Greg Scarth calls Aaron Funk to discuss his new album, malfunctioning computers and why it’s important to speak out for what you believe.
Venetian Snares – aka 41-year-old Winnipeg native Aaron Funk – acknowledges that public perception of his artistic persona doesn’t necessarily align with the way that he sees himself. “Sometimes I hear really weird things about myself,” he explains. “Like I’m a huge asshole…”
Funk has a reputation for not suffering journalists gladly – which is probably still true – but he proves perfectly charming nevertheless. With the unique knowledge and enthusiasm of someone who’s spent the last couple of decades exploring most forms of electronic music technology, he’s happy to talk tech, but he also opens up about the importance of artistic expression, his admiration for fellow Winnipegger Neil Young, and why it’s good to be nice to animals.
After a difficult year in 2015, his new album, Traditional Synthesizer Music, is out on Planet Mu sub-label Timesig. We called him at home in his studio to discuss the making of the album, the evolution of his huge modular synth setup and why we should all be real.
Attack: OK, so the typical way to start this conversation would be for me to be very patronising and try to sum up your new album in ten words for a nice neat intro…
Venetian Snares: [Laughing] Yeah, right!
I get the feeling you probably wouldn’t appreciate that, so, instead, tell me what’s going on with you at the moment. How’s your music going? How’s your life?
It’s good. My life’s OK. Actually, the past couple of days, my computer in my studio’s been real weird – it’s just powering off for no reason. I was in the BIOS and I noticed the 12-volt rail was fluctuating, but I kind of ruled that out, then I noticed my motherboard was set to having my CPU overclocked, so I’ve got a lot of troubleshooting to do.
Well, you know what the problem is here: you need to get a Mac, like all the real, professional musicians use.
Oh, fuck that, man!
That’s still the easiest way to get a rise out of producers who use PCs.
[Laughing] Back in the day when they used to say Macs were for professionals, there was nothing to make music with for them, until they bought Emagic and took it away from all the PC people. That was Apple’s philosophy all along, this completely non-modular system. Like, if you had a Mac you could only choose from the things that Mac offered you. That never sat well with me. Macs are fine now for making music, but… I don’t know. I still don’t give a shit. I’d rather just build an awesome PC.
Are you pretty hands-on with building and modifying hardware in general?
Yeah, I guess I’m into the technical side of things. I find that fun.
I think the only reason I’m technically inclined whatsoever is just because I wanted to push my music further.
Fun for its own sake, or just as part of making music?
I think it’s always been a part of making music. I think the only reason I’m technically inclined whatsoever is just because I wanted to push my music further. It kind of resulted from that.
One of the big criticisms of modular gear is that people spend more time fiddling with it than actually making music.
Yeah, it seems like a lot of people just collect the stuff and don’t ever really make a tune with it. Which is fine, I dunno. It seems like a lot of people just wanna slot modules in and out and make a racket, which is fine too. It’s kind of funny, the last few days with my computer just wanting to turn itself off, I’ve still been making music but I just can’t record it. It’s still just as fun, but it’s lost.
So your new album was made a couple of years ago, right?
Yeah, between June or July and December, 2014.
Is the setup you were using back then to make music pretty much the same as what you use now?
Pretty much. The way that record came about is I had this idea to do a Eurorack drum synth, that I was kind of gonna keep separate from my other modular stuff that I’d been using for years. What ended up happening is I put it where my other modular synth is so I could patch everything together. It occurred to me that I have all this stuff, so why separate it? Then I just started doing these tunes where it was like, I’m only gonna use this modular and see what I can get out of it. It was really a fun adventure to approach music like that. Like, I have this modular synth and all my sounds have to come out of this. No multi-tracking, no editing or whatever.
I saw a couple of the videos you did. Everything’s running in real time and you’re using Renoise as the clock, right?
Yeah, clocking with Renoise and recording into it.
What sequencers are you using?
I have an Elektron Machinedrum that’s sending MIDI out to the old Analogue Solutions MT-16 module, which is basically just MIDI to trig out – it just sends triggers. Those two things are perfect together because you can have 16 tracks on the Machinedrum and then 16 tracks on this thing. The Machinedrum can’t make sound any more, it just sends MIDI. That’s the main brain of it, and then the way I use that to clock other modules and sequencers within the modular. It’s pretty cool because you can send weird different clocks to sequencers. Doing that, you can start and stop the clocks of sequencers and modules.
So you can kind of shift them out of sync with each other?
Yeah, you could have the most basic sequencer that plays eight steps, but with the clocks you’re sending that you can make all these different phrases.
I love doing that with the SH-101.
I know, right. Fuck, I love the SH-101 sequencer.
You can do similar stuff with the Arturia Microbrute, too.
Exactly. On this record I was using a 101 and a Microbrute to send sequences to the modular. The Microbrute is awesome because you can switch between eight sequences.
People often describe your music as being quite complex. Do you see it that way?
I guess. I don’t know how complex it feels to me, because I have an understanding of how it’s created and what’s going on.
Even just the fact that you work outside the basic paradigm of 4/4 electronic music, people see that as being weird.
If you’re doing anything outside of the norm, that’s essentially defined as weird, but I don’t see it as weird, I see it as natural. For me, when I try to sit down and do something in 4/4 it doesn’t seem natural to me – it feels like I’m trying to make someone else’s music. I can’t bother with it. I might start something in 4/4 but it ends up somewhere else because it just doesn’t feel right.
It’s such a dominant part of western music. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to?
I listen to all kinds. Actually, I’ve been listening to loads of Brian Eno lately. The Pearl and Ambient 2, I just keep listening to those. Maybe it’s because I’ve been hanging out by myself a lot – I tend to listen to music like that when I’m by myself. I think in my car right now I have an Autechre record. Exai – that one’s wicked.
Why have you been hanging out on your own?
I dunno. Just a weirdo, I guess… [Laughing]
You’re living back in Winnipeg now, right?
Yeah. It’s a good city for artists because you don’t really have to hustle. I know loads of people who live in London and it’s just constant hustle, you know?
It’s one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.
Someone in London that does as well as I do, they’re struggling to feed themself. I like the freedom of being able to hang around my house and make stuff.
You had some money problems recently. Did that affect you creatively?
Yeah, it kind of threw me into a thing where I was unable to create anything for about half a year. I don’t really wanna talk about it, but it was something that happened overnight and if I didn’t deal with it there would be dire consequences, so…
OK, I won’t press you on the details. To go back to Winnipeg, what’s it got going for it musically? Aside from Neil Young – he’s from Winnipeg, right?
Yeah, I think he grew up here? Yeah! I really like Neil Young a lot.
I love Neil Young.
A few years ago, I discovered this video of him playing ‘Heart Of Gold’. He’d just written the song, I guess, and he was struggling to figure out which harmonica was the correct key for the tune.
I know that one. They put out those live albums a few years ago and it’s one of those performances. I think it’s the Massey Hall one.
Man, it was just beautiful. He’s playing this song while he’s still feeling what he was feeling when he wrote it – just him and a guitar. I really like stuff like that. The version of it on the album, he’s got a band playing with him and it’s cool too, but this was just so pure.
You seem like the kind of person who prefers to let the music speak for itself, is that fair to say?
Yeah, I definitely do.
So how do you reconcile that with doing press and giving interviews?
You know, it’s fine. I used to have a really hard time doing interviews. For most of my career I didn’t want to do interviews or do press, I just wanted to see what would happen based on my music. Whenever I would do something like that, it felt really weird to me. Like, I love talking to people, but it feels really odd to me to talk to someone officially. Like, I’m talking to you, but this is a conversation someone’s going to listen in on afterwards. That to me feels really strange. I guess I just try to have whatever conversation’s going to happen and if other people are interested then that’s fine too. Sometimes people interview you and it’s like you’re talking to a robot or something – they sort of expect you to sit there and brag about yourself or something. That’s not natural. Maybe it’s natural for some people but who wants to hang out and be like, hey, I’m super cool because of these reasons… That’s weird. I always thought it was neat if the music could speak for itself.
That’s maybe more difficult to do these days with so many people trying to promote themselves and their music.
I guess so. I dunno. I think I’m in in a place right now, presenting this record, where I don’t mind talking about it. If someone’s interested in how it was created or why it was created, that’s cool to me.
It probably helps that you’ve already established yourself as an artist.
Yeah, I’ve probably matured and grown as a person… [Laughing] Somewhere along the way…
How do you think people perceive you?
Sometimes I hear really weird things about myself. Like I’m a huge asshole, or… Generally I don’t want to think too hard about how people perceive me.
It’s probably for the best.
How would you describe yourself as a person?
As a person? Hmmm. I think I’m a kind person. I would describe myself as a kind, caring person. I care about the people in my life, I care about looking after animals… It’s nice to contribute in a nice way to the world around you.
What do you do outside of music? What interests you?
Anything creative. Anyone’s creative endeavour has – or potentially has – my attention. I think it’s really interesting what comes out of people, and I think it’s really interesting the way things are filtered through people.
In what sense?
Most people have their own unique voice. It could be that someone stumbled on a situation and it really affected them, then maybe they wrote a story or did a painting or something. That’s being filtered through that person and you have this thing.
Is that the way your creative process usually works?
Yeah, of course.
So where does the album title come from?
It’s just that the idea of traditional synthesiser music is completely absurd, but I was sort of making songs – melodic, structured songs – so, as far as synth music goes, it’s pretty traditional.
I wondered if it was to do with the way that modular synths have become trendy and you’ve been using them for a while?
No, no, no. It wasn’t a diss on anything like that. Honestly, I just thought it was a really funny title because it’s ridiculous – traditional synthesiser music, as though it’s some cultural thing that’s set in stone…
There’s one last thing I wanted to ask you: last summer you gave an interview where you were really forthright about having to release music to make a living, but not necessarily enjoying large aspects of the industry. Some people thought that was quite ironic given that you ended up asking your fans for financial help later in the year. Did you have any regrets about that interview at all?
No, I don’t. I think the way they tried to spin that was that I hate everyone, but that wasn’t what I was trying to say. I was trying to defend things from the artist’s perspective. You have no idea how many musicians thanked me for saying that shit. Saying stuff like that is kind of career suicide but, I dunno… I don’t care, I’m just gonna say what I believe.
That’s a good thing.
Yeah, of course, man. Let’s all be real!