“I AM INTERESTED IN BREAKING WITH AESTHETICS AND IN REINVENTION […]”
OLIVER JOHNSON aka DORIAN CONCEPT has been one of Austria´s most successful electronic musicians for a good decade. With his latest album, he once again proves that his international fame is not only due to his legendary live shows. “The Nature of Imitation” (Brainfeeder) reveals the compositional strength of a musician whose musical preferences range from funk, jazz, and hip hop to the UK bass genres, IDM, and hybrid club culture. His multi-faceted arrangements consist of layered textures, labyrinthine rhythms and polyphonic melodies that wander eclectically through the genres. Neon-colored syncopations dance across the instrument bank and add to tracks of orchestral opulence. OLIVER JOHNSON’s unbelievable attention to detail and his affinity for the different timbres of synthetically reconstructed instrument sounds open up new possibilities for him and present him as an electronic one-man-band. Shilla Strelka met the musician for a talk at his studio.
How did you get into electronic music? You were pretty young when you started, weren’t you?
Oliver Johnson: Yes, exactly. The first program I worked with was “The Magix Music Maker”. Instead of working in an expensive studio with “Cubase”, I downloaded this cracked software onto a CD blank. I was fifteen back then.
It didn´t take you long to blow up. Finally there was someone in Austria who produced this IDM- and UK-Bass-Sound, which was known from labels like “Warp”, “Rephlex” and “Ninja Tune”. Was your interest in these labels something like the inciting moment for you?
Oliver Johnson: Yes, they were very important to me at the time. Before that, I was mainly into hip hop. I started in 2001, at a time when these labels were already celebrating their first commercial successes. So I already felt like a second generation. It was the artists of these labels with whom I could identify very strongly, like The Cinematic Orchestra, Kid Koala, Jimmy Edgar and Boards of Canada. Jungle breaks and this playful way of dealing with it was still very niche at that time. The scene had something intimate.
Did you consider moving to England at that time?
Oliver Johnson: Yes, I did. But I like Vienna as a city so much that I stayed. Even when I was touring intensively, I noticed that I needed to come home. And London changed rapidly. In the beginning there was a lot going on in hybrid club culture, but that has changed. Now I have the feeling that Amsterdam is the music capital of Europe.
You take a lot of time between releases. Your new album was released in August. “The Nature of Imitation” contains tracks you have worked on for years. The result, however, sounds incredibly organic, as if it came from a single mould.
Oliver Johnson: Yes. Once I have a track that shows some kind of direction, I build everything around that track. That’s why it feels like it’s from a single mould. There were also tracks that had more of the aesthetics of my last album, but I deliberately decided against them. I am much more interested in the aesthetic break and the reinvention. But time goes by so quick …
But if one travels as much as you do, time just goes faster.
Oliver Johnson: Exactly. After the last album came a very tour-intensive time and I had kinda forgotten to work on new music. But I also felt like I needed distance from it. I wanted to get away from myself. I already had that thought with the album “Joined Ends”. That was good for my artistic process. On the other hand, I have also returned to my old approaches, but from a completely different perspective. It just takes time to get away from yourself.
How do you even do that? I guess the machines and tools play the biggest role? I don’t even
Oliver Johnson: Yes, I’m not really the type to present the technical side. There are the videos with the synthesizers, but I approach them rather in a performative way / performatively. At the same time, you can also look for moments of surprise in the software and follow up on things that seem strange to you. The album sounds so fragile and jumpy because I worked a lot against myself to get somewhere else.
And if you say that you’re using a track to arrange the album around, was that “J Buyers” in this case?
Oliver Johnson: Yeah, “J Buyers” is right. That was the key track, the one where i had this aha-moment. But it’s not like I subordinate the other tracks to one another – I rather see it as a room. The track gave me something to orient myself on for the rest of the album. It gave me the courage to move on in one direction.
To me the album sounds very maximalistic, in a certain way very overloaded. It is polyphonic and appears almost orchestral in its density. It combines the most different timbres and thus develops a very special dynamic. It reminds me of Hudson Mohawke, who is also a friend and collaborator of yours.
Oliver Johnson: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing about someone like Hudson Mohawke. On the one hand he comes from this sort of hardcore music, which also has this euphoria and the maximalistic moment inside, but on the other hand listened to Timbaland beats, which are so precise and refined. On the one hand it is triumphal, on the other almost clichéd sportiness.
Oliver Johnson: Yes, exactly. And with an overbearing positivity coupled to it. That’s an energy I’ve been trying to reference. But I also wanted to take it to the absurd. “The Nature of Imitation” is an album where seriousness and humour merge.
That´s what it sounds like. I just didn’t know it was intentional.
Oliver Johnson: Yes, definitely! That’s why it is a very personal album, because I also see myself as a person who commutes between these two poles. I think a lot about how you can make serious music and at the same time break this idea that you can’t have fun doing it. A lot of times music isn’t taken seriously because it is humorous or fun. I question this because I associate production with a high artistic standard. But I’m glad if this is overlooked, because I find it a pity if self-dramatization and lightness can’t go hand in hand.
What is it like for you to perform live? You are well known for your virtuoso live shows. Do you practice a lot?
Oliver Johnson: As a teenager I practiced a lot. I put so much energy into music back then that I still draw on it. When I have a new live show ahead of me, I’ll prepare myself. Then I can also spend six hours concentrating on that. But then it’ ready, and I just have to warm it up again. This means I’ve already found my way around it. I am also lucky that I always had the momentum and never the fear of stumbling when doing these things. That’s why I can deal with the mistakes that happen live, because I’m very aware that criticism most likely will come from someone who plays so well himself that it’s almost an insider joke.
But this performative live approach is also something that distinguishes you.
Oliver Johnson: Actually, I’m a big fan of musicians who just play their tracks. I think it’s already good to experience the music differently and to hear it through a good PA. In many cases, electronic music is something that emerges in an intimate frame and completely decoupled from a performative thought. Many people are simply tactical and consider exactly where what belongs, and cannot replicate exactly how they did it. That’s why I think it’s a somewhat unfair claim that it must also be exciting live. For us musicians, that simply doubles the work. I find it rather problematic when people force a performance.
“If you take a synthetic piano sound, it has so much euphoria inside. You can’t imitate that with a real piano.”
Have you never missed the piano as a resonating body?
Oliver Johnson: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s so easy to imitate a piano on a machine. I don’t quite know what to think of the piano either. On the one hand it is so beautiful and the most incredible instrument in the world, on the other hand I find it difficult to do anything interesting with it. It’s being over-aestheticised. If you use a cheaper midi piano sound, everyone is always instantly offended. A lot of people don’t like the sound. I almost find it more interesting to ask why that is so. If you take a synthetic piano sound, it has so much euphoria inside. You can’t imitate that with a real piano. I like this synthetic sound that tries to imitate it. And I find it funny how insulted people coming from high culture are. This idea of purity and emotional performance is something I can’t do much with. I would love to make a piano album one day, but it would have to be one where the approach is different.
And you don’t play the sax either, do you?
Oliver Johnson: No. Unfortunately not at the moment, but on the “Korg Kronos” – a big workstation – you can also find fake saxophones.
They’re also on the album.
Oliver Johnson: Yes, they come from this workstation. I find it important to decouple sounds from their negative associations and to make something beautiful out of these trashy midi sounds, which are otherwise only used as a reference point, e.g. in “Sibelius”, where these sounds are only used as placeholders – always with the ulterior motive of “properly recording” them. No! Let’s just leave it the way it is.
Rather than viewing sounds stamped as inferior as a substitute but instead take their special sound quality seriously and connoting them differently – that’s a statement, isn’t it?
Oliver Johnson: Yes, it is also a kind of liberation. This cliché that this is inferior – it’s also about a kind of hierarchy. To bring such judgement into music and to say that sounds are “cheap” is very problematic for me. One can say that it is political to use such sounds. I like working with presets so much because it feels like going shopping at Aldi. You’re working with the palette and the tool to which a large part of the population has access to.
The album is called “The Nature of Imitation”. May I ask so directly what the imitation refers to?
Oliver Johnson: As soon as you use the word “imitation”, people believe that you want to imitate something consciously. But I rather use it to describe the way the tracks are constructed. With “Joined Ends” the question was “how long I can run a loop before it gets boring”. The task for this album was to find a playful way to deal with it and make it sound homogeneous. And as it is often the case with me, the title came at the end. I’ve been thinking about what I was actually doing. At first I only wanted to call the album “Imitations”, but that seems to be the taboo word par excellence in music.
I rather attributed the title to the many references I heard. Almost as if it were a review of the sounds that have accompanied you in the past. The album is very eclectic in its own way.
Oliver Johnson: Yes, that’s right. There was quite clearly a postmodern approach. In creative fields one does not like to admit that one imitates things, whether consciously or unconsciously. You always find ways to cheat your way through. The title made me think about what imitation means. How much is okay and when is it too much?
My music is very subjective and to a certain extent instinctive, that’s why it’s always a product of its time.
To what extent do your sounds reflect the present and society?
Oliver Johnson: My music is very subjective and to a certain extent instinctive, that’s why it’s always a product of its time. But that’s not superficial. With music that has aged well, the musicians have insisted on their own statement and the sounds have sprung from a strong imagination. That’s still the goal for me. That I know I will still be happy with it later. That gets better from album to album.
The American musician Flying Lotus is someone you’ve jammed with before. The fact that you got so much support from him at that time, he had discovered you on the Internet, was a big deal back then.
Oliver Johnson: Yes, that’s right. I have to keep telling myself that this was an exception. I often have the feeling that it is more difficult for Europeans to reach people in America than vice versa. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Social media didn’t exist back then. There was myspace, people found each other easier and connected faster. It is also strange because I only got attention in Vienna after I had been abroad for five years. Before that I might have played a few gigs, but in the past you needed external confirmation so people could admit to themselves that the sound was good. This may also be the case in smaller countries.
It seems to me, however, that musicians who are successful abroad are less likely to be booked in Austria. But maybe also because the promoters think that these acts are in a different league and the risk is too high.
Oliver Johnson: Yes, that’s interesting. You have to have a high degree of popularity or be very specialized to be booked constantly, or be lucky enough to have a very loyal fan base.
Do you have that?
Oliver Johnson: Yes. I’m satisfied. I think it’s nice that people have been with me since 2009 and appreciate what I do. I also find it funny how the audience changes. A wave of their people came with the label “Brainfeeder”. When “Trilingual Dance Sexperience” came out, I was associated with the club world and post-dubstep. Because of “Ninja Tune”, the release of “Joined Ends” got me many new fans from France. There I feel like I’m surfing different waves. When I’m traveling, I don’t have a typical crowd. But some people have been with me for some time. That’s nice.
Thanks a lot for the interview!
Shilla Strelka – translated by Dave Dempsey
Shortened from the German version by Austrian Music Export.