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Stephan Mathieu

The sounds of antiquated or obsolete technologies — old record players, radios, vintage video games, 78s, even a renaissance keyboard — are the keys to Stephan Mathieu’s fascinating sound world. Mathieu, a former improv drummer based in Saarbruchen, released a pair of extraordinary records of glitch electronics — Wurmloch Variationen and frequencyLib — that were about as warm and hazy as glitch got (without lapsing into ambient toothlessness, that is). Earlier this year, he released one of finest records yet, an album of evanescent shortwave drones called Radioland and a 10” of music inspired by the unearthly gospel songs of Washington Phillips, titled Keys to the Kingdom is due out in early 2009.

On December 04, 2008 Stephan stopped by Rare Frequency to play new and forthcoming releases and talk a bit about his work. He was in town to perform the U.S. premiere of two of his “Virginals” pieces on vintage gramophones and grand piano at the Goethe-Institut. Just before he arrived, he answered a few questions by email.

Could you tell me a bit about your musical background, particularly your work as a drummer? Do you come from a musical family?

I started playing drums in 1977, at 10 years old. In 1988 I discovered improv through (drumming legends) Paul Lovens and Milford Graves and decided to leave everything else and focus on making music. I moved to Berlin in 1990, the tightest spot for improv in Europe back in those days. Pretty soon I was able to work with some outstanding musicians: Axel Doerner, Andrea Neumann, Toshi Nakamura, Butch Morris and so on. People spoke of my signature sound.

As a background, not really a musical family in the sense that we played music, but my mom and dad fell in love in the record store my mom used to work in, my dad was a collector of records and a funny ‘regional’ folk and bluesharp player/singer. I was highly infected by pop music very early on, had my own record collection numbering in the hundreds when I was around 6.

How did you become interested in working with electronics? Did it emerge out of your activities as an installation artist?

I started using cheap electronics in my last years as a drummer, 1996-98. I only did installation work once I started working with computers in 1998.

What sparked your interest in collecting 78s and working with mechanical gramophones? What is most appealing about these kinds of technologies?

Actually I had a small collection of 78s and an early electric portable record/amp combo in the ’80s. In 2005 I had my first face to face encounter with an all-acoustic gramophone — love at first sight!

I love the way they work and sound: needle in the groove, vibrating diaphragm, tonearm straight through to the horn — that’s very enchanting. I’m collecting records from the acoustic (horn recordings/pre-microphone) era, 1900-1925 to the early ’30s; mainly raw gospel preachers, hillbilly, recordings of ‘early’ music (renaissance-early baroque), hawaiian steel guitar duos and sound FX — some fabulous media artifacts.

What is the history of and inspiration for “Virginals”? Am I right in thinking that this projects involves no computer processing whatsoever? Could you describe how you generate the sounds in these pieces?

This comes from another love — for early instruments (well, keyboards, lute, viols basically). When I bought a keyboard myself I immediately thought it would be great to perform interpretations of some favourite contemporary pieces of mine, something like a counterpoint to Bach cantatas used in blunt top 10 radio stuff nowadays (well, that’s not really the motive behind “Virginals”…).

Yes, it doesn’t involve computers, with the exception of Phill’s piece which is a transcription of a part from his ‘four full flutes’ where I played his notated frequency ranges on the virginals with an eBow (electro-magnetic field, makes a string resonate permanantly).

What current projects and/or releases do you currently have in the works? What are your plans for 2009?

After 2008, which was quite disastrous with a long term project just dying away out of the blue, I want to get back on track in 2009. I mean, I dedicate all my time to music and have to live off it. I’ll focus on performing “Virginals” live.

Releases in the pipe are:

10” on Dekorder, Hamburg (any day now…)

CD with Taylor Deupree (either on Touch or Spekk, not sure yet)

Cassette tape on Alku (Feb. 2009?!)

2CD for 12k/line (in March)

7” on Touch (Spring ‘09)

Finishing Virginals recordings for a CD on Touch


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