The sun’s out, and in an East Berlin flat, Holly Herndon and long-term collaborator Mat Dryhurst are hiding out with Quentin, an uninhibited Maine Coon cat. The two are between homes in the capital, which will serve as a base for at least the next two years. “There’s a lot of work to do, including the album,” says Mat. “We can’t spend four months trying to fit in somewhere else.”
The album he refers to will follow 2015’s Platform, a critically-acclaimed, hyper-emotional sequence of hi-tech laptop pop that was driven by signature splintered vocals. Holly’s most adventurous yet accessible work to date, it dealt explicitly with themes such as state surveillance and digital intimacy. Tours off the back of it were dedicated to incarcerated Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who Holly and Mat interviewed last year for Paper Mag via US mail and encrypted web platforms.
For the next album, Holly, Mat and Colin Self, an NYC-based composer and vocalist, are effectively forming a band. Despite all three having already collaborated extensively, with Colin providing operatic vocals and vogue performances, Holly’s adamant the new approach is different from Platform.
While much of Platform was created remotely via file sharing, the new creative process takes place in person, at rehearsals. “Maybe it’s more immediate,” Holly says of the forthcoming record. “I’m always transforming, and right now we’re responding to what makes us happy when we play live.” Mat comments that where Platform had the feel of a studio record, this might deliver something more ecstatic, and ‘classically human’.
For a laptop-orientated artist, live performance is far more at the heart of Holly’s music than you might think. You could assume that the shattered vocals you hear on Platform and 2012’s techno-leaning Movement – a record she began developing during her time as a student at Mills College, Oakland, California, where she completed an MFA in Electronic Music – were the result of meticulous micro-editing and sequencing, but that’s not the case. Hours go into tuning patches that can produce certain harmonics and effects, all of which then have to be fed through a complicated routing chain on Ableton. Much of what you hear is being delivered through a microphone in a continuous take, and not necessarily the result of cutting and pasting.
Now that Holly’s moved from playing small noise shows in Oakland, to stages worldwide, there are new things to address. Recent touring schedules have been hectic, and taken her to a lot of festivals where other electronic musicians rely heavily on automation to perform. The standard criticism here is that live shows, in essence, should be dependent on the possibility of something going wrong. Automation removes that risk, and thus removes the human element.
“If society is ever going to progress, and move beyond certain oppressive institutions and infrastructure, then the idea of fantasy is essential”
This need not be the case. On the contrary, Holly suggests – it frees up space for it. “One of the wonderful things about powerful machines is that if they can automate certain processes, it frees us up to act like human beings with each other, and our audience,” she says. “If a machine takes over a part, I’m not just going to stand there – it means that we can actually be emotional together, and see each other.”
This was literally the case in June 2015, when she, Mat and others played a show at Berghain that explored the emotionally and conceptually complex themes that run through Platform. The performances turned some of the club’s unwritten conventions on their heads. At one stage, the houselights went up, prompting audience members to look at each other. Midway through the set, Jacob Applebaum, journalist and confidant of Edward Snowden, was invited to make a speech. Fans were Facebook-stalked prior to arriving, and personal messages were delivered to them on screen (‘Sorry you didn’t get the job Marie’, ‘Happy birthday Marco,’ etc.).
“That’s my favourite show I’ve ever done,” says Mat. “Berghain has such a profound law to it. DJs will completely change their sets. There’s a reverence for tradition there, and it’s awesome. But when we told them we wanted the lights turned up, or data-mine everyone, or that [Berlin-based sound artist] Claire Tolan would be opening the show on the floor with a Britney headset mic, the Berghain people thought that was awesome.”
“That’s why that space was created,” adds Holly. “It’s a place where you can make things like that happen. And there’s always the danger of missing that point. The danger people see is that if you’re trying to define something new, you’re asking people to think harder. And that’s challenging, especially when you don’t want to ruin people’s weekends.”
Somehow, in 2016, there remain people who find this approach not only challenging, but downright offensive. There are also people who still struggle with the idea of music made with a laptop – specifically, Holly Herndon’s laptop. You don’t have to work too far through the comments beneath videos of Holly speaking at Loop, Ableton’s innovative music-making summit, to come across mansplaining and the objections of an unfortunate few who can’t stand to see someone fuck with the formula.
Holly doesn’t read the comments. “Let’s be clear,” she says. “If I was a singer-songwriter, or a synth-pop queen, nobody would be bothered. Certain archetypes are allowed. I’ve already made a very good case for what I do, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life making the same point.”
Mat does read the comments. He compares analogue fetishism and techno purism with the straight edge movement that emerged from the DC hardcore scene. “It wasn’t Ian MacKaye or Jeff Nelson who created the hard-line,” he says. “The people who came around and stopped people drinking at bars came way after the fact. They forged identities without stopping to think they might be misconstruing things. And I feel the same about a lot of this shit. When I hear someone say ‘That’s not real techno,’ it’s like, what the fuck do you know about real techno?” Unlike some of their fans, he adds, the real innovators are usually far more laid back.
Holly agrees. “Do you think Jeff Mills was worried about staying faithful to Kraftwerk? Of course not, he just went ahead and invented techno.” All too often, she argues, the voices which insist on authenticity are privileged ones. “It’s easy to be ‘authentic’ when you’ve got a trust fund, and you’re in a position buy an 808, or go fully modular,” says Holly. “I’m not rich. So there’s some complicated class issues there as well.”
It’s clear that some people are intimidated, and even fans might find the live show’s intimacy unsettling. But for her, it’s necessary to stir the ecstatic emotion she wants to see. “We don’t want to do things in a manipulative, nostalgic way,” she explains. “We don’t want to rely on cinematic tropes. There are certain things you can do in music, certain swells you can employ, that push a button. You’ll be watching TV and a tampon commercial comes on that makes you start crying – and then you’re mad at yourself, asking why you feel such emotion for a stupid tampon commercial. That’s not what we’re going for.”
Holly’s more interested in the new emotions tied up in things like technology. These might include the endorphin rush you get when you flick on your phone and see that your new crush has been messaging you, or learning of a friend’s death over Skype – the base experience is nothing new, but the medium through which it’s delivered and the peculiar processes it creates have unique nuances.
What’s more, these nuances are always changing, and Holly’s work is never done. “I do feel that in music, we rest on our past laurels,” she says, “and that moves me to constantly redefine what emotion sounds like. I’ll hear something on the radio, or at a concert, and it’ll sound like the 70s, the 80s. The world is a very different place now, and I want sounds that reflect that.” Mat sees a crucial political consequence in constant redefinition. People living under certain, oppressive conditions develop new languages and cultures of understanding together, in order to comprehend their world. “A lot of these cultures are subsumed and corporatised over time,” he says, “like ‘rock and roll energy’, or ‘hardcore realness’.” In corporatising, entities like social media networks, or tampon ads, are harnessing the powerful melancholy within these cultures for the purposes of mass manipulation.
“This process of trying to figure out how it feels to connect with people in new ways and cultivating new languages outside of that sphere is really fucking important,” he continues. “And it’d be pretentious to say that anyone’s figured it out, but surely that should be the end goal.”
What’s more, anything that is dreamed up is likely to be subsumed too. Mat givesa contemporary example – auto-tune as employed by Kanye, Lil Wayne and so many others, now subsumed to a point where anyone can get away with using it. But there was a point when using the technology in a way that subverted its initial corrective purpose communicated something new, and intimate.
“I am moved to constantly redefine what emotion sounds like. The world is a very different place now, and I want sounds that reflect it”
“If we as a society are ever going to progress, and move beyond certain oppressive institutions and infrastructure, then the idea of fantasy is essential.” Holly is a huge sci-fi fan, not least for its ability to remind us that everything is in flux – that all systems of control eventually fall. Losing sight of this, she says, can dull the desire to change things. “Being able to recognise the plasticity of things gives us the agency to mould the world the way we want to see it.”
Through overtly communicating with their audience, whether through text on screen or direct instruction, Holly, Mat and Colin are trying to create a club-space that can foster fantasy, and provide access to other worlds. Carving out this space may not necessarily negate heavy feelings of suffering – to paraphrase DJ Sprinkles, clubs are no oasis from suffering; suffering is in here, with us but Holly, Mat and Colin are optimists, and the response they’ve received at shows blows apart suggestions that the music is overly dry, challenging or esoteric. People can take it, says Mat.
“We’re doing something ecstatic, engaging and weird enough that people who’ve never heard of us stick around at our shows asking ‘what the fuck’s gonna happen next?!’” concludes Holly. “That’s the power you have as a musician on stage. You can create the environment you want. We see so many problems in certain clubs, where you’ll have a misogynist environment, or a racist environment. It’s important for musicians to take back control of the environment they see themselves in.”
Photography: Ronald Dick
Hair, Make-up and Styling: Christian Fritzenwanker
Holly Herndon appears at Field Day, Victoria Park, London, 11-12 June