Artist to Artist: Michael Bjella and Rob Skrzynski
MBRS is the meeting of minds of sound artists and producers Michael Bjella and Rob Skrzynski.
The pair first came together in 2015 to collaborate on Black Box Recordings, an experiment in noise, dark ambient and abstract textures, for Berlin’s Instruments Of Discipline, and this year sees them rekindle this partnership once again for their debut LP on Manchester-based imprint Natural Sciences.
A unique and graphic album, ‘The Razor Wire: Answering Machine (1990 – 2000): Behind the Wall of Incarceration’ traces Mike’s experiences working for a charity for convicted non-violent offenders in the US during the 1990s. Through collect calls, these prisoners shared their stories which focused largely on the war on drugs in the country at the time.
Mike was given these calls by the organisation, which were previously distributed to radio station and others involved in the charity at the time, however nothing was ever done with them. The recordings sat in a box in Mike’s garage for years, but after moving house he rediscovered the CD and decided to set it aside for a future project.
Having already collaborated with Rob before, Mike saw another opportunity to work together and they set upon using found sounds and samples gathered from music, movies and drug culture and juxtapose these with the harsh realities of the drug war documented on these recordings. The end result matches these oral histories with cassette loops, mixing board sessions and archived field recordings, along with Mike’s programmed drum rhythms, FX and editing taking it to new heights.
Ahead of the release Rob and Mike trace their own personal discographies, knowing when a composition is finished and the poignant themes behind the Natural Sciences record…
Rob: Digging through your discography I can see that since the early ’90s you were involved in grind/hard-core and metal projects like Unruh. What was the turning point that prompted you to work solo with music focused on sound contemplation?
Mike: Such different experiences. Often I think being in a band is less about the music than everything else is. Playing now, performing live, recording… everything is personal. I wanted to do anything. Play live, not play live, do shows, practice, never practice, think about touring, never think about touring, the downside is it’s up to me to decide. Also that is where my headspace has been for the last 15 years. I think this is probably the most “punk” thing I’ve ever done, I don’t have to ask anyone for permission.
Mike: Did you ever play with a group? With our collaborations we’ve never really talked/chatted? Just now thinking about that, pretty crazy how we’ve communicated for most of our two albums via sound files, plus the language barrier between us.
Rob: I had a chance to record a few words and cut some loops with samples from south Silesian rap classics in the late ’90s. For many, many years I wasn’t even aware how the hip-hop and industrial in the area I grew up in affected my music by the way. I used to “play” guitar in a punk band in the early 2000s. It was all about meeting each other, spending and having a good time together, not only about generating noise.
Touching on communication: It’s indeed a kind of unusual way of discussing album details, sharing emotions, exchanging ideas and experiences almost only via sound (which is also a very personal language form). I truly believe that temperamental and personality conditions effect the easiness of sound message decoding, so I guess our personalities are somehow resonating.
Rob: If you suddenly went back in time and got a second chance to choose an instrument, would it still be bass? What’s the story behind your choice?
Mike: Every bassist would say their reason was “they needed a bass player”. I never thought about it really, I haven’t chosen an instrument yet or picked up a guitar in a really long time, five years or so.
Mike: How about you? I’ve always respected your work and how it seems to balance and cross between worlds of electronic instrumentation and found sound. The last thing I heard of yours had this electronic beat, chopped up feel. Track ID, blew my mind. What is new in your sound and what you create, compared to the releases I heard from you when we traded 10 years back?
Rob: I’d say that approach, connecting hip-hop “education” with avant-garde traditions, to instruments; hard, soft and instruments, hardware and software itself are pretty much the same but there’s a new me behind the decks. It’s a sum of inspirations, experiences and interests. 10 years back I was really focused on sound texture/facture, field recs, naive sound-art and collage, and now I am more into deconstructed forms of sound. Also my way of thinking about composition is completely different now but as mentioned, sound generators like old tapes, radios, non-inputs remain unchanged for all these years.
Mike: Yeah, I was listening to Micromelencolie, External Sources last night, another amazing release. All of your material really. I can hear that hip-hop and avant-garde mix. A reason why I wanted to work with you on this project (The Razor Wire…). What was your initial reaction when I sent you the samples and the initial ideas?
Rob: Thank you for the nice words Mike! What’s surprising is that a few days back I played “Ironworks” myself! Seems that every collab is a good opportunity to refresh a collaborator’s discography! It adds value in 2020 when algorithms are choosing songs for you. In fact what I wanted to ask is why you decided to leave your comfort zone and create a rhythm-based record but let’s touch on it a bit later.
My initial reaction was the question I just asked about the rhythm-based record, hahah, and also I had a feeling that this might be quite a challenging idea. When I heard those hearthbreaking testimonies touching topics like sexism, discrimination, wrong accusations and injustice I was sure that we need to forward these stories and the idea you proposed was a perfect form of doing that.
Rob: If I remember well, William Fowler Collins introduced your music to me for the first time. Your collab album (recorded together with William), released via Utech Records 10 years back, was the first “thing” I’d heard from you. Would you like to share some of the story behind this collab?
Mike: That was awesome for him to share that with you. Had a lot of fun putting that together, I remember being so grateful meeting someone like him through some sort of mutual music/sound and being able to collaborate. Still one of my favorites. If there was a behind the scenes it would be us bullshitting on chat while we were supposed to be working or doing something else. Which makes me remember, someone referred to us as drone lords or something in a review and after that we’d sign off on chat with “drone lord’s gotta go to a meeting” and various other typical mundane activities.
Rob: Some time ago I had this interesting conversation with Mateusz Wysocki, not just a friend of mine but also frequent collaborator. We tried to establish and determine this specific, indescribable moment, feeling, body reaction, emotion or whatever you like to call it: a “sign” body/mind feedback information that you receive and from that moment you feel and you know that you’ve finished a track or an album. Is there any kind of stimulus you experience shortly before you’re sure that a piece is finished? Anything you’re able to explain or describe?
Mike: I love this question. I wish I was there for that conversation. It feels like a welling up in my body, like a strong emotion. It can happen when it is being performed and if it happens the next day when reviewing or sometime after then I know it is done. For me it can be visual too, if it creates the scene I want it to, something I can see, it is ready.
Mike: What tells you something is ready?
Rob: I don’t know, honestly, I am thinking about it almost everyday since this chat with Mateusz and trying to catch this emotion, moment or stimulus but I just can’t… I know for sure it’s a kind of quasi-hypnotic state, a kind of mental dervish dance when I am playing a track back and forth for hours with the minimum of editing or working with a short loop and in one moment, I just know that this is it! But still, I’m unable to name this moment properly. I just know in a moment that the job is done.
Rob: Touching on our newest collab. I am really impressed by the way you programmed the drum machines, in my opinion it’s a pretty unusual way of thinking about rhythm. Could you please share a bit of context and the inspirations that led you to this path? I like to think that it is an effect of experiences gathered during the time spent with various bands you played with, but I might be entirely wrong.
Mike: Your initial takes and the tracks you sent over often would have some sort of rhythm I thought I could pull out or really accentuate. I also built the rhythms allowing them to be chaotic, using delays or reverbs to effect the beat along with arpeggiators that wouldn’t line up BPM-wise purposely. Some of the rhythms were voices or track samples. I wanted them to be unique. I was also playing them live and recording versus setting the tracks up meticulously. That made it so I could react with the sample or the tracks, so I guess that aspect is sort of band like. I thought this rhythm-based approach would add to the whole story and make it more accessible, understandable, connect it to drug culture, popular culture, modern folklore. I have nothing against drug culture, or any of that, there are just so many parallels there to discuss and think about.
Mike: How did you approach the tracks, you were the first to use them and selected the majority of the samples at the beginning. I wanted you to do that because I thought it would be an interesting way to remove the “American” problem from the issue. Do you feel you select the samples with less American politics or perspective in the way? How did the laws in Poland and your personal experience living there influence your selection?
Rob: It’s funny you mention the country context removal as we never spoke about it and this was exactly my idea! For example: medical cannabis is legal in Poland but the government is not supporting medical treatment in any way so it’s really hard to get a prescription, and when you finally get the paper it turns out that component is expensive and not refundable. You cannot grow medical cannabis for personal use so if you don’t have enough money, you have no choice but to help your loved ones, and in spite of the law you become a criminal. I guess the scenario is almost always the same no matter of latitudes. Polish drug law is one of the most restrictive in Europe so you’re a suspect almost by default.
The second important factor deciding on samples majorly was the emotional closeness of the issue. The problem of social inequalities, discrimination at work because of gender, sexual orientation or religion is also worldwide. Every symptom of discrimination, sexist behavior or unfair treatment deserves attention.
Rob: How about you Mike? If you’d be the first person to select stories to be shared over the album? What would be your process of selection? What would be the most important factors for you? Has anything changed for better in US drug law after all these years?
Mike: I guess we communicate pretty well just using the material! I only made a couple of additions to what you selected and that was the sample from the woman who was in prison for LSD and the other, who’s son was addicted to opioids and was entrapped by local authorities and sent to prison for six years. I wanted to somehow provide an overall view of the situation here in the US. (Pretty telling how the majority of calls were from women.) I feel like the LSD call really highlights what the end game is from this type of control these laws try to achieve. We should have sovereignty over our own bodies and our own life experiences. These stories found in this album and the millions of similar stories world wide highlight the suffering when we force our fears on others. It’s all so hypocritical. Also I’m trying to create work that actually says something, that is important to me.