Introversion And Terror: Christoph De Babalon Talks
In a filmic prologue to an extensive Radiohead article, the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross describes the sound of a Christoph De Babalon soundcheck undertaken in a Bilbao bullring, the site in which Babalon supported Radiohead in 2001. Ross spoke of a ‘velvety roar, not unlike the sound of a jet plane’ echoing around the Vista Allegre. It’s a succinct description that could just as easily be brought to bear on the entirety of Babalon’s consistently baleful oeuvre.
Championed by John Peel and endorsed by Thom Yorke, Babalon was initially affiliated with Alec Empire’s Digital Hardcore crew, a label which imbibed hardcore techno with punk polemics, and who effectively birthed a micro-scene of artists who administered the dead-end formulas and dubious artistic merit of conventional breakcore with a much more compelling synthesis. Complimenting these root sounds with nods to industrial and drum & bass, the label carved out a bristling, fragmentary miscellany, accruing a widespread following as well as an admirable legacy.
Although his early material found a fitting home on Digital Hardcore, Babalon’s sinister opus ‘If You’re Into It, I’m Out of It’ is an exceptionally digressive work, one which stands alone amongst both the DH catalogue and the wider contemporary milieu in which it was released. Defined by half drowned, indomitably oppressive atmospherics duly discomposed by the roughneck velocity of a hardcore strain of breakbeat, it’s uncanny allure is perhaps best exemplified by one of it’s more unassuming moments; the discreet desolation of ‘Opium’, a long form purgatorial plunge into secluded murk.
In recent years, Babalon has shown little sign of tempered ambitions since those detached disturbances, basing 2008’s ‘Scylla & Charybdis’ on a mythological Greek tragedy of metamorphosis whilst last year saw Babalon engaged in a retrospective project, gathering his earliest material for an ostensibly ongoing series of demo tape retrieval. Yet despite sustained vigour, it’s only now with ‘Short Eternities’ that Babalon’s return recalls the conspicuous buzz of yesteryear, with breakbeat denominations – predominantly jungle and drum & bass – experiencing a revived uplift of interest from new, younger audiences, as well as support coming from the likes of Golden Pudel’s Nina Trifft. Trifft’s approval is unsurprising given that Babalon originates from Hamburg, a city which became the initial backdrop for many of his first productions, yet it still feels like warranted recognition, especially in light of what Babalon achieves over the course of this latest LP.
Not much has changed in Babalon’s sculptural sound. As with former glories there’s a sense of nightmarish, otherworldly exile permeating everything, a nether-miserabilism that’s coupled with chassis-fracturing momentums. Relentless broken beat outbursts don’t so much surge as collide into one another in a bundle of brutish energy. But there’s more of a concertedly dark and sumptuous beauty hidden beneath that beleaguered basis; a prolonged phantasmal mirror world subtly presented alongside that streetwise severity, furnishing ‘Short Eternities’ with coruscating depths. As a result, the album takes on the resemblance of a penetrable form of sub-ready sound art.
Shorn with disquiet and captured in vivid detail, it’s a striking vision, conjuring monumental trails of smoke, pupil-darting mania, and abyssal zones. An eternal cold sweat.
So naturally we reached out for a chat.
Firstly I wanted to talk about your early days with Digital Hardcore, I read that you met Alec Empire at a rave…? What was the rave scene like at the time? How immersed in it were you? Did that scene affect your own productions in any significant way?
I was never really a proper raver and I don't recall exactly where I met Alec Empire for the first time. But maybe it was indeed at that chaotic open-air event near Cologne in ca. 1994. I think I played some DATs on his player. Everybody was raving a little bit back then I guess, but I hated this 'positive' bullshit at the time. I wanted to express darkness and terror.
In the description for ‘The Haunting Past…’ collection, you detail ‘teenage years of German angst, rolled down blinds and Amiga computers’, which is, incidentally, a great image. What was the backdrop for ‘Short Eternities’? What’s changed?
I am not a teenager anymore. I've got a MacBook. I have no blinds in my living room, but I am the same miserable person.
It was an interesting quote, especially considering the currency that the term ‘bedroom producers’ now has, for better or worse. How do you perceive that? It seems to be a largely media-generated addition, defining how many artists have always produced their work…?
I think since machines got smaller and better, it is sort of a banality. As long as you're making music it doesn't matter where you do it. I've always liked the idea of a bathroom producer, though.
You’ve been making music since the early 90s, where do you sit with the change in technology, what’s been the impact on your own work?
End of the 1990s things started happening really fast and a lot of interesting technology and software came out that would quickly revolutionise the whole way of making electronic music. To be honest, having started making music with an Amiga, a Yamaha RY-30 drum machine and a Boss Digital Delay it was overwhelming when hard disk recording and all that VST stuff arrived. It totally slowed down my output exploring these new things. I kind of lost my way for a bit. I needed to learn to concentrate again. I think the music technology that we have today is one of the few reasons that makes me enjoy living in these times.
There’s another titular reference to a ‘Haunting Past’ on ‘Short Eternities’, what motivated this recurrence? In light of this, I was wondering if there was any narrative compass in your work, as it’s always seemed to have quite a grand and cinematic quality to it, are there particular scenes you have in your mind…?
I think I called the track 'Haunting Past' because it is a track that I similarly could have made in the end of the 1990s, there is perhaps the conncetion to my 'Haunting Past' re-release series. There's no narrative compass, I just point the listener in some general direction with the music and the title. The movies will have to be made by the listeners.
That cinematic link seems to have been further established by your recent outing on Giallo Disco, tell us about that project, it seems much more overtly ‘horror’ than your previous work…
I am happy the horror soundtrack idea comes through, because that is what the label asked me to do. They've got this Italo horror aesthetics and mix them with disco beats, which I don't do so we felt we'll leave the beats out completely.
‘I use the voodoo of sampling, I feel, I sample atmospheres rather than music. Like sampling a large room with someone crying in the corner on the other end while it’s raining outside. Someone coughing while the orchestra plays a pianissimo. Some poor soul singing in the subway and being barked at by dogs.’ I thought this quote – from an interview with Alec Empire – was relevant in light of the sounds that arise on ‘Bad Dreamer’ (sound like a forest or jungle…?) where are they from…? Do you still engage in this kind of strategy?
I don't know what I was on when I said that, but yes, it's that general direction. It is true i used this on 'Bad Dreamer'. I could tell you where the sound is from but that would make it a little boring.
What are some of your personal favourites in terms of extraordinary sampled atmospheres in music?
There's this Coil track where it sounds like someone is putting on medical gloves. Creepy shit.
I understand you’ve got links with Hamburg, with an early release on Fischkopf and recent support from the likes of Golden Pudel’s Nina Trifft, what defines the city for you? In your experience, how does it contrast with Berlin? I was there recently and on first impressions the Pudel had a definite appeal, given how concentrated and close knit the scene seemed there…
I was born in Hamburg and lived there until 1999. I never felt really connected to its music scene with the music I made. I was just a bit of an oddball. Berlin was still a bit more exciting back then. Many more people doing music in a slightly rougher fashion. On the other hand, I am not sure if moving to Berlin really helped my music or even my music career. I'm worried it might be for the worse. Regardless, I still really like living here. I was surprised about newer developments in Hamburg and finding out there's music with an actual serious and dark edge to it that is being cultivated by a small group of people. This doesn't mean I will move back there, that's for sure.
You supported Radiohead on their Amnesiac tour in 2001, what was that experience like? What did you take from it? It strikes me that it may have been quite surreal considering how big they’d become, something you alluded to at the time: ‘Now it is like I am in a Gladiator film’….?
It was so surreal. An insecure and neurotic 'bedroom' prdoucer in front of tens of thousands of people who did not know what the hell was going on. Neither did I. But I did it, shared my introversion with so many. There was something unrealistic or irrational about this and I think that was the quality of it. After all, I lost money on this whole endeavour.
How do you see ‘Short Eternities’ existing in the live setting? Do the tracks form part of a DJ set, or as more of a concert-based performance…? How do crowds usually respond?
I am using bits and loops from it and try to improvise with that. So yes, more like a remix rather that playing those tunes with a band or me jumping up and down. Crowds respond differently sometimes people just stand there and listen. Others are pogo dancing. Luckily I rarely have the feeling that I am a complete floorclearer.
I loved the title ‘If You’re Into It, I’m Out of It’, does this have any bearing on your personality or artistry? I ask because your music does project a certain isolationism. I was curious whether it reflects your mentality?
I think everyone connecting to this phrase and many people told me they do is just hopelessly individualistic and narcisisstic. But this perspective definitely helped me to be creative. Trying to have a sound that no one else has.
I just finished a remix for a nice italian label that will be out soon. Another remix for an american musical prodigy is in the making. A mixtape release is also in someone’s hands. I really want to continue the 'Haunting Past' series in 2016 as well. Apart from that I am hoping to be able to record a lot of new stuff and play some decent gigs. Fingers crossed!
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