crowds are not different to any scenes in the world concerning a good mixture between known, lesser known and unknown tracks. It was often said that Viennese people are not so much into dancing. This is partly true. In my opinion, in the end of the day, the “classical” Viennese club goer is not too excessive.
How selective are you with music? When discovering something new in music, how accidental is your approach to it, what is the surprise element that amazes you most, when you first discover it? I had four crucial moments in my life in terms of music socialisation. First, I discovered Industrial music in my early 20s. Ten years later, I became a fan of Dub- and later of Dubstep music and then I fell into heavy guitar music. As I get many records for to be reviewed and as I consider myself much involved with music business, I think I have a good overview of actual productions. For me it is important, not to stick to a particular scene or genre but to have a greater, more general overview. Over the years, my personal approach/taste has become quite accidental/eclectic, as there is good music everywhere and from every period. It’s hard to say what amazes me in music; sometimes it’s a particular sound, then a special rhythm, then a unique mood. I appreciate music from which I get the feeling that for the artist it was a definite “must” to do it, a burning need that this particular record had to “come to life”. My girlfriend often told me that my reception of, or arguments about music are mostly more analytical than emotional. But sometimes, I can get shivers when I hear particular tracks or bands. Which are, randomly: Throbbing Gristle, Badawi, Shackleton/Skull Disco, Godflesh, The Cramps, Iggy & The Stooges, the Reggae-/Dub-stuff of Grace Jones (my favorite “pop” queen), Drexciya and most of the Underground Resistance catalogue. Concerning new stuff, I like e. g. bass music by Raime, Kevin Martin, material by the label Hyperdub, or jazz like that of the saxophone player Mats Gustafsson and from the label Rune Grammophon, or deep guitars by The Slug Guts, Boris, or records of the label Southern Lord.
Throughout the years, you met some of the true legends of the music underworld. What situation, or better, what encounter do you remember being the most amusing/emotionally charged for you? When meeting your favourite artist in person, or those of interest – how hard is it to stay objective and not taking someone’s potential arrogance too personal, which sometimes can ruin the impression of the very work (be it music, literature, films, etc…)? Amongst the most impressive interviews were those with filmmaker Kenneth Anger, Ilona Staller aka Cicciolina, Throbbing Gristle and Rolf Schwendter, a Viennese sociologist, who wrote one of the first German theory books about subculture back in the late 60s and who, back in the late 50s, was a founding member of the so called Informelle Gruppe, one of the very first real counterculture groups in Vienna. My two “all time favorite” interviews where those with the bands Techno Animal (Justin Broadrick/Kevin Martin) and Coil. These “heroes” didn’t give me for any second a bad feeling. The interview with Techno Animal changed to a conversation within minutes. Sleazy Christopherson and John Balance were the most inspiring persons I’ve ever met. I felt honoured when they signed my Coil-CD with the remark: “interesting questions!”. Of course, I also had (very) bad interview situations as well. It makes a big difference if you are talking to the bands as a music journalist or as a fan. It is important to stay as professional as possible in an interview situation. Being a fan of certain bands can bring the benefit of an extra reflection or feedback to the approach you have on their artistic work. For me a good interview is when it changes to a conversation on an equal level. But it is definitely up to the artist and not to the interviewer to identify that point of change. The interviewer is, in my definition, first and foremost a medium.
Couple of years ago, in Vienna there was a guest exhibition of Punk, documenting the primary UK/US/German Punk and New Wave scenes, plus there was also a tiny review of Vienna’s punk/new wave scene – presented (predominantly) in image archive, but it seemed rather modest by comparison… There is a common misunderstanding with that exhibition. It was mainly about punk as art and was not focussed on music. It is true that the curators presented a quite weak picture of Vienna’s (post) punk/New Wave period. Nevertheless, the good thing with this exhibition was that it started a certain discourse or discussion about punk/wave in Vienna. As in most other countries, this was a very fruitful period. Problem is that very little is documented. There was much going on but the output was not that “heavy”. My historical argument is that back then, Austria was governed by the chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970−83) and Vienna by its mayor Helmut Zilk (1984−94). They were socialists and comparatively open to “pop” culture. If you look at the UK and the US, you had Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. So there was an “enemy” that could be named and worked against. In Austria and Vienna this was a period of relative freedom. So for (post)punk/New Wave there was no “need” to develop such an aggressive and anti-governmental approach like in those countries. Of course these movements were highly political, but compared to social changes, the middle 60s and late 90s were much more relevant.
Earlier, when we spoke in person, you made an interesting remark about how many synth-pop artists are mostly emulating the sound of a certain era – according to you, can something called “synth-pop” sound uniquely different today, without the necessary evil of replicating the “sound of 1979-1982”? Synth-pop was once accused of being “the end of music”. To you, what signifies true “synth-pop”, what gives it its character the most – and on the other hand, what do you consider the worst cliché in one such genre? Genres work/are significant in a certain socio-historical framework. Synth Pop of the original era would sound like that because there were no other tools available or because of political or cultural necessities. “The end of music” – Velvet Underground were confronted with such statements too. Back in the 50s, for an average Viennese citizen Rock’n’Roll music meant “the end of the world”. So this is nothing new or unique. For me this interest in Synth Pop, as it is evident in nowadays genres like Minimal or Cold Wave, is another sign of learning to deal or cope with history. I find it interesting that there so much is a perspective on a certain historical “sound”. This has become quite a hype in the “dark” underground. As an illustration, maybe the band Suicide is a good example: I think that it is impossible to separate Suicide from the New York scene of the late 70s, of the legacy of the Vietnam trauma, of American pop music of the 50s (Roy Orbison) and of the grievance of the American everyday life (like in the track “Frankie Teardrop”). As it happened in Brussels in 1978, to be chased away from stage by punks because they would play punk music with synthesizers: now that’s something. Means Suicide’s music arose from a socio-cultural framework tracing it back to what was around these days. That’s what I miss in retro genres: I want to hear their approach towards 9/11, the Arabian Revolution, Palestine, the information war etc. Things that are now. I see the minimalism in these genres not as a necessity but as a gesture in an over-saturated and over-stimulated world. It makes no sense to sound like an old, broken MS-20 synth machine, emulated on your stylish MacBook. It would be much more interesting to make a TR-808 sound like a patch of MAX/MSP. In short: I think that one should use those tools (ideas, contexts, contents) that are available nowadays. The machine you use doesn’t make a difference, as long as you tell your story in your actual situation. So “true” Synth Pop for me is the music of the late 70s, early 80s (and is something different to Synth Wave – which could be Soft Cell, Fad Gadget, Yello etc., Electro or early Detroit Techno): Duran Duran, Alphaville, Depeche Mode, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, OMD, Pet Shop Boys, Tears For Fears, Jean Michel Jarre, Klaus Nomi, … (Kraftwerk for me never were Synth Pop but Electro. But that’s another story…
Heinrich Deisl writes regularly for SKUG magazine. Further information: skug.at
Interview conducted: 0.5, Heinrich Deisl photographed by Sabine Pichler.
“Im Puls der Nacht – sub- und populärkultur in Wien 1955 – 1976”, published in 2012 by Verlag Turia + Kant