“Rethink the concept of a netlabel” – An Interview with Jung An Tagen

A couple of years ago, when Stefan first asked me to help out with his new netlabel ETAT, I foolishly figured I knew what to expect. Instead, I spent weeks drafting and re-drafting a few words on Eric Frye’s Automatic Junk Heuristic, stumbling across new strains of my own indecisive thought with every repeated listen, starting over dozens of times. Like everything Stefan’s ever presented me with – from his own explosive albums of audio-illusory electronics as Jung An Tagen to the menu at the Korean restaurant where we met before this discussion – it was a learning experience. As if troubleshooting buggy software or mapping black holes, charting the blind spots and failures of our own biological senses can reveal so much about our place in the world. He doesn’t actually know this I don’t think, but the very concert I ever went to after moving to Vienna back in 2015 was a Jung An Tagen show in Vienna’s Flex Café, a free show in a club on the Danube Canal. It was back when he was still crediting the music to the Virtual Institute Vienna, hot off the hells of a release on Orange Milk Records where he pushed synth arpeggios into fresh conceptual territory. Almost seven years later, Jung An Tagen’s sound is a universe all its own in terms of the aesthetic scope and scale of Juster’s ambition. He’s asking the same questions however, with computer music supplying cryptic answers about how we know and understand where and when we are, and what we see and hear. Full of bibimbap and soundtracked by Stefan’s seemingly endless YouTube City Pop playlist, I spent an evening in the artist’s apartment prodding him for answers about his netlabel, his music, and the universe…
Interview: Tristan Bath, Photography: Milica Balubdžić

The last time I saw you was at a show at rrr in Vienna. The music was like a long string of small ideas sewn together. Was this related to your recent live AV duo performance with RAINER KOHLBERGER at Donaufestival?

It was. The way I usually make a live set is I work something out, and then I usually play it for a year, and I play it a hundred times or so – then at the end it gets really good! The first couple of times it’s like, ughhhh, I‘m not so sure about this, and maybe I change a couple of things. But now there was corona, right, and the original Donaufestival show was scheduled not long before it all started, then it got cancelled two times, I think?

Mmmhm, think so.

And then there was a drought of nothing. Eventually I had two small shows again – one in Cologne and one at rrr [in Vienna] – where I knew it would be just a dark room and hopefully loud sound. I had that material plus a couple of other bits I did specifically with this Pulsar Acid thing I did with ERIC FRYE. Those were the first two shows after I don’t know how long, that were in the style of a show how I enjoy a show really. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good festival – but I started to do what I do because of these little intense shows.

Something that was definitely new at these smaller shows: I wanted to incorporate the idea of the ‘montage’ or the ‘cut’ in film.

There were total silences too, in between sections.

Total silences, or white noise and change, or drastic changes… to have something that you’re immersed in and then straight cut to something else, and really feel the difference of the frequency change. I did this excessively, right?

[laughs] Also though – it made it impossible to get bored.

Anything could happen at any time!

I was ready for my patience to be tested, ya know? I’ve become so impatient sitting around at home on my fucking computer the whole time – I’ve become bored even less often than I was before the pandemic. We can go on our phone or computer, and do whatever the hell we want at home. So, I was readying myself to get bored, to sit in a small room and listen to you play a long-ass piece of noisy music… and it’s not like I could stare at my phone at the front of the gig in this small dark room! I’m also not going to get up and grab something from the fridge… I’m just gonna sit and watch this thing for 40 minutes.

…But it wasn’t patience testing. I think it’s something that intimate shows really have, like you say. I feel like at big shows I get more distracted than at little ones.

You feel the other person, and you feel everything. It’s more spannend, it’s more exciting by definition when you’re close together. The stroboscope too was something I always loved too – and now when I had to do some online shows, I just thought it was so embarrassing sitting in front of the laptop and looking at the laptop… who wants to see that? My thought immediately was to buy a strobe for at home, so that when I do the stream shows I can just strobe into the camera.

It totally works. It’s kind of like a costume.

And it helps distract people from staring at my forehead.

At this last Jung An Tagen performance the number of ‘audio illusions’ and tricks was really palpable, like … what’s it called… it sounds like the tone is rising and rising but never stops…?

Yeah! These sounds have been a constant theme in your work, but I felt like there were more of them than ever this time. Do you seek out new illusions like this?

Well, there’s one lady who did a lot of scientific research about audio illusions. She’s called DIANA DEUTSCH, and basically most of the stuff that’s within computer music comes directly from her. (The Shepard Glissando from Mr. Shepard, but anyway.) It’s always a bit close to just [re]using something that is already there, so I always try and find ways to apply the concept to a bigger concept. It’s the same as with these OTOACOUSTIC EMISSIONS

You could just use them as they are, and they are always impressive and always fun. I don’t get tired of them because it’s these things that transform the media immediately to something else. It’s the same with ‘flicker’ and film, in a way it’s an anti-film because it breaks the illusion of animation. In this moment it becomes more than a film. It’s the same for me with these audio illusions in a way.

“That’s why I use the term “dissociative”. It’s something other than psychedelic.”

At a live show it reminds me that I’m at a show and brings me back to reality. It’s somehow anti-psychedelic, in fact.

That’s why I use the term “dissociative”. It’s something other than psychedelic. It doesn’t immerse you in your surroundings. It breaks you apart from your surroundings.

It’s such a stereotypical question perhaps. But do you think your process has been changed at all by the pandemic? You’re not a ballet dancer… was it the same?

No, I kind of stopped doing music. I was feeling not inspired at all. The thing I did with Eric Frye though, that was the exact opposite. That’s why I loved it so much, because we basically did it in a week – a whole album.

That was all done remotely, right?

Yeah. In between I did another collaboration album with CAM DEAS too. I’m working on another collaboration right now with Eric [Frye], but solo-wise I still haven’t found a way back. I’m quite paralysed still.

Tell me about the collaboration with Cam Deas. It came out last year on Powell’s DIAGONAL label.

The funny thing is that we began releasing at around the same time, back in 2007. I was making my first drone records, and releasing them on British label called Blackest Rainbow, and Cam did his first records there too. Playing the guitar you know, like Fahey.

Yeah, he’s an insane shredder, right?

Fucking crazy! So, I always knew of him. Then he started to do electronics, and we always stayed a little bit in touch.

It seems like a natural collaboration. And you’ve done several of these remote collaborations with people outside of the Viennese scene. How do they come about?

Well Eric Frye for example, I fell in love with Eric’s sound the first time I heard it.

How did you hear him?

Through JEFF WITSCHER. You know, Rene Hell. He has a small label called SALON and it’s where I got aware of Eric. It just sounded so different. He has a sensibility about sound that I rarely find somewhere. When I made the label [ETAT], I knew he was the first person that I wanted to ask. Then we just became friends and the project happened.

With Cam Deas though, he asked me and I had an idea for something he connected with very easily, as he was very interested in time theories.

“I (…) never really did anything that is not time-based”

Well, time plays a special role in your work.

I always did a lot of different arts, but never really did anything that is not time-based, like painting or photography.

So, for you, you think about the present and the future. That makes sense, because defining the present moment is something recorded music can do so well. I orientate myself in the world a lot with playing recorded bits of music back to myself. It allots time for me very nicely. The future isn’t something I think about so much.

That’s basically what the record with Cam, PRESENTISM, was about. There’s basically these three principles of time perception that exist in time philosophy. I need to think about it now because I didn’t think about it for a year… There’s presentism, and that says only the present exists, and the future and the past are just concepts.

Which makes a hell of a lot of sense, actually.

Then there’s eternalism, which says the future and the past perfectly exist, and it’ just the present that is an illusion, a human concept. It’s how we as beings perceive that thing that is out there, and how slide through this.

It’s like a trick?

It’s literally a trick. Then the third is growing block theory, which is the most intuitive. It says that the future does not exist, but that the present continuously ‘grows’ the past.

When you make music or you make film, you’re constantly confronted with eternalism, because you make something and then you have it in front of you. Literally the way you skip through the track is just an interaction.

With a timeline. Left to right. Backwards and forwards… You never stay still in music…. “Growing block’ makes the most sense to me though.

Yeah, it’s the most intuitive. That’s why we love plants [Stefan points to house plants around his living room]. They seem like evidence of the past. When we see something old that left a trace, I know that there is the past. Although [time] is the basis of everything, we have no clue what it is.

Back when you did your Jung An Tagen tape for Orange Milk Records – “ÄUSSERE“, that was in 2015, right when I moved to Austria. The interesting thing about that record, and the one that followed on Editions Mego “DAS FEST DER REICHEN” is how fully formed the concepts were – and it’s all so connected to what I heard from you recently. I’m really interested to know when you look back on early albums, how you would describe the spark that created them today.

I had all the same ideas I have now, but I had a lot of questions about the form still. I came from being super lo-fi and really enjoying that kind of punkish noise approach. You can tell on the first couple of records I did with Jung An Tagen that I really still had to shake this off.

“The ideas have become more formal.”

So, you think the ideas haven’t evolved? You haven’t had any new ideas since then?

The ideas have become more formal. When the idea gets formulated more clearly, you can also ask the questions more clearly. To me it makes more sense now.

“Synthetic Percussion Works” by TONY LUGO & “Clear Cues” by ROBERT SCHWARZ is out now at http://www.etatz.xyz

When I look at ETAT, you’re trying to answer these questions with other artists. And you can really see with each one how it teases and adds something to these ideas. Like, the [Florian] HECKER release has all kinds of stuff to say about time. The Eric Frye release has all this stuff to say about randomness and coincidence and narrative stories. There are all these elements that I think about when listening to your records too.

This kind of music is very suited to asking these kinds of questions. Of course you can do it with a pop track, but this music is specifically inviting to try and ask these questions. On ETAT, I wouldn’t release beats for example, even though I’m making them on the side.

They have too much baggage.

There is so many labels dealing with rhythmic music. I don’t think I need to add to it. Personally, I always want to stop with techno… but I keep getting ideas somehow.

As a digital label on its own private server, ETAT operates outside the framework used by any other label. What motivated you to make something in that way? Were you dissatisfied with everything that came before? We’re listening to YouTube right now [Tristan gestures to the hours-long City pop playlist we’re deep into].

I got more interested in music that does not make a lot of sense on vinyl. To press very digital music on vinyl is often a bad fit. It’s also got so many physical limits! Besides that, I hated the thought of leaving the entire internet to corporations … And I knew that there would be a handful of people right now with similar aesthetics and concepts … overall an interesting moment to rethink the concept of a netlabel.

I also try not to use any social sites directly for ETAT…

It’s not so ideal for a label of course because I want to give everybody I release the biggest possible exposure. I cannot create the instant buzz though, but I hope it’ll work out over time. We can’t just give up the internet! For me, the biggest challenge is to create artistic value without ‘financial value’. It’s something that I was always interested in.

Tell me about the basics of how you host it. You have a server somewhere out there? It reminds me of anti-societal communes from the 60s, it’s the internet version.

Half a year ago, we would literally have a server at a homie of mine’s place, where when he trips over the cable or whatever, it would be offline for a day. It happened a couple of times! Now, it’s still like that, but we have backup from the cultural server mur.at in Graz, where we host all the files. It’s a nice community-funded server, and I eventually want to move the whole website there.

Speaking as somebody who’s involved in ETAT and as spoken to several of the artists to write texts about the works – there’s something about this music that really gives you the chance to get inside somebody else’s head and to learn about the way they think. It’s like reading a novel… but it’s not like listening to Bob Dylan or Prince or whatever, where you can learn about the human condition. There’s something, ironically, about these like ‘scientists’ fucking around with time and sound, where you learn so much about the way they think. It’s a really intimate personal experience somehow.

The most fun thing is when I work on the cover art with them. It’s based on a fixed system that Milica [BALUDBŽIĆ]and I worked out – there’s two layers of lines, a background colour, a foreground colour, and a complementary colour. It’s interesting though, because most of the time we are in a feedback loop and it goes back and forth. Sometimes it last months. It’s interesting to see how these artists engage with a very simple set of colours, hues, densities… To have months-long discussions about this is fantastic to me.

Drawings by Milica Balubdžić

(c) Milica Balubdzic

Jung An Tagen