How do you profile a label that eschews genre as a rule?
“So this guy probably found out about Mego in 1995, he bought a Hecker CD or something, and that’s it, there’s no way this label could put out anything else except that form of music.”
You can see where he’s coming from: five sub-labels, a catalogue that swings from Russell Haswell to Bill Orcutt, and a steadfast commitment to maintaining a diverse output, Editions Mego is anything but generic. Label boss Rehberg is overseeing its twentieth birthday celebrations this year (in spite of rounding up to 21 in actuality), an anniversary which included performances in Barcelona, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong, and will see further label showcases throughout October in Berlin, Cologne and Graz.
Twenty years down the line, Editions Mego is a different beast. But the differences are skin deep. Despite the ‘Editions’ prefix, some personnel changes and the addition of its sub-labels, Rehberg has imposed a sense of continuity at Editions Mego’s base in Vienna. When Rehberg insists the label has remained the same over the years, it’s worth noting his choice of words. Editions Mego has an ethos, not a sound – hence the gritting of teeth when Rehberg’s label gets tarred with the ‘noise’ brush.
In an interview with Juno in 2011, Thomas Brinkmann (whose What You Hear (Is What You Hear) is a recent Mego LP) describes the club as “…a black box for interesting things which don’t appear in white cubes.” Quite so: Brinkmann is right at home with Editions Mego on this one. What makes the label so special is that it has regularly ventured into the avant-garde without alienating its original techno-minded audience. But how do you profile a label that eschews genre as a rule?
Better to avoid that question, and instead trace the story from an emergence in the Viennese techno underground to its current position as a violator of dance music. Better still to bastardise Brinkmann’s quotation: the strength of Editions Mego’s is in seeing the ‘black box’ as the site for interesting things which don’t appear in white cubes – but certainly could. Isn’t a white cube just a black box with the lights on?
It’s not merely for the sake of chronology’s that the label celebrates its birthday with the re-issue of its first ever release, Fridge Trax, a collaboration between label co-founders Ramon Bauer and Andi Pieper as General Magic, and Peter Rehberg as Pita. The LP has an unwieldy sound best characterized by Rehberg as ‘techno-but-not-techno’. It’s an articulation of a set of ideas – an ethos, maybe – that had been several years in the making. Rehberg grew up in London but by nineteen was sick of living in the UK and decided to move to Europe. He liked Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubaten, seeing this as good a reason as any to head east, but ended up not in Düsseldorf or Berlin, but in Vienna – more Von Trapp than Von Oswald. In Vienna, Rehberg eventually made his name as the city’s ambient DJ du jour, having initially played the noisier end of the American rock spectrum (Sonic Youth and Swans) and industrial sounds.
In 1994, Ramon Bauer and Andi Pieper were running a techno label called Mainframe in Vienna, but wanted to shift it in a more experimental direction. The result came from without, not within – Rehberg was DJing at the U4 club in Vienna while Pieper and Bauer were in the studio next door and, as Rehberg says: “…we drilled a hole in the wall and we collaborated.”
A few months later, Bauer and Rehberg went to work with Andi in his Berlin studio and recorded the four track album. The record’s sound – woodblock patterns suffocated in the formaldehyde-like humming of a refrigerator (all four tracks were recorded in a fridge) – was exactly what Pieper and Bauer had been looking for. Having got Pieter Meininger on board, they decided that it made a good fit as the first release on Mego, their new label.
Fridge Trax is, in essence, the label’s founding text. Rehberg’s desire to go beyond the limitations of place and scene is evident in its confrontational and eccentric nature, a sound made possible by its marginality both from the Viennese techno underground and from other, more modish centres of electronic music. Fridge Trax bears some hallmarks of its time – it could easily be pegged as minimalist techno – but it comes from somewhere apart from all that. It showed that recording tracks in a fridge could be intelligent and reactionary – it celebrated both dancefloor and experimental tropes, and, as Matt Wuethrich of The Wire put it, was full of a”‘restless, stubborn spirit.”
The only relevance ‘noise’ had was as a term denoting music that was answerable to no pre-existing language except its own.
The label’s years as Mego (its name change came as a result of financial collapse in 2005) earned it a reputation for noise: releases included Farmer’s Manual, Potuznik and eardrum irritants, EVOL. The fact that its roster consisted of nerdy blokes with laptops was just how things happened – Mego alway practiced a pathological refusal of genre: “I used to work in a record store at the time,” Rehberg says. “A lot of techno distributors would send in faxes of all the new records and the description: ‘Techno house,’ or ‘pumping tracks’. Very minimized vocabulary.” The label was inclusive – if it’s good enough, they’d release it.
Three albums from the Mego catalogue make this clear; any attempt at taxonomy a futile exercise. While Endless Summer by Fennesz, Palimpsest by Hecker + Yasunao Tone and Sheer Hellish Miasma by Kevin Drumm may be considered noisy records, they have little in common. For the label, the only relevance ‘noise’ had was as a term denoting music that was answerable to no pre-existing language except its own.
Endless Summer, released in 2001, showed that noise could have all the challenge without the abrasion, being more about semiotics than texture. Enmeshing grainy pits of static around guitar figures from The Sandals’ 1964 song “Theme From Endless Summer” on the album’s title track, Fennesz refracts the ‘perfect’ sea-and-surf California summer memory, scrambling images out of time and out of place into a fragmented haze.
Fennesz’s exploration of memory is romantic – not a term commonly used to describe Florian Hecker, and certainly not a word to describe his 2004 album Palimpsest. This showed Mego at its most technological and avant-garde: Hecker interpreted recordings made by Japanese glitch artist Yasunao Tone in which Tone scanned extracted audio from digitally processed images of an eighth-century Japanese poem. The result is a mish-mash of digital static and misinformation in the error-strewn reading of ancient characters – in other words, glitch-art. It’s Hecker looking at error as a site of potential discovery.
Yet the albums of Hecker and Fennesz don’t tell the whole Mego story. There was a DIY aspect too. Kevin Drumm’s 2002 album Sheer Hellish Miasma was neither bone-headed aggression, nor was it avant-garde experimentation, as is exemplified in “Impotent Hummer“. Its gigantic heavy drones evoke the noise-collage cassette underground, keeping Mego’s mischievous spirit alive and avoiding the egg-headedness of Hecker. It’s a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but the list of alternative titles for Drumm’s album are borderline ridiculous: “Brain Scratch Avalanche”, “Tooth Filling Freebaser” and “Demonic Wasabi Colonic.”
It’s like comparing a Ferrari and a forklift because they’re both on four wheels. What Fennesz, Hecker and Drumm have in common is that they released on Mego – noisy, yes; but never generic.
It was one periphery reaching out to another.
The advent of file-sharing and streaming damaged Mego’s business. Financially, it was crippled by the rise of the internet: its Vienna office closed, several employees were made redundant and Roman Bauer and Andi Pieper left the operation. It folded in 2005 only to be revived by Rehberg, who set up an office at home and rebranded the company ‘Editions Mego’. The internet would work in the label’s favour in the long term: it did away with geographical limitations to avoid ‘all the trappings of a music scene’, and allowed conversation with artists operating a long way from Vienna.
The release, in 2010, of Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal heralded a change for Editions Mego. Rehberg had become interested in the move by some U.S. noise artists toward a synth-driven, kosmische sound, and both Cleveland-based Emeralds and Boston native Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project caught his attention. It was one periphery reaching out to another. Does It Look Like I’m Here? and Returnal were cosmic journeys through an analogue synthscape and comparisons to Tangerine Dream probably came as no surprise. It was quite a divergence from the label’s Euro-centric techno and noise catalogue.
Rehberg felt he was onto something. Those pair of releases especially represented a wider group of marginal musicians whose music would ordinarily have languished forever on tiny cassette and CD-R editions. When John Elliott of Emeralds proposed the idea of a sub-label releasing these American musicians, Rehberg agreed. Elliott had been involved in the American noise scene for some years, and Rehberg felt he had the right nose to curate a sub-label, bankrolled by Editions Mego, that would be called Spectrum Spools.
So far, Spectrum Spools has released stuff that could be loosely categorized as forward-thinking synth music: highlights include the minimalism of Philadelphia’s Bee Mask, the lopsided techno of Container (particularly this year’s LP) and a reissue of Music for Amplified Keyboard Instruments by David Borden, one of the first compositions solely for synthesizer. Spectrum Spools is a win-win – marginal musicians broaden their listenership through EM channels, and listeners are introduced to obscurities otherwise out of their reach.
The aim of Editions Mego has always been to experiment, never to alienate. One foot in the back box and the other in the white cube.
The main change over the years has been Editions Mego’s expansion. It’s a test for any label: success and longevity mean plenty of forks in the road. But Editions Mego has resolutely stuck by its beliefs. If Endless Summer was so bankable, why didn’t they release ten records like it? For me, it’s all down to Rehberg: Editions Mego may be dogmatic, but it’s never been Mego-lite.
Firstly, Rehberg’s regards genre limitations as most people regard bone-wasting diseases. The label’s expansion means it’s come a long way from its beginnings at the U4 club. Editions Mego is now the parent of a number of sub-labels curated separately: John Elliott at Spectrum Spools; Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) at Ideologic Organ; Jim O’Rourke at Old News; Mark Fell at Sensate Focus; and Francois Bonnet at Recollection GRM. Back at the control tower (what I imagine to be an eerily tidy flat in suburban Vienna), Rehberg labours on with the main imprint.
The value of this system is that Rehberg farms out curating duties to others with diverging musical backgrounds, knowledge and experience. Consequently, the sub-labels release records that Editions Mego would never have put out – see Akos Rozmann and Iancu Dumitrescu at Ideologic Organ, or Bee Mask and David Borden at Spectrum Spools. In some ways, (relative) success is useful: it makes it easier to stick to your guns.
Similarly, when Francois Bonnet told Rehberg he was sitting on a huge archive of Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrete recordings but had no idea how to reissue them, Rehberg’s production and distribution experience made it possible. Considering the GRM recordings to be the most “well made and pioneering electronic music ever”, sub-label Recollections GRM reissued records like Pierre Schaeffer’s Le Trièdre Fertile and, in doing so, allowed listeners to buy monumentally important recordings at a fraction of the price of the originals. If the records hadn’t sold so well, I’d consider it an act of charity.
The drawback to the Editions Mego approach is a sometimes baffling catalogue, but it’s a price worth paying. It’s refreshing to see a twenty-year-old record label behaving like one conceived just a week prior. Refreshing too that a label still has the capacity to surprise, especially with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora pre-selecting your music through data history.
Secondly, it’s clear that Editions Mego is as provocative as it ever was. For Rehberg, provocation is way to break new ground. Listening to Rehberg’s 1999 LP Get Out the other day got me thinking. What would the Peter Rehberg of the early Mego days think of Editions Mego and the label’s boss in 2015?
Get Out demands a reaction. Take the third track on the LP: opening with grand swells of processed strings, you’re suddenly attacked by a swarm of high-pitched static. It brings two opposing textures into focus by antithesis, and forces a response. It’s totally provocative. Listening to it, my mind drifts to yet another question: what has this got to do with Editions Mego’s origins?
Quite a lot, in my opinion. More recent Editions Mego releases ask listeners that same question, and in doing so, chip away at the accepted definitions of that slippery catch-all known as ‘dance music’.
Mark Fell’s 2010 release, UL8, is worth a listen in this regard. It may sound like pure circuitry, but, just like Fridge Trax, it experiments from within the club, looking out. The record explores the production of pattern-generating systems, but don’t let that scare you away; it has the tonal and percussive palette (hand claps, bleeps, kicks) of a techno track and, while not quite getting there, it constantly teases at repetition. What Rehberg did with noise, Fell does by stripping away structural conventions. He’s ‘making strange’ – keeping a familiar texture but abandoning its structure – and daring us to define it.
The same goes for label-mates EVOL (a long-standing project by Roc Jiminez de Cisnernos). Their 2013 release, Proper Headshrinker, makes convention its subject – the album is divided into ten tracks, each of identical length, with only one element changing throughout. The arbitrary rules draw attention to rule-making – it’s a bit of a pisstake, a dig at convention. I reckon Rehberg of the Get Out days would approve.
Of course, there’s the argument that all this provocation and navel-gazing is too highfalutin for anyone to care. For some, dance music is doing its job when it’s making you dance. But for me, it’s been around long enough to warrant an internal critique; it’s important to decide what dance music is and what it’s not. And while it’s true that provocation and intellectualization can be disorienting for some, it can prove constructive too – look at Duchamp’s urinal, or even Steve Albini’s recent exchange with Powell. The subtle provocation that has underpinned Mego’s two decades in existence serves the same purpose: to ask questions and push things forward.
The aim of Editions Mego has always been to experiment, never to alienate. One foot in the back box and the other in the white cube: the label remains just as provocative and intangible in 2015 as it did back in 1994.
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