Function embraces the chaos of public access TV for Kurzstrecke
With a career deep into its third decade and a body of work already enshrined in electronic music folklore, Function is unreservedly afforded legend status. His release catalogue is like tracing the lifeblood of techno from Damon Wild’s Synewave and his own label Infrastructure in New York, to Ostgut Ton and now Tresor in Berlin. All by way of the hallowed ground of Sandwell District.
His music is characterized by a sense of atmospheric drama, hear it in the stark minimalism of the 2010’s Variance EP or the extra-terrestrial sensibilities of his early Synewave releases. Ditto the murky sludge of his 2013 EP Gradient and latest album Existenz.
The album was recorded over the course of three years, from 2016 to 2019, following a period of exhaustion and burnout. Function was inspired in part by the DIY ingenuity of community cable TV stations in New York in the 1980s and the recording process represented a period of intense creativity of his own, opening the floodgates to address a period of creative burnout.
Today we premiere the video for Existenz cut Kurzstrecke. Compiled from archives of community television stations, the visual evokes the unhinged originality of the period. Watch it below and read on for our interview with Function about the record, its inspirations and its personal implications.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about the concept behind the video?
I was invited to premiere the Existenz album at Berlin Atonal in August 2019. I worked on this A/V show together with Japanese artist and videographer Hiroo Tanaka. This music video is essentially a cut-up of this very exciting new experience.
You talk about the explosion of community-run tv in the 80s with regard to the visuals. It can feel as though the internet’s potential for that kind of thing has faded somewhat, would you agree? Can you see any opportunities for something similar for today’s technology?
I feel real culture is local culture and that’s what I was investigating. With the local being 80s downtown Manhattan. I’ve always been fascinated with this period, the explosion that came from it and the impact it’s had. And a lot of what was happening was documented by this small scene of artists, musicians and filmmakers using the medium of cable public access to capture and broadcast it, helping create this amazing, very local underground. Similar things are happening today, but with technology turning local, global – key factors get lost in the scale. But both periods are part of the same evolution…
I’m not one for social media, to be honest. Though we are experimenting with some possibilities using Instagram. Disrupting feeds with mutant infomercials and subliminal psychedelia.
How did you gather the footage together, were there particular shows/stations you had in mind or did you sit and trawl through loads of archive footage?
I came across this massive archive of the bizarre, late-night public access shows I used to find on Manhattan Cable in the 90s. What I found so powerful and inspiring about the content was that it was so local it was only accessible in Manhattan, which made it super rare. You had to know exactly what to look for, and I was instantly inspired to use it not only as the base of the A/V show but the video, artwork and teaser, later using the aesthetic to create our own unique content.
The phenomenon of those community-run stations evokes the kind of freedom and looseness that many say NYC lost post-Giuliani. Is this video in a sense harking back to the East Coast you came up in?
It was all uncensored and they encouraged lewd, subversive behaviour. Very much like the nightlife at the time.
How much would you say Berlin these days is reminiscent of that New York?
Actually, these days it almost feels like it could start becoming more reminiscent of post-Giuliani New York…
"It felt like somewhere between an exorcism and a spiritual healing"
Your new album, Existenz, is described as a very personal work. How would you say this is manifested in the sounds of the record?
The album is formed from a collection of recordings made in a period from late 2016 to mid 2019, and takes the form of a creative burst in reaction to a number of traumas – recent, childhood and throughout my life – the main triggering a burnout in October/November 2016.
At the time, I had been on the road for seven or eight intense years without a proper break when I was blindsided by a strict German tax audit, where the accountant for those years had died. It turned out, unbeknownst to me, she wasn’t properly licensed (found on recommendation) and had a heart attack when she was being investigated. You can’t make this stuff up (laughs). Because of this, they refused to accept her work, in-turn, coming after me for money I didn’t owe, causing a long legal battle and the start of a three-year journey – Existenz. So all of this came at a time where I was playing 15 cities in five weeks and, well, it all caught up with me and I buckled. The stress and anxiety were so intense I completely recoiled, cancelling nearly 30 shows.
But what was interesting was that the trauma had an unexpected side effect – creativity. All of a sudden, the only thing I could do to escape was feverishly work on music. Oddly, in a way, I had been waiting for my whole life. The floodgates came down and, with my partner Stefanie’s support and spiritual guidance, I went with it. She was alongside me the whole time and seeing what was happening, she not only encouraged me to go with it but use it to break barriers that were blocking creativity for years. Her guidance helped me open up in a way I honestly didn’t know was possible and over the course of three years not only recorded 125+ tracks but mysteriously started drawing, writing and later when preparing the A/V show for Atonal; shooting photos and filming and editing video. She did too. The experience felt very spiritual, like I was being led by my higher power, channelling music. It felt like somewhere between an exorcism and a spiritual healing.
It’s more expansive, almost lighter than much of your previous work. Would you say this is a reaction to the upheaval and trauma cited as influences on the album?
I think the length of the album creates this feeling of endlessness, which was important to me. It allowed me space for range and sonic exploration. And still, the album captures only a snapshot of the ground covered. Which really only means one thing…
Was there a different way of working, be it location, method or equipment, that led to this direction?
Yes, a method. When I had this burnout and took a step back from everything, I committed myself to home in on my sound and production for as long as it took. Choosing that as the focus over what burned me out in the first place. I’m grateful to have had the experience as my mid-life crisis.
Existenz is out now on Tresor