Features

A Conversation About Ecology, Excess, Truth and Club Music With J.G. Biberkopf

The Lithuanian artist talks us through the dense themes behind his new LP.

by Lewis Gordon
08 November 2016, 11:30am

J. G. Biberkopf's music bleeds. Not in the nominal, prick and blood shall flow, sense of the word, or in an overt heart wrenching sense more commonly used in an artistic context either. Rather, Biberkopf's dense, latticework constructions scream at their edges, blurring boundaries between the digital, imagined, and real worlds of perception. It's an aesthetic that Biberkopf has honed over the past few years, slowly removing the familiar elements of club music with each mix and release to arrive at something fiercely abstract. In 2014 he contributed mixes to Truants and The Astral Plane, deploying grime and Jersey amidst snippets of media samples, while 2015 saw his first full release, Ecologies, on Kuedo and Joe Shakespeare's imprint, Knives. That record, a meditation on humanity's impact on the natural world, pushed Biberkopf's sound and sense of narrative even further, yet was still bound by a weight familiar to the club.

Now, with his first album, Ecologies II: Ecosystems Of Excess, Biberkopf has turned his attention to the infrastructures of power and information that underpin our cities. DMX vocals clash with howling wolves, while pointillist trance synths sit weightless amidst contorted field recordings, a collage as unsettling as it is captivating.

After nine months of almost constant travelling Biberkopf—real name Gediminas Žygus—is back in Vilnius, the city that helped shape the form and idea of the record. The shiny, futurist architecture of post-Soviet Lithuania sits next to the neoclassical and gothic buildings of the past, while the city itself is surrounded by a forest, as if one ecosystem is interrupting another. He's answering my questions from one of the city's libraries, a stone's throw from the Lithuanian parliament, "exhausted and torn apart by stress and work." And sat within earshot of the library's main hall, he can hear the "echoes of people's actions." It seems a fitting space, then, for Žygus to discuss the myriad themes of Ecologies II: Ecosystems Of Excess. It's not only a rumination on the nature of cities and power, but also on our means of enacting change in an increasingly homogenised world, and the importance of embracing our "alien otherness."

THUMP: Ecologies II: Ecosystems of Excess feels as if it is concerned with the spaces that exist within and around man-made structures and mega-cities. What could you see, and what did you feel, when you were making the album in your apartment in Vilnius?
J.G. Biberkopf: Ecologies II was made in a couple of places. Bits of it were made in Berlin, then in a studio in Vilnius, than in an apartment in Vilnius, some while doing a residency in Belgium, some back in Berlin. I wouldn't to tie it to a place, although there was maybe an important time for the realisation that it should become a united body of work, when I spent a couple of weeks in a friends apartment last summer. The apartment had huge windows and was pretty high up, and it gets hot in Vilnius at that time, around 40 degrees celsius. There was this detailed panorama of Vilnius, this urban system, placed in the middle of a huge forest.

The view allowed me to think about the city that I spent a lot of time growing up in as an ecosystem. And also not being able to overcome the depressing paradox that most of the ambitions I have, and could have, are probably destructive to a certain extent [while] still having to work to pay the rent. These sensations of heat, being saturated by fucked up climate news, lead me to thinking about earth as a system and to what extent extremely fragile environmental conditions will play into global politics. It was kind of a turning point to trigger the direction of the album.

What did you encounter on your travels to the megalopolises of southeast Asia? Was there anything present in the social, structural and political makeup of those spaces that resonates with, or challenges, what you've witnessed in your home town of Vilnius?
I can't comment on social and political fabric of those places, without falling to common stereotypes and mistakes of judgement, but I was blown away by the architectural monumentality of Singapore and Hong Kong—places like New York or Paris can hardly compare. In central Hong Kong, it's like no place else in how much it's like the jungle—not in the sense of chaos or violence—but in the way human-made structures are choreographed, how they encircle, how they interact with each other in this extreme urban density. Singapore seemed be keen on 'working together' with nature in building this eco-friendly hybrid urban utopia, which honestly seemed really delusional at times, given the extremes to which Singapore goes into getting sand for their land reclamation efforts.

Ecologies II also appears to delve into our own biological ecologies, specifically the emerging or future ecologies resulting through the human body's assimilation with technology. Do you think we'll become further connected to, or possibly disconnected from, the real world?
I'm not at all in a position to speculate these things, but in my view I think there are both potentials to change 'unjust nature' in a positive way, and to integrate the body with ideological systems on a much deeper level. Every technology has the original sin of containing both negative and positive potential; every object brings its catastrophe. I think the integration of body and technology will be shaped by political agents and interests in power at times of assimilation, which is probably just saying nothing, but I don't think humans control politics. There are so many forces in action, political orders are too 'accidental' to predict most of the time.

"Globalalia" appears to directly reference Trevor Wishart's piece of the same name, and there are aesthetic similarities between your piece and his—specifically the layers of fractured voices. In Wishart's piece he assembled sounds from 134 different voices covering 26 different languages, and part of his aim was to focus on what we hold in common as human beings. Do you feel there's something positive to be gleaned from our essential commonality, our humanness?
Regarding commonality, I think what we all probably share is that very few of us actually fit into ideologies of what it means to be human or a citizen. This probably will sound idealistic—and I don't have much confidence in utopian thinking—but I believe in acknowledging this original 'sin' of awkwardness and imperfection, fighting for this alien otherness within to be recognised and accepted as a way out and as a way of resistance. I believe in lessening pain, nurturing global empathy, and working towards the creation of non-human ethics. On a rational level I think that human entitlement shouldn't be infinite. And honestly, I don't know if there is a reason why the human race should continue existing forever.

I hear tonal similarities between you and artists like M.E.S.H and Elysia Crampton—the presentation or juxtaposition of elements that might seem initially incongruous. At times it feels like protest music, as if you're subverting the typical echo-chambers of information. Is there a need, or maybe a sense on your part, that it's important to break these algorithmic means of consuming media and information?
Of course. I guess with this record it's more of a silent protest, in the tradition of complaint music. I think in the end it becomes about voicing your displacement, dread, alienation. Of course there are these moments of ecstatic joy in the rewiring of experiences and memories, creating a new logic for them, and building a new understanding.

I think when you get invited to shows for the work that you do, 'sabotaging' club spaces becomes more pointless when most of the people know what you do—this model of violent protest easily becomes insular and performative. I think in these cases it should become more about a creation of conversation and alternative public spaces, and encouragement of collectivity, especially where these would hardly exist at all. But the way I was used to creating for some time—playing at places where nobody would give a fuck who you are—I don't feel comfortable in this insularity. I would rather do shows and write music for public places, in kind of a similar sense to street music.

J.G. Biberkopf from Sonic Acts on Vimeo.

Your music has grown increasingly abstract over the years. What's prompted this continual refinement of your sound? And how does your sound at this point, within Ecologies II, best communicate the themes you wish to tackle?
For a long time J. G. Biberkopf was for club music mostly, and I was ready to kill it off as I was tired of doing music. Then I met Kuedo with Knives, who revived J. G. Biberkopf, so it ended up being a whole thing in itself and the only outlet synthesizing all of these musical urges in one. I see Ecologies II as more of a symbolist record in the sense of a further focus on the symbolic realm, rather than the experiential. I guess it's also important to mention that I'm very much disillusioned with club music in the sense that electronic music and its spaces are very much gentrified and utilised by brands. This record, a lot of the time for me, means trying to refashion club music's tropes in order to own a language.

The final track on the album is called "Realer Than Real". Have we reached hyperreality yet? What does it look and feel like to you?
The idea of society is very theatrical and performative in itself, as natural as it claims to be. I think hyperreality started when abstraction and law was introduced into societal order, when physical violence was interchanged for symbolic violence, and when a direct relationship to the landscape feeding you was changed to the symbolic; the introduction of the imaginary realm.

A lot of this post-Brexit, post-truth political discourse seems to be bullshit and typically historically shortsighted. If you have any knowledge or experience of living under the Soviet Union, or being in a deeply religious environment, you can easily become aware of how any society can be fictional and performative, and how fiction becomes real—although there's a sliding scale with these things. But the interesting thing is, when this realm of imaginary and abstraction becomes intelligent in itself, and actually starts to produce personal fictions, which I guess is where we are right now. But maybe it's not unlike how we experience the world anyway, through optimised fictions that are created out of our perceptions, these useful interpretations of our environment and information. Maybe in the same way you don't choose the body and desires you inhabit, you have to learn to navigate it.

Ecologies II: Ecosystems of Excess is out on Knives this month.

Lewis Gordon is on Twitter