Interview with Christoph Fringeli by klav
Published in french in SOMA magazine in 2004
Here’s the unedited english language interview
There is a life outside rotten clubs and commercial raves. If you happen to be looking for blasting independent electronic music, there are quite some chances that you stumble upon PRAXIS – the label/mailorder based in Basel (CH). Behind it is Christoph Fringeli. Being both producer and dj, this activist does not leave an square-meter of space to capitalism and its joker, the record industry, for he is someone who thinks in the first place. After reading this, you won’t be too surprised to see him move from a conference on the notion of “information war” to a breakcore dj-set… because the mix of music and politics can actually breed subversion!
In the following interview, Christoph Fringeli tells us (among other things) about music as a (political) crime, the development of the british techno scene and the ethical problem of the fact that LPs are actually made out of petroleum. The interview has been conducted by your humble servitor some six months ago but it still of temporal validity now. A reduced and french-translated version appears in issue #4 of the SOMA alternative magazine (http://www.somacollectif.info) – but here is the original unedited text.
You’re currently working on an article on „illegal music”. Without re-writing it, can you tell us what you mean by this?
The article is about electronic dance music taking place in self-managed spaces, and the reaction of the authorities, especially the introduction of laws such as the British 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that actually includes musical criteria for defining an illegal rave party „characterised by a succession of repetitive beats”. This is clearly defining a certain type of music as illegal, rather than just the gathering around it. There is a long history of attempts to do this: Already Plato demands that certain types of music be banned because they are apt for feasts or banquets, in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church banned certain harmonies because they were deemed „satanic”, totalitarian regimes of the 20th centrury banned music that was not designed to strengthen the fabric of their particular societies. In Stalinist Albania for example the only music played on the radio was traditional folk music with texts gloryfying the leader and the party etc.
In Western society the job to integrate music into its fabric is usually done by the spectacle and the market; those who don’t conform to this are struck by an economic marginalisation and are therefore not really dangerous. In contrast to totalitarian societies, in consumer society you are allowed to be different or excentric or even a critic as long as there is no real effect. The interesting thing about „techno” in the early 90ies was that it managed to create a sort of escape velocity that at least challenged and undermined the usual mechanisms.
You and the people you gathered around PRAXIS seem to get on together on the idea of a change of society – be it called “revolution” or else. You focus on the denunciation of big money, corporate and/or state surveillance of the citizens and other key issues. Would you say that the music you release only uses these issues as inspiration themes, or does it play a role in a process of societal change? Or – to put it differently – is PRAXIS’ music basically critical or frankly subversive?
I would say it is (or its aim is to be) critical and subversive, but in various and heterogenous ways. The Eiterherd album had as its theme surveillance, social control and was inspired by Orwell’s 1984, Nihil Fist is ultra-brutal riot core, Base Force One refers to guerilla warfare, but at the same time uses samples from Russ Meyer movies! A lot of music I release is critical in a less direct fashion, and in more abstract ways; in the way beats are broken, monotony is interrupted, elements are taken from dance music and distorted or rearranged, samples from different sources can collide but never to produce post-modern irony, rather surrealist poetry in the sense of Lautreamont („the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table”), with the abolishing the current sad state of affairs in mind and with nothing but contempt for the market and its trends.
The motivations of the artists on PRAXIS is quite different from each other, apart from making cutting edge and intelligent electronic dancemusic and noise. Hecate’s Ascension Chamber, the next album we’ll release, is inspired and based on the Kaballah, so it’s a totally different take than, say, Low Entropy, Pure or Nomex.
Nor does the music we release exist in a vacuum, it has a context, be it a network of artists and labels or the situation of parties where it is played, or the mindset of the listener.
Can one actually transmit such complex issues through music? Do you think that people coming to an event you organise get concerned about those themes or just come and have fun? Do you actually care about that at all?
Having – real – fun is a good thing! Celebration, getting „out of it” is an important element. But a lot of the time „fun” is the commanded pleasure, in which no one really believes, but everyone takes part anyways, like these unspeakable street parties.
When doing parties in London in the mid-90’s we tried to combine elements: We would have a talk or discussion about a specific – political or cultural – topic to start the evening, then to move on to music and partying. Now in Basel I’m starting to organise music as well as political events; not combining them for the moment, but I’m thinking about it.
Since you believe that the act of producing music makes sense according to the context, do you see similarities between the music you release and the punk of the 1970’s?
There are many parallels, but more in the method of putting out one’s own stuff, and distributing through networks of like-minded people, as well as taking elements (in punk times of rock, now of more extreme dance music) and mangling them through a distortion box, maybe adding a sarcastic comment, cutting things up and rearranging them. In social terms actually the similarity is more with the early 80’s hardcore/anarcho-punk scene than with the original punk scene which used different strategies, including using the mass media and corporate record deals. At least at the time it was still possible to do this, I don’t think at the moment something like the Sex Pistols (or even like the KLF later) could be pulled off – the spectacular system is too controlled.
You are also the editor of Datacide, a paper with international
collaborations focussing on critical political analysis and music. Is that a
complement to your work with PRAXIS?
Yes of course. With sound a lot can be said, but with words a whole different range of things can be expressed. Datacide represents the side of theory, rather than practice/PRAXIS. It is there to reflect on the music as well as the world around it. It’s also there for a sort of self-historification. This is an aspect I find increasingly important, as the cultural movements of the last decades get historified and sanitised. I’d like to try to keep the virulent and utopian aspects.
It’s meant to be a kind of feedback system where PRAXIS and theory, history and future give impulses to each other.
You seem to be particularly concerned about the ascendancy of money over music. How difficult is it, then, to run a label without giving in to its
logic? Do you and the people releasing music on PRAXIS have special ways of working to avoid these vicious mechanisms?
I appreciate this question because the actual economics of it all is usually left untouched. It’s an ambiguous field, because the very material out of which records are manufactured – vinyl – is made from petroleum, and pressing plants, even independent ones, buy it from companies like Shell, Totalfina Elf etc.! You create an object which is then dealt with as a commodity (with a strong fetish character!).
Then there are the elements to do with the culture industry to which it’s crucial to keep some distance.
I believe that every one releasing on PRAXIS has a strong vision of their work which is not influenced by the parameters of this industry, and I think the record is not just a commodity but also a tool for change, it can be a carrier of corrosive ideas, an intesifier.
You founded PRAXIS in England 11 years ago. Now you are back in Basel. Is running a label like PRAXIS more difficult in Switzerland than anywhere else or is there no difference?
There is less of a difference now than when I left Switzerland over a decade ago, mainly thanks to the internet, but also the networks of labels and artists have changed, and continue to do so. I like the big cities, but I think – although there’s still a concentration of artists and labels – not so much is actually happening in them at the moment. Basel is in the middle of Europe and as long as I get to travel enough (otherwise I get claustrophobic) it’s a good place to work.
The Basel underground “scene” – even as small as it is – has profited indirectly from your return, since you have organized many parties in the local squats, inviting major breakcore artists like Hecate or Eiterherd. Switzerland need to be shaken by such events on a larger scale! Do you see opportunities for the development of independent electronic music in this country – not only artists, but also events? Do you actually have plans
yourself for such a development? Or is Switzerland “lost” anyway, and one’s attention and energy should rather be directed to other places (like the french Teknivals and such)? Couldn’t there be a link with the “antiglobalization” movement?
I enjoyed the “Hardcore” parties we organised at the Elsässerstrasse squat a lot, but the police apparently didn’t; they came and filled up the whole basement with gravel and concrete. We’ll start again soon at a different venue, but we’ll keep it on a small scale at this point, so there is the possibility for development.
The french Teknivals are another matter, the problem being that interior minister Sarkozy declared them a danger for the interior security and had laws passed last year that make it very hard if not impossible to organise such events; in july an independent teknival lead to a battle in the countryside where the police used tear gas and stun-grenades, two people were seriously wounded (one had his hand ripped off), two dozen were lightly wounded, over 50 arrests, 27 sound systems confiscated!
In the English scene there were always links to the political scene and activism, spanning from the Poll Tax riots via the movement against the Criminal Justice Bill (which outlawed outdoor raves in 1994) to the Reclaim the Streets events againsts Global Capitalism in 1999 and later. I’m not really comfortable anymore with the term „anti-globalisation” though, there are very many tendencies involved, including far-right and anti-semitic ones. For this reason I prefer to call the movement I feel part of „communism”, even though I’m aware that the term is negatively loaded for a lot of people, but I’m talking about a real communism that is anti-authoritarian and internationalist, the movement to abolish state and capital.
And, yes, I think culture should be linked to such a movement.
As time goes by, the corporate music industry is getting ever more concentrated in mega-groups (just like the rest of the advanced capitalist industries), whereas many small independent labels are created in many kinds of music genres, with more or less of success. A 2-speed way of music production seems to confirm itself everyday, which sort of settles between 2 “camps”. Is it a good thing?
The capitalist economy pretends to thrive on „competition” when really it develops very fast towards monopolies (or sometimes duopolies); a similar situation like before the first world war – an event that should have been the (self-)destruction of capitalism (and almost was).
The swarming of the mainstream by many small independents is a good thing as long as these realise that their aim should be some sort of self-abolition rather than trying to emulate the mechanisms and hierarchies of the big ones, which is unfortunately something that has happened to independent scenes before, when they became „successful”.
I insist in measuring success in a different way though.
The corporate music industry is not going so well, the records sales are dropping. Does it represent a chance for an independent label like PRAXIS, or is it a general trend you are also affected with?
This is hard to judge for me, because it seems like at the end of the day we sell about as many copies of a record like at the beginning; in a lot of cases, but not in all, the sales are now slower, but on the other hand we also release more difficult music than at the beginning, the scene is more diversified, and we have free MP3’s available, and the market in general has been shrinking for a while. Since a label like PRAXIS isn’t run with profit in mind, this may be some chance.
what is up with PRAXIS in the near future (releases, events)?
As always there are countless projects: the next releases are Hecate’s Ascension Chamber, a collaboration with Zhark International, Rachael Kozak’s label, which will be released on double vinyl and CD, the vinyl being a quite luxurious gate-fold sleeve, as well as a collaboration of Somatic Responses and ADC, the 2 releases being PRAXIS 40 and 41, both of which I’m very excited about and proud of. I’m also planning a new release on the sublabel Sub/Version by Kovert, also I’m putting out a record on the Zhark sub-label Still Raven. There are at least half a dozen other record concepts in the pipeline, but it’s useless to list them here, just have a look at the web site once in a while. The same for events, both musical and political, and a new issue of datacide which should be out before the end of the year.
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