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Gesaffelstein aka Mike Levy stands apart from the current techno scene in Paris. At the moment when techno and dubstep are producing new heroes amongst a handful of French DJs, Mike Levy has chosen a different route for his musical expression. His energizing techno, dark and obsessional, works the dance-floor yet at the same time continues to mine emotional landscapes and powerful atmospheres.
Born in Lyon in 1985 – the year that saw the birth of Chicago House (Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’) and legendary releases by electronic new wave and EBM (Electronic Body Music) artists like ‘No Shuffle’ by Front 242 – it was in fueling his musical references from the 90s that this young French producer infused his dance music and remixes (for Cassius, Lana Del Rey, Moby, Rebotini, ZZT or Boys Noize..) with a particular tension. Inspired by Kraftwerk but also electronic music born from Punk and New Wave, Gesaffelstein mixes current techno with cutting rhythms and dissonant tones from pioneers like DAF, Front 242 or Nitzer Ebb; a kind of ‘dance metal’.
July 2012 sees Gesaffelstein releasing a two tracks EP, ‘Rise Of Depravity’ on Bromance Records, the independent imprint of Brodinski and Manu Barron. Track one ‘Depravity’ rides on twisted keyboards and despotic synths while floor-killer track two ‘Belgium’ plays homage to the Belgian creative scene in the where in the 80s and early 90s, new forms of electronic jacking hypnotized crowds.
A private character who very rarely talks to the press, Gesaffelstein talks at length on his journey as a producer, his influences and work:
Since your beginnings in 2008 you’ve spoken rarely about your music and given few interviews, why?
When I began it wasn’t that I consciously decided to refuse interviews, things with my music just happened very quickly, there was a lot of information about me and my work in the press and I didn’t see the point in repeating what was already being said.
So it wasn’t that you wanted to stay anonymous like other musicians from the world of electronic music?
No, it was never that, that kind of thing doesn’t really work anymore but also it’s pretty difficult to stay anonymous these days anyway. To be honest staying silent was also often a response to the kinds of questions I was being asked like “when were you last off your head in a club?” “which is your favourite airport?” “do you buy MP3s or vinyl?” None of that has anything to do with the music itself….
Can you talk a bit about the pseudonym you’ve chosen?
Well first of all I chose an unknown name, I wanted something unique that worked with what I wanted to do. It’s a mix of two names ‘Gesamkunstwerk’ and ‘Einstein’. The first is a German word that means ‘total art work’, a concept that was used by Dopplereffekt for one of their albums in 1999. Maybe that seems pretentious but I found the idea super interesting where a work of art is used in different mediums like sound, images and set door. At the same time I was just really into science and I’d read a bunch of cool stuff about Einstein.
What musical influences did you grow up on?
In the beginning I’d never thought of doing music, I was always more into art but it always seemed like an inaccessible goal for the long-term. I started to do design but when I started veering towards music all that changed. The first time I heard techno was when I was around thirteen or fourteen years old, listening to CDs that I found in my sisters bedroom. It wasn’t a sudden thing but little by little I began buying records, not mixing yet as that came through a friend who had decks at his house. At around sixteen I began to get interested in production.
Being a producer was something that I could see a future in for myself. I left Lyon for Paris when I was eighteen, I didn’t know anybody and found myself alone. I’d left school early, didn’t finish my studies, I did a lot of stupid things in my youth and hadn’t really done anything with my life so when I found this thing, music, I said to myself that I had to concentrate on it because I was passionate about it. Pretty quickly I got into techno and immediately wanted to know about its origins. I was interested in disco but I really fell in love with New Wave and industrial music from the 80s. When I discovered all this music it felt to me like techno was simply the current incarnation of these origins.
Which albums or artists made their impression on you?
From techno I listened to guys like Green Velvet, I was guided by all of his references and discovered he was a fan of EBM. I quickly got into people like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and wanted to discover what else existed in the genre. One of the main albums for me was also Computer World by Kraftwerk (1981) which for me still stands as the basis for everything that’s going on today, everything is in that album. After that ‘Geography’ the first album by Front 242 (1982) which for me is the equivalent of Kraftwerk but on a darker side. That’s also the vibe that I loved about Nitzer Ebb though they did it in a way that was more dance. For me, their track ‘Join In The Chant’ (1987) was a perfect representation of this notion of Electronic Body Music, music of the body. In discovering them I thought, ‘this is interesting, they’re using the codes of Kraftwerk with a colder vibe and more dance.’ That’s what I wanted to do from that moment on. Dopplereffekt and Drexciya, a concept like Underground Resistance, all of this seemed richer to me than a techno record that had no soul, tracks that might be perfect for the dancefloor
but have nothing more to offer beyond that. For my productions I’m not searching for
concepts, I prefer not to have to explain things, I prefer seeing what people get from the music and what audiences project onto the music themselves. I love all of that but also the feeling that I’ve communicated something by my music. I like leaving people to find their own thing in the music, it’s as if I’ve introduced an idea, put a simple emotion into the air and then, see what happens.
So the music that you make could be described as modern techno with roots in the history
of industrial and electronic?
Exactly. I’ve always said to myself that techno isn’t really a genre of music of itself. I’ve always considered it more as a platform that allows the mix of loads of musical genres like disco, jazz, funk or soul. All of these disciplines can be adapted by techno. In rock or jazz we see less of a mix, they’re styles that are relatively complete even if there are artists within these styles that take certain risks. I don’t think that these styles of music are destined to die but to become hybrids, that’s the future and that’s the future of techno too.
In industrial music there’s a tough element, certain aesthetics that reference figures of domination, tyranny or morbid themes. Do these dark figures say anything to you creatively?
I think it’s a shame that these days imagery is left to one side in techno. That’s what always fascinated me about EBM, you can’t disassociate the music or ambiance that they proposed with the images that were created in the spirit of the music they were listening to. But personally no, I’m not particularly interested by the morbid side of lots of productions from the era.
Even if my music seems dark I’m a happy person, I lead a happy life. When I’m composing though I’m not really interested in expressing my daily life, love, happiness or joy, I try to explore things that are totally exterior to my personal life. My music does reflect however my vision of the darker side of life.
‘Viol’, ‘Crainte’, ‘Errance’, ‘Conspiracy’, ‘Depravity’, the titles or themes of these tracks evoke fierce emotions.
It’s more about creating or putting into musical form intense emotions that we rarely experience in daily life and that I’m feeling at the moment that I’m composing. For me sounds often provoke particularly strong emotions in me that are foreign to my normal life.
Was your new EP ‘Rise Of Depravity’ written like this?
The same vibe but expressed in a more violent and frank manner than before. ‘Belgium’ was inspired by the Belgian scene, New Beat and EBM. ‘Depravity’ is more an ode to depravity (laughs). In the beginning that was a track that I performed live and until now I never wanted to release it. Every time I play this track live on stage, I always get this strange impression that the track is provoking something unhealthy in the audience. It’s a vision that came to me on tour, it seems to kick-start scenes that feel something like the end of the world, total debauchery within the confines of partying and depravity.
You’ve said that your productions are like the stones of one and the same bigger building….
I don’t see my tracks as single elements, every title is inspired by the previous one and I try to create a link between all the tracks, continue ideas or sounds. I’m looking for something homogenous, it’s as simple as that, you can’t start a building with a red brick and finish with a black brick. I look for coherence, I see my music as a huge building made brick by brick. Objectively all of my tracks could be gathered into an album, I like that, the album format doesn’t receive a lot of interest these days. Regardless of that I’m working on an album anyway, it’s a format that allows you to take risks and go further than techno or confines of the dance floor. I’m working on an album but not with a rigid time-frame or anything, there’s no release date but maybe we could have something ready in 2013.
You have talked about architecture and sculpture in sound…
Like every architect, artist or cinema, I believe in foundations. When I make something, its sound should be unique, I spend a lot of time perfecting or working just on a sound without an eye on composing, I’m looking for my own language. Nowadays it’s possible to construct sounds, sculpt and polish them in the same way as a sculptor works with a block of material.
The look of the artwork you choose to go with your tracks is quite striking….
I chose the images of sculpture that illustrate the series ‘Conspiracy’ (2011, Turbo). I find that these images express themes of domination, hate and anger really well in a kind of static way. For the six titles ‘Conspiracy remixes’ (2012, Turbo) we chose an image of a sculpture by Sthane Vigny who’s a contemporary artist. His sculpture mixed neon with chandeliers, which symbolized for me the union of two eras which is exactly what I try to do with my music. All of this comes together to create a universe, a personality and coherence which comes together in my work.
Which are the artists with whom you share the most references?
Meeting Brodinski was an important moment for sure but we don’t really have the same influences as he’s really into rap and techno, the more dance side of things. The person I share the most influences with is definitely Michel Amato, alias The Hacker. When I started to make music, I realized that I was pretty alone in the kinds of music that I was obsessed with, which made it harder to envisage what it was I wanted to do because nobody was doing it. Luckily though I met Michel when I was twenty, I followed him musically and understood that he was alone in what he was doing too. Since then we’ve become close friends, he definitely made a big impression on me in terms of musical influences. I’m twenty-six years old and he is thirty- one, a bit of a music dad of sorts. He helped me a lot and taught me how to make music without being preoccupied or swayed by trends. He helped me to progress further than the sum of my influences. He made me listen to lots of things, he was definitely a driving force behind the development of my music culturally. We share the same vision, sometimes we have difficulty finding words for what it is we want to do but we always manage to understand each other in the end. I think there’s a phrase that says ‘where words stop music starts”, I think that this is closest to summing up where my music’s at.