When you look up the word “legend” in the dictionary, you should see a photo of him. It’s only fair, Mark Van Hoen has been producing refined, quality electronic music for almost 20 years - or even more than twenty if we count his little foray in Seefeel’s early tracks. He has never been famous worldwide, never reached the status of a star - there are no crowds of photographers hanging around outside his door, like they would a celebrity’s - but his mark is so deep that he is almost always identified when referring to avant-garde ambient and techno. Under the alias Locust, he released a trilogy of albums on Apollo-R&S that hold a place of honour in the chronicles of 90s electronica: “Natural Composite” (1994), “Weathered Well” (1994) and “Truth Is Born Of Arguments” (1995). They are pillars of the movement in which the most important thing is to handle the textures of synth, guitar, voice, and drum machine as if they were threads of the finest material. Then came a somewhat more pop period, starting with “Morning Light” (1997), before another decade of meticulous, microscopic albums; the kind where listening to it with headphones always offers a miniature universe to discover.
It would be hard to summarise his entire discography here, because it is extensive; Van Hoen has been a tireless worker who has always had new albums to show, whether they be his own or others’. Three in the last decade, “The Warmth Inside You” (2004), a collection of “songs” in “Where Is The Truth” (2010) and the more recent “The Revenant Diary” for Editions Mego. The latter returns to his origins, developing a “texturology” of ambient that is rough and primitive, very inspired by his earlier works with machines and synthesizers, bordering on the most pleasant end of noise. Van Hoen, who affirms that all of his works are about nostalgia, and never about the future, doesn’t see this return to his more primitive form as a step backwards. Rather he views the work as a parallel moment in his form of expression, which has always been concerned with the use of malleable, ductile sounds adorned with voices that seem to have been taken from a dream landscape or a ghost story.
In the future, Mark Van Hoen will prepare new material, perhaps reclaiming his alias Locust, for the reactivated Apollo label, which was the ambient branch of R&S Records; he has always been one of their most charismatic artists. Another of his immediate projects is a concert in collaboration with Estonian hypnagogue performer Maria Minerva, within the framework of the 2012 Unsound NY festival. The performance will take place this coming Sunday 22nd April – as part of the Unsound Labs series of special events - at the Issue Project Room, 100 Livingston, Brooklyn (starting at 3 p.m.).
In order to lay the foundation, Mark Van Hoen has created a very special mixtape - although the main framework of the movement is ambient, he includes unexpected escapades towards other genres and artists who have influenced his way of making music and composing. For us, it’s an honour.
You’ve explained that the starting point for “The Revenant Diary” was the finding of old tapes with some of your first experiments in electronic music back in the 80s. Could you go into more detail with that story— did you come across the tapes accidentally? Where were they? What feeling did they give you when you listened to them?
In 1994, I had released a compilation, “Natural Composite”, which combined some of my 80’s recordings with my Peel session of the time. Obviously back then, it was only some 10 years before that I had made the recordings. Then, last year I was asked by the label (Apollo/R&S) to re-master and add a few extras for a digital re-issue. I decided to go back to the original 4-track analogue tapes rather than the DAT’s I had used in 1994. I discovered this song “Truancy”, which I seem to remember hearing in 1994, but I thought it was too out of time and scratchy to release then, but hearing it now it sounds great. I spend a lot of time on my current music trying to get it to sound out of time in a good way! When I heard the track, I thought it captured so much about what it is I want to say musically. Kind of depressing in a way, since I was able to do it so well at age 15, but it’s also encouraging to think that it’s a natural skill. It also sounded great coming off the reel-to-reel 4-track.
What introduced you to electronic music when you were a teenager? As it was in the 80s, were you more into synthesizer music, the cosmic continuum so to speak, or into the synth-pop / industrial trends of that time?
I was really first into synthesizer music from 1978, I guess, so just before the 80’s, and as music was moving so swiftly, this is quite an important difference. Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and the Brain label were big favourites; I’d moved on to them quite swiftly after hearing Jean-Michel Jarre & Mike Oldfield in my parent’s record collection! Then came the pop/ industrial stuff of the late 70’s, Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League’s first records were the big ones for me, but also Numan & Daniel Miller’s early releases, then in 1980 John Foxx and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. I was also a big fan of the band Japan, which was a band that seemed meticulous about their use of synthesizers.
I remember listening to the first Locust albums in the mid-90s and loving the rhythmic quality of it, and “Truth Is Born From Arguments” is still one of my favourite records of that era. What’s the link between that young MVH and Locust?
When I made music in the 80’s, I felt really isolated; you have to remember that things were not so easy to discover or communicate back then as now. There was really no-one I knew around me who had any empathy for what I was doing. Even my friend Mark Clifford, who later formed Seefeel, was more into 4AD and the more experimental side of indie-guitar music in the 80’s, rather than electronics. I think the change came when I moved to London, and albums like LFO’s ‘Frequencies’ started coming out, that I realized that I could find others interested in this kind of instrumental electronic music. Before that, it really felt like instrumental electronic albums were by the likes of Tangerine Dream, Vangelis etc. Their 60’s/70’s albums were good, but really confined to the ‘progressive’ arena. Suddenly in 1991 there was a completely new genre and area in which to create music. It’s those post-acid house times that really inspired me (as a kind of confirmation) to continue making music as I had a few years before, in the late 80’s.
What led you to start a new direction in your sound from those old influences? Was it just nostalgia, or was there a kind of disaffection or lack of satisfaction with the recent stuff you were doing, the more melodic stuff?
Neither of these, really, all of my music is about nostalgia or the past, and always has been. I have never really subscribed to the idea of electronic music being about the future or space or anything like that. I think I got that from OMD, actually. The record I am making now is more in the ‘melodic’ lineage of my 2010 release ‘Where Is The Truth’, but not in quite such a conventional song format. That record was really an anomaly, as it was a reaction and commentary to discovering that I was adopted… it’s unlikely that I will have anything as revolutionary in my life to write conventional songs about again, but you never know!
In the last 10 years you’ve produced pop and folk albums (those by Mojave 3, for example). How’s the experience been, not in terms of personal growth, but in the way it has affected your future sound?
It’s been interesting to see how other people and bands function, and the role of musicians within the band and session players. I used a lot of those musicians on my last record ‘Where Is The Truth’, but ultimately ended up editing most of the performance away in order to take it somewhere else sonically. I also used many of the performances for their records in my own music... but you’d never be able to tell...at least no one has said anything yet! It’s a great way to obtain isolated samples!
What brought you to Editions Mego? It is the first time you have worked with them, even though it’s not the first time you have worked with an ‘experimental’ label, as you previously were part of the Touch / Ash International roster.
Yes, it’s my first release, and I hope to continue with them. I’ve always been a fan, but was most impressed a couple of years back when they released “Returnal” by Oneohtrix Point Never; I also liked the cover art and the general aesthetic. I decided to get in touch last year, and it was great to hear when the owner, Peter Rehberg, got back and said he’d been a fan for years, and was keen to release the new record. I’d actually met him many years ago at a gig I was playing in Vienna with Autechre, Seefeel and Russell Haswell.
Have you listened to the new stuff on the re-born Apollo label? You are a historic artist in the golden era of Apollo; do you think there’s a point in re-launching the brand?
I wasn’t aware of any new releases, but Renaat (Label owner) has been in touch and wants a new record from me, which I’m working on. Apollo was always an innovative label, and I think can continue to be in this decade. R&S (the parent label) has been making great releases with James Blake and the like, so I see no reason why this should not continue with Apollo.
As an extension of that, do you think the original philosophy of Apollo still makes sense in the present day?
I’m not really too sure of the exact philosophy of Apollo, you’d have to ask Renaat, but it always seemed to me to be music that he loved that was not dance-related, so from that point of view, I’d say it’s as valid as ever.
You’ll collaborate with Maria Minerva in a special project for Unsound. Do you remember the first moment you listened to her music? What were your thoughts?
Yes, I thought it was an interesting exploration of electronic pop music from as many as 30 years ago, seen though the eyes of a young woman with a great wealth of musical knowledge obtained via her father (a well-known music journalist in Estonia). This depth was evident when I first listened, and I think that she could make some incredible music in the future, armed with the skills she has.
How did the collaboration started to grow? Can you explain a little what people are going to see / hear on stage?
We have not had much chance to communicate, just a few words here and there, but we have some rehearsal time booked on the weekend of the festival. It’s going to have to be very spontaneous and quickly put together. I don’t expect it’s going to be very slick, but I do think it’ll make for good listening. We are putting together a couple of cover versions of famous pop songs, which is something new for both of us.
You’ve collaborated a lot in the last two decades, but always as part of a band, or having people working for you in one of your projects (singers, basically), or producing other people’s albums. I can recall just one (let’s say) ‘pure’ collaboration, the “Aurobindo” album with Daren Seymour. So you working b2b with Maria Minerva it makes sense, but it’s somehow odd… Is it?
Yes, that’s right I guess, there were other bands like Autocreation and Scala, but “Aurobindo” was the only record I released as my own name with another collaborator. The project with Maria is completely prompted by the festival organizers; they suggested it, and then I listened to her music online. I liked what I heard, and thought it could make for an interesting experience for us as performers, as well as (hopefully!) the audience. So, yes, it’s rare, in fact a first for me to be in a situation so ad-hoc and immediate. The only thing I can compare with it was a performance in Paris I did in 2002 when I had to improvise music underneath a reading of his book Habitus by author James Flint. It went really well, though.
Can you give some words on the mix you’ve done for us? What was the starting idea and how did you want it to be?
I’d had some very nice feedback from a mixtape I’d made for Pontone, so I was encouraged to make a further exploration in that direction. I like mixtapes to be a means to discover new music, as well as putting more familiar music in an unexpected context.
Is DJing something important or special in your life at this moment?
Actually, yes. It never really was before; I saw it of little value when I used to do quite a lot of DJing in the 90’s. But I think the Internet changed the way it feels, certainly the feedback I get. It’s a lot more positive and responsive. I have the chance to reach those who are likely to enjoy my mixes, via the Internet. In clubs in the 90’s I was often called self-indulgent, even though essentially I’m playing the same music, or at least the same vibe.
You’ve been releasing your own music very steadily for years, stopping doing Locust in 2001, but releasing as MVH until now. Are aliases over for you?
No, I still make music under other aliases, but I retired Locust because there was too much confusion between myself and The Locust. I may use it again for my forthcoming Apollo release, though.
What are the future plans you have in mind?
A new MVH record for Apollo, an album with Neil Halstead (of Slowdive/Mojave 3) already complete, and my first foray into the art world with a series of Chromogenic Prints
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