Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner
Dark euphoria in Berlin with some of experimental club music’s boldest creators.
Photographer Arcin Sagdic

If you were lurking around experimental corners of the electronic music underground in late 2013, maybe you caught a series of music videos — all with titles starting with “AS” — of digitally rendered squiggles slowly rotating in empty 3D space. Maybe you recognized similar shapes getting tattooed on someone’s head in another video, or on the cover of the mixtape AS LIVE. Maybe you wondered what’s up with all those dogs in videos to follow in subsequent years — the robot dog getting kicked on loop in “AS Crust,” the demonic cartoon one in “AS Want It,” the nearly invisible outline in the beginning of “As Chingy,” a first-person shooter game for Oculus Rift. This cryptic symbology felt like digital breadcrumbs to a shadowy netherworld. Even the name of the group behind them sounded ominously sci-fi: Amnesia Scanner.

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None of the blogs could figure out much about the anonymous project; Amnesia Scanner didn’t do interviews, and press releases winkingly described them as “Xperienz Designers.” Their website is a virtual junkyard, each click drawing you further into layers of illegible symbols and randomly generated images from Reddit and 4chan. The only verbal clues of this world they seemed to be building came in a 14-minute mixtape called AS ANGELS RIG HOOK, where — over a backdrop of ambient noise, washes of reverb, and squeaking synths — a narrator evokes an impressionistic tableau with references to everything from Drexciya to François Rabelais, polluted oceans, Club Mate, and UV face tattoos.

Somehow, all of these elements seem vaguely connected — like you’re touching parts of an alien without being able to see its full form. No one knew what it meant; Pitchfork described the project as “a puzzle that might kill you once you’ve solved it.” It was like catnip for a certain breed of rave conspiracy theorists.

Here’s what we knew: Amnesia Scanner is two guys who were part of a Berlin electronic scene percolating around artists like Lotic and Arca, as well as parties like Janus, in the early 2010s, when club music was being deconstructed and pieced into mutant post-genre forms. Their early music was abstract and mechanic — alarm beeps and shattering glass churning over stuttering trap beats and icy grime synths. It quickly evolved into a denser style full of hooky synths, thick beats, and heavy bass, while embracing catchy pop sensibilities and a certain raw emotiveness that keeps it dancefloor-friendly (at least for the freaks). They produced a song for Mykki Blanco and collaborated with Holly Herndon on her album Platform. Between the tongue-in-cheek PR emails, meme culture references, and devious imagery — their latest T-shirts feature a faceless baby-like figure bent over with an eyeball over where its asshole should be — they were also kind of funny, in a trolly, impish hacker kind of way.

Last month, Amnesia Scanner announced their debut album, Another Life, out today on Berlin label PAN. The new music featured a computerized voice they called “Oracle,” as well as collaborator Pan Daijing singing discernable lyrics rather than their usually scrambled syllables. The music video for “AWOL” showed human faces for the first time. When I emailed their publicist asking if they were down to do press, I was told they would do their first interview around the new album — so I flew to Berlin to meet them.

Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner
Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner

I arrived on a late August afternoon to the address they provided, finding myself on a graffiti-lined street in Kreuzberg with a giant, apocalyptic mural of a cop holding his dick and cumming mortar shells onto a burning city. Walking down the block, I turn into a complex of old apartment buildings centered around a parking lot full of little kids zooming around on bicycles. I take the elevator to the tenth floor, where the door swings open into a sparsely decorated living room of all-white walls and stainless steel lighting, with a balcony overlooking a panoramic view of the city.

Martti Kalliala and Ville Haimala shake my hand with friendly grins, offering me a seat at a glass coffee table. The guys seem to complement each other perfectly — Martti is tall and lanky with a mop of dark hair and wide eyes; Ville is more stout and stoic, with a shaved head and piercing blue eyes under heavy eyelids.

They tell me that they met when they worked on a project designing a nightclub for an architect office in Helsinki, where they grew up. Discovering a mutual interest in music, they ended up throwing a club night together, then DJing and producing more straightforward techno under the alias Renaissance Man. “We had all this material that didn’t fit,” explains Martti, adding that the name Amnesia Scanner is an anagram of Renaissance Man. “So we filtered it into a coherent aesthetic and started building hints of a larger world. We’ve been enriching and twisting it since.”

You’ve always been press-shy. Why are you talking to me now?

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“In the beginning, it was really important that we don't explain it, and [instead] provoke people with different things. The project has just never been personality-driven — but there is a world, and we’ve built it far enough for us to talk about it,” says Ville.

“It's not some big reveal that Amnesia Scanner is… two white dudes,” Martti adds with a laugh. He references SOPHIE as a producer who similarly chose to remain ‘anonymous’ in order to foreground her work over her persona when she first started out, before opening up to the media and stepping into the spotlight earlier this year. “Being inhuman and anonymous can become this weird, self-imposed prison,” he continues, “and it’s important to break away and do whatever we want.”

Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner

The guys tell me that there are several misinterpretations of their work that need to be debunked. First, there was never an overarching mystery or narrative to be solved. “It kinda sounds bad to say this, but it’s been a very aesthetically-driven project from the beginning, rather than an expression of an idea,” says Martti, gesturing in wide circles with his hands. “There’s no story or secret to be excavated from this stuff. It’s more experimental — slamming stuff that interests us and producing our own sonic world.” Ville leans forward and rests his hands on his chin. “Also, I think it feels quite natural, especially in the millennial experience, for things to be experienced through this POV lens, instead of us dictating it. It’s more like we’re opening rooms, and you have your own time there.”

Secondly, the world they’re building isn’t some dystopian vision of the future — it’s a reflection of the time we’re already living in. “If you do something new or illegible, it’s always called ‘futuristic,’ because it’s harder to understand,” says Ville, leaning forward to lean his chin on his hands. “It was never like, ‘Let’s do some Nick Land dark accelerationist project,” Martti adds.

I tell them I think people just want to have a sense of where we, as a society, are going.

“Amnesia Scanner can be the soundtrack to the trip there, but it's not the answer,” Martti chuckles. “It’s our interpretation of the present, and for it to feel like now, it needs to be exaggerated, cartoonish, and scary — as well as dumb and funny at times.”

“The contemporary experience is schizophrenic and contradictory,” he continues. “This anxiety or abstract horror that comes about from the political times and climate change we’re living through — every day there’s a crisis. But at the same time, there is this narrative being fed to us through Silicon Valley, that we would be delivered through incredible technologies around the corner that will somehow lift us up from misery. This kind of dark euphoria is a new emotion that is really present here.”

They reference a track on the album titled “As Chaos” as exemplifying this attitude, while comparing its sound, with its big, bouncy bassline melody, to a “limp Benny Benassi.” They tell me that the lyrics for the chorus — where collaborator Pan Daijing yelps “all around me is just chaos” in both English and Mandarin — were lifted from a YouTube video where a survivalist describes sitting around a campfire and living on the fringes of society. “You don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing if chaos is around you,” explains Ville, “So it’s a celebratory and fearful track that’s stating the current situation.”

“I always felt as though Amnesia Scanner did this fantastic job of giving voice to this emotional landscape we’re in — the increasingly overwhelmed and obsessed relationship we have with technology,” Colin Self, a vocalist who collaborated with the duo on a track called “As Brieth,” tells me later. “Amnesia Scanner sounds like the narration of our present day if we took out humans and have our devices in communication with each other.”

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Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner
Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner

Amnesia Scanner records most of their music in a studio in Neukolln, which I visited a week later. Walking through the courtyard garden of a beige apartment building and into an open door covered in decals, we enter the ground-floor room that serves as HQ for PAN, where T-shirts and vinyl records are spilling out of every available surface. The studio is up a narrow flight of carpeted stairs — a high-ceilinged room with big, sunny windows, foam padding on the walls, and speakers hanging from the ceiling above a computer console station.

The guys had been hesitant to meet at their studio because they don’t use any hardware gear — they make everything on their computers — and they’re reluctant to demystify their production process, which they say is “kind of a secret.” They do tell me that they have created chains of software that they can feed different cues into and have it come out sounding like Amnesia Scanner. “It’s not like we have this Moog synth or classic drum machine, all the elements we use are more like instruments that we’ve created ourselves,” explains Ville.

On the new album, their musical ideas are more compressed into pop structures, while previous work has been a more abstract, with elements combined more loosely like a collage. “This obsession with alienation and abstraction in the art corner of the music world reached a peak and felt too easy to continue,” says Martti. “It felt much more interesting to have this more human, approachable layer, but somehow keep the content.”

“A pop structure is like a meme: you can fill it with other content,” he continues, tossing his hair back with a grin. “Maybe we can smuggle this music into a context where it wouldn’t travel otherwise. It’s also more interesting, and challenging, to organize something that has a clear arrangement and is recognizable as a song. No one is playing Amnesia Scanner songs by a campfire with a guitar…”

“... but now they could,” finishes Ville. “Of course the songs are still kinda weird and mutant, and it’s not like every song has perfect middle 8, or composed in a generic way all the time. But the timeline is compressed. Sections that were more lingering are now compressed into bursts of 10 or 15 seconds and stacked on top of each other. In a sense, it’s a very distilled record.”

Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner
“A pop structure is like a meme: you can fill it with other content. Maybe we can smuggle this music into a context where it wouldn’t travel otherwise.”

Another Life is also a more vocal record thanks to Oracle — a grated, stuttering, quasi-childlike voice that’s now the narrator of the Amnesia Scanner project. Rather than orienting their sound around a collage of sound effects or specific synth, Ville says, this distinctively synthetic voice allows their music to take on a coherent identity like a band or a pop artist. The goal, he adds, is that “when people hear Oracle, they can recognize it in the same way they would recognize Nicki Minaj or John Lennon.” Then he turns to his computer and flicks on a remix of Rae Sremmurd where they modulated a rapper’s voice to sound like Oracle, telling me with a pleased smile that some people online had thought it was a new Amnesia Scanner track.

The only piece of equipment they show me is two spray bottles of scents that they had custom-made for their live shows, intending to add it to the fog machine fluid to disperse it among the crowd. When they tried it out, they were told that one smelled like cocaine, and the other like a plastic flower shop — and it was so disgusting that it had made people feel sick. So they stopped using them. “We didn’t want to poison everyone,” deadpans Ville.

Then we get up and take a walk around the neighborhood, stopping for some ice cream cones. (“This is where we skate,” says Ville, nodding towards a small skate park next to the store.) As we stroll by the canal, passing squads of grizzled old dudes drinking beers by their boats and crust punks living out of their vans, the guys talk at length about Berlin’s cultural quirks with an air of loving cynicism.

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“This kind of dark euphoria is a new emotion that is really present here” — that’s what Martti had said. The phrase echoes in my head in the days after we meet, as I wander around thinking about how the endless nights of indulgence offered here can erupt into orgasms of unbridled pleasure or even transcendence, just as easily as they can spiral into despair and ruin. There’s a deep connection between the vibe of Amnesia Scanner’s music and this city — they combine grating, hard sounds with appealing bursts of sweet transcendence, a punkish air of cyber-anarchism, and song titles tagged with their names like graffiti.

Dark euphoria seeps out of the clubs into the streets crawling with techno tourists looking for a fix, barefoot party girls clutching beer bottles, shady dudes jumping out of bushes to offer chemical relief. When I go to a music festival in an industrial yard on the outskirts of the city and witness a guy being carried out on a stretcher, screaming “YES! YES! YES!” with blank eyes into the void, that’s dark euphoria, I think to myself. How many dystopian fantasy worlds do we have to dream up before we realize that we’re already living in one?

Finally meeting Amnesia Scanner