LUKAS KÖNIG is a percussion wonder-wizard. On his KŒNIG solo album “Messing” (VENTIL RECORDS), the man from Lower Austria has reduced his drum kit to one cymbal. The outcome is uncompromising liberation music, with fists pounding until the walls are shaking. In an interview with Michael Franz Woels and Christoph Benkeser, LUKAS KÖNIG explains how metals deform his playing, which striking techniques he develops for this purpose and why people go to New York to get a slap in the face.
“Messing” [note: Brass, in English], the title of your new solo album, which refers to the material of drum cymbals and also to the English “messing around” – this mono-material zoom into metallic cymbal sounds – sounds in its brute force like a liberating blow from your role as a virtuoso, ironic avant-garde entertainer?
Lukas König: I already dealt with the R’n’B, Hip-Hop and Pop fields on the last album “Best of 28”. Also, with 5KHD, I’ve spent a lot of time working with these genres and wanted to do something different, more dedicated to improvising and experimenting with sounds. Through the search for a rehearsal room and the discovery of a storage, it so happened that I started to listen to various sheet metals through contact microphones and thus to invent and develop percussion techniques.
The special edition release show of “Messing” has taken place on June 3rd as part of “the show must go (on)line” – like for your big two-day show “Personale 2018” – again at Porgy & Bess. When do you actually find time for your solo recordings besides your countless projects?
Lukas König: During the quarantine, the storage in question was an alternative place where I could work. Since all bands and projects are on hold anyway, I even have more time for my solo stuff than before. But changing a few things and concentrating on improvisation, experimentation and noise was a decision I made even before the quarantine.
“THE CYMBAL IS NO LONGER RECOGNIZABLE AS A CYMBAL”
Your first two solo albums, the EP “kœnig” (2015) and “Best of 28” (2017) were mastered by Markus Wallner, this time you worked with Nik Hummer. How did this happen?
Lukas König: Markus Wallner has accompanied me for years in various projects and in my solo project as a live technician. He shines and brings out the best in every situation. For the first solo releases I recorded, edited and mixed everything myself. But I have no idea about mastering. Markus Wallner was closest to me, he implemented it all quickly and functionally. The collaboration with Nik Hummer resulted in the Mopcut debut “Accelerated Frames of Reference” (Trost Records) the year before last. I approached him to help me with editing and selecting. He intervened radically and selectively – and simply made the record better with a great mix. When it comes to Messing, I’ve been with him from the beginning [note: in the minusgroundzero studio]. He has a studio that sounds great, he’s extremely open to new sounds and brings out the best in his analog gear and modular synthesizers. Besides, he doesn’t compromise. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s fucking good.
On your first two solo albums you used the bass synthesizer more often. Melodies or harmonies don’t seem to play a big role on your current album “Messing”. What was your approach for „Messing“?
Lukas König: I was staying with my family in the apartment of drummer Peter Kronreif in New York. There was a cymbal on which I played around with my son with various sticks and chopsticks. It occurred to me that by turning the cymbal with a chopstick you can create a kind of “rattle” or resistance, which I only knew from Brazilian pandeiro/tambourine players. In my storeroom in Vienna I then practiced to use this effect in a more controlled way and to create different sounds and structures. I was also part of a performance piece by Laia Fabre and Thomas Kasebacher, in which I played with vibrators on the cymbal. It reminded me of free jazz like bass saxophone sounds. Nik Hummer gave me wooden and metal balls in the studio to improvise with on the metals. The album is an attempt to let the brass cymbal, via low-end and distortion, appear as a foreign, new sound. The cymbal is no longer recognizable as a cymbal, but as a scythe-like bronze tool.
Last November you played a “cymbal show” at the Flex, a show with one cymbal. Was this sound study in front of an audience the starting point for “Messing”?
Lukas König: No. The first numbers were already in the box. This was one of the first attempts – after a Rhiz gig at Vincent Pongracz’ Synaesthetic Wednesday – to change my previous solo set to a cymbal solo set. But in part still with remodeled, old songs. But the gig was very important for me, because I got input and criticism, on what worked well or not. Furthermore, the cooperation with Bernhard Rasinger (BR-LASER) on the analog laser was extremely important and formative for me.
Listening to your new solo album “Messing”, one could associate noise with different states of matter. At times, the ten pieces seem like a sequence of cold deformations from Pierre Schaeffer’s studio. It bangs, it cracks, it squeaks and shrieks. Are you pursuing an aestheticisation of noise? Are there still moments in such projects that tie in with your jazz origins?
Lukas König: Noise is a kind of sound. “Messing” is the motivation and task to carry out this project with as much precision and control as possible and to let it speak a language of its own – and yet to let improvisation and the search for new sounds happen too. I have never strayed from my origins and yet I could not be farther away from them.
“I THOUGHT I’D PUT THE LONGEST AND UGLIEST PIECE AT THE BEGINNING, SO THAT AMONG THE LISTENERS THE WHEAT WOULD BE SEPARATED FROM THE CHAFF”
With Ventil Records you have found an ideal place to work – for whom is the album?
Lukas König: For whom is the album: the mainstream? That something can be done differently? I don’t know. I thought I’d put the longest and “ugliest” piece at the beginning, so that among the listeners the wheat would be separated from the chaff right away. Whoever can take this has earned the rest. I admire people who do one thing and pull it off – no matter the cost. At the same time I like many other things, I don’t want to have to commit myself. The funny thing is that it’s hard to object to perfection and control in music, because virtuosity always fascinates. But it can be annoying sometimes.
The brutal rawness caused by the treatment and resonance of surfaces also brings a physical, almost bodily component to some pieces. Is “Messing” body music to you?
Lukas König: Well, I’m really thrashing the cymbal here. Sometimes even with my fists. According to Markus Wallner, the sound at times reminds you of sharpening scythes or of feedbacks. But it is different physically than a bodily reaction – be it thinking or being in motion. That’s what I want to do with my sound. So the opposite of: “Ah, next…”
Let’s put body music in relation to your “metallurgical sounds”: What deforms the playing with metal?
Luke King: The metal rather deforms the playing. It is interesting to get as much as possible out of cheap sheet metal – in terms of frequency, sound and structure. The longer I studied it, the more I learned about certain sequences of movements and partly took over drum rudiments – without losing the bronze sound and these stark overtones.
One misses your ironic American-style chanting on “Messing”. There is just the track “Eyeball”, where you seem to speak directly into a cymbal – in an angry and self-reflective way, more to yourself than to the listeners. There are also guest appearances by Coco Béchamel [formerly known as MC Rhine in your project with Leopold Riegler; note], Elvin Brandhi and Brooklyn underground rap legend Sensational. How did these features come about?
Lukas König: My “silly” attempts at rap have piled up and I have come to the conclusion that it’s not real. I can pretend, but it’s not real. So I broke it down to a track where I put my thoughts into words. The “I’s” in various lines of music lyrics or of some people’s reality got on my nerves for quite a while. I’ve had a similar track in my repertoire for quite some time, in which I improvise with “I” and “me”. Karolina Preuschl [Coco Béchamel; Note] came up with a “hard” text after she had seen the film “Waldheim’s Waltz”. The piece “Sesselleiste” came out very well. Just because of her! I am a big fan of her solo performances and also of the collaboration with Leo Riegler [Koenigleopold; note]. I got to know Elvin Brandhi through Ventil Records and Peter Kutin live at Fluc. I wanted absolutely to feature her on my record. The piece has somehow suddenly mutated into something super-crazy and weird. I know Sensational through Leo Riegler. I’ve listened to his record “Sensational meets Kouhei” for years. It was so uncharacteristic to me, the way that guy raps. I thought he was somehow the New York soul mate of Leo Riegler. Because of my stays in New York it was obvious that I asked him if he would like to do a track. I got his contact via Roland Oreski from Elevate Graz, sent him an email – and two minutes later he sent me a WhatsApp message: “send me the money right now”. And I did that.
The album starts with the separate-the-wheat- from-the-chaff track “Hot Springs” – it sounds like you want to start the album’s engine for five minutes… It stirs up, it shakes up, but a personal observation was also that you can concentrate and focus well on the tracks. Was the topic of focusing in general a bracket for the different tracks?
Lukas König: “Hot Springs” was inspired by Laia Fabre’s and Tom Kasebacher’s eponymous piece at the WUK in 2019, and I liked the idea of using two vibrators to eliminate and create frequencies that remind me of a bass saxophone à la Colin Stetson or Mats Gustafsson, or even the sharpening of mower blades. The working title of “Ceres” was “Distortion/zerr” and “Ceres” as a name for fat/butter it fitted in well for me. “Radœ” is one of my son’s first repeated words. “Chop ZD” got its name from the long cooking chopsticks I always buy from the same China kitchen shop on Kettenbrückengasse in Vienna. “Figure 8” is the name of the studio where I recorded “Radœ” and “Figure 8”. It’s located in New York and is run by Shahzad Ismaily, he is known from Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog or Laurie Anderson.
“YOU PICK UP SOME KIND OF SLAP-IN-THE-FACE IN NEW YORK”
In what way have your stays in America influenced you over the last years – your musical orientations or also your attitudes towards making music?
Lukas König: Very much so! The conditions on stages and in rehearsal rooms in New York are different. You have to act quickly, effectively and in a controlled way in order to stand out or be noticed. There’s little money and the facilities are often poor. You learn very well to make the best out of nothing. Being picky really makes little sense there. You take any job because you need the cash. It has developed my awareness and openness and has cut down on my frugality. You pick up a kind of slap in the face there to get back down to earth after having being praised to the skies as a world-famous person in small countries like Austria. This looks ridiculous from a New York perspective.
One should not use disinfectants on brass. What should one definitely not do while one’s listening to “Messing”?
Lukas König: To listen to the record as background music only or at a low volume and with less bass tones, that doesn’t make much sense.
For your improv-project Mopcut with Audrey Chen and Julien Desprez – with its dark, high-energy drive it’s close to your album “Messing” in terms of sound – you made the video for “Fictitious Forces”; and last year you composed an orchestral piece for Klangforum Wien “Stereogram 1”. Again and again you seem to expand your musical and artistic horizon and radius of action. Which musical and artistic fields that you have not developed yet, would appeal to you in the future?
Lukas König: Necessity sometimes becomes a virtue – like for “Messing”, scratching on a cymbal in the storage. Experiments and improvisation are seriously of interest to me in the near future. If you have money for a new synth or a new cymbal, new instruments change sound conceptions and bring with them ideas for sounds. I don’t want to stubbornly cling to one genre. But I have to be careful to keep the focus and not lose my data. Sometimes there are just too many options and ways. And I’m truly a person for whom it’s very hard to come to a decision. That’s why I sometimes think: “Before the material doesn’t come out because it’s been lying around too long – and before another hard drive crashes and everything is lost – I need to have it pressed onto CD or vinyl as soon as possible.”
Many thanks for the interview!
Christoph Benkeser & Michael Franz Woels
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld