Ten Years in the Desertby Roger Young / 17.06.2011
Juliana Venter was part of the lengendary mid-ninties experimental electronic, orchestral, poetic and operatic Mud Ensemble. She’s been living in London and Berlin for the last ten years and has just completed a new album, Sunflower Sutra, with producer/composer Joseph Suchy (Bernd Friedman, Mouse on Mars, Can) under the name Spooky Attraction From A Distance. We spoke to Venter about being away for so long, the process of recording the album and future projects.
Mahala: I’m going to press record, so we better stop talking about your former lovers.
Juliana: Yeah, my lovers… that’s more interesting.
Where do we start? The album is not traditional.
(laughs) What does traditional mean? That is the question. What is tradition?
But it’s kind of slippery because it doesn’t have hooks, choruses or verses.
It does. (Laughs)
Well, you know what I mean, traditional verses.
So it’s kind of like, I hate the word but ethereal.
Oh yes. Ethereal.
Yeah, I said ethereal. I read a lot.
So how long did it take to make it?
The process of writing started three years ago, putting the whole thing together took about three years.
And when you say the process of writing, how did you write it?
With breaks in between.
There are kind of a lot of elements to it, just in terms of the text, the words, that come from very different places. So how did you put that together? Where did they come from?
Yes, they do. Well, some of them are poems because I often work with poems; which is also a challenge because a poem is not like lyrics. Sometimes if you try and stick close to the truth of a poem it can break up the rhythm. Because it breaks up the groove. But I don’t know, I’ve always done these things with poems. And then I also got very influenced by the whole folk-blues thing which was new to me. I’ve always listened to folk or blues when I was younger but it never came to me in a way that I wanted to stylistically go in there and learn from that and perhaps use it. And then I went to Ramsay Mackay in Scotland [of Freedom’s Children a 70’s SA band – Ed] and literally sat down and started working with him to learn how these traditional structures work. We actually started working on a folk-country album together and we started recording. We would normally sit down and work out chords, melody lines and then sit down and write the text together for it. And then I was at some point I had to make a decision where I was going to go. Was I going to make a conventional country-folk album in a time in which there is Coco Rosie and Johanna Newsom and all the new fucking wannabe Joni Mitchells around the planet, or was I actually going to go off and do my own thing with this influence? And that’s sort of where I thought I wanted to just ingest myself with that and still come out with my own thing. So within that on that album, that’s why you will hear songs like New Apples which is actually a traditional folk song reworked with words by me and Ramsay. And using text by Johan Van Wyk on a very African-folk sort of song called “White Ant”, there are moments within the album which is traditional in terms of folk, krautrock, psychedelia and dadaist opera.
So from then? From that working with Ramsey, where did you go to from there?
Well I went back into my studio, because I was going forwards and backwards often, often back to Berlin, carried on working by myself and then I just really co-incidentally met Josef who was composing music for a theatre piece that I was acting in and we started collaborating and it just clicked. And I thought to ask him if he would be interested in producing the album and I played him the songs and he said ‘Yeah, absolutely’. And where Josef is coming from it’s clear, it wasn’t going to be four four time, someone on the drums and bass and let’s do country. It went in it completely sort of different experimental sound scape but it’s also very influenced by the krautrock thing because it has a lot of, if you know Jefferson Airplane, it does actually have a lot of stuff like that. It’s very difficult for people to make sense of it because there’s no beat, no baseline to draw them onto the ground. It’s very open.
And that obviously was conscious?
That is very conscious, partly yes, partly also not, I mean, we would have loved to have Jacki Liebezeit [Grammy award winning drummer from Can – Ed] to come and do his unique drum playing with it. But I simply couldn’t afford him. And I wasn’t going to compromise, so we left it open in terms of that. Because you have to have someone that’s steady but at the same time, inventive on such a thing, otherwise you can reduce it into a four four bullshit.
So the album’s being released when?
So how long have you been living in Berlin ?
And so, there was Mud Ensemble.
There was Mud Ensemble and then I went to London and then I ended up in Berlin.
So what happened to Mud Ensemble, did it just collapse?
Well the things with Mud Ensemble that caused the problem was that.. . (laughs) I was involved with the other front person, you know. So when that relationship went, unfortunately the band also went, it’s just one of those things. But I mean already within the works of Mud Ensemble problems were creeping in from other members with projects so, it’s sad though because we were actually just hitting the break-through.
There’s that period, in was like from 95, let’s say to 98, I don’t think it was just in music but there was a lot of, who else was there, there was Live Jimmy Presley, there was that scene.
Yeah, it was the scene.
And there was like all that stuff that happened around The Black Sun above Coffee Society, that theatre stuff.
And there really seemed to be a lot of stuff happening that by 98 had just vanished, you know what I mean?
It did. It just went (clicks fingers)
And I was talking to someone the other day and we were talking about a mutual friend who is very intelligent, and who just never reached thier potential and was doing really well around that time as well and he said to me ‘Well you know that’s the forgotten generation. That’s the lost generation. It’s the generation of white people who were very creative but were young at the wrong time when the opportunities, when the country’s focus shifted away from Eurocentric.
To a different direction.
Do you think thats a fair assessment about why all that shit collapsed at that time? I also think that Live Jimmy Presley and Mud Ensemble were just never going to make it commercially.
Well I mean the thing is that Mud Enseble at that stage and I don’t think that Live Jimmy Presley, I can’t speak for them, but we were never people who sat down making work thinking ‘Oh are we going to break commercially’. I think that was the furthest thing from our minds. Like John Lennon use to come in, in the morning and say to The Beatles “So boys, are we going to go to toppermost of the poppermost” and they use to chant that. It wasn’t Mud Ensemble, no “Let’s write a swimming pool”, I used to say to them. But it wasn’t Mud Ensemble, no. So, I don’t know.
(laughs) So, um….
We did what we did, but the truth of the matter is, Roger, and ironically I didn’t realize it at the time, coming back and being called a legend shocked my socks off. I didn’t see myself as that and I also didn’t realize what an impact we did have. I didn’t know that. I come back now and there’s people saying ‘Oh, yeah we know you’ and loads of people saw it and knew of it. To me that’s a commercial success. (laughs)
Well, it resonated. I mean that one Newtown performance is still like, I don’t even remember, I just have a very strong kind of visual memory of standing there and being kind of shocked. Well not shocked, you know what I mean?
Yeah, yeah. So Anton Kotze has made this, what is it? A documentary?
Yeah, yeah, it’s a documentary. Kind of a documentary-film. About our…
And there’s live footage of those performances?
There’s live footages of the performances. I don’t think it reflects all of what Mud Ensemble did, it reflects a very small part of it but it is there.
Yeah. I had a conversation with him the other day and he was like, he prefers the Mud stuff to the new stuff because he says it’s not as produced.
(laughs) It’s funny that because you can’t make a comparison.
No, no, no, but just in terms of Mud Ensemble how much do you think memory plays a part in how people evaluate things?
Because there was a joyous time and everything was possible, so that when they talk about Mud Ensemble how much do you think was actual Mud Ensemble or was the times or was this kind of legend?
Well I think it’s probably half-half or whatever percentage you put on it. Memory, as you know, embroiders a lot, especially on that bunch of freaks who were high half the time. Do they really remember. . .(laughs) Maybe he’s telling you stories that they sort of now make up.
I know I do that.
Exactly. (laughs) I think some of it was really happening and some not.
And then coming back now after being away for eight years, so why did you come back?
Well I came back for this album because I wanted to release it here as well, the second one, and also the Mud Ensemble stuff to finally bring that out as the good old sentimental memory. Because it’s important for me to bring my work back to my hometown and as the thing is only coming out in September, I thought I could use the months before to do that. And I miss my fucking country and I miss speaking Afrikaans and saying poes to the right people. (laughs)
Would you consider making music here again?
I would consider making music here again, the second one I’m definitely going to make here, the next one.
And how have people reacted to this album since you’ve been back?
Very mixed. It’s very interesting actually. Intellectuals and musicians very often like it and normal people just don’t get it. It’s funny when I was talking to Kenny Marshall the one day and he said something like, oh yeah you must go into Paul Riekerts studio and do another one because he will give you like really lots of time to experiment and try out things, and I just had to smile because I thought I had so much time to experiment and try out things on the album, I don’t need Paul for that. (laughs) I certainly don’t need this hardcore brain scar rythmns on my album, it’s not what it’s about. So it’s just two different visions.
So were you away solidly for eight years? You didn’t come back?
No, I did come back in between, I think twice, three times I came back again.
And do you feel since you’ve been back, have you managed to have a look at how the audiences, Are the audiences better or worse?
I haven’t performed yet so I can’t really say, but what I do find amazing is that, well I can’t really talk for Cape Town, I’ve been in such a bubble here, but in Joburg I find what excites me is how things have opened up. At the same time it also makes it clear to me again that the bubble of what they used to call the alternative Afrikaners (of which, I make clear, I never saw myself as part of) but we were stuck within that and the borders between Joburg and Soweto. It was not clear for me as a young white person, how bad apartheid was for us… not just the black population, but for us so called priveledged few… the outcome of it meant that I was cut off from my own country too, artistically as well as traditionally… that it left me artistically poor; not having had the right to share in and with what the “others” were up too other than being part of the struggle. And coming home now seeing how open the “darkies” were to different influences speaking to this new generation of the rainbow nation,they’re like full on switched on and I think fuck, it’s amazing. They are so open and informed and ready for new things.
Well, I mean I think all of Joburg is like that at the moment.
I think on some level the music scene in Joburg, let’s call it the alternative music scene in Joburg and certainly not in Cape Town but in Joburg and to some extent in Durban, the dream has sort of been realized. Like all that kind of them and us shit, it doesn’t exist, it’s gone and it’s not even worth speaking about anymore.
No, it’s amazing.
So for all the other shit that’s going on, you go to like Kitcheners in Joburg and…
There’s no mention of it.
Yeah, and it’s done. It’s like a done deal. Like everything in 94/95 that people wanted in Yeoville and places like that…
So for all the other shit that’s going on with government crap
No, I have a very strong feeling that people on the ground are so busy with their own thing. There’s the odd conversation about Malema and everyone giggles into their sleeve and like WHATEVA (laughs) shall we just, like, carry on with the music, dudes. I find that really refreshing. I’ve been hanging a bit with the BLK JKS and they are so sorted and cool and open and out there. So for me I think it’s the best time for me to come back home and I think the whole thing for the experimental thing is really at the right point now to come and ingest and be ingested it with that.
See what comes out. And that’s a long process.
Of course it’s a long process.
So commercially speaking,
So the albums going to come out and it’s going to go out in Europe and it’s not going to make you a fortune.
Well how can you say?
(laughs) But I mean you can’t plan for that.
No, I never do.
So do you plan for anything?
Uhm, no. (laughs) Why should I? I gather my ideas and the things that I feel I want to do next with the next album and maybe now for the first time use the major thing about the internet, I’m starting to think about ways that I can bring my work to more people because we are living in this global thing. It could be that I do make money. There are people in Europe who make a lot of money from this shit. They just get to the right people and they get invited everywhere, it’s really open. I mean this is going to be reviewed because of my label STAUBGOLD in New York and it’s distributed in Japan and it’s going everywhere, within that sort of market so it really depends if I hit it or not. But it’s never been my aim to sit down and write a song to buy myself a swimming pool.
Just to make songs that ARE swimming pools.
Yeah (laughs) or not. Wow. These questions are all too intelligent.
Commercial. How does a person spell commercial, with two m’s or one?
I have a sub-editor who deals with that.
(laughs) Yeah, I thought so.
And I think that’s it.
Just in terms of traditionalism, chorus and verses, if you listen to that song ‘The Good Old Days’ it breaks into a fantastic country chorus in the end.
It just doesn’t repeat. So everyone can take out there lighters and let’s just dur out in the corner. It’s like wait for the chorus and then thank God.
Yeah it’s like give me something I know. Something I can hold onto.
Yeah and who needs that… You see, I’m not interested in entertaining people. I’m interested in something much more subtle than that.
*Spooky Attraction From A Distance performs for the first time in South Africa at Kitcheners on the 19th June.
**Listen and buy the advance digital album here.